Fellowship Interviews

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Fellowship interview with Smári McCarthy

Thursday, July 2nd, 2009

Smári McCarthy is a thoughtful anarchist and practical chaos technician – with a deep interest in Free Software and democracy. Currently serving as project manager for the Icelandic Innovation Center, Smári works on digital fabrication and peer-to-peer education, while spending his spare time breaking the fundamental assumptions of how we organise society. I sat down for an interesting interview with Smári, in which he explained his projects and how they can contribute towards a more sustainable world.

Stian Rødven Eide: One of the most profiled projects you have been involved with is the Fab Lab, having headed the Icelandic branch for over a year now. While best known for its use of 3D printers, the Fab Lab is actually a much broader concept that goes far beyond technical innovation. Can you tell us a bit about your work there, and what you hope to achieve?

Smári McCarthy
Smári McCarthy
Photo by Alda Jónsdóttir

Smári McCarthy: There are two sides to the Fab Lab story. On the one hand, there’s the research side, which is all about developing the universal constructors, figuring out the hard science of digital fabrication. In that realm I think our work is done when we can download chicken sandwiches off the Internet.

On the other hand, there’s the social side. People want to be empowered by technology, and want to get access to it as soon as it comes out of the research. There are early adopters, and people who follow later, but it’s imperative that whenever we finish developing the technology that can make anything at the touch of a button, people know what it is and how it works, because otherwise there’s a high chance of bad people using that kind of technology for bad things.

SRE: Earlier this year, you visited Afghanistan and helped set up the Fab Lab there. With regards to the current Afghan infrastructure, or rather lack thereof, it seems like a major challenge. What were the main obstacles? Is the project going as planned?

Smári McCarthy: The Lab was actually there when I arrived, thanks to the efforts of Amy Sun and some other people last year, so when I went there the main mission was to build and deploy a wireless mesh network. We did that, and the reason we chose that kind of project was that of all the things people need in Afghanistan, one of the greatest challenges is getting access to good information. In European history, we developed water tech and food tech and building tech and so on in a fairly linear order – much like it’s portrayed in games like FreeCiv – but leapfrogging can change the game a lot. Give people access to vast pools of technical know-how and hopefully a lot of infrastructure questions will solve themselves.

What surprised me was how few obstacles there were. We used a lot of “tape engineering” (extreme usage of gaffer tape should be a mandatory course in engineering schools) and a lot of patience, and everybody did their homework. The project is going great: When we left, four FabFi links were active. Since then, locals have built links five and six, and are planning on at least two more. We have no control over the growth, nor do we want such authority – it’s just good that people want to use it.

SRE: A lot of your motivation for working on digital fabrication seems to stem from the wish for a more sustainable technology. Could you elaborate a bit on how you see the connection between the digital fabrication and sustainability?

Smári McCarthy: Back in the 1950′s, there was a bunch of people like John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener who were thinking about computation and industrialization in very abstract terms, and did a whole lot of work in figuring out that there needn’t be much difference between the kind of mechanisms we have in software and the kind we have in hardware. I always liked that idea, the idea that computer science might be able to seep through into reality, and I’ve also always been a big fan of harsh environments and extreme situations. Naturally, I’m inclined to bind those two together. The situation on Earth right now is getting a bit complicated though – the exact situations that fascinate me the most are economical and political instability, global warming, excessive regulation and general foolishness, threatening to destroy humanity. Sustainability is one of the keys to solving that problem – as my friend Vinay Gupta noted, 6 billion people living the way the two billion richest humans live – a six billion person suburbia – is a situation that will get us all killed very very fast, because it’s not sustainable at all. How then do we make harsh environments pleasant? Digital fabrication and, more generally, thinking about the computational capacity of the universe, may be one of the answers to that question.

SRE: In some of your last talks, you even bring free software principles to economy, democracy and law. Using technological infrastructure that is more or less already in place, you envision a rather simple plan to instate a radically direct democracy. Can you briefly explain how this organizational model works? Do you regard Iceland as a suitable testbed for this?

Smári McCarthy: Yeah, that’s another point in the same realm – right now it’s not just our industrialization and suburban organization that’s unsustainable, it’s our political and economical systems. So, thinking about how democracy works, I realized that the best democracy I’ve ever seen is the Internet, and the beauty of it is that there’s no assumption of preordained structure in it. No explicit hierarchy. There’s a bunch of implicit hierarchies and cryptohierarchies that come and go, but nothing as clearly defined as “this guy here is the president of the Internet”. A lot of people complain that direct democracy doesn’t work because of scaling issues – too many things to discuss and each person doesn’t have enough time to spend on each problem. So what about taking a page from the book of the Internet, and say: Let those who wish to participate do so, and keep the entry threshold as low as technically possible.

Giving everybody a say is really easy, and people like being able to have a say. If the question is relevant to them they’ll chime in, and if it isn’t they’ll just go with the flow most of the time. What follows from this is a bunch of meditations on an arbitrary networked structure for democracy – I’ve called it crowdsourced democracy. After the financial collapse in Iceland last October, a bunch of people started thinking along the same lines and we’ve formed a sort of “shadow parliament”, which is just a website that copies all the issues going through the real parliament and allows people to have their say. It’s doing really well, and I think Iceland is a great testbed for it – mostly because it’s a small population with a lot of opinions, a lot of distress these days due to a ton of prosperity being pulled from underneath their feet, and people are generally very tech savvy.

SRE: You’re also a board member of the Icelandic Society for Digital Freedoms, and recently wrote an article indicating a substantial movement towards Free Software in Iceland. How do you regard the current development in this matter? Has the economic crisis, which hit Iceland especially hard, had any effect on how Free Software is regarded?

Smári McCarthy: Just last week we were on the campaign trail for this. Eben Moglen and Mishi Choudhary from the Software Freedom Law Center came over and we met with the President, the Ministers of Education, Health and Industry, people from the Prime Minister’s office and the Finance Ministry, as well as the Reykjavík municipality, and generally we’re sensing a huge shift towards Free Software. The financial situation opened a door that we “free as in freedom” people rarely acknowledge, which is that Free Software actually typically is free as in free beer, and that’s the kind of incentive the government needs right now.

So Reykjavík has signed a deal. They’re switching to Free Software before the end of the year, and the education ministry is going to be switching some schools and institutions to Free Software as a trial effort. It’s too early to tell what else will come from last week’s efforts, but it’s clear that proprietary software is going to have a very tough time.

SRE: As a high-school teacher, you have taught courses in civil liberty and technological literacy. With regards to your work on peer-to-peer education, how do you generally structure the learning process in such courses? Do you see the shift towards a peer-to-peer mindset as transformative for education in general and, if so, in what way?

Smári McCarthy: I agree very strongly with people like Paul Lockhart and Ken Robinson in that the entire education system as we know it has a completely devastating force on people’s creativity and interest. I try to address this when I teach, but it’s very hard. When I get a class of 16-year-olds who’ve been raised to hate school and hate mathematics and just simply hate thinking, it’s very hard to get them to open up and participate. You ask them a question and they just sit there waiting for you to tell them the answer, because they’ve been trained to know that you’ll do that anyway. It’s almost as if Pavlov had rung the bell and eaten the food too.

The civil liberties course that I’ve been teaching (in which I use Cory Doctorow’s brilliant book “Little Brother” as course material) starts off by focussing on technology, and I manage to pry the kids open by forcing them to crack Caesar ciphers and calculate RSA keys whilst feeding them this historical yarn about why people were inventing this kind of thing, and then branching off into privacy and freedom and the hippie/yippie/hacker thing. By the time I show them Big Buck Bunny as an example of collaborative editing they’re interrupting the screening every two minutes with a highly political question – they realize the deep philosophy of Big Buck Bunny, and that is the win.

Take that kid right there and stick him in a Fab Lab, where he has the ability to collaborate with people all over the world, developing technology for himself and others. That’s just magic. I love it. It’s a whole lot of work getting people out of the shackles of the education system, but when it works it’s totally worth it.

A big thanks to Smári for giving us this interview. Make sure to check out his blog at smari.yaxix.org/blag.

Fellowship interview with Timo Jyrinki

Friday, May 8th, 2009

The smallest unit of freedom: a Fellow

(Interview by Stian Rødven Eide)

In addition to being the friendly media face of Wikipedia Finland, the team contact for Ubuntu Finland and founder of local advocacy project Vapaa Suomi (Libre Finland), Timo Jyrinki has been involved as an active developer and translator for a wide range of Free Software organisations such as FSFE, Debian, GNOME and Openmoko. He has worked on computer graphics for much of his life, with a particular interest in human-computer interaction, and spends a lot of his current time making improvements to embedded systems. I had a lovely interview with Timo, in which he shared his thoughts on user interfaces, the Free Software situation in Finland and how businesses should let the community lead.

Stian Rødven Eide: Your involvement with GNU/Linux started while you were active in the demoscene, which was rather huge in Finland during the nineties. Were you already familiar with the philosophy of Free Software at that time? Was the culture of studying, sharing and improving each other’s code relevant to the demoscene?

Timo Jyrinki
Timo Jyrinki

Timo Jyrinki: I don’t think I was really familiar with the Free Software philosophy at all at that time, and not even for some time after starting to use GNU/Linux. The demoscene did have an atmosphere of improving on other’s ideas, but actually seeing code was mostly totally out of the question, except for maybe some snippets. My real introduction to Free Software came from my involvement with Wikipedia.

SRE: Several of your projects have revolved around computer graphics. This is an area where Free Software traditionally has suffered from poor compatibility, due to a lack of support from hardware vendors and the complexity of creating new graphics drivers. With Intel and AMD finally working with the community to create Free Software drivers, things have started to change however. How do you view the current situation for Free Software graphics? Is the liberation process going well? What can be done to convince the remaining vendors to open their specifications?

Timo Jyrinki: I think the graphics liberation process is now going in a good direction, with shader support also included in the Intel DRI driver (and with Mesa 7.4.1 it actually works), which is very important to finally evolve beyond the fixed pipeline. It’s a slow, but also broad development process, as is usual with Free Software. What I do see as a problem, however, is that the whole embedded / mobile sector seems to have mainly one vendor, which is completely proprietary so far, despite some small bits of information which have said otherwise. For example, over a year ago, Ubuntu Mobile mentioned that “soon” there would be a Free kernel DRM driver and DDX drivers, together with a closed DRI driver (which I guess could be reverse-engineered to an extent). Nothing has actually appeared as code as far as I know.

