I am just back from COSSFest, a free software event held in Calgary, Canada. You can read about the conference on my Linux Pro Magazine blog at:
Archive for the ‘opensource’ Category
Posted in Bruce Byfield, Calgary, Free Software, opensource, Personal, Uncategorized, tagged Bruce Byfield, Calgary, Free Software, open source, Personal, Uncategorized on April 20, 2009 | 1 Comment »
Posted in Bruce Byfield, computers, Free Software, freesoftware, journalism, open source, opensource, Personal, Uncategorized, writing, tagged Bruce Byfield, computers, Free Software, freesoftware, journalism, open source, opensource, Personal, Uncategorized, writing on June 12, 2008 | 4 Comments »
A correspondent tells me that Boycott Novell’s Free Software Credibility List gave me a rating of three on a six point scale (I could link, but I don’t want to give the site any more hits than I have to). Until hearing this news, I didn’t know about the list, because, so far as free software is concerned, I only read news sites and blogs with either technical knowledge or expert commentary. Usually, too, I make a habit of not commenting negatively in public on anyone with a claim – no matter how remote – to being a journalist. At the very least, I generally don’t mention them by name. However, since my informant seemed to think I should be upset, I’m making an exception here.
To be honest, I am more amused than angry about a list whose silliness is exceeded only by the self-importance of its owners. I mean, how does any journalist, no matter how skilled a word-slinger, get the same rating as Stallman, the founder of the free software do? Yet several do. And why are authorities like Eben Moglen off the list?
I also notice that, at least in some cases, the list seems a direct reflection of how closely a journalist’s opinion corresponds with Boycott Novell’s, rather than any criteria that might be mistaken for objectivity. Robin Miller, the senior editor at Linux.com, is apparently denigrated because he took a group tour of the Microsoft campus a couple of years ago (I’m sure the fact that he presided over a podcast in which a Boycott Novell writer performed poorly has nothing to do with his ranking). Other writers seem to rate a 4 or 5 largely because they stick to technical matters and, rarely talking about philosophy or politics, say nothing for Boycott Novell to dissect for suspect opinions.
Strangely, the Boycott Novell cadre didn’t rate their own reliability, although whether that is because they are assumed to be the only ones who rate a perfect six or because the ranking doesn’t include negative numbers, I leave as an exercise to the readers.
From the link attached to my name, my own ranking seems based on the fact that I accepted that a comment signed with a Boycott Novell writer’s name really was by him; when he said it wasn’t, I accepted the claim and he suggested that I was owed “some apologies.” Yet, apparently I’m permanently branded as being only marginally trustworthy because of this minor incident. I suspect, though, that the writer’s belief that I lumped the Boycott Novell writers into the category of conspiracy theorists has more to do with my ranking than anything else.
But these foibles don’t disturb me unduly. Far from being upset, I’m glad of the list, because it gives me a goal. If I write consistently hard-hitting articles in which I dig carefully for facts, build a flawless chain of reasoning, and tell the truth no matter how uncomfortable the consequences, then maybe – just maybe – in a few years Boycott Novell will reward me with the ultimate accolade of a zero ranking some day. Then I’ll know when I have truly arrived.
And that is all that I intend to say on this subject. Ever.
Posted in Bruce Byfield, computers, Free Software, freesoftware, Open Web Vancouver, opensource, Personal, technology, Uncategorized, tagged Bruce Byfield, computer, Free Software, freesoftware, Open Web Vancouver, opensource, Personal, technology, Uncategorized on March 28, 2008 | Leave a Comment »
The Open Web Vancouver conference is being held April 14-15 at the Vancouver Conference Center. It’s a rebranding of last year’s highly successful Vancouver PHP conference. Like its predecessor, this year’s conference is mostly a volunteer effort, and takes advantage of both local and international experts to present a well-rounded program to a small audience.
I chose my topic because I’ve been writing about aspects of this topic in my blog for about a year now, and those entries have been well-received – probably because there’s a real need. A few free and open source software (FOSS) organizations, such as the Linux Foundation and the Software Freedom Law Center, have people and policies in place for dealing with the media, but most do not.
