Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Why can't we all just get along?

Dec 30, 2009 GMT

At the risk of sounding naive, I'm concerned about how members of the free and open source software (FOSS) community treat each other. No doubt in most parts of the community, people are getting things done while keeping civil. But, publicly, or when the big issues are raised, a sustained nastiness has crept into discussions over the last year or so. Mostly, I try to ignore the tone, but, if possible, I'd like to see it reversed.Maybe that sentiment sounds like wishy-washy hypocrisy coming from someone who often writes about contentious issues. I know, too, no war is fiercer than a civil war, and that part of the reason for the nasty tone is probably the growing pains of a rapidly...
GNOME, GNU, and a long memory

Dec 16, 2009 GMT

Reading the recent discussions about GNOME's position in the GNU Project, I'm reminded of Utah Phillip's comment that "a long memory is the most radical notion in history." The way that the discussion has been reported in the media, you would hardly guess that the discussion is the latest round in an ongoing and disquieting dispute -- largely because the origins of the dispute were never widely reported.The current discussion began on the GNOME Foundation mailing list, when Richard Stallman, president and founder of the Free Software Foundation, suggested that Planet GNOME, (http://planet.gnome.org/) the conglomeration of GNOME developers' blogs, should exclude all references to...
Does a free software community exist?

Dec 07, 2009 GMT

Recently, I was taken to task for talking about the free software community. The criticism seemed motivated by spite more than anything else. But I admit that I often do refer to the community. So, since I believe in never leaving an assumption unquestioned, I started wondering: Does such a thing exist?At first, the idea seems absurd. Perhaps a free software community existed fifteen years ago, when the software and its ideals were shared by a small number of developers. But these days, most people involved in free software tend to stay within their own community. Is there really some common thread that links a member of large projects like Fedora or OpenOffice.org with small two-person...
The Windows 7 License can make you love free software

Dec 04, 2009 GMT

If you need to renew your dedication to free software -- if you ever find yourself wondering if your support of open source is worth the effort -- find a copy of the Windows 7 End User License Agreement (EULA). You will immediately stop taking software freedom for granted.Yes, I realize that reading EULAs is as exciting as watching a progress bar during a download. But the effort is illuminating, especially if, like me, you have fallen out of touch with proprietary licenses. As I found out last week, using the Windows Ultimate edition while preparing a couple of articles for Linux Pro Magazine about compatibility, the EULA goes far beyond the straightforward restrictions in the licenses...
Information sources for documenting free software

Nov 23, 2009 GMT

Last week, I wrote about the problems of writing documentation for free software. This week, I'd like to write about the practical challenges -- specifically, what knowledge you need to write free software documentation, and the available sources of information. To take advantage of the information available, you need a reasonable grasp of the written language. Contrary to the impression that many salaried technical writers give, you do not necessarily need to know how to parse a sentence or be a wizard at the black arts of grammar. Text that requires minimal editing is always an asset, but free software documentation is a communal effort. If you're lucky, another documenter can...
Shedding commercial attitudes towards documentation

Nov 19, 2009 GMT

Six years ago, I made my living as a technical writer. I wouldn't want to return to the profession, but, when Esther Schindler recently blogged about the importance of detailed code comments and Carla Schroder about the need for better documentation in free software generally, I noticed. But, as much as I agree with Schindler and Schroder, I wonder how much of the community is about to give it the attention it deserves. Too much of the community still seems to cling to attitude about documentation inherited from commercial development.Attitudes to writers (and why they deserve them)Part of the problem is that technical writers are held in low regard. There is a simple reason for this...
All my eggs in one Basket

Nov 10, 2009 GMT

One application I am always looking for is a better desktop wiki. Not for collaboration, but for dumping various pieces of information into as I research and organize them. For a time, I used Basket Note Pads, but I drifted away when it didn't run on KDE 4.x and the original maintainer quit. Happily, the project has overcome both those setbacks and is moving slowly towards a new major release.Basket is one of those applications that you can navigate at a glance. The left pane serves as a table of contents, showing a hierarchical structure of baskets -- containers for various bits of information. On the right is a detailed view of the basket currently highlighted in the left pane. To add a...

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