LIFE HACKS INSPIRED LIVING No free lunches for me CHARLES ASSISI
My once-socialist-now-capitalist heart skipped a beat the other day. The catalyst was a
news report. Apparently, the V S Achutanandan-led communist government in Kerala has
decided to put its might behind the free software movement. Achutanandan, it seems,
dislikes monopolies. And free software sounds a hopelessly romantic idea which his
government is in love with.
What it means is this: children in the 12,500 high schools across the state will be
weaned off proprietory software of the kind Microsoft builds. Long-time friends will
impale me for saying this. It is a bad idea.
As far as ideas go, free software is too damn nice an idea. And nice guys finish last.
For that one reason alone, my guess is free software will always remain on the fringes of
Having said that, I must confess that until a few years ago, I swore by free software and
all that it stood for. My interest was stoked after I first heard Richard Stallman talk at
the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR). His contention was a simple one. If
something goes wrong with your car, you take it to a mechanic. He opens the hood, peers
under it, figures out whats wrong with it and doesnt waste much time fixing the car.
With software, things dont work that way. If something goes wrong with an application,
software companies dont let you look at the lines of code that have gone into building
it. This means you cant figure out where the bugs are to re-write the code. So you just
wait until the company issues a fix.
Would you buy a car if you couldnt open the hood? Stallman thundered. Nooooo, I
screamed with the rest of the crowd. Then would you buy software you cant rewrite? he
thundered again. No friggin way, the crowd screamed again. If Ive paid for software,
I ought to have the freedom to fix it if its broke. That, Stallman said, was free
software. Free as in freedom, not free beer, he said and pumped his fists into the air.
I was sold.
Over the years, Ive mellowed down. I dont care much today whether I can fix software. I
dont fix my car when its broke. In any case, there is a fundamental difference between
fixing a car and fixing software. An analogy I can think of is what I do for a living.
While writing, what emerges is the outcome of ideas that have occurred to me. When
somebody tinkers with it, two things happen. Firstly, while the kernel may be mine, what
finally emerges may not necessarily be mine. In fact, it may turn out to be a highly
evolved version of what I had originally thought up. The collective is always better than
But by thinking something up and offering it to the collective to improve upon, I stand
to lose my livelihood. In fact, for somebody as selfish as I am, it leaves me with no
incentive to write. On the contrary, Id think up something else to earn a living. Im
willing to bet most people think the way I do.
Its much the same thing with software. Take away their incentive to create it and the
world will have fewer pieces of software to work with. Cars are a different proposition. I
wouldnt mind too much if a few thousand mechanics tinkered with what I built. They
wouldnt have the muscle to build cars in the first place. And I wouldnt want to waste
time fixing whats broke. Maybe, Im not a nice guy. I dont care.
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