Sunday, September 16, 2007


When one is young, and asking questions about the new world unfolding before them for the first time, the answers often given by the adult being are less than satisfying to the questioner. It is a common situation: I dare say it is universal. It is the fuel for all sorts of jokes on American TV sitcoms, such as "Dad, what is Sex?" and after much consternation that answer we all knew was coming is "Go ask your mother". She answers "Go ask your Father", and the kid says "I did. He told me to ask you." And she says "He did did he... Boy is he in trouble.". Much hilarity ensues, and the ultimate answer given is usually something along the lines of "Wait till you are older" or "Go ask your friends at school: why do you think we send you to public school?". I watch too much TV....

When I was pretty young (I do not recall the exact age: somewhere around five or so I think) My mother and I were driving past a church. I learned how to read by looking at street signs and asking my parents what they said. This particular church had a very long name. I don't recall it, but I remember it was longer than I could read in the time I had as we drove past it. I was intrigued. The church building itself was very small: Like a one room schoolhouse from Deadwood in the late 1880's. I asked my mother what that church was. It went something like this:

Me: Why is that churches name so long?

Mom: I don't know exactly. I have never been to it.

Me: Why do churches have different names? Aren't they all Christian churches?

Mom: [starting to look uncomfortable] That one is. But no, not all churches are Christian churches. There are many different religions.

Me: But that Christian church has a different name than the one near our house...

Mom: Just like there are many different religions, inside Christianity there are many different churches. People sometimes believe different things, and when they decide that they believe too differently, they decide to form a different church, so that people that believe the same things can go to church together.

Mom never talked down to me when I was young. Even if she was uncomfortable with the subject of what I was asking about, she gave it her best shot. Maybe in this case she was just glad I was not asking where babies came from. :)

Later I heard a minister call this "Left Foot Washers", and being different from "Right Foot Washers". His point was that the points of schism can seem incredibly small things when viewed from a third party point of view.

And this Relates to Linux or Open Source how?

I have now brought up sex and religion. Maybe I'll skip politics today, not go for the trifecta and have a post that has something to PO everyone. I have a theory. Just a personal speculation, but it seems to make sense to me.

Whatever it is about people that causes such fractures to occur, and elevates preference to things people will argue over: Whatever the "Engine of Schism"(tm) is, it is at least part of what makes Open Source so diverse. It is just that in Open Source what is divisive has been turned into a strength. In the same way that Biodiversty helps life on earth.

My starting point for my text today (boy, I am really asking for it here...) is a comment made to apost of mine over at TalkBMC. In this comment, there is one sentence, one central assertion, that one version of Linux is 100 times better than another version of Linux. The two Linuxii in question are both of recent vintage, running the 2.6 kernel.

It is hard to tell on a written comment how much is tongue in cheek, how much is intentional hyperbole, and how much is something the person truly believed to the core of their being.

This is clearly subjective, since I can think of no easy way to create a measurement systems that would let you measure the goodness of one version of Linux distro compared to another... or to any other OS for that matter. While I am on the record as not being deeply interested in running MS Windows for example, I will tell you that a big part of that preference is just that I resent all the hours of my life I have lost to MS Windows systems breaking, plus all the hours I have spent trying to make MS Windows systems play nice with others. I know the basis of my preference, even if I can not quantify it.

My recent set of posts about Fedora and Mint (both here and at TalkBMC) were in part based on a Fedora schism point. Fedora holds it as extremely important that they try and stay pure open source rather than include any unencumbered but not open binary bits. My point was that while this was admirable, it was also going to hurt their adoption rate. This is the difference in my point of view or preference: I would like to see Linux more widely adopted, and I see their position as being hardline and inflexible. I think that if they are more inclusive, then vendors might come to see the value of Open Source and relax their "Binary Only" positions.

