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Posts Tagged ‘FLOSS’

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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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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“There’s no gods, and there’s precious few heroes,

But there’s many on the dole in the land of the leal.”

-Brian McNeil

Over the years, I have learned to avoid meeting heroes and role-models. I don’t think it’s fair to project expectations on anybody. Just as importantly, the meeting is almost always disappointing. Either the gap between the expectations and the reality is too great, or, in order to become the sort of person who might be a hero, people have developed a callousness and disregard for others of which I strenuously disapprove.

Fortunately, I’ve never been much prone to hero-worship. Most of the celebrities that popular culture gossips about leave me indifferent, just as the handful I admire – generally, artists of various sorts or free and open source software (FOSS) contributors — would leave the average person indifferent. Besides, being well into middle-age, I’m past the point where I might need heroes as an example.

Occasionally, meeting heroes does turn out well. Linus Torvalds instantly gained my approval when I suddenly realized after fifteen minutes whom I was talking to, and that he had made no attempt to play celebrity. I will always appreciate, too, David Brin’s graciousness when I made a remark about “the days when the Nebula Awards meant something,” and he immediately replied, “I thought that way, too, until I won one.” As for Paul Edwin Zimmer, my rehearsed remark led to a three hour conversation on the floor of a convention hotel and a life-long friendship.

By contrast, Paul’s sister, Marion Zimmer Bradley, disappointed me so badly that, after meeting her, I could never read her books again. I was surprised that, when I talked about the depth she had added to some of her recent publications, she attributed the change entirely to being able to write longer manuscripts. Now, I wonder if she simply wasn’t willing to talk about her work in any detail, but in subsequent meetings, she proved so gruff and abrupt that my disillusionment was beyond repair, even when her extended family assured me that her behavior was “just Marion being Marion.”

Then there was the FOSS celebrity who saw their ego as the center of everything around them. They were undoubtedly sincere in their advocacy, but the way they twisted every conversation around to themselves quickly progressed from mildly amusing to teeth-grindingly annoying. It didn’t help that in their endless quest for personal celebrity, they would often assume an authority nobody had granted them, and claim to speak for the entire project with which we were both involved – especially since I usually had to clean up after them.

Still another FOSS celebrity, whom many respect, proved a borderline personality, hypocritical and full of their own importance that I came to realize that interacting with them would only be a nagging annoyance, and they would be unlikely to succeed in their latest project anyway.

My disillusion in such cases doesn’t come from the fact that people are human. Rather, it comes from the fact that they make no effort to be decent human beings while aspiring to special treatment. Unlike the rest of us, they appear to have missed the lesson most intelligent people learn during their first semester at university – that they are not necessarily the smartest people in a conversation.

I have lost none of the aspirations that usually lead people to hero-worship. But I have become skeptical that anybody deserves to be considered heroic. These days, I cultivate admiration for specific accomplishments, rather than for the people who carry them out, and generally find myself becoming less disillusioned as result.

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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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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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