Open Source Software Tax

Like all great things open source software started off with good intentions. I give, you give, we all give so the world can receive. The amazing thing about open source software is how far it’s come. Open source provides us the foundation for things we take for granted from programming languages, web servers, web frameworks, utilities, operating systems and much more. Lately it seems that open source contributions are dwindling no matter what metric you go by. The population of software engineers is surely increasing, though supply cannot keep up with the ever growing demand as our reliance on technology increases. I think the crisis facing open source contributions is a combination of many forces and not just a lack of commitment or passion (although it surely plays a role).

One factor is the lack of open problems or deficits. If you look at a lot of the innovations in open source coming out of Silicone Valley a lot of the problem domains involve cloud computing, big data, distributed memory, etc. These are problems that probably existed before but not on the scale we see now with the emergence of giants like Google and Facebook. Their requirements are coming hard up against the physical laws governing computers such as disk I/O. However, for the most part, the typical start-up can be bootstrapped by cobbling together open source offerings on a commodity server or better yet starting with a low budget shared hosting plan that gives you all the freedom of your own actual server with a fraction of the headaches.

A lot of the most pressing problems are solved for the majority of developers and even abstracted out into simple to use tools, libraries, or frameworks that most will not venture to peek under the hood because they can readily solve most issues by searching for the answer on-line. The wealth of information available and the collective experience gives little motivation for developers to look at the source code and figure things out for themselves or even try to make their own solution before resorting to the cheat sheet. This isn’t to say that the quality of developers is declining as a whole but like everything else in life I think we’re seeing a growing gulf between able hackers and your average corporate coder who will happily continue cranking out derivative works for the rest of their career (maybe not even learning more than one or two frameworks or languages).

Also, the state of many large, established open source projects make contributing hard (at least for new or non-hacker developers) with a large code-base and history. Getting familiar with such a project takes a serious commitment and might be beyond the scope of an enthusiast without some kind of guidance.

The more pressing issue of free software is that the law of economics is at work. The collective tip jar of open source will never meet the lofty ideals that open source promoters hope to live by. Open source software probably constitutes the purest form of public goods that even economists did not foresee when they came up with the concept. Open source software is nearly infinitely replicable and can be distributed at near zero costs. For all the contributions to open source there are much more free riders. So far, the only proposed solutions to come out of the community are trickier licences. Frankly, I think complex licencing only serves to steer companies away from using certain projects since it introduces legal liabilities or risks that management neither has the time or in some cases ability to properly evaluate.

The only long-term way to really keep contributions to open source vibrant is tax. Although the collection and distribution of such a tax would be hard to design and implement, it could be made simple with one clause: taxes can be paid in kind with open source contributions to recognized projects at a substantial bonus (similar to how donations to legitimate non-profit organizations can be deducted). Personally, I think it would be cool to have a quasi-public research lab completely dedicated to open source software development and supported entirely by such tax revenue and staff seconded from the best tech companies in lieu of monetary payment. It would be something like Google’s Summer of Code only 24/7 with experienced, full-time hackers.

If only politicians and bureaucrats would spend a fraction of the time and money spent thinking about how to protect corporate interests manifest in intellectual property and other copyright issues on the equally important task of fostering open intellectual contributions for the betterment of society, we wouldn’t have to worry about the state of open source software.

PS I realise that I’m using the concept of free software/open source interchangeably and it will rub some people the wrong way.

Empire of the Summer Moon

Empire of the Summer Moon is a somewhat sad but gritty account of the last Native Americans to roam the plains. It’s set against the American frontier’s brutal expansion to finally fulfill its “Manifest Destiny”, the bitter and violent fight with the Native Americans, an abducted white girl who became a full Comanche and the mother to one of the greatest warriors and leaders of the tribe in its waning days and his transition into reservation life.

