Archive for the ‘freesoftware’ Category

Having recently developed an anti-harassment policy, Linux.conf.au had to enforce it last week when a key note presentation included slides depicting bondage and a pig and a duck having sex. Both the organizers and the speaker apologized, and those involved describe both the conference’s actions and the apologies as what should have happened. I don’t question that description, but I can’t help making a few random comments and observations about the incident and some of the discussion surrounding it on the conference mailing list:

  • What is somebody thinking when they deliver an unnecessarily sexualized presentation? Even if a conference has no anti-harassment policy, common sense should be enough to make them realize that the result is going to be controversial for reasons that have nothing to do with the talk itself. Do they think it edgy and daring? That any attention is worth having? If so, the motivations strike me as less than professional.
  • During the mailing list discussion, most people who supported the policy said that the slides added nothing to the discussion, while those who opposed it said that they made it more effective. Both these responses strike me as intellectually dishonest, because in both opinion is overwhelming critical judgment. Actually, the policy violation and the quality of the talk are two separate issues, although only a few people on either side were capable of making the distinction.
  • At least one commenter insisted that bondage was not sexual. Unless I lack imagination, I think that the only way that you can make this statement is by selective literal-mindedness. It’s true that the bondage slides did not depict an act of sex, and that bondage (I’m told) does not always include sex, but nobody else thinks of that range of behavior as anything but sexual in nature.
  • The same commenter said that the presentation’s contents was not sexual but “adult.” Aside from the fact that “adult” usually seems to mean “adolescent,” this is an excellent example of what Gregory Bateson called “dormitive explanation” (The reference is to a scene in Moliere in which a doctoral candidate says that opium puts people to sleep because it contains a dormitive principle). In other words, it pretends to explain or make a distinction when all it really does is rename.
  • Inevitably, charges of censorship were made during the mailing list discussion, describing the atmosphere as part of “New Salem.” Given the Internet, this argument always seems disingenuous. So one venue prevents you from a form of expression – what does that leave you? A few billion alternatives? People who are organizing and paying for a venue have every right to set the conditions they choose, and anyone who dislikes those conditions is free to go elsewhere. Anyway, the policy only dictates how subject matter is presented, not the subject matter itself.
  • Another defense was that what is offensive is subjective. In some cases, that may be true, but I noticed that this defense was made in the abstract. That was probably because the slides themselves were not a borderline case. They were in no way comparable to, for example, a slide showing a relevant female authority that, because of the angle of the shot or the lighting, was more revealing than intended.

If these observations add up to anything, I guess it’s the fact that – surprise! – the topic of anti-harassment policies generates a lot of special pleading and intellectually questionable arguments. If someone hasn’t already, they could easily create an anti-harassment policy bingo card, like the ones developed for anti-feminism or rape. I suspect we’re going to hear a lot more of these types of responses in the coming months.

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I am a firm supporter of free and open source software (FOSS). These days, though, I rarely evangelize about FOSS when face to face. While I will argue in favor of FOSS in articles, or in speeches, I hardly ever do so in casual conversation.

Part of the reason for this reticence is politeness, a sense that inflicting my views unasked is bad manners, no matter what the subject or my interest in it. Another part is my anarchistic inclinations; while I have firm beliefs on the subject, I am mostly content to leave other people to their own beliefs, unless they are trying to denigrate mine or inflicting theirs unasked. However, mostly, my reticence is based on my growing conviction that evangelism is rarely effective.

This conviction struck me harder than every the other night, when we were at a gathering at our neighbors’. Another guest asked what I did for a living, and I explained that I was a journalist who wrote about free and open source software. After warning the other guest that I could talk for hours on the subject, I started to explain. I soon had three reactions that I have grown wearily familiar with from past efforts to talk about FOSS.

One female guest frankly refused to believe anything I said. Microsoft did not own her software, she insisted, nor could it record information about her activities or the legality of her software. GNU/Linux couldn’t be free of cost, either. Nor could it be possibly be less prone to malware and viruses than Windows. She was willing to consider the possibilitiy that the Egyptian pyramids were built by aliens, but not a few facts that anyone with an Internet connection can quickly establish.

The second reaction was from the male host. He regularly downloads movies from – let us say – sometimes questionable sources, and has suffered from malware and viruses in the past. At least once, he had to have his computer purged by an expert.

