23 May 2016

# Sympathy for the Evil: let's help improve Google Earth Engine

Please allow me to introduce a couple of ideas which should help improve the user experience on the GEE platform. I know that Google, a company of wealth and taste, has an impressive record on providing services with outstanding features. They have the best search engine, the best web mail application and the best web browser1.

But these services and tools are targeted to non expert users. With GEE, Google is addressing a complete different audience: scientists, or I should say Scientists. These are clever people with PhD's! Therefore, in order to keep them satisfied Google will have to make an extra effort. One could think that scientists can easily be fooled because, for instance, they agree with giving away to private companies the results of research funded with tax payer money2. Or because they accept to be evaluated by how many times their tweets are liked3. Seeing scientists like this would be a mistake. They are very demanding users who only want to use the best tools4.

But Google has the technology needed to attract this smarter-than-the average users. Here go some ideas which could make GEE the best platform for producing impactful research using remote sensing data.

## Executable papers

I think that it would be nice to introduce some literate programming facilities in the code editor. This could be similar to what can be done with Emacs org-mode's Babel or Knitr for the R programming language. This would allow to directly write scientific papers on the GEE editor and keep together notes, formulas, code and charts. Of course, exporting to Google Docs would be also very useful so that results can be integrated in slides or spreadsheets.

The possibility of citing bibliographic references should also be integrated in the editor. I suppose that a Google Scholar search function would not be difficult to add. Oh, yes, and Google Books also, by the way. Actually, using the same technology Google uses to insert advertisements in search results or in Gmail, it would be possible to automatically suggest references based on what the user is writing.

In these suggestions, papers produced using GEE could come first, since they are better. Papers written by people in the author's Google contacts list could also be promoted: good friends cite friends and the content of e-mails should help the algorithms determine if they are collaborators or competitors. But let's trust Google to find the algorithm which will make the best suggestions.

Many software development environments have code completion. In the case of GEE the technology5 would be much more powerful since all the code written by all scientists could be used to make suggestions. The same technology could be used to suggest completions for the text of the papers. We all know how boring is writing again and again the same "introduction" and "materials and methods" sections. Google algorithms could introduce some randomness and even compute a plagiarism score to help us make sure that we comply with the scientific literature standards. Of course, the "Conclusions" section could be automatically produced from the results using Google's AI technology.

It would also be nice to have some kind of warning if the user was designing an experiment or a processing chain that somebody else had already done. So some kind of message like "this has already been done" together with the link to the corresponding paper would be great. Also, automatic checking for patent infringement would be useful. Again, Google has all we need. In this case, the warning message could be "I can't let you do that Dave".

## Massive peer review

The executable paper written using what has been described above could be made available through Google Plus as a pre-print. Actually, nobody would call that a "pre-print", but rather a paper in beta. All people in the author's circles could be able to comment on it and, most importantly, give a +1 as a warrant of scientific quality. This approach could quickly be replaced by a more reliable one. Using deep learning (of course, what else?) applied to the training data base freely generated by GEE early adopters, Google could propose an unbiased system for paper review which would be much faster than the traditional peer review approach. The h-index should be abandoned and replaced by the paper-rank metric.

## Funding research

Thanks to GEE, doing remote sensing based science will become much cheaper. Universities and research centres won't need to buy expensive computers anymore. Instead, just one Chromebook per person will be enough. Actually, not even offices will be needed, since WiFi is free at Starbucks. Lab meetings can be cheaply replaced by Google Hangouts.

However, scientists will still need some funding, since they can't live on alphaet soup and coffee is still not free at Starbucks. Google has a grant programme for scientists, but this is somewhat old school: real people have to review proposals and even worse, scientists have to spend time writing them.

Again, Google has the technology to help here: "AdSense is a free, simple way to earn money by placing ads on your website." Scientists who would allow ads on their papers, could make some revenue.