The book is remarkable for its brutal yet balanced account of the frontier skirmishes. He doesn’t romanticise Native Americans who frequently gang-rape women, scalp their enemies and execute their victims in the most brutal ways imaginable. At the same time he doesn’t gloss over the two-tongued promises of a corrupt American government that could care less about the welfare of Native Americans once they are successfully subdued.

It’s a fascinating book that looks at how European-American settlers, Texas Rangers, Army Generals, Mexicans, and Native Americans formed a fluid society on the frontier. It’s the familiar story of how technology and savage ambition to conquer ultimately wins out over any previous territorial claims against the backdrop of a family, the Parker clan, torn apart by destiny and crossing paths on opposite sides. Many men are made but more are broken in the fight against Native Americans. Aside from Quanah Parker there are many colorful characters that form a rich quilt of successes and tragedies on the frontier.

The account of Quanah Parker’s life, though a minor part of the books’ volume but one the most significant parts, alone is priceless. The tales of bravery on the field and the amazing horsemanship of Comanches are stirring. It’s the non-fiction version of a dime Western with just as much excitement but thick on substance.

Millennium Trilogy

Around a week and a half a go I took up the first book of the Millennium Trilogy and went on a wild ride through the entire series that ended just now. The series takes us into the lives of a suave disgraced middle-aged journalist Mikael Blomqvist and Lisbeth Salander, a young, anti-social hacker who scrapes by with odd jobs from a private investigation and security firm. They begin their journey with Mikael working on an old and retired industrial magnate’s personal pet project to find out what happened to his troubled niece. As things heat up a chance reference puts Lisbeth at Mikael’s disposal to wrap up a strange tale that takes on a crazy life of its own, leading to a life and death crisis for our heroes. The trilogy takes a roller coaster ride through international espionage and the dark underbelly of Swedish government.

I don’t recall ever being on the edge of my seat for three volumes of non-stop adrenaline. The heroine Lisbeth Salander is a petite, tattoo-ed, cyber punk with much more than meets the eye. Stieg Larsson breathes life into her like a master where the reader is presented with a morally ambiguous anti-hero that they can’t help but love for her fiestiness and resourcefulness. Throughout the books we get taken on a tour of her dark past that explores what makes her tick. We are shown her personal journey as she matures in hew own way. While she is morally ambiguous to any outside observer if not an outright crook, we see that she never compromises her principles and lives by her own code of vendetta justice that commands its own brand of respect. Larsson pulls off an amazing feat by creating a character so unique and fantastic yet so vibrantly real.

Mikael Blomqvist is a middle-aged journalist that still embodies the high ideals of youth and boyish charm he entered the profession with. He is at once a shrewd journalist careful to play his cards right yet so stupidly naive and unflinching in his beliefs. Outside of his untiring dedication to uncovering the truth and willingness to put everything on the line, he is almost like a baby that needs strong and smart women to keep him on course.

These two characters and the ensemble cast form such a potent mixture that readers are easily lost in a potent mix of journalism, cyber crime, and law. Stieg Larsson may have died before his legacy saw the light of day but the trilogy couldn’t have been more complete. As I embarked on the last volume I was touched by a pang of sadness that the journey would be over and over for good. Larsson died before his first book reached the press and became an international sensation. A largely complete but not quite finished manuscript in the series lies on the hard-drive of a computer in his common-law wife’s possession as she is locked in an acrimonious battle with Larsson’s family that would not be out of place in his own novels. Although I wish Larsson could have lived to see this and would gladly read another installment in this fabulous series, I can only say that the trilogy as it stands is a beautifully complete work that deserves to stay in its perpetual state of perfection. It’s the stuff legends are made of. An astounding work of art, an artist dead before his time without seeing its success, just like the story of Lisbeth Salander in the Millennium Trilogy.

On the contrary, I’m satisfied and feel richer for the experience of reading a work so entertaining and complete. Although I’m curious about what other adventures Larsson had cooked up for Salander, I’m happy to let the Millennium Trilogy stand as it is and can only hope that another modern master steps up to fill his shoes.