Monthly Archives: June 2012

Parkour and Programming

In my free time, I sometimes practice something called Parkour. In fact, my username (MarkTraceur) comes from that art, because “traceur” is a term for a person who practices Parkour. This art is a very intense physical discipline, combining simple, natural movements with martial arts techniques to form a set of “best practices” when it comes to moving through obstacles. In reality, it’s just a set of tools that help you evaluate problems of efficient movement.

Well, since the rest of my life is dominated by software, the natural thing to do is to compare Parkour to programming, and see if I can’t learn, and teach, something interesting. First, I should probably explain how I see Parkour.

Parkour

Parkour, as explained above, is an art of movement. It helps you train a set of movements to the point where you’re very comfortable with all of them, and can easily reach for and execute the best movements for any particular situation. These movements include such things as vaults (for getting over things), wall-climbing techniques (for getting up things), underbar techniques (for getting through things), jumping and landing techniques (for getting off of things), and other more general movements.

Parkour isn’t just about exercise and practice, though. The community and organized practice of it was mostly started with the mantra “be useful”, and there is a lot of philosophy that goes with it. There’s also a huge slew of mental preparation a person needs to do in order to do some of the movements, and even judging the best movements for a situation takes a lot of thinking.

The really interesting thing about Parkour, to me, is that there never seems to be a single “best” way to do things. While most people would look at a situation and agree that one movement or another seems good, another person might come in and have a different idea that works better for them. For example, while going over a rail with a speed vault might be good for me, a shorter traceur might be better served by going under it with an underbar. Many of these questions share a similar non-deterministic quality that really appeals to me.

Programming

While my blog is mostly frequented by technical people, I expect this article in particular might draw some traceurs who don’t fully understand programming! So, I’ll try to explain what’s necessary for this article.

Programming is the act of telling a computer, through a list of commands, how to behave and what to do. For example, as you’re reading this on your web browser, your computer is likely listening on a network interface (wifi, 3G, 4G, or ethernet) for connections. It doesn’t do that because it innately understands, but because a programmer somewhere wrote the necessary words that told the computer “wait here, and listen for this data, then perform this action”.

Similarities

The really cool parts about programming and the really cool parts about Parkour, I think, seem to cross pretty regularly. In programming, I often come across a situation where the solution I create might not be the one someone else would use. Most of the time, these solutions differ in their speed, or in the amount of memory they use, but depending on what you’re trying to accomplish, either one might be “best”. Admittedly, there are certain things (like “crash the computer, delete all the files”) that would almost always be excluded from being the “best”, but there are so many different qualities of each solution that most of them will be good in one way or another.

But the fun doesn’t stop there! Most traceurs will continually train their skills over and over again. Well, programmers do that, too: The more we write in any language, the more fluent we get with it. The first time you use a language, you jump straight into it and try really hard to use it anywhere you can. Once you learn the language well, you keep building on that knowledge with additional libraries, additional and more difficult file structures, and so on. Traceurs will be familiar with this concept, called “progression”.

Even some of the simple philosophical ideas bridge the gap. Where traceurs say to “be useful”, most programmers will also recognize a similar concept. Where software is free, it’s common courtesy (or sometimes legal obligation) to release derivative works as free. Where you download a file, it’s common courtesy to mirror it if you can. Where you fix a bug in a free library, it’s best to contribute that fix back to the original author. This is also similar to the general traceur practice of leaving a training spot better than how you found it.

Differences

The biggest difference between these two art forms is the physical involvement inherent in Parkour. This makes it an extremely difficult thing for a beginner to do with any sustained effort–the physical demands of hauling oneself up and over walls repeatedly is not to be taken lightly! For those of us who love sitting in front of flashing pixels for hours (or days) at a time, it’s very difficult to start.

Another huge difference is that, in software, there are a lot more concrete solutions for specific situations. In some places, there are well-known mathematical proofs that show the superiority of one solution or another. This is a result of two other differences: One, programming has been around, and popular, for a lot longer than Parkour. Two, programming is much more concretely defined, due to its mostly-deterministic nature. Above, I described the non-determinism as being a similarity, but programming was a lot closer to being deterministic than Parkour.

