Archive for July, 2009

EU Microsoft Browser Selection Remedy

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

As noted elsewhere (for instance Ars Technica or OsNews or the EU itself) the European Commission has reached a conclusion with Microsoft about Internet browser choice for consumers. The proposed remedy is a browser ballot, from which users of new (and possibly also old) installations of the Windows operating system will be able to select a browser to use.

The devil is, of course, in the details, and the Free Software Foundation Europe is on the case. The (well, one) thing to watch out for is freezing the browser market in much the same way that it is now; that is, suppose the browser ballot says “Arora, Firefox, IE, Opera” then we have replaced a monopoly by an oligarchy and continue to frustrate innovation and choice on the desktop. So details include questions like “how do we determine which browsers are on the ballot at any given time?” That ties in to the dynamic nature of the browser market (well, that part outside of the monopoly) where new versions are released regularly and there’s a whole forest of Free Software alternatives to the “Big Three” (IE, FF, SafOpera). Designing a ballot that prevents leveraging the existing monopoly position is another issue — of the big three browsers, only one has the word “Internet” in the name, which may skew the ballot.

So the coming months have an interesting mix of social and technical work upcoming in order to provide a remedy that is, in fact, a remedy and not a placebo. The FSFE will continue to follow the case and press for Freedom in browser selection, and supports fair access, competition and innovation in the browser market.

Open.* conferences

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

Time for my semi-regular Open.* conference reminders; Free Software conferences, Open content, what have you, all kinds of neat stuff that you might still be thinking about attending or sending papers to. Open Rhein Ruhr is the farthest away in time, so lots of opportunity there to still get in a talk. I unfortunately can only submit an English language talk on software licensing, although my German is getting better (only on topics like Vereinsrecht, though). OpenExpo is closest, and looks like a good event where I could wear too many hats at once, if I were to attend (I hope I can figure out a way to do so).

In the middle are two overlapping conferences: the NLUUG Fall Conference on the Open Web on October 29th, and the co-located Linux Kongress and OpenSolaris DevCon. I may end up taking the night train from Ede to Dresden to attend the last day of the latter, because I have to be at the former.

[[ Ooh! And there's EuroBSDCon as well! ]]

People who are not me

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

I see that Bertjan had the scoop (over the dot story) that the Gran Canaria Desktop Summit videos are online in a Free-Software-friendly format (ogv). Please note that the talk listed as Mustapha Abubakar is not, in fact, Mustapha himself, but some shoddy stand-in who didn’t even bring his Hausa man’s hat. I’m going to have to show the wife this one, because she’s always wondering what it is I actually get up to at these conferences.

Also, Albert has an excellent idea with KDE 4.3 release dinners; that one is past already (vids guys?), but KDE 4.3 is still upcoming.

There’s a KDE-NL Summer BBQ to celebrate the midpoint between KDE 4.3.0 and KDE 4.3.1 on August 23rd, too. Lots of opportunity to demonstrate your secret talents this summer.

FTF news

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

The Freedom Task Force is a project of the Free Software Foundation Europe that:

… help[s] people understand Free Software licensing and the opportunities it presents. The FTF offers educational services, facilitates infrastructure activities and manages FSFE’s legal affairs. Its work focuses on the promotion of the proper use of Free Software.

“Proper” use here refers to license compliance; Free Software is, after all, free to use for any purpose. I’ve created a new category in my own blog to file FTF-specific entries (as opposed to, say, KDE-Solaris specific, or just bla-bla). Still, blog entries in that category shouldn’t be considered official pronouncements of the project — there are other avenues for that.

It strikes me as a little odd that the things I do all day are harder to write about than an hour of mucking about that I do late at night. I have something about Qt font rendering on Solaris lined up, and a bit on getting SRSS on OpenSolaris (summary: read the manual) and then I can finally post screenies related to SRSS work done at GCDS — but that is definitely hobby. Daily things are maintaining the FTF website (where I still have to get used to the workflow), list maintainence, and I’m reading a lot of documentation left to me by Shane Coughlan, the previous FTF-coordinator. It’s hard to do a daily item on that kind of work, because it does happen largely in the background. The legal work that the FTF does has a fairly long incubation time. Once it’s done, then you can see, for instance our GPL violations reporting guide (even if it’s short, it takes time to work these things out). Unlike a Free Software project, the process is largely invisible.

Transparency is an interesting beast. At GCDS I spoke with some who would put every person’s medical history (in some open format) in a publicly accessible place; I spoke to others with a strong security and privacy background who would find that a tremendously bad idea. Openness can be used well, or abused — Glyn Moody has a pointer to an interesting project building on the open data provided by a government. There are actually interesting legal topics around combining public domain data and freely-licensed content; this is similar to the old difference between the BSD license family (where widespread use is the most important) and the GPL license family (where maintaining freedom is primary), and something I hope the FTF can look at in future. My point? There’s a huge range of opinions on what constitutes healthy transparency, and I can live with both a terribly open project and one where the process is hidden and the results open. So forgive me if FTF news is infrequent — there’s enough going on.

