An office with a view


When my wife and I decided to throw caution to the wind and purchase our first house, I never imagined how much it would change my life. Apartment dwellers for the past 25 years, the transition to the responsibilities of home ownership is a bit scary. I’ve never changed the air filter in a furnace before. I couldn’t tell you what the main breaker for the electrical service looks like. And don’t even mention gardens – what do I know from gardens?

Fortunately we had the benefit of some fabulous assistance: a real estate agent with whom we really clicked; a home inspector (what we would have called a “surveyor”, I think, in England) who was incredibly professional, thorough and communicative; a bank with a heart (yes – can you believe it?); and the generous helping hands of brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews. So, on 30 October we took possession of the house that will be our home for some years to come.

Of course for someone like me the thing I see most no matter where I live is a computer screen. However situating that screen in a nice office can in fact make a difference. My new office has a long window that reaches all the way down to my desk. I’m located upstairs and can see for some distance out the back of our house. The snows have already arrived. In the distance are the beautiful Seagram’s lofts. Closer are the white covered back gardens that other homeowners like me are probably looking out on with an admixture of pride and fear.

For now the house is a delight. My wife is happy. I am happy. And I have a great new office with view. About the shovelling of snow…not so much.

Find your comfort zone – an Ubuntu story

About six months ago I changed scene, job, country, (life?). In July – all of July as it turns out, since Dell Canada just isn’t the equivalent of Dell UK or Dell USA – I ordered and eventually received one of those lovely new Dell Inspiron laptops. Mine is red, so you know it’s got to be good πŸ™‚ As well as being rather slow on delivery, Dell Canada is also behind the times on operating systems. It does not offer any machines with pre-installed Ubuntu. Instead it is Windows Vista for home machines, and Vista or XP for business machines. Thus, after many years using Ubuntu as my principal (and principled?) operating system for my work and much of my leisure, I found myself in possession of a brand new machine running Windows Vista.

And I’ve used it now for six months.

I’m actually not that fussy when it comes to software. (Readers of this blog may find that hard to believe.) If it works, and it meets my needs I’m generally satisfied. I find Vista to be about equal to XP, given my needs. Maybe it is better under the hood, but I don’t tend to get dirty with my operating system. If it runs OpenOffice, Firefox, Thunderbird, Pidgin, and Subversion, I’m pretty much sorted. The stealth tax licence fee for the operating system is just that, stealthy. If you don’t think about it too much, you barely notice it.

So why have I been so down in the mouth of late?

To be honest, I just miss Ubuntu. It was familiar, easy to understand, and, let’s be frank, fun! And hey, another Ubuntu version comes along every six months and it’s even more fun. There are some other reasons why I miss Ubuntu: I’m more comfortable working with subversion source code repositories in a Linux environment; there is lots of software that people recommend to me that does not run (easily) in Windows; I miss being visibly part of something good. And running Ubuntu in a VirtualMachine in Windows just doesn’t cut it.

When I’m out of sorts I tend to sit down and write lists. (Yes, I’m one of those guys!) Recently I was making a list of things that would make my life better, happier, right now, as we speak. And somewhat to my surprise switching back to Ubuntu was near the top. (There were other things, of course; computers are not my whole life after all πŸ˜‰ ) And once I make a list, I find it immensely satisfying to start drawing lines through items completed. (I did say that I was one of those guys!) And thus, a day later, I am writing this post via an Ubuntu operating system.

Actually I now have a dual-boot laptop. It turns out this is now much easier to do than it was four years ago when I last had a dual-boot machine. Vista is remarkably sensible in recognizing that users may wish to have multiple operating systems. It supports shrinking of its own partition thus freeing up space for the alternate. Resizing a Windows partition used to be a real hassle, but this took all of 1 minute. In the 12 GB available I installed Ubuntu 7.10. And it all works πŸ™‚ An added bonus is that this version appears to play nicely with my .odf documents residing on my NTFS partition: I can use them, edit them, and save to that partition, thus removing the need for a shared FAT partition (at least that’s my impression so far).

Using Ubuntu won’t really change my life. After all, I will still be using OpenOffice, Firefox, Thunderbird, Pidgin, and Subversion. There is probably even no way for you to tell what operating system I was in when I wrote this. But I know. And that’s enough. I’m back in my comfort zone and the future looks bright.

Building Communities: eIFL-FOSS

When I moved back to Canada after 13 years in the UK, I had the luxury of being able to step back from things. I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to think through what I might like to do with the rest of my life. But in fact I didn’t need any time at all. I’ve been heading in a certain direction, I think, for about 40 years. All I really needed time to discover was the next step along the way.

