Play Machine Online Again

My SE Linux Play Machine is online again. It’s been online for the last month and much of the month before due to Xen issues. Nothing really tricky to solve, but I was busy with other things. Sorry for any inconvenience.

Unparliamentary Language and Free Software

I’ve just read the Wikipedia page about Unparliamentary Language [1]. I recommend that everyone read it, if only for the amusement value, among other things it links to incidents where elected representatives acted in a way that would be expected of primary school children. The general concept of having rules about Unparliamentary Language is that MPs are permitted to say anything in Parliament without the risk of being sued or prosecuted, but certain things are inappropriate – the most common example is directly accusing another MP of lying. One of the main aims of rules against Unparliamentary Language is to prevent attacks on the honor of another member.

Having just witnessed a mailing list discussion go widely off track when a free software project was denigrated, it seems to me that we could do with some similar guidelines for mailing list discussions. The aim would be not to just prevent excessive attacks on the honor of other members but to also protect the honor of the free software projects. So for example one might recommend not using a particular program because of design decisions which seem dubious or a bad security history, but saying “it’s crap” would be considered to be inappropriate. Not that rejecting a program based on design decisions or a history of security flaws would be uncontroversial, but at least that gives objective issues to discuss so if there is a debate it will educate some of the lurkers.

Note that I’m not claiming to be better than other people in this regard, I’ve described software as crap on more than a few occasions. But I will try to avoid such things in future.

Finally does anyone have a good suggestion for a Free Software equivalent to the term “Unparliamentary Language”? It seems that to a large extent the support of certain ideas depends on having a catchy name and I can’t think of one.

Communication Shutdown and Autism

The AEIOU Foundation

The AEIOU Foundation [1] is a support and advocacy organisation for people on the Autism Spectrum, note that they clearly say Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) on their About page, some of what they write would be less wrong if it was claimed to apply to only non-verbal Autistics or people claimed to be Low Functioning Autistic (LFA). But in regard to the Autism Spectrum they just don’t seem to know much about it, a lot of their web pages seem to be based on the assumption that anyone who is on the Spectrum will be lucky if they can ever live independently. However it seems that most people who can be diagnosed with an ASD have typical social skills by the standards of the IT industry and can get by without any special assistance. The entire site seems to be written about people on the Spectrum by people who know little of their experiences and contains hardly any information that matches what I’ve read from various people on the Spectrum (of course there are a wide range of experiences that differ greatly).

They have a link to “Autism Related Sites” which starts with “Autism Speaks” (the Wikipedia page about Autism Speaks is worth reading – note the section about immunisation research which has been repeatedly debunked and the section about legal action against a young autistic blogger). There are many good reasons why Autism Speaks is so widely hated among people on the Spectrum. I think that recommending Autism Speaks is a sign of willful ignorance of almost everything related to Autism.

In their page about describing Autism to NTs they say “Imagine if you suddenly woke up in a foreign country, did not speak the language and had no way of effectively communicating with the people around you“. I’ve been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome by a psychologist who considers that to be the same as High Functioning Autism (HFA) and I’ve visited more than a few countries. I find the comparison of the Autistic experience to visiting another country to be so strange that I don’t even know where I would begin if I was to comment on where it went wrong.

Finally they have a scrolling bar listing their advertisers at the bottom of ever single page on their site. If someone was going to design a web site specifically to annoy people on the Spectrum then such a scrolling banner would be a good place to start.

Now they probably do some good things to help families with children on the Spectrum. But their ability to do good is really hindered by the lack of input from people on the spectrum, Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg (leader of the Vermont Chapter of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network) wrote an interesting post about AEIOU and noted that none of the people who run AEIOU are Autistic [2].

The Communication Shutdown

Someone got the idea that Neuro-Typical people (NTs) should try and understand what it’s like to be on the Spectrum – which is a reasonable idea. But they decided that the way to do so is to have them refrain from Internet based socialisation and not use Facebook and Twitter for one day. It seems to me that most people on the Spectrum primarily socialise via the Internet, so ceasing Internet based socialisation is likely to make their experience less like that of people on the Spectrum. I’m getting a mental image of a bunch of NTs deciding to go to a night-club for their Internet free evening and then imagining that they are somehow empathising with the experience of people who can never enjoy a night-club.