## Conclusion

I know that in this post I have given away many ideas which could be used to get venture capital for a start-up which could make lots of money, but this would be really unfair, because all this would not be possible without:

• Gmail
• +1
• Chromebook

Don't forget that the mission statement of GEE is "developing and sharing new digital mapping technology to save the world". And anyway, section 4.3 of GEE Terms of Service says6:

Customer Feedback. If Customer provides Google Feedback about the Services, then Google may use that information without obligation to Customer, and Customer hereby irrevocably assigns to Google all right, title, and interest in that Feedback.

12 May 2016

# Is Google Earth Engine Evil?

More than for any other post in this blog, the usual disclaimer applies here.

Let's face it: what Google has implemented with the Earth Engine is very appealing since it is the first solution for Earth Observation data exploitation which concentrates all the open access EO data, the computing resources and the processing algorithms. This is the Remote Sensing Scientist dream. Or is it?

Talks and posters at ESA Living Planet Symposium this week show that an increasing number of people are using GEE to do science. One of the reasons put forward is the possibility of sharing the scripts, so that other people can reproduce the results. This is, in my opinion, an incorrect statement. Let's have a look at a definition of reproducible research:

An article about computational science in a scientific publication is not the scholarship itself, it is merely advertising of the scholarship. The actual scholarship is the complete software development environment and the complete set of instructions which generated the figures. —D. Donoho

One important term here is complete. When you use GEE, or any other non free software like Matlab, even if you share your scripts, the core of the algorithms you are using is just a black box which can't be inspected. Actually, the case of GEE is even worse than the one of non free software running locally. Google could change the implementation of the algorithms and your scripts would yield different results without you being able to identify why. Do you remember the "Climategate"? One of the main conclusions was:

… the reports called on the scientists to avoid any such allegations in the future by taking steps to regain public confidence in their work, for example by opening up access to their supporting data, processing methods and software, and by promptly honouring freedom of information requests.

During one of my presentations at the Living Planet Symposium I decided to warn my fellow remote sensers about the issues with GEE and I put a slide with a provocative title. The room was packed with more than 200 people and somebody tweeted this:

So it seems I was able to get some attention, but a 2-minute slide summarised in a 140 character tweet is not the best medium to start this discussion.

As I said during my presentation, I fully understand why scientists are migrating towards GEE and I don't blame them. Actually, there is nobody to blame here. Not even Google. But in the same way that, after many years of scientists using non free software and publishing in non open access journals, we should take a step back and reflect together about how we want to do Earth Observation Science in a sustainable (which is the perenniality of GEE?) and really open way.

What I was suggesting in the 3 last bullet points in my slide (which don't appear in the tweeted picture1) is that we should ask ESA, the European Commission and our national agencies to join efforts to implement the infrastructure where:

• all data is available;
• and every scientist can log in and build and share libre software for doing science.

And this is much cheaper than launching a satellite.

This is not to criticise what the agencies are doing. ESA's Thematic Exploitation Platforms are a good start. CNES is developing PEPS and Theia which together are a very nice step forward. But I think that a joint effort driven by users' needs coming from the EO Science community would help. So let's speak up and proceed in a constructive way.

## Footnotes:

1

By the way, the slides are available here with a Creative Commons license.

27 May 2015

# Installing OTB has never been so easy

You've heard about the Orfeo Toolbox library and its wonders, but urban legends say that it is difficult to install. Don't believe that. Maybe it was difficult to install, but this is not the case anymore.

Thanks to the heroic work of the OTB core development team, installing OTB has never been so easy. In this post, you will find the step-by-step procedure to compile OTB from source on a Debian 8.0 Jessie GNU/Linux distribution.

## Prepare the user account

I assume that you have a fresh install. The procedure below has been tested in a virtual machine running under VirtualBox. The virtual machine was installed from scratch using the official netinst ISO image.

During the installation, I created a user named otb that I will use for the tutorial below. For simplicity, I give this user root privileges in order to install some packages. This can be done as follows. Log in as root or use the command:

su -


You can then edit the /etc/sudoers file by using the following command:

visudo


This will open the file with the nano text editor. Scroll down to the lines containing

# User privilege specification
root    ALL=(ALL:ALL) ALL


and copy the second line and below and replace root by otb:

otb     ALL=(ALL:ALL) ALL


Write the file and quit by doing C^o ENTER C^x. Log out and log in as otb. You are set!

