Turning a page

In the spring I did something that I haven’t done before. I bought an Apple computer. It is an iMac (the smaller one) and I confess I find it to be exactly what I hoped it would be. Beautiful, elegant, unobtrusive, simple.

A surprising amount of thinking and research went into that decision. Or rather, a lot of research went in to helping someone else arrive at the best possible decision for his next computer. And having convinced him that the right choice was an iMac, I found I had very little counter-argument when it came to purchasing a new home desktop machine.

My father-in-law turned 80 in April. For more than a year he had been struggling with a home computer that seemed to soak up all of his time, and my time whenever I visited, reclaiming lost files and resolving issues. In short, he was no longer having fun. Of course some people find their fun in constantly tinkering with the innards of their operating system. He is not that sort of person. He had attempted to upgrade a perfectly serviceable XP machine to Vista. That was a mistake. Despite adding extra RAM he was left with an extremely sluggish machine and a mess of documents, pictures and other files shifted to places he knew not where. His computer was now taking up increasing amounts of his time and he was becoming less and less productive. It was time for a change.

He decided that he would buy himself an 80th birthday present – a new computer that would liberate him from the morass his computing had fallen into. He began by exploring new Windows 7 machines and was, for a time, enchanted by the idea of a touch-screen HP desktop. However, before making a purchase he decided to ask my advice (which, regrettably, he had not done prior to his XP to Vista disaster). And so I set about exploring the options.

I decided to concentrate upon his computing experience. What did he most dislike? What did he most enjoy? One of the things he appreciates is elegant, functional design. A well-engineered machine can be in itself a beautiful object. Like a high-end BMW or Audi, a good computer (and operating system) should get out of the way of the experiences you hope to have using it. His computing needs, in effect, were simple: email, some Internet surfing, word processing, a handy collection of photos of his family, one or two solitary games, and possibly some VOIP (probably Skype) to keep in touch with distant family. There are lots of machines that could meet these computing needs. But what would transform his experience? What would, for him, make computing fun again?

I recommended the 21-inch Apple iMac.

He had not even considered a mac until then. He had successfully taught himself to use Windows computers from 3.1 to Vista and didn’t immediately see that he could step away from that paradigm at this point without a huge change cost. When he went to see his local Apple dealer, however, he fell in love with the iMac almost immediately.

And he has been delighted with it ever since.

Somewhat to my surprise I discovered that in convincing him that the iMac was right for his needs I also convinced myself that it was right for me. And I too have been delighted with it ever since we got it. So much so that it seems like it has always been here. Or maybe it is that, because it doesn’t require constant attention, I forget about the device and have simply got on with having fun again. And that seems like a good page to have turned.

What I look for in project governance

A lot of my FOSS friends are busy these days thinking about Foundations, not-for-profit organisations, and Associations. This kind of thinking is almost always useful. But I do not have much of substance to contribute to such a discussion. Instead I thought I would spend a few words and minutes setting down what I look for in FOSS project governance. These are merely my personal reflections. I would not be surprised if they do not have universal application.

To be clear, I am not a vendor of software or of software services. And I do not work for a vendor of software. So the concerns of vendors, though I am certain they are perfectly valid, are not my concerns.

When I consider whether or not I want to spend any of my personal time involving myself with a FOSS project, the first thing I look for is how it governs itself. This is my time (and effort) that I am contributing. And while my time (and effort) is no more valuable than anyone else’s, it is no less valuable either. How a project values my participation is expressed, I think, through the way it governs itself.

For example, I do not want to participate in a project where the voice someone has within the project depends on something that is not directly related to the contribution they have made within this very project. It seems to me that it makes good sense for some people to have commit rights for the code and for others not to have those rights. But that only makes sense if the route to attaining commit access is a result of contributions made to the project. And it must be at least possible for me similarly to attain such rights, given sufficient contributions of my time (and effort). If that is not possible, then clearly my contributions are not being equally valued. I will go elsewhere.

Who would be in an appropriate position to judge whether my contributions were of sufficient worth to merit my gaining commit rights? I can only imagine that it would be those who themselves have already attained such a position due to the strength of their own contributions. And thus the meritocracy.