As an aside, a web site which has anything at all related to disabilities shouldn’t rely on Flash – the Communication Shutdown site totally fails in this regard.

No Stereotypes Here has an interesting analysis of this situation, among other things they comment on the irony of having someone ask them to stop using twitter as part of this campaign [3]. One thing that they suggest is for NTs to have a day without any communication at all.

Some Suggestions for People who Want to Understand

As a communication exercise, try going shopping without speaking, just use hand gestures. For bonus points try doing so in a foreign country where you don’t know the language so you need bidirectional non-verbal communication – with some luck you can complete a transaction without the shopkeeper realising that you are a foreigner. This won’t actually give you much of the Autistic experience, but it’s a good exercise in understanding how communication works.

Someone who wanted to know the down-side of being on the Spectrum could find a sports bar where most patrons support one team and then enter the bar while wearing a jersey indicating support for an opposing team. I don’t recommend doing this because it really wouldn’t be fun, but for a quick approximation of the experience it would probably work well.

It seems to me that paying $5 to a charity and then boasting about doing so on your Facebook page for a day is an easy thing to do. A harder task would be to spend a day reading about the experiences of the people in question and then giving $5 to a charity that is well regarded by the target group.

Another possible way of gaining some understanding would be to have a party where everyone brings their laptop and uses only electronic communication – no speaking at all. This is in fact fairly close to what some of the Geekier (possibly Autistic) members of the IT community do.

Web Video, Global Innovation, and Free Software

Web Video and Global Innovation

Chris Anderson (the curator of TED) gave an insightful TED talk about Web Video and Global Innovation [1]. Probably most people who have used the Internet seriously have an intuitive knowledge of the basic points of this talk, Chris had the insight to package it together in a clear manner.

He describes how the printing press decreased the importance of verbal communication skills and services such as Youtube have caused a resurgence in the popularity and importance of speeches. He has some interesting theories on how this can be leveraged to improve education and society.

Lectures for Developers vs Users

Now how can we use these principles to advance the development of Free Software?

It seems to me that a good lecture about Free Software achieve will achieve some of the following goals:

  1. Promoting projects to new developers.
  2. Teaching developers some new aspects of software development related to the system.
  3. Promoting projects to new users.
  4. Teaching users (and prospective users) how to use the software.

The talks aimed at developers need to be given by technical experts, but talks aimed at users don’t need to be given by experts on the technology – and someone who has less knowledge of the software but better public speaking skills could probably do a better job when speaking to users. Would it do some good to encourage people to join Free Software projects for the purpose of teaching users? It seems that there are already some people doing such work, but there seems little evidence of people being actively recruited for such work – which is a stark contrast to the effort that is sometimes put in to recruiting developers.

One problem in regard to separating the user-training and developer-training parts of Free Software advocacy and education is that most conferences seem to appeal to developers and the more Geeky users. Talks for such conferences tend to be given by developers but the audience is a mix of developers and users. Would it be better to have streams in conferences for developers and users with different requirements for getting a talk accepted for each stream?

Publishing Videos

It has become a standard feature of Free Software related conferences to release videos of all the talks so anyone anywhere in the world can watch them, but it seems that this isn’t used as much as we would like. The incidence of Free Software developers citing TED talks in blog posts appears to exceed the incidence of them citing lectures by their peers, while TED talks are world leading in terms of presentation quality the talks by peers are more relevant to the typical Free Software developer who blogs. This seems to be an indication that there is a problem in getting the videos of talks to the audience.

Would it help this to make it a standard feature to allow comments (and comments that are rated by other readers) on every video? Would having a central repository (or multiple repositories) of links to Free Software related talks help?

Would it help to have a service such as Youtube or Blip.tv used as a separate repository for such talks? Instead of having each conference just use it’s own servers if multiple conferences uploaded talks to Youtube (or one of it’s competitors) then users could search for relevant talks (including conference content and videos made by individuals not associated with conferences). What about “video replies”?

