Changing The World One Bit At A Time

Usually, the CEO stays on message throughout the meal as a PR flak hovers, smiles, nods and prods the conversation along. Just keep the drinks coming, guys. Not so with Bill Watkins, the mercurial, salty-mouthed Texan who runs the $15 billion hard-drive king Seagate Technology. At a San Francisco dinner on Tuesday evening, he was candid about his company’s ultimate mission: “Let’s face it, we’re not changing the world. We’re building a product that helps people buy more crap - and watch porn.”

I totally disagree with Mr Watkins.

A lot of quantitative changes become a qualitative change.

Harddisks store more and cost less.

Its not just harddisks, of course - its data storage in general. All the kinds of data storage technology before harddisks and since, simply store more for less.

For example, consider the little postage-stamp sized ‘memory cards’ we put in our digital cameras. I had bought a 512 megabyte one for £50 about a year ago, from a cheap online store, but its now just £10 from the local supermarket.

And today £50 of Seagate harddisk buys 20 times that amount of data in a harddisk about one inch square.

Soon, the combined total of the Wikimedia projects will fit in our hands - on our mobile phones. And although its not widely known yet, the release of laptops for £50-and-falling is imminent. All the important books, the greatest encyclopedia in history, all the textbooks, all the quotes, and the dictionary to understand them. All we need is to be able to read.

A moment later, it will be possible for all the music and video ever published to join them. People are willing to risk harsh penalties to break unjust laws and eventually have them thrown away.

They have, are, and will change the world.

“The Linux GPL”

I came across an article that mentions “The Linux GPL.”

This is a good reference for the way that the origins, history and purpose of the GNU+Linux system have totally been subverted by the “open source” crowd.

Reading this kind of blatant error makes me feel that talking politely and calmly about Free Software and its vision and goals, and ignoring comments to shut up, is more important than ever.

Canonical Are Liars

[Ubuntu] is entirely committed to the principles of open source software development; no part of it will ever be proprietary, and we encourage people to use it, improve it and pass it on.

This is simply untrue, and I feel needs to be pointed out.

gNewSense is a version of Ubuntu that is truely committed to the principles of free software and no part of it will ever be proprietary. That is the distribution I most highly recommend for people to use, improve and pass on.

Since gNewSense is a very new project, a more mature GNU+Linux distribution I can also recommend is Fedora, but this includes small amounts of proprietary software in the form of “firmware.” This proprietary software is included in all other GNU+Linux distributions apart from gNewSense.

Two Great GNOME Utilities

Brightside is something Mac OS has had for years, but it isn’t that great because its not very configurable - it is really cool to be able to mute on a hot corner and unmute on moving away, or hitting the corner to toggle. With proprietary operating system software, this just isn’t possible.

Devils Pie is also quite interesting, and could be a great compliment to something like AutoHotKey for GNU+Linux

OpenMoko and gNewSense

OpenMoko is great, but it looks like some proprietary software will be included by default. This is a problem, and will stop the FSF endorsing the project, because:

When major institutions in our community develop non-free software, they tell the public that non-free software is ok. This weakens our community’s resolve to maintain our freedom, and that weakness hurts our chances of surmounting each of the various obstacles that we face: hardware with secret specs, non-free tools and libraries … software patents, the DMCA, and the proposed SSSCA. When they make it tough to obtain free software for a certain job, will we persevere, or will we give in? Those who are willing to take the easy way out and use non-free software will not help us prevail.

However, for me, if the proprietary components are non-essential and easily and cleanly removable, I’ll accept and wildly advocate OpenMoko because there simply isn’t any alternative, other than not having a mobile phone.

And I hope that as Moko starts delivering the industry-change it smells of, and starts to become a Free Software Movement success story like Wikipedia, the proprietary components can be replaced with Free ones in the next version, and then this won’t be a problem for the FSF.

Generally, I think the trend is that all proprietary components of all GNU/Linux systems are being replaced with free ones.

When I started using GNU+Linux in 1999-2003, I used many proprietary components, and didn’t appreciate what software freedom was or why it was important. I used an Apple powerbook 2003-2006, and eventually realised that although it was a UNIX system, it was missing something, and that I needed something not UNIX: “GNU’s Not UNIX.”