The truth is, typical FOSS developers tend to be suspicious of the media – unsurprisingly, since marketing communications experts tend not only to have an entirely different mindset and to be absolutely clueless about technology. Yet many projects could benefit from more publicity in order to attract new developers or funding, and much of the community would like to know about them.
I’m still developing what I will say, and I have to admit that my teaching skills are rusty. However, my instinct is to forego the usual slide show, and make the talk as interactive with the audience as possible. Topics I’m considering include an explanation of where the free software media stands between traditional media and free software, why cultivating a relationship is worth everybody’s trouble, and how to pitch news and have more of a chance of receiving coverage.
It occurs to me that, with this talk, I’ve come full circle. When I was a technical writer a decade ago, I used to say that my job consisted of explaining the geeks to the suits. Now, I could be said to explaining the suits (or, perhaps more accurately, the shorts and sandals) to the geeks.
Posted in Bruce Byfield, computers, Free Software, freesoftware, gnu/linux, linux, opensource, Personal, Uncategorized, writing, tagged Bruce Byfield, computers, Free Software, freesoftware, gnu/linux, linux, open source, opensource, Personal, Uncategorized, writing on January 7, 2008 | 32 Comments »
To start with, I notice that Brian Profitt’s suggestion that I was lashing out at some negative criticism I received has been seized on by some commenters as a reason to dismiss what I said. However, although that was a shrewd suggestion on Brian’s part, it’s only true to the extent that the entry was inspired by someone asking me what I meant by conspiracy theory. Going into my fourth year as an online journalist, I long ago became immune to the insults and accusations of bias from both sides that often threaten to overwhelm thoughtful responses and legitimate corrections of mistakes. In fact, I maintain a page on my web site where I list choice bits of abuse for visitors’ amusement. I may sometimes respond, but I’m not much interested in flame wars. I have an anarchistic temperament, and, so long as I have my say, I’m perfectly willing to let others have theirs, even if theirs don’t have a lot of love for me.
That’s not to say that I don’t find people’s reactions fascinating – and more than a little intellectually distressing, since I’m an ex-university instructor who once spend his days trying to help people develop their abilities to argue coherently. A surprising number of people leaped to the conclusion that, despite a clear statement to the contrary, I was only talking about attitudes towards Microsoft (perhaps because I recently wrote an equally misread article that suggested that, since the free software was strong enough to defend itself, we could be wary of Microsoft without being paranoid). Even more seem to think that proving that there were reasons to distrust Microsoft in some way validated the attitudes and styles of arguments that I was condemning. Many, too, do not seem to believe that it is possible to mistrust corporation or organization without expressing unrelenting hate for it.
Clearly, what people brought to their reading was as important – and, in some cases, more important – than what I wrote. That’s their right, but, as I’ve often lamented in the past, if someone wants to disagree with me, I wish they would at least disagree with what I actually said, rather than what they imagine I said. At times, people seem to be arguing with their own reflections to such an extent that I feel extraneous to the process.
But I think my favorite response was from a commenter who assumed the responsibility of giving me elementary advice about how to write. I’m always willing to learn, but, considering that last year I sold roughly a quarter million words about free software, now I know the spirit in which Lauren Bacall responded a few years ago on hearing that she had been voted one of the sexiest elderly women in film. “That will certainly pep up my career,” she said (or something to that effect). “I can’t wait to tell my agent.” While not at the top of my profession, I’m not at the bottom, either, so I can’t help but be bemused by unasked advice from an unknown and relatively unproven writer — especially when I personally wouldn’t give writing advice unless specifically asked.
However, the most troubling thought to me in all the reactions is that I’ve apparently lost my anonymity online. This blog is modestly successful, but its readership is generally many times below what an article on Linux.com or Datamation receive. I thought it useful as a sandbox, a place to express my thoughts-in-progress without any fuss. If anything, I expected to get a few responses from friends and acquaintances.
But, as readers of the entry rise into the thousands, I realize that I was naive. Regardless of what merits I do or don’t have as a writer (and nobody could be more critical of my work than me, believe me), apparently some people do notice what I have to say about free software. Some of them may hate it, but they notice. That’s a humbling and frightening thought (and leads me to mutter repeatedly about the blind leaning the blind).
