GNU-Darwin: Real deja vu

by Michael L. Love Ph.D

I saw GNU-Darwin in a dream in 1998.  I was a busy and impoverished graduate student at Brandeis University, which is in the vicinity of Boston Massachusettes (sp).   At the time, I was looking for ways to expedite my work and get some advantage in the race, as it were.    My hungry little family had made many sacrifices to get me through grad school, and I was anxious to finish and make life better for them.  I was getting a reputation as an able scientist and protein crystallographer, so when opportunities for consulting came my way I lept at the chance to make a little money on the side.   

During my consulting visits to various laboratories and companies I began to notice that the GNU/Linux operating system was gaining rapidly as a computational workhorse, and I realized that I should learn to administer these new systems in order to be of better service to my future clients and employers.  Clearly, the notion of free and open source code was attractive to those who were trained in the disciplines of the scientific community, due to the many parallels between community development and scientific inquiry.  Academic freedom is at the root of Stallman's notion of software freedom, but the work is also done in the open and in the sight of one's peers.  In both worlds acceptance of the work is the result of ruthless rationality as well as raw democratic power and scrutiny.  As a long time student, these values appealed to my most basic ethical core, so that I knew that GNU/Linux was definitely in my future.

Most people who know me also know that I am a Mormon, but they may not know that I am a life-long, multi-generational member of the church, and that I consider myself devout.  Mormon teachings are central and motivational to the things that I have tried to accomplish in life.   We are taught that we are under the tutilage of God, that he is human, and that we can become like him.  If you believe this, then you also must believe that mankind is perfectible, that our shortcomings are temporary obstacles, that we can live forever, go anywhere, and do whatever we seriously try to do... eventually.  Optimism is clearly inherent in this central teaching of Mormonism.  Mormons are encouraged to participate in politics and be anxiously engaged in all good works, because we believe that they can be improved and perfected.  God knows everything, sees all, and so can we.  In the context of this essay there is a question then that urgently begs:  How can anything be secret or proprietary in a world where people see with the eyes of God, where people hear with divine ears and know with the penetration of divine understanding?  To me, the pursuit of science was clearly the most direct means in the pursuit of these goals, and then the answer would certainly be forthcoming.

During the years that I was struggling in grad school the US Senate passed a new law by unanimous voice affirmation, the Digital Millenium Copyright act (DMCA).  This in spite of vociferous and wide-spread opposition in the country, and especially in the academic and internet communities, which realized immediately that their liberties would be radically curtailed if the bill passed.  The House followed on overwhelmingly supporting the passage of this onerous and draconian bill, which benefitted only the richest and most powerful corporations in the US.  In hindsight this was only a small taste of what was to come.  

The communities where I participated were outraged by the passage of the DMCA, and I shared deeply in that outrage.  Congress had finally demonstrated what many of us had long feared, that they were no longer a representative body but rather a tool of corporate power and wealth, and it was clear to many of us that a reaction was required from our communities, or else the powers would feel unleashed to take away even more liberties.  We banded together in forums like Slashdot and in organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation.  We began working together on a system of development that would be impervious to attack from governmental or corporate power, such as internationally distributed systems of creating and sending information.  In order to take us down, the powers would be required to take down the infrastructure that they themselves relied on.  We began working hard and long on our plan, because we knew that we would win in the end.

In order to participate fully in this new movement, I made several commitments to myself.  I would strive to free myself entirely from proprietary technology, and rely solely on the tools that had been built by my friends in the impervious distributed networks.  I also considered this as a sacrifice, because I was a long-time user of Apple computers and Mac OS, which had been very useful to me in many endeavors.  I was adept, having written a "head patch" for the core event loop of the operating system, so that I could make the system do things that it would not do for other users.  I had a great admiration for these elegant machines, and a big personal investment in Apple technology, but I saw proprietary technology as the proverbial thumb on the juggler, so I cut myself loose.  For my personal computing needs I changed over soley to GNU/Linux, cold turkey, and went through all the pains of learning a new operating system.  I began advocating for the adoption of non-proprietary technologies at every juncture.  Clearly the institutions were lagging behind our movement, but we were also gaining rapidly.  Once again, we knew that we would take over eventually.