In my most recent post over at TalkBMC I looked at PCLinuxOS (PCLOS) 2007 as a corporate Linux desktop candidate. PCLOS is a fork from Mandrake / Mandriva a while back, and its guiding star is Texstar. He has been packaging Linux stuff for years. I do not know exactly all the things that drove Texstar away from Mandrake such that he felt is necessary to create his own distro (At least part of it was that he grew interested in LiveCD's, which Mandriva did not have back then, but now they have in spades. Maybe they leveraged Texstars work?), but once on his own he says that he started pulling in patches and fixes from all over the place: Debian, Fedora, etc. PCLOS is a schism point... and it is also inclusive. More on this is a sec.


Also over at TalkBMC, a while back, I spent some time thinking out loud about peoples preferences for KDE or Gnome or Afterstep of whatever. Linux is rife with GUI projects, and while most of the gravity has formed large planetary bodies around KDE and Gnome, there are still a bunch of others. The schism point for Gnome was that they did not like the tookit at the core of KDE (Qt, from a company called Trolltech) being commercial in nature. They wanted a totally Open Source solution, and so took GIMP as their starting place to create the Gnome Toolkit (GTK), now in version 2 (GTK2). Funny thing is that now that toolkit for KDE has been GPl'ed, but not before we had two pretty nice GUI's. The early days of Gnome and KDE were bad times: the applications developed for one GUI were famous for not working under the other GUI. I never see that anymore.

Another recent schism of interest was the one where Beryl was split off Compiz, and they have now joined forces to create the compositing engine for 3D stuff on Linux.

The reason for each of these schisms was different. Purity of cause, people not getting along on a project, a project not being inclusive enough so some folks decided to just go form a new project... whatever. The reasons are technical, emotional, legal, external, internal. They are powered also by this weird thing we have called preference. I talked about this a bit in "Color Theory".

The "Engine of Schism" is the ultimate in flex fueled engines. It feeds off all sorts of things. It drives wedges between groups of otherwise rational people. It feeds of real issues and trivialities with equal ease. it seems to be completely in human nature that this engine exists though. We do not seem, as a race, able to do otherwise.

"You like Blue?... err, then my favorite is Purple. yeah. Purple. Maybe Red. No. Definitely Purple. Are you sure you like Blue best?"


Here is an example from Politics. I said I was not going here,but what the heck. Lets have some schism with our "Post Toasties" today.

In the US, from 1861-1865, a huge war was fought [changed verbiage per Richard's comment:SC] between neighbors in the same nation. It was called "The Civil War" here, because it was so huge and so deadly and so bitter that is seemed like it could only ever be singular. It was "The" because to have another like it even to this day seems unthinkable. It ignores the fact that there have been smaller uprisings and civil disobediences for all the history of the US. The others were small enough as to pale in comparison to what the horror of "The" Civil War was.

The schism point was slavery. A deeply immoral evil practice that went on in this country for far too many years. There were lots of compromises along the way of the early history of the country that in retrospect made "The" war inevitable. However, when it broke out, in the south it was widely rationalized as a war for self determination. States Rights. In this case 'The' war was about the right of a state to determine whether or not they were going to stay a slave state, but that last part was sort of glossed over.

This is a hugely serious schism. It caused a huge war, tore a country apart, had brothers killing each other, and it is still healing all this time later.

When I view splits in Open Source projects from that perspective, they seem so innocent.

Making a Weakness a Strength

What is unique to Open Source is that for all the schisms that projects might have, and all the fifty thousand different directions that people might pull, all of it generates products. Code. Doc. Things that other projects, by the terms of the Open Source licenses, can re-use, Even if they don't use a line of code from a project, but just take inspiration, it is an engine that reverses the ill effects of the "Engine of Schism".