When I started using GNU+Linux again, in 2006, there were almost zero proprietary components I ndeed. Or so I thought. Actually, all distributions include a lot of proprietary software.

For a while, the FSF couldn’t recommend a GNU+Linux distribution because there wasn’t one that didn’t include or recommend non-free software.

Debian is often thought of as the ‘most free’ mainstream distribution, but this isn’t actually true, because it does both, and isn’t going to stop doing either any time soon.

Instead, Fedora has been on a mission to be 100% Open Source - so unlike Debian it doesn’t have any non-free package repositories or refer to 3rd party ones in any way. But its policy is to accept OSI approved licenses which are not FSF approved, so it lacks FSF endorsement for the moment. This is turning towards Free Software though, with a recent “Free Software Analysis” - and when this is complete, I really hope that the FSF can endorse Fedora, because it is a very popular distribution.

Compare this to say, Ubuntu, which tells a lot of noisy lies about how it is 100% Free, but is actually increasing the amount of proprietary software it includes year on year:

No part of it will ever be proprietary, and we encourage people to use it, improve it and pass it on.
A large proportion of people using Ubuntu — including 70%-80% of people with new computers — need a non-Free driver for reasonable performance from their graphics card, wireless card, or modem, because there is no Free driver available, they had little choice in the matter.

Ubuntu’s contrary nature resulted in gNewSense, endorsed and supported by the FSF, which is a Ubuntu derivitive that is a 100% Free Software operating system - and its important to know and remember that this is the whole point of Free Software :-)

gNewSense firstly mirrors the ‘free’ sections of the Ubuntu repositories, and secondly, packages a custom Linux kernel with all the non-free firmware taken out. I have spoken to many people who believe that the Linux kernel does not include anything non-free, and that only the GNU+Linux distributors put it in. This is not the case, at all, unfortunately.

Here’s a couple of quotes to introduce the FSF position on proprietary firmware:

Firmware is software, and non-free firmware is non-free software … Since these programs are binary-only, they are clearly not free software … Their inclusion in Linux itself is a violation of the GPL, but the Linux developers don’t seem inclined to enforce the GPL against that violation. At present, essentially all GNU/Linux distros include the non-free firmware, because it was too hard to remove. So we decided to overlook the issue for the time being.
The ethical issues of free software arise because users obtain programs and install them in computers; they don’t really apply to hidden embedded computers, or the BIOS burned in a ROM, or the microcode inside a processor chip, or the firmware that is wired into a processor in an I/O device. In aspects that relate to their design, those things are software; but as regards copying and modification, they may as well be hardware. The BIOS in ROM was, indeed, not a problem. Since that time, the situation has changed. Today the BIOS is no longer burned in ROM; it is stored in nonvolatile writable memory that users can rewrite. Today the BIOS sits square on the edge of the line. It comes prewritten in our computers, and normally we never install another. So far, that is just barely enough to excuse treating it as hardware. But once in a while the manufacturer suggests installing another BIOS, which is available only as an executable. This, clearly, is installing a non-free program—it is just as bad as installing Microsoft Windows, or Adobe Photoshop. As the unethical practice of installing another BIOS executable becomes common, the version delivered inside the computer starts to raise an ethical problem issue as well. The way to solve the problem is to run a free BIOS.

Now I don’t buy a ‘use non-free drivers now to get popularity and then leverage on vendors to get free drivers’ reasoning at all. ATI used to release Free Software drivers, and then they got more popular than Nvidia, and dropp the FS drivers. If a vendor makes a GNU+Linux driver at all, the system is popular enough, and more won’t help.

Instead, I try to buy hardware carefully, and having done so, gNewSense works as perfectly as Ubuntu does. Fedora’s policy is to include firmware and Debian’s policy is to tolerate it until Debian 4 is launched, then shift it all to the non-free section.

Hopefully, the gNewSense project will grow and inspire the other distributions to change.

But firmware is going to become more and more of a problem, especially as EFI style BIOSs encourage hardware vendors to make more complex firmware.

