Posts Tagged ‘Free Software’

A few moments ago, I changed the flapper tank ball on the toilet. That would be an unpromising beginning for a blog entry, except for the unwarranted satisfaction I took from the job. Not that the repair needed a plumber, but I grew up thinking that I wasn’t the least bit handy. The fact that I am now in any way competent at home repairs I attribute largely to over a decade of using free and open source software.

So far as I remember, nobody ever told me I was clumsy in so many works as I was growing up. But, with one thing and another, I certainly received that impression. For one thing, I am left-handed, and, while like many lefties, I am necessarily more ambidextrous than the rest of the population, to the average eye, I looked clumsy. More importantly, I usually had to reverse any demonstrations I was given, an effort that few young children can successfully make, no matter how bright they happen to be. Consequently, I was a long time learning to tie my shoes or swim – which only justified everybody thinking me clumsy – including me.

Probably, I wasn’t helped, either by the fact that I tried to compensate for my clumsiness by being energetic and aggressive when I played sports. These traits gave me a rough and ready ability, but I wasn’t initially chosen for the school soccer team in Grade Six, or as one of the Saturday morning players tapped for going into the premier division a few years later. I only learned the skills a soccer player needs to control the ball or work with a team a few years later.

Besides, I was bookish and liked academic subjects in school. Naturally I wasn’t supposed to have any physical skills as well. That would have been against all the laws of stereotyping.

Consequently, between one thing or another, I grew up thinking myself uncoordinated – a self image that, unsurprisingly, often made me just that. Whenever I tried anything new, I expected to do it poorly, so often I did.
Once, when I called myself a slow learner, a teacher replied, “Yeah, but I bet than when you do learn, you don’t forget it.” But that was not much compensation.

It was only when I became a university instructor and later a technical writer that I realized another source of my clumsiness: Most people are terrible teachers, even when they teach for a living. Few have the patience to work with beginners. Even fewer can remember the days when they were beginners. Inevitably, they leave out important steps when they try to instruct, or fail to mention what to do in unusual circumstances. Probably, the main reason why I taught English and wrote manuals successfully is that I tried to give students and users the instructions that I would need myself.

But the real revelation came as I started using GNU/Linux as my main operating system. Like everybody else, using Windows had taught me how to be helpless. The default resources discouraged me from exploring Windows, and the information I needed was mostly lacking.

GNU/Linux, though, is different. It is designed for users to poke about and configure. If you run into trouble, help is only an Internet search away.

Without making any conscious decision, or being aware of what was happening, slowly I started to learn how to troubleshoot. I learned that very little I could do would harm my installation, much less cause the motherboard to belch flames, as I half-feared. All I had to do was observe, take a few precautions, and work systematically, and I could do far more than I had ever imagined when I was a Windows user.

Gradually, I transferred this same mind-set to other parts of my life. To my surprise, I found that it was usually just as applicable to home repairs as those on the computer.

I won’t say that I have any particular talent for handiwork. But, somewhere along the line, I stopped thinking of myself as clumsy. I no longer approach every new physical task with the expectation of failure, and, far more often than not, I succeed at it. Even on those occasions when a real expert is needed, I often understand what the problem is . A surprising amount of the time, I just lack the tools or the parts to do the job myself.

This personal change is one of the biggest reasons that I am committed to free software. Using Windows only reinforced my belief in my own incompetence at fixing or improving things. By contrast, free software proved to my that I was capable of far more than I had ever imagined.

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“I am not altogether on anybody’s side, because nobody is altogether on my side.”
– Treebeard in The Lord of the Rings

I despise over-simplification, so I’m often in a state of ambiguity. In fact, I’m there so often that I’m considering applying for citizenship and a passport. But I find myself saddened to be in that state where the new site Boycott Boycott Novell (BBN) is concerned.

As you probably know, Boycott Novell is a site that is notorious in free software and open source circles for its hatred of Microsoft and Novell, the ability of its writers to jump to pre-determined conclusions at the expense of logic or grammar, and the viciousness of its personal attacks. Some people find it entertaining, but I prefer to avoid it because of these characteristics.

Also, I am semi-regularly attacked on the site. A few times, I’ve answered back, but mostly I can’t be bothered.

