Posts Tagged ‘youtube’

Want to Know the Facts? Turn off the TV and Logon

Posted on May 5th, 2009 by Karl Beecher

I’m going off-topic slightly here, but, in a way, I still remain on it.

Swine flu is upon us. Members of the public who know nothing of epidemiology want to know the facts about the virus.  Meet Thunderf00t, a YouTube user and producer of some rather excellent videos, at their best when debunking the pseudo-scientific and countering with commentaries on the beauties of real science. Recently, he has been posting videos on swine flu, simply explaining the facts in front of a whiteboard like a lecturer.

[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]
[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Now, I do not know about the quality of the TV news you receive locally, but if I contrast the way Thunderf00t here disseminates swine flu information to what I have seen on television news in the UK, then I am afraid the spontaneous voluntary effort by Thunderf00t wins hands down in veracity, relevance and comprehensiveness. A 10 minute piece from him is full of the most relevant preventative information, motivations behind what the WHO advocate,  and definitions of all those terms you might have heard being passed around. Conversely, a 10 minute piece on the BBC News channel is cluttered with useless footage like reporters interviewing nearby neighbours of a young couple in England diagnosed with the illness, and asking them what they feel about it, as if anybody cares. I do not watch much television news these days; I have not seen how Sky News or ITV News have handled the outbreak, but given how the BBC is relatively sedate and calm in its delivery, I would not expect them being any better in this respect.

Thunderf00t even slips in a rejoinder to an American politician, whose peculiar ideology of “government = bad”, dismisses any notion that public agencies should get involved in preventative measures.

But returning to topic, this reflects a wider problem with the delivery of TV news, something already observed upon superbly by people like Charlie Brooker and Adam Curtis. To be fair it is probably not the institutions themselves that are the problem; after all, if you go to the BBC News website (and hunt around a little bit), you will find a decent page with information about swine flu, which they still cannot resist peppering with bits of irrelevance, admittedly.

If I want the facts given with an objective delivery, it seems television news is far from the first place to go.

Myths and Misconceptions: What Open Source ISN’T

Posted on March 3rd, 2009 by Karl Beecher

The Computer Floss series continues over at YouTube. Here’s what was talked about in episode 2, “Myths and Misconceptions”:

A few myths and misconceptions have arisen over the years about what free and open source software actually is. This edition of Computer Floss addresses some of these and spells out what open source isn’t.

Myth: Open Source Software Costs Nothing

This is perhaps the most common misconception concerning open source, and it’s easy to see where this mistake comes from. Firstly, of course, our old bearded friend Richard Stallman, whom you should remember as the godfather of this open source thingamajig, when he came up with the idea, decided to call his creation “free software”. He meant “free as in freedom”, but in English free can also mean “free as in cost”.

Nowhere in the definition of free or open source does it state that software must be free of charge. In fact, the GPL, the General Public Licence, the most popular licence used to cover open source code, explicitly states that you may charge any price you wish when distributing.

The second reason is the fact that much open source software is available for no cost, which might lead people to believe that all of it is free of charge. As I’ll explain a little later, that’s not the case.

Myth: Open Source is the Same as Freeware/Shareware

Freeware and shareware are actually very different from open source. Both freeware and shareware are most definitely available without cost by definition, and, as we just learnt, this is not the case with open source software. But more importantly, freeware and shareware typically come with restrictions.

A freeware program can come with conditions such as allowing personal use only, or non-commercial use; furthermore, it may even come in a binary executable form only, and as we learnt in the first edition, that’s bad.

Shareware is only available on a trial basis, enforced by making it usable for a limited number of days or by taking out some functionality. Those restrictions will only be removed when you’ve coughed up the cash.

Myth: Open Source is Communism

This, frankly bizarre myth, equates open source software with Marxism. It’s hard to know exactly what someone means when they claim this: Communism advocates a stateless, classless society based on common ownership of property and means of production — not much to do with software.

It’s no better if we try and draw analogies: A central principle of Communism, “common ownership”, runs slap bang in opposition to the way that open source respects the author’s copyright. The author of a piece of open source code is still automatically the owner of that code, it’s just that the licence applied to the code grants certain rights to the users. Furthermore, another stated aim of communism is to end capitalism, so given that open source allows you to charge any fee you like for software, it’s really a lot more compatible with a market-based economy. In fact, open source might be a bit too pro-capitalist for some of those lefties.


Ballmer: shouty

It’s hard not to conclude that this labelling of open source software as communism is an attempt at FUD by those who prefer proprietary software, such as Steve Ballmer, the head of Microsoft, seen here in an old Microsoft advert.

Look at him, he’s insane — no seriously I think he might be quite ill.

Myth: Open Source Means You Can See the Source Code

Well, close; this brief definition doesn’t do the concept any justice, but get used sometimes, so it’s worth reiterating the basic tenets: Open source software requires that any user who requests access to the source code can obtain it (with or without a fee), and also grants that user the right to change and redistribute it. This is enforced by applying a licence to the that allows all users these rights; a licence that doesn’t allow them is *not* a free or open source licence.

