Origin stories

Each of us has a storied past. What else could the past be? Selecting salient episodes for retelling as an illustrative or explanatory tool dramatically highlights current and future motivations, commitments and ideals. These stories say a lot about you. I don’t think that I am alone in being fascinated by such stories. There is a subset of these that I find particularly interesting: origin stories told by serious participants in the free and open source software community. These are surprisingly rare. I think it’s because serious FOSS folks know it isn’t about them, it’s about the community. As a result you are more likely to spot one of these origin stories showing up in passing when such a person is writing about something else. One such origin story can be found in Ross Gardler’s post on the demise of the Java Community Process.

I was struck by Ross’ description of how he learned the value of commitment, teamwork, and collaboration through sport. I wasn’t surprised. Nor was I surprised that he has other tales to tell, other experiences that shaded his understanding and provide him with a rich and subtle appreciation of community.

On another day perhaps he would select two completely different episodes as salient in his moral forensics. That too is something each of tends to do. Today I think it was the way my father coached a hockey team I was on as a boy that stands out. Tomorrow I’ll think that it was the way he faced and accepted the consequences of each of his decisions. Next week I’ll come back to the camaraderie he cultivated in the crew that worked in the bakery. (Not all origin stories are father stories, but mine mostly are.)

The Java Community Process may indeed be dead. I’m not a direct participant in that community so I have to rely on people like Ross to get the straight story. Fortunately I feel like I now have a bit of insight into what drives him, and that convinces me that I was right to trust his lead on this all along.

Still, I wish I’d known him in his Dub Reggae days 🙂

More is easier

I have a tendency to follow the line that less is more. Maybe it’s because I’m short. I like short sentences. Short paragraphs. Bullet points. And one side of A-4, no more!

But sometimes I have to admit that more is better. What would Proust be like without the long, meandering, sentences that wrap you up and spin you round until your own thoughts are as mixed and muddled as the memories his narrator is dancing through? That must be the very effect he is aiming at. More is also sometimes better when it comes to software and learning.

I am continuing up my learning curve with Drupal. It’s getting better. (Well, I mean I’m getting better at it.) I’m discovering the efficiency that comes of managing multiple Drupal sites. I’ve got three live ones on the go at the moment as well a few test sites. For the live sites I’m trying to follow good practice. Part of that is implementing only what you know. The efficiency comes in when I am able to propagate something new across numerous sites. Repetition, as Proust knew well, has a strengthening effect on memory. My learning curve gains breadth as well as height.

Not so long ago I met up with a number of people who make their livings setting up and maintaining Drupal sites. One thing that struck me was how many of them stuck to a very constrained set of parameters for clients. But it makes perfect sense. Their objective is both to provide the client with what he or she wants/needs while at the same time taking advantage of whatever efficiencies they can build into the process in order to minimize the time and labour cost of developing a new site. One person I spoke to said he could produce a new site, top to bottom, in 15 minutes (he was using the Drush Package Manager, which I’m not even thinking about at the moment).

There is a sense in which the more opportunities you have to exercise a new skill the less cost that is needed to reach a satisfactory end point for any of those opportunities. Which sounds rather convoluted. It’s probably simpler to say that: less is more and more is less.

FSOSS 2010 – report

Today I attended the always interesting FSOSS event at Seneca Centre for Development of Open Technology in Toronto. I had a couple of goals for participating in the event. I hoped to get myself plugged back in to the open source community (at least more than sitting in my office permits) and there were a number of talks (and people) that I specifically wanted to see. Despite some disappointments, the high points more than compensated.

Key for me in the morning set of talks was Dru Lavigne speaking on Finding a Community (Even if You’re not a Developer). This was an excellent presentation – thorough, careful, and measured. Plenty here for anyone new to FOSS or anyone still trying to find their niche. Dru spent a fair bit of time outlining how to find a good fit for your skills. Clearly that is much easier if you are a developer and have a specific toolset. That rather narrows the field of projects to which you might contribute. But what if what you hope to offer to a FOSS project is documentation skills, or at least non-coding skills? Here the problem is that your skills are so general that you really could contribute to virtually any project. For me, the way to narrow the decision matrix in such a case is to find a project that you actually use and that you feel passionate about.

