Free lunch and free software

The point at which the cost of copying information approaches zero is a milestone in the development of a civilization. After the advent of zero cost copying (ZCC), the economy divides into two, the money economy and the information economy.

For us I think ZCC occurred in the early 1990s. As I write, this is how the two economies are divided:

Information Economy
  • Software
  • Encyclopaedia
  • Dictionary
  • Scientific theories
Money Economy
  • Food
  • Energy
  • Transport
  • Clothes
  • Land
  • Computers
Let's discuss some of things in those two categories, and then talk about things I haven't mentioned that are in transition. I'll then make a stab at saying what'll happen in the future.

Software. It used to be that you'd buy software as if it were property. You'd buy it in a box, and the vendor would be paid for each box she sold. If it came pre-installed on a new computer, then it was still as though the software was a physical appendage. You weren't allowed to give someone else a copy.

After ZCC everything changed for software. People started illegally copying software. Some of these were people who wouldn't dream of stealing anything physical and didn't think they were doing anything wrong, others were organized criminals. Into this chaos stepped copyleft software. Copyleft meant that copying wasn't illegal, in fact it was encouraged. This meant that the cost of copyleft software dropped to zero. Copyleft also allowed anyone to contribute and improve the software. Faced with this kind of competition, proprietory software went into a terminal decline. Thus software moved from Money to Information.

Encyclopaedia. It used to be that an encyclopaedia came as a book that you paid for, printed on dead trees. A proper book! Okay, you might go to the library, but somewhere along the line, someone had to pay for the book. There was no problem with copying because it would have probably cost more money to copy the book than to simply buy one.

After ZCC, yes, it all changed. Wikipedia was copyleft, instantly available and instantly up-to-date, and trounced the competition.


Okay, what about all those good old-fashioned things that fall into the Money category. You can't copy food. If I've got an apple I can eat it or give it to you, but not both. You can copy a recipe, but not the food itself. That's why food is firmly in the Money category. There's no such thing as a free lunch. The same applies to cars. If I've got a car, you can't drive it at the same time. I think I've made my point.

Oh, one more thing. It's popular to talk about 'intellectual property', but this is an oxymoron. It's either an idea, in which case it falls into the Information category, or it's property, in which case it falls into the Money category.


Things only move from Money to Information, never the other way round.

Something that's in transition at the moment is music. I remember going into a music shop and buying a tape in the eighties. These days most people illegally download music. People think it's prissy of me to abjure illegal downloading. We're in the midst of a transition to something like Jamendo, where music is made available under a copyleft licence.


In the short term, we'll see books, newspapers, films, music etc. make the transition from Money to Information.

At the moment, when you buy a product like a bike or a car, the total cost is broken down into the design cost and the manufacturing cost. With the coming revolution of RepRap, design will move into Information, and the cost of a bike or car will be dramatically brought down to the cost of raw materials and energy.

In the future, money will only be useful for buying energy, land and raw materials and transport. Within the home, it'll be possible to fabricate all the needed material things, from computers to food.

Look, look, there it is!

I've read several books and things since we last spoke. Distress is impressive. The author's voice comes through with a clear view of the world, and one that is similar to my own. Often I snort derisively at the TV, films and sometimes books. Egan's work has the opposite effect, I find that I'm reading the kind of book I'd write if I had the talent.

I watched Easy Rider with Matt and Bill. Matt mentioned that it was one of the first films to use the 'lens flare' technique. At first I didn't quite know what he meant, so the first bit of the film was taken up by him saying, 'look, look, there it is!', and then after I'd got it, I started exclaiming, 'look, look, there it is!' whenever it appeared.

I'd been meaning to read Norman Mailer for some time. Ever since I saw him in some old footage of a debate with Germain Greer in fact. The Gospel According to the Son is probably not a typical Mailer. I like the way that Mailer's Jesus has private doubts, but I did find the miracles and talking to God and the devil a bit hard to accept. He did get the biblical tone right.