What if after each conference there was an RSS feed of links to videos that had one video featured per day in a similar manner to the way TED dribbles the talks out. If you publish 40 videos of 45 minute lectures in one week you can be sure that almost no-one will watch them all and very few people will watch even half of them. But if you had an RSS feed that gave a summary of one talk per day for 6 weeks then maybe many people would watch half of them.

Defining Success

Chris cites as an example of the success of online video the competition by amateur dancers to create videos of their work and the way that this was used in selecting dancers for The LXD (Legion of eXtraordinary Dancers) [2]. I think that we need a similar culture in our community. Apart from people who give lectures at conferences and some of the larger user group meetings there are very few people giving public video talks related to Free Software. There is also a great lack of instructional videos.

This is something that anyone could start doing at home, the basic video mixing that you need can be done with ffmpeg (it’s not very good for that purpose, but for short videos it’s probably adequate) and Istanbul is good for making videos of X sessions. If we had hundreds of Free Software users making videos of what they were doing then I’m sure that the quality would increase rapidly. I expect that some people who made such videos would find themselves invited to speak at major conferences – even if they hadn’t previously considered themself capable of doing so (the major conferences can be a bit intimidating).

How do we Start?

Publishing videos requires some significant bandwidth, a cheap VPS has a bandwidth quota of 200GB per month, if short videos are used with an average size of 30MB (which seems about typical for Youtube videos) then that allows more than 6000 video views per month – which is OK but as my blog averages about 2000 visits per day (according to Webalizer) it seems that 6000 views per month isn’t enough for any serious vlogging. Not to mention the fact that videos in higher resolution or a sudden spike in popularity can drive the usage a lot higher.

It seems that a site like Youtube or blip.tv is necessary, which one is best?

There are lots of things that can be changed along the way, but a hosting service is difficult to change when people link to it.

Conclusion

I don’t claim to have many answers to these questions. I’m planning to start vlogging soon so I will probably learn along the way.

I would appreciate any suggestions. Also if anyone has a long suggestion then a blog post will be best (I’ll link to any posts that reference this one). If anyone has a long suggestion that is worthy of a blog post but they don’t have a blog then I would be happy to post it on my blog.

Choosing an Android Phone

My phone contract ends in a few months, so I’m looking at getting a new Android phone. I want a big Android phone (in both physical size and resolution) that has a physical keyboard, a digital compass, A-GPS and at least a 5MP camera with geo-tagging.

I want to be able to read PDF files and run ssh sessions, so a big screen is required and a physical keyboard avoids wasting screen space for a soft-keyboard. My pockets will fit something about 10.5cm wide by 17cm high but I don’t expect anyone to manufacture such a large phone. High resolution is a good thing too, it seems that the best available at the moment is 854*480 (with 800*480 being reasonably common).

I want Wifi and all the 3G and GSM data transfer standards. It would be ideal to have a phone with the dual networking stack needed to do both voice and data at the same time.

I’m not interested in anything that runs a version of Android older than 2.2 as native tethering is important. An option to upgrade to post 2.2 would be a really good thing.

Here are the nearest options I could find:

Phone Resolution Screen Size (inches) Camera Resolution Notes
Motorola Milestone 854*480 3.7 5MP
Motorola Droid 854*480 3.7 5MP
LG VS 740 800*480 3.2 3.2MP no GPS or compass
Lenovo LePhone 800*480 3.7 3MP no GPS or compass

It seems that Motorola makes the phones that best suit my needs, does anyone know of any better options?

Open Source Learning

Richard Baraniuk gave an interesting TED talk about Open Source Learning [1]. His project named Connexions which is dedicated to the purpose of creating Creative Commons free textbooks is a leader in this space [2].

He spoke about Catherine Schmidt-Jones who wrote 197 modules and 12 courses on music [3], that’s a very significant amount of work!

He also mentioned the translation of the work into other languages. I wonder how well the changes get merged back across the language divide. We have ongoing disputes in the free software community about whether various organisations do enough work to send patches back upstream, this seems likely to be more of a problem in situations where most of the upstream authors can’t even understand the language in which the changes are written and when the changes involve something a lot more subtle than an change to an algorithm. This would be particularly difficult for Chinese and Japanese as those languages seem to lack quality automatic translation.

