Saturday, January 26, 2008

Stop making stupid lists!

Having had a scientific education I know something about the basic problems of classification. You're facing this enormous variation of a real life population and now you have to recognize and define properties, devise some way to measure them and then group them together in a way that not only makes sense, but gives you some useful insight in the world you're trying to analyse. So welcome to the wonderful world of taxonomy! Originally the term taxonomy referred to the classifying of living organisms; however, the term is now applied in a wider, more general sense and now may refer to a classification of things, as well as to the principles underlying such a classification.

Talking of classifying living organisms, one of the most well known people in this field is Linnaeus. A strength of Linnaean taxonomy is that it can be used to develop a simple and practical system for organizing the different kinds of living organisms. Over time, our understanding of the relationships between living things has changed. Linnaeus could only base his scheme on the structural similarities of the different organisms. The greatest change was the widespread acceptance of evolution as the mechanism of biological diversity and species formation. In short, the properties Linnaeus had chosen to create his hierarchy of species were feeble at best. Even less well known is that Linnaeus originally established three kingdoms in his scheme, namely Plantae, Animalia and an additional group for minerals, which has long since been abandoned for obvious reasons.

Some have argued that the human mind naturally organizes its knowledge of the world into systems. This view is often based on the epistemology of Immanuel Kant. Anthropologists have observed that taxonomies are generally embedded in local cultural and social systems, and serve various social functions. Let's face it, people simply like order. It neatly organizes the chaos around them. Of course this isn't true. The chaos is still there, we just don't see it anymore. Any ostrich will tell you that is a smart move. A good example is our love for hierarchies. In the real world, there are very few real hierarchies. Tim Berners-Lee, arguably the inventor of the World Wide Web, put it this way:
Many systems are organised hierarchically. The CERNDOC documentation system is an example, as is the Unix le system, and the VMS/HELP system. A tree has the practical advantage of giving every node a unique name. However, it does not allow the system to model the real world. For example, in a hierarchical HELP system such as VMS/HELP, one often gets to a leaf on a tree (..) only to find a reference to another leaf (..) and it is necessary to leave the system and re-enter it. What was needed was a link from one node to another, because in this case the information was not naturally organized into a tree."

Accepting that the basic way to order information was a network gave us the World Wide Web and killed off the hierarchy based Gopher. BTW, the term taxonomy may also apply to relationship schemes other than parent-child hierarchies, such as network structures with other types of relationships. Taxonomies may include single children with multi-parents, for example, "Car" might appear with both parents "Vehicle" and "Steel Mechanisms"; to some however, this merely means that 'car' is a part of several different taxonomies. The basic problem is not taxonomy itself; it's the people who devise and use them.

I agree, this introduction was a bit longer than I intended and so far I have only scratched the surface. I will refrain myself from going into the Tractatus of Wittgenstein or any work of some major philosopher for that matter. I just want you to understand that there is a whole world beyond classification. It's not just drawing a few lines on the back of an empty cigar box and scribble some labels above them. I think that is why I rarely venture myself into the field of classification and preferably only if I have to. And even then I'm painfully aware that I'm probably making some pragmatic and arbitrary choices rather than designing a classification that will stand the test of time.

Classifying people is even more dangerous. The best and the worst have tried and failed. Classifying people has been one of the core evils in human history. It has been used as an excuse to murder, deport, mutilate, enslave, exile and torture people throughout time. It's what I've been calling "labeling" all the time.

One of the people who cannot restrain himself to venture in this field is Bruce Byfield, who is an excellent technical writer by the way. And he'd better restrict himself to this field, because his talents on other fields are - let's say - limited. In one of his most recent articles, he tries to classify the FOSS community and consequently fails. I can easily find myself in several categories, which means the classification itself is of little use.

