Better Ugly Speech than Enforced Silence

Ahh ... so many chewy issues to blog about, and so little time to write them all down!

This one has caught my attention in the past few days. In an effort to put a halt to filesharing, ISPs in the UK have agreed to participate in a government initiative (gotta love those!). Apparently, this involves sending nasty letters to "suspected music pirates". Which begs the question - what constitutes a pirate? Not to mention the other question - what are they threatening them with? I can't help but think that it's more a symbolic gesture than anything else. For starters, it's hardly in the ISPs best interest to cut off users who - in their capacity as "music pirates" - spend a lot of time online downloading things, all of which the ISP can presumably charge lots of hard-earned for. In my mind, this is the same old argument that we've been debating since the internet was made available to the masses. To censor or not to censor?

There is never a time when censorship - particularly of the variety done by governments - is going to be acceptable. I'm all for appropriate content in the appropriate places, but when a government (or ISP, or any other organisation) is deciding what is 'decent' and what is 'acceptable', where will the forums be? It used to be that commons existed in every town - as time has worn on, the commons have changed, and in today's connected society, the internet can be viewed as one great, global commons. Sure, there's bits of that I really don't want to have anything to do with, but that comes down to choice, and freedom. But, in the immortal words of St Jude and the Internet 21: better ugly speech than enforced silence.

Speaking from the High Ground

There's been talk in the past week or so about an open source jobs boom. It's all based on an O'Reilly report (which has already had it's veracity questioned, I might add).

Whether the report is faulty or not (and, quite frankly, I'm not quite convinced by the weak argument presented by Savio Rodrigues in the link above) it's an interesting thought. Linux has long been a standard on the server, and while I don't think that it's going to be making much of an impact on the desktop any time soon - especially since the major vendors have already stated a lack of intent - I do wonder how the server market has changed over time. I'm not deep enough in the area to be able to judge, but it would be interesting to see some really specific stats on proprietary vs open source server software. Not just the operating system though - I mean the other stuff - email exchange, database management and web servers for example.

Is there a shift occurring in the server rooms? It seems somewhat logical that there would be - economic pressure is increasing worldwide, surely that would be reflected in the IT departments also? Most organisations would be tightening the purse strings in every department possible before resorting to layoffs. Add to that the fact that things like Sendmail and MySQL are hardly in beta anymore and surely the added attraction of FREE (as in beer) would be driving installs?

If anyone comes across some stats - I'd be fascinated to know.

Oh, and because this post is all about the server room ... Happy (belated) Sysadmin day!

Whole Lotta Blogging Going On


There's been some furniture rearrangement going on at the cottage recently, which - naturally - has involved rather a lot of hefting of bookcases and their associated books. While it's not so wonderful having to drag the bookcases from room to room, it is an absolute delight to go through the books one by one - blow the dust off them as you take them off, flip a few pages and reorganise them as you put them back on in their new home, on their shiny new shelves. One of the buried treasures I've come across is the delightful "How to Mutate and Take Over the World" by RU Sirius and St Jude. Yes, that's right. I used to cite it in my university assignments at every opportunity - just to see if any of my lecturers would ever pull me up on it. Sadly, they never did. I was itching for a chance to produce the book to prove that it existed. The book is described as an "exploded post-novel", and it really does defy description. It was written in 1996 - when the internet was still pretty heady stuff, coders and hackers were still underground, and "From the Electron-Choked Desk of ..." was still a really cool email signature. I've even highlighted parts of the text. Who knows what possessed me, and why on earth I chose the passages I did, but here's a sample for you:

I'm a forward-looking hopeful sort. I like civility, online or off. And when I look around the Net I can find enclaves every bit as ugly as the Aryan Brotherhood ... Likewise, there are bars I stay out of, and I do not attend soccer games in Italy. I watch my step, try to stay prudently out of the reach of uncivil brutality on both sides of the modem. On the online, though, it's still speech -- I see no bruises here. And however ugly it may be, speech had better not be censored. You know who gets censored next. Better ugly speech than enforced silence.

There was this piece of scary future-talk:

Two persons may exchange messages, conduct business, and negotiate electronic contracts without ever knowing the True Name, or legal identity, of the other.

And what about this novel idea?

