Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Geek Wednesday: Enabling the Open Source Society

Protesters walk past Bryant Park in New York in Sunday's UFPJ Peace March (click to enlarge)

Before we get to Geek Wednesday and our feature piece on open source software, another word about this past weekend's protest marches and the organization behind them, because it represents what we here call "The Open Source Society."

United for Peace and Justice is a loosely-organized body of dissenters drawn from every point on the political continuum. If you're a Harry Potter fan like me, just think of "Dumbledore's Army" or "The Order of the Phoenix" and you'll have an idea of what UFPJ is all about.

But for those of you who don't read stories about boy wizards, allow me to clarify: UFPJ is an organization that furthers the kind of natural social order that is rarely seen in our rigid, lockstep corporate society. UFPJ doesn't ask how famous or wealthy you are; they don't want to know your sexual orientation, political party, or personal background. They simply offer themselves as an orienting force to support anyone who feels that peace is a more practical way of living than war; who sees that occupation and plunder have failed throughout history, as they are failing now (as the historians themselves now acknowledge); who knows that peace makes better policy than destruction.

From that grounding point, UFPJ marshals its considerable organizational resources and talents, and brings diverse individuals and groups together in the sort of events we witnessed and participated in this weekend past. The effort, vision, and sweating of the details involved to make these things come off as successfully as they do can scarcely be overestimated. UFPJ is, in short, an inspiration to every freethinking person who understands that dissent is both our national history and our personal birthright; that no person, group, or nation can truly evolve without an active spirit of dissent and a commitment to peace. If I were forced into a corner and commanded to offer a model for government, business, and social organization in general; I would say, "do it like UFPJ, and you won't easily go wrong."

You can donate to UFPJ here.

Geek Wednesday

Strange doings at MS: The self-implosion in Redmond continues apace. Steve Ballmer, heir apparent to Uncle Bill himself, and a multi-billionaire like his boss, shoved his foot as far down his throat as it could reach in this rant (video) last week, in which he proclaimed Google's business model "insane," and a one-trick pony with no staying power. No wonder the students at Stanford Business School were laughing at him.

It all makes me wonder why I spill ink and waste time bashing MS in this space: they do it so well themselves.

In any event, Robert Scoble, MS's appointed blogger, has summed it all up for us in an expression long familiar to us Mac users: Microsoft sucks.

Stephen Manes of Forbes adds his two cents in a column titled "Dim Vista":

Vista is at best mildly annoying and at worst makes you want to rush to Redmond, Wash. and rip somebody's liver out. Vista is a fading theme park with a few new rides, lots of patched-up old ones and bored kids in desperate need of adult supervision running things. If I can find plenty of problems in a matter of hours, why can't Microsoft? Most likely answer: It did--and it doesn't care.

Ouch...and that's the fairly polite part of the piece: read the rest of it for all the gory details.

All the more reason why we as tech consumers need to pay more attention to the open source model—both for its potential in making computers more useful (and less expensive) and for its application to the realms of government and business. But first, a few links of the week:

  • Firefox speed tricks: I found a nice advice page here that has four fairly simple and well-explained tweaks involving the Firefox about:config page that will help speed up page downloads and general browser behavior in FF. You can't do this kind of stuff in IE.

  • Networking for Non-Geeks: I like offering options for technophiles who don't have time to learn the intricacies of the more technical aspects of geekery but would like to have the freedom they often bring. Networking is one big topic in this area: to create even a simple home network of two or three PCs requires some technical know-how and a fair degree of patience. Enter the geeks at Network Magic. They have a proven winner for ease of use, simplicity of setup, and reliability of results, in their Windows networking product, and now they've added a Mac version (still in beta). I've tested both, and made a mini-network between my Wintel box and the MacBook, and found that, by and large, it all works. File sharing and movement from one machine to the other went flawlessly, and there was only a scarcely noticeable performance dip while I had the network actively working. Printing is still a little buggy on the Mac side: I had to keep the printer plugged into the Mac's USB port for printing to be possible from both machines; it didn't work the other way. But if you've got PCs to network and would like ease, reliability, and security in the experience, NM is a good buy. I'm carrying their ad in the sidebar and below, so if you're interested, click it and see how it works for you; there's a 30 day free trial before you have to pay them anything.

  • Pure Networks

  • Making Apple Mail fly: If you have a Mac and use OS X's proprietary email client, you'll be interested in these two pages: Macworld's Apple Mail tips page and Hawk Wings, a very nice blog that collects tips, news, and add-ons for Mail. I use Mail as my client here, and it's fast, versatile, and simple, with a nice, clean UI and a really solid junk filter. You can set up Gmail and even AOL accounts very easily in Apple Mail, so you can benefit from OS X's Spotlight feature for finding that needle in your Gmail haystack, and you'll never have to look again at AOL's truly horrible interface, or use its mangy browser.

  • Speaking of Apple, one reminder for computer shoppers out there: we're probably about a month away from OS X 10.5 Leopard, so if you're thinking about a new Mac, it may be best to wait until the new OS is out. The rumor mill's also hot with talk of new iMacs and Mac Pros around the corner, so all the more reason to hold on a bit. Next week marks the 6th anniversary of the initial release of OS X, and Cupertino may celebrate with some fresh hardware and software releases. As critical as we are here of Apple, there can be no question that OS X deserves every honor it has gotten from the geek press: best commercial OS on the planet, hands down. Lot of experts agree, and the compatibility issues are all dissolving in the Intel-powered mist of the new Mac era. Google's got a Mac blog, now that Eric Schmidt is on the Apple board; and the latest word on the last major software updates needed for the new Macs is that MS Office for Mac should be universal binary this year, and Adobe Photoshop's UB is already in beta.

