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Archive for August, 2007

When I think, late summer is my favorite time of the year for a morning run. At 7AM, the air has the first tang of cold in the air, just enough to be bracing and not enough to be uncomfortable. Often, a hint of moisture is in the air, although not enough yet for a morning dew. And, unless the last rain is more than a week or two in the past, the air is fresher than usual, because more people are on holidays and aren’t driving to work.

Just as importantly, the area around Vancouver is at its greenest – literally, I mean, and not in the environmental sense. With the right mixture of rain and sun, like we had this year, the trees and bushes of the region have a green so rich it almost seems about to quiver.

It helps, too, that, by the end of the summer, I’m usually at my most fit. As a result, I’m running at a reasonable speed with minimal effort, full of the adrenalin-induced delusion that there is no work, domestic, or relationship problem that I can’t handle.

And, this year, the feeling of healthy is particularly strong and satisfying. For one thing, I’ve been cross-training since the first week of March this year, instead of the end of May, so I’m fitter than usual. More importantly, this time last year, the doctor was solemnly telling me that my running days were over, and I’ve triumphantly proved him wrong. Instead of feeling fat and out of sorts (and having to go to my high school reunion that way last year), I’ve regained a deep sense of optimism and more of a bounce in my stride.

Next week, I know, everything will change. With the passing of Labour Day, people will be back from holidays and the roads will be half-gridlocked again. Suddenly, people will feel that summer is over, and be angrily getting back to business. But, for the next few days, the golden time remains.

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In Jungian psychology, the Shadow is a figure who is everything that you are not. Often, it is seen as evil. The Shadow can be helpful in establishing a sense of self, but a personal identity based only on the Shadow is dependent and reactive, and can easily become unhealthy.. In fact, if you define yourself only in terms of the Shadow, you risk taking on characteristics of the Shadow, partly because you are refusing to deal with the aspects of your personality that you have invested in the Shadow, and partly because anything seems justified in order to fend off the shadow.

When people in the free software community solemnly tell me that “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom,” and draw obsessive diagrams of all the ways that Microsoft is undermining the community, that’s what I see: People on the brink of assuming some of the traits they claim to despite in their Shadow.

Fighting the Shadow can be dramatic and lend purpose to people’s lives, but it doesn’t make for sound thinking, even in their own terms. It lures them into thinking in dichotomies, believing that everyone must either be a vigilant soldier or else an optimist too full of naive to see a threat. With no middle ground, they can lose allies. Similarly, in focusing on one Shadowy figure, they risk overlooking other concerns.

And let’s say they’re right: Microsoft is the Great Satan, and an apocalyptic battle is just a matter of time. What happens once the Shadow is defeated? Inescapably, a good part of their purpose in life has gone, because they have lost all that they measured themselves against.
You can’t completely ignore Microsoft’s actions, even those that are not directly concerned with free software (In previous posts, I was exaggerating for rhetorical effect). Microsoft’s influence is simply too great. But I don’t want to ignore other things while keeping an eye out for possible concerns.

The free software community has a lot to be proud of. Collectively, its members have built an alternative that, overall, is comparable to its proprietary rivals. It’s done so by developing collaborative work methods, and principled stands that give ordinary people control over important parts of their lives, and helps the poor and those handicapped by a lack of national development meet the privileged on a more equal footing. It’s changed how business is done. It’s helped to preserve minority languages. It’s green. All these are important accomplishments.

That’s how you overcome the Shadow – by building a self-contained identity that robs it of its power over you.

I don’t know about anyone else, but, at the end of my life, I’d rather look back and remember that I played a small role in those accomplishments than admit I spent my life hating a corporation. It’s not as exciting as imagining yourself locked in adversity with a Dark Lord, but it’s certainly more constructive and longer lasting – to say nothing of more interesting.

