Tag Archives: usenet

The Quick vs. the Strong: Commentary on Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway

Post Syndicated from Bruce Schneier original https://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2017/05/the_quick_vs_th.html

Technological advances change the world. That’s partly because of what they are, but even more because of the social changes they enable. New technologies upend power balances. They give groups new capabilities, increased effectiveness, and new defenses. The Internet decades have been a never-ending series of these upendings. We’ve seen existing industries fall and new industries rise. We’ve seen governments become more powerful in some areas and less in others. We’ve seen the rise of a new form of governance: a multi-stakeholder model where skilled individuals can have more power than multinational corporations or major governments.

Among the many power struggles, there is one type I want to particularly highlight: the battles between the nimble individuals who start using a new technology first, and the slower organizations that come along later.

In general, the unempowered are the first to benefit from new technologies: hackers, dissidents, marginalized groups, criminals, and so on. When they first encountered the Internet, it was transformative. Suddenly, they had access to technologies for dissemination, coordination, organization, and action — things that were impossibly hard before. This can be incredibly empowering. In the early decades of the Internet, we saw it in the rise of Usenet discussion forums and special-interest mailing lists, in how the Internet routed around censorship, and how Internet governance bypassed traditional government and corporate models. More recently, we saw it in the SOPA/PIPA debate of 2011-12, the Gezi protests in Turkey and the various “color” revolutions, and the rising use of crowdfunding. These technologies can invert power dynamics, even in the presence of government surveillance and censorship.

But that’s just half the story. Technology magnifies power in general, but the rates of adoption are different. Criminals, dissidents, the unorganized — all outliers — are more agile. They can make use of new technologies faster, and can magnify their collective power because of it. But when the already-powerful big institutions finally figured out how to use the Internet, they had more raw power to magnify.

This is true for both governments and corporations. We now know that governments all over the world are militarizing the Internet, using it for surveillance, censorship, and propaganda. Large corporations are using it to control what we can do and see, and the rise of winner-take-all distribution systems only exacerbates this.

This is the fundamental tension at the heart of the Internet, and information-based technology in general. The unempowered are more efficient at leveraging new technology, while the powerful have more raw power to leverage. These two trends lead to a battle between the quick and the strong: the quick who can make use of new power faster, and the strong who can make use of that same power more effectively.

This battle is playing out today in many different areas of information technology. You can see it in the security vs. surveillance battles between criminals and the FBI, or dissidents and the Chinese government. You can see it in the battles between content pirates and various media organizations. You can see it where social-media giants and Internet-commerce giants battle against new upstarts. You can see it in politics, where the newer Internet-aware organizations fight with the older, more established, political organizations. You can even see it in warfare, where a small cadre of military can keep a country under perpetual bombardment — using drones — with no risk to the attackers.

This battle is fundamental to Cory Doctorow’s new novel Walkaway. Our heroes represent the quick: those who have checked out of traditional society, and thrive because easy access to 3D printers enables them to eschew traditional notions of property. Their enemy is the strong: the traditional government institutions that exert their power mostly because they can. This battle rages through most of the book, as the quick embrace ever-new technologies and the strong struggle to catch up.

It’s easy to root for the quick, both in Doctorow’s book and in the real world. And while I’m not going to give away Doctorow’s ending — and I don’t know enough to predict how it will play out in the real world — right now, trends favor the strong.

Centralized infrastructure favors traditional power, and the Internet is becoming more centralized. This is true both at the endpoints, where companies like Facebook, Apple, Google, and Amazon control much of how we interact with information. It’s also true in the middle, where companies like Comcast increasingly control how information gets to us. It’s true in countries like Russia and China that increasingly legislate their own national agenda onto their pieces of the Internet. And it’s even true in countries like the US and the UK, that increasingly legislate more government surveillance capabilities.

At the 1996 World Economic Forum, cyber-libertarian John Perry Barlow issued his “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” telling the assembled world leaders and titans of Industry: “You have no moral right to rule us, nor do you possess any methods of enforcement that we have true reason to fear.” Many of us believed him a scant 20 years ago, but today those words ring hollow.