Even more importantly, it means that, unless I start writing under another name, I have to assume a greater responsibility for what I write publicly. No more working out of ideas publicly for me – from now on, I need to make sure that I state my assumptions clearly, and address opposing views in more detail, and not publish on certain subjects until my ideas are fully developed. People are still going to make invalid inferences, no matter what I do, but I feel the responsibility all the same, even while I tell myself that I’m being arrogant in feeling the obligation.
In a week or so, perhaps I’ll revisit the topic. Meanwhile, thanks for everyone who has commented or blogged in response. It’s interesting, and I’ve learned, even though I don’t have the time to respond in detail to everyone.
Posted in Bruce Byfield, computers, Free Geek, Free Software, linux, opensource, Personal, Uncategorized, tagged Bruce Byfield, computers, conspiracy theorists, Freee Software, freesoftware, gnu/linux, linux, opensource, Personal, Uncategorized on January 2, 2008 | 59 Comments »
You remember the scene in Apocalypse Now when Colonel Kurtz mumbles his story? You may remember leaning forward, straining to hear him – only to realize with a cold thrill that what he is saying is insane. Conspiracy theorists are like that. If you’re not careful, you find yourself being slowly drawn into their world, either accepting their ideas or arguing with them. The result is the same, regardless of whether you’re face to face or on IRC or email — either way, you lose.
Recently, I forgot that simple axiom, until I brought myself up with a start. I won’t mention the people in question, because I don’t want to dignify their antics with more attention. But, while the experience is still fresh in my mind, here are some of the signs that should put you on your guard:
- An obsession about a single person, corporation, or issue to the exclusion of everything else: Conspiracy theorists will spend an inordinate amount of time researching and blogging about the object of their obsession. Although Microsoft is a favorite object of free software conspiracy theorists, I’ve also come across people with an obsession against Richard Stallman, the Free Software Foundation, the Open Source Initiative, or even a particular project, such as KDE or GNOME. But, no matter what topics a discussion with them begins with, they will always find a way to bring up their obsession, often straining to do so. At the first hint of news, they will rush to blog about it, filling in gaps with speculation.
- Extreme paranoia directed at the object of the obsession: The object of the obsession is viewed as vastly more powerful than the free software community. It is conceived as moving constantly in the shadows, recruiting dupes, spreading money when it has some and laying long range plans to subvert some or all of the community. Sometimes, these plans may make direct business sense, but, just as often, they are for dubious benefits. Should the object of the obsession deny an accusation, the conspiracy theorists simply regard the denial as a sign of how clever the enemy is.
- An either / or mindset: For conspiracy theorists, no middle ground exists. Unless you are in complete agreement with them, you are in the enemy camp – and probably in the enemy pay. Even an attempt to qualify their argument will mark you as part of the problem. So will suggesting that they work to change or influence the object of the obsession where that is possible. The conspiracy theorist’s identity is bound up with being in opposition to the object of their obsession that anything except whole-hearted hatred is unacceptable to them. Key phrases: “There can be no truce with [insert object of obsession here]” and “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.”
- An inability to summarize other viewpoints with any accuracy: Convinced that they are on the right side, the average conspiracy theorist is either unable or unwilling to report other people’s ideas with any accuracy. Instead, they seem to report what they imagine others are saying, or is convenient to believe that others are saying.
- A refusal to modify opinions, even in light of new evidence: Conspiracy theorists’ beliefs are so important to them that to change them would risk losing identity. So they don’t, ever. When offered new information that might challenge their basic position, they will either try to discredit it or change the subject immediately, perhaps raising a peripherally related point but not addressing the new information.
- The use of decontextualized evidence: Conspiracy theorists see information that supports their central belief, and are prone to miss information that challenges or contradicts it. They will take a phrase out of context – for instance, take a comment on a technical issue to be about a political one — or even ignore basic grammar such as the serial comma in order to find support for their beliefs.