## System dependencies

Now, let's install some packages needed to compile OTB. Open a terminal and use aptitude to install what we need:

sudo aptitude install mercurial \
cmake-curses-gui build-essential \
qt4-dev-tools libqt4-core \
libqt4-dev libboost1.55-dev \
zlib1g-dev libopencv-dev curl \
libcurl4-openssl-dev swig \
libpython-dev


We will install OTB in its own directory. So from your $HOME directory create a directory named OTB and go into it: mkdir OTB cd OTB  Now, get the OTB sources by cloning the repository (depending on your network speed, this may take several minutes): hg clone http://hg.orfeo-toolbox.org/OTB  This will create a directory named OTB (so in my case, this is /home/otb/OTB/OTB). Using mercurial commands, you can choose a particular version or you can go bleeding edge. You will at least need the first release candidate for OTB-5.0, which you can get with the following commands: cd OTB hg update 5.0.0-rc1 cd ../  ## Get OTB dependencies OTB's SuperBuild is a procedure which deals with all external libraries needed by OTB which may not be available through your Linux package manager. It is able to download source code, configure and install many external libraries automatically. Since the download process may fail due to servers which are not maintained by the OTB team, a big tarball has been prepared for you. From the $HOME/OTB directory, do the following:

wget https://www.orfeo-toolbox.org/packages/SuperBuild-archives.tar.bz2
tar xvjf SuperBuild-archives.tar.bz2


The download step can be looooong. Be patient. Go jogging or something.

Once you have downloaded and extracted the external dependencies, you can start compiling OTB. From the $HOME/OTB directory, create the directory where OTB will be built: mkdir -p SuperBuild/OTB  At the end of the compilation, the $HOME/OTB/SuperBuild/ directory will contain a classical bin/, lib/, include/ and share/ directory tree. The $HOME/OTB/SuperBuild/OTB/ is where the configuration and compilation of OTB and all the dependencies will be stored. Go into this directory: cd SuperBuild/OTB  Now we can configure OTB using the cmake tool. Since you are on a recent GNU/Linux distribution, you can tell the compiler to use the most recent C++ standard, which can give you some benefits even if OTB still does not use it. We will also compile using the Release option (optimisations). The Python wrapping will be useful with the OTB Applications. We also tell cmake where the external dependencies are. The options chosen below for OpenJPEG make OTB use the gdal implementation. cmake \ -DCMAKE_CXX_FLAGS:STRING=-std=c++14 \ -DOTB_WRAP_PYTHON:BOOL=ON \ -DCMAKE_BUILD_TYPE:STRING=Release \ -DCMAKE_INSTALL_PREFIX:PATH=/home/otb/OTB/SuperBuild/ \ -DDOWNLOAD_LOCATION:PATH=/home/otb/OTB/SuperBuild-archives/ \ -DOTB_USE_OPENJPEG:BOOL=ON \ -DUSE_SYSTEM_OPENJPEG:BOOL=OFF \ ../../OTB/SuperBuild/  After the configuration, you should be able to compile. I have 4 cores in my machine, so I use the -j4 option for make. Adjust the value to your configuration: make -j4  This will take some time since there are many libraries which are going to be built. Time for a marathon. ## Test your installation Everything should be compiled and available now. You can set up some environment variables for an easier use of OTB. You can for instance add the following lines at the end of $HOME/.bashrc:

export OTB_HOME=${HOME}/OTB/SuperBuild export PATH=${OTB_HOME}/bin:$PATH export LD_LIBRARY_PATH=${OTB_HOME}/lib


You can now open a new terminal for this to take effect or use:

cd
source .bashrc


You should now be able to use the OTB Applications. For instance, the command:

otbcli_BandMath


should display the documentation for the BandMath application.

