Category Archives: Uncategorized

Helping

How can you help free software?

Aside from donating to the excellent free software nonprofits out there, and contributing to a project by building software or other resources, there are things you can do to help the free software cause. The two biggest things I think are providing mentorship and gently normalizing free software.

Providing Mentorship

Allison Randal introduced me to the idea that mentorship doesn’t have to be an ongoing process. This is to say, you don’t have to sign up to be someone’s best friend and advisor for life (though you certainly can). Providing short term, project or skill based, or one off mentorship is useful for building community because it makes people feel welcome and cared for and helps build skills that benefit free software.

I do a lot of proofreading and editing of people’s writing – especially people with minimal writing experience and/or non-native English speakers who are writing important documents in English. If the person is interested, I try to talk to them about their writing and why I’m making these particular suggestions. I hope this helps them with their writing in the future.

Other examples are working on a particular project or skill, this can be helping them develop a particular skill (e.g. git outside of the command line), or giving advice on a project with a level of specificity and detail you’re both comfortable with. These can, again, be one off things or things that require minimal effort/occasional conversation. I have some friends who I consider my Debian mentors who just answer functional questions whenever I have trouble doing something.

I also love love love talking with people about their free software trajectories, their goals and desires and dreams for their involvement in free software, whether that’s finding a place in a community, developing a skill set, or other things about their future (like job hopes, schooling, etc). These conversations have been so helpful for me personally, and I like to think they help others.

Gently Normalizing Free Software

I think normalizing free software is very important to its success and adoption. It’s not helpful to insist someone who has never done so before to create a Debian boot disk and install it. It is helpful to suggest using Big Blue Button or jitsi. If a friend wants help finding audio editing software, suggest they try audacity. I’d go as far as to suggest doing this without explaining that it’s free software, and instead focus on why it’ll work and that it’s available at no cost. If they like it, then it’s a great time to talk about rights and freedoms. Of course if they already care about these sorts of things, if you’re discussing privacy software, if anti-surveillance is an issue, or any number of other things, software freedom is a great thing to bring up!

Above all, just be nice.

Be nice. It’s basically the best thing you can do for free software.

Proprietary (definition) – 02

I’ve had some good conversations about this attempt to define proprietary software. In many of these conversations, people focused on explicitly what I’m trying to not do (i.e. define “proprietary” by saying it’s not FOSS). Some people helped me clarify that I’m looking to do really, which is have a pithy way to explain proprietary to people who are never going to look at source code or pay someone to write new code for them. How do you explain to people who don’t care about technical matters nor have the language to discuss them? How do you talk about licenses to people who may not have the language for it? (In a past life I explained Creative Commons licenses to academics and educators.)

Talking about licensing seemed very important to people, as licenses are what define freedoms, restrictions, and restrictions that protect freedoms. With these points in mind, I present the following:

Proprietary software is software that comes with restrictions that retain control of how software can be used, shared, and changed through the use of copyright and licensing.

I worry that this is “too technical” and then I worry that I’m worrying too much about that. In this I added a truncated version of a common explanation of the Four Freedoms (typically use, study, modify, share). This is in part because I believe “study” is included in “modify.”

I included “copyright and licensing” in hopes that a reader would understand at least one of them. I also wanted to take into account that communities may have other policies (e.g. community guidelines) that might in some way restrict how software is used, shared, and changed. I don’t like “retain control” as a phrase, but it was suggested to me (thanks! If you want credit, just ping me). I think it’s pretty clear about the intention and consequence of proprietary licensing.

A potential criticism I see is that it’s not clear enough that you must be able to do all three (use, share, and change) in order for software to be FOSS and that restrictions on any of them renders software proprietary.

Proprietary (definition)

I recently had the occasion to try and find a definition of “proprietary” in terms of software that is not on Wikipedia. Most of the discussion on the issue I found was focused on what free and open source software is, and that anything that isn’t FOSS is proprietary. I don’t think the debate is as simple as this, especially if you want to get into conversations about nuance around things like Open Core.

The problem with defining proprietary software by what it isn’t, or at least that it isn’t FOSS, means that we cannot concisely communicate what makes something proprietary. Instead, we leave it up to the people we’re trying to communicate with to dig through a history of rhetoric, copyright law, and licensing in order to understand what it actually means for something to be FOSS, and what it means for something to be anything else. It is also just less satisfying, in my opinion, to define something by what it lacks rather than by what it is.

