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Posts Tagged ‘freesoftware’

Last week, ABC’s 20/20 ran a piece on the murder trial of Hans Reiser, the free software developer accused of murdering his wife in Oakland. I sighed in relief when it ran, because it didn’t include me.

It could have. Since I wrote one piece last year about Reiser’s problems with getting the Reiser4 filesystem accepted into the Linux kernel and another about what was happening with his company in the wake of the murder charges, I’ve fielded eight or nine requests from the mainstream media to talk about the background to the case. Since early summer, several of those requests were from ABC. But I never really felt comfortable doing so, although I made clear that I had no opinion one way or the other about the case, and only talked about Reiser’s work and reputation and what the free software community was like.

At the time, I rationalized my general comments as helping out other journalists. Also, considering that I’ve made a career out of explaining developers to non-developers, I figured that I might be able to see that the community wasn’t too badly misrepresented. And, let’s be honest, I was flattered.

But, simultaneously, I was uneasy, and this uneasiness continued to grow as ABC continued to talk to me. There was even talk of flying me down to San Francisco for a day to do an interview, which provoked a kind of Alice in Wonderlandish feeling in me. Spend the day travelling for something that I wasn’t that interested in? And going to San Francisco – one of my favorite cities – with no time for wandering around struck me as not worth the sense of self-importance such a trip would no doubt give me.

I tried suggesting other people in the free software community that ABC might contact. I even suggested one notoriously egotistical person, figuring that they would be pleased to be asked and would give ABC so much copy that its reporters would have no further need of me.

That only worked for a few weeks, then I received another phone call. At that point, I realized that I didn’t have a valid passport, which Canadians like me now need to fly to the United States. I explained this difficulty to a reporter, and how I didn’t really want the extra hassle of driving across the border and catching a flight in Bellingham – and he returned the idea of flying a camera crew up to Vancouver to talk to me.

I thought that unlikely, so I said that would be acceptable. For a while, I was worried that ABC might actually do it, too, but in the end the producers decided not to bother.

That was just as well, because in the interim, I had resolved to refuse the interview regardless of the condition. I took a while to understand my reluctance, but, what I concluded in the end was this: I didn’t want to feed my self-importance at the expense of the Reiser family. No matter what actually happened, those involved in the case are in a world of pain, and I didn’t want to piggyback on that pain for petty personal reasons.

And, ultimately, my reasons would be personal. No matter how well I can explain the free software community to the public, I’m far from the only one who can do so.

With this realization, I felt such relief that I knew that I had made the right decision. Now, I only hope that I can remain as sensible if someone contacts me about the case again.

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Every month or so, I get a request from a magazine asking if I want to write about GNU/Linux or free software. One or two are legitimate professonal offers that I am glad to consider, if only for variation and to length the list of markets to which I can sell – or, to be more exact, to which I might some day sell, since I don’t have many open slots on my monthly schedule. However, more often, the magazine either doesn’t pay or else pays a token like $30 per page, and I have to decline, despite their offers of additional payment in copies or free advertising, neither of which I have much use for. The exchange never fails to leave me feeling guilty, defensive, and unsatisfied.

Admittedly, many magazines and publishers prey on wannabe writers’ desire to be published. However, I’m sure that many are doing their best, paying what they can and hoping that they might one day generate enough income to pay their contributors better. In fact, I am sure that most of them are sincere; they’re generally too excited about what they are doing to be deliberate exploiters.

This sort of low-paying work might have acceptable in the days when I was writing articles in my spare time and trying to build a reputation. I could have helped the editors, and they could have helped me. But how can I explain to these well-meaning people that I’m not just dabbling in writing these days? That in the time I wrote them a 1500 word article, I could have made ten or fifteen times as much writing for my regular markets? That I literally cannot afford to contribute to their magazine or web site?

I can’t explain, of course. Not without being completely undiplomatic and crass. So, I usually hedge until my correspondents’ persistence forces me to be blunter, or they come up with another argument.

