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My Digital OE

When we visit a new country, we can whinge that it’s not like home, or immerse ourselves in the culture and enjoy it for what it is, no matter how strange it appears. It’s all part of the overseas experience. Having lived with the HP Mini running the Ubuntu Netbook Remix for about 6 months now, I feel as if I grew up in Minnesota and moved to Italy. Without a phrase book. Things are different here.

The “killer app” is the Ubuntu Software Centre. The ability to find and install free software is the ultimate in high-end user empowerment. I installed Lyx and the LaTeX typesetting system, plus AbiWord to make it easy to convert documents from ODF to LaTeX. As far as I can tell, there is no direct converter from OOXML to LaTeX, so ODF once again proves its worth. Add Inkscape to produce graphics in SVG and PDF and you have a complete publishing system. There is even a plug-in for gedit which lets you see the LaTeX source and PDF output side by side in separate windows. This is barely usable on the Netbook’s tiny screen, but Lyx in full-screen mode is fine.

As usual, Google told me what to do. The only problem I encountered was that LaTeX had to be installed with a –fix-missing option.

There continues to be an ongoing niggle with the wireless networking (like the Italian telephone system, it works in mysterious ways which only the locals understand). I usually have to enter the wireless password at least 3 times, even though it is stored on the key-ring. As far as I can tell, this is an HP Mini issue, as I have no problem connecting to the wireless router when I boot my MacBook from a Ubuntu Live CD. But it’s an irritant, not a show-stopper. It does not bother me enough that I feel compelled to track down a solution, although it would be nice if it worked better.

If we visit Italy wanting it to be like Minnesota, we will not have a happy time. Similarly, to get the most out of switching to a free software desktop, treat it as a digital OE and leave preconceived ideas at the border. Take the time to watch the locals and refrain from pointing out how quaint they are or how much better it is at home. Celebrate cultural diversity!

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Does free software have an image problem?

It is always a salutary experience to learn how those who see themselves as part of the IT mainstream perceive people involved in free software. A recent event has given me a sharp reminder of this. In his regular Computer Society Insight column in IT Brief for February 2010 (currently not online), the chief executive of the New Zealand Computer Society writes about “a cold war” between open source and proprietary software.

In it, he makes a number of interesting statements about where “the truth” lies.

Ideological reasons aside, there’s frankly no great benefit for the majority of users in being able to modify an application themselves — most don’t have the skills, knowledge or inclination to do so. Most motorists don’t need or want to be able to pop the bonnet and rewire their starter motor.

I see free software as a philosophy, not an ideology. Having heard each of Richard Stallman’s talks during the GNU Zealand 2009 tour, and read the transcripts, I can safely say that he has logical, evidence-based reasons for every statement he makes. People may disagree with his conclusions (show me two philosophers who agree on anything), but his position is a rational one. We also need to remember that the freedom to study how a program works, and change it to make it do what we wish, is only one of the four freedoms. The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0) and the freedom to redistribute copies, so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2) are important for all users. Most proprietary software denies these freedoms to its users. And in fact, many motorists take their cars to the garage of their choice to get problems fixed, rather than buy a new release from the manufacturer.

He goes on:

And this, of course, is the crux of the issue. FLOSS advocates argue that if a user wants to pop the hood and have a play, they should be able to without restriction — just like with a car or any other physical-world equivalent.

Leaving aside the use of “play”, which implies that people don’t work on free software, they “play” with it, no, the crux of the issue is the four freedoms. I do not know to which FLOSS advocates the author is referring, as there is no citation in the original, so I can only speak for myself. My training is in science. For me, Isaac Newton encapsulated the scientific method when he wrote in a letter to Robert Hooke, “If I have seen further, it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Free software lets all of us, including those who write and sell proprietary software, stand on the shoulders of giants. It is part of our cultural common wealth, like literature, music, art and science. These are not “free as in free beer” but they are all “free as in freedom”. In my view, free software is preferable to proprietary software in the same way that evolution is a better theory of the natural world than “intelligent design” — not just as a way to understand the world, but because of the values which underpin the method by which science works.

I am also cautious of making generalizations about the free/open source world. You start off in a maze of twisty little passages all alike, but soon find yourself in a twisty maze of little passages, all different. There is no such thing as a typical project or a typical participant. There are some important shared values, but like communities everywhere, it’s their diversity that makes them interesting.