He mentioned Teachers Without Borders [4] in passing. Obviously an organisation that wants to bring education to some of the poorer parts of the world can’t have a curriculum that involves $250 of text books per year for a high school student (which was about what my parents paid when I was in year 12) or $500 of text books per year for a university student (which might be a low estimate for some courses as a single text can cost more than $120). Free content and on-demand printing (or viewing PDF files on a OLPC system) can dramatically lower the cost of education.

It’s widely believed that free content without the ability to remix is cultural imperialism. This is apparently one of the reasons that the connexions project is based on the Creative Commons Attribution license [5]. So anyone anywhere can translate it, make a derivative work, or collate parts of it with other work. I expect that another factor is the great lack of success of all the various schemes that involve people contributing content for a share of the profits, the profits just don’t match the amount of work involved. Philanthropy and reputation seem to be the only suitable motivating factors for contributing to such projects.

One of the stated benefits of the project is to have computer based content with live examples of equations. Sometimes it is possible to just look at an equation and know what it means, but often more explanation is required. The ability to click on an equation, plug in different values and have them automatically calculated and possibly graphed if appropriate can make things a lot easier. Even if the result is merely what would be provided by reading a text book and spending a few minutes with a scientific calculator the result should be a lot better in terms of learning as the time required to operate a calculator can break the student’s concentration. Even better it’s possible to have dynamic explanations tailored to the user’s demand. To try this out I searched on Ohm’s Law (something that seems to be unknown by many people on the Internet who claim to understand electricity). I was directed to an off-site page which used Flash to display a tutorial on Ohm’s Law, the tutorial was quite good but it does seem to depart from the free content mission of the project to direct people off-site to proprietary content which uses a proprietary delivery system. I think that the Connexions project could do without links to sites such as college-cram.com.

One of the most important features of the project is peer review “lenses“. The High Performance Computing Lens [6] has some good content and will be of interest to many people in the free software community – but again it requires Flash.

One final nit is the search engine which is slow and not very useful. A search for “engine” returned lots of hits about “engineering” which isn’t useful if you want to learn about how engines work. But generally this is a great project, it seems to be doing a lot of good and it’s got enough content to encourage other people and organisations to get involved. It would be good to get some text books about free software on there!

My Squeeze SE Linux Repository

deb http://www.coker.com.au squeeze selinux

I have an Apt repository for Squeeze SE Linux packages at the above URL. Currently it contains a modified version of ffmpeg that doesn’t need execmod access on i386 and fixes the labeling of /dev/xen on systems that use devtmpfs as reported in bug #597403. I will keep updating this repository for any SE Linux related bugs that won’t get fixed in Squeeze.

Is there any interest in architectures other than i386 and AMD64?

Preferring Low Quality and Microsoft Software

Is Low Quality in Italian Academia related to the choice of Low Quality Software?

Diego Gambetta and Gloria Origgi wrote an interesting paper titled “L-worlds: The curious preference for low quality and its norms” [1]. The paper describes how in Italian universities (and large portions of Italian life) there are covert agreements that both parties in a transaction (the employee and the employer or the buyer and the seller) will deliver less than agreed while pretending that they are offering the agreed exchange. People who offer high quality in exchanges are discriminated against because they make people who offer low quality in exchange feel guilty.

Nathan suggests that this is the explanation for people choosing to pay for inferior software from Microsoft instead of getting superior software for free [2]. Now it does seem quite plausible that someone who is offering low quality goods in the manner of Italian academia would refuse to consider software from any company other than Microsoft, after all the easiest way of selecting software is to phone a MS representative and be told exactly what to buy. But I don’t think that this explains even a significant fraction of the people who refuse free software.

There is no direct analogy between bilateral agreements to produce low quality and the choice of MS Software because MS Software is quite expensive (they demand what would be considered a “high quality” trade in the jargon of the paper). If someone was to buy one of the cheaper laptops in Australia (around $650 new) and upgrade to the full version of Windows 7 along with purchasing the home version of MS Office then the cost of software would be almost as much as the cost of hardware. If they wanted one other MS product then the cost of MS software would probably be greater than the cost of hardware. Hardware costs are steadily falling and MS prices are only increasing, for people who use MS software we should expect that soon the MS tax will be the majority of the costs of running a typical PC.