Multitech: the reverse of mass production and standardization. Instead of being forced to buy Item A, item ALT-A, or item A-COOL from the three biggest companies, you choose what you exactly want from among a thousand compatible flavors. A money-making operation could be one nerd online in a half a garage.

Back in the days when I was reading this (the inscription in the front says I bought it in 1999), I was playing in the MUDs and the MOOs, IRC was the only form of social networking (not that we called it that back then), Google was a distant dream, and email was still just a little bit strange. Now it's Second Life, Web 2.0, Facebook, My Space and YouTube. Google is not just a company, but a verb, and email is a way of life, not just another means of communication. The other major change is the proliferation of bloggers. I was blogging back in 1999 (incidentally, back when Blogger was in Beta and had nothing to do with Google), and I can remember having to explain what it was to people all the time. I didn't post much - there were no RSS feeds then, and the only real blogs were professional ones, personal opinion ones like mine didn't generate much, if any, traffic - but the theme then was much the same as it is now. Despite a long hiatus between that blog and this one, the focus has shifted only a little - the blog has always been my outlet for thinking things through - stopping the thoughts spinning around long enough to get them written down in some sort of order.

What I find most interesting is the new (or what I think of as new, anyway) type of blogger. The best name I can come up for them is vanity bloggers. I'm sure we all know the sort - the ones who write a personal diary, out there in the - very impersonal - world wide web. I wonder what motivates these people. Although I find most mundane and rather boring, some are bizarre, many are extended whinges, and others are simply embarrassing in their detail. Do these bloggers blog for themselves? Or do they blog for others? If it's for others, who are they? Are they people who know the bloggers personally? Or are they voyeurs who have stumbled across the blog and stayed tuned? Perhaps someone should write to RU Sirius and St Jude. They helped me sort out what the Internet meant to me in the heady days of the dotcom boom. Maybe they could help me sort out what the Internet means in the Web 2.0 world too ...

Short Attention Spans

On the back of Michael Stelzner's recent blog post - "Why the World is Tuning Out (and why you need to change)" - I revisited an article by Nicholas Carr that was sent to me some time ago by my Mum (and linked to in the comments of Stelzner's post) called "Is Google Making us Stupid?". Both deal with the concept of information overload. We send and receive so many messages every day in such a variety of ways, that as a species we are evolving in our habits. We pick and choose the messages we receive, and the channels we wish to receive them on.

I have a short attention span. Some days, it's extremely short. It's the main reason I don't watch television - because I just can't sit still and concentrate on one thing for the length of a normal television show. When I work, I work on a number of things all at the same time - I'll have a dozen or more browser tabs open, a clutch of files that I'm editing and at least one or two emails that I'm drafting responses to. This way, I can flick between all of them, doing a bit here and a bit there. It may seem totally disorganised and to watch me I'm sure it's a wonder how I actually manage to achieve anything in the end. But I do, and often more than even I expect. Incidentally, I read in the same way - while singing along to the radio, having a conversation, eating, sometimes all at the same time. I strongly believe that this is a case of me adapting to the tools I have at my disposal, and choosing to filter not only my inputs (how I receive messages), but also my outputs (how I send out messages).

The Carr article recounts a story about Friedrich Nietzsche and how his writing style changed after his acquisition of a typewriter. It made me think about how I interact with my tools too, and how my writing might change if I was to try different methods. Indeed, history would suggest that it would. When I was in pursuit of the NaNoWriMo prize last November, I was using a writing tool (under Windows) called yWriter. This programme allows the writer to set out scenes and characters and chapters and drag and drop them one into the other at will. This was great for developing the story (although it also provided many procrastination tools!) as I could see the whole thing laid out in front me. I think the fact that Stopping All Stations has so many chapters and characters can probably be attributed to yWriter's format. When I was editing, however, I switched into Open Office and worked on the text in a WYSIWYG instead. It allowed me to stop thinking about the structure of the book, and concentrate instead on the text, and the story. Then, when I was trying my hand at some shorter fiction, I switched to using an editor called Q10 (unfortunately only available under Windows). This one was great for just getting words down on (metaphorical) paper, and probably would have been a better choice for NaNoWriMo (if someone discovers a Linux version, let me know!), although I found something inherently strange about it. The black background, the fullscreen concept, the courier font, the hollow echoing of the typewriter sound effects as I typed - it depressed me. And so I wrote depressing stuff. Weird? Yeah, I think so too. I don't handwrite anything much more than a shopping list these days, but I'm actually considering trying some longhand, just to see how it'll turn out.

