Department of Mathematics and Physics
Colorado State University, Pueblo
2200 Bonforte Blvd.
Pueblo, CO 81001 USA email@example.com
Colorado State University — Pueblo
College of Science and Math
Food For Thought Colloquium
25 September 2014
If you are coming to this page after missing the talk itself, there is
a video available at the bottom of this page. I would
suggest starting the video and then following along with this page while
listening to the audio, since an enormous amount was said which is only
suggested in this presentation page.
[Perhaps some day I will make a screencast which uses the live
audio, follows along at the right spots on this page, and makes the same
excursions to other web sites I made during the live presentation....]
The original motivation for this presentation, or at least for me to be
invited to speak, is two things I've been involved in recently.
A textbook I used last semester. The obvious choice would have been to
use the quite good, but somewhat closed, forbidding (in its immobile
closedness), and expensive book I'd used in the past when teaching Number
It's about control. Who controls your machine, your software, and your
Current neo-liberal ideology would describe all of this as the following
coders who want to earn a living
engines of the economy
job creators the good guys
spies the bad guys
But, particularly in this room, the economic argument for closed-source
should be obviously ridiculous.
For example, do you, my academic colleagues, think that I should I have my
students sign an
Calculus End User Agreement
Any student in Poritz's Calculus II may use the method Integration by
Parts so long as they remain enrolled at an accredited four-year institution
of higher education. Immediately upon graduating from such an institution,
said student must cease and desist from using IbP in any context
whatsoever. ["U-substitution", however, is considered a basic human right by
the United Nations and so is not restricted in any way by this license.]
For an additional annual fee of $500, graduates may purchase an employed
person's Calculus license, which permits up to up to 17 [seventeen] uses
of IbP per annum. Of particular interest to graduates in STEM fields is
also the CalculusPRO® license which costs $1000/year and allows 50
uses of IbP and unlimited trigonometric substitutions in each
and every year!
[Maybe that first clause is too generous: we might improve student retention
if it read instead "...so long as they remain enrolled
at a campus of the Colorado State University System." Should I
propose this to our Provost or BoG?]
Likewise, perhaps chemists and biologists should start publishing papers
without a Methods section, unless an extra fee is paid, or
mathematicians should likewise embargo the proofs of their new published
theorems without particular financial recompense.
Actually, the philosophical (ethical!) argument motivated some of pioneers of
the FSM, particularly Richard Stallman
FLOSS tends to be more efficient, more reliable, and more secure than
unfree software: e.g., there are around 100,000 known Windows viruses in
the wild, but probably fewer than a dozen known for GNU/Linux. There
are several reasons for this:
Virus writers are more drawn to Windows, since it is a larger target.
The fundamental security model which underlies Windows is quite
different from that which underlies GNU/Linux, in a way quite that
makes a lot of sense in the context of the control issues we've
The issue is that Microsoft's business model has moved farther and
farther down the road of enforcing their near-monopoly market
dominance, and in being a good partner to those who wish to continue
to exercise control over users' hardware and software.
It is far more important to this business strategy for the Windows
operating system to provide tools for application software writers to
exercise control over users than it is to protect the users' privacy
In fact, protecting the users' security and privacy is relevant to
this strategy only insofar as catastrophic breaches become a PR issues.
As a consequence, fundamental aspects of the Windows security model
do not enforce (or sometimes even enable!) appropriate sandboxing,
fine-grained permissions, etc. — all the tools that
GNU/Linux has built in.
The FLOSS community, for historical, political, and emotional reasons,
contains many who are very concerned (not to say paranoid) about
security and privacy. These individuals have written FLOSS software to
support their concerns and of course given them out to the community for
peer review, customization, and free (as in speech and beer) adoption.
In fact, the overwhelming majority of computer security and cryptography
academics use and write FLOSS, providing a solid intellectual foundation
to the FLOSS tools in this area.
This is not to say FLOSS is perfect! (Nothing on this mortal plane is....)
E.g., the recent Heartbleed bug was in a piece of FLOSS software called
But generally FLOSS is far superior software: this should come as no surprise
in this room, since all of those eyes reading the source code are
essentially doing continual, ongoing peer review. (We believe in peer review,
don't we?) E.g., a recent back door was found that someone had submitted to
the Linux kernel by vigilant readers of that open source code; so it was not
allowed out in the official version — who is creating or looking for
back doors in commercial software?
