[unrev-II] Species survival & open source funding etc. (was Re: Intel's new XML network devices)

From: Paul Fernhout (pdfernhout@kurtz-fernhout.com)
Date: Tue May 09 2000 - 20:23:11 PDT

  • Next message: Eugene Eric Kim: "Re: [unrev-II] Species survival & open source funding etc. (was Re: Intel's new XML network devices)"

    Eric -

    My wife and I went through something like this a few years ago when
    deciding to finish our garden simulator and then release it as open
    source. That was six person-years of effort and sacrifice.
    Except for some advertising / resume value, we never received
    a dime for any of that work (in fact, it still costs us money
    each month to make it available.)

    At the time, we were especially disheartened by a rejection letter
    from the NSF for a grant pre-proposal saying basically "just sell
    it". Obviously part of the problem was our grant "sales" pitch
    and communication skills, but another part of the problem
    is the lagging pace of community awareness of new ideas -- especially
    among conservative PhD academics who decide about most grant making.
    Five to ten years from now funding open source projects by the NSF
    or such will be common place -- and then all the sharp marketers
    out there (rarely the Dougs of the world) will get most of the the
    funds to do stupid things that sound good or reinvent things the
    Dougs of the world suffered to create years earlier. (The book,
    "The Seven Laws of Money" by Michael Phillips has a chapter
    on why most grants go astray.) The hope is in the 5% of funding
    that accidentally falls into the right hands (against the best
    efforts of institutional conservatism to prevent it or ignore it
    or not understand it) like when J.R. Licklider gave money to Doug
    in the 1960s.

    The reason for this is that almost all the useful projects help
    humanity, but it is a strong part of human nature to help yourself
    or your local group -- and often those two things are at odds
    (even when you work for a government or the UN or World Bank).
    The one that usually wins is helping yourself. The creation of
    large immortal corporations helping themselves only makes this funding
    competition more difficult. For example, a government grant could
    go to fund an idealistic open source programmer for a year, or
    instead produce a 5% profit for a company making proprietary
    software. Guess who is in a better position to "buy" the grant
    with smoozing and lobbying and displaying a "track record"
    and "qualified professionals" by having PhDs on staff.
    This isn't helped by the push nowadays for every grantee to
    become self-funding, so if you can't prove you will turn the
    grant into a perpetual revenue stream, you probably won't get
    it (and this in software means making proprietary stuff).

    Also, the "peer review" process only works to fund typical
    work done in a way everyone accepts. Anything really new will fail
    the peer review process. The originator will starve and move onto
    other things, and years later the idea is "in the air" and
    typically a reviewer unconsciously remembers the idea and
    gets funded for proposing it. The work is then carried out
    without the full wisdom or context of the originator, and so
    it is weakened and likely fails to produce a wholistically
    integrated result. I've heard of this happening many times --
    and I do not mean to imply any deceit or ill will on any of the
    reviewing parties. This is perhaps the nature of social
    consensus building -- but it is made worse by the increasingly
    narrow specialization of academics and their "departments" /
    compartments, which everyone abhors but no one seems to be able to

    Sometimes you just got to do what you think is right -- like we did
    deciding to finish our garden simulator in the hopes some people
    somewhere would learn how to grow their own food in a more
    sustainable way from it (or at least, that others might make it into
    such). I've spent the last couple of years paying for it in interest
    & principal though! That's only money, but it's probably also delayed
    or prevented us having children. I just shockingly realized on Sunday
    that (no joking) in a way I have already [in a "pact with the devil"
    sort of way] given my first (never-to-be)born child to open source
    type projects. :-( But there are plenty of people who have given
    more than that for causes they believed in -- be it "racial equality"
    or "democracy" or "disarmament" or "ecology".

    I think of the choice as deciding among "the many scales of self".
    You've got to decide at each point in time what scale of self (body,
    family, organization, ecosystem, nation, Gaia, universe) you are going
    to be "selfish" for. Sometimes that means sacrificing the levels below.
    (Note this is made more complex by multiple overlapping entities on
    the same level -- like belonging to a church and a company and a
    lodge -- and sometimes having to choose between them).

    The world is full of people who volunteer -- teaching illiterate adults
    to read, giving blood, or raising foster children. It's also full of
    people giving money to flood victims or funding foundations. There is
    enough slack in there for good things to happen. It may not be happening
    with Bootstrap as quickly as one might like, but it is happening

    Any of the digital library efforts are heading towards such
    things. I especially like the CANIS stuff. "CANIS is developing and
    deploying unique analysis environments for large-scale information
    retrieval applications based on discipline and community scale
    collections." http://www.canis.uiuc.edu/ If I was going to work for
    someone and was relocatable, I'd strongly considering joining that
    group [I can't easily relocate because of elderly parents].
    (One important concept the CANIS group looks at is how the
    explicit linking concept is sort of obsolete -- in reality dynamic
    searches will replace links...)

