Saturday, November 27, 2004

Why Open Source?

I had a conversation recently where someone challenged me to defend my interest in open source software, which I cheekily referred to as a "fever." The person asking was also a proponent of FOSS, and I wasn't any more interested in giving him a trite answer than he was in hearing one. I dug deep, rooted around in a pile of cliches that I immediately tossed aside, and came up empty. In the end I punted with some inarticulate babble about openness and how it betters "the community." I was right in what I said, but it was a poor argument that wouldn't have convinced someone sitting on the fence, let alone someone planted firmly in the other pasture. So I've got some thinking to do and some answers to come up with for the next time I find myself in this position.

Where do I fit?

I'm not much of a coder; my ability to produce cool code widgets, or even root out bugs in other people's code, is so wanting that I dare not even start. And so much of what the FOSS community is asking for help with is coding and related tasks that there's very little space for someone like me to contribute. Of course, you ask immediately, "what can someone like you do?" And I have a hard time articulating that, too.

As someone who's been using computers since 1980, wading through a variety of software from MagicWindow on the Apple //e to the GIMP on my SUSE laptop, I have some sense of what works in a user interface and what doesn't. Also, as someone who has made a career out of implementing enterprise class software (you know, the stuff that gets business done in a data center rather than "cool stuff" like network snooping utilities and filesystem managers), I have some sense of what integration means beyond knowing whether or not all the components can "speak" XML. But what does that all mean to the open source software world? Where do I fit in? My ego is sure that there's value in what I know. But how do we (my ego and I) present what that is in a manner that's convincing? Furthermore, how do I put it into practice? I sense a challenge.

Partial Answer

But the point of this post was to delve into the depths of why open source software is a good idea. The knee-jerk responses are that "information wants to be free" and "you can't have security without being able to see the code." But how many of us really look under the covers of Mozilla to see how it works? I know I don't, and I even mentioned that once. And, looking at that Slashdot post, I now remember why open source is a good idea:
"The biggest thing, though, is the openness. I don't read C code well enough to be able to delve into the bowells of the kernel or the GUI, or even modestly complex applications and have a chance of knowing what's going on. But there are people who can, and I know where to look to find out what they think. There's a certain safety that I feel when I run Linux that I don't feel when I run Windows. It's public safety, and it's maintained by the neighborhood watch."

So, there's the answer, or at least part of it. I'm sure there's more. So, tell me, why do you think open source software is a good idea?

Monday, November 22, 2004

Stuff and more stuff...

There's been a lot going on lately, and I keep thinking, "Oh, I should write about that." But then life gets in the way and I don't get around to it, then something else happens and the pattern repeats.

Twenty Years After 1984

One thing I've noted recently (in the news) is that some police departments, including Portland's, have started carrying handheld fingerprint scanners to identify people they are dealing with. Run your finger over the scanner, it connects wirelessly to a machine in the patrol car that links back to home base where the fingerprint is looked up in a database. If it finds a match, it sends the photo back to the handheld unit for comparison against the real McCoy.

At first blush, this seems like a great idea, particularly when you think about all the tax dollars that will be saved when police can more easily identify criminals they happen upon and cart them off to jail. But what about the time that they stop you for some minor infraction ("Excuse me, Sir, but you swerved back there. If you'll just run your finger over this scanner, I'll be with you in a moment.") and suddenly your fingerprint is in the system. Now, I don't mean to be spouting off Orwellan doom and gloom, but it seems a little invasive for them to be collecting physical characteristics on you or me when we haven't done anything wrong.

Which leads us to the really creepy stuff. Evidently California is expanding their collection of DNA samples, with further expansion in 2009 to "anyone arrested for or charged with any felony offense." So, now you don't even have to be convicted of something for your DNA to be on file. Kobe Bryant should sit up and take notice.

So, my question is, how long will it be before some Congressman who's been bent over a pork barrel calls California and says, "I want that database released to insurance providers." From there, how long until someone gets denied health insurance because they have the genes for some disease that's on a watch list somewhere.

Again, I don't mean to be spouting Orwellian FUD, but this sort of thing is staring us in the face.

Somebody Said Java was Dead

The guy over at Loosely Coupled is proclaiming the death of J2EE. I know that's not all Java is, but "Somebody said Java 2 Enterprise Edition was Dead" didn't make as catchy a headline, so bear with it. I read the blog post, and I just don't see that he's right. It seems that the Slashdot community agrees with me, but it took a flamewar to decide. What these pundits seem to be missing is that it doesn't really matter what the underlying technology is (J2EE, .NET, LAMP, etc.), the important aspect is the loosely coupled architecture that componentizes your infrastructure to the point that individual pieces can be upgraded, replaced, or (gasp!) have an outage without crashing the whole system. It's the best distance we've come from the days of the mainframe where everything was strapped to a single processor core and one OS image (LPARs notwithstanding). I'm not going to say that we've finally arrived at the ultimate architecture envisioned when people first started talking about distributed computing, but it sure seems like that statement would fit if I were of a mind to be so bold.

The Space Race

A small number of people (I hesitate to say fanboys, but that's about it), myself included, are still following the progress of Armadillo Aerospace. They're still making good progress, and I wouldn't be surprised to see a manned launch within six months. From there, it should be a short time (a couple years, maybe) before they are offering suborbital rides to paying custmers. When the price drops below my annual salary, I'll start thinking about booking a ticket. That should be a while, so I can start saving now.

In other space news, Bigelow has gotten his America's Space Prize underway. I sure hope he can come through with his end of the bargain, which includes orbiting a space station to dock with. Orbiting a platform that's not controlled by any government and open to customers who want to run experiments, host parties, or whatever, is the best way to encourage advancement in space technology.

The Vote

I was very pleased that so much of America got out and voted in the 2004 elections. The losing sides of all the elections are out scouring the countryside for evidence of voter fraud, looking for ways to overturn the decisions. While this may happen in a case or two, I seriously doubt there was enough fraud out there to make any major changes in people's lives.

While I was modestly disappointed by the reelection of President Bush, I don't think that it's that big of a deal. If we'd had John Kerry in that position, we would have had a different set of problems, and I'm not clairvoyant enough to tell whether they'd been better or worse. As it is, we're going with what we've got, and I hope that things come out well.

What I'm really frustrated about, though, is that 11 states across the U.S., including my own state of Oregon, voted to outlaw the notion of gay marriage in one fashion or another. I don't get it. How on Earth is my marriage to my wife affected by someone else, either next door or across the country, wanting to be married to someone they love? If someone has a clear explanation about why gays shouldn't be allowed the same protection under the law that I am, please send me an e-mail and let me know. I want to be enlightened, really I do. I don't have to agree with it, but I at least want to understand it.

Well, enough is enough. I hope none of you blow yourselves up while deep frying turkeys. I don't eat the stuff myself, but that's for another post. For all you Americans, happy Thanksgiving. For the rest of you, cheers.

If you don't stir the pot,
the stuff at the bottom just sits there.