Ruminations on the Digital Realm

Jan Stedehouder

Archive for the category “Ruminations on the Digital Realm”

Where to Ruminations?

After a series of attacks on my self-hosted weblogs I decided to call it quits with that. I took a break and re-focused my writing efforts. I am a writer, and I like to write about free and open source software and all that is related to that. Not spending most of my time in some Darwinistic battle to keep ahead of people who don’t have a life, nor real skills and spend countless hours defacing websites.

But, as time progresses there is that blogging virus again. Ruminations will continue as a weblog, still focused on FOSS and related stuff, safe and sound (I hope) in the WordPress fold.

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Ruminations has moved… again

How secure do you have to make a site to make sure some script-kiddy wanker can’t deface it? Well, at least some looser thought it was fun to target the original Ruminations on the Digital Realm website.

So, for now, I decided to move Ruminations on the Digital Realm to WordPress.com. At least the content is more secure now and available for the visitors of the site. It isn’t a one on one copy yet. The images haven’t been added yet.

Combating digital illiteracy

One recurring theme in my writings and presentations is ‘digital literacy’. I like the definition for ‘technological literacy‘ used by the National Academy of Engineering and often use their framework for my own musings on digital literacy.

Technological Literacy

When I use that definition and look around in the realms of computer users, even a large proportion of so-called advanced users fall short, thus leading to the conclusion that the majority of computer users are in fact digital illiterates.

The last couple of weeks I have been reading up on the thoughts and ideas of Prof. Robert Chambers. research associate at the Institute of Development Studies. No, his work has no direct bearing on FOSS developement or research. His main focus is that of rural development and how to involve local people, their knowledge and skills in projects in developing countries. His ‘Revolutions in Development Inquiry‘ provides a -in my opinion- brilliant overview of the participatory methodology he pioneered and should be required reading for those developing free and open source communities. In a recent talk I applied his conceptual model to FOSS communities and it allowed to see some inherent weaknesses that could hinder the adoption of free and open source software (by a priori locking out potential new users) and stiffle new contributions to projects. One example of this is highlighted by GeekFeminism, where -again unfortunately- it is pointed out that current FOSS community culture is hostile to female developers.

I will elaborate more about the conceptual model of Robert Chambers and the various conclusions it leads to. For one, it helped me to visualize the issues involving the reduction of digital illilteracy. As more and more information, knowledge, commercial and governmental services are offered via online portals it becomes paramount to make sure digital citizens do not only have access those services (a massive undertaking in it’s own right), but can make use of those services in a responsible and secure way. FOSS communities, regardless of their shortcomings, can play an important role in attacking digital literacy. But how? I tried to capture it in a set of drawings.

First, the ‘good old days’ where you could refer the n00bs to man pages and tersely written howto’s. The n00b either was a geek, or was smart enough to want to become one. Who needed a GUI in those days anyway?

And then new Linux distributions appeared that did a lot to lower the threshold to adoption. New communities arose, with new channels of communications and support.

Now, it may come as a surprise, but for a digitally less-savvy user finding you way around the average end-user facing forum is daunting. Really, it is. Wiki’s are great, but try to navigate one without any previous knowledge and it isn’t a source of help anymore. Getting there via Google runs the risk of falling in the FOSS timewarp: landing on obsolete pages for old releases.

What is the proper solutions? It certainly isn’t the way most Windows-users use.

Fixing the problem without explaining the how and why doesn’t empower, it only increases dependency.

The iSolution (hide all complexity) doesn’t help much either.

In my opinion the best way is to help users getting a better grasp of the problems, possible solutions and help them implement the solution themselves.

Perhaps you’re thinking: ‘hey, I am doing this already’. But are you sure? Well, that’s something for the next article.

Ruminations is moving

I agree. This site has been too quit for too long, and it is time to change it.

First, some explanation. 2008 was a great year for me as a writer, columnist and journalist. I was given the opportunity to write two books on migrating to Ubuntu Linux and one one open source and open standards. I could contribute to a textbook for higher education and was co-editor of the Dutch open source yearbook 2008/2009. As editor of the online open source magazine Livre I was on top of the international open news. Regular readers know I have a thing for the BSD’s and it was an honor to be able to contribute to the new BSD Magazine. Apart from this I continued writing pieces for Digiplace and SoftwareBus, a magazine for a Dutch computerusers group. Well, I guess you can understand why I decided a brief writing sabbatical was in order.