But if history is any guide, these things are cyclic. In another 20 years, even newer technologies — both the ones Doctorow focuses on and the ones no one can predict — could easily tip the balance back in favor of the quick. Whether that will result in more of a utopia or a dystopia depends partly on these technologies, but even more on the social changes resulting from these technologies. I’m short-term pessimistic but long-term optimistic.

This essay previously appeared on Crooked Timber.

[$] 25 Years of Linux — so far

Post Syndicated from corbet original http://lwn.net/Articles/698042/rss

On August 25, 1991, an obscure student in Finland named Linus Benedict
Torvalds posted
a message
to the comp.os.minix Usenet newsgroup saying that he was
working on a free operating system as a project to learn about the x86
architecture. He cannot possibly have known that he was launching a
project that would change the computing industry in fundamental ways.
Twenty-five years later, it is fair to say that none of us foresaw where
Linux would go — a lesson that should be taken to heart when trying to
imagine where it might go from here.

Perl is Free Software’s COBOL, and That’s Ok!

Post Syndicated from Bradley M. Kuhn original http://ebb.org/bkuhn/blog/2012/12/18/perl-cobol.html

In 1991, I’d just gotten my first real programming job for two reasons:
nepotism, and a willingness to write code for $12/hour. I was working
as a contractor to a blood testing laboratory, where the main
development job was writing custom software to handle, process, and do
statistical calculations on blood testing results, primarily for
paternity testing.

My father had been a software developer since the early 1970s, and worked
as a contractor at this blood lab since the late 1970s. As the calendar
had marched toward the early 1990s, technology cruft had collected. The
old TI mainframe, once the primary computer, now only had one job left:
statistical calculation for paternity testing, written in TI’s Pascal.
Slowly but surely, the other software had been rewritten and moved to an
AT&T 3B2/600 running Unix System VR3.2.3. That latter machine was the
first access I had to a real computer, and certainly the first time I had
access to Usenet. This changed my life.

Ironically, even on that 3B2, the accounting system software was written
in COBOL. This seemed like “more cruft” to me, but fortunately
there was a third-party vendor who handled that software, so I didn’t have
to program in COBOL.

I had the good fortune, actually, to help with the interesting problems,
which included grokking data from a blood testing machine that dumped a
bunch of data in some weird reporting format onto its RS-232 port at the
end of every testing cycle. We had to pull the data of that RS-232
interface and load the data in the database. Perl, since it treated
regular expressions as first-class citizens, and had all the Unix block
device fundamentals baked in as native (for the RS-232 I/O), was the
obvious choice.

After that project, I was intrigued by this programming language that had
made the job so easy. My father gave me a copy of the Camel book —
which was, at that point, almost hot off the presses. I read it over a
weekend and I decided that I didn’t really want to program in any other
language again. Perl was just 4 years old then; it was a young language
— Perl 4 had just been released. I started trying to embed Perl into
our database system, but it wasn’t designed for embedding into other
systems as a scripting language. So, I ended up using Tcl instead for the big
project of rewriting the statical calculation software to replace the TI
mainframe. After a year or two writing tens of thousands of lines of Tcl,
I was even more convinced that I’d rather be writing in Perl. When
Perl 5 was released, I switched back to Perl and never really looked

Perl ultimately became my first Free Software community. I lurked on
perl5-porters for years, almost always a bit too timid to post, or ever
send in a patch. But, as I finished my college degree and went to graduate
school, I focused my
thesis work on Perl and virtual machines
. I went to the Perl
conference every year. I was even in the room for the perl5-porters
meeting the day
after Jon
Orwant’s staged tantrum
, which was the catalyst for the Perl 6
effort. I wrote more than a few RFC’s during
the Perl 6 specification
. And, to this day, even though I’ve since
done plenty of Python
, too, when I need to program to do something, I open an Emacs
buffer and start typing #!/usr/bin/perl.

