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Putting the GNU into GNU/Linux

I have often become confused, angry or cynical over the past few years when seeing self-professed “open source users” with Macs on their desks, or using R under Windows. I once had a discussion with a Linux user group about which laptop to buy: when many had said my laptop was “under-powered” I pressed them and found out that they meant it would have been slow running Windows. Contributors to help forums and on IRC have often assumed that my machines dual-boot Windows and GNU/Linux: “Can you see the partition when you boot into Windows?” I have also seen the insistence, or mere suggestion, of calling the operating system I’m using “GNU/Linux,” instead of Linux, dismissed as “zealotry,” or “mere semantics.” I became angry because I assumed that everyone in these situations had heard of the values of freedom embodied by the GNU project and had rejected them as unimportant. How could freedom possibly be unimportant? What could be more important to Americans, other than money?

There was another possibility that I only considered for a few seconds at a time, but it’s now becoming clear that this possibility is more feasible: these people have never heard of the GNU Project, or the Four Freedoms, or Richard Stallman. They have never heard of the true benefits of software freedom, the dangers of proprietary software, or the full breadth of freedom that is possible. If they have heard of it, perhaps they did dismiss it without thinking it was possible: perhaps software freedom is, to most people, an urban legend. This seems strange, since I came to free software by reading about it on Wikipedia and gnu.org and my interest was primarily motivated by (a) freedom and (b) the possibility of having a Unix-like system to work on. The fact that it was free to download and install merely removed the barriers to enacting those freedoms.

The barrier to my own belief that people have just never heard of freedom is that it seems to me that all systems (in fact all things) are imperfect. We all know how imperfect Windows is, and I got annoyed as hell using a Mac, so as much as its devotees attest to its perfection, it’s not perfect for everybody. However, people complain the most about the imperfections of Linux[sic]. Perhaps this is because they can, as in if they complain, someone will do something about it eventually. With Windows and MacIntyre, you have to get fifty million corporate employees to complain, whereas with free operating systems, you can be just one guy and raise a huge stink about how the buttons on the top of the windows are arranged all wrong (of course, the other advantage is that somebody can explain to you how that’s your fault). Despite the lowered barriers to complaints, I always had the feeling that people were complaining because they feel like GNU/Linux is just not “professional,” or “slick” because it’s not purveyed by a huge corporation. Therefore they complain about all kinds of things that really aren’t important to me.

Nevertheless, you still get people promoting the hell out of Linux[sic]. I could never understand why. Take NixiePixel for example, a YouTube personality who promotes primarily Ubuntu and Linux Mint. I really thank her for doing so, because whether she likes it or not, she’s promoting freedom: better that people have it and not know it than not have it at all. However, she never says why she’s promoting these alternatives. Why is it better to use Ubuntu than Windows, particularly if there aren’t the same games available for it? She even has a new series called OSAlt where she discusses and rates “open source” alternatives to non-free programs. Again the question is why? Is “open source” inherently better for users somehow? I suppose in some ways it is, but how?

This is so puzzling because for me, without freedom, everything comes down to your personal choices. No computer operating system, no anything, is going to work well, or even comfortably for anybody. Life just doesn’t work that way: nothing “just works.” So why promote one alternative over another? Freedom is the only motivator to use GNU/Linux that stands that test. The freedom leads to a lot of nice by-products, but freedom is the prime mover. Some users may not have a choice of what to use; they may have to use a proprietary system at work, and not have time to learn to use something else at home. Additionally, some users like NixiePixel will be unwilling to embrace a campaign for freedom because considerations of freedom are intensely personal at the same time as “political” and the possibility for insulting people is pretty high. There is also a lot of angry, cynical behavior in the open source and free software worlds. That’s bound to happen whenever a community is composed of human beings instead of marketing personnel.

This is why it’s so crucial to let people know about their freedom at every possible opportunity, i.e. every time you mention the system. I know that “GNU/Linux” is a mouthful, but it’s too easy for people to hear about “Linux” and not know there’s anything special about it except that nerds like it. I myself had heard of “Linux” for years before I knew that it was free of charge, much less free-as-in-freedom (FAIF). There’s too much possibility that people will hear of “Linux” and just think it is another operating system. Or, they may get sucked into using non-free software by the “nerd-allure” of it.