Yes, I do object to Microsofts business practices, which means that according to Bruce I must "hate Microsoft". No, I do not hate Microsoft, because that's an emotion. I merely think that the industry would be better off if its influence would deminish. That's an opinion based on valid arguments, which is by any measure a significant difference. I do use proprietary software from time to time because there is no other way to fulfill my needs. Which makes me a "mainstream advocate". And yes, I find $150 for an Operating System an outrageous high price, which makes me a "bargain hunter". On the other hand, I maintain several FOSS projects, so I'm an "Open Source developer" as well.

I fail to see how of a combination of my spending habits, my hobbies, my attitude to certain business practices and the choice of my software are a valid way to put me in one category or another. In short, I cannot escape the conclusion that this is just another stupid list. It pretends to be a useful aid "to navigate you through the community", but as a matter of fact it is of no use to anybody. And poor Bruce is not alone. Every now and then a blogger, an editor or a writer of some kind ventures in a field he knows so little about.

I have some little advise to you all: read the Tractatus of Wittgenstein for starters, try to understand it and come back later. Having faced your mental limitations will have been such a humiliating experience that you'll think twice before you ever publish such a stupid list again.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

A brief exercise in FUD dissection

Sometimes you stumble across an article that makes you wonder whether people are spreading FUD or whether they are really that ignorant. When you take it down, bit by bit, it becomes more and more obvious how ridiculous their statements are. This one is from Adrian Kingsley-Hughes. It is a well written article and it seems as if he knows what he is talking about. Well, since I have an unexpected free half hour as I wait for a call to be returned, let's take this baby apart..
When you take a copy of Windows XP, Vista or Mac OS X and you install it onto a system with the appropriate system requirements, chances are (..) [it] will work just fine.

That implies that if you install Linux on a system that does meet the appropriate system requirements it will work not fine. Let's see what the system requirements of OS/X are:
Mac server or desktop computer with an Intel, PowerPC G5, or PowerPC G4 (867MHz or faster) processor; 1GB of physical RAM; 20GB of available disk space.

That's not a vanilla PC, isn't it? It's actually rather particular. Here are the system requirements of Red Hat. Does Adrian Kingsley-Hughes have an example of a system like that that did not properly run Linux?
While Linux communities like to believe that this 0.7 per cent user base is bigger than it is, and some companies are now paying lip service to Linux, no matter how you look at it, 0.7 per cent is a small number. And even with the best will in the world, the amount of effort that vendors can seriously be expected to put into Linux, given the low market share, is not much.

That is true where the desktop is concerned, but it is not true for the server market, which will be a whopping 38% in 2008. The desktop takes the same kind of hardware as the servers take. It has the same architecture. So the knowledge that vendors have can be applied to desktops as well with much ease.
Sure, you can buy software players, some of which are rather good, but the advantage of a free OS starts to be eroded if you instantly have to put your hand in your pocket.

I don't know why the moment you buy a piece of software, all the advantages of a free OS are instantly vaporized. Is all commercial software for Linux that much more expensive than that of their MS-Windows or OS/X counterparts? And I don't see the erosion as well. Are you put on a black list the moment you buy a piece of software, so you have to buy all the software? Is there more and more free software going commercial?

I know what Adrian means. He means to say that you get the Operating System for free and probably your only motive for doing so is because you don't have to pay anything. The moment you begin to pay for software that argument becomes null and void. First of all, I paid for most of my Linux distributions for the simple reason I like shiny CDs and nice manuals. Still, the most expensive version cost me less than half than the most basic MS-Windows version. Second, when using MS-Windows you have to buy a helluva lot more software than when you first login a Linux system. Unless you're prepared to search on the web for FOSS software, of course, like and Gimp. Talking about hidden MS-Windows cost ;-). Finally and most importantly, the main reason to run Linux is not because you don't have to pay for it. Security, performance and stability come to mind, to name a few. Oops, I forgot to mention to avoid harassing and spying on your own customers.
You've promised someone that Linux is so much better than Windows. If you get a really obscure error message or particularly weird problem, you could be waiting for help for a long time.