For embedded device free software users like FIC, this issue is even more extreme, because its much more feasible to be 100% Free Software on a device than on a desktop - things like 3D graphics and multimedia demands are far away (though I hope Gnash will be in OpenMoko by default! :-) but the firmware side of things is closer by.

So I hoped the OpenMoko team is thinking about the non-free firmware issue now, and taking a freedom-loving approach, so they won’t get caught with their pants down - like the dozy Linux kernel maintainers who accept binary firmware will. (I think including proprietary firmware might well break the terms of the GPL anyway, but its a shame that no other kernel developers will take Linus to task on this…)

It is unclear how the OpenMoko team actually feels about proprietary software at the moment, because although their slogan is “Free Your Phone,” their actions will speak louder than words.

How Proprietary Web Applications replace Proprietary Desktop Software

desktopize.com and zoho.com makes the similarity between proprietary web applications and proprietary desktop software very clear, by making them appear as the same thing.

I think the solution is to run free software webapps on your own broadband connected computers, and put them behind a secure authentication gateway so that even if they are security risks in the web applications, you are not vulnerable to attack.

I’ll be moving away from the proprietary web applications like GoogleMail as soon as I have got rid of all my proprietary desktop software - I need a wireless adaptor for my laptop that works without proprietary firmware, and a new workstation.

Where does Open Source go?

Many times I hear something along the lines of “the free software philosophy is the ideal world, and the best way to get there is by adopting open source philosophy and methodology.”

I’m suprised anyone thinks this.

Open Source will not arrive at a 100% Free Software, because it doesn’t say that ‘closed source’ is wrong. It just says that in some cases, free software can make higher quality software, and in other casees, if you feel proprietary software can make higher quality software, that’s fine too.

I am about to do an MA in Typeface Design, and fonts is one such thing that an open source process is laughable for. But I will publish my fonts as Free Software, because that is the good, right, ethical, upstanding thing to do.

Similarly, there’s been a lot of discussion in my local GNU/Linux User Group about how ‘open source’ may or may not make sense for a highly technical manufacturing industry. While generally free software will inevitably yeild higher quality software, in many niche area it won’t be inevitable - but its still the right thing to do.

Advanced mathematical typesetting is another such subject. Its so niche that proprietary developers took decades to do anything useful for that area of life. But one smart guy wrote the first and last word in mathematical typesetting - Donald Knuth and TeX - and once he’d climbed over the crest of the initial hill, a vista of awesome typesetting opened up in front of mathematicians worldwide.

Well, I don’t really like to talk much about open source. It’s a shallower view of the work that we do. Where we say that software must – ethically must – respect your freedom, and respect specifically your freedom to co-operate with other people, and as a community take control of your computers, they just say , that if people let you look at the source code and change it, it’ll make the software technically better. Well, that may be true, but it’s less important. Imagine people arguing whether free elections, where everyone’s allowed to vote, would be better or worse for the economy. They’re missing the point.

As for this bunk about free software being anti-business, well, that’s another story :-)

Most developers identify with the term “free software”

A friend sent me another useful reference point on the emerging decline in the term “open source,” from an EU report:

In this report we refer to the single phenomenon known by the various terms “libre software”, “free software” and “open source software” as Free/Libre/Open Source Software (or FLOSS). We note that the EU/FP5 FLOSS developer survey of over 2800 respondents showed that a majority of developers themselves identify with the term “free software”, while Libre software (logiciel libre, software libre, software libero) is the favoured term in southern Europe and Latin America.

Another friend, a free software developer, wrote in response:

Now if only this would show up to the public! That is where it makes a difference.

I hope to improve this situation personally! :-)

gNewSense 1.1 released!

I just installed the latest version of gNewSense that was released yesterday, that uses a photograph of mine as the background image for the login screen.

To change the desktop to this image, right click the desktop and select “Change Desktop Background.” Then go back to the disk, then to usr, share, gdm, themes, Human, and select background.png then click OK and Finish.

Downloading isn’t Stealing!

