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Brave GNU World - Issue #46
Copyright © 2002 Georg C. F. Greve <greve@gnu.org>
Permission statement below.

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Welcome to another issue of the Brave GNU World. Since we are once again at the begin of a new year and this is the time to reorient and take breath for the next year, this issue will only introduce a few projects. Most of it will be dedicated to more fundamental issues.

First though, this Brave GNU World will open with one of those little projects which are always in danger of remaining unknown.


Ninvaders [5] by Dettus -- his "real" name is Thomas Dettbarn, but he asked me to prefer Dettus -- is a clone of the console classic "Space Invaders."

In order to also be playable via ssh and on the console, Ninvaders is based upon the ncurses [6] library, which gives the game a sort of retro-charm that will certainly be appreciated by many people.

The original version of Ninvaders was written during a sleepless night, using C as the programming language. Thanks to the help of Mike Saarna, not long after that the aliens began to move.

Since Dettus currently does not have the time to keep developing the game and the project is also still hosted by means of Dynamic DNS without additional safety precautions, help is surely very welcome; especially since it appears that a hard disk crash has already impacted upon the project.

Being under the GNU General Public License (GPL), Ninvaders naturally qualifies as Free Software, so it will hopefully have a long life.


Another program of the category "small but smart" in constant danger of remaining unknown is GNOME-Annotate [7] by Andreas Persenius.

GNOME-Annotate is available as Free Software under the GNU General Public License (GPL) and allows taking notes while working with the web browser or another program by marking text segments and saving them into a file with a single mouse-click. That way a user creates a simple text file in which important text blocks, URLs and other notes are saved.

The idea for this tool came from Olaf Grüttner, but since he could not program, Andreas Persenius implemented it in Python. On Andreas' site you will also find some other useful little programs, by the way.

Among them is a program working its way through a list of web pages in order to automatically notify the user whether any of them changed since it was last run or a small popup for quick google search.

So a paying a short visit to the software page [7] of Andreas Persenius is encouraged.


Because hardware is so cheap in many countries that most people can afford new computers, it is often forgotten that this is not the case everywhere. In fact we have to expect that many people will depend on having to work with computers for a long time that are outdated already today.

In order to allow these people access to recent and up-to-date software, the RULE ("Run Up3Date Linux Everywhere") project [8] was started in February 2002. Its goal is not creating another - potentially specialized - GNU/Linux Distribution.

Instead it bases its work on an existing general purpose distribution by selecting those packages that offer the best functionality while having the least intensive hardware requirements.

Also the large integrated graphical user environments have been left out on purpose, since X11 and KDE or GNOME often require massive resources. Instead the projects uses TinyX.

Since the project team - purely out of personal preference - has decided to build upon Red Hat, they also seek to modify the Red Hat installer in a way that it will run with less than 32MB RAM or create a replacement, if necessary.

The RULE project coordinatior is Marco Fioretti, whose area of activity is mostly documentation, the web page, lobbying, PR and some scripts. Most of the code so far was written by Michael Fratoni; by now the mailing list of the project has about 100 subscribers, however.

Marco Fioretti, who also filled out the Brave GNU World questionnaire, also sought to emphasize that the decision to base work on Red Hat was due purely to coincidental preference of the project founders. Work done within the RULE project itself is also Free Software under the GNU General Public License and he believes that most of it should be transferrable to all GNU/Linux or *BSD / *NIX distributions.

So even though the team lacks resources to pursue those directions, such intiatives are clearly wanted. The same is true for possible support of non-X86 platforms.

Help is also wanted in the form of developers, the identification of suitable applications, providing intelligent (automatic) configuration or a logo - and of course through testing the distribution.

Should the project be successful, Marco also sees potential "collateral use" for other small platforms like coming generations of PDAs and mobile telephones.

Maybe the project may become relevant for rich countries quicker than most people realize today.

So much for technical projects, now I'd like to approach some of the promised "larger" questions.

The Fight against the Information Age

Regular readers of the Brave GNU World should be aware that there are many fields in which current conflicts will decide the future ofthe information age. Since the situation is quite complex and probably not fully known to all readers, I will try to give an overview over what I usually title "The end of the information age" [9] in presentations.

A reasonably well-known aspect is patents on software, which already exist in the United States and Japan and threaten to become legal in Europe. As for instance the very comprehensive collection of information assembled by the FFII [10] shows, there is no scientific or social benefit to be gained from allowing software patents.

Their only purpose is to prevent competition and innovation by giving established large companies a legal mean to drive innovative concepts or companies out of business by taking them to court. Or as Bill Gates put it: "A future startup with no patents of its own will be forced to pay whatever price the giants choose to impose."

So when recently a study was run [11] in order to prove a positive effect of software patents it did not bring the result desired by those who performed it. For this and other reasons, the German ministries of economics and work (BMWA) and the ministry of inner affairs (BMI) are extremely critical with regard to software patents according to statements by their employees.

That the majority of small and medium enterprises (SME) are very critical about software patents is also the result of a questionnaire run by the European Union, in which 91% of all replies were against software patents. [12] The study also already implicitly concedes that Free Software and software patents are exclusive concepts.