It is entirely possible that new technology is shortening attention spans; and that scattering information to the four winds is creating a world full of people who rely on the internet and other technologies just in order to get through the day. Implicit in that, though, is the idea that we aren't free-thinking human beings. We can choose to rely on technology or not, we can choose to receive our messages in little, easily digested clumps or in long essays, and we can choose to send our messages out in a similar fashion. I guess I made my choice - and my naturally short attention span has suddenly become a rather useful tool.

Merriam-Webster - Bringing the Mondegreen to Linguistic Fanboys Everywhere

Spotted this one on Slashdot today. Reading the comments, I came along quite a few that expressed what appears to be complete and utter dismay at the introduction of new words into the language. For example, this one:
"Even if you can guess what it means, it's always good fun to pounce on neologisms and jargon and grill the user why they are using them instead of a more traditional word."

And then there was this one:
"my old boss used to love these damn things and every time he'd say the word "webinar" a peice of me died a little inside"

It reminds me of a time I was driving around Brisbane with a friend, it was Christmas time, and I noted a sign in front of a church that stated something along the lines of "Christmass Services". I made an offhand comment about the mispelling, and my friend pointed out that the origin of the word indicates that it should, indeed, be spelled "Christmass" (as it derived from the Mass for Christ). The main point of her comment though was the fact that language is an ever-changing and constantly evolving beast. Wordsmiths - myself included - are often very quick to point out that something is not a word, or is a neologism, or just isn't right for some other reason.

We all use language in different ways every day - the language we use to speak to our friends is not the same as we use to speak to our children, or to authorities. The language that we use to write emails to our friends is different to the language that we use to write a complaint to the phone company. In my case, the language that I use to write technical documentation is different to the language I use to write fiction, and is different to the language I am using to write this blog post. The most interesting thing about that is the language that I use to do all those things has changed - as I've gotten older, as my opinions have changed, as my knowledge has increased, as my tastes have changed, and as I've come across new words.

I was working on the latest fiction project last night, writing very short snippets in first person for several different characters, and consciously trying to alter the 'voice' of each section to suit that character. Not as easy as it sounds, but I'm reasonably pleased with the results, so far.

Language, in all its forms, shifts and changes with attitude and society. While I've never considered Merriam-Webster to be authoritative, and I certainly wouldn't rely on it for any of my work, at least we ought to give them credit for trying to document the language as it is used, rather than how it 'ought' to be. And for that reason alone, it has a place in the world.

Linux for Housewives ... ?

Recently, I bought an Asus Eee PC, but this post isn't about that. In May, my Mum and Dad took it on a road trip with them, and despite some initial misgivings, came back raving about how easy it was to use. This post isn't really about that either, though.

This post is about this article. It smacks of the Ubuntu/Girlfriend furore a while back, and I'm expecting to see the blogosphere explode over it any minute now.

Why oh why must these people insist on using feminine stereotypes for people who don't understand Linux? We often see the Grandmother or the Girlfriend reference, but never a Grandfather or a Boyfriend. And where on earth has "housewife" come from? Does such a thing even exist in the traditional sense of the word anymore? And for that sample of the population that might consider themselves a "housewife", why is it assumed that they don't/can't/won't understand computers? If we take the stereotypical housewife - which, for arguments sake, we will define as a 30-something mother who is not employed outside the home - I think we can rightly assume that they would have a computer in the house, especially if they have school aged children. Are they expected to be scared of it? Or is it hidden away in a dark corner somewhere, so that polite company shan't happen across it and bring shame to the family?

You know, once I got over the initial anger about this article, I realised something. It's marketing. It's designed to get people like me upset over it. And it's worked, apparently, as I am here blogging about it, doing my little bit to drive traffic to the site. So maybe it's not about being obtuse and sexist. But it's certainly not helping the cause in any way at all.

ZDNet article:
Linux Today:

Let it Snow


It snowed at the cottage today. I was most excited. It wasn't much, and it didn't settle, but it has gone some way to restoring my hope in skiing this year, despite the failed trip to Thredbo last month. It did make me wonder, what is it about snow that invokes such a whimsy in us humans? We associate it with freshness, cleanness, a new start, virginity and purity. Why don't we associate it with cold, and pain inflicted by the enforced meeting of flesh and hard, hidden objects? Certainly, most of my experiences with snow have involved more lugging heavy things, wearing too many clothes, freezing noses and ears, and just pain in general, both from skiing itself as well as collisions.

