Our shiny new Launchpad-ified IRC Teams are now ready to take membership applications. This means that if you want to contribute to Ubuntu by acting as an operator on those Ubuntu IRC channels that you are active on, you can simply say so on Launchpad!

Well, it isn’t really quite that simple, but we do now have a process through which anyone can express their interest in contributing through operator work. Previously our recruitment toolkit has been more primitive and consisted of blackmail, bribery and coercion – in other words, when there was pressure to grow the operator team, we simply begged people to join.

So if you’re active on our IRC channels and you think your channel has too few operators, and if you’ve been aching to help, you should consider applying for membership! You might get your chance if

  • You are great at resolving conflicts
  • You are very patient. Superhuman nerve control is a basic IRC operator feature
  • You can take criticism
  • You are happy when helping and advising others
  • In addition to the Code of Conduct and our IRC Guidelines, you are happy to adhere to some additional guidelines :)

In general, please do not consider becoming an operator because it could be “fun”. It is not, it’s hard work. However, it is often quite rewarding, and you get to operate with a great team of people. You don’t need to be an IRC guru, but you do need to know enough to be able to learn more.

Please be aware that *many* applicants will not become operators for various reasons. This will not necessarily be because we think you would make a bad operator. Only a limited number of operators are ever needed, some timezones are better covered already than others, and so on.

If you feel that you could be a good addition to the IRC Team, please head on to Launchpad and apply to the team corresponding to the channels you want to help in, and create a Wiki page where you explain why you want to join and why you would be a good operator. Think of the wiki page as your resume. Gather testimonials from other people who know you and believe you qualify. Think of those as your references.

Before you do any of the above, be sure to study the official requirements and application process, to ensure everything is well with your application and it will be considered whenever new operators are needed.

Edited on 2011-07-29: fix grammar in order to make more sense.

In yesterday’s EMEA regional membership approval board meeting, my application for Ubuntu membership was accepted, and tonight I’m in the process of activating my membership perks, such as syndication on Planet Ubuntu. Thanks to all who cheered for me in the meeting, and who added testimonials on my wiki page!

For those who don’t know me, I’m a Finnish academic guy and a big freedom fan. I have used, advocated, and supported Ubuntu as long as it has existed, and more in fact – I downloaded my first pre-Warty copy of Ubuntu from nonameyet.com. :)

I hope I can continue to be useful for the Ubuntu community for a long time still. I foresee a glorious future for Free Software and our favorite distribution, and I only wish I can recognize as many opportunities as possible for making Ubuntu a little bit more awesome as they come by. Because they always do.

Big cheers also to our other amazing new EMEA region Ubuntu members. Full speed ahead!

I stumbled upon an idea by Judge Richard Posner on how to save the newspaper industry: let’s extend the copyright law to “bar linking to or paraphrasing copyrighted materials without the copyright holder’s consent”. Therefore, I’m linking to his blog while I can! There are a couple of benefits for him in this.

  • His blog gets traffic via my blog. Not much but hey, someone might click. Now they can.
  • He is properly referenced so that my readers can check what I’m disagreeing with, and also read his point of view.

It seems (at least the under the current legislation) also appropriate to mention that I found Posner’s blog via TechCrunch. Therefore, I’ll also link to their article.

Neither copyright owner was asked for consent before I linked to their content. That’s how the Web works. If someone doesn’t like the Web and the way it works, maybe they shouldn’t use it to publish their copyrighted content in the first place.

In the very same sentence, Posner also suggests we should extend copyright law to “bar online access to copyrighted materials without the copyright holder’s consent”. I don’t understand why a copyright law extension would be necessary for this.  As one of Posner’s readers notes (in case this isn’t obvious enough), we already need the copyright holder’s consent. The thing is, if you upload your materials onto the Internet and make it freely available to Web surfers, certainly everyone already has your consent to access it.

UPDATE Jul 6 – Simon Owens emailed with some figures on how much traffic he got from a single link on the notorious “leecher” of news content, the Huffington Post. One link, 37,000 eyeballs. ‘Nuff said.

How to design a desktop

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Working on my dissertation, I was going through my field notes again today. I came across this snippet from my IRC logs, concerning the high-level design of the GNOME desktop.

<Amaranth> An option where two people disagree on how something will work? Not gnome
<Amaranth> Automatically figuring out what to do based on the circumstances? Gnome

‘Nuff said. Should apply to any user-facing software.

But yes, even after this Zen moment, I’m still writing the book. =)

I went to the FISCAR conference last week to talk about how rules and norms emerge in Free Software projects. After the talk, a colleague came up and said she had in particular liked a phrase I used in passing: the holiness of technology as a totem around which you can gather as a community. I had never meant to use such a term, but after thinking about it a bit, it’s beginning to make sense.

During the talk, I looked at three kinds of rules and how they emerge in a project where no party has the formal power to enforce any particular normative set. I talked about GNOME and their set of rules: contractual, technical, and social. At each level it is fairly easy to see the holiness of technology as the most important driving force for the emergence of rules.