I think the best way to convince the rest would be to basically point to Intel/AMD/Via, and explain the real benefits that Free drivers bring. For example, developers would not be hindered by having to use the specific kernel or X server versions with which the binary drivers (available to some partners in a limited way) happen to work.

SRE: You have a Masters degree in Communications Engineering, with Cognitive Technology as your major subject. What are your thoughts about today’s paradigm of computer user interfaces, and to what extent do you see Free Software taking the lead in this regard?

Timo Jyrinki: Touch and haptics are, in my opinion, the keywords that best describe where we are going at the moment. The non-touch interfaces continue to be used but they are, of course, already quite well investigated. I believe Multi-Pointer X & co. will lay out a good groundwork to rapidly innovate with Free Software, and haptics is relatively easy to add when it’s needed. But to actually get something to innovate with, we would need, in addition to future touch/haptic laptop displays, more devices like Neo FreeRunner, which is still unique despite the emergence of phones running Android and similar systems. I’d also like to see more than just a little effort to think about redesigning GNOME/KDE application development environments to include support for small screens and big items that are manipulated by e.g. gestures. And finally, I wouldn’t forget about using stylus for finer touch input – what are the differences between using a stylus and a mouse regarding how applications are designed?

SRE: Your studies have to a certain degree centred around telecommunications technology, culminating in your Master’s thesis on the perception of vibration characteristics. Since then, you have been involved both professionally and as a community member in GNU/Linux smartphone projects like Maemo and Openmoko. Considering the increasing amount of embedded systems being based on Free Software, what do you see as the main obstacles to a fully free ecosystem for smartphones and similar devices?

Timo Jyrinki: With Neo FreeRunner available, I don’t see, as a user, any major obstacles beyond Openmoko Inc’s ability to manage itself and stay in business. I hope there will be more companies like Om Inc, and that people understand that what’s being done around the Openmoko project (including FreeSmartphone.Org, Debian’s FSO group, etc.) is benefiting every Free Software user once we start to have more (phone) devices that can be used purely by installing, for example Debian, on it. But, in reality, I think the amount of NDA’s Openmoko has needed to sign has exceeded 50, which is kind of a lot, and therefore it would be good to have some documentation available on how to enter the hardware market with a Free device. And anything to do with radio frequencies or GSM is of course even harder. But for the software part, people can just start developing.

SRE: You now work for a Free Software company, Nomovok, which describes itself as a distributed organisation, modelled after community development methods. The company also tries to engage and give back to the community through projects such as mdeb. Do you feel that your community efforts have been successful for both parties? How should other technology companies proceed towards involving the community?

Timo Jyrinki: It is indeed the distributed organization that makes Nomovok stand out from the crowd. We don’t have real offices for example, so people are free to work from anywhere. Regarding community efforts, Nomovok is not “there” yet despite former mdeb.org efforts, etcetera, which are in a need of better focus. It has proven hard to sell “contributing back” to customers as additional project work, as all work we do usually consists of projects for customers, so there is not much we do on our “own time”. But it is improving, and some customers even demand it already. The biggest contributions have been made via our customers, who are taking the credit, which is perfectly fine and, I think, a way to also sell the contributions to the customer.

Companies should approach communities with a willingness to serve, and only to lead if no one else wants to do that. Sometimes it is hard to be allowed to say what one is doing, in which case it is also hard to get feedback if what’s being done, and offered as a contribution, is a sensible thing to do in the project. We have a life cycle model that is presented to customers so that they would understand why contributing back is a key part of a major involvement in any Free Software project.

SRE: As an active Finnish translator and community member for FSFE, Ubuntu, GNOME and other projects, do you find that Free Software has a strong base in Finland, for instance in schools and libraries? Is the general awareness of Free Software noticeably present in local and national media?

Timo Jyrinki: I wouldn’t say strong, we’re too rich and clueless to actually benefit from the “country where Linux was developed” fame. It’s not very bad either, but we have a very thick network of proprietary deals and people involved in a relatively small market, to the extent that I wouldn’t currently bet on Finland leading in utilising Free Software. In recent news, there were plans to give a computer to every pupil in Finland, guess with which OS… not the one the country is known for.

On the brighter side, we have institutions like COSS (The Finnish Centre for Open Source Solutions) with 140+ company members, which bring Free Software to the business world as well as to the grass roots level. And on the grass roots level, Ubuntu is rocking harder in Finland than in many countries. Still, the masses need to be reached, and currently, it looks like attempts are being made to strike massive deals that that would prevent Free Software usage in schools and elsewhere. There are, however, many pioneering schools as well, who are doing huge cost savings, computer availability and teaching improvements using LTSP systems and such. But the scary thing is that it seems possible to do country-wide deals that undermine all these projects in Finland. We would need more politically active people. The common view among ourselves is that Finnish people quietly accept whatever is thrown at them.

SRE: In addition to your involvement in a range of Free Software projects, you also serve as the media contact for the Finnish Wikipedia. While involvement in Free Culture issues is a natural step for many Free Software advocates, it is not as often that it happens the other way around. How can we best help Free Software adoption among the millions of Wikipedia users?

Timo Jyrinki: By offering more Ogg Theora / Vorbis content on Wikimedia projects once Firefox 3.5 is released :) . I think Wikipedia is already doing a lot to help Free Software adoption, simply because the ideals it’s founded on are that of Free Software. The people who are active in Wikipedia will eventually find out about the benefits of these ideals, which also are the reason why Wikipedia is a lasting effort, and will make more informed choices because of that information.

Regarding casual readers, I don’t think they learn much about Free Software from Wikipedia, but then again, even if only 0.1% of readers learn something, it’s a huge amount in the case of Wikipedia. The biggest problem is the fact that English lacks the word libre, and I guess it’s too non-common a word to actually use in the English Wikipedia as a loan word for the title of the site.

Many thanks to Timo for taking the time for this interview. More of his projects can be found on his homepage along with his CV and a nice collection of interesting links.

Fellowship interview with Myriam Schweingruber

Wednesday, April 15th, 2009

The smallest unit of freedom: a Fellow

(Interview by Stian Rødven Eide)

Myriam Schweingruber is a devoted Free Software advocate with a flair for convincing people. Having worked as a translator, a school teacher and a pharmacist, Myriam is quite experienced in the art of communication, and gives a clear impression of trustworthiness. She has been especially active in the Swiss community, and helped found FSFE’s associate organisation, Whilhelm Tux, where she also served as the President. I had a nice chat with Myriam and asked her about some of the projects she’s involved in, as well as her experiences promoting Free Software in Switzerland.

Stian Rødven Eide: Amarok is often praised as one of the best music players, which I assume is one of the reasons you have contributed so much to it. What makes Amarok so special for you?

Myriam Schweingruber
Myriam Schweingruber

Myriam Schweingruber: Oh, there are many aspects: I love this player because it really is the most advanced in its field. Also, there is a vibrant developer community behind it and we all try to know each other more than just over the internet. So if there is an opportunity, we meet, like we did at Akademy 08. Of course, it is Free Software, which adds to its attraction. And the last, but not the least reason; my boyfriend is one of the developers, and I met him through Amarok.

SRE: As was the case with KDE4, a lot of people had high, and sometimes very particular, expectations for Amarok 2. Did you feel any pressure regarding the development of Amarok 2?

Myriam Schweingruber: Of course, there is a lot of pressure, and sometimes the loudest voices are not the most pleasant ones. We clearly communicated that Amarok 2 was not just an evolution of the 1.4.x series, but was a whole new codebase, which takes its time to get as polished as the previous version. But, everyday we have people asking “why can’t I find feature x or y any more? This makes it unusable for me!”, which is almost a joke, because I have been able to use Amarok 2 for almost a year, while it was still in a pre-alpha version, and it has worked really fine. Also, a lot of people think it should look and behave exactly like the previous version, which is simply not possible, and we do not want it to be so. But those who have had a look at the code know it is far better than any previous versions, the code has evolved to something more professional and polished. Of course, Qt 4 was also very helpful to achieve that.

SRE: With so many opinions on how a program should behave, how do you choose which ones to listen to?

Myriam Schweingruber: Well, the first opinions we listen to are our own. Jokes aside, all serious wishes are considered, but the last word is the developers, and if something doesn’t fit in the picture, we don’t do it. To give an example: Some users would like to play videos and burn CDs, etc., but, from our point of view, Amarok is a music player first, and a very good one. We try not to overload it, and want to avoid turning it into some sort of “Jack-of-all-trades”. There is a word in German that coins it well; we do not want Amarok to become a “eierlegende Wollmilchsau“.

SRE: As a pharmacist, you are obviously more familiar with patents than most people, and have been engaged in the fight against software patents. Do you feel that your profession has given weight to your stance against software patents?

Myriam Schweingruber: Curiously no, I don’t think so. People are more astonished to find a pharmacist in an environment considered to be far away from the original playground. What they miss, is that patents can be a problem in more than one field, and the worst problem in the pharma business is the patents which are granted for a too long time. This is especially true for drugs aimed at “emerging” diseases like AIDS or orphan drugs, where the lack of ability to grant more patents turns those vital drugs into something nobody wants to produce, as there is not much money to gain from them any more. But public pressure exists, maybe even more in the pharma business than in the software business, to shorten the patent life in order to make important drugs available for less money. This is good not only for third world countries, but also for the health cost in the first world. The biggest problem I see regarding software is that many people out there still think software patents are necessary, because they stick to old business models. Most of them simply don’t see that software patents are a hindrance for progress, and that there simply is no possibility for innovation if every single thought can be granted a patent. I re-read the Tom-Tom patent thread this morning and almost laughed out loud, though I should probably rather be crying about general software patents like “internet based car devices”.

SRE: Do you see any indications of an overall patent reform in the foreseeable future?

Myriam Schweingruber: Well, if I have understood this right, already, quite a few trivial patents didn’t hold in the USA. This might be the first signs that there is indeed something wrong with the patent system. Maybe even business people wake up and get aware that “big buck” is not everything, and that there are other business models which provide a far more sustainable ground. It’s a bit like the micro credits; everybody laughed at the idea, calling it “trading peanuts one by one”, but the success shows that this is indeed the way to go, especially in emerging economies. And the Nobel Prize confirmed it too. So, who knows, maybe we someday will see a Nobel Prize of Economy for the Free Software business model.

SRE: You have also worked as a school teacher for 18 years. Has this helped you become a better Free Software advocate?

