Tag Archives: freesoftware

Community Data Science Workshops in Seattle

Photo from the Boston Python Workshop – a similar workshop run in Boston that has inspired and provided a template for the CDSW.

Photo from the Boston Python Workshop – a similar workshop run in Boston that has inspired and provided a template for the CDSW.

On three Saturdays in April and May, I will be helping run three day-long project-based workshops at the University of Washington in Seattle. The workshops are for anyone interested in learning how to use programming and data science tools to ask and answer questions about online communities like Wikipedia, Twitter, free  and open source software, and civic media.

The workshops are for people with no previous programming experience and the goal is to bring together researchers as well as participants and leaders in online communities.  The workshops will all be free of charge and open to the public given availability of space.

Our goal is that, after the three workshops, participants will be able to use data to produce numbers, hypothesis tests, tables, and graphical visualizations to answer questions like:

  • Are new contributors to an article in Wikipedia sticking around longer or contributing more than people who joined last year?
  • Who are the most active or influential users of a particular Twitter hashtag?
  • Are people who participated in a Wikipedia outreach event staying involved? How do they compare to people that joined the project outside of the event?

If you are interested in participating, fill out our registration form here. The deadline to register is Wednesday March 26th.  We will let participants know if we have room for them by Saturday March 29th. Space is limited and will depend on how many mentors we can recruit for the sessions.

If you already have experience with Python, please consider helping out at the sessions as a mentor. Being a mentor will involve working with participants and talking them through the challenges they encounter in programming. No special preparation is required.  If you’re interested,  send me an email.

“When Free Software Isn’t Better” Talk

In late October, the FSF posted this video of a talk called When Free Software Isn’t (Practically) Better that I gave at LibrePlanet earlier in the year. I noticed it was public when, out of the blue, I started getting both a bunch of positive feedback about the talk as well as many people pointing out that my slides (which were rather important) were not visible in the video!

Finally, I’ve managed to edit together a version that includes the slides and posted it online and on Youtube.

The talk is very roughly based on this 2010 article and I argue that, despite our advocacy, free software isn’t always (or even often) better in practical terms. The talk moves beyond the article and tries to be more constructive by pointing to a series of inherent practical benefits grounded in software freedom principles and practice.

Most important to me though, the talk reflects my first serious attempt to bring together some of the findings from my day job as a social scientist with my work as a free software advocate. I present some nuggets from my own research and talk about about what they mean for free software and its advocates.

In related news, it also seems worth noting that I’m planning on being back at LibrePlanet this March and that the FSF annual fundraiser is currently going on.

Iceowl’s Awesome New Icon

If you’re a Debian user, you are probably already familiar with some of the awesome icons for IceWeasel (rebranded Mozilla Firefox), IceDove (rebranded Mozilla Thunderbird) and IceApe (rebranded Mozilla SeaMonkey).

iceweasel_icon-200pxicedove_icon-200px    iceape_icon-200px

I was pretty ambivalent about the decision to rebrand Firefox until I saw some of proposed the IceWeasel icons which — in my humble opinion — were just too cute, and awesome, to pass up.

iceweasel-old

Until very recently however, IceOwl (rebranded Mozilla Sundbird) had no such awesome icon. Quite a while ago, I filed bug #658664 in Debian complaining that “iceowl does not include awesome icy owl icons.” I wrote:

I was extremely disappointed when I installed Iceowl and discovered that it does not ship with an awesome logo or icons showing a picture of an “IceOwl.” Instead, it seems to be represented by picture of a (boring) paper calendar which is very generic and not awesome at all.

IceWeasel, IceDove, and IceApe each include extremely awesome logos/icons that have really cool looking white illustrations of “icy” weasels, doves, and apes. IceOwl needs a similarly awesome logo to use as its icon.

This bug seems particularly egregious because owls actually live in icy climates and come in white versions! For example:

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Snowy_Owl_-_Schnee-Eule.jpg

While illustrators need to imagine what an “ice ape” or “ice weasel” might look like, there is no such need for imagination in the case of an ice owl!

As far as I’m concerned, this bug should be release critical. Hopefully, someone will upload a patch quickly!