- A refusal to consider alternate explanations: Coincidence, circumstance, and human stupidity do not exist for the conspiracy theorist. For this reason, they make no effort to discount them, not even to strengthen their own arguments. The one explanation that conspiracy theorists accept is malevolence.
- A lack of civility and a quickness to give and take offense: The free software community is not the politest place in the world. However, even by its standard, conspiracy theorists are abusive. They’re quick to hurl insults, or to take insults personally. Their writing leaves an impression of emotion held barely in check, the words rushing out of them as fast as they can manage in their anger.
- A disregard for the rules of evidence: The wise pundit looks for evidence that would hold up in a court of law – that is, establish a point beyond a reasonable doubt. By contrast, conspiracy theorists have no such restraint. For instance, if a company has hired a former Microsoft executive, that is proof that the company is controlled by Microsoft. Never mind that Microsoft is so large that any North American company has a good chance of hiring a former Microsoft executive – the one tenuous connection is enough to establish proof for a conspiracy theorist. Key phrase: “Can it be coincidence that . . . ?” (Sometimes, yes)
- A scattergun approach to evidence: Instead of building up an argument point by point, conspiracy theorists tend to bury you in a random collection of related facts. They can take this approach, because their obsession causes them to have hundred of points ready at any given point. But instead of the rational building of an argument, the result is not logical persuasion, but an impressionistic, often highly emotional view of the situation.
- A lack of self-reflection: Many of the sort of people I’m talking about know that “conspiracy theory” can be negative term, and are insulted if you apply it to them. However they don’t have the least idea of why it is appropriately applied to them. Accuse them of paranoia, and they will explain that they are only be sensible, and everyone else is living in a fool’s paradise. Suggest they have a cavalier attitude to evidence, and they’ll say much the same same. Don’t expect a sense of humor, either – that’s usually lost with the self-reflection. If they call you a “Microsoft shill” and you ask, “Where can I send an invoice?” they’ll assume you’ve just revealed your true allegiance, not that you’re making a joke.
This isn’t a pop quiz of the “Should you quit your job?” or “Which Tolkien character are you like?” variety, and still less a guideline to psychiatric assessment, so I can’t tell you exactly how many of these behaviors are needed to diagnosis someone as a conspiracy theorist. In fact, I’m tempted simply to say that, when you meet one, you’ll know. Still, the more of these traits you see, the greater the likelihood that you’re dealing with a conspiracy theorist. If you see more than half, then the likelihood becomes a near-certainty.
And then what should you do? The problem is nicely summarized by two verses of Proverbs 26. The first is: “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him.” The second is: “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit”. In other words, you don’t want to be dragged down to a conspiracy theorist’s own level, but you don’t want them to continue unchallenged and perhaps convince others who aren’t paying enough attention to realize the kind of person they are facing.
Answering is always tempting, but you have to put a limit on your answers. Whenever I receive comments on an article I’ve published, with few exceptions I restrict myself to two exchanges, regardless of whether I’m dealing with a conspiracy theorist or not. That way, I show politeness and respect to someone who has taken the trouble to contact me, but I don’t use up all my spare time in answering people. If your time is valuable, you might want to do the same.
However, you should also bear in mind that you can’t win. Try to refute a conspiracy theorist, and you simply prove to them that you’re the enemy. In the end, the best thing you can do for yourself – to say nothing of free software – is to stop responding to the conspiracy theorist as soon as you realize the type of person you’re dealing with. The time you spend dealing with a conspiracy theorist will be put to much better use writing code, persuading a friend to try free software or dealing with the real threats to the community instead of the imaginary ones.
Posted in Bruce Byfield, Free Geek, Free Software, imperial realms, journalism, new years, opensource, Personal, Robinson Crusoe, T. H. White, Uncategorized, writing, year end, tagged Bruce Byfield, Free Software, new years, opensource, Personal, Uncategorized, writing, year end on December 31, 2007 | 1 Comment »
I now began to consider seriously my condition, and the circumstances I was reduced to; and I drew up the state of my affairs in writing, not so much to leave them to any that were to come after me – for I was likely to have but few heirs – as to deliver my thoughts from daily poring over them, and afflicting my mind; and as my reason began now to master my despondency, I began to comfort myself as well as I could, and to set the good against the evil, that I might have something to distinguish my case from worse; and I stated very impartially, like debtor and creditor, the comforts I enjoyed against the miseries I suffered.
