Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

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...
Learning to live with systemd

May 08, 2015 GMT

My first experience with systemd could not have been worse. Suddenly, after upgrading KDE from Debian unstable, my monitor could not display at its highest resolution. Booting displayed errors because I was not using GNOME. Even worse, I had to search for how to turn off my computer, and even then could only do so from the root account. All this seemed a high price to pay for an init replacement, but I reserved judgment until I knew enough to develop an informed opinion.Now I am glad that I kept my mouth shut. Having spent the last few days learning about systemd, I conclude that most of the objections to systemd were premature and that, although perhaps unnecessary, it is surprisingly...
Back to the conferences

Apr 30, 2015 GMT

I have fallen out of the habit of attending conferences. For years, I had a sick wife, and didn't want to be more than a couple of hours away. I am widowed now, but still haven't realized that I am more able to travel. Instead, I depend on emails and chat for professional contacts, and the occasional conference that comes to Vancouver, like the upcoming OpenStack Summit, which I am anticipating with unabashed enthusiasm.My first free software was OSCON in 2000. I was there as a writer for Maximum Linux, a short-term companion magazine to Maximum PC. My editor apologized that the convention hotel was booked, and put us up at a Victorian bed and breakfast a few blocks away that I still mean...
When enthusiasm for free software turns ugly

Apr 27, 2015 GMT

Last week, I wrote an article about the decline of Apache OpenOffice, and how its attitude towards other projects might be part of its problem. "No one wants to see OpenOffice humiliated," I wrote -- but apparently I was wrong. At least half a dozen people contradicted me, saying they did want to see the project humiliated, and incidentally demonstrating the dark side of the strong feelings that free software evokes.These strong feelings can be one of the most attractive aspects of free software. Few of those who are lucky enough to work full-time on free software are apathetic about their employment. Almost without exception, they are convinced that they are helping to change...
Sydney Padua's "The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage"

Apr 14, 2015 GMT

Imagine a world where Ada Lovelace did not die at 36, and Charles Babbage actually built his computer computer. Now imagine that world chronicled by a mixture of in-jokes and footnotes, and you have the flavor of Sydney Padua's The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage. After years of posting rough drafts online, Padua has finally released the first book of the comic -- an event that on my book shelves, ranks right up there with another collection of Kate Beaton's Hark! A Vagrant strip.If you read Padua online, you know what to expect: a mixture of history, mathematics, and humor in which the reader's attention is constantly yanked from the comic to the footnote and back again...
Worrying about crowdfunding

Apr 02, 2015 GMT

Having just submitted one book, I'm considering crowdfunding my next. That means I'm spending a lot of time reading about crowdfunding, and worrying about what could go wrong with the idea.In the past, I've pointed out that the success rate for crowdfunding is low for projects related to free software -- less than ten percent. I've also worried about what happens when donations reach saturation level, and everyone who might contribute is already contributing their maximum.Recently, however, I've been adding to those lists of concerns. Worry #1: Saturation and potential donorsTo start with, Paul Brown and several others have suggested that saturation is unlikely. They point out that free...
Free Software Branding Fonts

Mar 30, 2015 GMT

In 2007, Red Hat released the Liberation fonts -- metrical equivalents of Arial, Courier, and Times New Roman. More recently, however, the trend has been for free software projects to brand with fonts. Since the resulting fonts are professionally designed, they not only add a touch of class to interfaces, but gift free software with some of the best-designed fonts for general use.Admittedly, these sponsored fonts are short of workday serifs that might be used for body text on a page. However, all of them are ideal for online work -- and, sometimes, give a sense of a project's design priorities, even though most users pay them little attention. CantarellDesigned by Dave Crossland in 2010,...

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