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Reading the comments left publicly and privately for “Why would I care about Microsoft?”, I realize that many people’s view of free software is outdated. To many, free software is a small, delicate idea that a juggernaut like Microsoft can overrun at will. In this circumstance – which may have existed ten years ago – fears, obsession, and paranoia are only natural. But having these emotions in 2007 may no longer be appropriate. Like parents who haven’t realized that their children are growing up, perhaps many of us in the community haven’t realized that free software isn’t as fragile as it used to be.

I’m not saying that Microsoft shouldn’t be watched or that its motives shouldn’t be questioned or guarded against. But I am saying that free software is in a much stronger position to defend itself than even a few years ago.

Consider, for example, the variety of responses that Microsoft has made to free software in the last year. It’s tried co-opting companies like Novell, Linspire, and Xandros. It’s made unsupported threats about patent violations in GNU/Linux. It’s talked about wanting to cooperate with the free software community. Just ask yourself: Are these the actions of the winning side? Or are they a sign that the company is desperately looking for a winning strategy in a losing fight, or divided internally?

The truth is, free software has come a long way from its days of vulnerability. In its early days, free software may have been vulnerable, but now it has strong defenders. For major corporations like IBM, Sun, and Hewlett-Packard, free software means billions. Why do you think they have surrendered some patents, or supported the anti-Tivoization and patent clauses in the third version of the GNU General Public License? Part of the reason may be altruism, depending on your view of human nature, but, on the whole, I doubt that many corporations like these provisions. Yet not one of these companies was willing to disagree with them in public. In the end, the price of dissent was more than the potential profit.

And that, in itself, is a prime reason why Microsoft is not much of a threat these days. These days, to take on free software means to take on the rest of the computer world. No single corporation, not even Microsoft, can afford that risk.

Just as importantly, free software has grown its own defenses. At the Software Freedom Law Center, Eben Moglen and Richard Fontana are educating the next generation of free software legal defenders. The Linux Foundation is working on patent pools. Peter Brown and Richard M. Stallman at the Free Software Foundation are linking with social activists, who are starting to add free software to their causes. So free software has a second line of defence as well, one not limited by budgets or the concerns of shareholders. And if you haven’t talked to these people, let me tell you: These are frighteningly intelligent and dedicated people. If I wasn’t on their side, I’d think twice about opposing them.

But there’s a third line of defence, even stronger than the first two: The community itself. It’s no longer just geeks. It’s educators, for whom free software is the only way they can function with their limited budgets. It’s government departments in both industrialized and developing nations. It’s groups like Free Geekers introducing free software to the general public. This, I suggest, is defence in depth. In the event of an attack, the community is like thousands of widely dispersed guerrillas, next to impossible to attack by conventional business or legal means, and needing, not to win any fight, but only to make the cost of fighting too high for its opponents to want to continue.

Maybe I’m in a privileged position as a journalist. As I research stories, I probably get to see more of the community than most people. That’s why I trust it to be able to defend itself. Against these defences, a company like Microsoft may gain a temporary or limited advantage. But the days when it could realistically be thought capable of destroying free software are long over.

That’s why I don’t spend a lot of time or emotional energy worrying about Microsoft. I keep an eye on them, certainly – just in case. But Microsoft’s days as a threat are gone, and so are free software’s as a helpless victim.

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History isn’t what it used to be. Or, to put it another way, everything you know about the past could be wrong, or at least subject to revision. And the revision isn’t done by loyal bureaucrats of Big Brother, altering official records to make the Party look good. It’s done by working historians trying to accommodate new facts and perspectives.

It’s a reflection, really, of how long history has been an academic discipline. In many cases, you could write an interesting history of histories about how our views of various eras have evolved.

I first became aware that history was not the fixed medium I imagined when I was still a boy, and Louis Riel changed from a despised madman in Canadian history to a Metis nationalist and folk hero. Part of that change was a reflection of the times, but, even if the change may have exaggerated some traits in the short term, in the long term it gave a more complex, more truthful view of Riel and his actions than the textbooks gave, and provided those of mixed First Nations and European ancestory with some long overdue cultural respect.