Finally, after many months of all of us suffering in silence, Nick Morrott came along and fixed the bug with the creation of this new, incredibly awesome, icy owl logo!

iceowl_icon-350px

Resurrecting Debian Seattle

seattle_skyline_night      debian_logo

When I last lived in Seattle, nearly a decade ago, I hosted the “Debian Seattle Social” email list. When I left the city, the mailing list eventually fell victim to bitrot.

When Allison Randall asked me about the list a couple months ago, I decided that moving back to Seattle was a good excuse to work with Allison and some others to revive the community. Toward that end, I’ve put up a little website and created a new mailing list. It’s hosted on Alioth this time which will be reliable than me. Since it has been years, we have not moved over the old subscriber list so you’ll have to sign up again if you were on it before.

If you’re a Debian developer or user and you’d like to hear about infrequent Debian social gatherings in the Seattle area, you should sign up on the list!

Conversation on Freedom and Openness in Learning

On Monday, I was a visitor and guest speaker in a session on “Open Learning” in a class on Learning Creative Learning which aims to offer “a course for designers, technologists, and educators.” The class is being offered publicly by the combination — surprising but very close to my heart — of Peer 2 Peer University and the MIT Media Lab.

The hour-long session was facilitated by Philipp Schmidt and was mostly structured around a conversation with Audrey Watters and myself. The rest of the course materials and other video lectures are on the course website.

You can watch the video on YouTube or below. I thought it was a thought-provoking conversation!

If you’re interested in alternative approaches to learning and free software philosophy, I would also urge you to check out an essay I wrote in 2002: The Geek Shall Inherit the Earth: My Story of Unlearning. Keep in mind that the essay is probably the most personal thing I have ever published and I wrote it more than a decade ago it as a twenty-one year old undergraduate at Hampshire College. Although I’ve grown and learned enormously in the last ten years, and although I would not write the same document today, I am still proud of it.

Goodbye PyBlosxom, Hello WordPress

Since 2004, I’ve used the blogging software PyBlosxom. Over that time, the software has served me well and I have even written a series of patches and plugins.

PyBloxsom is blog software designed for hackers. It assumes you already have a text editor you love and relies on features of a POSIX filesystem instead of a relational database. It’s designed so you can keep your blog under revision control (since 2004 I’ve used GNU Arch, baz, bzr and now git). It is also hackers’ software in the sense that you should expect to write code to use it (e.g., the configuration is pure Python). I love it.

What PyBlosxom does not have is a large community. This summer, the most recent long-time maintainer of the project, Will Kahn-Greene, stepped down. Although the project eventually found a new maintainer, the reality is the project entered maintenance mode years ago and many features available in more popular blogging platforms are unlikely to make it PyBlosxom. The situation with comment spam is particularly dire. I’ve written several antispam plugins but time has shown that I don’t have the either the expertise or the time to make them as awesome as they need to be to really work in today’s web.

So, after many months of weighing, waffling, and planning I’ve switched to WordPress — a great piece of free software with an enormous and established community As you’ll know if you’ve read my interview on The Setup, I think a lot about the technology I surround myself with. I considered WordPress when I started my blog back in 2004 and rejected it soundly. Eight years ago, I would have laughed at you if you told me I’d be using it today; If PyBlosxom is for hackers, WordPress is designed for everyone else. But the way I evaluate software has changed over that period.

In the nineties, I used to download every new version of the Linux kernel to compile it — it took hours! — to try out the latest features. Configurabilty, hackability, and the ability to write my own features was — after a point — more important than the features the software came with. Today, I’m much more aware of the fact that for all the freedom that my software gives me, I simply do not have the time, energy, or inclination to take advantage of that freedom to hack very often.

Today, I give much more value to software that is not just free, but that is maintained by a community of people who can do all the work that I would do if I had unlimited time. Although I don’t have the time or experience to make WordPress do everything I would like, the collective of all WordPress users does. And they’ve done a lot of it already!

The flip side matters as well: Today, I give more value to other people using my software. When WordPress doesn’t do something and I write a plugin or patch, there are tons of people ready to pick it up and use it and perhaps even to collaborate on it with me. Want to guess how many patches my PyBlosxom plugins have received? None, if my memory serves me.