Yet this man thought that the security built-in to GNU/Linux was too much trouble. In fact, he thought that having separate administrative and user accounts was too much trouble. I had helped him set them up on his latest Windows machine, but he had soon changed them so that every account had administrative privileges. I asked him what was so difficult about taking ten seconds to switch accounts, and all he replied was, “I know you think it’s a foolish decision, but for me the security just isn’t worth the effort.”

I started to ask him if he though having an infected machine and having to spend money on software and assistance wasn’t more of an effort, but then the guest who had started the conversation thread announced that the discussion was boring. From the look on several other faces, I realized that, for them it was.

“I guess that’s a hint,” I said with a smile. But, inwardly, I was thinking: These are people who social activists. They are concerned and can speak with some knowledge about the hardships faced by the average Palestinian in the Middle East, the state of education, anti-poverty measures, and environmentalism. Yet none of them could see that I was talking about issues close to their senses of self-identity and about concrete steps they could take to put their ideals in practice in their computing – not even when I spelled out the connection in so many words. They spend hours on the computer most days, yet they did not care about realizing their ideals in their daily life.

Faced with such massive indifference and disbelief, I could either go into full rant mode or keep silent so as not to spoil the evening. I was tired, so I chose not to spoil the evening.

The encounter was not surprising, nor particularly unpleasant. All the same, it and countless similar encounters have made me keep my evangelism quiet. These days, I state my position only when asked, and stop expressing it when other people look bored.

It’s not that I care so much whether people think I’m obsessional. Rather, I hate being branded as such for no useful purpose.

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For eight years, I made most of my income from technical writing. Not the relatively glamorous technical writing involved with writing articles about free and open source software (FOSS) – glamorous, that is, to those who haven’t done it (those of us who have done it are usually considerably less starry-eyed) — but basic how-tos and detailed instructions to accompany hardware and software. Looking back, I must have been reasonably good at the job, since I went from a beginner to a consultant with a sub-contractor in eight months, and kept myself steadily employed most of the time and well-employed much of the time.

Based on that experience, I would like to offer some advice for those who are trying to fill the gaps in FOSS documentation. It’s a thankless job, under-appreciated and laborious, but, if you’re going to attempt it despite all the disincentives, you might as well do it properly. After all, your satisfaction in doing the job properly might easily be your only reward:

  • You must become an expert in what you are writing about: Some professional technical writers pride themselves on being specialists in communication, and feel they don’t need to know the details of what they are writing about. You can always tell manuals done by them, because they are shallow and have large gaps in them. Likewise, you can always tell this type of technical writer, because they’re despised by any developer with whom they work. The truth is that, while you don’t need to be an expert when you start documenting, if you aren’t expert by the time you’re finished, you aren’t doing the job properly.
  • It all comes down to structure: Anybody with average intelligence or better can learn to write a coherent sentence or paragraph. However, structuring several hundred pages is hard work – much harder work than the actual writing. The need to structure is also why you need to become an expert in your subject; if you’re not, how can you know what information to put first, or what’s missing? Don’t be surprised if you spend 50-75% of your time in planning the structure, or if your first outline changes drastically as you work. Both are indications that your work is developing the way that it should.
  • In the majority of cases, the best structure will be a list of tasks, arranged from the most basic or earliest to the most complex or latest: It will almost never be a list of menu items and taskbar icons, except in brief introductions to the interface. This task-orientation is a major reason why you need to be an expert in what you are writing – if you’re not, you won’t have any idea of what users might want to accomplish.
  • Think of your audience as being attention-deficit: Knowing your material is necessary, but it can also make you forget what new users need to hear. The best way to write to the level you need is to project yourself imaginatively into the position of a new user, but, if you can’t manage that, imagine that you are writing for people with low attention spans who are easily bored. The result may spell out the obvious for some readers, but other readers will be glad that you are thorough. Always remember: What is obvious to you isn’t obvious to your readers.
  • Don’t worry about style: In fiction, writers often call attention to their style. By contrast, non-fiction like technical writing is not about you. Your job is to provide simple, clear prose in which you are invisible. And if that sounds boring or unchallenging, you might consider Isaac Asimov’s observation that stain glass windows have been made for over a millennium, while clear glass was a much later development. In many ways, writing simply and clearly is much harder than writing with flourishes and personality. Focus on clarity and content, and let other style considerations take care of themselves. You’ll be surprised how well they work out without you thinking consciously about them.
  • Use structured prose whenever possible:Bullet lists, numbered lists, tables, and callouts on diagrams – all these techniques are conciser and easier to understand than straight prose
  • Your first draft is probably going to be terrible: But that doesn’t matter, so long as it improves by the end. What matters in the first draft is getting something that you or others can analyze for gaps and make estimates about the finished documentation from. Probably, the physical act of writing will be no more than 25% of your time. Often, it will be much less. If you’re planned properly, and begin writing with a thorough understanding, it should almost feel like an afterthought.
  • Don’t mix writing and editing: Writing is a creative process, editing a critical one. If you try to mix the two, you will probably do both poorly. You may also find yourself freezing up and being unable to write because your self-criticism is interfering with your ability to write.
  • Make sure editing is part of your schedule: Editing should not be a last-minuted effort. Instead, accept it as an important part of your schedule. Expect it to fill 10-20% of your time.
  • Editing is about structure as well as words: Editing is not just about spelling or correcting grammar. It’s just as much about the structure of the work.
  • Get second and third opinions: When you have just finished writing, you are probably unable to judge your work effectively. Get other people to review your work in as much detail as possible. If you can’t get other people to review, put the manuscript aside for several days. If you can’t put it aside, print it out, or take a break before returning to it.
  • Expect revisions: Based on my experience teaching first year composition at university, I can say that the average person takes 3 to 4 drafts to produce their best work. You may be naturally talented or reduce that number with practice, but don’t count on either until you have some experience.Make sure you budget the time. You’ll know if your efforts are succeeding if the general trend is that each draft becomes quicker and quicker to write. If that doesn’t happen – especially if you have to keep reinventing the structure or making major additions – then something is probably seriously wrong.

