We can answer on question what is VPS? and what is cheap dedicated servers?


Net Neutrality: forcing companies to pay attention to their networks

When it comes to software licensing, I get annoyed at GPL critics. Mostly they argue that a permissive license is more hassle-free. But all licensing hassles come from proprietary licenses. All of them. Open source licenses are simple, well-understood, and if you are doing open source stuff you don’t need to negotiate, you don’t need lawyers. The deal is laid out and it’s more like technical machinery than a business deal. Open source has just a few deals, and we have names for them (BSD, GPL, etc); the alternative is the ever-expanding number of deals that proprietary licenses represent, always expanding, seldom clear, unnamed but still poised to mess things up.

But this is an introduction for a discussion of net neutrality! Net neutrality is one deal: simple, obvious, straight-forward. The opposite isn’t one deal, like proprietary licensing it is an ever-expanding complexity of deals, different pricing structures, opaque, and with salespeople using information-scarcity to manipulate sales at every opportunity.

There’s an absurd argument against net neutrality, that it would add regulatory complexity. This is absurd because neutrality is the default, regulation only comes into effect when someone messes with something, when some connectivity provider starts adding complexity to the system.

There are net neutrality advocates that ask: what if Fox gets preference over MSNBC? A poor argument, this kind of politically-motivated network bias seems implausible to me. The plausible result of not having network neutrality is all kinds of deals. Weird media deals. Deals with companies that have an influx of investment and want to bootstrap their audience. Providers that build their own content networks. How much will all this matter? Probably not much. Whatever the providers do will be just terrible, they seem to be inevitably bad at both idea and execution. For everyone else it will just be a competition tax, a way to turn money into a competitive advantage though with hints of the prisoner’s dilemma.

Mostly network bias just adds complexity to the system. It’s a whole new opportunity to make deals. Maybe different groups will come out ahead, but maybe not… my best guess is that implementing and justifying a biased network will be more trouble than its worth, and technology will make the issue moot before too long.

The people who will really get out ahead are the deal-mongers, the executives and lawyers and salespeople. These kinds of deals are opaque, complex, and it’s easier to manipulate analysis and perception than to actually provide a valuable agreement. But deal-making professionals come out ahead with every contract and every negotiation.

The companies providing infrastructure (Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, etc) can take two approaches to maximizing profit. One approach is to pursue engineering and operational excellence, to provide a great network, and compete strongly. Or they can get "creative". Network neutrality makes creativity hard — it doesn’t block any creativity in providing their core service, but the leadership of these companies provide only deal-making leadership, to them the core service is an afterthought. I wonder if this is the worst effect of consolidation — every corporate consolidation requires all kinds of negotiation and further exults the leadership of the deal-makers over the people that are good at managing operations.

For all the complaints (and we complain about these companies a lot), these companies actually do provide good service. Reliability and speed keep improving. It could be better, but there are also lots of people doing a good job keeping a complex system working well. Those are the people I want to see empowered, they are the ones that should be the stars in their companies. I think network neutrality will help do that, it will help focus infrastructure providers on providing infrastructure. And make an exception for wireless? They are the most in need of focus.


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Surveillance, Security, Privacy, Politics

I hang around people who talk about security and privacy and activists quite a bit. When talking security beyond the typical attackers — people committing identity theft, simple vandals, spammers, etc. — there’s the topic of government surveillance and legal attacks, and privacy as a way to defend political activists against the powers-that-be. I want to talk about this security question in particular.

(Nothing I say here relates to China or Iran or other places with overtly oppressive political systems and without basic legal rights. I don’t think worth trying to generalize that far.)

I’m not sure we are getting this stuff right. I don’t think the political attacks that are imagined are serious risks, and the attacks that are taking place are far less sophisticated than we imagine.


I’m taking these lessons primarily from the experiences of my sister, who along with 7 others is currently facing felony conspiracy charges in Minnesota (felony conspiracy to riot with a dangerous weapon and to commit property damage). These charges are specifically for organizing protests in the lead up to the 2008 RNC convention in St. Paul. It’s only one data point, but in these matters there’s only a handful of cases that inform the discussion.

The city of St. Paul and other local governments received over $50 million for security for the RNC, and some of that money was quickly put into hiring informants to infiltrate organizations, anarchist organizations in particular. My sister among others were part of an organization known as the RNC Welcoming Committee. In total three informants were highly involved in the organization, each of them attending literally hundreds of hours of meetings. The Committee primarily worked on things like promoting the protests against the RNC, acquiring meeting space and internet access for people, finding housing and food for people visiting for the protests, and distributing logistical information like where protests would occur.

"Anarchism" means "without rulers": in line with their anarchist principles they didn’t try to prescribe how people would protest, they felt people should make their own choices about how to protest. The choices people made were widespread, ranging from staying in a "free speech zone" to a few permitted marches, some unpermitted marches, some civil disobedience, some blockading, and in a very small number of cases some people committed property damage. The Welcoming Committee did not advocate any particular kind of protest, they would not be their brother’s keeper, nor did they want to disparage any kind of protest as too timid. Each person should act on their own conscience.

Immediately before the RNC started the 8 were arrested and held for the duration of the convention before being charged and released on bail. Their houses and cars were searched. Nothing interesting was found, though at the time the Sheriff misrepresented things like bike inner tubes as possible slingshot material, or that having paint thinner in the basement, rags in the laundry, and empty bottles in the pantry constituted Molotov cocktail ingredients.

The Evidence

The case has progressed very slowly, but with recent hearings more of the prosecution’s case has been coming out. It’s been over a year and a half and only now are we getting any indication of what the real claims are against the defendants, though the prosecution continues to avoid presenting any real case or plausible complaint.

From the hearings we’re also learning something about the form of the investigation. The FBI was closely involved with the case and recruited the most active informant, and the primary investigator was previously with the Secret Service (which somewhat oddly has a computer-related duties), and at the time there was a great deal of national attention on the convention. So presumably they had the resources to investigate seriously if they wished to do so.

From the perspective of online security the case is very boring. The defendants have been given all the evidence collected during the investigation (including benign or even helpful evidence). It’s a huge amount of evidence, and hard for them to understand or sort through, but some kinds of investigation aren’t there. No email accounts were subpoenaed. Their computers were all confiscated, and will no doubt be kept until after the trial, but there’s nothing high-tech about that. Some of them had whole-disk encryption, and there is no indication it was broken nor were they even asked to provide passwords. There’s also no evidence of sniffing internet connections, tapping phones, breaking into email… nothing fancy was done.

From what we can tell the evidence against them will be primarily from informants’ testimony about open meetings, widely distributed literature, a video posted on YouTube, a password-protected but essentially open wiki (the wiki provider was not subpoenaed, despite things like edit history being potentially interesting).

If they had been any more security-conscious it would have worked against them — it would have been out of line with their ideals and would have made them less effective and transparent in their organizing efforts. The biggest danger now is that they’ll be demonized, that they’ll be judged based on caricatures of their actual beliefs, privacy only makes this worse.

Credit Where Credit Is Due

Perhaps one reason the surveillance was low-tech and subpoenaed evidence is not playing a large part in the case is that it’s just too hard. They used Riseup for many services, which is a set of online services for activists, who take privacy very seriously, log as little as possible, and try to host everything outside of the country so regardless of an activists locality it will be a bureaucratic challenge to get access to the servers.

