The Epitome of Nerd-dom

A short while ago, I did a series of posts on computing based on the fact that I had done a lot of related research when studying the installation of Linux. I feel that I should now come clean and point out that between the time of that first post being written and now, I have tried and failed to install Ubuntu on an old laptop six times already, which has served to teach me even more about exactly how it works, and how it differs from is more mainstream competitors. So, since I don’t have any better ideas, I thought I might dedicate this post to Linux itself.

Linux is named after both its founder, Linus Torvalds, a Finnish programmer who finished compiling the Linux kernel in 1992, and Unix, the operating system that could be considered the grandfather of all modern OSs and which Torvalds based his design upon (note- whilst Torvald’s first name has a soft, extended first syllable, the first syllable of the word Linux should be a hard, short, sharp ‘ih’ sound). The system has its roots in the work of Richard Stallman, a lifelong pioneer and champion of the free-to-use, open source movement, who started the GNU project in 1983. His ultimate goal was to produce a free, Unix-like operating system, and in keeping with this he wrote a software license allowing anyone to use and distribute software associated with it so long as they stayed in keeping with the license’s terms (ie nobody can use the free software for personal profit). The software compiled as part of the GNU project was numerous (including a still widely-used compiler) and did eventually come to fruition as an operating system, but it never caught on and the project was, in regards to its achieving of its final aims, a failure (although the GNU General Public License remains the most-used software license of all time).

Torvalds began work on Linux as a hobby whilst a student in April 1991, using another Unix clone MINIX to write his code in and basing it on MINIX’s structure. Initially, he hadn’t been intending to write a complete operating system at all, but rather a type of display interface called a terminal emulator- a system that tries to emulate a graphical terminal, like a monitor, through a more text-based medium (I don’t really get it either- it’s hard to find information a newbie like me can make good sense of). Strictly speaking a terminal emulator is a program, existing independent of an operating system and acting almost like one in its own right, directly within the computer’s architecture. As such, the two are somewhat related and it wasn’t long before Torvalds ‘realised’ he had written a kernel for an operating system and, since the GNU operating system had fallen through and there was no widespread, free-to-use kernel out there, he pushed forward with his project. In August of that same year he published a now-famous post on a kind of early internet forum called Usenet, saying that he was developing an operating system that was “starting to get ready”, and asking for feedback concerning where MINIX was good and where it was lacking, “as my OS resembles it somewhat”. He also, interestingly,  said that his OS “probably never will support anything other than AT-harddisks”. How wrong that statement has proved to be.

When he finally published Linux, he originally did so under his own license- however, he borrowed heavily from GNU software in order to make it run properly (so to have a proper interface and such), and released later versions under the GNU GPL. Torvalds and his associates continue to maintain and update the Linux kernel (Version 3.0 being released last year) and, despite some teething troubles with those who have considered it old-fashioned, those who thought MINIX code was stolen (rather than merely borrowed from), and Microsoft (who have since turned tail and are now one of the largest contributors to the Linux kernel), the system is now regarded as the pinnacle of Stallman’s open-source dream.

One of the keys to its success lies in its constant evolution, and the interactivity of this process. Whilst Linus Torvalds and co. are the main developers, they write very little code themselves- instead, other programmers and members of the Linux community offer up suggestions, patches and additions to either the Linux distributors (more on them later) or as source code to the kernel itself. All the main team have to do is pick and choose the features they want to see included, and continually prune what they get to maximise the efficiency and minimise the vulnerability to viruses of the system- the latter being one of the key features that marks Linux (and OS X) over Windows. Other key advantages Linux holds includes its size and the efficiency with which it allocates CPU usage; whilst Windows may command a quite high percentage of your CPU capacity just to keep itself running, not counting any programs running on it, Linux is designed to use your CPU as efficiently as possible, in an effort to keep it running faster. The kernel’s open source roots mean it is easy to modify if you have the technical know-how, and the community of followers surrounding it mean that any problem you have with a standard distribution is usually only a few button clicks away. Disadvantages include a certain lack of user-friendliness to the uninitiated or not computer-literate user since a lot of programs require an instruction typed into the command bar, far fewer  programs, especially commercial, professional ones, than Windows, an inability to process media as well as OS X (which is the main reason Apple computers appear to exist), and a tendency to go wrong more frequently than commercial operating systems. Nonetheless, many ‘computer people’ consider this a small price to pay and flock to the kernel in their thousands.