But now, playing time is over. I used the sabbatical to refocus my writing, deciding upon the projects I wish to contribute (as most of my writing is volunteer work I have to spend my time wisely) and the topics I want to write about this year. One of those projects is Transparante Zaken, transparant affairs, which should develop itself into an independent news- and opinionsite for the open domain as well as a platform for the Dutch open communities to make themselves heard and known. This site is an initiative of myself and Brenno de Winter, the foremost ICT-journalist in the Netherlands who is currently involved in a massive Freedom of Information Act campaign in order to get a grip on the actual open source/open standards policies of various governments.

Ruminations on the Digital Realm has always been my playground in English with reviews about Linux distributions and -for instance- the two ’30 days with…’ series about PC-BSD and DesktopBSD. Another aspect has been my ideas on how to promote open source, like yesterday’s article ‘Embrace and extend‘. I believe it’s time to put some muscle behind Ruminations again and start writing those reviews and opinion pieces.

I did decide to say goodbye to this old blog. WordPress has been a great companion for the last three years, but the kind of articles I wish to write and the way I want to organize them for future reference require a different platform. In this case Joomla. The new site is ready to roll. Starting coming Monday the URL http://www.ruminationsonthedigitalrealm will point forward to the new Joomla-based website. This blog will remain, albeit at a different location.

For those who follow Ruminations via newsfeeds, please update the URL’s to:
http://www.ruminationsonthedigitalrealm.org/portal/rss (for the new site)
http://www.ruminationsonthedigitalrealm.org/portal/old/feed (for the old site)

Looking forward to meeting everyone at the new location.

Open letter: independent conformance testing needed for ODF and OOXML implementations

Tineke Egyedi, senior researcher of standardization at the University of Delft, The Netherlands,  president of the European Academy for Standardization and vice-chair of the International Cooperation for Education about Standardization, send an open letter (PDF) to software vendors with the title Who pays for interoperability in public IT procurement. In her letter she calls upon vendors to submit their implementation of the OpenDocument standard and the Office Open XML standard in software products for independent conformance testing and to verify the interoperability. She feels this is needed to make sure that governments and it’s citizens do not head into a new vendor-lock and to ensure vendors do not alter the open standards along the way.

The letter is as follows:

Who pays for interoperability in public IT procurement?
A public letter to the IT industry about document format standards

Delft, 16 November 2008

L.S.,
It is not uncommon for governments to voluntarily head for vendor lock-in. As a citizen, however, I have a direct stake in my government basing its public procurement of IT on open standards. This stake may be most evident for ‘civil ICT standards’ (Andy Updegrove), i.e., for standards that support access to government information and exchanges with government such as document formats (e.g., sustainable digital data). However, I also have a standards-related stake in IT procured for government-internal processes because, first, in practice government-internal and –external IT processes cannot be separated. Second, because of the increasing costs that accompany vendor-lock-in. Third, because government procurement is good for 16% of the European IT market and is therefore a means towards a more competitive and sustainable IT market.
A main reason for voluntary vendor lock-in is the fear of lack of interoperability of IT products in a multi-vendor environment. Experience shows that standard-compliant products from different vendors need not necessarily interoperate. As is known, a dominant vendor may design in incompatibility to break the integrity of a standard (e.g. Java platform). But usually incompatible standard implementations are the unhappy outcome of good intentions.

Problem of document format standards
In the field of document formats there is an additional complexity. For the external reader: ISO4 has ratified two competing XML-oriented standards for document formats. The first one, the Open Document Format (ODF, ISO/IEC 26300) was ratified in 2006 and stems from OASIS, a standards consortium. The second one, Office Open XML (OOXML, ISO/IEC 29500) originally stems from Ecma International, another standards consortium. Although ISO’s OOXML process has been widely contested, which caused a delay in its final approval, according to the ISO website the standards is to be published shortly.
ISO’s approval of a second, overlapping standard will not have lessened government fears about interoperability in a multi-vendor environment. The market has become less rather than more transparent by means of this standards effort. To re-create some transparency about the interoperability of applications and reduce the fear of post hoc expenses in public procurement, conformance and interoperability testing is needed. Plug-test events are needed to test the factual interoperability of standards-based products from different vendors. To be credible to all concerned, a neutral, independent testing centre such as ETSI may need to be involved to e.g. develop test-suites and coordinate plug test events.