Outside of the core group most people acted anonymously, so the prosecution would not be able to follow up on most of what they found anyway. Even if they got all the logs and email from everything the Welcoming Committee touched, I’m not sure they could make use of it. If they could somehow relate all that anonymous information, they’d still have to explain those techniques and convince a jury. Data mining and other data-driven techniques could be useful if they were trying to attach people who had done anything wrong. You can use surveillance to find the smoking gun, and once you’ve found it you don’t have to justify the techniques you used in the process. But only if there’s a smoking gun. It’s a peculiar situation where the prosecution doesn’t appear to actually believe they did anything demonstrably wrong; I fear they plan a case where they redefine "wrong".


Besides the security issue there’s the privacy issue, and privacy is big on the internet these last few months. One of the oft-claimed benefits of privacy is to allow political dissent. And maybe that makes sense in China, but I don’t know how it relates to the things in the U.S. or Europe.

Political beliefs held in private don’t much matter. Complaining about politics in private situations is fine, because it just doesn’t matter. So sure, you are safe from political persecution if your privacy is maintained… but it’s because you are impotent not because privacy is some part of a political struggle.

This reminds me of a playground sense of privacy. On the playground you might say you like They Might Be Giants and the playground bully says that’s so gay, and you think I shouldn’t have said anything. But it doesn’t really matter how much you reveal in that situation, it doesn’t matter what you say you like — the bully isn’t making a pointed critique on your preferences, they are just trying to hurt you. The only way privacy will help you is if you are so quiet that the bully doesn’t notice you at all and picks on someone else instead. That’s a pathetic stance.

Ramsey County (where the RNC 8 are being charged) is a bully. They decided before the Welcoming Committee even existed that people were going to be arrested, charges were going to be made. The Welcoming Committee stuck their necks out further than anyone else. The problem isn’t that they made themselves vulnerable, the problem is that the Sheriff Fletcher is a bully and County Attorney Gaertner is some kind of automaton who doesn’t give a shit about justice.

And Lastly A Personal Plea

So… while there are general lessons, this case also specifically really sucks for my sister Monica, her significant other Eryn (another member of the Welcoming Committee) and the other six, all of whom I know and are really nice people who don’t deserve any of this shit. They have to spend their evenings reading through evidence or listening to the tapes of their meetings (which were boring enough to listen to the first time around). There’s a certain stigma to having pending felony charges, I know at least my sister has lost a job because of it. And they each have to have their own lawyer, and even though the lawyers aren’t charging them what would be the full rate it’s still a lot of money (like a quarter of a million dollars). Depressingly, in some sense this is all the government has to do; the trial is punishment enough to deter people from being activist organizers.

So I wish a donation was equivalent to Sticking It To The Man, but really it’s just adding some balance because The Man Is Already Sticking It To Them On Your Behalf.

Still, your support would be really helpful.

If it gives you any satisfaction County Attorney Susan Gaertner’s run for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination never went anywhere, I suspect in large part because she wasn’t brave enough to show her face at public events in the Twin Cities because she was consistently protested over this case. I doubt this has influenced the prosecution (at least in any positive way), but it’s satisfying.


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Toward a new self-definition for open source

This is roughly the speech I gave as a keynote address at DjangoCon 2009 in Portland.

I’ve been programming Python web software for quite a while now. I considered coming here and talked about WSGI, standards, cross-framework integration, etc., but I decided I wanted to come up here and talk to you as compatriots, as fellow open source programmers.

Over the past year or so I have been thinking a lot about politics. Not electoral politics per se, or the geopolitical situation, but the question of the meaning of what we are doing. Maybe it is some sort of programmer midlife crisis: why am I doing what I’m doing, and why does it matter? And also I have been thinking a lot about open source — what this thing that we’re doing means in the larger context. Are we just engineers? Is there some sort of movement? If so, what is that movement? Especially as open source has become more popular, the sense of a movement seems to dwindle. It felt like a movement 10 years ago, but not as much today. Why should this happen? Why now, in the midst of success does open source seem less politically relevant than it did 10 years ago?

I’m also speaking somewhat to Django specifically, as I think it is one of the communities with a bit more resistance to the idea of the politics of code. The Django philosophy is more: the value of this code is the value of what you do with it. I’m not here to criticize this perspective, but to think about how we can find meaning without relying on the traditional free software ideas. To see if there’s something here that isn’t described yet.

I’d like to start with a quick history of free and open source software. My own start was in highschool where I was taking a class in which we all used Emacs. This was my first introduction to any real sort of programming environment, to Unix, to a text editor that was anything to talk about. At the time Emacs would say at startup "to learn more about the GNU project hit Control-H Control-P" — because of course you need a keyboard shortcut to get to a philosophy statement about an editor. So one day I hit Control-H Control-P. I was expecting to see some sort of About Message, or if you remember the software of the times maybe something about Shareware, or even "if you really like this software, consider giving to the Red Cross." But instead I came upon the GNU Manifesto.

GNU Manifesto

I’d like to read a couple quotes from the GNU Manifesto. There are more modern descriptions of GNU, but this is one of the first documents describing the project and its mission, written by Richard Stallman. Let me quote the section "Why I Must Write GNU":

"I consider that the golden rule requires that if I like a program I must share it with other people who like it. Software sellers want to divide the users and conquer them, making each user agree not to share with others. I refuse to break solidarity with other users in this way. [it continues...]

"So that I can continue to use computers without dishonor, I have decided to put together a sufficient body of free software so that I will be able to get along without any software that is not free."

[later it goes on...]

"The fundamental act of friendship among programmers is the sharing of programs; marketing arrangements now typically used essentially forbid programmers to treat others as friends. The purchaser of software must choose between friendship and obeying the law. Naturally, many decide that friendship is more important. But those who believe in law often do not feel at ease with either choice. They become cynical and think that programming is just a way of making money."

When I read this statement I was immediate head-over-heels in love with this concept. As a teenager, thinking about programming, thinking about the world, having a statement that was so intellectually aggressive was exciting. It didn’t ask: "how wrong is piracy really", or "why are our kids doing this", but it asked "is piracy a moral imperative" — that’s the kind of aggressive question that feels revolutionary and passionate.

Let me go over one of the lines that I think exemplifies this:

"I consider that the golden rule requires that if I like a program I must share it with other people who like it."

It wasn’t saying: what are we not allowed to do, nor did it talk about some kind of societal injustice. It didn’t talk about the meaning of actions or their long-term effects. Instead it asked: what must we do, not as a society, not in service of some end, but what are we called upon to do as an individual, right now, in service of the people we call friends. It didn’t allude to any sociological explanation, natural selection, economics; there is just the golden rule, the most basic tenant of moral thought.

Free Software vs. Open Source

When I first encountered free software, I suppose about 15 years ago, this was during one of the more difficult periods of its evolution. It was past the initial excitement, the initial optimism that the project would take only a couple years to reach parity with closed-source Unix, it was before it was clear how the project would move forward. Linux was young and seemed to be largely off the radar of Richard Stallman and other GNU advocates, and they were struggling to fill in final key pieces, things like a kernel, widgets, and they hadn’t even thought about entirely new things like browsers.

The message that came through from that period is not the message I wish came through. The message I wish came through was that message from the GNU Manifesto, that spirit of a new sense of duty and ability. When people talk about Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation and the GNU Project, they’ll often point to the GNU General Public License as the most important contribution — the GPL. I’m sure you all know something about it. Of course the core concept there is the idea of copyleft. Not only will the software be open, but it’s takes the implied perspective that the principles of freedom are rights — that unfortunately the world is not wise enough to see that use, distribution, and modification are rights; but the GPL still asserts that these are your rights. When you become one of us, when you participate in the freedoms this license grants you, when you use the GPL, there is encoded in the license a support for this sense of the natural right of free software. We, GNU, can’t encode that for the world, but for the software that we write these rights are inalienable.

