Category Archives: Free Software

SpotOn3D a bigger menace to virtual worlds than we realized

Not much of a surprise, given that their CEO is a patent attorney, but SpotOn3D is actively pissing all over the virtual world space, trying to claim proprietary rights on lots of ideas for doing things in virtual worlds. As I mentioned in a previous post, software patents are bullshit, and are also a threat. They stifle innovation, because ideas— often broad ideas that are obvious extensions of what already exists— are given government monopolies. Even if the patent would be overturned in court, the mere threat of patent litigation is enough to deter small companies or individuals, who can’t afford to defend themselves, from doing things. At best, they pay protection money to the patent bully defending it; at worst, competitors can be stopped from competing (as Apple is often trying to do with Android-based phones).

It turns out that SpotOn3D has applied for five patents already, and intends to apply for many more.

That makes SpotOn3D at the moment one of the greatest threats to the future development of an interoperable future metaverse. Yes, Tessa Kinny-Johnson may get all teary about being attacked and think that she’s not being appreciated for the development that her company is doing, but make no mistake. Software patents, in a business and software ecosystem dominated by Linden Lab (hardly a corporate behemoth themselves), are a greater danger than they are anywhere else— and they get in the way of innovation everywhere. As such, it doesn’t matter how emotional she gets, she needs to understand that her company is being actively destructive to the development of virtual worlds. More importantly, the community as a whole needs to understand that SpotOn3D is destructive, and Kinny-Johnson and others there need to realize the community understands that.

If they’re going to be patent trolls, if they’re effectively going to try to play the roll of SCO to Linux (who, thankfully, didn’t do much, but then again Linux was already a juggernaut when they showed up), then we’re going to have to call them out in the open as the bad actors that they are. We cannot allow them to hide behind claims of innovation and development, when what they’re really doing is trying to acquire solitary rights of refusal and taxation on innovation and development in the virtual world domain.

I call on all users to boycott SpotOn3D. Don’t give that grid an audience so that it’s worth it for people to buy regions there. I call on all people with regions to move their regions to other grids; look for a grid that provides service, or a grid that’s not supporting a company that’s trying to grab rights of refusal for future virtual world development. And, I call on the developers and other non-lawyer employees of SpotOn3D to go get a job with an ethical company. The OpenSim community cannot afford to allow the patent minefield to grow. That, however, is what SpotOn3D is actively doing. The degree to which they are a menace cannot be over-emphasized. They need to be rejected by the community. We need them to go out of business as soon as possible before they can apply for more patents that we’ll be forced to deal with for the next two decades. What’s more, other companies who might be considering the same sort of “build our investment portfolio” kind of behavior must see that our community will not tolerate this behavior from companies. SpotOn3D must be seen to suffer, and soon, so that other virtual world companies will hesitate before joining the patent fracas.

Virtual World enthusiasts should boycott SpotOn3D

There was some buzz in the OpenSim arena recently because SpotOn3D released a browser plugin client for their customized OpenSim-based virtual world.

Why is this significant? Truthfully, the reason it’s significant is because people have very messed-up perceptions about computer software. For years, I’ve heard people say that Second Life and other virtual worlds would be easier to use if you could “just run it inside a browser” rather than having to download a whole separate client program. The problem with this is that browsers don’t support the entire client rendering engine and protocol layer that Second Life or OpenSim needs. That means that you do in fact have to download a plugin, and the plugin that you download has to do basically everything that the software package you would have downloaded will do. In other words, you’re just doing exactly the same thing, downloading a fairly substantial piece of software. The only difference is perception; people seem to perceive, somehow, that if it’s inside their browser, it’s easier to use than if it’s a separate program. (And, from my point of view, just like everything else that’s run “inside a browser”, it will tend not to be as smooth or as good as when you have a dedicated program for it. That’s changing, as browsers are converging towards operating systems, but they’re not there yet.)

