Impressions from Malawi

Madonna’s adoption scandal may have catapulted Malawi into international headlines, but for my friends Alex Antener, Nathalie Bissig and me, the country has had some significance long before US pop stars have started buying children out of it.

nathalies malawi picture

Alex is currently on his second visit there and Nathalie is joining him on her first. That means that I’m still stuck in Switzerland 🙂

I’m trying to support Alex’ new project in Malawi, “Exterminate All the Brutes”, from here. So as you can guess, these impressions are not my own, they are photographs and drawings made by Nathalie Bissig in Malawi, who is in charge of documenting Alex’ work as well as doing work of her own. Nathalie has posted a blog entry with some more information and a link to the photo album of her sketchbook. The images are free content, released under the Creative Commons ShareAlike 2.5 license.

malawi picture 2

I just wanted to tickle your curiosity for these wonderful images. I will probably write about the software libre aspects of all this at a later date, or in the blog at Over there, I’ve already talked about thin client setups with Edubuntu that the students of The Polytechnic will subsequently be working with.

A very, very brief History of Personal Computing

The history of personal computing is full of reused ideas. Let’s see:

* Researchers fiddle with the first [GUI](, the mouse, [Ethernet networking]( and the precursors to all other modern elements of personal computing at Xerox’ [Palo Alto Research Center]( (PARC).
* Xerox PARC introduces [Alto](, [Star](
* Apple steals GUI idea and mouse from Xerox, introduces [Lisa](
* MIT steals GUI idea and mouse from Xerox, introduces [X Window System]( (It’s still not called X-Windows!)
* Richard Stallman announces [GNU](
* The Internet is born (but barely anyone knows).
* Apple introduces Macintosh, also with GUI and mouse, but much cheaper than Lisa and more successful.
* Microsoft steals GUI ideas and mouse from Apple and Xerox, introduces Windows.
* After two unsuccessful versions, Windows 3 is finally a success, largely because Microsoft’s marketing had succeeded to convince PC makers to preinstall it on their computers and thereby not giving consumers much choice in what operating system they want in the first place.
* Microsoft deliberately introduces errors into MS-DOS so that Windows would not run properly on competitors’ editions of DOS in order to reclaim lost market share and stifle competition.
* Apple cheerfully introduces new versions of Mac OS, each with some innovations in user interface design.
* Linux Torvalds releases Linux, a kernel for x86 PCs.
* The GNU project ports their packages onto Linux, forming the GNU/Linux operating system that is known today. The GNU project aims to create a free (as in software libre) UNIX-compatible operating system. Ideas stolen from UNIX? You be the judge!
* Be, Inc. introduces [BeOS](, a very modern operating system for personal computers. It had some features that Microsoft tried but failed to implement in their own operating systems even a decade later.
* Microsoft steals GUI innovations from Apple, introduces Windows 95.
* The [KDE project]( steals GUI innovations from generally everyone, introduces K Desktop Environment (KDE) running on the X Window System and, specifically, on GNU/Linux.
* The [GNOME]( project joins the merry pillaging, concerned about non-free components of KDE. Introduces GNOME desktop environment running on the X Window System and, specifically, on GNU/Linux.
* Microsoft fears competition from BeOS as Be, Inc. gets a distribution contract with a PC manufacturer. This manufacturer’s PCs would come with BeOS preinstalled for free. Microsoft uses their fiscal leverage to force the manufacturer to make BeOS invisible to users, leaving them with no idea that the system is installed and no way to easily run it. This is probably one of the key reasons that BeOS was not commercially successful and Be, Inc. went bankrupt, even though their product was technologically sound and years ahead of the competition at the time.
* Apple introduces Mac OS X with many innovations, though [not all of them without critics]( Funnily, Mac OS X is UNIXlike enough to also run the X Window System if it wants to.
* Microsoft releases Windows XP, a bastard child of Windows 98/Me and Windows 2000.
* Apple introduces Mac OS X versions 10.4 (Tiger) and 10.5 (Leopard) with some user interface innovations and gadgets.
* Microsoft steals innovations and gadgets from Apple’s Mac OS X, introduces Windows Vista.

