When I first got involved in activist groups challenging corporations, and their consolidation and abuse of economic power and political influence, I assumed I was supporting a Star Wars style rebellion with just two sides, communities and their activists vs. for-profit industries and their apologists (both private and governmental). As I branched out into supporting an increasingly diverse range of anti-corporate causes beyond purely environmental ones; complementary currencies, independent media, software freedom, free culture, and so on, I couldn’t help but notice that things were not so simple.

As an activist against corporate power, it’s easy to fall into the habit of trusting anyone who appears to be independent of any funding from businesses, and ignoring other people’s arguments because they are involved in or funded by businesses. But over time, I’ve noticed that the people on “our side” of an issue have sometimes been businesses (eg organics businesses supporting GE Free group), and that sometimes people took “their side” for no more conspiratorial reason than trusting the official positions of public institutions like government departments, or just finding the opposing arguments and evidence more convincing (eg many of the people who support fluoridation). The distinction between for-profit and not-for-profit positions is further muddied by the rise of astroturf groups (fake grassroots groups covertly funded by industry), and the concept of “social enterprise”, where people try to set up self-funding businesses to achieve social or environment goals, instead of funding-dependent charities whose freedom of action can be constrained by whoever controls the funding.

I started examining all this when I noticed that people I was working with in activist campaigns and community projects - people who were equally passionate about human freedoms and environmental integrity - were taking opposite sides in important debates about issues like genetic engineering, animal research, vaccination, fluoridation, peak oil, and climate change. This realization meant I couldn’t decide what was the “right” answer on an issue just by finding out what position “our side” were taking on it. In the end, I had to admit to myself that the whole idea that there was “our side” and “their side” was a convenient fiction that was excusing me from doing my own research and my own thinking.

My attempts to scratch this itch, and learn how to find out the truth behind an issue, had a lot to do with my involvement in Indymedia, and also why I drifted away from Indymedia. Scratching this itch has also been the main driver behind one of the projects I’ve been developing over the last few years, which has gone by a few different names, but the one I’ve settled on is CounterClaim. What I’m mainly trying to do with the topic-based pages in CounterClaim is to expose just how badly advocates for any one position in a public debate, can misrepresent and oversimplify the views of those who take other positions, and how much more complicated these debates are than almost anyone acknowledges. Among other things, the attempt to develop CounterClaim pages in a strictly neutral, evidence-based way, has shown me just how difficult this is, when there are whole industries whose job it is to confuse and misdirect us (eg marketing and PR), and how much time it takes to do a thorough job of researching even one controversial topic. Which brings me to the universities, because at least in theory, this is their job.

Here in Aotearoa, universities have traditionally been organised in a way that is mostly independent of governments and business, and this independence allows them to function effectively as the “critic and conscience” of our society, and to educate their students to be critical thinkers, willing and able to challenge both law-makers and profit-makers. Unfortunately, over the last few decades, as public funding of universities has been steadily reduced, they have been significantly reformed in ways that hamstring their ability to properly fulfil the “critic and conscience” role.

One consequence of reduced funding is that student fees go up.  As students take out ever larger loans to pay these fees (except for a lucky minority whose parents pay them), there is more pressure on the universities to target their courses towards vocational training (preparing students for jobs), traditionally the role of polytechnical institutions (”polytechs”). This limits their ability to teach students to question authority, as this is not considered a desirably quality in employees, and pushes students towards choosing narrow courses in subject areas like commerce, law, and industrial technology, which appear to provide a smoother path into well-paid jobs, even if this is not actually the reality. Worse, with more limited funding options, universities have become more dependent on research grants (whether public or private), which are slanted towards producing short-term, profitable research outcomes, not deeper understanding and critical analysis. This, in turn, affects what students learn from this research.

As public funding for universities is limited, they also come under more pressure to enter into partnership and sponsorship deals with corporations. One of the most concerning consequences of this is what happens to the research work created in university labs and offices. The internet, and especially the web, make it not only possible but cheap for university-based researchers to freely share their research outcomes with each other, and with the general public. For example, open access to the academic papers published in peer-reviewed journals. But partnership deals with corporations often oblige them to turn their research outcomes into trade secrets, copyright publications, or patents, which allows the corporations controlling the funding to control and benefit from research conducted at public universities, by publicly-funded academics, rather than the public as a whole getting to benefit.