In the past, I’ve written about how free software is a victory even when it doesn’t build a community. I still believe that. But the large communities at the heart of the most successful free software communities (the promise of “open source”) are deeply important in a way that I increasingly value.

In that spirit: If you want to make the jump from PyBlosxom to WordPress, I’ve shared a Git repository with the scripts I used and wrote for the transition.

Freedom for Users, Not for Software

I finally published a short essay I wrote about a year ago: Freedom for Users, Not for Software.

Anybody who has hung around the free software community for a while will be familiar with the confusion created by the ambiguity between "free as in price" versus "free as freedom." In the essay I argue that there is a less appreciated semantic ambiguity that arises when we begin to think that what matters is that software is free. Software doesn’t need freedom, of course; Users of software need freedom. My essay looks at how the focus on free software, as opposed to on free users, has created challenges and divisions in the free software movement.

The essay was recently published in Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market and State, a book edited by David Bollier and Silke Helfrich and published by Levellers Press. The book includes essays by 73 authors that include some other folks from the free software and free culture communities along with a ton of people working on very different types of commons.

My essay is short and has two parts: The first is basically a short introduction to free software movement. The second lays out what I see as major challenges for free software. I will point out that these are some of the areas that I am working most closely with the FSF — who are having their annual fundraiser at the moment — to support and build advocacy programs around.

Open Brands

In late July, the Awesome Foundations invited me to participate in an interesting conversation about open brands at their conference. Awesome is a young collection of organizations struggling with the idea of if, and how, they want to try to control who gets call themselves Awesome. I was asked to talk about how the free software community approaches the issue.

Guidance from free software is surprisingly unclear. I have watched and participated in struggles over issues of branding in every successful free software project I’ve worked in. Many years ago, Greg Pomerantz and I wrote a draft trademark policy for the Debian distribution over a couple beers. Over the last year, I’ve been working with Debian Project Leader Stefano Zacchiroli and lawyers at the Software Freedom Law Center to help draft a trademark policy for the Debian project.

Through that process, I’ve come up with three principles which I think lead to more clear discussion about whether a free culture or free software should register a trademark and, if they do, how they should think about licensing it. I’ve listed those principles below in order of importance.

1. We want people to use our brands. Conversation about trademarks seem to turn into an exercise in imagining all the horrible ways in which a brand might be misused. This is silly and wrong. It is worth being extremely clear on this point: Our problem is not that people will misuse our brands. Our problem is that not enough people will use them at all. The most important goal of a trademark policy should be to make legitimate use possible and easy.

We want people to make t-shirts with our logos. We want people to write books about our products. We want people to create user groups and hold conferences. We want people to use, talk about, and promote our projects both commercially and non-commercially.

Trademarks will limit the diffusion of our brand and, in that way, will hurt our projects. Sometimes, after carefully considering these drawbacks, we think the trade-off is worth making. And sometimes it is. However, projects are generally overly risk averse and, as a result, almost always err on the side of too much control. I am confident that free software and free culture projects’ desire to control their brands has done more damage than all brand misuse put together.

2. We want our projects to be able to evolve. The creation of a trademark puts legal power to control a brand in the hands of an individual, firm, or a non-profit. Although it might not seem like such a big deal, this power is, fundamentally, the ability to determine what a project is and is not. By doing this, it creates a single point of failure and a new position of authority and, in that process, limits projects’ ability to shift and grow organically over time.

I’ve heard that in US politics, there is no trademark for the terms Republican or Democrat and that you do not need permission to create an organization that claims to be part of either party. And that does not mean that everybody is confused. Through social and organizational structures, it is clear who is in, who is out, and who is on the fringes.

More importantly, this structure allows for new branches and groups outside of the orthodoxy to grow and develop on the margins. Both parties have been around since the nineteenth century, have swapped places on the political spectrum on a large number of issues, and have played host to major internal ideological disagreements. Almost any organization should aspire to such longevity, internal debate, and flexibility.

