Is Open-Source Dogma The Most Important Aspect Of The $100 Laptop?

from the this-machine-runs-solely-on-buzzwords dept

Stories about the $100 laptop for the world’s poor pop up time and time again, and this time, the Wall Street Journal weighs in with an overview that rehashes many of the same points that have been made time and time again: the design and manufacture of the machines still isn’t settled, and the cost — even at $100 — could still be a stumbling block for many nations. The article does have one interesting tidbit, though. Steve Jobs offered the MIT project working on the computers free use of Apple’s OS X, but had his offer rebuffed because the people behind the initiative wanted to use an open-source operating system that they could “tinker with”. As others are pointing out, rejecting Apple’s offer to use its well-designed, well-supported OS for free sounds like putting the extreme application of open-source dogma ahead of practicality. This isn’t to decry the value of Linux and other open-source projects at all, but while a customized OS might do exactly what the project’s backers want, the insistence on having an open-source OS they’ve “tinkered” with to fit their project promises to create a walled garden on these computers that leaves them capable of running only those applications and performing those tasks which the project has approved. Using a popular, widely available OS would give these computers, and the people using them, the flexibility to install all kinds of applications, extending the computers’ utility. What’s the real goal here, to empower poor people by giving them as useful a machine as possible, or to make some sort of “statement” about open-source software? Update: To clarify, the value of open-source software is clear, as is the wide availability of applications for Linux. But the rejection of Steve Jobs’ offer deserves a better explanation than was reported in the original article. There are plenty of good, legitimate reasons to use a customized version of Linux for the project, as noted in the comments.


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Comments on “Is Open-Source Dogma The Most Important Aspect Of The $100 Laptop?”

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24 Comments
Tim Howland (user link) says:

How easy is it going to be to get Apple's code to

Apple’s OSX is extremely well-tuned for a locked-down, predictable environment. They are only now moving to an intel architecture- who knows what bugs are lurking there?

So, as a project manager, I have two choices:

1) Try to get OSX running and talking to the random cheap old hardware that I can source (old school winmodems, etc) and hope that the bugs have been worked out of the whole i386 port

2) Use Linux or *BSD, where the old hardware I need to run against has probably been supported for years, and if it hasn’t I can probably tweak something that’s already out there, because I have the source code.

From my point of view, this is a no-brainer engineering decision, not open source zealotry.

Michael "TheZorch" Haney (profile) says:

OpenSource Not Practical?

“sounds like putting the extreme application of open-source dogma ahead of practicality”

I smell more Anti-OSS propoganda here. Anyone who hasn’t tried Open Office 2.0, GIMP 2.0, FireFox, Tbunderbird, or the latest version of Linux has no right to say OSS isn’t practical. It is practical and in many cases better than proprietary software.

This is just another clandestine “Microsoft” backed attempt to discredit the Open Source Community.

You might say, “but the article mentions nothing about Windows XP”. You says that Steve Jobs offered to let them use Mac OS X for free. It still doesn’t really matter. We Technies aren’t stupid, we won’t fooled by this filth. We are very aware of how ruthless MS is toward competition. Look at what they are doing in response to Google’s services and what happened in Massechusettes over ODF.

Yes, I’m Anti-Microsoft and Anti-DRM and I’m proud of it. I only use Windows XP because some of the software I use is only available on that platform. And, if Final Fantasy XI or Doom 3 were available on Linux I’d be running it full time. As a pennance I use FireFox to browse the web instead of IE and I use Thunderbird for email. I don’t even own a copy of MS Office, I just use Open Office instead. I’m using FireFox now to post this reply. About 50% of the software I use on my PC everyday is Open Source, and 99% of the problems I run into are caused by Windows itself and proprietary software.

So, the Dogma of Open Source Software is this…It Works!

giafly says:

What's the real goal here,

…to empower poor people by giving them as useful a machine as possible, or to make some sort of “statement” about open-source software?

Both of the above. I doubt the Apple software was really free (as in speech). Poor people should be free to build businesses and become rich, not held back by copyrights and DRM.

Kevin Trumbull says:

Re: What's the real goal here,

I doubt the Apple software was really free (as in speech).