Myriam Schweingruber: Sure, there is a lot of teaching involved when you try to convince people. Of course, one has to be careful, as adults don’t like to “be taught”, and some ideas are difficult to overcome. It’s mostly a “by example” method, where you can show that it does indeed work, but of course, a little bit of teaching still is involved. It’s easier to convince people at fairs, at least most of the time, as they come to learn about us. But we sometimes forget that it’s not only a matter of teaching but also of selling, and I don’t talk about merchandise. Rather it’s about selling an idea, and that is where my experience as a pharmacist in a public pharmacy has helped me a lot; convincing people that my advice is good and will help them. There will always be people who are difficult to convince, but that’s the same in a pharmacy; if we can prove by example that this is the way to go, even the most reluctant will understand one day.

SRE: You were a co-founder of FSFE’s associate organisation, Wilhelm Tux, and have served as its President. Can you tell us a bit about your motivations for starting the organisation and what its primary activities have been.

Myriam Schweingruber: I got involved in my local LUG, the Linuxbourg in Fribourg, and soon became aware that we have to go out of the LUG meetings if we want to convince people of the validity of the Free Software business model. Also, there were a lot of different LUG’s in Switzerland, and most of the members were not necessarily interested in doing political work. So the idea was to create a Swiss-wide group that would gather those Free Software users who wanted to invest some time into political work. I wrote a mail to the various Swiss organisations, and, not really astonishing, the Bernese LUG had the same idea at about the same time, which led to the founding of Wilhelm Tux. Almost immediately after the founding there was a publication on the Swiss Government IT Services’ website from Gartner, which promoted the use of Microsoft software almost exclusively. We wanted to have a more broader point of view to be expressed, and got in touch with the people responsible for this website. This created quite an earthquake like wave in the cosy offices in Bern, as they never expected people like us to react and protest. This lead to quite some publicity for Wilhelm Tux at its very beginning, even if we were only a few active members, and the Swiss Government IT services organised a meeting about “Open Source in Administration”, to which we were invited. This very first meeting opened quite a few eyes, and the government was made aware that there already was Free Software in use, only introduced bottom up by IT admins.

I think the time was right for things to change, even if there is still a lot of work to do in Switzerland. Now, IMHO, as the FSFE has an office in Zurich, instead of continuing to work on two organisations, Wilhelm Tux should collaborate more actively with the FSFE in Switzerland. One of the first projects I got on rails when I was president of Wilhelm Tux was to become an associate member, for obvious reasons.

SRE: While FSFE often focuses on international issues, Wilhelm Tux is inherently a national campaign. In what ways can local activities best complement the work of organisations like the FSFE?

Myriam Schweingruber: I think that the FSFE needs local people to act on local issues, but this can either be an associate organisation or a group of fellows. Maybe an organisation can better be of help where political work is needed, as politicians seem to listen more to organisations than to individuals (unless, perhaps, those are their direct electors). Currently, like many other organisations, Wilhelm Tux lacks manpower for field work, and we are discussing the future. One possibility could be for fellows to get involved in Wilhelm Tux. Another idea that came up was to integrate Wilhelm Tux as a work group into ch-open, the local FOSS business alliance. Personally, I would like to see Wilhelm Tux either remain independent or become the Swiss Fellows “weapon”. I’m not really comfortable having it integrated into a business group, even if they do quite some work in the field. But this is a decision that will be made by the GA of Wilhelm Tux, we (the board) only suggest possible future steps. The main problem with Wilhelm Tux is that all the work is done by the few board members, and there has never been a big group of active members. To be honest, I don’t find much time to be involved either.

SRE: In addition to your work for Wilhelm Tux, you are also the coordinator for the Swiss FSFE Team and have been heavily involved in the Swiss Ubuntu Team. How would you describe Switzerland regarding Free Software adoption and advocacy? Does the multi-lingual nature of the country pose a challenge?

Myriam Schweingruber: Oh yes, it does! A recurrent issue in all Swiss groups I am involved in is the language question. I have always been in favour of English as the “lingua franca”, but this seems to be a problem for others. Unfortunately, as the languages are not evenly distributed, and almost 80% is German, this would end in a German only discussion where all the others would be excluded. So, even if it sometimes is difficult because people don’t feel comfortable or fluent enough in English, I think we have to insist on using English on the nationwide lists.

Another typical Swiss behaviour is non-communication. People tend to act locally, whether in their town or region, but hardly ever communicate to others what they are doing. So it’s very difficult to know what is going on for the rest of Switzerland, and we are often surprised by last minute emails inviting us to meetings to be held the next day. Most of the time we find out after the event, if at all, and the organisers are disappointed about the lack of participation. I think Switzerland still has to learn to behave as a “nation” and do things nationwide. On the other hand, this is also a strength, as you can make people act locally, only we should find a better way of gathering information and publish local events and actions nationwide. It’s certainly not the lack of nationwide structures, there are probably even too many, but how do you coordinate this? Asking people to notify each other is not enough, we need people who gather information too, as the communication tends to die if it’s only onesided.

As you can see, there are quite a few problems to be solved in Switzerland. And regarding Free Software use in administration, there is still a very long way to go. To name but one example: I was in touch with a very dynamic guy in the French speaking part who was all enthusiastic about Free Software, but insisted on sending *.doc files. His reason was that other formats were not widespread enough. Hence, the origin of my signature in mails: “please, do *not* send me proprietary file formats”.

SRE: You have been using Ubuntu since its very first incarnation, Warty Warthog, which was released in 2004. Why do you think it has been so successful in attracting new Free Software users? What do you regard as Ubuntu’s most important strengths and benefits compared to other GNU/Linux distributions?

Myriam Schweingruber: I was a bit unhappy with Debian, as I could not use something without a newer kernel, and there was none, unless I’d switch to the unstable branch. I am used to trying other distributions, and when I was told about Warty I just tried it out and liked it from the beginning. Also, the very few times I tried to get some help from Debian didn’t exactly encourage me to try asking again. At that point, Ubuntu was this new distribution, still based on Debian, but with helpful people who did not tell you RTFM! after your first question. A real pleasure! I always wanted to be more involved with Free Software on the software side, and there it was.

And why do I think it has been so successful? Well, the friendliness on the mailing lists, forums and in IRC, and of course the charisma of its founder, the fixed release cycles (remember how long we waited for Woody?), the Code of Conduct. Certainly all of it makes the whole distribution a success. And it ships KDE :)

Our thanks to Myriam for giving us this interview. You can find her blog entries on the Amarok website and on the new Fellowship blog.

Fellowship interview with Georg Greve

Tuesday, March 10th, 2009

The smallest unit of freedom: a Fellow

Georg Greve is the founder of the Free Software Foundation Europe and has served as its president since the beginning in 2001. Marking the eight birthday of the FSFE I asked him some questions on his own background and the history of the FSFE for a special birthday edition of the Fellowship interview series.

Georg Greve

Stian Rødven Eide:While the story of how Richard Stallman came to found the GNU project and the FSF is well known to most Free Software advocates, the details of your own background are more shrouded. Could you tell us a bit about how you were first introduced to Free Software and what made you convinced of its importance?

Georg Greve: The first time I came in contact with Free Software was around 1993, when my old and heavily modified Atari 1040 STFM died and I decided that the modular PC architecture was probably the coming technology.

After a few frustrating weeks of trying to use Windows, a friend dropped a bunch of GNU/Linux disks on me before going on vacation. Unfortunately that particular distribution was broken, so I spent two weeks with little sleep and much swearing. But I also learned a lot about GNU/Linux and after getting my hands on a working distribution it installed like charm and it has been my system ever since.

Even though I joined the GNU Project sometime in the mid 90s when Richard discovered my Xlogmaster program, a small hack that allowed to display and monitor multiple log files on a single machine without the use of dozens of console windows running “tail“, I did not become aware of the philosophical, economic and political relevance of Free Software until 1998.

The organisers of the “Cluster of Working Nodes” (CLOWN) project got in touch with me to give a presentation about the GNU Project. This was my first presentation on Free Software, and for its preparation I read through the entire philosophy section of the GNU web pages.

The culture of use of my first machine, an Amstrad CPC464, and even more so the culture of the Atari machines, was a lot like the Free Software culture. We shared code, developed together, took software apart to learn how it worked. But all of this use was unreflected.

Through the GNU Project and in particular the writings of Richard, I became aware of the larger picture. That is probably also the reason why I believe that his greatest achievement in life was to give this culture of software self-awareness.

This self-awareness, including the Free Software Definition and the principle of Copyleft, was fundamental for everything that came afterwards, which provides the most important reason for myself to speak of “GNU/Linux.”

SRE: In 1992 you became a member of Hanse, a German organisation dedicated to advancing computer literacy. Was Free Software already a part of the agenda at that time?

Georg Greve: Culturally yes, but unreflected, as you can see from the above.

Through the Hanse I made some very good friends, including the one who provided me with my first copy of GNU/Linux. The practical function of the Hanse was to connect us in an affordable and self-determined way to the early stages of the emerging Internet.

It might be funny to hear that this was when I started to use “Unix To Unix Copy” (UUCP) as protocol for news and email, because the protocol works very well in environments with expensive and fragile network connections. This is what I still use (although tunnelled through SSH over the internet) to transfer email from and to my laptop today, including this interview.

SRE: You became a GNU user in 1993, a time when the Linux kernel had been Free Software for about a year and the first GNU/Linux distributions were starting to show up. Can you give us an account of the usage and awareness of Free Software at that time?

Georg Greve: From my recollection, GNU/Linux and the BSDs were the operating system of choice in particular for the “early internet crowd” in Germany.

Free Software lived primarily in datacentres, among the network professionals in large corporations, in universities, and in a few companies that had ties to these groups.

“The proverbial ‘normal person on the street’ had probably never heard of Free Software, meaning that mentioning it would be rewarded by a blank stare.

A little bit later Free Software was perceived as a threat by some large vendors of proprietary software, which led to the campaigns that tried to push it into the “hobbyist” or even “communist” corner in order to discredit it.

Fortunately those days are long gone.

SRE: You have a Masters degree in Biophysics from the University of Hamburg, and financed parts of your studies by working as a programmer at the University Hospital. Is this a field where the use and development of Free Software was particularly obvious, or was it your early experience with programming that led you to combine the two interests?

Georg Greve: The particular department where I was working had a SQUID Magnetometer made by Philips with an array of 32 sensors, cooled by liquid helium. All the computers in the lab were Sun Solaris workstations.