- Daniel Defoe, “Robinson Crusoe”
The year end lists in newspapers and blogs always leave me bemused. The ones that list top stories for the previous year always leave me feeling that I’m either living in an alternate universe or that I’ve missed everything important while preoccupied with the business of living. As for the ones that predict the coming year, they seem purest fantasy – my own included. Still, like Robinson Crusoe, I find it useful to look to my karmic accounts now and then. So, as the last hours of the year wind down, and I wait to leave for tonight’s party, here’s my accounts for the last year:
On the negative side, my mother-in-law and her sister died within a few days of each other last spring. Neither death was unexpected, since they were both in their nineties, but when you’ve known people for decades, they leave a large gap. I also lost a friendship, apparently irretreivably, although I don’t quite know why and I’m irked at my ignorance of the causes. And, most important of all, my partner’s illness continues to be chronic, with me helpless to do anything about it.
On the positive side of the ledger, I made a few new friends for the first time in a year or two, and have become marginally involved in Free Geek Vancouver, one of the worthier causes I’ve encountered recently. I’m a firm believer that volunteer work is as good for my psychological health as any advice I’m able to give might be to the recipients.
However, the largest addition to the positive side is my development as a writer. Although I dropped my efforts at fiction about May, 2007 has been by far the best year I’ve ever had for writing.
Just in terms of volume, I wrote about 245,000 words of articles on free software, or about 185 articles. I also wrote about 45,000 words for the Imperial Realms online game divided into 17 articles and about 55,000 words spread over 135 posts. That’s a total of roughly 345,000 public words alone.
By other measures, my writing year was also successful. During the year, I found new sources for my work, and I now make as much money freelancing as I ever did as a communicatins consultant (good thing, too: I’m getting too old to learn how to knot a tie again). I was interviewed four or five times over the year, either as a writer or as a subject matter expert. I also returned to an academic project that I started years ago and abandoned. And, just as I was typing this paragraph, I received an email from a friend telling me that an article of mine had been Slashdotted, making the perfect end to the year. So, in many ways, I think that 2007 marks my first real understanding of myself as a writer.
Looking over the paragraphs above, what strikes me is the imbalance between the personal and the professional. Not that the personal was particularly awful, but it seems thoroughly overshadowed by the professional. If I were superstitious, I’d be tempted to say that there’s only so much karma to go around. Or, from a psychological perspective, perhaps I’ve been practicing the fine old Freudian tradition of sublimation.
And what do I see looking ahead? I can’t even begin to guess. But there’s a scene in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King where Lancelot says that, after an encounter, he got down on his knees and “thanked God for the adventure.” I’m not religious, but I hope that I can must the same combined sense of stoicism and adventure as I face what’s waiting for me in 2008.
Upon the whole, here was an undoubted testimony that there was scarce any condition in the world so miserable but there was something negative or something positive to be thankful for in it; and let this stand as a direction from the experience of the most miserable of all conditions in this world: that we may always find in it something to comfort ourselves from, and to set, in the description of good and evil, on the credit side of the account.
– Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
Posted in Bruce Byfield, computers, Free Software, freesoftware, gnu/linux, Internet, journalism, opensource, Personal, podcast, technology, Uncategorized, tagged , Bruce Byfield, computers, Free Software, freesoftware, gnu/linux, Internet, journalism, open source, Personal, podcast, technology, Uncategorized on December 5, 2007 | 2 Comments »
Today, I had the new experience of helping out with a podcast. Like most people, I hate hearing my voice (it always sounds clumsy and over-precise), and any wishful belief in my own eloquence wilts when I hear all the “ums” with which I punctuate my speech, but I hope I have the chance to take part in another one.