Ah well. The truth is, though, that browsers have plugin managers that make it marginally easier to download and run plugins than it is to download a separate software package… and for many users, that margin of difference matters. (For people like me, it’s a negative; browser plugin installation, because it’s designed to be easy, is opaque. I like to know where software being installed on my system is going!) What’s more, plugin download lets you do an end-run around institutional IT molasses, where you can’t get software regularly installed and updated on systems you need. This matters in particular for education, where IT is used to installing things before a semester or a school year… but virtual worlds, being alpha in nature, have necessary updates on a much shorter timescale. Plugins, however, often get installed in your own user account (which from my point of view is horribly inefficient), and so you can install them without having to wait for IT to approve and do it. So, perhaps browser plugins are important.

The real problem with SpotOn3D, though, isn’t that they’ve created a browser plugin. Indeed, although I think it’s more smoke and mirrors than real innovation, they would deserve some approval for doing this. No, what we should boycott them for is patenting the idea of a browser plugin. (Edit: the patent isn’t approved, however; they’ve just applied for it. It’s possible the patent will get turned down, although the USPTO has granted a lot of patents that should have been turned down. Nonetheless, SpotOn3D has already done the foul deed by applying for the patent.)

Software patents are bullshit. Indeed, increasingly, patents in general are. If you read the US constitution, nominally they are there to foster progress in the useful sciences and arts. In practice, today, however, they hamper innovation. One person or company pisses all over a general area of doing something with software, and now nobody else can do anything with it for two decades unless they pay protection money. Supposedly, this is to protect people from having their inventions stolen. But, again, in practice, the vast majority of software patents aren’t a surprising new innovation; they’re things that many programmers can (and have) come up with, things that developers have already come up with, or an obvious extension. Patents are supposed to be a way of making surprising new innovations public so that everybody can benefit from them; they are there to provide an incentive to make things public. However, they way they’re working in today’s economy, especially with regard to software and “business methods”, is that they turn first-to-market (or “first to claim to want to get to market”) with a straightforward idea into a government-protected monopoly that lasts two decades. And, indeed, there exist parasite companies out there that do nothing but acquire patents and sue other companies and people for violating those patents. In other words, they exist only to stop people from doing things. That’s completely absurd.

And, even if the patent is bullshit and would eventually be overturned if somebody fought it, just going to court to fight it is expensive, often prohbitively so. The result is that a lot of people settle for patents they shouldn’t have. It’s bullies on the school yard. If you actually went to the teacher and told them the bullies were trying to take your lunch money, you wouldn’t lose your lunch money. But on many school yards, the cost of doing that is frightening enough that you just give in to the bullies. This is not fostering innovation.

A company that gets patents in good faith— for instance, only to use defensively against other patent assaults (which doesn’t work against trolls, by the way)— is marginally better. But only marginally. Unless that company is huge enough that we can count on it not going away, like PanAm or Borders, there’s always the possibility that a few years (or even a decade) down the line they (or their assets) will be bought by another company who has no qualms against using “defensive” patents to get undeserved income from other people who are actually doing anything.

Open Source is particularly vulnerable to patents. The nature of open source is that you distribute what you’ve done and let other people use it. However, if your code is patent encumbered, it may not matter that you’ve open sourced it; anybody else who wants to use it may face the threat of attacks from patent trolls. So, it’s particularly galling that SpotOn3D, which is built on top of open source— the OpenSim server code and the Second Life client code— would enter the software patent arena.

So, amidst all this excitement about SpotOn3D providing a browser plugin, we need to remember that they are acting in extremely bad faith, and that they are participating in a legal activity that can only harm virtual worlds, and is especially a threat to the open source virtual world effort. For this reason, I strongly urge any virtual world enthusiast to boycott SpotOn3D. Do not reward companies that behave in such bad faith.

Why I don’t like the term “Gnu Atheist”

You will say that a group has the right to call themselves whatever they want, and you will be right. I just wish they hadn’t chosen that term. It extends this group’s screwing up cultural battles that don’t need to be fought into yet another realm I care deeply about, and as with the first, it can only make things harder and more complicated.