But as I said those were difficult times. There was a great deal of pressure. People were trying to understand what open source meant. People still struggle with questions: how would an economy function, how would a programmer get a job, if this is as successful as people hoped will we all just be out of jobs? Other questions were: who will write the software that no one wants to write? How can I, embedded in a situation where I can’t actually use only free software — remember at this time there was no way to use completely free software — how can I assert a duty to do something that is not possible? How can I be useful unless I interface with all these proprietary things? If I deal with companies which aren’t comfortable with open source software, then what? After all, open source seemed only barely plausible at this time. It was not an easy argument to make.

And all this was before the term "open source" really took hold as a distinct idea. That itself is an interesting story. There was a time during this marketing period when there arose a kind of terminology divide — free software vs. open source software. The terminology divide was that the "free" in free software implied you couldn’t charge anything, that made people think about price, might even imply cheapness. Open source directly refers to programming, uses the feel-good term "open", and doesn’t sound too revolutionary. But besides that there was also a substantial philosophical difference about the value of the software itself.

So there was a difference in how things were going to be pitched, but also a difference in what people thought the general value of this project was. From GNU and Richard Stallman there was the notion that this was right because it was right; it was a moral imperative. The virtue of what we build is in its freedom; if it is also technically superior then that’s great, but it is not how we should judge our success. We were giving people self-determination: programmer self-determination, user self-determination… on the open source side the argument was that this is a good way to create software. Programmers working together can do better work. With many eyes all bugs are shallow. All working together, we’ll work faster, you get the benefit of free contributions from all sorts of people. People were clamouring to get all these proprietary companies with failing software products to open source their software; miracles will occur! What you thought was useless will regain value! You’ll reattain relevance!

The open source and free software philosophical divide: on one side practical concerns, on the other moral. And this is what I want to talk about later: can we find a moral argument for these practical concerns?

The basic free/open disagreement continues in debates over licenses: the GPL vs. the BSD and other permissive licenses. If you read the GPL it talks a great deal about philosophy; if you read the BSD license it’s really just some disclaimers and basic instructions, and the one line: "Redistribution and use in source and binary forms, with or without modification, are permitted." It doesn’t say why you’ve received this software, or any philosophy about rights and freedoms, or even encourage you to use the same license on your own software. An engineer’s license.

So these two licenses in many ways became a focus and definition of free and open source software. If you look at the Open Source Initiative, which has served to define what "open source" means, it is basically just a list of approved licenses. If you use one of those licenses, the software is open source, if not then it is closed.

I think this is disappointing, because licenses are just law, and law is not very interesting. A law tells you what you shouldn’t do, it doesn’t tell you what you should do. When both sides are talking about freedom, the licenses just define freedom as the lack of certain restrictions. Take away those restrictions and voila, you are free… as though we are all just bundles of freedom waiting to be released.


With licenses we have a negative definition of our community. Either license you choose, the license feels like a reaction against closed source software. If you can imagine a world in which there was no copyright, where our platforms were all setup to distribute source code in modifiable forms, where everything was open and everything was free, then none of these licenses would matter. No one would be compelled to create the GPL in such a world; we wouldn’t advocate for copyright just so we can secure people’s freedoms. In that kind of world all this licensing disappears. And this isn’t even so weird a world. You can pretend there’s no copyright now. Maybe you have to reverse-engineer some stuff. There’s lots of places in the world where no one really gives a damn about copyright. But those places don’t feel open source to me, they don’t feel that more free. We aren’t made unfree just by legal restrictions; freedom is something we have to actively grasp.

I don’t think what we do is predicated on copyright. Indeed, many projects are comfortable with an entirely confused copyright ownership. This causes very few problems. A focus on licensing makes us into a reaction against proprietary software, where we allow proprietary software and its makers to define what it means to be us.

This concerns me because it isn’t just about formal definitions and terminology. When I say what do I do, I say I am an open source programmer. That’s not just an attribute, like saying that my hair is brown. Open source is a way in which I see myself, a way I think about my craft, my profession, and a way I justify the work I put out to the world: that it aligns with these values. So it’s very important to me what these values are. And it’s frustrating to see open source defined in reaction to closed source software, because personally I don’t care about closed source software that much.

I never really cared much about fighting Microsoft, and I certainly don’t care now. I see myself as a builder; this is what always drew me towards programming. The desire to build new things. This is our privilege as programmers, that we always have the opportunity to build new things. If we’re asked to do something again and again and again, you always have the power to do it in a more abstract way, to generalize it away, until you can start to ignore the requests and move on to another problem. This is something unique thing to computer programming. These are the kind of unique attributes that make us different as a profession and as a craft than just about anything I can think of.

So I’m frustrated. Here we are stuck in this notion of a license as a self-definition. I want to find a new self-definition, a new idea of what makes us us.

What Makes Us Us

So… what makes us us?

I was saying about Django, the community is not particularly enthusiastic about philosophy. Or maybe I should say, Django’s philosophy is: the value of the code is the thing you do with it. These abstract discussions about architecture, reuse, big plans… instead, Django as a community encourages you to keep your head in the code, think about what you want to do, and then do it. Don’t shave yaks.

But I’m not here to tell you to get philosophical about freedom, or to berate you for a functional definition of value. I’d like to look at this community for what it is, and ask: what is the value system here? Maybe it isn’t described, but I also don’t think it is therefore absent.

So… when I say I identify as an open source programmer, what is it that I am identifying as?

I don’t believe licensing makes something truly open source. There was this clamour in the past to get companies to open source their products. This has stopped, because all the software that got open source sucked. It’s just not very interesting to have a closed source program get open sourced. It doesn’t help anyone, because the way closed source software is created in a very different way than open source software. The result is a software base that just does not engage people in a way to make it a valid piece of software for further development. At least not unless you have something peculiar going on… an economic force like you had behind Mozilla that could push things forward even in the midst of all the problems that project had. One might even ask, is Mozilla still suffering from that proprietary background, when something like KHTML or WebKit which came from a truly open source background, and has been a more successful basis for collaboration and new work.

So whatever it is that makes something open source, it’s not just licensing. Given a codebase, we can’t necessarily expect that someone going to care about it and love it and make it successful. A lot of people have described what makes a successful open source codebase; I’d like to talk some about what the communities look like.

Open source works as a fairly loose federation of people together. Everyone involved is involved as an individual. Companies seldom participate directly in open source. Companies might use open source, they might sponsor people to work on open source projects, they might ask an employee to act as a liason. But it’s not cool to submit a bug as a company. You submit it as yourself. If someone asks a question, you answer as yourself. You don’t join a mailing list under the company’s name. And even when you put a company name on a product, it’s hard to relate to the product as a project without some sense of authorship, of the underlying individual.

There’s also very little money being moved about. There’s not a lot of commercial contracts. You might get software, you might get bug fixes, you might get reputation, but there’s seldom any formal way setup to introduce commerce into the community. How many projects let you pay to escalate a bug? Even if everyone involved might like that, it’s just not there.

But I want to get back to individuals. How things are created is not that someone determines a set of priorities, lays them out, then people work on implementation based on those priorities. That of course is how things typically work at a company, as an employee. But open source software and open source projects are created because an individual looks at the world and sees an opportunity to create something they think should exist. Maybe it resolves a tension they’ve felt in their work, maybe it allows that person to respond to the priorities from above better, but the decision to implement lies primarily with the implementor. When someone makes a decision to move a product from simply private code — regardless of the license — to being a real open source project, that decision is almost always driven by the programmer.

