The Framing Issue with RMS on SaaS

I am seeing some thoughtful commentary on RMS’s latest essay on the SaaS problem and even had some friends ask for my opinion. In brief, what Stallman is objecting to is software that performs some operations of value on your behalf but denies you access to the source code, or even a binary, to exercise your freedom to modify the software’s operation. I’ll concede this is a troubling loophole for getting around copyleft but it is one that has been exploited for some time by software makers and service operators.

Personally, I think Stallman is bogging down too much in the particulars of where computation takes place and at whose behest. Computation is ephemeral, once complete what do you have to judge where the actual work took place? I put far more stock in the efforts of autonomo.us and even Google’s Data Liberation Front that are working to ensure the durable information that persists regardless of when and where computing takes place can be free.

I think this oversight also leads to Stallman giving collaboration focused network services too much of a free pass. The co-opting of my intensively cultivated social network shouldn’t be exempt from expectations of data and software freedom. I’ll concede that the problem begs far more difficult technical challenges, ones that simple adoption of the AGPL won’t easily solve.

I am all for free alternatives to what Stallman calls “SaaS”, a re-definion to laden the term with connotations similar to “proprietary” in his parlance. I am irked that he is doing this to a term already in use rather than suggesting a new, more evocative label. I guess I am just more moderate for thinking I shouldn’t have to work as a full blown sysadmin and run my own GPL/AGPL compatible copy of a service to exercise my freedom. I am not sure his vague thoughts on trusted operators and the implications that arise suggesting yet another web of trust make much more sense.

As long as I have the possibility of moving my data where I choose and strong expectations around trusted handling of my data, I consider that sufficiently free. Again, I am not suggesting that these problems are any easier to solve, but I think they are where we should be focusing our efforts first and foremost.

TCLP 2009-11-18 Rant: Nowhere to Go

This is a feature cast.

In the intro, a final reminder I will be at Philcon this weekend, so no news show on Sunday. There almost definitely will be a feature show next week since I should have my interview with Cory to release. Also a revelation, that “Dreams with Sharp Teeth” has convinced me I am not much of a curmudgeon.

There is no listener feedback this week.

The hacker word of the week this week is Evil Empire.

The feature this week is a rant, though more of an emotional than a surly one, entitled nowhere to go.

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TCLP 2009-10-14 Rant: My Love-Hate Relationship with CS

This is a feature cast.

In the intro, I mention two upcoming events you might like to check out. The first is OggCamp and the second is the Central Pennsylvania Open Source Conference.

Listener feedback this week is from Kaity and from Erwin.

The hacker word of the week this week is epsilon .

The feature this week is a rant trying to explain my odd, love-hate relationship with computer science.

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TCLP 2009-08-19 Rant: Owning Innovation

This is a feature cast.

In the intro a quick review of the movie, District 9.

The hacker word of the week this week is engine.

The feature this week is a rant on owning innovation. In it I mention VoloMedia claiming to have the patent on podcasting including their own words on the matter, Iain Bank’s publisher claiming first podcast novel, Christiana Ellis wins the preposterous claims contest that followed on Twitter, the Creative Commons and the Free Idea eXchange.

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TCLP 2009-08-05 Rant: Software Frameworks

This is a feature cast.

In the intro just sharing the news that my podiobook has been released. You can visit the new page for The Inner Chapters for details on how you can help promote it.

The hacker word of the week this week is email.

The feature this week is a rant on software frameworks.

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Is Apple So Afraid of Remote Chances of Liability for Offensive Speech?

I made a case that the mere existing of Apple’s remote kill switch in their iPhone application store may make them feel like they are a big fat target for takedown notices.  Sadly, it is totally conceivable that someone using the Eucalyptus e-book reader would issue a complaint to Apple as the distribution channel when realizing they could access adult materials through the application as part of the collection at Project Gutenberg.  The whole notion is preposterous and deflated, easily, with rhetorically comparisons to accessing illicit materials with the iPhone email client or web browser.

In the case of Eucalyptus, Apple apparently thought better of their rejection.  Judging by this ridiculous story from the EFF, they are still rejecting applications for the most tenuous connection to objectionable content.  The EFF conditioned its approvale of the use of its mark such that the application’s creator had to make it clear the application didn’t originate from the EFF.  I think that is pretty standard practice when a trademark owner grants such usage.  Isn’t that enough to break any tenuous chain of liability that might even remotely affect Apple?