Who are the “gnu atheists”? Well, first, a word of warning. If you try to define them, they show up and accuse you of choosing a definition for purposes of setting up a straw man. However, most of those in the movement formerly known as “New Atheism” seem to share the following characteristics. They are atheists. They believe the world would be a better place if religion would go away, becoming nothing more than cultural history and cultural tradition. They think that any religion that claims to be anything other than just cultural tradition is incompatible with science and the scientific world view. They believe that if somebody aims to accept science and is intellectually honest and consistent, the success of modern science must necessarily lead that person to accept philosophical materialism. They use the word “reason” as a synonym for “application of scientific reasoning”, thereby making anybody who is religious by definition guilty of thinking without reason. (As well as a lot of other people, for instance all faculty at a University who aren’t in a science or engineering department, but they tend either not to realize that they’re doing it, or to downplay that.)

Beyond that, a subset of them are incredibly strident and combative. They think that any religion at all is a threat to science. They do not hesitate to call non-atheists idiots or childish. They will crap the comment threads of posts like this one with all sorts of (frankly) bigotry hiding under the clothing of assumed “reason”, citing the names of logical fallacies the way fundamentalists cite scripture. They will assert that they know the Truth and that therefore it’s perfectly justified for them to say frankly insulting things, and then say that others shouldn’t be offended by the Truth. They seem to think that non-fundamentalist theists are prevaricators who “pick and choose” from their religion, and thus are somehow misrepresenting their own religious beliefs. I generally think that this is because they’d prefer to argue against fundamentalists, for it’s extremely easy to show how fundamentalists are at odds with science. But, it’s very disheartening to see somebody who wants people to accept science then criticizing a theist for not being a fundamentalist. It is the behavior of this subset that leads me to the conclusion that “fundamentalist atheist” is the best term for this sort of atheist. Most atheists, thankfully, are not like this, but there is the subset that argues that their philosophy is the only philosophy that can be accepted by reasonable people who accept science— much as fundamentalist Christians argue that their philosophy is the only philosophy that can be accepted by people who are good and “saved”.

What is the first cultural battle that these “gnu atheists” make more difficult? Well, obviously, the whole religion/science debate. Given that a substantial fraction of the USA is religious and values their religion, it should be pretty bloody obvious that if self-styled defenders of science are out there saying that science is incompatible with religion, it is only going to put up more barriers against the bulk of the population accepting science. Of course, sometimes obvious things are wrong— quantum mechanics is full of examples. And the new atheists are fond of pointing this out, arguing that there is no evidence that what they’re doing is harmful. Of course, there’s also no evidence that what they’re doing is helpful… but they don’t seem to think that a lack of evidence coupled with what is obvious disrespect and very plausibe harm is enough for them to question their behavior. What’s more, when you do present evidence, they will often dismiss it as anecdotal, or not clear statistical evidence, or not enough evidence, in a manner that frankly reminds me of this comment on Phil Plait’s blog by a creationist who insists that without complete timeline of all mutations in evolution, one shouldn’t accept evolution. (Aside: despite having the same first name, I did not write that comment!)

These “gnu atheists” will attack defenders of science such as the Chris Mooney & Sheril Kirshbaum, or Josh Rosenau, for pointing out the obvious harm that their tactics could do to our shared cause. They will argue that the National Center for Science Education shouldn’t be saying that science and religion are compatible, because if they’re really about “science” they shouldn’t be saying anything about religion at all. This last tactic is particularly annoying, because of course they themselves will not hesitate to go out and say that science is incompatible with religion. After all, the way that they’ve defined things, they’re just telling the truth, and anybody who claims to defend science and says that religion might be OK is venturing into off-limits territory. They will reject empirical evidence that religion and science are compatible— specifically, that huge numbers of working scientists are themselves religious— on the basis that it is incompatible with their philosophy, and therefore non-atheist scientists have something wrong with them (they’re “compartmentalizing”, or “intellectually dishonest”, or some such).

So. We’ve got a cause that a lot of us care deeply about— mainstream acceptance of science, scientific reasoning, and the scientific method. We have those out there— fundamentalists of various religions, most obviously— who want to reject much of science, and who have a distressingly powerful voice in public political discourse. And, we’ve got a broad population who are religious and care about their religion, but who are capable of accepting science. Then, we have a subset of those arguing for science who also argue that accepting science means having to reject religion… which of course provides direct support for the fundamentalists who argue that scientists are cultural warriors trying to take away everybody’s religion. That’s not true, but the fact that some scientists are out there saying that makes it much harder for people like the NCSE to argue that the scientific establishment really doesn’t want to destroy religion.