The other major shift, as we see in the current proposals to eliminate a number of jobs in the Humanities division at Otago University, is to erode the job security of academic staff. Academics are responsible for researching, publishing, and teaching the university students who will become the next generation of academics, as well as fulfilling a wide range of other social roles in the governance of the universities and in their wider communities. Once they go through suitable vetting processes, which check their research skills and their ability to put truth before other interests, we need academics to have the freedom to ask challenging questions without worrying about how these questions, or the answers they find, might affect their ability to pay the bills. This is what people mean by having “tenure”.

The current trend, driven by a combination of underfunding and managerialism (corporate-orientated management theory), is towards replacing tenured positions for university teaching staff with increasingly precarious, short-term contracts. This undercuts their ability to carry out long-term, critical research and teach their students challenging ideas that some groups in society may find threatening, for a whole range of reasons. It opens up the possibility that groups can silence academics who make comments they disagree with. Take for example the firing of Steven Salaita for his positions on the Israeli occupation of Palestine, positions which are no doubt threatening to those on the neoconservative right who believe that Israel can do not wrong, and any criticism of them is “anti-semitism”. I find it just as disturbing when my fellow activists on the left attempt to silence academics who don’t take safe, politically correct positions on complex and controversial social issues like how society should deal with transgender identity. Whether the positions these academics defend turn out to be right or wrong, when these silencing campaigns work, it hurts all of us, because academic freedom is essential to challenging the powerful and exposing inconvenient truths.

My experience with researching for CounterClaim pages has convinced me that we currently live in a globalized society where we cannot rely on the news media, nor concerned citizens groups, to be neutral and unbiased. We desperately need knowledge institutions that are carefully structured to be independent of governments, businesses, religions, and any other powerful social force. We need them staffed with secure academic researchers who can do their work free from threats of ending up unemployed for saying the wrong things. Whether the 21st century universities will take the traditional form of secular monasteries, where scholars gather on a physical campus to research, debate, and teach, or whether they will become distributed networks of peer-to-peer review and open teaching, I don’t know. But I know that we need them. I’m concerned that if we don’t make the effort to educate ourselves about why we need them, or what we can do to make sure they continue to exist in an effective, independent form, we will only realise how important they are after it’s too late.

Filed November 3rd, 2016 under free culture

This is my contribution to the ongoing debate about place names in colonized countries, addressed to my fellow pākeha. My core proposal here is that whenever a database is made of the place names in Aotearoa/ New Zealand, where the common English name is different from the original Māori name, both names ought to be included, and treated with equal status.

Why? Imagine that, for some inscrutable reason, Google had created their own set of names for all the towns and cities in Aotearoa, instead of the names kiwis actually use. Imagine that the dominance Google has meant that all immigrants and tourists used those names, and then most kiwis ended up feeling like they had to follow suit.

This is what’s it’s like for a lot of Māori in Aotearoa. Most if not all places had perfectly good names in Māori, but with only a few exceptions (eg Taranaki and Waikato) they have been given new names with English backgrounds. The dominance of English, as the settler population grew, meant that all immigrants and travellers used these English names, and then most Māori ended up feeling like they had to follow suit.

Now, imagine how it might affect Māori to be forced to use English names, rather than the original names from their own language. Imagine how marginalized you would feel if you felt obliged to use place names arbitrarily imposed on you by the imperial power of Google, rather than the names you are familiar with. Remember how pushed around some people felt when asked to simply change the way they spell the name of their town, from Wanganui to Whanganui, to more accurately reflect its origin in the name of the Whanganui River? Remember how important it was to some people to keep the names “South Island” and “North Island” for the major islands of Aotearoa, rather than the older and more distinctive “Te Waipounamu” and “Te Ika a Maui”.

The NZ Geographic Board (NZGB) recognize how emotional this can be for people, as it affects their sense of identity and belonging, and makes implicit statements about a place’s cultural history. If we call the capital city “Wellington”, after the British war hero Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, it implies that we are still an antipodean outpost of British culture. If we use the Māori name for the harbour the city was built around, “Te Whanganui-a-Tara”, it implies a recognition of the Ahi Kaa (unbroken occupation) of Māori in the area since the first residents, Ngāti Tara. This is why the NZGB generally treat both Māori and English names (where they differ) as being of equivalent status. This avoids complex and ultimately irresolvable debates about which is the “real” name, the original name or the common name.

When I applied for my driver’s license, I was told that I would need to change “Ōtepoti” to “Dunedin”, because the NZ Transport Authority computer system can’t accept Māori place names except where they are the only name a place has. As a student of Te Reo Māori as a second language I find this frustrating and irritating. I can only imagine how deeply marginalizing it would feel to a Māori person, especially one for whom this area is their tūrangawaewae, where their family has lived for hundreds of years.