Another way to run the applications, is using the command line application launcher as follows:

otbApplicationLauncherCommandLine BandMath \$OTB_HOME/lib/otb/applications/


## Conclusion

The SuperBuild procedure allows to easily install OTB without having to deal with different combinations of versions for the external dependencies (TIFF, GEOTIFF, OSSIM, GDAL, ITK, etc.).

This means that once you have cmake and a compiler, you are pretty much set. QT4 and Python are optional things which will be useful for the applications, but they are not required for a base OTB installation.

I am very grateful to the OTB core development team (Julien, Manuel, Guillaume, the other Julien, Mickaël, and maybe others that I forget) for their efforts in the work done for the modularisation and the development of the SuperBuild procedure. This is the kind of thing which is not easy to see from the outside, but makes OTB go forward steadily and makes it a very mature and powerful software.

18 Mar 2015

# Data science in C?

Coursera is offering a Data Science specialization taught by professors from Johns Hopkins. I discovered it via one of their courses which is about reproducible research. I have been watching some of the video lectures and they are very interesting, since they combine data processing, programming and statistics.

The courses use the R language which is free software and is one the reference tools in the field of statistics, but it is also very much used for other kinds of data analysis.

While I was watching some of the lectures, I had some ideas to be implemented in some of my tools. Although I have used GSL and VXL1 for linear algebra and optimization, I have never really needed statistics libraries in C or C++, so I ducked a bit and found the apophenia library2, which builds on top of GSL, SQLite and Glib to provide very useful tools and data structures to do statistics in C.

Browsing a little bit more, I found that the author of apophenia has written a book "Modeling with data"3, which teaches you statistics like many books about R, but using C, SQLite and gnuplot.

This is the kind of technical book that I like most: good math and code, no fluff, just stuff!

The author sets the stage from the foreword. An example from page xii (the emphasis is mine):

" The politics of software

All of the software in this book is free software, meaning that it may be freely downloaded and distributed. This is because the book focuses on portability and replicability, and if you need to purchase a license every time you switch computers, then the code is not portable. If you redistribute a functioning program that you wrote based on the GSL or Apophenia, then you need to redistribute both the compiled final program and the source code you used to write the program. If you are publishing an academic work, you should be doing this anyway. If you are in a situation where you will distribute only the output of an analysis, there are no obligations at all. This book is also reliant on POSIX-compliant systems, because such systems were built from the ground up for writing and running replicable and portable projects. This does not exclude any current operating system (OS): current members of the Microsoft Windows family of OSes claim POSIX compliance, as do all OSes ending in X (Mac OS X, Linux, UNIX,…)."

Of course, the author knows the usual complaints about programming in C (or C++ for that matter) and spends many pages explaining his choice:

"I spent much of my life ignoring the fundamentals of computing and just hacking together projects using the package or language of the month: C++, Mathematica, Octave, Perl, Python, Java, Scheme, S-PLUS, Stata, R, and probably a few others that I’ve forgotten. Albee (1960, p 30)4 explains that “sometimes it’s necessary to go a long distance out of the way in order to come back a short distance correctly;” this is the distance I’ve gone to arrive at writing a book on data-oriented computing using a general and basic computing language. For the purpose of modeling with data, I have found C to be an easier and more pleasant language than the purpose-built alternatives—especially after I worked out that I could ignore much of the advice from books written in the 1980s and apply the techniques I learned from the scripting languages."

The author explains that C is a very simple language:

" Simplicity

C is a super-simple language. Its syntax has no special tricks for polymorphic operators, abstract classes, virtual inheritance, lexical scoping, lambda expressions, or other such arcana, meaning that you have less to learn. Those features are certainly helpful in their place, but without them C has already proven to be sufficient for writing some impressive programs, like the Mac and Linux operating systems and most of the stats packages listed above."

And he makes it really simple, since he actually teaches you C in one chapter of 50 pages (and 50 pages counting source code is not that much!). He does not teach you all C, though:

"As for the syntax of C, this chapter will cover only a subset. C has 32 keywords and this book will only use 18 of them."