Aaron Swartz wrote an awesome little explanation of why downloading is sharing, not stealing:

Stealing is wrong. But downloading isn’t stealing. If I shoplift an album from my local record store, no one else can buy it. But when I download a song, no one loses it and another person gets it. There’s no ethical problem. Music companies blame a fifteen percent drop in sales since 2000 on downloading. But over the same period, there was a recession, a price hike, a 25% cut in new releases, and a lack of popular new artists. Factoring all that in, maybe downloading increases sales. And 90% of the catalog of the major labels isn’t for sale anymore. The Internet is the only way to hear this music. Even if downloading did hurt sales, that doesn’t make it unethical. Libraries and video stores (neither of which pay per rental) hurt sales too. Is it unethical to use them? Downloading may be illegal. But 60 million people used Napster and only 50 million voted for Bush or Gore. We live in a democracy. If the people want to share files then the law should be changed to let them. And there’s a fair way to change it. A Harvard professor found that a $60/yr. charge for broadband users would make up for all lost revenues. The government would give it to the affected artists and, in return, make downloading legal, sparking easier-to-use systems and more shared music. The artists get more money and you get more music. What’s unethical about that?

Prime Minister says Private Copying OK

From the Prime Minister’s website:

As you may be aware, in December 2005 the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, announced that there would be a review of the intellectual property framework in the UK, led by Andrew Gowers. The findings of this review have now been published and recommend the introduction of a private copying exception for the purposes of format shifting. This would allow individuals to copy music which they have legally bought on compact disc onto an MP3 player without infringing copyright. The Government welcomes this recommendation and is currently considering how such an exception should be created in UK law. A copy of the Gowers report can be viewed on the HM Treasury website.

This is great news, because it suggests the UK government may legalise copy-restriction circumvention software. Circumvention software is required to watch DVDs with Free Software, for example.

Of course, if such software is not outlawed, the purpose of copy restriction is defeated: if you can copy music from a disc to a digital file, and then copy that to a portable player, such as from a CD to an iPod, you can just as easily copy it to your friend’s portable player. While this would still be copyright infringement, it would be unstoppable.

Interesting times :-)

iPhone and Open Moko

The Apple iPhone has been front page news in the UK, after a big build up of leaked hype over the holiday season. But I’m just as uninterested in the iPhone as Windows Vista, because both totally limit what you can do with your computer.

OpenMoko Logo

OpenMoko is a GNU/Linux system for mobile phones, specifically the FIC Neo1973. Sean Moss-Pultz, one of the most active FIC employees on the OpenMoko mailing list, is thinking in just the way I am:

I talked with a lot of interesting people over the past four days [at the Consumer Electronics Show “geek week” in Las Vegas]. The single thing that stood out the most is how many people compared us to the iPhone. On the one hand, I’m still blushing from being compared to a company of that caliber. But on the other hand, I find the comparison unexpected. Don’t get me wrong, they are quite interesting. Personally I just thought of the Neo1973 as sort of the anti-iPhone. Even though I’ve only seen pictures, I’m sure Apple will have an incredible UI. But likewise, [it is] a closed system like the iPod. So even though Apple’s phone might be very elegant phone, its going to be more of the same stuff that (IMHO) has held the mobile industry back — namely the lack of an open ecosystem for developers. What really excites me now is how we can work together to make OpenMoko even more innovative. We’ll be four months into collaborative development before the public even gets an iPhone. And judging from the ideas / comments that have been flying around this list for the past few months, I don’t see any reason why, together, we can come up with some applications that allow people to use phones in entirely new ways.

Another poster, Michael Shiloh, commented on moko fans trying to bash the iPhone, which I thought was especially insightful:

It’s like trying to convince people to switch to GNU+Linux. If I were to replace the iMac in our living room with GNU+Linux, I would probably turn my family against GNU+Linux because of the little differences and inconsistencies. But, when a friend complained about fighting Windows viruses all the time, I quietly handed him an Ubuntu live CD (I always carry 2 or 3 with me), and now he’s converted. When it’s the wrong move, it upsets people, but when it’s the right move, you don’t have to push at all.

I caught up with some old friends from high school at the weekend, and they asked me to continue talking about Free Software, and near the end said they’d like to try it out on a spare laptop.

