Communicating freely

Thoughts on how we can all talk a little easier, and how that can make life better.

Akademy 2008 rocked

August 18th, 2008

I was at Akademy 2008 to speak on a panel and (less formally) to wander around annoying hackers with silly questions. 

I spent a good deal of time harassing Armijn in the USB plugfest room by picking up random sticks and asking "what’s this one for?"  The answers ranged from Bluetooth to InfraRed to DVB, and appearently quite a few of these devices work on GNU/Linux.  However, I am heartbroken to report the DVB sticks refused to play ball.  Sighs, so much for watching the Olympics on my laptop.

Speaking of devices, Nokia gave away 100 internet tablets to KDE developers.  I saw groups playing with them in every corner of the conference.  My attention was caught by a report that some enterprising chap had got Plasma working on the 400mz CPU.  I tracked him down in the Plasma BoF room and drilled him regarding stability and speed; it’s looking good.

I want to see more 100% Free Software devices in the mobile space.  OpenMoko has blazed a trail in proving the viability of the Four Freedoms in this sphere; now it’s time to get onto 500 million devices.  I believe KDE 4 may provide one platform to accomplish this.

Talking about vision, on our panel Aaron spoke eloquently about the future of KDE.  I was impressed by the direction of the KDE e.V. board and by the sheer scale of the sustained innovation happening across the project. Knut from Trolltech also said some pretty deep things about social innovation and the place of Free Software.  Great chap, and he’s mad about creme brulee.  Plus points in every direction.

Towards the end of my adventure, Adriaan drank strange Dutch gin out of paper cups with me.  We discovered that the stuff melts the binding of the cups, leading to a slightly woody and vaguely gummy experience.  Excellent.  Thanks to Armijn from providing the spirit for testing and to Mr KDE Solaris ™ for being a drinking victim buddy.

What a conference.

Be nice to developers

June 24th, 2008

Adriaan from KDE – the man I personally blame for all bugs ever encountered in programs written in the C++ language [1] – has written a blog post suggesting that it’s a good idea not to send abusive emails to Free Software developers who don’t offer professional support services at zero cost for their code.

He has got a point. While the low barriers of access and hierarchy in Free Software often provide easy access to the developer in question, the developer’s personal provision of support is likely to receive a far lower priority than development work. This is hardly surprising.

Few people expect to speak directly with the developer of a proprietary application when the application misbehaves. Support is instead provided by a department inside the production company or an accredited partner. Free Software takes this abstraction a little further. One of the key innovations in this paradigm is that third parties can provide professional top tier support regardless of their relationship with the original developer of the application.

It is important to remember that the word "Free" in Free Software does not refer to the software having zero cost either in production or in adoption. It refers solely to the freedoms the software offers everyone who receives a copy.

There is a cost of production, delivery and support with Free Software. This cost may include personnel hours, hardware and electricity on the production side and it may include training, integration and maintenance on the support side. Such cost calculations do not disappear because Free Software offers more freedom than proprietary software.

Free Software is often developed by people and organisations who offset their cost of production because they get something else in return. What they receive may be kudos, the ability to play with other people’s innovations or a solution delivered to users. The situation and cost benefit analysis differs for each individual or organisation.

In the post delivery of a solution different dynamics are at play. A developer who creates a technology with a cost offset might not wish to also offer service level agreements to users. It might just not fit into their reason for making the software or it might have too high a cost.

Everyone can get the code, everyone can distribute it, everyone can offer support for it. It’s more flexible and encourages more competition over delivery of solutions. Those solutions can be technical, integrative or support based.

Many developers are happy to answer some questions and even respond to requests for features, but it’s not reasonable to expect that they are obliged to do so. We should be nice and bear in mind that we have no entitlement when it comes to obtaining support unless the creator has promised such support explicitly.

[1] KDE is written in C++. There is a connection.

KDE 4: Shane’s conclusion (a little late)

June 16th, 2008

I planned to spend one week with KDE 4.  In the end, I didn’t do that.  I’m three weeks into this trial and KDE 4 has been my default desktop for fourteen days.  I guess that says a lot.

Sure, there are some rough edges that need to be smoothed out and there are some quirks that need adjusting.  However, all of the flaws are minor bugs rather than problems with the realisation of the new desktop.  There was certainly nothing that prevented me from reaching my productivity goals.  In practice, KDE 4 today works well enough for me to run a large legal network on a day-to-day operational basis.

Let’s do a quick verdict of the good and the bad.


A representative example of existing bugs would be that the Dolphin file manager randomly throws up errors when opening files.  They look like this: "KLauncher could not be reached via D-Bus, error when calling start_service_by_desktop_path: empty"  These errors sound worse than they are.  The files in question actually opened correctly.   

Other bugs can be found in some KDE 4 applications.  I found the newest version of KATE to be unstable when word-wrapping at 80 characters.  It occasionally crashes while reformatting line breaks, at least on my machine.  Kword and I also had a couple of disagreements when editing complex documents.  I mentioned this in a previous blog post.