Usually, the next argument is the idea – either openly stated or hinted – that, since all of us are interested in free software, then I am somehow obligated to give my labor for free.

Consciously or otherwise, this argument conflates the meanings of free software. Free software, as everyone constantly points out, isn’t free because it doesn’t cost. It’s free in a political or philosophical sense – and, on that score, I have a good conscience. It seems perfectly reasonable to me that, in return for the money I need to live, the markets where I publish should have exclusive rights to my articles for thirty days. After that, I am perfectly happy to have the articles reprinted or translated under a Creative Commons Attribution – No Derivatives license, In fact, I almost never refuse such requests.

Besides, are the people who trying to guilt-trip me donating their labor for free? In many cases, I doubt it.

Anyway, I maintain that, in keeping people informed about free software, I am already contributing to the greater cause. I happen to be one of those lucky enough or persistent enough to be able to earn my living through doing so, but I don’t see why the one should invalidate the other.

True, I do make some gratis contributions to free software in my own time – but that’s beside the point. What matters is that I don’t feel the need to prove my credentials, particularly to strangers I don’t know. So, at this point, they usually break off the correspondence, often with parting comments about my selfishness or lack of generosity.

And of course I do feel hard-hearted at times. But, when it comes to the way I make my livelihood, I have to ration my time. Otherwise, I could easily lose a large chunk of my income for the month. So, I break off, too, muttering my excuses after an exchange that has satisfied nobody.

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Today, I received the following e-mail. At the sender’s request, I have removed any personal details:

I was wondering if you had any advice for me about how to perform some marketing/pr for my Linux [project]. I’ve started doing interviews with developers and I have created a community news site.

But is there anyway I could possibly get [my project] mentioned in a
magazine like Linux Journal? Is there any free advertising I could take advantage of on certain web sites? I thought you may have some ideas for me because you have experience with this kind of thing. Any help you
could provide me would be appreciated.

I generally receive about 3-4 requests of this sort a year, so I decided to post my reply here, so I can refer others to it:

You’re not likely to find free advertising on sites that will do you any good, so your best bet is to try to get on the various sites as a contributor. Linux.com only takes original material for its main features, but it does have the NewsVac items, the three or four line link summaries on the right of the page that are very popular. And, of course, sites like Slashdot, Digg, and Linux Today are all about links to already published material.

If you have a solid piece of news — which for a piece of free software usually means new releases and unique features — at Linux.com you can pitch a story and write it yourself. However, you’ll be asked to include a disclaimer
that explains your connection with your subject matter, and the article will be rejected if you are being a fanboy. That means you can’t review your own distro, but you might be able to do a tutorial on a distribution’s packaging system, for instance.

Alternatively, you can send news releases in the hopes of convincing either an editor or a writer to cover your news. However, don’t be pushy. Submitting a news release once is enough, and popping back several times to ask if it was received or whether anyone is interested will probably only guarantee that you’ll annoy people so that they won’t cover your news no matter how big it is.

The ideal is to build up an ongoing relation with a few writers, in which you give them stories to write about — we’re always looking — and they give you the coverage you want when you have news that readers might want to hear.

Of course, you open yourself up to negative comments if the software deserves them, but that’s the chance you have to take. However, for the most part, both commercial companies and large community projects find the
risk well worth taking. It’s not as though any of the regular writers deliberately sit down to review with a determination to be negative (although, conversely, they don’t set out to praise, either: We’re not just fans, either).

This process doesn’t happen overnight, so be patient. But, in the long run, you should get some of the publicity you seek.

I don’t know whether this information is useful to others. To me, it seems that I’m saying the obvious, but part of that reaction is undoubtedly due to the fact that I deal with these things daily. Perhaps to others, these thoughts aren’t obvious, so I’m hoping that someone will find them useful

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Long ago, I lost any queasiness about the command line. I’m not one of those who think it’s the only way to interact with their computers, but it’s a rare day that I don’t use it three or four times on my GNU/Linux system. No big deal – it’s just the easiest way to do some administration tasks. Yet I’m very much aware that my nonchalance is a minority reaction. To average users, the suggestion that they use the command line – or the shell, or the terminal, or whatever else you want to call it — is only slightly less welcome than the suggestion that they go out and deliberately contract AIDS. It’s a reaction that seems compounded of equal parts fear of the unknown, poor previous experiences, a terror of the arcane, and a wish for instant gratification.