He then concludes:

The best solution is the one that adequately solves the problem of the client, nothing more and nothing less. No professional should ever lose sight of this or allow ideology to prevent them from providing the best solution: proprietary, open source or otherwise.

What I think this is saying is that all professionals have a duty to be pragmatists, that practical utility is the only valid test for software. And that everyone who isn’t a pragmatist is an ideologue. However, in my view, a professional’s first duty is to act ethically (“first, do no harm”). The pragmatic position seems to be that choosing software is a matter of utility only, there is no ethical dimension, and it doesn’t matter whether software is free or proprietary. The free software position is that free software is an ethical imperative. The open source position (and it’s a philosophy, not an ideology) is that open source is a superior development method.

Does it matter if the chief executive of the Computer Society (to which many people working in free software in New Zealand belong) has shown a limited understanding of the values underpinning free software? On the one hand, many people work with free software by choice, are passionate about it, while accepting that others do not share their passion. It’s a free country. We don’t all drive the same car or vote for the same party; we don’t all have to use the same software. Free software is a philosophy, not a religion; its advocates will explain it to those interested and will welcome those who choose to participate, but they don’t seek converts. Those who wish to inform themselves about free software can do so using the Web. Those who are not interested or who disagree are free to do so.

On the other hand, some may think that free software deserves to receive full and fair consideration during software selection processes, that software contestability is a good thing, and that proprietary software lock-in is bad for business and for society. In which case, perhaps free software has an image problem. Has it been (to quote one last time) “often unnecessarily and significantly damaging the mainstream view of FLOSS”?

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Enemy action?

Auric Goldfinger said:

Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action.

There appears to be a move afoot to re-position Microsoft as an “open source” company. Once was at the City of Edmonton; twice is the British Library. Is there a third time?

This is why Open Source misses the point of Free Software. In other words, Free as in Free Market — a competitive landscape offering real choice of systems and suppliers, not locked into a single vendor’s proprietary software stack.

If somebody finds a third example, add a link in the comments, so readers can draw their own conclusions from the evidence.

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Free as in Free Market

In his thoughtful post, The free software way, Richard Fontana (open source licensing and patent counsel at Red Hat) highlights the importance of the bundle of legal rights that make software “free as in freedom”. These are the broad freedoms that users have to view the source, copy, modify and redistribute the software. The four freedoms, embodied in licences such as the GPL, are the foundation on which our rights as users rest. He points out that the term “Open Source” fails to capture the central idea of this bundle of rights.

But are these rights enough?

The Public Sector Remix project, aimed at bringing contestability back to the public sector desktop, highlighted the importance of what I have come to think of as “the fifth freedom”—it’s not enough for the software to be free, the documentation must be free too. On the desktop, this means adopting not just a free software stack, it means adopting open standards in general and ODF in particular.

It is encouraging to read that Danish state administrations will adopt ODF and let’s hope New Zealand follows their lead sooner rather than later.

But why would a business user care about software freedom? For customers, free-as-in-free-speech software delivers free-as-in-free-market software. As a consequence of the 4 software freedoms, customers get 4 business freedoms:

  1. Choice: freedom to choose software that does not dictate a particular vendor or require a particular infrastructure
  2. Independence: freedom from lock-in or vendor capture so that we can enter and exit technologies based on business needs
  3. Flexibility: freedom of action so that choices made today don’t limit our choices tomorrow or require others to make the same choices we have made
  4. Control: freedom to control the software and use or modify it as we see fit, and to collaborate or share with others

Proprietary software is designed to take away the 4 business freedoms. Buyers considering proprietary alternatives to free software need to be sure that any short term benefits exceed the long term costs.

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Health Dollars

In my last post on the Ministry of Health’s new three year deal with Microsoft I wondered whether “health dollars” were the same as real ones. Turns out they are not, more likely the inverse of real money.

According to this stuff.co.nz article “the health sector is paying slightly more for software licences under the new three-year agreement”.  But in their press release they claimed to be saving money.

So the savings from Microsoft are mythical. The only silver lining is that Microsoft is “allowing” the Ministry to transfer licences should they restructure. Welcome to the world of proprietary licensing. If someone working at a PC is transferred, with PC to a newly named organisation the licences don’t get transferred. Unless you get a special deal.

It sounds nuts because it is. We hear so much about “intellectual property” these days but what could be a starker example of how the concept fails than the idea that a software cannot be transfered with the employee or machine…or if you sell or give away a second hand machine.