The EFF post points out the real tragedy stories like these are bring to light:

iPhone owners who don’t want Apple playing the role of language police for their software should have the freedom to go elsewhere. This is precisely why EFF has asked the Copyright Office to grant an exemption to the DMCA for jailbreaking iPhones.

There were a rash of stories recently related to this very issue.  Application developers have started using easter eggs in their software to route around this censorship by Apple.  It isn’t even the consumer right that the EFF is speaking to but also the desire of the publishers using the channel.  Something has to give and let’s hope it gives soon while the problem is relatively more manageable.

In a Job Search, Nothing Trumps Personal Advocacy

Jeff Atwood has an interesting, if somewhat bait-y, post where he asks if open source experience is overrated.  To be fair, Jeff has espoused support for open source development in the past and even starts the post re-iterating this position.

If you’re looking to polish your programming chops, what could possibly be better, more job-worthy experience than immersing yourself in a real live open source software project? There are thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, and a few of them have arguably changed the world.

He then shares details from a personal correspondence, a developer recently undertaking a job search expressing extreme frustration at his open source experience not apparently helping persuade any perspective employers.  He culminates with the thought that Jeff uses as his bait-y head line.

One of the reasons I worked so hard on open source projects was to make job interviews easier. By providing prospective employers with large samples of publically available working code, I thought I would give them something more useful to think about than my performance on a particular coding test or whether the acronyms in the job skills matched my “years spent”. I am very aware of the hype behind open source. I’ve heard it, lived it and even spun some of it myself. But sometimes it’s good to take a sobering reality check — is open-source experience overrated?

Jeff certainly didn’t share the entirety of this person’s message but in the parts he does share with us, I fail to see the candidate doing much to actively answer the most important questions a prospective employer should be asking.

In principle, it’s simple. You’re looking for people who are

  1. Smart, and
  2. Get things done.

The irony that this advice comes from Joel Spolsky, Atwood’s partner in crime at Stack Overflow should not be lost on you.

As someone who has sat at least as many times on the hiring side of the table as the candidate’s, I have to say that being presented with a large blob of code by a prospect is less than helpful.  If I develop specific questions about coding style and competency then having such a work or set of works is indeed quite invaluable.  Its mere presence isn’t enough to persuade me of much of anything.

Don’t get me wrong, when I am sitting on the other side of the table, I include a small set of active open source projects as part of my arsenal.  But I don’t rely on their existence and availabilty alone.  I prepare for any given phone screen or interview by considering how my open source projects, as well as the rest of my skills and experience, are relevant for the position I am pursuing.

I see it as my job as a candidate to be my own best advocate.  I have to share truthful, accurate stories about how I am 1. smart and 2. get things done.  Open source or proprietary doesn’t really matter.  You have to get your foot in the door, spark enough interest until your interlocutor is prepared to look at some bit of specific work that you’ve done.  Merely presenting a portfolio of code doesn’t do much in the way to answer either question on its own without the narrative you provide to engage the interviewers interest and convince them your assets are not only applicable but valuable to the specific job requirements.

If you want to include your open source work as enticement, which parts of what you have done demonstrate your smarts?  Did you learn something during the development of the code that you did not know before?  Have you released multiple versions where you can speak to clear improvements made?  Is there a particularly clever or efficient bit you are justifiably proud of?

On the getting things done side, how many people are using your code?  How did you handle the inevitable bug reports?  Did you yourself use your tool or library on a larger project where it made a decisive difference in that other projects outcome?

These questions aren’t unique to open source experience.  They and many more focused questions like them are the sort of mental framing a candidate should prepare for all of their experience.  Tools, experiences, open source projects–they are all fodder for your advocacy efforts.

I am also stunned at Jeff’s lack of insight on the typical success ratio of a job seeker, even in a good economy.  To be fair, maybe he reserved any more constructive thoughts for a private correspondence.  But practically speaking, a candidate has to be prepared to continue applying for positions and advocating themselves until they have offers in hand.  Yes, multiple offers.  Not to play any games of leverage which I think are foolish and ill advised but to prevent you as a candidate from merely leaping at the first job that comes along.  Having more than one offer encourages you to consider each opportunity as a whole.

From snippets Jeff shared, it sounds like there may have been some cultural fit issues that this candidate ran into. I have run afoul of more than one organization that puts too much stock in coding tests or, worse, brain teasers.

