Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Happy Birthday Linus!

Today is Linus Torvalds' 40th birthday.  Linus initiated the development of the Linux kernel, which is the core of all Linux-based operating systems (such as Ubuntu, Fedora, Mandriva, etc.).  He is a quasi-celebrity in the computing world, particularly within the free and open-source community.

I don't normally talk about computer-geek stuff here, but I wanted to bring it up for a few reasons.  First, Linus is an atheist, so he's kinda-sorta relevant here, and he's been outspoken about it in the past:

Margie: How about religion?

Linus: Hmmm, completely a-religious—atheist. I find that people seem to think religion brings morals and appreciation of nature. I actually think it detracts from both. It gives people the excuse to say, “Oh, nature was just created”, and so the act of creation is seen to be something miraculous. I appreciate the fact that, “Wow, it's incredible that something like this could have happened in the first place.” I think we can have morals without getting religion into it, and a lot of bad things have come from organized religion in particular. I actually fear organized religion because it usually leads to misuses of power.
Margie: As in holy wars?
Linus: Yeah, and I find it kind of distasteful having religions that tell you what you can do and what you can't do. Catholicism is an example of that kind of non-permissiveness, and I think that is very easy to get into if you are an organized religion. Religion is a very strange area. In Finland, nobody cares. Many people are religious in Finland, but it's not a political issue. Over here, religion has become politicized, so you have the fringe people in the news. And then people are afraid to talk about it because it has political implications, and that's usually not true in most of Europe. Religion is a personal matter, but does not matter for anything else. That's how I think it should be done.
Margie: Yes, we were founded to keep the two separated. Then the Moral Majority found out what a large constituency they had, and...

Linus: Yeah, it's kind of ironic that in many European countries, there is actually a kind of legal binding between the state and the state religion. At the same time, in practice, religion has absolutely nothing to do with everyday life. Maybe the taxes to the church, but that's it. They don't have any political power.
Margie: Here it's called tithing, not taxes.
Linus: Actually, in Finland they call it taxes—you pay taxes to the church. If you are a member of the church, you pay 2% tax to the church. And that's the amount of legal binding between the church and the state. Apart from that, they are completely separate. In the U.S., church and state claim to be very separate, but you still see the church has a lot of power in politics.

But more importantly to me, I am a big proponent of both the free and open-source software movements.  I've switched over to using Linux a few years ago*; I rarely use Windows, or any proprietary software any more.  (The only reason I still have it on my machine is for a class I teach, where Microsoft Access is part of the curriculum.)

The other thing that makes this post somewhat relevant is that I think we can learn a lot from the differences between the free and open-source movements, and how the groups interact despite those differences.

Just a short introduction to both of the movements: the Free Software Foundation has been headed by Richard Stallman since 1983.  The open-source movement sprung from the free software community in the late nineties.  Both groups pretty much do the same thing: they write software that is non-proprietary.  The source code (code that is written and readable by humans) is made available, so that anyone can use, modify and improve it, and the licensing gives everyone the opportunity to release their own version of the program.  Note that the word "free" does not indicate free of charge, it means that users have certain freedoms when it comes to using and modifying software.    The standard slogan is "Free as in 'free speech', not 'free beer'."  In almost all cases, software that is free is also open-source, and vice versa.

The difference between the movements is in their philosophies.  The free software movement believes the issue of whether software should be free and open source is an ethical one.  As the FSF has said:

To use free software is to make a political and ethical choice asserting the right to learn, and share what we learn with others. Free software has become the foundation of a learning society where we share our knowledge in a way that others can build upon and enjoy.

The FSF has a page describing the problems that come with proprietary software, and how free software prevents these issues here (I have also had a link to that page in my sidebar, it's the big yellow image at the bottom).

The open-source movement exists because a number of software developers found that people were uneasy about using a word like "freedom" and discussing the ethics of free vs. proprietary software.  They focus more on the practical advantages of open-source software.  They claim that allowing large communities to modify programs leads to better software over time.  The changes made are for the benefit of users, unlike proprietary software, which often have more incentive to make changes which benefit the company, regardless of the user experience.**

What I find most refreshing is that these two communities have serious disagreements regarding their philosophies on software development, and they certainly don't hold back when they discuss them.  Richard Stallman is quite pointed in his criticism of the open-source movement, and there are equally passionate people on the open-source side of the argument, including Linus.  However, these two communities work together all of the time.  There are very few free/open source projects which don't include proponents of both movements.  While debates about philosophy are intense, they put aside their differences to work toward a common goal.

This is almost the exact opposite of what often happens during a schism of a church.  Churches often split over minor theological differences (not always, of course, but often), and once this happens they are usually unwilling to have a relationship, even for issues on which they agree.  The free and open-source movements have incredibly difference philosophies, often discussed in ethical terms, and yet they are able to work together.  They don't play the hurt feelings card, or act as if one group has some type of high-ground where their position cannot be criticized. 

To me, I think we can all learn a valuable lesson from this.  As atheists, we should continue to argue our case, and point out problems with religion.  And yet we can, and should, work together with liberal religious people when our common goal is to stop extremism.  We can put aside our differences and stand united for causes such as gay marriage, separation of church and state, etc.***

And for the religious folk who become offended when an atheist criticizes their ideas, understand that there is a difference between attacking an idea, and attack you as a person.  It may be unpleasant for some to think about, but on the god question, one of us has to be right, and the other is therefore wrong.  As adults, we need to take responsibility for our beliefs, and defend them based on sound reasoning and evidence.  It's not impolite for us to disagree and ask questions, and we should still be capable of coming together to fight for what we do agree on.

So happy 40th to Linus, and may the free and open-source communities continue to be an inspiration for collaboration and mature, spirited disagreement.

*  You don't have to be a computer geek to make the switch.  If you're tired of fighting with Microsoft or Apple's proprietary stuff, check out some of the Linux distros listed above, or even just try some free software like OpenOffice.org instead of Microsoft Office, GIMP instead of Adobe Photoshop, or VLC instead of Windows Media Player. 

** Some might argue that negative effects to the user experience would drive people away from a particular product, but it practice that just doesn't happen.  Microsoft Office, for example, changed file formats for its 2007 version of Office, meaning users using the old versions had to update in order to keep compatibility current.  Yet very few people are turning away from Microsoft products, even though there are great alternatives (e.g., OpenOffice.org) available.  Vendor lock-in is a powerful tool that Microsoft has at its disposal, and most non-technical users don't know about their alternatives to paying hundreds of dollars for software for no good reason.

*** In some cases, atheists may have to criticize religion in order to successfully argue our point (e.g., arguing that the Bible is not grounds for prohibiting gay marriage).  These cases are difficult, and I'm not sure what the best strategy is.

NOTE:  I'm a little late posting this, so it's actually now past Linus' birthday.  Sorry!


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