Archive for November, 2009

I welcome our new gnomic overlords

Monday, November 30th, 2009

The location for GUADEC has been published: the Hague. LWN reports, and it looks like a cool team of folks doing the organizing. I wish them all the best — but they’re competing against the vierdaagse, so it’s no contest, really.

What price Freedom (2)?

Monday, November 30th, 2009

Let’s take a look at what happens when other Free Software operating systems run on my laptop, in terms of power consumption (and nothing else — I’m not going to explain in detail what’s running on each one, and rest assured that the available apps and toolsets in each of these installs is very different, reflecting what I use each OS for):

  • OpenSolaris, display off, nvidia drivers: 31W
  • OpenSolaris, display on, idle, nvidia drivers: 38W
  • OpenSolaris, display on, disk + network activity, nvidia drivers: 52W
  • Just the power brick: 1W

So it looks like Solaris is marginally (2W) better with power than Kubuntu at idle, and this laptop draws quite a lot in regular use. Maybe Solaris is not switching some hardware feature on, like Bluetooth, rather than being more efficient — but I haven’t noticed anything missing (Bluetooth is not something I’d miss). FreeBSD 8 fares no different — roughly same usage numbers as the other two OSsen.

Many commenters suggested trying the nouveau driver — so I did, whatever is available on Kubuntu 9.04 with no updates applied, and it makes no difference in power consumption, fails utterly at resume-from-suspend (nv got me no video, but I could ssh in, while now it just hangs), and is just as slow on logout as the nv driver. Perhaps there’s newer versions available — not something I’m going to experiment with this week.

I was afraid of worms, Roxanne!

Thursday, November 26th, 2009

Verbing weirds language. Language is important, because saying what you mean in such a way that the audience understands what you’re talking about is the whole point of communication, isn’t it. Well, we could say that getting the idea across is what’s important. Great thinkers such as Wittgenstein and Brouwer have thought so. They even said so, or at least tried to get that idea across.

I need to say “PJU25FV3SH3J” for Technorati reasons. It does not mean much to human readers, though.

I need to say “Linux kernel” to mean the stuff you can get here, “GNU/Linux” when I mean that kernel plus a userland composed mostly of GNU software (like a command-line-shell). I’m not sure how to distinguish that from “a software stack built with the GNU development toolchain”, although it’s pretty rare to identify software based on the tools that are used to turn the program into object code.

I could say “Ubuntu” or “OpenSUSE” to mean a collection of software packaged by some organization and partly customized for some specific audience, containing at least the GNU userland, a Linux kernel, and probably a whole bunch of other tools and software packages compiled with the GNU compiler but otherwise outside of that project, and possibly including proprietary software as well.

These words start to have a wider and wider coverage, with less and less specific content. Unless I say “OpenSUSE 11.2” and add a qualifier to make more specific which collection of software I mean. Even then, I should want to indicate which packages or desktop environment I’ve got installed as part of that collection — because there’s choice in how to interpret the words, too.

A word like “freedom” has a fairly short dictionary definition, but you can see that much has been written on different meanings of freedom. That is, as a word it has a wide coverage, which then needs a great deal of talking about to pin down again. Consider Wikipedia’s freedom (philosophy) and freedom (political). Those articles are actually fairly short. I wonder why? And of course we know that “the Four Freedoms” can mean only one thing. Oh, wait .. it doesn’t. I never knew there was a disambiguation page even for that.

Good thing there’s only one Free Beer. Although I must say I prefer the 4.0 release to the 3.0 release, at least in Sweden.

Oddly enough, “FreeBSD” and “OpenSolaris” are so far free of the wordsmithing arguments about what they mean; there’s a kernel and a partly GNU userland (where each FreeBSD release tends to replacce one or two more GNU tools with BSD-licensed tools — such is the nature of licensing) and pretty much the same set of applications you can build on them. In the OpenSolaris case, the GNU tools might even be compiled with a non-GNU compiler. Perhaps these words, names or trademarks are used more like “OpenSUSE” than as a term for an general collection of software. Even if in FreeBSD’s case, it is largely unbranded. Strange world.