With any given piece of writing, you may not be able to follow each of these pieces of advice. Deadlines in particular may keep you from giving each of these points the attention it needs. But keep all these points in mind, and you will be more likely to write documentation that people actually use, instead of an after-thought to the software that is never used.

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As a journalist, I don’t often come straight out and endorse anything. Having worked as a marketer, I have had a strong reaction against hype of any sort, including my own. Nor is endorsement my style. Anyway, just by writing on an issue, I can often do far more by encouraging others to support it than I could if I were to volunteer time or money. However, every once in a while, a cause comes along that is so obvious worthy that I make an exception.

Take, for example, the Free Software Foundation’s high-priority list. How anyone who is the least interested in free and open source software (FOSS) could not support this cause is almost inexplicable to me.

As you may know, the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and thousands of other groups have been working for years to create a computer environment that users control – one that they can use on as many computers as they want, that doesn’t require registration or activation, and doesn’t report on your activities to the manufacturer without your permission. That environment is almost there, in the form of GNU/Linux and a few other operating systems like FreeBSD. Only a few gaps such as an unecumbered Flash player and 3-D drivers for the leading video cards remain to be done, and they should be ready in a matter of a few years.

The high priority list is a way to call attention to these last remaining gaps in functionality. A couple of weeks ago, the FSF relaunched it as a campaign, soliciting donations to help in the development of the needed applications. These donations will not be used to pay developers directly, but may be used for such purposes as organizing face to face developer sprints to help the projects developing the applications, or to make people aware of the need.

The donations were kicked off by Russell Ossendryver of Worldlabel.com, whom I like to think of as a friend I haven’t met yet. Russell is a small business owner, but believes in free and open source software enough that he has pledged $10,000 to the high priority list.

You can argue over which applications are needed most, and about the content of the list (and the FSF encourages you to submit your thoughts). Very likely, you can’t match Russell’s donation (I can’t myself).

But if you have any interest whatsoever in FOSS, the high-priority list is a matter of getting down to basics. What could be more basic than finishing the free desktop? That’s been the goal all along – not our present 90% free and 10% doing without or compromising with proprietary software for the sake of expediency, but a completely user-controlled desktop. Anyone involved with FOSS who doesn’t donate what they can, or at least join the discussion about what should be on the list should ask some serious questions to themselves about their own sincerity.

With support, the FSF’s relaunching of the high priority list could be one of the major moments in FOSS. What more can I say, except to repeat my request to support it?

And before you ask, yes, I plan to sync my money with my mouth and send my own small cheque before the end of the year. Like I said, this is one time that my usual words in public aren’t enough.

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It’s tough being pure GNU, especially when hardware is involved.

