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Michael Zucchi

 B.E. (Comp. Sys. Eng.)

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Monday, 22 April 2013, 09:10

In perspective

Every day in the USA alone, around 12 pedestrians are killed every day and a further 200 or so injured (information readily found from official sources).

Every day.

And yet those deaths and injuries don't receive wall-to-wall news scaremongering news coverage and demands for more oppressive law enforcement.

Tagged politics, rants.
Friday, 24 August 2012, 10:24

The second golden age of personal computing.

With interest and some excitement (despite it being Nokia Nikon and having some negative experiences with them), I just read that Nokia have announce an Android powered camera. Of course, it's all ostensibly about feacebook and twatter, but one can easily see a world of more practical use to an appliance on which you can install customised software. Let's just hope that a DSLR isn't too far behind - although camera vendors may fear having the shift-ful proprietary software they took years to develop improved upon and obsoleted by someone else.

It is rather ironic that whilst desktop computer operating systems are locking down, dumb-stupifying and generally turning general purpose machines into appliances, appliance makers are opening up, complicating, and turning appliances into general purpose computers.

And at the heart of it, it's all thanks to Free Software. 'Onya RMS.

And it's no doubt also thanks to the purest form of capitalist economics. It is simply cheaper to use a free operating system than it is to write your own or purchase a per-appliance non-free one.

First Golden Age

I consider the first Golden Age of personal computers to the time before Microsoft Windows and their illegally attained `wintel' monopoly.

So these developments are clearly also a result of breaking the back of the wintel monopoly and the USA based global technology plutocracy.

Who would have thought that a bit of competition would benefit we the little people?

Second Golden Age

So I feel we're entering another 'golden age' of computing: where anybody with the skills can improve upon or replace the usually shitty software that comes with any device - as every device is now powered by substantial software components this equates to a lot of computers. With any luck I will never have to purchase a locked-down throw-away appliance ever again ...

However, I fear as with all golden ages, this one will also not last and eventually they will try to pull a M$ on us ...

Ultimately however economics will force their hand, and any such tactics will prove too costly to maintain.

But what cost to society will such experiments first extract?

Update: Thanks Sankar, yes Nikon, too much Tomi on my brain that morning. And of course, Samsung have followed up with announcing their Android camera ... yum.

Tagged android, free software, gnu, politics.
Thursday, 01 March 2012, 13:21

It's scary joining a free software project?

I started writing a comment on this this post about contributing to free software: and it got so long I thought I'd move it here.

Overall I agree: it is quite scary, but the comment I was writing follows, somewhat expanded.


For the types of people for whom meeting people is difficult, software projects cannot be any different because the same notions apply: you don't really know how someone will react to you and whether you will be accepted or respected. I've been writing free software for about 15 years, and before that I gave away 'freeware' as well, and i'm probably more anxious about contributing to a new project than i've ever been ...

It is also unfortunate you use the term 'open source', because clearly merely having access to the source code makes no representation on whether a project is even interested in contributions. There are many reasons people write software and publish it freely, and for many projects, success or popularity is simply not a concern: the developers don't really care what anyone thinks because they have something they use themselves and the sharing is already an end in itself.

However ignoring the specific terminology used, trying to brush a wide audience with their sole unique characteristic is generally a pointless exercise. e.g. that all Greens voters are smelly hippy vegetarians, conservatives are all gun tot'n 4WD drivers, etc. People with only a few things in common are still very different from each other.

And just because the source is available and has a project page and a mailing list, it doesn't mean the project is interested in contributions from the general public. But clearly Layfield's experience is pretty poor - if a project purports to desire contributors and has a work wanted list, then at the bare minimum civility and politeness should be present. If such a project intends to survive by using external contributions, then it wont live too long.