Those of us who regularly try two or three operating systems every month can easily forget how habit-bound most computer users are. The early days of the personal computers, when users were explorers of new territory, are long gone. Now, the permanent settlers have moved in. The average computer user is no longer interested in exploration, but in getting their daily tasks done with as little effort as possible. For many, changing word processors is a large step, let alone changing interfaces. And both Windows and OS X encourage this over-cautious clinging to the familiar by hiding the command line away and promoting the idea that everything you need to do you can do from the desktop. The truth, of course, is that you can almost always do less from a desktop application than its command line equivalent, but the average user has no experience that would help them understand that.

Moreover, those who have taken the step of entering cmd into the Run command on the Windows menu have not found the experience a pleasant one. DOS, which remains the command line that is most familiar to people, is an extremely poor example of its kind. Unlike BASH, the most common GNU/Linux command line, DOS has only a limited set of commands and options. It has no history that lasts between sessions. Even the act of navigating from one directory to the next is complicated by the fact that it views each partition and drive as a separate entity, rather than as part of a general structure. Add such shortcomings to the ugly, mostly unconfigurable window allotted to DOS in recent versions of windows, and it’s no wonder that DOS causes something close to post-traumatic stress syndrome in average users. And, not having seen a better command line interface, most people naturally assume that BASH or any other alternative is just as stressful.

Yet I sometimes wonder if the main reason for nervousness about the command line isn’t that it’s seen as the area of the expert. In recent years, many people’s experience of the command line is of a sysadmin coming to their workstation, opening a previously unsuspected window, and solving problems by typing something too fast for them to see from the corner into which they’ve edged. From these encounters, many people seem to have taken away the idea that the command line is powerful and efficient. That, to their minds, makes it dangerous – certainly far too dangerous for them to dare trying it (assuming they could find the icon for it by themselves).

And in a sense, of course, they’re right. In GNU/Linux, a command line remains the only interface that gives complete access to a system. Nor are the man or info pages much help; they are often cryptically concise, and some of the man pages must have come down to us almost unchanged from the 1960s.

The fact that they are also wrong is beside the point. Many users aren’t clear on the concept of root accounts, file permissions, or any of the other safeguards that help to minimize the trouble uninformed users can blunder into.

The trouble is, understanding these safeguards takes time, and investing time in learning is something that fits poorly with our demand for instant gratification. By contrast, using a mouse to select from menus and dialogs is something that people can pick up in a matter of minutes. Just as importantly, the eye-candy provided by desktops makes them look sophisticated and advanced. Surely these signs of modishness must be preferable to the starkness of the command line? From this attitude, insisting on the usefulness of the command line is an anachronism, like insisting on driving a Model T when you could have a Lexus.

The truth is, learning the command line is like learning to touch-type: in return for enduring the slowness and repetitiousness of learning, you gain expertise and efficiency. By contrast, using a graphical desktop is like two-fingered typing: you can learn it quickly, but you don’t progress very fast or far. To someone interested in results, the superiority of the command line seems obvious, but, when instant gratification and fashion is your priority, the desktop’s superiority seems equally obvious.

And guess which one our culture (to say nothing of proprietary software) teaches us to value? As a colleague used to say, people like to view computers as an appliance, not as something they have to sit down and learn about. And, what’s more the distinction only becomes apparent to most people after they start to know their way around the command line.

Whatever the reasons, fear and loathing of the command line is so strong that the claim that GNU/Linux still requires its frequent use is enough to convince many people to stick with their current operating system. The claim is no longer true, but you can’t expect people to understand that when the claim plays on so many of their basic fears about computing.

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