Circle back to PCLOS for a second: the current issue of "PCLinuxOS Magazine" has an interview with Texstar about the birth of the distro. In it, it is pretty clear that Texstar uses diversity to his advantage. Here is a small quote:

In November 2006 we utilized a one time source
code snapshot from our friends at Mandriva to pull in an updated
glibc/gcc core and associated libraries. We spent the following 6
months rebuilding, debugging, customizing, patching and updating our
new code base. We pulled in stuff from our old code base, utilized
patches/code from Fedora, Gentoo and Debian just to name a few. This
is why you will never see me [Texstar] distro bashing as it would be
hypocritical to do such a thing since we are still dependent in many
areas on other distros development processes due to our limited but
hard working volunteer development team.

The only thing that bothers me in the slightest about that quote (and I do not think it was meant this way) is where Texstar says that they are 'Still' dependent on other distros. My assertion is that "All distros are dependent on each other, and the folks in the core projects". Linux is not really 'PCLOS" in a pure sense. Linux is the bit you get from You are still a thousand projects away from a distro at that point.

Schism is bad, when it leads to things like wars. Schism is good, when its resultant diversity is leveraged.

Computer Religion

And that brings me to why I brought up sex and religion in this post. When someone says a recent Linux Distro is 100 times better than another recent Linux distro, I worry a little that schism has lead to computer religion. Taken on its face, examined rationally, you have to ask "how can that be?". They all feed off the same kernel stock, and pull in the same sets of office projects and same GUI projects and so forth.

It is not a trivial thing to package up a Linux distro (See Texstar's quote above for the amount of work that went into just one point release). Any Distro with a following will have people testing it, feeding back to it, and over time that distro will stabilize and improve, and because the chewy Linux goodness is inside, it will be a good distro. It almost can not help but be. Have a look at, and look at the number of downloads of any given distro. The ones that are the most downloaded have the greatest community around them, therefore the most testing and feedback, therefore are likely to be pretty good, useful versions of Linux et al.

They will be different from each other. Some will be better on laptops or desktops. Others may be focused on technology exploration for later inclusion in server versions of the OS. Some will be installed with one GUI, or another. Some will be focused on education. Others personal usage. Others business usage.

So, a commandant of computer religion should be "Computer User, Know Thyself, but Tolerate Others"

Like any other religion, it will be something that we strive for rather than achieve all the time. Being human, we'll fail, and just have to get back up and try again.

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Akshun J said...

Well written. But what say you to the "Cult of Mac" who scorn all that is not like them, and yet use Unix as their core? If Linux is like the various Protestants, then Mac is surely like the Catholics. (Apologies in advance if I've offended any Protestants or Catholics)

Seriously, I kid the Mac-lovers. This was a great post and a lot of Linux users need to give it a read...

Steve Carl said...

Not every Mac user is in that Cult though.

The Apple / Open Source relationship has been surely rocky. Apple seems to me to be a bit schizo. One one hand they do stuff liek put in new security chips so that only Apple authorized gear can play the video out of the newest generation of iPods. And they change the way songs are encrypted on the disk so that Linux projects like gtkpod no longer work. That so gets up my nose!

On the other, they used KHTML to crrate Safari, and when they were criticized about the way that they were sharing back the updates they were making (the KHTML folks could not tell where all the updates had been done or something similar, so they could not merge the change trees) Apple created the Webkit project at to share back the stuff they were doing.

I just got my 100 dollar rebate for being an iPhone early adopter too. Apple may not always get it right, and they may seem downright arrogant sometimes, but they also listen better to their users than any *commercial' computer company I know. They were goiing to shaft the early adopters, heard the outrage, changed course, and set up the rebate program in short order.

I won't be buying a new iPod as long as the chip restriction is in place. But I am both a Linux and an Apple computer user for the foreseeable future. Sort of a mixed marriage in your example.

Richard Meyer said...

May a humble Australian resident point out that the American Civil War ENDED in 1865 and started in 1861?

Sorry, but someone would've said it. ;-)

Steve Carl said...

True That. I should have written 1861-1865. I know that (having just read SHelby Footes excellent book about the Civil War). 1865 sticks in my head as a pivotal date because in some ways that was when an even darker phase of History began, and ran for much much longer. Another 100 years, before the Civil Rights Act passed.