“The commission [SSC] has encouraged government agencies to investigate alternatives to Microsoft products, including open-source software, but this was not an option for the sector as Microsoft is heavily embedded in its infrastructure, says Mr Hesketh.”

Really?

John Rankin writes eloquently about the Public Sector Remix project the NZOSS is running with 14 government agencies, including New Zealand Post. Whilst I am not able to name all these agencies I am able to say that the MoH did turn down an invitation to join in July last year. This is a shame as they may have gained some useful insights to their dependency as well has being able to help the other participating agencies.

That said, it is not too late to join. A few pilots are about to begin and he project will continue for as long as there is interest from its participants.

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Bringing contestability back to the public sector desktop

For the last few months, the Open Source Society has been facilitating a project called the Public Sector Remix. This involves a number of public sector agencies investigating use of a free software stack on the desktop and understanding the barriers preventing its more widespread adoption. As the project has run out of money, my involvement is at an end, so it’s a good time to reflect on what the project has achieved so far.

The biggest challenge is overcoming inertia—the tendency to keep going in the same direction, because it’s the path of least resistance. Let’s be clear, there are no logical reasons to avoid free software on the desktop:

  • modern FOSS stacks, such as Ubuntu and Novell SLED, are simply stunning and more than capable of meeting business requirements
  • power users have the most to gain from the increased capabilities available from a FOSS desktop; e.g., try doing this with Microsoft Word (warning: PDF)
  • vendors offering implementation, training and support services around FOSS are capable, passionate and committed (I’ll have more to say on vendor capability later)

Like any investment, it comes down to the business case and asking the right questions about how the investment will:

  1. increase or decrease the cost of exiting from current desktop arrangements (if you are in a hole and want to get out, the first thing to do is stop digging)
  2. increase or decrease our ability to collaborate and exchange information with others, who may use different desktop technologies (will we be more open, or less open?)
  3. increase or decrease our ability to support and manage a diverse desktop software environment (will we have more choice, or less choice?)

If I were a public sector CIO, I would be asking my managers, “What are we doing to bring contestability back to the desktop?” The agencies participating in the Public Sector Remix project have a clear view of their business objectives and the benefits they expect to achieve. They want to adopt technology that can enable business, without strings attached, and discard technology painlessly if the returns are no longer justifiable.

The project has given me many thought-provoking moments, of which the most interesting has been the vexed question of ideology. Some people who consider themselves pragmatists say those who advocate free/libre or open source software are putting ideology first (forgetting that pragmatism is itself an ideology). They say the “correct” position for a manager is to be “impartial”. Linus Torvalds refutes this best:

I think Open Source is the right thing to do in the same way I believe science is better than alchemy.

To put this another way, taking an “impartial” position is like saying that intelligent design should be taught alongside evolution. I prefer to think that in the long run, more and more people will adopt a “free software first” policy—that we will choose FOSS on the basis of its additional inherent flexibility and freedoms.

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FLOSS, not such a tragedy

I like this image from Groklaw, “The GPL Barter Cycle – A Graphic“.

Barter Cycle

Permission to use and/or modify the Tux image is granted provided you acknowledge me lewing@isc.tamu.edu and The GIMP if someone asks. Same applies to PoIR for the rest.

It reminded me about a post I wrote a couple of years ago for stuff.co.nz on the idea of the Tragedy of the Commons applying to FLOSS. That post discussed how the GPL commons could possibly be captured by software patents. However, certain historical aspects of this post were disputed by, of all people, my own father (see the comments).

To backtrack a little, whenever economists see a resource that is shared, a “commons”, they predict tragic results due to the impact of free loaders who refuse to play be the rules of sustaining this commons in the hope of a short term windfall.

The picture by PolR submitted to Groklaw reminded me of one difference between physical commons and digital ones. Physical commons, whether inshore fisheries or grazing pastures,have limits to their extent. They have scarcity value. Digital commons, such as software, do not. They can be replicated at nearly zero cost. The limiting factor is the cost of production.

So what does PoIR’s diagram show us? That as soon as an entity, let’s call her Linus, gets a return to their effort that is greater than zero they have gained value. And that is the value of FLOSS in particular. It doesn’t matter if millions copy Linus’ code and return zero value, all it takes is one external entity to return something and Linus has a gain.

This theory holds true for me at this point in time. Feel free to peer review.

