Fellowship Interviews


Posts Tagged ‘fellowship’

Fellowship interview with David Reyes Samblas Martinez

Monday, May 31st, 2010

David Reyes Samblas Martinez is the founder of Spanish Copyleft Hardware store Tuxbrain, and attended the famous Open University of Catalunya. He’s also the subject of this month’s Fellowship interview, in which he answers questions on hardware manufacturing, e-learning and Free Software politics.

Stian Rødven Eide: For well over a year, your main activity has been Tuxbrain, a shop dedicated to open, hackable devices, and, in particular, Copyleft hardware. Initially inspired by the community success of Openmoko, your selection has since grown to include several other products as well. Could you tell us a bit about how you came to start Tuxbrain, and how the first year has been?

David Reyes Samblas Martinez
David Reyes Samblas Martinez

David Reyes Samblas Martinez: My business partner Victor Remolina and I discovered the FOSS world about 7-8 years ago. Since then, we have always been thinking about doing something together around Free Software. When the name Tuxbrain first was mentioned about 5 years ago, we immediately decided that whatever we do has to carry that name. We soon created a manifesto outlining the philosophy of Tuxbrain. The main aspects of it were that the company should be integrated inside the FOSS community, be part of it, and dedicate part of its time and resources to help initiatives that we found interesting grow. We felt that this would help us grow as well.

When we discovered Openmoko, we were fascinated by the idea of the FOSS philosophy being ported to the hardware world. While software can be replicated ad infinitum with barely no cost, physical devices carry a huge cost even in the first draft. With Openomoko there was, for the first time as far as I know, information available on the design and production that could be shared and improved by the community – the same way software was. Lacking the distribution networks of larger manufacturers, Openmoko promoted the idea of group selling, where customers would share shipping costs and get volume discounts. I began organising a Spanish purchasers’ group, which soon was joined by Portugal as well, and that was how the first Openmokos arrived to the Iberian peninsula. It felt great making all those geeky people happy, who, like me, believe that other ways of making hardware was possible. We then decided that Tuxbrain should be a Hardware distributor, a Copyleft Hardware distributor.

As such, we started out by selling the Neo FreeRunner from Openmoko, and immediately began evaluating other hardware to expand our catalogue. Some products came in and were included even though they were not really open hardware. For instance, the GP2X Wiz, a game console that has a brilliant and active community who started with the old GP32, developing games and software (a lot of them under GPL or other Free licences), as well as the Sharp Netwalker, a totally closed hardware, but of really good quality, that came with Ubuntu from the manufacturer. After focusing on these “end user” oriented products for a while, we discovered Arduino. I must admit that we started selling it simply because it was totally open hardware, and not really understood what the objective of such a board was (being a software guy myself, and Victor a designer). However, as soon as we started learning about Arduino, and getting to know the community around it, we fell completely in love with the whole concept. I read somewhere that Arduino can be regarded as the duct tape of electronics; you can join together whatever you can imagine, and then make it work. Last, but not least, the NanoNote arrived, and we fell in love again.

The first year was, as for all start-ups, not easy. We still must work on finding an equilibrium between what we want to do and what we can do right now, but, basically, what we do is learn, spread what we have learned, and grow stronger as the communities around our products grow. We help spread the Copyleft idea in events we organise, or assist in, and support other advocates as much as we can. And of course we’re selling some devices along the way, providing assessment services, and doing development around them. We are a company after all.

SRE: For the last several months, your blog has revealed a lot of work being done with the 本 (Ben) NanoNote from Qi-Hardware / Sharism. What do you find particularly exciting about this device? Do you find that awareness of Copyleft hardware is increasing among manufacturers?

DRSM: When I first learned of the specifications on 本 NanoNote, I must admit I was not really impressed. However, knowing the team behind it, most of them being part of the Openmoko community, I quickly become interested nonetheless. The philosophy behind the device was very appealing, and it already had some interesting use cases; dictionary, offline Wikipedia reader, music player, serial console, calendar, gaming device. Also, its dimensions were amazing! You don’t really know how small and light it is until you have seen one with your own eyes.