One company seemed impressed with my enthusiasm for the job but it was part of their policy to provide coding tests. This seemed perfectly reasonable and I did it by using the first solution I thought about. When I got to the phone interview, the guy spent about five minutes telling me how inefficient my coding solution was and that they were not very impressed.

Did the candidate ask questions up front, such as whether the efficiency of the solution was a concern?  Really, though, I am more concerned at the prospective employer’s response.  It seems to me to be more of an excuse than a reason.  If they genuinely felt that efficiency was the problem, an excellent follow up question would have been to ask the candidate to characterize the solution in terms of big O notation or efficiency in general.  If that went well, then an exercise in re-factoring could provide further insight into how a candidate approaches improving their own code.  This is how an interviewer gets good information on the candidate’s intelligence and effectiveness.

In my experience, the urge to pontificate is a siren call when on the hiring side of the table.  It is heady to show off when you know more than a candidate but that’s missing the point.  If this interviewer felt this strongly, this negatively, then it would have only been worth the time to share an in-depth code review if they felt the candidate might have some potential worth mentoring.  And only then after exhausting the follow ups I recommended.  My advice to the candidate here is that this interviewer isn’t worth the time, not that it is a poor reflection on the candidate’s actual skills and experience.

Better yet, to keep this in the frame of using open source as fuel for self advocacy, did the candidate point out a specific example in his open source work that shows where he was able to address issues of efficiency?  Again, asking the interviewer to just review the totality of an open code base doesn’t demonstrate any particular grasp of the issues or questions the interviewer is pursuing.

Open source is no magic bullet.  Not a novel idea though in this case perhaps a novel application.  Just like a business cannot magically make its business model solvent by adopting open source, a developer isn’t guaranteed an edge by contributing to or starting open source projects.

I remain convinced by Jeff’s original stance, though my conviction long predates any expression of it on his blog.  Open source software can provide the benefits he lists.  But in any given situation, it is up to the developer to figure out how best to leverage that experience, whether it is with more straightforward tool support or code sharing directly enabled by the open licensing of a project or as in this case indirectly by way of the skills and experience acquired from being able to take the initiative to work in an open collaboration rather than waiting for the right opportunity, and abit of luck, to acquire those through traditional professional development.

Fostering Open-ness

I am almost done with Jonathan Zittrain’s “The Future of the Internet — And How to Stop It”. The main contention of the book has been hotly debated pretty much since it was published. One of the more constructive responses has been to suggest that Zittrain doesn’t given open-ness enough credit. Adam Thierer said as much in his rebuttal at the New America Foundation event I attended where Zittrain spoke. Thierer’s sentiment ran to the effect that the “open” genie is out of the bottle, no threat of closed networks or tethered devices would be able to kill it now. I remain to be convinced of that point but I’ll get to that shortly.

More recently, Mike Masnick over at Techdirt suggested that Zittrain was underestimating the benefit of open systems and overestimating the risk of closed systems. Timothy B. Lee expanded on this idea on Freedom to Tinker, pointing out he has been making that very point for some time as part of a larger trend.

From my reading of the book, and with the benefit of Zittrain’s remarks at the New America event, I believe very much that Thierer, Masnick and Lee are missing the point. Zittrain speaks glowingly in all cases about the benefits of open systems, from TCP/IP to Wikipedia. I don’t see his discussion of closed systems as a direct threat to open systems. He concedes in the book that we have had closed systems from the beginning. In fact, he makes the point that open systems triumph over closed ones by their very nature of being open. Others have made very similar and I believe accurate points about walled gardens.

I felt the point of the book was to try to understand the best means to foster that very valuable quality of open-ness. His choice of Wikipedia is very informative as that project went through a couple of large changes in direction early on before it found a model that worked, its familiar totally open model where as the early iterations were less open. It could be argued that the final model was almost entirely accidental, with the necessary precedents set by chance as editor and bounty driven variations were explored and discarded. News that Google’s Knol project hasn’t followed the same trajectory as Wikipedia is then hardly surprising, highlighting the difficulty in finding and building on the right principles to drive open-ness.

In Zittrain’s remarks at the New America talk, he focused on civic mindedness, framing open-ness much more in terms of a network ethos. In trying to understand Wikipedia’s success in the book, he looks closely at its underlying network ethos too. I don’t think it is an accident that Lee includes Lessig’s “Code” in his criticism of seeming network Cassandras. Lessig offers what I find to be a very compelling model, based on four dimensions–law, architecture, markets and norms. The first three are very well understood by scholars of all stripes. The translation of them into a network society can at times be difficult to understand but I don’t think they present anywhere near the challenge that understanding how network norms, or ethos, differ from traditional norms and ethos.

