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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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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:

http://www.linuxpromagazine.com/online/blogs/off_the_beat_bruce_byfield_s_blog/the_calgary_open_source_symposium_festival_cossfest_2009

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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.

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Once you’ve been an instructor, the habit of teaching is hard to break. That fact, as much as anything, explains why I am not only attending the Open Web Vancouver conference this year, but giving a talk entitled, “Working with the free software media.” Moreover, since Peter Gordon and Audrey Foo, the main organizers of the conference, are kind enough to let me in on a media pass to wander the conference and buttonhole presenters, I feel that’s the least I can do. And considering that I can’t code well enough to say anything worthwhile about programming, and the social aspects of the open web are already being presented by others, I may as well talk about what I know best.

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.

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The fallout from my blog entry, “Conspiracy theorists and free software” continues. With all the people baying for my blood – some of whom, frankly, sound disingenuous in their demands for proof – the entry could easily take over my life, so in the last couple of days, I’ve withdrawn from active discussion of it. Frankly, the discussion is not that interesting to me, and (mercenary soul that I am), if I’m going to participate in more than my courtesy two email exchange with people, I’m going to get paid for doing so. And probably I will in a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, since I have an unexpected free half hour as I wait for a call to be returned, I’ve been reflecting on the various reactions the piece received.

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.

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No one can be involved in the free software community to any extent without stumbling across conspiracy theorists. Like the mad wife in the attic, they’re an embarrassment to the community, clinging to attitudes appropriate to the days when free software was new and vulnerable, and providing an easy means for outsiders to discredit the rest of the community. They can also waste a lot of your time if you let them, so you should learn how to identify them for your own sake.

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.

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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

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