Interoperability between multi-vendor OOXML applications
Current discussions on open standards highlight that multiple implementations are an important sign that standards are really open (see presentations by Rishab Gosh and by Thiru Balasubramaniam, The Power of Procurement). Regarding ISO’s OOXML, the contention is that no company has yet implemented the full standard, not even its primary sponsor Microsoft; and that the six thousand page specification is too complex and too inconsistent to implement. Are these contentions true?  If not, governments will want more than verbal claims to the contrary. Moreover, they can easily be countered with third party conformance and interoperability tests, including a plug-test event with multiple OOXML-compliant IT vendors.

Interoperability between ODF applications
All major vendors, Microsoft included, have agreed to support ODF ISO/IEC 26300, or are already doing so. That is, the availability of multiple implementations is not a problem here. Moreover, interestingly, two weeks ago OASIS initiated a technical committee to organize conformance and interoperability tests. Given its scope, this committee will provide transparency to governments about the degree of conformance of applications to ODF and the interoperability of ODF-documents. Less clear is whether the committee also intends to address interoperability between standards versions, or more general: what policy it has on standards change. To my knowledge, such policies have not yet been defined by any standards consortium or standards body. They would befit the area of civil ICT standards.
The OASIS committee explicitly does not address “identifying or commenting on particular implementations” or any certification activities. Government procurement officers will ultimately need testing at this level and want to involve an independent third party testing centre for this purpose. Moreover, OASIS, too, might at a later stage want to involve an independent third party in order to avoid credibility problems.

Having two overlapping standards brings about its own problems, as testifies a review of current ad hoc solutions – converters, translators, plug-ins – to re-create compatibility between ODF-products and Microsoft’s partial implementation of the OOXML standard. Those who develop a low quality and overlapping standard, qualifications which also OOXML supporters use, are not the ones who pay for the consequences. Regrettably, citizens will be paying the price for lack of interoperability.
Although there is no formal accountability to fall back upon in standardization, those who initiated the duplicating effort may feel a – corporate social – responsibility for what happened. Their help is needed to shift interoperability costs from governments and citizens (post hoc) back to IT vendors (ex ante), the source of the interoperability problem. As a start, will they fully cooperate and support OASIS’ initiative of conformance and interoperability testing? Are they prepared to shoulder the costs of independent, third party conformance and interoperability tests, tests that are needed to assure governments that no unexpected problems will arise ex post?

Kind regards,

Tineke Egyedi
Delft University of Technology
(T.M.Egyedi at TUDelft.nl)

The letter was send to HP, Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, IBM, ECMA and OASIS.

I completely agree with Tineke on this. I do believe it is time we see the end of vendor-sponsored ICT research on various issues. One can hardly expect independent verification of perfomance claims or -in this case- conformance claims by sponsored researchers. Tineke is correct to point out that the problem isn’t simply open source or open standards, but also the implementation of open standards in applications. Recent research already showed that issues that open source developers have with implementing open standards don’t necessarily reach the proper agencies to remedy the issues.

Thus, feel free to spread the new about this open letter and forward it to whomever you think needs to hear it.

Back to Basics

One derives many benefits from a holiday. A simple true-ism, of course, and not really the greatest of insights. I use my holidays not only to relax and spend some quality time with Agnes, but also to stand back from the day-to-day developments and activities. For one, I started reading about non-IT related, non-open source, non-Linux topics. One book was about the women who joined and supported the extreme rightwing party in the 1930s in the Netherlands. Before that, I finished Naomi Klein‘s The Shock Doctrine. Currently, David Rothkopf‘s Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the world they are making is providing an alternative viewpoint to Klein’s. The world is more than Linux and open source, with issues of far greater importance and much wider consequences than for instance the petty attitudes of some in the realm of open source. It made me wonder how to continue with Ruminations on the Digital Realm?

One of the corner stones of this weblog was to provide an honest critique of developments in the realm of Linux and open source software from an end-user perspective, the viewpoint of W2L migrators. The key thought was that end-users should provide feedback in order to exert influence on the next generation of Linux distributions. I still believe there is a need to provide that feedback, but how useful is a weblog to achieve that? The most active and best read articles in recent months were a completely bogus review about OpenSUSE and the discussion about the Xubuntu rip off PC/OS.