    The Open Source Vision

    So if Macs are the best thing since sliced bread in geekland for now, why would we consider anything else? I asked myself the same thing last week, as I was installing Ubuntu Linux onto a couple of old P2 Dell laptops; and the main reason has to do with choice and with sustainability. We need choices in geekdom, because computers are so central to ordinary living now; we also need to know that the geek tools we use reflect our values, just as the foods we choose to eat (and avoid) reflect them.

    The term "open source" is a reference to the source code in a piece of software. Source code is what makes the product do what it does—browse the web, play games or songs, create spreadsheets or documents, or even serve as the operating system for a computer or a network of them.

    Typically with commercial software, all or part of the source code is closed, or as they say, "proprietary." For example, the Darwin kernel that is the core of the Apple Mac OS X system is freely available; but the code for Apple's overlay to Darwin—the part that enables all the cool graphics, great features, and marvelous applications bundled with the OS—that is owned and protected by Apple.

    Same goes for MS Windows: you can't even get the source code for MS-DOS, though there are "Free-DOS" alternatives out there. Corporations like Apple and MS spend millions to encrypt and protect their source code because it's their intellectual property—the stuff that makes their products unique and generates their profits.

    But open source software such as the Firefox browser, the Open Office productivity suite, or Ubuntu Linux, is freely available as complete source code, which can be obtained and modified by anyone with the training and geek skill to understand it and alter it to some useful purpose.

    Open source software is not the product of corporations, but of communities that are usually funded by grants, endowments, and both public and private funding. This means that both professional and amateur developers can connect to the development community during an open source product's life cycle (which is ongoing, since there is always a need for enhancements, new features, and bug fixes even to a finished product).

    Open source communities do have a management structure, especially in the cases of large-scale projects like the examples given above. But there the similarity with the corporate model ends, for management in the open source realm is more like the kind of leadership I mentioned earlier in the discussion of United for Peace and Justice. These guys are typically development professionals who have been involved in the project from the beginning and act as guides and organizers for the community that is creating or expanding the product. You rarely hear their names, and they don't make loads of cash for their efforts, because in open source, the emphasis is on the interactive, synergistic whole rather than on an oligarchical hierarchy whose topmost layers make all the decisions and derive nearly all of the profit.

    Ubuntu, for example, is an African word meaning (roughly) "I am because you are". It is an inclusive and receptive model that works to make geekery fits the needs of all people, regardless of socio-economic or national characteristics. Thus, MIT's $100 Laptop project uses Linux, and I am able to install Ubuntu on a pair of 10 year old machines that might otherwise be put in the garbage to wind up being taken apart by little Asian kids who are oblivious to the carcinogens and environmental toxins that are hidden in the guts of a PC.

    Next month, the third major consumer release of Ubuntu will appear ("Feisty Fawn"). Dell Computer has already committed itself to providing Linux-based PCs, and the Open Office organization has contacted them about the prospect of providing the OO suite on their machines as well. The open source world is about offering alternatives to a short-life, expensive, and fad-driven consumer culture; and it is taking hold enough that even massive corporations like Dell, Oracle, and Microsoft are taking notice.

    For now, we can no more kill corporate culture than we can completely eliminate corruption in government. But we can constantly question both, and share among ourselves the alternatives to Big Brother government and myopic, greedy corporatism, until they begin to look at themselves and see the decadence there. This will be the beginning of a change that could lead to a total transformation of society, but we have to demand it, to make it happen, through our choices and by our refusal to be fooled by appearances. We have to tell Coke and Pepsi that putting vitamins into their poisons will not make them any the less toxic, and choose safer and cleaner alternatives. We have to let Microsoft know that we won't pay hundreds of dollars for a poorly tested product with a bright new skin slapped over it, just because their marketing machinery proclaims that it is revolutionary or "new". We need to get the message to the meat-producing corporations and the burger joints that we can't live on food that is made from tortured animals on factory farms that are a major source of environmental destruction. We must show Apple that we can't listen to iPods when they are produced through an alliance with a sneaker company that is a global slave-labor machine.

    In short, we as individuals can't make corporations go away; but we can force them to change.

    And now, for the three of you who have read this far, a Geek Wednesday reward: the 1984 Macintosh ad, with a slight political twist.


    Miss Bitty said...

    Hear hear! Open source is so much more than technology, it's a philosophy that can be extended to (I believe, admittedly idealistically) everything. Power to the people -- we are a great and amazing force, humanity, and when we work together in creativity and in concert, the limits are boundless. That's what I love about the concept of Open Source, that its very name tells you everything you need to know -- open to all, open to everything, sourced not from the top down but from the center out.

    [I just had to do an emergency replacement of my laptop with a used one but S and I are going to convert the old one to a Ubuntu machine when Feisty Fawn launches. We're so excited! Just about every program we currently use has an open source equivalent (OSAlt is a terrific resource, which you probably already knew about but just in case), so we're going to try setting up an entirely open source machine to do everything we currently do. Our goal is to make the leap to open source-only within the year. Wish us luck!]

    sri said...
    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
    Brian Donohue said...

    Perfect timing, Miss B, since Ubuntu is holding a little party in your neck of the woods this summer. I didn't know about OSAlt, but now it's bookmarked. A great site to keep up on new releases for Linux is Icewalkers. I subscribe to their newsletter, which provides daily updates on what's happening in Penguin Land.