本 (Ben) in Chinese means beginning, and that’s what 本 NanoNote is: A starting point. The 本 is the first product from the Qi-Hardware community that was launched into the real world. While Openmoko Inc (the company, not the community) abandoned the Neo FreeRunner project and deviated from the idea of Copyleft hardware, a lot people who worked there still believed in those ideas and joined forces with the community to form a new company called Sharism. Along with the Qi-Hardware community, Sharism is committed to bring hardware that follows the following three principles: Copyleft hardware, Public Patents and Upstream Kernels. Any piece of hardware that fits those ideas can be part of the Qi-Hardware community.

As an active participant in the Openmoko community, Tuxbrain was invited to be a part of Qi-Hardware, and here we are. Many interesting things have happened since the 本 was released. A lot of great software has been or is being ported to it (Debian was just ported by the people from pyneo.org), it has been included among the devices officially supported by OpenWrt, and it has successfully been been hooked up with the Arduino board. This is also just the tip of the iceberg. Due to the Copyleft nature of the 本, projects like the SAKC (Swiss Army Knife Card) are underway. SAKC is basically the 本 NanoNote with an FPGA added and a lot of I/O available to do hardware hacks. To put it simply; it’s like an Arduino, but a lot more powerful.

With regards to other manufacturers, I think there still is a lot of work to do in order for them to understand the benefits of Copyleft hardware compared to traditional hardware production. This is basically what the Qi-Hardware community was formed for. Anyone who is interested and wants to know more is welcome to ask.

SRE: Tuxbrain is participating in the 20+20 project, in which the EOI Business School (Escuela de Organización Industrial) is working towards a new economic model for Spain, based on sustainability, responsibility and IT. Could you explain briefly how the project works? You are representing the Open Economy sector. How would you describe your business model in that context?

DRSM: Due to the economic crisis, and in light of how the traditional mechanisms have failed to avoid it, the EOI, with the support of the EU, is searching for new business models that can prevent such a crisis from happening again, or at least have more mechanisms that can predict and mitigate against it. The 20+20 project starts out with a period of intensive research on various economic sectors, 20 in total, selecting 20 companies from each sector. Presently in its first phase, the five sectors that are being studied at the moment are Social Economy, Digital Economy, Creativity Economy, Open Economy and Green Economy. Because of our focus on being an integral part of the communities around our products, some community members have pointed out that Tuxbrain should be included as an example of an Open Company.

Despite being classified as a distributor, Tuxbrain is not content with moving boxes from one side to another. First we must be able to rely on what we are selling, so before we incorporate a product into our catalogue, we test and play with it for a while. If it convinces us, only then can we convince others to trust in it as well. Openness is the most important criteria on which we base our analysis, even more so than the commercial margins. The more open a product is, the more easily can we participate in its development and help improve it. Since we are in direct contact with our customers, we are familiar with their needs and can relay that information to the developers and hardware designers. This way we also help in guiding the product towards a wider audience. Also, when the product is open, we know a lot more about it and can provide better service to our customers. Another interesting aspect is the fact that our customers are part of a community that actively shapes our products. This community follows meritocratic rules, just like a lot of Free Software community projects, and, for us, a customer that contributes to the project with development or advocacy has just as much a say as someone who places large orders. Both contribute to the project. I believe those were the qualities that led to Tubrain’s inclusion in the 20+20 Analysis.

SRE: Several of your products are running ARM processors, providing more computing power for less electricity. While much used in smaller devices, there still aren’t many laptops running ARM. Do you think that this might change in the near future? Is ARM generally more hacker friendly than x86 processors?

DRSM: Sadly, the reason why ARM and MIPS architectures are scarce in laptops is the software, and not the hardware itself. As you said, they are more energy efficient than the x86 architecture, and thus a lot more suited for mobile solutions. This should include laptops as well, but I think large manufacturers are afraid of being rejected by the market if they do not offer the latest Redmond monster, ups.. sorry, I mean operating system, inside their boxes, and they are limited to the hardware this can support, which for me is total nonsense. Software is ductile; it’s easy to change the code, and it can be reproduced n times. Thus it’s the software that has to be adapted to the hardware, so that hardware engineers can focus on innovative design and produce the most powerful/efficient/cheap hardware possible, without thinking of limitations on the amount of software that will run there. Eventually, common sense will finally hit the head and the budget of hardware companies that want to offer better solutions to their customers.

I don’t think ARM and MIPS are more hacker friendly per se, it’s just that the operating systems running on them are; GNU/Linux, Android, Symbian, all having a strong developer community helping them to reach their goals.

