Post Peeves

Ubuntu Ten

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

Retrospective on 10 years of Ubuntu (LWN discussion). I ran Ubuntu on my main computer from 2005 to 2011. I was happy to see Ubuntu become a “juggernaut” and I think like many hoped for it to become mainstream, largely indicated by major vendor preinstallation. The high point for me, which I seem to have never blogged about, was in 2007 purchasing a very well priced Dell 1420n with Ubuntu preinstalled.

But the juggernaut stalled at the top of the desktop GNU/Linux distribution heap, which isn’t very high. Although people have had various complaints about Ubuntu and Canonical Ltd., as I’ve written before my overriding disappointment is that they haven’t been much more successful. There are a couple tiny vendors that focus exclusively or primarily on shipping Ubuntu-preinstalled consumer hardware, and Dell or another major vendor occasionally offers something — Dell has had a developer edition Ubuntu preinstall for a couple years, usually substantially out of date, as the current offering is now.

Canonical seems to have followed Red Hat and others in largely becoming an enterprise/cloud servicing company, though apparently they’re still working on an Ubuntu flavor for mobile devices (and I haven’t followed, but I imagine that Red Hat still does some valuable engineering for the desktop). I wish both companies ever more success in these ventures — more huge companies doing only or almost only open source are badly needed, even imperfect ones.

For Ubuntu fans, this seems like a fine time to ask why it hasn’t been even more successful. Why hasn’t it achieved consistent and competitive mainstream vendor distribution? How much, if any blame can be laid at Canonical’s stumbles with respect to free/open source software? It seems to me that a number of Canonical products would have been much more likely to be dominante had they been open source from the beginning (Launchpad, Ubuntu One) or not required a Contributor License Agreement (bzr, Upstart, Mir), would not have alienated a portion of the free/open source software community, and that the world would overall be a better place had most of those products won — the categories of the first two remain dominated by proprietary services, and the latter three might have gained widespread adoption sooner than the things that eventually did or will probably win (git, systemd, wayland). But taking a step back, it’s really hard to see how these stumbles (that’s again from an outsider free/open source perspective; maybe they are still seen as having been the right moves at the time inside Canonical; I just don’t know) might have contributed in a major way to lack of mainstream success. Had the stumbles been avoided, perhaps some engineering resources would have been better allocated or increased, but unless reallocated with perfect hindsight as to what the technical obstacles to mainstream adoption were — an impossibility — I doubt they made much of a difference. What about alientation of a portion of the free/open source community? Conceivably had they (we) been more enthusiastic, more consumer lobbying/demand for Ubuntu preinstalls would have occurred, and tipped a balance — but that seems like wishful thinking, requiring a level of perfect organizing of GNU/Linux fan consumer demand that nobody has achieved. I’d love to believe that had Canonical stuck closer to a pure free/open source software path, it’d have achieved greater mainstream success, but I just don’t see much of a causal link. What are the more likely causes? I’d love to read an informed analysis.

For Ubuntu detractors, this seems like a fine time to ask why Ubuntu has been a juggernaut relative to your preferred GNU/Linux distribution. If you’re angry at Canonical, I suggest your anger is misdirected — you should be angry instead that your preferred distribution hasn’t managed to do marketing and distribution as well as it needed to, on its own terms — and figure out why that is. Better yet, form and execute on a plan to achieve the mainstream success that Ubuntu hasn’t. Otherwise in all likelihood it’s an Android and ChromeOS (and huge Windows legacy, with some Apple stuff in between) world for a long time to come. I’d love to read a feasible plan!

Global Columbus/Columbia/Colombia/Colón rename

Monday, October 13th, 2014

Today is not World IP Day (nor that one), which is August 9. Some celebrate today as IP Day counter to Columbus Day, but that puts too much emphasis on Columbus as a singular actor/great man/abominable person with respect to all pre-1492 western hemisphere populations. Had Columbus never been born, or his first voyage swallowed by the Atlantic before reaching land, it is hard to imagine the result for said populations over the next centuries being any different — merciless conquest by eastern hemisphere humans and microbes. So celebrate World IP Day on August 9, and rub out Columbus Day because he was a murderer and slaver. Criminal procedures, not clash of civilizations ones, are to be recommended for Columbus, as they are for any modern day terrorist.

