mether's Fedora Blog

Random thoughts, usually on Fedora

The pragmatic extremists

Fedora as a project is well known today for having a strong Free software philosophy and a push for upstream that results in remarkable amount of innovation. We have upstream projects who love us for what we are and recognize the great strides we have made in the community.

My passion for Free and open source has only been strengthened and solidified since I started participating in this community during the early days, a couple of months after it was formed and I have learned a lot, got a job working with and on things I enjoy. It is a remarkable and wonderful journey. In all these years, it is surprising to look back at that email I wrote and not wonder if my ideas really has changed at all.I think, maybe not.

One of those every lasting ideas that has always stayed with me is a strong commitment to our underlying principles. After making great strides with focusing our free and open source licensing guidelines and policies and continuously doing extensive internals reviews to make sure we are compliant with our own guidelines, I started regularly discussing with FSF, especially RMS and Brett Smith about what we are doing with Fedora. What was most striking in these discussions was that FSF and RMS in particular who was well known in the community for having such adamant and extreme focus on the Free software philosophy turned out to have other not so well known traits too. They were all that and more such as RMS insistence on using just the right words but I also found something quite unexpected hidden beneath the ideology: Pragmatism. If you notice carefully, it is reflected everywhere in their actions as Alan Cox eloquently observed.

I have been spending the last couple of weeks talking to them about clarifying where exactly they are drawing the lines on what constitutes a free system beyond just software and today, FSF just again proved to be quite reasonable by publishing the free system distribution guidelines based on the Fedora licensing guidelines. While I just send my detailed list of feedback on these guidelines and we are not done just yet, I hope this proves to be a useful document to everyone involved and all hail the pragmatic extremists for that. The world is just better off with them in it despite all their own quirks.

Written by mether

May 16, 2008 at 1:16 am

Posted in Uncategorized

18 Responses

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  1. Great job

    Hey Rahul,

    Just wanted to say I think you’re doing a great job with this, and to keep up the hard work🙂

    I loved the post as a whole too, it was interesting reading those old mailing list threads and seeing how things have changed now, and also that you chose to refer to the FSF etc as pragmatists – I like to think of them as pragmatic idealists!

    Cheers,

    JonRob

    Anonymous

    May 15, 2008 at 10:18 pm

  2. The part of FSF/RMS’ fundamentalism usually arises from people attaching their own baggage and interpretation to statements made by them.

    By the way, how far is Fedora now from being listed as one of the FSF recommended GNU/Linux distributions?

    – Debarshi Ray

    Anonymous

    May 16, 2008 at 5:12 am

    • Just the same

      It’s been in the same status for quite sometime. We are good to go except the only real thorny issue is the firmware. There are other relatively minor issues like the presence of artistic 1.0 licensed software that FSF considers a confusing and potentially non-free license but it OSI approved and OSI hasn’t yet responded to a request for clarification apparently. Dropping all the firmware doesn’t really seem like a option at this time. There is some work being done at

      http://www.fsfla.org/~lxoliva/fsfla/linux-libre/README

      This will be raised to FESCo likely soon. Meanwhile I have been asking FSF to publish what it considers exceptions but otherwise acknowledge the work distributions such as Fedora and Debian have been doing. RMS said he will consult with other people and make a decision on this. Let’s see.

      mether

      May 16, 2008 at 7:04 pm

  3. one issue with the firmware blobs policy …

    … is that it can lead to a peculiar paradox. Many devices have their own processors, often several of them, and these processors have programs. The program might be permanently burned into ROM, or it might be stored in upgradeable nonvolatile memory, or it might even need to be loaded each time the device is powered on.

    But the FSF policy says that the device/blob combination counts as free if the firmware is burned into ROM, and not upgradeable, and non-free if the firmware is loaded from RAM, even though in the latter case, it’s possible for a hacker to find out how to program the device (and there are many free software projects that have done just this).

    What this leads to is a situation where we claim a device whose program cannot be altered at all is more free than a device that can be programmed arbitrarily but we just don’t know how to program it yet.

    joe_buck

    May 16, 2008 at 7:06 pm

    • Re: one issue with the firmware blobs policy …

      I think the argument from FSF on that point is that if the firmware is burned into ROM, everybody is in the same situation but if the firmware is modifiable but only the vendor can do it, it gives them a proprietary advantage over the users who can’t do what the vendor does and hence that is unacceptable. If you consider that not right you can drop a mail and ask them for clarifications. I am continuing to follow on the conversation and getting more details myself.

      If you do decide to send your feedback and get more information on anything about these guidelines, I would be interested to hear about that.

      mether

      May 16, 2008 at 7:11 pm

      • Re: one issue with the firmware blobs policy …

        If you are stubborn enough, you could take out the ROM and put a new ROM with your software burned to it.

        Anonymous

        May 17, 2008 at 1:05 pm

      • Re: one issue with the firmware blobs policy …

        Well, yes but the real question is one of modifiability. Not replacing it wholesale. Proprietary software can be replaced by Free software too but it is really a take it or leave it thing.

        mether

        May 17, 2008 at 1:08 pm

  4. Go Back To India

    Rashnish Sunduram Obagi:

    Go back to India. Americans have had enough of graduate students like you. American public universities are worthless. American “computer science” is broken beyond belief. Go back to India, we don’t need you. Really, Rashnish, go back to India.