At one point in the introduction I worried about the author bashing C++, which I like very much, but he actually gives a good explanation of the differences between C and C++ (emphasis and footnotes are mine):

"This is the appropriate time to answer a common intro-to-C question: What is the difference between C and C++? There is much confusion due to the almost-compatible syntax and similar name—when explaining the name C-double-plus5, the language’s author references the Newspeak language used in George Orwell’s 1984 (Orwell, 19496; Stroustrup, 1986, p 47). The key difference is that C++ adds a second scope paradigm on top of C’s file- and function-based scope: object-oriented scope. In this system, functions are bound to objects, where an object is effectively a struct holding several variables and functions. Variables that are private to the object are in scope only for functions bound to the object, while those that are public are in scope whenever the object itself is in scope. In C, think of one file as an object: all variables declared inside the file are private, and all those declared in a header file are public. Only those functions that have a declaration in the header file can be called outside of the file. But the real difference between C and C++ is in philosophy: C++ is intended to allow for the mixing of various styles of programming, of which object-oriented coding is one. C++ therefore includes a number of other features, such as yet another type of scope called namespaces, templates and other tools for representing more abstract structures, and a large standard library of templates. Thus, C represents a philosophy of keeping the language as simple and unchanging as possible, even if it means passing up on useful additions; C++ represents an all-inclusive philosophy, choosing additional features and conveniences over parsimony."

It is actually funny that I find myself using less and less class inheritance and leaning towards small functions (often templates) and when I use classes, it is usually to create functors. This is certainly due to the influence of the Algorithmic journeys of Alex Stepanov.

## Footnotes:

1

Actually the numerics module, vnl.

2

Apophenia is the experience of perceiving patterns or connections in random or meaningless data.

3

Ben Klemens, Modeling with Data: Tools and Techniques for Scientific Computing, Princeton University Press, 2009, ISBN: 9780691133140.

4

Albee, Edward. 1960. The American Dream and Zoo Story. Signet.

6

Orwell, George. 1949. 1984. Secker and Warburg.

7

Stroustrup, Bjarne. 1986. The C++ Programming Language. Addison-Wesley.

26 Nov 2014

# Is open and free global land cover mapping possible?

Mid November took place in Toulouse "Le Capitole du libre", a conference on Free Software and Free Culture. The program this year was again full of interesting talks and workshops.

This year, I attended a workshop about contributing to Openstreetmap (OSM) using the JOSM software. The workshop was organised by Sébastien Dinot who is a massive contributor to OSM, and more importantly a very nice and passionate fellow.

I was very happy to learn to use JOSM and did 2 minor contributions right there.

During the workshop I learned that, over the past, OSM has been enriched using massive imports from open data sources, like for instance cadastral data bases from different countries or the Corine Land Cover data base. This has been possible thanks to the policies of many countries which have understood that the commons are important for the advancement of society. One example of this is the European INSPIRE initiative.

I was also interested to learn that what could be considered niche data, like agricultural land parcel data bases as for instance the French RPG have also been imported into OSM. Since I have been using the RPG at work for the last 4 years (see for example here or here), I was sympathetic with the difficulties of OSM contributors to efficiently exploit these data. I understood that the Corine Land Cover import was also difficult and the results were not fully satisfactory.

As a matter of fact, roads, buildings and other cartographic objects are easier to map than land cover, since they are discrete and sparse. They can be pointed, defined and characterised more easily than natural and semi-natural areas.

After that, I could not avoid making the link with what we do at work in terms of preparing the exploitation of upcoming satellite missions for automatic land cover map production.

One of our main interests is the use of Sentinel-2 images. It is the week end while I am writing this, so I will not use my free time to explain how land cover map production from multi-temporal satellite images work: I already did it in my day job.

What is therefore the link between what we do at work and OSM? The revolutionary thing from my point of view is the fact that Sentinel-2 data will be open and free, which means that the OSM project could use it to have a constantly up to date land cover layer.