Flashing, futzing and finishing

Sunday, July 19th, 2009

Flashing: I spent an intensely annoying morning flashing firmwares and BIOSes. I had purchased an MSI GX620 — a “gamer” laptop, but pretty nice from a developer point of view, too — and noticed that the keyboard would “stick” every now and then, repeating the last key typed ad inifinitum. Power button and trackpad would also cease responding. Either pull the battery and AC — hard power off — or plug in a USB keyboard and mouse and go for a regular shutdown, but then the machine would hang with power and fans still going after the OS says its final goodbyes. It is both reassuring and frightening that “MSI GX620 keyboard problem” turns up plenty of resources about exactly this. And a suggested solution is to flash the firmware and then the BIOS.

Easier said than done, of course, from a dual-boot nonGNU/Solaris and GNU/Linux machine. Heck, even with the Vista that was on the machine when it shipped I’m not sure you can flash. The MSI instructions all assume a DOS environment. I tried the boot disks you can create with Windows XP (which boots to “Windows Millennium”?) but no dice, abnormal program termination. I went looking in my box-of-crap in the attic and found my 3-disk set of MS-DOS 6.2 install floppies, but those no longer seem to work. Heck, it’s a wonder I even have a floppy drive to boot from — I collected a few USB floppy drives a few years back.

This kind of situation makes me long for my usual ASUS motherboards which support flashing from the BIOS itself, and can read CDs.

In any case, I needed to be able to boot an OS I don’t actually have in order to update the machine. Fortunately Daniel documented USB boot disks here, and that finally gave me enough to craft my own simple 10-step procedure: 1. boot ancient windows XP laptop strill used by the kids for Sesame Street games 2. install HP USB disk tool 3. boot modern Linux machine 3a. find USB floppy drive 4. download FreeDOS “ODIN” image 5. try to write the image to a floppy disk 6. download a smaller image, until you get one that fits before the first bad sector on the floppy (for me, fortunately, that was the 720k image) 7. move floppy to windows machine 8. format USB stick with HP tool, using system files from ODIN 9. boot defective laptop from USB stick 10. revel in C:\>

I suppose I could have gone via VirtualBox on Solaris or qemu, but I had neither installed already, and frustration seems to rapidly erode my capacity for lucid thought. In any case, I’ve now gone the day without the keyboard locking up, so the flash updates seem to have helped.

Whiteboard photosPhotos: At Akademy I always try to have some plan on capturing the spirit of the event. In past years I’ve intended to do voice recordings and always forgotten, so this time I did something much more low key: just take pictures of some whiteboards left behind in the conference rooms. This little collage of strings found on boards does seem to capture the working week, though. What are we doing? Even though we’re die-hard computer technologists, we still end up smearing ink on light-coloured surfaces.

[[ You'd be surprised, incidentally, about how many of the photos in my phone are of whiteboards at the end of meetings. Best way to remember things. ]]

Finishing: Congratulations, Gökmen and Görkcem on Pardus 2009. It looks very nice. And I really appreciate a distro that comes with TeX.

KDE 4.3 is also looming terrifyingly close, which means that there’s a fistful of OpenSolaris patches we haven’t gotten around to pushing upstream yet. Some are really peculiar, and I appreciate it when people ask me about things like bool() casts — there was one bug report about operator ?: with a bool and a QBool, which seems very peculiar to me. Interesting how QBool doesn’t have an operator bool(), only an operator void *() — I think SS12 is being extra picky here.

Finally, one of the anonsvn mirrors was down again for a bit; this was due to r.997199 which has a badly-encoded log message. Since we have a wild mix of Subversion 1.4, 1.5 and 1.6 infrastructure — and also users with clients of differing versions as well — we do not get a “clean” history. In this case, subversion 1.6 is more picky about the encoding of log messages than older versions. Since I was running 1.6 on the EBN mirror, it refused to synchronize that particular commit and went down. I have since downgraded to 1.5.2 and the mirror has resumed operation, but it’s an illustration that our source history is “interesting” to say the least and the conversion to any other SCM will once again be rife with manual labour to get it all right.

Working Week

Friday, July 17th, 2009

Today closes out my first week of working “for” the Free Software Foundation Europe; the word “for” is in quotes because there is still some formalization left to do. Still, the FSFE — and more particularly the Freedom Task Force — is what occupies my time during the week. In terms of response times, that means I’m on call for FTF things during working hours in western Europe. “FTF things” includes planning and executing educational services around Free Software licensing, facilitating infrastructure activities and managing FSFE’s legal affairs; as a whole this is aimed at the promotion of proper use of Free Software.

At the same time, this has an effect on the other Free Software work that I do. My day job is the FSFE, and KDE issues (primarily the OpenSolaris porting work) are going to move more strongly to the evening hours, something like 9-11pm. So do not necessarily expect responses to KDE things, especially bug reports or requests for testing, during the day or while I’m traveling on business. It’s just so easy to get distracted by, say, fiddling around with Qt creator. KDE legal affairs may be compatible with business hours, depending on the topic. What I really need is a green, a purple and a blue hat to indicate what thing I’m working on at any given moment. Maybe I should file a feature request for KMail, disallowing access to certain mail folders during the work day; that would help enforce discipline for me quite a bit.

