Aug 29

Non-discrimination is a core value of open source

Today I learned that something called the Lerna project has added a codicil to its MIT license denying the use of its software to a long list of organizations because it disagrees with a political choice those organizations have made.

Speaking as one of the original co-authors of the Open Source Definition, I state a fact. As amended, the Lerna license is no longer conformant with the OSD. It has specifically broken compliance with clause 5 (“No Discrimination Against Persons or Groups”).

Accordingly, Lerna has defected from the open-source community and should be shunned by anyone who values the health of that community. I will not contribute to their project, and will urge others not to, until and unless this change is rescinded.

We wrote Clause 5 into the OSD for a good reason. Exclusions and carve-outs like Lerna’s, if they became common, would create tremendous uncertainty about the ethics and even the legality of code re-use. Suppose I were to take a snippet from Lerna code and re-use it in a project that (possibly without my knowledge) was deployed by one of the proscribed organizations; what would my ethical and legal exposure be?

It gets worse. Suppose I write code that happened to be identical, or very similar to, portions of Lerna? Could anyone make a case that I was in violation of their license? It is definitely unsafe when a question like that turns on facts of knowledge and intent no one outside a putative violator’s skull can know for certain.

The Lerna project’s choice is, moreover, destructive of one of the deep norms that keeps the open-source community functional – keeping politics separated from our work. If we do not maintain that norm, we risk fractionating into a collection of squabbling tribes arguing particularisms and unable to sustain really large-scale cooperation.

I would consider such a disintegration not merely unpleasant but actually dangerous to civilization, which relies on us for an increasing portion of its critical infrastructure. Accordingly, we need to cooperate more, not less.

That, in turn, means that, even as we may hold strong individual opinions about issues like those motivating Lerna’s proscription list, we need to be more neutral and non-discriminatory in our collective behavior about such issues, not less.

Updare: Less than 24 hours after I posted this, the license change was revoked and its committer expelled from the project. This is how sanity wins – one fightback at a time.

Aug 22

Unix != open source

Yesterday a well-meaning hacker sent me a newly-recovered koan of Master Foo in which an angry antagonist berated Master Foo for promoting an ethic of open-source software at the expense of programmers’ livelihoods.

Alas, I knew at once that he had been misled by a forgery, or perhaps some dreadful chain of copying errors, at whatever venerable monastic library had been the site of his research. Not because the economics was wrong – Master Foo persuades the antagonist that his assumption is in error – but because the koan conflates two things that were not the same. Actually, at least three things that are not the same.

Eighteen years into the third millennium, long after the formative events of Master Foo’s time, many people fail to understand how complex and contingent the relationship between the Unix tradition and the open-source ethos actually was in the old days. Too readily we project today’s conditions backwards in a way that impedes understanding of history.

Here’s how it was…

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Aug 03

How to get a reliable home router/WiFi box in 2018

My apprentice and A&D regular Ian Bruene had bad experiences with a cheap home router/WiFi recently, and ranted about it on a channel where I and several other comparatively expert people hang out. He wanted to know how to get a replacement solid enough to leave with non-techie relatives.

The ensuing conversation was very productive, so I’m summarizing it here as a public-service announcement. I’ve put the year in the title because some of the information in it could go stale quickly. I will try to mark each element of the advice with an expected-lifetime estimate.

Even before seeing any of the comments on this post I’m going to say you should read them too. Some of my regulars are more expert than I am about this area.

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