This is the dogma the article was referring to. Everything isn’t going to be free. Simply put, it’s not wrong to make money from what you produce if you are a programmer. I have a wife and two cars and a mortgage. You’re smoking crack if you think that I’d OSS an end-user app if it was my livelyhood. I have code under the GPL, but I’m a network tech, I don’t support myself on my code.
If everything MUST be free, how are you supposed to become rich? Or should corporate america/europe bankroll all programmers allowing them to produce programs that are useful. I bet programs would be seriously slanted away from the home user in that case.
While I’m an advocate of OSS, I also realize that closed software has it’s merits.
Example: have you heard about all of those incredible OSS first person shooters? Oh, yeah, right… While some great FPSes are available on Linux, they either started or remain closed. Likewise, if GIMP was as easy to be productive with as Photoshop, it have far broader adoption rates. (tho tastes vary).

Nathan says:

There are some practical reasons to not us OSX too

Is the hardware in these $100 laptops good enough to run OSX? I think that they are more likly to get a good user experience with a custom solution.

As to the walled garden thing as long as they have a browser that is not nearly the issue it use to be.

TheZorch: there is no mention of Microsoft in the article, None. It seems to be that comments like yours are what turn people away from oss solutions. Your inablity to see any middle ground, is of no use to people that actually have work todo. OSS is not the solution to everything (possibly for many thing, but at this stage not everything.)

Michael "TheZorch" Haney (profile) says:

Re: There are some practical reasons to not us OSX

Gomen-neesai, Nathan-san.

That’s the polite way to say “I’m sorry, Nathan” in Japanese. I’m just beginner in the language, very very complex, and I thought ANSI-C was hard!

Anyway, that article caught me on a bad day and it was just enough to make me boil over. I’m very mean when I’m ticked off, and like my favorite Manga characters I suffer from “foot in mouth” disease when I’m angry.

Anyway, I think an Open Source solution to the $100 laptops is a good move. Its a controlled hardware platform so a standardized OS can be fashioned to run on it the same as Mac OS X is designed to run on standard Mac hardware. Choosing Linux was a superb move because they can tinker with the source code to get exactly what they want and provide the best software and services to those who will be using it.

Others here have said the same thing. I’m just restating it.

I didn’t know Doom 3 was out for Linux. My Linux Box though is an older system and probably couldn’t run it. I need another hard drive to set up a Linux partition on this faster system to use it with my nVidia card. If most of the software I wanted to use was on Linux also I’d have moved to that platform a long time ago.

Steve says:

walled gardens

“Using a popular, widely available OS would give these computers, and the people using them, the flexibility to install all kinds of applications, extending the computers’ utility.”
Replace “popular” with “extremly flexible” and then you have Linux or BSD.
How is Linux/BSD a walled garden and Mac OS X isn’t? The only difference is that with an open source platform, you have to potential to not just give them computing resources, but the tools to build everything that is actually running on their computer as well.

Dave Thompson says:

Re: walled gardens

“Using a popular, widely available OS would give these computers, and the people using them, the flexibility to install all kinds of applications, extending the computers’ utility.”
Replace “popular” with “extremly flexible” and then you have Linux or BSD.

Replace “flexibility” with “mind-numbing and annoying requirement to micro-manage every aspect of the operating system when the whole point was to give them access to a useful tool” and you also have Linux or BSD.

Maybe you should ask yourself why Linux is so unpopular/unuseable on the desktop instead of throwing “flexibiity” up there as if it was inherently a good thing in the context of this project.

Who exactly is going to be providing tech support when these users take the “flexibility” offered by Linux/BSD and use it to screw up the config of the system? Yes, they could learn to do it themselves. Then they would have spent time making themselves the village Linux expert instead of spending it usefully employing these systems to make their lives better (and I am sure that there is so much demand for such experts in their villages that they will be able to take this time investment and turn it into a marketable skill…) Now multiply this by the millions of PCs the article discusses and consider how valuable this “flexibility” will be…

How is Linux/BSD a walled garden and Mac OS X isn’t?

Linux and BSD wall you in to a very small set of tools that a real user in a third-world country will want or need. These are not people who need to screw around with virtual memory management techniques, they need to get onto the net. The tool which allows that to happen in the easiest manner possible is the goal. On a Mac I have access to four browsers that would be useful to these users (and by useful I mean that they have multi-language support and a wide selection of available languages so the localization cost is both known and has been addressed in the past), how many does Linux offer you?