I’ll start by proposing the following definition:

Proprietary software is software that comes with restrictions on what users can do with the software and the source code that constitutes said software.

I think the most controversial part of this sentence is the wording “software that comes with restrictions.” In earlier attempts of this I wrote “software that restricts.” This sort of active wording, which I used for years in my capacity at work, is misleading. In the case of proprietary software, it is the licensing and laws around it that restrict what you can do. For software to restrict you, it must be that the way the software is being implemented or used restricts you.

To be clear, this is my first proposal. I look forward to discussing this further!

Inauguration Pie

How can I put four years into a pie? I’m thinking of Inauguration Day 2017 through to today, Inauguration Day 2021. In truth things started back in 2015, when Donald Trump announced his run for the United States’ presidency, and I don’t know how long things will continue past the moment when President-Elect Joe Biden becomes President Joe Biden.

For the United States, it’s been a hell of a time. For the world, it’d been even worse. Every generation thinks that they lived through more than anyone else, that they had it worse. I had a Boomer tell me that the existential stress of COVID is nothing compared to the Vietnam War. I’m sure when we are living through a global water crisis, I’ll tell the kids that we had it bad too. Everyday I listen to the radio and read Twitter, aware that the current state of endless wars – wars against terrorism and drugs, organized crime and famine, climate change and racism – is global, and not limited to just what’s happening to and around me. That makes it feel worse and bigger and I wonder if earlier generations can really grasp how big that is.

The last four years brought me in closer working relationships with people in India and Nigeria. I would call these people my friends in that if they were in town I would want to see them and show them around. Most of them I would offer a space in my small apartment, in case they needed somewhere to sleep and wanted to save the money. We chat, though we only have the internet as opposed to elevator rides in tall office buildings and slow walks down to the shops during lunch breaks.

From these relationships I have learned very little about life in India or Nigeria, and I only visited India separately from any of my colleagues there. (I went for a wedding. My visa to Nigeria was denied on account of a medical issue.) But, I follow these people on social media and see what they share, the same political and social utterances that could be the same here or virtually any other place, as long as we replace the right keywords. Exchange the name of one leader, conservative party, or government unit for another. When I first saw the #EndSARS hashtag show up, I thought the images were from Black Lives Matter protests. Stop police brutality.

And that was only in the last few months.

I’ve had three jobs since Trump first announced his candidacy in three very different places. In the first I felt like I wasn’t able to talk about the sexism and discrimination I was dealing with in the office, and how much more so my views on an organizational partnership with a government whose policies I strongly disagreed with. In the second I was able to talk about these things, but there was nothing to do about them.

I’ve been in love and had my heart broken three times in three very different ways that all came down to someone valuing someone else more than they valued me. Can I bake heartbreak into a pie? Is it even fair to distract from the political world with my own loss?

What about COVID-19? There’s bitterness and anger and tears and pain – emotional and physical. There is desperation and desolation and loneliness. Covid has colored everything during the past year. It is a burden our new political leaders will take on. Biden and Harris, all of the new people in Congress, and everyone else who has taken on an elected position now must content with Covid with new levels of responsibility. Not only do their decisions affect the people they come into contact with, they now affect everyone their policies touch and perhaps even more than that.

The government hired people to build walls. Our government approved it and people willingly took on the job of building those walls. Families were separated. Children were placed in inhumane conditions; children were tortured. Remember when the guards at border detention facilities were raping children? Remember when children had guards? Women were forcefully operated upon and had their bodies permanently changed without their permission, against their desires. People were executed by the state.

There were so many things I’ve lost track of them all. I remember bits and pieces as I write this, coming back to me like singing a song I haven’t thought about in years. With each line, I remember another one. Being worried about coming home from Cuba, when the visitation rules were changed in the middle of my trip. Climate change, again and again. Pollution and microplastics and watching the country being broken into pieces and sold off in the name of economy and progress. People losing their access to healthcare, through clinics closing down and loss of insurance.

What do you bake into a pie that tastes like sedition? What are the flavors of loss and racism and hate? How to you balance the sourness with subtle hints of hope, which feels to tender and fragile? Do we pair equal parts of the palatable with the unpalatable, in the name of our neatly divided senate?