Underneath most open source work there is a passion for the craft itself. This is what leads to a certain kind of quality that is not the norm in closed source software. It’s not necessarily less bugs or more features, but a pride in the expression itself. A sense of aesthetic that applies to even the individual lines of software, not just to the functionality produced. This kind of aesthetic defies scheduling and relies on personal motivation.

As open source programmers we are not first concerned with how a task fits into institutions, how a task can be directed by a hierarchy or an authority, or even how the task can be directed by economics. The tasks that we take on are motivated by aesthetic, by personal excitement and drive.

We are also in a profession where there is little stasis. If you can create something once, you can create it a thousand times, through iteration or abstraction. You can constantly make your own effort obsolete. A good programmer is always trying to work themselves out of a job.

Djangocon didn’t exist a couple years ago. Django didn’t exist only a few years ago. And I don’t think there’s anyone here who thinks that, having found Django, they’ve reached some terminal point. It’s hardly even a point to pause. There’s a constant churn, a constant push forward that we’re all participating in.

As a result it’s demanded of us that we have a tight feedback cycle, that education is not a formal affair but a constant process in our own work. There’s a constant churn, and a professional sense we’re kind of like fruit flies. A generation of knowledge and practice is short enough that the evolution is rapid and visible. You don’t have to be particularly old or even thoughtful to see the changes. You can look back even on your own work and on communities to see changes over the course of a couple years, to see changes and shifts and a maturing of the work and the community.

Another attribute of open source: our communities are ad hoc and temporary. We do not overvalue these communities and institutions; we regularly migrate, split, recombine, and we constantly rewrite. There is both an arrogance and a humility to this. We are arrogant to think This Time Will Be Different. But we are humble enough to know that last time wasn’t different either. There will always be a next thing, another technique, another vision.

Because of the ad hoc nature of the communities, we don’t have long collective plans. The ad hoc community may be the intersection of different personal long range plans, a time when different visions somehow coincide in a similar implementation. Or perhaps it’s just serendipity, or leadership. But we make each decision anew. I believe this protects us from being misled by sunk costs. The idea of a sunk cost is that when you make an investment, you’ve put in effort, that effort is gone. Just because you’ve put in effort doesn’t mean you’ve received value, or that the path of investment remains valid. But as humans we are highly reluctant to let go of a plan that we’ve invested in. We have a hard time recognizing sunk costs.

I believe in our developer community we approach our work with sufficient humility that we can see our work as simply a sunk cost. Our effort does not entitle us to any particular success, so we can choose new directions with more rationality than an institution. Though it can also be argued that we are too quick to dismiss past investments; there is a youthfulness even to our oldest members.

We do not have hierachies with decision makers above implementors. Some people have veto power (a BDFL), but no one has executive power. A decision only is valid paired with an implementation. You cannot decide something based on information you wish was true; you cannot decide on something then blame the implementors for getting it wrong. We are in this sense vertically integrated, decision and implementation are combined. The result may be success or failure, commitment or abandonment, but the hierarchy is flat and the feedback loop is very tight. And if an individual feels stymied, there is always another community to join or create.

Though this is only a start, it’s these attributes that I would prefer define us, not licenses.

I also would like that this could be a model for how other work should be done.

Why Us?

Why would we, as programmers, be unique or worthy of emulation? I mentioned before that we constantly work ourselves out of our job. We also create the tools we use to do the work. We define the structure of our communities. We’re consistently finding novel ways to use the internet build those communities. It’s not that we as a group are somehow uniquely wise, or some Greatest Generation, but we have become distinctly self-empowered. There is a uniqueness to us. It might be a coincidence of history, but it is there.

A question I might then ask: is there a political meaning to this? This is the form our craft takes, but does that mean anything? We work with computers, someone else might work with their hands, an artist considers color, a salesperson learns how to put on a good smile.

I haven’t quite figured this out yet, but I think there’s something in this. Over the years I’ve found myself looking at politics in a increasingly technocratic lens; more so than as a liberal, conservative, or radical. That is, instead of looking at the world and seeing what’s wrong about it, and explaining it in terms of a class struggle, a cultural conflict, in terms of advocacy or invented enemies or allies, I see a system that just works how it works. It’s more like gears than like a war. The gears turn and sometimes we don’t like what results, but it’s not malice.

But I also don’t think we are slaves to the technical functioning of the system. None of us are inevitably caught up in some statistical outcome of markets, or condemned by money in politics or advertising. At any time we can say Here Is What I Believe, and it is as powerful as any of those other things; we’re too quick to look at the people who aren’t asserting a belief, who aren’t asserting their own potential for self-empowerment and direction, and we ignore everyone who is aware and concerned and attempting self-determination. We are at danger of ignoring the great potential around us.

It is in this sense that I wonder not just how we can spread the idea of freedom through licensing, which has inspired the free culture movement, but also how we can spread this idea and practice of individual action, of combining decision and implementation, and of constant ad hoc collaboration.

I’m not just thinking of politics directly, but of professional lives as well. Right now we’re talking about healthcare. It’s a very political issue, and yet healthcare is ultimately a profession, a job, an action. How we work on that, collaboratively or not, is as political as any aspect of the system.

One anecdote that made me think about this, is a task I had that involved putting authentication in front of a mailing list. The mailing list happened to be for wound, ostomy, and continence nurses, and in the process of the job I read a bunch of their emails from the archives. As wound nurses they spent a lot of time asking about specific questions — maybe a wound that wouldn’t heal, they kept draining the puss and it discharge kept reappearing, and did anyone have ideas of the next technique to try?

Reading a few of these I could tell this was a profession where you needed a strong stomach. But the whole interaction, the way they described problems, the way people came back with answers, it felt very familiar to me. It was the same kind of discussions I could imagine having about Linux administration or debugging. And the goals were similar. No one was making money, there wasn’t really reputation on the line, it was just people who wanted to help their patients and who wanted to help each other.

So that mailing list was great, but it’s unfortunately not that common. And if nurses were open to that kind of collaboration, doctors don’t seem nearly as ready. And there’s a lot of professions where there’s not even that thoughtfulness. I believe in any profession there’s the ability to do it well or not; there’s nothing so rote or well understood that there’s no room for improvement. It doesn’t have to be fancy technology, it can just be a technique, a way of managing work; all things worth doing have some way of improving, by bringing in this same sense of collaboration and individual action and thoughtfulness, all things can be implemented better than they are now. What I’m describing isn’t a fancy new website for professionals, but about people look at their own work differently; the technology is not the hard part.

The Political

Changing how people look at their work I think is political. It involves individual empowerment. It can mean economic change. I also think it deemphasizes competition. When I think about Pylons, or Django, or TurboGears, or WSGI, there’s competition, but it’s also collegial. There’s not really that much of a sense of survival. We aren’t carving out territories, we’re just finding paths to some unknown end. If something else wins out, well, we’re all just along for the ride. In the end it is inevitable that something else other than what any of us are working on will win out over what any of us are doing. Just like everyone eventually loses their job at least to death or retirement. There’s no permanency. But if we can be individually more productive, it doesn’t have to mean we’ve put someone else out. It could mean we all, all of society, all of humanity, just do more. Why do we have to set ourselves against the Chinese, or Europe against the U.S.? Why do we have to set ourselves one economy against another?

Or consider government itself: we’re obsessed with our elected officials, but of course government is far larger than just the elected officials. The U.S. Federal Government alone has 1.8 million employees. We constantly threaten to institute accountability, meaning that we’ll poke and prod government workers from the outside and expect better outcomes. That we expect anything to come of this is absurd, but somehow accountability has become an easy alternative to constructive suggestions for improvement.