Of course, Sentinel-2 data will come in huge volumes and a good amount of expertise will be needed to use them. However, several public agencies are paving the road in order to deliver data which is easy to use. For instance, the THEIA Land Data Centre will provide Sentinel-2 data which is ready to use for mapping. The data will be available with all the geometric and radiometric corrections of the best quality.

Actually, right now this is being done, for instance, for Landsat imagery. Of course, all these data is and will be available under open and free licences, which means that anyone can start right now learning how to use them.

However, going from images to land cover maps is not straightforward. Again, a good deal of expertise and efficient tools are needed in order to convert pixels into maps. This is what I have the chance to do at work: building tools to convert pixels into maps which are useful for real world applications.

Applying the same philosophy to tools as for data, the tools we produce are free and open. The core of all these tools is of course the Orfeo Toolbox, the Free Remote Sensing Image Processing Library from CNES. We have several times demonstrated that the tools are ready to efficiently exploit satellite imagery to produce maps. For instance, in this post here you even have the sequence of commands to generate land cover maps using satellite image time series.

This means that we have free data and free tools. Therefore, the complete pipeline is available for projects like OSM. OSM contributors could start right now getting familiar with these data and these tools.

Head over to CNES servers to get some Landsat data, install OTB, get familiar with the classification framework and see what could be done for OSM.

It is likely that some pieces may still be missing. For instance, the main approach for the map production is supervised classification. This means that we use machine learning algorithms to infer which land cover class is present at every given site using the images as input data. For these machine learning algorithms to work, we need training data, that is, we need to know before hand the correct land cover class in some places so the algorithm can be calibrated.

This training data is usually called ground truth and it is expensive and difficult to get. In a global mapping context, this can be a major drawback. However, there are interesting initiatives which could be leveraged to help here. For instance, Geo-Wiki comes to mind as a possible source of training data.

As always, talk is cheap, but it seems to me that exciting opportunities are available for open and free quality global mapping. This does not mean that the task is easy. It is not. There are many issues to be solved yet and some of them are at the research stage. But this should not stop motivated mappers and hackers to start learning to use the data and the tools.

04 Jul 2014

# Two misconceptions about open source

There are a couple of ideas which circulate about open source1 projects which I think are misconceptions about how software is developed.

## Throw it over the wall

The first one is about criticisms of projects where the developers publish the source code only for released versions instead of maintaining a public version control system. That is, tarballs are made available when the software is considered to be ready, instead of pushing all the changes in real time to services like Github or Bitbucket.

This started to annoy me when a couple of years ago, some bloggers and podcasters started to say that Android is not really open source, since the development is not done in the open. I am not at all a Google fanboy, quite the opposite actually, but I understand that both Google and the individual lone hacker in a basement, may want to fully control how their code evolves between releases without external interferences.

I personally don't do things like this, but if the source code is available, it is open source. It may not be a community project, and some may find ugly to throw code over the wall like this, but this is another thing.

## Eyeballs and shallow bugs

The recent buzz about the Heartbleed bug has put back under the spot what Eric S. Raymond called Linus' Law:

Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.

Raymond develops is as:

Given a large enough beta-tester and co-developer base, almost every problem will be characterized quickly and the fix obvious to someone.

Right after Heartbleed, many voices in the inter-webs took it as a counterexample of Linus' Law. Their reasoning was that since the bug was introduced more than 2 years before, the fact that the source code was open didn't help to catch it quickly.

I think that the argument is flawed if we take into account the 3 steps involved in debugging software:

1. Identify that a bug exists: some user (which may be one of the developers) detects a misbehavior in the software. This step may involve characterizing the bug in terms of being able to reproduce the wrong behavior.
2. Find the bug: track down the issue until a limited piece of code is identified as containing the source of the problem found.
3. Fix the bug: modify the source code in order to obtain the correct or desired behavior.

Usually, the second and third steps are the hardest, but they can't be taken until the bug is detected. After that, Linus' Law comes into play, and the more people looking at the source code, the more likely is for the bug to be found and fixed.

