Tim Retout's www presence

Mon, 30 Jun 2008

The things I do for Debian

It weighs 13kg, apparently, and my arms still ache. Thanks to Anton and Dan for letting me stay at their place on Saturday night, and use their fast net connection to download Debian packages.

Posted: 30 Jun 2008 00:00 | Tags: , , , ,

Fri, 27 Jun 2008

Licence club

  1. The first rule of licence club is, you do not talk about licence club.
  2. The second rule of licence club is, you DO NOT talk about licence club.
  3. If a copyright holder says stop, gets confused, is bought out, the licence is over.
  4. Only two parties to a licence.
  5. One exclusive licence at a time.
  6. No CDDL, no Jörg Schilling.
  7. Licences will go on as long as the copyright is enforcable.
  8. If this is your first night at licence club, you have to hire a lawyer.

Posted: 27 Jun 2008 00:00 | Tags: , ,

Sat, 21 Jun 2008

Recent fixes

Some small victories:

  • You can now install devscripts-el without needing to install elserv, an http server written in emacs lisp and Ruby. (The devscripts-el package provides various useful emacs commands to help with Debian packaging.) This is good, because I don't need Ruby for anything else.
  • It is now possible to use irssi's default theme on terminals with a white background, at least in Debian. I found that in bright sunlight, black-on-white terminals were actually more visible on my laptop screen - but when using IRC, I couldn't see who was using /me any more. Apparently upstream are yet to be convinced of the wisdom of not hardcoding white into their themes.

Posted: 21 Jun 2008 00:00 | Tags: ,

Tue, 17 Jun 2008

Library

This evening I visited Rugby Library. Apparently I had not used my Warwickshire library card for 991 days - that was from when I lived in Leamington Spa. It is probably quite a while longer since I last borrowed books from Rugby.

To be honest, I was quite fond of the old Victorian library building. Unfortunately, that one closed in 1997 and was demolished. And I suppose the £5.5m new one looks nicer.

Posted: 17 Jun 2008 00:00 | Tags: , ,

Tue, 10 Jun 2008

It's all very technical, you know...

Increasingly I am asked how things are going at work. Unfortunately, I struggle to give a meaningful answer in conversations with "normal" people - I don't know how to begin to explain that this afternoon I set up a pbuilder environment that lets me build Debian packages for our customised etch-with-backports i386 distribution using my amd64 machine running Debian sid. Or that this morning I ran into some interesting problems with dpkg-shlibdeps and symbol versioning in lenny when trying to downgrade some dependencies to 'Suggests'. "Er, yeah, it's going fine."

One recent big project has been a real bonus in this regard, because I can explain it even to the hairdresser - it's "like a mobile phone that you can put in your computer". Fantastic. "And we do the software that runs it." Everyone can understand that. "We make it talk to the internet." No way! You're so cool, Tim, tell me more.

What else do I do? "Well, sometimes I filter people's email and web traffic for spam and viruses. And sometimes I make databases run faster. And sometimes we set up systems that monitor other systems." But phone calls are the best.

Posted: 10 Jun 2008 00:00 | Tags: , ,

Wed, 04 Jun 2008

Free software, fix it

Another potential response to online complaints about free software is "FSFI", meaning "It's free software, fix it". This is the next level up from asking someone to link to their bug report - it places the sole responsibility for fixing the bug onto the shoulders of those who complain. Sometimes this can be reasonable - but expecting every user to be able to fix every problem themselves is not.

There was a link today on LWN to an article claiming that it is strictly the software which is free, not the users - the users must abide by the restrictions of the licence, so cannot distribute proprietary derivatives, for instance. I would have claimed exactly the opposite; software does not have a will that can be frustrated. It is the users of proprietary software who are not free to study, to improve, to share. The term "free software" misleads in this respect; the ethics are all about what the users can or cannot do. On the other hand, we might reasonably talk about a "free society", and would understand that its citizens were free as well.

The "copyleft" terms in some licences are therefore a matter of some debate - they limit what the user can legally do with the software. In this ethical framework, the right of one user to restrict the ability of other users to use, modify and share software is comparable to their right to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theatre. This philosophical question goes back to Mill's On Liberty and probably before - according to the "harm principle", the only justifiable use of the law is in preventing someone from causing harm to others. We do not generally think of societies which outlaw murder, say, to be less free.

Often people think of the LGPL as not being a "copyleft" licence, but this is not the case. In all cases the distributor has to provide the source to their modified or unmodified version of the software. There are in fact restrictions on the licences that you can link against - the end user must be free to make local modifications, and have the right to debug those modifications. It would be best described as a "weak copyleft" - a combined work can be distributed under different terms, but the rights of the user with respect to the LGPL-licensed work are protected.

With both societies and software, you are free to fix your own problems. Sometimes this is more of a burden than a blessing - but usually you do not have to do it alone.

Posted: 04 Jun 2008 00:00 | Tags: , , ,

Tue, 03 Jun 2008

Link to your bug report

With the rise of the blogosphere, a greater number of people are now free to post their thoughts to the world - and because of the nature of the medium, there are a fair number of people writing about their experiences with computer software. Most software is not perfect, so some proportion of those experiences will be negative.

In the special case of free software, all end users have the freedom to study and modify the source code. (It is easy to forget, having used GNU/Linux for a few years, that the licences of most proprietary software do not even give you the right to run the software in a debugger.) This does not imply, however, that the end user is necessarily capable of debugging any problems they run into themselves (although they do have the freedom to pay someone else to do so). In general, users will rely on the original developers of the software to fix any problems - and a good way to get the developers' attention is to file a report in the project's bug tracking system when there is one. It is unlikely that the developers will learn about problems through any other means.

The constructiveness of complaints about free software can therefore be judged by whether the user has filed a helpful bug report. Doing so demonstrates a willingness to improve the software, which benefits everyone. It is the first step in moving from 'consumer' of the software to 'contributor', and potentially from there to 'creator'. But what if people aren't interested in making that journey?

A recent trend is to reply to rants with a comment to the effect of, "Could you please link to your bug report?" Writing is no less a creative act than software development - the question is asking the author to shift their creative energy away from their blog and towards the software. What should the response be if the author has no interest in helping to develop the software? It is often easier for the user simply to switch to a different program, or work around the bug. They might develop a competing program that is entirely superior to the original, or use their time some other way. Should we expect every user to give back?

If people have the freedom to help their neighbour, they must surely also have the freedom not to help. Comments like the above can certainly steer complaints into constructive feedback, or highlight trolling. I'm not sure, however, that we should expect them to build a community of unwilling participants.

Posted: 03 Jun 2008 00:00 | Tags: , , ,

Sun, 01 Jun 2008

aMSN sound with PulseAudio

Following my awesome coding on Pidgin yesterday, my brother has switched to aMSN.

I had let slip at some point that his laptop's webcam would probably work with aMSN. The drivers themselves are included with the Ubuntu kernels, so that has never been a problem; however, because of some abstraction problems with Pidgin, there is still no webcam support with the MSN protocol. It almost worked with aMSN out of the box, but I had to open a port in the firewall to let people connect to him. (This is probably going to stop working when he's not in Derby, then.) Next, aMSN appears to only have OSS sound support, so I had to modify the Ubuntu menu entries to use the PulseAudio 'padsp' wrapper. This lets you record and play sounds, but the aMSN developers have not implemented continuous voice streaming yet, I think.

For the record, I don't like aMSN's UI either.

Posted: 01 Jun 2008 00:00 | Tags: , ,

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