Free Software Faith for the Long Term

I’ve been an advocate for Free and Open Source Software for a long, long time. When I first got into it, it felt right, just, progressive. I struggle with how to communicate that feeling of freedom to others, to make them understand how important Free Software is.

When we talk of Free Software dialectic conflicts, there are two big fronts; the first is the idea that Proprietary software is a /better/ way to make software. Developers get paid, investors make money, huge profits can be poured into research and development. This is your Microsofts and Apples. Let’s ignore that idea today.

The second battle is practicalism. This idea says that it doesn’t matter how the software was made, just that it needs to work. Let’s explore why this idea is an important conflict. Practical solutions often favour the short term and the local. That is, they are solutions which usually a single person will make a decision about what software to use and the criteria most important is the cost (money, time, effort) to get it working in the here and now.

The conflict comes about because often Free Software is a more expensive proposition in the here and now. It’s more expensive because it takes more time to set up, or it’s tools are not tested as much, or not designed as well, or the more insidious reason: the wider world does not support Free Software causing the Free Software solution to be on the loosing end of a powerful network effect.

But proprietary software often has hidden costs. After the initial purchase costs, these are often either societal or long term costs. Societal and long term are the direct opposite of a practical decision. Thus they are not considered, or not valued highly when making the decision.

There is one parallel which I hate to make. Religion. Here is another societal and long term cultural device. Most religions ask participants to give up the bad behaviours in the here and now and be a little more patient for the better life or better after life. I’m horribly simplifying here so please forgive me. But religions mostly work on faith and their evangelicalism pressures people to consider the societal and long term. This is why I think Free Software advocates are so often compared to religious fundermentalists. It’s a cheap shot; it does not follow that faith in Free Software is faith against evidence. That’s just a bad argument.

But it’s worth considering that Free Software is a hard sell precisely because it’s a societal good that requires powerful network effects on it’s side in order to be fully effective. Having a self-sacrificing religion of one is foolish, but a society of good intentions can be a powerful force. We in the Free Software world often have to invest more, pay more and spend more time to make the Free Software world we want to see, and to see it happen for ourselves and our friends and families. But this will only be the case so long as the network effects are against us and I don’t believe they always will be.

Now consider Ubuntu. Here’s platform that tried to move some of the power away from practicamism by making Ubuntu easy to install, easy to use, a joy to behold. Things that are genuinely empowering to Free Software. As it built itself up, the negative network effects started to weaken and Ubuntu users enjoyed for a time, a level of support from the wider world that had not been experienced before.

But that naturally led to the in-fighting. It’s typical for the front runner to be targeted by all the also-ran distributions. The FSF targeted Ubuntu’s practicalist concessions (even though they were fairly minimal), Other distributions ripped Ubuntu and their community apart, trying to block Ubuntu’s success. I’m not saying they meant to do it, or that it was a conspiracy. But that these other communities did not see Ubuntu’s success as their own success and naturally tried to undermine it as humans are likely to do.

So for very human reasons, we’re here with no real champion for Free Software in the practical arena. Ubuntu has fallen for its own hype and is not able to being the Free Software faith with it, even if it was successful. The societal and long term benefits of Free software remain largely unknown to the majority of the world and we wait patiently for a successor that can try again to change the world.

What do you think? Comment below.

Talking to Friends about things

I have a family who aren’t religious. Some of them might go to church, and if they do, they’ve never mentioned it. Others are spiritual, in that they search for ways to understand the world and try to come to grips with everything through a non-academic social philosophy. This is important for most people, but I think especially important to the poor and working class who quite often see their lives twisted capriciously by unknown forces.

On the other hand, I’m a skeptic. A rationalist who has done a bit of philosophical reading (enough to be embarrassing at least). When I was younger I was much more hard line about my rationalism, anti-god, anti-fairy, anti-mystical thinking. I was righteous as only a neerdy teenager with a degree in wikipedia can be. And it did put a strain on my relationships with family. Although to be honest, most of my family at pretty kind to all sorts of odd thinking and my rationalism didn’t seem mad or anything, just one of many colours available in the pallet of local family philosophies.

As I’ve aged and consumed more understanding about skeptical thinking and pro-social philosophy; the two have often been at an interesting contention. How to be rational enough not to get taken in by gimmicks and snake oil, but social enough not to sneer and demean friends and family who have taken to believe in those things.

Over the years I’ve learned that there is an important factor about humans that is important to understand… we take shortcuts. A lot of them. When I say I believe in science, science based policy or health care, or that I trust the data, this is a shortcut. I haven’t gone into all the data, I haven’t read the papers and done due diligence. I’ve trusted that the network of trust I have between the people involved and the ideas we share is enough that my modest reading with my small contributions in critique is enough to be far more confident than my personal data has any right to make me.