The same applies for MS-Windows. There are numerous examples on the web where people have to wait for official MS-support. When I wrote about this some time ago in a humorous way, there were even people who took it serious because of their own experiences. So, even if this statement is true, the only real difference is that Linux community support is free.
When Apple's ad campaigns focused on the single Leopard version being easier for consumers than the myriad Vista choices, the company was onto something there. Too much choice is a major turn-off.

Sigh.. Why do IT people love monopolies and dictators so much? Do we have a certain "totalitarism" gene that is turned on by default? This statement always makes me think of an extra feature on the Borat DVD, where Borat points out every single brand of cheese on the shelf and asks the stunned grocer whether this is cheese as well. After five minutes Borat blurts out: "Why do you need so many kinds of cheese?".

If you happen to find this funny, you will understand why I consider Adrian to be one of the worlds funniest people, coming only slightly behind the great Borat himself. Allow me to rephrase that: "choice is a bad thing, because choosing is confusing for the consumer". Hmm, I think we should consider another economic model, because Americans are denied the privilege people had in the former Soviet Union: no choice. Now I understand the true meaning of his last words "It's easy to allow that word 'free' to overwhelm the senses" ;-)

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Free software, free speech

Although I have never been a member of a debating club, I have debated all my life. It love it, the arguments, the traps, the provocations, the dilemmas, all the instruments you can utilize to win a discussion. If you win, your ego is boosted and when you lose you have at least learned something. But there are a few tale-tell signs that indicate you've reached the end of the line. When your opponent tells you to shut up, he's in fact waving the white flag. When the name-calling starts it means he is out for a final, berserk attack. It's not about the issue anymore, it's about you, the messenger.

I can understand that a teenage, underprivileged geek reacts like that, but not mature people who are blessed with the gift of words and the privilege of a good education. Regular visitors of my blog know that nothing outrages me more than people who apply these guerrilla tactics. Whether it is Ian Ferguson who said that "the flaming Linux bigots should take a backseat", Mohit Joshi, who equaled GNU to communism or the more recently Bruce Byfield, who obviously couldn't take the heat anymore and decided to proclaim unilaterally that all bloggers who don't agree with him are automatically "conspiracy theorists".

What actually shocked me is that this attack came this time from within the Open Source community. What shocked me even more is that there were people that actually agreed with him! If free speech disappears, what does free software mean? "Free" like in "free beer"? Freedom of speech is one of the cornerstones of our modern civilization. This right has been laid down in the American Constitution. It is called "The First Amendment". And it is not the first one for nothing. I cannot imagine that there are actually people who would applaud the repeal of the First Amendment. It would be a return to the dark ages.

The Internet made it possible for many people to express their views and make them known to a large audience. The lack of moderation on the other hand results of course in a wide range of publications of various quality. In the end, it is the reader who decides what is worth reading and what not. Information overflow may not be the best thing, but I think we can agree that an information monopoly is worse.

Those who are professionally involved have a special responsibility. First of all, their words are taken more seriously than the ones of an occasional blogger, just like the judgement of an MD is taken more seriously than the one of a quack. Consequently, I expect people of the free press to defend the right of free speech, not to call for its restriction or abolishment. Second, their words have more exposure than those of an occasional blogger. If you express an opinion there will always be someone who doesn't agree with you. If he's a mature, well-spoken and educated man you will get a civilized response. If he's not, you won't. In Dutch there is a proverb that says "Hoge bomen vangen veel wind", meaning that the more important you are the more criticism you get. That comes with the trade. That is professionalism. If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.

Every single blogger - whether professional or amateur - has to face the music. If you write, you get flamed. Swallow your professional pride and listen; you might learn something. And if you do, there is no shame in admitting you were wrong. It's a humbling experience, but also a valuable life lesson. If you do not win a discussion you may be defeated but that doesn't mean you have to be a loser.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

A little respect, please!