What should this city and county in Ohio be renamed to? Photo: Derek Jensen, Public Domain

But one day is only a beginning. Wikipedia:

Veneration of Columbus in America dates back to colonial times. The name Columbia for “America” first appeared in a 1738 weekly publication of the debates of the British Parliament. The use of Columbus as a founding figure of New World nations and the use of the word “Columbia”, or simply the name “Columbus”, spread rapidly after the American Revolution. Columbus’ name was given to the federal capital of the United States (District of Columbia), the capital cities of two U.S. states (Ohio and South Carolina), and the Columbia River. Outside the United States the name was used in 1819 for the Gran Colombia, a precursor of the modern Republic of Colombia. Numerous cities, towns, counties, streets, and plazas (called Plaza Colón or Plaza de Colón throughout Latin America and Spain) have been named after him. A candidate for sainthood in the Catholic Church in 1866, celebration of Columbus’ legacy perhaps reached a zenith in 1892 with the 400th anniversary of his first arrival in the Americas. Monuments to Columbus like the Columbian Exposition in Chicago and Columbus Circle in New York City were erected throughout the United States and Latin America extolling him.

There should be no veneration or extolling of slave owners. Everything named after Columbus (fun fact: Colombo, the city in Sri Lanka, is not) should be renamed, along with everything named after Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler, Polk, Taylor, Pierce, Buchanan, Johnson, Grant, Penn, Franklin, Houston, Austin, and many more.


Thursday, October 2nd, 2014

The first wiki[pedia]2journal article has been published: Dengue fever Wikipedia article, peer-reviewed version (PDF). Modern medicine comes online: How putting Wikipedia articles through a medical journal’s traditional process can put free, reliable information into as many hands as possible is the accompanying editorial (emphasis added):

As a source of clinical information, how does Wikipedia differ from UpToDate or, for that matter, a textbook or scholarly journal? Wikipedia lacks three main things. First, a single responsible author, typically with a recognized academic affiliation, who acts as guarantor of the integrity of the work. Second, the careful eye of a trained editorial team, attuned to publication ethics, who ensure consistency and accuracy through the many iterations of an article from submission to publication. Third, formal peer review by at least one, and often many, experts who point out conflicts, errors, redundancies, or gaps. These form an accepted ground from which publication decisions can be made with confidence.

In this issue of Open Medicine, we are pleased to publish the first formally peer-reviewed and edited Wikipedia article. The clinical topic is dengue fever. It has been submitted by the author who has made the most changes, and who has designated 3 others who contributed most meaningfully. It has been peer reviewed by international experts in infectious disease, and by a series of editors at Open Medicine. It has been copy-edited and proofread; once published, it will be indexed in MEDLINE. Although by the time this editorial is read the Wikipedia article will have changed many times, there will be a link on the Wikipedia page that can take the viewer back to the peer-reviewed and published piece on the Open Medicine website. In a year’s time, the most responsible author will submit the changed piece to an indexed journal, so it can move through the same editorial process and continue to function as a valid, reliable, and evolving free and complete reference for everyone in the world. Although there may be a need for shorter, more focused clinical articles published elsewhere as this one expands, it is anticipated that the Wikipedia page on dengue will be a reference against which all others can be compared. While it might be decades before we see an end to dengue, perhaps the time and money saved on exhaustive, expensive, and redundant searches about what yet needs to be done will let us see that end sooner.

I love that this is taking Wikipedia and commons-based peer production into a challenging product area, which if wildly successful, could directly challenge and ultimately destroy the proprietary competition. The editorial notes:

Some institutions pay UpToDate hundreds of thousands of dollars per year for that sense of security. This has allowed Wolters Kluwer, the owners of UpToDate, to accrue annual revenues of hundreds of millions of dollars and to forecast continued double-digit growth as “market conditions for print journals and books … remain soft.”

See the WikiProject Medicine collaborative publication page for more background on the process and future developments. Note at least 7 articles have been published in journal2wiki[pedia] fashion, see PLOS Computational Biology and corresponding Wikipedia articles. Ideally these 2 methods would converge on wiki↔journal, as the emphasized portion of the quote above seems to indicate.