I have hope, of course I have hope, and I have always had hope, but now it feels thinner than ever, like a ganache or a caramel after your hand slips and you pour too much cream in. A custard or compote or curd that that refuses to thicken no matter how long you cook it. I see that things could be better, but better does not mean good and better does not mean enough.

So I will put my hope into this pie. I put my pain and anger into the dough. I will put my tears and helplessness and bitterness into the filling. I will cover it sweetness and the delicate hope I’ve spun out of sugar. Soon I will bake it and share it with the three other people I see because the most important thing about surviving these past years, these past months and weeks and days, is that we did it together. We will commiserate on what we’ve overcome, and we will share our hope and the sweetness of the moment, as the spun sugar dissolves on our tongues. There is so much we have left to do, so much we must do. We will be angry in the future, we may be angry later today, but until then, we have pie.

1028 Words on Free Software

The promise of free software is a near-future utopia, built on democratized technology. This future is just and it is beautiful, full of opportunity and fulfillment for everyone everywhere. We can create the things we dream about when we let our minds wander into the places they want to. We can be with the people we want and need to be, when we want and need to.

This is currently possible with the technology we have today, but it’s availability is limited by the reality of the world we live in – the injustice, the inequity, the inequality. Technology runs the world, but it does not serve the interests of most of us. In order to create a better world, our technology must be transparent, accountable, trustworthy. It must be just. It must be free.

The job of the free software movement is to demonstrate that this world is possible by living its values now: justice, equity, equality. We build them into our technology, and we build technology that make it possible for these values to exist in the world.

At the Free Software Foundation, we liked to say that we used all free software because it was important to show that we could. You can do anything with free software, so we did everything with it. We demonstrated the importance of unions for tech workers and non-profit workers by having one. We organized collectively and protected our rights for the sake of ourselves and one another. We had non-negotiable salaries, based on responsibility level and position. That didn’t mean we worked in an office free from the systemic problems that plague workplaces everywhere, but we were able to think about them differently.

Things were this way because of Richard Stallman – but I view his influence on these things as negative rather than positive. He was a cause that forced these outcomes, rather than being supportive of the desires and needs of others. Rather than indulge in gossip or stories, I would like to jump to the idea that he was supposed to have been deplatformed in October 2019. In resigning from his position as president of the FSF, he certainly lost some of his ability to reach audiences. However, Richard still gives talks. The FSF continues to use his image and rhetoric in their own messaging and materials. They gave him time to speak at their annual conference in 2020. He maintains leadership in the GNU project and otherwise within the FSF sphere. The people who empowered him for so many years are still in charge.

Richard, and the continued respect and space he is given, is not the only problem. It represents a bigger problem. Sexism and racism (among others) run rampant in the community. This happens because of bad actors and, more significantly, by the complacency of organizations, projects, and individuals afraid of losing contributors, respect, or funding. In a sector that has so much money and so many resources, women are still being paid less than men; we deny people opportunities to learn and grow in the name of immediate results; people who aren’t men, who aren’t white, are abused and harassed; people are mentally and emotionally taken advantage of, and we are coerced into burn out and giving up our lives for these companies and projects and we are paid for tolerating all of this by being told we’re doing a good job or making a difference.

But we’re not making a difference. We’re perpetuating the worst of the status quo that we should be fighting against. We must not continue. We cannot. We need to live our ideals as they are, and take the natural next steps in their evolution. We cannot have a world of just technology when we live in a world of exclusion; we cannot have free software if we continue to allow, tolerate, and laud the worst of us. I’ve been in and around free software for seventeen years. Nearly every part of it I’ve participated in has members and leadership that benefit from allowing and encouraging the continuation of maleficence and systemic oppression.

We must purge ourselves of these things – of sexism, racism, injustice, and the people who continue and enable it. There is no space to argue over whether a comment was transphobic – if it hurt a trans person then it is transphobic and it is unacceptable. Racism is a global problem and we must be anti-racist or we are complicit. Sexism is present and all men benefit from it, even if they don’t want to. These are free software issues. These are things that plague software, and these are things software reinforces within our societies.

If a technology is exclusionary, it does not work. If a community is exclusionary, it must be fixed or thrown away. There is no middle ground here. There is no compromise. Without doing this, without taking the hard, painful steps to actually live the promise of user freedom and everything it requires and entails, our work is pointless and free software will fail.