However, the Linux kernel alone is not enough to make an operating system- hence the existence of distributions. Different distributions (or ‘distros’ as they’re known) consist of the Linux kernel bundled together with all the other features that make up an OS: software, documentation, window system, window manager, and desktop interface, to name but some. A few of these components, such as the graphical user interface (or GUI, which covers the job of several of the above components), or the package manager (that covers program installation, removal and editing), tend to be fairly ubiquitous (GNOME or KDE are common GUIs, and Synaptic the most typical package manager), but different people like their operating system to run in slightly different ways. Therefore, variations on these other components are bundled together with the kernel to form a distro, a complete package that will run as an operating system in exactly the same fashion as you would encounter with Windows or OS X. Such distros include Ubuntu (the most popular among beginners), Debian (Ubuntu’s older brother), Red Hat, Mandriva and Crunchbang- some of these, such as Ubuntu, are commercially backed enterprises (although how they make their money is a little beyond me), whilst others are entirely community-run, maintained solely thanks to the dedication, obsession and boundless free time of users across the globe.

If you’re not into all this computer-y geekdom, then there is a lot to dislike about Linux, and many an average computer user would rather use something that will get them sneered at by a minority of elitist nerds but that they know and can rely upon. But, for all of our inner geeks, the spirit, community, inventiveness and joyous freedom of the Linux system can be a wonderful breath of fresh air. Thank you, Mr. Torvalds- you have made a lot of people very happy.


The Seven Slightly Harmful Quite Bad Things

The Seven Deadly Sins are quite an odd thing amongst western culture; a list of traits ostensibly meant to represent the worst features of humanity, but that is instead regarded as something of a humorous diversion, and one, moreover, that a large section of the population have barely heard of. The sins of wrath (originally spelt ‘wroth’, and often represented simply as ‘anger’), greed (or ‘avarice’), sloth (laziness), pride, lust, envy and gluttony were originally not meant as definite sins at all. Rather, the Catholic Church, who came up with them, called them the seven Capital Vices (their original religious origin also leads to them being referred to as ‘cardinal sins’) and rather than representing mere sins in and of themselves they were representative of the human vices from which all sin was born. The Church’s view on sin is surprisingly complex- all sinful activity is classified either as venial (bad but relatively minor) or mortal (meant to destroy the inner goodness of a person and lead them down a path of eternal damnation). Presumably the distinction was intended to prevent all sinful behaviour from being labelled a straight ticket to hell, but this idea may have been lost in a few places over time, as might (unfortunately) be accepted. Thus, holding a Capital Vice did not mean that you were automatically a sinful person, but that you were more naturally predisposed to commit sin and should try to exorcise them from you. All sin falls under the jurisdiction (for want of better word) of one of the vices, hence the confusion, and each Deadly Sin had its own counterpart Heavenly Virtue; patience for wrath, charity for greed, diligence for sloth, humility for pride, chastity for lust (hence why catholic priests are meant to be chaste), kindness for envy and temperance for gluttony. To a Catholic, therefore, these fourteen vices and virtues are the only real and, from a moral perspective, meaningful traits a person can have, all others being merely offshoots of them. Pride is usually considered the most severe of the sins, in that one challenges your place in comparison to God, and is also considered the source of the other six; Eve’s original sin was not, therefore, the eating of the fruit from the forbidden tree, but the pride and self-importance that lead her to challenge the word of God.