Good Reasons for Choosing MS

One thing we have to consider is that there are people who have good reasons for using MS software. One example is the companies that depend on proprietary applications which are central to their business. When the entire company’s data is stored in an undocumented proprietary database it’s really not easy to change to a different application – even when everyone in the company knows the software to be of amazingly low quality. If the vendor of the proprietary application in question decides to only support MS Windows then it’s customers (victims?) have no choice about which OS to use.

One interesting thing to note about such companies that are locked in to proprietary software is that the amount that they spend per year on license and support fees is usually greater than the cost of hiring one good programmer. If a few such companies formed a consortium to develop free software to manage their business where each company paid the salary of one programmer then after a couple of years of development they could move to the free software and reduce their operating expenses.

Another category of users who have a good reason to choose MS is the people who play games seriously. If you want to play games then MS Windows does offer some real advantages. The price of games will usually be a fraction of the hardware cost (the serious gamers spend a lot more on hardware than most people) and MS Windows is apparently the best PC OS for commercial games. Personally I’ve found that there are more than enough free games on Linux to waste my time, Warzone 2100 [3] is one that I currently play, and I’ve tried Battle for Wesnoth [4] in the past and found it too time consuming and addictive.

How a Preference for Low Quality could lead to Microsoft

I think that everyone who has any significant experience in the computer industry has encountered companies that have large areas of low quality. This generally tends to be in large corporations as small companies can’t afford the waste.

In some large corporations Linux on the desktop is never considered, even when people are hired as Linux sysadmins and there are obvious productivity benefits to having the same OS on the desktop as on the servers (even if two desktop PCs are required so that proprietary software can be run on MS-Windows). Major wrote a good satire of the corporate IT non-working culture with a comparison to medical work [5], it illustrates the principle of a coalition to ensure low quality. He later documented how he was sacked by the low quality coalition at a company that uses a lot of Microsoft software [6].

So it does seem that when customers don’t care at all about the quality of the result it does help drive some sales for Microsoft. But that doesn’t explain the market share that they have.

It takes a lot of work to get Market Share without Quality

Microsoft has spared no effort in gaining market share. Every possible effort including buying out small competitors, aggressively FUDing competition, using all manner of legal attacks (including the threat of patent suits), and deliberately breaking standards has been used. I think it’s reasonable to assume that the MS senior management are not entirely stupid, they do so many things that are unethical and possibly illegal because they know that they need to do so to maintain their market share. The result is that the market capitalisation of MS is almost as high as that of Apple – and Apple makes vastly superior products.

Given the amount of effort that MS uses to keep market share it seems apparent that they aren’t just relying on customers not caring about quality.

Should users have to Understand Computers?

My observation is that most users don’t want to know much about how their computers work. The desire to understand computers seems to be about as common as the desire to understand cars, people just want to buy one that looks good and have it work. The difference is that cars are very compatible while computers aren’t. Cars have the same controls in the same places and large parts of the design are specified by law so that they can’t differ between models. Proprietary software is usually intentionally incompatible with other software (both open and proprietary) to try and gain a competitive advantage. Hardware is often incompatible due to the rapid developments in technology and the requirements for new interfaces to take advantage of new features.

In concept it seems reasonable for someone who is about to spend $30,000 on a car and $1000 on a computer (for hardware and software) to spend 30 times longer considering which brand of car to buy. One could argue that more than 30 times as much consideration should be given to the car as most people can’t afford to discard a car that they don’t like. As people spend a few minutes considering which brand of car to buy they can be excused for spending a few seconds considering which type of computer to buy. But once a choice has been made about which software to use it’s very difficult to change to something else, while in comparison it’s easy to drive a car that was manufactured by a different company. So a poorly informed choice made at an early stage can have costly long-term affects when buying software.

If we had mandated open standards for file formats and data interchange then users would be able to make choices that don’t result in their data being locked in to some proprietary format. Such standards could be set through government tender processes, if every government agency was to only buy software that complies with open standards then the proprietary software vendors would scramble to make their products less incompatible. The result would be that bad choices in purchasing software could become learning experiences that result in better purchases in future instead of being a lock on users that forces them to keep using the same software that doesn’t satisfy their needs.