Myth: There is No Accountability or Support in Open Source

People, especially businesses and other organizations, like to know that someone is responsible for their software when it goes wrong. A myth has grown, perhaps because much open source software is written by volunteers and enthusiasts, that no-one owns the software and therefore there is no accountability or support.

We’ve already established that open source code does have an owner, namely the author, but that author is under no obligation to support the software after its release. However, because of the nature of open source licences, what happens in practice is that organizations come along that take existing software, and offer support or warranty on it. Non-profit foundations like Mozilla or Apache, or companies like Red Hat or even IBM, are examples of organizations that are supporting open source software right now out in the real world. And this is in addition to the endless websites and forums where people can post problems, advice and fixes — a process made very much easier with access to the source code.

What is Open Source?

Posted on January 27th, 2009 by Karl Beecher

Computer Floss, the video series that aims to enlighten the general audience about free/open source software. Here is a transcript of the first episode:

Welcome to Computer Floss, a series of videos all about the the open source software movement. In this series I’ll be trying to enlighten and inform you about what open source actually is, how it works, why it matters and who’s doing it.

You might have heard this phrase “open source” before, but it may not mean much to you. So you may be thinking: What is it Why should I care? What does this open source thingy matter to me?

Dilbert... a nerd.

Dilbert: nerd.

To begin to answer these questions, I’ll have to lay out one or two fundamentals. As I’m sure you’re aware, programmers are spotty nerds that sit in front of a computer typing away all day long writing programs — but what are they actually doing when they write programs?  They’re writing a collection of instructions, and these lay out exactly how a program behaves. These instructions are called source code, and what’s critical about source code is that it’s understandable by humans beings…and programmers too.

Source code is *not* understandable by a computer, so before it can be run by a computer it has to be put through a special program called a compiler and turned into what’s called machine code, that archetypal binary sequence of 1s and 0s that only a computer can make sense of.

And so, at the end of a compilation, you have two things: you have the program that’s made up of machine code, and you still have the source code you began with. It’s essential to keep that source code, because if you ever want to extend your program, or fix it when something goes wrong (as it inevitably does), you need to amend the source code and run it through the compiler again to create an updated copy of the binary software.

With these fundamentals explained, we can use them to define “open source software”, so here goes: For computer software to be “open source”, the author must permit users of the software access to the source code, and grant them the right to change and redistribute that source code according to their needs. In recent years, this concept has become important to a great many organizations, to the extent that *you* might have heard of it and now prowl the internet looking for videos that explain what the hell it is.

Now we know what it is, we should know *why* it’s important. There are many reasons why, and later videos will explain them, but this is a good opportunity to quickly dip our little toe into history and tell the story of the spiritual father-figure of open source software, bearded computer god, Richard Stallman.

Richard Stallman... bearded

Stallman: beard

Stallman was a programmer in the 1970s, and up until that point hardware was king; computer companies cared only about selling computers — and software was just a boring sideshow. But this notion died away along with disco as the 1980s set in. Gradually, software became important, and lots of companies thought that they could make more money by selling only the binary code and keeping the source code a secret, rendering it proprietary. Stallman grew increasingly frustrated by this, until everything came to ahead when his organization got a new printer. Unlike their old one, the source code that controlled this new printer was kept secret and proprietary by the supplier, so Stallman was no longer able to fix all the faults when the damned thing wouldn’t work properly. It would have been quite a simple job for Stallman to fix the faults, and even tailor it to his organizations particular needs. But when the supplier denied Stallman’s request for a copy of the source code, citing it as a trade secret, he got mad with the increasing inability to alter the software that he had paid for, and so quit, and started the GNU Project devoted to developing what he called “free software”, for which “open source software” is basically an alternative name.

The printer story is an important one because it illustrates what happens when source code is kept proprietary. Under these conditions, software essentially becomes a black box which closes off the insides to any amateur tinkering, like sealing up the engine of your car. In fact, worse than that, it welds the box shut in such a way that it’s impossible for *anyone* to get inside to make any changes whatsoever, other than the original manufacturer. When software is open source, it guarantees that you, or anyone you choose, can alter the software in whatever way you want. And that’s, well, good isn’t it? After all, even if you knew nothing about car mechanics, you’d still prefer that your engine wasn’t welded permanently

In The Beginning…

Posted on January 21st, 2009 by Karl Beecher

Why write a blog?

Well, why not. It seems like everyone else is.

I’ve been racking my brains to decide what I have to blog, or rather what is interesting enough to share with people. My field is computers; specifically research. I’ve been spending a few years researching free/open source software now, and I think I’ve got into the stride of things enough now to start to write about it.

In this blog, most of the time I plan my entries to fall into one of three categories:

  1. Posts about my research: I’ll share my various little findings that might be of interest to people who want to understand more about free/open source. I’ll try and make them as to understand as possible — if you want the real technical treatment, I’ll point you to the technical paper.
  2. About approaches to research: I also want to pass on the methods and tools you can use to carry out research on software. I hope this will be of interest to practitioners as well as researchers.
  3. Videos: Another little pet project of mine (called Computer Floss) is to produce a series of videos for a general audience that explains all the various facets of open source. I’ve already begun, and you can see them over at:

Don’t ask why my username there is directrod.