Note to readers

This is a blog that I'm required to keep that's full of unedited, near stream-of-consciousness reactions to similarly required and related readings in a graduate course in N.C. State University's Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media program. The way these posts are written help me interrogate and understand what's going on in our readings. I'm identifying what's troublesome so that I can give it more thought, but the posts aren't written in a style that's productive for audiences outside of our class to read. That's by design. I start with contestation, then spend heavens only knows how long researching, recutting, and reevaluating so that I can try and see what potentially productive readings I can extract from these source for use in my own work's contributions back to the field. Comments encouraged, but please, you'll likely need a thick skin if your work is quoted here.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Blog on Open source? Seriously? Don't get me started.

(Warning: Unspellchecked)

EDIT: I really should add that overall I really enjoyed the readings, and agree with them just a few steps away from wholeheartedly. My reservations I, as usual, placate via contestate[-tion] below. I mean, what's not to like about someone finally brave enough to say, "Ironically, the outrage here is not so much about not getting paid for shared knowledge, it’s the infuriating notion that someone else is getting paid." (Reilly Williams 73). This is exactly the point I sideswipe when I wonder if state supported schools should be considered not for profit today.

The problem is that such a statement is followed by this:
We just want to make absolutely sure that no one else makes a dime either. The licensing structure of the GNU operation system, General Public License (GNU GPL), seems tailor-made for such a cause.

Right. Red Hat doesn't make any money from Linux, right? If your course content is licensed under something similar to the GPL, the GNU project encourages other to sell it!

Many people believe that the spirit of the GNU project is that you should not charge money for distributing copies of software, or that you should charge as little as possible — just enough to cover the cost.
Actually we encourage people who redistribute free software to charge as much as they wish or can. If this seems surprising to you, please read on.

Others can still use your content to teach for pay. Your dean could still throw fifteen sections of the class on the books using your open content without asking, and now he could do it even if your university doesn't claim to own the materials by virtue of some esoteric server ownership pact with the devil.

The comparison needs a push back towards accuracy, and that's my major complaint with today's readings. We should strive for precision and for getting our logic just right, or we lose stakeholders in the procurement process who can see those logical holes. A lack of understanding often creates excuses for dismissal, and fair labor politics in the classroom is too important to get wrong./EDIT

So we're building a house.  When I leave Raleigh each week, once I step off of the Silver Service, I'm back to being family man, and part of that is my agreement to put as absolutely much sweat equity into the house as my wife and contractor can stand.  Last weekend, the job was digging a 12" ditch about 200' to put in a water line, which we'll need to put in our driveway access' concrete, if we ever get a permit.  Note to everyone:  Building house != non-stop fun.

Not only did the digging make it easier to go without a computer for one of my two days, it allowed me to think a bit about labor practices in these here USes.  Last week, I heard Dr. Packer go on a mini-rant about how middle class (and up) society views labor.  To oversimp, it's okay to pay a gym for the right to run and bike, but to grab a shovel and, oh, say, dig a ditch is day laborer work.  Who would stoop so low? (and so freakin' many times.  Sheesh.  It is real work.)  But, again, the obvious upshot is that instead of being left with an end result less temporary than working off that last Big Mac, people pay for their labor to burn into the air.  Instead of growing vegetables, we pay to air condition spin classes.

So when Joe Neighbor ran by, and obviously averted his eyes from me after being curious as heck up until we got into eye contact personal space, or Joe Neighbor II on his roller blades, or Joe Neighbor III who was walking, or Joe Neighbor IV on his bike... Or Joe and Jane Neighbor V-C that slowed down their SUV to take a peak on the way in, a few obviously having gotten in the car just to watch the show, I couldn't help but lament the accuracy of Packer's words.  I mean, I wouldn't expect any help, but why not?  At what point did we lose the raising the barn social mentality and substitute it for an inability to do so much as engage our soon to be neighbor solely because of guilt over our motivation?  (To clarify, we bought a residential outparcel give or take across from a pretty nice development's amenities center.  My guess is most of the folk thought their HOA owned my lot.  Whoops.  Seriously, though, folk, we're good people.  I swear.)