I was delighted to finally see Dru speak since I had been hearing her name (and seeing it) for some time. Worth the wait.

In the afternoon I went to a solid talk by Scott Nesbitt on FLOSS Manuals – Too Good to be True. FLOSS Manuals is the brain child of Adam Hyde, a New Zealander with a vision for facilitating documentation. And not just facilitating the creation of documentation, but rather getting documentation done! It is a long-standing truism that documentation is the bane of FOSS projects (well, any kind of project, really). Through the use of book sprints FLOSS Manuals helps with the rapid production and completion of user manuals. Scott detailed the book sprint that had been undertaken earlier in the week to create a user manual for Mozilla Thunderbird. He also pointed participants at the next generation of FLOSS Manuals, called Booki. Booki also has a Mozilla Drumbeat project, Open Web Publishing which is worth a look.

I wondered how the documentation effort in FLOSS Manuals co-ordinates or conflicts with the documentation efforts within a FOSS project. At least in the Thunderbird sprint key Mozilla Thunderbird developers directly participated. I’m not entirely certain I’m clear on whether or not the documentation effort of a FOSS project could get diffused by such work, but it’s clear that these are also live questions that are being worked out directly in practice. Scott did a good job encouraging those present to explore FLOSS Manuals further and, if possible, get involved.

The final talk that I want to mention is the one entitled Mozilla Drumbeat: open innovation for all. I had been looking forward to hearing (and seeing) Mark Surman again. I was really hoping he would clear up some muddle-headedness that I’m suffering regrading the Mozilla Foundation Drumbeat effort.  I totally get the idea of defending and extending the open web. I don’t quite understand the Drumbeat spin on this. Alas, Mark dropped out of the event, apparently having slipped off to Barcelona to help prepare for the Drumbeat Festival due to take place there next week. Okay, fair enough. Barcelona does have its attractions. And it might also be warmer than Toronto at this time of year.

Fortunately (for us) Mark was replaced by Matt Thompson. Matt did a good job in Mark’s stead. He gave a nice overview of Drumbeat’s goals. He reminded us how Mozilla Firefox defended the open web not by lobbying the powers that be, but by simply building a better browser than the massively dominant IE that was threatening the open web. Today, of course, there are many new threats to the open web, not least the attack on net neutrality. Can the Mozilla Foundation find new ways to defend and extend the open web?

I don’t know.  The Drumbeat projects highlighted all seemed very cool. I could see how they would garner lots of participation from “the people formerly known as users”. But I’m less clear on how they address the very things that Drumbeat itself identifies as threats to the open web. Of course, it could be that what really needs to be translated is the manner in which Mozilla built its fabulous open source browser. But then I would have thought I’d be hearing about a Mozilla Foundation project repository perhaps modelled on the Apache Foundation cohort of projects each of which partake to some extent in the well-tested development methodology found in the server project. There doesn’t seem to be that kind of guidance for proposed projects at this time. But perhaps it is just too soon to tell. Matt described the past year as, effectively,  Drumbeat in beta test mode. We should look for a major overhaul of both the website and (I think) the movement in the new year. No doubt that has something to do with what will be going on in Barcelona next week. If so, I look forward to the continued sharpening of the aims and objectives, and methods, that Drumbeat will seek to promote. I have a natural fondness for Mozilla, its browser, its Foundation, and a firm belief in its potential for good. I, for one, will be watching Drumbeat with anticipation in the weeks and months ahead.

All in all, it was a good day. I missed the presence of one or more significant keynote speaker. And I really don’t need another metal liquid container (which seems to be de rigueur as a participant goodie at every conference these days). And no, an extra-large t-shirt is unlikely to fit me (luckily I managed to make an exchange for a more plausible size). But most important were the people I spoke to, ate with, shared a drink with. Because community really is what FOSS is all about.