    The good news is if you are good enough to make a major open source
    contribution, you are good enough to earn enough working half your time
    (in many month clumps) as a contractor to buy your own time (in other
    many month clumps). It would be nice if there was a better alternative,
    but the other possibility is competing for grants -- and good luck if
    you don't have the right PhD and the right connections (and lots of
    supported time to write the grants). The other possibility is to find
    the sharp marketers with the right PhDs and hot connections and work for
    them for half to a third (or less) of what you might get in industry.
    But that is still better than the lot many people on this planet have
    in life. Marvin Minsky bemoans the fact he can't get good graduate
    students because anyone good can earn $100K+ in industry vs $20K
    as a grad student. (The pyramid scheme of PhD granting academia
    coming to a brutal end is perhaps another reason in my opinion. :-)
    On PhD career issues and career half-lives:

    This is a not-quite-fair assessment of Bootstrap/Augment and its funding
    history but basically as it seems to me based on what I have read:
    Doug had a great vision similar to a few other visionaries of his
    time (specifically, Vannevar Bush [Memex - 1950s]
    and J.R. Licklider and even Theodore Sturgeon in the story "The Skills
    of Xanadu" and also Ted Nelson http://www.xanadu.com/ ).
    Doug got funding from Licklider when Lick was at Darpa and through the
    help of several bright technical people realized a prototype of that
    vision -- something beyond anything of the time, and perhaps in a way
    still beyond us now in some ways. (Read the licklider article I posted
    the URL for http://www.techreview.com/articles/jan00/waldrop.htm to see
    how Lick funding also created pretty much all the other CS greats of the
    1970s & 1980s). His was the 5% of funding (see above) that got
    misdirected to do something useful -- first trickled to Lick, and then
    to Doug. Then that funding was cut off as Lick left Darpa and
    because Doug is a visionary more than a marketer things floundered.
    What followed was a typical short-sighted business scenario at Boeing.
    The only surprise there is that Augment got as far as it did.

    Doug got recognized decades later after many hard and wearying struggles
    by a $500,000 Lemelson-MIT prize in 1997
    but presumably the money ($250K after taxes?) probably (I'm guessing)
    went for either previous expenses or for a few years of Bootstrap
    operations, or for a trust/investment to support him personally (since
    income on that would be say $25K per year -- I heard Stallman did this
    last with his $500,000 Macarthur genius award). I wouldn't begrudge
    Doug that last choice, and he deserves far better.

    Obviously it does seem he could have bought some programmer time with
    that prize -- and perhaps he did -- but good/experienced programmers
    are expensive (it's typically $200K+ per year [includes overhead]
    to have a good programmer in a large organization) and a year's
    worth of programming from a random programmer might not have been
    the best investment of the funds. Programmer
    productivity can easily vary by an order of magnitude and more.
    So it made sense for Doug to ensure the tiny amount of money went
    towards broadcasting his message of the hope of Bootstrapping.
    Unfortunately, getting such a prize probably in a way undercuts his
    ability to gain support in some ways (i.e. people probably asks why
    doesn't he just pay for the implementation?). He also got some DARPA
    money which I guess went into a study.

    Basically Doug is focusing much of his effort and the colloquium on
    making people aware of global issues and the need for bootstrapping,
    which is good, but alas the software aspect got lost somewhat.
    [For example, sorry, I kind of lost interest in the webcasts around #5]
    I do agree with Doug's points about coevolution of organizations and
    their tools, but the tools is the only real leverage point we
    realistically have, so that is where I think most of the effort should
    go. I also think (sorry Doug) the concept of endless levels of
    Bootstrapping is unrealistic given the S-curve nature of most things
    and more support might be forthcoming if there was a specific
    thing or level being bootstrapped towards.

    And it seems to me many people on the list and colloquium have
    participated from an organizational and issue perspectives, and not a
    coding perspective -- i.e. there is very little coding released.

    I like this list as a forum for such (like your own post just now).
    I feel that personally I have gotten a lot out of participating in it.
    But sadly, the software part has floundered. Perhaps this is because the
    spec if essentially a waterfall model -- "code it and they will come"
    which daunts a free spirited open source developer. In reality almost
    all good software design is iterative -- exposing unknown requirements
    in the act of iterations, as in "code it again and some more will come".