Installing all the GNU components on the workstations was naturally among the first steps, and at home I developed on my GNU/Linux system, but the software itself was a highly specialised signal filtering, display and pattern searching research software. Its purpose was to see whether it might be possible to detect heart defects in unborn babies in a way that would not induce stress in the foetus.

Although I was trying to convince the lab to publish the software under GNU GPL, they licensed, but never published it, as far as I remember. Considering the quality of my programming in those days and the lack of readily available multi-million EUR arrays with constant sources of liquid hydrogen, the Free Software community could probably survive the loss easily.

SRE: In 1999, you started Brave GNU World, a news column presenting GNU projects and analysing the implications of Free Software. Was this a particularly important step towards the founding of FSFE?

Georg Greve: Yes. After my aforementioned speech at the CLOWN, the editor in chief of the German Linux-Magazin, Tom Schwaller, approached me with the idea to write about current events and trends, as well as new software, from the philosophical perspective of the GNU project.

This quickly evolved into the Brave GNU World, which at its peak was published in six printed magazines around the world, and translated into thirteen languages in parallel. Writing the Brave GNU World gave me additional perspective, and also allowed me to get in touch with many people who I didn’t know before.

Sometimes in late ’99 or early 2000 I realised that the idea of the FSF is too important to ever be based only in any one culture or organisation, and that a Free Software Foundation Europe was needed.

When I eventually told Richard about my thoughts, he asked me whether I was willing to do this, and so FSFE began.

SRE: Beside the more obvious advantages of having a dedicated European organisation, the cultural differences between Europe and the US has been mentioned as an argument for its necessity. What are the main differences in this regard and how has that influenced the structure and communication methods of the FSFE?

Georg Greve: Besides issues such as time zones and languages, cultural differences can be as large as differences in language. As there is no global “lingua franca”, there is also no “cultura franca” that would work everywhere in the world.

The cultural and communicative approach that is necessary to achieve change in one part of the world, e.g. the United States, would have the opposite results with many policy makers in other areas, e.g. Europe. And although we have a European culture of sorts, this same issue of cultural difference exists also between different European countries, which makes for a very complex environment.

Organisations that seek to foster sustainable change need to have a consistent message and need to build up confidence and trust over a significant period of time. At the same time, replacing plurality by central command would lead to an organisation that would cater well to one particular target group, but find its message largely ignored by all others.

The design of FSFE addresses this through a structure that is oriented loosely along the idea of a federal model based on subsidiarity.

This means that the regional teams, typically covering a single country, are largely autonomous in their approach to known issues and questions, which probably account for 95%. These teams share and collaborate on a European level, which is where new positions are formed for new issues, which make up the remaining 5%. This way, positions are formed taking into account cultural differences, and can then be implemented locally by the various teams in the most effective way for their country.

The European level is also where European and global work and cooperation takes place. It is at this level that working groups on specific issues are held, for example Open Standards, United Nations or European Union policies. These groups report back directly to FSFE’s European team in the same way as the general activities of FSFE, such as the Freedom Task Force (FTF).

This structure allows FSFE to achieve high consistency despite cultural plurality while keeping the necessary flexibility to allow for cultural diversity of the various countries.

It has allowed FSFE to grow into the most culturally diverse organisation of its kind, and although cultural differences and difference of opinion can lead to controversy, we have managed to establish an internal culture where that controversy can be used constructively to improve the organisation.

SRE: You have been writing about software patents in Europe since 1999. While the issue seems far from resolved, quite a lot has happened during the last four years, with the FSFE and its associate organisation FFII successfully preventing such patents from becoming validated in 2005. Are you more concerned about software patents today or do you feel that it’s going in the right direction?

Georg Greve: Software patents have indeed kept me busy since 1999, when I started to write and speak about them. Within the past ten years, the factual situation has improved in some ways, and worsened in others. While we now have expensive patent shields to protect Free Software from the worst attacks, the patent strategies on the other side have become increasingly vicious, as the TomTom case aptly demonstrates.

On the upside, there is now an intense debate about the use of patents in software that has even reached the European Union and the UN World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) which will discuss the connection of patenting and standards later this month. There are increasingly loud calls to reform the system even in the United States, which is a good sign.

But despite our work of the past ten years, it is hard to feel elated about all these resources spent on software patents and the discussion around them which could have gone to innovation and better software.

Spending these resources is inevitable, though, as the consequence would be worse. But instead of continually working on our defensive actions, we need to find ways to make it unnecessary. For that, we need to engage in the places where these decisions are made, most importantly WIPO, the European Union, and the U.S. government.

These are the places where we need more focussed, professional and long-term oriented policy work if we ever want to break the vicious and expensive cycle of agitation, attack, and defence.

SRE: In 2005 the FSFE initiated its Fellowship community programme. What motivated the decision to establish the Fellowship? Has the relationship between the Fellowship and the rest of FSFE changed since its creation?

Georg Greve: The Fellowship is an activity of FSFE, and indeed one of the primary ways to get involved in the organisation. It is a place for community action, collaboration, communication, fun, and recruitment that also helps fund the other activities of FSFE, for example, the political work.

We had been discussing starting this kind of activity since 2002/2003, but it took us a while to solve the issues that come with it. The balance we sought to find was one where membership was not related to payment, and influence was not for sale.

We wanted to protect the organisational integrity of the association, also because we foresaw the need to maintain high legal stability as a fiduciary for Free Software projects, and to protect its political work.

Until today it is possible to become part of FSFE and join the General Assembly exclusively on the grounds of good work and without a single payment to the association. Such a path typically starts from some form of voluntary engagement in one of the teams, often goes through the European team, and then ends up in the General Assembly, the highest strategic decision making body of the organisation.

Such collaboration, and the trust that builds through good work, makes sure that people enter the General Assembly for the love of Free Software, and because they share the political goals of the association, rather than for different, personal motives.

But we also felt that it would be good to offer a second path that reflects the central role of the Fellowship in the organisation.

This path starts by becoming a Fellow, and then convincing other Fellows that you have good ideas and strategic competency that should be added to the general assembly to determine the strategy of the organisation for the next years.

We added these Fellowship seats to the general assembly during the past year, and the first elections are being held this year. In fact, the call for candidates is out right now and I hope many people will consider running.

Once elected, the Fellowship representatives are full members of the General Assembly, with all associated rights and obligations, can hold an office in the organisation, and make sure that the organisation stays on course.

SRE: With more than 800 Fellows and counting, the FSFE has grown substantially over the years. Do you find that the organisation has scaled well? How does the FSFE primarily attract new members?

Georg Greve: Considering that we started only eight years ago when the IT economy had just collapsed, with lots of enthusiasm, but not quite as much wisdom and experience on some issues, I am quite happy to see that FSFE has meanwhile gone through birth, infancy and adolescence.

Far more than a thousand people have been part of FSFE over the past two years, be it through voluntary work, support or the Fellowship. Considering FSFE’s preference of fostering sustainable long-term change over one-off actions, this is a great success. Just the publicly visible results of FSFE’s work also speak a clear language.

But there is so much more that needs to be done, so of course we would like to encourage more people to join FSFE and support the organisation in whatever way they are able to.

New members tend to come to us for various reasons. Because they like the community they encountered during events or Fellowship meetings, because they have been using Free Software and would like to make sure that the ecosystem will be protected and grown, because they are upset about an issue like software patents, or because they find the work in international organisations fascinating, and want to become part of a worthy cause.

In the end we found that growing numbers are primarily related to visibility, which provides us with a balancing act between the hard and necessary work which often remains invisible and the good things that bring visibility, which many people call for.

SRE: While most of the work is done by volunteers, the FSFE has quite a lot of projects that require some level of funding. Do you find that companies are getting more inclined to support the Foundation financially these days or are most of the donations still coming from its Fellows?

Georg Greve: A significant part of FSFE’s budget is from the Fellows and private donors, although of course some companies have also supported our work over the years. If you check the list, you will find that quite some of the “usual suspects” are missing, though, which is often due to an inherently U.S. centric structure of some companies. Instead, FSFE is being supported by European SMEs, which usually sustain this support for several years.

Tertiary sources of funding are EU projects, and specific project support, such as the buildup of the Freedom Task Force (FTF) through Stichting NLnet.

SRE: As president of the FSFE you have been advising several major entities, like the European Union and the United Nations, in matters surrounding Free Software and Open Standards. How well are such matters understood by these organisations?

Georg Greve: Understanding for Free Software and Open Standards is fluctuating a lot even within the various organisations, and often depending on particular individuals. There is an additional complexity created by rivalry between departments or organisations, like the different units of a government or inter-governmental body.

That is one of the reasons why this kind of work requires a lot of knowledge about organisational structures, people, their personal goals, and how political processes work.

If you talk to the wrong person, it can not only be useless, but also undermine your work by giving that person information they’ll promise to use for promotion of Free Software, but will actually try use to take down their colleague who has been promoting Free Software.

Calling this kind of work complex would be an understatement.

But despite these inherent pitfalls of the political system, there is a clear growing of support and understanding for Free Software and Open Standards. A groundswell that erupts in various places, and in which one organisation will occasionally leapfrog another.

Examples for this are the amazing developments in Spain, the work of the United Nations Conference for Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the Free Software base courses for World Bank project managers, the upcoming discussions at WIPO, or the successful work of the German Agency for IT security.

In conclusions: Understanding and support are growing, but largely dependent upon the people within the organisation and their power to translate understanding into action.

SRE: With more and more governments adopting policies to use Free Software, do you feel that a critical momentum has been reached? What do you regard as the most challenging tasks ahead?

Georg Greve: Gartners prediction of 100% adoption rate within this year and the recent Government Action Plan of the UK government are clear indicators that the critical momentum has been reached. There is no doubt that Free Software has become pervasive, and the IT industry is undergoing massive transformation. Eventually, the entire stack will be free.

The Free Software community will need to accompany and facilitate this transformative process, which is made more difficult by some rather large companies not yet having accepted the inevitability of this transformation and seeking to channel the benefits of Free Software into their own agendas.

We need to understand those mechanics and use them to the advantage of Free Software where possible. But there are also things that the Free Software community needs to do, like an increased professionalisation of projects once they reach a certain threshold. Projects like KDE demonstrate this rather well. Encouraging an ecosystem of companies around these projects that build their business model on Free Software is another key activity.

FSFE has reached adulthood within the past eight years, in time to see Free Software become a young adult, which brings its own challenges and requires a higher professionalisation in some aspects.

SRE: Your presidential tasks ranges from promotional work and approving new members to meeting with ministers and educating international organisations. Are there any particular tasks that you find especially enjoyable?