I imagine there are many occasions when a project could go in one direction or a different direction. How do such decisions get made? The particulars do not matter so much to me. What matters is whether my opinion, as a project participant, counts and whether it counts equally with the opinions of others. Yet, again, I do not think that counting equally means a project needs to devolve all decision-making to mere majority voting. It seems obvious to me that some participants will have more experience than I do. They will have made longer term or more substantial contributions. It seems right to me that they should have a greater voice in current decision-making about the direction that the project should take. In part this greater responsibility will already have been signalled by the project because these individuals will have commit access to the codebase. And even within those with commit rights, there may need to be a further level of distinction such as a project management committee. This could help the project make some of its decisions. I can even imagine projects where ultimately there is a final authority, a single individual, who casts deciding ballots when necessary. But I cannot imagine participating in such a project unless there is some route by which I too might eventually attain such a position and that such attainment would be based upon the contributions I had made to the project.

And so it comes back to whether or not my contributions of time (and effort) are equally valued. It seems to me that there are many, many ways to organise the particulars of project governance each of which express this principle. There are also, I’m sure, many examples of projects that forego such equality of participation. That’s fine. I have no wish to insist that all projects conform to my ideals. Since this is my time (and effort) we are talking about, I can simply vote with my feet. I will go elsewhere.

I could be wrong, but I suspect that over time more and more projects will move toward the view that all participation needs to be valued equally. And from this starting point they will organise themselves in different ways which they think best expresses that belief.

One final observation. It seems obvious to me that if a project does organise itself in such a way in which each participant’s contribution is valued equally, the project will want to make this clear to one and all. It may lay out just such a principle when it explains how participation in the project works. More, however, I would expect the project to be telling me how decisions are made, how commit access is attained, what I need to do to get started and how I will be able to move through whichever levels of contribution the project has deemed necessary. When a project website does not explain very, very clearly how my participation will be valued, I almost immediately head for the exit.

I hope there will be more thinking and talking about Foundations, and not-for-profit organisations, and Associations amongst the FOSS projects that I have an interest in. I think it is usually a sign that the project is heading toward some sort of clarity about its own governance. And that kind of clarity can only help, if only to help me decide whether I want to continue to participate in the project.

The craft

Last night I witnessed David Lang’s elevated at our local new music festival. The composer spoke to the audience prior to the performance. He is a professor at Yale University and speaks with passion and authority about his musical explorations, his willingness to take risks, his desire to be emotionally expressive but not to constrain a listener’s emotional terrain. The performance itself revealed more. Along with the theoretical understanding of composition and the emotional commitment in each project, there is also the craft. There could be little doubt that David Lang is in full command of his craft. An honour to hear his music and his own thoughts about his music.

I admire master crafstmen, men and women who toil long in acquiring the skills they bring to bear in the accomplishment of some act. Amongst writers I find the mastery of the craft is almost as admirable as the product itself. For example, I find Ian McEwan’s novels to be troubling but his evident control over each sentence, each phrase, each word choice is exhilarating. Craft. I see it to varying degrees in all of the writers I appreciate. My recent finds include Michael Chabon, Richard B. Wright, Guy Vanderhaeghe, and Francine Prose. Learning the craft of writing, developing the skills, the habits, the understanding – this is my task.

A change coming on

I feel a change coming on. It is an odd sensation, or possibly just an odd expression. It’s not as though I have a trick knee that reacts to sudden shifts in barometric pressure. The change I have in mind has nothing to do with the weather. Nevertheless I’ve been having the impression for some time now that a change is coming.

It is more like a hunch than a direct sensation, something that has me looking at things out of the corner of my eye and wondering whether this is it. It generally isn’t. But it is hard to shake this feeling. I feel like I need to be ready for something, ready to react quickly or possibly to be the initiator, given the right conditions. I must be coming to a tipping point, something that will send me off in a new direction. I’m not there yet, but I appear to be readying myself, getting set to spring. What will trigger it? I don’t know. I just feel a change coming on.

Typically, in the face of uncertainty, I make lists. The transition to a new calendar year promotes this habit. I tend to look back at the year just passed and make a fresh assessment of its actions and events as a prelude to setting goals for the year ahead. That list of course, my list of goals for a year, is always an open-ended document. On the 2009 edition I note a few additions. One of those has to do with reacquainting myself with the classical piano repertoire; this because for the first time in more than 25 years I have a piano at my disposal. It is no small challenge for me to (re-)establish the habit of practising: the hours spent on technique just to get my fingers in to shape; the embarrassing forays into pieces I used to play all those years ago; the need for more realistic goals and scheduling and a more modest initial set of pieces to work on. And every time I touch the keys I hear both the echoes of my youth and the more mature re-sounding which informs me that I can now choose my new relationship with the keyboard, I am not bound by what I did or didn’t do years ago.