This put the question of what distribution to recommend into relief again. Looking at the gNewsense, Fedora and Ubuntu websites, Ubuntu has significantly better information design that makes people feel safe, and sure about how to get hold of the software. Fedora’s site assumes too much technical knowledge, although it looks as good as Ubuntu. gNewsense needs a lot of work - but its up to its small community to do something about that. Its installation process is more friendly to novice users compared to Fedora’s, being Ubuntu derived, too, and if we can improve the gNewsense branding in the distribution as well as the website, it could easily be a great recommendation.

The best thing, of course, would be to update the GNU website’s frontpage with a clear message - as clear as the Ubuntu website’s, at least - that this is what the GNU system is, and here is how to get it, and use it.

In the end, I decided not to recommend any distribution, but to just point to the GNU website in my friend’s native language. It’s quite suprising that the ‘quickstart guides’ for Ubuntu and Fedora are not obviously available in many languages.

How anti-sharing gets in your way

Free Software is an ethical imperative, not merely a practical one. Still, it is nice to read that anti-sharing measures get in your way, and leave Free Software as the only practical choice.

That kind of thing is set to get much, much worse with Windows Vista.

If you could live anywhere, where would it be?

An old friend emailed me over the holidays, “Did you ever look into those enviro/sustainable flats in london? If so, what did you find?”

Last year I chanced on a sales exhibition at the architecture center off Charing Cross. But for the same reasoning its better to buy an obsolete car instead of a prius, or second hand clothes, I wouldn’t get one of those flats, but an existing one: if you consider the energy that goes into producing new things that are ‘green,’ they are not very green any more.

One day I could be interested in fitting waterless sanitation if the location wasn’t too metropolitan, and even going off grid if the location was favorable. A guy I know in the Free Software community has a domestead but it invovles a lot of real engineering which I know nothing about.

But while libertarianist approaches are psychologically empowering - doing something yourself feels great - and as a market opens up it will get funded and become a popular movement, I figure only government regulation can do anything meaningful here.

That assumes a healthy democratic culture.

Oops. Even if Al Gore became president in 2008, he’d just get assasinated like JFK if he started doing anything useful ;-)

Blue chip propaganda funds lull democracy at its ears, and lobbying trips up its feet.

But with China’s growth, the USA looks as unimportant as the EU. And I don’t see China is ever going to become democratic, which is a shame as China is the only superpower that could challenge the USA.

Having just got back from Cape Town, I heard that South Africa is the most developed African nation, but its democracy is a write-off. Maybe Brasil and the other South Americans might do something interesting, but it won’t really have any impact unless China and the USA follow it.

So I’m more interested in not moving into areas that will be flooded or have no ozone layer and stable access to fresh water and such.

Any suggestions? :-)

Where did the blogging term ‘slug’ come from?

Today I was asked why ‘slug’ is used in Wordpress, and not the more familiar ‘URL’.

“URL” describes the whole string, which on ‘files and folders’ sites is:

protocol://server/directory/file.extention

CMS sites typically store data in a database instead of files, which allows multiple ‘views’ on the data. So the /directory/file.ext part of the URL tree is abstracted to provide a structured set of queries. A listing by date or category is common, such as:

protocol://server/year/month/day/name/option

protocol://server/category/subcategory/name/option

Which in real life might be a ‘printable’ version of a page:

http://conrad.com/2007/01/11/wordpress/print

and a RSS feed of a category of pages:

http://conrad.com/design/web/rss

With a file based website, there are 3 kinds of names in a page: the filename, the title tag, and the first h1 tag. With a CMS, there’s no filename, but a need for a short name to use in URLs.

That’s known as the ‘slug’, but I have no idea why.

Update: Conrad wrote to me:

At a guess, the term “slug” was not derived from shell-less gastropods… In Linotype’s version of hot-metal typesetting, a composed line of type was cast as a whole unit and this was called a “slug”. I think that by extension a line of identifying type placed beyond the trimmed page boundary was called a “slug”. The term is retained in InDesign, so may be an Americanism. And I guess the thing you call a slug is so called because it is an identifying line?