Wednesday, October 31, 2007

And now for something completely different...

As the saga of the notorious Caldera (SCO) lawsuit winds to a close, we have an opportunity to consider some of the issues it raised (and what better day than October 31).

For those people with better things to do with their time than follow the course of software copyright lawsuits, a software corporation formerly known as "Caldera" bought the SCO (Santa Cruz Operation) trademark from Tarantella Corporation, and a license to the Unix System V code from Novell (of networking fame), then passed itself off as the proprietor of all things UNIX and sued IBM over Linux, the free (speech not beer) Unix compatible operating system.

The SCO lawsuit basically accused IBM of illegally copying System V code they licensed from SCO into Linux. The scope of accusations related to the lawsuit eventually expanded to include claims by SCO that the Gnu General Public License violates the United States Constitution (not a problem for Canadians). The lawsuit, and the escalating accusations from SCO and their supporters prompted accusations from the Linux and free software community that SCO merely acted as a "sock puppet" for Microsoft to destroy the free software and open source movements.

If Microsoft did indeed put SCO up to sue IBM to slow the adoption of Linux, they did not exactly have a clever plot. They ended up bankrolling a dubious lawsuit that left them with bad publicity and a bankrupt investment. If Microsoft really intended to make a devious assault on the free software community, they did a very bad job of it. It does not make sense to throw money into a lawsuit against one of the most popular free programs, backed by some of the most formidable corporate machinery on the planet.

So why did Microsoft back SCO? It doesn't take a conspiracy, either diabolically clever or simply stupid, to explain Microsoft's behavior. Right now, if a medium or large Microsoft customer converts to Unix on the desktop, Microsoft loses that customer completely; Windows, Office, the whole Microsoft product line gets defenestrated. Microsoft had an interest, if nothing else, in making sure they could keep at least a foothold in companies that have moved from Windows to *nix. That would mean porting Office and other Microsoft products to a version of Unix; and obviously, Linux wouldn't do. Therefore, Microsoft had an interest in SCO succeeding and getting clear title to at least their version of Unix. I have no idea whether they really invested in SCO for that reason, and we may never find out.

For now, I will let Unix guru Tony Lawrence sum up the situation with SCO: "it is far past time to be looking into moving on."

Saturday, October 06, 2007

An important distinction

I frequently hear people describe cycling in the city as dangerous, frightening, and nerve-wracking. Frightening, yes, Nerve-wracking, absolutely. But cycling, in and of itself, does not pose any particular dangers. Cycling simply makes you vulnerable to the really dangerous traffic on the streets: the two to nine-tonne steel bombs, otherwise known as cars, SUVs, and trucks.

We frequently conflate danger and vulnerability, but when we do so, we blur an important moral distinction. I behave dangerously when I unleash forces I cannot properly control of cope with, whether I or others will suffer the worst consequences. I make myself vulnerable when I go without protection from dangerous things that other people do. When I speed, as I unfortunately have done, on the highway, I behave dangerously, to myself and others. When I ride my bicycle, I make myself vulnerable, but I do not behave dangerously.

So when someone tells you they find cycling in the city frightening, they should. Going without a steel cage into the unpredictable whirl of our streets frightens me. But that doesn't make my choice dangerous. Sometimes our most responsible choices make us very vulnerable.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Inventions in a future tense...

A critic of cyclists and cycling recently wrote the following:

What's going to be your argument when, as is beginning to happen now, motor vehicle engines no longer run on fossil fuels and don't pollute the air?

This provides an excellent example of an abiding problem in political discourse: achievements in the future tense. Will we have non-polluting cars someday? We do not know, but we certainly do not have them (in any numbers) now.

GM can produce electric cars, but we don't know they can produce enough to really make a difference. Nor do we know if we can grow enough energy crops to power millions of automobiles. We have yet to reconcile the desire of the rich for luxurious mobility and the basic needs of the poor: energy crops compete with food crops for farmland, and electric cars bid up the cost of electricity for heating and cooking. The engineers have some work to do before a truly environmentally friendly automobile reaches the showroom floor.

If it does? Some of us will sigh with relief and take the car. Some of us will insist on riding our bicycles for pleasure and health. But we ought not to base our individual or collective decisions about transport today on some imagined future. Today, when we choose to drive or ride, and when we choose to build bike paths or roads, cars pollute.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Why ride critical mass?

Critical mass, the mass bicycle ride that takes place on the last Friday of every month, stirs some strong emotions. Many of us who who ride with critical mass have mixed feelings: we celebrate the strength of the cycling community that it shows, even as we regret the inconvenience the ride causes to pedestrians, public transit riders, and drivers. On the other side, many people who lambaste the riders for rudeness and confrontation admit that cyclists, by and large, demand nothing but the rights we have by statute and nature.

A wise friend observed that nobody does things that do not, somehow, work for them. So what about critical mass works for me? Why do I ride?

  1. I ride to meet and support my many friends who cycle.
  2. I ride in the hope of putting my experience defusing violent conflicts to good use.
  3. I ride because I have made the journey my home, and my spirit needs to move in the world.
  4. I ride because so many of us ride in fear, and so many others fear to ride, and I want us to have one night in every month when we ride in strength. I ride to remember the white bicycles scattered around the city, and to support the people who go out on the roads despite what those memorials represent.