SRE: You attended the Open University of Catalunya (UOC), which famously has run a Masters Programme in Free Software since 2003. Can you tell us a bit about your years there. Is the sharing culture embedded in all aspects of the curriculum?

DRSM: The UOC is a really great initiative and an example to follow in e-Learning in all aspects, from the continuous evaluation system to the ways and the quality of communication with teachers and the institution itself. In the beginning, circumstances, such as having a family and a job, forced me to miss a lot of classes and study on my own. After a year, I started regretting that I hadn’t done so before. I learned a lot more from this system than I do from attending a conventional class. During those first years, I read all of my course material on the train to work, and I also made my first contact with the GNU/Linux embedded world there. I had some C programming assignments, and I also had a HP Jornada 680. Looking for ways to match my needs, I discovered that the JLiMe project already had ported GNU/Linux there, and so I was happily editing and compiling in the bus. Since then, I have loved little devices with GNU/Linux in them.

I was really amazed with how the whole Free Software world works. All kinds of people collaborate together, and we are extremely self organised. Some projects rise and some fall, but everything is reused for the benefit of the community. I really think the Free Software ecosystem is the largest technical collaborative effort ever made, and I’m very passionate about the whole idea.

SRE: Free Software has also been heavily politicized in several of Spain’s autonomous regions. What is your impression of the politcial climate for Free Software in Spain? Is it all handled regionally? Are there certain competitive aspects between the regions that have affected adoption of Free Software?

DRSM: Yes, there is a very diverse institutional support for Free Software in Spain, depending on the region. The central government, I think, has really missed the point of it, and lost a golden opportunity with a One Child – One Laptop program they tried to start some time ago, which would have included only Free Software, saving money and teach kids about diversity of software. The curious thing is that the same politicians often have differing views in different political formations. For example, Extremadura is one of the public institutions that is strongest on Free Software integration, but its politicians are mostly the same who run the government! I believe the problem basically is a lack of information, and strong pressure from proprietary software lobbyists. But it’s not that bad, really. There are quite a few dedicated organisations, both governmental, like CENATIC, and NGO’s like ASOLIF, who, together with the Spanish Free Software community, are fighting to be heard.

Our warmest thanks to David for answering our questions. You can follow his progress on the Tuxbrain blog.

Fellowship interview with Simon Josefsson

Sunday, December 20th, 2009

Simon Josefsson is a Fellow and GNU hacker with a special interest in security. His contributions to the Free Software world include such ubiquitous projects as GnuTLS and Libssh2, and he was recently presented with the Nordic Free Software Award[1]. I sat down for a jabber session with Simon, asking him about his projects and other security matters.

Stian Rødven Eide: While proprietary software vendors often tout security by obscurity as an advantage, you are involved in several Free Software projects that are regarded as among the most secure software there is. Can you explain how Free Software can provide better security?

Simon Josefsson
Simon Josefsson

Simon Josefsson: To answer that, one should study the history of security incidents in software. Once you do, it becomes evident that no matter how much effort is put into an implementation or specification, or even how much effort you put into analyzing it, sooner or later someone will figure out a way around it. This means that security really is a process rather than anything absolute. And here Free Software has many advantages, some technical, but even more important ones are the social aspects. For example, Free Software is open for people to scrutinize, and people help each other by scrutinize software they use, and the result is that widely used software is better analayzed. In comparison, security by obscurity does not invite people to review the system, so there are much fewer improvements to the system, and only those inclined to attack the system will analyze it. And, as we’ve seen, no software security is absolute.

SRE: One point that you have stressed in several talks is that security should be treated as a process. This affects both how the community should be involved and how businesses should treat potential security issues. Can you tell us a bit about the background for this notion and how it would work in practice?

SJ: The background is witnessing really complicated designs by smart people be cracked relatively quickly. This reflects older software design principles, where you spend a lot of time on design stages, whereas Free Software is typically engineered in an iterative process — you add one small feature, release it quickly, people start to use it, starts thinking about it, and some may realize that there is something wrong with the feature, and it gets reported back. The small feature can then be re-designed, or even removed because it was a bad idea. The point is that if every addition is done in this somewhat modular and piecemeal way, you are less likely to make major design issues. Free Software is good at making frequent releases that correct minor things, and users have adapted to that habit. If you only do one major release every 5 years, you are more likely to break some things heavily that require a lot of work for people. So I tend to recommend businesses to work in an iterative way and involve the users early on to avoid embarassment.