Georg Greve: Indeed. When you start an organisation like FSFE, you are the handyman for pretty much everything, including the web site, t-shirt printing, booth organisation, contact to sponsors, speeches, articles, conferences, writing distribution material, and so on and so forth.

With a growing organisation I needed to be less involved in some of these areas so I could focus on the most important job on my list, such as strategic analysis, political work, agenda setting, and international relations. These are the things I truly enjoy.

The administrative details, coordinating day-to-day activities, and dealing with budgeting issues are not quite as high on my list. Since the volume of these activities is growing, we’ll need an Executive Director to take care of them. Finding one is indeed on my list of items to do besides everything else.

But the satisfaction of writing a good article on a particular issue, the thrill of policy debates in which you need to manage a complex system of friends and foes in a way to achieve the best possible outcome for Free Software, and the chance to meet so many extraordinary individuals are highlights of my job that make up for many of the more tiring aspects.

So my overwhelming feeling is one of gratitude that I could work with so many exceptional people, learn so many things, grow with challenges, and to see how I no longer know everyone personally who
made FSFE their own in a way that the “bus scenario” no longer holds any terror for FSFE.

Thank you, all!


And many thanks to Georg for taking the time to do this interview with us. His blog “freedom bits” can be found on the new Fellowship Blog site.

Fellowship interview with Colin Turner

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

The smallest unit of freedom: a Fellow

(Interview by Stian Rødven Eide)

Colin Turner is a dedicated Free Software activist and Fellowship member, working as a scientist and teacher at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland. He has been advocating Free Software in schools and universities for many years and generously shared some of his experiences with us in this fourth instalment of our Fellowship interview series.

Stian Rødven Eide: You are a Doctor of Mathematics, working as a senior lecturer and researcher at the University of Ulster. Has the growing availability of Free Software helped furthering the field of mathematics?

Colin Turner
Colin Turner

Colin Turner: Not as much as it should have. By far and away the most popular packages in the field are proprietary, things like Mathematica, Mathcad, and so on. There are free alternatives, but these are often perceived to be weaker (and this is generally, unfortunately, true), and the free alternatives like Axiom and Maxima seem to be less well rounded. It’s harder to get students to learn them. On the other hand, things like LaTeX are a huge part of the maths education world, and excellent Free Software that is hard to beat. We keep trying to show the virtues of using Free Software in both teaching and research.

SRE: Can using Free Software help people become better mathematicians?

Colin Turner: I’m not sure it particularly has that effect, it’s just that there are practical consequences to using free software that are generally helpful. For example, your research project doesn’t go belly up just because a proprietary firm stops making a product. It could be argued that the nature of software like LaTeX and R promotes better understanding however.

SRE: You have also been involved in research on medical applications. Does Free Software play an important role in the world of medical technology?

Colin Turner: That is increasing. There is still a lot of Free Software being used by the research community. For example, R is a great way of analysing research data in a far more powerful way than many proprietary tools can. One of the big gaps is the sharing of created code. That is, researchers are quite used to sharing data and ideas, and sometimes even algorithms in papers, but usually not code. As a result, a PhD student or another research team ends up having to reimplement code from description of an existing algorithm before they can push a project forward. This is a waste of time and resources. In my field, where the applications are medical, it wastes an opportunity to try and help people’s lives in a direct way quicker.

SRE: You are a devoted advocate for Free Software in education and have given several talks on the subject. Which arguments do you find most effective in convincing schools and universities to start using and developing Free Software?

Colin Turner: I have generally started at the other end, realising that there is a specific and pernicious bias against Free Software. So it’s not a level playing field. It’s useful then to explore the myths that people present to avoid using Free Software, that it’s poor quality, that you can’t get support and so on. One of the most serious, hidden issues, is that the “cheaper” tag is a mixed blessing. For the Free Software advocates it often misses the point, but it is appealing (apparently) to purchasers. However, you will discover many people argue that Free Software has a much higher total cost of ownership (with little or no evidence). My firm belief is that saving money is not only not a priority for some departments in large institutions, it is a problem. It leads to a reduced budget and hence perceived power.

So I address these issues one by one. I point out Free Software is, like all software, of varying quality, but at least it is peer reviewed, and many such projects are reviewed many times. For instance, to take Mozilla Firefox as a well known brand, obviously Mozilla has their own strict QA measures, but unlike in the proprietary world there are additional levels, so for example Firefox being packaged for a GNU/Linux distribution gains another level of QA from that. The support issue is easy to neutralise. One of our university’s own spin out companies, Synergy Learning, provides consultancy for Moodle. There are a lot more examples. I point out that this makes Free Software more sustainable. The budget issue is hard to address, as it is often hidden, but public sector bodies should be encouraged in such ways that they can redeploy budget they save on software procurement.

Incidentally, in the UK there is an obligation laid down by the OGC that looks at procurement to consider FOSS alternatives. This is often ignored, but it’s useful to remind the public sector bodies of this. I’ve made these points to the Civil Service here in Northern Ireland where I was invited to speak. So you see there is at least an expanding awareness of the issues.

SRE: Are students generally more inclined to get involved with Free Software than the institutions themselves?

Colin Turner: Some are. But actually most students are totally unaware of the issues of Free Software, and the broader concerns such as the ethics, business models and impact on society. It is my firm belief that all students educated in software should be taught about these issues, as well as the issues surrounding copyright, patents and DRM. We need that generation to be well informed. You usually find that the students who have been exposed to these ideas by advocating staff members are far more inclined to use Free Software.

It’s a real struggle to get institutions to consider a Free Software deployment. One reason which is hard to counter is the “gaps”. An institution rolling out a software platform (Operating System + Applications) essentially wants a single image they imprint in thousands of machines. If there is just one program that staff want that doesn’t have an equivalent free alternative (e.g. some CAD applications) then there is no apparent incentive to them to install a free OS and other applications. My solution is that universities should use their huge numbers of students seeking software projects to help fill these gaps. This is another reason that educating the students about the issues is so important.

SRE: One of your most prominent software projects is the OPUS Placement Management system, designed to facilitate placement operations for a school, college or university. In 2006 this was released as Free Software by the University of Ulster. Were there any difficulties involved in releasing the project under a free licence?

Colin Turner: The release under a free licence came rather late in the process. Up to that point, it was a custom internal project. I developed OPUS in addition to my regular duties, but hadn’t thought to stick a GPL licence on it at the very start. I know better now. But anyway, I developed it in my own time, so the idea of ownership was a grey area, sure I was developing it as an agent of the university, but at the same time it was extra curricular so to speak. I felt this strengthened my position since the university could then accept the code as a gift and there’d be no tussle for ownership.

But this wasn’t my main argument. The software was demonstrated over many years in many countries, and always the same question came back “Can we buy it?”. I found it frustrating that we were sharing good practice with other institutions but not code. They would have to reimplement it. I argued to the top of our university that we would be sharing our national and international leading practice by sharing the software and making it free. That we would provide barriers to adoption by trying to sell it as a proprietary project, and that freeing it was a simple and effective exploitation strategy. In other words, the university realised that this was really the most effective way to leverage the product, the reputation it would give them, at very low risk. It worked, the product has been demonstrated on every continent now, and is widely admired. It gives the university a lot of good publicity. I also argued that it made the product more sustainable, by allowing multiple centres of expertise in developing it to grow, sharing code as well as experience.

Incidentally, we made a sister product, the PDSystem which deals with Personal Development Planning, free at the same time, and these precedents have made it easier to continue freeing other smaller projects we are and will be working on.

SRE: OPUS has been adopted by many other institutions from all over the world. Has this helped the further development of the software, according to the principles of the Bazaar model, or does most of the progress happen within the University of Ulster?

Colin Turner: At the moment, most development still happens here in Ulster, but the Bazaar model is still our preferred outcome. In other words I think that will grow with time when other institutions gain deeper understanding of the codebase and have substantial changes to effect. At the least, we have all our bug and support trackers completely in the open. That has been hugely helpful, both internal and external stakeholders can really give much more direct feedback on the project than is normal for a university product where lots of committee reporting is the norm. At least, we are seeing that the number of developers within Ulster able to contribute is increasing, and I expect more from others in the next year or so.

SRE: With the release of OPUS, you decided to create your own hosting site, FOSS@Ulster, which also hosts several student projects. Do you find that the Bazaar model of development is important and/or helpful for students to have experience with?

Colin Turner: Yes. I decided that as a major argument was to raise visibility of the university’s efforts, a hosting environment within the university made sense rather than having them lost in a big site somewhere else. It was a concious decision to throw the gauntlet down to other developers in the university to consider following suit, and also to provide the tools for the job. I selected Savane as the hosting software. I agree with the Debian philosophy “we will not hide our problems” and think that there is much to be learnt from the dynamic of the open development process itself. I have encouraged final year students to put their individual projects on-line in this way. This year, I will be insisting that my final year Object Oriented Programming students do their group projects on FOSS. They are scared of the tool set, but I really want to show them that once they get their heads round them they really simplify multi-developer projects. Again, exposure to the working tools of the Free Software community is sadly lacking in traditional computing degrees.

SRE: In 2008, you were involved as an organiser and speaker at OpenIsland, a Free Software conference for Ireland and Northern Ireland. How do you regard the current climate for Free Software in the two countries, compared to for example the Netherlands and Norway which both have public policies encouraging adoption of Free Software and Open Standards?

Colin Turner: We are still a bit behind that curve of leading countries, but I perceive a slow but serious shift in position. As Bruce Perens said at the conference, it’s getting to be that having governmental representation at such conferences by ministers (in the case of OpenIsland Sir Reg Empey gave a speech) is no longer unusual. At events subsequent to this, such as the launch of the Open Source Solution Centre in the Southern Regional College here, speeches made by ministers are showing that they really understand the issues, and that in particular small countries like Northern Ireland have a lot to gain from the agility of the Free Software model. The very fact the Northern Ireland Civil Service asked for a talk shows that there is expanding awareness in the public sector. The situation is similar in the Republic of Ireland, but due to their very different corporate tax environment they have a lot more of the “big” software companies there, so the small “agile” model probably looks less relevant to them.

Nevertheless, there is now an awareness that virtually no software company doesn’t touch the Free Software world at some point; it’s an issue that can no longer be ignored. There are still significant issues in reducing ignorance leading to poor procurement decisions, but that awareness, coupled with aggressive “mythbusting” is slowly turning the tide.


