I’m a programmer, a developer, a hacker. I’m mostly involved with the Open Source community and I try to promote open source development as much as I can. Unfortunately, most of the time when I tell someone that I’m a “developer”, they don’t understand the concept, and when I start talking about open source, they understand me even less.
The world is full of people with different backgrounds, with different references and we don’t always understand each other. As most of you who read my blog would probably know, I’m involved in the PS3 hacking scene, and I see a lot of misinformed people, and I read a lot of things that don’t make any sense to me. This is because most people don’t understand the world that we (developers/hackers) come from and things tend to be misinterpreted.
This message is for everybody, it’s intent is to open a window into our world so people can understand us better. I don’t have the audacity to explain everything about programming in this text, but I will try to formulate in terms easy to understand the general idea behind it. While most of this post will be generic and intended to anyone, there will be a paragraph that will address some of the recent issues surrounding the PS3 and Sony. This post will probably be very long and I’m sorry, I don’t think I have a shorter version for those who get bored easily.
1 – Programming
If you’re familiar with or understand programming, you may skip this section, as it might be a bit boring, otherwise, read on, it should explain what you need to know to understand the rest of this blog post.
What is a “program”? Let’s put it simply : “It’s a set of instructions that produce a result”. A program is what you run on your computer, phone, gaming console, or even your alarm clock. It tells the computer to do something, for example “if the user pressed the ‘up’ button, advance the minutes by one. If the time reaches this specific value, sound the alarm” (alarm clock programming) or “Draw a red circle. If the user clicks inside the circle, change the color to blue”. With many simple instructions, you end up with a complex program that can achieve a multitude of tasks, like for example Microsoft Office, or Skype. But the basic definition is that a program is “a set of instruction that produce a result”.
Now what is a “source code”? This mystical thing you keep hearing about is nothing more than “a set of instructions that produce a result”.. sounds familiar? Basically, a “source code” is the text that the programmer writes in order to tell the computer the instructions it wants the program to achieve. The source code is in itself, the program, but it’s in a readable and understandable format : a text file using a language that the programmer understands. The computer however doesn’t understand the source code, it only understand mathematics, numbers. A program’s instructions are written with “numbers” that the computer understands, for example 1 might mean “copy this” and 2 might mean “write that” and 3 might mean “show this”, etc.. (very simplistic view, but you get the idea). So the difference between a program that you run and a source code is that they are both the exact same thing, but the program you run is made up of numbers representing instructions to the computer (this is what we call the “Assembly” language or “machine code”) while the source code is the same instructions written in a more readable format, text, using a language that is easy to understand.. so instead of “1 4 185 353 532” (machine code) you would see “if the user clicks on the circle, change the color to blue” (source code).
What is a “programming language”? The source code can be written in different languages, just like spoken language, we have english, french, italian, russian, etc.. in the programming world, there are multiple different languages to define the instructions for the computer. These programming languages differ in the vocabulary (commands/functions) and in grammar (syntax). Explanation more than that is not relevant to the current topic so I’ll leave it at that.
How do you get an application (a program) from source code? It’s simple, there is a program called a “compiler” which reads this source code (the text), understands it, and rewrites it into machine code (the numbers). When you download an application, you only get these ‘numbers’ that the computer understands because that’s all you need to run your application.
2 – Open Source
So.. what is this “open source” everyone keeps talking about? Well now that you know the basics about programming, let me put it simply : a program (all those numbers) is open source, when the source code used to generate the program is publicly available.
And here is the juicy part of this blog post. Remember when I said that a program is “a set of instructions that produce a result”? Well, here’s an absolutely superb analogy: A program is like a recipe. What is a recipe? Well, isn’t it a set of instructions that you must follow in order to produce something? This analogy comes from Richard Stallman in the documentary The code (this one, not the 2011 movie) and I think it’s absolutely brilliant.
You can listen to it in his own words here : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=20ClL3mL8Gc
I’d like to remind people to not make the confusion, thinking that the source code is the recipe and the program is the final meal, you have to think of the programs themselves as being recipes, the ingredient is the electricity used and the result is whatever appears on your screen. The language of the recipe is what changes (from the various programming languages or to the ‘machine language’).