Of course, some of these considerations show up now because names can be redefined. I think Aaron sums it up really nicely (edited a little from his dot comment):

if you want to refer to the “whole chunk of stuff i got at once that contains all sorts of stuff” then you can refer to the KDE software compilation. we really want people to be talking about and more aware of KDE as a modular set of software suites. there’s also okular and several dozen other apps that come in the SC, and many more KDE apps that don’t come in the SC. this is why we’re changing the name, because it’s so confusing.

So on weekends, I’m still a KDE dude, but my software engineering is applied to bringing the KDE Software Compilation to OpenSolaris. It doesn’t compile right now (darn you GCC-isms, GNU-isms and Linux-isms), but it will. And at some point in the future I can point again to the %files section of the specfile and say “there! that is what it means!”


Thursday, November 26th, 2009

Last night, Dutch TV carried Rip! A Remix Manifesto on the regular national channels, at ten thirty in the evening. It’s a manifesto: not necessarily all that balanced or careful, but definitely worth your time to watch. Huzzah for National Film Board of Canada.

What price Freedom?

Thursday, November 26th, 2009

Graphics drivers (for X11 under whatever Free Software operating system you care to use) are one area where Free Software has plenty of room for improvement. My laptop has an nVidia GeForce 9600M in it, which means that there are two drivers I can use for it: the Free Software nv driver, or the proprietary nvidia one. There are qualitative differences (based on what’s available in Kubuntu 9.04 in this case): the proprietary one has the technical advantage that suspend works, compositing works and that logout is faster (because there’s a screen capture thing happening that is used to grey out the display). But there’s also an interesting quantitative difference: power use. This is one I hadn’t thought about at all — the laptop simply gets very warm under normal usage, to the point that my hands get uncomfortable resting on the keyboard. After switching video drivers, though, I thought the laptop felt a lot cooler in normal use. So, measurements. I used a watt-meter that sits between the wall socket and the power brick of the laptop to measure the following:

  • System idle, display on, nvidia driver: 40W
  • System idle, display blanked, nvidia driver: 33W
  • System idle, display on, nv driver: 42W
  • System idle, display blanked, nv driver: 35W

Non-idle the machine draws just as much: clearly regular end-user activities (writing email, writing letters, writing blog entres, but no compiling) don’t exactly stress the machine or draw extra power. Given the numbers, I don’t understand the perceived difference in temperature or comfort of working on the machine. But it does help me put a price on Freedom: two watts.

Who is FSFE?

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

Brains!Here we have some of the brains behind FSFE. It’s just who we have at the office today, Alina, Hugo and myself. Matthias has run off for now.

That’s one of the things about FSFE people: always busy with new projects (like learning to cook), new bits of information to get out into society (Hugo does that), new applications to promote (like yacy). They don’t stand still. Some of them don’t stand still long enough for me to draw a silly picture of them or get a picture of their hair. Henrik Sandklef, for instance, was at FSCONS but didn’t get a caricature in a previous flashcard because he didn’t stand still all weekend, he was so busy organizing things and making sure that things worked out right at the conference. You can see Henrik in the GHM photo, right in the center.

There’s also the FSFE people whom I haven’t seen since I started my artistic career (ten days ago). The formal composition of the FSFE as an association and the core team of the FSFE shows that I’ve missed more than half of them. So do not think that my set of drawings is complete — far from it, given that Gareth (UK), Shane (FTF), Georg (Founding President), Pablo (Spain), Reinhard (Finance), Patrick (Italy), Bernhard (Germany), Henrik (Sweden) and Fernanda (Vice President) are all missing from my portfolio. Come to think of it, I should really boot up my Apple //c and type in the old “Animals” program to create a taxonomy of all 15 members of the association. In theory four yes/no questions should suffice.

Fake screenshot

Who is FSFE?

Sunday, November 22nd, 2009

Plussy over your deskWho is that masked man woman looming green thing? This is just a shot of Matthias at his desk. The Plussy on the wall behind him is the mascot of the Fellowship of FSFE. You can support FSFE — and perhaps save Matthias from a terrible fate and get a dinner in the process — by donating time or money.