There have been other additions, or suggestions of them, to this list over the years; acedia, a neglect of ones duty based on melancholy and depression, was seen as symptomatic of a refusal to enjoy god’s world, whilst vainglory (a kind of boastful vanity) was incorporated under pride in the 14th century. Some more recent scholars have suggested the addition of traits such as fear, superstition and cruelty, although the church would probably put the former two under pride, in that one is not trusting in God to save you, and the latter as pride in your position and exercising of power over another (as you can see, ‘pride’ can be made to cover a whole host of things). I would also argue that, whilst the internet is notoriously loath to accept anything the Christian church has ever done as being a remotely good idea, that there is a lot we can learn by examining the list. We all do bad things, that goes without saying, but that does not mean that we are incapable of trying to make ourselves into better people, and the first step along that road is a proper understanding of precisely where and how we are flawed as people. Think of some act of your behaviour, maybe something you feel as being good behaviour and another as a dubiously moral incident, and try to place its root cause under one of those fourteen traits. You may be surprised as to what you can find out about yourself.

However, I don’t want to spend the rest of this post on a moral lesson, for there is another angle I wish to consider with regard to the Seven Deadly Sins- that they need not be sins at all. Every one of the capital vices is present to some degree within us, and can be used as justification for a huge range of good behaviour. If we do not allow ourselves to be envious of our peers’ achievements, how can we ever become inspired to achieve such heights ourselves- or, to pick a perhaps more appropriate example, if we are not envious of the perfectness of the Holy Trinity, how can and why should we aspire to be like them? Without the occasional espousal of anger and wrath, we may find it impossible to convey the true emotion behind what we care about, to enable others to care also, and to ensure we can appropriately defend what we care for. How could the Church ever have attempted to retake the Holy Land without the wrath required to act and win decisively? Greed too acts as a driving force for our achievements (can the church’s devotion to its vast collection of holy relics not be labelled as such?), and the occasional bout of gluttony and sloth are often necessary to best aid our rest and recuperation, enabling us to continue to act as good, kind people with the emotional and physical strength to bear life’s burden. Lust is often necessary as a natural predisposition to love, surely a virtuous trait if ever there was one, whilst a world consisting solely of chaste, ‘proper’ people would clearly not last very long. And then there is pride, the deadliest and also the most virtuous of vices. Without a sense of pride, how can we ever have even a modicum of self-respect, how can we ever recognise what we have done well and attempt to emulate it, and how can we ever feel any emotion that makes us seem like normal human beings rather than cold, calculating, heartless machines?

Perhaps, then, the one true virtue that we should apply to all of this is that of temperance. We all do bad things and we may all have a spark of the seven deadly sins inside us, but that doesn’t mean necessarily that the incidences of the two need always to coincide. Sure, if we just embrace our vices and pander to them, the world will probably not end up a terribly healthy place, and I’m sure that my description of the deadly sins is probably stretching the point as to what they specifically meant in their original context. But, not every dubiously right thing you do is entirely terrible, and a little leeway here and there can go an awfully long way to making sure we don’t end up going collectively mental.

Copyright Quirks

This post is set to follow on from my earlier one on the subject of copyright law and its origins. However, just understanding the existence of copyright law does not necessarily premeditate the understanding of the various complications, quirks and intricacies that get people quite so angry about it- so today I want to explore a few of these features that get people so annoyed, and explain why and how they came to be.

For starters, it is not in the public interest for material to stay forever copyrighted, for the simple reason that stuff is always more valuable if freely in the public domain as it is more accessible for the majority. If we consider a technological innovation or invention, restricting its production solely to the inventor leaves them free to charge pretty much what they like, since they have no competition to compete with. Not only does this give them an undesirable monopoly, it also restricts that invention from being best used on a large scale, particularly if it is something like a drug or medicine. Therefore, whilst a copyright obviously has to exist in order to stimulate the creation of new stuff, allowing it to last forever is just asking for trouble, which is why copyrights generally have expiry times. The length of a copyright’s life varies depending on a product- for authors it generally lasts for their lifetime plus a period of around 70 years or so to allow their family to profit from it (expired copyright is the reason that old books can be bought for next to nothing in digital form these days, as they cost nothing to produce). For physical products and, strangely, music, the grace period is generally both fixed and shorter (and dependent on the country concerned), and for drugs and pharmaceuticals it is just ten years (drugs companies are corrupt and profit-obsessed enough without giving them too long to rake in the cash).

