Monthly Archives: November 2011

Freedom: A Struggle, Not a Nose Dive

As regular readers, my friends and family, and anyone who spends more than five minutes talking with me will already know, I am a huge supporter of free software. I will constantly speak on the subject, in public and private settings; I will buy shirts and stickers from free projects; I will even occasionally give my time to free projects that interest me.

Today, however, I’m taking a strange tack: I think free software advocates need to pull back a little bit.


It’s taken me quite some time to come to this conclusion, so I’d appreciate some time to explain myself.

First, I used to be a very gung-ho kind of supporter. I would advocate for all free software, and nothing less….anything less, in fact, was unacceptable under every circumstance.

Now, I’ve been talking to a lot of people about how they react to my discussions with them. I learned, but was not surprised, that I often turned people off with my cold demeanor and exact terminology. I don’t generally give emotion any sway in an argument, and I was pretty convinced that it was a good thing. However, I also learned something–barely–while talking to one particular person. This person didn’t disagree with me, it became clear–she was simply not ready to jump headfirst into what could be a tank of sharks. She wanted to be cautious, and, admittedly, she had a few things still tying her to nonfree software.

So What?

This person’s point gave me a bit of an epiphany. Rather than pushing people to take a nose dive, I should encourage them to work against their oppressors in the way that most revolutions have worked in the past: Through small, incremental changes that built on one another. This made perfect sense, because that’s also how I build arguments and other things in my life.

It brought me to the realization that we, the free software camp, had become just as bad as the nonfree software supporters–asking people to throw something away without being fully prepared, and without fully understanding the reasons why.

What Now?

The last piece in the puzzle is to come up with a better way to advocate. I maintain that any free software advocate should forego supporting nonfree software–so anyone who asks for help with a Windows- or OS X-related issue (e.g., wireless problems, window management tips, how to uninstall software) shouldn’t find that help with a free software advocate. However, a free software advocate could reasonably suggest other options to the problem–for example, if a user can’t connect to a web page in Safari, suggesting that they use Firefox would be the first best step to fixing their issue.

Outside of people coming to you for help, you can help others by suggesting small, incremental steps. Don’t ask them to throw everything away and start fresh. Suggest Firefox, then move on to suggesting other free alternatives– instead of Twitter, free games instead of nonfree ones, SumatraPDF (or similar) instead of Adobe Reader, and Songbird instead of iTunes. Once they get the hang of the free alternatives, suggest that they find HTML5 web videos as opposed to Flash. Then, maybe suggest a switch from Windows to GNU/Linux (possibly Trisquel or gNewSense).

These small steps will eventually bring someone to the point where they can run a fully free system.

Thanks for reading!

Nonfree Physical Products

A friend and I had a very interesting conversation on Wednesday night about how the free software ideology could translate into the physical world, such as with beverages and food whose recipes are not disclosed to the public. I have a few things I want to say clearly about the subject that I feel I didn’t get the chance to on Wednesday, so here we go:

The Similarities

There are a few very good points that my friend brought up about how the two situations are similar:

  • Physical products can also have information, required to create them, that is not disclosed by the company that makes it
  • That information is sometimes released, but not by the biggest corporations
  • Even if corporations do release the information, they mask it in a way that makes it useless for actually making the product (like APIs)

These are a lot of good things to draw on in this argument, so I can see where someone might conclude that physical products are just as important to have them be free. Since we, the consumers, do not have the information (and, as my friend pointed out, are never allowed to, even if the consumer is another company), we cannot possibly make the right decision about which product is best for us, nor can we improve upon or change the product.

The Differences

This is the important part, though: We *can* improve upon and change the product. We can’t necessarily do it at the source every time, but there are ways to chemically modify a beverage or food, I’m sure. I am not a chemist, but I know there are ways to modify even things you don’t know the content of. And of course, simply adding flavor is a perfectly acceptable tack. Maybe you couldn’t sell that finished product under the original name, but I doubt Pepsi would be too irritated that you were spreading their brand (even if it’s only the taste).

The only reason the consumer is allowed to do that, of course, is the other big difference between physical products and digital ones: In the physical world, no-one makes you sign a license that specifically precludes you from using the product in certain ways, or copying it, or redistributing. Admittedly, the latter three are implied based on the laws of the region, since patent law will likely prevent you from copying the formula verbatim, and redistributing under the same name will result in a trademark lawsuit.

The Big Deal

But those implied protections are not imposed by the corporation, they are imposed by the government–which we might not have much chance to change, but there is *some* chance. The biggest difference, to me, is that in the case of a physical product, we can lobby the government to regulate the practices of various corporations, and we can lobby the government to change patent and trademark laws (not that it’s working, but again, there is a chance). In the digital world, many of the restrictions placed on users is placed there by a contractual agreement between the user and the corporation selling the software. This is different in two ways: You can refuse to sign a contract (unlike a law, which you accept regardless of your wishes), and you cannot change a contract’s text (at least not an EULA, which is not generally up for debate).

Since the case of software is so much more the fault of the user, I have to consider that case before any others. I think that educating people so they don’t trap themselves in a contract they don’t understand is a pretty important venture. I understand my friend’s point, that beverage companies and the like are similarly bad, but I see them as mostly an indirect evil, so I’m not as worried about their works as I am worried about software companies.