The simple truth is that OS X offers these users everything that Linux offers them in application space, and a whole lot more. It may be a different story when you get to the kernel/driver level, but you are incorrect in stating that it is a significant issue for these users.

The only difference is that with an open source platform, you have to potential to not just give them computing resources, but the tools to build everything that is actually running on their computer as well.

And you also force them to deal with these tools. Linux is not ready for the desktop in tech-savvy places like the US and Europe. And now you want to force the third-world into that particular hellhole? Do you just not like these people? Will everyone be sacrificed on your OSS altar to fulfill the requirements of the jihaad?

You may see value in providing the capability to build and modify everything on the computer as a good value. I seriously doubt that the target market for these devices shares your definition of “good.” Especially when this particular definition of “good” has useability consequences.

The upside to all of this is that with OS X moving to the intel platform there is nothing that this MIT group could do to stop Apple if they decided they wanted to do this as well (and do it much better than this particular group of bozos.) Even better, let Apple offer a dual-boot option and see how few people select the Linux option…

Anonymous Coward (user link) says:

Re: Re: walled gardens

Keep in mind that a lot of “techies” back Linux purely for the stigma that surrounds it. Instantly people think… oh my god, he’s not backing Linux he must be a corrupted MS user [though the Linux people are generally the corrupted people]. MS personally is the best OS out there but I’d be happy to use anything else that supported all the programs I use as efficiently as MS does.
Lets see, OpenOffice, ram hogging ….
GIMP…. worse interface ever, I realise there is GIMPShop but still.
Firefox is one of the better offerings but its still a RAM hog, I use it and personally of all the open-source things it is really one of the ones that should be used..
Linux and its open-source friends have started the technie version of “sheep” in popular culture.

Incognito says:

Re: Re: walled gardens

Replace “flexibility” with “mind-numbing and annoying requirement to micro-manage every aspect
of the operating system when the whole point was to give them access to a useful tool” and you
also have Linux or BSD.

Why would they need to micromanage an os that was specifically customized to their hardware?
Who exactly is going to be providing tech support when these users take the “flexibility”
offered by Linux/BSD and use it to screw up the config of the system?

I don’t see anywhere that Jobs offered free tech support along with his “free” OS. And users can
screw up OSX just as easy as Linux
Linux and BSD wall you in to a very small set of tools that a real user in a third-world country
will want or need. These are not people who need to screw around with virtual memory management techniques, they need to get
onto the net

I have installed a number of Linux distros on commodity hardware and was up and running and surfing the net with no configuring required.
Virtual memory management techniques? LOL where do you come up with this stuff?
On a Mac I have access to four browsers that would be useful to these users (and by useful I mean that they have multi-language support and a
wide selection of available languages so the localization cost is both known and has been addressed in the past), how many does Linux offer you?

Yeah only four and most of those are based on Mozilla or Konquerer. Localization is one of the
strengths Linux so you outta luck there too
The simple truth is that OS X offers these users everything that Linux offers them in
application space, and a whole lot more.

Yeah OSX has some excellent video editing apps but how is that going to be useful on $100 hardware?
It may be a different story when you get to the kernel/driver level, but you are incorrect in
stating that it is a significant issue for these users.

It may not matter to the users in that they will not likely do those things themselves but it sure matters to the developers of the device when they
are trying to wring reasonable performance out of $100 hardware. Linux has also been ported to just about any cpu platform you can
care to name and that may be an important factor when you are designing a $100 computer. If they choose to go to some other cpu is Jobs going
to pick up the tab to port OSX?
You may see value in providing the capability to build and modify everything on the computer as
a good value. I seriously doubt that the target market for these devices shares your
definition of “good.”

While most of us will never need or want to hack our os or compile our own software some people
will. We should be enabling people who desire to do such things the freedom to do that on a platform they can afford. This will turn them from
mere users of technology into creators and I don’t see how that is a bad thing.
Especially when this particular definition of “good” has useability consequences.
Hell I’d like to see the “useablity consequences” of trying to cram OSX ont $100 hardware. Even the Mac mini is only usable for basic tasks without
some upgrading. OSX is great but its strength is as a high end content creation platform on High end hardware.
The upside to all of this is that with OS X moving to the intel platform there is nothing that
this MIT group could do to stop Apple if they decided they wanted to do this as well (and do it much better than this particular group of
bozos.)

