This weekend I’ve made trips to two events that really got me thinking about who we should promote free software to. The first stop was the Durham Farmer’s Market, and the second was a benefit concert for a cooperative preschool in Chapel Hill. I have been thinking for a long time about the “organic food crowd,” particularly because I’m a biology graduate student, and most of my fellow graduate students buy organic food or shop at farmer’s markets. They seem to have values in common with me, yet few of them use free operating systems. A lot of my fellow graduate students know about certain free software, like Firefox, R and Python. However, mostly they use Window$ or McIntyre operating systems.
I really think somebody needs to get the idea of free operating systems to people at the Durham Farmer’s Market, Whole Foods and events like the concert I just attended. Obviously that could be me, and I could just go and talk to the vendors at the farmer’s market. That would be easy. There are a few problems, chief among them the assumptions I’m making. I automatically assume that these people who I seem to have a lot in common with are very different from me. I assume that they are making their decisions from a fashion-inspired reflex. I think I feel this way because I have come to my own values my own way, and not because of fashion. However, I know my conclusion is not justified. I don’t actually have good data about the “organic food people,” and probably at least ten percent of them do indeed use free software. Probably more than ninety percent of them at least know about Firefox, even if they don’t know what’s actually good about “open source.” I do know that pretty often I see cars like the one I saw driving back from Chapel Hill: bumper stickers saying “When words fail, music sings,” alongside an Apple sticker.
The other problem is just what I would say to them? Would I recommend a particular distro? Would I recommend that they read GNU Philosophy? Would I recommend that they learn about the issues on Wikipedia? These were all helpful things for me. However, it’s best to get across the ethical essence of the idea by simply giving people a persuasive argument. That almost always gets people’s attention, but you need to give them at least a step to get going. Another good first step is to recommend the film Revolution OS, but that’s starting to seem a bit dated. Perhaps it’s time for another documentary, like Patent Absurdity.
The third challenge is to remember is that promoting freedom is not a race to get the most users. People in the software press seem to always be concerned about numbers, about “desktop share,” and about “killer apps.” That’s really not the point. The point is to demonstrate that ethical motivation is enough to create a working operating system. In other words, whether the GNU/Linux operating system was created for freedom and fun, it was not created for money. Often the first thing people tell me when I give them my persuasive argument is “but programmers have to make money!” as if money were the only reason that anybody ever does anything. The point of free software (and Wikipedia) is to show skeptics that there are people who have different values.
Ultimately, I believe, that ethical motivation will prevail and one way or another, whether they know it or not, people will end up using ethics-promoting software. It doesn’t matter how many Windows users we “convert” or how many Mac users we tell the truth about much of the software they’re using. It doesn’t matter that we “conquer the world” or anything like that. What matters is that those of us who care about our freedom now do what we can to continue to improve our ability to live our lives without using ethics-compromising software. The more we can do that, the better demonstration we make to people who finally decide that they want to make the effort to preserve their freedoms. We will do our best, and others will see it and make their decision.
An excellent video condensing the history of Linux into some nice cartoons:
I especially like the portrayal of rms.
A few weeks ago I migrated two major projects to distributed version control systems (DVCS), leaving only one project in Subversion, the one hosted on Savannah. As you can read in my prior posts, I have resisted switching over to DVCS. However, recently I’ve understood the benefits propounded by DVCS adherents, and I’ve found that it has more features than most tutorials let on.
Why Did I Resist?
I resisted DVCS so strongly for a few reasons:
- Most arguments for DVCS I encountered were actually anti-Subversion arguments; much of them based on incorrect information about Subversion and CVS
- Much of what I read sounded like knee-jerk trendiness: it sounded like people were doing it just because Linus Torvalds says Subversion is stupid
- I had an important project (my dissertation!) in Subversion, managed with Trac. I didn’t want to lose all that history by doing a crappy conversion.
