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Monday, February 25, 2013

The Cathedral and the Bazaar - Book Review

A short book, more like an essay, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, by Eric S. Raymond, reads more like a booklet of philosophy than the open source computing treatise it purports to be.  It was a pleasure to read.

Raymond was in on the ground floor during the computer / internet explosion.  He uses his experience building his software project 'Fetchmail', as the premise for the book.  Raymond decided to follow the hugely successful open source model used by Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, to complete his project.  Torvald's premise was to release software code into the open market, what Raymond calls the 'bazaar', and let thousands of pairs of eyes and brains analyze it and fix it.  The idea is similar to what might be called 'crowd-sourcing' today, but this was being done 20 years ago in the Open Source computing world.  Juxtaposed to the bazaar, is the cathedral - the commercial, large corporation that uses managers to control the output of programmers, and is much more static and dogmatic.  Raymond shows that the bazaar model, while not perfect, is superior to the cathedral, and is the best way forward.  I think he is right.  I had heard John Taylor Gatto mention this book in the monumental series "The Ultimate History Lesson", and now I know why it was on his reading list.

Raymond before: "I believed that the most important software needed to be built like cathedrals, carefully crafted by individual wizards or small bands of mages working in splendid isolation, with no beta to be released before its time."

Raymond after: "Linus Torvalds style of development - release early and often, delegate everything you can, be open to the point of promiscuity, came as a surprise.  No quiet, reverent cathedral - building here - rather, the Linux community seemed to resemble a great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches..." (p.9)

Running Counter to Established Opinion

"An important trait of the great ones is constructive laziness.  They know that you get an A not for effort but results, and that it's almost always easier to start from a good partial solution than from nothing at all." (p. 13)  Much of what we learn today from branches of media and schools is that effort is a major quality, if not the only quality that is required.  Effort is valuable, sticking to ones knitting is required, but eventually results do matter.  The results part of the equation seems to be getting lost in the ether of today's American society, and it would probably take years to pin it down, but it was refreshing to read Raymonds succinct explanation of what makes a great programmer.  Much of what he writes can be projected upon other aspects of life.  I thought of Newton's quote about his "standing on the shoulders of giants" - that good ideas, partial or otherwise, from the past are required to further progress and production.

"The next best thing to having good ideas is recognizing good ideas from your users.  Sometimes the latter is better." (p. 38)  The ability to recognize good material, as well as ignoring the fallacy of ad vericundiam (the fallacy of authority), and going the other way - downwards in the 'hierarchy' - is a valuable tool.  We are taught that the person at the top, in a suit, or a lab coat, or some position of authority is the one to listen to.  This runs counter to Raymond's hypothesis.  He speaks of users as repositories of good ideas, and they should be considered as such.  It is the large numbers of regular folk who will come up with great material, not the ladder climbers who get to the top.  Not only that, but "Interestingly enough, you will quickly find the if you are  completely and self - deprecatingly truthful about how much you owe other people, the world at large will treat you as though you did every bit of the invention yourself and are just being becomingly modest about your innate genius." (p. 38)

Here's the kicker:  "Often, the most striking and innovative solutions come from realizing that your concept of the problem was wrong."  There is nothing that our Mainstream Molders of Opinion say we should change with this methodology.  School, government, mainstream media - these are failing, bloated institutions.  We never hear from the Powers That Be that the concept is wrong.  They are all supposed to be changed from within.  If we only could elect good people, if we could only change the schools, if the media were just held to a standard...  all are useless concepts.  They need to be rethought conceptually.  Politically, Thomas Sowell speaks well on this when he writes about politicians and how they feel that a small group of entrenched individuals can be experts on all things, and decide the course for millions of people.  With regard to education, the best example is homeschooling - long vilified by the Mainstream - as it promotes intellectual freedom and individuality.  Talk to someone about closing down the school system, and you'll get baffled looks and comments, even though the concept of school is quite new, historically, and is easily described as a cratering failure.  Our concept of the problem has been wrong for quite a while, I'm afraid.

Conclusion

I have to warn you - unsanctioned thoughts are coming up.  "But there is a more fundamental error in the implicit assumption that the cathedral model (or any other kind of model) can somehow make innovation happen reliably.  This is nonsense.  Gangs don't have breakthrough insights - even volunteer groups of bazaar anarchist are usually incapable of genuine originality, let alone corporate committees of people with a survival stake in some status quo ante.  Insight comes from individuals." (p. 52)  This is an idea that was originally part of the United States.  Free individuals, and a term that is derided today, if not forgotten, "rugged individualism" were seen as the ideal.  It was the person who was paramount in society - not the group or the collective.  Foolish utopian ideas like Socialism and its varying forms of collectivism have ruled the last 100 years.  The folly of this groupthink is apparent today, and the bill is coming due.  Mr. Raymond's short book can pay the bill, and then some.