    And of course, when you don't have much time, there is always the "do"
    vs. "discuss" choice.

    Jim Spohrer had encouraged me to participate, for among other reasons:
       "Doug brings visibility to a project".
    In the end I decided to participate based in part on
    that. I included the letter I sent Jim first at the end of this note,
    showing how there are similar such projects already afoot in various
    ways. [Even then, the lack of an open source license or released code
    worried me...] I still think it is true that Doug brings visibility to a
    project, and he also brings history (which has both good and bad sides).

    I think part of the issue is that Doug from what I've read
    (not having met him personally) is not and has never claimed
    to be an aggressive marketer or pushy-type leader (in a human-leader
    sort of sense). Yet, we all look up to him to provide leadership
    (fundraising, organization, license commitment) while he probably
    looks at us to provide the same!

    Unfortunately, the realities of fund raising and legal commitments
    require a meeting of minds and some official decisions with legally
    binding signatures or licenses. This means inertia. Throw the issue
    of funding and decisions about becoming proprietary into this mix,
    and it makes it hard to get critical mass for "open source".
    Ad Stanford's likely desire to make a profit selling courseware
    based on the Colloquium and things get really complicated.

    The reality of most open source developments is they start with a
    developer (or a few) with some source the make available under specific
    licensing terms.
    Usually the initial developers then shepherd it for some time (years).
    That forms the seed from which the effort is bootstrapped. It attracts
    people who use it. If the tool attracts enough programmers it grows
    (easier if it is a programming tool, less so if it is not.) We don't
    have that seed. The Augment code is the most obvious code and it is not
    available for various reasons. Even if one had a seed to contribute, the
    "permission to use" indemnification clause and the agreement's one-sided
    nature would make it legally foolish for one to contribute it.

    At this point, the license issue (esp. indemnification) has stopped me
    from participating further (in terms of contributing code). Actually, I
    was surprised no one commented on my recent post on it. I plan to
    continue open source releases on my own related to knowledge
    repositories along the lines of stuff I have been working on similar to
    William Kent's model in Data&Reality -- but not as part of the "extended
    activities of the colloquium" though -- until such license issues are
    resolved to my satisfaction. Just settling on X11 / BSD revised might
    probably be enough, and moving code development out from under the
    "permission to use" indemnifying license (most open source software
    comes with NO WARRANTY, yet "the permission to use" license we
    agree to by participating means we provide a warranty to Stanford
    and BI (and their licensees) for our code contributions).

    I write this (somewhat negative towards the current state of affairs)
    in hopes that things will perk up. In a way the list is in crisis --
    months of participation and no code. This is not good...
    Something needs to change -- perhaps starting with the permission
    to use indemnification issue... However, being on the East Coast
    I haven't attended any of the recent weekly meetings, so I can
    only hope there is a coding ferment there not entirely reflected on
    the list yet.

    In any case, Eric, I know where you are coming from. It is disheartening
    to know one has so much to give and cultural circumstances preoccupy
    one so as to force one to give it to a "lesser" cause to ensure one's
    individual survival. But almost everything worthwhile requires patience,
    persistance, hard work, and (unfortunately) sacrifice. Doug is a shining
    example of "character" -- and he has suffered for it (and yet,
    apparently, not complained too much.)

    Too bad we are in a profession where the ergonomics are so terrible a
    full day at the office injures a programmer enough they have less
    reserve for doing the same elsewhere (as opposed to say 40 hours a wek
    of walking around and talking to people -- where you can easily do
    another 40 hours a week of the same.)

    -Paul Fernhout
    Kurtz-Fernhout Software
    Developers of custom software and educational simulations
    Creators of the Garden with Insight(TM) garden simulator

    ============== Old Letter to Jim Spohrer ===============
    Subject: Bootstrap Intitute
    Date: Wed, 24 Nov 1999 10:13:38 -0500
    From: Paul Fernhout <pdfernhout@kurtz-fernhout.com>
    Organization: Kurtz-Fernhout Software

    Jim -

    I really appreciate your email on this. The Boot strap institue sounds
    like a great project, and I would love to work with them.

    Certainly good points! And don't get me wrong, I think the Bootstrap
    institute is one of the best projects going...

    Some context though:

    I was interested in BSCW (Basic Support for Cooperative Work)for a
    which is sort of the same thing (I think) as OHS in Python. I got an
    account on their system a couple years back to try it out. However,
    they've moved into the for-profit licensing, and so I lost interest in
    using/improving their code. http://bscw.gmd.de/Copyright.html
    (Also, their system seems overly complex for first time users.)