SRE: You are maintaining quite a few security libraries such as GnuTLS, GNU SASL, GSS and more. Which ones do you find yourself spending the most time on improving, and which ones receives the most attention and/or help from other people?

SJ: I have spent quite a lot of time during the development cycle on my own projects, but after that it becomes more of a maintainer’s work. The most development time I’ve spent is probably on Shishi, which is my Kerberos V5 implementation. But as a maintainer, my time is more directed on what people use, and right now that tends to be GnuTLS. There is also a factor of maturity; the Libidn project is used in critical places (including glibc) but I rarely spend any time on it these days because it is mostly feature-complete. On some projects, like Libssh2, I also get paid for doing certain things, which naturally make me spend more time on that project. Lately I have found myself working a lot on Gnulib because it contains re-usable components used by all my other projects.

SRE: You have provided security services for a range of various clients, including hospitals, wireless providers and web applications. Are the concerns of these very different or should the same security standards more or less be applied in all cases?

SJ: There are some places where my contributions haven’t been as successful as in others, which could be due to many reasons, but I think generally that where I’ve failed to get my point across are the places where people don’t understand (or agree) that security is a process — they want something that is Absolutely Secure, and then never touch that piece of component again. It then becomes difficult for me to have any effective discussion. Also, some organizations have established traditions about how to deal with security incidents — obscurity rather than openness, including the bank world, some parts of governments, and so on. I think having a process-like view of security would help many places, but I also understand that some companies have business reasons why they cannot use an open community process. The Free Software world has been learning from this, and we now follow something called responsible disclosure, which I think is one example of where Free Software has been improved by learning from the “old” way of handling security.

SRE: Your Master’s Thesis dealt with the concept of storing personal encryption certificates in DNS. While still not a common practice, you wrote in a recent blogpost that some work has begun to happen in the area. How do you currently regard the promise of this way of distributing keys? Have keyservers in general improved since your thesis was written?

SJ: The problem is not so much about technology here, but social matters. The person responsible for managing DNS for an organization is typically not the same person responsible for managing user certificates for an organization, and people have been reluctant to change their habits here. After all, DNS is a pretty critical piece of any company’s infrastructure. So I haven’t seen much uptake in this, even if it continues to be a interesting possibility, especially for the OpenPGP world. One part of my thesis was about the privacy issues around the then-current DNSSEC standard, the so called NXT record. I identified and explained that it will lead to problems when people can enumerate entire DNS zones, and even wrote a IETF draft on how to solve the problem using hashing of the names instead of storing the names directly. People in the IETF felt that the threat didn’t exist, and thought they were ready to roll out DNSSEC quite soon anyway (this was in 2001/2002!) so they didn’t want to change DNSSEC. I gave up on the draft, but years later people who were actually deploying this identified the same problem, and ended up re-inventing my solution, which is now standardized (the NSEC3 record). So at least some of it ended up being used, although not in the form or way I anticipated.

SRE: Another project you have worked on is the YubiKey, a physical USB device that aims to make secure communication simpler. Has the YubiKey been successful so far? Do you think that this approach could end up being adopted by computer manufacturers as well?

SJ: The YubiKey popularity is growing, and given the amazing number of community contributions we’ve received I’d say it has been a success. Technically we are now changing to support new standards like OATH HOTP which will make it even more relevant. The difference between the YubiKey and other authentication devices like smart cards is that it is based on a process-oriented and cost-efficient way of working with security. Rather than purchasing smart cards, readers, and spending a fortune on device driver installation and user education, we focused on getting something that was good enough security (one-time passwords based on AES) but pushed strongly on ease of use (no device drivers or software!), and to support the kind of compromises people do. For example it also supports a mode where it outputs a static password, which is not a good idea in general but many people were asking for it and are now using it. We are open for it to be used by anyone, including manufacturers, but as there is no integration required on computer manufacturer side (in contrast to smart card readers or fingerprint readers), the solution isn’t depending on support from computer manufacturers.

SRE: During the GNU Hackers Meeting in Göteborg, you had a presentation on Code Quality Assurance. What is, in your opinion, the best way of aquiring quality assurance and how will this be implemented in the GNU project?