A peer group with a shared set of ideas that embellish trust. That sounds like a tribe, a community of people who have created a in-group. And being part of that in-group makes me feel things, positive things when we socialise and anger when I feel it’s threatened.

But peer in-groups are exactly what my ginseng drinking family and friends have too. Just like me, they take short cuts too. There’s a trust there between the people involved and the understand about how the world works. I might claim that it’s moving away from what is true to what is not true, but that won’t change the social dynamics. And just like me, they will feel good when their ideas are verified and angry when those ideas (or people) are threatened.

So how is it even possible to challenge notion when almost anything you say will result in either anger, frustration or a heavy rolling of eyes? I think it is possible, but only if one focuses on two specific points.

Firstly, the social aspect is important. The closer you are to someone, both physically and kinly, the better the chance is that your reasoning will be seen as helpful and not destructive. Having constructive conversations that aren’t about ourselves being verified as right, but about breaking the ideas down as a social activity between friends and then seeing what results are built back up, can I think go a long way to preserving friendships despite radically different views.

The second is to be stateless. By which I mean, you can’t go riding into battle all kitted out in skeptical pennant banners flying. Your ideas are yours and you shouldn’t stand behind a peer group while trying to discuss a contrary idea. That just turns it into a fight between your self-assigned clans. Which you can’t win, because your tribal leaders aren’t here to make peace or barter terms and you aint no hero ready to let your friendship fall on the sword of truth.

Besides, no one ever changed their mind because someone shouted the truth at them.

What do you think? How do you talk to people with drastically different perspectives?

What about Fixed Morality?

Welcome reader to another “impossible to prove conjecture Tuesday”. Today I’ll be looking at the grievously problematic notions of modern morality.

The Christian church; that would be the catholic one, not the Orthodox, Church of England or any of the Eastern Churches. They believe that morality comes from God and we learn about his morality through his words which are documented in the Bible. Everything from thou shall not kill (Deuteronomy 5:17) to no buggery (Timothy 1:10). There is a golden rule theme running through the Bible’s moral thinking which is especially evident in the new testament.

But ultimately the important thing about the authority of the Bible and God for Christians is that the morality is fixed. It’s not relative to the times you live or person you happen to be interacting with, nor relative to your position in society or attributes therein. It’s something that applies to everyone and it brings Christians a sense of stability.

But I am not a Christian, to me the Bible is a 1,500 year old unaccountable narrative of man’s accent from chaos and into a more ordered society. So I can not use it as an anchor to say what should be moral and what be immoral. But I can use it as a set of good ideas, thinking which was done long before I was born which I can incorporate.

As the modern world progresses and we unshackle ourselves from old religious dogma, there is a tendency to think that everything is relative, even morality. Somehow morality itself is in doubt if it’s possible to show situations where it would be considered the other way about. The best example is murder in self defence, by accident or deliberate? with a weapon or without? all these complicating factors which would suggest the morality is simply a weakened with complexities.

But, that’s over thinking things. Murder is immoral because you intend to do harm to someone else, murdering yourself isn’t immoral in itself because you’re doing yourself harm (however it can be said that you are harming others, especially if you don’t tell them or don’t have their support). As the buda would say: killing things for a reason doesn’t remove the fundamental wrongful truth, it just provides motivation.

So my conjecture today is: The fundamental property of morality is causing harm to other people. The most basic tool to avoid causing harm is the golden rule philosophy. The best way to deal with causing harm is to find ways to undo or make up for what you’ve done and hope for understanding and forgiveness from others.

What are your thoughts?

Secular Distributism; Moral Absolutes

I’ve been keeping a curious tab on the Distributionist’s Review which is a news blog with the focused aim of distributing the ideas of the easry 20th Century catholic philosopher G. K. Chesterton called Distributionism.

I’ve talked before about how the system of thought surrounding the old distrobutism has remarkable similarities to Free and Open Source models and I’m not the only one to think so. But in this blog entry I’d like to outline where I fundamentally disagree with a lot of distrobutionists: Religion and absolute Morality.

As a good apathist I’m not keen on god. By not keen I mean to say I think it’s a brain disease, a mental disorder which poisons reason and is the resting place of unfounded faith and the denial of evidence. The undoing of self understanding and in an attempt to explain the outside world with inside your head data really misses the point of philosophy.

OK so now I’ve made it clear that I’m not a supporter of religion or gods (whether they exist or not I don’t care), the one thing about the Distrobutionist’s review that sticks in my craw is the way there is often a forced joining of moral thinking, religious fundamentalism and economic process.

