Technology & Science

The Quest for Free, Part 3

After a few weeks of using my de-Chromed laptop, I’ve settled into a groove. I promised myself a couple weeks to adjust to the new computer but honestly it hasn’t taken that long. The World Wide Web looks the same on pretty much every computer. I’ve had a couple of annoyances with IceCat not correctly working with WordPress uploads, but nothing that hasn’t happened to me at other times with other systems. I’ve added another web browser, the open source version of Chromium/Chome, so I can develop The Seattle Star website and check it on different browsers. Other than that, the machine remains just about as it was when I first loaded Gallium.

The process has been easy so far.

  1. Buy the computer.
  2. Take the computer apart to remove a screw.
  3. Install GalliumOS from a thumb drive.
  4. Install applications.
  5. Profit.

Even if I were a total n00b, the only thing that might have frightened me so far would be taking the computer apart, and that was truly simple (and fast) with a guide. Using a package manager made installing the software quite easy. I’m convinced that this isn’t technically complicated.

So why don’t more people do it?

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I’ve been talking about my project a little with some friends, some techies, most not. I forget sometimes that people don’t understand what I mean when I talk about free software. People think I mean free of cost, which is beside the point. There’s plenty of free-of-cost software that is proprietary and could still be yanked from anyone’s computer at any time for any reason by its maker. The absence of cost doesn’t mean that a user controls her program or her computer. Indeed offering proprietary software for “free” is the biggest live lure around these days, especially on the phone platforms, where FREE DOWNLOAD! is written on everything…and then those things come with “In-App Purchases,” pop-up windows, and other obnoxious additions.

They do not understand that when I talk about free software I talk about freedom. I understand this because freedom isn’t a popular subject these days. I wonder if any of my liberal friends even believe in it these days. I of course have a strong libertarian streak, so it’s on my mind all the time.

Free means that software respects The Four Freedoms:

  1. The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose.
  2. The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  3. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
  4. The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others. By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this..

Free software devotees take freedom quite seriously. The largest free software distribution, Debian, actually has a social contract in which they consider legally the plight of desert island users, political dissidents, and those in service to evil corporations. These ideas matter to them, and they should matter to all users.

If I could do anything for my non-techie friends, I would inculcate in them the idea that technology comes with responsibilities attached — and a hidden price. Most people I know are oblivious to this because their technology is invisible to them: it is a window through which they behold the marvels of the Internet and nothing more. Unless it doesn’t work of course; then is it an evil machine that should be destroyed.

The ethical and moral responsibilities of technology do not apply only to people who consider themselves “digital citizens” because they use the Internet to bullyrag politicians and share documents from Wikileaks. They apply to all. All users ought to be good citizens. This means much more than emailing one’s congressperson. It means living a responsible civic life in a technological world whether technology is immediately present or not.

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I’ve been using my laptop quite awhile now, but it still lacks something: labels. I have to add labels. Otherwise where’s my l33t hacker cred?

It probably seems a little silly, precious even, to outsiders. But labels are a serious business in the free software and open source world. Why? Solidarity.

As the head of open source strategy at SanDisk, Nithya Ruff, puts it, “this is how we show affiliation and respect.” Being a member of the free software/open source community can be extremely lonely. It can make people feel that all their work is for naught as they work. In near total isolation from fellow hackers, forced to deal with blank stares when they let loose their passion for making the world a better place through technology, free software devotees need community. They thrive on it. Stickers help identify, and help spread the message.

To those ends there is a certain code, a set of rules that I myself follow.

  1. Software stickers only stickers from projects I use or to which I have contributed.
  2. Event stickers only from events I have attended.
  3. Support independent projects.
  4. Creative Commons, GPL, BSD, MIT and free licenses only.

I’ve used a lot of open source software and supported an awful lot of projects, so the limits are still pretty sensible. Each label has meaning. Each label supports people who deserve support. Learning how to support free software is learning ethics for the technological age. And learning how to take back your power over the machines that surround you everywhere.

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I’ve mentioned the importance of community. It’s the foundation of free software, the “bazaar” that Eric S. Raymond defined as the model working environment for successful projects. It is extremely important to hackers. It is also their biggest failure.

In moving to free software, one gives up some things. Tech support is the biggest of them. Whom do you call when something goes wrong? How does one get help?

In most cases, the answer will be: contact the developer(s). On one level this is good. No one knows the program better than the people who made it. On another level it is very, very bad. Developers are almost always busy. Being short of time they are also short of temper. I could provide a dozen times a dozen examples from BBS to IRC to forums to wikis of new users seeking help on a board or channel or forum of experts, only to be told “RTFM” or something even more rude and completely unhelpful.

How many people would instantaneously stop using Windows computers or iPhones if those companies’ service reps spoke to them so? Yet this is default behavior in the free software/open source world, with no apparent community interest in correcting such behavior. These people, who clearly think that their time is so much more precious than any other human being’s simply because they, like, code, bro, reek with the stench of entitlement. If free software is to become anything other than a niche, that attitude needs to die.

Furthermore, the manuals themselves are problematic. Even the Free Software Foundation continues to insist that one of the most serious problems for free software is lack of quality free manuals. I agree. Telling someone RTFM when the manual is rubbish helps no one. But I think there is a less obvious dimension to this problem, too. What gives a free manual “quality”? Ask a developer and a user you will get two different answers.

