Older blog entries for mako (starting at number 287)

Anxiety

MailBoxes by nffcnnr, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  nffcnnr 

I am haunted by the nagging fear that I have mailboxes, tucked into a dark corner of an office somewhere, and perhaps even full of checks and important documents, that I don't know exist.

Syndicated 2011-09-15 05:21:00 from Benjamin Mako Hill

In Defense of Negativity

I often hear criticism of "negative campaigning" in the free software movement. For example, in reply to a blog post I once wrote about an FSF campaign, several people argued against, "negative campaigning of any sort, in any realm." Drawing an analogy to political smear campaigns, some members of the free software community have taken the position that negative campaigning in general is not useful and that negativity has no place in our advocacy.

First, it is important to be clear on what we mean by a negative campaigns. I believe that there is a fundamental difference between speaking out against policies or actions and smear campaigns that employ untrue claims, ad hominem attacks, and that attempt to avoid a real conversation about issues. I will categorically condemn the latter form of smear campaigning in campaigns for software freedom or for anything else.

That said, negativity directed at negativity has had a positive effect in many social movements. I have supported and participated in "negative" campaigns against proprietary software, software patents, DRM, centralized network services, and the firms behind these practices. I've done so because I believe that if one is taking an ethical position, it is justified, and often necessary, to not only speak about the benefits of freedom but against acts of dispossession and disenfranchisement.

In some of the most effective social movements, unambiguously negative messages have been central. Should a campaign for abolishing child labor talk only about how valuable adult workers are to their employers or how happy kids are when they don't work? Should a campaign trying to abolish land mines talk only about the benefits of bomb-free fields and intact lower limbs? Should a free speech organization only speak out about the social welfare brought by a free press and never against acts of censorship? These may seem like outlandish comparisons but you can find people writing, only a couple centuries ago, about how slavery should be abolished by arguing in favor of the benefits of paid labor. Even if the economic arguments in favor of paid work are strong, these arguments seems irrelevant and offensive today. Whether slavery is more or less efficient is a moot point. Society has rejected it because it is wrong.

We have made important strides toward eliminating injustices like child labor and slavery because activists waged decidedly negative campaigns against them and convinced others to join in opposition. In doing so, activists declared the status quo unconscionable and created an ethical responsibility to find alternatives and to redefine what was "realistic." While I will not suggest that the movement for software freedom is comparable in ethical weight to these other causes, I know that the free software mission is similar in kind.

Of course, if one does not think that user control over technology is an ethical issue but is instead merely a matter of choice, one will probably oppose negative campaigns. It is also possible that a particular negative campaign is tactically unwise in that it is unlikely to reach a large audience, unlikely to change people's minds, or be difficult to carry out successfully. But such campaigns are a bad idea because they are ineffective, not because they are negative. Additionally, a movement that is purely negative and offers no reasonable alternative to the stated ill may also be unlikely to succeed. This is why, for example, I believe it is good that the FSF uses the large majority of its resources in the "positive" role of supporting free software.

For those that do treat technological empowerment as an ethical ideal, it is both justified and essential to condemn the systematic disempowerment of others through non-free software just as we celebrate the benefits of software freedom. "Negative" campaigns against proprietary software, software patents, and DRM in music have already led our community to important -- if incomplete -- victories. The desire to right wrongs has been a critical part of our movement's success and of many others'. We would be wise not to give it up.

Syndicated 2011-09-04 00:01:35 from Benjamin Mako Hill

In Defense of Negativity

I often hear criticism of "negative campaigning" in the free software movement. For example, in reply to a blog post I once wrote about an FSF campaign, several people argued against, "negative campaigning of any sort, in any realm." Drawing an analogy to political smear campaigns, some members of the free software community have taken the position that negative campaigning in general is not useful and that negativity has no place in our advocacy.

First, it is important to be clear on what we mean by a negative campaigns. I believe that there is a fundamental difference between speaking out against policies or actions and smear campaigns that employ untrue claims, ad hominem attacks, and that attempt to avoid a real conversation about issues. I will categorically condemn the latter form of smear campaigning in campaigns for software freedom or for anything else.

That said, negativity directed at negativity has had a positive effect in many social movements. I have supported and participated in "negative" campaigns against proprietary software, software patents, DRM, centralized network services, and the firms behind these practices. I've done so because I believe that if one is taking an ethical position, it is justified, and often necessary, to not only speak about the benefits of freedom but against acts of dispossession and disenfranchisement.

In some of the most effective social movements, unambiguously negative messages have been central. Should a campaign for abolishing child labor talk only about how valuable adult workers are to their employers or how happy kids are when they don't work? Should a campaign trying to abolish land mines talk only about the benefits of bomb-free fields and intact lower limbs? Should a free speech organization only speak out about the social welfare brought by a free press and never against acts of censorship? These may seem like outlandish comparisons but you can find people writing, only a couple centuries ago, about how slavery should be abolished by arguing in favor of the benefits of paid labor. Even if the economic arguments in favor of paid work are strong, these arguments seems irrelevant and offensive today. Whether slavery is more or less efficient is a moot point. Society has rejected it because it is wrong.