I don't like criticizing Wikipedia, but this time I think that the misunderstanding may come from explanations as the one in the Linux' Law Wikipedia page about Raymond's text.

## Footnotes:

1

I will use the term open source instead of free software because here the important point here is that the source code is available, not the particular license under which it is distributed.

09 Aug 2013

# Watching YouTube without a browser

The other day I was curious about how many streaming video sites among those I usually visit had made the move from flash to HTML5.

The main reason is that my virtual Richard Stallman keeps telling me that I am evil, so I wanted to remove the flash plug-in from my machine.

An the fact is that many sites have not switched yet. As far as I understand, YouTube has, at least partially. Therefore, the title of this post is somewhat misleading.

I have been using youtube-dl for a while now in order to download videos from many sites as YouTube, Vimeo, etc. My first idea was therefore to pipe the output of youtube-dl to a video player supporting the appropriate format. Since I usually use vlc I just tried:

youtube-dl  -o - <url of the video> | vlc -


This works fine, but has the drawback of needing to manually type (or copy-paste) the URL of the video. So the command line on a terminal emulator is not what I find convenient.

Most of the video URLs I access come to me via e-mail, and I read e-mail with Gnus inside Emacs, I decided that an Emacs command would do the trick. So I put this inside my .emacs:

(defun play-youtube-video (url)

(interactive "sURL: ")

(shell-command

(concat "youtube-dl  -o - " url " | vlc -")))


This way, M-x play-youtube-video, asks me for an URL and plays the video. So, when I have an URL for a video on an e-mail (or any other text document on Emacs) I just copy the URL with the appropriate Emacs key stroke and call this command. For convenience, I have mapped it to key binding:

(global-set-key (kbd "<f9> Y") 'play-youtube-video)


So this is good, though not yet frictionless.

Sometimes, the video URL will appear on an HTML buffer, either when I am browsing the web inside Emacs with w3m or when the e-mail I am reading is sent in HTML1. In this case, I don't need to manually copy the URL and I just can ask w3m to do the work.

(defun w3m-play-youtube-video ()

(interactive)

(w3m-print-this-url (point))))



So far, this has been working fine for me and I don't have the ugly non-free flash plug-in installed, and VRMS is happier than before.

## Footnotes:

1

I use w3m as HTML renderer for Gnus with (setq mm-text-html-renderer 'w3m).

04 Feb 2012

# Computers run the world, I run computers, therefore ...

## The war on general computation

Although I am not particularly fan of Science Fiction, I follow Cory Doctorow's production because of his views on free culture and free software. He has written many essays about the problems with copyright law and how copyright enforcement is a waste of time. He is himself an example of a creator who is able to make a living making available his work without copy restrictions.

Doctorow has also written about the links between free culture (Creative Commons) and free software, and I don't think I am wrong saying that it all boils down to the same thing.

I recently listened to one episode of the Cory Doctorow podcast about the war on general purpose computation. It was a re-run of the talk he gave at the 28th Chaos Communications Congress in Berlin around last Christmas. The YouTube video with subtitles is available here.

Doctorow has been recently interviewed on CBC about the same topic.

To make a quick synthesis of the talk, we could say that the content industry, in its blind war on copyright infringement, will tend to try to eliminate general purpose computers – that is computers that you can use for whatever you want – and replace them by appliances – that is devices (stripped down computers) which serve one single purpose: content consumption.

At first sight, this may seem some conspiracy theory, but, actually, Apple has started applying the model. For instance, if I write a program for an iPad and I want to sell it to you, the only legal way I have is to go through the Apple Store (and Apple takes 30\%). Otherwise, you have to jailbreak your device. The same kind of trend is coming to Apple desktop and laptop computers. And not much different is the Secure Boot which Microsoft wants to force on computer manufacturers. Google's Chromebooks and other Android tablets limit you ins a somewhat similar way.

Listen to Doctorow's talk to get the full picture. One of the consequences of this war on general purpose computation is that it might even become illegal – I don't think impossible, however – to run free software on most devices available in the market.

