Why I Don’t Love GPL

Currently in the U.S., the government is running television advertisements showing young kids (who presumably have tried illegal drugs) saying things like “I bought some bombs for terrorists”, or “I helped kill children”. The implication is that using drugs is the same as supporting terrorists. I don’t think this campaign is resonating too well with American kids, since people think of drug kingpins as being everything non-Arab, non-Islamist. Colombians sell drugs on TV, and Arabs get their hands chopped off for shoplifting, right? But regardless of how poorly the ads get the message across, it is true that the drug trade is a huge part of the “shadow economy”. And the unregulated “shadow economy” is how money flows from suppliers to terrorist operations. Of course, there is a whole lot of other people who use the shadow economy (including many groups in the U.S. government). And to say that illegal drug money is unregulated is a tautology — if it’s not legal, it must by definition be unregulated. Drugs form such a large part of the shadow economy simply because the demand for drugs is not declining, and these drugs are not legalized. Reducing demand (if possible) could certainly cut into the effectiveness of the shadow economy in funding terrorists and governments. But the easiest way would seem to just allow people to legally get what they want (and apparently get anyway), and bring the value transfer back into the observable and regulated economy.

So here’s the rub. People are going to exchange valuable goods and services with one another, and value will flow throughout human society like currents in the water. There is no way to stop this. Dollars are just one way that people tokenise value exchange — there are plenty of alternative schemes alive and thriving. However, currency like the “dollar” has been the least biased, least corrupt, and least racist (dollars are color blind) form of value exchange that humans have ever contrived. This alone should make it an ethical issue for people to reject anything that pushes value exchange underground. But the lack of transparency in unregulated monetary systems is the critical factor that makes such systems unfit for any system that claims to put power in the hands of the people. How do the people know who is influencing their leaders, when the majority of the economy comprises quid-pro, gift exchange, and favors? How do people measure the degree to which others are contributing and creating value for society? You could argue that, in a democracy, it is not essential that everyone be able to know that I wrote some code for my neighbor, and in exchange he installed my garage door. However, a democratic society must insist on having transparency in the significant value flows. The tendency of warriors for “social justice” to favor opaque value-transfer schemes appears particularly hypocritcal (or stupid) to me. Detecting and remedying social injustices or imbalances is impossible if you can’t even measure who is benefitting from whom, and who has accrued what.

It’s a matter of ethics. Shadow economies cripple civil society and make democracy impossible. People generally prefer to exchange value in objective and transparent systems. Generally, the value exchange goes underground when the coercive influence of law refuses to allow the value exchange to take place in regulated form. This is why people don’t use their credit cards to buy drugs or hookers. This is why ultra-high taxes cause people to start smuggling and bartering (and ultimately lead to reduced tax revenues).

So how about the GPL? The GPL sets the terms on value exchanges in such a way that:

  • The aggregate value of the contribution cannot be measured objectively. The author gets the same amount of money (if any) regardless of whether one person or a million perceives value in it.
  • All people who seek to add value to the code are expressly legally forbidden from ever releasing that value into society in a way that can be measured objectively.

The second bullet-point (the “viral clause”) is the putrid part. In one sense, it is no different from someone saying, “you are free to use this code, and all derivative works must donate $10 to the Red Cross, and must include this clause”. What is wrong with that — most people like the Red Cross, and this would help leverage your software’s value into money for a good cause. And people who don’t like the Red Cross don’t have to use your source code; it’s your code after all, right? But this is the issue, if you buy-in to my “Red Cross” license, you support my personal social cause, which is not such a bad cause. It’s pretty strange for a software license to also try to force you into accepting someone’s social cause, but I guess we can live with it. But what social cause does the GPL ask you to accept? In essence, the GPL is upholding the notion that intellectual property exchange belongs in an opaque, unregulated, easily-corruptable and biased economy. In fact, OSS/FSF advocates are quick to point to the supposed benefits of a “gift culture”, where things like reputation, esteem, and contributions are the currency.

Most would agree that it is OK (albeit childish) to add philisophical “viruses” to software licenses. But why is it that the only well-known software license to do so is supporting an idea like abolition of objective value measurements in intellectual property exchange? The only answer is that certain people are actually buying the idea. Intellectual property is becoming the most significant form of value being exchanged in western society, and it would be devestating to democratic society to have this value exchange become opaque. Admittedly, it is not as if the relatiosnhip of IP to money is about to collapse anytime soon, and any strain being put on the system right now is probably due to strain brought on by overreaching laws than by GPL. But the idea that the most significant form of value being exchanged in a civil society should be exchanged in a way that is opaque and “gift based” is horribly cynical and unethical.

I’ll defend to the death the right of free people to exchange gifts when they choose. But I can’t bring myself to feel love for people who try to twist the law to make it illegal for value to be exchanged in an objectively measurable manner in the vast majority of cases where people prefer to do so.