So now, with this analogy in mind (which I’ll keep referring to throughout this blog post), back to the question at hand. A closed source (or “proprietary”) program is like going to a restaurant where they serve this dish that you like, but when you ask the waiter/waitress what’s in it, they refuse to tell you the recipe for it. And open source is when you go to your friend’s house, you eat something that you like, and when you ask what’s in it, your friend tells you “oh, let me give you the recipe”.
Now imagine a world where no one could ever get a recipe for anything, you want to cook something, you have to relearn from scratch, experiment yourself with everything and see if the result is satisfactory, without having any references. Unfortunately, you’ll end up mixing two things together that you never should have done, and you’d be thinking how sad it is that every person in the world has to reinvent something that should be ‘common knowledge’. Thankfully, this isn’t the world we live in, and in the same way as you might enjoy cooking and exchanging recipes with your friends and family, we, programmers, enjoy sharing source code with each other, making our ‘recipes’ publicly available to everyone.
If you eat a delicious cheesecake at your friend’s house, and he/she gives you the recipe, then you try it, but then you realize it’s too sweet and you decide to decrease the amount of sugar, you have just “modified the code”, then you realize that adding a bit of lemon juice will make it better, and it does. You tell your friend about your changes, and he/she likes it and says “I’ve always wondered what it was missing”. You have just “contributed” to the program and now all your friends and family can enjoy this improved cheesecake (I love cheesecake by the way).
This is what Open Source is all about, it’s about sharing your recipes, anyone being able to improve on them and contribute his changes and slowly, thanks to the original recipe, new recipes will be born and people will enjoy more great products. It’s all thanks to this simple idea of sharing. This applies to the programming world in the same way, we write programs, we share the source code, others can improve them (add features, fix bugs, add translations, make a better/easier user interface, etc..) and everyone benefits from it.
My journey into this wonderful world started more than 10 years ago, I was using a program that I liked but I wanted something that it didn’t do. Thankfully, it was open source, so I added the feature that I wanted, gave my changes back to the project, the other users loved it which made the program more popular and some new users decided to do the same thing and improve the program, and in the end (I’ll say it again) everyone benefits from it.
3 – Hacking
What is “hacking”? Again, let’s put it simply: hacking basically means “working around a problem”. In a broader definition, it could also be viewed as “modifying something to make it do a task it wasn’t intended to do”. I have headphones and one of the wires got cut.. so I taped it and it worked.. in my definition, that counts as “hacking” because I worked around the problem. The term “hacking” has been publicized as being ‘evil’ or a bad thing, but people confuse it too much with what it really means. I hack everyday and you probably do without knowing it. Back to the food/recipe analogy. Did you ever go to someone’s home and were served a meal, then you took the salt from the table and added some to your plate? You have just “worked around a problem” (not salty enough) and you just modified something (the meal) from its intended purpose (the ‘view/taste’ of the one who cooked it). In my definition, you “hacked” the meal to make it fit more to your taste.
This is the reality of things, when you modify something that you own to make it more to your taste (everyone has different tastes after all), you are “hacking” it. When you decide that 200g of sugar is better than 250g of sugar in your cupcake recipe, you are “hacking” the recipe. But in the terms of the computer world, the term has been used widely to describe pretty much anything we do, but mostly things we do in a hurry. My friend programmed his computer to play a sound (an alarm) when his girlfriend connects on MSN so it wakes him up, but he would say “I hacked it” because he did it in 5 minutes and didn’t spend months setting up a whole infrastructure behind this “wake me up when my girlfriend is online” system. Nowadays, the simple fact of “programming” is called “hacking”, it’s nothing illegal, it’s nothing harmful, but most of the time we say “I’m hacking” rather than “I’m programming” simply because the act of programming is all about finding solutions and working around problems. You should read the definition of the term as explained in wikipedia.
