Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Ad-blocking and the compromises of conscience

Mar 11, 2010 GMT

After reading Ken Fisher's "Why Ad Blocking is Devastating the Sites You Love," I admit to mixed emotions. In fact, I wonder if I can possibly navigate the issue without revealing myself as hopelessly hypocritical.Fisher is writing after Ars Technica, for which he works, blocked content from ad blockers for twelve hours. Technically, the experiment was a success, but it met with mixed reactions. "There was a healthy mob of people criticizing us for daring to take any kind of action against those who would deny us revenue even though they knew they were doing so," Fischer writes. "Others rightly criticized the lack of a warning or notification as to what was going...
Learned helplessness and the hacker mentality

Mar 08, 2010 GMT

Like anyone with even a modest claim to computer expertise, I am often asked to help neighbors and friends. I tend to mutter about the blind leading the blind, because what small expertise I've accumulated is in GNU/Linux, not Windows nor OSX. Yet, a surprising amount of the time, I can help, generally not because of any prior knowledge, but because I have absorbed enough of the hacker mentality that I'm a systematic troubleshooter. That used to be a given among GNU/Linux users, although lately I've worried how much longer that will remain true.The difference between me and the average Windows user is not that I have any arcane programming skills. I know no scripting or development...
The allure of the phone app stores

Feb 25, 2010 GMT

I was at a news conference today when two men pulled out their iPhones simultaneously. In less than ten seconds, they were comparing apps, their original purposes forgotten.This is a scene I've seen repeatedly in the last six months. Every time, I wonder what the excitement is about. After all, as a GNU/Linux user, I've been able to download software on a whim for years -- and not just the equivalent of KDE's widgets or GNOME's applets, but complex applications like Inkscape or Amarok.Moreover, that software is free of cost, unlike a lot of the apps on the iPhone, Blackberry, and Android stores.Mind you, I understand the excitement. Back when I was first understanding free and open source...
Damned Lies and Statistics, FOSS Sexism and Education

Feb 17, 2010 GMT

The trouble with statistics is that they can be easily abused. This insight is hardly new to me, but its truth was reinforced when I read Mark Guzdial's suggestion that free and open source software (FOSS) was not a good match for education because few women or minorities participated in it.Guzdial makes his comments in an article entitled, "The Impact of Open Source on Computing Education." After talking with Michael Terry, an assistant professor at the University of Waterloo who has studied open source usability, Guzdial suggests a number of reasons why FOSS might not be a good fit for computing education.Guzdial suggests, for instance, that the myth that FOSS developers work...
RMS's Mostly Slax: Bad choices in a good cause

Feb 11, 2010 GMT

Free distributions -- ones that contain only free and open source software, and remove proprietary blobs from the kernel -- are a rarity. In fact, the GNU Project lists only nine. For that reason, I was immediately interested in the announcement of RMS's Mostly Slax, a project dedicated to putting a free distribution on a USB pendrive.Unfortunately, while focusing on freedom, the project defeats its own purpose, because it doesn't bother to make that freedom very attractive, especially for new users.The title of the distribution explains its origins: RMS's Mostly Slax is named for Richard M. Stallman, and is based on Slax, one of the oldest and most popular derivatives of Slackware. The...
Fellow travelers: The FOSS media and FOSS developers

Feb 04, 2010 GMT

Recently, Carla Schroder published an editorial in which she used the current version of KDE Gwenview image viewer as an example of how interfaces are dumbed down. A couple of days later, Aaron Seigo replied in detail, refuting many of Schroder's points and talking about the design philosophy behind Gwenview. Both Schroder and Seigo tried hard to keep the discussion friendly, but, overall, the discussion was typical of many exchanges between journalists who cover free and open source software (FOSS) and the developers who build it.I admit I cringed when I first saw the exchange. I am a friendly acquaintance of both Schroder and Seigo, so naturally I would prefer that they get along. Just...
The choices inside Ubuntu

Jan 27, 2010 GMT

Hearing that the next Ubuntu release will use Yahoo! as the default search engine in Firefox leaves me with a twinge of uneasiness. My misgiving -- and it's a small one -- is not so much with the decision as with why it was made.In itself, the decision is trivial enough. If you dislike Yahoo!, you can easily change the default by going to the search engine field in the upper right corner and clicking on the icon and choosing Manage Search Engines from the drop-down menu. More importantly, to my surprise, comparing half a dozen sets of search results in Google and Yahoo! suggests that Yahoo! generally returns more results than Google -- often at a ratio of three or four to one. Nor are the...

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