Under these circumstances, I was amused when David “Lefty” Schlesinger’s Boycott Boycott Novell was suddenly revealed last week. Schlesinger was one of the few other men who shared my opinions about the sexism in the community, and for the first few days I enjoyed the site’s skewering of Boycott Novell and Sam Varghese, a journalist who is, if anything, even nastier than Boycott Novell – and is even fonder of attacking me.

I was not altogether comfortable that BBN is dedicated to attacking people, but I thought its targets could only blame themselves for receiving some of their own back. Besides, BBN is better written and has a higher regard for logic and evidence than its targets.

If BBN had stopped there, it might have proved a real service to the community. Too often, such voices go uncountered, possibly because everyone hopes they will go away if ignored. But BBN didn’t stop there.

Instead, Schlesinger posted an article reviving the old discussions about using “GNU/Linux” rather than “Linux.” When I suggested (as politely as I knew how) that digging up old grievances was not the best use of the site, Schlesinger replied with comments about the Free Software Foundation that suggested that he saw it as little different from the Boycott Novell crowd. The free software movement, he suggested, was fully of zealots at all levels.

These remarks were followed by a guest post about the negativity of the Free Software Foundation and an anonymous picture of Richard Stallman as Ivan the Terrible. Looking at that picture and thinking disparaging thoughts about its artist, who refused to sign it, I realized that BNN had quickly developed an obsessional tone that contained too many echoes of its namesake.

Instead of being the debunking site I had hoped, BNN was revealing itself as sharing something of the obsessional tendencies of Boycott Novell. Boycott Novell almost certainly had jumped to conclusions to suggest that Schlesinger and his supporters were motivated by their support of Mono and other Microsoft-inspired technology, but it does seem reasonable to conclude that the site was a place where people who self-identified themselves as open source advocates were attacking and ridiculing free software and the Free Software Foundation.

Since I am a free software supporter myself, I find this tendency distasteful. More importantly, though, BNN seems inconsistent to decry personal attacks and obsession while showing similar tendencies.

But what really disturbed me was the apparent willingness of BBN to operate on spite. If half what I hear is true, then Schlesinger can hardly be expected to be fond of Stallman. Yet I fail to see what yet another a site at least partly dedicated to venting spite can achieve.

The community of free and open source software is too divided already. Too many are increasing those divisions instead of trying to find common ground. It is as though more than the names of the two sites suggested an infinite regression, as though Boycott Novell and Boycott Boycott Novell were mirror images of each other, reflecting each others’ spitefulness. BBN’s writers, so fact as I can see, have yet to understand that stooping to the same level as its enemy robs the site’s writers of any claim to moral superiority.

Perhaps I expected too much after BBN’s promising start. After all, it is a new site, and could still manage to settle down into a kind of Snopes.com for free and open source software. But it looks like another occasion for ambiguity, with me enjoying the skewering of those who deserve it and disliking the anti-free software rants.

I can’t deny that both are part of BBN, so I suppose I’ll have to accept the fact. But I think I can appreciate it more if I delete the site’s bookmark and stop visiting it regularly. Already, I regret the few comments I made on the site, knowing that some people will take them as a sign of approval. As things are, they’d only be half-right.

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Life has been interesting since I wrote a piece called ”Sexism: Open Source Software’s Dirty Little Secret” for Datamation a couple of weeks ago. I won’t go into details, but, since then, replies pros and cons have occupied a disproportionate amount of my time. The supportive replies are gratifying, if embarrassing, but what really disheartens me is the dreary sameness of the hostile responses. Free software, I like to think, attracts intelligent and rational people. So why are so many of the hostile responses so supremely illogical?

Let’s start with Sam Varghese’s reply to my article. After making some sensible points about the current background to the issue, such as the upcoming mini-summit on women in free software Varghese misrepresents me by saying that I have already concluded that sexism exists in FOSS. In fact, I have simply looked at a set of figures that shows a surprisingly low proportion of women in free software – a figure far too low to be the result of margin of error or in any way ambiguous – and concluded a systemic bias. Correlation, of course, is not the same as causation, but when a trend is so pronounced, causation does become a leading hypothesis.

Varghese is on better logical ground when he examines the figures I cited. However, while he validly suggests that the higher figures of female involvement for proprietary development might include women who are not directly involved with coding, he neglects to consider that many roles in FOSS are also not directly involved with coding, such as documentation or user assistance.