When the anti-Subversion arguments didn’t hold up, I ignored them. I thought maybe my working conditions were just different or other people just weren’t reading the manual. Those are still possibilities, but the harder thing to examine was my second reason for dismissal: I assumed that anyone who said these things was a total newbie, who had just been told that DVCS was better. I’ve talked about object-oriented programming proponents often just sound inexperienced with programming. I figured the same was true of DVCS proponents.
However, two things happened that really changed my mind. The first was that I’ve realized that the most annoying thing about somebody questioning my decisions is the feeling that they think my decision is poorly considered when it is deliberate, careful and took me weeks of preparation. It’s very easy to take that attitude with people online: when I don’t hear or see people, I don’t have that mirror held up to me. It’s very easy to just brush something off and say that the other person “just isn’t thinking about it.” Realizing how much that pisses me off when people take that attitude with me, I’ve thought a little more about how I consider peoples’ attitudes online.
Many experience hackers have switched
The second thing was realizing that people whose opinions I know I can value, people who definitely have done their homework, have switched major projects to DVCS. Emacs, my favorite piece of software that I am using right now to right this, is kept in Bazaar now. I know the people who made that decision were doing their homework, not going by knee-jerk reaction, certainly not just to copy Linus Torvalds. Bazaar is also part of the GNU Project.
What about my revisions?
svn2bzr answered my third concern. svn2bzr is a featureful-enough tool that will create Bazaar branches or repositories from SVN repository dumps. It’s really freakin’ easy to create whatever configuration you want:
> python ~/.bazaar/plugins/svn2bzr/svn2bzr.py --prefix=subdir svndump newrepo
This will create a new Bazaar repository in the directory `newrepo’ that contains all the revisions in the subdirectory `subdir’ of the svn repository. This is where Bazaar’s concept of repositories shows its difference.
In a Bazaar repository you can have many branches beneath the repository in the filesystem, and you import a branch by branching into a subdirectory. I did’t get this for a few weeks, so let me give you an example. Suppose I have a branch called `branch’ located at `~/Public/src/branch’ and a repository called `repo':
> cd repo > bzr branch ~/Public/src/branch here
That creates a branch within the repository called `here’. Now I can create other branches, merge them, etc. The only tricky thing about getting my revisions into a place where Trac could use them was that I needed a repository hosted on HTTP. Then I used the TracBzr plugin to add the repository to Trac. I realized that changeset links are only used in Trac tickets, and since I had so few of those referencing current revisions, changes in the revision numbers wouldn’t matter that much.
Features of DVCS
I heard many, many anti-Subversion arguments and some really bogus arguments for DVCS. People have said “you can’t merge,” “you can’t make branches,” “Subversion causes brain damage” and on and on. The bogus pro-arguments I heard were that you can commit without a network connection, “forking is fundamental,” and that DVCS is “modern.” Answering these arguments is simple: committing without a network connection is not a big deal. On the other hand updating without a network connection is impossible, and it’s a situation I’ve found myself in more often, especially working with a laptop, instead of just two workstations. This is where DVCS was nice. Updating is a bigger problem than committing.
As to “you can’t merge” and “you can’t make branches,” we all know that’s bologna. However, what you can do much better with DVCS systems like git and Bazaar is edit directory structure and rename files. This is a huge advantage of DVCS systems. Bazaar, for instance, totally keeps track of all renames and copies in its history. Subversion, on the other hand, does renames with a DELETE operation and an ADD operation. Not so smooth. A good way to do get something better than CVS, but not the best.
Furthermore, DVCS systems are very good at merging. That doesn’t mean you can’t merge with Subversion — I’ve been doing that for years. However, merging between two branches in Bazaar is much simpler than merging in Subversion. I don’t have to read the help when I’m merging with Bazaar; merging with Subversion is not hard, but it’s not as simple. Simplicity is the name of the game, baby.
