Monthly Archives: July 2009

35 Percent!

A member of my community is frightened and disturbed by the results of this year’s No Child Left Behind scores. Only 35 and 47 percent of 11th graders in two area high schools passed the math tests. In a letter to the local newspaper, he asks us to:

Imagine an airline pilot being correct 35 percent of the time; imagine a brain surgeon being correct 47 percent of the time; imagine a pitcher throwing strikes 35 percent of the time — none would have a sustaining career.

A promising start, but I think he erred by turning to baseball for his concluding example. Presumably he’s talking about Major League Baseball. Let’s continue: Imagine a batter getting base hits 35 percent of the time. That’s terrible! No, wait. He would be paid millions of dollars while playing in a billion dollar stadium subsidized by the public.

Who needs math anyway?

‘Say Everything’ by Scott Rosenberg

Book Cover: 'Say Everything', by Scott Rosenberg'

One indication of the quality of this book is that I read the entire thing. And not only that, I finished it in about a week. It was engrossing enough that I kept wanting to pick it up to find out what happens next. It helped having a trip in there where I had time away from a computer to invest in some “long form” reading, but still.

Say Everything is a book about blogging: “How blogging began, what it’s becoming, and why it matters.” I’ve been reading (and writing!) blogs for many years and was familiar with some parts of the story. I’ve read some of the people profiled in the book, and I had my own opinions on the significance of the form, but I discovered that as with most things in life, my knowledge was shallow. Rosenberg has done an amazing job of putting it all in context and telling the stories of the people behind blogging and the impact that it has had on and off the Web.

(Speaking of blogs,) I can’t remember how I first found Scott’s Wordyard blog. Just one of those serendipitous discoveries not uncommon in the blogosphere. I liked his take on things, e.g. this recent short post about Peggy Noonan’s objection to silly Web 2.0 names. Following the progress of his work on a book he said he was writing about blogging, I didn’t know if I’d want to read it, having bought too many nonfiction books that failed to hold my interest. I began to consider trying it out after reading Josh Kornbluth’s enthusiastic comments:

[…] it’s bound to instantly become the definitive account of weblog history. (If you know of my background as a former copyeditor, you will appreciate the level of excitement that it took to elicit that split infinitive in the last sentence.) But Say Everything is way more than that: It’s a also a page-turner about start-ups and falling-aparts (in love and business), the fascinating (and seemingly eternal) tensions between commerce and idealism, the awesome power of our urge to communicate, and the sometimes unbearable pain of being “flamed.” And many other things — all of them happening to be vitally meaningful to me in my life right now.


In fact, among its many salutary effects, Say Everything has sparked me to get back to writing this blog — after a too-long hiatus — and not remain paralyzed by my usual (and often crippling) fear of my writing not being good enough, or too revealing, or too un-revealing. By rejoining this remarkable movement of self-revelators, and by just doing my best, I am happy enough making my own tiny, imperfect, incremental contribution to a sprawling history of these times. I don’t have to say everything: there’s a whole blogosphere for that — messy, democratic, running in reverse chronological order, and dodging trolls all the way.

–Josh Kornbluth, “Saying Something about Say Everything

Yes! Ditto to all that. It is a real joy to find a book like this one, where I can fall under its spell as I increasingly trust the author to tell a good tale. Rosenberg has a strong yet congenial voice. In Say Everything, as in his blog, he is evenhanded, thoughtful, and insightful. I feel like my brain has been massaged by a master.

And that’s my “review.” I mainly wanted to say, great book, kudos to Scott, and encourage you to check it out. The official Say Everything site has excerpts and reviews, so you might want to start there.

Updated, 7 September 2012: Removed Amazon Affiliate links and the entertaining but no longer relevant accompanying text referring to them.

gedit bad behaviors

GNOME’s gedit text editor is great, but I’m bugged by a couple of things:

  1. If I pick a “recent” file from the File menu and the file is currently unavailable because it’s on a file system that’s not mounted, gedit takes the liberty of removing it from the recent files. Why not leave it there? Chances are I’ll be mounting the file system and wanting to get at it again. And if it’s a “dead” file, it will fall off the list soon enough anyway.
  2. If I print something and choose multiple copies, gedit remembers this setting. (Even after closing and reopening the application.) This seems hostile to me, since most other applications don’t do this. I never remember to look there and keep getting extra copies on future print jobs. Maybe this is a GNOME common print dialog feature, but in any case it’s hurtful and wasteful.