However, Varghese’s article seems a model of reason besides one written by Hans Bezemer. What is especially fascinating about Bezemer’s piece is how many logical fallacies and inconsistencies it squeezes into such a small space.

Bezemer gets off to a false start by framing the debate in terms of either-or: Either we have free will and can change our behavior, or we don’t. In such complex questions, coming down entirely on one side is an over-simplification that creates distortion. In particular, he classifies all feminist thought as having the same basic underpinning of assumptions about free will — something that nobody who had actually read any feminists could possibly believe, and that renders anything else he says untrustworthy.

Bezemer continues by making a biological appeal to authority. We can’t do anything about sexism, he declares, because gender differences are innate. I am not sure whether he also lacks knowledge of biology or hopes that his opponents do, but, once again, matters are nowhere near as simple as he suggests. But, by pretending that they are, he tries to close off discussion.

Bezemer then stoops to ad hominem arguments — attacks on the people holding views he disagrees with, rather than on their arguments. He does so by implying that they are attempting to impose “political correctness,” a label that is meant to be both dismissive and demeaning, and leave the impression that the views of his opponents are valueless. Yet what is being asked? Only the same basic level of professionalism that is required in any modern workplace. Or, to put things another way, common decency.

But perhaps Bezemer doesn’t want to oppose common decency in public. So, instead he weakens his argument still further by implying that his opponents hold views that they have never expressed. “Unless a huge number of males quit making FOSS software,” he says, “that ratio is not going to change – no matter what.”

Of course, this comment ignores that the ratio has changed in several projects that have attracted seven or eight times more women than free software as a whole. But the real point is, where has anyone suggested that men should quit projects? The idea is entirely Bezemer’s. Apparently, either the idea of feminism in free software raises the specter of affirmative action in his mind, or else he wants to raise the specter in other people’s minds. Either way, the suggestion is not the highest-minded part of his argument.

Bezemer winds down by saying that “only coding matters,” and that women who want to contribute to free software should simply do so. Unfortunately, his generosity is belied by his apparent need to write an anti-feminist piece. If only coding matters to him, then why does he ignore the issue? Why would he try so hard to debunk an issue that could be preventing more code contributions? If code contributions are really that important to him, then why is he not doing everything in his power to encourage more?

Bezemer then concludes with two classic bits of evasion. First, he insists that he is not sexist, although his eagerness to see gender differences where the evidence is spotty and contradictory suggests otherwise. Then, he reverses himself and says that people can call him sexist if they want, but should let people like him do their own thing. “We’re people, too, you know,” he says, neatly turning himself into the victim.

In the end, while both Varghese and Bezemer claim some sympathy with the aspirations of female contributors to free software, in both cases their articles amount to a plea to leave things as they are. Both are defending the status quo and any sexism that might be involved in it.

But, just to complicate things, I suspect that both are moved to write at least in part because of their dislike for me. As a quick search on our names can quickly prove, both Bezemer and Varghese dislike me, and criticize me whenever possible, sometimes even to the extent of contradicting or reversing a previous stand. I have no idea what Varghese’s motivation is, and I will spare Bezemer the embarrassment of explaining his possible motivations, but I strongly suspect that both partly oppose efforts to combat sexism simply because I support them.

Still, I urge everyone to read these two bits of anti-feminism. If you don’t already recognize the classic counter-arguments when anyone objects to sexism, you can learn them very quickly from these two articles.

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Nine months ago, Linux.com stopped publishing. Four months later, the announcement came that its web address had been bought by the Linux Foundation. The change wasn’t the end of independent news about the free and open source software (FOSS)community, but it has left a gap that is still unfilled. And, although as a ex-stringer for Linux.com, my bias is obvious, I can’t help thinking that the community is poorer for it.

Don’t get me wrong: Under the Linux Foundation, Linux.com is far more of a community site than the old version ever was, and often more imaginative, too. I’ve written the occasional article for the new version of the site, and hope to write more for it in the future. But the Linux Foundation has never pretended to be interested in a news site, and it runs far more how-tos than news stories. When it does run news, it tends to mention the bare facts, and add some off-the-cuff commentary. The new site simply has different priorities from the old.