Take-Aways

For programmers

  • Parkour is fun! If you haven’t tried it, and you’re in the Bay Area, feel free to contact me and drag me out on a run.
  • Being useful, and generally being helpful to your community, is a great philosophy to have. It makes for a really cool community, and it makes you feel good!
  • Thinking about a problem as having more than one “good” solution is more productive than thinking about it as having only one “best” solution. Maybe you’ll eventually decide that, in this situation, there is a best solution, but not necessarily acknowledging it will help you to generalize the other solutions for the next time!

For traceurs

  • Programming is fun! Maybe it doesn’t seem like it, but there are a lot of similarities between these two disciplines. If you love the mental high you get from computing paths through a course, you’d also love the mental gymnastics involved in getting a computer to do what you want!
  • Other communities have similar philiosophies to “be useful” and “leave the spot better than how you found it”, so keep doing those things! In particular, contributing to the community is a really great thing to do, and traceurs (and groups of traceurs) should make that effort a priority. Even just welcoming the community into your training sessions is a great benefit.
  • If you don’t already consciously consider that multiple solutions might be desirable in a particular situation, try! Next time you go out, do your normal training exercises, but then turn around and look at the obstacles a second time. Consider what you might do if you were shorter. How would you get through if you had a broken arm? What about if you couldn’t touch one of the obstacles for some reason?
  • Thanks, as always, for reading, and go freely!

Hostility to Free Software (follow-up)

Last week, I wrote a blog post about people who seem to be generally hostile towards free software advocates. A lot of people weighed in, and I’m happy to say that it’s resulted in a significant shift in my thinking.

The first thing I needed to do was to split up the question into several parts; so I split it into different groups of interaction. Those groups, and my conclusions about them, are as follows:

Free software user towards other free software users

This category, I think, was the one I was most worried about when I wrote the original post. It’s clear to me now that, in order for someone to make most of the criticisms that I highlighted in the previous post, someone would have to be aware of at least parts of the GNU philosophy.

These people are usually irritated with a free software advocate who disagrees with their preferred licensing scheme. Copyleft advocates don’t get along with permissive advocates, and vice versa. I’ve mostly observed permissive license advocates being discourteous, but I’m sure copyleft advocates have been just as discourteous at some point.

This category of hostile interaction is absolutely ridiculous. Sure, there are disagreements, but it’s foolish to argue about such things. Even the most hardcore copyleft advocates agree that, in an ideal world, permissive licenses would be better. Copyleft advocates use the tools available to them to ensure the freedoms they desire, for themselves and their users. And permissive advocates, while they’re usually very friendly and practical people, get very offended by copyleft advocates who are too insistent, claiming that copyleft is too restrictive. Both groups have goals, but both are working towards digital freedom. That ultimate goal needs to be the focus, rather than the particular tools used.

Free software users towards non-free software users who make free software

This is something of which I’m guilty, I’m ashamed to say. People who make free software for non-free platforms, like the iPhone or Windows, are sometimes victims of criticism because they straddle a fence between two worlds. But that fence is a huge barrier to some people, and the people who sit on it can help bring people across.

The problem, I think, is that when I try to help these people find free tools (like Gitorious, for example), I tend to come across as being too focused on one side of the fence. The people in this difficult position see me as attacking them, or their decision to help people in this way. I could try to explain at length that I mean only to find better tools for them, but that seems like wasted effort. They appear to be doing good work, so why bother criticizing? Someone making free software with non-free tools should be encouraged to continue making free software above all else. It might be helpful to encourage free developers to use Gitorious from the start, but criticizing their use of GitHub now seems unnecessary.

Free software users towards non-free software users

This is probably the most ridiculous form of hostility surrounding the free software movement, and probably the source of a lot of negative feelings. Free software users and advocates might occasionally look intimidating based on the fact that their information is something most people don’t ever consider, and don’t already understand. This fact combined with the very serious nature of most free software advocates makes for a very difficult person to converse with.

The best way to deal with this situation, then, is never to criticize, and never to obstruct people. I maintain, as I have in the past, that it would be better to not help people to support non-free software. However, rather than simply refusing without explanation, or with only a few words. Explain a way to accomplish the same thing with free software, and why you prefer free software. The goal here is to be verbose, so brush up on your ability to explain things to non-technical users!

Free software users towards non-free software developers

This is a relatively justifiable form of hostility, since the objects of it are directly opposed to the mission of free software advocates. However, there’s a problem: Developers are the best way to spread free software (more on this later), and we’re starting to alienate them!