The Baader-Meinhoff Complex is, I understand, a controversial film. What the Baader-Meinhoff gang did was wrong. Why? On a formal level I'd say it's wrong because they broke the letter and spirit of the law in a democracy. Do I think the laws against blowing people up are right? Yes. I believe the laws maximize the aggregate freedom of the citizens.


The evolution of homosexuality

Toby at work pointed out an article in The Economist describing a new theory of the evolution of homosexuality. It's the best theory I've heard yet.

Software Patents - replies

Following my email on software patents, I got a prompt reply from my MP Andrew Murrison:
Thank you. The only remedy would be legislative so I'll write to the relevant BERR minister for his thoughts.
and a reply from Graham Watson MEP:
I am aware that there is growing debate as to the best way of protecting intellectual property with regard to software, but at the same time not stifling competition or the evolution of this technology. It has equally been suggested that copyright makes innovation more difficult as it allows companies like Microsoft to monopolise undefined areas of software, and that such copyright can only be challenged through the court system, unlike patents which are only granted after rigorous examination. Thank you for drawing this issue to my attention and I will certainly bear in mind your comments when this issue is next reviewed by the Parliament If I can be of any assistance in the future, please do not hesitate to contact me.
I feel I should reply to Graham, as it seems he has some misconceptions. The problem is that I'm not an expert either. Well, here's my reply:

Graham, thank you for your response to my email about software patents. You write:
It has equally been suggested that copyright makes innovation more difficult as it allows companies like Microsoft to monopolise undefined areas of software...
How can copyright allow a single company to monopolise an area? Copyright doesn't prevent anyone from using the ideas in a piece of software, it just prevents them from copying / modifying / distributing the code for that particular piece of software without permission.

In the field of web browsers for example, the fact that Microsoft's Internet Explorer has copyright restrictions hasn't stiffled competitors such as Mozilla. In fact I'm using Mozilla to write this!

You add:
and that such copyright can only be challenged through the court system, unlike patents which are only granted after rigorous examination.
But Mozilla didn't have to challenge anyone in the courts in order to write their web browser. This is in contrast to patents. If Microsoft had been able to patent the web browser, nobody else would have been able to make a competing product and the world would be all the poorer.

So I say yes to software copyright, no to software patents.


Tony Locke


One of the truly excellent things about Python is its use of whitespace to group statements. I think Lisp could benefit from the same treatment. Someone should write a pre-parser for Clojure to do it.

PEP 285

I think it was a good idea to add a boolean type to Python, but I don't agree entirely with PEP 285. Specifically:
4) Should we strive to eliminate non-Boolean operations on bools in the future, through suitable warnings, so that for example True+1 would eventually (in Python 3000) be illegal?
8) Should we strive to require that Boolean operations (like "if", "and", "not") have a bool as an argument in the future, so that for example "if []:" would become illegal and would have to be writen as "if bool([]):" ???
I say yes to both, but the BDFL said no. I say yes because it makes code more readable, reduces the chance of error, and doesn't seem to have any great disadvantages. In the example, instead of if []: I would write if len([]) > 0:. This approach would also solve the last of the 'resolved issues', because writing:

if x == True: ...

would mean the same as:

if x: ...


Disreali Gears

I've become bothered by the pulleys on rear derailleurs. They sap your exergy! Here's a more efficient gear system for bikes.

When you change down a gear, the chain would get pushed onto a smaller sprocket at the front, and simultaneously it would get pushed onto a bigger sprocket at the back, and vice versa. The rear derailleur would work like the front derailleur in a conventional system. No pulleys needed, more efficient!

The pulleys on the conventional rear derailleur are there to maintain tension in the chain, because otherwise as you change to a smaller sprocket, the chain would become slack.

In the new system, the chain would always be at the correct tension because as you change to a smaller sprocket at the back, there would be a compensating change to a bigger sprocket at the front.



Claire just texted me about Landshare and I've signed up. The idea is that someone can use my back garden to grow vegetables, and I get a share of the produce. I think I need to get the soil tested as the land was the site of some pretty nasty industrial processes.