Many thanks to Colin for sharing his thoughts and experiences with us. You can discover more of his endeavours at his homepage and his blog, Proving the Obviously Untrue.

Fellowship interview with Enrico Zini

Monday, January 19th, 2009

The smallest unit of freedom: a Fellow

(Interview by Stian Rødven Eide.)

Enrico Zini is a long time Fellow of the FSFE and a prominent Debian developer. He has been involved in many different projects relating to Free Software and is deeply concerned about social issues. I had a nice chat with Enrico and asked him about some of his favourite causes.

Stian Rødven Eide: You’re a long time contributor to the Debian project, especially with regards to packages. Can you tell us briefly what your main responsibility in Debian is?

Enrico Zini
Enrico Zini

Enrico Zini: I mainly take care of Debtags, which is the new categorisation system for Debian packages. That is currently my main official responsibility.

SRE: Several of your Free Software projects deal with meteorological data. Is the use of Free Software prominent in meteorological institutions?

Enrico Zini: Meteorological institutions are very diverse, ranging from small regional centres to military centres and national, or even international institutions. The choice of software depends on many factors, sometimes even political ones. This said, I definitely see a growth of Free Software, with many centres starting to publish their own code as Free Software. One very notable one is no less than the ECMWF, which has recently released most of its software under the GPLv3 (note that even if some links mention requiring a £100 handling fee, in most cases the software that you will get is released under a free licence).

The USA are doing it better, thanks to better data access laws that require them to publish most government information into the public domain, and so if you go to NOAA (the US equivalent of ECMWF) you’ll be able to download source code as well as data, often released into the public domain. Also because of this, the USA tends to use free formats like HDF5 or NetCDF, while for example in the EU, in order to decode Meteosat satellite images you still require a nasty wavelet decompression library that is free to download, even in source format, so that you can recompile it in your system, but that has a nasty licence and is heavily patent encumbered.

I do hope that the recent changes in the ECMWF software distribution policies are the first of many steps in the right directions, and that we are going towards a system were EU citizens can access the data that they have already paid to acquire.

SRE: You have been voicing support for women in Debian. Do you feel that the situation for women in Free Software has become better during the last years?

Enrico Zini: I think that there is, at least in some groups, a better mindset: It’s rather hard now to get away with a sexist joke in one of the main Debian mailing lists, and I think that is a good thing. Much more important than that, is that while women have always been part of computer innovation in one way or another, now, even in Free Software projects, we see women taking the lead, like, in the case of Debian, among the Debian KDE developers, or the Debian Game Team. That is very important, because a woman in some gender-nasty society like, say, Italy, can see that yes, it can be done, and can therefore pursue her interests without believing that she is “crazy”, or whatever the gender-nasty society she’s in would like her to believe.

This said, there is still a lot of work to do. Some top-level groups are doing well, and can set an important example, but there are still many smaller, more local group were things are appalling.

SRE: What do you think we can do to make involvement in Free Software projects more attractive for women?

Enrico Zini: Say that for example I’m in an Italian Debian IRC channel and people are going around with sexist jokes and whatnot, I can now say “Stop it, you idiots, what would you think that the Debian KDE people would say, reading what you just typed?”

However, I think that sexism is but one of the many kinds of discrimination that may be going on. It’s definitely one that is clearly visible. But some projects can have, maybe not intentionally, discrimination against people who are not always on IRC, or against people who are not assertive enough on mailing lists, or against people with limited bandwidth, or against non-technical contributors. Even people from a wrong timezone is something that can be discriminated against sometimes. I believe that we should evolve towards a mindset which allows us to make Free Software projects more attractive for women, and also for everyone else that can be a valuable contributor.

SRE: You co-authored a study on the use of Free Software in schools, largely based on experiences from the Keynes High School in Bologna which was an early adopter of Free Software. You were initially a student at the school and have since been involved as an occational teacher, researcher and supporter of the system. Apart from the initial resistance, have there been any major difficulties in the employment of Free Software at the school?

Enrico Zini: By now, the only difficulty left is teachers. Some are motivated to use Free Software, and do great things. But more teachers have been learning to use Microsoft Office, and fear that if they use another environment, their past learning efforts will have been useless (which is false), or that the students will be more confident than the teachers unless the teachers use the suite that they know best (which is also false; there will always be students more confident than the teachers, with ANY software suite). So these fears of not being adequate for teaching end up turning “different software” into a scapegoat. The school had to maintain an extra (costly) Microsoft Office lab exactly to defuse this.

But the Keynes experience hasn’t finished. For example, recently they have started bringing new life to the older labs with little investment thanks to LTSP setups, and when other schools with small budgets heard of this, they asked the Keynes technicians to help them to do the same. And so now we have several primary schools and junior high schools scattered on the Bologna countryside that are running Free Software and are very happy with their old labs of Pentium II machines that become modern workstations with a mere 4 or €5,000 investment on a new beefed up LTSP server. This really shows the promises of Free Software actually happening: Once you take skilled people and you put them in control of the technology, problems get solved.

SRE: What is your advice to teachers and system administrators wanting to expand the use of Free Software at local schools and universities?

Enrico Zini: My main advice is to find other teachers and system administrators who have already done it, and get in touch. The thing that helps the most is to know that you are not alone. You can then share your problems, and especially solutions. Make a private announcement mailing list and get everyone to commit to posting there all the problems that they manage to solve, all the cool things that they manage to get done. That way, if others have a similar problem, they’ll know who to ask. I say “private” because sometimes to do cool things you need naughty thinking, and you don’t want people not to say that they’ve done something good because they fear that it’ll be indexed by Google. Or even better; if people are lazy with writing, organise regular meetings with other likely minded teachers or sysadmins over a beer, or wine, or whatever sounds nice.

SRE: You have been participating in several European Social Forums and even initiated the Bologna Free Software Forum. Do you see a link between this kind of social space and the way Free Software communities work in general?

Enrico Zini: I certainly see a link, because both Free Software communities and Social Forums have blurred boundaries. In Debian we have people working in corporations, maybe some in military environments, and we have political activists, anarchists, and we have deeply religious people. All these people work together in Debian, even if maybe they would never get along in real life. But this shows that there is already space for people from Social Forums in the Free Software communities, and by my own experience, this space isn’t empty, that is, there is already an overlap. Who is to say that someone in the Debian Security Team couldn’t have built up their know-how by taking care of security for mail severs used by political activists, for example?

A bigger problem that I see at the moment, at least in some groups that I know in Italy, is the problem of having Social Forum environments grow a better understanding of the Internet. The people from an example imaginary “League of Organic Farmers”, would have enough work to do than also having to learn to tell normal email from spam or phishing, for example, or plan a migration to free software. Activists tend to live their life busy at the edge of burn out, and this normally undermines the adoption of new technology, or free software, of new communication techniques – which is a shame.

SRE: What do you think Free Software methods and mentality can teach us about social and political interaction?

Enrico Zini: I think that they teach us to keep in mind what’s our goal. Eventually software has to solve a problem, so if you just spend your time overengineering something that doesn’t work, you won’t become a successful Free Software developer. Social and political interaction has, in my experience, a tendency to create systems whose goal becomes overengineering itself, where discussions about a social issue eventually fade in favour of discussions about the group itself, or become nothing more than discussions, discussions, and preaching to the choir. Just like in Debian we have activists and corporations working together, in the Genoa 2001 protest I recall groups of anarchists as well as groups of boy scouts taking part to the protest, because they both wanted the same: I’d like to see that happen again. This cooperation is still alive in the Free Software world, and maybe it can serve to inspire.

SRE: One of the projects stemming from the Bologna Free Software Forum is Comodino, which advocates Critical Consumption of IT. This involves thinking in terms of sustainability and ethics when considering IT purchases, which of course are strong arguments for choosing Free Software. How has the project been going so far?

Enrico Zini: The project is still alive, and it is doing its job. We probably have obtained only a limited cultural change with regards to technology among our users, mainly because the maintenance of the server has kept up busy enough to be able to run other initiatives. However, we are hosting 50 websites and countless mailing lists, giving several groups a chance to have a presence online, without commercials in their mailing lists, with access to the list archives and with all those unwritten benefits of having the system managed by people who’d like you to succeed in your social goal rather than just get your money and minimise the trouble. We are also doing streaming for a real radio and some web radios.

SRE: So it’s primarily about providing services for social projects?

Enrico Zini: Yes. In the end, it’s a Xen box with a DNS, Postfix, the Sympa mailing list software, and a LAMP DomU hosting lots of little PostNuke clones, or whatever other horrific PHP wreckage people like to set up these days. But it humbly does the trick for many small groups.

Many thanks to Enrico for providing his insight on these issues. You can read more about him on his website enricozini.org

Fellowship interview with Johannes (Hanno) Böck

Wednesday, December 17th, 2008

The smallest unit of freedom: a Fellow

Johannes (Hanno) Böck is a Fellowship member who concerns himself with a wide range of issues, from privacy and media activism to GNU/Linux and the environment. With a bit of preparation help from Ciarán O’Riordan I sat down for an interview session with Hanno, asking him about his work and how it all relates to Free Software.

Stian Rødven Eide: One Free Software project you’ve been involved with is the Gentoo distribution of GNU/Linux. Can you tell us about what you do in that project?

Hanno Böck
Hanno Böck

Hanno Böck: I’m maintaining a couple of packages, including GIMP, Scribus and partly Compiz. My most visible activity was probably that I provided the first Gentoo packages for the fancy new composite effects and Compiz.

SRE: What is your experience of Gentoo’s policy regarding non-free software and binary blobs, and how do you see that evolving in the near future?

Hanno Böck: There’s a new feature in recent portage versions (portage is the package management system in Gentoo) called ACCEPT_LICENSE. It adds the possibility to have a "Free Software only" system. It’s not ready for usage yet though, as we need to provide some pre-defined licence groups.

SRE: With CAcert, are you involved in the technical aspects of security, or the organisational aspects?

Hanno Böck: I’m mainly only a "normal" CAcert assurer, though a quite active one, sometimes helping on public booths and alike.

SRE: For users of Free Software, what work still has to be done to make CAcert and Free Software work together?

Hanno Böck: The CAcert codebase itself has been relicensed under GPL a while back, which is a very big step forward. The former, non-free code licence kept many people away from cacert.org in the past. The main thing that would need to be done is obviously inclusion of the root certificate in Free Software browsers, especially Firefox. From what I have heard recently, this may happen soon.

SRE: Are other Free browsers like Konqueror and Epiphany better at including the root certificate?

