Open Source Economy

I’ve been writing open source software for a while now. Not that I’m prolific or anything. However, I’ve released most of what I’ve written under open licences. From my point of view, this means I give the source code away with the software, so that people who use it can learn from it, tinker with it, improve it and make uses of it that I’ve never thought of.

Probably my first piece of software that was widely used was something called MIDIMOD, which I published back in 1993. It ran on MS-DOS, and converted one type of music file format to another. I wrote it because I wanted a software tool to do that, and it turned out that some others did too.

Copyright law prevents anyone copying your intellectual work. However, you can provide people with a licence to copy it under certain conditions specified in that licence. Under the Berne Convention, you don’t have to do anything special to get copyright – it applies by default. My software had a licence included with it that allowed anyone to provide the software to anyone else, but they had to provide the source code as well. That way, whomever got the software, no matter who from, could tinker with it. This attribute is shared with the GPL (Gnu Public Licence), one of the most famous open source licences.

About ten years after my small piece of open source software was released into the world, the country of Brazil chose to adopt open source software in their government as a major policy initiative. And just a couple of weeks ago, the President of Brazil accepted from ITU the World Telecommunication and Information Society Award. In accepting the award, President Lula noted the importance of the promotion of open source in establishing an inclusive society.

Brazil is one of the four “BRIC” countries, an acronym coined from the first initials of Brazil, Russia, India and China. BRIC is a term used in economic circles, as those countries are known to be fast-growing, developing nations that may be the dominant economies within fifty years. So, they are certainly ones to watch.

Aside from the initial cost savings of Brazil adopting open source software (which is typically free to licence), the choice of this model is intended to create long-term economic benefits for the country. Rather than importing non-open source software from other countries, primarily USA, Brazil is fostering a local software development community that can tinker with the software the government uses to make it better suited to their evolving needs. Also, since software is typically used to create all types of intellectual property these days, it ensures that the intellectual property created by the government is not locked to software that can be maintained only by its creator, who may choose to give up on it, e.g. if it’s no longer in their commercial interest to do so.

This far-sighted approach by the government of a potential future economic super-power is perhaps instructive for those of us in countries that will likely never be a super-power. Australia could be promoting similar approaches. Who knows – in a decade, perhaps we, too, could be receiving an award from the ITU.

Law of minority advantage?

Our little girl is showing a tendancy for using her left hand. Now, I know that it’s probably too early to tell for sure, but Kate’s a leftie and there is some evidence that it can be inherited. Even so, between 7 – 10% of the population is left-handed. So I was wondering what it would mean for her to grow up left-handed, and I remembered that fact about fencers.

Apparently left-handers have an advantage in many competitive sports. Close to half of the 16 top fencers worldwide are left-handed. However, there is also significantly greater than 10% left-handers in sports like tennis, boxing, squash, badminton, cricket, and baseball. Although various sports have specific advantages for left-handers (an obvious one in baseball is that left-handed batters are closer to first base), the general rule is that the the majority of the sporting population – the right-handers – have little chance to practice against them. So, the main source of their advantage is the fact that they are a minority.

Perhaps this is generalisable beyond left-handers? Is there a “law” that minority groups have an advantage over the majority in competitive situations? While the minority group will naturally have regular opportunities to compete with members of the majority, the majority group will have fewer opportunities to compete against the minority. In situations where it is person-to-person competition, and familiarity and practice make a difference, you would expect a greater percentage of the minority group (than their percentage of the overall population) to be in the ranks of the most successful.

In many situations, being in a minority may be a disadvantage in itself, but perhaps this law indicates that sometimes that disadvantage is more than made up for by the law of minority advantage? For example, the women that I know in engineering/IT disciplines probably make up more of the senior ranks than their overall percentage in engineering might suggest. Or maybe my sample is biased in some way, but it’s interesting to ponder.

I wonder if it applies in the field of executive/personal assistants, where men tend to be in the minority. Do men tend to do better than the percentage of their participation in this field would suggest?

In theory, the smaller the minority group the greater the advantage gained. Left-handers are about 1 in 10 people, which is clearly small enough for the effect to be noticed. I wonder if there are rarer traits (that don’t come with specific disadvantages) that are also more present amongst the successful.

More digging around would be needed to see whether this principle could be extended more broadly, so I might come back to this later when I’ve got more data. Although, given the amount of free time I’ve had recently, Harriet might be grown up by that point.

It’s still a good story though

Up until tonight, I was a big fan of this story, which appears in full several places on the Internet. It illustrates the benefits of long-term thinking.

New College, at Oxford, has a magnificant timber roof in its hall. However, it was found to be infested with beetles and needed to be replaced. When it came to try to find a source for oak to replace the timbers it turned out that the college owned some nearby forests that had oak trees. These trees were planted back 500 years before when the college hall was built, in anticipation of this very need.

Unfortunately, in my browsing of the Internet, I found that the whole thing is a fable. According to a post from that scurge of all urban legends, Snopes, there is no evidence for the college actually making 500 year long plans, and it was simply standard practice to grow oak trees in forests. It’s sad, because it is a good story.

Although, I must admit that there’s also no evidence that the Snopes references are valid either, as its source is a URL that no longer works.