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Archive for the ‘Free Software’ Category

Towards the end of 2014, I will have been writing about free and open source software (FOSS) for a decade. The realization surprises me, because I am used to thinking of myself a newcomer. More – I still think of myself as an outsider whose criticisms do not apply to me as much as those who might be called colleagues. Under the circumstances, I hesitate to talk about the quality of coverage that FOSS receives, even though honesty forces me to say that much of it is not very good.

The outlook is not completely bleak. There are some FOSS journalists whom I am proud to call colleagues, such as Carla Schroder, with her practical outlook and wicked turn of phrase, or Steven J. Vaughan-Nicholls who has been reporting and commenting on technology in general and FOSS in particular longer than just about anyone.

However, for every one whom I admire, there are many others who leave me wincing and rushing to analyze my latest article to check whether I am guilty of exactly the same tendencies that I publicly deplore. Specifically, I see at least seven problems with how FOSS is covered:

A lack of journalistic training: I was lucky to have apprenticed at Linux.com in the days of Robin Miller and Lee Schlesinger. Even though I have no formal education in journalism, they hammered into my head the ethical standards of journalism, teaching me about fairness, conflicts of interest and the differences between reporting and editorializing, as well as a dozen other things I needed to know. However, too many of those writing about FOSS – like most of the computer press in general – have no idea that they need anything beyond a fondness for the sound of their own voice. They don’t know how to summarize opposing views accurately, much less that they have any obligation to try. Nor do they check facts. Readers are the poorer for their failures.

A lack of business and marketing experience: Working in business is invaluable for a tech journalist. Such experience teaches you how far you should trust news releases and how a product is brought to market. Unless you know these things, you are likely to be credulous, accepting information that you should be questioning. For instance, when Canonical announced the first vendor for its phones but declined to say who that vendor was, most FOSS journalists focused on the first part of the news and ignored the second. Only blogger Larry Cafiero, who is a mainstream journalist by day, reached the right conclusion: Without the vendor’s name, the news was the manufacturing equivalent of vaporware and essentially worthless.

An imbalance between writing skills and technical expertise: Like the technical writers who crank out manuals, FOSS journalists come in one of two forms. Either they are people who know how to write, or people with expertise. The result? On one hand, you get well-written articles that tend to avoid technical details. On the other hand, you get expert articles that are so arcane that they might as well be written in assembly language. Too few writers seem to strive for articles that are both well-written and expert in their subject matter.

An apocalyptic outlook: Talking about companies and products, FOSS journalists tend to speak in absolutes. Linux will bury Windows one day, and Android triumph absolutely over iOS. What no one notices, however, is that such Conan-esque victories rarely occur except when you are talking about startups and very small companies. When the companies involved are larger, what you usually see is incomplete victories in which market share changes hand, but most of the competitors continue to co-exist.

Quickie reviews: Once you have experience, writing reviews is easier because you know what to look for. Yet, even then, you need time to investigate. But, instead of taking the necessary time, too many reviews touch on the least important parts of their topics, such as the installation program. Nor do they take the time to look for general tendencies in a new release, simply recording a bunch of random observations instead. Such practices frequently make reviews next door to useless.

Too much fanboyism (or fangirlism): It should go without saying that those who write about FOSS believe in it and see themselves as helping it grow. However, loyalty to a cause should not mean blind acceptance of every vagary. As naïve as it sounds, journalists are supposed to deliver the first draft of history, doing their best to tell the truth even when doing so is inconvenient for the causes they support. They may be diplomatic in their expression of the truth, but they are still supposed to express it. This obligation does not make them traitors, as you sometimes hear; if anything, they are being more useful than those who pretend that no problems exist that need to be exposed.

Encouraging personality cults: FOSS is full of colorful personalities. However, although defining an issue as a battle between a couple of people adds drama to an issue, it usually simplifies and distorts it. For instance, the existence of the armed camps of free software and open source is not due just to the fact that Richard Stallman and Linus Toravalds have different personalities and leadership styles, but also to very different motivations shared by hundreds of thousands of people. Were Stallman or Torvalds to die abruptly, the issues would be no less urgent or influential.

In making these observations, I am not excluding myself. At one time or other, I have probably been guilty of all these problems, and one or two of them, I uneasily suspect, may be habitual with me. In fact, part of my reason for mentioning this problem is to identify them so that I can do more to avoid them.

But in addition to being a writer, I am also a reader. While I know all too well that deadlines mean that articles do not always receive the amount of thought they deserve, I also get impatient with the fact that so few articles about FOSS are worth reading or add to my understanding. Many of us who write about FOSS could do much better than we do – but we are hardly likely to try if the problems are never mentioned to begin with.

