Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Popular Subscription, LPG and Free Software

In the remarkable book "White Mars" by Brian Aldiss (with Roger Penrose) there is a discussion of a concept called "Popular Subscription". I quote:

"We are conditioned to subscribe to the myths of the age. We hardly question the adage that fine feathers make fine birds, or that young offenders should be shut up in prisons for a number of years until they are confirmed in misery and anger. When witch hunts were the thing, we believed in witches or, if we did not believe, we did not speak out, for fear of making ourselves silly or unpopular."

I was at my local LPG filling station, in Lye, the other morning and was chatting with the guy who does the conversions and another owner of an LPG converted car. We were trying to understand why more people did not convert their cars to LPG, when it will pay for itself in abut 2 years and there after almost halve the fuel costs. For myself, I bought a 20 year old Volvo estate, in really excellent condition, for £900 and then paid £1,500 to convert it to LPG. The car has a good decade's life in it and now costs me about 11p a mile, for a luxury car that will carry a massive load - which I need for my work. We could not understand how people could not see the logic of doing the same. Aldiss' concept explains it pretty well, it is that most people cannot consider alternatives to the common views. Everyone runs their car on petrol, so that must be the thing to do. I explained my work with Free Software, and said I faced the same problem. I explain that Free Software is:
  • Free - as in without cost;
  • Reliable - very well maintained;
  • Cheaper - in that you can often run it on older hardware;
  • Sustainable - if you need a specific piece of software, you can maintain it.
I sometimes wonder if I'm wasting my breath. Yes, I'm managing to make a living out of supporting GNU/Linux and the like, but most people just won't get the idea. Just like most people won't get the idea of LPG conversions for their cars. This is not a conspiracy, it's just a cock-up of society that constructs people who conform in their thoughts - they just find it really hard to listen to new ideas.

This morning I filled up again, and when I wandered in to pay, I was brought to a halt. There was a Toyota Prius in for conversion. I had a long chat about the conversion, which was only the second that they knew of in the UK. Now I'm not certain about the Prius, particularly as the key to being green is not driving, but this was interesting. I reckon that it will cost about 4.5p per mile in fuel. Now that is cheap! Is it cheap enough? We not for me, as I reckon that over the five year term my old Volvo will cost me considerably less (about a third of the total cost of ownership).

Originally published on my consultancy blog.

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