I am not bound by what I did or didn’t do years ago. Maybe that’s it. Maybe that realisation has sparked this feeling of a change coming on. Maybe it is part of the realisation that the conditions for change are in my hands now. I can choose my own direction. I’m ready for it.

I feel a change coming on. A change for the better.

20 GB of Ogg Vorbis files

Why do I have 20 GB of Ogg Vorbis files on my computer? Or perhaps the question is, why to I still have 20 GB of Ogg Vorbis files on my computer?

Ogg Vorbis is an audio compression format. Think MP3, but then think open, non-proprietary, patent-and-royalty-free. Oh, and also think quality. Now you are beginning to think about Ogg Vorbis.

I first started using Ogg Vorbis back in 2004. I wanted to purchase a personal music player for my wife for our anniversary. I was concerned about using a proprietary format such as MP3. Largely this was because I was working for OSS Watch at the time. I was learning so much about free and open source software and open standards that I wanted to put some of what I learned into practice in my personal life. Since Ogg Vorbis was the leader amongst the efforts to provide a high-quality non-proprietary codec I went with it. I was also delighted to find that iRiver, at least back in those days, had a substantial player, the iRiver H140, that supported Ogg Vorbis natively. Anniversary gift solved!

One thing leads to another and three years later I find myself with more than 20GB of Ogg Vorbis files on our main desktop computer at home. If I tell you that I generated all of these from cds we own, you will get some idea of the size of our cd collection. Music is important in our lives – all forms of music: folk, rock, jazz, classical, opera, instrumental and more. As soon as we buy a new cd, I rip and encode it as Ogg Vorbis files, for backup and for use on our various players.

For myself, I’m happy with a 1GB player on which I store a selection of my favourites suitable for running or for sitting on a bus. My wife does the same thing for running, but on the bus she likes to have everything available to her: absolutely everything. Hence the value of the 40GB iRiver player she has been using. I should say also that we have always been happy with the quality of the music we get out of our personal music devices. So no complaints there.

So, everything should be fine. Why then am I wondering about that decision I made a number of years ago?

Two things. First, I need to replace that iRiver player. Alas the hardware was not as reliable as the software. And there is no doubt that the cool gadgets for music these days are Apple’s iPods. Players, even the hard disc ones, have got much smaller and sleeker. I would like to get something cool for my wife. Second, I no longer work for OSS Watch. So I don’t have the same impedus, perhaps, to support so-called marginal codecs even if they are non-proprietary. Or do I?

I know that I could just buy an iPod and install Rockbox on it in order to play Ogg Vorbis files. But I just can’t convince myself that buying a new iPod and then immediately wiping its operating system is a clever move.

So what should I do? Should I abandon what I started some years ago and switch to the better supported MP3 format? Or another way of putting that: is there still a reason for me to be using Ogg Vorbis (now that I no longer work for OSS Watch)?

It’s that last question that has me thinking. In essence it amounts to a question about what the significance is of free and and open source software and open standards in an ordinary person’s life. By ordinary person, I just mean someone who isn’t directly connected to the business of free and open source software or open standards (of course those people are also ordinary folk, it’s just that they have special interests/reasons in this area). Is there a reason to choose an open standard or open source, even if it entails a bit of extra bother (like not being able to use the latest cool gadget, or needing to search around a bit to find compatible hardware, etc.)?

I think there is.

It is a question of principle and conviction, a question of deciding who you are and why. Curiously it is not a question of technology, except to the extent to which I want to be in charge of my technological choices rather than have the market decide for me.

Note that this is not the hypothetical question I often ask people. I usually ask, if two software products equally met technical and user requirements but one was proprietary and the other was open source, which would you choose? That question is about whether there are aspects of open source that might be decisive in an otherwise technologically neutral choice situation. The question above, however, is about whether even in a non-neutral situation, it might be rational to choose the open source or open standard option.

I think this is the point where, as we used to say when I was younger, the personal becomes political. My personal choices are political.

And that too has me thinking. Thinking about what kind of a political being I have become and where this will lead. But I also think this is a question I am going to be returning to again and again over the next few years. It seems to me that there is a good reason to use open source software or open non-proprietary standards even if that choice, in some cases, means I get marginalised.