Other news sites exist, but many of them appear to be limping along on starvation budgets. Most stories on Linux Planet and Linux Today are recycled, with the exception of editorials and blog entries by editor Carl Schroder. Datamation and Linux Pro Magazine publish only a few new stories online each week. The Heise publishes more, but is spotty in its coverage, and rarely has stories of more than five hundred words. The most consistent producer of new stories is LWN, and its stories are handicapped by the fact that the site publishes its main edition weekly, which means that its in-depth coverage tends to be confined to ongoing rather than breaking news.

Possibly, I’ve missed one or two sites. Also, some blogs or planets provide news and insightful commentary in their own limited subject matter. Yet the fact remains: the FOSS community has less independent news than it had a year ago.

No doubt some people in the community are hardly aware of the fact. They are busy with their own projects and jobs, and have only a passing interest in what is happening in the rest of the community. Still, from the countless comments I’ve had from people who assume that I’ve disappeared, the old Linux.com was where much of the community went to be informed, and they haven’t moved to the other news sites (if they had, they would know where I’ve been, because I’ve written for most of the other sites in the last nine months).

This lack of news concerns me – and not just as a writer who might benefit if the situation changed. The FOSS community is a complex, quickly changing place, and reliable sources of information can help it to function. Although news sites cannot cover everything, and their selection of what to cover may mean that some events are omitted or under-emphasized, they make the effort of keeping informed much easier for each of their readers. Without news sites, keeping informed requires much more effort. In effect, the sites make the effort for all their readers.

Nor is that a bad thing, so long as the sites make good faith efforts to be thorough and uphold journalistic integrity. If they sometimes make mistakes, they will also publish followups. If they publish a commentary expressing one side of a controversial subject, the next week they may publish another commentary that gives the other side. Although individual articles may fail to meet the highest standards, the overall result of having news site is a better informed community – and an informed community, of course, is essential for the proper functioning of a democratic, grassroots organization like FOSS.

Theoretically, blogs could fill the current gap in news sites. And, in practice, that is where many community members are probably turning. But, while I have nothing against blogs (obviously, or I wouldn’t be writing one), they are only a partial substitute for a news site with journalistic standards.

Blogs can announce news, and comment on it. However, with few exceptions, their writers are less likely than journalists to investigate news, or attempt to balance their sources. Most blogs tend to be short on detail, and to miss nuance. All too easily, they serve to repeat rumors and half-truths that a journalist is more likely to investigate and debunk as necessary. Few bloggers even attempt to uphold journalistic standards, which means that you frequently have to be familiar with the blogger’s previous works before knowing if they are a trustworthy source of information. As flawed as journalism often is, at its best, it holds to higher standards than bloggers and is more reliable overall.

As both a reader and a journalist, I would like to see the gap in FOSS news site filled. The question is, how is that possible? So long as they are under budgetary restraints, the remnant news sites are unlikely to increase their coverage. A group of writers might start a new site, but they would need to have other income while they built audience and revenue. Could an investor or a philanthropist help without compromising the independence of a new site?

The question has no easy answer. However, the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that finding any answer is important.

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The other evening, we received a call from someone we knew fifteen years ago. We hadn’t heard from him for several years, and, while we had nothing particular against him, we were content to drift out of touch. But there he was, a disembodied voice bringing up names that these days we hardly thought of from one year to the next, and urging that we should get back in touch with people with whom we no longer had anything in common. The experience was sad and guilt-provoking in equal measure. At the same time, I resented it, because our caller believed he still had the right to make demands on us.

All in all, it was a perfect example of what American fantasist Harlan Ellison once called taking a tour through his life. He meant, as you can probably figure out, somebody leaping to conclusions about how he thought or felt, then acting upon them rather than responding to what he actually said or did.

I don’t have one-fortieth of the name recognition that Ellison had in his heyday, but as a writer who publishes mostly online, I have people taking tours through my life all the time. They miss the sarcasm, take a phrase out of context, or misread, and then they take me to task for what they imagine I said or believe.