I could hardly be excluded from this one. After all, it was an article I published a few weeks ago, “GNOME Foundation defends OOXML involvement,” that sparked the podcast. Moreover, when Jeff Waugh of the GNOME Foundation first floated the idea, he had me in mind as a neutral third party, and I was the one who pitched the idea to Linux.com, the main buyer of my articles. Admittedly, it was an easy sell, since Robin Miller, the senior editor at Linux.com, is a part time video producer and always looking for ways to extend the print coverage on the site, but I was still the one who got things moving.
After stumbling into the center ring while technical problems occupied Robin and Rod Amis, the producer, and stuttering into the silence, I soon found my tongue. The experience was not much different, I found, from doing an ordinary interview or teaching a university seminar. In all three cases, your purpose is not to express your own opinions, but to encourage others to speak, and to clarify their vague references for the sake of listeners. The fact that there was an audience of about 650 – good numbers, Rod tells me, for a daytime podcast – didn’t really affect me, because I had no direct contact with them.
Jeff Waugh and Roy Schestowitz, the two guests on the podcast, have been having bare-knuckle arguments on various forums, so I was expecting to have to referee the discussion. In fact, the image kept occurring to me of those soccer referees who are sometimes chased off the field by irrate crowds. However, the slugfest I expected never materialized. It’s harder, I suppose, to insult someone verbally, even over the phone, that to fan a flame war on the Internet, and both were more polite live than they had ever been at the keyboard.
Besides, Robin has the voice of someone calmly taking charge without any expectation of contradiction. Perhaps, too, an echo of my old university instructor voice ghosted through my own words.
But, whatever the case, everyone survived. I even think that the increased politeness influenced both Jeff and Roy to make concessions to each others’ viewpoints than they never would have considered online. As a result, I think that the point that the dispute is one of tactics rather than of different goals came through for the first time in the month or more that this dispute has been unfolding. However, I’m not sure that either of the principals has made the same observation.
The show had glitches that better planning might avoid next time. However, I like to think that both sides had a reasonable chance to express themselves, so it could have been worse. The Linux.com regulars are already discussing the possibility of another podcast, and I, for one, can’t wait.
Posted in Bruce Byfield, Free Software, freesoftware, journalism, opensource, Personal, Uncategorized, writing, tagged Bruce Byfield, Free Software, freesoftware, journalism, opensource, Personal, Uncategorized, writing on November 24, 2007 | 3 Comments »
One of the hardest things about writing on free software is the expectations placed on me. Because the cause is good, many people expect me to write as a loyal partisan. And in one sense, I am: If I didn’t feel the topic was important, I wouldn’t write about it. However, I am not so partisan as to praise where I see problems in either software or people. Nor do I always feel an obligation to take sides when I explain a multi-side issue, or when the general reaction from typical readers is so obvious that to do would be to belabor the obvious. To me, these practices are part of my efforts to approach journalism with professionalism. However, judging from the comments I sometimes receive, they often enrage readers, especially those expecting a confirmation of their views.
Understand, I’m not naive. I know that complete objectivity is as impossible as a centaur. But I’m idealistic enough to think that, except when I’m writing an obvious commentary, the articles I write as a journalist are more useful to people when I’m not writing as an advocate. Rather, I try to write in an effort to express the truth as I see it. I’m sure that I fail many times, either because I don’t have all the facts or because I feel too strongly on a subject.
However, as George Orwell said about himself, I believe that, unlike the vast majority of people, I have the ability to face unpleasant truths – facts that I might dislike personally, but have to acknowledge simply because they are there (I lie very poorly to myself). And, since my first or second year at university, I’ve been aware that I have the unusual knack of empathizing with a viewpoint even while I disagree with it. With these tendencies, I believe that, if I make the effort, I can provide a broader perspective than most people – and that a broader perspective, if not the truth, is generally more truthful than a limited one.
Moreover, I believe that these are precisely the tendencies that a journalist needs to be useful to readers. Nobody can write uncritically about any cause without, sooner or later, lying for the sake of the cause and losing their integrity. For all I admire the ethics and hard work of many people in the free software community, even those I admire most sometimes express an ill-considered or an ignorant opinion. Some act short-sightedly. Very occasionally, a few act immorally, or at least for personal gain rather than the good of the community. And, whenever someone does any of these things, it’s my job to report the fact. To do otherwise would be against my principles, and a mediocre carrying out of my job.
