A Note from Richard Stallman
Larry Constantine’s “Notebook” essay on open-source software (“The Open-Source Solution,” January/February 2007) inaccurately describes me as an “open-source pioneer.” No way! I’m not even a supporter of that.
In 1984, I founded the Free Software Movement, which aims to give computer users the freedom to share and change the software they use. In 23 years, we have made substantial progress toward that goal: our GNU operating system, combined with the kernel Linux, makes it possible for you to use a computer without letting proprietary software developers have power over you.
Open source refers to a completely different idea, which does not aim for freedom or social solidarity but merely wants to make software more powerful and reliable. Those practical goals are useful, but we must not subordinate ethical issues to engineering.
Contrasting free software (or open source) with “commercial” software is a second misunderstanding, like contrasting tall people with redheads. Commercial software means software developed by a business. Many important free (and open-source) programs, including OpenOffice and MySQL, are commercial.
As a fan of your publication, I read with interest your foray into publishing science fiction (“Osama Phone Home,” by David Marusek, March/April 2007). Although the concept seemed interesting, as a fan of the genre, I have to say there are better short stories out there. I just don’t see the upper middle class ever mobilizing in the way Marusek describes: they are, in general, too afraid of losing their hard-fought niche to risk their families’ comfort for the abstract notion of patriotism. Much more interesting–and plausible–would be the same story centered on a group with a different shared interest–people with access to funds, motivation to remain loyal to one another, and so on. I did appreciate the creative daring of both the author and the characters, though; I think there’s value to those sorts of everything-on-the-table discussions about how we might use technology to solve problems in interesting ways. I just hope that those discussions don’t lead to solutions that so clearly threaten our civil liberties. I look forward to reading more fiction in your pages, and to enjoying more of this kind of exploration.
I enjoyed Marusek’s short story, with one exception: he violated the principles of quantum mechanics when he asserted that “researchers found that if they made the zinc oxide molecules really tiny, they could produce a much more pleasant sunscreen.” To shrink the molecule, you would need a different number of electrons and protons. But then it wouldn’t be ZnO. Substitute the word “particles” for “molecules,” and the statement is correct. Zinc oxide particles around 200 nanometers (a lot larger than a single molecule) are a great compromise between absorbing UV, scattering light, and being transparent when properly suspended in oil-water emulsions. Zinc oxide particles in the one-micrometer range result in the opaque sunscreen of yesteryear. It was easy for me to spot this error, since I use a variety of analytical techniques to study colloids and nanoparticles. Still, the story was fun to read.
Predicting the Internet
In his recent editor’s letter “On Science Fiction” (March/April 2007), Jason Pontin writes that “Older computer scientists and electrical engineers such as Marvin Minsky and Seymour Cray, born in the mid-1920s, pursued a vision of humanlike artificial intelligence and mainframe computing popularized by science fiction after World War II (see Isaac Asimov’s ‘Multivac’ stories).” Minsky and Cray just missed the right story, as did a lot of other folks. Murray Leinster, in his story “A Logic Named Joe,” predicts a version of the Internet and the home computer. Astoundingly, it was published in 1945.
Alan Dean Foster
Taking Exception to the Rules
I enjoyed Jason Pontin’s editor’s letter about the expression of ideas (“On Rules,” January/February 2007). But in closing, he writes, “The best expression of ideas occurs in forms that are strict and simple.” I take issue with this notion and the thrust behind it: the belief that ideas should be conventionalized and rule based. Envisioning ideas in a form–as expressed by a software language or by a poem–limits the possibility of expression and the development of new form.
In my opinion, it only makes sense to think of “mature” ideas in a strict and simple form. Ideas that are under development are messy and complicated things. It is the process of interacting with, and distilling, an idea that shapes it into a useful form.
Michael H. Felberbaum
An item in the “10 Emerging Technologies, 2007” feature in the March/April issue incorrectly identified Ed Boyden as a postdoc at Stanford University. He was a Stanford graduate student when he performed the research described.
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