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October 27, 2002

With Enough Eyeballs: A Manifesto

“With enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.”
— Linus Torvalds

In my previous comments about the Bogdanov hoax, I alluded to this oft-quoted maxim from the world of open-source software, implying that analogous benefits flowed from the use of the eprint archives to disseminate research results in physics.

But is the analogy really correct? What if there really weren’t a mechanism for the thousands of readers of the source code to report back on the bugs that they have found (or to suggest improvements), except perhaps by releasing software packages of their own? Would “Torvald’s Law”, as it is sometimes known, still hold? Would we really still receive full benefit of those thousands of eyeballs?

Or, to put it differently, does hep-th need the analogue of Bugzilla?

Well, Bugzilla is probably not quite the right model, but I do hope that perhaps the weblog might provide such a model. While this idea has occurred to others before, three developments make me sanguine that perhaps now might be the time for it to take off:

  1. The development of quality weblogging software like Movable Type eases the burden by automating most of the content-management.
  2. The Trackback feature of Movable Type provides an automated way to link back to another site which references a given article. Without this feature, it would be hard to discover what others might have said by way of followup on a given topic. Since there is an Open Specification for Trackback, it can be incorporated into other software, perhaps someday including the archives themselves (“Click here to see commentaries on this paper.”).
  3. MathML 2.0. As you can see from previous posts to this weblog, math support in HTML is crude, at best. But MathML is now standardized, and at least one browser (Mozilla) is sufficiently compliant with all the latest standards to implement it.

This last point is, I think, the diciest. If we wish to use this venue for discussing physics, we need a nice way to do math. There are automatic converters, say, from LaTeX to MathML. The difficulty is on the browser end. If we start including snippets like

i = 0 x i

in our posts, they will be inaccessible to those with “lesser” browsers like Internet Explorer. This is not a matter of using “proprietary” features of some particular browser. I validate all these pages to ensure that they are perfectly conformant with the published XHTML standards. Its just that not everyone has (yet) implemented those standards.

Or maybe a little elitism is just what we need anyway. What do y’all think?

Posted by distler at October 27, 2002 2:49 PM

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So, coming from where I sit as a “software engineer”, more eyes don’t necessarily help… some I know mockingly restate “Torvald’s Law” as “With enough eyes, all shallow bugs are shallow.”

Posted by: Bill Sommerfeld on November 1, 2002 5:24 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

I would agree with Bill’s comments, but software development does benefit from a feedback loop from users, especially “expert” users, back to the developers. I imagine creating a similar loop from readers back to authors (and to other readers) would be a very handy thing. Potentially as interesting as the idea of sticking physics article preprints in Postscript form into a Web accessible database. :)

[Another interesting parallel: The process of open source development, especially on large projects that rely on mailing lists, is very transparent and mostly permanent. You can go back and read huge flamewars on design decisions in the Linux kernel and the criticisms offered by all sides. Weblogs as a forum for academic discussion and “critique” would also have the same effect of recording dialogue about ideas for later reference, issues of retroactive modification of entries notwithstanding.]

Posted by: Stan Seibert on November 4, 2002 9:49 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: With Enough Eyeballs: A Manifesto

Actually, that quote is by Eric Raymond, not Linus.

Posted by: andred on March 2, 2003 7:24 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: With Enough Eyeballs: A Manifesto

Actually, Eric S. Raymond, himself, credits Linus with the quote,as in e.g., this 1999 inteview:

One of the core practices used in open-source software is peer review: Because everyone can see the code, everyone can see your work. One obvious benefit of peer review is that mistakes get caught sooner. I call this Linus’s Law, after Linus Torvalds: “With enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” If literally thousands of people are accessing a piece of code, each one eagerly looking for a nasty bug to fix, it’s no surprise that mistakes get caught quickly.

(emphasis mine). I’ve seen it attributed to ESR, and I’ve seen it attributed to Linus. But ESR attributes it to Linus, which is good enough for me.

Posted by: Jacques Distler on March 2, 2003 9:27 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

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