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*.

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.

…and now, to the point. 

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
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