It is quite commonplace to talk about "the" FOSS community, but like I've stated so many times, there is no such thing as "the" FOSS community. As a matter of fact, there are many communities.

To me, that is the logical result of the bazaar model we adopted. And like any bazaar, there are good merchants and bad merchants, may be even crazy merchants for all I care. But there is one thing they all have in common: to satisfy their clients needs by making better and better products.

Every merchant will tell you that it's only possible to sell a product when you properly market it. So when your competitor uses FUD, you will have to do something. The first one is to disprove his claims, which is perfectly acceptable - although it is not always that effective. The other one is outrage, which is less acceptable, sometimes effective and sometimes not. Depends largely on who you are addressing. The final one is spreading FUD yourself, which puts you on the same moral level as your competitor but may have the same effectiveness.

Because we're a bazaar, not each and every merchant will choose the same strategy. It's a matter of personal choice, like the programming language we use, the way we indent our sources or the editor we use. And we're all human, that's why we discuss and will continue to discuss those matters. That is good. Discussion may open up new points of view and clarify the choices that we make. Even in how far we are willing to sleep with the enemy is open to discussion.

There is a large body of people who can be considered to be part of our community. Users (yes, even MS-Windows users to some degree), programmers, translators, writers, bloggers, you name it. Some are paid, but most are doing this in their free time, simply because they are passionate about providing the best software to our users. Because that is in the end all that matters. And those people deserve respect. No matter whether they are professionals with a hobby or simply amateurs. It is the end result that counts. The visitors of the bazaar are the final judge.

There is a lot of respect among the people that form the community. You may or may not agree with Miguel de Icaza, Richard Stallman or Linux Torvalds, that doesn't mean you have to call him a fruitcake. Because that hurts. Even more when it is coming from within the community itself. Disqualifying entire parts of the community by suggesting they are fruitcakes is unheard of.

You may expect such a thing from a rogue FOSS fundamentalist, who cherishes each and every pure GPL line, but not from someone who made it his profession to give the community a voice. It's about the software, man! You may earn a living writing about it, but your only purpose in life is to inform and serve us, who make the software. And because we make the software, we have every right to write about it in any form or shape we see fit. You do not have that monopoly, even if you consider yourself to be a professional and we're "just" amateurs.

If we choose to research our blogs, you do not have the right to call us "obsessive". If we are concerned about the FUD that destroys our work, you do not have the right to accuse us of "extreme paranoia". If we are attacked and we react, we do not suffer from a "lack of civility and a quickness to give and take offense". If we feel that "there can be no truce with [insert object of obsession here]" we have every right to vent that opinion. Or was the First Amendment repealed while I was sleeping? "Many of the sort of people I'm talking about know that 'conspiracy theory' can be negative term, and are insulted if you apply it to them". Well, doesn't everyone?

Some may think that I have a grudge against each and every editor I've met in my life, but that is not true. I have to deal with editors every single month and for most I have the utmost respect. That may have to do with the fact that I feel respected by them too. I simply demand the same courtesy from this journalist. Not only for me, but for all my fellow community members who create software, translate messages, write documentation and blog about the things we feel are important. Even if we sometimes disagree about the details..

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Sounds like another fanboy rant to me

I found this comment while I was browsing through an MS-Windows oriented site where a blogger said something nasty about Microsoft. It isn't even worth to refer to the link, because it has nothing to do with this story. It's about the name-calling these Microsoft fans do. I heard 'zealots', 'bigots', 'advocates', the whole lot. Words I never knew before, because English is not my native tongue. I don't mind to be called a fanboy, because that is what I am. What may be not too clear to these Microsoft zealots is why I am a fanboy. It's not because I really dig this "free the software, free the world" ideology. That came much later. It's because I like this "gimme the source" idea.