It was then that I had my dream.  At the time I was totally swamped with graduate studies, so that I hardly had time even to spend at home with the family.  The dream seemed like madness in this context, because I saw myself learning yet another operating system, at great pain and long hours of study, and putting everything at stake on yet another great change.   Mormons are taught that such dreams may be spiritual communications, and I became convinced that the dream was true and based on a divine message.  Although it seemed crazy in the context that I was in at the time, it also made sense from other perspectives.  For example, perhaps we had underestimated some weakness in our position, or the power of governments and corporations.  There could be unforeseen problems, such as absolutist intellectual property laws or even wars.  Our movement would need a fall back position, in case we had over-estimated the strength of GNU/Linux.  We would need an entirely different OS, so that we could continue our freedom work even if Linux were destroyed.  At any rate, the dream was a couple of years in advance of the actual events, so I filed it away and even managed to get my Ph.D.

Cornell University accepted me in a post-doctoral position in the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, but also as support staff at the NSF/NIH-funded CHESS syncrotron radiation source facility.  One of my responsibilities was to develop the next-generation tools that would be used at the facility, and the primary reason that I was assigned to this task was because of my experience with GNU/Linux, acquired mostly on the side.  It would not be the last time that this type of fortune appeared either.  From the moment I arrived, we based all of our work on the GNU/Linux OS as fundamental critical infrastructure, and legacy proprietary systems were supported only as necessary until we could phase them out and replace them with our own systems.  All the while, I was becoming aware that Apple was also phasing out some of its proprietary works in favor our our model and our movement.   After several months, in November of 2000, they released a major revision of their new "open source" OS, which is known as Darwin, and I saw an entry point to make a positive impression in favor of free software for a whole community of users, who had until then been trapped on a proprietary treadmill and blocked from access to the freedom that we enjoyed.  By appending the free software from the GNU project to Darwin OS, I was able to create a new OS that met the requirements of my commitments, but also to provide free software to many thousands of users who had never seen it before, and a dream came true.

After finishing my post-doctoral work at Cornell I accepted a position at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine where I work for the Department of Biophysics and Biophysical Chemistry.  It is a large group of professors, scientists, and students, who are very demanding and contributing vastly to my personal growth.  The principals made it clear at the time that I was hired that they liked the work that I did for GNU-Darwin, and wanted to see more of it.  In addition, I spend much of my day at work maintaining GNU/Linux servers, which seem to be taking over at Hopkins as well.  Thus far it has been an extremely challenging, but also satisfying experience.  I am quite happy there and anxious to stay for a good long time, if they will have me.  It is unlikely that I would have this job if it were not for the GNU-Darwin experiences together with my protein crystallographic work, and scientific support experiences at Cornell's syncrotron facility.  

Predictably, the work of the GNU-Darwin project has attracted the attention of many scientists at universites and pharmacutical companies around the world, so that our usership is small but extremely helpful and influential.  In addition, we also got some early assistance from Apple, and they provided software updates, as well as a connection to some first year funding.  As a result, we were able to obtain a G4 computer for development purposes, and I made the trip to Apple's World Wide Developer's conference in 2001, where I learned all about the inner workings of Apple computers.  There I met some of the personalities that helped Apple make the leap to our new developmental model; such as Stan Shebs who did much of the work on the GNU C compiler for Darwin,  Rich Morin our funding source, long-time Apple afficionado and publisher of MkLinux fame, and Torrey Lyons who built much of our X11 server.  It was a great experience, but I was also impressed with the immensity of the proprietary software contingent, which GNU-Darwin is fighting.

The fight goes on.  Our movement, born in the shadow of draconian legistlation, has accomplished nearly all that we set out to do, and we are certainly now ready for whatever comes down the pipe, be it scientific or revelatory.  GNU/Linux is still spreading among the people who will make sure that it remains anchored as crucial infrastructure to the very tools of civilization, and we are doing the same with GNU-Darwin.  There are many thousands of other projects, which are doing the same thing, and do not expect us to be daunted by threats or bad laws, to which we are immune.  We will continue whatever happens.

And we will enjoy ourselves.  We shouldn't go around looking for proprietary software that we can emulate or imitate.  We shouldn't kiss down to corporate or governmental heads, or the scions of proprietary power.   Free software is better than anything that they have to offer.  It is better, more satisfying, more enduring, and also better for you.  By using free software you are automatically helping your neighbor, but in using something like Mac OS, you are only making the rich richer and limiting your future.  Free software afficianados are happy, yes happy, and satisfied with what they are doing, because they learned these important facts years ago.  You can join with them and feel some of that glow yourself.  

Michael L. Love/proclus/GNU-Darwin link block

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