In July, I was invited to a meeting in Italy by the folks at eIFL.net: electronic information for libraries. I was being asked to take a fresh look at a proposal for a new program area for eIFL, one that would advocate the use of free and open source software (FOSS) in libraries across their member countries. The aim would be to raise awareness and understanding of FOSS, to facilitate eIFL.net member engagement with FOSS development communities, and to undertake projects of special significance to eIFL.net members. In fact, this was a call to do nothing less than build a new community of FOSS champions in university libraries from southern Africa to eastern Europe and beyond.

How tempting is that, eh?

Of course for me it was also a bit terrifying. First, I am not a librarian, so nearly everyone involved would have specialist knowledge that I do not. Second, I am neither a systems administrator nor a professional software developer, so I have very little of technical worth to offer this proto-community, least of all first-hand experience deploying the integrated library systems (ILS) Koha or Evergreen, which would be the foci of our initial project. Third, building sustainable communities is hard. Really hard.

Sounded like just the sort of challenge I was looking for πŸ™‚

And so I signed up at the beginning of September. (I spent much of August with my parents after my father discovered he was in urgent need of a triple by-pass operation; completely successful, I’m glad to say.)

You might be wondering what I have to offer such a program given my list of shortcomings above. The truth is that I don’t believe in shortcomings. In fact, I will be treating each of those shortfalls as pluses.

First, I will be learning something new every day, and every member of this new community will have something they can teach me. Second, my focus will be on exploring the Koha and Evergreen development communities and sharing what I find. Everyone else will no doubt be focusing on the software itself and sharing what they find. Together we’ll take the steps necessary for positive engagement with these development communities. Third, of course building sustainable communities is hard – that’s why it is so rewarding!

Funding for the eIFL-FOSS proposal was secured from the Open Society Institute in mid-October. Since then I have gradually begun putting a public face on our new program. But they are early days. One aspect of the new program I can point you to, however, is my new work blog. I will be posting there on all aspects of the program and of our ILS pilots. It promises to be a grand adventure.

So is this what I want to be doing the rest of life? If by “this” you mean facilitating the growth of new sustainable communities, then yes, that sounds about right.

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.

Canada: chapter two

I have been in Canada now for about a month and a half, enough time to have got my bearings and to make some decisions about where I’m headed.

First off, let me say that it is good to be home. Home, I know, is a state of mind. While I lived in Oxford and London, I quickly settled on those locales as home. Because I really need to feel like home is where I’m living. Maybe that’s just me. I don’t function well with divided loyalties, the constant longing to be somewhere else, somewhere that isn’t here. I always want to be precisely where I am. And that’s why home is a moveable feast for me. So I can say again, with as many layers of meaning as you like – it’s good to be home.

Home is now Waterloo, Ontario. It is half of the Kitchener-Waterloo conurbation. The Waterloo half has two universities (University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University), the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, Research In Motion (RIM), an excellent repertory cinema – The Princess and its sister cinema The Princess Twin, and enough Tim Hortons coffee shops to make me think I might be back in Hamilton again. It’s a nice town. It has a thriving Uptown area of shops, an excellent public library, a vibrant arts and music scene with plenty of free festivals throughout the summer, and a scattering of parks and cycle routes. All this and yet mere minutes drive to some of the most lovely countryside in the province, complete with an industrious Mennonite community about which I have much to learn.

There is a bit of an open source and free software community in the region. For example, I’ve already been to a meeting of the Kitchener-Waterloo Linux Users Group (KWLUG). But with plenty of universities within a short drive (e.g. the University of Toronto is only 90 minutes drive away) there are numerous opportunities for those with a background in open source development, free software deployment, and a bit of drive and determination. Even RIM periodically advertises for individuals with open source experience.

What there isn’t is anything like OSS Watch. Indeed there isn’t anything like the numerous significant advocacy groups that I knew in the UK. Maybe I just haven’t found them yet, but if I haven’t then they are well hidden.

What there is, however, is oodles of potential and buckets of opportunity. It’s a clichΓ©, I know, but everyone here in Canada has been ever so nice. You get the impression that if you put forward a good idea, there will be lots of hands to help out straight away. It’s a place where community isn’t just a word.

And finally a word for family. I’ve seen more of my family (parents, sisters, nieces, nephews, etc.) in the past month than I have in the past 10 years combined. And that turns out to be a good thing too.

It’s nice to be home.