But why shouldn’t we expect that government workers want to do better? I believe in fact those people doing the work are especially well equiped to figure out how to do better. But it’s not automatic. They aren’t empowered in a system that is so exceptionally hierarchical. Lately we’ve seen lots of efforts to ask the public how to do government work better, but we’ve seen nothing asking government how to do government work better.

These are the kinds of things I’d like to see us all think about more: open source has done incredible things, has inspired new ideas, about more than just software and engineering, but I think we have yet more things to give.

Thank you for your time.


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Cultural Imperialism, Technology, and OLPC

A couple posts have got me thinking about cultural imperialism lately: a post by Guido van Rossum about "missionaries" and OLPC not about OLPC at all, a post by Chris Hardie and a speech by Wade Davis.

Some of the questions raised: are we destroying cultures? If so, what can we do about it? Must we be hands off? I will add these questions: is it patronizing to make these choices for other people, no matter how enlightened we try to be? How much change is inevitable? Can we help make the change positive instead of resisting change?

More specifically: what is the effect of OLPC on cultures where it is introduced? Especially small cultures, cultures that have been relatively isolated, cultures that are vulnerable. The internet Quechua community is pretty slim, for example. Introducing the internet into a community will lead the children to favor Spanish more strongly, and identify with that more dominant culture over their family and community culture.

Criticisms like Guido’s are common:

I’m not surprised that the pope is pleased by the OLPC program. The mentality from which it springs is the same mentality which in past centuries created the missionary programs. The idea is that we, the west, know what’s good for the rest of the world, and that we therefore must push our ideas onto the "third world" by means of the most advanced technology available. In past centuries, that was arguably the printing press, so we sent missionaries armed with stacks of bibles. These days, we have computers, so we send modern missionaries (of our western lifestyle, including consumerism, global warming, and credit default swaps) armed with computers.

This kind of criticism is easy, because it doesn’t have any counterproposal. It’s not saying much more than "you all suck" to the people involved.

Cultural imperialism is a genuine phenomena. In an attempt to subjugate or assimilate, the dominant culture may explicitly and cynically enforce its cultural norms, through its religion, requiring all schools to operate in the dominant language, even going as far as suggesting how we arrange ourselves during sex.

But it’s not clear to me that what’s happening now is cultural imperialism. It’s more market-oriented homogenization. Food manufacturers don’t use high-fructose corn syrup because they want to make us fat — they just give us what we want, and they are enabling our latent tendency to become obese. Similarly I think the way culture is spread currently encourages homogeneity, without explicit attempting to destroy culture.

This is where I think a protectionist stance — the idea we should just be hands-off — is patronizing. People aren’t abandoning their cultures because they are stupid and they are being manipulated. People make decisions, what they think is the best decision for themself and their families. These decisions lead them to leave rural areas, learn the dominant language, try to conform through education, and even just lead them to enjoy a dominant culture which is often far more entertaining than a smaller and more traditional culture.

The irony is that once they’ve done this they’ve traded their position for a place in the bottom rung of the dominant society. And it’s true that in many cases they’ve made these decisions because they’ve been forced out of their traditional life by political and legal systems they don’t understand. But to blame it all on oppression is to be blind to the many concrete benefits of our modern world. Corrugated metal roofs are simply superior to thatched roofs, and we can get all romantic about traditional building processes and material independence, but we do so from homes with roofs that don’t leak. Leaking roofs are just objectively unpleasant. And frankly people like TV, you don’t have to tell people to like TV, it just happens.

So I believe that assimilation pressure is natural and inevitable in our times.

What then of technology, of the internet and laptops?

I believe OLPC takes an important stance when it selects open source and open licensing for its content. It is valuing freedom, but more importantly encouraging self-determination, trying to build up a user base that can act as peers in this project, not as simply receivers of first-world largess. But it will be culturally disruptive. And I’m okay with that. In a patriarchal culture, giving girls access to this technology will be destructive to that power structure. Yay! I believe in the moral rightness of that one girl making her own choices, finding her own truths, more than I believe in the validity of the culture she was born into. If you believe people should be able to make their own choices (so long as they are aware of the real consequence of their choices), then you must allow for them to choose to abandon their own cultures for something they find more appealing. They might know better than you if that’s a good choice. I think we all hope that instead they transform their own cultures, but that’s not our choice to make.

What I find unpleasant is if they leave a true identity to find themselves in a place of cultural subservience. If they feel they can’t preserve the part of their culture they most value. Perhaps because of discrimination they feel they must hide their past, or they build up a sense of self-loathing. Perhaps they become isolated, unable to find peers that understand where they come from. And perhaps there is no higher culture at all that they can use to exalt their understanding of the world — do they have a literature? Do they have non-traditional music forms of their own? Do they have a forum where people who share their perspective can have serious discussions? Cultures aren’t destroyed so much as they are starved out of existence.

I think assimilation is inevitable, and can be positive. If we were all able to speak to each other, with some shared second or third language, I think the world would be a better place. I’m not a Christian, but I’m not afraid of anyone knowing The Bible. There’s no piece of culture that I would want to deny from anyone. Each new song, each new book, each new idea… I believe they will all make you a better person, if only in a small way.

And on the internet our culture is cumulative. There’s only so many hours of programming on TV or the radio, only so many pages in a newspaper. On the internet the presence of one kind of culture does not exclude any other. There’s room for a Quechua community as much of any other. But the online Quechua community won’t have exclusive rights to its members like a traditional culture claims — children will live between cultures.

Cumulative culture is not a promise that anyone will care. Languages can still die, cultures can still die, identities become forgotten. If these smaller cultures are going to be preserved, they must adapt to the partially-assimilated status of their members. There must be new art and new ideas and new identities. This is why I believe in the laptop project, because it can enable the creation and sharing of these new ideas. I think it will give smaller cultures a chance to survive — there’s no promises, literature doesn’t write itself, but maybe there is at least a chance.

This is also why I am more skeptical of mobile phones, audio devices, and any device that doesn’t actively enable content creation. Mobile phones are not how culture is made. It let’s people chat, consume information, communicate in a 12-key pidgin. But the mobile phone user is not a peer in a world wide web of information. The mobile phone user lives on a proprietary network, with a proprietary device, and while it perhaps it breaks down some hierarchies through disintermediation, it does so in a transient way. The uptake is certainly faster, but the potential seems so much lower.

I don’t know if OLPC will be successful. That’s as unclear now as ever. But it’s trying to do the right thing, and I think it’s a better chance than most for maintaining or improving the richness of the worlds’ culture.


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The Poverty Of Our National Debate

We had a debate party tonight for the Biden-Palin debate. It’s nice to watch it in a group of like-minded people. Taking the Democrat/Republican debate seriously is a bullshit game and I don’t have any desire to bring this farce into my normal life.

After the debate was over, I wanted to discuss the debate. After all, it’s weird to watch something for an hour and a half and then just ignore that we spent that time watching it. The problem is that I hate the punditry. No one actually said "did Palin do what she had to do?" (I probably would have screamed) but it’s just really hard not to talk about "what will people think of this debate?" And part of that is because we all know what we think. We saw through Palin deliberately ignoring the questions and reading her already-prepared speech. We all had a basic understanding of what is fact and what is a lie or misrepresentation. It’s nice to share little stories (like stories from the article about how McCain is a jerk). But it’s so damn hard not to fall into a discussion about the horserace, about what other people will think. Why is it so hard to talk about what we think? Not what we analyze, but what we actually believe? Instead of predicting something that will come to pass regardless of our predictions, shouldn’t we be developing our own beliefs? That seems far more relevant to our lives.

There’s probably a lot of reasons for that. It’s intimidating to be entirely genuine, to speak without irony. And all the news is about the horserace, so we are all well informed, it makes it easy to talk.

