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Putting the GNU into GNU/Linux

March 29, 2012 Leave a comment

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

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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.

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.

Migrating to Distributed Version Control

November 29, 2010 3 comments

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:

  1. Most arguments for DVCS I encountered were actually anti-Subversion arguments; much of them based on incorrect information about Subversion and CVS
  2. 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
  3. 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

Conclusions

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.

Is Android Open?

October 25, 2010 2 comments

Steve Jobs raised the question last week “Is Android Open?”. What was particularly funny was that he was using the word “open” in a sense that most people don’t use or hear these days. That’s why it was so funny to see Andy Rubin’s response, because they were talking about fundamentally different things. What a lot of people have forgotten is that the word “open” was seriously redefined in 1998 by the people who coined “open source.”

Before open source “open” meant compatibility. “Open computing” was a selling point of the workstation market that said “if you compile your [usually C] code on a DEC workstation, you can send it to your friend who uses a Sun workstation, it will work. Fantastic! Buy our hardware!” Modern Macintosh computers are the descendants, not of Mac OS 9, but of NeXT computers, which were Steve Jobs’ workstation computers.

I have a hard time believing that Steve Jobs is really dumb enough to not understand that the conventional use of “open” has changed. I think he’s deliberately sowing confusion. He can say “Apple is all about open” and be totally correct in his own usage of the term, but he also gains a slight moral legitimacy in the eyes of people who have heard that “open software” is “good.” This is another reason I don’t like using the term “open source.” It confuses people. And it gives completely immoral people like Steve Jobs a certain amount of moral leeway. This is America, and he has a right to be completely immoral to make a profit, but you shouldn’t help him.

News Flash: Bill Gates’ Successor Quits Microsoft!

October 18, 2010 2 comments

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s really happening. Microsoft’s domination of software is ending and the new hardware era is about to begin. Microsoft has failed to do anything new over the past few years, and no, Windows 7 is not anything new. I laugh when I hear people say that Windows Vista or Windows 7 is a new operating system: it’s the same operating system with a new version.

Soon hardware makers and OEMs will be packaging whatever software they want with their computers, and people either won’t tell the difference or they’ll be glad to see Microsoft go. I say “New Hardware Era” because the computer business used to be all about hardware. From the beginning of commercial computing — with Univac in the 1950s — up until about 1991, selling computers meant selling hardware. Software, although not incidental, was what companies needed to put on their computers so that they would do something after the customer turned them on. The best example is the proliferation of Unix variants that occurred in the 1980s in response to the workstation market: Sun created a market for networked desktop computers that was quickly emulated by DEC, NeXT, HP, Apple, Dell and many others. Companies designed their own Unix variants to run on these machines, while at the same time promoting their products saying basically “That program you wrote on your old machine will run on this new one because it stil runs Unix.” This was the original meaning of “open” in the computing world.

However, the only company that still does business this way is Apple. IBM and HP will still do this with AIX and HP-UX respectively, but those workstations are not their biggest sellers. Apple, however, still sells desktop Unix workstations — complete with the Unix trademark — the same way it did twenty years ago. Things changed in the computing world from hardware focus to software focus mainly because Microsoft pushed companies into making hardware incidental, instead of software. This was a good thing for Microsoft to do — yes, even Microsoft was capable of good.

However, as I’ve written before, Android, Meego and the iPad are quickly showing people that “Hey, you don’t need Windows to run a computer!” Knowledgeable people have always known that, but those aren’t the people who buy most computers. The people buying the most computers could best be called “electronics customers.” Notice that people still buy hardware, but they buy software bundled with it. This is how Microsoft built its monopoly. That and bullying hardware companies.

Not anymore. Microsoft’s chief software strategist has quit, Microsoft has completely failed in the mobile phone realm, and has missed the boat in tablets. Here are my predictions for the comming year:

  1. Meego and Android devices will increase the visibility of Free Software in the public
  2. Schools will start distributing netbooks and tablets pre-loaded with GNU/Linux (this is already happening)
  3. Hardware companies (Dell, HP, etc) will start shifting their products to support whatever free operating system they decide to use for a particular model
  4. People will stop relying on specific proprietary programs to get work done, most of all Microsoft Office
  5. Microsoft’s mental monopoly will break down: people will know that when they buy a piece of hardware, it will run with whatever the manufacturer put on it
  6. Microsoft will be reduced to the world’s largest patent troll

As to my point about hardware, this will be very much like when hardware companies created their own Unix variants, except that you would also be able to download it off the internet and use it on someone else’s hardware (for free). People will stop saying “there are no device drivers for Linux[sic].” Almost all hardware problems as of now are caused by subtle hardware problems that are not an issue for machines built with GNU/Linux in mind. As for office programs, what I mean is that once people realize that they don’t need Windows, they are going to see that they also don’t need Microsoft Word. I’m not saying every old person is going to start using Emacs, but quite a few of them might see the light and at least use gEdit. You will stop hearing arguments like “Software package X isn’t supported on Linx[sic].” People won’t care because when they buy a computer, it will have preloaded some program that allows them to get their job done.

The main thing Microsoft realized, and how they created their monopoly, is what Neal Stephenson called the “blinking 12:00 problem”: people take what they get. If what they are getting is GNU/Linux, then they’ll take it. It won’t matter that it doesn’t have M$ Office.

Microsoft will be reduced to a much smaller company that mainly tries to make money by suing people — most likely the companies that used to bundle their software and will soon be bundling GNU/Linux. Microsoft will basically be SCO with a name that people recognize.

The new hardware era is coming: tablets and laptops preloaded with Android and Meego are about to become very popular. This doesn’t mean that desktops are going away. They will again become high-end tools used by scientists and engineers, and they will come preloaded with software that is actually usable. Let’s see how my predictions fare.

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.

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