May 2008

My favorite political blog, TalkingPointsMemo, is usually insightful on policy, and even more so on politics. But what really distinguishes it from the competition is the quality of its writing, even in short, ephemeral posts. For example, this is from an item posted today:

“Many of our foreign policy thinkers seem to be developing the kind of character damage suffered by children who can buy the best toy every time their parents go to the mall — the inability to distinguish between necessities, simple wants and the mere desire for kicks which is born of pervasive moral boredom.”

Read the whole post if you have time — it’s excellent, especially given its brevity.

I was never a member of the Boy Scouts myself, so my understanding of what they’re about is limited to what’s seeped in from popular culture, but this looks like a winning idea:

Friday May 9, 2008

The Boy Scouts have joined the Open Source Community.

The Boy Scouts of America National Council in Irving, TX has announced the release of their Open Source Initiative. The OSI Project represents a significant commitment by the Boy Scouts of America to the Open Source Community.

This project represents a “complete embrace of Open Source by the Boy Scouts”, says Greg Edwards, OSI Project Manager. Through the OSS Website ( the Boy Scouts are not only committed to becoming users of Open Source Software, but teachers, producers, and advocates as well.

(See Greg Edwards’ open letter for more.)

If this means actual scouts are going to be encouraged to get involved in open source projects — say, it will be considered an official scouting activity that you can (I guess) earn merit badges for — then it seems like a great chance for a lot of kids to experience the open source process.

(Er, I guess that should say “boys”, not “kids”. Why aren’t the Girl Scouts doing the same thing? Why weren’t they doing it first, actually?)

Of course, only a small percentage of scouts will flourish in open source, in the sense of having the temperament and discipline to make useful contributions to the projects they participate in. But that’s okay: that ratio is the norm in open source projects. There’s no reason to expect more or less from Boy Scouts. What’s more important is that all the scouts who participate will be exposed to the cultural norms of the open source community: sharing, respectful technical discussions, taking the time to express oneself clearly in writing, fixing things instead of complaining that they’re broken, etc. For every Boy Scout who gets involved in open source, or who hears his friends talking about their projects, that’s one more person who understands what open source is all about. (I’m using “open source” synonymously with “free software” here.)

I’ll close with this beautiful story from Jim Blandy:

Back in 1993, I was working for the Free Software Foundation, and we were beta-testing version 19 of GNU Emacs. We’d make a beta release every week or so, and people would try it out and send us bug reports. There was this one guy whom none of us had met in person but who did great work: his bug reports were always clear and led us straight to the problem, and when he provided a fix himself, it was almost always right. He was top-notch.

Now, before the FSF can use code written by someone else, we have them do some legal paperwork to assign their copyright interest to that code to the FSF. Just taking code from complete strangers and dropping it in is a recipe for legal disaster.

So I emailed the guy the forms, saying, “Here’s some paperwork we need, here’s what it means, you sign this one, have your employer sign that one, and then we can start putting in your fixes. Thanks very much.”

He sent me back a message saying, “I don’t have an employer.”

So I said, “Okay, that’s fine, just have your university sign it and send it back.”

After a bit, he wrote me back again, and said, “Well, actually… I’m thirteen years old and I live with my parents.”

That is: on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a Boy Scout.