Peer review of Wikipedia articles and publication in another venue in theory could minimize dependencies and maximize mutual benefit between expert authoring (which has historically failed in the wiki context, see Nupedia and Citizendium) and mass collaboration (see challenges noted by editorial above). But one such article only demonstrates the concept; we’ll see whether it becomes an important method, let alone market dominating one.

One small but embarrassing obstacle to wiki↔journal is license incompatibility. PLOS journals use CC-BY-4.0 (donor-only relative to following; the version isn’t important for this one) and Wikipedia CC-BY-SA-3.0 (recipient-only relative to previous…and following) and Open Medicine CC-BY-SA-2.5-Canada (donor-only relative to the immediately previous) — meaning if all contributors to the Dengue fever Wikipedia article did not sign off, the journal version is technically not in compliance with the upstream license. Clearly nobody should care about this second issue, except for license stewards, who should mitigate the problem going forward: all previous versions (2.0 or greater due to lack of a “later versions” provision in 1.0) of CC-BY-SA should be added to CC-BY-SA-4.0’s compatibility list, allowing contributions to go both ways. The first issue unfortunately cannot be addressed within the framework of current licenses (bidirectional use could be avoided, or contributors could all sign off, either of which would be outside the license framework).

Daniel Mietchen (who is a contributor to the aforementioned journal2wiki effort, and just about everything else relating to Wikipedia and Open Access) has another version of his proposal to open up research funding proposals up at the Knight News Challenge: Libraries site. Applaud and comment there if you like, as I do (endorsement of previous version).

Near the beginning of the above editorial:

New evidence pours in to the tune of 12 systematic reviews per day, and accumulating the information and then deciding how to incorporate it into one’s practice is an almost impossible task. A study published in BMJ showed that if one hoped to take account of all that has been published in the relatively small discipline of echocardiography, it would take 5 years of constant reading—by which point the reader would be a year behind.

A similar avalanche of publishing can be found in any academic discipline. It is conceivable that copyright helps, providing an incentive for services like UpToDate. My guess is that it gets in the way, both by propping up arrangements oriented toward pumping out individual articles, and by putting up barriers (the public license incompatibility mentioned above is inconsequential compared to the paywalled, umitigated copyright, and/or PDF-only case which dominates) to collaborative — human and machine — distillation of the states of the art. As I wrote about entertainment, do not pay copyright holders, for a good future.

Do not pay copyright holders, for a good future

Sunday, September 28th, 2014

The Unrepentant Bootlegger profiles Hana Beshara, a founder of NinjaVideo, who spent 16 months in prison for defying censorship. Cut to the logic of censorship (emphasis added):

People watch more paid, legal content than ever, but they also continue to download huge amounts of illegal content. “Piracy is putting pressure on antiquated business models, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” said Brett Danaher, an economics professor at Wellesley College who studies Internet piracy. “But the prevalence of piracy shows that people are growing up in a culture of free, and that is not good for the future of entertainment, either.”

That we should be concerned for the future of entertainment, at all, is itself bizarre. Freedom and equality should absolutely trump incentivizing a surfeit of entertainment. If we must choose between spectacle and communications, spectacle should be destroyed. We do not need to choose. We can destroy the censorship regime, but entertainment, including for better or worse some of the spectacle variety, will continue to exist and be produced in vastly greater quantities and quality than it is feasible for anyone to even begin to fully appreciate in a lifetime. If the spectacle portion does not include projects with budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars, that is OK — we will love what culture does get produced, as that love and cultural relevance is largely based on being immersed in the culture that exists — we love the culture we’re in. If that culture is less dominated by U.S.-based high investment productions, so much the better for the U.S. and the world.

Another policy significant quote from the article:

Peter Eckersley, technology projects director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation [...] said the law should shift its focus to making sure that copyright holders are paid for their work, rather than trying to stymie how people gain access to it. [...] He suggested a legal framework to retire the “exclusive rights” aspect of copyright law that requires permission to publish — and that allows copyright holders to seek exorbitant damages from infringers — and move toward a system that requires sites and people who make money from another’s work to share any profits. Solutions like these, Mr. Eckersley says, would create different priorities that go beyond chasing small-time pirates like Ms. Beshara and her colleagues.

