Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Why I don't write lists of influential people

Jun 29, 2015 GMT

Summer is a-coming in, and the entire tech sector is entering its annual slowdown. One way you can tell is that lists of influential people are starting to appear. It's a type of story that I've never written, and hope that I never will.I understand why lists of influential people are popular. If you regularly write about a certain topic -- free software, for instance, to take a random example -- then lists of influential people are an easy assignment. You should be able to start writing in five minutes, a preparation time that fits right into the lazy days of summer. Yet to my mind, such stories are too easy. They're the kind of story that Buzzfeed specializes in, conveying little new or...
What happens when leaders quit?

Jun 24, 2015 GMT

Recently, Swapnil Bhartiya published an article that quoted Linus Torvalds speculating on what might happen if he quit leading kernel development. To my surprise, I have seen the article condemned here and there as being in poor taste. Yet the more I think, the more I think that many free software projects need to start similar discussions.We live in a death-denying culture, and the sub-culture of developers is not known for its maturity. All the same, as free software advocates and contributors are aging. On social media, you may have noticed gray hairs that weren't there a decade ago, and people who were once cradling infants now congratulating those same infants on graduation from...
The new paradigm is Linux

Jun 22, 2015 GMT

The first time I sensed the potential of free software was when I tried GNU Parted. As an OS/2 user, I had been impressed by PartitionMagic, one of the few pieces of software to originate on that doomed platform. But if Parted could do the same functions reliably, how could proprietary software like PartitionMagic hope to compete? As things happened, I was overly optimistic, but my rhetorical question was correct all the same -- it just ignored a lot of other considerations that took time to overcome.At the time, I knew too little to appreciate how radical the logic of free software actually was. Twenty years after the first personal computers, software was considered a commodity. Of...
How non-programmers can fit into free software

Jun 12, 2015 GMT

I have made a living as a non-programmer for twenty years. By that, I mean that I work around programmers without being one myself. Oh, I can manage BASH scripts, and I've dabbled in Python and Perl, but I lack the affinity for code that would make writing it a true satisfaction rather than a necessity or an intellectual exercise. Instead, I have done work that supports programming, such as writing, graphic design, usability, and product management. So, after over seventy contracts and full-time positions, I think I can speak with some experience about how non-programmers become accepted as part of a development team.This issue is becoming increasingly important as free software becomes...
The need for conferences

May 29, 2015 GMT

Last week's OpenStack Summit was my first conference in three years. Living with a dying partner for ten years got me out of the habit of traveling, and I'm just starting now to become more adventurous, so when a conference landed in my own back yard, I was eager to attend. But I wasn't at the conference for half an hour before I found myself feeling at home. Simply roaming the halls was enough to make me feel at home.True, the attendees were not quite my people. My friends and contacts are mostly developers of desktops and core applications, while most of the summit attendees were developing for the cloud.  But they were close enough cousins that they immediately seemed familiar.In...
The OpenStack gold rush

May 21, 2015 GMT

Working with free software is like living with a mad carpenter -- each time you look around, you discover a room you knew nothing about. After four days at the OpenStack Summit in Vancouver, I feel like I've discovered an entirely new subdivision. And the best news is that OpenStack is reasserting the core philosophies of free software, although from a practical perspective rather than an idealistic one.Like many people, I had been vaguely aware of OpenStack for several years. Something about cloud computing, wasn't it, and maybe containers? But until I attended the conference this week, I was unaware of what a major project OpenStack had become. According to the figures I heard, the...
The End of the Editor Wars

May 11, 2015 GMT

For years, the text editors Vi (and its successor Vim) and Emacs have been seen as rivals. In recent years, the rivalry has been largely a subject of jokes, but in the days before the desktop, it was serious enough, and the subject of endless flame wars. Even now, you hardly count as a hacker if you haven't taken sides, although taking sides can be dangerous in itself; I know of at least one Emacs user who lost their chance of a job at a company where the standard was Vim. Nobody seems to have noticed yet that the editor wars are over, or that Vim won handily.When I first became involved in free software, the distinction between Vi and Emacs supporters seemed real. Emac supporters in my...

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