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I consider myself pro-feminist. I was one of the first professional journalists to talk about sexism in free software, and I make a point of mentioning newsworthy women whenever possible. However, my position does not mean that I support every argument in its favor. I am particularly hesitant about the argument that free software is missing something if its developers are mostly male, and that having a more equitable proportion of women will automatically make free software better.

The idea is probably true in the sense that more women in free software means more developers. Perhaps, too, more testing with female users might affect usability to a degree.

But unless I’m mistaken, the people making this claim mean more than that. Without actually saying so, they seem to be hinting that there is a female sensibility or perspective that is currently missing in free software. That seems a valid argument in literature or other arts, but I can’t help suspecting that there are only so many use-cases in software development, and that few – if any – are related to gender.

The argument isn’t helped by the vagueness with which it always seems to be made. How, exactly, does a database become better because a larger percentage of woman wrote its code? How might more women improve the features of a word processor? I am ready to consider such arguments, but, aside from an issue with name changes in Git,  I have never heard any made except in the most general terms. The main exception, as Anita Sarkeesian continues to document, is video games – but games fall into the category of story-telling, in which gender issues are self-evident.

Anyway, the argument has been made at least a couple of times before. Some suffragettes claimed that giving women the vote would eliminate war and poverty – a claim that we now know to be untrue. Eco-feminists made similar claims about innate nurturing tendencies a couple of decades ago, but their arguments from alleged evolutionary fact are no more solid than the biological arguments that misogynists use to prove female inferiority.

As Cordelia Fine relates in the wonderfully titled Delusions of Gender, the differences between male and female intellectual capacity are simply too minimal for them to be taken seriously. Given a coding project to a group composed entirely of women, and statistically the result is as likely to be as satisfying – or as messed up – as what is produced by an all-male group.

However, my real objection to the argument is the fact it is utilitarian, which seems a dangerous way to argue what comes down to a matter or rights. The trouble with a utilitarian argument in such matters is that, at least in theory, it can work both ways.

For instance, when the question of women serving in combat is raised, most of the arguments against the idea claim to be firmly grounded in the practical. The claims are made, for instance, that women lack the necessary strength, or that male soldiers would be distracted by their wish to protect their female peers. Yet even if these claims were true – and I believe they are not – would that stop anyone insisting that women should have the chance to serve in combat? I know that it would not change my opinion.

In the same way, women’s greater participation in free software is a right, a possibility that should be open to any woman who proves her competence. It seems to me that to lose sight of that basic fact is to risk being distracted by arguments that can just as easily work against the cause as for it. Argue that everyone deserves a chance, that everyone should be able to fulfill their potential – but don’t argue that the result will be noticeably different in other ways, because the odds are that it won’t be.

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Early this week, developer Sarah Sharp complained about lack of politeness on the Linux kernel mailing list, singling out Linus Torvalds as a prime example of rudeness. Having not persuaded many people, she took her complaints public. Soon dozen of bloggers were condemning Torvalds, and hundreds of commenters were either joining in the condemnation or defending him. But, looking at all the responses, I wonder what everyone imagined they were doing. Feeling good about themselves, maybe?

Don’t get me wrong – as an ex-university instructor, who used to give out criticism to students, I know that rudeness is a poor way to motivate people to improve. They’re more likely to resent the criticism than to change their ways. True, Torvalds is more interested in issues than people, and seems to accept people answering his rudeness with their own, but I still suspect that the Linux kernel is a successful project despite his manner, not because of it.

However, the difference between me and the people publicly expressing outrage is that, as fond as I am of expressing my opinions (that is, after all, what I get paid for), I don’t make the mistake of believing that my opinion matters. It certainly isn’t going to improve the tone of the kernel list.

Condemning Torvalds in public may satisfy the need for self-expression. It may publicly align you with the forces of Progress and Good. However, one thing it will never do is to improve civility within the kernel project. Even if thousands of people express their outrage, it won’t do anything.

In every way imaginable, Torvalds is immune to such criticism. If nothing else, I doubt he reads it. Furthermore, he rationalizes by assuming a dichotomy between effective bluntness and politeness that, for all its falseness, gives him no reason to consider reforming himself (although he might welcome a good argument as amusing).

But how anyone imagines him vulnerable to public criticism is beyond me. He has never been before. The kernel is his project, and few developers are going to work on a fork in preference to the cachet of working with Linux.