FSFE shares an office with KDE e.V., and this evening I’m switching hats from blue (KDE e.V. board meeting) to green (FSFE FTF work on cataloging the legal situation for Free Software around Europe). But first .. Berlin! (Cue Leonard Cohen).

Who are the GNU Hackers?

Saturday, November 21st, 2009

As an extra event around FSCONS, I had the opportunity to meet a bunch of GNU hackers (part of the GNU Hacker Meeting, GHM). The GNU hackers are the people who maintain particular GNU packages, ranging from binutils to gcc to GNU Scheme to the new GNU PDF library. Cool folks all and neat to see them all in one room — and it illustrated for me that although I’m usually interested (from a technical perspective) in the desktop layer (e.g. KDE), there’s a huge stack underneath. That deeper software stack now has a face for me — up until now, somehow the “shared technology stack” underneath the Free Software desktop sort of stopped for me at X, HAL, DBus, Strigi. Let us not forget the bits underneath that make a GNU/Linux system run.

GHM Photo

(Click for full-size version, where you can see that my camera has focus problems with wide pictures under mediocre lighting conditions) From left to right, we find that I’m really bad with remembering names: ?, ?, Matthias Kirschner (FSFE), Jose Marchesi (GNU PDF), Simon Josefsson (GNU TLS, recipient of Nordic Free Software Award 2009), ?, Bruno Haible (gnulib), Alfred M. Szmidt (glibc), ?, Nacho Gonzalez (sysadmin), ?, Henrik Sandklef (FSFE), Brian Gough (FSFE), Alina Mierlus (FSFE), Andy Wingo (Guile), Werner Koch (gnupg), Karsten Gerloff (FSFE), Eelco Dolstra (nix), Paolo Bonzini (GNU Smalltalk), ?. Drop me a note with who’s who (the list of attendees is on the GHM page, also the gnuticias site).

Who is KDE?

Saturday, November 21st, 2009

A Fab Four (KDE)Clearly, whiteboard is more my medium than Kolourpaint with a trackpad. However, all of the stores in this area of Berlin close at 2pm, which means we haven’t been able (or rather: forgot to, this morning, and then tried and failed after lunch) to purchase some pens for use in the KDE office. I’m at the office for a board meeting this weekend, where we’ve just been talking about how to report best on the contents of these meetings. Suffice to say that blogging is not the right medium, but at least there’s a sketch of who’s here.

Privacy and metrics

Friday, November 20th, 2009

On Wednesday the Washington Post’s “Security Fix” blog had a small item on privacy issues with the smart grid. It was most interesting for me because of the graph that was included: by looking at a simple metric (power draw in the house) one could reach conclusions on what was happening inside. Breakfast, lunch and dinner can be spotted. This isn’t much of an issue if the data is available only to the power company, stored securely, and applied only to its intended purpose for which it is collected. Presumably that’s to optimize power delivery.

But when the information is used outside of that context, then bad things can happen.

This kind of concern applies to all kinds of metrics that indirectly show what is happening inside a closed box. Consider an active developer on software project where the source repository is available publicly. This applies to lots of them — and makes relevant stats for many even more public. By looking at time stamps you can find out roughly when the developer is active. How accurate this is depends on the style of development, but I know I’m a commit-early, commit-often guy so you can (or used to be able to) find out when I’m awake by watching commits. No commits? I must be elsewhere. Commits skewed by three hours? I must be in Brasil, hacking.

Even that information isn’t all that bad, although it’s a derived piece of information that possibly wasn’t intended to be public. But you can use it for nefarious purposes (e.g. housebreaking). Power consumption of an encryption chip was once used to determine whether it was doing a multiply cycle or an add — and knowing that revealed bits of the key being used, and so extracted the key from the chip. That’s the kind of ancillary information leakage that we can also worry about.

All in all I think it comes down to: data collection technology isn’t bad per se, but the safeguards around the collected data and the purposes to which the data is put might be. Privacy then is a matter of trust in the people that hold the data to do the right thing (regrettably humans are susceptible to temptation).