The problem is that there are those who use their talent for criminal behavior and when it’s related to anything “computer-y”, people decide to call it “hacking”. It’s like saying that “cooking” is evil and anyone who “cooks” is a criminal because someone, somewhere put a drop of poison in someone else’s food. Isn’t that ridiculous? I very often see people saying “death to the hackers” or “those hackers are criminals and should rot in jail forever” without knowing what they are talking about. It’s funny how people get emotional and suddenly they become judge, jury and executioner. To all these people, let me tell you something : The next time that you add some salt to your meal, watch your back because the FBI just might lock you up for your crime!
Now here’s another thing that we, programmers and hackers, often do, it’s called “reverse engineering”, it’s basically about understanding how something works without being told by the original maker. Whenever you try to understand how something works, you are ‘reverse engineering’ it. In the recipes analogy, this would mean that when you taste something and you start wondering if there’s garlic in it, or say “is that cinnamon?”, you are basically reverse engineering the meal by trying to recreate the recipe (or part of it) by looking at the final product.
Yes, that is what reverse engineering is, you receive a finished product and you try to understand how it was made. This is equivalent to going to a restaurant and trying to make the same dish that they served without them giving you the recipe. If you ever did that, then you definitely know what a reverse engineer is.
4 – The Greedy Corporations
Now, this is the interesting part, the ‘greedy corporations’. I’m saying it like this because I didn’t want to say “Sony” because they are clearly not the only ones playing this game. Why are they greedy? because they want to have total control over you and your freedom, thus allowing them to generate more profit. I’ll go back to the recipe analogy: What Sony/Microsoft/Apple/etc.. are doing is basically the equivalent of LG selling you a kitchen appliance and saying you can only use it with their products! Imagine buying a kitchen stove that only allowed you to cook using ‘LG and Tefal” pans… or imagine a pan or a pot that only allowed you to cook food from some specific brands. No, you can’t buy the cheap, equivalent (and sometimes better) “no name” brand or buy your fresh vegetables at the market.. no, those vegetables have to have been processed by those giant corporations that put some sort of label on it allowing the pan to cook them. This is my analogy, it may sound stupid, but I believe this is what it is.
Did you ever wonder what “DRM” (Digital Rights Management) is? well to put it simply, it’s like having a microchip inside your Tefal pan, and it continuously detects what’s in it.. if you ever dare to put in the pan an ingredient (a tomato!) that wasn’t pre-selected and pre-accepted by Tefal, then the pan would automatically and instantly cool down and stop absording heat. Hell, it could even send a signal to the stove which will simply shut it down. That’s what DRM is.. and why is it there? Well, they would tell you that it’s “For your own good”, it’s because they want to deter people from stealing food from the supermarket or using products that aren’t “fresh” or up to their standards. But what it really does is that it prevents you from using your fresh vegetables that you proudly grew yourself in your backyard, so that you have to buy their product. Even worse, DRM means that you can only use ‘pre made’ cookie dough in your oven.. if you get a better cookie recipe from your friend and try to make those cookies yourself, the oven will not turn on. And for those “super awesome, elite, we are the nice guys” oven brands that tell you “wow, you can bake your own cookies! Here is the recipe!”, you have to read the fine print, the recipe says 250g of flour, and it’s unfortunate, but the oven will not turn on if you made the mistake of puttin 255g of flour in your dough. And I’m not even talking about the LG microwave that will only heat meals that were cooked on an LG appliance, or the fridge that will not cool anything without the “Kraft” label on it…
The irony is that when you buy your pan, you’re buying it for 100$, because do you think that these greedy corporations will pay the fee for the DRM? no, YOU are! The pan should cost 20$, but they are charging you 100$ because you have to pay for that microchip in your pan, you don’t want it, but you are paying for it.. you have no choice! And if someone comes along and creates a new, DRM-free pan and wants to sell it, they’ll label him a “pirate” (ouh, that’s a scary word) and pay millions in propaganda and in advertisement (that conveniently appear at the bottom of your pan and on the front glass of your oven) to tell you how this DRM-free oven/pan is ‘evil’, will eat your babies at night and will kill your dog. The funny thing is, the first time you hear it, you’re thinking “wtf?”, then after hearing it 1000 times a day, you believe in it as being the absolute truth. You will eventually get used to verifying the “compatibility list” of your new oven before you buy it.. make sure that you can borrow plates from your neighbor because they are “authorized/licensed accessories” to the oven. You will get used to checking the label on your vegetables when you go to the supermarket to make sure that they are compatible with your pan, and you will get used to not buying a specific brand because your fridge’s manufacturer never made a deal with that brand so you can’t put it in your fridge…