Taking a somewhat broader perspective and looking further back in time I can not escape the conclusion that perhaps the world of Linux and open source isn’t as open to peer review by other stakeholders (other than fellow developers) as it proclaims to be. If you do not support the ‘pet project of the month’ or write hallellujah reviews of ‘yet another new GUI thingy’ you are accused to spreading FUD, having no knowledge whatsoever about the subject under discussion and/or having mental issues. Personal attacks seem to be a favorite and strange enough some can harbour resentment long after the rest of the world moved on. I don’t shy back from a strong debate, especially not when I caused it in the first place 😉 . But, is it what I want to continue doing with Ruminations on the Digital Realm?

The answer is no. I started writing about Linux and open source software some years ago, because it was fun playing with it. Installing new distributions, trying out tons of new programs and writing about the fun of doing that. Nothing high-minded, nothing political, but writing for fellow hobbyists. Like what I am doing now with Mandriva 2009.0, for no other purpose than my own curiosity. Not because I like Mandriva better than any other distribution, but because it is possible and fascinating to observe first-hand the maturing of a new distribution.

Or like the two series about DesktopBSD and PC-BSD, which resulted in a nice article in the first issue of BSD Magazine and another coming later this year. The BSD crowd was refreshingly mature and they took my criticism like adults. They understood that feedback and the debate contributes to better products. I am sad to say that such maturity is far too rare in the world of Linux.

For me it is time to go back to basics, to the original purpose of writing. The Ultumix’s and PC/OS’s of Linux can take heart for the time being. I will write about the fun things, the good developments and more important issues that are larger than Linux and open source.

Not all issues I will write about stem from pursuing fun. I concur with those who see a growing threat to our civil liberties in the digital realm. Perhaps some regulation of the Wild Wild West was needed, but things are moving way beyond that. My digital privacy and digital rights are more and more violated. What is happening and what can we do about it? What open source tools are available for those who have nothing to hide, but prefer to keep things private nonetheless? It will take some time and research to digg into this, but I am sure it will be highly interesting.

Journalist, columnist or activist?

Apparently it isn’t always that easy to tell the difference between a journalist, a columnist or an activist. At least, it is the conclusion I need to draw after receiving an email from a city alderman (Dutch: wethouder) from a midsize town in the Netherland. He refuses to answer questions about some IT-decisions. He considers my requests for clarification as being part of an activist strategy and not as simple straightforward journalistic practice. To quote him: “I do not appreciate this and therefore I will no longer answer any of your e-mails”. Hmmm… This situation gives rise to some questions. When does critical journalism become activism? Can you see a sharp distinction between the roles of journalist, columnist and activist when it come to open source and open standards.
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Where is the PCLINUXOS series?

Things have been so busy in the last couple of weeks that I didn’t have the time to sit down and continue writing about PCLinuxOS.

I started writing for a Dutch open source newssite, Livre. It’s fun to check out what is happening in the world of open source, open standards, open content, Linux and all that is free. I am getting into a routine that will soon leave me some time to focus on other writing tasks as well.

Besides this I have some offline writing assignments. I like doing all of those and it is a matter of balancing the time and energy that is available. For PCLinuxOS that means I have to pace the series even more than I expected. But I will finish the series 😉

Thanks for being patient.

Richard Stallman on open software versus free software

In the list of news feeds a familiar article popped up: Richard Stallman’s essay Why “Free Software” is better than “Open Source”. That’s one thing that sometimes puzzles me: how old news can be made popular again in the digital realm. As if there isn’t enough original content to pick from. However, one commenter gave a link to an update version of the article with the title Why “Open Source” misses the point of Free Software. I decided catch up on the subject again.
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The top ten of hypes I avoided in 2007

When it comes to hypes I have one automatic response: stay away from it. Maybe I value my individuality too much or do I simply distrust anything that can stir a mass of people into ‘me too’ behavior. Fortunately, time often proves me right and that what was once considered a ‘must have’ or ‘must do’, sunk into oblivion shortly after I avoided it. It might not be scientific reasoning, but it did save me quite a lot of money or stress over the years. Looking back at 2007 I could identify ten hypes that I virtually ignored or actively avoided. With my track record this could almost serve as a list of things that are about to disappear as well.

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