If you are responsible for creating or maintaining databases of place names, please make sure your system accepts all the Māori place names recognised by the NZGB. If you are a downstream user of such databases, please put pressure on its administrators to make sure they do.

Filed October 25th, 2016 under Uncategorized

Update 5/11/2016: Scott Bragg replied via a GNU Social message:

“Roll your own roulette wheel - use the Yocto project to bitbake our own custom Linux distro specific to the hardware we’re running on - can be x86 or embedded ARM boards. Can make .deb, .rpm or .ipk package systems.”

First some background. Feel free to skip this…

When I first got it about 6 years ago, my Acer Aspire One (1GB RAM) could run Windows XP, Android, and Ubuntu just fine. But after 2-3 years of version updates (10.10 Netbook Remix through to 12.04), Unity had bloated up, and Ubuntu had slowed to a crawl. By this time I’d also become frustrated with Ubuntu’s cavalier disregard for the software freedoms of its users. So, I replaced it with Trisquel 6 (Toutatis), which uses GNOME, and ran pretty well for another year or two. But around the time I upgraded to Trisquel 7 (Belenos), I started to have the same problems; lagging, freezing, and crashing. Thanks to some of the wonderful folks on the Trisquel Forums, I identified that the problem is the GNOME shell, which now requires at least 2GB of RAM to run reliably.

I tried out a couple of more lightweight desktop environments (Enlightenment 17 and OpenBox) and sure enough, my laptop became usable again. I’ve also tried Trisquel-Mini, which uses LXDE as the desktop environment. I’ve tried LXDE distros in the past (Lubuntu and more recently Peppermint 2 and 3), and they are indeed lightweight, but they always feel somehow like a flimsy toy. The default browser, Midori, just doesn’t work properly on a lot of the sites I use, and installing a Mozilla-based browser (IceCat) seemed to pile all the weight removed by using LXDE right back on, while also looking like a hog in a cocktail bar (ie inconsistent with the look and feel of LXDE).

I recently tried Uruk, which uses Mate, and looks almost as pretty as ElementaryOS, but as soon as I opened a browser and started watching a video on YouTube, it fell over :( True, I was running it live off a USB, but would it really run much faster off a 6 year old magnetic hard drive. I’m skeptical. Sure, I could use VLC to watch YouTube videos instead, or use NoScript or whatever, but these are ugly hacks compared to using the site like normal people do. When I powered down, I noticed it was running *very* hot, which made me wonder if the temperature control and the fans work properly without binary blobs in the Linux kernel, *sigh*.

…and now, to the point.

All of this leaves me feeling very frustrated. The Aspire One is a great little machine, very compact, and great for travelling (connecting to free wireless at public libraries etc), which I do a lot. As I said at the start, it gave me a great GUI experience for the first few years after I bought it and as far as I can tell every piece on hardware in it is working fine, and most if not all of it works without proprietary add-ons. Surely GNU/Linux doesn’t have to be guilty of one of the cardinal Windows crimes, forcing people to buy a new machine every few years to keep up with the cancerous bloat of the operating system, even if the hardware in the old one is still totally functional?

Surely there’s a way to maintain a decent GUI experience for GNU/Linux on older machines?

Sadly, although they don’t climb as quickly they do for Windows, the minimum specs for all GNU/Linux desktop environments do seem to be on a gradual upward creep. I presume this is because developers get so excited about the new bells and whistles they can add to their programs, they don’t notice that this steadily pushes hardware requirements towards the maximum capacity of the PCs they are developing on. Since developers tend to be able to afford the newest computers, and to be more motivated to obtain them than anyone else except gamers (and people who do multimedia production), they just don’t realize that they’re slowly but steadily leaving the rest of us marooned on working hardware that needs ever uglier and more time-consuming hacks to keep it usable.

At the moment, we can choose between general purpose distros divided by politics or subsystem preferences (eg Trisquel, Debian, Fedora/ Red Hat, openSuse, PCLinuxOS, Puppy, Arch, and their plethora of derivatives like the Ubuntu family), and special purpose distros like GParted live (for editing partitions), Tails (for private live sessions on almost any PC), GeexBox (for playing media), or kxStudio/ UbuntuStudio (for multimedia production). All of them try to support as much hardware as possible, with mixed success, due mainly to the Faustian bargain between hardware manufacturers and Microsoft, who still manage to sell Windows as the default OS on most new PCs.