I know what you’re thinking : “what the hell?”. Yes, what I just said sounds absolutely absurd, it sounds crazy and it doesn’t make any sense. After all, who would accept that? Who would even think of doing some crazy things like that? Well here’s the thing, the reason I love this analogy between programming and recipes is simply because not only is it quite accurate, but it’s also something that everyone can relate to. I think pretty much everyone knows how to cook, if even just an omelette. And if you don’t, you probably saw or know someone who can. If not, then at least cooking isn’t a concept that is so “obscure” that you can’t comprehend it. If the kitchen appliances tried to force all those restrictions, or if people tried to outlaw exchanging recipes, then pretty much 99.99% of the population will say “this is bullshit, we refuse!”. But in the computer world, this is exactly what is happening, only nobody cares because nobody can understand it… all this “computer-y” stuff is not something that interests most people, so they don’t try to understand it and they don’t care about it, and for those who do, well, unfortunately, they prefer to program rather than go on trial against all the corporations.
Here’s a real life example, here is a ‘hack’ that I’ve done a couple of days ago :
This is indeed a ‘hack’, I used two tools that weren’t made to be used together in order to work around a problem that I had at that time. There’s nothing wrong with it! Both the whisk and the drill are mine, they are my property and I should be able to do what I want with them. However, if a similar situation was happening in the computer world, then I’d already be getting a lawsuit, because for some reason I don’t own the drill, I only paid to be “authorized to use it the way they allow it”. They would call me a “pirate” because I’m “killing the industry”, because by doing that hack, Black&Decker are losing money. They would be right, because since I did that hack, I didn’t have to spend another 100$ to buy an electric mixer. The funny thing is that I’d probably lose in court because there are no real laws to protect me as a consumer into using my tools any way I want, at least not in the programming world.
I read this last paragraph again and I’m thinking “I’m a lunatic” and I perfectly understand if you’re thinking the same thing. At least now we have something in common, we both think that the current situation in the programming world is completely crazy, and I’m glad you are able to see it.
5 – My angry rant
Yes, I’m angry! I am angry because I see the world evolving at an alarming rate but the laws (and people’s common sense) isn’t. I will dedicate this paragraph to rant about all the things that I recently saw and that got me angry. If you don’t want to see some angry dude raging, then skip it 🙂
First of all, there are many people who are associating us, the jailbreakers, the programmers, the hackers, with what recently happened to the PSN data leak. Because they couldn’t play their games online for a few weeks, they decide to throw their anger at us, put us all in the same boat, and label us criminals. Every time we speak, I see comments saying “ah, these criminals are now trying to justify their crime”. But.. what crime? What crime did we do that you should label us criminals? Don’t throw words like that without understanding their meaning! Or at least, use your common sense before thinking that anything deemed ‘illegal’ is a ‘crime’! Do you know that in France, a woman must wear a dress, and that, by law, she’s a criminal if she wears pants/jeans? It’s an old law when only men wore pants and a women who did was considered a ‘transvestite’… this is a stupid example, but I’m using it to show you that common sense should overcome stupid laws.
If you think we’re criminals for jailbreaking the PS3, then how is it a crime to want to use your backyard-grown tomatoes to cook your meals? If it’s because of the PSN hack, then here’s another analogy for you: when you go to a restaurant and someone orders food, eats it and runs without paying the bill, how would you feel if the restaurant’s owner puts all the blame on you, you, who were sitting all the way to the other side of the restaurant, who didn’t even see or notice the thief, but you had the audacity of adding a bit of ketchup to your burger. As you know.. you “modified the vision of the chef” and that is a huge criminal offense and you should rot in jail you filthy criminal. No need to answer me, but just think about it.. how would you feel? (and yes, I believe that this analogy is very representative of the situation).
