April 23, 2019

The StartX Files: Losing the Horizon

The Queasy Pangs of Trouble

  • May 15, 2001
  • By Brian Proffitt

There is an awful, queasy feeling one gets when one is about to walk into serious trouble.

I last had this feeling a couple of weeks ago, when I was flying home from Chicago and I found myself out over a very black Lake Michigan and a very black night sky. The net effect of this phenomenon was that I no longer could see the horizon. For a new pilot like me, this is a very scary thing.

What many non-pilots don't realize is that the inner ear plays tricks with your orientation when you lose your visual reference. Your sense of balance tells you you're turning when really you're level or vice versa. It's difficult to imagine, until you actually experience it.

So there I am, 4000 feet over the oh-so-chilly water, trying to keep my eyes down on the instruments because they will tell me what's really going on with the plane. My heart is pounding as I seriously contemplate calling Chicago Center on the radio to ask to turn back so I can follow the shoreline around the lake.

Then I glance back up into the abyss and see the dim lights of Michigan City on the other side of the lake. I have my horizon and all I need to do is wipe my sweaty palms on my pants and keep flying home.

When you get into situations like that, you figure you will be able to see it coming again, that experience will give you the ability to deal with trouble in a better way.

So why was that queasy feeling back as I sat and stared at my monitor last week? Why did seeing the message from Richard Stallman asking me to start using the term GNU/Linux feel like losing the horizon?

Step Into the Wayback Machine, Sherman

To give some background into why the term "GNU/Linux" causes such a visceral reaction to me (and many others) an abbreviated history is in order for those of you who are new to this situation. For those of you who are not, I beg your indulgence until the next section.

Richard M. Stallman, who is commonly referred to as RMS, is a man whose very name incites both thoughtful responses and downright nasty insults because of who he is and what he stands for. As a member of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab, Stallman became increasingly dissatisfied with the growing proprietary nature of software development. When he started at MIT in 1971, the programmers and hackers around him were truly a community that believed in the complete and open sharing of software. By the early 1980s, according to Stallman's essay "The GNU Project," that was all starting to change for the worse, as commercialism and the inherent legal strictures that attend the commercial marketplace kept invading Stallman's world.

So, one day, the story goes, Stallman made a choice and decided that he would start the creation of the world's first truly free operating system: GNU. Stallman left the employ of MIT in 1984 and went on to code the gcc compiler that would become an integral part of Linus Torvald's kernel a few years later. After the Free Software Foundation (FSF) was started in 1985, FSF employee Brian Fox developed the Bourne Again Shell, bash. But while the tools for the GNU operating system were being built, the kernel was not as successful.

Again, this is all information you can read in Stallman's essays, so I am not revealing anything new here. While minor parts of Stallman's history have been challenged, no one has disputed these major events.

The controversy really did not start until 1991, when Linus Torvalds posted his now famous little note inviting people to play around with his Minix-like free operating system kernel that he called Linux. This kernel, the message said, was "just a hobby, won't be big and professional like gnu." Torvalds made more than just a mention of GNU in his note. He also indicated that he had ported gcc and bash to work with this kernel, too.

For those of you new to the Linux scene, all operating systems need more than just a kernel to be an operating system. The kernel is just the piece of code that gives instructions directly to the processor of a given machine. Operating systems are larger, more complex beasts that need a kernel, compilers, and shells (among other things) to truly be an OS. Torvalds, it seemed, had provided the GNU Project the kernel it needed to function as the GNU operating system.

But something happened along the way that changed what should have been a happy marriage of technologies. The Linux kernel did not become enveloped within the GNU Project--instead, pieces of GNU were absorbed into Linux, along with quite a few other tools. It was not the GNU Project that took off, but rather the upstart OS from Finland, even though Torvalds himself released the kernel under the General Public License (GPL) developed by Stallman and the FSF.

Many people have argued that this swerve away from the notion of free software is because of the proclivity of people (at least in Western society) to associate the word "free" with "cheap." Others have squirmed under the political underpinnings of Stallman's arguments, uncomfortable with notions of freedom and moral choice in something that for many people is just a hobby or a job.

For whatever reason, the notion of Linux as a free software operating system began to shift to a more liberal interpretation called open-source software--a concept crystallized by Eric S. Raymond in his work "The Cathedral and the Bazaar." A concept that does not promote free software as much as the methodology in which software is created. This softened a lot of the FSF's "intellectual property is evil" arguments that the open source community feared would drive away the corporate participants.

Which leads us to one of the biggest divisions in philosophies that exists in the Linux arena today. Free software and open-source software are different on many levels, though superficially they seem like the same thing. If newcomers to Linux get nothing else out of this week's column, I hope they learn this.

But I was talking about a note from Richard Stallman.

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