If we want to stick with our PC as it ages gracefully, we have to gradually migrate down the curve of desktop environments. Starting out bright-eyed and bushy-tailed on bloated beauties like Unity/ KDE Plasma, then maybe down to the more modestly bloated GNOME 3 and Pantheon (ElementaryOS), down through Cinammon/ XFCE, and on to Mate, LXDE, and Enlightenment 17, and finally to the featherweights like OpenBox, that barely qualify as a GUI at all (I’m only including the ones I’ve actually tried on the Aspire One). Installing a desktop environment on top of a distribution that wasn’t assembled with it in mind often breaks stuff. So in practice this sequence usually involves migrating from distro to distro, like a meth addict stumbling from homeless shelter, to bus shelter, to park bench, and with an analogous sense of displacement and uncertainty. It’s better than just throwing the PC away when Windows gets buggy, or handing it on to someone else so they can fret about it, but its still far from ideal.

Graph of RAM used by GNU/Linux desktops

(graph copied from a post on Layer 3 Networking blog, thanks for sharing ;)

All of this has led me to start wondering how much work and resources it would take to create and maintain hardware-specific distros?  Instead of hundreds of derivative distros (based on the major distros) foaming in and out of being, trying to be all things to all people, what if they each picked one device (eg Acer Aspire One), or group of devices (eg Fujitsu laptops made between 2000 and 2005), and targeted their distro specifically at the needs of users running GNU/Linux on those? What if they could backport bug fixes and even new features, while making sure they don’t render an unmodified device from that group unusable, and keep the project going until the last known device in that category throws in the towel?

Or, what about hardware-specific desktop environments? What if their developers actively tried to remove bloat before adding new features to keep the hardware requirements about the same over time, and each one was forked and rebranded every time they identified a need for a major uptick in requirements to make whole new classes of functionality possible? That way, it would be possible to know that a distro would run on your device for as long as it keeps working properly, just by looking at the name of the desktop environment. Application developers could target a particular level of device, based on what sort of bells and whistles their applications need, by targeting the desktops they can use.

If free hardware designs and open source hardware really takes off, as it looks like it could based on the achievements of ThinkPenguin and some recent crowdfunding successes, this could make things both much simpler and much more complicated. Let me walk you through some possibilities. On the plus side, hardware based on free designs is most likely going to be sold with free software, with no need for ugly hacks relying on proprietary blobs, which is good. Any proprietary bits in the shallower levels of the stack (eg the GUI in Sailfish) can be swapped out much more easily than kernel or firmware level components. On the other hand, at least at present, hardware is a given; there are certain devices manufactured in large numbers, and the challenge is to get as many of them as possible to run a free code OS, ideally without any proprietary bits. Once one device is supported, thousands of other devices from the same batch will work too.

But what if the growth of free hardware designs and 3D printing results in a confusing explosion of different kinds of devices, with different release schedules, just as free code licenses and the internet have done with desktop environment and application software? Trying to make every GNU/Linux distribution support every kind of device that exists could start to look disturbingly like King Kanute ordering the tide not to come in. At this point, having software teams and hardware teams working together on lovingly-crafted, freedom-respecting devices might make more sense. So, it is so ridiculous to suggest preparing for this utopian scenario by having software teams working on supporting software freedom on specific devices now?

Now, to be fair, I’m not a developer, and I have no idea what goes into maintaining a distro or a desktop environment. I’m guessing a lot. There may be some very good reasons why we have to play distro roulette and surf down the desktop curve, and maybe that’s what those of us who can’t afford to buy a new PC every couple of years will just have to keep doing. But I think if we ever want to arrive at the Shangri-La of ‘The Year of Linux on the Desktop‘, and do to Windows what FireFox and Chrome have done to Internet Exploiter, I think device-specific distros is an idea that’s at least worth considering.

Filed October 18th, 2016 under free software

Today, I listened to some some great albums on YouTube, by a bunch of obscure bands; ‘Dreadnought‘ by the Space Invaders, ‘Liquid Sun‘ by the SpaceLords, and ‘This is Our Culture‘ by Electric Octopus. I have no idea if these bands make any money when I listen on YouTube, so I followed the links to their band pages on BandCamp, where I can give money knowing that most of it will get to the musicians. Problem is, all three of the albums I listened to are under ARR (All Rights Reserved) copyright, so I sent them a message using the BandCamp contact form, and I encourage you to send similar messages to any musical artists you enjoy, encouraging them to use CreativeCommons licenses. Here’s the text of the message:

“Greetings

I listened to one of your albums on YouTube today, and I really enjoyed it. I’d like to throw some money in your digital busking hat, but I have a policy of only giving money for music by musicians who use CreativeCommons licenses, and announce this proudly wherever they promote their music. BandCamp allows you to indicate your chosen CC license in place of the ARR (All Rights Reserved) copyright statement, and there is a tool to help you choose which CC license you want to use here:

https://creativecommons.org/choose/

For songs and albums, I strongly recommend the ‘Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike’ license (CC-NC-SA):

http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/

Applying the CC-NC-SA license to your music means that:

