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A Bigot by Any Other Name...

Josh Coates, Internet Archive

Are you an Open Source Bigot?

I’ve been responsible for hiring many software engineers. I tend to ask lots of elaborate technical questions so I can really get to know how the candidate thinks and works with me while solving hard problems.

QA (quality assurance) engineers will appreciate this one (it’s a “negative test” for intellectual honesty): “Explain the relative strengths and weaknesses of FreeBSD, Windows NT, Solaris, and Linux.”

Ah, but here’s the rub. The intellectually honest answer is that they all suck more or less equally. Or, if you are a glass-half-full kind of people, they all rock.

There are lots of areas you can talk about: threading, I/O performance, development environment, etc. Let’s just pick one area: security. All operating systems suffer from vulnerabilities. I’ve managed many large server farms on Solaris, Windows 2000, and Linux. I know of three specific instances when they have been “hacked”: once on the Solaris cluster and twice on Linux. On the other hand, my Windows desktop blue-screens every few months and I have to rely on McAfee to get any sleep at night. The point is, lots of smart people are out there developing great code—none of it is perfect, and some is proprietary and some is open. (OpenBSD’s security excellence is duly noted.)

And let’s look at applications. Microsoft Excel is an incredibly excellent piece of software. Sure, you have to end up using Gnuplot when you are graphing data sets larger than 65,536, but aside from that, it’s a well-designed, super-useful tool.

Yep, it’s just a tool. They are all tools. They aren’t religious icons or some karma-affecting stream of bits.

It’s pretty obvious what I mean. There are people out there who are convinced that if it’s not open source, then it’s inferior (functionally, morally, and otherwise). You probably work with one of these people. Heck, you might even be one. Not sure what I’m talking about? Here is a very charitable definition, courtesy of Merriam-Webster:

Pronunciation: ‘bi-get

Function: noun

Etymology: Middle French, hypocrite, bigot

Meaning: a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices

I considered writing this anonymously because there is a large population of open source zealots who are about as obtuse and vindictive as the folks over at SCO, and I’m not excited to get on their bad side. At Berkeley I was on the Linux User Group board when a bunch of members organized a “proselytizing session” in Sproul Plaza. This was around the time that Windows 98 was launched, so the time was right to “stick it to the man.”

Imagine a bunch of people wandering around the plaza holding signs saying, “Got Linux?” and “Micro$oft must die!” mixed in with the born-again Christians’ signs, “Got Jesus?” and “Homosexuals will burn in hell.” Both of these groups would occasionally yell out something like, “Turn from the dark side” and “Join us.”

It’s kind of creepy how much they have in common.

This is where it gets interesting. I’m not suggesting that all Christians are bigots. I’m not suggesting all open source supporters are bigots either. I am suggesting that both “religions” include bigoted morons, and that they suffer from the same flawed mode of thinking. The 19th-century American author Josh Billings put it best: “Wisdom has never made a bigot, but learning has.”1

Interestingly enough, some of the most educated people in modern history have been incredibly bigoted (or what I like to call “suffering from a delusional perception of reality”). Charles Darwin was a brilliant scientist, yet he maintained that women simply had a less-evolved intellect then men—not to mention his elaborate explanation for the “savage races.” William Shockley won the Nobel Prize for inventing the transistor, but went on to promote genetic theories of the intellectual inferiority of blacks.

Alexander Pope, an English satirist, wrote “A little learning is a dangerous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, And drinking largely sobers us again.”2

Gee, do you know anyone who has taken a shallow draught? Ever read Slashdot?

So this is an unfortunate circumstance—and I’d say the Achilles heel of the open source movement is hubris, which breeds bigotry. It’s sadly ironic that one of the poster boys for open source is Linus Torvalds, who suffers from chronic hubris. While there are many accounts of this hubris available online, I’ve seen it myself, first hand. In 1998 I attended an intimate Q&A session that Torvalds gave when he visited Berkeley. But interestingly enough, the only thing I remember is that he referred to the open source developers who worked on Linux as his “slaves” and smugly laughed at how willing they were to do his bidding. Just a quirky sense of humor? Maybe.

