Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Book of the month at RCCS

The Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies ("an online, not-for-profit organization whose purpose is to research, teach, support, and create diverse and dynamic elements of cyberculture"), amongst its other activities, features book reviews each month. Decoding Liberation features as Book of the Month for March 2009. Check out reviews by Brian Carver, Andrew Famiglietti and our responses. As always, we'd be very interested in feedback.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Must Redirect the Drool

The FSF makes a frustratingly compelling case for rejecting Apple's latest palmtop-that-happens-to-make-calls.

I might, just might, have been able to talk myself around these arguments, except for the quote from the iPhone license (specifically, the "Developer Program License Agreement"):

You further represent and warrant to Apple that the licensing terms governing Your Application, or governing any third party code or FOSS included in Your Application, will be consistent with and not conflict with the digital signing or content protection aspects of the Program or any of the terms, conditions or requirements of the Program or this Agreement. In particular, such licensing terms will not purport to require Apple (or its agents) to disclose or make available any of the keys, authorization codes, methods, procedures, data or other information related to the Security Solution, digital signing or digital rights management mechanisms utilized as part of the Program.

which is clearly a right-back-atcha to GPLv3; pretty disgusting.

But the (very) bright side of the FSF piece is the mention of the Neo FreeRunner from OpenMoko, which looks really promising

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Mako on DL in Minds and Machines

Benjamin Mako Hill has written a very good review of Decoding Liberation in Minds and Machines, Vol. 18, No. 2, June 2008, pp. 297–299. Mako has some nice things to say about DL, and also offers an interesting critique of some of the distinctions we make between the free software and open source movements. Do check out the review (and if you want, read our comparative assessment of free software licensing schemes, which is some of the material that Mako is critiquing). Mako's points are worth further discussion and we'll do so very soon on this blog.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Bender on Sugar, FOSS, pedagogy

An interesting interview with Walter Bender over at OpenEducation.net. Of particular interest are his comments on the interaction between FOSS philosophy and pedagogical imperatives (something Scott and I looked at in Chapters 3 and 4 of DL with regards to writing code and computer science education respectively). Bender goes on to talk about Sugar, OLPC's "desktop" and notes its potential for fostering collaborative learning:
At its core is the concept of an “Activity”. Activities are software applications such as a web browser, a word processor, or even a calculator, that, when “Sugarized”, are enhanced by three key features: (1) the application is readily shared with others; for example, to share what you are reading with others requires just one “button click”; in the word processor, Sugar provides the ability to do peer-to-peer editing, again with just one click; a chat window is always available for seeking help, sharing ideas, or exchanging data; (2) a journal entry is created every time an application is run; not only are files and data automatically saved, but a diary is created so that a child, his/her teacher, and parents can monitor progress; and (3) applications run full-screen in a simplified framework, yet there is no upper bound on the complexity that can be reached;
And lastly, there is an interesting discussion of pedagogical philosophy and its resonance with FOSS:
Papert and his students found that children learn best when they are in the “active role of the designer and constructor” and that this happens best in a context where the child is “consciously engaged in constructing a public entity” — something “truly meaningful” for the learner. Further, the creation process and the end product must be shared with others in order for the full effects to take root.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Not so fast

A strange article over at ZDNet, fretting about Linux's immaturity, and salivating over the possibility of Solaris and Linux merging because both will be GPL V3'd (in some possible world). Clearly, Perlow doesn't seem to understand just how difficult relicensing the kernel would be. Linus isn't the one who makes the decision in this regard; there are thousands and thousands of contributors to the kernel, all of whom would have to be contacted and their permission taken for this relicensing. This is what I might delicately describe as an intractable problem. While all the net chatter about Linus' resistance to GPL V3 was entertaining (as flame wars usually for a while), there is very little chance that Linux will be relicensed.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Professor Duffy's bombshell

I'm not sure (by a long margin) what the impact of John Duffy's analysis of the supposed unconstitutional appointments of patent judges will have on the world of patents but one thing is clear: if you thought the world of patents, patent laws, patent litigation and all of the rest was in bad shape, then this finding, that the entire edifice of patent judge appointments has been without the appropriate authority since 2000, should convince you that the mess is worse than we thought, and that it is going to require some very creative thinking for this boondoggle to not get worse. Keep an eye out for Translogic Technology, Inc. v. Dudas in the days to come.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Plenty of politics out there