Blog use and first thoughts about Drupal

Still no tweets from me, but I do now have 3 followers. Soon. The anticipation must be killing them. Meanwhile I have been busy sharpening up my various foci of identity online. For example, this blog has returned to its predominant themes of openness, free and open source software, and reflections on such software and the communities that grow and sustain it. Gone is the fun widget from LibraryThing displaying books that I have recently added to my catalog there (if you are reading this via an rss feed you may never have seen that). I have moved that over to my other blog, Transformative Explications, which focusses on books and writing. There is a link here in my blogroll. My thinking is that it is better to give these two passions a separate and distinct location on the web without trying to disguise that they are both a growing part of me.

My other blog is located on a domain I set up back in 2007: www.randymetcalfe.com. I hadn’t done much with that domain or with the web hosting package that lies behind it, but I am now actively developing it.

You will notice, if you visit it, that the blog is a WordPress installation. WordPress is just one of an array of software packages available via the Fantastico De Luxe installer that comes with my web hosting package. Since my skills do not lie in system administration, this turns out to be a great way for me to experiment with and commit to using some FOSS. I’m happy with the WordPress install that I have but it doesn’t prevent me from also living in the cloud over here at Blogger. Of course my needs are simple; more complex requirements might have necessitated a clear choice.

The other FOSS that I have been exploring of late is Drupal, which is also available to me via Fantastico. After a couple of test installs at different domains, I have committed to exploring Drupal more fully. To that end I have been patiently documenting my learning curve (more on that later) as well as looking for opportunities to engage with the Drupal community.

Drupal is not as simple to use as WordPress, clearly, but its capabilities are vast (limitless?) and to take full advantage of it my learning curve will need to go on for some time. I’ve made some initial moves on participating in the Drupal community – joining email lists, sitting in on IRC, even attending my local Drupal user group meeting this past week. I was also lucky enough to go to one day of the nearby Toronto DrupalCamp, where I saw Dries Buytaert, the founder of Drupal, give an inspiring talk. What have I learned so far, other than that I have a lot to learn? I’ve learned that the Drupal community is strong. It has a lot of small and mid-size web consultancy businesses actively participating within it. And there are a lot of people around with, it seems to me, a great deal of technical knowledge. Enough so that it will, I think, be a long time before I manage to find any way to contribute to this community other than by using the software and enthusing, where possible, about it.

If I have sharpened my use of my blogs in the past week, then I will have got somewhere. Still a lot more things to think about in this exploration of my PIO. But until then…

Project Camelia and Drumbeat

For a while now I’ve been hearing murmurs about a Mozilla Foundation effort entitled Drumbeat. I don’t fully grok what Drumbeat is or will be. It’s something about the open web, or keeping the web open, or telling people that the web is open or ought to be, and mostly it seems to be very open about what it is or isn’t to the point of openly inviting others to come along and help it be even more of what it is, i.e. open. So, clearly I haven’t got it yet. I’m not ready for the 3 floor elevator pitch. That’s one reason I want to head over to FSOSS 2010. Mark Surman, Executive Director of the Mozilla Foundation, is going to be there speaking about Drumbeat. Mark will clear up my confusion in a trice, I’m sure. He’s good at that sort of thing.

Not that I haven’t been exploring the Drumbeat site myself (you should too!). In fact, a new project has shown up there, Camelia, which might be worth a look-see. The project page has a very useful 73 second video from Ross Gardler, the project lead, making his own elevator pitch about Camelia. There is also a 12 minute video for those of you who would like to take the lift to the top. In a nutshell, Camelia is about educating about the open web and enabling individuals to get involved with the hope of minimizing duplication between open web projects and maximising collaboration between same.

Frankly, once I saw that Ross was involved that pretty much sold me. What does Ross know about the open web? What doesn’t he know. He lives it. Go ahead and Google him (because you would anyway).  Then go back and watch his videos explaining what he, and those who join him, hope to achieve with the Camelia project. And finally, once you are convinced, take the half minute or so more to register on the Drumbeat site and vote for the project (yes, it’s important – it affects the likelihood of accruing seed funding from the Mozilla foundation).

Or better yet, just go get involved.