Which brings us back to the issue of control and forward to some very
the National Security Agency is creating back doors in commercial
software and exploiting security flaws which they find without telling
the companies about their flawed products (this we know from the Snowden
revelations).... National Security Letters, and ubiquitous surveillance
corrupted/malicious commercial software vs what happened to
Lavabit and Truecrypt (leading to the cool idea of an
Facebook is a Skinner box designed to train the public not to
value its own privacy. [Cory Doctorow]
major hardware and commercial software, with its seizure of
control, is mostly American. How would you feel about that if you
were German or Brazilian or Russian or Chinese? How about if you were a
dissident tweeting from the streets in Damascus, Syria, Gaza City,
Palestine, or Zuccotti Park, Manhattan?
The European Union has enshrined interoperability into many laws.
Several local European governments have moved to FLOSS for price,
customizability, openness, etc.
(e.g., Munich (Germany; see
or look into LiMux,
the GNU/Linux distribution remixed particularly for Munich), Valencia
(Spain; actually, it was their public schools, not the entire regional
government; see this story), saving, in
their estimates, many tens of millions of euros.
Final plug for open textbooks
The FSM and GPL also inspired Lawrence Lessig, an intellectual-property
lawyer at Stanford, to found an organization called the
Creative Commons and to make viral
licenses for no-software
[digital] materials. This license is sometimes call copyleft.
There are now more than half a billion CC licensed works which can be found
all over the Web, for example at the
Now, why should my students be paying $130.62 for a textbook about number theory
which is filled with theorems (so, ideas, and ideas cannot be
copyrighted) which are mostly more than a hundred years old. And why should
my calc II students pay $214.09 for a textbook? The first calculus
textbook was published in 1696 (written by L'Hospital, he of the famous Rule)
— while it would be ridiculous to assign this to my students, it is
hard to believe that this aren't other calculus textbooks from the last 300
years which would be, like L'Hospital's, in the public domain (so: cheap!),
and would also be modern enough to be useful to my students.
Here's a nice future to imagine:
Before every semester starts, in most classes (at least in math, maybe
in STEM, maybe more widely in the university...), the instructor would go
to a central repository and download a bunch of copyleft chapters
on the subject they would teach.
Simple tools would enable the materials to be put together easily, with
the instructor's desired emphasis, examples, special topics, etc.
If the instructor wished a topic for which there was no existing
material in the repository, or wished to use a novel presentation approach,
or wanted new examples or problems or applications, she would use simple
tools to write those new sections and to incorporate them into the
bespoke textbook under construction.
During the semester, the students could read the textbook online entirely
for free, or could purchase an on-demand printed hard copy for a few dollars.
At the end of the semester, anything newly created this time would be
uploaded back to the repository, under a Creative Commons license, for
others to use in the future.
I don't want to prevent authors (professors) from charging for new books on
new topics or topics never before described in a particular way. I do want
to save my students thousands of dollars, and I want never to see a story like
this one again.
When total US student debt exceeds $2trillion and we professors have the
technology (almost!) to make better, customized, (essentially) zero-cost
textbooks for many of our classes, I cannot justify our inaction.
Early FSM and CC activists loudly declaimed
Information Wants to Be Free.
I assert that, at least in a university (although probably everywhere in a
free society), we should stand on the principle
Information Technology Wants to Be Free
Remember, this is the "free as in speech" meaning of that word — how
much it costs is a different issue... maybe I should change my proposed
Information Technology Wants to Be Libre
[although as a thing to chant on the street in our assembled
thousands, it looses some of its punch when you have to stop to explain that
Whatever the slogan is, the take-away for a university, at the very least, is
Every time we buy a piece of commercial software or e-mail a Microsoft Word
document to a student (or colleague), or require our students to buy an
expensive textbook when there exists a free alternative, we are violating the
foundational ethic of what we do as scholars and educators, and not even
getting a better product for it. We should stop these
This presentation was filmed and can be seen here:
Some of the things I would have liked to have time to talk about:
the vibrancy of FLOSS communities (so: this is an enormous selling
point to me for WeBWorK over the commercial on-line homework
the customizability of FLOSS software
I taught a class last semester in which the students installed a version
of GNU/Linux on a thumb drive during (part of) the first class meeting,
and then for the rest of the semester, they rebooted the computers in the
math department computer lab to this system at the beginning of every
class, and without even the slightest hiccup used FLOSS for every minute
of every class session the rest of the semester, and at home when they
needed to work away from the school lab.
HCI studies on command-line versus point-and-click UIs
Difficulties in transition to FLOSS are less significant when compared
with malware-related downtimes of commercial software, users and their
data locked into walled gardens, and transitions even in the commercial
software world just due to new releases of software.
Commercial software often provides heavyweight solutions to lightweight
problems, because getting users locked in is part of their business model
— but lock-in is the antithesis of what a free scholarly (or, for
that matter, any) environment wants.