But since the voices of the large companies were more favorable, the conclusion is drawn that an "economic" majority existed. Given that most of the gross economic product comes From the small and medium enterprises in Europe, this conclusion seems pretty far-fetched.

So pushed by the large corporations, patent lawyers and patent offices, software patents shall now be introduced in Europe. Supported also by the German government, by the way, as its "official" position is defined by the ministry of justice (BMJ).

The other interest group fighting the information age are large media companies.

Facing economic and structural problems, which some people blame mostly on the digital revolution and the internet, grossly neglecting other factors, DRM has become a magic word. A fitting expansion for this acronym is "Digital Restriction Management" and refers to ultimate control of every piece of digital content.

Of course this is only possible if every computer, every PDA and every mobile phone becomes an obedient servant of the media industry, controlling all digital content regardless of its author or source. Establishing total control over all intellectual and commercial activity around hard- and software is the prerequisite to enforce this.

The best possible outcome is an ultimate oligopoly of US companies, the worst case scenario is one monopolistic media-hardware-software giant.

Of course these visions cannot become reality based upon technology alone. Therefore laws are being pushed forward that seek to prevent working around this mechanism and creation of alternative approaches.

The first major step is the "Digital Millennium Copyright Act" (DMCA), which became sadly famous through the imprisoning of Dmitry Sklyarov.

The law says that also intellectually touching things that the industry considers to be technical protection measures becomes punishable. Or put differently: It is not only punishable to do something illegal, it is also punishable to do something that a third person might theoretically use to do something illegal.

Dmity Sklyarov was co-author of a program to convert text between two formats, one of which claimed to posess "technical protection measures." Fear of repression has already led some developers like Alan Cox to boycott computer conferences in the United States, because he fears his work on file system drivers for the Linux kernel could be considered sufficient legal grounds for similar oppression.

The Norwegian teenager Jon Johansen also got to enjoy the effect of the DMCA when the US government pushed the Norwegian government into imprisoning him. His mistake was to write a program to play his legally bought DVDs on his own GNU/Linux PC since there was no software available to do this already. This is in clear violation of the DMCA.

But Europeans can no longer feel as safe as they could, because Europe now has its own version of the DMCA, the "European Copyright Directive" (EUCD) which has to be put into national law before the year 2002 runs out.

Both DRM and DMCA are obviously incompatible with the principles of Free Software, which aims at equal chances, freely available markets, informational self-determination and prevention of dependencies and monopolies.

But this is not the end. The next step comes under the name of "Palladium" or "Trusted Computing" (TC), although a more honest expansion of the TC acronym would be "Treacherous Computing."

Its idea is to have all processors used within all devices from mobile telephone up to mainframes only execute centrally authorized and controlled software. Other, potentially self-written, software will not be executed by such processors.

This would be the ultimate unfreedom and the end of all informational self-determination.

But since such platforms would certainly be avoided by many people with enough background knowledge, this initiative also has its adequate legal counterpart, which comes under the name "Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act" (CBDTPA).

This law is currently being discussed in the United States and it will outlaw all hardware without such controlling capabilities.

Whether and in which form this law would then make its way over to Europe will very much depend on how strong the pressure on the European Union will be. If DMCA and EUCD were examples, it can only be a few years.

This would be bad enough in itself, but it still ignored the long-term effects. Freely quoting Newton who wrote in 1676 "If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants," it has to be understood that knowledge of one generation provides the intellectual grounds for the next.

Only a solid foundation of free knowledge can secure the education and intellectual progress of the next generation. The described actions to uphold power at all cost are effectively depleting the intellectual foundation of future generations; as such they constitute a form of robber economy.

Also it cements the division into poor and rich, since all these mechanisms favor concentration of power, money and knowledge in a single point. And already today it is a prerequisite for countries to acknowledge the rules pushed forward by the media industry in order to be eligible for credits by the world bank.

All these developments proceed mostly without being realized by the media and public. Only rarely can good articles be found about the subject; like the one published by Richard Sietmann in the c't 24/2002 under the title "Wissen ist Geld" ("Knowledge is money"), which describes the situation pretty well.

Since that article puts different foci and also is more elaborate in some aspects, the article can only be recommended to readers capable of reading German.

What now?

So much for the problems. Natural results of understanding the situation are outrage and shock.

Unfortunately this often leads to frustration, which favors stagnation rather than change, which would be no good start for 2003.

Use your influence!

Of course there are limits to the individual and direct influence as well as the individual power. Deducing that therefore nothing can be done is the wrong conclusion, however.

There are many ways of taking influence. As the boycott of South African products showed a couple of years ago, making a conscious decision of where to spend your money is felt.

This means that a conscious decision to buy Free Software or hardware from producers who support Free Software and/or offer drivers as Free Software themselves can create a new balance.

Also insisting on content that is available for Free Software is a small but, in combination, clearly noteable part.

Democracies also provide the means of voting in order to have direct influence. This instrument is admittedly not very fine-tuned as all power is transferred for the whole legislative period to a single person or party, which usually stands for many different things that can only be "bought in a bundle."