No, copyright holders should not be paid. Any payment by virtue of holding copyright only makes the censorship regime self-perpetuating. Funding of entertainment should be completely decoupled from the censorship regime of copyright. I understand the appeal of paid speech over permissioned speech (of course a tax is usually better than a prohibition, and that applies to privatized regimes as well), but neither is free speech. The paid speech approach would indeed create priorities that go beyond chasing small-time pirates (note Beshara earned $210k over 3 years; note also existing paid speech regimes which involve monitoring and shakedown of small-time restaurants) — it would invite further pervasive and destructive surveillance of communications in the interest of ensuring copyright holders get paid. It is appalling that EFF is still willing to invite sacrifice of everything they fight for at the alter of paying copyright holders. I don’t blame the EFF specifically; this just shows how deeply intellectual parasitism has burrowed in general. Intellectual parasites (which includes most reformers, including me often) need to fully shift to being commons policy advocates (and scholars).

Regarding people and projects like Hana Beshara and NinjaVideo, I’m ambivalent. Performing unpaid marketing and price discrimination services for the censorship industry is distasteful and harmful. But sharing culture (putting the regime aside) is tasteful and helpful. There is too little known about informal circulations and their effects, this lack of knowledge itself a collateral damage of the regime (compare being able to study cultural flows and surveillance required for paid speech; they are of different orders) and far, far, far too little direct competition for the regime.

Generative acknowledgement

Thursday, July 31st, 2014

Robin Sloan, The secret of Minecraft: And its challenge to the rest of us

In the 2010s and beyond, it is not the case that every cultural product ought to be a generative, networked system.

It is, I believe, the case that all the really important ones will be.

Nathan Matias, Designing Acknowledgement on the Web:

A system which acknowledges the beauty of cooperative relationships can’t be based on the impersonal idea of hypertext or the egocentric notion of authorship. It can’t rely on licenses to threaten people into acknowledging each other.

Via 1 2 3 and confirmation bias about which I can’t think of anything smart to say, so I’ll include a fun word: contextomy. Neither of the above reaches that bar, but I’ll try harder next time.

Posts on the ought of generative, networked production and intellectual parasite debasement of acknowledgement.

Let US join EU

Friday, July 4th, 2014

Enough past symbolism. U.S. Independence Day is also a good day to reflect on the paramount governance challenges of the present and near future. The U.S. War of Independence helped usher out the era of kings. Now is time to hasten the demise of the nation-state, born of the previous era.

One non-revolutionary (violent revolution, of whatever intention, is bad as it enables trolls) path forward is the creation and expansion of legitimately democratic super-states which submerge joining nation-states: the legitimate constituents are individual citizens, not the states themselves (contrast with the United Nations). The European Union is the only such super-state, and perhaps should be the only one, eventually submerging all current nation-states.

Independence' Day

Thursday, July 3rd, 2014

Whenever there’s a new disturbance in the former USSR territory that has people bringing down statues of Stalin, I’m mildly surprised that there are (or possibly were; I expect to be mildly surprised anew for a long time) still statues honoring Stalin in public. But my mild surprise at the continued honor of the quintessential 20th century Eurasian state tyrant always quickly gives way to mild lack of surprise that practitioners of the quintessential pre-20th century American private tyranny are not only still honored, but revered, their statues never toppled, and at worst their tyranny seen as blemishes on their records.

After 238 years, isn’t it about time to renew US Independence Day? I suggest terminating all honoring of slave owners, including the so-called discoverer of the Americas, all pre-Civil War presidents except John and John Quincy Adams, the first two post-Civil War presidents, the most famous non-president “founding father”, and a real estate entrepreneur whose name graces a commonwealth. Currency, the names of said commonwealth and one state, many counties and municipalities, thousands of streets, buildings and other public places, statues, and two faces on Mount Rushmore, all should change.

This change would be a bit annoying and expressive, but in that sense is traditional: US Independence Day firecrackers, parades, and speeches mark the height of mid-calendar year annoying expression.

