Technology & Science

The Quest for Free, Part 1

Photo credit: sasint. CC0/Public Domain license

I have always supported the free software movement both professionally as a journalist and personally as a computer user. But, believing as I do that one must preach by example, I had a harder look at my own relationship with technology.

The Seattle Star has always been made on WordPress, which is free software. Its text has always carried the free CC-BY license. The images have not been completely free, but with rare exceptions they have carried the CC-BY-NC-ND license which is at minimum intended for sharing. Too, the site has always been hosted on a server that runs on free software.

And yet for the better part of five years both my staff and I have been using largely non-free computers to make it happen.

A few months ago I decided to change this. I began something I called “Project Freebie and the Bean,” a truly dorky pop reference for a fairly serious technological project. The essence of my project would be simple.

  1. Find a suitably inexpensive laptop computer.
  2. Install on it a completely free software operating system.
  3. Explore the possibilities and boundaries of using only free and “open source” software to accomplish my daily business as a publisher and as an artist.
  4. Keep thorough notes.

To me, the mission of The Star has always been to open up our readers to a world of cooperation, sharing, and freedom. As a publisher I have sought to do this in all areas. Through The Star I have promoted open journalism, open science, open government, open technology, open design, open art. Despite our culture’s propensity to divide these fields from each other and to encourage people to narrow their vision to one or the other, these fields interrelate closely with each other. To open up one it is necessary to open up the others as well.

Free journalism should have free software as its foundation. Just because I hadn’t considered this thoroughly before didn’t exempt me from trying to clean up my practice now, and in the process, rediscover what I truly believe about art, science, law, technology, and community. Over the past few months I’ve learned a lot about free software and its challenges. I’ve learned more about myself, too, and the communities in which I partake and which I wish to serve as best as possible.

Here are my notes from along the way. I hope you find my journey instructive. I know I have.

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I’ve been looking at all the laptops that would suit my purpose for Project Freebie and Bean. There are many of course, but I’ve purposefully narrowed the range. I don’t want to use a Microsoft or Apple computer on general principles. I don’t want to deal with Windoze or Macness right now. There would be something satisfying about taking machines from the big bully corporations and then turning them into swords to fight the power, but that’s not what I’m after right now.

Right now my needs are simple. I want a laptop that will be used primarily for internet connectivity, text editing, and some light video/image editing. Virtually any modern computer will do those things. I want it to be new, so I can start from scratch (or close enough to scratch). I want it to be light and portable. Additionally I don’t want to be tied down to the internet so that my computer is useless without it — the main problem I have with the design of Chromebooks. And I want it to be free, in Richard Stallman’s sense of the word, to have nothing on it that I didn’t put there myself and nothing which I cannot change or remove or add when I feel like it.

This limits my choices quite a bit.

After some consideration, I’ve decided on a Chromebook: an Acer C720. It’s $168 after tax which is certainly in my working class price range. It’s only 2GB of memory, and the hard drive is small, but neither of these is a problem. For another fifty bucks I could bump up and get a computer with 4GB of memory, but I honestly don’t care. I’m not planning on doing much that will strain the RAM. Already I’ve lost my geek cred, which is probably a very good thing.

I’ll have to do some work to free up (free-ize?) the thing, but I knew the job was dangerous when I took it, Fred. Fortunately I am far from a n00b, so I shouldn’t have too much difficulty with the early stages of the project.

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Target acquired. The C720 has arrived in my hands and I’ve run it through basic checks which means I had to turn it on and look at the ugly Chrome desktop. I really hate that Microsofty look, but people love that crap. On the positive tip, it boots up in about nine seconds, so that’s pretty damned swell.

I thought a little about using Crouton to keep the possibility of booting into Chrome if I wanted. But why? Chrome isn’t free software, and this is very much about free software. So GNU/Linux it is.

Question: which one? There are so many free software distributions one could suffer severe eyestrain going through them all, only to end in certain doom as feelings of inadequacy combine with suicidal thoughts and fatigue. LWN.net lists no fewer than 590 active GNU/Linux distros, and there are a couple hundred others at least that are inactive. Throw in some other distros that do not use the Linux kernel but rather BSD or Solaris or MINIX or some such, and you’re well over 1,000.