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New Year and Ministry of Health

First of all, happy New Year and apologies from all PTS bloggers for lack of activity. I know on my part it is not because I don’t have things to write about it is because there is so much to write about. We had some interesting stuff happening on the FOSS front on 2009 and I think 2010 is going to be quite year. In fact, I don’t think I have felt so positive about the understanding and interest in FOSS for a very long time.

But that is for other posts.

Labour’s ITC spokesperson, Clare Curran, pointed to a pre-Christmas press release by the Ministry of Health claiming “health dollars” (whatever they are) have been saved in their shiny new three year deal with Microsoft. The following comments should be taken in some context. It is obvious that following the unexpected failure of central Government to negotiate a deal with MS (and at the same time to properly explore alternatives) it is inevitable that individual agencies arrive at their own arrangements. They also have had very little time to do this, so late in the day was it that the central Government negotiations collapsed. This is not a great negotiating position for taxpayer representatives to be in and my sympathies are definitely with that agency. That said…

The issues with this deal are:

  1. As Clare points out, the MoH needs to produce some facts and figures before making any claims of savings;
  2. Did this procurement go to tender (note, this is *not* a case of SSC negotiating a price that agencies may choose to take up but an actual procurement);
  3. Has the MoH learned the lessons of the past?

Point 3 needs some expansion. As a result of a Windows Virus infection last year we learned that the MoH was tied to IE5 due to legacy applications. Presumably they are also tied to Windows and other software that relates to IE5. The lesson is this, make sure that as applications are replaced and procured they have no proprietary tie ins. Make sure that they are not hooked into closed standards or environments that reduce future choices, increase vendor lock-in and end up wasting millions in “health dollars” in the future.

This policy and strategy needs to be given a public airing so that taxpayers and recipients of health services can be confident that our future investments in health IT return value to stakeholders rather than monopolistic multi-nationals.

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Koala Bites Man

HP Mini came pre-loaded with SUSE Linux Enterprise Edition version 11. There is much to like about this and if I were coming from Microsoft Windows, I would be very comfortable to carry on using it. But it’s seriously corporate, and HP Mini lives mostly at home. So last night, I took the plunge and installed Ubuntu Netbook Remix 9.10; Karmic Koala to its friends. Bye bye geeko, hello koala.

I created USB versions of the regular Ubuntu and the Netbook Remix, and tested them both before opting for the Netbook Remix. In particular, I made sure wireless worked, which involved activating the proprietary Broadcom driver. Ubuntu told me to activate the driver and gave me the activate screen, Press the Activate button. No problem, everything worked flawlessly when running off the USB drive.

Then I installed the Netbook Remix on my hard drive. And the Koala bit me. Activate the Broadcom driver. Enter password. Press Activate. Enter password. Press Activate. Enter password. Press Activate. Nix. Nada. Nothing. WTF? The driver is there. Ubuntu knows it needs to be activated. It tells me to activate it. It knows I entered the correct password. But it does not work.

After hours of searching, the solution eventually emerged from Google, as other people discovered the same problem and mostly failed to solve it. There were lots of messages of the form, “I tried xyz and it didn’t work.”  I finally found a solution that worked for me. In Terminal:
sudo apt-get remove dkms
sudo apt-get install bcmwl-kernel-source

Then restart the computer.

Let’s get this straight. It’s a netbook remix, aimed at consumers. Most netbooks don’t have an Ethernet port and rely on wireless to connect to the Internet. If there is one thing to get right, it’s wireless networking. This is a bug pure and simple. Did anybody actually test this? Not good enough, Mr Shuttleworth.

Apart from the wireless bug, the Netbook Remix is nicely put together. The work the visual design team has done to conserve vertical screen space is excellent; everything fits into one bar at the top of the screen, instead of the 3 bars that the regular Ubuntu uses. So: top honours to the designers; the testers have some explaining to do.

My next quest is to find a way to add a second workspace and move between them.

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Open Access Week 2009 comes to Wellington!

A raft of Open-related presentations start in Wellington on the 19th October:

“As part of the worldwide celebration of Open Access week, the VUW Library and the School of English, Film, Theatre, & Media Studies are hosting a series of events to broaden awareness and understanding of Open Access to research. Find out about your rights as an author, learn about open access publishing and how to start an OA journal, discover open educational resources, the role of institutional repositories in New Zealand and more.”

http://www.creativecommons.org.nz/news_and_events/events/open_access_week_2009_comes_to_wellington

Vik :v)

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