RESULT: I grumble, but there’s more stuff I like than I dislike.


However, niggles aside, KDE 4 is something special.  It improves the desktop through engineering, it is well-designed and it is fast.  This is one of the rare occasions when people are making an exciting new technology that actually works.  While it is still in development and is currently best suited for hackers and experienced users, there is a lot of potential already visible when it comes to considering home users.  

KDE 4 is slick, fast and a lot of fun.  It’s nice to be able to say that about a computing experience.  I believe that it has the potential to mature into one of the most significant Free Software desktops.  

RESULT: KDE 4 rocks.

If you want to try KDE 4 you will have to be prepared for one thing; the developers have not yet written the documentation for things like the Plasma desktop.  Not to worry.  Below you can find Shane’s really quick overview of how to use Plasma.  This was entirely stolen from Sebastian’s helpful email explaining the basics of the system to me.

An overview of Plasma

There are three important concepts to keep in mind when using Plasma, the KDE 4 desktop technology:

  1. In Plasma you have Plasmoids.  These are widgets you can add to the desktop.
  2. You also have Containers
  3. The Plasmoids can live in Containers

Using the Plasma desktop

  • Plasmoids can be put into Containers like the panel or the can float freely on the desktop.
  • The top right corner of the desktop holds the Toolbox. There you can choose to add widgets or lock the desktop.  
  • If you add widgets you can drag Plasmoids into either the panel let them float freely on the desktop.  
  • If you lock the desktop the applet controls will be hidden and the desktop will become immutable.  
  • You will want to keep the desktop locked most of the time.

Advanced features

  • Press CTRL+F12 to bring all active widgets to the front of your screen.  This is similar to a "show desktop" feature.
  • If you have "Desktop effects" enabled then pressing:
    •  CTRL+F8 produces a full-screen pager effect
    •  CTRL+F9 produces an expose effect for the current desktop
    •  CTRL+F10 produces an expose effect for all desktops

Icons on the Desktop

  • In KDE 4.0 there is very little support for icons on the desktop.
  • In KDE 4.1 there is a folder view Plasmoid that provides more interaction with the icons.  It is similar to a file manager or traditional desktop.  
  • You can choose a folder or network resource to be displayed on the desktop through this new Plasmoid.

Personal Plasma Steward ™

May 22nd, 2008

Late blog entry today.  I’ve been busy.  Sorry about that.

This morning I got a new friend.  Sebastian from KDE dropped by and explained the magic involved in using Plasma.  His email was very helpful in providing an overview and I now find myself feeling quite comfortable with the interface.

It also appears that my biggest gripe – the way files won’t behave like files on my desktop – will be solved in KDE 4.1.  This is due in two months, so not long to wait…

To assist other new users with KDE 4 I’ve decided to write up Sebastian’s instructions into help files.  Perhaps they can be included on the Plasma site and in the documentation for the next releases.

I am slowly getting Plasma

May 21st, 2008

I now have a nice SVG clock thing floating around my desktop.

I started to get the hang of Plasma after visiting the official Plasma website.  I went there to find documentation, but the documentation page actually states "Plasma development has just begun. As it nears it’s completed form, user documentation will appear here in addition to shipping with KDE."  Poor Shane.

I didn’t give up, and I wandered around reading the vision and about the elements. I got the overarching concept and remembered I had read these (unchanged) pages about six months ago.  However, I still don’t know what to do with my file icons on the desktop.  I miss drag and drop. 

Adriaan from KDE has been following my progress on his blog (here and here and here).  So far he has resisted any temptation there may have been to hit me with a chair.  It’s nice to know he tolerates political scientists randomly installing code and complaining non-stop for a week.

I’m still in love with Dolphin.  I would like to use Koffice again as well.  Maybe I’ll try creating a new document in it tomorrow.

No! Contract language, come back…

May 21st, 2008

The new interface on Koffice (Kword) is lovely.  I think it’s pretty, it’s quick, it’s going to be great.  Going to be.  Going to be.

Right now, however, it seems to have some problems with editing my ODT documents.  We had a lot of fun earlier when I opened a contract, attempted to delete a line, and the window vanished.  KDE crash handler cheerfully appeared.

Oh dear.

I opened the document again in  The formatting was broken throughout.  Oh, not funny.  Delete and restore from backup.  Koffice is put back on the shelf for the rest of the day.

You may be surprised to hear this, but I’m not annoyed.  This is an application in mid-port and  I don’t expect it to work properly yet.  What interested me is how pretty the interface is and how clever the layout appears to be.  Seriously, it was neat.  I’m really looking forward to playing with it more (when I am not editing a contract).

An’ here I go again on my own

May 21st, 2008

OK, I stole the title for this blog entry from my friend Ed.  I could not think of anything really smart to kick off day three of KDE on my desktop.