For example, once when I did a brief commentary in which I suggested that a woman-only distribution of GNU/Linux might be worth trying. Among other things, I wrote, “I’m not a great believer in the idea that women are less aggressive than or interact differently from men. Yet even I have to admit that most of the regulars on free software mailing lists for women are politer and more supportive than the average poster on general lists.” Then one of the commenters inferred that I must be single and a loner who knew nothing about women, because they obviously were different from men. He apparently stopped reading with the first sentence of the passage, and was willing to blast me on the basis of his incomplete understanding. Never mind that another five seconds’ reading might have prevented his mistake and public embarrassment.

As an ex-university teacher who tried to encourage careful and sympathetic reading among students, my first impulse is to correct such statements as politely as I can. However, experience has taught me that the effort is usually a waste of time. Nobody likes being proved wrong at the best of times, but, when they are also proved incompetent, most people become defensive and angry. I save everybody’s time and keep my blood pressure lower if I don’t respond, or, at the very most, stop the email exchange after my second message.

That probably leaves the commenter thinking that they’ve won, but I can live with that. I don’t know them, after all.

But some tourists through my life are not simply on a self-conducted tour, but trying to sell other people tickets as well. There’s only two or three of them, but they spend a surprising amount of time on their blogs and web sites attacking me for what I did or didn’t do, or for what they imagine I said.

Why they attack me in particular, I have no idea. Maybe it’s because I write online and seem accessible.

What disturbs me about these tour guides is not that they disagree with me. They have every right to do so. Occasionally, they even point out actual mistakes (although they frequently confuse the concepts of “mistake” and “different opinion”). It is not even their relentless anger (explicable to me only as too much caffeine and too little sleep), their refusal to follow even the basics of civilized discussion, or the question of why they don’t write about someone important.

Rather, what disturbs me is the cognitive dissonance that sets in when I read their comments about me or my articles. Possibly, they get carried away by their own rhetoric, but the image they present of me or my articles is so far from any possible perspective that I can’t even call it a distortion. I suspect they are projecting an image drawn from their own imagination or systematic misreadings and over-simplifications. A Microsoft shill or dupe? A writer who is one with Dan Lyons and Laura Didio? Considering that an even larger group of readers identify me as completely biased to the free software school of thought, these accusations would be laughable if only they were not so humorless and ill-natured.

Emotionally, what they say about me has no resonance whatsoever. It simply strikes me as bizaare.

When I first started receiving these attacks, I used to respond to them, thinking that I couldn’t let such outrageous comments stand unchallenged. But doing so, I quickly found, is an even bigger waste of time than responding to those on the self-guided tours. The tour-guides never give in.

For these reasons, I rarely read the tour-guides. The occasional pingback to my blog or a note from a friend tells me that they are still out there, but I mostly catch only snippets of their latest rants. I tell myself that to be known as someone attacked by such people is a mark of honor, and, considering their other targets in the free software community (many of whom I’ve met and liked, although not always agreed with), I should consider their attacks a sign of distinction, no matter how undeserved.

But increasingly, just as with the former friend who called, when I happen across the tour-guides, what echoes inside my head is Ellison’s reply to the similar people in his own life:

“I don’t know you, and you don’t know me.”

And I, for one, am very content to keep things that way.

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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:


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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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I wrote for Linux.com for five years, so anything I say about the transfer of the site from SourceForge to the Linux Foundation is hopelessly biased. Still, while I wish the Linux Foundation every success with its new community-oriented version of the site and hope to do some writing for it, I am sorry to hear that the new site will not be focusing on journalism. The free and open source software (FOSS) community had something special in Linux.com, and many people don’t seem to recognize what’s been lost.

Quite simply, the old Linux.com site and its sister-site NewsForge were the largest source of original news in the FOSS community. That is not just bias, but objective fact. The FOSS community has other sources of original material (and I’m pleased to write for them), incuding Datamation, Linux Journal, and Linux Planet, but only LWN is in the same league as the old Linux.com’s average of four stories per day, plus one one two on weekends.

And these weren’t just links to other stories, or quick rewrites of news releases, the sort of content that you find on many technology sites. These were independently researched stories, ranging from breaking news and opinion pieces to how-tos and reviews, each averaging 800 to 1200 words.