Yeah I can see it now “Apple creates $100 iPod for third world” yep thats just what they need,
overhyped hardware and DRM’d content. Oh and nice touch calling MIT scientists “bozos” I see the Jobs reality distortion field is working well
to keep the faithful in line with his grand master plan

Kevin Trumbull says:

Re: walled gardens

How is Linux/BSD a walled garden and Mac OS X isn’t? The only difference is that with an open source platform, you have to potential to not just give them computing resources, but the tools to build everything that is actually running on their computer as well.

What are you talking about? Project Builder/Xcode is included with OSX. It’s a free download as well. It allows you to build damned near anything on OSX, including Applescript apps (for the simple), C++ CLI, C++ GUI, ObjC, compiled Java, Java Applets, etc…

It’s not only a nice IDE, but it compiles using GCC… I’ve been teaching myself C++ using it, and it’s more intuitive than the ones I tried on FreeBSD. And for the CLI stuff I’m writing in ANSI C++, and I can copy my code from it and compile it on Slackware or FreeBSD with GCC from the command line.

Jeremy Paur says:

Steve Jobbs investment

Steve would allow them to use his OS for the same reason he gives it away for a “bargain” in the US education sector. He is investing, his expected outcome is that people will be locked in to his product. They are locked in in two main ways, familiarity and dependency that the relationship will work the way they want…which it never will. Congratulations to the $100 team for staying true to there vision. Let’s help the visionaries hook up with enough support to keep the program on course and not defeated by those who would fall for a simple trick of “free” OS’s.

Andrew says:

A free OS is better than a commercial OS

Something to keep in mind is that Linux has been grown from the ground up as a Free as in Freedom OS, and the applications that are available for it are also free as in freedom. But the thing thats really most important to the people building this laptop is the free part. The increadibly large number of applications available for linux is a huge selling point when you are trying to keep cost of ownership down, and a custom distribution for the hardware has the ability of making the computer rock stable.

I think the people buying and using these laptops are going to get a better product because they are using Linux, rather than OS X where they will be largely locked into the closed source freeware they can download from the internet, and the few linux applications that have been ported to OS x.

Anyways, all who complain about linux being difficult to do (fill in the blank), install ubuntu, it does everything a modern OS should do, with half the hassle of Windows.

-Andrew

Kevin Trumbull says:

Re: A free OS is better than a commercial OS

and the few linux applications that have been ported to OS x.

From http://fink.sourceforge.net/
The Fink project wants to bring the full world of Unix Open Source software to Darwin and Mac OS X. We modify Unix software so that it compiles and runs on Mac OS X (“port” it) and make it available for download as a coherent distribution. Fink uses Debian tools like dpkg and apt-get to provide powerful binary package management. You can choose whether you want to download precompiled binary packages or build everything from source. Read more…
The database was last updated at 16:03 GMT on Monday, November 14 and currently lists 5679 packages in 23 sections.
Seriously, there are reasons for not using OSX… weight of the current GUI being a major one if nothing else.
But please stop doing the same thing you bitch at M$ for: Spreading FUD.

MrMudMan says:

Hopeful for continued Attitudes

I remain hopeful. Remembering fondly the first book I ever read about the concept of Open Computing. The book’s opening, was based upon the first users “a.k.a.” Hackers, at MIT. They were members of “The Model Railroad Club”, and routinely broke into the locked computer lab next door. They did this to write, Pong type games, and were chastised for writing a word processor. “Computers would never be used for such menial tasks.” I remain hopeful that the spirit of the original TMRC hackers remains towards this task to help the impoverished nations of the world.

Andy says:

Free OS Offer

Yes, Steve Jobs may have offered a “free” OS, but it would have locked users into an “Apple-only” environment.

We’re talking about people who will spend a life’s savings on buying a $100 computer, and will be unable to buy a single piece of software for it. If they are using an Open Source OS, they have a much broader range of selection of free, legitimate software.

I often hear the phrase “When will that be available for the Mac OS?” in the genealogical community, but I never hear “Why can’t we do what they can do on Mac OS?”

Yes, those of us in “first” world countries don’t blink at paying $5 per month for subscriptions, but what if every piece of software was suddenly 1000 times it’s current value to us? You’d think twice about installing an OS that locked you into a $5,000 per month subscription, let alone a $990 song download.