Maybe we can’t win these people over with words, but it would be helpful to stop alienating them, certainly. For now at least, my best advice is to simply not advocate to them. Telling somebody that they’re doing things wrong is probably not the best way to win them over, and that’s really our only tack with non-free developers. Simply allowing these people to be, and encouraging them if and when they create free software, is our single best play.

General advice

In general, there are some things we should keep in mind when talking to the public. First of all, try to avoid “smear campaigns”. This is one of the most common criticisms of the Free Software Foundation in particular, and it makes a lot of sense. While Free Software is a reasonable idea, some of the ways it gets spread can be a little unnecessary and hostile. Simply calling technologies by their proper names will not cheapen the message at all, especially when the person speaking is already criticizing the technology for valid reasons.

Second, focus on positive reinforcement, rather than negative feedback only when things go wrong. I touched on this somewhat in the previous sections, but here it is again: We should be seen as an encouraging community, rather than some resistance that fights against people. This is why sites like OpenHatch have such great importance to the free software movement–we should encourage people to do good work, rather than criticize them for doing bad work.

Third, consider now that other freedoms, freedoms that aren’t related to software, are also important. While most of the time, people who make this argument simply mean freedom of choice. I maintain that freedom of choice isn’t freedom at all, merely an illusion–similar to allowing prisoners yard time. If you allow some amount of space, that’s good, but it’s still prison. It’s the same with non-free software: You can choose a lot of different software just like you could walk around the yard, but you can’t modify or share it, among other things.

Supply and Demand

One of the interesting points I’ve heard recently is that there are two major theories about the most effective approach. Some people prefer supply-side advocacy. This method is when developers are targeted, and they change their ways. This method costs relatively little, because there are fewer people who are more aware of the subject, but it can also be severely tedious. As we’ve seen, non-free developers are very set in their ways.

The other theory is demand-side advocacy, which is focused on users rather than developers. This takes a lot of time as well, since users can also be set in their ways, but are also troublesome because of their lesser domain knowledge.

My view of this is that supply-side advocacy should be the focus. Developers, while stubborn, feel good simply by making software. Add in altruism as a motivator, and possibly the ethical benefits of allowing their users freedom, and they’ll certainly be interested in making free software….or at least, that’s the goal!

Demand-side advocacy can be helpful, but since a lot of people don’t understand software, it can be difficult for them to understand the importance. If the landscape of free software gets wider, users should start to spill over more readily.

Thanks again for reading this blog, and thanks especially to everyone who contacted me in response to the last post. As always, go freely!

Hostility to Free Software

The free software community has been around for quite some time now–longer than I remember, since I’ve only joined in the past few years. And for some reason, though that time seems to have been spent on good works that benefit humanity, and advocacy that teaches people how to be free, the movement is sometimes the object of some hostility.

With every blog post, I encourage people to comment by emailing me, but for this post in particular, I’d like to make a special request for feedback, because this particular problem is a very important one to solve. If you have any ideas about how to further explain the below points, please email me.

Zealotry

One complaint I’ve seen very often is that free software advocates are mostly zealots. However, whenever I come up against that complaint, I turn to the dictionary definition of “zealot” and find the following:

  1. One who is zealous, especially excessively so.
  2. A fanatically committed person.

source

Both of these possible definitions involve some version of “excessive”, but that has never made sense to me. The second definition also includes some sense of irrationality, which also makes very little sense. Free software advocates love freedom, it’s true, and would rather have freedom than convenience. But that exact choice, and the preference free software advocates tend to have, are exactly the subjects of many romantic depictions of heroic figures, both in history and in fiction. New Jersey still immortalizes it on their license plates, and countless authors continue to speak highly of those who choose freedom. So why should any commitment to that ideal be considered excessive?

Name-Calling

The next example of hostility is the name-calling that happens from time to time. Free software advocates are sometimes called zealots, as explained above. But several other names are also in use.

The first, and probably most offensive, is “freetard”. This term is particularly bad because it also perpetuates the use of the term “retard”, which is itself extremely offensive. But tying that term to the honorable choice to be free seems especially wrong. Implying that digital freedom is caused by some lack of mental capacity simply doesn’t make sense.

The next term is “bully”, used sometimes by people who seem to think free software advocates are too insistent. This is a bit strange, too, since most of the tactics used by the majority of free software advocates are very passive. This term was probably brought on by some of the more controversial tactics used by the Free Software Foundation, which itself tends to use name-calling on occasion. But that organization, while very important, does not dictate the actions of the rest of the community. Their philosophy articles are helpful, and they have good ideas, but their actions don’t need to reflect on all free software advocates.