Everything opened.  It worked.  When X cheerfully asked if I want to make KDE 4 my default desktop I paused.  Yes?  No?  I told it no for now.  Let’s see how this week-long trial concludes before making the leap.

In some ways I’m a little guilty.  I’ve been using KDE 4 without really bothering to wander around the features [1].  I’m busy in the office and I just want to work.

At some point I’m going to try using KDE 4 applications instead of my normal applications just to see what the integrated experience is like.  I wonder if KOffice is ported to the new system yet.  That would be interesting.  I usually play with and am quite used to it. 

I’m having a look at the package manager right now.  The system updated itself a moment ago and I was pretty impressed.  I quite like how Adept (in minimal update mode) shows some useful information like the total number of packages installed and so on.  At first glance one might think "goodness, this is not as neat as GNOME" but then one realises "ah, I might want to know this stuff."  This is actually a KDE 3 application.  I miss the pretty KDE 4 theme.  Come back KDE 4.

Looking for Koffice for KDE 4 is not too difficult.  I typed in "Koffice" and I got a bunch of options.  Things like "koffice-date-kde4" present themselves as options, but the primary "koffice" package appears to be only availabe for KDE 3 in my distro.

Oh, I tell a lie.  When I type in "kde4" one of the packages that appeared was the expected "kofffice-kde4".  Excellent.  I wonder why it did not appear on the first search.  Nevermind.  Time to install and use.  I’ll let you know how it goes.


[1] Apart from Plasma.  I know it has features.  I know it’s cool.  I just have no idea how to use it.  Please, Mr KDE Santa, give me documentation…

Still not dead

May 20th, 2008

Day two is over.  How did it go?

Well, I didn’t quite manage to fulfil my expectation of work without any slowdown with KDE 4.  This was mainly due to applications stealing focus with error messages, the on-going problem of Dolphin opening files but throwing an error dialogue up anyway and rooting around for help files.  However, to be fair to all parties concerned, slow down was minimal and some of it was due to me being silly.

KDE 4 is the fastest desktop I have used in a long time.  For things like opening applications, using the file manager and rooting around in the taskbar menu it feels exceptional.  I’m glad to see that; I’ve seriously been wondering how – as computers get faster and pack more memory – my desktops have been feeling as sluggish as they were in 1998.  Well done KDE optimisation ninjas.

The theme is nice.  Earlier I was thinking "it’s great how much of my screen is dedicated to my data" while using Dolphin.  I am also learning some tricks like ‘do not maximise everything when you don’t need to’ and ‘don’t try to drag stuff from the Plasma desktop into applications because it won’t work’. 

Happy all in.  I’m getting excited with this desktop.  Whinging aside, and minor bugs, it’s shaping up to be an interesting experience.

Thundering along

May 20th, 2008

After some hiccups earlier today, KDE 4 and I are getting along pretty well.  Dolphin and I did some pretty heavy file stuff earlier.  Everything went perfectly on that front.

I’m not getting along with the KATE text editor as well as I had hoped.  We occasionally have disagreements about file names.  It freaks out when trying to "Save as…" a document with a name like "Report: week 20".  Errors pop up and then my file pretends it is actually called "week 20" and has no knowledge of any reports.  What a liar.

I turned off the Desktop Effects earlier.  They are pretty but I think my graphics card is not powerful enough to deal with them.  Some flickering occurred when doing things like maximising and minimising windows.  I found that visually annoying.  Still, it’s worth pointing out that this desktop option was functional, worked without any configuration and pretty much did what I expected…apart from one element.  There was an option for taskbar previews of window contents.  When I turned that on, nothing happened.

One thing I want to do now is change the order of display in the menu favourites.  I love this feature of the technology.  It’s already making life easier for me.  I just want to be able to change the order a little.  Drag and drop didn’t work and it was not immediately obvious which setting might do it.

Who stole my focus?

May 20th, 2008

OK, one thing has been cropping up and annoying me a little.  I don’t think it’s a KDE 4 issue so much as a problem with making GTK+ and QT stuff play nicely together.  

When applications like the SVN GUI I use throw up an error like "Shane, you just tried to break the SVN again", this error dialogue is appearing on the bottom of the stack of windows open.  However, it’s also preventing the application in question responding to mouse clicks.

What this translates into in real terms is that I was clicking unresponsive application like an idiot before I thought to minimise all the open windows and eventually locate the error dialogue to click "OK" (the dialogue did not have a little entry on the taskbar).

I believe stuff will eventually help correct annoying niggles like this.  It’s certainly one of the things I would list as a key usability concern.

Onward to happy thoughts.  One thing I am falling in love with is the new taskbar menu in KDE 4.  It’s great for quickly locating my applications.  Click, begin typing, get application.  It’s fast once you get the hang of it.  It’s very impressive. 

I also have something very positive to say about Dolphin.  I’ve not even bothered to notice it.  It just works.  I click, drag and occasionally hit "preview" and stuff happens.  For me, that means it’s close to a perfect file manager.  I’m looking forward to putting it through its paces over the rest of the day.