Open Source Support

Stephanie Zvan wrote an article about how open-source support must be better than closed-source because being motivated by pride is so much better than being motivated by money. Greg Laden and some of her other friends applauded predictably. I’m not going to mince words: I thought it was a singularly uninsightful article. I’m not even sure it was meant to be insightful so much as to be provocative or even outright insulting. Both are common motivations on the web, but attribution of motive is a fallacy and I have a few choice words later on for those who indulge in it so I won’t discuss motivation any further than to say that attributing a constructive motive where none is in evidence would be just as fallacious. Here’s a partial list of reasons why I think the article was bad.

  • Motivation is not strongly correlated with open vs. closed source. There are plenty of open-source folks who are motivated primarily by hopes of cashing in their open-source cred for cold hard cash some day, and couldn’t care less about whether their users are well served in the process. Many people working on closed-source projects, on the other hand, do care very much about their users and have passed up more lucrative opportunities so that they could do something they believe in.
  • One particularly important example of this is the people who start companies. People who start computer companies (and to a lesser extent those who choose to work at startups) have willingly consigned themselves to long hours for less immediate reward than they could get working for somewhere else or as consultants, risking their retirements and their marriages and much else in the process. That takes a lot of commitment and passion, which is reflected in concern for every single user. Some open-source workers can match that, but they’re far outnumbered by those who wrote something for themselves in their spare time and whose last involvement with it was to post it on Sourceforge or Freshmeat. Zvan’s whole theory falls apart when the “good guys” have the “bad motivation” and vice versa.
  • Open-source programmers’ pride, which Zvan presents as an unalloyed good, can lead to bad behavior as well. The Linux Kernel Mailing List is a notoriously nasty place, the Gentoo project is only one of the most prominent to be ripped apart by developers’ ego wars, bitter disputes over KDE vs. GNOME have raged everywhere, etc. For every example that fits Zvan’s model of kind and diligent open-source programmers being nice to users, there are at least two examples of immature and antisocial open-source programmers demonstrating utter contempt for users. The perception of users as an alien species at best, The Enemy at worst, is common among programmers regardless of their software-distribution model.
  • Discussing what motivates people is a tricky business, especially when discussing people clearly different than yourself. I’m sure the answer would be that the principles involved are universal and scientifically validated, but “it’s science” isn’t just magical pixie dust you can sprinkle on your biases and brainfarts to make them more credible. Real science involves applying appropriate analytic and explanatory models to actual data, accounting for exceptions or confounding factors, not just forcing made-up data into the mold of one pet theory. Programmers are people, not lab rats, engaged in a complex task that often involves conflicting motivations. Simplistic behavioral models do not suffice for them any more than for editors or travel coordinators.
  • If we want real science, and the question is whether open-source or closed-source products have better support, the way to find an answer is not to cook up some pet theory and try to fit data to it. The real scientific way is to look at user-perceived outcomes of support encounters in both realms. Stephanie doesn’t even consider it, and the one guy who offered such data in Greg’s thread was completely ignored except by me.

In the end, I’ll just say what I said in Greg’s thread. Open source is just a way of distributing software, with its own unique advantages and disadvantages. Ease of participation and likelihood of a project continuing beyond it’s originator’s withdrawal are among open source’s inherent advantages. Kind or level of motivation are not. Open source is not a panacea, and shouldn’t be a religion. Like any religion, those who relentlessly proselytize but don’t even practice what they preach – for example by actually writing some open-source software – are boors and hypocrites.

Donuts Improve Efficiency

…for wind turbines, that is.

I have a soft spot for solutions where the thought that goes into them is complex or subtle but the physical artifact that results is simple and robust. Looked at another way, the “what” is easy to understand but the “why” might require an advanced degree to understand. There’s a certain beauty to the shape an airplane wing or a ship hull, or even more to the equivalent biological forms which often remain superior in many respects. This is another good example. The shape could hardly be simpler, and anybody could build it according to a set of specs, but coming up with the ideal specs for a particular situation could be pretty difficult. It’s all about the thinking, not the building.