3. We should not confuse our communities. Although they are often abused, trademarks are fundamentally pro-consumer. The point of legally protected brands is to help consumers from being confused as the source of a product or service. Users might love software from the Debian project, or might hate it, but it’s nice for them to be able to know that they’re getting "Debian Quality" when they download a distribution.

Of course, legally protected trademarks aren’t the only way to ensure this. Domains names, internal policies, and laws against fraud and misrepresentation all serve this purpose as well. The Open Source Initiative applied for a trademark on the term open source and had their application rejected. The lack of a registered trademark has not kept folks from policing use of the term. Folks try to call their stuff "open source" when it is not and are kept in line by a community of folks who know better.

And since lawyers are rarely involved, it is hardly clear that a registered trademark would help in the vast majority of these these situations. It is also the case that most free software/culture organizations lack the money, lawyers, or time, to enforce trademarks in any case. Keeping your communities of users and developers clear on what is, and what isn’t, your product and your project is deeply important. But how we choose to do this is something we should never take for granted.

A Model of Free Software Success

Last week I helped organize the Open and User Innovation Conference at Harvard Business School. One of many interesting papers presented there was an essay on Institutional Change and Information Production by Fabio Landini from the University of Siena.

At the core of the paper is an economic model of the relationship between rights protection and technologies that affects the way that cognitive labor can be divided and aggregated. Although that may sound very abstract (and it is in the paper), it is basically a theory that tries to explain the growth of free software.

The old story about free software and free culture (at least among economists and many other academics) is that the movements surged to prominence over the last decade because improvements in communication technology made new forms of mass-collaboration — like GNU/Linux and Wikipedia — possible. "Possible", for these types of models, usually means profit-maximizing for rational, profit-seeking, actors like capitalist firms. You can basically think of these attempts as trying to explain why open source claims that free licensing leads to "better quality, higher reliability, more flexibility, lower cost" are correct: new technology makes possible an open development process which leads to collaboration which leads to higher quality work which leads to profit.

Landini suggests there are problems with this story. One problem is that it treats technology as being taken for granted and technological changes as effectively being dropped in from outside (i.e., exogenous). Landini points out that software businesses build an enormous amount of technology to help organize their work and to help themselves succeed in what they see as their ideal property rights regime. The key feature of Landini’s alternate model is that it considers this possibility. What comes out the other end of the model is a prediction for a multiple equilibrium system — a situation where there are several strategies that can be stable and profitable. This can help explain why, although free software has succeeded in some areas, its success has hardly been total and usually has not led to change within existing proprietary software firms. After all, there are still plenty of companies selling proprietary software. In Landini’s model, free is just one of several winning options.

But Landini’s model raises what might be an even bigger question. If free software can be as efficient as proprietary software, how would anybody ever find out? If all the successful software companies out there are doing proprietary software, which greedy capitalist is going to take the risk of seeing if they could also be successful by throwing exclusive rights out the window? In the early days, new paths are always unclear, unsure, and unproven.

Landini suggests that ethically motivated free software hackers provide what he calls a "cultural subsidy." Essentially, a few hackers are motivated enough by the ethical principles behind free software that they are willing to contribute to it even when it isn’t clearly better than proprietary alternatives. And in fact, historically speaking, many free software hackers were willing to contribute to free software even when they thought it was likely less profitable than the proprietary alternative models. As Landini suggests, this group was able to build technological platforms and find new social and business arrangements where the free model actually is competitive.

I think that the idea of an "cultural subsidy" is a nice way to think about the important role that ethical arguments play in movements like free software and free culture. "Open source" style efficiency arguments persuade a lot of people. Especially when they are true. But those arguments are only ever true because a group of ethically motivated people fought to find a way to make them true. Free software didn’t start out as competitive with proprietary software. It became so only because a bunch of ethically motivated hackers were willing to "subsidize" the movement with their failed, and successful, attempts at free software and free culture projects and businesses.

Of course, the folks attracted by "open source" style superiority arguments can find the ethical motivated folks shrill, off-putting, and annoying. The ethically motivated folks often think the "efficiency" group is shortsighted and mercenary. But as awkward as this marriage might be, it has some huge upsides. In Landini’s model, the ethical folks can build their better world without convincing everyone else that they are right and by relying, at least in part, on the self-interest of others who don’t share their principles. Just as the free software movement has done.