Conclusion

I think that the best thing about the paper by Diego Gambetta and Gloria Origgi is that it highlights the issue of low quality. No-one wants to be considered a loser, so maybe this can encourage people to strive for high quality (or at least try to make their work suck a little less). Regardless of the conclusion they eventually reach, it’s probably good for people to occasionally wonder “do I suck?“.

Changes

Oct 2017, new URL for the paper because Oxford doesn’t like maintaining URLs or having redirects.

How to Start Learning Linux

I was asked for advice on how to start learning Linux. Rather than replying via email I’m writing a blog post for future people who ask such questions and also to get comments from other people which may provide information I missed.

Join a LUG

The best thing to do is to start by joining your local Linux Users Group (LUG). Linux International maintains a list of LUGs that is reasonably comprehensive [1]. Even if there isn’t a LUG near enough for you to attend meetings you can learn a lot from a mailing list of a LUG that’s close to your region. There is usually no great reason not to join the mailing list of a LUG in a different region or country, but a local LUG is that the advice will often be tailored to issues such as the local prices of hardware and the practices of your government.

Also note that Linux International doesn’t list all LUGs, the MLUG group in Melbourne [2] and the BLUG group in Ballarat [3] aren’t listed. Anyone who joins LUG (the group based in Melbourne, Victoria that I’m a member of) will be advised of the smaller groups in the region if they ask on the list.

As an aside it would probably make sense for the main LUV web page [4] to have links to local LUGs and to the LI page of users’ groups and for other LUGs to do the same. It’s pretty common for a Google search to turn up the web site of a LUG that’s near the ideal location but not quite right. Also it would be good if LUV could have a link to the Victorian Linux Users Group in Canada – this should reduce the confusion a bit and they have a link to us [5].

Play with Linux

Get a spare PC (with no important data) and try installing different distributions of Linux on it. Make sure that it never has anything particularly important so you can freely try things out without worrying about the risk of losing data. Part of the learning process usually involves breaking a system so badly that it needs to be reinstalled. Linux can run on really old hardware, an old system with 64M of RAM will do for learning (but 128M will really be preferred and 256M will be even better).

Learn with other Beginners

LUV has a very active beginners group, with a beginners mailing list and special beginners meetings. A group that has such things will be more helpful as you can easily learn from other people who are at a similar level to you. Also you can spend time learning Linux with friends, just spend a weekend with some friends who want to learn Linux and play with things – you can often learn more by trying things than by reading books etc.

Do some Programming

One of the advantages of Linux (and other Free Software OSs) is that it comes with a full range of programming languages for free. You can get a much greater understanding of an OS by writing programs for it and a typical Linux distribution gives you all the tools you need.

Any other Ideas?

Does anyone have any other suggestions? Please leave a comment.

The Gift of Fear

I have just read The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals that Protect Us From Violence by Gavin de Becker.

Like many self-help books it has a concept that can be described in a paragraph and explained in a few pages. The rest of the book shares anecdotes that help the reader understand the concept, but which are also interesting for people who get it from the first chapter. When I read the book I considered the majority of the content to be interesting stuff added to pad it out to book size because the concept seemed easy enough to get from the start, but from reading some of the reviews I get the impression that 375 pages of supporting material aren’t enough to convince some people – maybe this is something that you will either understand from the first few chapters or never understand at all.

Gavin’s writing is captivating, he has written a book about real violent crime in a style that is more readable than many detective novels, from the moment I finished the first chapter I spent all my spare time reading it.

I was a little disappointed at the lack of detailed statistics, but when someone has done all the statistical analysis chooses to provide the results in the form of anecdotes rather than statistics I’m prepared to tolerate that – especially when the anecdotes are so interesting. I spent quite a bit of time reading the Wikipedia pages relating to some of the people and incidents that are mentioned in this book.

The basic concepts of his book are to cease worrying about silly things like airline terrorists (passengers won’t surrender now so that’s not going to work again) and to instead take note of any real fear. For example if you are doing the same things you usually do but suddenly feel afraid then you should carefully consider what you might have subconsciously noticed that makes you feel afraid and what you can do about it. This isn’t going to change my behavior much as I have mostly been doing what the book recommends for a long time.

I think that everyone should read this book.