My computing career started at the teletype of a PDP-11. I was studying biology and every now and then I was allowed to work for 20 minutes at a stretch on this ancient beast. I typed in commands I never understood until much later, edited and ran my BASIC programs and stored them on a 8" floppy disk.

When I had finished college, I bought myself a Sinclair ZX Spectrum. My own computer! That was a thing. I may have been one of the very first people in my village who had his own computing power at the time, because nobody understood why you would need a thing like that. After a few years, the thing had grown into a relatively sophisticated beast with two 5.25" floppy drives, a color screen and a matrix printer. I did all the things that I still do today with exception of data communication. Yes, games, word processing, development, databases, you name it. An IBM compatible was much more expensive and could not do much more.

However, when I changed my job my employer could not offer a computer. Working without a computer was unimaginable to me, so I bought a Toshiba portable with two 3.5" floppy drives. Well, it actually had one, the other one was external. Still, I could do all the essential things. My father came up with a pirated copy of the Turbo C compiler and I learned C on the beast. Compilation was really something. The drives started revving and whirring and after some time you had an executable on one of the disks. At home I hooked the thing up to an old green monitor and I could work fairly comfortably with it.

After a while I got tired of being a disk jockey and wanted to add a harddrive. That search was fruitless, so I bought a brand new Vobis 386sx - very cheap! - that I smuggled from Cologne to Delft. There were still border checks at the time and I didn't want to pay taxes. I finally had a hard drive. Of course, it ran MS-DOS. What else? MS-DOS was quite reliable and when it crashed it only required a quick reboot. No harm done. It was not too different from my Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Sometimes the Spec went into this "let's do some modern art" or "black screen" mode - people who had one know what I'm talking about - and you had to pull the plug, since it didn't feature a power switch.

After that, my Vobis 486 came. I had to learn Unix for work, so I bought Coherent. It was a neat little Unix system, requiring only 40 megs to run. I wasn't able to port my C programs, because for one reason or another, the C compiler didn't take my code. An expensive call to the American servicedesk learned me that it only took K&R C. An ANSI-C compiler was extra. Rewriting my C programs was cheaper. I also began to make some money with the machine making highly specialized utilities, like a Betadisk-to-Spectrum-emulator converter. Shareware was becoming quite popular by then. I didn't gain too much from that hobby, but it was enough to pay for my cigarettes.

Then MS-Windows came. At first it was just a nice toy, but the moment it took off it quickly became a horror on its own. Sometimes the thing froze and you had to reboot. Sometimes I had a BSOD and I had to reboot. Sometimes it refused to start for no apparent reason and I had to restore my previous copy. I still remember the day I went to visit my parents and was afraid I couldn't get the thing working again. Needless to say I wasn't very talkative during that visit. My mother began to think something was very wrong. But I just couldn't wait to get home and repair the $%#* thing.

When they wanted to introduce MS-Windows at work, I told them it wasn't ready for production. I had said the same about MS-LAN manager. We had taken Novell instead. I still consider that a very reliable system. Hey, a fanboy! No, I had judged both on their merits, because I didn't even run Linux then. That came much later.

My good old Pentium wasn't up to the task anymore and I wanted a new computer. But what to install. MS-Windows NT had just been introduced - I had escaped MS-Windows95, because I didn't want to combine the disadvantages of both MS-Windows 3.11 and MS-Windows NT - and I thought it might be time to switch. Coherent wouldn't install on the newer computer, so maybe I could use Linux as my toy-Unix. Dual boot was possible. Then one day I picked up a copy of the German PC-Praxis magazine and learned Linux could really be used for serious tasks. It featured a GUI, word processing, development systems, everything I needed. It could even reside beside my old MS-DOS. Cool! I decided to give it a go.