  • anyone who wants to use your songs or any derivative works for commercial purposes still needs your permission, just as they do when ARR copyright applies
  • as long as they don’t charge for copies, people can freely share your music with others who might enjoy it, virally promoting you and your work
  • people can freely use your music in non-commercial derivative works like remixes and video mash-ups, but they must place their derivative work under the same CC-NC-SA license

If you decide to test the waters by placing some of your music under a CC license, please let me know, and I’ll come back to BandCamp to give you some money and encourage other music fans I know to do the same.

Warm regards

Strypey”

Filed September 23rd, 2016 under Uncategorized

As a consequence of both the severe depression I’ve been struggling through, and the sudden and unexpected death of a family member last weekend, I wasn’t able to travel to Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington) for two conferences that I had been planning to attend (see below). Having been involved on and off for many years in the organisation of community gatherings (both conferences and festivals), I know how much work goes into putting on events like these. To the organisers of both conferences, thanks so much for your work, and my apologies for not attending. I’m doing my best to participate remotely, including writing this post, sharing related links on GNU Social and so on.

Open Source Open Society (OS//OS) takes place today and tomorrow at the Michael Fowler Centre in the town centre. There is a livestream of at least some of the event, but according to the organisers, “livestream is only in the main auditorium”. You can also follow Scoop live blog updates, including reviews of the catering :) As always, various people like me are putting in our 2 cents worth from onsite and afar, using the social media hashtag #OSOSNZ.

The second conference, Social Movements, Resistance, and Social Change III: The Academic and Activist Interface, starts a little over a week after OS//OS finishes, and runs from 1-3 September at Victoria University of Wellington. This one looks to be more of a traditional academic conference in format, with papers by some of the conference presenters being published in a special issue of the Counterfutures journal. There is certainly a strong activist element too, as it will also serve as the public launch of Economic and Social Research Aotearoa (ESRA), the “left-wing think tank” project that came out of Sue Bradford’s Phd thesis. I don’t know how much opportunity there will be for remote participation, but I’ll post an update if I learn anything relevant.

I really hope there’s a decent overlap between the two, with attendees taking the opportunity to spend the week in between exploring Te Whanganui-a-Tara, and checking out some of its many experiments in open source social change.

Filed August 22nd, 2016 under Uncategorized

EDIT 10/08/2016: Huge thanks for all the heartfelt messages of understanding and support I’ve received since I made this announcement. In contrast, I did get one email from some random who had this to say:

“sort your selfish shit out CITY BOY.

there are bigger welcoming aspects out there…

..still working with networks

and learning as well

or kill ya self

If you’d like to tell this person what you think of this as a response to a person being open and honest about a mental health challenge, you can email them at: sond@ihug.co.nz

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Dear friends, and anyone else who happens to read this blog,


For as long as I can remember I have weathered the storms of chronic depression and anxiety. In the last couple of weeks, I have been forced to admit to myself that I’m currently experiencing a severe bout of depression, one that’s been going on for at least a few months. I’m hopeful that realizing just how serious it is means I’ve turned a corner, but I have no idea how long it will take to get well, which is incredibly frustrating.

The symptoms include the obvious; general despair, lack of enthusiasm for life and work, loss of enjoyment, bursting into tears without reason, difficulty communicating, withdrawal from social interaction, and occasionally, suicidal thoughts. But I am also suffering a number of not-so-obvious symptoms, including constant fatigue, mental confusion and unreliable memory, loss of focus and attention span, and difficulty making and carrying out plans. Perhaps most frustrating of all, I’m struggling to write. Just getting this blog piece completed has taken me about a week from planning to posting. I’m definitely not in any condition to get work done reliably at this time.

If I have been doing work for a project you’re involved in, or we’ve discussed starting to work together, I need to let you know that I won’t be able to continue with that work in the foreseeable future. I’m really sorry about this, but I’ve resisted making this call for too long, to the point where my underpowered involvement is doing more harm than good in some cases. Please don’t take my departure as a withdrawal of support for any cause or project, nor as a criticism of any person involved in them. This is about me doing what I need to do to get well.

If my recent correspondence has been uncharacteristically grim or argumentative, I apologise to anyone this has affected. Because I wasn’t aware just how bad my depression was and is, I’ve continued to participate in far more online conversations than I can really handle, and the usefulness of my contributions has been questionable at best. I will be unsubscribing from all email lists and, as much as possible, avoiding Loomio or any other online communication channel other than essential email.