All my workstation computers are custom-built; I like to know exactly what goes into them, and would do the same for laptops, if I could. The last time I bought a workstation, I decided to break my old habit of buying an ATI video card, and buy an NVidia one instead (Never mind the model number, which usually matters less than the manufacturer would have you believe and is irrelevant here).

The switch seemed a good idea at the time. Not only was the ATI market share being reduced so quickly that the company seemed in danger of disappearing, but free and open source drivers for NVidia seemed closer to competion than for ATI. I felt confident in the decision, and settled down to learn the new arcanery of another manufacturer.

Then, last week I turned on the computer to find that yellow artifacts were cycling down the monitor like something out of The Matrix. I managed to boot once without them, only to have them reappear as I settled down to my morning email. Before long, the artifacts were so thick on the screen that I could no longer read anything beneath them, and I had to do an ungraceful shutdown, haunted by the vague guilt felt by those using a journaling filesystem, who know that, when they do finally manage to reboot, they will be confronted by the announcement, “The filesystem is NOT clean.”

Did I mention that it happened on the morning of the day that I do my usual backup, too? The perversity of the universe was apparently set on stun that day.

Some fiddling with my test computer soon showed that the problem was not the monitor, as I originally thought, but the video card.
Since I had bought the computer system thirteen months earlier, I was sure that the warranty would have just expired. To my surprise, it still had almost two years to run, so I took the system into the shop that assembled it for me.

According to the store’s staff, I was far from the only one whose card was suffering from the same problem. Trouble with NVidia cards of several models were becoming widespread, I was told. Fed up, I switched to an ATI card, also taking the opportunity to double the video memory to 512 megabytes.

I had been thinking of video cards as costing three or four times what they actually do; the old price had stuck in my head, just as I automaticallly assume that a paperback will cost five or six dollars – like most people, for me, the natural price for anything is the price they were when I was newly an adult. I also received a trade-in on my old card.

I switched back because, now, the situation is reversed. Since AMD bought ATI last year, ATI has been regaining market share. Moreover, while AMD’s behavior is far from perfect towards free software, it is still friendlier than any other manufacturer. Now, thanks to AMD, ATI free and open source drivers seem likely to mature first before NVidia ones.

So far, I’m satisfied with the swap. Not only does my workstation run faster, but I can use the highest resolution for the monitor, which I never could with the NVidia card. More importantly, although I can’t use an exact driver for the card, I can use a free one that has at least some degree of support for 3-D, without resorting to an archaic driver like VESA.

All the same, I can’t help thinking that I would probably have had a less troublesome week had I not tried to second guess how the market would react with free software and stuck with my original preference.

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Much to my bemusement, I see that James Maguire has listed this blog as one of the top 200 technology blogs, in the GNU/Linux/ Free and Open Source category.

James is my editor at Datamation, who shows amazing toleration for my inability to edit my own work, so I already know him for a decent sort. So, I figure he just needed to round out the spaces he had allotted for the category. Not that I don’t appreciate the honor, but I can see myself clearly enough to know that I don’t deserve it.

For one thing, look at the company I’m keeping. My entries here certainly aren’t a match for the varied articles at Linux.com, which is also on the list. Nor do they come close to the combination of astute legal analysis and wonky opinion on Groklaw. As for equating my efforts here with the industry analysis in the blogs of Mark Shuttleworth, Jim Zemlin, or Matt Assay – no way, man, as we used to say in my increasingly distant youth. I mean, I didn’t call this blog “Off the Wall” at random, you know what I mean?

What is really ironic is that, when I started this blog, I intended it as a place where I could write about things other than free and open source software. At the very most, it would be a sandbox for ideas that weren’t ready to be articles, or ones that I didn’t think I could sell. Nor do I often write on such topics, although I have plenty to say about my life as a journalist who covers such topics.

Yet, if I’m being honest, I have to admit that, when I do cover free and open source topics directly, the posts attract an entire order of magnitude more readers than my other topics. And I mean that literally, without any exaggeration whatsoever. So, maybe James is right, and this is a technology blog after all.

Anyway, I was taught that, if someone pays you a compliment, you say thanks and smile warmly – especially if the compliment isn’t true. So, that’s exactly what I’m going to do, figuratively speaking.

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When I was a boy, I imagined that one day I might become so skilled as a writer that I would silence all the critics. I was very young, and, of course naive. But I can’t help remembering that dream now that I am a writer and have made some permanent enemies as a result of my modest success.