Some of my experiences:

a) 'my first elisp' code, which turned into a handy script to add java-doc like comments to C functions. I submitted this to emacs, but RMS wanted it integrated into CC mode and a bunch of other stuff which was well beyond the time I wanted to spend on it or the features I needed (and I wasn't particularly interested in the kudos of contributing to a high-profile project). So I just added it to the project repository and my .emacs and left it at that.

(needless to say, I never wrote any elisp subsequently, but that's because I just wasn't interested in lisp as a language and that was the sum-total of the lisp I ever wrote).

b) AROS - these guys were very easy, commit access was easy to get, and then it was pretty much commit what you liked - obviously avoiding stepping on any toes. Even for a project with a lot of politics, there were plenty of small holes to fill.

c) I submitted a patch to mplayer, which was accepted without too much fuss. Just a bit of formatting changes iirc. In hindsight this was smoother than i'd have thought: certainly at the time they gave an abrasive impression of themselves on their web-site.

d) I think the first free software i contributed to was a patch to amanda circa 1995 - amanda is a distributed backup system. It was a horrible patch in hindsight but they accepted it easily. Of course this was back in the day when the internet was only accessible to academics, students, engineers, and sysops and overall was a much nicer place (yes, despite the flame-wars).

e) Working on Evolution. This was a commercial product with a (reasonably) defined direction and design. It was also complex enough and with enough of a user-base that any changes needed a lot of checking to make sure they were going to work technically and be up to scratch in terms of quality. Although the whole team spent quite a bit of effort trying to increase the community involvement: In the end I didn't really like being offered all but the most trivial of patches because it was always much faster just to write the code myself. Or I felt like a real heel telling some young lad that we couldn't use his patch because it didn't fit with the PM driven agenda. The one time we did accept a sizeable patch (and I was on holidays so was overridden), I spent weeks replacing a poor implementation which caused a lot of problems with a decent one. Nobody ever became a long-term contributor so we were left to learn and maintain any patches they gave us as well. I thought the 'bounty' system was an unmitigated disaster and would never consider such an approach again. People who are desperate for the paltry money on offer are probably not the cream to start with, and it is also very unlikely to lead to long term unpaid commitment.

Developers ...

Developer scalability was a huge issue in evolution: with thousands of reported bugs/feature requests and 2-3 coders there's just nowhere to even start making a dent. People wanted stuff we could never deliver (either too costly, unfit for the application, etc), and some people were nasty and insistent arseholes who wouldn't take no for an answer, or wouldn't take any time to try a patch or other work-around suggestions (which obviously took non-trivial effort to suggest). Crash reports were rarely followed up, and without being able to re-create them were basically useless. Not to mention distributions (esp debian) re-packaging the code in ways we only had to guess, and maintaining their own separate patch-sets. Placing bugs into 'wishlist' limbo was just as bad as saying 'wontfix', since they were never going to happen.

This latter point about scalability can't be ignored even for projects which do actively seek contributors. Every contributor comes along with a clean slate and thinks they're the first to be in their position. Yet for developers they might be one of hundreds, and even after giving out the same information only 10 times one gets pretty sick of it. This is actually one reason I find it more difficult to contribute to projects now: I don't want to piss someone off because I couldn't find their FAQ or didn't search the email archives enough, or they're still anal about 'top posting' (I really can't believe anyone still gives a rats-arse about that anymore ...).

Submitters ...

The 'problem' isn't just with the developers either: for example, what is the motivation behind the people submitting the patch? Why should a developer be particularly interested in a patch from someone who is just after the experience of submitting a patch? Or hoping for the fame of having a bit of their code included in a popular application?

I would certainly be much more interested in a patch from an active user who has found a deficiency in their day-to-day active use of the project versus someone who is just looking for something to do or something to add to their CV.

And if you're not a direct or close peer to the developer: the relationship is in quite a different space and now the developer has become a mentor. It takes far more effort and resources to be a mentor and in the vast majority of cases that effort is never returned to the project. The goal of most projects is to provide a solution to a problem, not to train people how to code or interact with a public project. It's quite arrogant and rude to assume that just because it's code and mailing list is available to the public that it gives the public a free reign on developer time ...