Even more importantly, the quality of Linux.com stories was consistently high, thanks to the general policies of editor-in-chief Robin “roblimo” Miller and the copy editing skills of executive editor Lee Schlesinger and his various assistants over the years. Sometimes, a regular contributor slipped up, or a new one published a shoddy piece, or the submissions didn’t include enough pieces to maintain both the highest standards and the busy publishing schedule, but the overall quality surprisingly high (I’m talking about other people’s work here, you understand, and saying nothing one way or the other about my own).

Again, this statement is not just bias. If you don’t have time to re-read the archive (which I’m grateful to hear that the Linux Foundation will preserve), consider some of the people who wrote for Linux.com: Chris Preimesberger, who moved to eWeek; Joe “Zonker” Brockmeier, now community manager for openSUSE; Lisa Hoover, now a successful freelancer, or award-winning writer Joe Barr, who died at his workstation last summer.

And that list is just the start of a list of regulars that includes such writers as Nathan Willis, Dimitri Popov, Susan Linton, Ben Martin, Federico Kereki, and Marco Fioretti. Not every successful writer covering FOSS and technology had a stint at Linux.com – not by any means – but a surprising number did, and I think they were better for the experience and the consistent market for their work.

Both Robin and Lee might be embarrassed if I called Linux.com a center of excellence, but that’s what it was, and my own experience shows that. Virtually everything I know about journalism, I know from selling stories to Linux.com. I learned journalistic ethics from Robin and impartiality, pitching a story, and structure from interacting with Lee. I learned editorial writing from the example of Joe Barr, and how to cover breaking news by being given a chance to try it.

Five years ago, if anyone had told me that I would be writing and selling some twenty thousand words per month and surviving as a freelance writer, I wouldn’t have believed them. But, thanks largely to my experience at Linux.com, I do. Linux.com taught me so well that I have even managed to survive its end as a news site – sometimes less comfortably than I did when it was a going concern, and scrambling more as I write for half a dozen editors, but surviving all the same.

Some readers criticized Linux.com for not being blindly supportive of everything and everyone claiming the FOSS label, or for not sharing their opinions. Others mistook covering a topic for support of it. But what such readers failed to understand, and what made Linux.com important for the FOSS community was its honesty. You might disagree with what writers said on the site (I frequently did), but you could trust that they were giving an honest opinion, uninfluenced by advertisers, counter-opinions from editors, or even their general sympathies for FOSS. You could trust, too, that, except in obvious commentary, they were making a good faith effort at fairness (whether or not they achieved it), and not engaging in the demagoguery that passes for journalism on some other kinds of sites. This truth-oriented journalism is more important to a community than blind reinforcement of basic tenets, because it genuinely and reliably informs in the short run, and, in the long run, becomes a first draft of history.

I knew three months ago that Linux.com was being transferred to the Linux Foundation, but I have been under non-disclosure until now. In the mean time, I’ve moved on, writing for other sites and expanding my existing association with other sites. But, the news of the transfer brings the regret back to me, and I wonder if SourceForge ever knew the value of what it had.

Still, looking back, I’m proud to have been accepted as part of Linux.com, and to have learned the writing trade there. I couldn’t have asked for a better school in which to learn.

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For a freelancer, complacency can mean loss of income. This is a lesson that freelancers can never hear too many times – and one that I apparently need repeated more than most. A few weeks after I blogged about how I had managed to replace the income I lost with the closing of Linux.com with other assignments, I found some of those assignments failing, and suddenly found myself scrambling to replace them.

Fortunately, the job-hunting skills I’d learned as a communications and marketing consultant soon paid off.

As before, basic survival wasn’t an issue. We had income for basic survival, and, since we own our townhouse and have never lived beyond our means, we had no worries about debt. All the same, the situation was disconcerting. I thought I’d solved the income problem.

The problem arose because of two clients. In the first case, the client had at first seemed willing to commit to two stories per week from me. However, after a few weeks, they confessed what I had already concluded from their actions: That they were unable or unwilling to take more than one story per week.

In the second cases, the editor forgot that they had agreed to take two stories from me in February, and budgeted the money instead for articles from other people. Since this was a short term arrangement, it wasn’t as important as the first one, but it was still the first time that an editor had reneged on me for any reason, so it came as a shock. For one thing, I rather liked the editor, and preferred to think well of them. For another, I had counted on having a month to figure out a replacement for that income. Coming on top of the other case and some personal bad news that I choose to keep private, it felt like one damned thing after another.