Take Android for example: Android is a Linux system, but it only took me a few minutes of using my dad’s Samsung phone to see that Android is not a freedom-respecting system. None of the values of the free software movement were respected in its interface or its operation. There weren’t even subsidiary values (those by-products I mentioned), like organization, clarity and standards. There was an avenue for spam and advertising that was pretty well-lubricated, but the only reason I saw for using the Linux kernel was that it’s adaptable to many devices. After playing Angry Birds for a few minutes, it became clear to me why it’s important to call the system I’m using now GNU/Linux: it’s accurate, and it promotes a mission that is in line with my values. As often as I can inform people of their possibility for freedom in technology, I will do my best.

For more on these issues, you can read The GNU/Linux FAQ

Free Software at the Farmer’s Market

September 18, 2011 6 comments

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.

Linux Celebrates Twentieth Anniversary

April 20, 2011 2 comments

An excellent video condensing the history of Linux into some nice cartoons:

I especially like the portrayal of rms.

Crunchbang #! GNU/Linux on Lenovo X100e

March 12, 2011 4 comments

Last weekend I thought I just couldn’t wait any longer for Gnome-shell and Gnome 3, so I tried to install Fedora Rawhide on my laptop. After trying to yum update the system, a weird thing happened and the machine turned off spontaneously. Then when I rebooted the Live USB I’d made with Unetbootin, a mysterious mixture of Gnome 3 and Gnome 2 became the default desktop (I am not joking, there was a Gnome 2 panel sitting right on top of Gnome-shell). This was too weird. I decided to just give that up until Tuesday when I knew the Fedora Alpha was coming out.

However, I also knew about a relatively new distro called #! (Crunchbang) that I really wanted to try. The only thing holding me back was that it’s based on Debian. I have had seriously bad times with Ubuntu in the past, and my few attempts at installing Debian had not gone well (the first time the machine completely froze up the first time I opened synaptic). Despite my difficulties with Ubuntu and Debian, I’ve always acknowledged that Debian has a lot going for it, and Crunchbang’s “philosophy” certainly agreed with me. This laptop is not “underpowered” but sometimes I’ve felt like Gnome is a bit of overkill; the only reason I use Gnome is because my two main applications (or “shells”) are Emacs and Firefox, both GTK applications. Much to my delight, I found that Crunchbang has an Xfce version.

I thought I’d give it a try. I download the .iso for the Xfce 4.4 version, made a bootable USB with Unetbootin (no CD drive) and cranked it up. I selected an encrypted system this time, another reason I wanted to reinstall; the university is pretending to enforce rules about keeping student information private, so I’d like to be able to tell them my laptop is encrypted. The only surprise was that the installer took about two hours to erase my partitions before it started the actual install. Once that was done, however, the installation was really nice. The installer asks which features you want to install (Java, web server, development tools like version control systems and the autotools) — this was already much nicer than most other distros I’ve tried — all in a text interface running in a terminal emulator. This is nice because I’d rather just install that stuff before I need it, and while the installer knows which packages those are. In Fedora I can install package groups, but it’s just much nicer to take care of it at install time.

What works

Just about everything that I need on a daily basis works really well with Crunchbang. The laptop speakers work, surprisingly without monkeying around with anything. I had to install the wireless drivers from the Realtek website again, but surprisingly the next morning when I booted the machine the wireless card worked without having to copy any firmware or anything. Nice!

There were two interesting surprises: the default web browser is Chromium. I really like Firefox, so I installed Iceweasel, and have had no problems; I really need Firefox because I use Zotero. Another major surprise is Youtube using gnash works really well. Of course, it’s not perfect, in fact the BAcksliders froze the whole machine when I tried to put it on 1080p.

Remarkably I’ve had no problems yet with package management. Of the three or four times I’ve installed Ubuntu it was only a matter of time before something got really screwed up in the normal course of updating the system. It was pathetic. Once I got a stale file handle of all things and there was nothing I could do to update the system (this would require a fresh install to fix). Nothing’s broken yet. I’ll give it a little time, but I’m taking the blame back from Debian and putting it squarely on Ubuntu.