Me ...

Now, i'm definitely not interested in authoring applications for the general public. I get paid to work on a research project with a single individual as the sole customer I deal with. And for my free software projects the only ones of worth are only useful for other developers. And even then most of those are just stuff i'm playing with for my own entertainment; it is therefore costing me nothing to share it with the world and i'm more interested in helping people learn than solving their problems (that's not to say I don't get a buzz out of knowing my stuff is used - I check the stats all the time - but it isn't the motivation at all).

I don't think it will happen any time soon (not the least reason being that I'm miles away from building anything useful to the average user): but having a project of mine picked up by a distribution would be quite unappealing.

As for patches, I still submit the odd small patch here and there. But what turns me off is:

Anal retentiveness about specific code style, mailing list etiquette and so on.
I used to do this way way too much in evolution: If the patch was basically ok I should've just taken it and fixed it up to match my preferences and fixed minor errors. Once one has submitter access things are different, but for a random patch it's just not worth the to-fro and agro. Previous to ximian I'd had a pretty unpleasant experience working with an Indian sub-contractor (TATA Infotech) and we were being anal about their (really bad) code because we were paying a lot for it for no reason - so I was a bit thingy with code reviews.

Worrying about 'top posting'? How 90s, get-the-fuck over it.

Using git (or some obscure cms)
I just hate git to start with. And being asked to create a public fork of a project for a one-off small patch is low on my list of `things to do before i die'.

The first patch I ever created I used 'diff -ruN' to create, and that's still a reliable way to do it without having to learn obscure commands for half a dozen popular systems.

Too many pre-requisites.
e.g. joining a mailing list and a bug tracker in which you must create a bug and attach the patch, copyright assignments, and so on. It's ok for a couple of projects or if you become an active long-term participant, but it quickly gets far too unwieldy if you're just submitting a rare patch to some product you use occasionally. Another thing we (totally!) fucked up in evolution.

Obviously for a team project a mailing list (or forum) is pretty much essential, and legalities might require a copyright assignment or other agreement, but the bug systems tend to give me the willies.

Build complexity.
Some projects are just too complex to build or require too many pre-requisites: rubbish like ant, cmake, and all the other weird arsed build systems (jam, bitbake, custom python, rake ...) become insurmountable barriers that stop you even getting started.

I was quite astonished the other day that I even got a cmake based project to compile at all. If it wasn't for netbeans I wouldn't be using ant, and even then it sometimes fucks it up.

Python.
Which reminds me ... it's just a personal thing but I detest python in any form. tcl isn't far behind.
Arrogance.
Using a project leader's celebrity or the project's popularity to make one feel like it is an absolute privilege to be doing some of their work for free. I don't really encounter this because I'm just not attracted to such projects, but there needs to be some sort of recognition that work is being done for free (assuming it's at an adequate level for the complexity of the patch).

Concluding ...

To respond to the final question of what can be done to improve first impressions, I think i'd just say 'not much'.

Unless your specific goal is to maximise user contributions and popularity amongst potential contributors you're probably not too concerned about what they think. And if you are, you're probably already doing all you need to do.

And importantly beyond some fairly basic civility, there should be absolutely no obligation on you, as a free software developer, to provide any sort of expected level of support or accept patches in any form from anyone whatsoever.

If one wishes to be popular and extra-friendly then all the better for you and your users, but it is certainly no pre-requisite to calling your software free (or the related but somewhat meaningless term 'open source').

Tagged free software, politics.
Wednesday, 15 February 2012, 00:24

Australian politics and the reporting thereof.

Plumbing the depths of irrelevance and insignificance.

At best, the reporters seem to think they're writing the society pages for Canberra socialites, or following TV celebrities (i.e. famous for no reason). At worst, it's just the local small-town gossip column.