OK, I admit it. I'm nuts.

But I'm still going skiing.

And soon.

Anyone wanna come with me?

In case you're interested, you can see the Thredbo snow cams here, get the snow report here, and book your trip here. I know I will be very shortly ;-)

Just Add Women and Stir

This article has been brought to my attention a couple of times in the past week or so. On first read, I thought it was hogwash. Mostly (after a second and third reading), I still do. The difference now is that I believe there may be a small something of value in it. I'm still not entirely certain which facts I trust, and which I do not, but there's some bits that ring true for me:

The second one was the sheer isolation many women cope with daily. She might be the only woman on the team or the only senior woman at a facility. Isolation in and of itself is debilitating, with no mentors, no role models, no buddies. And if you're surrounded by men who don't appreciate you, that can be corrosive.
Note the qualifier - "Men who don't appreciate you..." - not just "surrounded by men". Very important distinction there, methinks.


If a man fails, his buddies dust him off and say, "It's not your fault; try again next time." A women fails and is never seen again. A woman cannot survive a failure. So they become risk-averse in a culture where risk is rewarded. Women would rather build a system that didn't crash in the first place, but men enjoy that diving catch and have a system of support that allows them to go out on a limb.
I don't think that is unique to tech, but it has a ring of truth to it, to my ears.

But then, what about this bit?

The fifth one is a combination of extremely long hours -- in tech, the average workweek is 71 hours -- emergencies and a very family-unfriendly atmosphere.
71 hour weeks is an average. This means that, in addition to those working 40 hour weeks, we have at least as many working 80 or 100 hour weeks. I'd be interested to find the gender breakup in this - what percentage of those in tech working more than 40 hours a week are female? Is this an expectation in the tech industry, or is it just that people who work in tech are more likely to love what they do and less likely to have hectic social lives? The mind boggles.

In my experience, many people in this industry do work long hours. It always seems to be (and bear in mind the small comparative sample size here) those who are significantly more techy that do it and, when questioned, the answers always seem to be that they work longer hours because they would be doing it in their spare time anyway. For example, the programmer who codes on a project all day, and then by night - instead of reading a book or watching TV - sits down to do some more coding, because it's what she enjoys. When that person decides to continue on a work-based project, rather than their own project, or another outside interest, is that considered overwork? Granted, it skews the figures somewhat, but it's not like her boss is holding her at gunpoint to get it done.

And why the "family-unfriendly atmosphere"? Because there's a minority of women. Why the female minority? Because of the family-unfriendly atmosphere. Catch-22.

And what do you think of this bit?

We found that 63 per cent of women in science, engineering and technology have experienced sexual harassment. That's a really high figure.
Too right it's a really high figure! If the research is accurate (and I still find it hard to believe that it is), then it makes me wonder if it's a case of the tech industry trying to "add women and stir". Women in technology, especially those that very distinctly classify themselves as such (I prefer to think about the fact that I work in technology, rather than being a woman who works in technology. The fact that I am female is part of my identity, but it's not related to my profession), also tend to react very strongly to every slight. While I by no means condone sexist (or any other "-ist") behaviour - especially in a workplace - there has to be a line drawn. I suspect that where there are women that react like this, others may try and redress the balance by not reacting appropriately to sexism. Also, where women over-react, it's possible that men are going to continue, or even increase, the sexist behaviour, shrugging it off by saying, "oh yeah, she's always like that, she's not serious, she's never made a complaint". Which brings me to my other point. Women may be talking to each other about these issues - and I know for a fact that they are, and sometimes to excess - but are we talking to the people that matter?

All we can do to fix this, I think, is to encourage women and girls to enter the professions. Despite the article stating that 52% of female talent in the tech industry is dropping out between the ages of 35 and 40 (and I happen to believe it), the only way we can counteract it is to keep on putting more women in to the industry. The more we can get the female average up (even if it is only in the younger or less experienced categories), the better the atmosphere will get. As the atmosphere improves, women will be more inclined to stay. And eventually some of them will stick ...