Even now, I’m close enough to the dreaming boy whom I once was that the word “enemy” sounds melodramatic, even paranoid. Yet what other word can I apply to people who imagine that I am always writing about them, and who spend an inordinate amount of time not only bad-mouthing me, but writing abusive posts and emails to repudiate my opinions? “Critic” or “detractor” might do, but neither word suggests the fury or the personal rancor of these people. So I suppose “enemy” will have to do.

Still, no matter what word I use, the idea of having enemies bemuses me. I seem to be such a poor hater that I have trouble imagining dislike in others. And, to be honest, when I first became aware of the fact, I was taken by surprise. Until about a year ago, I had had a gentle reception as a journalist. Very little of the attacks that other free software journalists have endured had come my way, and never from steady, identifiable sources. So I hardly knew how to react to the situation.

However, over the last six months, I’ve developed a habit of ignoring them. I won’t mention them by name in public, nor respond to their comments. In fact, I very rarely read anything they write, regardless of whether it’s about me or not; with all the intelligent and informative material about free software on the web, why should I waste my time? Most of what I hear about them comes in passing second hand references, or from reading a link on a portal site.

Yet, almost despite myself, I can’t help learning a little about my enemies. For example, I can’t help noticing that none of them seem to be contributors to any free software projects. Moreover, the other people whom they attack (my enemies being very far from discriminating) are among the leaders of the community, and hard workers as well, even if I often don’t share their opinions or think their energies misplaced. So, while I would rather not be among those my enemies focus upon, I suppose their attention is a wry compliment to my articles. After all, if I was completely unsuccessful in expressing myself or providing unusual or thoughtful arguments, then they probably wouldn’t bother with me.

But, even more importantly, when I do come across the writing of my enemies – regardless of whether it’s about me or some other straw man of the day – I’m starting to find that they help define me in a negative way. Just as, in the 1970s being on Richard Nixon’s enemy list was a sign that you were an effective social activist, so being a target of these kinds of people helps me to define the sort of person and writer that I want to be – in essence, everything that is the opposite of them.

For starters, I have no wish for prolonged flame wars. I might toss off an angry reply, or even a second one, but, after that, I can’t sustain the emotion. There are so many more interesting ways to spend my time that I quickly lose interest.

For another, while most of my writing about free software is advocacy journalism in the sense that, by choosing my specialty, I am implying that the subject is worthy of attention, I have no interest in attack journalism (I suppose that comes from getting enough sleep and not being wired on coffee all the time). I can disagree with a person or a corporate policy very well without any need to denounce explicitly. In the end, I would much rather stand for something than against something.

Anyway, if I present the facts accurately enough, I don’t need to condemn – if someone or something is unpleasant, the fact will come through without me belaboring the point.

Even more importantly, while I wince at typos and factual errors, taking them as proof of my own carelessness, I am far more concerned about logical errors. I don’t believe that, just because you find a tenuous connection to Microsoft that you have proved a conspiracy, or that simply because one event follows another that the first caused the second. I try very hard to keep an open mind as I research a story, which is why I usually can’t say the perspective I am taking until shortly before I start to write. I believe that quotes and other evidence needs to be taken in context, not jammed anywhichway into my existing beliefs as if I were some remote descendant of Procrustes. You don’t arrive at the truth by over-simplification or jumping to conclusions; you get there by acknowledging as much of the complexity as you possibly can.

But perhaps the biggest difference between my enemies and me is that I don’t think that my writing is all about me. When I sit down to write, my goal is cover the topic thoroughly, and support any opinions I state so that they are plausible to a fair-minded person. However, I rarely write to justify myself when I’m reporting on free software, nor do I expect everyone to agree with me. In fact, those who disagree with me often force me into a more nuanced and therefore more accurate view of the subject. In the end, my goal is to send off a finished article with what Balzac called “clean hands and composure” — by which I mean the knowledge that, given my material and time restraints, I have done the best job of expressing my point that I could.

Sometimes, I wish my enemies would find another target and leave me alone. Increasingly, though, I find myself accepting the fact that they are not going away in a hurry, even thinking that they are useful to me. For all the annoyance they provoke, they are examples of the sort of person and writer that I do not wish to be. So long as I act in the exact opposite way that they do, I can continue to be a person with whom I can live.

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