Part Four: Open Life

Part Four

in which Harry Potter is magically translated into German, ants screw up, Google gets competition, and the tangible meets the intangible.

Open Life

Rob McEwen wasn't the son of a gold miner, but his father often told him stories of the gold fever in the nineteenth century. Perhaps these stories played a part in Rob's 1989 decision to leave his job as an investment advisor and become a majority owner in a gold mine in the Red Lake region of Ontario.

Unfortunately, although Rob's gold mine was suffering, it wasn't from gold fever. Mining costs were high and the price of gold on the world market was low. To make matters worse, the miners went on strike. However, Rob didn't lose faith in his mine. Some 18 million ounces of gold had been mined in the Red Lake area and a mine close to Rob's had produced 10 million ounces. So far, only 3 million ounces had come out of Rob's mine, but he remained convinced that the same lode, or vein, must continue into his mine. They only needed to discover where!

In 1999, Rob attended an IT seminar at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). As it happened, one of the topics was Linux and a new and revolutionary way of making software. Rob got excited. This Open Source thing was just what his gold mine needed!

So in March 2000, Rob went public with a competition called the Goldcorp Challenge. All the data generated over the years of working the mine was published on the competition website, and the task for the entrants was to predict where the company should next drill their mine. The competition was open to everyone and in total the prizes amounted to $575,000.

Rob's idea was unheard of in the mining world. Every gold miner knows never to talk to anyone about their findings - they'd rather take their mining secrets to the grave. To begin with, Rob's own geologists were against his plan. Revealing the mine's data might, for instance, lure buyers into trying to wrest the mine away from Rob and the other owners. For a number of reasons, showing your cards in the mining business wasn't a good idea. Or so people had learned to believe.

Even so, the Goldcorp Challenge proved a success. Naturally, researchers from around the world were interested in this unique opportunity to gain access to the data from a genuine mine. Interested scientists from more than 50 countries visited the site, and files were downloaded more than 1,400 times. Eventually, the competition judges chose a virtual three-dimensional model of the mine created by two Australian companies - Fractal Graphics and Taylor Wall & Associates - as the winner. Using their model the Australians, who had never set foot in Canada, could predict where gold would next be found. Their prize was $105,000.

So what happened to Rob's mine? Did he hit the mother lode of Open Source? So far, Rob's company has mined where indicated by four of the five winning entries, and each one has proved its worth. In 1996, the Red Lake mine produced some 53,000 ounces with a production cost of $360 per ounce. In 2001 - the first post-competition year - they mined 500,000 ounces of gold and as the ore was richer than those they'd previously mined, the production price per ounce of gold was just $59. As the price of gold on the world market was $307 per ounce, the company made a big profit. In contrast, continuing with the old methods and production costs would not have been possible at such a low selling price. Without Rob's Open Source idea and the Goldcorp Challenge, the mine may well have been shut down.1

In this final part of the book I will extend the idea of openness in the world of computers into the world we live in. As Rob's experience demonstrated, openness can be made to work even in the mining of gold. Where else might openness be beneficial? Like the tale of Rob and his golden challenge, many of the stories in this section are from real life. Others are suggestions, parts of the open revolution that have yet to be realized. However, it is important to remember that they are all just examples: the point of Rob's and the other stories is to show that the Open Source way of thinking can be applied anywhere.

Rob's story has nothing to do with Linux or computers, but it does tell us that Open Source need not only be the special privilege of computer programmers. By challenging, through open thinking, the conventions of mean-spirited secrecy we can all be as revolutionary in our own fields as Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds have been as programmers and Rob McEwen as a gold miner. Through open thinking, you can hit gold - literally! We already have open code, but why settle for that when there's so much more on offer? It's only a matter of altering our ways of thinking, of doing various everyday things and of living our everyday life. And that life can be an Open Life.

  1. 1. Rob's story was told by the Web edition of the Fast Company magazine in June 2002: http://www.fastcompany.com/online/59/mcewen.html

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[...] open source software, but to encourage applications of open source outside the world of software. Part four of the book covers such topics from Wikipedia and Project Gutenberg to a mining company releasing [...]

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Something is messed up with character encoding. I viewed this site in utf8 and iso-latin, either way it's still bad. Apart from it - very valuable content here :)

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Thanks for the nice feedback!

Yes, I think the encoding got messed up when I switched hosting provider a couple years ago. I thought I had fixed it, but I see now most of the book is still messed up. Will have to fix it some day.

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