A Stupid Git Realization
I had tried using git before and didn’t enjoy it. I’m glad to say I was using it wrong. I had tried using it to manage my webpages, but whenever I pushed my local changes to my remote webpage tree on UNC’s servers, I would get messages about not updating the local tree and stuff like that. It was just confusing. It didn’t really make sense. I wasn’t interested in trying git again, hence using Bazaar for some new projects.
I had a weird realization one night: I was working with the git tree of Guile, and someone on irc had told me that the most updated git source had a known problem. I didn’t want to go get the tarball for Guile 1.9-13, so I thought “Wait, I have the git tree, so I should be able to generate whatever release version I want. How do I do that?”
> git tag -l > git checkout release_1-9-13
and there I had it. Wow! That is cool.
I also followed a simple tutorial to get my webpages working with a hook that would update the local tree (the one served as my homepage) every time.
It seems a simple idea: make a repository in a different directory,
and check out to it every time I push to that repository. Why hadn’t
that occurred to me before? Conversion from SVN to git was insanely simple:
> sudo yum install git-svn > git svn clone http://path/to/repo webgit
I think I’m done with Subversion. DVCS, at least git and Bazaar, can do a hell of a lot and I really like their features. I wouldn’t mind using Subversion for an existing project, but I think I’m not going to start any new projects with it. I’m also going to take it easy on people who disagree with me online. I’ve seen that at least some of them were speaking from the same position I hope to.
Please go to Dudalibre to be counted as a desktop GNU/Linux user.
Someone on Stack Overflow disagreed with me about using centralized version control for a solo project. As I predicted, of course; as I said in my last post, DVCS is a fad and it will have many converts who support it in a knee-jerk fashion. I think the person who disagreed may just be misinformed, or not thinking about this hard enough. I may not have made things clear in my last post, however, about why centralized version control makes more sense for a solo developer. Also, I admit that it’s paradoxical that someone would use centralized version control for a solo project. However, as I’ll show, centralized version control does make more sense (not only that, but I’m not the only one who thinks so).
Consider this: if you are a solo developer working on the same machine all the time (e.g. a laptop), a DVCS repository in your current working directory and a Subversion repository in your home directory are practically the same. The repository is always online and you can always make commits. This is what makes the “commit while offline” argument of DVCS proponents so weak: for certain situations you can do that with Subversion, or most of the time you won’t need to.
Now consider that if you are a solo developer working on multiple machines, DVCS only creates an extra step in your development. I always work on my big ol’ workstation during the day. If I were using git or hg for my most-frequently-worked-on projects, I would need to remember to push my changes from one repository to the other. With Subversion I just don’t have that step. All other steps are identical with the two workflows.
All through those above arguments, I am only one developer, and this is the crux of the idea. I think people often confuse the situation of multiple computers with that of multiple people. In the former argument, I posed that with one computer there is no difference between using file URLs and using a DVCS repository in the current working directory. However, there would be a difference if there were multiple developers. Then you have to configure access to a single machine (either for cloning or checking out) for multiple users; this is when things get more complex.
The “D” in DVCS stands for “Different People.” What I mean by that is that the “forking is fundamental” argument posed by DVCS proponents doesn’t apply when there’s a single developer or author working on a project. If by myself I want to create branches and work on different features, that is perfectly easy to do with Subversion, and so is merging. What distributed version control is for different people maintaining different features and seeing how they work. I completely reject the idea that centralized version control is obsolete and I will keep recommending it to solo developers.
I’ve developed an input-output library for scientific applications that is now available on Launchpad. Take a look, download it, play with it, see what you can do with it.
As of now the only documentation is the source code, but I am working on a manual. Simpleio allows you to specify simple configuration files where you can specify ranges for variables, define variables, and input values for calculations. You can also use its writing capabilities to write large buffers of output at the desired time.
I’ve completely redone the recombination algorithm, fixing bug #30720 that produced impossible offspring. Also check for many improvements to the homepage, including News links and new results for the nrm example program.