Even pressuring him through the Linux Foundation, his nominal employer, has no chance of success. Sponsoring Torvalds legitimizes the Linux Foundation, which means that it needs him far more than he needs it. In the unlikely event that the Linux Foundation did try to chastise him, as a mufti-millionaire he can walk away any time he pleases.

In the end, being outraged by Torvalds’ rudeness is no more than elaboration on the idea that you are helping world hunger or some other cause by clicking Like on a Facebook link. It’s easy to do, and leaves you pleased with yourself, but you have confused an expression of concern with effective action.

The Internet allows considerable freedom of speech, and the free software community often has a democratic appearance. However, neither of these facts means that all of us have an equal say in every situation. In this case, the only people whose opinion matters are those who have any chance of making a change – kernel contributors.

Instead of mouthing off in public, if you really want change on the kernel list, lobby kernel contributors, especially Torvalds’ lieutenants. If you are a kernel contributor, come out in support of a code of conduct, and try to enlist other contributors. None of these actions have any guarantee of success, but they have a far greater chance of encouraging change than saying, “Me, too!” in public.

Put so bluntly, the choice of tactics sounds obvious. But the fact that so many seem to think that condemning politeness is enough to cause change suggests that, on some levels, for most people it is not at all obvious. In the end, campaigning for change is slow and unglamorous, and lacks the immediate satisfaction of posturing as rebel via a token gesture, yet it has two unarguable advantages – it is unhypocritical, and it just might work.

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In Chapter 17 of Adam Bede, George Eliot digresses to suggest that, although the minister in the novel is careless about Christian doctrine, he is still an effective caregiver to his parish. This distinction between what is said and what is done immediately arouses a response in me, because I consider the first time that I made it an important step in my intellectual development.

I like to say that I grew up at an awkward time, being too young for the Counter-culture and too old for Punk. All the same, I came to have activist opinions early in high school. I was full of adolescent energy, and believed in my causes with the all-out enthusiasm that many new converts have. I was shocked when others didn’t share them, since they were self-evidently right to me. I expressed them whenever possible – never mind that they weren’t the best way to impress a girl, these things were important! My greatest fear was that I might become conservative when I became older, and resist the causes I had formerly championed just as they were becoming mainstream.

Few of my classmates shared my opinions, so I would be full of enthusiasm and relief whenever I discovered one who did. Early on, though, I was baffled to discover that, just because someone professed similar opinions to mine didn’t necessarily mean that I would like them.

It took several years to discover that the opposite was true: Someone who expressed opinions completely at odds with mine might become a friend.

The first example I encountered was a medievalist in a small town up the coast. He was a big man, with an English working class accent, boisterous and fond of frequent fights. He liked to dominate a conversation, and if he caught any hint of dogma in another person, he would soon start denouncing their beliefs in his loudest voice, watching them with a barely suppressed grin. If they started defending themselves, he would become even more outrageous. More than once, I saw someone stamp away, swearing and calling him a hopeless redneck.

Despicable, I thought at first. Gradually, though, I noticed that no one did more work in his medieval club. No one was more patient in teaching leather working, or metal-casting, or teaching newcomers how to shoot a longbow or crossbow. If someone was sick, he was first to visit them in the hospital (and argue with them, if they were well enough). Any cause in the community, and he would come out. A little self-righteously, I thought I would forgive his habit of baiting people as an unfortunate flaw in a basically decent person.

But, unfortunately for my self-righteousness, once I conceded that the doctrinally impure weren’t automatically demonic, I started noticing other examples. Like the fiction writer who was irresistible to women and had a Casanova-like gallantry, yet listened to them and took them more seriously than most self-declared feminists. Like the conservative, Catholic apologist who could be one of the most loyal friends imaginable. Or the editor who joked about feminist dogma yet did more to hire qualified women than those who expressed what I considered to be the proper opinions.

Such people were not the majority among those who expressed similar opinions, but they weren’t particularly exceptional, either. After meeting a few of them, I realized that judging people by the opinions they expressed was over-hasty. What I considered instead what they did, I had to concede – with no small reluctance – that some unlikely people could be more deserving of friendship and respect than some who supposedly shared my opinions.

Strangely, this realization didn’t have any affect on my own beliefs. If anything, it has strengthened them. Knowing that someone can disagree with me and still have some worthy traits has humanized me, making me less self-righteous and less judgmental. As a result, I can hear my  beliefs challenged without feeling threatened, and they’re stronger (and more realistic) for facing a challenge rather than being afraid of one.

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I’ve never been a supporter of proprietary formats. So far as I’m concerned, they’re an imposition on the rights I acquire when I buy. But knowing something intellectually is one thing, and knowing something deep-in-the-gut, blind-raging and foaming at the mouth is quite another, as I discovered recently when I bought an audio book.