In the coming weeks and months I will focus my remaining energy on following a wellness plan that includes re-establishing healthy daily routines, regular counselling sessions, and spending more time with people in face-to-face activities that aren’t about work (paid or unpaid). If you are in Ōtepoti/ Dunedin, please feel free to get in touch about meeting up for a cuppa and a chat, and let me know about things going on in town. Wherever you are in the world, I’d love to hear from you by phone or email.

Finally, I also hope do some writing about my experience of depression. I will post these on my new personal blog on DreamWidth, if and when I feel up to it. I’m also determined to get back into doing little bits of work on the first draft of ‘Email Ate My Life‘, which I hope will help me rebuild my confidence in my ability to get work done. Watch this space.

Filed August 3rd, 2016 under News

EDIT 27/07/2016: Thanks to a reply from Matt Slater, and a more careful examination of various GITHub repositories, the list of actively maintained, free code, community currency packages has been reduced to three; Matt’s CommunityForge, Integral CES (used by a handful of Spanish groups), and ccLite, developed by Londoner Hugh Barnard. The first two are clusters of Drupal modules, and to be honest, I’m not sure why they don’t pool their efforts, and maybe maintain two branches, one aimed at timebanks and one aimed at LETS. The third is a set of Perl scripts and a MySQL database (a typical early 2000s approach), with an Android app in development. 

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Some people have social lives and hobbies. I just spent the evening updating my page about community currency software, and adding a few more to the list. A number of thoughts occurred to me as I went through the various projects, checked whether they were still alive, and added more detailed information about them.

  • There are a huge number of projects in this space, both open source and proprietary. I probably haven’t listed anywhere near all of them, especially if you include all the short-lived projects that disappear from the web without a trace. But I still have a couple of pages of info for folks to trawl through.
  • Attrition is high. Of the 14 or so open source projects I’ve found so far, only five seem to be in active development.
  • Even though the feature requirements for an exchange server and web interface are fairly simple and don’t really change much, there seems to be an insatiable need to constantly reinvent them, instead of pooling developer resources to maintain a small number of mature, reliable, user-friendly packages.
  • Despite the obvious parallels in the values of the two movements, there seems to be an inexplicable hostility to open source development and decentralized hosting on the part of many of the developers working on community currency software. I’ve exchanged emails with one of the developers of Time and Talents (hOurwold), and although they like to reference open source values by talking about “Open Innovation“, they utterly refuse to see why transparent and re-usable code is important.
  • Worse, a number of packages that were free code have moved to proprietary licensing, including Cyclos 4.0, and TimeBank USA’s Community Weaver 3. This is not something I see happening in any other kind of software. Although some projects have moved from full freedom to “open core” (eg MySQL), it’s rare to see them go fully proprietary.

There are at least three qualities that are essential to a long term software project:

    • Making careful choices of language, framework, database and CMS dependencies, so the project can be maintained over time without too many painful migrations.
    • Building a sustainable developer community, one that is seen to be healthy and welcoming.
    • Creating beautifully crafted interfaces, to attract and retain a loyal user base, and (hopefully) funding and support.

      The problem is, pretty much none of the projects I’ve looked at have managed all three. Those that have done both 2 and 3 seem to be mainly the proprietary ones. Why are so many open source projects still so bad at being responsive to what non-geek users want and need? Why do people who can design pretty, user-friendly interfaces so often seem to not know or care about the ethics of building web technology, or if they do, not know how to work with a community of back-end developers and users?

        The good news is that once 1 and 2 have been achieved, it’s always possible to give the look and feel of the software a makeover. The challenge is, how do we get more web artists as excited and passionate about software freedom and open source development, and get the UNIX greybeard to accept that some people will go to their grave without *ever* using a command line? Because it seems to me that software that is pleasant to use, rather than awkward to use, is the only thing that keeps community-minded people using proprietary platforms when there are free code projects that do the same job.

        Filed July 26th, 2016 under Uncategorized

        I was just reading the Wikipedia page on Adobe Systems, and it got me thinking again about Doug Rushkoff’s comments about start-ups and their venture capital driven rush to “acquisition or IPO” (IPO or “going public” = selling transferable shares to capitalists). Adobe’s initial products, like PostScript and Photoshop gave it first-mover advantage, allowing it to scale up by going public. From there, the rest of the history is pretty much a series of acquisitions of smaller companies, and then start-ups, and most of the other Big Data giants (Microsoft, Apple, AOL, Yahoo, Google, FaceBook etc) have a similar history. It’s eerie how analogous the process is to the way the fishing industry works, using drift nets and bottom trawlers to hoover up many small fish, and convert them into share value for a few giant companies.