I think a large part of the problem is that the spectrum of opinions is so narrow (even if also bifurcated) that it’s hard to have an interesting discussion of political issues. Lacking anything of real substance to discuss, we discuss the discussion, we make predictions instead of forming real opinions. While I’m willing to blame many things on the Republicans, this is the product of both parties, of the narrow ignorance of "conventional wisdom." For instance, the debate about the economic bailout has been rich with rhetoric but starved of any real ideas. I didn’t even realize how limited the debate was until I listened to this interview where Steve Fraser kind of says, well, we can do whatever we want. That is to say, we can actually make collective decisions about the direction of our economy, instead of the impotent position that is assumed in all current debates, where we can only poke lightly at the economy (and it’s implied anything more would destroy it).

We can’t really talk about what kind of healthcare system we’d like, because the system nearly everyone wants is not an acceptable part of conventional wisdom. Socialized healthcare is the only reasonable option, but of course there’s lots of ways it could work, there’s lots of room for genuine and important discussion. But instead we have a staggeringly horrible proposal, and a merely not quite as bad as the current situation proposal. Given this set of options you can’t have real discussion.

In the end our own happiness is mostly in our own hands. The choices we make for ourselves are more significant than the choices made by the government (the choices we make collectively). But our collective choices do matter. We certainly haven’t figured out happiness. And maybe government does best when it has the least effect on our lives, but while that’s one end of the bifurcated conventional wisdom, as an idea it remains largely uninspected. When I consider many of the pleasant conveniences in my life, government is part of a lot of them. It doesn’t do much to make me more spiritually fulfilled, but the idea that government is a hopeless place to look for our collective happiness is a truism that lacks real consideration.

Political discussion is stuck in a terrible intellectual rut. Blame falls equally on both parties. They hold on greedily to their monopoly of political thought. It’s like religious doctrine, something to which politicians must submit before being allowed to progress, a sign of submission to a larger system of power. I have this hope that Obama is going through the rites with discipline but without true belief, that he is being subversive, diving straight to the belly of the beast. But this is only speculation, perhaps a naive dream, a desire to project my hopes onto a figure of vague and general hope.

I don’t really want to spend too much time discussing all the things that are wrong. This is the depressing comfort zone of the left. I want to talk about how things could be right, about how we can make a world that isn’t just less unjust but a world that is more beautiful, more wonderful, more full of life and freedom and passion. I want to exult in the potential of the future.


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On the RNC, Monica Bicking, Eryn Trimmer, and Protest

Saturday morning my sister, Monica Bicking, and her boyfriend, Eryn Trimmer, were arrested in Minneapolis. Monica was released on Sunday, but Eryn and others are still in custody, and the police will try to keep them detained as long as possible. update: the two of them and six others from the Welcoming Committee are charged with felonies, including "furtherance of terrorism". A website has been set up in support of them, and to keep people informed about ongoing events in the case: rnc8.org

They were arrested for "conspiracy to incite a riot". This is the same charge used against the Chicago 8 (or 7) at the 1968 Democratic Convention. Perhaps the police have a sense of tradition?

But more directly she and Eryn were arrested in an attempt to preemptively suppress the protests at the Republican National Convention. They were both very active with the RNC Welcoming Committee, which is a group coordinating and supporting some of the people coming to the Twin Cities for the convention.

Obviously I’m very concerned by the arrests and charges. But there’s been a huge outpouring of support from the community — both from activist in the Twin Cities, and from their neighbors. In Chicago I’m a little unsure about what to do.

Reading articles about the incidents (Glenn Greenwald’s post on Salon is a good one) I find myself mostly avoiding the comment sections. The comments fall into two categories: mean comments against the protesters, and reactionary comments with no real substance ("this is proof this country is a police state!") Activists generally understand what’s going on, and people of a right-wing/authoritarian bend are hardly going to be convinced of anything, but there’s a lot of progressive people out there who’ve never really been involved in any activism like this. There’s very little explaining the protests, the role of activists like my sister, and the philosophies they hold. Certainly the news makes no attempt, and unfortunately the activists themselves often speak from an unexplained perspective.

So I’d like to use this as an opportunity to explain my understanding of the role of protest, what’s going on at the RNC specifically, and what an "anarchist" really is. At the moment I can’t do a lot to help Eryn and Monica directly, but at least I can talk about her personally instead of another story about a named but otherwise anonymous "protester".

The Role Of Protest

It’s challenging to explain and justify protest, at least in this country and at this moment. Probably the biggest blow for protest as a useful form of political expression was the February 15, 2003 protests against the Iraq War. I say this because those were the largest protests the world has ever seen, estimated around 10 million people, and yet they did so little to stop the war.

That war is still with us, and is still the most significant motivation for the RNC protests. The war has gone through many phases since then — purported success, then clear failure by just about anyone’s definition, then ongoing failure labelled as success because of dramatically lowered expectations (the surge). Public opinion has moved several times, but is constrained by what is considered the reasonable options. These "reasonable" options are defined by the Democratic and Republican elite. Balance in news means inviting participation from partisans from those two parties. In this context the Democratic party had a practical landslide in 2006, driven primarily by anti-war sentiments, and then proceeded to do almost nothing to stop the war. If protest has failed, then so has electoral politics.

I don’t have any third path to offer, but I just want to make it clear: none of us know what is best to do, none of us have figured out the way to effect change. People complain protest doesn’t work. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t, but frankly most things don’t work. Doing nothing definitely doesn’t work, and frankly that’s what most of us are doing. It’s hard to take criticisms seriously when they are made from a stance of inaction.

What might the RNC protests accomplish?

First, it is an attempt to break out of a politics restricted to two perspectives. I believe, quite firmly, that "radical left" opinions are actually quite mainstream. This was also the goal of the DNC protests. This goal has become quite difficult to achieve. News stations generally ignore protest, and when they do cover protest they seldom talk about the actual issues.

Second, protests can attempt to disrupt normal activity. To be fair, this is probably better termed "civil disobedience", and I’m sure there will be civil disobedience in response to the RNC. One possible goal of civil disobedience is to make news — to be so disruptive that you simply can’t be ignored. And even if the news won’t say why you won’t be ignored, at least one message that can be made clear: everything is not okay. Another goals is simply to disrupt the RNC. This is a bringing together of many of the architects and profiteers of war. This is a convention that includes many people advocating torture.

It’s also a convention of people who buy the lines about the Republican party being "conservative" and supporting "family values" and whatever other bullshit. One argument goes: oh, these poor dullards and simpletons! Do not interrupt their harmless partying! Do not interrupt their absurd views! They deserve their delusions as much as anyone! I say: this stuff is too important to defer to the bullshit of this political grandstanding.

Are We In A Time Of War?

It is all too easy to fall into "protesting for the right to protest". Lest I fall into this, I want to make it clear: protest itself is not the goal. 600,000 Iraqis dead. And to what ends? No ends at all? Unlikely! There is a purpose. It is a purpose architected by people who would throw away hundreds of thousands of lives. People may argue about whether war is valid. I don’t believe it is, nor do Monica or Eryn, but whatever your feelings: this is not an abstract war. This is a specific war. And this specific war is a war made by liars, by people who treat human life lightly, by people whose primary ambition seems focused on power itself.

600,000 dead, and what’s so different in America? Do you feel this war? If you didn’t turn on the TV or listen to the news, what would remind you that we are at war? What would remind you of all that’s happened? We are a nation at war, and yet there is nothing to show us this, it has no presence. Our nation is so large, our institutions so abstracted, our military so partitioned from most of society… we are numb to war. Moving around while numbed is dangerous. You can’t feel what you are doing. A cut doesn’t hurt, a bruise is just a faint sensation. We are a numbed nation and this is dangerous.