Here’s an excellent Emacs minor mode that I discovered last week, as did our friend at Passing Thoughts:
via Passing Thoughts
Today I attempted to run a simulation on the university’s Beowulf cluster and a simple shell script returned an error saying that mktemp was not present. Really? I have this experience all the time: I go from my Fedora System to the university’s RHEL system and find out that my workstation is a heck of a lot easier to use because on the cluster a package is missing, or there’s some security measure or other sysadmin preference that prevents me from using the system the way I should be able to use it.
To me this is merely annoying, but I think the Free Software movement needs to take notice of this. Here’s the real problem: people view “Linux” (their name for it, not mine) as a workhorse, something that no one would willingly use unless they need “performance.” A lot of people talk about what a pain it is to use “Linux” while I think it is a joy to use, and it’s a pain to use anything else. Perhaps the reason they think so is because they’ve only had contact with systems run by system administrators who keep everything too tightly locked down. I use “Linux” in quotation marks because the experiences these people have is so drastically different from the stable, capable GNU System I use for all my computing.
My first exhibit was the lack of mktemp on this thoroughly outdated RHEL system, but my second is that whenever I’m around system administrators, they talk about having problems that I have never had administering GNU systems on home and office workstations. Last time I was in such a situation, I told this to somebody and she was really nice about it: she said “We might just be doing everything wrong.” I understand she was just being tactful (though more than average), I highly doubt that I have all the answers. Anything that I have done that wasn’t part of a default install was something that was no more complex to figure out than reading the manual. But I’m not going to RTFM a room full of sysadmins, am I?
The problem I see for the Free Software movement is sysadmins are not motivated in any way to promote free software, at least not most of the time. On top of that, their jobs are certainly not easy and they don’t have most of the power. They have the sort of “spit on your french fries” power that unfortunately makes them defend their decisions ruthlessly, even if they’re shown to be wrong.
This becomes a problem for me advocating free software on a personal and minor public level because if I have a room full of scientists, most of them have used “Linux” but very few of them even know it can have a GUI. Even I didn’t know that until 5 years ago! Furthermore if any of them have tried using GNU/Linux and have faced continued frustration because the machine they’re working on doesn’t work, I’m not going to convince them of anything.
I’m not saying that sysadmins ought to put free software advocacy first; what I’m saying is that pretty often they make these machines like old Unix machines, instead of GNU machines — machines with no arbitrary limits, portable tools and an emphasis on enabling users to be active participants. If they could focus some of their energy on that, and their bosses would let them, then we’d all have an easier time telling people the benefits of free software.
My favorite media player right now is Totem or “Movie Player” as it appears in the menus. I’ve been listening to music at work using Totem for weeks now and I like it better than Rhythmbox or Amarok, or any of the mpd or xmms2 clients.
My other major music player has been Mozilla Firefox, where I can look up plenty of videos with good sound quality on Youtube. My current favorite performer, Kate Bush, has tons of live performances and videos on Youtube with (as I said) good sound quality. Not great, but listenable. The biggest problem, however, is that I can’t use my keyboard “media” buttons to control the videos in any more than the volume, and pausing them requires switching to another desktop. This wouldn’t be so if Youtube hadn’t done away with the popup player; they’ve brought it back for some videos, but it doesn’t quite work the way it used to, which was annoying. At least with the popup player I could search videos from a small window and keep them on the same virtual desktop as my work. This is not so much so I can see Lady Gaga prancing around, but just to be able to control the videos and maintain my precious economy of motion.
However, today I discovered the Youtube plugin for Totem. I can’t even remember what I was looking for — I think it was visualizations — but “yum search totem” turned up the Youtube plugin, and away I went:
# sudo yum install totem-youtube
(remember that I’m using Fedora). Now you can search and play Youtube videos directly from Totem, play and pause them with the media buttons. Excellent!