free software movement

Les Schaffer schaffer at
Sun Mar 11 15:17:28 MST 2001

David Carrol said:

> Some of the recent discussion on spamming and the limits of older
> technology set me to wondering: are there any people interested or
> knowledgeable about the free software movement?

i've been using this stuff since about 1983. Back then, GNU stuff was
floating around the science departments of various universities, we
were writing our dissertations and mathematical papers with Stallman's
programmable editor Emacs and Donald Knuth's typesetting program TeX,
and compiling computer programs with the FSF's C and Fortran
compilers, and .......

this was back before there was any web browsing stuff, well before the
development of the http web protocol. later on other departments
picked up on this stuff. now i know of no university or research or
computer development firm where this stuff isnt routinely
available. though some large companies try to control the tools their
workers use, but heads up people then install this stuff at home.

for professional use, this stuff was great, and was often better for
the task than the commercial stuff which was on the Sun workstations
and such. some would disagree -- its all a matter of particular
needs. but in terms of getting help with the tools and fixing bugs in
the code, its GPL hands down over the commercial stuff, even if the
commercial stuff looks a little nicer, or whatever.

However, not everyone who uses this stuff, or even contributes code to
this stuff, has a revolutionary or even radical outlook. indeed, its
hard to know whether its anything more than just good, well thought
out, tools put together in collaboration by people with enough time on
their hands to contribute.

yes, it does challenge the IP crap, so the movement has been a help in
highlighting the nonsense that goes along with considering the kinds
of ideas that go into implementing these programs as anything but the
outcome of collective human efforts at developing algorithms over the
last, what, a couple thousand years?

personally, in the work i do as a programmer, i would just as soon be
paid for my time in designing and coding algorithms, and not be
protective of the code itself. but the ability to share the fruits of
one's labor is often restricted by the companies one works for.

i just finished up a contracting stint with a medical instrumentation
firm. they had the foresight to develop their code base using the
freely available GPL tools. they were even comited to supplying source
code with their releases, something you don't see very often. and yet
even this company decided to deliberately obfuscate sections of code
so that "competitors" would not be able to figure out some of their
clever techniques for solving measurement and analysis problems. and
so it goes. i often wonder how much effort and time and brain work
gets wasted living this kind of life. [i think it took me longer to
obfuscate the code than it did to develop the first clean version of

> This is important to me, because I am currently a graduate student
> who will be publishing articles and books in the future and I want
> to find ways to share the information.

the web is your friend in this case.

> Additionally, GPL software is very promising for poor nations and
> regions.

as you point out, many countries are already well on their way to
utilizing these tools and apps towards the goal of creating
inexpensive access to user friendly platforms.

i suppose i should put user friendly in quotes, since some will
complain that these tools take more work than the comparable Microsoft
tools. we could debate hours on the merits of this argument. in brief,
i don't buy it: MS tools simply require the user to dummy down to a
lowest common denominator from which commercial companies can
continually reap sales via these pseudo upgrades. the caveat of course
is that it takes _time_ to learn how to use the free tools, and
documentation for this stuff is a _real_ issue.

another issue which is now starting to being addressed is
internationalization of applications. meaning that the codes have to
be re-written to take advantage of tools which display character
strings appropriately in the language of the given locale.

> If people are intrigued and want to see some articles about this,
> I'd be more than happy to post some.

every once in a while this topic surfaces here. i'd be interested in
hearing what you have to say, so, i think, would Lou, and several
others as well.

> For those on the list who are using Internet software on older
> hardware, you can kill two birds with one stone.  By adopting free
> software on five year-old or more machines, (1) you can get
> increased performance while writing and reading e-mail and other
> material

i'll have some things to say about this in a post to the list on
spamming and phone costs and such, in the works.

> This is an especially large concern in biotech research.

interesting of course, the tension between groups which want to share
DNA/genetic data and databse access tools and those which want to
market access to this info. Peter van Heusden, who contributes to the
lbo-talk elist, is quite knowledgeable about this field.

and of course our own Jose Peres is tops when it comes to writing
about the intersection of capitalism and software. search the marxism
archives, some of his stuff is of a quality unmatched in the software
press, free or otherwise.

les schaffer

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