Hanno Böck: No, Konqueror devs say "we’ll do it when Firefox does". I think Epiphany doesn’t change the certificates, but I’m not sure about that.

SRE: You’ve done organisational work for OpenStreetMap and even got interviewed about it on TV. That’s a project that has taken care to work with Free Software. Can you confirm this or give us more info about the status of Free Software within OpenStreetMap?

Hanno Böck: Most things used on OpenStreetMap are Free Software, so I can confirm this, at least the base infrastructure is Free. There have been some sub-projects with non-released source (OpenStreetBugs and OpenRouteService for example), which I am quite sceptical about. But anyway, a lot of Free Software has been produced inside OpenStreetMap.

SRE: Are there many Free Software tools available for users wanting to contribute to OpenStreetMap?

Hanno Böck: Yes, the common editing tools are all Free. There are mainly three at the moment, one Java-based client app (JOSM), one C++ based (Merkaartor) and a Flash-based one (Potlatch). Java luckily is Free these days and the Flash editor runs in Gnash, so, as I said above, the base tools for OSM are Free and run on Free Software.

SRE: For some people and organisations, privacy – and thus data security – is a strong motivation for using Free Software. It’s something that only Free Software can guarantee, but many people don’t see this as important. How have you found this argument, and what improvements do you see coming at the technical level to GNU/Linux in terms of simple privacy?

Hanno Böck: I find this a very strong argument for Free Software. I’m active in the privacy movement and try to promote this. If you have technical systems that you can’t investigate, you never know what they do with your data. What could be done more is making Free Software applications more privacy aware by default. For instance, web applications could try to omit IP-saving of visitors/commenters in their default settings and things like that. If they don’t want to make it the default, they should at least provide an easy to activate option.

SRE: How about OTR messaging and GPG inclusion by default?

Hanno Böck: Yeah, sure. Enabling encryption features in Free Software is generally a good idea.

SRE: The Free Software movement always needs more political activism. What campaigns and activities do you see as being effective right now and worth expanding?

Hanno Böck: I think software patents are still a big issue. Many mainstream distributions don’t dare to include media codecs for mainstream formats, which is a big problem. Besides, one has to carefully look at regulations on copyright, in which way they can endanger Free Software. We still today have the weird situation that we are not allowed to create Free Software players for DVD’s, due to laws like the DMCA or the European Copyright Directive.

SRE: You are an active blogger and have been writing for Indymedia. Do you feel that Free Software plays an important role in the democratisation of communication infrastructure?

Hanno Böck: Yes. We have the comfortable situation today that much of the professional software that runs the Internet is Free, the most popular example probably being Apache. This is a huge advantage for small and alternative media projects. There are still things to do though, I recently had a discussion with a person from an alternative video project who said the only reason he’s keeping Windows is Adobe Premiere.

SRE: You seem to be very much involved in environmental activism as well. That Free Software can contribute to a better environment is evident for some, but not everyone would consider it obvious. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Hanno Böck: Hmm, that’s an interesting question. I think that in the long term, the spirit of Free Software can provide environmental advantages. Let me explain this with an example. Today, some people have an X-Box, a Wii and a Playstation at home. They want to play different games on them. But just one of them would be able to, and have the computing power to, run all games the person wants. It’s the structure of proprietary products to keep them closed that often forces people to buy new hardware when their already existing one would already fit – if they only would be allowed to change the software on it.

SRE: Besides all this volunteer work, you also have your own Free Software web hosting company, schokokeks.org. Do you find that this focus helps attract customers? And do you find that it helps you to raise awareness of Free Software among the non-aware customers that choose your company?

Hanno Böck: Yes to both. I think we have a quite large number of customers that like our "image". Beside, we’re trying to suggest Free Software to our customers where we can.

SRE: Do you feel that it is easy to explain the advantages of Free Software to your customers?

Hanno Böck: No, if they don’t already know about them, they often don’t understand. But I usually don’t try to do that. Instead, if a customer asks "can you suggest me a software for xy", I’m trying to find a Free Software product I can suggest to him, as still the best argument for Free Software is to have Free Software that does its job good.


Many thanks to Hanno for giving us this interview. You can follow his blog at hboeck.de.

Fellowship interview with Rolf Camps

Monday, October 27th, 2008

The smallest unit of freedom: a Fellow

This month we’ve interviewed Rolf Camps about translating, volunteering, and awareness of Free Software in Belgium. Translations are utterly crucial for a European organisation, and it’s a lot of work that doesn’t get much visible credit, so I wanted to ask Rolf about motivations and what’s involved. This is the second in our series of Fellowship interviews – "the smallest unit of freedom".

Ciarán O’Riordan: Rolf, you’ve been volunteering for FSFE for a few years now. How much time would you say your work takes per week?

Rolf Camps: Sometimes too much, if you ask some people around here :-)

Seán Daly
Rolf Camps

Last weekend I had to learn to write Makefiles, which took 8 hours. I don’t know if that’s 8 hours of volunteer work, but it was 8 hours of time. In general, translating webpages and news to Dutch takes about 6 hours per week.

The work is easing off because most of the site is now translated to Dutch.

COR: And is this what you usually do for your day job?

Rolf Camps: Not at all. My job isn’t even computer related, I’m helping to keep the copper telephone lines in good shape.

COR: So why did you choose Free Software as cause to support with your free time?

Rolf Camps: Well, I never liked using Windows. Or Apple. I heard about "Linux" in 2000 and started to use it. Most people around me knew I was using it because I was never complaining about viruses or BSOD’s. When one day a family member asked if I knew Richard Stallman, and I had to answer no, I started reading some of his writings. That’s the day I began to use "GNU/Linux". The family member was studying law in the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. Stallman was discussed as part of their course.

Looking for more information I visited fsfeurope.org, and saw the banners across the top of the pages saying that there was currently no Dutch translation and giving the URL for the translators mailing list.

I signed up and started translating the pages. It wasn’t that difficult to get involved. The site uses XML, but that’s simple. The repository uses CVS, but it wasn’t even necessary to know that at the start since I could email the translations to the mailing list and someone else would commit them to the repository. Jeroen Dekkers had already been translating some pages to Dutch and gave me some advice.

COR: Did you have experience in translation work before?

Rolf Camps: None, but it’s fairly straightforward. When I’m wondering about what sense or meaning of a word is intended, I can usually read the French or German translations to see how they translated it. I sometimes even follow their discussions on the list. Translating does get more accurate with experience though. Now that I’ve read the articles of FSFE and the transcripts of Stallman, I sometimes review my early translations to ensure that I captured the right meaning.

COR: Besides the mini FSFE translation dictionary, how are page styles and vocabulary kept consistent?

Rolf Camps: For Dutch this is easy since I do all the translations :-) There are a few words that vary. Here in Flanders, the word for "patents" is translated as "patenten", but in the Netherlands they would translate it as "octrooien". But FSFE’s Dutch translations are consistent because I do them all :-)

For languages like French, German, Italian, and Spanish, there are multiple translators and they can all discuss the issues for their languages. That would be useful for Dutch too, but we’re still looking for Dutch speakers to join the translation list.

COR: You’ve recently been doing more work on the website. Why is that?

Rolf Camps: This started because the last two blocks in the left-hand menu were always left in English. I had searched and searched for the file to translate these parts, but in the end I found that they were hard-coded and couldn’t be translated. So then I decided to fix that. This meant having to learn the fsfeurope.org build scripts, and they’re in Perl, so I had to learn some Perl too. It was a lot of work to find out I only had to change an xsl stylesheet, another technology I didn’t master.

The move to web work was also partly because, as the translation of the site gets more and more complete, it’s taking me fewer hours each week. There are about 30 pages left to be translated, but some of those are transcripts. They can take a month to do!

Automated services exist, but the quality’s terrible. It would take more time to correct them than it would to do the work from scratch.

COR: Translating isn’t something that people do for fame. What do you think motivates translators?

Rolf Camps: I wanted to do something to help Free Software, and I’m not a programmer. So you can be an advocate or a translator, and translating is closer to what I like doing. Everybody can help with his or her own talents or experiences.

COR: I see the homepage is in 25 languages, but most of the rest of the pages are in 5 or 10. So how can we get more translators involved?

Rolf Camps: The visible banner is good. That’s how I got the idea to volunteer. But one problem is that after I translate a page, the banner disappears. We’re still looking for Dutch translators, but the more work I do, the less chance we have to find new translators. There’s a mention in the left-hand menu, but maybe we can think of more ways to publicise this need.

COR: From your use of Free Software, what do you think is the biggest thing holding it back?

Rolf Camps: In this house (I have three kids), it’s lack of a fully functional Flash player. Other members of the family want it for games and for browsing websites. I’ve tried Gnash, and for me it’s good enough, but not for everyone. Videos work, but complex scripts often have problems.

Secret file formats are also a problem. I can use ODF, but for people who have to collaborate with others, incompatibility can be a big problem. .doc files mostly work, but .docx support is bad. The file contents are displayed messed up. I was using OpenOffice.org 2.4. Maybe OpenOffice.org 3.0 improves this.

COR: I’ve seen various groups advocating the use of open standards within the Belgian government. Do you know if these are making progress?

Rolf Camps: In one of the offices of the federal government, 50% of the computers are using GNU/Linux. I’m not sure who it was that convinced the ministry to do this.

The Belgian ID cards also work with GNU/Linux. Using the same card reader that the CryptoCard uses, you can authenticate yourself for declaring taxes online (Tax-on-web) and request official documents etc. The government put manuals online for GNU/Linux, just as it does for Windows and Apple.

In 2006 the Belgian government took the decision that by end 2008 ODF had to be used for all documents used in and between federal offices. But they left the door open for OOXML. So now two years later Microsoft has built an innovation centre in Bergen and somehow managed to get OOXML approved by ISO so …?

COR: How visible would you say Free Software is then to Belgians?

Rolf Camps: It’s not consistently visible, but there are times, like two years ago when the teachers of secondary schools in Flanders received a CD of GNU/Linux and a CD of Free Software for Windows. But in the the school where my wife works, they got no explanation and it was never used. The CD was payed for by the Flemish government, coordinated by Jan De Craemers.

So there are people doing things, but there’s a lack of coordination or a lack of awareness of who’s doing these things.

Thanks to Rolf Camps for giving us the time for this interview. Until next month!