I think that Landini’s paper is a good description of the critically important role that the free software movement, and the FSF in particular, can play. The influence and importance of individuals motivated by principles can go far beyond the groups of people who take an ethical stand. They can make involvement possible for large groups of people who do not think that taking a stand on a particular ethical issue is even a good idea.

My Setup

The Setup is an awesome blog that posts of interviews with nerdy people that ask the same four questions:

  1. Who are you, and what do you do?
  2. What hardware are you using?
  3. And what software?
  4. What would be your dream setup?

I really care about my setup so I am excited, and honored, that they just posted an interview with me!

I answer questions about my setup often so I tried to be comprehensive with the hope that I will be able to point people to it in the future.

Half the Battle Against DRM

As the free software and free culture movements have sat quietly by, DRM is now well on its way to becoming the norm in the electronic book publishing industry.

The free culture movement has failed to communicate the reality of DRM and, as a result, millions of people are buying books that they won’t be able to read when they switch to a different model of ebook reader in the future. They are buying books that will become inaccessible when the DRM system that supports them is shut down — as we’ve already seen with music from companies including Wal*Mart, Yahoo, and Microsoft. They are buying books that require that readers use proprietary tools that lock them out from doing basic things that have always been the right of a book owner.

Some anti-DRM advocates are, indirectly, part of this problem as they buy these books and turn to shady methods of stripping the DRM. Buying DRMed books is voting with your wallet for a system that criminalizes those that insist on living in freedom and will screw us all in the long run when DRM is the only choice we are offered and removing the DRM is difficult, unsafe, and illegal.

Buying non-DRMed e-books is a more freedom-friendly alternative for those that, like me, are excited about not lugging kilograms of paper around our cities and the world. We can do this at "non-mainstream" publishers like Smashwords who explicitly reject DRM. Of course, the big ebook sellers like Amazon, and Barnes and Nobel, and Google all offer non-DRMed books. But none of the major ebook retailers explicitly reveal the DRM status of locked down books before purchase.

On Amazon, there are some cryptic signs and signals that, if you understand them, suggest the absence of DRM. Google and Barnes and Nobel currently offer no way to know if a book is DRMed without buying it first and questions in their support forums go unanswered.

It’s hard to support non-DRM alternatives when we can’t recognize them. It’s hard to tell people to not buy DRM ebooks if we can’t even tell them apart. Getting this message through to book buyers — and perhaps even to ebook retailers — seems like a critical first step.

Slouching Toward Autonomy

I care a lot about free network services. Recently, I have been given lots of reasons to be happy with the progress the free software community has made in developing services that live up to my standards. I have personally switched from a few proprietary network services to alternative systems that respect my autonomy and have been very happy both with the freedom I have gained and with the no-longer-rudimentary feature sets that the free tools offer.

Although there is plenty left to do, here are four tools I’m using now instead of the proprietary tools that many people use, or that I used to use myself:

  • StatusNet/identi.ca for microblogging (instead of Twitter): I have had my account since the almost the very beginning and am very happy with the improvements in the recent 1.0 rollout.
  • Diaspora for social networking (instead of Facebook): Diaspora has made important strides forward recently and has become both quite usable and quite useful. Not having used Facebook, I’ve not managed to totally figure out where the system fits into my life, but I do periodically post updates that are more personal and less polished than the ones on my blog. I still have not set up my own pod but look forward to work that the Diaspora team is putting into making that process easier.
  • NewsBlur for feed reading/sharing (instead of Google Reader): NewsBlur can be thought of as a replacement for Google Reader and is, in my opinion, much better even before one considers issues of autonomy. You can install the code yourself or pay the author a small amount to host it for you (he will do it for free if you are following under 64 feeds).
  • Scuttle for social bookmarking (instead of Delicious): In the wake of Yahoo’s sale and shutdown of Delicious, there is a renewed interest in free tools for social bookmarking. Scuttle, a rather mature project, seems to have been one of several beneficiaries. My Scuttle installation is at links.mako.cc.