And all the pollies only seem to be interested in making those pages as well.

Real shit happens every week that affects us all and the so-called reporters only want to talk about leadership squabbling (which seems to be made up for the most part) and Tony's dick stickers - when they're not talking about American politics that is. It's like they're writing/talking shit for their 'in-crowd' mates to chat about at their next cocktail party with the 'stars' they fawn over.

It doesn't help that Tones is a complete and utter nut-case, and Julia - just like Kev before her - only seems to want to lead from behind, making decisions and statements based on polls or some fukwit's column in the Murdoch press, or some local talkback radio station that most of the country can't even listen to ...

Apart from the 'insider' reporters and idiots like Barners, who really gives a fuck about this gossip crap?

And Crabb with her, `Cooking in the cabinet' (or whatever it's called) - a pretty ordinary looking 'celebrity host' cooking show: with active cabinet members presumably. Surely a low-point of both Australian politics and political reporting ...

(I usually just don't even bother watching the news, but I caught some earlier this evening about the never ending Rudd leadership ambitions crap and it ticked me off).

Tagged politics, rants.
Sunday, 21 November 2010, 12:22

Labels

There was a recent article in techradar suggesting that the Open source `community' doesn't exist.

Whilst I agree with the statement itself (or at least the way it is generally used), the article itself isn't much more than an ad hominem attack on 'open sauce' advocates. Basically suggesting that (unlike the rest of the IT world?) they're dumb like a flock of birds (or sheep?), and haven't grown out of the partisan arguments of the atari st vs amiga days.

Which is of course utter dingoes nuts. One just has to see the incoherent and emotional responses to any article suggesting the iphone isn't the best thing since sliced bread, or that the wii is only for kids, or that a microsoft xbox 360 is an unreliable piece of junk. This is just human nature. Apart from the sociopaths who like to provoke people for sport, anyone with an emotional and financial tie to something likes to make noise about attacks on their judgement.

Back to the issue of the `open source community'. The relevant definition of community is:

So can this be applied to advocates of open sauce software? Perhaps, but only in the broadest of senses such that is has little meaning. Like suggesting all salt-and-pepper haired men form some sort of a community. i.e. sure they exist, but that label tells you nothing particularly useful about them.

I suspect many that might accept the label of belonging to the 'open source community' might not even fully agree with the open source definition. For some it appears that somehow open sauce generates better quality software, for others it is the cheap labour, and yet others it is just a faux hat-tip to corporate social responsibility. So you effectively end up with factions or divisions, and it all quickly devolves into politics - which apparently the open saucers don't believe in.

Once you start labelling people you start dividing them and separating them from other parts society. Political parties or religions seem to almost exist as little more than a physical representation of their own labels (often utterly failing to 'practice what they preach'). With the labels themselves eventually becoming more important than the ideas they're supposed to convey - well demonstrated by the scene with the `People's Front of Judea' in the movie `The Life of Brian'. The labels don't mean much themselves but are a powerful tool for social and political division.

In the end it's only about one thing: politics.

So I agree - there is no such thing as an `open sauce community', but there are certainly plenty of `open sauce' advocates. And despite one of the founding issues behind open sauce claiming it is all about the code and not politics, once you have a group of people the politics comes along for a ride.

At least the free software movement acknowledges that the politics is there and that it does matter. I would also shy away from labelling those who advocate free software or belong to the free software movement with a general label of 'free software community' too even if they might have more of a coherent political face.

Things are always a lot more complicated than can be conveyed in a single label.


As an aside, reading through the open source definition linked to above one is left a little confused. The 10 point definition -- which doesn't stand on its own without the long-winded explanations -- seems a lot more complex than it needs to be - like some document from the UN or EU which tries to say what it means without offending anyone. Contrast this with the free software definition of 4 self-contained and concise points and the long descriptions filling out the `why' and not merely completing the `what'.

