Monday, March 24, 2008


Our Birds-of-a-Feather session at the SIGCSE conference went off well to say the least. Attendance was spectacular: we were expecting about ten attendees at most, and got some thirty-five. Discussion was intense, and we could have spent the entire night talking about the issues that came up. It was interesting to note the different ways in which FOSS is playing out in computer science education: from classes simply stressing open source tools as an underlying environment, to those using it as a software engineering methodology, to those using the availability of code to demonstrate the application of algorithms and data structures (and so on). Scott and I have started up a Google Group to continue this discussion and if you'd like to be a member do drop us a line at bcfoss AT gmail DOT com.

Scott and I also attended the HFOSS project workshop. The HFOSS project seems to have come up with a solution to a problem that I've encountered before with students: how does one encourage/facilitation in an open source project (not for recruitment purposes, no, but mainly to get students to tackle non-trivial programming work, and to get them to experience software engineering principles in a serious setting). I tried this at Brooklyn College with some of the members of the student club, but was stymied by the students being intimidated by the complexity of some of the projects and the lack of guidance. And I simply did not have the time to be an adequate mentor. In the HFOSS project though, this work is structured around a class, and the students interact with a developer group (the SAHANA project) that is keen to work with them as well. The students learn about FOSS tools such as PHP and MySql, read about FOSS principles, and go on to make small, but crucial contributions to the SAHANA project. All in all, very impressive, and you could do worse than check out the stuff that Ralph Morelli and his gang are up to.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Open code and law

An interesting post by Jon Garfunkel over at Civilities, provocatively titled "Oppressiveness by Software" (the piece is in response to an excellent paper by James Grimmelmann, titled "Regulation by Software", which really, I should respond to in some detail as well sometime). I've posted a comment, which in a burst of self-indulgence, I reproduce below:
It seems to me that the openness of code as demanded/requested by the free software camp is a pretty important step toward getting the sort of accountability you speak of (find desirable). An analogy with the law that is worth making is the visibility of the textual portion of a law. Ordinary citizens might not be able to decipher all of the language of a statute, but the statute being visible and its readability by someone trained to do so can be an important determinant of what makes it into the text of the statute - and the authorship of the statute can be easily determined. Similarly, transcripts of congressional hearings can be made available for the concerned and determined citizen. When code is open, when its authorship (via changelogs, emails etc) is known, there is some measure of accountability packaged into the code. As with a goverment or power structure whose workings are open and visible, which ensures some awareness or sensitivity on those in power, so with open code. When governmental function is delegated to software and that portion of the govermental functioning gets closed off behind non-open code, we've done nothing less than make governmental power opaque, something that sneaky congressional sessions (or over-ambitious central executives) try to do sometimes. Technological opacity of delegated governmental function is yet another technique in the power-seeker's armory. The demand for free software is sometimes seen as something having to do with a new software engineering model; the application and relevance to governance by code, should make it clear that its way more important than that.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Merce Cunningham and Open-Source Software for the Arts

Some exciting news from the arts . . . our colleagues over at the Dance Notation Bureau have alerted us to the fact that Merce Cunningham and colleagues at The OpenEnded Group have released Loops, an "abstract digital portrait of Merce Cunningham that runs in real time and never repeats," as open source. Specifically, 3D representations of the choreography are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License, and the authoring source code, Field (and some related components), will (most likely) be licensed under GPL3 in November.

The motivation for the open-source release is eloquently discussed in the context of the "Cultural Ecology" of Loops and Field:
It is a convenient fiction that completed artworks exist in perfect and isolated purity, framed for eternity. But the truth is more entangled than that, for artworks both grow from, and survive within, what you might call a CULTURAL ECOLOGY. . . . The cultural ecology for Loops is a good case in point for it is under constant threat. As a dance, can it outlive the now-88-year-old who is its sole performer? As a digital artwork, can it survive the rapid obsolescence of its hardware and software?
More specifically,

By releasing our code as open source, we seek to share it with others in hopes that they will become invested in using the same tools that we do — and indeed to expanding and refining those tools. If a broad community takes up our approach, then the likelihood of Loops' survival and evolution becomes far greater than if we were to try safeguarding it exclusively.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

FOSS Birds-of-a-Feather at SIGCSE 2008

Team Decoding Liberation will be at the SIGCSE Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education in Portland, OR next week; I think it's fair to characterize this as the most significant annual conference about CS education in North America. The conference's theme is "Diversity through Accessibility," which is hard to argue with.

One would think that FOSS might be an important aspect of "accessibility," but that doesn't seem to be the case. Samir and I will be leading a "Birds-of-a-Feather" session on Thursday evening for people interested in thinking about FOSS and CS education; I have no idea how many attendees to expect. We'll also be attending a workshop on teaching and building humanitarian open source software, led by Ralph Morelli and his colleagues on the HFOSS project (Ralph will also be helping us out with our session Thursday). Otherwise, the FOSS presence is fairly thin. I do note, looking at the program-at-a-glance, that vendors, most especially Microsoft, but also Sun, Intel, Cisco, and Google, have dedicated parallel sessions throughout the conference -- so Thursday morning I'll have to decide whether to go to a panel on "Computers, Culture, and Society" (including a paper about a course on collaborative computing by some folks from Auckland) or listen to Microsoft talk about "External Research Efforts and Assessment in Education Research" (they're going to be showcasing new educational technologies!)

The one moment in the schedule where FOSS leaps out is Saturday morning (sadly, as I expect we may be spending that time enjoying anything Portland might have to offer outside the Convention Center). Another Microsoft Vendor Session, this one on "Comparing Windows and Linux in OS courses." Just for the sparkling brevity of it all, here's the abstract of the talk:
The presentation provides a top-level overview of kernel architecture, using Windows to teach OS, and how Windows fundamentally differs from Linux.
I'm sure we'll have more to say when we get back. If you're going to be there, please track us down . . . .