(I’ve intended to post this on US Presidents’ Day since before I had a blog, and started several times, but each time lost focus through condemnation of almost every U.S. President for their public crimes. It occurred to me last year that July 4 would work, so long as I could suppress condemnation of the US War of Independence and all violent revolutions. Too big a topic for this parenthetical.)

“Open policy” is the most promising copyright reform

Thursday, June 26th, 2014

Only a few days (June 30 deadline) for applications to the first Institute for Open Leadership. I don’t know anything about it other than what’s at the link, but from what I gather it involves a week-long workshop in the San Francisco area on open policy and ongoing participation in an online community of people promoting open policies in their professional capacities, and is managed by an expert in the field, Timothy Vollmer. Read an interview with Vollmer (wayback link to spare you the annoying list-gathering clickthrough at the original site, not least because its newsletter is an offender).

The institute and its parent Open Policy Network define:

Open Policy = publicly funded resources are openly licensed resources.

(Openly licensed includes public domain.)

Now, why open policy is the most promising knowledge regulation reform (I wrote “copyright” in the title, but the concept is applicable to mitigating other IP regimes, e.g., patent, and pro-commons regulation not based on mitigating IP):

  • Most proposed reforms (formalities can serve as an example for each mention following) merely reduce inefficiencies and embarrassments of freedom infringing regimes in ways that don’t favor commons-based production, as is necessary for sustainable good policy. Even if not usually conceptualized as commons-favoring, open policy is strongly biased in that direction as its mechanism is mandate of the terms used for commons-based production: open licenses. Most proposed reforms could be reshaped to be commons-favoring and thinking of how to do so a useful exercise (watch this space) but making such reshaping gain traction, as a matter of discourse let alone implementation, is a very long-term project.
  • The concept of open policy is scalable. There’s no reason as it gains credence to push for its expansion to everything receiving public or publicly interested support, including high and very low culture subsidy. At the extreme, the only way to avoid being subject to some open policy mandate would be to create restricted works in an IPer colony, isolated from the rest of humanity.
  • In order to make open policy gain much more credence than it has now, its advocates will be forced to make increasingly sophisticated public policy arguments to support claims that open policy “maximizes public investment” or to shift the object of maximization to freedom and equality. Most proposed reforms, because they would only reduce inefficiency and embarrassment, do not force much sophistication, leaving knowledge regulation discourse rotting in a trough where economists abandoned it over a century ago.
  • Open policy implementation has the potential to destroy the rents of freedom infringing industries. For sustainable good policy it is necessary to both build up the commons as an interest group and diminish interest groups that depend or think they depend on infringing freedom. It is possible for open policy to be gamed (e.g., hybrid journal double dipping). As troubling as that is, it seems to me that open policy flips which side is left desperately clawing for loopholes contrary to the rationale of policy. Most reform proposals at least implicitly take it as a given that public interest is the desperate side.
  • Open policy does not require any fundamental changes to national law or international treaties, meaning it is feasible, now. Hopefully a few reformists have generally grasped the no-brainer concept that a benefit obtained today is more valuable than one obtained in the future, e.g., in 95 years. It also doesn’t mean that open policy is merely a “patch” in contrast the “fixes” of most proposed reforms — which aren’t fixes anyway, but rather mitigations of the worst inefficiencies and embarrassments of freedom infringing regimes. If open policy is a patch, it is a one that helps the body of knowledge regulation to heal, by the mechanisms above (promoting commons production and discourse, diminishing freedom infringing interests).

In my tradition of critical cheering, consider the following Open Policy Network statement:

We have observed that current open policy efforts are decentralized, uncoordinated and insular; there is poor and/or sporadic information sharing.

As illustrated by the lack of the Open Source Definition or any software-centric organizations on Open Policy Network lists of its guiding principles and member organizations. Fortunately software is mentioned several times, for example:

If we are going to unleash the power of hundreds of billions of dollars of publicly funded education, research, data, and software, we need broad adoption of open policies.