Tagged politics.
Friday, 23 April 2010, 10:41

Another week down

Blah. Been a long week - got a bit caught up with hacking away so had some pretty late nights, and then early mornings from phone calls or visitors. Hmm.

Some friends are in town from OS next week so that should be nice, hopefully I catch up with them and their new twins. I'd been trying to call for the last few weeks - after not having seen them for about a year - and finally got through at some silly time on Saturday morning. We also tried the PS3 video phone application (alas, i upgraded my firmware in the end ...) which wasn't too bad - a bit like those old 'hello from space' videos, but a bit clearer and sometimes the framerate was very good. Audio delay was noticeable though. First time i'e used a video phone, and it's a bit weird talking to someone through a window in another lounge room (maybe all the stranger stranger for it being 8am in the morning after being up all night). Didn't know where to look.

We've just had some great weather and it's a pity it looks like they'll arrive on ANZAC day - which is typically the obvious start to winter, and it looks like this this year will be a typical year. After hibernating for a Chicago winter i'm sure the week of 25+ we just had would've been nice.

On the international traveller front it sounds like my sister has had enough of the ignorance and absurdity of the country, and sick of not being able to get decent work and is heading back from America fairly soon. She's only been away for a few years but she might get a bit of a shock to see how far down that path we have also gone. Even if she doesn't decide to stay long, I'm hoping she cleans up my 'other house' that's sat empty for a couple of years collecting dust anyway!

Speaking of ANZAC day - that's a pretty good example of how the nation has become a bit feral. How a total rout and a day meant to remember the utter stupidity of war got turned into a day of nationhood and the glorification of `fighting for ones country' i'll never know. I always thought it was about remembering the poor diggers who were mis-used as pawns in political games or by incompetent chains of command, and the 'least we forget' was about the stupidity of sending them in the first place, not the 'honour of their sacrifice' - typical right wing bullshit. Now it all seems to be about draping yourself in the flag (a flagrant violation of the honour of any nation's flag - and they didn't even fight under that flag anyway - it was all as British subjects) in a sort of quasi-national day and thinking of it as the day 'we grew up' - I can't really say if it was, but we surely have 'grown down' since if this is the thought of the common man these days.

Tagged biographical, philosophy, politics.
Monday, 22 February 2010, 18:34

The cult of stupid

I've been thinking about writing about this for some time, and even written a couple of posts, but I was never happy with how they ended up.

Is it just me, or does it seem as though a new religion has started to gain hold, at least amongst the west. And the religion I speak of is a religion of stupidity and ignorance. All religion relies on a certain level of ignorance in order to maintain the integrity of their flock, but this new one is taking the idea to a whole new non-denominational level.

One only has to see any discussions that arise when climate change is mentioned, or recently almost any science-related topic.

The discussion quickly devolves into a slanging match against science in general. All sorts of people pop out of the wood-work in an incessant and boorish tirade of willful ignorance and stupidity. That people can mis-understand science to such a level in an age of universal education and information access is simply astounding. Unless every argument is framed in the purely black and white, good vs evil terms of an undeveloped mind, they cannot grasp it (or at least, this is the impression they wish to give). Science of course does not work this way, even scientific `facts' are not solid. Science only works because of informed scepticism (e.g. don't believe what you're told, without reason), but these fools are not sceptics. They are deniers.

So I wonder, just from where is this stupidity springing forth? Or more importantly, how is it able to gain a hold in such educated societies as Australia and the UK?

I have some ideas, but for now, the following is the article which finally prompted me to publish my thoughts. It is very sickening reading. It is the first part of a five part series discussing this new religion against science, and has already attracted over 500 comments at this time. Whilst the abusive e-mails in the article are alarming, the numerous comments are simply depressing - it seems that Australians really are that stupid.

I await the follow-on parts with interest.

Bullying, lies and the rise of right-wing climate denial.

Tagged politics.
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