If I was to give one reason for civil disobedience, it would be this: to acknowledge this war is real. This isn’t just a difference of opinion, this isn’t just a debate. This is about how we exercise our collective power, the power that is exercised in the form of the state. This is our war, whether we feel it or not.

One of the criticisms of civil disobedience is to say it deprives the Republicans of their free speech. First, this is absurd. No form of civil disobedience deprives them of free speech. No one is taping their mouths shut. No journalists are being detained by activists. No debate is stifled. The RNC’s request: we want to speak our lies without interruption, without distraction. The Republicans have through decades of whining managed to frame the debate, to redefine "common sense" and "conventional thinking", to move the Overton Window far to the right. Free speech does not mean they should not be challenged. Protest challenges the content of their speech, it doesn’t deny them of the ability to speak.

This is an aside, but for all the effort put into limiting the bounds of debate I don’t think the Republicans, or Bush, have really changed the country as much as they are given credit for. I don’t think people are as easily manipulated as that. I think our core values are not so easily affected. If we were not so numb I think it would all come rushing back.

On "Anarchism"

If you read the articles you will see Monica and Eryn called "self-described anarchists". This is true, they are anarchists. I will attempt, briefly and probably inaccurately, to describe what anarchism is.

Anarchism is, at its core, a belief in the individual, and a belief that good flows uniquely from the individual. Conversely, it believes that bad comes from institutions, from the abstractions we build between people. Anarchism is a belief in the power of empathy instead of laws. Instead of leading our lives according to principles that are passed down to us, anarchism says we should live our lives based on our personal reflections and decisions. We should be deliberate, we should not be obedient.

The RNC Welcoming Committee (the name is ironic) is a "anarchist/anti-authoritarian" organization. Ha ha you say, isn’t an anarchist organization an oxymoron? If you meet an anarchist this is the most tedious joke you could possibly make. Anarchism is, of course, a somewhat chaotic philosophy. And any anarchist should be a human first, and an anarchist second — anything else would be contrary to the very principles of anarchism! More practically, they form groups based on shared understandings and motivations, and there is nothing at all inconsistent about individuals working together — indeed it is interpersonal cooperation that is at the heart of anarchist traditions.

Do anarchists want to tear down all institutions? I guess some flavors of anarchist rhetoric make this claim. Looking in from the outside, it feels like some kind of phase adolescent male anarchists go through. There is an underlying lack of respect for institutions and authority, and this is genuine. But though they see nothing wrong with disrupting institutions, violence against people is not considered acceptable. Some would like to categorize property damage as violence, but I find this rather disrespectful of genuine violence. Things don’t feel pain or fear.

Discussions of anarchism tend to degrade very quickly because people are overly obsessed with self-consistency. For instance: how could an entire society run without laws, governments, police, taxes? There are answers and speculations, but we would all do better to make the world we want now and here. This is what actual anarchists do — running whole societies might be fun to theorize about, but building a community is actually attainable, and among progressive groups anarchists are probably the most enthusiastic community builders.

Lastly: why the term "anarchism"? It’s a scary term, though it’s derivation is simply from the term "without rulers". It’s been a term used to scare people for so long that it’s hard to separate the idea from the myth. People at time suggest alternative terms. But anarchism isn’t just a philosophy, it’s a tradition and culture and shared understanding, one that goes back over a hundred years. And anarchists don’t want to disassociate themselves from that tradition. And usually, what does it matter what other people think of the name? It is however awkward when the police are trying to label you as a dangerous extremist.


Reports have come out about violent protest. Update: There were reports of "violent protesters". Now police report that "one or two windows were broken" during the entire RNC. In other words, there was almost no violence at all by protesters, and almost no property damage. Frankly I feel stupid for ever believing there were even small groups of "violent protesters". There was simply no violence (under any definition of "violence") of any note by the protesters. (I’m actually surprised there weren’t more windows broken by stray police munitions.) Again police lack basic credibility in their statements. end update

Actual incidents are often exaggerated or fabricated. For instance, in the case of the home raids things like paint, bottles, and rags were labeled as "the ingredients for making Molotov cocktails". I’m sure every reader of this post has sufficient ingredients to make a Molotov cocktail. Also, many people have hatchets, bricks, and other materials. Buckets of urine were particularly attention-grabbing, but the only reason for these was that one of the houses had a broken toilet. The police interpretation of the confiscated material is not credible.

There have also been reports of violence at the protests themselves. First it should be noted that there are no reports of police or bystanders being injured. I personally find it is hard to classify property damage as "violence". If you don’t include property damage then there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of violence.

Protest is confrontational. Some will suggest that protesters should obey police in all situations. They suggest that protesters should obey all laws and only protest where permitted. They suggest protesters should not be disruptive of anyone else. The result would not be protest. In cases like the RNC, where extensive planning was in place to counter protest, non-confrontational protest means protesting according to someone else’s plans, someone who has no desire for the protest to succeed in any way. Once you confront the police, there will be violence — usually by the police. And sure, you can stand with a flower in your hand and get a face full of pepper spray, and of course many people choose that course. It’s a noble choice, but I can’t fault people for making other tactical decisions.

Another protesting tactic is the "black bloq", typically a group of people who try to attract the attention of the police, often through property damage. If the police have nothing better to do, then why not pin down the peaceful protesters and direct them where they can make the least impact? People in the black bloq will try to keep this from happening. It’s unlikely they were at all successful at the RNC as it was so thoroughly militarized. You could debate whether this is a good strategy (and there is lots of debate about this), but probably few people outside activists have any idea that there even is any underlying strategy.

Also, if you wonder why protesters, especially the anarchists, dress the way they do, it is primarily defensive. If you are going to get teargassed and peppersprayed does wearing a handkerchief seem so odd? And if they are tracking people to preemptively arrest, all the more reason to be as anonymous as possible.

Monica and Eryn

I’d like to speak specifically of Monica and Eryn. Talking to Monica about the RNC protests, she was never actually that excited. The RNC isn’t what she wanted to focus on. Why focus on the thing you dislike? Why focus on a political process you don’t believe in? Why focus on the workings of institutions you wish didn’t exist? She would have preferred to work on the scale she felt was valid — to build a community of individuals. But of course events are larger than us, and by whatever coincidence the RNC was coming to the Twin Cities. This is not the sort of thing you can just ignore. And of course it wasn’t up to her whether there would be protests.

Monica and Eryn are competent and diligent, so of course they would become important to the organizing process. It seems that there were infiltrators in many of the organizations, so it’s unsurprising that the police knew who to find when they were getting ready to suppress the protests. The two of them had expected informants from early on. Monica herself worked for a year for the American Friends Service Committee (a Quaker charity and peace advocacy organization) at a time when they were being spied on because of purported fears of violent protest. If you are not aware of Quakerism, it is a quite strictly passivist faith, and the pretense for the spying was exceptionally absurd. So Monica was not particularly shocked that there would be spying in the lead up to the RNC.

The RNC Welcoming Committee is itself a coordinating organization. It was inevitable that many, many groups would want to protest at the RNC. There’s no lack of people who are angry. The Welcoming Committee served as a local resource for all those people — so visitors could find a place to stay in the city, so people could coordinate with each other, so people could perform their chosen form of protest in as well-informed a manner as possible. That it is being painted as an organization with criminal intent is a complete misrepresentation; the Welcoming Committee specifically has no intention of direct action.

