Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Floss, Res Publica, Public Service and Me

I've been spending the last year or so reading, copying and reformatting a series of volumes from the Library of Congress. The latest one is Jonathan Elliot's five volume debates on the Constitution of the United States. Elliot collected not only the best records from the Constitutional Convention, but the Debates of the State Conventions that met to determine whether or not the Constitution would be adopted.

The primary value for me is that it shows that the founding fathers and their contemporaries were a lot like us. The had the same fears, the same desires, and the same foibles as we do now. This turns out to be important because there are some who argue that the Constitution, is no longer relevant because of the changes in technology that have occurred since the Constitution was written. On the other hand the era of the Constitution's writers was a time of great change. All of the basic scientific principles that under gird our modern technology. Chemistry, Physics, Astronomy and the other sciences were in ferment. At the same time the English speaking world had just experienced the Great Awakening, and innovative theologians were looking for ways to meet the needs of an emerging industrial society.

One of the basic principles of our government that was adopted from the examples of Greece and Rome was the concept of Res Publica(1) -- the public thing. What we call a Republic, derives from the concept of public things. The Roman's embraced a definition that included public service, public property (Parks, Baths and other things). In the modern age, the public thing includes all of the records of Congress, the Executive Branch, and the Judiciary. America despite its occasional failings is the best exemplar of the public record. The few exceptions have almost always been associated with material that was prudent, to keep secret for a period of time. Over time, our Federal, State and Local governments have accumulated a tremendous collection of documents, diaries, and other records.

As we have moved into the digital age, the quantity of information has increased and shows no sign of stopping anytime soon. As we have moved from computers like Babbage's Difference engine to the latest Intel(r) or AMD(r) powered computers the problem has gotten even worse. Since I have been working with computers word processing has moved from WordStar(r), WordPerfect(r) to Word(r). The problem becomes one of incompatible technologies. Have you ever wondered why "cop speak" for a recording device is a "wire." It comes from one of the first commercial recording technologies that used metal wire as the recording medium. I can remember reel to reel tape recorders, cassette tape recorders, 8 track recorders, and a host of other systems. Before the high definition disk wars, back in the ancient 80's there were Beta and VHS.

Now imagine for a minute what happens if all of our court, legislative and executive branch records are all generated and maintained in a paperless format that does not allow for a simple conversion to readable material. That brings me to the last item not covered in the lede for this post. Stanford Professor Don Knuth, became concerned with the degradation of quality in typesetting. He was writing what for many is the essential series on computer programming. After the second volume was written, he discovered that the publisher was no longer using a Linotype(r) machine, but had moved to a digital system. He turned his expertise in computer programing to the production of TeX. TeX and it's children LaTeX and LyX have become the standard fixtures in Academic Journal production. One of the great benefits of TeX(2) and it's derivatives is that the actual words can be read with something as simple as WordPad, Notepad or any text file reader. By adding "style" modules everything from perfectly formated term papers to a Hollywood Screenplay can be written and consistently formatted. So based on the typical method of doing business in our society you would expect something this powerful and sophisticated to cost a lot of money. Surprisingly, it is available to anyone with a computer at no cost other than the effort of downloading and installing the files. Not only that but like a '57 Chevy hotrod, you can get under the hood, and see just how things are done, or if you like to tinker, you can make changes to the way things work. That is FLOSS(3).

I'll close with a plug for three web sites that operate in the spirit of res publica:

Christian Classic Ethereal Library
Project Gutenburg

(1) res publica
(2) TeX

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