        At the same time, you can see why they do it. Buying smaller competitors make the company seem dynamic, successful, and powerful. They gain it media coverage in the tech and business press, usually boosting share price. Acquiring successful products and their user-bases, instead of developing new products in-house and paying beta testers, allows the acquiring company to pick the winners after the fact. It outsources all the work, the expenses, and the risk, to developers who are willing to play the start-up game.

        One of the good things acquisitions do though, is put ever-larger pools of developers under one roof, sharing common infrastructure and its costs (in money and labour). It allows disparate products to be brought together in smoothly integrated whole systems to serve the needs of less technical users. Which begs the question, what would a peer-to-peer alternative to acquisition look like? One that allows this same integration and improvement of service to users, without the centralization of decision-making power, and the drive for cancerous growth, which seem inherent in the corporate form.

        One possible model is offered by Enspiral, a federation of autonomous companies who share a central Wellington workspace, including hotdesks, a board room and kitchen, and the costs of legal and accounting services. A business *co-operation* instead of a business corporation. As the number of businesses in the federation grows, along with the number of people working in them, they can look into setting up self-hosted development tools, such as using a shared instance of Piwik, instead of giving all their users’ data to Google Analytics. Another model is the Collaborative Technology Alliance, of which Enspiral and  some of its member companies were among the founders. To quote their launch announcement:

        “In the gathering, we sensed a possible harmony and collaboration, where each of us working on something that is radically unique to us, for the benefit of the whole. As we began to consciously uncover this harmony amongst our intention-aligned and disparate initiatives, we recognized that we can do more together, together.”

        I think this sums it up nicely.

        Filed April 30th, 2016 under Uncategorized

        NZ GOAL-SE

        In 2010, the first version of NZ GOAL (the New Zealand Government Open Access and Licensing framework) was released, to give official advice to government departments and public agencies about the use of CreativeCommons licenses to improve public access and re-use of publicly-funded copyright works. Version 2.0 was released in 2014. Since I first learned about NZ GOAL, through my role in the founding of CreativeCommons Aotearoa/NZ, I’ve been advocating for a similar policy encouraging the release of publicly-funded software as free code. So, I was excited to learn a proposed Software Edition (NZ GOAL-SE) has been drafted, and is up open to public consultation. Anyone interested can make suggestions for improvements to the draft, using a dedicated Loomio group, until April 30, 2016.

        I’ve written a number of longish comments on the Loomio group, which I’ll be reworking as a series of blog posts. Keep in mind that while I always make a determined effort to get my facts right, IANAL (I Am Not A Lawyer), and anything I claim about software licensing should be checked against more qualified sources such as the Free Software Foundation, the Open Source Initiative, or the Software Freedom Law Centre.

         #1: How Can a GPL-Licensed Software Project Incorporate Non-Copyleft Code?

        In a discussion thread about the use of the “MIT license” (presumably the version approved by the OSI under that name), NZ Open Source Society President Dave Lane said:

        “I’m not sure if GPL’d projects can adopt MIT licensed components…”

        I’m pretty sure that they can. While there may be some variation in compatibility between GPLv2 and GPLv3, the GPLv3 wiki has a list of licenses that are compatible with GPLv2, and it includes both licenses commonly referred to as “MIT” (Expat and X11). Also, Karl Fogel writes in Chapter 9 of his book “Producing Open Source Software”:

        “While the Apache License 2.0 has the advantage of containing some explicit defenses against misuse of software patents, which might be important to your organization depending on the kind of project you’re launching, the MIT license is fully compatible with all versions of the GNU General Public License, meaning that you can distributed, under any version of the GPL, mixed-provenance works that contain MIT-licensed code. The GPL-compatibility situation for the Apache License, on the other hand, is more complicated — by some interpretations, it is compatible with GPL version 3 only. Therefore, to avoid giving your downstream redistributors the headache of having to read sentences like the preceding ones, I just recommend the MIT license as the default non-copyleft license for anyone who doesn’t have a reason to choose otherwise.”

        Remember that by definition, “permissive” non-copyleft licenses contain no rules about what license applies to redistributed or modified versions. This is one of the qualities their proponents refer to as  “permissive”. That being the case, my understanding is there are a number of ways this could work for Project “Foo” (GPL license), and Component “Bar” (”MIT” license).

        Firstly, what could happen if Project “Foo” (a graphical desktop application) incorporates a verbatim copy of Component “Bar”?