In trying to switch away from proprietary services, I have found that there still a lack of good information comparing the different systems out there and giving folks advice on who might be able to help with things like setup or hosting. I really value hearing from other people about what they use and what they find useful but finding this information online still seems to be a struggle.

The autonomo.us wiki seems like the natural place to host or summarize this discussion and to collect and share information useful for those of us slouching (or running) toward autonomy in our use of network services. I invite folks to get involved in improving that already useful resource.

For example, this week, I spent a few hours researching free social bookmarking tools and produced a major update to the (already useful) social bookmarking page on the autonomo.us wiki. Of course, I can imagine lots of ways to improve that page and to collect similar information on other classes of network services. Please join me in that effort!

Software Freedom Day Boston 2011

This year, Software Freedom Day in Boston is being organized by Asheesh and Deb and OpenHatch which means a focus on increasing involvement in free software communities. If you are all interested in getting involved in the free software community in any way and at any level — or interested in hearing about how that might happen someday — this is a great event to attend.

For my part, I’ll be giving a short talk on getting involved in Debian.

The event will be held on Saturday, September 17 at Cambridge College — between Harvard and Central squares — with an after party at Tommy Doyle’s in Harvard.

In Defense of Negativity

I often hear criticism of "negative campaigning" in the free software movement. For example, in reply to a blog post I once wrote about an FSF campaign, several people argued against, "negative campaigning of any sort, in any realm." Drawing an analogy to political smear campaigns, some members of the free software community have taken the position that negative campaigning in general is not useful and that negativity has no place in our advocacy.

First, it is important to be clear on what we mean by a negative campaigns. I believe that there is a fundamental difference between speaking out against policies or actions and smear campaigns that employ untrue claims, ad hominem attacks, and that attempt to avoid a real conversation about issues. I will categorically condemn the latter form of smear campaigning in campaigns for software freedom or for anything else.

That said, negativity directed at negativity has had a positive effect in many social movements. I have supported and participated in "negative" campaigns against proprietary software, software patents, DRM, centralized network services, and the firms behind these practices. I’ve done so because I believe that if one is taking an ethical position, it is justified, and often necessary, to not only speak about the benefits of freedom but against acts of dispossession and disenfranchisement.

In some of the most effective social movements, unambiguously negative messages have been central. Should a campaign for abolishing child labor talk only about how valuable adult workers are to their employers or how happy kids are when they don’t work? Should a campaign trying to abolish land mines talk only about the benefits of bomb-free fields and intact lower limbs? Should a free speech organization only speak out about the social welfare brought by a free press and never against acts of censorship? These may seem like outlandish comparisons but you can find people writing, only a couple centuries ago, about how slavery should be abolished by arguing in favor of the benefits of paid labor. Even if the economic arguments in favor of paid work are strong, these arguments seems irrelevant and offensive today. Whether slavery is more or less efficient is a moot point. Society has rejected it because it is wrong.

We have made important strides toward eliminating injustices like child labor and slavery because activists waged decidedly negative campaigns against them and convinced others to join in opposition. In doing so, activists declared the status quo unconscionable and created an ethical responsibility to find alternatives and to redefine what was "realistic." While I will not suggest that the movement for software freedom is comparable in ethical weight to these other causes, I know that the free software mission is similar in kind.

Of course, if one does not think that user control over technology is an ethical issue but is instead merely a matter of choice, one will probably oppose negative campaigns. It is also possible that a particular negative campaign is tactically unwise in that it is unlikely to reach a large audience, unlikely to change people’s minds, or be difficult to carry out successfully. But such campaigns are a bad idea because they are ineffective, not because they are negative. Additionally, a movement that is purely negative and offers no reasonable alternative to the stated ill may also be unlikely to succeed. This is why, for example, I believe it is good that the FSF uses the large majority of its resources in the "positive" role of supporting free software.

For those that do treat technological empowerment as an ethical ideal, it is both justified and essential to condemn the systematic disempowerment of others through non-free software just as we celebrate the benefits of software freedom. "Negative" campaigns against proprietary software, software patents, and DRM in music have already led our community to important — if incomplete — victories. The desire to right wrongs has been a critical part of our movement’s success and of many others’. We would be wise not to give it up.