I praise the MIT people for not thinking in “first” world ideaology.

Kevin Trumbull says:

Re: Free OS Offer

I often hear the phrase “When will that be available for the Mac OS?” in the genealogical community, but I never hear “Why can’t we do what they can do on Mac OS?”

It’s called Reunion, it doesn’t run on Windows, and I keep hearing “When will this be available on Windows?” BTW my cousin ended up buying an old iMac to run that program. It’s the only thing he uses it for afaik.

Furthermore, I hear that all the time…
You can simply save any document as a PDF?
You can just drag text to the desktop?
OMG what’s that with the window selection (Expose).
On the fly spell checking in damned near every app (including in text submission boxes on the web using safari)?
…How do I do that on Windows?

Most of the time people claim that there’s nothing available is because of ignorance. I could likewise claim that Linux is crappy for video editing because Premiere doesn’t run on it, all the while not doing any looking for what the platform does offer. In Linux’s case it’s Film Gimp and it kicks ass.

I’m not suggesting that OSX is the best fit for every case, (my servers run Slackware and FreeBSD). Nor am I suggesting that Linux or Windows is the best or worst in every case scenario. They have strengths and weaknesses, and usages appropriate to differing situations.

Kevin Trumbull says:

What OSX was designed for:

It was designed to be the most platform independant OS you could imagine. You will be able to run the same application on both x86 and PPC machines natively. This is not new to the OS, NeXTstep applications could run on 4 architectures sans recompile. One app, and you double click on it regardless of which CPU (supported). Multi-architecture apps are one of the major features of the core OS. Linux supports more, OSX supports it easier.

OSX is probably the most multi-language friendly OSes I have ever seen. Cocoa apps save the text the end-user deals with (Menus, Dialogs, Tooltips) in a separate folder in the .app folder. For english it’s called “en.lproj” or “English.lproj”. You can add language translations to closed source applications by simply translating they values in the .xml files and putting those files into a folder with the appropriate name. I could add French localization to “Sketch Up” (closed source) using this method. Actually I could show my mom how to do this, and she’s not a programmer. Unlike windows or Linux there is no Japanese version of OSX, every version of OSX is Japanese (or English, or a couple of dozen others) native. different users can have different laguage settings, and OSX will mostly switch languages on the fly. Apps like M$ Word and Photoshop are carbon apps and cannot be changed this way. But they will be because it’s a requirement for “Universal Binaries”. For the record I don’t know what Carbon apps have what localizations.

OSX runs a great deal of OSS, this is why I use it as my main desktop. Bash scripting under OSX is bash scripting… Lots of CLI stuff will simply compile without issue. There are things that don’t work, this is true of any platform. Most of the source code of the core OS is available for free download. KDE is in the process of being ported (KDE included apps already mostly run under Aqua).

Given all of that, I’d still probably agree with the $100 laptop people using Linux, but not for BS reasons.

What’s completely crappy is that a company does something decent (perhaps with ulterior motives, but decent none the less), and you morons trash on them. WTF should any company donate anything to anyone with that attitude. Damn, if I was IBM or Apple and the community that I’l offered stuff to did nothing but bitch, I’m not sure I’d continue.

Note: I use Win2k, XP Pro, OSX, Slackware Linux, and FreeBSD on a nearly daily basis. I’d guess that I’m pretty qualified as to what does what.

Incognito says:

Re: What OSX was designed for:

I’m not trashing Apple for offering their fine OS for free. I just don’t think it’s a fit for this application as you seem to agree. What I am trashing is disgruntled mac fans who want to label this decision as biased or political. If anyone thinks that OSX crammed onto minimal hardware like this is still going to resemble the OSX they know they are kidding themselves. Even if the devs at MIT are taking a stand for free software so what? If the OSS software being considered does the job as well (or better in this situation imho) as the closed source one and you are talking about creating an important standard platform, why not choose the one that you KNOW will be open and free to you in perpetuity. What BS reasons are you referring to?

Kevin Trumbull says:

Re: Re: What OSX was designed for:

Even if the devs at MIT are taking a stand for free software so what?