For a day or so, the situation got to me. I even went so far as to consider revising my resumes and looking for straight work. Despite the recession, the work for writers, editors, and instructors of my experience were plentiful in the Vancouver area, but it all seemed dull and routine compared to what I have accustomed to in the last four years.

Then common sense took me by the scruff of the neck. There were still plenty of outlets for free and open source software articles that I hadn’t got around to trying. I spent an afternoon on the Internet learning about the potential clients (something no freelancer or job-hunter should ever neglect), and prioritizing them according to how their needs compared with my areas of knowledge, the size of their audience (which is often found on pages for advertisers), and, where possible, how much they pay per article.

The next morning, I started phoning. I could have emailed, and my queries easier on my nerves, but, for serious business conversations, there’s still nothing as direct as a phone call. Hearing a voice is personal in a way that email or even chat isn’t, which makes a phone call a way to distinguish yourself from anyone else and have yourself remembered.

To my surprise, I appear to have been lucky the first time out. Details are still being worked out, but I expect to be doing an online blog and a print column, as well as contributing other articles.

You’ll have to imagine me dancing around my living room and pumping my fist in the air (or maybe you shouldn’t; it isn’t a pretty site).
But, while I’m glad of the respite, I hope I’ve learned my lesson. I can’t say that I don’t make the same mistake twice, but I hope to say that I won’t make it three times. I still have other a prioritized list of markets (something I should have readied a long time ago), and, if any other client disappears on me, I’m ready to find replacements.

Given the current economic conditions, I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ll have a use for that list again in the next few months. But, so far, I can still repeat what I said in my earlier post: Freelancers are better equipped to survive the recession than most – and should generally survive better.

Now, though, I would add: A few job-hunting skills don’t hurt, either.

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I have interviewed Richard Stallman and other members of the Free Software Foundation often enough that he remembers my name (no small feat, I’m sure, considering the hundreds he meets each year). Once or twice, I think, in talking about parrots and folk music, I may have caught a personal glimpse of him. But, even if I haven’t, I generally support the Free Software Foundation. So, when Richard Stallman spoke the other night at the Maritime Labour Centre in Vancouver, I wasn’t going to see what he is really like, or to hear his arguments. I went to see his public persona, and to observe how other people reacted to it.

First, in case you are wondering, Stallman is neither three meters high, green-skinned, nor fanged like a sabertooth tiger. He is a man in his mid-fifties, surprisingly short –maybe 170 centimeters high– and apparently not given to exercise. His hair is long and graying, and so is his beard. Both are uncombed. His clothes are business-casual.

He was tired when he arrived at the hall, and perhaps feeling a little over-exposed to people, having given a speech earlier the same day at the University of British Columbia. After meeting the organizers, he immediately requested a quiet place to work. The request was probably a necessity, since Stallman keeps in close touch with the Free Software office in Boston, but I also suspect that he was relieved to have a moment to himself in the middle of a day in the public eye.

Another myth-buster: Stallman starts by being polite when you talk to him. Nor is he humorless. His comments sometimes show a wry sense of humor, often based on literal interpretations of other people’s phrases. He shows, too, an interest in dining as a social occasion, lamenting that, when he arrived the previous night, he had no one with whom to eat. And, after listening to the local band that warmed up the crowd for him with Flanders and Swann’s “The GNU Song,” he got up on stage to sing “The Free Software Song” with them, his smile not the least deterred by the fact that he is a mediocre singer and could only remember some of the words.

At the same time, Stallman is not always easy to talk to. He seems a little deaf, and impatient with the fact. He is impatient, too, when talk strays into an area where he has expressed the same opinion for decades – or perhaps he simply does not suffer fools gladly. And who can blame him? At this point in Stallman’s public career, anyone who calls him a supporter of open source software has clearly not been paying attention. Nor can it be easy to cover the same basic subjects dozens of times each year.

One on one, he might make some women uncomfortable with compliments about their attractiveness that are a little too quick and open by modern standards. Other women seem to find him chivalrous. Both sexes might accuse him of expecting to be the center of attention, but again, who can blame him? When he is on tour (and he is often on tour), he usually is the center of attention, with his hosts hovering nervously around him.