It’s true that many factors of economics do need to include morality, but morality isn’t absolute, you can find yourself in a position of having to commit immoral acts by virtue of being stuck between decisions which are all immoral, all cause suffering and in these cases I will have to apply the same underlying personalisation of moral responsibility which governs the rest of the distrobutionist philosophy.

Take abortion, which is far harder a topic than contraception which I consider to be perfectly solved, it is a hard question because the assessment of what is life, what is murder and what is suffering give us a negative sum game. No matter what you do, you loose. I’m happier giving this question over to the people and person who will ultimately loose from the decision: the mother. they are the ones who must make the decision because child-in-potentia is their responsibility, not the state’s. But why should the state not punish the murderer after the act?

So long as the state can’t take responsibility for a life immediately, it has no business being a moral authority. Take an extreme case; if a child born can not be looked after by the mother animal and there is no society to take responsibility then it’s very hard to force the mother animal to have a morality that respects the sanctity of life and at the same time rejects the suffering of life; often nature has right the answer where excessive stress in a mother will cause them to kill their children (and possibly eat them).

But where would religions possibly find footing in this apparent abhorrent behaviour? Often this is summed up by the quip about American Calthics: “the foetus is precious, the mother is sinful and the born child is a nuisance to be ignored”. Basically that religions concern themselves will unrealistic absolutes like “life for everyone” without considering the resulting suffering that it causes. This perhaps why my own morality is based on suffering and not on life, to me it’s quite possible for “Thou shall not kill” to become immoral in rare instances.

And besides we can’t very well go around convicting mothers on a morality which is based on their own internal responsibility, it’s not societies place to force individuals into responsibility and suffering. Of course the question then becomes; well how can you support society helping abortion with medical practice?

Another hard question but I put it like this, the mother after careful consideration has requested the help of their community to both help with the consideration and help with the safe medical procedure that will ensure a minimisation of suffering. In this way the community can be more sure the decision was not made lightly and the mother can be sure of not dying from the procedure. Surely this must be the most balanced approach for both women and community.

To the conclusion.

Plenty of anarchists would suggest that as well as being economically distributed an ideal society must also be morally distributed. This might be a little extreme for most who need the reliability and security of a normalised legal morality with which to work from and with other people around them. So a rejection of a moral consensus is not really the way to go.

But I would argue that when considering how your moral consensus ties together with your ideal world view about economic distrobutism, that you must consider it to be an under-developed philosophy and not as many Catholics see it; an absolute perfection delivered by god. Because unquestioning religious dogma has no place in a truly compassionate, thoughtful and moral world view.

Your thoughts?

Secular Commandments

I got indignant at the popes suggestion that atheists (he really means secularists) are a threat to moral society. Oh sure, he just compared secularism with the German Christian Socialist movement of the 1930s. It’s not like he was trying to suggest that these Nazi people were atheists and therefore immoral… no wait that’s exactly what he was trying to suggest and attempting to rewrite history in order to do it.

Typical mythology that gods bring morals and to lack faith is to lack morals. “Plato voiced it best in Euthyphro – is that which is pious what is beloved by the gods, or is it beloved by the gods because it is pious?”

Here is some secular commandments.

Is Protestant Secularism more Successful?

There has been a History of Christianity on the BBC over the past few weeks and it’s been fascinating, well produced, not as weird and repetitive as American non-fictional TV and educational to me as a secular Apatheist. This blog entry may offend you if your a traditional religious person and I don’t mean to offend, just to offer my thoughts on the history and present day observation.

When I was growing up in England, there was always the Church of England (C-of-E) and everyone would proclaim that they were a member, but the majority would utterly fail to show up on Sundays for worship. They would never read a single passage in the bible and only know it by the vague stories passed down through cultural relationships.

My family never even suggested that it was a member of any church authority and we were heavily encouraged to seek our own path to what ever kind of spiritual enlightenment, through which ever gods we wanted. But mostly religion wasn’t needed or wanted int he day to day struggles.

Going through the history of Christianity though I’m starting to think that the Protestant rebellion that started with Lutheranism is turning in Europe into a strong apathetic secularism. Perhaps it’s the nature of the scientific mindset and the objective view on the world that we’ve tried to take a firm grasp of the inner workings of the world and apart from the deeply spiritual and emotional Evangelical Christianity and the authoritarian Catholic church.

Others are turning into a sort of weak Christian apathy where the nature of god wasn’t really up for question. There he is up there somewhere, unreachable and probably willing to lend a hand when you need him most (not when you ask for it the most). But the day to day working of the world is mainly a purely human pursuit, controlled by man with the problems of religion turning from spiritual philosophy into social issues where the nature of conflicts unravel from their supposedly religious origins.