FLOSS Advocates Passing Notes to Gillard

In news just to hand:

A group of "Australia's open source community leaders" have been sending letters to Julia Gillard. I won't reproduce it here (you can read it in its entirety at the "Techworld" link below), but suffice to say that it's basically a plea for the government to consider using Free/Libre and Open Source software in the implementation of the Digital Education Revolution.

While I think that it be great if this rollout happened using even a proportion of F/LOSS products (after all, if children are the future, we need to be teaching them about open source and the benefits of developing anything - not just software - under a community model), what is really going to be achieved by this? For starters, I doubt that this letter is alone - I'm sure many other Concerned Citizens have written to Gillard asking for their software/hardware/firmware/meatware to be considered in the initiative. And I'm sure many of them have done a lot more than send a nicely worded letter. I bet some sent a lovely cake as well, and perhaps a bunch of flowers. I find it hard to believe that Gillard would even have a chance to read these letters, let alone act upon any of them. It also makes me wonder about who the decision maker is in this situation. I haven't read the legislation in it's entirety, but I do believe it would be a case of the government providing funding for the schools to purchase what they required. If this is the case, as I suspect it is, then sending a letter to Gillard isn't going to make a lick of difference - it's the school's IT department that needs convincing. My experience with school IT departments make me think that most are just a school alumnus in between finishing a uni degree and getting a real job, in which case the sales job becomes a trifle more difficult.

That said, I don't believe the letter was a mistake - it has gotten a few people talking about it, and hopefully others (like myself) will be blogging about it. I did spot the Red Hat Blog post ('Truth Happens' link below). After all, any exposure is good exposure - especially where FLOSS is involved. And while it's highly unlikely that it will have the desired effect, hopefully those school IT departments will catch wind and maybe it'll inspire some of them to make the best use of the funds they get. After all, free software isn't just free as in spirit - it's also (mostly) free as in beer.

And for those IT departments who are still sitting in the fence - try starting here:
Linux Australia
Mailing List
User Groups
Techworld - Open source community pushes Canberra on school computer fund
Truth Happens - Truth Happening in Canberra
Image above from the Open Clipart Library.
Posted by user johnny_automatic under a Public Domain Licence.
A 1922 cartoon from Drawn at a Venture by Fougasse labelled "Angry at the News"

Books, Books, Books!


Through no fault of my own, we have recently become friends with the owner of Winchbooks - the secondhand bookshop in the village. Much as I love a good secondhand bookshop, this one really is the epitome of them. The current owner recently took over and, due to a sudden and unexpected reduction in his shop space, has subsequently found himself having to squeeze the contents of what was once a shop filled to an elegant sufficiency into about half the floor area. This means that it has turned into a veritable treasure trove for the likes of myself, and many hours have passed (and no doubt, will continue to be passed) with me tucked in a dusty corner, cross legged on the floor, pawing through lovely little gems. Some of what I have bought so far has minor commercial value - your eye may be drawn to the Orwell (1950 edition!), or the Poe - but mostly they are simply curiosities - "Diversions of a Book-Worm" and "Chapman's Rhythmical Grammar" especially. Many of the more interesting (and worthwhile) have come from the collection of A. D. Hope - a local Canberra poet - whose library was (apparently) donated to the shop upon his death.

The things I like about old books are not just the curiosities of ages gone by, but finding little bits of inadvertent history. Books are generally written with a public audience in mind, so what makes it fascinating is coming across little inscriptions, handwritten notes, and other strange finds, like the piece of satin ribbon glued in to the title page of one book, seemingly for use as a place-marker. I have been criticised in the past for writing my name, the date and (often) the place of purchase in any new books I buy. The reason I do this, is for the people like me in the future - perhaps one day someone will find a book I have bought in a little secondhand bookshop (maybe even Winchbooks?), and wonder who I was, and what my life would have been like, back in 2008 ...

Is that vanity? Or just my version of a time capsule (remember those from school)? Of course, by the time I'm dead and gone, I'm sure people will just be able to Google me and find out who I was, without relying on dusty old, rotting books. But it does make me wonder what the future of books will be like. This little story might be (horribly) closer than we think.

I don't know a terrible amount of the value of books but I'm learning, and since it looks as though we will be spending a lot more time hanging out at Winchbooks, I have no doubt that I will continue to turn up hitherto lost treasures. Weee!