Meditating, levitating GNU

At a basic contractual level, GNOME obvously has inherited the licensing culture of the Free Software tradition and the GNU project in particular. However, the holiness of technology has dictated the compromise of the LGPL into the GNU framework: a slightly more liberal license was written for licensing libraries, in order to advance Free Software in the long run. Consequently, the GNOME libraries tend to be LGPL, not GPL. This kind of licensing turned out to be an important advantage for GNOME. Most of the commercial software giants looking to port their applications to Linux or Unix desktop found the LGPL libraries more friendly to code against than Qt for example, when Qt used to be dual licensed with the GPL and Trolltech’s proprietary license. As a consequence, GNOME is the “business desktop” of the Free Software world.

Technical requirements are suggested in GNOME through Bugzilla wishlist bugs. The bug’s life span is as follows. A user is not happy with an application and suggests a change by filing a bug like “Feature X should be added to application Y, so that users could more easily do Z.” At this point everyone can agree that the feature would be beneficial for users, and it will be implemented in a future version. Everyone will be happy. However, quite often this is not the case. Commercial vendors may think the feature would not benefit their customers. The feature may be patented. The feature may even be politically incorrect in some countries. Usability regressions may occur. All these reasons however, can be reduced to technical arguments. Commercial success, international acceptability, compliance to law and accessablility standards of various countries all contribute to the growth of the user base. According to Linus’ Law, more users means better technical quality.

Last year, a proposal was made to create a code of conduct for the GNOME project, inspired Ubuntu’s similar document. The community rejected a detailed document like the Ubuntu CoC, but agreed to write down a minimal list of principles to point to. No discussion forum is more obsessed with staying on topic than the mailing lists of Free Software projects. Idle chatter, flamewars and personal exchanges of opinion are noise. Noise in turn is bad, because it makes it more difficult for the community to focus on the problem at hand. Social rules emerge as a consequence. Digressions are directed to a more appropriate mailing list. Participants of flamewars and personal exchanges are encouraged to take them to personal mail. There are clear technical reasons for this of course: keeping the signal-to-noise ratio as good as possible contributes to the effectiveness of desicion making and problem solving on the list.

To make a gross simplification, the principles of software freedom are codified in the Copyleft licenses. The discussions on the GNOME Bugzilla and the mailing lists are codified in the Human Interface Guidelines. The basic set of mailing list rules are codified in the Code of Conduct. All these documents together form the basic set of rules that have emerged from the collective experience of a Free Software project as it has matured. It is the minimum amount of normative material extracted from mailing list archives, past desicions, and trial and error – to enable them to better work towards a technical goal.

In this manner, a large mature Free Software project resembles a rational bureaucracy with a firm contractual base, a set of technical standards and procedures, and social norms and taboos. This normative layer rests on an uncontested belief, in this case the advancement of technology.

Freedom is Back

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I have never been a big fan of terms such as Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) and Free/Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS). I do understand that we use these terms in order to avoid getting into any nasty flame wars or being dragged into the schism between the socially oriented Free Software party and the pragmatist/instrumentalist Open Source advocates, but the result always felt rather unwieldy.

A couple of weeks ago, we had a lovely FLOSS (that’s right, as researchers we don’t want to stand on anyone’s toes) stream at the EASST conference in Lausanne. Soenke Zehle gave a great talk about Ubuntu marketing and “Africanization” of software. While business types and corporate users admittedly may well respond better to “open source” terminology, Soenke suggested that a large part of Ubuntu’s phenomenally quick success and great popularity can actually be attributed to “freedom” speech.

Ubuntu promises its users negative and positive freedoms: the negative freedom from the unpredictable whims of proprietary software manufacturers and vendors, and the positive freedoms of getting your software for free (both now and in the future), and the fact that Ubuntu works to provide accessible software, in your own language, and that you can make it better. Users like that. Putting Freedom back to Free Software seems to pay.

Yesterday, I went to the Linux 15th anniversary seminar here at the University of Helsinki. One of the speakers was Jon ‘maddog’ Hall, one of the great peacemakers in the FSF/OSI flamewars and perhaps the father of the FOSS term. As always, maddog’s talk was beautiful and very inspiring, but there was something that particularly caught my attention.

maddog wants to put Freedom back in his Free Software evangelism too. As the chief propagandist of Linux International, he has no doubt given a lot of thought on language, and he has changed his mind about FOSS. Free software is about Freedom, and open source code is a means to achieve the goal of liberating both users and vendors of software. He even used the loaded dichotomy of freedom vs. slavery, and spent quite a while talking about “software slaves” such as a shoe manufacturer he had met on a plane. This guy had lost half a year’s revenue while trying to upgrade his factory machines’ software from DOS-based to Windows, rewriting all his device drivers and applications, upgrading not only the machines he actually wanted to but ending up buying new hardware and software for everything. Looking at maddog’s Linux laptop on the plane, the shoemaker said, “I’ll do anything to get Microsoft out of my shop.”