Probably the nicest thing about Crunchbang is that it lives up its advertisement. I get annoyed when the promo for a software project says their main application or distro is “light and fast”; everybody says their thing is “light and fast.” Crunchbang’s web site merely says Crunchbang offers

a great blend of speed, style and substance. Using the nimble Openbox window manager, it is highly customisable and provides a modern, full-featured GNU/Linux system without sacrificing performance.–Home Page

This also means it’s the antithesis of Ubuntu: I can’t do anything with Ubuntu without it sending a notification my way saying “You can’t do that,” or “Wouldn’t you rather do this?” If I wanted that I would use a Mac.

What I haven’t done

As amazing as the fact that I’ve done all my daily work with Crunchbang for the past week, and only turned on my home workstation for use as a DVD player, is what I haven’t done. I have not changed the theme, I have not changed the wallpaper, I have not changed the … anything. And these are things that I compulsively tinker with, so that’s saying a lot.

If you’ve been hesitating trying Crunchbang for any of the reasons I was (mistaking it for Ubuntu, just not needing to try another distro), I encourage you to try it. It had already changed my mind about swearing off Debian-based distros. I am loving it.

Is Open Source a Failure?

December 29, 2010 Leave a comment

Factionalism is bad. I agree mostly with the points of people who call the software I use “open source,” whereas I call it “free software.” Most of the time, there is not a big difference. In fact, I feel like acting defensively whenever somebdoy bad-mouths open source software. I hear people do it all the time, and it bothers me, even though when those same people suppose I use “open source” I correct them and say “free software.”

Where does the problem lie? The problem lies in that when I correct people from saying “open source” and tell them it’s my freedom that I care about, they shut up. Many people use software knowing it’s open source, but don’t know that it is also free, and the implications of that freedom. For people who are used to proprietary software, open source is just an alternative that they have no compelling reason to entertain. Freedom, however is compelling. If it doesn’t change the minds of proprietary software devotees, at least they have no comeback. This is why I’m asking everyone reading this to start calling free software “free software.” Free as in freedom.

I’m unimpressed with open source: so are its detractors

The open source movement has not successfully shown that “open source” is a better way of promoting software freedom and their development methodologies. Nor have they shown that promoting user freedom as a primary goal is a bad idea. They have shown rather the opposite. Consider the following:

  1. Microsoft is now an open source company, without changing any of their business practices or policies on user freedom
  2. “Open source companies” are now suing other “open source companies,” debasing themselves to the level of corporate greed-vehicles like Microsoft
  3. The arguments for open source are not compelling to anyone who believes that proprietary software is better than free software
  4. While there are multiple, confusing uses of the word “free,” there are more confusing uses of the word “open”

By ignoring the moral and social conflict between user freedom and proprietary software developers, the open source movement has made proprietary software okay. That’s not okay. Furthermore, I hear people who cling to proprietary software laugh at “open source” as though it were the retarded cousin of software they believe is better only because you have to pay for it (they typically don’t notice or don’t care about the licensing terms). In 1998 during the height of the browser wars, open source was a good weapon, if not an outright success. Unfortunately, open source has become an avenue for proprietary software to infect people’s lives.

Open source has become a joke

Articles like this critique of Meego are what I mean when I say that Open Source is a joke. The author is even complimentary to open source, but he presents a good argument for how uncompelling it is. Or take this completely insane argument: Google’s ChromeOS will fail because

… Every year for the past decade was supposed to be “The Year of Linux on the Desktop.” It hasn’t happened and it’s not because it was an idea ahead of its time or it needed a stronger champion. The mass market has rejected Linux on the desktop. Linux is nothing more (or less) than a niche OS loved by a loyal group of highly-technical users. Even Google can’t change that, unless it’s prepared to write Linux device drivers for all of the world’s printers, digital cameras, keyboards, and mice. –Jason Hiner, Google Chrome OS: 3 reasons it matters, and 4 reasons it’s irrelevant