I don’t think it’s too late for there to be a radical change – the radical change – that allows us to create the utopia we want to see in the world. We must do that by acknowledging that just technology leads to a just society, and that a just society allows us to make just technology. We must do that by living within the principles that guide this future now.

I don’t know what will happen if things don’t change soon. I recently saw someone comment that change doesn’t happens unless one person is willing to sacrifice everything to make that change, to lead and inspire others to play small parts. This is unreasonable to ask of or expect from someone. I’ve been burning myself out to meet other people’s expectations for seventeen years, and I can’t keep doing it. Of course I am not alone, and I am not the only one working on and occupied by these problems. More people must step up, not just for my sake, but for the sake of all of us, the work free software needs to do, and the future I dream about.

Why should you work on free software (or other technology issues)?

Twice this week I was asked how it can be okay to work on free software when there are issues like climate change and racial injustice. I have a few answers for that.

You can work on injustice while working on free software.

A world in which all technology is just cannot exist under capitalism. It cannot exist under racism or sexism or ableism. It cannot exist in a world that does not exist if we are ravaged by the effects of climate change. At the same time, free software is part of the story of each of these. The modern technology state fuels capitalism, and capitalism fuels it. It cannot exist without transparency at all levels of the creation process. Proprietary software and algorithms reinforce racial and gender injustice. Technology is very guilty of its contributions to the climate crisis. By working on making technology more just, by making it more free, we are working to address these issues. Software makes the world work, and oppressive software creates an oppressive world.

You can work on free software while working on injustice.

Let’s say you do want to devote your time to working on climate justice full time. Activism doesn’t have to only happen in the streets or in legislative buildings. Being a body in a protest is activism, and so is running servers for your community’s federated social network, providing wiki support, developing custom software, and otherwise bringing your free software skills into new environments. As long as your work is being accomplished under an ethos of free software, with free software, and under free software licenses, you’re working on free software issues while saving the world in other ways too!

Not everyone needs to work on everything all the time.

When your house in on fire, you need to put out the fire. However, maybe you can’t help put out the first. Maybe You don’t have the skills or knowledge or physical ability. Maybe your house is on fire, but there’s also an earthquake and a meteor and a airborn toxic event all coming at once. When that happens, we have to split up our efforts and that’s okay.

Digital Self

When we talk about the digital self, we are talking about the self as it exists within digital spaces. This holds differently for different people, as some of us prefer to live within an pseudonymous or anonymous identity online, divested from our physical selves, while others consider the digital a more holistic identity that extends from the physical.

Your digital self is gestalt, in that it exists across whatever mediums, web sites, and services you use. These bits are pieces together to form a whole picture of what it means to be you, or some aspect of  you. This may be carefully curated, or it may be an emergent property of who you are.

The way your physical self has rights, so too does your digital self. Or, perhaps, it would be more accurate to say that your rights extend to your digital self. I do not personally consider that there is a separation between these selves when it comes to rights, as both are aspects of you and you have rights. I am explicitly not going to list what these rights are, because I have my own ideas about them and yours may differ. Instead, I will briefly talk about consent.

I think it is essential that we genuinely consent to how others interact with us to maintain the sanctity of our selves. Consent is necessary to the protection and expression of our rights, as it ensures we are able to rely on our rights and creates a space where we are able to express our rights in comfort and safety. We may classically think of consent as it relates to sex and sexual consent: only we have the right to determine what happens to our bodies; no one else has the right to that determination. We are able to give sexual consent, and we are able to revoke it. Sexual consent, in order to be in good faith, must be requested and given from a place of openness and transparency. For this, we discuss with our partners the things about ourselves that may impact their decision to consent: we are sober; we are not ill; we are using (or not) protection as we agree is appropriate; we are making this decision because it is a thing we desire, rather than a thing we feel we ought to do or are being forced to do; as well as other topics.

These things also all hold true for technology and the digital spaces in which we reside. Our digital autonomy is not the only thing at stake when we look at digital consent. The ways we interact in digital spaces impact our whole selves, and exploitation of our consent too impacts our whole selves. Private information appearing online can have material consequences — it can directly lead to safety issues, like stalking or threats, and it can lead to a loss of psychic safety and have a chilling effect. These are in addition to the threats posed to digital safety and well being. Consent must be actively sought, what one is consenting to is transparent, and the potential consequences must be known and understood.