Thanks for reading!

Attractive Arguments

I spend a large part of my time trying to convince people that my ideas have merit. Most of the time, I can simply illustrate the differences between one idea and another and have them immediately distinguished–one is right, and one is wrong. There are, however, a few situations where that is not the case.

I have come to a few questions in response to those situations: Am I not a persuasive person? Are the arguments wrong, and I don’t know it? Am I not talking about them the right way? I’d like to explore a few of these situations in this post.


I have generally thought that I am a persuasive person. I don’t always have a lot of people listening to me, but I like to think that when they are, I can persuade them that I’m generally right. I have heard good things about my public speeches, and a few people have enjoyed talking to me on a smaller scale.

At the same time, several people I know have pointed out that I can be less than sensitive when it comes to serious discussions. This is true, because often when it comes to actually talking about a decision someone has to make, I try to immediately remove the question of emotion and bias, to better serve the pursuit of truth and reason. Admittedly, it doesn’t usually make people feel good, but generally I wind up persuading them anyway. Unless, of course, I am actually wrong–but that brings us to the next option.

Unhelpful Conversations

When I am wrong, I feel that often, the people who notice it are hesitant to tell me. I’ve found that our society has gotten too attached to positive feedback to actually give useful advice–which is why I generally don’t try to sugar-coat it, when I find someone is doing something wrong.

So, when I find that people actually think I am wrong, the first thing I try to do is find out why. My biggest problem with the Free Software and religion arguments has been that people cannot tell me why I’m wrong–or at least, can’t do so in a way that holds up to any amount of serious thought. At that point, the rational course of action for the other person in the conversation would be to evaluate what led them down that path that didn’t hold up to serious thought, and then consider a change in opinion. Of course, in most cases, I do not see that happen.

In most cases, the people I know actually look me straight in the face and ask me to agree to disagree. This moment brings a lot of thoughts to mind, most notably “so, you’re asking me to agree that you’re wrong and too stupid to realize it?”, but at this point in the conversation, my penchant for not sugar-coating things somewhat disappears. In some cases, in later conversations with the same person, that principle returns to the mix, but I generally recognize that person, at that point, as a lost cause. They have lost their capacity for reasoned discourse and are no longer even capable of change. This is possibly the most worrying trend of all–that people are no longer interested in or capable of change.

Wrong Methods

Possibly one of the most frustrating examples of the above, I think, is that even if I am not persuasive, or talking about something in a manner which does not endear me to the other participants in the discussion, I often find that people will either not tell me, or will try to tell me without having any concrete examples of how I could improve. Even those closest to me have been very unhelpful in this matter. Really, though, I take that as so much more evidence that I’m not, in fact, using any methods that are too offensive. How can I be, if no-one can even enumerate those methods to me?

Thanks for reading!

Occupy Free Software!

I’ve been hearing a lot about the Occupy ______ movements. They walk into a park near their city hall, they stand around for weeks, and make cries on Twitter, Facebook, and the like for people to come and help them. They hope to achieve a wide variety of things, but their broad focus appears to be the shift in wealth distribution from the rich down to the poor. They are, in large part, interested in redistribution of wealth to narrow the rich-poor gap in America.

Reality Check

There is a very big problem with this protest, and it is pretty evident to me after only reading the above paragraph: These people are still *relying* on corporate America. There is, very simply, *no way* that they can keep it in check at the same time. Facebook, Twitter, Skype, and the others are just as much–if not more–offensive as the big corporations on Wall Street. Sure, they don’t take our financial assets necessarily (or rather, visibly), but these companies do hurt us, and it’s time for the Occupy movement to start recognizing that.

Twitter, Facebook, et al. are hurting their customers by restricting them in various ways. They do not allow the use of their software for any purpose. They do not allow people to copy their software. They especially don’t allow study or modification of it. These are basic digital freedoms that every computer user–whether they expect to actually exercise them or not–should fight to the death to preserve.

Occupy Free Software

The only way the Occupy movement can successfully move forward is to embrace the ideals of Free Software. To do this, I would suggest the following concrete steps:

  1. Replace all nonfree forms of communication used by the movement with their free alternatives. For example, anyone using Facebook currently should shift to use Diaspora or another similar free solution (GNU Social, etc.), and those using Twitter should use instead (or some instance of StatusNet).
  2. Announce publicly that the movement has, as one of its main priorities, the disapproval and subversion of corporations’ control over their customers, as opposed to their helpfulness to the same.
  3. Have Free Software advocates come out to support the cause–which will not happen until the above two are at least seriously considered.

A Note for Skeptics

I’m sure some of you are (or have been) thinking something along the lines of “Free Software is overrated” or “but I enjoy using nonfree software” or “but it is an industry standard.”

If you allowed such trivial arguments to come between you and your freedoms, you would probably wind up living in a dictatorship very quickly. As an example, do you often use your fourth amendment liberty from cruel and unusual punishment? No, but if it were indefinitely suspended, you would be angry. In the same fashion, people who do not constantly use the digital freedoms enumerated by the Free Software Foundation should not say that they are useless or trivial–they are vitally important to many of us, and throwing them away for trivial or facially untrue reasons (“I can’t open .docx in GNU/Linux”, for example, is false) is not only ridiculous, it’s maddening.

Thanks for reading!