The point of the article seemed to be to question whether the decision was based more on politics (closed vs. open) than technical merits (including that of source code availability). Whether licensing was a litmus test or not is mildly interesting to speculate on. As to whether the (using or contributing) OSS community in general is rabidly against using closed source software (or only partially closed in this case) to the detriment of the projects they work on, is a very interesting topic of discussion…

What BS reasons are you referring to?

“OSX cannot be altered to fit hardware needs by end users.” Nearly all of OSX that deals with hardware is open (I know this because I’ve legally downloaded and read the code). While I’m not good enough to do it, drivers for most any PCI card can be written for OSX, excepting those that need firmware support (boot support for IDE/SCSI, Video). If you were feeling particularly in need of a challenge you could probably port the OS to an IBM Power 4 based machine (although the VMX code wouldn’t run) or other binary compatible machine. Once OSX x86 is out…
Fact: Certain portions of the OS that need to be changed in order to fit the project may not be open. (Like changes to make the GUI lighter/more responsive.) As far as the *nix department is concerned, Linux and OSX are damned similar, but Linux is already heavily optimized for x86, and porting it would be far more trivial than with OSX. Likewise Linux already has setups that are far more suited to low CPU power systems.

“No Software” This is a complete load of crap. There are specific packages/apps that don’t run, but I use much of the same stuff on OSX as Linux (Apache, Wget, Ncftp, Rsync, VLC, etc). The more deficient of the two in native software support has been Linux in my usage (Adobe stuff, Office, iLife, Keynote, etc) There are categories of software that are deficient, but that’s the exception not the rule. My interpretation of “no software” is “does not run anywhere near as many games as the WinTendo” or “I don’t see a large selection in Best Buy”. After asking around, 95% of the time that’s the case. This also applies to Linux. As for WINE, there’s no reason that it cannot be easily ported to OSX x86 and work as well, but then you’re back to closed source apps. As far as OSX vs. Linux in the user friendly software department, I know where my bet would lie.
Fact: Both OSes are capable of running more software than I’ll ever use. Linux excels in having lower CPU requirements on Apps. Further the apps themselves can be altered to have power monitoring/saving features built into them.

“No Free Dev Tools” http://developer.apple.com/tools/xcode/index.html
’nuff said…
Fact: OSX has a very nice free Developer environment. Linux supports more languages, more frameworks, and more IDEs. Not sure whether there’s and IDE as polished as Xcode for Linux, I certainly haven’t found one.

“Hard to port” ummm, no… It was designed to be portable.
Fact: NeXTStep ran on 4 architectures. Linux runs on almost everything. NeXTstep was seamless across architectures, Linux requires a recompile.

“Designed for PPC” The version of NeXTstep that Apple called Rhapsody was ported from the x86 architecture.
Fact: NeXTstep/OSX wasn’t designed for any single platform, but seamless portability. Linux generally tends to be more hardware locked. I.E. Every kernel on every Linux server I run has compiled in support for only what’s in the box or in use. (another BS thing is that mom will recompile the kernel or know what parts are in the box) This is related to the whole microkernel vs. monolithic kernel arguement. Small kernels with compiled in hardware support has worked better in restricted low power environments in my experience. This is because with conformity and control of the hardware, there is less to worry about in development. Further it reduces the overhead required for flexibility. Just my opinion…

——-
Basically speaking:
Questions:
It’d be interesting to know whether OSS is a requirement set in stone to the point where even if (big if), a better (partially/fully) closed source solution from an end user perspective were freely available in perpetuity, it’d be dismissed outright… Furthermore, are they that entrenched in OSS politics?
Likewise it’d be very interesting to know if technical issues were explored/even discussed, what they were, and which seemed better from what perspective for which issue…
While technically I think it would be far simpler and faster to get Linux running on the machines, I wonder what it was that Apple had in mind (fullblown or new implementation)?
Statements:
I’m not trashing on them if they are rabidly OSS only. Most people have at least one strong belief. While I personally believe that the USA should never ever engage in torture, there are people who disagree. I’m interested in point/counterpoint discussions of such, even though I’m not going to change my mind.
I am interested in whether people think that the rabidly “OSS-only” camp is or isn’t damaging to the OSS movement as a whole, and their supporting reasons.
My expectations of such are that people who present reasons for an opinion aren’t simply making things up (FUD) or are simply repeating incorrect things they’ve heard out of ignorance.
There’s a great deal that I don’t know, however with intelligent discussion, my knowledge expands.

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