In other words, I’m annoyed at the “gnu atheists” in the first place; not just because many are so blinded by their love for their own philosophy that they can’t see that it isn’t necessarily objective truth, and not just because many are frankly rude and insulting while thinking there must be something wrong with me if I find them rude and insulting. I’m annoyed at them also because they’re getting in the way of a cause I care about, mainstream acceptance of good science and scientific reasoning. There are a lot of religious people out there who have no problem with evolution or the Big Bang, and there are a lot more who wouldn’t have any problem with it if they really learned about it and learned how Christians like myself are still Christian while accepting all of science. Those people are people we should reach out to. Telling them that religion is idiotic, or intellectually dishonest, and that the real people who accept science must all be atheists, isn’t going to help.

What’s the second issue? Open source and free software. “Huh?” you may say? To be honest, I don’t know the etymology of the recently-arisen term “gnu atheism”, but I’d wager that it’s taking the term “new atheism” (which caused all sorts of boring pedantic and semantic arguments) and riffing it together with Gnu of the Gnu project. The Gnu project is one of the original projects that pushed the notion of open source and free software, long before the term “open source” was coined. Much of that movement today would not exist without what the Gnu project had done. A lot of the core software you use on your Linux system was written under their auspices. But, more importantly, the Gnu project gave people like me, people who have a strong ethical attachment to the notion of free software, a central place to rally around. And, crucially, they provided the Gnu Public Licence, or GPL, one of the most important and most widely used free-software licenses.

Of course, there are some in the business world who see free software as a threat. So, there have been, and will continue to be, disinformation campaigns that try to link free and open source software to other dubious and/or Unamerican things, such as communism, computer crime/hackers, rampant disrespect for copyrights, etc. It’s a complete misrepresentation to say that there is a conflict between “the interests of business” and free software, but that is a narrative that’s out there floating about. What’s more, those who tend to care about “the interests of business” are likely to be, at least in the USA, on the “right” side of the political spectrum in the common but flawed one-dimensional model of political opinion. Those who are religious and worried, or potentially worried, that the scary scientific mainstream is trying to destroy religion are also more likely to be on the right side of the spectrum.

Put it together. You have this movement out there, the subset of atheists whose stated goal is to destroy religion and who assert that complete and intellectual consistent acceptance of science requires a rejection of religion. That is a movement that people who aren’t already atheists are likely to view with suspicion. Now, they’ve taken a name that seems to link them to something that is completely separate, open source and free software. It bugs me already for aesthetic that these guys have hijacked the term “Gnu”. But it can’t help but create a link in some folks’ minds between this crazy hippy dubious philosophy about sharing software you’ve written to attacks on religion. In sort, free software may now be perceived as having something to do with yet another cultural assault that, frankly, has nothing whatsoever to do with free software. “GNU public licence? Isn’t that related to those scientists who want to destroy all religion?” Sigh.

Life is hard enough for those of us who want the world to accept science, and for those of us who want the world to at least be compatible with free software. It only gets harder when some act in a way that is basically the caricature of what our opponents already claim we are.

If you thought Physics was misogynistic, try open source software!

There are days when I want to stand on the rooftops and scream like Zuska.

I’m no longer in academia, but as those who are longtime readers of my blog know, I became painfully aware of how sexist the culture of Physics is and how amazingly unequal the playing field is for women— not just, or not even primarily, because of differential standards, but because of the atmosphere that is created by that culture. I also became painfully aware how amazingly in denial a lot of men (and even a few women) are about the pervasive and sinister effects of that atmosphere.

One would often see borderline open misogyny hiding behind protestations that Physics needed to maintain their “meritocracy” — the existence of which I have argued previously is a myth. (And before you get all huffy and point out that I’m just sour grapes because I “wasn’t good enough” to stay in academia myself, bear in mind that not only did I win multiple awards for my research, including one from Vanderbilt itself, before Vanderbilt made it clear that I wasn’t going to get tenure, but also that I held these opinions back when things were still looking promising for my future at that place.)

In Free Software, however it’s far worse.

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