SJ: I believe it is important that quality assurance isn’t something done by a separate set of people, and after the product is otherwise finished, but rather that it is integrated into how hackers work daily. So my goal is to setup a GNU QA site where people can help a project by setting up a build server, either from version controlled sources (to build daily snapshots) or from a daily snapshot to see if it works on their favorite architecture. It has to be a opt-in system, so that people don’t feel it is a burden. The goal is to be able to present Code Coverage reports (based on GCOV/LCOV), provide Cyclomatic Code Complexity charts, GIT/CVS statistics, and so on. All of it should be done in a distributed way, so people feel involved in the effort, but also to reduce the work-load on me and other people who run the servers.

A big thanks to Simon for sharing his valuable insight into these matters. You can learn more about him and his projects at josefsson.org.

[1] The award was split between Simon Josefsson and Daniel Stenberg.

Fellowship interview with Andreas Tolf Tolfsen

Friday, October 2nd, 2009

Andreas Tolf Tolfsen is a web technologist, developer and aspiring musicologist – who works at Opera Software, and regularly fights for digital freedoms. I sat down for a Jabber session with Andreas, asking him about his work, his life and his music.

Stian Rødven Eide: Through your employment at Opera Software, you work quite a lot with web standards. What are the difficulties in making a browser display pages correctly? Has HTML 5 posed particular problems?

Andreas Tolf Tolfsen
Andreas Tolf Tolfsen

Andreas Tolf Tolfsen: The great thing about the web is that anyone can do it. The concept behind it is the principle of universal accessibility; that anyone should be able to read its contents. I am convinced that the web will have a greater impact on the world than the advent of the printing press, in that everyone, irrespective of their technical experience, is invited to participate.

The bad thing about the web is that anyone can do it. With more people contributing, the higher the chance that someone will break something. The use of invalid code syntax, lack of standards-compliancy, proprietary formats, and uncharted behaviour are all challenges facing anyone who attempts to make sense of various de-facto web tag soups.

Luckily we have browsers which actually facilitate, and at times encourage, this kind of behaviour. Traditionally, web standards have advocated one way of doing things, while web browsers, on the other hand, have tried to make the best out of what they are presented with. Because probably as much as 94 % of the web consists of pages with invalid syntax, we should rather be asking ourselves if there is a better way of designing standards.

Web standards have generally been about telling people how to do things, and not so much about what the expected results are. In particular, web standards do not cover how browsers should handle exceptions to the sets of strict rules in the event that the syntax is not semantically correct. Additionally, few web standards are concerned with backwards compatibility, which is a major concern for web browser manufacturers.

So, the biggest part of the job with getting web pages to be displayed correctly is actually to figure out what the correct behaviour is. In this respect, HTML 5 solves more problems than it creates. A big part of this involves fixing HTML 4, which contains parts known to be wrong. HTML 5 will still be a big advance in attaining open standards on the web. For the first time, all browser manufacturers, and dozens of volunteers, are involved in the drafting of the specification.

SRE: Like Mozilla, Opera has decided to implement Theora and Vorbis support for the <video>- and <audio>-tags. Do you think HTML5 has a chance of making Ogg Theora and Vorbis more established standards, even though they were left out of the official specification?

ATT: Currently, there is no good way of embedding video and audio in web pages. A web developer must follow different approaches dependent upon operating system and web browser species. This is inconvenient, and most fall back to using a proprietary Flash solution. This is unfortunate, because it defies the entire point of open web standards.

With the HTML 5 specification, using the Ogg codecs was initially proposed. Apple, however, decided not to implement Ogg in Safari, citing “submarine” patents as a key issue. The result is that we end up in a “plugin prison”, where the video and audio files that are supported are entirely dependent upon what codecs Quicktime (or Windows Media Player, for that matter) supports.

There is no point for HTML 5 to specify something that we know browsers cannot implement. But in reference to your question, I think what Chromium, Mozilla and Opera do will have only limited effect, seeing as they control only a small segment of the market, compared to Microsoft Internet Explorer. Still, with Ogg being the standard of the world’s largest website, Wikipedia, I think Ogg has come to stay. It’s good to see Ogg natively implemented in the majority of browsers, but the goal of having a universal video and audio codec for the web will take a few more years.

However, I find it interesting that the Chromium Project has implemented Ogg support in their fork of WebKit. I hope that the folks over in the official WebKit Project camp will follow Chromium’s example, and do the same thing. Even if Safari is without Ogg support, there is no reason why the free software alternative WebKit should be.