Biella Coleman has an interesting post at her blog that resists the notion (recently floated by Jonathan Zittrain) that hackers are not political enough. First off, I’m not sure why anyone would think this, though it might seem tempting if one falls for the trap of actually believing those folks who say things like “technology is just technique, man” or “I don’t care about politics, I just wanna code” or “the best technology will just win out” and so forth. But Biella’s post is directed at remarks made by Jonathan Zittrain and my suspicion is that what is to blame is a particular understanding of the word “politics”. In this understanding, “politics” is a very particular sort of activity, which takes place in very particular ways in particular arenas. Politics in this understanding is a fairly organized activity that takes place in well-known recognized channels, and is always easily recognizable as such. So, someone voting or signing petitions or writing policy is definitely doing politics but if you are simply buying things or talking in cafes or organizing a local farmer’s market, then you aren’t doing anything political. From this point of view, the FOSS movement just looks like a bunch of hackers who want to hack on the code of whatever it is they are using, and so, all they are doing is computer stuff – just messing around with technology and if its political impacts are noted, then that is some sort of incidental activity. Politics enters this picture just because the politics of the “external world” impinges on what these folks would most want to be doing with their time. But if you think of work as political, if you think of making choices about how to work as a political, if you think affecting how technology impacts us is political, and so on, then hackers are up to their necks in politics and a profusion of political principles can be read off their activity. Then what hackers seem to be doing is politics through and through, very explicitly and straightforwardly. From this perspective, a hacker who claims to be just coding, and doesn’t want to be bothered by the political impact of his choices is just revealing another political preference (to be honest, whenever someone says that , I just read it as “this doesn’t agree with my politics”). JZ might be thinking that hackers don’t do enough of the politics at the level of the larger entities around (though that’s wrong too, as many, many cases of hacker involvement in legal and policy battles do); he might be mistaking the chatter of hacker communities as just that, chatter, while its actually the working out of issues germane to an intensely politicized group; and he might not be paying attention to the fact that technology-labor is a political beast, and its most passionate residents and citizens are hackers, and what they do, and how they choose to do it, is first and foremost, a political choice. Listen closely to the conversation of hackers – every single statement highlights an ideological perspective. There’s plenty of politics being done out there; you just have to have the right kind of measuring instruments to detect it.

Friday, April 18, 2008

And over at openstudents...

Some time ago, Gavin Baker of OpenStudents.org (amongst other things), asked me to write a guest post on their blog about my publishing experience with Decoding Liberation. The post went up last week; hope you find it interesting. (Not sure why I didn't link to it earler; possibly laziness; yes, that must be it). Do check the various posts and links at openstudents.org; open access in academia could do with all the help it can get.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Section, gerritt?

Here is some trenchant commentary by James Grimmelmann on the efforts of the study group convened by the Copyright Office and Library of Congress (back in 2005) to find ways of revising copyright law (especially Section 108, which provides exceptions for librarians and archivists) to "to ensure an appropriate balance among the interests of creators and other copyright holders, libraries and archives in a manner that best serves the national interest". I'm not going to comment at this stage, because James has done a more than adequate job. His views might be summed up, in his own words, as:
This isn’t a matter of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. This is more like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, if the Titanic were sinking because of the absurdly large number of deck chairs it was carrying.
Oh, and also:
Redrafting it [Section 108] would be like helping a hungover drunk pull on enough clothes to go out without being arrested, so he can go to a bar and get even more plastered.

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 . . . .

Monday, February 18, 2008

Problems with peer review, Part Three

The problems I noted with peer review in my post below are, perhaps, too well-known to most people in not just the sciences, but the humanities as well. Too many submissions, not enough time, too much deference to authority, not enough recognition of new, potentially paradigm-challenging work, and so on. As a result, too many papers of poor quality get published, too many papers that could make interesting contributions to a field don't get published. The problem with this picture is that all the review is anonymous, and that a very small set of reviewers is in charge (over the community as a whole quite a few members might be reviewing, but for a given paper, the number is very small, sometimes just one or two, and there is no opportunity for author response or clarification).

Instead, it might be better for both workshops and conferences for the submitted papers to be made able to a wider audience, and with reviewers able to make both anonymous and identifiable comments, and authors able to make responses. Take a small workshop with approximately 10 members in its program committee. It receives something like 20-30 contributions, and it plans to select about 10 for final presentation. The submitted papers could be placed online with annotation tools for commenting and author responses. The program committee could send out notifications of submissions to the community at large, inviting commentary on the papers. The review period could begin on a rolling basis, with papers becoming available for review as they are submitted, and staying online till some point, at which stage authors could either submit a revised version or the PC could declare an end to the reviewing process.

One particularly salutary consequence of this system would be the chance for authors to respond to critiques, and for a real discussion to break out on the papers. In fact, I suggest that this process of public submission, open review, author response, ensuing discussion, and subsequent revisions might even be more valuable than the intended presentation at the workshop. For what happens in that scenario under the current system? The author sends the paper out, it gets reviewed in the hurried fashion I described in my last post, and then when it is submitted, his only audience is the small one at the workshop or conference (yes, there is the advantage of the oral presentation, but it can also very easily become a disadvantage). The community is only partially represented at the workshop (even if it is a specialized area, very few people can actually travel to workshops and conferences; funding is especially hard to come by for people in theoretical fields). The public process also ensures that poorly written, superficial, content-free papers that make it just because a PC member wrote a hasty, superficial review that was not vetted by anyone else on the PC will have a harder time getting through. It will also ensure that papers written by so-called 'authorities' will be subject to a wider critique than just a couple of possibly star-struck reviewers. And the length of the review process will also ensure more thoughtful reviews as people can add points over a period of time (I'd certainly consider making incremental comments on papers made available for public reviewing). But what about star-struck reviewers afraid of upsetting the 'stars' in the field? There isn't much that can be done if you are worried about reprisals but you needn't worry if your primary concern is that you might say something wrong. But why would this worry about reprisals be a problem? It'll only be one if a critique is made in intemperate fashion, where the content is obscured by its form. Which of course is a huge problem in anonymous reviewing where the amount of vituperative swiping from the safety of the anonymous reviewers position is quite amazing.

To sum up (and to be sure this is a very quick take on things), while the problem of volume in today's academic world can't be easily solved, the workshop and conference world in the sciences would greatly benefit from a public, open, extended, iterative review process. Plenty more to be said here, of course. but all in good time.