Now that I’ve managed to offend everyone, let me at least try to dig my way out of this. I use open source software. I like open source software. I use proprietary software. I like proprietary software. Oh, and Torvalds might not be that bad of a guy (but, well—he probably is. :-)

At the end of the day, it’s OK to be passionate and opinionated about whatever you’re into—but it’s not OK to be a bigot. In my book, if you are bigoted about software development methodologies, you are only one goose step away from the “coder master race.”

OK, flame on: jcoates@acmqueue.com.

References

1. Billings, J. (pen name of Henry Wheeler Shaw) Book of Sayings, originally published in 1866.2. Pope, A. Essay on Criticism (part ii, lines 15-17), originally published in 1711.

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JOSH COATES is the director of engineering and operations at the Internet Archive, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving digital media. In 1999, he founded Scale8, which launched the largest Internet storage system in the world, spanning three continents. Prior to founding Scale8, Coates worked at Inktomi Corporation developing network caching software applications. In 2001 he was named one of Red Herring magazine’s Top Ten Innovators, and in 2002 he received MIT Technology Review’s Top 100 Innovators Award. Coates received a B.S. in computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, and was active in the Network of Workstations (NOW) Group and Millennium Project.

© 2004 ACM 1542-7730/05/0500 $5.00

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Originally published in Queue vol. 2, no. 3
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Comments

Steve | Tue, 01 May 2012 20:56:56 UTC

It is very interesting the reference to Pope. For some reason, I was drawn to him from the onset, and now, more so. See, i am also drawn to Jacob Boehme who was the true discover of electricty and gravity, science got his 'formulations' and turned them for what we have today, sciences of the many sciences, including physics. But see, it was folks like Boehme that did the discovering And he, like Mozart, like Pope, were all comely people so they faded into the wood work so the big heads could take over and take the credit. Not all of course. Then there what we here of Darwin, and both big computer company leaders fit the bill along with all of the big time money makers like Trump and his 'tower"..Tower of Babel. Not saying it is all bad, but do Know we should give credit where credit is due. This is a trend throuhgout HISTORY..open oupen eyes. So who came, unbecoming..maybe not nearly as nice looking as he is made out to be..Jesus. what could be more irritating than to have a comely Guy claim he knows the father. Not only knows him, but can stump the big shots and catch them in their own game of double jeopardy, usurping all the wisdom they have. Back to Pope, One must know what he is writing about...and what he writes about is the Plight of man..read about his Critique of Man..rolling on the floor because it is so true. They guy was brilliant. Don't forget his one about dying and wondering wear death's sting is...He's ready for heaven, He knows his God. The poem is an attempt to "vindicate the ways of God to Man," a variation on Milton's attempt in Paradise Lost to "justify the ways of God to Man" . It challenges as prideful an anthropocentric world-view. The poem is not solely Christian; however, it makes an assumption that man has fallen and must seek his own salvation. It consists of four epistles that are addressed to Lord Bolingbroke. Pope presents an idea or his view on the Universe; he says that no matter how imperfect, complex, inscrutable and disturbing the Universe appears to be, it functions in a rational fashion according to the natural laws. The natural laws consider the Universe as a whole a perfect work of God. To humans it appears to be evil and imperfect in many ways; however, Pope points out that this is due to our limited mindset and limited intellectual capacity. Pope gets the message across that humans must accept their position in the "Great Chain of Being" which is at a middle stage between the angels and the beasts of the world. If we are able to accomplish this then we potentially could lead happy and virtuous lives. The poem is an affirmative poem of faith: life seems to be chaotic and confusing to man when he is in the center of it, but according to Pope it is really divinely ordered. In Pope's world, God exists and is what he centres the Universe around in order to have an ordered structure. The limited intelligence of man can only take in tiny portions of this order and can experience only partial truths, hence man must rely on hope which then leads into faith. Man must be aware of his existence in the Universe and what he brings to it, in terms of riches, power and fame. It is man's duty to strive to be good regardless of other situations: this is the message Pope is trying to get across to the reader. It sort of starts to add up, esp. when considering how myths and thought processes that dream that up (cannot even start on psychiatry)..no form of communications back then , but still all the same. I guess I am not exactly sure what the intent of the article here is about. But hey, you said it would be okay to write. Oh yeah, the dinosaur that was found with blood tissue still in tact. Interesting concept, Logical fallacy.
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