Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

First contact

Jun 27, 2013 GMT

Fourteen years ago  to the day, free software became part of my life. Ever since, nothing in my life has been the same.It wasn't my first encounter. I had spent six months documenting applications that ran on Slackware, including generating my own description of the file-hierarchy. But I knew nothing of the community that was building Slackware, much less any other project, and my own efforts to set it up unassisted had been spectacularly unsuccessful.However, I did have a distaste for Windows, and had used alternate versions of DOS and OS/2. It would be a couple of years before how IBM had betrayed OS/2 would become common knowledge, but what happened was already obvious in general...
Keyboard art

Jun 18, 2013 GMT

"If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful."- William MorrisNothing is more utilitarian than a keyboard. Even Apple, which has done so much to transform other hardware, offers only starkly functional keyboards whose major innovation is their color. That's why when I happened across Datamancer Enterprises, I stumbled over myself in my rush to place an order, even at the expense of a few macaroni and cheese dinners.The idea of keyboards as art is a concept that might have been promoted by William Morris and the Arts and Craft Movement at the end of the nineteenth...
What makes for a community distribution?

Jun 14, 2013 GMT

Choosing a Linux distribution is not always a technical issue. For many the degree of community control is at least as important as the version of the kernel or the default package selection. Even though Linux long-ago entered the mainstream of business, the conviction persists that distributions governed by the community remain more democratic and truer to the ideals of free software than those ruled by a company. However, in practice, determining the type and degree of community control needs more than a quick look at a description of the distribution's governance.Several major distributions can be defined as community-governed. However, the exact form of government in such...
7 Improvements needed in LibreOffice templates and styles

Jun 11, 2013 GMT

For the past couple of months, I've been drafting a book with the working title of "Styles and Templates in LibreOffice." It's going well, although not fast enough --a big project never moves fast enough for me -- but in many ways it's an exercise in exasparation when I see how little things have changed since I last wrote about such topics.Writing the book is a return to expertise that I haven't needed for five or six years. I no longer write manuals, and I long ago devised the templates for my everyday purposes, and haven't needed to revive them recently. Yet despite the importance of styles and templates in LibreOffice, they remain as needlessly arcane and as lacking in...
Reinventing Simple

May 30, 2013 GMT

The days when Linux applications were small and simple are long gone. With Firefox and LibreOffice installed on most desktops, the community has embraced monster-sized apps so unreservedly that you sometimes need to look twice to see what operating system you are using. In fact, the complexity has become so great that simplicity is being reinvented again and again -- by adding complexity.I made this observation while looking at Author, the still-in-development module for serious writers in Calligra Suite. Scanning Planet KDE a few days ago, I noticed a blog entry by Inge Wallin announcing that Author now included a "distraction-free mode."Judging from the screen shot,...
Technophile / Technophobe

May 24, 2013 GMT

After a few drinks, I've been known to hold forth on my theory that humans have evolved to be a mixture of 20% technophiles and 80% technophobes. The technophiles, of course, are needed for progress. But experimenting can be chancy (Gurk! So that mushroom is poisonous!), so the technophobes are needed, too, to keep the species going in the face of disaster.I suspect that free software is unusual in being a community of technophiles. After all, the cautious are likely to stick with what the majority are using, and avoid what is rapidly evolving. However, I often suspect that a dash of technophobic caution would be as much a benefit to free software as to the human species. The limits of...
The Limits of Anonymity

May 14, 2013 GMT

An unsettling thing happened on Twitter a couple of weeks ago. Without meaning to, I found myself suggesting that anonymity was not always a good idea.This was an unexpected position for me to be arguing. Although I have rarely taken advantage of anonymity myself, I have always believed in the right of others to do so. In the past, I have pointed out publicly that in many countries, using a pseudonym is legal unless you are doing so for criminal purposes.I have acknowledged, too, that many people use pseudonyms for legitimate reasons, such as to hide from abusive spouses or to fulfill the terms of employee contracts that limit their expressions of opinions. At times, I have come close to...

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