As you can see, everybody stole and continues to steal from everybody else. There are very few innovators in between, only the fewest of them consistent in the amount and quality of innovations they produce. Even Apple had bad years, when barely anything changed and they had to struggle just to keep their system from losing key developers like Adobe due mainly to lack of memory protection and bad multitasking in Mac OS 8 and 9.

In other aspects, you can clearly see that some elements we take for granted today were only possible because one company or person copied the other. GNU/Linux would not have happened in this way without the UNIX systems of old. Windows 95 would not have happened without the innovations in Mac OS. All GUI history can be traced back to Xerox PARC, but it would be ludicrous to give Xerox credit for the spring-loaded folders of the Mac OS Finder or the treemap view of Konqueror’s file browsing mode.

What, then, is stealing? Can you steal an idea? How much do you need to add to someone else’s idea to make it your own, and make it an innovation?

What is to think of companies trying to kill the competition’s innovation? I’ve included the Microsoft vs. Be, Inc. example to ask that question, and also the one where Microsoft deliberately broke MS-DOS so the competition couldn’t run Windows properly. These are heavy-handed tactics that have positive outcomes for absolutely no one (except of course Microsoft).

Also, what are the benefits of reusing a concept? Every computer user today knows what a window is, what a scrollbar has to look like and what its function is. Things have evolved so far that even keyboard shortcuts in the same genre of program do the same. Ctrl-D or Command-D are expected to add a bookmark in a browser, for example. These similarities make computer use, and for many of us that means our daily lives, far, far easier.

I think we’d all benefit from more reciprocal stealing.

Anti-DRM protest in Zürich

I participated in a protest against [Digital Restrictions Management (DRM)]( today in front of the DataQuest Apple Store near Zürich main station.

Georg Greve wrote an [article about the event](, so why should I bore you with my own recapitulation?

All in all, I was amazed how much time people actually spent to listen to us explain the situation, and how many agreed that DRM is a bad idea, and giving it legislative backing through the panicky, overly restrictive copyright laws that are now threatening to come to Europe is even worse.

A lot of fun was had by all!

PS: You just have to check out the [iPod ad inspired artwork]( they have there, as part of the [Defective by Design]( campaign. I think it conveys the DRM idea quite cleary.

*Update: Here are [my pictures]( of the event. CC-licensed, ofcoz!*

The Tale of the Secret Lasagne

Do you like lasagne? Let’s assume that you do, otherwise this whole thought experiment breaks apart. What if the recipe for lasagne were a secret, guarded by one chain of restaurants?

You’d have to go to one of the restaurants from that one restaurant chain to get your lasagne. The chef there is hiding in the kitchen with his assistants, masterfully layering the pasta, whisking bechamel sauce, and stirring in his huge pot of bolognese. The scents! Garlic, fresh herbs, onions frying in their pans, everything coming together in a choreography of knives, ladles, flour and white chef’s hats. Wonderful!

Only you won’t see any of that, because you don’t get to peek.

The restaurant chain has decided that no one else may know how to make their lasagne. You are welcome to come and eat the lasagne at their restaurant, but **you may not**:

– Share your particular serving of lasagne with anyone else.
– Have the recipe to make your own lasagne at home.
– Take apart the lasagne and guess how it might have been made.
– Change anything about your lasagne.
– Eat this casual lasagne in a business or otherwise commercial meeting.
– Put this lasagne on more than one plate. Only the plate the waiter brought you may be used with this lasagne. If you try to put it on another plate, it will be taken away from you.

The price of lasagne would be entirely at the restaurant chain’s whim.