Then, we encounter the fact that a copyright also represents a valuable commodity, and thus something that can potentially be put up for sale. You might think that allowing this sort of thing to go on is wrong and is only going to cause problems, but it is often necessary. Consider somebody who owns the rights to a book, and wants someone to make a film out of it, partly because they may be up for a cut of the profits and will gain money from the sale of their rights, but also because it represents a massive advertisement for their product. They, therefore, want to be able to sell part of the whole ‘right to publish’ idea to a film studio who can do the job for them, and any law prohibiting this is just pissing everybody off and preventing a good film from potentially being made. The same thing could apply to a struggling company who owns some valuable copyright to a product; the ability to sell it not only offers them the opportunity to make a bit of money to cover their losses, but also means that the product is more likely to stay on the free market and continue being produced by whoever bought the rights. It is for this reason legal for copyright to be traded between various different people or groups to varying degrees, although the law does allow the original owner to cancel any permanent trade after 35 years if they want to do something with the property.

And what about the issue of who is responsible for a work at all?  One might say that it is simply the work of the author/inventor concerned, but things are often not that simple. For one thing, innovations are often the result of work by a team of people and to restrict the copyright to any one of them would surely be unfair. For another, what if, say, the discovery of a new medical treatment came about because the scientist responsible was paid to do so, and given all the necessary equipment and personnel, by a company. Without corporate support, the discovery could never have been made, so surely that company is just as much legally entitled to the copyright as the individual responsible? This is legally known as ‘work made for hire’, and the copyright in this scenario is the property of the company rather than the individual, lasting for a fixed period (70 years in the US) since the company involved is unlikely to ‘die’ in quite the same predictable lifespan of a human being, and is unlikely to have any relatives for the copyright to benefit afterwards. It is for this reason also that companies, rather than just people, are allowed to hold copyright.

All of these quirks of law are undoubtedly necessary to try and be at least relatively fair to all concerned, but they are responsible for most of the arguments currently put about pertaining to ‘why copyright law is %&*$ed up’. The correct length of a copyright for various different stuff is always up for debate, whether it be musicians who want them to get longer (Paul McCartney made some complaints about this a few years ago), critics who want corporate ones to get shorter, or morons who want to get rid of them altogether (they generally mean well, but anarchistic principles today don’t either a) work very well or b) attract support likely to get them taken seriously). The sale of copyright angers a lot of people, particularly film critics- sales of the film rights for stuff like comic book characters generally include a clause requiring the studio to give it back if they don’t do anything with it for a few years. This has resulted in a lot of very badly-made films over the years which continue to be published solely because the relevant studio don’t want to give back for free a valuable commodity that still might have a few thousand dollars to be squeezed out of it (basically, blame copyright law for the new Spiderman film). The fact that both corporations and individuals can both have a right to the ownership of a product (and even the idea that a company can claim responsibility for the creation of something) has resulted in countless massive lawsuits over the years, almost invariably won by the biggest publishing company, and has created an image of game developers/musicians/artists being downtrodden by big business that is often used as justification by internet pirates. Not that the image is inaccurate or anything, but very few companies appear to realise that this is why there is such an undercurrent of sympathy for piracy on the internet and why their attempts to attack it through law have met with quite such a vitriolic response (as well as being poorly-worded and not thought out properly).

So… yeah, that’s pretty much copyright, or at least why it exists and people get annoyed about it. There are a lot of features concerning copyright law that people don’t like, and I’d be the last to say that it couldn’t do with a bit of bringing up to date- but it’s all there for a reason and it’s not just there because suit-clad stereotypes are lighting hundred dollar cigars off the arse of the rest of us. So please, when arguing about it, don’t suggest anything should just go without thinking of why it’s there in the first place.