Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Convincing artists not to cling to copyright fears

Apr 18, 2012 GMT

I spent the last weekend at an art school graduation, surrounded by artists in various stages of their careers. Several times, I urged the advantages of an active online presence But, more often than not, those with whom I was talking balked at the idea, citing worries about copyright violation. Their reaction was a reminder of just how different the attitudes are in the free software and open source community from those of the general public -- and how hard that difference can be to overcome.Mind you, I sympathize with their concerns. Artists are miles away from a soulless corporation that could suck up the losses due to copyright violation. Many are near or below the poverty line. In...
Drinking at conferences

Apr 11, 2012 GMT

Usually, I'm not slow to give an opinion. However, after reading Ryan Funduk's "Our Culture of Exclusion" (, and its discussion of binge drinking at conferences, I realize that I don't know nearly enough to venture an opinion -- at least one that is worth reading, anyway. The most I can do is express the suspicion that Funduk might be right.The reason I can't address the question with any authority is that I spent the first decade of the millennium caring for my sick partner. She could neither travel nor drink for much of that time, so for the most part neither did I. And, since her death, I haven't really resumed either habit.If...
The Parallel Evolution of OS/2 and Free Software

Apr 05, 2012 GMT

Earlier this week, you might have noticed Esther Schindler and Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols writing about the twenty-fifth anniversary of OS/2, IBM's operating system of the 1990s. So did at least half a dozen others.Why bother, you might ask? OS/2 still exists today as a hobbyist operating system under the name of eComStation, but it's been a long time since it had any influence on the direction of mainstream computing. Nor is eComStation free software, although many of the applications it runs are. You might be tempted to attribute the interest entirely to the nostalgia of the middle-aged. In my case, that would definitely be a factor; I not only ran OS/2 for six years, but the first...
Inaccessible hardware

Mar 31, 2012 GMT

Free and open source software has no shortage of spinoffs. There's the OpenBIOS project, which tries to make the firmware that runs computers free. There's the open hardware movement, which applies FOSS concepts to the machines it runs on. In academia, there's the open access movement, dedicated to sharing the information usually restricted to journals Increasingly, however, I'm starting to think we need an even more basic spinoff -- something that might be called the hardware free access movement.What I mean is, we need advocacy for hardware that can be opened and repaired by anyone. Right now, it's a concept that is not just going out of fashion, but barely exists.Look, for example, at...
The Strange Case of Sexism and Sqoot

Mar 20, 2012 GMT

A few years ago, reactions to sexism in free and open source software (FOSS) took a few days to circulate. People were surprised, and unprepared to respond. Now, however, experience has encouraged preparation, and the responses are instantaneous and unforgiving, as Sqoot, the organizers of the upcoming Boston API Jam  hackathon  found out.As near as I can tell, this is what happened:Sqoot is a two-year old startup that describes itself as developing a "local deal layer [that] empowers sites and apps to build with deals." In other words, it's a center for organizing discounts for services and events. No license is posted on the company's site, but its API appears to be...
GNOME, Unity, and mobile devices

Mar 14, 2012 GMT

I've often said that recent desktop environments are heavily influenced by mobile devices. However, it was only last week, when I switched to a Nexus S phone, that I examined that claim in detail and realized that the statement was incomplete.The fact that all three interfaces share some common assumptions is too obvious to question seriously. The relationship shows in details like menus and windows that are either without titlebar buttons and menus or else hide these items until users search for them. In Unity, it also shows in windows that be dragged up and down without scroll bars.However, the most obvious similarity is that complete screen changes are an inescapable part of the...
Watching the Future of Canonical

Mar 06, 2012 GMT

Is it just me, or is there a whiff of desperation these days around Canonical, Ubuntu's commercial arm? By that I mean that Canonical increasingly seems to focused on reaching profitability, and nothing else. The de-emphasis on community, the constant introduction of new services, and the increasing market speak are all in marked contrast to the Canonical of five or even three years ago.Since Ubuntu is a privately-held company, its financial position is a matter of speculation. In 2009, Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth stated that the company was "creeping toward $30 million," the point of profitability, but that was before many of its current services were introduced....

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