Jun 29

The handwriting on the wall is Chinese

Comes the news that Nvidia just lost an order for 10 million graphics cards to AMD because it wouldn’t open the source for its driver. At a very conservative estimate, that’s north of $250 million in business Nvidia just threw to a major competitor because it couldn’t get its head out of its rectum. Somebody’s quarterlies are going to suck.

The really interesting aspect of this isn’t the amount of money Nvidia’s idiotic secrecy fetish just cost it, but why it happened – and why it’s likely to happen again, soon and repeatedly, to other hardware companies with equally idiotic secrecy fetishes.

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Jun 25

Abusing Alan Turing

The centennial of Alan Turing’s birth brings us the news that Alan Turing probably did not commit suicide by eating a poisoned apple, was not depressed at the time of his death, and that the hormone treatments intended to suppress his homosexual urges had been discontinued a year before he died. I am not in the least surprised by any of this; in fact I have been half-expecting such inversions ever since I began noticing, twenty years or so ago, the increasing mythologization of Turing’s life.

This centennial seems a good time to consider how we re-invent – and sometimes abuse – the great figures of our past to suit the needs of the present. When biography turns into a packaged morality play, it is always wise to suspect that the actual facts and complexities of the subject’s life are being lost. When that morality play satisfies obvious propaganda needs for political or cultural factions in the present, we should be even more suspicious. And when certain recurring mythological themes – such as holy martyrdom – develop increasing prominence in interpretation of the subject’s life over time, it’s a red flag signalling that contact with the facts and the subject is probably being lost.

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Jun 22

The smartphone wars: Inauspicious exits and debuts

RIM’s death rattle became audible a few days ago when its manufacturing partner announced that it would no longer be manufacturing Blackberries. And Nokia is entering the final stages of one of the most spectacular implosions in the history of business, taking the Windows phone down with it.

So what’s Microsoft doing? Announcing a brand-spankin’-new Windows 8 phone line with no upgrade path for its Windows 7 customers. Riiiight. Then, stiff-arming its PC and smartphone business partners by telling them it’s going to do an Apple and ein-Volk-ein-Reich-ein-Führer its new tablet – it won’t be licensing “Windows RT”, and nobody else is going to get a piece of the hardware revenue. So let’s see – Microsoft is throwing away both its historic strengths – backward compatibility and a multi-vendor ecosystem that needs it to succeed – and replacing them with, what exactly?

You know, at this point Microsoft’s board ought to replace Steve Ballmer with an orangutan. Screaming a lot and flinging feces in all directions seem to be the job requirements; the orangutan would cover that for a few bunches of bananas a week, and its strategic decisions couldn’t possibly be worse.

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Jun 20

The Smartphone Wars: Oracle lawsuit’s final fizzle

OK, this is just weird. “Oracle agrees to ‘zero’ damages in Google lawsuit, eyes appeal” That vast lawsuit that, according to some idiots (including a few of my commenters), was going to destroy Android and sow the earth with salt in its wake? It’s done – but in a bizarre way that makes me question the sanity of Oracle’s lawyers at Boies Schiller.

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Jun 19

GIFLIB 5.0.0 is released

I’ve just shipped the 5.0.0 release of GIFLIB, a graphics service library that is deployed pretty much everywhere that throws pixels on a display. Older versions live in your browser, your game console, and your smartphone. I have written about what it was like to go back to this code after 18 years previously, in The Long Past of C; also in my 4.2.0 release announcement.

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Jun 11

Why I think RMS is a fanatic, and why that matters.

One of my commenters reports that he showed my essay on evaluating the harm from closed-source software to Richard Stallman, who became upset by it. It shouldn’t be news to RMS or anyone else that I think he’s a fanatic and this is a problem, but it seems that every few years I have to explain the problem again. I make the effort not because of personal animus but because fanaticism does not serve us well – we’ve made huge progress since 1998 by not repeating RMS’s mistakes, and I think it’s important that we continue not to replicate them.

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Jun 06

Evaluating the harm from closed source

Some people are obsessive about never using closed-source software under any circumstances. Some other people think that because I’m the person who wrote the foundational theory of open source I ought to be one of those obsessives myself, and become puzzled and hostile when I demur that I’m not a fanatic. Sometimes such people will continue by trying to trap me in nutty false dichotomies (like this guy) and become confused when I refuse to play.

A common failure mode in human reasoning is to become too attached to theory, to the point where we begin ignoring the reality it was intended to describe. The way this manifests in ethical and moral reasoning is that we tend to forget why we make rules – to avoid harmful consequences. Instead, we tend to become fixated on the rules and the language of the rules, and end up fulfilling Santayana’s definition of a fanatic: one who redoubles his efforts after he has forgotten his aim.

When asking the question “When is it wrong (or right) to use closed-source software?”, we should treat it the same way we treat every other ethical question. First, by being very clear about what harmful consequences we wish to avoid; second, by reasoning from the avoidance of harm to a rule that is minimal and restricts peoples’ choices as little as possible.

In the remainder of this essay I will develop a theory of the harm from closed source, then consider what ethical rules that theory implies.

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