If you think this was pretty much everything people can do, you are forgetting one of the most powerful means: Personal engagement.

A crucial strength of democracy is that people can influence decisions directly and immediately involved through personal and public "convincing work."

This is usually used most effectively and frequently by large companies and interest groups. That is not necessarily the case, however.

Of course getting organized is an initial effort that needs to be performed. But not everyone has to create or be a new organization, people have always worked together in order to reach their goals.

So if you don't feel like accepting the developments described above, you can search for other, likeminded people and get active.

You can do this by creating a new organization or by working as a volunteer with one of the organizations that already exist - like the FSF Europe. [14]

I know that most people only have limited time to spend on such activities, even though they would like to do more.

Here are some basic ideas that might give you a new perspective.

The problem of shared labor is very old, it has accompanied mankind for thousands of years. The most successful means of sharing labor has been accepted by most people so much that it often isn't even recognized as such by the majority: Money.

In fact the monetary system is based upon the need of finding a way to share labor since it is more efficient if not everyone tries to be and do everything. By concentrating on certain tasks, these can be done better and more efficiently with a minimum of effort.

The role of money is that it allows two people to exchange labor even if they don't know each other personally.

The financial system clearly has its weaknesses and flaws - so maybe it will be replaced by something better one day. But the crucial point right now is that money can not only be percieved as an abstract number but rather as "frozen labor."

So when we gain a certain amount of "frozenlabor" through our work, it becomes our decision to decide where and when that labor will be unfrozen again.

Put in context this means that if we don't have time to do something ourselves but we wish to see it done, we can make sure that someone else takes the time to do it by giving them a certain amount of our time in form of "frozen labor."

This is normally referred to as a donation.

And opposed to voting at an election, you have the control over how much of your power is transferred to whom for what period of time.

The amount as well as the receiver(s) are chosen freely by the donor, who has fine-grained control over the country or region this donation should be used in. Normally this will be the country the donor lives in, but this is not mandatory.

Those who do nothing change nothing!

So I would like to encourage all readers not to resign and not put your hands in your laps waiting for the end to come.

Please look for an organization that addresses these issues and that you feel comfortable supporting and get active.

Should you decide to support the work of the Free Software Foundation Europe, I would of course be very happy. General information about supporting our work can be found online [15] as well as information about how to make donations (tax-deductable in some parts of Europe). [16]

Projects into the Brave GNU World

Suggestions for projects in the Brave GNU World are mostly submitted by readers or by the authors themselves, although many authors often consider their project to be not interesting enough for the Brave GNU World. This makes it important that readers of the Brave GNU World address the authors directly.

In order to simplify it for authors to communicate the essential information and in order to allow readers addressing interesting, weird or funny projects directly, the "Brave GNU World standard questions" have been created, which are also available on the Brave GNU World web site. [17]

So the next time you come across a project where you think that other people might also appreciate knowing about it, just send the standard questions to the author and ask him or her to fill them out. Maybe you will then discover the projects along with some interesting bits you didn't know about in one of the next issues of the Brave GNU World, which is open to all projects of Free Software.

See you

So far for the Brave GNU World in 2002, for the upcoming year I wish all readers only the best and of course I'm asking for lots of feedback, ideas, questions, comments and project submissions by email. [1]

[1] Send ideas, comments and questions to Brave GNU World <column@brave-gnu-world.org>
[2] Home page of the GNU Project http://www.gnu.org/
[3] Home page of Georg's Brave GNU World http://brave-gnu-world.org
[4] "We run GNU" initiative http://www.gnu.org/brave-gnu-world/rungnu/rungnu.en.html
[5] Ninvaders http://dettus.dyndns.org/ninvaders/
[6] NCurses home page http://www.gnu.org/directory/libs/ncurses.html
[7] GNOME-Annotate http://home.swipnet.se/darshiva/software.html
[8] RULE home page http://www.rule-project.org
[9] Slide "The end of the information age" http://gnuhh.org/work/presentations/Tokyo-2002/mgp00017.html
[10] "Förderverein für eine Freie Informationelle Infrastruktur e.V." http://www.ffii.org/
[11] FFII analysis "Economic/Legal Study about Software Patents" http://swpat.ffii.org/papiere/bmwi-fhgmpi01/index.en.html
[12] EU report "The Results of the European Commission Consultation Exercise on the Patentability of Computer Implemented Inventions" http://europa.eu.int/comm/internal_market/en/indprop/comp/softpatanalyse.htm
[13] c't 24/2002, Richard Sietmann: "Wissen ist Geld"("Knowledge is Money") [German] http://www.heise.de/ct/02/24/108/
[14] Free Software Foundation Europe http://fsfeurope.org
[15] How to help the FSF Europe http://fsfeurope.org/help/help.html
[16] Donations to the FSF Europe http://fsfeurope.org/help/donate.html
[17] Brave GNU World scout page http://brave-gnu-world.org/scout.en.html

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Copyright (C) 2002 Georg C. F. Greve

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Last modified: Sat Dec 21 20:03:4