Fellowship interview with Sean Daly

Friday, September 26th, 2008

The smallest unit of freedom: a Fellow

Welcome to the first in our series of monthly interviews with a Fellow of FSFE – "the smallest unit of freedom". We’re starting off by turning the tables on Seán "The Interviewer" Daly to ask him about his chosen way to contribute to the Free Software movement.

Ciarán O’Riordan: Hi Seán. Thanks for agreeing to this interview. You’ve done a lot for FSFE and for other projects such as Groklaw, by recording events, writing articles, and above all, interviewing others. That’s not something many people do as a hobby, so how did you end up contributing in this way?

Seán Daly
Seán with a banner he
donated for FSFE’s booths

Seán Daly: Greetings Ciarán. Well, I make a good living working in IT and a few years ago I started to feel that I should contribute in some way and not just further my own interests. The free software movement places a high value on coding, and although I can write a decent bash or awk script, I’m not at a level to be able to contribute code. So I took an inventory of things I *can* do, and as a former tech journalist and audio engineer with some knowledge of digital and Web video encoding, I had the idea of recording speeches and conducting interviews. Back when I was a fulltime journalist, I enjoyed interviewing since it is usually an opportunity to go beyond official documents and statements and get a feel for the people involved in change. That’s still the case.

Arranging audio and video recordings can be an expensive proposition for an NGO, I remember asking you what was planned for the GPLv3 Barcelona conference and when you mentioned that no budget was available, I decided then and there to volunteer. You know, any one of us can make a difference in some way; I had wondered for some time in what way I could contribute and I’ve been pleased to have had the opportunity to make basic decent quality recordings available of those historic events.

COR: The first time we made contact was about the EU vs. Microsoft antitrust case. That’s quite a bureaucratic project, so what made you think it was where you wanted to get involved?

Seán Daly: I’ve been watching Microsoft for a long time, as an end user, as a journalist, and as a corporate buyer. What motivated me finally was when I saw coverage of the EU Commission antitrust case. In Europe, Microsoft’s foot-dragging in complying with the 2004 Monti Decision concerned me, and I saw that with very few exceptions, the mainstream and tech media seemed not to cover fully all that was going on, in particular the important role of the intervenors like Samba and the FSFE. I felt that since traditional journalists were missing a vital part of the story, perhaps it was time for a nontraditional journalist to step up and report on that part. And as it turned out, they were the single most important part of the story, since they did not back down.

Others like Novell, RealNetworks, Sun and even the CCIA that originally were the complainants against Microsoft ended up settling and withdrawing from the fight, and in some cases taking some of the vital evidence with them, and it left FSFE and the Samba Team and ECIS standing on the field holding the ball, so to speak, all alone, but they kept going to the successful ruling on appeal a year ago. I will never forget the tension in that Luxembourg courtroom as the thirteen judges filed out to announce the ruling and then the satisfaction of Carlo, Jeremy, Volker, and Georg afterwards. It was a privilege to interview them that afternoon, and Thomas Vinje two days later; that coverage was, I think, a missing part of the puzzle for anyone wanting to understand what was happening.

COR: Since this is the first in a series of Fellowship interviews, I have to ask your advice: What makes a good interview? Is it about getting someone to pin down their positions, or about drawing out unexpected insights? What should an interviewer keep in mind when designing questions?

Seán Daly: I think it’s important to set aside one’s personal feelings on a subject, keeping in mind the goal of understanding more thoroughly the issues. I mean, I personally am disappointed with Microsoft, but next time I am interviewing someone from Microsoft, I want to be fair, so we can understand better. Clearly, every person, every situation is different, and an interview which should have gone smoothly sometimes doesn’t. Other times, an important bit of news comes out, and it’s important to stay on the ball and follow up right away.

That said, I think it is absolutely essential to prepare as much as possible. That means knowing as much about the subject matter as the previous statements of the interviewee which of course provide clues as to their positions and interests. Some interviewees are talkative and relish the opportunity to get their message out. Others are concerned about making a mistake and are more guarded. There’s certainly an element of risk involved for them, so it’s important to make people feel at ease; the best way to do that is to let them know they will have a fair shake. Preparing questions takes time and reviewing questions with another person beforehand helps. I’ve been very fortunate with PJ, she’s a clear-minded editor.

COR: You’ve worked with high-profile people and legally sensitive topics. When a reader sees your interview, they’ve no idea what hoops you might’ve had to jump through to get it done. Is there a lot of bureaucracy, regulations, and agreements behind interviewing certain people?

Seán Daly: Yes, I could fill a boring book on that topic! Sometimes I hit a bump getting accreditation, other times an agreement mysteriously evaporates or changes. It’s the result that counts, nobody really wants to know if I could only park half a mile from the courtroom and had to jog in or how many faxes I needed to send. In adverse conditions, politeness and fairness are your friend, along with unswerving determination to get the story. To make things simple for myself, I use very high quality recording equipment and carry extra everything since Murphy’s law applies!

COR: Your interviews often cover topics that are broader or tangential to Free Software, such as fair use of copyrighted work (Copiepresse) and preserving competition in the software market (such as interviews with proprietary software companies who are supporting FSFE’s antitrust case against MS).

Seán Daly: We are living in a critical period in history where traditional law for copyrights, patents, trademarks, trade secrets, is struggling to keep pace, a sea change is underway with the increasing importance of free software and open standards, the efficiency of search engines offers fantastic access to information while threatening privacy and disrupting existing business models. At the same time, web-published information is ephemeral, fragile; future historians may encounter difficulties locating primary sources of information. PJ takes the opportunity to cover issues in depth which have been passed over by the traditional media and has encouraged me when I have suggestions.

COR: I have to ask about terminology. In almost all your interviews, the interviewees talk about "Free Software" and "GNU/Linux", instead of using other terms. I know that you politely suggest this to interviewees beforehand. How have reactions been? Do people have strong feelings about this?

Seán Daly: It’s funny you say that, I’m not sure I’ve done that often. It’s true though that I prefer the term "free software" to "open source". In fact, I prefer the French "logiciel libre" to "free software" because of the ambiguity of the English word "free". And I’m uncomfortable not saying GNU with Linux since I use GNU tools every day — bash and gawk and so on.

I think that in most conversations and particularly in interviews, an effort is made on both sides to find common words and phrases. Many interviewees understand that some words are weighted and take the trouble to understand why. I’d just as soon avoid taboos, but some commonly used words are just silly — I mean, calling illicit copying "piracy" is so ridiculous considering what has been happening recently off Somalia.

COR: There’s wildly mixed analysis of the music industry’s attempts to control people’s computers by making DRM ubiquitous. In the same week, we can see claims that DRM is doomed, and claims that it’s inevitable. From talking to some of the active groups on this, and from reading the reactions to your own interviews, how do you gauge the levels of public awareness and the optimism among the experts?

Seán Daly: At this point, my impression is that the public thinks that Digital Restrictions Management is just a fancy way of ripping them off, making them pay over and over for music or films they have already purchased in a heavy-handed effort to maintain dying business models. With music, it seems doomed. But with other works, I think it’s still to be determined. At some point, after everyone realizes DRM isn’t a good way to properly compensate content creators, hopefully a better method will be found. Initiatives such as Bandstocks show that new business models are just waiting to be developed.

COR: You’ve lived in Europe and the USA, and in Europe you’ve talked to politically active organisations and companies. Do you see differences in how campaigning, lobbying, and raising awareness is done in Europe and the USA?

Seán Daly: I daresay there are differences in style, but I think it’s mostly the Internet which has radically changed (although not eliminated) the old lobbyist power lunch.

COR: Let’s talk about audio and video file formats. I know you prefer free formats. How do you go about editing and transcoding?

Seán Daly: I always keep the original rushes and raw audio files and work on copies when editing audio or video. I interview in stereo with my voice on one side and the interviewee’s on the other. I usually normalize each channel individually; sometimes a phone interview track requires a bit of EQ though. I adore Audacity for audio editing, it’s powerful and intuitive and has lots of plugin filters available. Video is trickier, it’s more time-consuming and I haven’t found suitable free software for that yet. Transcoding is actually the easy part, because there are a number of excellent commandline tools (transcode, ffmpeg, mplayer, oggenc, ffmpeg2theora, …) and all you have to do is run a command adjusting the parameters with trial and error to hit the sweet spot of acceptable quality at low bandwidth. I always try to populate metadata fields, the Ogg container is well-suited for that. Even if search engines (Internet and local) don’t crawl that metadata today, they will someday, and it’s always a good idea to indicate copyright information, CC licence, date and place and of course the names of the people – open up any of my Ogg files with VLC and you will see that information. I’m very interested in the BBC’s free Dirac codec which apparently can offer H.264/MPEG-4 AVC quality and scalability without the patent encumbrances.

I’m disappointed that popular sites such as YouTube discourage the use of free formats. The day Flash video can encapsulate the Xiph codecs or Dirac alongside Sorenson, On2VP6 and H.264, these formats will gain wider acceptance.

COR: I’m a big fan of transcripts, and from helping you a little on some of yours, I know you like to publish complete transcripts. This contrasts with many journalists who paraphrase answers. Can you give your reasons for doing this work?

Seán Daly: Indeed you have and PJ and I are most grateful for that assistance, you and I have worked an all-nighter more than once! I feel transcriptions are extremely important because that’s how today’s search engines index — text. I have often listened to fascinating interviews on podcasts or audio files for which no text was available; what was said disappears immediately without a transcription — you can’t find it, you can’t absorb what was said. To give an example, EU Commissioner Neelie Kroes answers questions from journalists at each press conference concerning the Microsoft case, and often, her responses are very interesting. The wire services paraphrase what she says but sometimes miss a key point. I have several times transcribed Commissioner Kroes’ Q&A sessions from the EbS feed (About the MS-EU settlement, Oct 2007 and About the MS fine, Feb 2008). Of course, these are not official; the original EbS audio recording is there for that. But these transcriptions are the only source on the Net of these historic events. Web-published transcriptions can be as long as the interview, there’s no space constraint as in a newspaper or magazine.

COR: And we have to close with the crystal ball question. You’re always looking for a scoop. What projects or bodies are you keeping an eye on right now? Where do you see that someone’s going to make a move on something you’ll want to report on?

Seán Daly: You mean, show all of my cards? I can say that I monitor a certain number of subjects covered by a certain number of news sources, from press releases to wire reports to blogs. I am also subscribed to several mailing lists of interest. Alas, we have to choose our battles due to limited resources. But we will always prefer completeness and getting it right over speed and scooping others. There are two or three untold stories on the back burner which you will be sure to see some day :-)