I'm dovetailing this computerless experience and consideration of labor practices into our discussion today about open source, bringing what's missing from my sorry ditch-digging (my computer, which now that I'm not gaming I really don't miss so much on the weekends) and reintegrating with heat-induced Marxist daydreams.

There are certain myths about the power of free software, and some apparently misunderstandings about its characteristics.  Though Reilly and Williams mean well (and the sources they site for the history of OSS are well selected; I can personally vouch for Brendan Riley and Laurie Taylor as particularly good people, even if they are from the SEC, and their article at the earlier link (cited by Reilly and Williams) is a good intro to OSS as concept.)

Furthermore, open-source technologies facilitate a commitment to open-content, making the knowledge and information contained within and delivered by technologies, such as course management software and web sites, available to all. (Reilly & Williams 69)

There's nothing particular about open source that enables open content, beyond knowing that on no level will others be required to purchase licensed software to access it.  Microsoft Word saves to Rich Text, and rich text can be opened by a number of applications, like AbiWord or OpenOffice, that are, themselves, open source software solutions.  It's not like Microsoft claims copyright over your work because you composed in Word.  Open content can come equally easily from open source and open content.

We should also clarify what it means to be open source.  Apple, for instance, releases code for some applications or libraries but maintains copyright control over what's done with that software in ways that the GPL, for instance, doesn't. (TODO: citify)

I'm going to slap in a quick critique of part of Stolley, a few more point by points to Reilly and Williams with related rants, and then call it a blog post.  I could rant all day... which would be fine if I didn't throw away my days digging ditches.

A few claims regarding OSS miss the mark.  Here's one from Stolley that I'll pursue ad nauseum.

Lo-fi production technologies are stable and free. They consist of and/or can retrograde to:

  1. Plain text files (.txt, .xml, .htm, .css, .js, etc.)
  2. Plain text editors (Notepad, TextEdit, pico/nano, vi, etc.)
  3. Standardized, human-readable forms of open languages expressed in plain text (XML, XHTML, CSS, JavaScript, etc.)
  4. Single-media files (image, audio, video) in open formats

Despite their humble, decades-old base technology (plain text), innovative uses of lo-fi technologies can be remarkably hi-fi, as in the case of AJAX (whose most famous application may be Google’s Gmail service).

Okay, no, no AJAX is not plain text.  AJAX requires a browser that supports a slew of technologies.  Here's the list, stolen from our olde standby, Wikipedia.

The entry at the 'pedia goes on to do a good job saying how a few of these aren't absolute necessities (you could use IFrames instead of XMLHttpRequest, but we all knew that, right?  I used to use an invisible, zero-pixel frame in a frameset).

What's important is that you can't play with AJAX without a certain level of browser functionality, and even then the applications have to be written to shoot for those browser.  Here's a list of AJAX sys reqs from

A [typical guideline is: Internet Explorer 5+ for Windows, Firefox 1+, Mozilla 1+, Safari 1.2+, Opera 7.6+. Other browsers such as Netscape and Konqueror might be considered too. Whether you'll support all these browsers, or just a subset, depends on how important the diversity is, how much expertise or library support you have, and how much time you can devote to testing.

You can write code with Ajax, but that doesn't mean it'll work on each of those browsers.  Take Gmail from Stolley's examples.  Until about a month ago, Gmail didn't provide full functionality for Internet Explorer 6.  No, seriously.  IE6.  As in 22% of all browser hits in Sept 2008.  Don't believe me?  Take the "epic fail" from the Webmonkey:

It’s great to see these two giants get along, isn’t it? When not firing antitrust accusations at each other, the two found time to improve the ancient Internet Explorer 6. Google helped Microsoft identify JavaScript performance issues that was holding the browser back from running thelatest and greatest Gmail features.

