Every sport has its radical fringe

Open source software and barefoot running have more in common than you think...Part 1

I was speaking with Black Duck's Israeli partner the other day about some deals he's working on. It was end of his day and so he was up for socializing. "Tell me, you do this barefoot running, Phil?" He follows me on Twitter, and I assume he picked up on this strange proclivity of mine from my occasional tweets on the subject. So I went on to explain how I started up a couple months ago and what the theory is behind it. "It sounds to me like open source running," he half joked, but I too had noticed the parallels.

Like many departures from the mainstream, both barefoot running and open source software and those associated are viewed as a little "out there." This is compounded, I suppose, by such movements having  (requiring?) gurus with gray beards. The Beatles had the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, open source has its Richard Stallman, and the guru of barefoot running is one Barefoot Ken Bob Saxton. The observation is certainly somewhat tongue in cheek, but I do think it is the case that for a radical idea to catch on requires radical leaders.

Richard Stallman popularized concept of community development of software, conceived of "copyleft" as a way to ensure the propagation of free software, and authored the GPL (GNU General Public License) that codified copyleft. Actually, this so called new movement was a throw back to the early days of software. When Stallman was at Harvard and later the MIT AI lab, sharing and collaborating was just the way it was done. The problem, in the eyes of Stallman and his colleagues in the free software movement, was that big business came along an took away developers' freedoms with licensing and business practices which did not encourage the openness that characterized software before it was an industry.

Barefoot Ken Bob, too, pioneered an old idea, in the case of barefoot running, an ancient one. When asked why he runs barefoot, BKB turns it around to the question of why run with shoes. "We weren't born that way. This is the really way you are designed to run," he said in a 2004 interview before the Boston Marathon (one of dozens he's run barefoot).

As with software, there's at least an undercurrent of anti-big business in barefoot running. Nike, arguably the Microsoft of running, spawned the modern, motion-control running shoe just about the time that Big Bill left Harvard to start Microsoft. Shoes have continuously become more padded and restrictive, and empirical studies suggest that in parallel the incidence of running injuries has gone up. (For the serious student there's tons of information on the web; my modest blog is a good place to start.) I like Microsoft's products for the most part, but one can argue to that some have suffered feature creep beyond the point of being "healthy."

I have many more thoughts on the parallels between these two large thread in my life, but I'll save those for future sequel post. I'll end with the observation that human nature is to scoff at what's new and radical, especially when fueled by big marketing machines which have clearly tried to undermine both of these radical movements. Be bold, use that open source...toss those shoes. So what if people look at you a little funny?


Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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