The Different Types of 'Open' Software

There's been a lot of talk lately about Open Source vs. Open APIs. I've written a wiki page about openness. Hope you enjoy, and it creates some discussion among my geek friends.

Happy Static Electricity Day!

Today, January 9th, is National Static Electricity Day! Brought to you by the National Static Electricity Council who encourages us all to go out there and use more Static Electricity. So rub a balloon on your wool sweater, or shuffle your feet over the carpet, and zap an unsuspecting friend for us all today.

My First Instructible: Fireplace Blower

I just published my first instructible, on how to make a fireplace blower. Hope you enjoy.

Woman's Half-Day

Today the latest issue of Woman's Day arrived. It's getting mighty thin, down to 160 pages. Given the amount of actual content that represents, without the ads, it's more like Woman's Half-Day, or maybe even Woman's Lunch-Hour. Woman's Day is one of what in publishing circles was known as the Seven Sisters. I remember when they used to be more like phone books. Of course, I guess they're still like phones books, since the yellow pages business is drying up as well. What say you about paper publishing? When was the last time you used a paper telephone directory? Yellow pages? How many paper magazines do you subscribe to?

How to Create a His and Hers Blog

I just did a screencast of how to create a his-and-hers side-by-side blog using Google sites. Check out the blog here at http://johnandmarsha.laminack.com. The description and the YouTube screencast are there as well. You might even enjoy the links to a great creative comedian while you're there. Enjoy.

Tablet Computers and Education

Today on Slashdot there were two particular articles, interesting enough by themselves, but moreso in juxtaposition. The first was Do e-readers spell the demise of traditional learning making the case that with unlimited texts available on e-readers, students will need tutors more than the traditional teacher. The other article on Is e-learning a viable option? made the case for banning tablets in the classroom altogether. So which is it? Are teachers or tablets going to be left out? I've seen rumblings for years about the education system needing a major overhaul, like this article. Will e-readers or tablets be the tipping point? What are the back-end systems that will support the new modalities of learning? The current crop of Blackboard, Moodle, Sakai, and the like just clearly don't have the structure in place to support tablets and dynamic e-learning. They're built as an internet augmentation to the classic classroom structure, not a new paradigm. What do you think?


Yesterday, once again, I received no mail from the United Stated Postal Service. I really must write the Postmaster General about the declining quality and quantity of the mail I've been receiving.

Against the ebbing tide, I've noticed an odd pattern of late, though. I ordered a microphone a while back from my favorite audio source, Sweetwater. They shipped it by FedEx. All well and good. I happily tracked it along until it got to Atlanta. There, FedEx dropped it in the mail to me and was done with it. The tracking ended and I received the mic a few days later. Really Odd, I thought. Then this week I re-ordered checks. Yes, I'm Neanderthanl. The checks shipped via DHL (didn't know they were still going!) but again, as soon as the package got to Atlanta, DHL handed it off to the USPS, this time with a tracking number. Has anybody else noticed this new hybrid shipping scheme? What's the logistical wrinkle that makes this cost-effective?

Why Open Source Software is Like Jazz

I like Jazz, especially bebop and cool. Jazz is both a style and repertoire. The style sets the rules of the game: the rhythms, chord progressions, etc. The style sets the framework within which improvisation can take place. But sometimes overlooked, but just as important, is the repertoire. Early jazz artists all knew the same core of songs, like Sweet Georgia Brown that they could all play together and improvise around, a common ground where all the players can participate.

Open Source Software is similar. Open Source is both a license and a process. The license, GPLv2 or MIT or whatever, sets the parameters of what can and can't be done. But often overlooked is the process by which open source software gets written: the collaborative, give-and-take of programmers creating small gems of contributions, filling in corners, adding functionality, pushing and stretching the borders of what the software can do. This collaboration is similar to jazz's improvisation around the repertoire. It's the tools, design patterns, language idioms, conventions and collaboration that enable the construction of a larger piece.

Some outfits get one part of Open Source, but not the other. Some companies like SugarCRM or Magento, release their software under an Open Source license, but don't enable others to contribute. This is like a jazz performer playing an original composition. It may fit the Jazz style, but nobody can join in the playing. Others like Salesforce.com have an open development platform, but the license isn't open, so that the rules of the game aren't set by the players. It's like the manager dictating to the band the style of music they can play, e.g. only Hard Bop. If the band's style can't grow and evolve, they feel increasingly constrained, lose enthusiasm and move on.

Recap: just as Jazz is both a style and repertoire, Open Source is both a license and a process. It takes both to be successful.