I see network freedom and open-ness as deriving wholly from the core norms or ethos of communities. Nowhere is that correlation more evident than when we examine open source and free software projects. It is much easier to gauge the degree of open-ness or freedom when it comes to software. The effect of public licenses has been studied by legal scholars and advocates, like the Free Software Foundation, intensively since their inception. We’ve had some key case law crafted and critical tests that allow us to understand the effect of the open network ethos on software pretty well even though there are still questions and ambiguities yet to explore.

Wikipedia in many ways represents the most notable, if not necessarily the first, attempt to translate that ethos to a project other than software. What Zittrain seems to be suggesting to me is that we need to understand how that translation works in order to continue that trend of fostering open-ness in all sorts of network spaces and activities. Part of what Wikipedia teaches us is that a very small but active minority that adheres closely to this ethos can generate immense benefit for a larger networked community that may be largely ignorant of the project’s key principles.

The threat, then, is more of the ignorance that closed and stagnate systems may foster that obscures how we nurture and encourage that sort of open-ness, the principle I see as key to Zittrain’s very well defined notion of generativity. Zittrain favors the term generativity over open-ness in the book seeing it as a proper superset. He even spends a good amount of the book providing fairly objective criteria for measuring generativity in systems, laying it out as a continuum not a singular goal. I don’t necessarily disagree and having a yard stick to help make better decisions is intensely useful. I think the key problem we need to understand and solve is fostering the network ethic that yields the most generativity. I think that ethos is rooted in open-ness–transparency, sharing, collaboration, the zero friction spread of ideas.

I think even if we set aside the closed and tethered examples upon which Zittrain’s critics mostly fixate, we still have a considerable challenge in understanding how open-ness arises in networked spaces and activities and how it leads to the sorts of better solutions that Zittrain suggests are worth preserving. Open-ness is not a genie that springs forth whole cloth from some bottle or magic pixie dust that can merely be sprinkled on projects and technologies to transform them in an eye blink. It is an ideal or set of ideals that needs to be continually re-examined and understand to be best applied for the most good.

In my reading, that is the challenge Zittrain has laid before us, a worthy one to which I am happy to lend thought.

TCLP 2008-12-17 Rant: Race to the Bottom

This is a feature cast.

In the intro, a quick wrap up on the Creative Commons 6th birthday part hosted by Public Knowledge and the DC CopyNight crew. The first set of pictures are already up. The other pictures don’t appear to be up yet, I’ll post separately with the link once I have it. I could not find the band the SoundSprout guys brought, if anyone else remembers and sends it to me, I’ll also post that link.

Listener feedback this week is from Jed who had some thoughts on the recent discussion of MVC, unity and PHP.

The hacker word of the week this week is dot file.

The feature this week is a rant inspired by this article about Dell’s race to the bottom.

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Songbird, Great but Am I Missing Something?

I have liked the idea of Songbird since I first encountered it. A cross platform media browser that re-uses much of the same components as Firefox and Thunderbird clearly has a lot to offer conceptually.

I have downloaded and experimented with just about every version since the first public testing release. I like the ability to play media embedded in pages and the browsing metaphor makes sense for discovery of new media. I haven’t focused as much on the library management but it seems pretty typical of these sorts of applications, like Amarok, Exaile and, of course, iTunes. That is not too surprising as they all seem to have ripped popular features off from each other.

Since I am not shopping for a jukebox replacement myself, I have been most curious about Songbird’s potential as a cross platform podcatcher. I was even pleased to notice it has bundled Ogg Vorbis playback in the just now available 1.0 release candidate.

Since they added the ability to subscribe to RSS feeds, however, I have not been able to figure out how to make that feature work. Am I missing something?! I see the subscription in my library but no media attached or available for download. I right-click and hit update…nothing. I am sure I am doing something wrong.

I’d love to be able to recommend Songbird so I don’t have to start off new podcast listeners with the question of what OS they use. Plus, you know, it is open source and like Firefox has a robust extension mechanism. Those qualities together give it great potential to shoot past the other offerings but I cannot in good conscience recommend it for a podcatcher if I cannot figure out how to make that feature even work.