Mako: ‘Taking a Principled Position on Software Freedom’

Great post today from Benjamin Mako Hill about free software advocacy and principles. It’s not very long so you should just go read the whole thing for yourself, but here are a couple of choice parts:

One reason I tend to stay away from “open source” claims in my own advocacy is that I’m worried by the way that these arguments rely on a set of often dubious empirical claims of superiority. Free software, on the other hand, can be seen as statement of principles. Regardless of whether we say “free software” or “open source,” I’ve found that a focus on principled statements is both more robust against counter-arguments and does a better job of describing the motivations of most contributors.


Humans are driven to imagine worlds that they would want to live in. For a growing group of people, that’s a world where software can be used, shared, and collaborated without restrictions or discrimination. We may think of this in ethical terms, in terms of an attitude toward innovation, or as a set of political or economic positions. But we should realize that these are, ultimately, principled stands.

And if we are taking principled positions, it is in the long-term interests of both our cause and our credibility to frame our arguments and our advocacy in those terms. We can use empirical evidence to help bolster our arguments but we should be careful to not confuse these empirical claims with the principles themselves. They can, and sometimes will, be proven wrong.

By honestly highlighting our principles and not shying away from explicit Utopianism, we can return to questions of efficiency as means toward achieving our principled ends. Approached from this angle, we need not seek to explain why FLOSS is better than proprietary software — which it may or may not be at any given point in time and for any given project — and can instead ask how we can make it better.

Humans are creative, innovative problem solvers. We set goals and devise social structures and technologies to achieve them. The fact that we have created socio-technical means of creating better software through free ways in so many areas is a reflection of this ingenuity applied toward principles at the heart of FLOSS. We would be well served to remember that this is how FLOSS will win, not why.

— Benjamin Mako Hill, “Taking a Principled Position on Software Freedom”

Yes. Let’s not be afraid to be idealistic. I think fear of looking naive often holds me back from voicing or defending free software principles more vigorously. (Another thing holding me back is laziness.) I’ve noticed in free software discussions that some people like to hold up their pragmatism as a virtue and they’ll imply that those making “principled” arguments are just being:

  1. Religious
  2. Political
  3. Ideological
  4. All of the Above

I seldom have the energy to respond to that kind of approach, which is why I appreciate it when people write thoughtful and reasonable posts for me to refer to, like Mako’s, or like this comment from Rufus Polson that I wrote about last year.

Makes me think also of recent discussions about including Mono in GNU/Linux distributions. I’ve long been concerned about this. I just don’t trust Microsoft and I think it’s dangerous to rely on their technology. Thinking about it on principles, even if we could be assured that it was safe to use Mono, why would the Free Software community want to take its lead from Microsoft? We have plenty of other community-driven, free programming languages to choose from. Why put ourselves in a position where we’d perpetually be playing catch-up to a company that is no friend of Free Software?

Related to this is a post by Brad Kuhn from the SFLC, following up on the Richard Stallman post I linked to above. It starts:

In an essay last Friday entitled Why free software shouldn’t depend on Mono or C#, RMS argued a key point that I agree with: the software freedom community should minimize its use of programming language infrastructure that comes primarily from anti-software-freedom companies, notwithstanding FaiF (Free as in Freedom) implementations. I’ve been thinking about an extension of that argument: that language infrastructure created in a community process is likely more resilient against attacks from proprietary software companies.

— Bradley M. Kuhn, “Considerations on Patents that Read on Language Infrastructure”

(Now I’ll try to quell my fear of being associated with such dangerous radicals as Mako, RMS, and those subversives at the SFLC.)

A Note About XHTML Validation of ‘Moving to Freedom’ Pages

I try to make standards-compliant web pages here at It appeals to my petty, detail-oriented side. The compiler in me loves it when W3C or xmllint or tidy reports a valid web page. A pass from xmllint or tidy, or the green “valid” result from W3C is like a pat on the head. Good boy!