Today I finished reading “A Lonely Rage: The Autobiography of Bobby Seale”. Seale was the co-founder of the Black Panthers, and was known as a hot-tempered firebrand. It’s got to be the most sincere and “real” autobiography I’ve ever read. Like many others would, Seale boasts sometimes, and sometimes goes to great lengths to rationalize his behavior as having more honorable motives than it probably really did. And he unquestionably leaves out lots of details about his activities as Black Panther leader. But where he falls down on presenting “Bobby Seale the Image”, he really reveals “Bobby Seale the Person”. When reading the book, you feel like you really get to know his personality, and what made him tick. One thing I found interesting (though credible) was the way that he didn’t see things in a moralistic, “good vs. evil” sense (like my rant above), and he wasn’t necessarily motivated by “doing the right thing.” His worldview was, IMO, much more “tao” than that.

miguee dinner

Miguee DinnerMiguel de Icaza is in town for ECMA conference, and so is Sam Ruby.
Dare “Carnage4Life” Obasanjo, organized the dinner. Omri Gazitt, Lee Fisher, and Dr. GUI rounded out the Microsoft contingent. This was the first time meeting Miguel or Sam.
Miguel is hyper-energetic, charismatic, and very sociable. We got to hear about his acting/directing career, and he told us about the things they do to pigs in Boston. He is an extremely smart guy. Sam was pretty cool too; he is kind of like Dr. GUI in that they both have vaguely-defined jobs, so they get to just mess around and do whatever they like. We all discussed Mono, open source, and other similar stuff. The low point was when I got a button pushed somewhere and launched on an impassioned tirade against the anti-human evils of the GPL, so we had to change topics for awhile. Hopefully Sam was not too offended. The whole “semantic web” thing is not resonating so well with people yet, either. But with so many technical people there, and such a wide range of experiences and views, the conversation was really interesting.

Pete Ferriera just pointed out that I was wrong about Kool Keith. For some reason, I thought that Dr. Dooom came before Octagon. I still think that Spankmaster and Dr. Dooom are his best stuff, but it turns out that Keith didn’t really do themes until Nakamura. So that kind of hurts my overall argument…

kool keith

Kool Keith – Today Slate runs an article about Dan Nakamura, giving him credit for the sounds of practically everything cool today, including three of my favorites, Kool Keith, Handsome Boy Modeling School and Deltron 3030.
Unfortunatley, I think we are seeing the beginning of a myth creation. Kool Keith was releasing thematic albums long before Nakamura, even changing his name to match whichever theme he was pursuing.
It’s nice that Nakamura is capable of keeping a theme across multiple tracks, but no way can you say that this was a major contribution to artists who have been doing this all along. Slate’s article is internally inconsistent, giving Nakamura credit for the sounds of various underground artists, while openly admitting that Nakamura only worked on particular releases. In fact, they begin the article citing Nakamura as being affiliated with Beck, but later argue that (paraphrased) “Beck’s next album will be cool because it will use Nakamura, instead of all of the other people Beck has used in the past.” Slate can’t have it both ways — is Nakamura cool because he does Beck, or is Beck cool because he uses Nakamura? With two legs of the three-legged stool gone, let’s look at the other leg that holds up the Slate article. The author maintains that Nakamura is as unpredictable as Beck, but the new album will be cool, because Nakamura generates so much buzz. That’s really interesting, since I would normally consider “buzz” to be an article in Slate or a mention on MTV, both of which Nakamura is scoring. But it sure seems strange to have Slate running an article saying “Nakamura is so cool because even Slate is doing an article on him.” The article contradicts itself further, by simultaneously claiming that Nakamura’s sound is eclectic and unpredictable and then claiming to give a good description of the Nakamura sound. The best I can tell from the Slate description and sound clips, the “Nakamura sound” is exactly like the “Roots Manuva” sound.
It’s true that there is a new sound in hip-hop today that is distinct from the minimalism of “The Roots” or the drum-n-bass sounds that have permeated so much R&B today. But I think the “new sounds” in hip-hop today are still evolving, and sure as heck don’t come from Nakamura. I think the sounds that Slate attributes to Nakamura are evolving from many styles, including old Luke Skywalker, Aux 88 “boogie bass”, Kool Keith, and the “dirty south” sounds. I’m predicting that the next Beck album won’t sound like the future of hip-hop, because Beck isn’t driving hip-hops evolution, and neither is Nakamura. But if the Slate article is any indication, Nakamura is going to get credit for everything cool that happens in music for the next ten years. Dirty meme flows and chaos in complex systems are too much for the mass media to comprehend.