The last term people use, falsely in my opinion, is something similar to “communist”. Now, this particular example may not be terribly offensive, since the days of the Cold War are gone. But using terms that are untrue doesn’t help anyone. I hope to soon write further on this subject, but to briefly summarize, free software allows for too much freedom among people, and the free market would soon bring people to release their own versions of things, possibly for money. Socialism and communism, and similar systems, wouldn’t be fertile ground for software freedom; or perhaps more appropriately, free software wouldn’t be contained by those systems for very long. This is pretty clearly caused by the “open source” branch of the movement, where people emphasize giving back to the community, and communal ownership of the creative works in the society, but even that community appears to be more motivated by capitalistic intentions than anything else.

Reasons

There are a few possible reasons listed above, but I’m hoping to come to a more unified theory, since none of the individual incidents seem to be self-explanatory.

One idea I had was that people might be seeing free software as a threat to the software industry. Many people confuse “free” as being mostly related to the price of the software, so their hostility might be caused by a concern that profits would be lost if free software took hold. Of course, Making Money Ethically is a potentially helpful solution to that concern, but very few people understand the concepts set forth there, and even fewer would consider actually implementing those concepts.

Ideas?

In closing, I’d like to reiterate my call for feedback. I don’t know why people react the way they do to free software advocates, but I’d like to revisit this question with some more interesting data. If you think you have an answer, I’d love to get an email from you. If you think negatively about the free software movement in some way, can you trace your perception back to something concrete? Please contact me with any information you might have, and if possible, indicate whether you’re comfortable having your email reprinted on this blog.

Thanks for reading, and as always go freely!

Free Software in San Francisco

I’ve lived in San Francisco for over a month, now. My experience has been mostly very interesting, between working at the Wikimedia Foundation and socializing with transplants from Boston. However, my foremost lens for examining any situation has always been digital freedom. With that in mind, I have been paying attention to the general climate of software use in the Bay Area, and I’d like to share it with you now.

I should note that my purpose here is not to criticize any person or group, but to give feedback and maybe better explain the landscape of digital freedom in the Bay Area.

At Work

The Wikimedia Foundation itself, strangely, is not overwhelmingly supportive of free software. The employees tend to run either Mac OS X or Ubuntu on their workstations, and the server infrastructure seems largely based on Ubuntu as well.

The tools being used are largely free, however, with git dominating the source control landscape and Gerrit providing code review and hosting. There is a wide variety of other tools in use, but the people all seem generally in favor of free developer tools. Even a few designers seem to be interested in using free tools, which is a refreshing change from the usual reliance on Adobe.

Of course, the ultimate product of the WMF’s toil is free software, and that’s one of the most important things to consider, but having a general culture of digital freedom would be a huge benefit to the community and the individuals involved!

In the City

Walking around town, I notice a lot of technology. It is my profound displeasure, however, that most of it is branded with Apple logos! Every ride on public transportation is dominated by iPods, iPhones, and the infrequent iPads. I also see Kindles and Nooks, and of course the occasional Nintendo handheld device. I walk around with my brand new Neo Freerunner, but it’s hardly enough to offset the overwhelming feeling of digital restriction….

In Online Communities

I also spend some time chatting with local people online, through sites like Reddit and BAParkour. Those communities, too, appear to be dominated by non-free software. A lot of the technical discussions are dominated by non-free options, and most of the discussions in general seem to be powered by non-free technology.

In Surrounding Businesses

San Francisco is a big place for software businesses, as I’m sure readers will be aware. But a lot of the chatter I hear about local businesses involves work on non-free software. Many of the people involved will be proud of using free software in one capacity or another, but their interest in digital freedom apparently doesn’t extend to their customers.

In Social Circles

The socializing I have done in person has largely revolved around common ties to free software, too. However, that common tie seemed to be rather muted after prolonged conversations, since the people I meet almost always use notorious non-free software (e.g., iOS, Photoshop, Facebook/Twitter), and seem uninterested in changing that fact. While I hesitate to confront these people on the subject (see Freedom: A Struggle, not a Nose Dive), it’s always sort of jolting to realize that the people I met because of free software are not devoted to software freedom.

Conclusions

I think these facts point towards a rather grim situation for digital freedom in the Bay Area. This realization motivates me to seriously consider more devotion to the movement, possibly through more direct means, to help spread freedom in the area.