Now here’s another thing that makes us criminals: reverse engineering. We are ‘criminals’ because we reverse engineer products? Back to the recipe analogy: the next time you taste a meal and say or even think “humm, I think they put garlic in it”, then consider yourself a criminal and you should rot in jail.
If one million PS3 users (I’m being generous) told Sony that they don’t agree with them, that would still only be 1% or 2% of their user base, so they keep doing what they’re doing because 1 million people is an “insignificant number”. What happened last year when Sony removed OtherOS support from the PS3 is the equivalent of Frigidaire selling you a fridge then a couple of months later, tell you that “On the 1st of april, your freezer will stop working, we suggest you remove any food from the freezer and stop using it. You have a choice though, if you don’t want your freezer to automatically stop working, then empty the top 2 shelves of your fridge because those sections in the fridge will be at room temperature now. If you ever put something back into the top shelves of your fridge, then the freezer will be disabled permanently”… sure we have a choice, thank you for your generosity!!! The worst thing, the most heartbreaking thing is that going to Frigidaire’s website to complain about their unlawful practice, you find those thousands of people cheering and saying “who cares? it’s A FRIDGE, it’s not a freezer!! who uses the freezer anyway? just buy a dedicated freezer instead!” or “I wasn’t using the freezer, after all it does say “refrigirator” on the machine, so that freezer was a BONUS, be happy you got to use it for free all this time”, etc.. Let me ask you a question… if you accept that Sony removes OtherOS from your PS3, then you will have absolutely no problem in Frigidaire disabling your freezer right? even if you don’t use it, I might but who cares right? you’re not egotistical after all, if you don’t use it then no one in the world is? And again “DEATH TO THOSE DAMN HACKERS”.. how dare they put a cheesecake in the fridge when Frigidaire specifically said “no pastries”!! After all, they clearly wrote it in page 258 of their user manual!!!! After all, it’s Frigidaire’s fridge (no you didn’t buy it, you only ‘rented’ it for 2000$, it’s clearly written on page 531 of the manual!) and they have all the rights to it, they have all the rights to defend their interests… I mean, they never made any sort of deal with the bakeries!!! You know what this “deal” means? it means that the bakeries had to accept paying Frigidaire to allow their pastries in the freezer, so every time you buy something from them, you are paying 50% to the bakery and 50% to Frigidaire, and this allows you to put your cheesecake in the fridge and you’ve always been wondering why the prices doubled recently..
Anyways, you get the idea… but what pisses me off the most is how all these people think that their mission on earth is to defend Sony… like they say where I come from “is it your father’s company?”… seriously, why do you feel the need to go all over the internet, in every forum that you find and yell hate messages against ‘us’? why do you feel like you need to repeat Sony’s propaganda everywhere and why do you hope that we die and/or spend our life in jail? What do YOU gain from that? Why do you think that this multi-billion dollar company needs you to defend it? It’s like walking in the street at night and seeing a mob of 10+ huge guys beating an innocent child in an alley and you’re rooting for the mob… where is your common sense?
6 – Conclusion
I wrote this post because I wanted to make people understand our world a bit better. I know that some people might disagree with some of the things I said, but remember, this is not meant to be an exhaustive explanation of how computers work but rather simply a glimpse into it, in terms that non-initiated people can, hopefully, understand.
I hope that I have achieved my goal: make a few people understand us and most importantly, make a few more people think about these issues. I know that I will continue to see misinformed posts everywhere, and nothing can change that, but to those who are willing to listen to others and accept differing views, then I’m glad I could help you with that (if I did). If you have questions or want to start a debate on something I said, feel free to comment.