Meanwhile, I never did learn COBOL. But, I was amazed to hear that
multiple folks who graduated with me eventually got jobs at a health
insurance company. The company trained them in COBOL, so that they could
maintain COBOL systems all day. Everyone once in a while, I idly search a
job site for COBOL. Today, that search is returning 2,338 open jobs. Most
developers never hear about it, of course. It’s far from the exciting new
technology, but it’s there, it’s needed and it’s obviously useful to
someone. Indeed, the COBOL standard was just updated 10 years ago, in

I notice these days, though, that when I mentioned having done a lot of
Perl development in my life, the average Javascript, Python, or Haskell
developer looks at me like I looked at my dad when he told me that
accounting system was written in COBOL. I’d bet they’d have my same
sigh of relief when told that “someone else” maintains that
code and they won’t have to bother with it.

Yet, I still know people heavily immersed in the Perl community. Indeed,
there is a very active Perl community out there, just like there’s an
active COBOL community. I’m not active in Perl like I once was, but it’s a
community of people, who write new code and maintain old code in Perl, and
that has value. More importantly, though, (and unlike COBOL), Perl was
born on Usenet, and was released as Free Software from the day of its first
release, twenty-five years ago today. Perl was born as part of Free
Software culture, and it lives on.

So, I get it now. I once scoffed at the idea that anyone would write
in COBOL anymore, as if the average COBOL programmer was some sort of
second-class technology citizen. COBOL programmers in 1991, and even
today, are surely good programmers — doing useful things for their
jobs. The same is true of Perl these days: maybe Perl is finally
getting a bit old fashioned — but there are good developers, still
doing useful things with Perl. Perl is becoming Free Software’s COBOL:
an aging language that still has value.

Perl turns 25
years old
today. COBOL was 25 years old in 1984, right at the time
when I first started programming. To those young people who start
programming today: I hope you’ll learn from my mistake. Don’t scoff at the
Perl programmers. 25 years from now, you may regret scoffing at them as
much as I regret scoffing at the COBOL developers. Programmers are
programmers; don’t judge them because you don’t like their favorite

Update (2013-04-12):
I posted
a comment on Allison Randal’s blog about similar issues of Perl’s

I Received a 2012 O’Reilly Open Source Award

Post Syndicated from Bradley M. Kuhn original http://ebb.org/bkuhn/blog/2012/07/23/award.html

On last Friday 20 July
2012, I

an O’Reilly
Open Source Award
, in appreciation for my decade of work in Free
Software non-profit organizations, including my current daily work at
the Software Freedom Conservancy, my work at the

FSF (including
starting FSF’s associate membership program), and for my work creating
and defending copyleft licensing, including such things as inventing the
idea behind
the Affero
, helping
draft AGPLv3,
and, more generally, enforcing copyleft.

I’m very proud of all this work. My obsession with software freedom
goes back far into my past, when I downloaded my first copy
of GNU Emacs in 1991
from Usenet and my first GNU/Linux
distribution, SLS,
in 1992, booting for the first time, on the first computer I ever
owned, a copy of Linux 0.99pl12.

I honestly have written a lot less Free Software than I wanted to.
I’ve made a patch here and there over the years to dozens of projects.
I was a co-maintainer of the AGPL’d
PokerSource system
for a while, and I made various (mostly
mixed-success) attempts to build a
better virtual machine for Perl
, which now is done much
better than I ever
by the Parrot project.

Despite the fact that making better software was what enthralled me
most, feeling the helplessness of supporting, using and writing
proprietary software in my brief for-profit career convinced me that lack
of adequate software freedom was the most dangerous social justice problem
in the computing community. I furthermore realized that lots of people
were ready and willing to write great Free Software, but that few wanted
to do the (frankly more boring) work of running non-profit organizations
to defend and advance software freedom. Thus, I devoted myself to helping
FSF and Conservancy to be successful organizations that could assist in
that regard. I’m privileged and proud to continue my service to both of
these organizations.

Being recognized for this work means a great deal to me. Awards have a
special meaning for me, because financial success never really mattered
much to me, but knowing that I’ve made a contribution to something
greater than myself matters greatly. Receiving an award that indicates
that I’ve succeeded in that regard invigorates me to do even more. So,
at this moment of receiving this award, I’d like to thank all of you in
the software freedom community who appreciate
and support my work. It
means a great deal to me that my work has made a positive impact.