On the other hand there has been a worrying revival of irrational thinking which is a counter to the original secular philosophies of the renascence. These seemingly bolster all manner of spiritual and non-spiritual believes, ranging from the super natural to the conspiratorial.

Your thoughts?

Education Caution Stickers

I was sent a link to these awesome stickers, they dissect through satire the motivations of school boards in some US states.

The whole idea that you can control people through what they learn is a fascinating social weapon. As if the truth wasn’t difficult enough to approach. We have to create stories, often mostly fictional ones, about almost every aspect of science in order to fit the core ideas into our heads. Little lies that can lead to bigger truths.

What is worse than the lies is the erosion of the scientific principles. The enlightenment was our civilisations way of digging our way out of the primitive creation myths and dogmas and now we seem to be sliding back. I see less people able to cope with philosophy, fewer people who are able to wield rational skilfully and worse, people who no longer believe in their own ability to test any theory.

The Revolutionary Problem

I was talking to a good friend of mine last night about one of my previous blog posts.

It’s no secret that I don’t believe the mechanical scalability of the support model in Free Software. I’m not even too sure of it’s directedness in how it orientates the organisation employing it towards the work it think it needs to do.

But I can be convinced of it’s usefulness as a leveraging device. let me explain:

In the current software industry and community we have a problem, it’s a great big fat one that is hurting how people use computers and how computer technology is allowed to progress. This problem can be neatly summed up as ‘Microsoft’, it doesn’t have to be them, it could be Apple in a few years or IBM back in the 80s. It’s a huge monopoly with vast technical, legal, governmental and monetary leverage. A company that tells everyone what they will use on their computers (or as their computers) by force of removing everyone else from the market place who could possible offer an alternative, by defining de jour standards that only it controls and understands and by making fools of us.

Normally the government or market would stamp down on this problem, because monopolies do horrible things to themselves and others. Much like anyone given too much power. But this time, that legal mechanism was allowed to fail.

Now people in the Free and Open Source Software community want Software licensing to give the customer and society proper and useful rights to the use, modification and distribution of software code and their derivatives. This change in production is nothing short of a revolution. It may not even stop at a software revolution, it may and appears to be, turning into a fully fledged information ‘production’ revolution.

So getting rid of the existing hegemony will take quite a bit of effort building the kind of required counter leverage. Most of it coming from volunteers and the naturally more efficient processes that the licenses allow. Some of it can come from invested parties or angel investors, some may even come from proxy funding like the support funding model.

But you do need something to replace your mechanics with, once you’ve managed to get rid of the old guard. Once you’ve managed to remove or assimilate Microsoft, Apple and Adobe (that list is growing small all the time, ain’t it) you’ll need to have concrete, scalable and customer facing mechanisms for funding the progress. I don’t believe the support model, or the online services model has a place here.

I also see danger signs when a typically FOSS company needs to have any closed source software in order to protect revenue (this is just a leverage to increase the scaling of the proxy fund). That means: a no to proprietary extensions, a no to other products that are enterprise ready that you misrepresent to companies to convince them to shell out big money for (mysql I’m looking at you) and a no to tying trademarks to copyrights.

These devices might be required to win the revolution, but I think they’ll be a hindrance come the time to scale this thing up world wide and in a way that every non technical user has a way to push the software forwards in the way they wish.

The self referential problem

If you’ve ever been to a philosophy class, you’ll know that there is one interesting issue about the meaning of existence that is still begging for answers.

This one is about free will, what it means to be in control of yourself, to decide and weather you as a being are deterministic and predictable (in some fashion) or can make choices which can not be determined by any scientific measurement.

Even scientist regularly stray into this area. The more neurology research done; the more we discover how deterministic we really are. Say for instance the amount of the brain dedicated to consciousness (the part most people consider to be the ‘you’). It looks like only small amounts of the brain are under your direct control; while lots of other parts of the brain are seemingly automatic, animalistic.

This puts a lot of people into a terrible problem. We, as animals, like to consider that what we do and how we act is totally under our control. That how we think has some baring on being good, moral, social. That this introspective control separates us from basic self serving animal natures.

Of course this all misses two very important philosophical points:

  1. That as a human being we have free will because we embody the deterministic mind. Our bodies are not attachments of the mental process. This embodiment allows us to be both deterministic and have free will.
  2. That knowing about how we work creates a self referential paradox. We will adjust our actions and motivations based on how we think we work and thus change how we work. Even to prove we’re not deterministic. Think about how many time traveling stories have protagonists deliberately poking and pulling the threads of time to prove that time can be changed (and by extension, the deterministic nature of who we are)

It may be that future scientists will work out some facet of the brain that is inherently quantum in state. But I think we’ll find instead that the quantum effect is not quantum physics, but the quantum nature of self awareness.