    Sincerely,
    Duc Lao Xinbao
    Exchange Instructor (Chinese Central Univeristy)

    Anonymous

    May 16, 2008 at 9:28 pm

    • Re: Go Back To India

      You are being utterly silly. I am neither a graduate student nor am in US. I am in India and cannot really got back to it if I am already here.

      mether

      May 16, 2008 at 9:56 pm

      • Re: Go Back To India

        Hum. I am neither American nor Indian nor Chinese, so I don’t know if I am qualified to respond here, but I really feel I must say this: the parent just wrote one of the weirdest comments I’ve seen in weeks, maybe months. Where the heck did that come from, what did I miss?

        Why does someone from a Chinese University feel a need to tell you:
        1. US universities suck
        2. Americans don’t need you
        3. “we” (? China ?) don’t need you

        First, 1 and 2 contradict each other – after all, if US universities are that bad (I have no idea about nor an opinion on that), they would benefit from having someone like you visit (I do have an opinion on that, as you seem rather smart).
        Second, what does China have to do with any of it?

        I haven’t read the news very much lately, did WWIII finally start with a struggle between China, India and the US? Interesting! Who’s with who? And what side am I on?

        Anonymous

        May 17, 2008 at 10:16 pm

    • Go Back To China

      ROFLMAOL. That is so stupid on so many levels.

      Mr.Xinbao, your post implies that you are currently an instructor in the US? People from many cultures all around the world play important roles at American Universities. If you dislike working with Indians (or any other race/nationality/sex/whatever) you should return to China as soon as possible. The one thing America really doesn’t need is more racists.

      Anonymous

      May 16, 2008 at 11:54 pm

    • Re: Go Back To India

      That must be the most racist commentary in a long time that I read in free software related opinion exchange.

      Anonymous

      May 17, 2008 at 2:10 pm

      • Re: Go Back To India

        There is nothing wrong with a little racism. We can’t all like everything. Without hatred, there is no love. Without darkness there is no light. Without night there is no day. Besides, anyone who says they don’t hate anybody is not being honest. We ALL hate some things in life.

        Anonymous

        May 21, 2008 at 9:58 pm

  5. Some problems here…

    I’m as against idiotic patents as anyone, but implying that known patent-encumbered software is OK is a bad idea. If you want others to respect our rights, make it clear we will respect their rights (even while stating that we are working towards getting the whole software patent idea owerthrown).

    Also, what makes the “world map of a game” so radically different from e.g. a text on C programming (or a program itself!) that shareware ones are allowed? You can very well argue that said world map is just a program that controls the game engine’s actions!

    vonbrand

    May 18, 2008 at 10:35 pm

    • Re: Some problems here…

      Problem with “respecting” patents is being aware of them in the first place. Morever patent laws are not universal. If I am creating a distribution in one of the places where software patents are not valid at all, then I don’t have any incentive really to remove those software out of the distribution.

      Also by “game data” the guidelines probably mean music, artwork etc. FSF has already agreed to clarify that in a earlier conversation with them.

      mether

      May 19, 2008 at 9:07 am

    • Re: Some problems here…

      All non-trivial software is known patent-encumbered software. As RMS said, Linux itself implements hundreds of patents. The issue is not whether there are patents, but whether the patent holder is actively trying to stop you distributing the software.

      Anonymous

      May 19, 2008 at 2:19 pm

  6. great to hear

    I’m using Fedora now for quite some time. And i like the combination of an up-to-date and (almost) complete free distribution.

    Almost because of the firmware issue. I hope you will integrate somehow the work of Alexandre Oliva so that in the future there will maybe exist and complete free spin of Fedora.

    But beside the firmware issue, where i can understand the position of some fedora guys, i’m quite happy with fedora!

    I have fellowed the license auditing both on the mailing lists and on the website. But it seems like it become a little bit quiet lately. So i’m happy to read something new here.

    I hope you will come together with the FSF so that they can “recommend” Fedora somehow. I think this would be good for both. Fedora would gain even more reputation in the free software world and the FSF would gain a great distribution with a large user and developer community to recommend to others. I think the FSF has a great problem that they can only talk about free software but couldn’t give the people a easy compilation to try out free software. Because all the distribution they recommend today have both a small user and a small developer community. I don’t feel comfortable by recommend such small distributions to new GNU/Linux users.

    Keep up your good work for Fedora and Free Software!

    Fedora 9 rocks!

    Anonymous

    May 19, 2008 at 8:20 pm

  7. I think the FSF has been struggling to figure out how to relate with the Linux Distro community every since it appeared. For a little while with Debian it looked like they were on the right track. I wish FSF embraced Linux more back in 93 and 94.

    It’s simply amazing how many issues each year in making Free systems more functional. A couple years ago the big issues were Java, Flash, codecs and video drivers. Java is now very usable as open source, Gnash can play a lot of flash including youtube, and codecs can play quite a lot of things. ATI also seems to be more willing to open up stuff.

    The big issues right now will be: Microsoft really trying to close off the web with .NET and Silverlight, wireless and 3d video firmware, plugins that don’t have clear licensing and hand held devices restricting users.

    vu13

    May 29, 2008 at 6:26 pm


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