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The joy of an unstable life. Some time ago, your editor was discussing Linux distributions on a mailing list for computer book authors. A correspondent there described the Debian distribution as "stale," far behind such modern products as Slackware. Perhaps that description is accurate: what do you say about a distribution that is still based on the 2.2 kernel, glibc 2.1, GNOME 1.0, and which does not include KDE at all? It does look like it is getting a little dusty.
The interesting thing, of course, is that many (perhaps even most?) Debian users are not running the 2.2 "potato" release. With a quick configuration file edit and a massive apt-get command, any system can be upgraded to the unstable "sid" release. This is where Debian development is done, and it's anything but stale. If you want the bleeding edge, you'll probably find it there.
The unstable distribution is not for everybody, of course. Your editor once performed an upgrade during a short window when the PAM packages were broken; the result was a system that nobody could log into. Following unstable through a major Perl or Python transition can be a bit of a challenge. And you never know what surprises may lurk within the latest version of your favorite utility. Unstable remains popular, though, and it is interesting to ponder why. There are things to be learned about the free software development process in the dynamics of the unstable distribution.
The first thing worth pointing out, of course, is that the unstable distribution is usually solid as a rock. It's almost too stable, in that users can easily get into the habit of tracking the bleeding edge without watching (and being prepared) for problems. It works almost all the time.
It is fun to be a part of the free software development process, and Debian unstable offers a relatively easy entry point into that process. If you want to see the latest feature in Galeon, check out what new video game has been added to emacs, or find out how badly the new binutils breaks kernel compilation, sid makes it easy. A simple upgrade command brings in the latest version, and all those obnoxious library dependency problems just go away. Anybody who wants to add their eyeballs to the thousands looking for bugs need only run unstable.
Unstable also makes life easy for people who want to try out new software. It is still a rare distribution, for example, that includes Evolution 1.0 or later. When dealing with modern graphical applications, installing a package or building from source leads straight to shared library dependency madness. Sid users, however, need only type an apt-get command. This capability makes a whole range of interesting software available in a hassle-free manner.
Free Software is a living product. As soon as it is burned onto a CD and stuffed into a box, a part of it dies. Half-dead software may be just what is needed for that corporate mail server, but it deprives the user of part of the free software community experience. Distributions like Debian unstable help to bring back part of that experience.
(Debian, of course, also has a "testing" distribution which is not quite so quick to update as sid. Debian is also certainly not the only distributor which makes a development version available. Mandrake Cooker is a great example of a development distribution with an active user community. Red Hat still makes "Rawhide" available, though they do not make it easy to find. Conectiva has a "Snapshot" distribution available, complete with a list of developers who are responsible for the most bugs; Conectiva has an APT interface as well, of course. Most other distributors do not make their development versions available, which is a loss for both the distributor and the users.)
Open source licensing helps racism? The Anti-Defamation league has posted a report on racist video games. Indeed, some of the stuff being circulated out there looks to be seriously vile. What we are interested in here, however, is the ADL's look at how the games were made: Making Ethnic Cleansing was fairly simple. Its designers were able to use a powerful, freely available open-source game program or engine that "drives" the program by providing the basic operating instructions to the computer. The designers then simply plug in their message of hate.
A bit more of where they are going with this argument can be seen in this ZDNet article: Brian Marcus, a researcher in the ADL's Internet monitoring unit and author of the report, acknowledged the difficulty of using software licensing restrictions to limit hate speech, especially among the largely self-policing open-source community.
There is no questioning the evil of racist video games. A proper game, after all, should allow the violent, bloody slaughter of dozens of people of all races. But when people start to point at open source licensing as part of the problem, it is time to get worried.
Should open source licensing prohibit racist uses of the software? The Open Source Definition is explicit on that point: The license must not restrict anyone from making use of the program in a specific field of endeavor. For example, it may not restrict the program from being used in a business, or from being used for genetic research.
...or from being used in appalling, hate-promoting games.
Software developers are already coming under attack for writing code that is seen to promote (or simply fails to prevent) copyright infringement. The last thing we need is to be told that we must not allow our software to be used to promote racism. It's a small step from there to no end of other restrictions. The fight against racism is important and deserves our support, but that fight can not be won through the sacrifice of other rights.
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February 21, 2002