This honesty is especially important in the computer industry. Many mainstream computer publications are notorious for avoiding criticism of the companies who buy advertising from them. Such publications are worthless to their readers, and a betrayal of the trust placed in them. I’m lucky enough to work for publications that don’t work that way, so I can report the bad along with the good.
However, to some of the audience, that’s not enough, especially on a controversial subject. They read to have their views enforced, and, if I don’t happen to serve their need, they accuse me of bias. Often, they need to cherry-pick their evidence to build the case against me, and usually they seize on the fact that I reported a viewpoint contrary to theirs without denouncing it. Often anonymous, they attack me in the strongest worded terms, sometimes explaining in exhaustive detail the error of my way in what usually amounts to a clumsy belaboring of the obvious.
Occasionally, one will demand the right to a rebuttal from the editors.
So far, I have yet to see any of them actually write the rebuttal, but I suspect that, if they did, it would probably be unpublishable without considerable revision. Polemic is a difficult art, and has a tendency to descend into trite comments and over-used expressions in the hands of novices.
(Which is another reason that I don’t write opinion pieces too often. They’re difficult to write well, and I don’t think I’m particularly skilled at them. And, anyway, a successful polemic is more about rhetorical tricks and memorable turns of phrases than about facts and explanation. It’s a play more on emotion than logic, and for that reason always seems a bit of a cheap trick. I’m not nearly as interested in manipulating readers as informing them.)
But what always tickles me about such accusations is that they frequently come in pairs. Many times, after writing on a controversial subject, I’ve been denounced as biased from both sides – sometimes on the basis of the same paragraph or sentence.
I suppose these twinned accusations could be a sign of sloppy writing on my part. However, I prefer to view them as a sign that the problem lies more in the readers than in me. If both sides find something to disparage in one of my articles, then I can’t help thinking that I’ve had some success with covering the topic comprehensively.
Of course, all these thoughts could be nothing more than an explication of my personal myths – the stories I tell myself to keep me going. The image of the investigative reporter who risks everything to get the truth out is still a very powerful myth, and one that I not only buy but apparently have a lifelong subscription to.
But, contrary to popular usage, a myth is not the same as a lie. And, in this case, I like to think that, even if I am partly deceiving myself, my work is still better for my acceptance of the myth.
Posted in Free Software, freesoftware, journalism, linux, opensource, Personal, Uncategorized, writing, tagged Bruce Byfield, Free Software, freesoftware, gnu/linux, journalism, linux, opensource, Personal, Uncategorized, writing on October 31, 2007 | 3 Comments »
Every month or so, I get a request from a magazine asking if I want to write about GNU/Linux or free software. One or two are legitimate professonal offers that I am glad to consider, if only for variation and to length the list of markets to which I can sell – or, to be more exact, to which I might some day sell, since I don’t have many open slots on my monthly schedule. However, more often, the magazine either doesn’t pay or else pays a token like $30 per page, and I have to decline, despite their offers of additional payment in copies or free advertising, neither of which I have much use for. The exchange never fails to leave me feeling guilty, defensive, and unsatisfied.
Admittedly, many magazines and publishers prey on wannabe writers’ desire to be published. However, I’m sure that many are doing their best, paying what they can and hoping that they might one day generate enough income to pay their contributors better. In fact, I am sure that most of them are sincere; they’re generally too excited about what they are doing to be deliberate exploiters.
This sort of low-paying work might have acceptable in the days when I was writing articles in my spare time and trying to build a reputation. I could have helped the editors, and they could have helped me. But how can I explain to these well-meaning people that I’m not just dabbling in writing these days? That in the time I wrote them a 1500 word article, I could have made ten or fifteen times as much writing for my regular markets? That I literally cannot afford to contribute to their magazine or web site?
I can’t explain, of course. Not without being completely undiplomatic and crass. So, I usually hedge until my correspondents’ persistence forces me to be blunter, or they come up with another argument.
