Brave GNU World

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Brave GNU World

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Issue #8

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Welcome to Georgīs Brave GNU World. As the last months have been focused mainly on the technical aspects of Free Software, this issue will be more philosophical in nature.

Why write Free Software?

This question was raised two months ago and although there were no huge surprises, some answers have been quite interesting. One of the main motives is the desire to help people. It is remarkable that this is usually the first reason that people think of but it is also the reason that many of them feel uncomfortable about. But this altruism can be viewed in a different way: Nothing is really given away because you just help reestablishing the original, free, status. To quote Phil Garcia who put it in a good way: "I work on free software because the practice of restricting what people can do with software goes against my principles. [...] Legal restrictions on software effectively take an unlimited resource and turn them into a limited one." What personally fascinates me every time I think about it is the fact that it is also an equally good idea to work on Free Software for absolutely non-altruistic reasons; but explaining this would lead to far off the path at this point.

Besides altruism there are several other big reasons why people work on Free Software. Very high on the list also is the desire to write software that makes sense and gets used. This may sound a little weird at first, but working on Free Software gives developers a satisfaction that is extremely rare when working on proprietary software. To say it in Francesco Potortiīs words: "I like programming and doing real things, i.e. things that work. Programming for free software is not wasted time, as my work will be used by may people."

Another approach deliberately ignores all social and altruistic sides and focuses solely on the technical part of it. Its followers see software as a mere tool comparable to a medical procedure or a legal proceeding. This has been suggested by Jimen Ching: "We need to view software as a tool, not merely a collection of expressions of an idea. When we do this, then it is natural that software should be free. I mean free as in freedom, not price."

There was (of course) more. Among the other motives was self-advertising, since authors of Free Software raise their profile which raises their market value. Free Software also opens the opportunity to know or even define the state of the art in areas of interest. This educational aspect is one major reason why all countries should encourage the development of Free Software. A strong and lively Free Software community will almost automatically create a pool of highly trained developers.

After this short introduction into the reasons for developers to write Free Software I would like to delve into an idea that have had for a while now. One of the most important aspects of the GNU Project is not only that it very much defined Free Software, but the social implications this created. To give this part of the GNU Project a name I would like to introduce the - as far as I know - not yet existing term "Informational Human Rights."

Informational Human Rights

In order to give you a chance to understand how I came up with it, I should probably follow the train of thoughts that led me there.

For some years now, some sociologists have been predicting that the global networking will result in virtual "tribes" or countries. This has not yet come true. What did come true, though, is the fact that for more and more people the virtual dominates their workplace and social activities migrate more and more into the internet.

This means that people transfer an increasing amount of the things that define who they are into the virtual space of the internet. More and more important aspects of their personality are based on global networking. Knowing this it is not that hard to create the relationship to human rights.

Letīs have a look at the right to chose your residence freely. This human right says that you may not be forced to live in a certain place or in a certain way. If you view software as a "residence of the mind", proprietary software forces you to pick one of three or four prebuilt houses; taking in account there is very often a "standard solution" the choice is even smaller.

If you bring this analogy to its extreme, proprietary software is comparable to a situation where all people are forced to live in identical houses. Each of these houses has rooms that are forbidden for the resident and she/he has no control or knowledge about what happens in these rooms or who is currently monitoring her/his activities. Even fixing a broken lightbulb must be done by a special service technician. Modifying the house in any way is strictly forbidden and if a friend loses his/her home you may not help him building his own because you risk prison for "house piracy."

Granted - this is put in a very extreme way, but we are approaching a point where communication is as important as a place to live. Anyone who has power over software has power over the personalities of people.

To see the relation to freedom of thought and speech is outright trivial: if communication relies on proprietary software, censoring and manipulation is only one very small step away.

There is an easy solution to this problem: software must not be controlled. Every user must have the right to modify programs according to her/his need and pass them along as he or she wishes. One important prerequisite for this is of course that the sourcecode be freely availble. It is no coincidence that this is very similar to the definition of Free Software propagated by the GNU Project and I hope it has become clear why I named it "Informational Human Rights."

To spread this idea it is absolutely necessary to talk more about freedom because only then can users make a well-informed decision on their software.

With these words Iīd like to close this topic. I hope that the deeper look into the bowels of the GNU Project has helped people to understand some of the correlations better. The technical part of this column will probably be mostly of interest to developers so I will only give you a short overview of its features.

GNU Nana

GNU Nana [5] by Phil Maker is a library that offers several tested and proven techniques to increase reliability of C and C++ programs. The implemented features include extended logging and assertion checking as well as "Design by Contract" [6].

GNU Nana supports realtime measurements, contains a program to create performance statistics for code fragments [7] and includes the ability to trace program execution without modifying the code.

All in all the developer gets a good set of tools to improve the quality of software.

Thatīs pretty much it for this month. There are only a few things I would like to mention.

Last Words

First of all I would like to thank everyone for the interest in the "We run GNU" [4] initiative. Even the idea of offering "Brave GNU World" t-shirts has been raised. Since I donīt know how big the interest in those might be, Iīll make this depend on the feedback I get. If I get enough mail from people who would like to see such a t-shirt being done, I will definitely consider making one.

Gary Lawrence Murphy wrote me that he wants to see a "Runs with GNU" icon for software boxes in stores. His first suggestion was a round sticker with the head of a GNU in the middle and the text "Free Software Foundation - GNUīs Not Unix - Itīs GNU." Ideas/designs anyone?

As usual all ideas, questions, suggestions, designs, praisings and of course information about Free Software projects go to the usual address [1].


[1] Send ideas, comments and questions to Brave GNU World <>
[2] Homepage of the GNU Project
[3] Homepage of Georg's Brave GNU World
[4] "We run GNU" Initiative
[5] GNU Nana homepage
[6] Design by Contract
[7] GNU Nana Performance Measurement

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Copyright (C) 1999 Georg C. F. Greve, German version published in the Linux-Magazin

Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this transcript as long as the copyright and this permission notice appear.

Last modified: Wed Nov 10 14:42:07 CET 1999 greve