In order to protect and empower the digital self, to treat everyone justly and with respect, we must hold the digital self be as sacrosanct as other aspects of the self and treat it accordingly.

Free Software Activities – September 2020

I haven’t done one of these in a while, so let’s see how it goes.

Debian

The Community Team has been busy. We’re planning a sprint to work on a bigger writing project and have some tough discussions that need to happen.
I personally have only worked on one incident, but we’ve had a few others come in.
I’m attempting to step down from the Outreach team, which is more work than I thought it would be. I had a very complicated relationship with the Outreach team. When no one else was there to take on making sure we did GSoC and Outreachy, I stepped up. It wasn’t really what I wanted to be doing, but it’s important. I’m glad to have more time to focus on other things that feel more aligned with what I’m trying to work on right now.

GNOME

In addition to, you know, work, I joined the Code of Conduct Committee. Always a good time! Rosanna and I presented at GNOME Onboard Africa Virtual about the GNOME CoC. It was super fun!

Digital Autonomy

Karen and I did an interview on FLOSS Weekly with Doc Searls and Dan Lynch. Super fun! I’ve been doing some more writing, which I still hope to publish soon, and a lot of organization on it. I’m also in the process of investigating some funding, as there are a few things we’d like to do that come with price tags. Separately, I started working on a video to explain the Principles. I’m excited!

Misc

I started a call that meets every other week where we talk about Code of Conduct stuff. Good peeps. Into it.

NYU VPN

I needed to setup a VPN in order to access my readings for class. The instructions for Linux are located: https://nyu.service-now.com/sp?id=kb_article_view&sysparm_article=KB0014932

After you download the VPN client of your choice (they recommend Cisco AnyConnect), connect to: vpn.nyu.edu.

It will ask for two passwords: your NYU username and password and a multi-factor authentication (MFA) code from Duo. Use the Duo. See below for stuff on Duo.

Hit connect and viola, you can connect to the VPN.

Duo Authentication Setup

Go to: https://start.nyu.edu and follow the instructions for MFA. They’ll tell you that a smart phone is the most secure method of setting up. I am skeptical.

Install the Duo Authentication App on your phone, enter your phone number into the NYU web page (off of ) and it will send a thing to your phone to connect it.

Commentary

Okay, I have to complain at least a little bit about this. I had to guess what the VPN address was because the instructions are for NYU Shanghai. I also had to install the VPN client using the terminal. These sorts of things make it harder for people to use Linux. Boo.

“All Animals Are Equal,” Peter Singer

I recently read “Disability Visibility,” which opens with a piece by Harriet McBryde Johnson about debating Peter Singer. When I got my first reading for my first class and saw it was Peter Singer, I was dismayed because of his (heinous) stances in disability. I assumed “All Animals Are Equal” was one of Singer’s pieces about animal rights. While I agree with many of the principles Singer discusses around animal rights, I feel as though his work on this front is significantly diminished by his work around disability. To put it simply, I can’t take Peter Singer seriously.

Because of this I had a lot of trouble reading “All Animals Are Equal” and taking it in good faith. I judged everything from his arguments to his writing harshly. While I don’t disagree with his basic point (all animals have rights) I disagree with how he made the point and the argument supporting it.

One of the things I was told to ask when reading any philosophy paper is “What is the argument?” or “What are they trying to convince you of?” In this case, you could frame the answer as: Animals have {some of) the same rights people do. I think it would be more accurate though to frame it as “All animals (including humans) have (some of) the same rights” or even “Humans are as equally worthy of consideration as animals are.”

I think when we usually talk about animal rights, we do it from a perspective of wanting to elevate animals to human status. From one perspective, I don’t like this approach because I feel as though it turns the framing of rights as something you deserve or earn, privileges you get for being “good enough.” The point about rights is that they are inherent — you get them because they are.

The valuable thing I got out of “All Animals Are Equal” is that “rights” are not universal. When we talk about things like abortion, for example, we talk about the right to have an abortion. Singer asks whether people who cannot get pregnant have the right to an abortion? What he doesn’t dig into is that the “right to an abortion” is really just an extension of bodily autonomy — turning one facet of bodily autonomy into the legal right to have a medical procedure.  I think this is worth thinking about more — turning high level human rights into the mundane rights, and acknowledging that not everyone can or needs them.