Bradley M. Kuhn


Bradley M. Kuhn at

I sure hope I'm not "that wierd old dude". I play a game now with store clerks. The piped in music at most grocery stores in my neighborhood is usually some sort of Lite-FM sounding "Best mix of the 80,90s and today". I have developed the habit of asking the young store clerks if they were born when this song came out.

Last night, I was buying dinner at Key Food and asked the young woman if she was born when Madonna's "Material Girl", playing over the speakers, came out. She asked what year it was and I said I suspected it was 1984 (turns out I remembered correctly). The young woman said she was born in 1991 — the year I started college.

The funny thing is, this doesn't bother me. Ironically, I'm healthier now than I was in my 20s because I eat better than I used to and get more exercise. I've actually never disliked my age since that very year of 1991. I've been glad to be every age I've been since I was 18 years old (like most geeks from the 1980s, I hated being a child and teenager because I was abused by my peers).

I liked my 20s better than my teens for those obvious reasons, and I liked my 30s better than my 20s because people started to take me more seriously as I wasn't "that young guy" or "that kid" anymore.

I turned 40 in 2013. Of course, that number doesn't mean much; it's not an even number in hex (0x28). The thing that bugs me most about being this age is that it's frustrating to watch the Free Software world — the main community that matters to me — repeat mistakes of the past. I feel like Cassandra most of the time. I watch the comfort people have with permissive licensing, and think of how we'll surely see LLVM as our standard compiler, but everyone licensing proprietary plugins to make their code fast, in 5-7 years. There's a dozen big problems floating around the Free Software community like that, and so few people really care that they're about to happen.

Fact is, things are pretty good in Free Software right now. There's more code freely licensed, both by percentage and by volume, than ever in history. It's probably exactly why everyone in their 20s are complacent. They have all the code they care about and the freedom to modify it. It's hard to imagine times going bad if you never lived in bad times.

I think a lot about what my elders told me about the challenges of their day. I'm old enough to have been able to talk directly to relatives who were adults for both the Great War and WWII. Horrors like that go on today, but not in North America and Western Europe, so those hardships don't face us. Meanwhile, I'm a child of the Cold War and I lived in fear from obvious problems.

Our problems today aren't so obvious, not in Free Software, and not in the larger world, either. Complexity is obivous to me, and it seems it's not so obvious to the young. I hear myself thinking like my elders, who would always say cliché like "in my day, we had to…". I probably listened more than most to it, so I always figured things were worse than they looked. I hope the young start to think that way too.

As for Madonna, I rememer a nun in my school railing against that song, saying that we don't live in a material world, as material things aren't so important. Even though I loved Madonna and that song at age 10, that concept stuck with me, and I ended up building my life around that philosophy.

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Wait, you self-identify as a geek and then you profess to being a Madonna fan? I am confused

Richard Fontana at 2014-01-13T14:16:51Z

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I think in a way you romanticize or at least oversimplify what was going on in your elders' time, based on my own historical research.

In the 1980s, the attitudes of many hackers towards the consequences of permissive licensing and also proprietization of free software ranged from indifference to complacency to outright enthusiasm. Many of the early proprietary software entrepreneurs emerged from the same hacker-research social mileu that RMS came out of. RMS's invention of copyleft was not some act of normalcy: it was a revolutionary act at the time because the norm was already permissive licensing in software-sharing communities. Once RMS and others associated with the FSF (such as Len Tower) began to promote the ideas around copyleft, coinciding with the release of influential copylefted software like GNU Emacs and GCC, much of the reaction from their fellow hackers, people more or less their own age, was hostility. That atmosphere of hostility is the context to the GNU Manifesto, for example, but the hostility increased as the 1980s went on, it sees to me from what I've researched. Things only started changing (if they changed at all) when a somewhat younger generation -- which includes you at the younger end, probably -- began to see copyleft as a preferred licensing policy.

Richard Fontana at 2014-01-13T14:27:04Z

Christopher Allan Webber, Evan Prodromou likes this.

I don't think you are considering the changes in the behavior of software providers at the time.

Before that time, if when you bought something, it was generally assumed that you would be given documentation for how it worked, and how to repair it. TV sets had schematics pasted in them. Computers came with at least the listing of its source code, and documentation about maintaining it and modifying it. I worked with minicomputers, and recall regularly looking at source code to figure out how to do things. Companies relied on there patents and copyrights to protect their business, not by hiding information. There were some exceptions, but that was generally felt as bad behavior.

The change came in the late 70's as companies began to withdrawing such information. RMS talks about frustration with the lack of documentation for a printer he was using. This seem to be part a movement toward the use of terms "entrepreneurs" and "interlectual property", and the separation of information about how products worked (at any price) from buying the products themselves.

I don't think RMS would have taken the action he did if the status quo was not being changed around him.

You make it seem that he was the radical in the situation. Copyleft was a means to enforce what had been effectively the status quo against a radical change in the behavior of seller. at 2014-01-13T16:38:23Z

Christopher Allan Webber, Richard Fontana likes this.

I'll post my response to the copy-left discussion here, since comments to comments aren't well defined by the pump standard. It is my understanding of the history of the fabled printer driver, that the existence of the printer driver as proprietary merely annoyed RMS but that he was content to let his driver be public domain (which last time I checked was a permissive type of licensing). Copy-left came about because the printer company then took his code, and incorporated it into their own driver and kept the resulting work as proprietary. Which, of course, greatly offended RMS and created for the FSF and the free software movement, a moral/ethical issue requiring restrictions on licensing so that code could be assured to remain free and couldn't disappear into proprietary black-holes where improvements and derivative works can be made to/on code but not contributed back, locking people into proprietary silos for thing x. As far as LLVM is concerned, I think the fear isn't that these companies will stop contributing code, but that they will stop making their contributions available so that if you want the best compiler for y, you need to use the vendors version

David "Judah's Shadow" Blue at 2014-01-15T00:42:56Z