Are you happy with this situation? Maybe not. Maybe you want to make lasagne at home, for your friends. Maybe you want really spicy bolognese or skip the bechamel sauce and replace the deadcow with veggies so your vegan buddy can eat, too. But you can’t. The restaurant won’t tell you how to make lasagne. You can go ahead and try to figure it out on your own, but lasagne is quite complicated. You’d never get everything right, and then things just won’t taste the way they should. People trying to eat your lasagne would complain. Also, you might get a visit from the restaurant’s lawyers if they find out you’re trying to make lasagne. After all, the company owns patents in lasagne and they have to make sure you’re not copying their secret mix of spices.

You decide that this is not a cheeryhappy situation. You’d rather cook your own food. Maybe you don’t even *like* lasagne that much, even if by far most of the planet is eating lasagne exclusively. You decide that you’ll look around for recipes, maybe there is other pasta you can make.

What you discover is that there are other people fed up with the policies of the restaurant. “Boo,” they say, “we want Spaghetti Carbonara, Texas Ranch style!” Or they want delicious little Ravioli filled with a puréed scampi, suited for business meetings. They want to *know* how these things are made, so they can make their own variations, so they can adapt the dough. Glutene-free tagliatelle for all!

People have special needs like that. Companies are just collections of people, so companies have special needs, too. People want to feel safe knowing that when mother, sadly but inevitably, passes away, her recipe for Pappardelle del Cacciatore is still here to delight friends and family. People want to cook together, share ideas, share recipes, make little changes here and there and when they’ve changed someone else’s recipe enough, they want to call it their own.

It would be silly to keep recipes a secret, yet if you compare recipes to source code, that’s exactly what many companies are doing today. Entire operating systems are delivered in a binary-only form. If you want to use them, you are forced into accepting a license that prevents you from ever figuring out how they work. The company/restaurant even forbids you from sharing the operating system with other people. It’s as if you could only eat your lasagne ready-cooked and finished, always the same lasagne, the same taste. You’d never even know if everyone at your table can actually eat it.

But perhaps times change and people don’t want to be treated like mental prisoners anymore. Maybe one day everyone’s fed up with lasagne. No one visits the restaurant anymore, and because the restaurant doesn’t want to change its policies, it goes bankrupt. Too bad that the recipe was a secret, because now it’s gone. Forever.

## Hints for deciphering this possibly awkward analogy

– The recipe stands for source code.
– The lasagne stands for proprietary programs of any kind. Proprietary means that only one single company controls the program in question, most of the time only that company has the source code and refuses to cooperate with others or, god forbid, share the code. One example for this kind of software is Microsoft’s Windows.
– The cooks who’d rather cook their own pasta symbolize the free software community. With free software (software libre), anyone can see the source code, anyone can make adaptations, anyone can publish their own changes and versions. **Everyone is a cook!** Amateurs welcome.
– The dying mother who takes her recipe into the grave (I’m sorry about that analogy) symbolizes what happens when a company who made non-free, closed software goes out of business. If you’ve been using that company’s software, you cannot be sure that you can ever again use any of the files you and your colleagues created. You cannot continue working with their software because it was secret and is no longer being updated. Your company will have to face the huge expenses of switching to another solution and recovering all the data in its old, non-free and closed files. With open standards and free software, none of these headaches and financial losses would occur.

So, what benefits are there to proprietary software? Wouldn’t you rather cook your own, or eat what other people you know are cooking, and have a say in what goes into the pot?

Wars are created in the minds of men

As new wars are erupting in various locations on the globe right now, and old wars are continuing without any sign of letting off, I think it’s good to be reminded of these two sentences. I found both of them close to each other in a single publication, so I’ll quote from there:

[…] the UNESCO charter begins with the preamble: “Since it is in the minds of men that wars are created, it is in the minds of men that the fortresses against war must be erected”. This is almost exactly like the very first verse of the Dhammapada which states: “Mind precedes all wholesome and unwholesome states and is their chief; they are all mind wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts, misery follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox”.

Ven K. Sri Dhammananda in Buddhism for the Future