After our phone conversations, I expected some of these traits, but the overall impression that Stallman makes in person is hard to define. He is neither as obnoxious as detractors paint him, nor as selfless and charismatic as some supporters insist . Although, after meeting him, you can see how all these depictions originate, like any person, Stallman is more than the sum of such caricatures.

Stallman on stage

The fragmentary impressions I got of Stallman off-stage were reinforced when he got up to speak. Like many professional speakers, he immediately gains animation and energy when handed a mike, no matter how tired he is beforehand.

Stallman spoke for well over two hours, not using notes, but obviously covering ground (In this case, his view of copyright law) that he had gone over many times. He was fluent, with few if any pauses or interjections, but not particularly eloquent. Think of a university instructor who keeps his classes interested without being arresting or given to flights of rhetoric, and you have the right impression. The two hours went by quickly, and the audience showed no signs of boredom.

As an argument, Stallman’s speech was concrete, full of examples ranging from the personal to the legal, often enriched with small jokes, and structured with extreme clarity.

If I had to summarize Stallman’s speech in a single word, that word would be “focused.” When Stallman lays out an order to his points, he always returns that order, no matter how many digressions intervene – and, generally, he allows himself very few.

One thing that comes through very clearly as he spoke is his absolute sincerity and conviction. Whatever else anybody might think of him, those are never in doubt. He is quite willing, for instance, to do without a cell phone, DVDs with DRM, or anything else that he cannot use with a clear conscience.

But, as I watched his argument develop, what struck me was not so much any brilliance (although clearly Stallman has an above average intelligence), but his thoroughness. Although other people might possibly make connections or reach conclusions faster than he could, few could think topics through as carefully as Stallman.

In particular, Stallman pays close attention to how issues are framed by language. For example, he rejects the term “piracy” for file-sharing, pointing out that its main purpose is to demonize the practice, not to suggest an accurate analogy. Conversely, he talks about “the war on sharing,” doing his own bit of framing.

This is the same concern, of course, that leads him to insist on referring to GNU/Linux. Many people reject this idea without thinking, but, once you realize that, for Stallman, defining the terms is a necessity for clear thinking, then you realize that he is not simply being pedantic. He is well aware that language is rarely, if ever neutral, and, quite unsurprisingly, tries to influence the debate so that it is on his terms, or at least neutral.

If Stallman’s speech had a weakness, it is that he did not always think on his feet. Several times during the questions at the end, he seemed mildly at a loss, and could only refer back to his speech or declare – sometimes arbitrarily – that a questioner’s topic was irrelevant. Once, when a questioner went on and on without getting to the point, all he could do was seize on a careless use of “open source” rather than “free software,” instead of moving to take direct control of the situation. But perhaps fatigue had a lot to do with this behavior.

Watching the crowd

At any public event, watching the audience can be as rewarding as listening to the performance, and Stallman’s speech was no exception. Some audience members, I later learned, also attended his speech earlier in the day, as well as the one on the next day. However, even without that knowledge, I would still unhesitatingly describe the crowd as geeks with a small smattering of spouses. Most clearly had some familiarity with free software and Stallman’s ideas, and had not come to be challenged so much as to glimpse someone famous.

A minority had a slightly more ambitious goal: To engage Stallman, however briefly, in conversation. Since Stallman’s reputation and manner discouraged most from approaching him informally, some found a moment by getting him to autograph copies of his book, others by asking questions at the end. Many of those lining up up the mikes to each side of Stallman did not have an actual question, so much as a statement they wanted to make to Stallman. One or two seemed inclined to argue with him.


So what do these impressions add up to? A public event is not the place to get to know anybody, and Stallman would probably be a difficult man to get to know under any circumstances. What I saw was the public figure, with – perhaps – the occasional flash of the private man, both accustomed to his fame and occasionally irritated and trapped by it.

In the end, it occurs to me that a distinction between the public and private Stallman many not be worth making. He reminds me of the portrayal of the Wart (King Arthur) in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. White depicts Arthur as someone inspired by a great idea that took over the rest of his life. In something of the same way, Stallman appears to have been struck by the idea of free software in the early 1980s. The decades since then, I suspect, have simply been filling in the details and taking the idea to its logical conclusions – until now it is hard for a casual observer like me to say where the public man ends and the private one begins.

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