We have made important strides toward eliminating injustices like child labor and slavery because activists waged decidedly negative campaigns against them and convinced others to join in opposition. In doing so, activists declared the status quo unconscionable and created an ethical responsibility to find alternatives and to redefine what was "realistic." While I will not suggest that the movement for software freedom is comparable in ethical weight to these other causes, I know that the free software mission is similar in kind.

Of course, if one does not think that user control over technology is an ethical issue but is instead merely a matter of choice, one will probably oppose negative campaigns. It is also possible that a particular negative campaign is tactically unwise in that it is unlikely to reach a large audience, unlikely to change people's minds, or be difficult to carry out successfully. But such campaigns are a bad idea because they are ineffective, not because they are negative. Additionally, a movement that is purely negative and offers no reasonable alternative to the stated ill may also be unlikely to succeed. This is why, for example, I believe it is good that the FSF uses the large majority of its resources in the "positive" role of supporting free software.

For those that do treat technological empowerment as an ethical ideal, it is both justified and essential to condemn the systematic disempowerment of others through non-free software just as we celebrate the benefits of software freedom. "Negative" campaigns against proprietary software, software patents, and DRM in music have already led our community to important -- if incomplete -- victories. The desire to right wrongs has been a critical part of our movement's success and of many others'. We would be wise not to give it up.

Syndicated 2011-09-03 16:49:28 from Benjamin Mako Hill

Donner Pass

/copyrighteous/images/bierstadt-donner_lake.png

In the Peabody Essex Museum a couple weeks ago, I saw a beautiful landscape by Albert Bierstadt of Donner Pass whose label referenced the famous Donner Party of 1846 and their, "sensational story of privation, cannibalism, and death." I would reorder that sentence.

Syndicated 2011-08-29 20:52:22 from Benjamin Mako Hill

Donner Pass

/copyrighteous/images/bierstadt-donner_lake.png

In the Peabody Essex Museum a couple weeks ago, I a beautiful landscape by Albert Bierstadt of Donner Pass whose label referenced the famous Donner Party of 1846 and their, "sensational story of privation, cannibalism, and death." I would reorder that sentence.

Syndicated 2011-08-29 16:55:07 from Benjamin Mako Hill

Care and Trust

When you care for somebody, it is difficult to tell them "no." When you trust somebody, you will tell them.

Syndicated 2011-08-05 14:29:38 from Benjamin Mako Hill

Cost of Computing in Coal

Much of my academic research involves statistics and crunching through big datasets. To do this, I use computer clusters like Amazon's EC2 and a cluster at the Harvard MIT Data Center. I will frequently kick of a job to run overnight on the full HMDC cluster of ~100 computers. Some of my friends do so nearly every night on similar clusters. Like many researchers and engineers, it costs me nothing to kick off a big job. That said, computers consume a lot of energy so I did a little back-of-the-envelope calculation to figure out what the cost in terms of resources might add up to.

An overnight job that uses a 100 computer cluster might use 800 computer-hours. Although power efficiency varies hugely between computers, most statistical analysis is CPU intensive and should come close to maximizing power consumption. According to a few sources [e.g., 1 2 3], 200 watts might be a conservative estimate of much a modern multi-CPU server will draw under high load and won't include other costs like cooling. Using this estimate, the overnight job on 100 machines would easily use 160 kilowatt hours (kWh) of energy.

In Massachusetts, most of our power comes from coal. This page suggests that an efficient coal plant will generate 2,460 kWh for each ton of coal. That means that one overnight job would use 59 kg (130 lbs) of coal. In the process, you would also create 153 kg (338 lb) of CO2 and a bit under half a kilogram (about 1 lb) of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide each. It's a very rough estimate but it certainly generates some pressure to make sure the research counts!

Of course, I've written some free software that runs on many thousands of computers and servers. How many tons of coal are burnt to support laziness or a lack of optimization in my software? What is the coal cost of choosing to write a program in a less efficient, but easier to write, higher-level programming languages like Python or Ruby instead of writing a more efficient version in C?

Syndicated 2011-07-31 21:41:30 from Benjamin Mako Hill

Dates and Memory

Recently, I was working with Daf and Rob on a little offline wiki project -- more on that soon -- and we realized that we needed to parse some dates in ISO 8601 format. One of us wondered out loud if there was a Python module that could help us. I offered to take a look.

Turns out, less than two months before, someone had uploaded just such a module into Debian. The maintainer? Me.

Syndicated 2011-07-26 18:53:41 from Benjamin Mako Hill

Dates and Memory

Recently, I was working with Daf and Rob on a little offline wiki project -- more on that soon -- and we realized that we needed to parse some dates in ISO 8601 format. One of us wondered out loud if there was a Python module that could help us. I offered to take a look.

Turns out, less than two months before, someone had uploaded just such a module into Debian. The maintainer? Me.

Syndicated 2011-07-26 18:52:11 from Benjamin Mako Hill

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