“Oh, if only it were open source…”

on Jun 8, 09 • by Gwyn Fisher • with 1 Comment

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of open source, but why does everything have to be black and white? If it’s closed it must be evil and by association probably not written well, whereas if it’s open, it’s awesome and godly in its unnatural power to cure world hunger? I’m referring, in this ...

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Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of open source, but why does everything have to be black and white? If it’s closed it must be evil and by association probably not written well, whereas if it’s open, it’s awesome and godly in its unnatural power to cure world hunger?

I’m referring, in this particular instance, to the righteous indignation that surfaced as a result of the castigation served up for the manufacturers of that ever-popular device, the breathalyzer. And yes, I’ve been stood at the side of the road looking stupidly at the officer whilst trying to remember just why I thought that 15th shot of Jaeger was such a good idea, but I digress…

The manufacturer of this particular device, the Draeger Alcotest 7110 MKIII-C, had claimed vociferously that their device worked correctly, that their code was a part of their device, therefore proprietary, and not available to opposing council for analysis. Unfortunately for them, the courts disagreed and ordered the code handed over for analysis by Base One Technologies (who appear to be nothing more or less than your typical minority owned GSA hand-out specialists – your taxes at work, people…).

And what did they find? That far from being the highly skilled work of a bunch of Ph.D.’s that might warrant being labeled proprietary and top secret, it was instead a bunch of off-the-shelf engineering that had obviously been through many different iterations of development, through several different iterations of design, and wasn’t, bottom line, particularly smart. Nor was it particularly accurate, of course, which was the real hummer.

But come on, how many of us work on code (proprietary or open) that we can claim hand-on-heart hasn’t strayed from initial design goals?

Lest I now be pilloried for standing up for sub-par, closed (evil! evil!) source code, let me quickly segue onto the meme that is most aggravating me in relation to this story. And let me also quickly say for the record that anybody producing a breathalyzer that isn’t accurate needs stoning and feeding to the wolves, that much goes without saying. Back to the topic at hand…

So, Base One found a whole host of noxious practices and poorly executed designs in this particular code base. Not least, of course, being the afore-mentioned inaccuracies. But it did so in a very dry, engineering-centric sort of way that obviously wasn’t intended to pander to the pitchfork waving bigots, and so the ever helpful popular press took it upon themselves to take the one big number (ooo, shiny!) from the report, take it out of context (but of course), and then to label all closed source as bad by association.

  • 19,400 potential errors in the code!!!

That’s obviously easier to get your editor interested in than a bunch of boring technical detail, like what was actually wrong with the device. 19. Thousand. Errors. Come on people, that’s a big number, amirite? Three out of every five lines of code contains a potential error. Sky. Falling. Must. Grab. Pitchfork!

But let’s read the small print here (or actually, not small at all, in fact it was right in the original report, but again wasn’t exciting enough to repeat): that number comes from an analysis performed using lint. You know, the tool that emits 400 errors for every 200 characters of input? You know you miss the days of 2,400 baud terminals that actually couldn’t keep up with the rate of error emission from this thing and just turned the whole screen into a weird whoosh of green CRT rays, don’t you?

Oh, but if only it was open source, goes the meme, the world (or at least that part of it which finds itself staring stupidly at the officer by the side of the road) would be a much better place. At least, that’s what we’re encouraged to believe.

Anybody tried lint on an open source project of any renown recently? I have (I won’t name them, not because it’d be embarrassing, but because it’s kind of irrelevant). Frankly it’s almost impossible to find a project that doesn’t emit thousands of lint warnings. Let’s face it, if you can write code that doesn’t emit lint warnings, you’re spending time in that happy place I like to call Hello World.

Come on people, wake up. There are very good reasons to hate bad software, whether it’s closed or open. Don’t be a schmuck and jump on the religious bandwagon just because it’s there. Think for yourself. There’s very good reasons why this device was castigated as a piece of junk, and they had nothing whatsoever to do with that big shiny number. If you’re going to report on something technical, do your readers the favor of at least trying to understand what you’re talking about before you go balls out into meme land.

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One Response to “Oh, if only it were open source…”

  1. Great post.
    –Gotta agree with you on the itwire article. I love this quote:

    “Another problem is that the microprocessor’s catastrophic error detection interrupt was disabled meaning that if an illegal instruction was encountered the device will still appear to run correctly even though it was executing arbitrary code.”

    Talk about detail without context! Was it an “NMI” interrupt for a hardware problem, was it a device by zero error, no matter it has to be BAD.

    In the end, good software is tested software be it open source or proprietary.


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