SRE: You also work at E-tjenesten, a Free Software cooperative that you co-founded and that focusses on web development. Can you briefly describe the projects that you work on there, such as talko and Bikube? What are the long-term goals for the cooperative?

ATT: Bikube (Norwegian for “beehive”) is a tool for collaboration. It lets you keep track of work and deadlines, share files, discuss, and get stuff done. talko is actually the software that runs beneath this website, which is yet to be launched.

At E-tjenesten SA we are trying to phase out various consultant work we have been doing, and focussing more on web application development. One of our goals is to develop useful tools that let people do what they want, the way they want to do it: We don’t force our own beliefs on to our customers.

SRE: As a dedicated communist, you have been active in the political party Rødt (“Red” in English), particularly working on campaigns for Free Software, integrity and filesharing. Do you regard these causes as a natural part of contemporary socialist ideology? Is the dedication to such issues widespread among the Norwegian Left?

ATT: Certainly! The thread is that knowledge should be made accessible to all, and that the fantastic things made possible through internet and collaboration might lay the foundation for a new form of society. I think this concept is quite widespread, in the sense that if people are given the right tools, and access to free knowledge, one is taking large portions of market-governed areas out of capitalistic control, and in to communistic control.

File-sharing benefits society, but violates the old model of payment for film and music. Unfortunately, the industry is waging war on their own customers instead of exploiting the possibilities that new technology offers.

Many see file-sharing as a question of right and wrong according to today’s legislation, but this is not what the campaign for legalizing file-sharing is about. According to present legislation, file-sharing copyrighted material is almost always illegal. The campaign, however, raises a political question of whether this legislation holds any function today.

Through collaboration, millions of people all over the world have built the world’s largest library and made it accessible to all. One is able to share music, film, software, and knowledge in a scale not before possible. The distribution of this material is for all practical purposes free. Ten years ago, it was virtually impossible to have access to all the world’s culture 24 hours a day, but as my generation grows up, it’s seen as a necessity.

Most will agree that the internet is the future for distributing film, music and digital content. Subsequently, most will also agree that the industry needs money to continue production of good music and film. The most important divide is, however, between those who want to apply the same old models of financing that we have today on the internet, and those who understand that a market economy with a “pay by track” solution doesn’t work, and is never going to do so.

The number of digital copies is not limited. What limits the distribution of arbitrary copies of a song is the speed of the network you are on, and modern peer-to-peer file-sharing programs have solved this issue elegantly: Millions of computers in ordinary homes ensure that everything is available, at any time, and thus also solves the problem of net neutrality with “high-speed” lanes to facilitate distribution of this, and other kinds of online content.

A digital copy that is distributed in this way is an abundance. In the real world, when a person buys a CD from the record store, there is one less CD for the rest of us to acquire. On the internet, on the other hand, when someone downloads a CD from someone else, it becomes multiplied. The irony is that the more people who are interested in something, the more accessible it becomes. This should be an ideal situation, but for the record industry it becomes a nightmare when their business model collapses.

The question of file-sharing is largely tied up to the question of copyright. Recently, the people behind the Swedish torrent tracker Pirate Bay were convicted of violating copyright legislation. Among other things, I created the widely popular Filesharer.org campaign to support the accused, and it had an overwhelming response. In just a few days, almost 4000 people uploaded a picture of themselves to show the industry who the “real” criminals were. The campaign got covered by the media all across the world, and even made national television in a couple of countries.

My point here is to show that today’s copyright legislation is outdated and needs to be revised. Richard Stallman has made sensible suggestions as to how we can approach this issue. Interestingly, all political parties in Norway answered “yes” to the question “[i]s the current copyright legislation sufficiently adjusted to today’s digital society?” in a campaign by EFN (Electronic Frontier Foundation, Norway) and FriBit. This means that the climate for a new copyright debate in Norway is good.

SRE: You’re also personally involved in EFN on similar issues. How much momentum has the organisation gained, and how difficult has it been to work for these issues in Norway?

ATT: I’d like to first explain what the EFN is: Electronic Frontier Foundation in Norway is a loosely organized discussion list concerned with civil liberties, privacy and freedom of expression in the digital society. Over the past year, EFN has been organizing several events, such as a debate on file-sharing where Cory Doctorow was present, and a demonstration for a free internet in front of the Norwegian parliament, made comments on the Norwegian government’s proposal for the use of open standards in public sector, and been involved in battling the Data Retention Directive.