I’m not surprised that an African social scientist like Soenke sees the value of freedom. I’m happy that even maddog has reconsidered his vocabulary, and decided to return to liberation speech. Why indeed do we beat around the bush so that businessmen don’t have to consider the value of freedom but instead invent another term, non-threatening, hollow of meaning? Why would we assume that they understand “Open Source” but wouldn’t understand “Freedom?” It’s not that hard to say we don’t mean “gratis stuff.”

We need to put Freedom back into Free Software.

Universal Inbox and the Google OS

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I’ve been thinking about Professor Anthony Joseph’s talk at the CITRIS in Europe meeting in June. He talked about IP and Telco network convergence and presented the ICEBERG Universal Inbox system his research group had implemented at the UC Berkeley. In brief, the system transforms and redirects communications between cellular and landline phone systems, email, instant messaging and VoIP.

A system such as the ICEBERG Universal Inbox looks like a very potent cure for our communications frustration by removing our need to handle multiple systems and replacing them with “any-to-any” communications. The system makes the person the communication endpoint by doing transformations of

  • Speech to text
  • Speech to voice email attachments
  • Call to SMS or email notification
  • Email to speech
  • And all combinations of those

So, User1 could contact User2 with any device she has at hand at the time, and the system would dynamically redirect the connection to any of User2′s devices, based on precense sniffing: desk phone, mobile, VoIP, or a voice Email attachment, whatever is most convenient to the recipient. Sounds like a nice, futuristic vision, but Anthony’s group has already implemented a working system with 80 users at Berkeley’s testbed site.

I chatted with Prof. Joseph afterwards over coctails and foamed over how cool it would be to see a commercial implementation of a similar system. I asked him if such a system would be feasible, and according to him it’s not “completely unfeasible”, and that it would “definitely be a commercial system.” What I’ve been thinking about lately, however, is Google.

Over the CITRIS cocktails, Anthony and I talked a bit about Google and how they are mixing Google Talk and Gmail in a manner not so different from Berkeley’s ICEBERG system, albeit not in such a comprehensive way. When I mused about how Google would probably enjoy a situation where your Google ID would be the key to your Universal Inbox, Dr. Joseph said, “Oh, Google would love that.”

I’m sure they would.

In fact, some people think Google would like even much more than that. Google already has my mail and my Jabber/Google Talk logs. I have even made backups of my entire home directory on Google’s servers with the handy Gmail Space Firefox extension. I don’t see why Google couldn’t do speech to text conversions and vice versa in the future, and store all my VoIP calls if i let them. My Google ID might very well become not only my Universal Inbox, but much, much more.

In his Slate article entitled “Where’s my Google PC?” Paul Boutin notes, “We might not realize it, but we all already have Google PCs,” and he might be right. Google is slowly gathering a pretty impressive combination of online applications that already are powerful enough to replace some of the regular home user’s desktop applications. “Technically there’s no reason Google couldn’t build the world’s best network computer.”

Boutin goes on to explain some of the clear advantages of networked computers, including one that may seem counterintuitive at first but if you think about it, it’s true: “Dollar for dollar, network-based computers are faster,” since

Home computers are marketed with slogans like “Ultimate Performance,” but the truth is they’re engineered to run cool, quiet, and slow compared to commercial servers. Google’s Web search is blindingly fast because your requests get handled by a sprawling array of loud, hot, power-hungry server racks that you’d never allow in your house. All your home computer has to do is draw the results of Google’s massive data-mining process on its screen—that’s the easy part.

There are problems with the Google OS too, of course. First, it relies on fast and reliable networks. We don’t have those, and the vast majority will not have them for a long time to come. The other, of course, is this simple question: Do you trust your data to Google? Microsoft holds the data of many people, companies, and even nations hostage with their omnipresent systems and proprietary file formats, but Google could actually host it on their servers.

Back at the CITRIS meeting, another of the more interesting talks came from Microsoft’s VP Jonathan Murray, who flatly noted that MS and others will inevitably build very powerful information systems but governments are not willing to deal with their implications. The questions are simple: If I opt out of integrating my life with computed environments, will I get health care when I’m old? Can I vote if I’m not on the online loop? Do I have access to the data my government gathers about me? How much data is it if the first place, and how can I be sure? Does my own government even control my data? What about Google Search itself? Should the Finnish government insist that if a search query originates from Finland, Finnish businesses and culture be given priority, or is it OK for Google to suggest the most popular American ones? And so on, enldessly.

How do you regulate such systems when they become even more powerful? According to Jonathan (who is responsible for Microsoft’s public sector relations), governments don’t even want to think about such things. Maybe such issues are too difficult, or maybe they do not seem pressing enough in the short lifetime of an elected government.

(Edited July 28, 2006. Fixed a couple of typos, expanded the Boutin quote a bit, added a couple of questions to the part about govenments and the lack of clue, made the text flow more sane by moving a sentence between paragraphs.)