        • Project “Foo” identifies Component “Bar” as an external “dependency” in its packaging instructions. This means that on GNU/Linux (and most Unix systems), when a user installs a package of Project “Foo”, the latest version of Component “Bar” in the same software repository will be downloaded and installed too (unless its already installed). If Project “Foo” package their own binaries of their application (eg to support use on Windows or MacOSX), they can include the most compatible version of all non-copyleft dependencies like Component “Bar”, as long as a copy of the license for each dependency package is also included. *Note:* they can bundle copyleft dependencies too, but on the top of the copy of the license (or a link to one), they must also include a copy of the source code (or a link to one). Non-copyleft licenses don’t require this.
        • Project “Foo” copies the source code of Component “Bar” into their own repository, in its own section, and distributes it under the terms of the “MIT” license supplied by the developers of Component “Bar”. A copy of that “MIT” license must be included with the code. *Note:* Project “Foo” will usually identify Component “Bar” on their website and in their help files, and give credit to Component “Bar”’s developers (”attribution” as required by CC-BY) , but they are not legally required to do so by any of the licenses commonly known as “MIT”. Thus, an “MIT license” is not fully equivalent to CC-BY.
        • Project “Foo”  copies the source code of Component “Bar” into their own repository, and distributes it under the terms of the GPL. *Note:* this doesn’t stop anyone using, modifying or redistributing it under the original “MIT” license, and as above they must bundle the original developer’s license with the code anyway, so while this is legal, in practice there’s little point to it.


        Now, what could happen if Project “Foo” incorporates a modified copy of Component “Bar”? In each case, for as long as any “substantial portions” of Component “Bar” remain, a copy of the original “MIT” license must be distributed with it.

        • * Project “Foo”  copies the source code of Component “Bar” into their own repository and modifies it. They distributes their modified version under the terms of the same “MIT” license and submit their changes back as “patches” to the original developer, who may or may not incorporate them into the next release of Component “Bar”.
        • * Project “Foo” creates a “fork” of Component “Bar”. They copy the source code into a new repository, give it a new name, modify it, and maintain this new version as a side project. They might do this to make maintenance easier if Component “Bar” was “orphaned” (not being actively maintained), or the original developer of Component “Bar” was not interested in incorporating their changes. The forked version could be licensed under the original “MIT” license, or under GPL (or any GPL-compatible license for that matter).
        • * If Component “Bar” was part of a larger program, Project “Foo” could rewrite it as a library that could be linked by their program, and also by other programs. In this case, LGPL is a third license option that might be chosen (for reasons discussed in another thread) as well as either of the two above.
        • * Project “Foo”  copies the source code of Component “Bar” into their own repository and modifies it. They distributes their modified version under the terms of the GPL. This makes it harder for the original developer to incorporate the modifications into a future release of Component “Bar”. They would have to get permission from Project “Foo” to use their modified code under the “MIT” license, or they would have to relicense Component “Bar” to GPL. *Note:* under the terms of a “permissive” license, it’s perfectly legal for Project “Foo” to do this. But if they are going to maintain a modified version of Component “Bar” themselves they are better to fork the project, as described above, to avoid confusion.
        Filed April 25th, 2016 under Uncategorized

        For some time now, there has been a copyright statement at the top of the index page for the Disintermedia wiki. The last time I amended it, the license I chose was CC-BY-SA 3.0 (NZ). Since then, version 4.0 of the CreativeCommons license suite has been released, and I’ve upgraded the default license for Disintermedia content to CC-BY-SA 4.0.

        Despite a number of radical proposals being made during the consultation process, Version 4 of CC keeps the same framework and terminology we’ve become familiar with (Attribution, Non-Commercial, No-Derivatives, Share-Alike etc), with a number of improvements. Most of those relate to the wording in the lawyer-friendly text that most of us don’t read, and only affect risk-averse institutions that employ lawyers. Bbut there is one major change that is of interest to all CC users; the abolition of localized “ports” of the licenses, like the Aotearoa/ NZ versions I’ve been using since they were released.

        Country-specific versions of CC never really made much sense considering the cross-border nature of the internet. They were created to hack around the fact that the original CC license were written with USA copyright law in mind, which works differently to the copyright law in other countries. Since then, there has been a lot of work done to harmonize copyright law across jurisdictions (with both positive and negative implications). Also, the “porting” of the CC licenses to other jurisdictions has improved the understanding by CC lawyers of the differences between the various copyright regimes. The combination of these two things allowed the version 4.0 licenses to be drafted using language that is legally robust, regardless of what country they’re enforced in.

        Filed April 25th, 2016 under free culture, News
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