This isn’t the Windows vs. Mac world that people think is the only choice. Quite the contrary. But the criteria are the same: What do I want to do with the computer? What do I plan on doing with it in the near future? What looks prettiest to me? For most people, these answers are easy and personal. My answers are consistent:

  • I need to be able to publish my online magazine
  • I need light image editing capability
  • I need excellent text editing
  • I need strong internet connectivity
  • I need basic USB connectivity for transferring occasional files
  • I need basic online security
  • I need the OS to be less than 4GB in size
  • I would like it to be relatively fast with non-graphics intensive work
  • I would like it to have a Graphical User Interface
  • I would like it not to give me a headache to look at for long periods of time

All but the last quality can be had in virtually any modern operating system. That last one, though, is completely personal. It is a visual design issue, because I am a visual artist and I truly dislike many visual designs. Of course there’s some numbskull hacker out there telling me I should be using the CLI exclusively anyway, but my computer isn’t for the numbskull hacker. It’s for me.

In the end it came down to a handful of distros: Linux Mint, Trisquel, or the new-ish GalliumOS. Trisquel is Richard Stallman’s current operating system of choice, but he supports any and all ethical distros. I looked at Linux Mint, whose Cinnamon desktop is a truly beautiful thing, but something about it made me flinch. The size of the OS? The hoops I had to jump through to pull all the non-free stuff from it? Dunno. I only know I had to decline.

In the end I settled on GalliumOS, which, according to its makers, is an attempt to make a free software analogue of ChromeOS, but even faster, lighter and better (gallium being the post-transition metal in the chromium row on the periodic table of the elements–bet you didn’t know I was a chemistry nut).

I’ve downloaded GalliumOS 1.0 and put it on a thumb drive, so it’s ready to go once I fix up this computer.

Phase one complete.

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Installing an operating system should be easy. It isn’t. At least not on this machine. To my chagrin the Acer C720 has a write-protect screw to prevent Chrome from being erased. So I can’t simply plug in the USB thumb drive, format the disk and be on my way. Instead I have to take the laptop apart, remove the screw, reassemble it, and then format the drive.

The good news is that it’s easy. There are only a dozen regular Philips screws in the case to remove. It takes me no time at all. The write-protect screw is easy enough, too. Another standard Philips head that comes out easily. Besides, I have a picture to make it all straightforward, nicked from The Chromium Projects folks.

Seven come eleven…snake eyes watching you…

After that it’s all keyboard work. Boot into developer mode. Flash the ROM. Install the operating system. I understand the process. But real explanations are sparse. Fortunately there are other people who have done this, and want me to do it, too. The folks at the Software Freedom Law Center have a guide for the process that is perfect. I put it to use and within an hour I’m set up. I’ve replaced the standard ROM with a completely free version, and added the free GalliumOS operating system.

Phase two complete.

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I’ve realized by this time that all of this isn’t just an experiment with me. It’s a moral exploration. How much freedom will I myself willingly give up in order to do certain things? And what freedoms are those? I don’t know precisely.

I do think it’s a noble thing to have a computer that has only code on it that I put there myself, and that I control. I’m not zealous enough to think that it is the only thing that matters–I’m not that much of a libertarian/dork.

I grew up at a time when almost everyone I knew had a computer that ran some form of BASIC. TRS-80s. TI-99/4As. Sinclair ZX80s. Atari 800s. Commodore 64s. I miss that in a lot of ways. I miss that community of absolutely casual hacker kids. I miss the free sharing of code, the relentless copying and hacking of games and applications from Byte magazine or PC User or whatever else. I miss knowing that everyone I knew was in control of her computer, and not at its mercy.

That was the initial condition of the hacker labs like the one at MIT in which Richard Stallman and others grew up. After the onslaught of the IBM PC and Apple II and their ilk, corporations found they could make massive amounts of money from other people’s labor. Programmers could scarcely afford to be casual anymore. Not like before. Programming became a massive investment of time, more specialized and more proprietary. The growing commercialism united with the growing complexity of computers themselves to push out the casual programmers selling their free software and shareware for $5 or whatever on a 5 1/4″ floppy disk. People began to pay high prices for software — and an even higher social price for letting someone else do their work for them and then claiming ownership over it.

I understand that there are certain freedoms one loses or more accurately yields temporarily in order to make certain things happen. The purist view on Free Software, however, is an essential marker of social progress, and a reminder. People give their freedom willingly for many things–but do they know when? Most computer users are clueless what freedom they could have in general purpose computing, because they’ve never thought about it.

They accept all these locks and chains on their computers as inevitable. But what if they are not? Also: even if they are, at what point does that inevitability begin? And what is its premise?

Freedom is important. Just because we’ve forgotten what it means doesn’t make it less so. Behind this project lies a skeptical examination of a world in which technology is presumed not to be free. This project combines the moral, the social, and the practical. So far, it’s been good for me.

Phase three next.

(To be continued)

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Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net