Why do I use XHTML for this place? Because that’s what WordPress templates were using when I started this site in 2006. I’m sure that’s still the case today, although some searching tells me it doesn’t have to be that way. XHTML seemed like the thing to do three years ago and I was happy to learn about it and conform to the transitional XHTML doctype. I wasn’t so excited about the strict doctype, but figured that was a concern for another day.

(Tangentially, an obscure poem recently made me aware of standards upheaval on the horizon involving the death of XHTML 2 and the emergence of HTML 5. I was surprised — although I shouldn’t have been! — about all of the passion and anger around this topic.)

Anyway, this post isn’t to talk about competing web standards. I only vaguely understand what’s at stake anyway. I just wanted to point out that while I proudly display the W3C validation link on each page here, I have to acknowledge that I fall short of compliance. In order to embed YouTube videos in my pages so that they will show up on the page in my Firefox installation on Ubuntu, and show up in my feed on Google Reader, I’ve made an exception to include (*gasp*) invalid XHTML transitional markup.

No big whoop, really, although it bothers me to claim valid XHTML on every page when I know that isn’t always the case. I’m just posting this so I can link to it from the sidebar as a kind of validation disclaimer.


Free Software (Briefly)

Free Software is software that you are free to share with your family, friends, and neighbors.

Isn’t that a nice thing? It doesn’t cost anything to make copies of digital information, and we have these wonderful machines and a worldwide network that are perfect for copying and sharing. Why not use these tools to freely share our accumulated knowledge? You may also modify the software, if you are so inclined, and are free to distribute your modified version. You don’t have to ask for permission for any of this, either.

That puts things rather simply, and leaves out some fine print, but this is essentially how it works. And it does work. We’re in the midst of a free software revolution! Although like all revolutions, there are counterforces at work.

For a good introduction to what free software is all about, I recommend the GNU philosophy essays. For starters: “Why Software Should Not Have Owners” and “The Free Software Definition” by Richard Stallman.

Counterforces include harmful software patents, Digital Restrictions Management (DRM), and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). These are all tools used in different ways to prevent people from using free software to achieve the goals of sharing and cooperation and just getting things done.


Free Culture (Briefly)

The free culture movement, according to a recent Wikipedia revision, is “a social movement that promotes the freedom to distribute and modify creative works, using the Internet as well as other media. The movement objects to overly restrictive copyright laws, or completely reject the concepts of copyright and intellectual property, which many members of the movement also argue hinder creativity.” Also: “The free culture movement takes the ideals of the free software movement and extends them from the field of software to all cultural and creative works.”

That sounds like a good start at defining free culture, and is something I agree with. Copyright is a privilege that has been over-extended and is abused by many of those who hold copyright on artifacts of our culture. I am very much in favor of creative people earning rewards for their work if it is valued by others, but I don’t think the way to do this is to grant exclusive rights to the work for 100+ years.

Industries that rely on the intellectual monopolies of copyright and patents will have to adapt. There will be losers in the transition to a world of decriminalized file sharing (non-commercial, at least), but that isn’t a reason to keep the old ways. Effective copyright enforcement would require an intolerable control regime over our personal computing devices, and would take away precious freedom, digital and otherwise. And consider the effect on privacy:

File-sharing occurs whenever one individual sends a file to another. The only way to even try to limit this process is to monitor all communication between ordinary people. Despite the crackdown on Napster, Kazaa and other peer-to-peer services over the past decade, the volume of file-sharing has grown exponentially. Even if the authorities closed down all other possibilities, people could still send copyrighted files as attachments to e-mails or through private networks. If people start doing that, should we give the government the right to monitor all mail and all encrypted networks? Whenever there are ways of communicating in private, they will be used to share copyrighted material. If you want to stop people doing this, you must remove the right to communicate in private. There is no other option. Society has to make a choice.

–Christian Engstrom, Copyright laws threaten our online freedom

Question copyright! Check out this great essay by Karl Fogel about the history of copyright and the promise of a post-copyright world.