As I’ve grown older, this change in history has kept happening. The dinosaurs, I learned as a young adult, were not the dim-witted giants that I had loved as a child, even as I fled screaming from their gaudy statues at roadside attractions along the coastal highway in Oregon and California. Instead, they were suddenly animals with complex social lives, some of whom had survived to the present by becoming birds – an idea that, now that I think, may be responsible for my love of parrots.

Similarly, the Egyptians changed from a death-obsessed, hierarchical culture of stifling dullness to people with a fondness for beer who thought a potbelly a sign of success. Queen Hatsheput, instead of being a schemer who murdered her husband the Pharoah to seize power and feuded with her son and sometime co-ruler became a quieter figure who ruled wisely and peacefully handed over power to the next generation as archaeologists realized the original story was a product of Victorian imagination without evidence to support it.

In English history, the same thing happened. William the Conqueror became, not the founder of a great tradition, but an usurper who, culturally and legally, set back English culture five or six centuries. Richard III was not the murderer of his nephews, and George III, while a rather dull man, was industrious and well-loved for much of his reign. The more I read, the more the changes kept on coming.

And just this week, I’ve regaled myself and anyone who listen with snippets from Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the America Before Columbus.. Some of what he had mentioned I had heard, but hearing them all at once was overwhelming. I mean, pre-Inkan states? The Amazon rain forest not pristine wilderness but artfully managed orchards? The First Nations arriving, not by a break in the glacier, but by skin boards edged carefully down the coast of British Columbia? The Aztecs nursing schools of philosophy and being less bloody-minded in their public executions than the Europeans of their day? The Five Nations being closer to modern democratic ideals than my European ancestors?

The snapping sound you hear is my mind stretching to the breaking point. Yet many, even most of these ideas might very well be true.

Some people, I suppose, might resist such sweeping changes to history, or even deny their possibility. After all, history is not simply the search for objective truth that the best academics see it as. It’s also the source of our cultural myths, the stories we tell ourselves about how we got to the present state of things and how our identities were established. To many people, a challenge to these myths is unsettling, and to be denied even if it means ignoring inconvenient facts.

And I suppose, too, that being well into middle age, I should feel threatened by such changes myself.

Instead, I find myself fascinated. I like to think that I have a scientific mind, because what I’m talking about is how science is supposed to work, with hypotheses formed to fit the evidence, and then thrown out when a better explanation comes along that fits the known facts. But I suppose I could simply be a contrarian, taking an unwholesome delight in seeing what everybody knows over-turned.

Either way, absorbing the changes is simply fun. When I was a boy, I used to worry that I might run out of things to learn in the subjects that interested me, and that I might become stodgy with age. But when I learn that another long-held view of mine is overturned, I know such worries are groundless, and there’s enough to keep me fascinated for several lifetimes.

These discoveries are like a vigorous massage by an expert therapist: mentally, I might groan and ache during the process, but afterwards I’m invigorated and fully of energy. As unsettling as some of the revisions might be, they reaffirm my faith in the complexity of the universe, and my conviction that curiosity has no limits.

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I never did write about my experience two weeks ago taking about GNU/ Linux in the TV studio. Partly, that’s because I was waiting until my article on the subject appeared on Linux.com. However, I also suspect that I did poorly, being out of practice with public speaking and flustered by the technical difficulties that emerged just before my spot. That’s not easy to admit, yet I have to admit that if I’m going to write about what happened.

Still, it was an interesting experience. The show was Lab with Leo, a tech program that appears in Canada and Australia. It’s shot on a permanent set designed for the purpose in an office building in one of the rougher areas in Vancouver. Strangely, the set isn’t totally sound-proofed, which occasionally causes trouble when people pass by in the hallway.

One thing that fascinates me about the experience is the way that film involves the creation of an artificial reality. Viewers only see certain parts of the set – they don’t see the area reserved for the cameras, or the technical crew in their glass walled offices on one side of the set. And, at one point, while the camera was focusing on the host of the show and a guest, besides the two or three members of the camera crew, another half dozen people were watching silently off-camera, not five meters from what was being filmed.