The fact that I eventually managed to access my property is entirely besides the point. The access was all of my doing, and none of the manufacturer’s. In fact, if I wasn’t so bloody-minded, I would have given up entirely. As things were, I ended by spending half the price of the purchase again just so I could do what I have a right to do.

OK, part of the blame is mine. I should have known that the promise that I could freely play the ebook I purchased on any of my devices was too good to be true. The manufacturer wasn’t proclaiming its dedication to open standards with that statement, which is how I interpreted its statements in my eagerness – it meant that I could play my purchase on any devices so long as was willing to load the manufacturer’s codec on the devices just so I could play that one purchase.

(Actually, from accounts on the Internet, the promise didn’t even mean that it. It meant any device that the manufacturer had arranged for a hardware manufacturer to pay for for support.)

After I downloaded my purchase, I quickly discovered how I had been misled – or misled myself, perhaps, through excitement. My purchase wouldn’t play on GNU/Linux, like any decently open or semi-public format. I found a seldom-used netbook computer that still had a Windows partition on it, and discovered I could play the proprietary format in iTunes. So at least I could listen.

However, I didn’t want to start up another computer whenever I wanted to listen. Nor did I want to use Windows, or to carry the netbook around, nor to have seven hours-long files. Why? Because I didn’t want to, that’s why, and I shouldn’t have to give any other reason.

All I had in mind was to listen on the operating system of my choice or maybe a music player, with files in a format I could play and divided neatly into individual stories for my private use – all modest and completely sensible goals, I think you’ll agree.

Trusting that where there’s a proprietary format there’s a way, I searched the Internet. A few pieces of software from companies of which I never heard promised to do the conversion for me, but I was dubious.

Then I discovered that iTunes included a loophole that the proprietary manufacturers hadn’t considered: the ability to burn playlists to audio CDs in .wav format.

However, as part of the plot to drive me mad, the function is a feeble ghost of what it should be. For one thing, it doesn’t burn to DVDs. For another, while it supports using multiple CDs on large files, with each new CD, it has to scan the source all over. As a result, each 80 minute CD takes some 12 minutes to burn. When you’re dealing with files seven hours long, that’s a lot of delay. It’s as though iTunes executives rationalize that, just because making a backup copy for personal use is a right in many countries (including my own), that doesn’t mean that anyone has to make creating that backup easy.

My conviction that the manufacturer wasn’t going to make things easy took another giant leap when I discovered that the files were all in ten minute segments, each labeled with another writer’s name — a mistake so amateurish that it seems designed mainly to add to the confusion. At times, too, the last minute or so of one CD would overlap with the start of another CD, so I had to listen carefully when the breaks came.

But the resulting files would at least play on my computer of choice, and I used the free software sound editor Audacity to splice them together, tantalized by the few seconds I heard while working.

Of course, it takes time to copy seventeen full CDs over to the hard drive, and still more time to reassemble the 170 files and to manually rip them into stories. Let’s call it a long evening’s project that was only slightly less fun than washing dishes for five hours. Only a fanatic would have bothered, I’m sure.

But now I’m done, and finally I can sit back and enjoy the stories.

Still, my enjoyment is tempered by the extraordinary efforts I required to do such very ordinary things when, by any sane standard I have absolutely no criminal intent. There’s a basic lack of respect for customers in such practices, no matter how widespread they are — and, after going through this experience, all I can say is that I return it. I’m forewarned now, and I’m going to think twice or three times before buying again from the manufacturer. But if I do, I think it’s only fair to return disrespect for disrespect and to assert the basic rights that the manufacturer has decided to take away.

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(Last night, I did something stupid. I’m no fonder of looking stupid than anyone else, but I thought I should post a warning, just in case someone else is tempted to let their enthusiasm make them overlook their free software principles and run into grief. The email is addressed to Audible.com, a division of Amazon that specializes in audio books.

I don’t know what, if any response I will get. If I do get a response, I’ll add it at the bottom of the post)

Yesterday, I purchased my first Audible product, The Adventures of Dr.Eszterhazy by Avram Davidson in the Neil Gaiman Presents series. I intend it to be my last.

My complaint is not with the quality of my purchase, which is excellent. In fact, I was so pleased to see the title that I forgot to check thoroughly how Audible distributes its titles.

In that respect, I was perhaps naive. However, the lack of specificness on Audible’s web page also deserves a large portion of the blame. Specifically, the “What is Audible” page does not specify that files remain in a proprietary format. Nor does it indicate that their format is unsupported on Linux, or requires iTunes to play. If anything, the statement that “you can listen to Audible titles anytime, anywhere!” leaves the impression that the files are not locked down in any way — and that is obviously incorrect. Had any of this information been prominently displayed on your site, I would not have purchased.