A manual that is not useful to the lay user is not a useful manual. Developers already have access to source code that is impenetrable to the laity — open code is the premise of free software. They can comment that code to their heart’s content and write their own documentation. Lay users have no such access. They either have a usable manual to help them understand how to use program to do what they need it to do, or they have to go online to be told RTFM by cliquish brogrammers. Which is to say either they have a usable manual, or they quit using free software.

Free documentation must appeal to non-programmers. That the FLOSS development community cannot figure this out goes back to what I mentioned earlier: Linux users are expected by other Linux users to be programmers. That expectation is killing free software. It leaves users who want to convert away from proprietary systems in a lurch. They are already giving up convenience and cost-free support in favor of helping others and encouraging a better society. Why push them away because they aren’t cool enough to be code junkies?

Not everyone interested in freedom is a developer. People accustomed to a world of walled gardens and digital locks need an easy ladder over the wall from the world of proprietary software to the world of FLOSS.  Telling them that it’s their problem they can’t code isn’t helping anyone.

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For the past five years using WordPress at The Star has created a learning curve of its own. Building the site mostly with FTP, checking designs against Firefox, Chrome, and Safari has taught me how fluid the surface of things is. Underneath the glossy exterior where posts seem to appear as if by magic is the CMS (content management system). Here the code is open to all. Want to hack the core? Knock yerself out. I’m not a fabulous programmer of PHP, but I’ve been able to hack away at various things with the combination of CSS/HTML5/PHP/SQL to get my site to do basic things. Now I’m ready to move on to a bit more complexity in the design, but I’m on an unfamiliar machine.

Normally that doesn’t matter. As I’ve said before, the Web looks basically the same regardless of machine. The hitch for me has been working on the website with my preferred free browser, IceCat.

In the interests of pure freedom, IceCat tends to seek out and block anything it deems to be a threat to total freedom. Among these the biggest is one of the Free Software Foundation’s high-priority campaigns: non-free Javascript.

Fundamentally browsers treat all information as neutral. They execute whatever code is given to them unless told otherwise. Programmers use Javascript on the web to load bits of code into people’s computers invisibly, creating buttons, windows, audio/video players, and a googolplex of annoying ads. Much Javascript is harmless and/or trivial, but much of it is not. It’s a gateway for malware and ransomware and other destructive nuisances.

IceCat’s LibreJS plugin identifies non-free JavaScript and replaces it with a reminder to contact the website owner and tell them to make their site free. It overshoots the problem, but I’d rather have that problem than the converse one. I need to pull all the JS out of my website anyway, either to rewrite it or to purge it, so that will give me reasonable guidelines. Just as I want a completely free computer, I think the Star website should be free as well. All the material–text, images, video, audio–is Creative Commons, if not “free” in the sense of the Four Freedoms. So should the machinery be. I want all the code on it to be BSD or GPL or something similar, and I only want to use open frameworks.

A free World Wide Web — that’s another discussion for later.

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After about two months of working with my Fromebook (sorry, Edith Wharton) I’ve got The Seattle Star and its related websites up and running, and have maintained them just as easily as if I’d been working on my old iMac. But I set other parameters for myself, too, to answer a list of questions:

  • Will accessing only “free” sites reveal anything about political and social matters? There are many “progressive” sites that use CC licenses. Are there any libertarian or conservative ones? If not, why not?
  • Will accessing only free sites be informative enough? What does enough mean in this context?
  • Does the refusal to get news from non-free sources carry the same moral weight as the refusal to use non-free software? What are the differences?
  • What is the difference between free news and non-free news? Is it morally significant?
  • Richard Stallman insists that users should control their tools. Should they also control their experiences as a consumer? How?

To explore these I made certain decisions. I decided at the beginning not to access social media on my laptop. I decided only to bookmark pages that were licensed Creative Commons or otherwise free. My RSS feed has only CC-licensed sites on it. I do not buy anything online on this computer, nor do I share material from it that is not free as in freedom.

Those decisions have made me aware of certain things.

I’ve become far more aware of certain webpage designs, notably on my phone (also loaded with only free software) and tablet, where these designs exist solely to make right-handed users accidentally activate advertisements when they scroll through pages. It’s made me itchy. Where before I merely wanted web advertising to go away, now I want to see it destroyed. All the cheap moneymaking schemes of the proprietary software world shine clearly through what used to be a bit hazy. They are now much easier targets. All I need to do is take better aim. The commercialized nightmare Web that Jonathan Zittrain predicted in The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It is already here. It probably has to be purified by fire.

I’ve also begun to donate to more free software projects. I’ve always donated to ones I use heavily: Cyberduck, LibreOffice, etc. I learned that habit back in the days of shareware, and fully believe in it. Being on a free software machine simply brought it back to the front of my mind rather than the back. So I’ve donated recently to LibreOffice, Scribus, Free Software Foundation, Creative Commons, GalliumOS itself, and several smaller projects as well.

Too, I’ve learned things about the union of politics and technology that I hadn’t considered fully. Most notably to me I have begun to think that our national political problems are not so much liberal versus conservative or anything so fatuous, but instead they are Big Business versus the Great Unwashed. From the technological point of view this is especially so: consider arguments over net neutrality, digital copyright, software patents, and municipal broadband. That has led me to reconsider much of my own thinking about how to talk about political issues with others.

Above all, I have a new computer that reminds me every time I touch it of my moral commitments. I hope others become similarly inspired to examine their own.

Freedom has been lovely. I hope it is also contagious.


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