Usually, the next argument is the idea – either openly stated or hinted – that, since all of us are interested in free software, then I am somehow obligated to give my labor for free.
Consciously or otherwise, this argument conflates the meanings of free software. Free software, as everyone constantly points out, isn’t free because it doesn’t cost. It’s free in a political or philosophical sense – and, on that score, I have a good conscience. It seems perfectly reasonable to me that, in return for the money I need to live, the markets where I publish should have exclusive rights to my articles for thirty days. After that, I am perfectly happy to have the articles reprinted or translated under a Creative Commons Attribution – No Derivatives license, In fact, I almost never refuse such requests.
Besides, are the people who trying to guilt-trip me donating their labor for free? In many cases, I doubt it.
Anyway, I maintain that, in keeping people informed about free software, I am already contributing to the greater cause. I happen to be one of those lucky enough or persistent enough to be able to earn my living through doing so, but I don’t see why the one should invalidate the other.
True, I do make some gratis contributions to free software in my own time – but that’s beside the point. What matters is that I don’t feel the need to prove my credentials, particularly to strangers I don’t know. So, at this point, they usually break off the correspondence, often with parting comments about my selfishness or lack of generosity.
And of course I do feel hard-hearted at times. But, when it comes to the way I make my livelihood, I have to ration my time. Otherwise, I could easily lose a large chunk of my income for the month. So, I break off, too, muttering my excuses after an exchange that has satisfied nobody.
Posted in Bruce Byfield, computers, Free Software, freesoftware, gnu/linux, linux, opensource, Personal, technology, Uncategorized, tagged Bruce Byfield, computers, Free Software, freesoftware, gnu/linux, linux, open source, opensource, Personal, technology, Uncategorized, writing on October 16, 2007 | 4 Comments »
Today, I received the following e-mail. At the sender’s request, I have removed any personal details:
I was wondering if you had any advice for me about how to perform some marketing/pr for my Linux [project]. I’ve started doing interviews with developers and I have created a community news site.
But is there anyway I could possibly get [my project] mentioned in a
magazine like Linux Journal? Is there any free advertising I could take advantage of on certain web sites? I thought you may have some ideas for me because you have experience with this kind of thing. Any help you
could provide me would be appreciated.
I generally receive about 3-4 requests of this sort a year, so I decided to post my reply here, so I can refer others to it:
You’re not likely to find free advertising on sites that will do you any good, so your best bet is to try to get on the various sites as a contributor. Linux.com only takes original material for its main features, but it does have the NewsVac items, the three or four line link summaries on the right of the page that are very popular. And, of course, sites like Slashdot, Digg, and Linux Today are all about links to already published material.
If you have a solid piece of news — which for a piece of free software usually means new releases and unique features — at Linux.com you can pitch a story and write it yourself. However, you’ll be asked to include a disclaimer
that explains your connection with your subject matter, and the article will be rejected if you are being a fanboy. That means you can’t review your own distro, but you might be able to do a tutorial on a distribution’s packaging system, for instance.
Alternatively, you can send news releases in the hopes of convincing either an editor or a writer to cover your news. However, don’t be pushy. Submitting a news release once is enough, and popping back several times to ask if it was received or whether anyone is interested will probably only guarantee that you’ll annoy people so that they won’t cover your news no matter how big it is.
The ideal is to build up an ongoing relation with a few writers, in which you give them stories to write about — we’re always looking — and they give you the coverage you want when you have news that readers might want to hear.
Of course, you open yourself up to negative comments if the software deserves them, but that’s the chance you have to take. However, for the most part, both commercial companies and large community projects find the
risk well worth taking. It’s not as though any of the regular writers deliberately sit down to review with a determination to be negative (although, conversely, they don’t set out to praise, either: We’re not just fans, either).
This process doesn’t happen overnight, so be patient. But, in the long run, you should get some of the publicity you seek.
I don’t know whether this information is useful to others. To me, it seems that I’m saying the obvious, but part of that reaction is undoubtedly due to the fact that I deal with these things daily. Perhaps to others, these thoughts aren’t obvious, so I’m hoping that someone will find them useful