Everything — the makeup on people’s faces, the star’s bonhomie, the opening sequence in which the star walks down a hallway and stops to talk to a cast member who is seated where a receptionist might, the moving around the various pieces of the set to soften the fact that the show is mostly talking heads – is calculated to create the illusion of something that doesn’t quite exist, at least in the form that viewers might imagine.

I thought the whole process neatly symbolized by the contrast between the pristine set and the cluttered office and prop rooms from which you entered it. The office and prop rooms were what you might see in any office, especially in high-tech. By contrast, the set looks like a workshop, slightly rough around the edges, where the concerned star fields questions from viewers and wanders around from guest to guest and interacting with the cast.

I’m not a Puritan who wants to close the theaters. Still, I’m an academic by training, and a journalist by career choice, and both those professions are based on the assumption of objective truth and tghat the effort to find it is worthwhile. So, while I enjoyed the experience, even while feeling I didn’t hold up my own end as well as I might, I find that whether I only make one appearance or am asked back a matter of less importance than I thought.

Being asked back would be flattering, and I would probably do it. Yet, at the same time (and at the risk of sounding as though I’m indulging in sour grapes), if I’m not asked back, I won’t be unduly bothered, either. As a member of the audience, I’m perfectly happy accepting the illusion that the show – like any other – tries to create. I’m just not sure that, temperamentally, I’m suited to creating such illusions regularly. Illusions, in the end, don’t interest me nearly as much as ferreting out truths.

Besides, if I did do as badly as I think, I can’t complain. I’ve been doing so well lately that a failure to keep me humble may not be so bad an idea. I learned a lot, and got an article from the afternoon that might help others, so what more can I ask?

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Whenever I mention in a crowd that I use free software, someone always seems to comment that I must hate Microsoft. When I add that I write about free software for a living, someone is apt to call me a Microsoft-basher. In either case, the implication seems to be that my identity is defined by Microsoft, and, perhaps, is composed of an unhealthy amount of envy. When I reply calmly that Microsoft is mostly irrelevant to me, the people who made these comments seem disbelieving, or at least disappointed. But why would I care about what Microsoft is doing, beyond a mild interest in news that doesn’t particularly concern me?

Oh, I know that some free software users seem fixated on denouncing Microsoft at every opportunity. You can find them on any forum with a free software slant, writing about “Micro$oft” and referring to Windoze, and seeing a deep conspiracy in every move that the company makes. Mostly, I suspect, these users are in their teens, and either passionately young or anxious to sound as though they belong.

Personally, though, my teen years are long gone. These days, I tend to hold my beliefs with a quieter but no less deep conviction.

Yet, even when I was younger, I could never rally more than an abstract dislike about Microsoft. Sure, I object to a monopoly. I’d have to be an idiot not to think that the constant anti-trust cases brought against the company world-wide are coincidences. And my personal sense of aesthetics and quality revolt against anything that is designed poorly and intended to keep the user ignorant.

But I’ve never felt much need to convert others to my beliefs, and I certainly wouldn’t be rude to Windows users. I’ve even chatted amiably with a number of Microsoft employees; some of them are pleasant people.

My move to free software was not a rejection of Microsoft so much as a discovery of a philosophy that was in sync with the rest of my social principles, and a decision to go with the superior software.

Since I made that decision, I’ve generally had a small partition with Windows on at least one machine. But it’s been kept mostly for games, and months sometimes passed between the times I booted it. For the last eight months, I didn’t have a copy of Windows running anywhere in the house, and that only changed because my new laptop came with one. I immediately minimized the partition and allocated four-fifths of the hard drive to Fedora 7. Probably, I’ll only boot into Windows when I’m doing comparison articles. I certainly don’t need it for anything else.

Under such circumstances, why would I care about Microsoft one way or the other?