Hopefully if the Open Policy Network is to become an important venue for moving open policy forward, people who understand software will get involved (by the way, one of the ways “publicly funded” is scalable is that it properly includes procurement, not only wholly funded new resources), e.g., FSFE and April. I know talking about software is scary — because it is powerful and unavoidable. But this makes it a necessity to include in any serious project to reform the knowledge economy and policy. Before long, everything that is not software or suffused with software will be obsolete.

Robot Gang Memorial Day

Monday, May 26th, 2014

I find gang violence memorials tacky and sad (not all in this style are gang-related, but apparently the pictured one is), but a comprehensible form of mourning and remembrance.

Though with much higher status participants, and somewhat higher production values, today’s Memorial Day (US) commemorations are similarly tacky and sad. But these big scale gang memorials are far inferior to small scale gang memorials. The latter at least often include exhortations to “stop violence”, gang violence of their sort is universally viewed as illegal, and the participants are understood as rather pathetic victims and victimizers who really ought to have done something better with their lives, products of culture, economy, governance (take your pick) that is broken and clearly ought be fixed — all true also of big scale gang violence.

I suggest that we stop memorializing large scale gang members as heroes before they are fully replaced by robots.

One step forward might be to end U.S. (and elsewhere) exploitation of uneducated teenage soldiers. But perhaps something else would be more feasible or effective. If conflict reduction bonds existed and you held a large stake in them, what would you do?

Hyperlocal Optimum

Sunday, April 27th, 2014

I recently wanted to accuse some people of pursuing a hyperlocal optimum. In this case, a heightened perception of the strength of their position, sensed only by themselves. I thought better of it as there were more charitable interpretations of their actions, and a similar pejorative exists for this use case: reality distortion field.

But, I thought, what a great term! Google search/scholar/books shows it being used exactly once so far, 41 days ago by user pholling in a forum about Manchester, England (emphasis added):

To fix all of this is not a trivial bit of work, it will require that city regions and broader regions work together to aim for the overall optimum and not their hyperlocal optimum. London does this to a large extent, but no other place in the England does.

I have no assessment of the quote as I know next to nothing about urban policy in England, but urban policy is surely a field in which the term hyperlocal optimum could be heavily applied. I’m not going to claim any particular urban policy constitutes pursuit of hyperlocal optima (note locality geographic and temporal), and I’ll admit there exist charitable interpretations of many such unnamed policies. But consider that:

  • In the next few decades, over 2 billion more people will live in cities. Simple calculation based on projected ~2050 population (now: 7 billion, 2050: 9 billion) and urbanization (now: .5, 2050: .7) gives 2.8 billion more (now: 3.5 billion, 2050: 6.3 billion).
  • Robots (most obviously in transportation and construction) will reshape cities as profoundly this century as autos did in the last, beginning now.
  • There will be calamities. Hopefully fewer than in the last century, but planning ahead for cities’ role in preventing and surviving such is better than hoping.

Hyperlocal action is fine, but please think globally and long-term always, and modify actions accordingly to break out of pursuit of mere hyperlocal optima.

I’ve not explicitly defined what makes a local optimum a hyperlocal optimum. Perhaps the difficulty of doing so explains why they term has until now only been used once before in the subset of the universe Google has indexed. My first use above implies that “hyper” indicates the local optimum is perceived, but perhaps not really even the local optimum. My second use above implies “hyper” denotes something about either relative scale (the global optimum is much, much better) or qualitative difference (the global optimum considers totally different parameters from the ones considered for the hyperlocal optimum). Probably the term hyperlocal optimum has no good use. I may still use it again when I fail to avoid stooping to the pejorative.

Many problems of the dominant topic of this blog can be seen as ones of escaping local optima. Joining with the cities topic, individual cities and other entities’ ongoing lock-in to proprietary software is an example of a local optimum that might be escaped through coordination with other cities. I’m not sure when (assuming against the above, that the term has some value) to apply the hyper prefix to such situations (another such is library lock-in to proprietary journal subscription and groveling for proprietary book purchases). Suggestions?

I might avoid commenting on this years’ mayoral election for my locality, Oakland. If any of the candidates seriously talk about any of the above macro challenges and opportunities, I will be pleasantly surprised. I think that my handwaving predictions after the last (2011) election held up pretty well, mostly unfortunately.