This first working week was mostly filled with the IFOSSLR launch in London; the journal is independent, but the FTF is keenly interested in high-quality legal opinion on topics around Free Software. I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.


Thursday, July 16th, 2009

The new legal journal IFOSSLR was launched officially yesterday; see also Carlo Piana’s description. For a legal journal, I think we can claim a real success already, with many thousands of downloads. The topics covered include procurement, risk, the Jacobsen case and random comments by myself around Free Software branding. At the launch event, kindly hosted by Berwin Leighton Paisner, I ran into Glyn Moody (a bit on open access journals, too) and Karen Sandler (from the SFLC). It was just like being back on the Canary islands, almost.

I also discovered that after ten hours of exposure to lawyers, I pass out. Sorry about that, Malcolm.

New Legal Journal

Tuesday, July 14th, 2009

There’s a new legal journal out, and it is all about (and by) us. “Us” in the wide sense of the word, those people that are concerned with legal issues around Free Software communities, projects, organizations. You can find it on boing boing as well, where Andrew Katz, one of the editorial team, is quoted as “even lawyers can adopt a collaborative model and create something both free as in freedom, and as in beer.” This collaboration is in part thanks to the Freedom Task Force of the Free Software Foundation Europe, which has created a neutral ground for exactly this kind of collaboration and sparring around Free Software law questions. You’ll see that positive, constructive dialogue is our main weapon.

If you were to look in the journal, you’d find a piece by me commenting on some topics that were active in march and april, basically a blog on paper. I like it that way, and I feel my role both as a columnist for that journal and within the FTF as a whole is to push the technical and community aspects. In other words, make sure that the topics that are relevant in Free Software communities are taken up by the legal experts that write for the journal. In the meantime, I’m learning about the practice and interpretation of law. It’s fun to get lost in the twisty passages of esoteric interpretations of licenses, but far more useful in the medium term to provide services aimed at projects and businesses involved with Free Software. The journal, I think, provides a means to communicate interpretations of the law to all involved — also people in the projects, not on the bench.

One might get one’s knickers in a knot over the title of the journal, which contains either a redundancy (Open Source software is Free Software, and there’s no need to expand upon Free Software) or is missing several additional terms like Libre and Liberal. I like the latter, but that’s because the opening keynote of GCDS was by Robert Lefkowitz; it was a wonderful display of showmanship and rhetorical skill. The upshot of the talk was that we use Free Software because we are lawyers (or pretend to talk to them) and gentlemen.

So be it. I will go find my monocle and take the first train to London, there to consult with Sherlock Holmes on the case of the licentious liberal.


Tuesday, July 14th, 2009

Back from GCDS; patches for qtcreator handed off; packing for trip to London; putting kids to bed. I realize now that I didn’t tell a single dinosaur story at this conference; that I still owe some people an explanation; that I had far too little time to talk to Till about anything. I intend to spend this week on work-work (which is why I’m going to London) and restoring family ties that 14 days of Free Software travel have raveled.

The closing summary article on GCDS is up on the dot now, and it gives a pretty clear picture of what happened and what the most tangible results are. I’d like to thank the membership of KDE e.V. for giving me another mandate for three years as KDE’s “legal dude”. This will no longer be my primary Free Software affiliation because of my work for the Free Software Foundation Europe, but I expect it to receive as much attention as it needs. It will be evening (GMT+2) work, though. I look forward to working with Frank and Celeste and the “old” board members to maintain our legal and organizational stability.

We have the technology ..

Saturday, July 11th, 2009

We have the technology, we can fix it. The nice thing about showing people things that are broken and then sitting down to figure out what’s wrong is that the things get fixed. Holger helped out with understanding some of the rendering issues on the Sun Ray server, we tracked down some more suitable default themes (but there’s so many cool themes out there it’s hard to find a boring flat one), pushed graphicssystem RASTER into startkde, and ended up with a KDE4 that looks like this. Thin client heaven? I think not, but it’s a little better than when it started. Just a wee bit, though, even something totally flat like Heron (wish list: semantic tagging of plasma themes so I can search for “flat and boring”) totally borks the plasma panel.

Aaron was, probably rightly so, kind of annoyed with my cheap shot about ugliness on feature-limited X servers.

Still, it’s important to flag the problems, show them to people. The cheapness was more related to me complaining to the wrong people, but now at GCDS I could show them to the Sun Ray folks — and I’m very happy to have met Bob, Brian, Ken (?) and others from Sun — and collect information. It looks mostly like Qt has two problems: the fallback for non-porter-duff compositing is not very nice, and BGR colormaps are not supported. That’s the guesses from the Sun folk and they sound plausible enough — I’ll be trying them out when I get back home and can spend an evening re-compiling Qt all the time (instead of like here at GCDS where the evenings are for discussion and food).

.. and then we can fix it.