And for your information, I am not saying that closed source is evil, I believe in freedom, and if you want to keep your code closed, then you are free to do so. I also do understand the need for closed source sometimes, in order to stay competitive for example, but I think that if everything was open source, then competition would become different. I simply believe that the world would be a better place if everything was always shared. Knowledge is for everyone, and I just can’t imagine where the world would be today if people shared all their ideas/code/recipes/etc.. with each other. It would certainly be a wonderful world. I find it truly pathetic to know that every company is recreating the same thing that others did before them.
Finally, I’d like to point people to the EFF, the Electronic Frontier Foundation. It’s a group that protects us and defends our digital rights every day. Right now, we are still under the mercy of the giant greedy corporations, but thanks to the EFF’s efforts, I hope that some day soon, we will be free to code the way we want, just like we are free to cook the way we want.
Thank you for reading!
Update: After reading a few comments about this post, I thought I should clarify a few things.
First of all, this post isn’t about Sony or the PS3, which is why my title and fourth paragraph says “Greedy corporations”. While I do address the PS3 subject in my rant, it is only because it’s a subject that is dear to me and for which I have a lot to say. But what I outline is and should be considered generic and the main purpose remains to “open a window into our world” for those who are not computer savvy and who may not understand the issues at hand. I want people to understand that, from our point of view, the world is a crazy place, and you can draw parallels with many things, not just with the recent issues with Sony.
Also, like I’ve found myself saying a few times in the comments, there’s a saying that should govern us all : “One’s freedom stops where someone else’s freedom starts”. I believe that you are free to do whatever you want. As a consumer, you should be free to use your legally bought devices any way you wish (as long as you don’t infringe on other’s freedom, whether it is other’s freedom to gain money from their work or freedom of a fellow customer to enjoy their product (online cheating as an example)), but also, as a product manufacturer or a company, you are free to put the restrictions you want and you are entitled to use anything you feel is needed to protect your investment, but again, as long as it doesn’t infringe on other’s freedom.
I’ve had a few comments about DRM, but I never said that DRM is bad and this post isn’t at all about DRM. I have personally no issues with DRM as long as it’s reasonable but when you think that your own needs are more important than the needs of others, that’s where I see a problem. If I ever got an idea for something that could potentially make me rich, I would pursue it and I probably would try to protect my investment and intellectual property as much as I can, but there is a moral barrier that remains and I will never allow myself to be controlled by greed in such a way that I would sacrifice other’s freedom to further my goals.
In the same way, you are free to do whatever you want with your work, I have absolutely no problem with closed source applications, I simply prefer open source and I believe that the world would be a much better place and our civilization would be much more advanced if everything was open source.
One example of the above is the fact that advertisement exist as a sort of ‘payment’ for things you watch. When I watch a movie on public TV, I see ads and that’s what’s paying for the movies I’m watching “for free”, but then, why is it that when I buy a DVD, I am forced to watch ads before accessing its content? Didn’t I already pay for the DVD so why are you forcing me to watch ads? And even if you put ads in there, and it’s ok, then why can’t I skip them? If I watched the movie 10 times, do I still need to see the same ads? And why would I be forced to watch a trailer for a movie that I might have already bought (or which I already saw and hated)? Why is it that if a friend comes over and I want to show him a 30 second scene from a movie, do I need to wait 10 minutes until all your trailers finish just to show him that? This “you cannot skip the trailers in a DVD” is something unrelated to DRM but is still something caused by companies’ greed (get more money from each sale) which is infringing on my freedom of using the DVD I legally bought the way I want (in this case, watch it without having to suffer through all those trailers).
Finally, this post contains information, it contains knowledge, and my belief is that knowledge should be free and available to all. I am not trying to generate any page views (my poor server would hate me) and I don’t have any ads on my blog, so if anyone wants to publish this whole article somewhere else, where others could benefit from its content, then you are permitted and encouraged to do so. I’d be quite happy to see this published in its entirety on sites such as Arstechnica, Kotaku, Joystiq, the New York Times, or whatever other media that would reach more people than this humble blog.
Don’t forget, share, and everyone benefits from it 🙂
Thank you (and congratulations :p) for reading!