The Thirty-Year T-Shirt

t-shirt reading 'where experience and informed courage count for much' Way back in 1981, when I got my first Unix system to administer, there was a section of the manual for us SysAdmins to learn from: Section 8. One page titled 'CRASH' contained distilled, helpful advice on what to do when a system crashes. One paragraph addressed 'Repairing Disks' and had the sentence "This is an area where experience and informed courage count for much." I though that was a nice turn of phrase and remarked to my co-worker, Danny Cox, that I'd love to have that on a t-shirt. The years marched by, the computer was sold as scrap, and even the building it was in was torn down. But I kept the manuals. I looked that page up the other day to see if it was as I remembered. Sure enough, my memory ran true. So I finally broke down, went to cafepress.com and constructed my t-shirt. It arrived this week and here's the photo. Yes, I tried to take a photo of me wearing it in the mirror, but I ended up looking like a MySpace refugee.

Moral of the story? I dunno. Maybe that in the Internet age of instant gratification, that waiting 30 years for a t-shirt I wanted shows delayed gratification? or extreme laziness?

More practical moral: the cafepress process is pretty nice, and when you're done with making something for yourself, you can easily set up an onlike 'shop' and offer it to your friends so they can buy one as well.

The Unbrowsable Library

My last post about libraries got me thinking. Libraries are trying to change to adapt to the times, but are all the changes for the better? Here's one example: the new University of Chicago library will have no books that you can browse. When you want a book, you go to a computer terminal, click on the the listing of the book you want, a robotic arm in an underground chamber brings up a metal box that contains the book you want and about a hundred others to the circulation desk. The librarian pulls out the book you want and has it waiting for you at the circulation desk. It should take about five to ten minutes. All very high-tech and wonderful, but it saddens me. For me, part of the joy of going to the library is to browse what's on the shelves. To be looking for a book and find a better one is pure joyous serendipity. To have to know what you're looking for before you find it would for me kill a lot of the joy of the library. Yes, the new U of C library is better for the staff and the books, but is it really better for the patron?

Thinking Out Loud About Libraries

The other day we went to the newly expanded and re-opened Union County Public Library in Blairsville. I admit it, being a bookworm I've always loved libraries. The new library is much improved from the old one, but this and other libraries are changing. The most-used room seems to be the computer lab, which Lora reports as being full on her last visit there. They now have paperbacks and old books they give away or sell for dollar-store prices. Probably only around 5% of the floorspace is dedicated to adult non-fiction. Other idiosyncrasies can be chalked up to the local demographics rather than the changing times, e.g. Lewis Grizzard volumes outnumber Tolstoy six-to-one, and they still have VCR tapes to loan. In any event, the library is changing, but can it change enough? Is it a dead-end or will it still be of value in the future? Some say the library will be obsolete by 2020, replaced by the web and the Kindle. If that day comes, I shall mourn, and put my library card on the 'things past' shelf next to my slide rule and cassette tapes.

Like old Tube Radios

Well, what goes around, comes around. Remember in the old days of tube radios and TVs? You'd have to plan your viewing or listening pleasure ahead of time. You'd turn on the set, then sit around and let it warm up for a while before you could enjoy the program. Then came transistor radios and instant-on TVs. Push a button for instant gratification. Nowadays the good old days are back again. If I want to listen to the news via the Internet at the top of the hour from an Atlanta radio station, I first fire up a browser, the enter the url in the address bar, wait for the page to load, click on the 'listen now' button, wait for the player window to open and the player to load, connect to the station, then listen to the pre-roll commercial, then finally listen to the program I wanted to hear. How simple is that? Yes, it makes the old tube radios seem like a pleasure by comparison!

Entertaining Vigilantes

The other night we watched the first few episodes of Leverage, which we're enjoying so far. For those unfamiliar with the made-for-TNT series, here's the plot outline: they're vigilantes. So this got me thinking about vigilantes in entertainment, alone or in groups. Clearly Bronson's Death Wish is a lone vigilante. I wouldn't count the Count of Monte Cristo as one, as it was all personal revenge for him. So not too many loners, probably because you can't have too much good dialog. Vigilantes in media often come in pairs: The Lone Ranger and Tonto, Batman and Robin, the Green Hornet and Kato. I'll let you decide if the Knight Rider is solo or not. How about Don Quixote and Sancho Panza? And of course, vigilantes come in packs. The prototype of these would be Robin Hood and his Merry Men. More recently we have the Mission Impossible team, the A-Team and now Leverage. So how do you like your vigilantes? solo, duo, or in a band? My guess is that Vigilantes in entertainment are more popular when people feel oppressed and powerless. But are there cultures where vigilantes are more popular? If so, is there a cultural solo vs. group vigilante preference?