Fellowship interview with David Reyes Samblas Martinez

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

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 Leif-Jöran Olsson

Leif-Jöran Olsson is a language technologist and XML enthusiast with a long history in the Swedish solidarity movement. I sat down for an interview with Leif-Jöran and asked him about his background, his education and the various projects he’s been involved in.

Stian Rødven Eide: A major part of your work has centered around language technology (LT). What was your point of entry to this field, and how does it relate to your dedication to Free Software? Were you already interested in Free Software when you started your education?

Leif-Jöran Olsson
Leif-Jöran Olsson

Leif-Jöran Olsson: I was initially very interested in usable design, and joined the Mechanical Engineering programme. But, after two years, I found out that human communication was much more fascinating. My introduction to Free Software came after Gymnasium, where we mostly used proprietary software like turbo c++ and turbo prolog. Since I come from a rather unprivileged background, and could not afford to buy software, this prompted my search for free tools. I later moved to Uppsala with my own family and attended the Master’s programme in Language Engineering, which, coincidently with my search for education in human communication, was started in the autumn of 1994.

SRE: Some of your earlier projects have had a focus on machine translation. How does that relate to your later involvement with Språkbanken (the Language Bank) at the University of Gothenburg? Has Free Software played a part in your work?

LJO: While not the best venue for Free Software historically, machine translation was one of the primary areas when I worked in the Department of Linguistics at Uppsala University from 1998 until 2003. Here at Språkbanken, however, we have a heterogenous research environment for language technology infrastructure, primarily focusing on Free Software. Which is really great. We are not doing machine translation at all here. Being a rather shy business, machine translation has got many proprietary and secret tools involved – quite contrary to Free Software ideals. Instead, there is a focus on hard results, meaning that statistical methods, which are cheap in labour, are favoured. The machine translation research/work in Europe is mostly carried out in EC projects with large companies involved. This makes the real knowledge and gain for society rather small. In Uppsala, we did rule based transfer translation and chart parsing, which connects more to linguistic theory than statistical methods, and one of my tasks was to manage a controlled vocabulary. That makes the translation easier. But here, in my work at Språkbanken, Free Software has played a major and contributing role. I am also grateful to the director of Språkbanken for letting me use some of my time to work on eXist-db.

SRE: That leads me to the next question. One of your most active software projects at the moment is the eXist XML database. Why did you choose to get involved in that project? What are the advantages of using eXist-db rather than an SQL database?

LJO: We had been working with sgml and later xml-technologies for a long time, annotating the corpus materials used in the research. We were using eXist-db in our work and wanted to contribute back. This resulted in an active involvement in the project. SQL databases are good for strictly regular or structured (the S in SQL) relational data. Xml on the contrary is all about hierarchy and sequence. This is the power of the information model. Making irregular relations and annotations of
language material are very good examples for using xml technologies. Many people draw the conclusion that xml is too verbose and bloated, confusing the serialised human readable format with the information model. Remember, there are highly compact binary serialisations too. Almost all previous and current LT tools are using different input and output formats, which makes the interaction hard. Being so easily able to do things, like transformations of materials with standard tools, is invaluable. Since we are working on infrastructure, it is a natural choice to use an xml database, since you can avoid the overhead of parsing the data every time you want to use the linguistic annotations and corpus materials in interaction with yet another tool. We also have the sematic web technologies coming. Of course, you are better off with a relational database in a data shuffling situation, but, as soon you need to do irregular, read hierarchical and/or sequential, queries, it mostly boils down to a few easily intelligible rows in XQuery, rather than pages of SQL code.

SRE: You have also taken it upon yourself to maintain the recently liberated bookkeeping software JFSAccounting. As such software often needs to be adapted to every country’s specific laws, Free Software solutions are not always available without a certain amount of work involved. Do you find that there still are missing pieces in the Free Software ecosystem, with regards to the basic tools needed to run a business or organisation in Sweden?

LJO: Accounting software has certainly been one of the map’s white spots, and administrative tools for managing organisations are generally scarce. This I had experienced first hand through my involvement with solidarity movement organisations, and that’s why I took the opportunity to begin liberating the accounting and administrative tool JFSAccounting. The first publicly available liberated version is to be released at FSCONS 2009 (I will prepare fribokföring.se for the
promotion of this to organisations). The piece missing in the tool is a member register (matricle), as it initially was aimed at businesses. But the customer register part can hopefully be adopted with the right terminology for a release next year.

SRE: You’re also involved in the Swedish Syndicalist movement, especially through SAC (a federation of local workers’ unions). According to its principles, SAC is built upon political independence, a decentralised structure, local democracy and solidarity. To a certain extent, this seems to mirror some of the basic values common in the Free Software movement. Do you think that workers’ organisations such as SAC can help Free Software adoption among businesses and public institutions?

LJO: Actually, it was quite a hard job to make the federation accept a policy on primarily using Free Software, something that was finally achieved during the spring of 2008. The federation’s servers have been running Debian GNU/Linux for years, but it was much harder to get a policy for using Free Software on the client machines. Fear of the unknown and the comfort of the habit were the main reasons for this. There are still quite a few Free Software advocates in the different local unions, so yes, I think it can help the adoption of Free Software in other organisations. Many are engaged in several local, national or international organisations beyond their union. Eventually, people get used to the concept of Free Software and regard its freedoms in the same sense as the working class struggle. They realise the common ground they share with the Free Software hackers, and then, they don’t want to go back to proprietary software.

SRE: Through your involvement with SAC and your own company, aptly named Friprogramvarusyndikatet (The Free Software Syndicate), you have also established Serengeti, a network for solidarity and Free Software that offers free hosting for non-profit organisations, as well as a mailing list for discussions. Can you tell us a bit about the background for Serengeti? Do you have plans to expand its activities?

LJO: As I mentioned, I have met quite a bit of fear of technology, and an ignorance of the negative consequences from putting yourself completely in the hands of proprietary market actors. At the same time, many people that are attracted to Free Software are afraid of politics and only see Free Software as neutral and apolitical. This resulted us forming a loose network called Serengeti. We are aiming for a more stable network that can promote the use of Free Software in solidarity movements, and also help bridging the surplus of knowledge from therein. Building on tradition, we do it bottom up, starting out with a mailing list.

Our warm thanks to Leif-Jöran for taking the time to answer our questions. You can read more about him and his projects on his Gothenburg University page.

Fellowship interview with Andreas Tolf Tolfsen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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