Speaking of mass media, check out Village Voice’s review of southern rappers Po’ White Trash.
The article was a joke. The really disturbing thing is how many people wrote to Village Voice complaining (and a few supportive). It’s not even a good joke; the internal inconsistencies in this article made the Slate article look like a fortress. When I first read it, I thought “only a retarded person or a satirist could have written this.” But I also thought that the readers of the Village Voice were known for being sophisticated. And when you think about it, there isn’t really much difference between the two examples of journalism, except that the Slate author obviously takes himself seriously and isn’t being intentionally satirical.

random thoughts

Random Thoughts – Young Scoble is back to posting. When he resumed, he said that he was avoiding hyperlinking, so that people wouldn’t read their referrer logs and know that he was back to posting. But hyperlinks don’t result in referrer log entries unless someone clicks on them, and people don’t click on hyperlinks unless they are reading the page, at which point they would already know that he has resumed posting. Anyway, I am glad he is back, and so I clicked on all of his hyperlinks a bunch of times. Actually, thinking about Scoble’s scenario reminded me of the old saying:

If a tree falls in the woods, and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Asserting that falling noises (and poems) are seen, and not heard, Joyce Kilmer once replied:

I think that I shall never see
a poem as lovely as a tree

Ogden Nash pointed out that Joyce’s comment could be taken either way, by penning:

I think that I shall never see
A billboard as lovely as a tree.
unless the billboards fall,
I’ll never see a tree at all.

Of course, all of this talk of “never see” reminds us of the silly Gellet Burgess play on the old English “How Now, Brown Cow” elocution exercise, which goes:

I never saw a purple cow,
I never hope to see one.
But I can tell you, anyhow,
I’d rather see than BE one!!

Again, Ogden Nash feels compelled to share his expertise on the subject:

The cow is of the bovine ilk;
One end is moo, the other, milk.

Gellet’s response is more fitting a usenet denzien than a poet or blogger:

Ah, Yes! I Wrote the “Purple Cow”
I’m Sorry, now, I Wrote it!
But I can Tell you Anyhow,

I’ll Kill you if you Quote it!

The thing I find most amazing about the string of poems above is that they are completely inane and useless, but most native English speakers know them mostly by heart without even knowing where they learned them. How do things like that slip into our collective conscience, lying dormant and waiting to cascade forth, triggered by a Scoble post?

Changing subjects, I think this Spinney guy is completely right about the future of war. The war on terror is proving that high technology in the hands of an army is no match for even low technology in the hands of determined individuals. This idea that the puppetmasters at home will ever be able to see a unified, coherent, “perfect intelligence” view of the battlefield seems like wishful thinking to me. When a western army says “would you die for your country?” they are really asking, “would you kill for your country, and work hard to ensure your own individual survival, while also assuming a heightened risk of death, on behalf of your country?” This is very different from the guy who straps on explosives and walks into a coffee shop in Jerusalem and really dies for his country. Putting 802.11 in every soldier’s jeep is a long way from being an effective response to an asymmetric threat like this.

More of my personal opinions: I really think that Rap Brown is innocent. The guy did some questionable things in the sixties, for sure, but he seems to have been a changed man for the last 30 years. He embraced Islam, rejecting the racist “Nation of Islam” and instead has acted on behalf of Muslims of all races, even speaking out on behalf of persecuted white Muslims. And the facts just seem too strange — there were three guys there who all looked almost identical (“Three bald black guys with gowns and beards”), and one of the guys initially confessed (and had scores of guns in his car). And Rap isn’t acting like a political prisoner. I listened to an interview, and all he talked about was Islam, Allah, etc. and not himself. I think Mumia’s guilt is obvious from the facts of his case, and is especially betrayed by the fact that he “doth protest too much”. On the other hand, I don’t get the impression that Rap Brown is too interested in being a poster boy for “rage against the machine”, although there will certainly be people who hold him up as a political prisoner. The “conspiracy” defense seemed a bit stupid to me, though. It sure seems like an unjust conviction, but more out of haste to get a conviction than anything else. There were three people who might have been involved, and before the first guy retracted his confession it was an open-and-shut case. After the first guy retracted, it was just a matter of saying “Let’s figure out who had motives that are easiest to prove and can be portrayed as menacing to jurors. And Rap Brown is a troublemaker anyway…”.

Normally I disagree with John Conyers from Detroit, but I have to agree with his comments today about the INS: “I am astonished that while the INS is fixated on detaining and rounding up countless Arab-Americans without any justification, it has failed to take basic steps to ensure that visas are not issued to known terrorists”. More proof that Spinney is right; INS has incredible technology, I have seen some of their stuff up close. Who thinks that giving them even more budget and computers is going to fix such fundamental screwups?

And finally, I cannot believe this stuff about Daryl Strawberry. It is like some cheesy movie, “Baller Interrupted” where a MLB player is time-warped back to his youth and grounded for smoking Marijuana. Apparently, Daryl has been in a detention facility for ten months because he used pot and hired a hooker (Huh? Who gets ten months in detention for that?? How did Hugh Grant get away with it?) Now, he is getting kicked out of the detention center and put in jail, because “Strawberry also was cited for kissing a female resident, not taking
medications properly and being caught smoking behind the dormitories”. He went ten months, deprived of his freedom, and without any drinking or drugging (which I would think is pretty much a world record for the kind of people in his social circle). After that utterly heroic period of self-denial, he gets sent to jail for acting like any thirteen year-old high-school kid? Smoking tobacco, kissing women? I know this stuff really offended the Taliban, but I thought Florida was part of America?