## The scientist

Since most, if not all, of the science depends in one or another way on computers, for the scientist, this has major implications.

The 2 main pillars of science are independence and reproducibility. These means that a scientist must be able to explain and verify any single result or statement she makes public. In the case of results produced using computer software, being able to look under the hood of the programs used for scientific computation is a fundamental need.

Of course, I am not advocating for the fact that the scientist should code everything herself. This would be too inefficient. But there is when open source software comes to rescue. One can rely on existing tools (libraries, etc.) without having to accept the black box approach of proprietary tools.

I am always astounded to see colleagues using tools for which they don't have the source code. The argument is always that they are being pragmatic, and that theoretical principles about software freedom can be traded against convenience. I can't agree with this.

The day when a bug is detected in one of these software and that you don't have other possibility to get things working correctly than waiting for the new version, you understand that there is a problem.

The day when you can not work because there is a limited number of licenses available in the lab, you understand that there is a problem.

The day you see your students using an illegal version of the software, because they want to improve their skills by working at home, you understand that there is a problem.

And these are only a limited number of real life examples that I have seen around me several times.

Yes, many open source tools lack the degree of polish that proprietary tools have. Some have poor documentation. Some are less user friendly and impose a steep learning curve. The good point is that you can contribute by improving the tool yourself. If you don't have the required skills to do it, you may convince your boss to use the same amount of money she would put into a proprietary software license to hire someone who has the skills to improve the free software you need. After that, do not forget to make your improvements available, so that others benefit from them and consider doing the same.

OK. Enough about work. Let's go home.

Most households have at least one computer. Many households have several of them. Nowadays, kids have access to computers from they early age.

Several weeks ago, my children (5 and 7) discovered a web browser in the computer they use for games at home. They also quickly discovered the search engine and the possibility to search on YouTube for videos of their favorite cartoon characters. (In another post I will write about how to explain copyright law to a child who is upset because she can't find on-line the cartoon she wants to watch).

I quickly realized that I hadn't thought about how to filter what they access on the net, so I started looking for something to install.

I know that my ISP proposes a service for that. I know that there are on-line services you can subscribe to. But when it comes to my children, I am not going to give any company the permission to log their web access.

So what I did was installing a free software called DansGuardian which acts as a proxy and filters http requests sent by a browser. It took me 5 minutes to install it and, 10 to understand how to configure it, and 10 more to select the filtering settings I want. OK. I had to read the documentation and mess around with configuration files, but I know exactly what happens, and it's me who looks at the http logs and not an unknown person. Yes, you can say that I am a control freak, and you are right, because, by now, my children are only allowed to use the web browser when their mother or me are with them.

I will call this parental responsibility.

This responsibility includes also teaching critical thinking and giving the freedom to learn. Unfortunately, they don't learn that at school. They don't learn computer skills either. Granted they have computers in the classroom (hey, we are a modern country!), but the teachers are not trained to teach them anything other than to play pseudo-educational games.

The Linux computer my children use has the same kind of software available. They mainly use Tux Paint and GCompris. So what's better with respect to what they have at school?

It's free (as in freedom), so I am confident on being able to run the software on a low end computer if I want to. I can change things that they don't like or that I don't like. For instance, I added their pictures to the set of available Tux Paint stamps. The software is available in many languages, many more than many proprietary software. And this is very useful for kids to learn, even if their mother tongue is a minority one (there are many of them in Europe). Even best, if the language was not available, a parent could translate the software, since all the text messages and the recorded voices are stored in separate files.

This gives a massive freedom to learn, but that's not all. One thing children like very much is taking toys apart. This is not a destructive obsession, but just a need to know how things work. What's the point of playing with software which can't be taken apart to see how it works?

If the war on general purpose computation becomes a widespread reality, our children may not be able to learn to program, or at least, not without spending lots of money in order to buy expensive tools for that. And too bad for those who don't have the money.

They may not be able to put their own pictures on Tux Paint without proving that they own the copyright, and that would be dramatic.