As things were, I not only bought something that is against my principles, but also had extreme difficulty listening to it. If I hadn’t happened to have an old netbook from which I hadn’t yet removed Windows, I couldn’t have played it at all.

Moreover, even if I were a Windows or Mac user, Audible’s practices add a needless level of complexity to the user experience that would — by itself — discourage my repeat business. I mean, is it really necessary to use a format that requires the installation of its own separate management software?

Audible appears deeply committed to proprietary formats, but if I could possibly get a copy of my purchase in a free audio format (Ogg Vorbis would be ideal), that would do much to alleviate my disappointment.

But failing that, could the company at least attempt not to mislead potential customers about its actual practices? At the very least, a revision of the website seems in order, and would make me feel better about having given Audible my money.

Until these things I happen, I will continue to regret my purchase, and advise my friends not to make the same mistake as I did.

With disappointment,

Bruce Byfield
2012-02-08

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Twenty years ago today, Linus Torvalds sent the announcement that announced Linux to the world. The Linux Foundation has promoted the anniversary all year, displaying memorabilia and holding a Roaring Twenties theme party ( much to the evident embarrassment of Torvalds, who was conspicuously absent at LinuxCon when invited to take a bow.) – and it’s fitting that the free software ecosystem that has grown around Linux should be celebrated. However, amid all the self-congratulations, I think it’s worth remembering that what is being praised is the goal more than the reality.

I hate to insist on this cold splash of reality, I really do. Although I wasn’t around at the start, I have been involved in free software for twelve years, and I share the dream. For me, free software is as important a part of activism as recycling. One way or the other, it has been my major source of income for most of those twelve years. The community of free software is where I’ve found a modest dollop of fame. Moreover, as I rediscovered at last week’s LinuxCon, where I seem to have spent three days shaking hands and renewing old acquaintances, I feel at home in the community, and many of my closest friends come from it. So, when the keynote speakers on the first morning stood up and celebrated the accomplishments of free software, I was moved in much the same way as other people might be moved by the national anthem of their country.

And yet –

Something whispered in me that the keynotes at Linuxcon were just a little too self-congratulatory. I couldn’t help thinking that the rhetoric of co-operation was sometimes being delivered by the representatives of corporations famed for their cut-throat business practices. I thought, too, of how, despite everything that the free software ecosystem has accomplished – often contrary to the predictions of old-school business and development experts, much to my delight – the community seems to have balked at taking the final steps, putting up with cost-free drivers rather than pushing for free-license ones.

But the largest gap between rhetoric and practice came in the description of the community. The gospel was preached most vividly by Jon “Maddog” Hall.

Hall is a seemingly endless source of friendliness and good will, and part of me hates to contradict him. All the same, I had to raise an eyebrow when he proclaimed – as he had already done in his blog :

I am proud of the Free Software community in embracing diversity. And finally, it is lucky for me that the Free Software community also embraces older people…..

No one asks these programmer/entrepreneurs their age, their race, their religion, their sex or their “sexual orientation”. No one asks them if they were physically challenged, what country they came from, or their political views. No one told them “don’t go there”, “don’t do that”, “you are too young”, “you are too old”, “you are just a…” or “you can not succeed”…..because (as one of my favorite cartoons points out) “on the Internet no one knows that you are a dog”.

All the Free Software community says is “show me the code”.

It’s a wonderful dream, Jon, and I hope that one day it comes true. But read the Geek Feminism wiki, and you soon realize that it isn’t true yet. Pornographic presentations, the litany of sexist bloopers from one community leader after another, the knee-jerk, foul-mouthed hostility to even the suggestion that more should be done to encourage the participation of women – it all buzzes around in your head like loud music when you have a hangover. Before long,  you are forced into the realization that, unfortunately, the community does not always embrace diversity, and that portions of it care very much who you are. In fact, they care so much that they will do their best to prevent you from contributing your code no matter how well-written it is.

Taking time to appreciate the accomplishments of free software is only right. It’s a working community, and many of us don’t take enough time to appreciate what’s being built a bit at a time. But what Jon and the other Linuxcon keynote speakers praised was the ideal, not the way things are.

So, while we should celebrate what is after all a unique accomplishment, let’s also take time to remember that the accomplishment isn’t finished yet, and that we’ve collectively fallen short of the ideal. Forget that, and we risk always being less than we could be and betraying ourselves.

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