So please, don't tell me AJAX is plain text.  Can I use a text editor to compose AJAX?  I can, and do.  But can you experience AJAX with a text editor?  Absofookinlootly not.  Can I even test what I've written with a text editor?  No.  Stolley's statement is a specious claim, and this bothers me precisely because his readers shouldn't be expected to know better.  This is Kairos, after all.  They're supposed to be teaching their audience about tech, not misleading them.  It pains me greatly, as you can tell.

I think, finally, Stoller's lofi movement misses the point and tries to stop the changes of digital composition at a place of minimal remediation. Even though I love plain text email, prefer SQL to JDO, and think every web app should degrade gracefully, the lofi manifesto shoots too low (and is, at best, misinformed about the power of lofi standards).

Though look, there's something crucial to take away from Stolley: We need academic platforms that don't come with built-in obsolescence. I like to point to the One Laptop Per Child laptop as a possible model. It's my hope that the only serious changes that occur here are fixes to make software bug-free, or to increase networking ability, etc. I hope the hardware platform doesn't succumb to what is, at this point, a largely inane chase for Moore's Law and programmers more than happy to follow along in suit.

Plain text isn't the answer. No current platform or standard is the answer, yet. Again, we need academic programmers to identify professional needs, write software and specs with an acceptably academic political inflection (ie, outside of capitalistic pressures), and ensure the platforms created don't have the built-in obsolescence consumer capitalism counts on and requires.

(back to Reilly and Williams)

To put it bluntly, individuals
and open-source organizations use OSS to promote ideals, while corporations and institutions
use it to cut costs. (71)

-- well, of course.  For-profit corporations do like to maximize profits, bless their hearts.  It's the goal of OSS coders to harness the power of these corporations for Good.  See exhibits Mozilla (thanks AOL), OpenOffice (thanks Sun), KHTML (thanks Apple and Google), Eclipse (thanks IBM), Linux (thanks Red Hat, IBM, Debian, YellowDog, etc etc.etc.)... you get the picture, right?

What is a "nonprofit university" anyway (71)?  Can you be a state supported school and nonprofit today?  In practice, we're trending towards no.

Instead, due to time constraints, inadequate technical expertise, and institutional mandates, both proactive and implied, many instructors select commercial courseware—such as Blackboard andWebCT—when teaching their distance-learning courses. (69)

we found that “ease of use” was cited over social, political, or even pedagogical concerns as one of the primary reasons for choosing a particular application or delivery method for distance courses. (72)

This is the issue of OSS, isn't it?  Programmers are very good, in my experience, at writing backends for fun.  The zeroes and ones fascinate.  Non-specialist human interaction (that is, people using the applications without, let's say, a literacy level equal to the authors; aka "people who need GUIs") doesn't create the same feelings of fascination.  If Linux were better than Windows in every way, what do you think Dell would put on its hardware?  There are gaps, and Linux, last I checked, was still difficult enough to access relative to Windows that I haven't yet switched, and I'd consider myself fair political when it comes to software use.  Until OSS can be as easy to use within an academic ecosystem as Windows or Mac minus the benefit of "political and social values associated with technology", it's not going to be used.  Academic OSS must compete with commercial alternatives.  There's no way around it.  We require academic programmers. (In my limited experience, self-identified "academic programmers" very often have some serious practical limitations.  All too often "academic programmer" means "code dabbler with an agenda").

PS: Shankar: You don't get to portmanteau "sprite".


digital_sextant said...

Hey Ruffin!

Thanks for the shout out. :D I'm not sure what SEC means, though.

I blogged a bit about your post here:

Good ol' Google Alerts. :D


cbd said...

Reilly Williams? Got a full cite for that?

and Riles, SEC == Southeastern Conference. You know, football!

ruffin said...

cbd -- Sorry, missed the autonotification that you'd commented. Thanks for clearing up the SEC thing for B.r.e.n.d.a.n. Kinda strange what you can miss when you're in grad school, ain't it?

That shoulda been Reilly & Williams; here's the citation.

"The price of free software: Labor, ethics, and context in distance education" by Colleen A. Reilly and Joseph John Williams

Computers and Composition 23 (2006) pg. 68–90