EFN plays an important role in Norway, but unfortunately often as a single critical voice in the information politics discussion. I would say they are regarded as a group of enthusiasts worth listening to. There are a lot of highly talented people in EFN, who’s been working hard since 1995 (180 members) to build the organization to what it is today (around 1000 members).

With a possible Norwegian implementation of the EU’s Data Retention Directive (directive 2006/24/EF), requiring telecommunications companies to store traffic data on the citizen’s electronic communication (e-mail, SMS, telephone, internet) for up to two years, Norwegian’s right to privacy will be grossly violated. This is an issue EFN, and many of EFN’s members, have been deeply involved in.

The Data Retention Directive was adopted by the EU on 15 March 2006, but the Norwegian government has not officially decided whether the directive should be made Norwegian law or not. According the EEA agreement, Norway holds a reservation right, as we are not members of the EU. This right has never thus far been exercised. But then, we have never faced a directive representing this great a threat to democracy’s fundamental values, as what the data retention directive does at present.

The director of the Norwegian Data Inspectorate, Georg Apenes, has warned about yielding to “totalitarian passion”, and Thomas Finneid, board member in EFN, is calling it “[t]he most important debate about democracy in [N]orway since the war”.

SRE: As a pianist, composer and musicology student, you have no doubt been exploring Free Software alternatives for music production and notation. Do you find that Free Software solutions are sufficient for your musical needs? Are there any particular programs you’d recommend to others in your situation?

ATT: Oh, absolutely! I would argue that the most aesthetically beautiful notation software out there is GNU Lilypond. It beats the proprietary alternatives by a good margin. It’s an absolutely fantastic piece of software, as is often the case with GNU software in general.

When I write papers, I use the tool lilypond-book to compile LaTeX articles with Lilypond notation embedded, which is much better than having to export graphic files from proprietary alternatives. I don’t think Lilypond’s gained much hold in the musicological field yet, but it’s certainly encouraging that it’s the best out there.

I also use a piece of software called SPEAR (Sinusoidal Partial Editing Analysis and Resynthesis), which allows you to edit and manipulate partials in sound files. There’s also Audacity, a tool for recording and editing sounds, which I use a lot.

In recent musicological research, especially with work related to music cognition and movement, there has been a surge of new, interesting software developed as a result of a need to find better and more accurate ways of empirically documenting body movement in relation to music. In particular, the research centre fourMs at the Institute of Musicology at the University of Oslo have made some very interesting software that’s used, among other things, for movement analysis of video, real-time audiative analysis, production of sound with embedded control devices (such as a game controller), and for producing sound based on motiongrams of video recordings.

Of course, this software is available under the GPL. This not only encourages others to use and improve it, but also allows critical readers and other musicologists to verify the empirical data collected with the tools. Today, research projects are often granted funding even though the results of the research are not possible to verify (or even to falsify, to check that experiments can be reproduced), because one needs to buy access to closed platforms, or even licenses for the research material itself. This is a good reason why we, by principle, should not trust research done with proprietary, closed-source tools.

SRE: You have been involved in FSFE for several years as a translator and web developer. What is your personal take on FSFE’s current web presence, and what do you think should be improved?

ATT: FSFE is a wonderful organization that does a lot of exemplary work. One of its biggest strengths is its diversity: That we have translations in 30 languages of our website is an incredible achievement, and the fact that we are able to influence debates on free software and open standards on a European level is a proof of the significance of FSFE.

However, despite good results, I don’t always think we are good enough at showing off the results of our work. Another point is that we likely have a good potential to involve our Fellows and other activists better in our activities.

FSFE’s web presence consists mostly of one-way communication through newsletters and news articles on our homepage. There are many great resources there, although as discussed on the web-list some time ago, most of it is poorly organized, and a lot of content is hidden away.

I think it would be good if we started a discussion, not only on web presence, but about communication in general in FSFE, with emphasis on developing tools to help Fellows and other sympathizers, and on improving the general structure of our website.

Even though our policies are good, how we present them counts also. I’m a bit reluctant about going too much into detail on what I see as the biggest rooms for improvement, but I hope that people will either heartily disagree, or wearily agree with me; and be inspired to participate in such an effort. Either is good, really, for I think a good discussion on this is needed.

Many thanks go to Andreas for his insightful comments. You can read more about him and his projects on his home page at E-tjenesten.

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.