The preemptive arrest was surprising to everyone. It is normal in the course of civil disobedience that some people expect to be arrested. Civil disobedience is confrontational. You have to go into it knowing that there will be certain consequences. Those are the consequences of the confrontation. They are not the consequences of the possibility of future confrontation. As organizers I know Monica and Eryn weren’t planning on being arrested.

But I haven’t written this essay in anger over their arrest. Protest is conflict. The lines of conflict move, and I find this move to preemptive arrest quite troubling, but I’m also optimistic that they won’t ultimately be charged with anything. I also don’t want to slip into the protest-to-protest mode, more obsessed with the form of protest than the function of this protest. This is a frustrating turn of events, and I’m sure no one is more frustrated than the two of them — one sequestered in a jail, the other in legal limbo, at the culmination of all their work over the last year. But I didn’t write this essay out of anger but because I wanted to recognize what they’ve been doing and do my best to explain it to other people, because I’m proud of them. They are exactly the model of an engaged, ethically driven citizenry.

I see lots of comments like "this country is a fascist state!" and "this is just like Nazi Germany!" But of course this country is not those things. That’s what happens when the citizenry of a country stands down, when they look away from what’s happening right in front of them, when they ignore justice and discard empathy. This country is not those things because of Monica and Eryn and the thousands of people who will be present and paying attention when the RNC lands from on high.

To support Monica, Eryn, and the other charged members of the RNC Welcoming Committee, and also to get updates on the case and news coverage of the case, please visit rnc8.org


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Which way?

Do you believe the world is (a) getting better, or (b) getting worse?

Please explain. Please, no more "both/neither" answers: choose just one


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The GPL and Principles

For the most part by the time I finished writing my last article on licensing I had mostly convinced myself that the GPL isn’t a practical license for most projects. That is, outcomes when using the GPL aren’t likely to be any better than outcomes using a permissive license, except for certain kinds of projects, mostly projects involving big faceless companies, and I’d just as soon avoid such projects anyway.

My own thinking on this has changed over the years in part because of a greater sense of humility about what I produce. I’m really not that worried about people stealing my work because I don’t think that theft would be of much value. But also because I realize that the value in software is not so much in the code as in the process. The process is what is valuable, particularly for open source, and licensing doesn’t really address issues of process.

As an example, if I’m uncomfortable with how some member of an open source community is using the code, or the community, I will be much more effective by dealing with that head-on, talking with that member, or even confronting them if it’s really necessary. If you give someone an unwelcoming attitude, they’ll probably go away. The license doesn’t need to be your gatekeeper. It’s not a particularly effective gatekeeper anyway.

Another change is perhaps a more reasonable valuation of code. There was a time when people wanted to protect their intellectual property. Even some non-software company might have gotten the idea that it should own the code it contracts someone else to write, under a proprietary license, so they could sell that software later. That anyone would care to buy it was always an illusion, but the illusion is a little more obvious these days.

One value of the GPL that I do want to acknowledge is its expression of values. It makes this explicit:

When we speak of free software, we are referring to freedom, not price. Our General Public Licenses are designed to make sure that you have the freedom to distribute copies of free software (and charge for them if you wish), that you receive source code or can get it if you want it, that you can change the software or use pieces of it in new free programs, and that you know you can do these things.

To protect your rights, we need to prevent others from denying you these rights or asking you to surrender the rights. Therefore, you have certain responsibilities if you distribute copies of the software, or if you modify it: responsibilities to respect the freedom of others.

But the GPL does more than just its text: adopting the GPL is a statement of principle on the part of the original authors, of the people who adopt the project, and of the people who later help maintain the project. It is a statement that freedom is valued and that it is valued in a universal sense, not just in a personal or isolated sense.

This is implicit, not explicit, in the choice of license, but despite that I see this pattern in projects. Projects that choose the GPL are more likely to engender a spirit of openness and sharing. Not of the core project itself — both GPL and permissively licensed projects accomplish this just fine so long as they are properly maintained, and their success is far more related to how the project is managed than the licensing. But I see the difference in the sofware that grows up around the project: extensions, complementary projects, documentation.

Maybe this is because of licensing. The license filters the community, and the people who are left in a GPL project are all at least open to sharing. But more than that, I think it puts people in the right state of mind to share. The project feels more principled, the participation is based less on pragmatism and more on optimism. And there’s always people coming into open source who haven’t really figured out why or what they want to get out of it. Presenting them with the principles of Free Software influences their decision. (This issue has caused some debate about terminology.)

With all that said, you don’t need the GPL to present the principles of a project. It’s certainly the easiest way to do so. The GPL is shorthand for a rich set of principles and ideals. But it’s shorthand for people who are already in the know. The ideas need to be reiterated and explained and reconsidered to stay relevant. I think a project might do more good with an explicit statement of principles. With that in place the licensing might not matter so much.


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It occurred to me… Django is something like a dictatorship… or maybe an oligarchy. At first it seems like Pylons is the same… but no. Pylons is clearly feudal. I lord over Paste, WebOb, FormEncode. Mike Bayer lords over Mako and SQLAlchemy. Ben lords over Routes, Beaker, and Pylons.

I suppose in all cases there is a certain amount of democracy, because there are no serfs, and any individual is free to travel to any kingdom they like. Well, at least among the open source kingdoms. Without citizenship, and with no exclusiveness of ownership, with even property having largely disappeared, I suppose it’s inevitable that traditional metaphors of control and governance don’t really make sense.


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“Something Must Be Done”

Listening to Tavis Smiley’s show tonight, and the segment My America where they talked about gun violence. At one point they quote a man who lost his brother to gun violence:

You can be in a club and bump into somebody on accident, a little of your liquor, a little of your water spill on their coat, now, you go outside, he got five or six people out their because you spilled your damn drink. Which, a person should be able to say, "man, my fault dog, I apologize, you know how it is." You got people that just ain’t gonna be right, man.

Tavis Smiley: So you take that, you put guns into the equation, that changes mediation efforts dramatically.

Several times they talk about how small matters of respect lead to violence. The conclusion is that guns are the problem.

I don’t really know what to do with this. In my life (and I suspect all of your lives) issues of respect do not lead to violence. As a result I have a hard time thinking of this as a gun problem.

OK, so it’s a violence problem. The other thing that gets me is there’s this strong undertone to this conversation that "we aren’t doing enough." This attitude is of course the norm for an NPR show. But it’s not we — I, and everyone I know is not part of this we. My "we" does not resort to violence. My "we" does not project respect into minor social interactions. When I say it’s not "we", I don’t think it’s just that I tuned into the wrong radio show — am I being recruited into this "we"? Do they really think listeners are part of this "we"?

There is no reflection in these shows about why this (whatever the issue of the show) is a general problem. Of course most talk shows tend to generalize wildly, to turn every anecdote into a sign of some change in culture, some disease of our society, something more than just an anecdote. (Though some good NPR shows do not attempt to generalize anecdotes at all.)

There’s a strong attitude, in this show and others, that this is a problem for us all to solve. Why exactly is this a problem for me to solve? Why is this a problem for government to solve? (I’m not a conservative, but I feel it’s unfair that only conservatives seem to be able to ask that question: why should government solve this?)

I don’t ask these questions rhetorically (and maybe that makes me different from the conservatives, who tend to only ask questions rhetorically). There may be a good answer to these questions. But it’s far too easy to say "we must do something about this" without saying who and why. We (especially those of us who listen to NPR) are all far too fatigued with the constant admonitions that not enough is being done, and something has to change. This kind of approach is not an effective call to action.

And it’s yet another thing trying to make me feel bad for something that’s not my fault. And dammit, it really isn’t my fault!


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