I agree with him that “The Year of the Linux Desktop” is a myth that will never materialize (at least it won’t be called “Linux desktop”), but “niche OS” is a bunch of bologna. It ignores the fact that most of the world’s servers are run by this niche OS, but it also ignores the fact that people choose to use software for reasons other than how successful it is in a highly anticompetitive market. People use GNU/Linux not just because it’s easier to use, more featureful and more reliable than Microsoft Windows (if you disagree then you haven’t tried GNU/Linux lately), they use it because of the freedom it allows them. Everything else (ease-of-use, features, stability) just comes along for the ride. (not to mention that his argument about Google needing device drivers is BS, too; he obviously forgot what ChromeOS is supposed to do; I’ve never had trouble with keyboards and mice, as those are most of the time controlled by the BIOS; duh)

By far the most effective argument against adopting the open source stance, as opposed to the free software stance is this:

A pure open source enthusiast, one that is not at all influenced by the ideals of free software, will say, “I am surprised you were able to make the program work so well without using our development model, but you did. How can I get a copy?” –Richard Stallman, Why Open Source misses the point of Free Software

If you don’t believe that distinction is clear, then look no further than your university’s so-called “Linux” servers, which are probably mainly a platform for running proprietary software like Matlab.

Perhaps you consider my perspective a little narrow, and you’d be right: I’m an academic computer user. I have no investment in what “the market dictates” or “the ecosystem” says about what kind of development tools I should use. I make my own decisions about these things. I have the “luxury” of caring mostly about my freedom. Doesn’t that seem wrong to you? If you are in a job where you don’t feel it’s valid to consider your civil rights and the rights of your coworkers, neighbors and friends, maybe you’re in the wrong place.

Gene Munster: Android-Based Tablets Will Be More Popular Than Apple’s iPad

October 14, 2010 4 comments

Business Insider has an interesting interview where Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster predicts that

  • iPad-style tablets will fundamentally change the “PC industry”
  • Android tablets will overtake the iPad soon
  • Microsoft has missed the boat

First let’s get something straight, the interviewer says that the iPhone is “revolutionary” and that Apple invented the tablet. Both those statements are complete Apple hype. Microsoft had tablets before Apple did. Nor did Apple or Microsoft invent touchscreens. Touchscreens have been around for almost as long as the mouse, and they have always been used to lull computer users into thinking that they’re doing something “fundamentally different,” the same way Apple did in the eighties with their other invention, the WIMP GUI. Oh wait, Xerox invented that.

The idea that the iPhone is revolutionary is hype spread by people who think Steve Jobs getting a cup of coffee is revolutionary.

As to the analyst’s assertions: all I can say is “good.” Finally people will know that hardware companies other than Apple can produce a good product. I think it’s okay for tablet PCs to become more common, they look actually useful, as opposed to many laptops that are still too bulky to be portable, and still too slow to be useful. I might even want a Meego tablet, because it would save me from carrying a lot of things. I’m not going to stop using paper, but I might find a tablet useful.

If Android overtakes the iPad, again “good,” but that’s not necessarily a “great day for freedom.” We in the Free Software community need to put less stock in what business world people think about these trends. People in business care about money — they don’t care about what’s done well, what’s actually helps people get their jobs done, or about what’s ethical. We need to push software freedom where it really matters: in schools. As soon as I have kids in public school I will be at school board meetings and city council meetings telling them about Free Software. If kids start using tablets in school, then they sure as hell better have free software on them — and the schools need to enable and encourage them to use it — or we will be sending the message of “good for business, good for society,” to our kids. That is the wrong message to send to kids.

For the analyst’s last point, it’s more like “about time.” Finally people are starting to see how much Microsoft sucks. If it takes a product from Apple to show them, then so be it. I’m just glad that a sorta-free alternative (Android) is out there. There is also a mostly free alternative in Meego. I’m disappointed that it’s taken most people (including me) over twenty years to wake up and smell the coffee brewing near Seattle, but that fact that it’s finally happening is great news for everyone.

I think the best thing about Android or Meego tablets being on equal footing with the iPad — and therefore a good thing that the iPad finally created a viable market for tablets — is that it’s a step toward common knowledge and acceptance of Free Software as something usable and no longer the exclusive domain of “sandal-wearing freaks.” So “thank you” goes to the iPad and I hope this market does in Apple the same way it will to Microsoft.

GNU/Linux Desktop Users Show Yourselves!

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Categories: GNU/Linux Tags: , ,
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