The only time I’m interested at all is when a Microsoft executive makes some far-fetched statement about free software or makes a tentative attempts to interact with the free and open source software community. Yet, even then, the most I can muster is a mild professional interest. Mostly, Microsoft interacts with free software-based companies, while I prefer to use community GNU/Linux distributions, so on a personal level, I don’t care much.

I suppose that one reason people assume that I must spend my time conducting Three Minutes’ Hate sessions against Microsoft is that I earn a living from free software, so all the related issues must be of absorbing interest to me. But, the truth is, I usually leave writing about Microsoft-related issues to other people. It’s a beat that I prefer not to cover.

Anyway, even those who do write about Microsoft are rarely rabid about it. They’re professionals. They work eight hours or more a day with free software, and very few people are capable of sustaining a fierce hatred for forty hours a week. Nor are editors especially interested in paeans of hate, even if some of them have a fondness for stirring up controversy. For these reasons, if you are passionately anti-Microsoft going into free software journalism, you either don’t last long or mellow.

I could be wrong, but I suspect that the main reason people assume that I hate Microsoft is the poverty of their own imagination. For many people, Microsoft is such a large fixture in their world that — love or loathe it — the idea of not caring what the company does is almost inconceivable. They seem unable to comprehend that, among other things, the free and open source communities are refuges where – unlike the larger world – Microsoft’s latest doings or Windows’ new security patch are irrelevant.

Frankly, the obsession with Microsoft is theirs, not mine. There are days, even weeks sometimes, when I don’t think of Microsoft one way or the other. Believe it or not, mostly Microsoft just doesn’t enter into my life.

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For the past couple of weeks, I have been setting up my new laptop. It’s a challenge, since a number of items – the wireless card, the LightScribe capacity on the DVD drive, the webcam and the modem – are not supported straight off the CD with GNU/Linux. I’m frustrated that I don’t have the time to sit down and focus on each of these puzzles. However, I find that after eight years of using GNU/Linux, my attitude to these puzzles has changed.

Understand, I am an English major by education, and my technical knowledge is what I’ve picked up as needed. Moreover, I get bored by puzzles for their own sake – one reason I’ve never applied to MENSA (another is that one of the first members I met died because his pride in his own intelligence made him careless, but that’s another story). So, by training and temperament, I should be disliking the slow setup of the laptop immensely, especially since it’s compounded by my decision to use the Fedora version of the operating system, rather than the Debian one with which I’m most familiar.

Instead, I find myself unusually patient. Strangely enough, I actually look forward to approaching each problem, trying out ideas on my own, then scanning the Internet for possible solutions and patiently trying them one at a time. And, when I solve a problem (I’m now working on the third one), I have a small sense of triumph.

What’s changed me, I’m convinced, is using GNU/Linux. Unlike Windows or OS X, GNU/Linux assumes that you want to do things your way, and provides dozens of options for you, even from the desktop. If you need help, many programs have detailed help pages in one format or the other. So, naturally, if you’re the least bit curious, you can’t help starting to poke around. For some one like me, who is in Pandora’s league when it comes to curiosity, the temptation is constant and irresistible.

Besides, what choice do I have when something goes wrong or isn’t to my liking? I don’t use a commercial version of GNU/Linux, so I have no technical support to step me through solutions. If I go to a computer store, I’m lucky to find a clerk who has even heard of something called Linux, let alone Debian or Fedora. I can ask advice on mail forums, or search for helpful lines of investigation, but, in the end, I am left to experiment methodically.

This sort of patient trial and error is what developers call hacking (and, no, it has nothing to do with breaking into other people’s computers – that’s called cracking, to the initiated). Since my programming skills are laughable and I’ve never identified as a developer, the realization that I’ve picked up the habit and even learned to like it is somewhat disconcerting.

For years, I have made a living interpreting geeks to other people – and sometimes the other way around. But now I have to reassess myself. Maybe I’m a geek after all.

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