I took a day off and that morning I inserted the installation CD. February 2000, I still remember it very well. At the end of the day, Linux had taken over about 80% of the functionality of MS-DOS. I had installed a lot off stuff I'd taken from the Internet and to my surprise it never went down. A few months later, I upgraded the system with a CD I'd gotten free with a German magazine. The sound system broke, but was quickly fixed. I bought a VCD software player - yes, closed source commercial software - and played my VCDs more reliable than ever before. When I ran them on my MS-Windows machine I was always worried I would miss the end of the movie and was in for another restore. I hardly ever booted to MS-DOS. Only to do an occasional scan or play an old game. And the reasons for keeping MS-DOS diminished with the day.

I had always heard burning CDs was hazardous. The software was difficult to install and when you were burning a CD you'd better leave the machine alone. Don't touch a key! I had installed XCD-Roast, it asked for my drives, I selected to copy a CD-ROM and a few minutes later I had burned my first CD. Nothing to it! Later I got a little more reckless and maybe clicked a window during the burn. Then I quickly ran a program. A few months later I was writing an article while burning a CD. It never missed a bit. That was quite different from the coasters my MS-Windows colleagues were telling me about at work.

In the meantime I was starting to feel guilty. I was having all this for free and I didn't pay anything back. That was the moment I decided to stop writing shareware and adopt the LGPL. For me, this was a way to return something to the community that was giving me all this wonderful software. No more pirated copies, I downloaded my RPMs from the net and - voila - I had a new package. All perfectly legal - and very comfortable as well!

Sometimes I had to look for ages to find someone who was in the possession of this highly wanted, but far too expensive program. You needed to have something to trade as well. Sometimes you needed a serial number and in some cases you even had to buy the beast in order to get it. Partition Magic comes to mind. A program you sometimes desperately needed, but rarely used. Very expensive..

All that was past tense. An enormous repository was at my disposal. And I used it whenever I needed it. Strangely enough, my MS-Windows colleagues hadn't moved on. They were still trading disks and serial numbers. When they came to me, offering me this cool program I just shrug my shoulders and continued drinking my coffee. I understood I wasn't part of that community anymore. When people attacked my favorite Operating System, I wrote angry comments and ended up writing a blog myself, because I was determined to tell the world the truth. I had become a fan.

Fans are not fans, because they are part of some malicious conspiracy. No, they have become fans, because they like what they see. "A fan, aficionado, or supporter is someone who has an intense, occasionally overwhelming liking of a (..) company, product, work of art, idea, or trend", according to Wikipedia. But this liking is not disconnected from the experience. I would probably never have started to blog when I wouldn't have gotten tired with the FUD. As you can tell from this story, I'm quite pragmatic. If Microsoft had delivered a decent product for a reasonable price, I would not have switched, I think.

As a matter of fact, I think that Microsoft itself has created the "Linux fanboys" they are complaining about, just like all the legal trouble they have found themselves in the last few decades. In Dutch there is a saying "wie goed doet, goed ontmoet", which means that all good things come to those who make them happen. I think the reverse is true as well. So next time you call me a "Linux fanboy", remember why I became one. To all those "Windows fanboys" I'd like to say, I've become a Linux fanboy because I have used Linux for a long time. Have you? I know first hand what MS-Windows is all about..

Nowadays I consider fanboy a "geuzennaam". Geuzen (French: Les Gueux), or "the beggars", was a name assumed by the confederacy of nobles and other malcontents, who in 1566 opposed Spanish rule in the Netherlands. The leaders of the nobles signed a league by which they bound themselves to assist in defending the rights and liberties of the Netherlands against the despotism of Philip II of Spain. Finally, permission was obtained for the confederates to present a petition of grievances to the regent. The regent was at first alarmed at the appearance of so large a body, but one of her counselors was heard to exclaim, "What, madam, is your highness afraid of these beggars (ces gueux)?" The appellation was not forgotten. At a great feast three days later, one of the nobles declared that if need be they were all ready to become beggars in their country's cause. Since then every insult that is turned into a party appellation is called a "geuzennaam" in the Netherlands.

I am a fanboy. ;-)