LibrePlanet 2010 Completes Its Orbit

Post Syndicated from Bradley M. Kuhn original http://ebb.org/bkuhn/blog/2010/03/26/libreplanet.html

Seven and a half years ago, I got this idea: the membership of the
Free Software Foundation should have a
chance to get together every year and learn about what the FSF has been
doing for the last year. I was so nervous
at the
first one on Saturday 15 March 2003
, that
I even
wore a suit
which I rarely do.

The basic idea was simple: the FSF Board of Directors came into town
anyway each March for the annual board meeting. Why not give a chance
for FSF associate members to meet the leadership and staff of FSF and
ask hard questions to their hearts’ content? I’m all about
transparency, as you know. 🙂

Since leaving
the position of Executive Director a few months before the 2005
, I’ve attended every annual meeting, just as an ordinary
Associate Member and
FSF volunteer. It’s always enjoyable to attend a conference organized
by someone else that you used to help organize; it’s like, after having
done sysadmin work for other people for years, to have someone keep a
machine running and up to date just for you. It’s been wonderful to
watch the FSF AM meeting grow into a full-fledged conference for
discussion and collaboration between folks from all over the Free
Software world. “One room, one track, one day” has become
“five rooms, three tracks, and three days” with the
proverbial complaint throughout: But, why do I have to miss this
great session so that I can go to some other great session!?!

Some highlights for me this year were:

I saw John
a well-deserved FSF Award for the Advancement of Free Software

I got to spend time with the
intrepid gnash
developer Rob Savoye
again, whom I knew of for years (his legend precedes him) but
I’d rarely had a chance to see in person regularly, until lately.

I met so many young people excited about software freedom. I can only
imagine to be only 19 or 20 years old and have the opportunity meet
other Free Software developers in person. At that age, I considered
myself lucky to simply have Usenet access so that I could follow and
participate in online discussions about Free Software (good ol’
gnu.misc.discuss ;). I am so glad that young folks, some from as far
away as Brazil, had the opportunity to visit and speak about their

On the informal Friday sessions, I was a bit amazed that I pulled off
a marathon six-hour session of mostly well-received talks/discussions
(for which I readily admit I had not prepped well). The first three
hours was about the challenges of software freedom on mobile devices,
and the second three were about the nitty-gritty details of the hardest
and most technical GPL enforcement task: the C&CS check. People
seemed to actually enjoy watching me break half my Fedora chroots trying
to build some source code for a plasma television. Someone even told me
later: it was more fun because we got to see you make all the

Finally (and I realize I’ve probably buried the lede here, but I’ve
kept the list chronological, since I wrote most of it before I found out
this last thing), after the FSF Board meeting, which followed
LibrePlanet, I was informed by a phone call from my good
friend Henry Poole
that I’d been elected to
FSF’s Board of
, which has now
been announced
by FSF on Peter Brown’s blog
. I’ve often told the story that when I
first learned about the FSF as a young programmer and sysadmin, I
thought that someday, maybe I could be good enough to get a job as a
sysadmin for the FSF. I did indeed volunteer as a sysadmin for the FSF
starting around 1996, but I truly felt I’d exceeded any possible dream
when I was later named FSF’s Executive Director, and was able to serve
in that post for so many years. Now, being part of the Board of
Directors is an even greater opportunity for involvement in the
organization that I’ve loved and respected for so long.

FSF is an organization based around a very simple, principled idea:
that users and programmers alike deserve inalienable rights to copy,
share, modify, and redistribute all the software that they use. This
issue isn’t merely about making better software (although Free Software
developers usually do, anyway); it’s about a principle of morality:
everyone using computers should be treated well and be given the maximal
opportunity to treat their neighbors well, too. Helping make this
simple idea into reality is the center of all the work I’ve done for the
last 12 years of my life, and I expect it will be the focus of my
(hopefully many) remaining years. I am thankful that the Voting Members
of FSF have given me this additional opportunity to help our shared
cause. I plan to work hard in this and all the other responsibilities
that I already have to our Free Software community. Like everyone on
FSF’s Board of Directors, I serve in that role completely as a
volunteer, so in some ways I feel this is just a natural extension of
the volunteer work I’ve continued to do for the FSF regularly since I
left its employment in 2005.

Finally, I was glad to meet (or meet again) so many FSF supporters at
LibrePlanet, and I deeply hope that I can serve our shared goal well in
this additional role.