    Of course, I'm sure Bootstrap is aware of:
    (CANIS == Community Architecture for Network Information Systems) which
    is a heavily funded effort to support collaborative computing (although
    not open source). I know someone who is on that project (Les Tyrell,
    also a Squeaker) and he sure is having fun. I'd try to work there except
    I'm tied down to the NY area for the moment.

    And of course, to a lesser extent:
    which sponsors ThinkQuest.
    But they are not open source for their toolbase either (although the
    results are available in a massive archive of educational material --
    I'm not clear on the license for that though).

    And an upcoming effort from an owner of VA Linux (though not
    collaborative yet):

    This is a really cool open source project for a clinical record and
    recall system for community based health care in the developing world:
    (since medical records and related decision making are another example
    of collaborative computing.)

    So, why pick Bootstrap to work with?

    After more perusal of their site, I see "Open Source OHS Project":
    However, I haven't yet come across a specific license, or a related
    content license. But, there's a lot I could contribute on the
    presumption it will be some version of open source.

    Of course, I think XML is problematic (how do they handle versions of
    DTDs?) and I'm still not sold on Java. I'm encouraged they had a client
    application a few years back in VisualWorks Smalltalk (a system I know
    well and love). However, if they develop clear APIs and well documented
    storage techniques, language should not be as much of an issue.

    As to your points: working with one of the greatest minds behind the
    computer revolution (on par with or beyond Vannevar Bush)
    is certainly an exciting prospect. And I think Doug is continuing to
    head in the right direction. (I started calling a version of the system
    I'm working on "Alexandria".) And I'd certainly like to interact more
    with you.

    As for goals, my model of wealth and security in today's interrelated
    world [taken to an extreme :-) ] is that I won't feel wealthy or secure
    until everyone around me feels the same way. Since I think gated
    communities [or countries] are ultimately ineffectual and rude [see Jane
    Jacobs work on cities for what makes a safe community], that means every
    person on the planet needs to feel wealthy and secure. That is what I
    would like to work towards. At this point, I think a good hope for world
    prosperity is through making core knowledge freely available, along with
    a somewhat self-replicating technical infrastructure with which to apply
    that knowledge. See question 11 of this Final Exam to understand why I
    think the two (tools and knowledge) are intertwined:

    Anyway, I like where the Bootstrap institute is going. If they want me,
    I'd be happy to given them a chance working full-time mostly
    telecomuting spending DARPA money on useful stuff that provides a real
    defense against "want and ignorance", based purely on their web site,
    track record, and stated goals (and "open source" statement). Otherwise,
    I'll see what I can do as I have time to contribute to their OHS project
    part time on my own.

    And I'd love to be conference in on one of those phone calls --
    (and I should be in my home office on Friday, or let me
    know when and I'll make time.)

    Feel free to forward this note to Bootstrap people. I can send a resume
    too if they want. Twenty years programming experience, mumble, GPL
    garden simulator, mumble, IBM Research, mumble mumble... :-)

    -Paul Fernhout
    Kurtz-Fernhout Software
    Developers of custom software and educational simulations
    Creators of the Garden with Insight(TM) garden simulator

    Eric Armstrong wrote:
    > As a species, I am beginning to wonder if we are capable
    > of surviving. Several people have interesting proprietary
    > work they want to pursue. I want to be investigating and
    > working in this space more than anything, but no one is
    > funding any of us.
    > Meanwhile, no one wants to give anything away, because their
    > only hope for having the freedom to pursue the paths that
    > need pursuing is to garner revenue for the purpose. (Even
    > when we *do* share, it's harder than hell to reach agreement
    > on anything.)
    > Doug is adamant that open source is the only way to go. He's
    > right, but where does that leave us? At SRI they are talking
    > about setting up an open source base technology, and building
    > revenue-producing IP on top of that. I was one of the first to
    > say, hey, if someone is going to start generating revenue,
    > where is mine going to come from? As much as I freely
    > contribute design ideas at this stage, as soon as we started
    > talking about a tangible product, I felt myself shifting gears,
    > looking for my advantage. But do we have time for that?
    > I guess my point is: If the problems we face really are that
    > pressing, and we as a society cannot identify and free up the
    > brains that are capable of finding a solution, then there is
    > strong possibility that the solutions won't attive in time.
    > Meanwhile, those of us who have something to contribute find
    > ourselves lacking either time to do what needs to be done,
    > or financial incentive to contribute what amounts to our hope
    > for the future (personal future, that is).
    > So the question remains: Are we, as a species, in fact capable
    > of surviving? Or do personal and societal short-sightedness
    > make it unlikely?

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