Thursday, June 01, 2006

Gnu Math

Of course "gnu math" is an allusion to the "new math" of the 1960s, more formally known as SMSG.

And it's an allusion to the GNU project (Stallman et al), which was about creating a Unix-like coding environment from scratch, such that geeks no longer in a privileged position within the university, could nevertheless retain access to the tools of their trade.

Engineers asserted their independence from the suits at that point: we don't need you to tell us how much we're worth, at the cost of dividing and conquering us and making us pay one another with you always in the middle. No, we'll be one big company or guild, and work for ourselves, coming up with whatever tools we need inhouse. Now go away.

Except the suits came back, having figured out how to sell open source itself as a product and business model (even the original "free" didn't always mean "inexpensive").

However, in the case of Gnu Math, we're mostly talking about how we use a shell or command line in place of a calculator to teach and learn mathematics (although we retain the calculator as a GUI motif in some contexts).

More specifically, we use cross-platform OO languages (& J?) and dot notation to tell the story of "maths as extensible type systems" (see my London Knowledge Lab talk).

Plus mathematics itself has a history of staying open source. Sure, some algorithms stay secret for awhile (RSA for example), but eventually become part of our shared heritage, once we figure out safe uses for them.

The command line provides a lot of power to its users and in the wrong hands may become a weapon in service of dubious if not outright nutty causes (the Nazis were prime consumers of IT for example).

However, in trade off, we have the potential to become vastly more competent and less tentatively bureaucratic in our self-management of human affairs. More die from malignant neglect than directly from weapons these days.

And yes, freedom is still costly sometimes.

Even as we up our skill level and invent new language games, we need to instill new forms of vigilance. Every bona fide practice comes with self-discipline and a peer group. Moral judgments become possible. Better versus worse exists.

Quality work is the surest path to lasting brand loyalty, but many times we take short cuts, because "lasting" isn't the same as "now".

Engineers improvise, don't always have the luxury of dealing in eternal truths, much as we may love our philosophy. It's an object world of trade-offs. We mutter quick prayers for guidance, then choose.

So yes, Gnu Math is also about a commitment to excellence, but with a sense of realism. Many open source projects fail, for one reason or another, and that's OK. We try stuff, abandon stuff, make false starts, and introduce new bugs amidst the old, sometimes begetting negative synergies.

Healing and repairing is as much what we're about as developing the "next big thing." A commitment to excellence involves a willingness to maintain what's old and tested, is not just about rushing ahead with what's new and untried, even if promising.

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