Learning every day

It’s exhilarating, learning something new every day. It’s probably addictive. I know I never want it to stop.

I am not a programmer. Very likely I have little or no facility for learning programming languages. At least not if the evidence of my execrable French and German is anything to go by. Yet there too, I persist. For a number of years I spent every morning between 5:30 and 7:30 attempting to improve my French (yes, I do get up that early – it’s a curse). And still my French is embarrassing to me.

No doubt I would have learned more and learned it more quickly if I could have immersed myself in French language and culture for a week, a month, a year. I could have gone to restaurants, watched television, read newspapers, and most important talked to people. That is, I might have learned more had I lived in French for a time.

I did get the immersion experience in German once. One summer, the first that we were living in the UK, Kathy and I toured what had been East Germany with her uncle and aunt. Neither Klaus nor Erna speak English. Kathy speaks no German. In the parts of Germany that we were visiting there was no intrusion of English – no English-speaking tourists, no English television, no newspapers. So, for two weeks I needed to live in German just to get by, as well as serving as Kathy’s principal translator. Talk about exhausting. And yet, I probably learned more German and better in those two weeks than in the previous four years of modest effort altogether.

Very likely I will never learn a programming language well enough to claim fluency. But the challenge is there before me. And just like learning a natural language, I need to live in it for a time. Fortunately there are plenty of resources ready and waiting.

Python is my first serious programming language (I don’t count the “Hello, World” programs I wrote in GW-BASIC when I was a teenager). Some day maybe I’ll move on to Java or Perl or (shudder) C/C++. I am slowly beginning to grasp the rudiments of the language. I am aided in this by the opportunity to look at, study, modify (if I should wish) and run the source code for a couple of Python-based projects that I follow: Imendio Planner (Gnome Planner, as was) and MoinMoin.

No, I’m not ready yet to contribute any code to these projects. I am under no illusions as to my abilities. But I’m learning to read the code that underpins two applications I use in my daily work. And I’m following the discussions on the development mailing lists for them. Some day, in the not too distant future, I may even start modifying my local copies of the code base. I can at least dream of some day making small code contributions to the projects.

Meanwhile, I’m learning something new every day. I hope I live to be a hundred and one.

ReportTool launched

ReportTool is a simple web application for creating, editing and viewing reports on students’ work. It was created by Stephen Butterfill, a philosophy lecturer at the University of Warwick.

In classic hacker fashion, Steve had an itch that needed scratching. Like faculty in every university department, the faculty in his department had to create, track and distribute reports on students’ progress. From Steve’s point of view, it is much easier to do this on the web than on paper. Since he couldn’t find a free and open source web application to meet his need, he set about building one of his own.

Along the way Steve needed to learn java and web programming. When you’ve got an itch, I guess, you do whatever it takes to scratch it. And, since he is one of the brightest guys I’ve ever met, it wasn’t long before he had a working application.

First make something that works. Then make it better.

Having built an application that is adequate for his own needs, Steve started thinking about sharing it with others. Anyone building an application like this is almost certain to be using so many free and open source development tools that open source just seems like the natural way to go. But how to go about it?

That’s when I got involved with ReportTool.

I have been helping Steve set up a project site for ReportTool. Our modest goal is to gather input from potential users, those willing to try out the live demo, or indeed those brave enough to download the prototype. Future development of ReportTool – including discussions towards which open source licence would be most appropriate for it – will take place out in the open on the ReportTool development mailing list.

It’s been fun working with Steve. And fun setting up the ReportTool site. But I suspect that the real fun is only just beginning…

Being open

How open is your project? It’s a question that should be asked of any open source software development project. It goes without saying that the software being distributed in such a project has an open source licence. That ensures that the software itself is open. What about the project? What about the way the code gets developed?

Sometimes I tell people that the licence is the thing. Without an open source licence, it’s just not open source software. And that’s true. But it’s not enough.

Pia Waugh made just this point to me when I met up with her last week. Amongst a million other things she does, Pia also works for ASK-OSS, the Australian equivalent of OSS Watch. She argues that without open communities, open content, and open standards, open source software is stunted. More and more I begin to see her point.

Yet being open is hard sometimes.

It takes practice. Moreover it admits of degrees and may need to be approached one step at a time. A good start is to set up an open development discussion list. But if you do, treat it with respect. Once you’ve got such a list, then all development communication needs to take place on it.

Either the project is open and this open development discussion list reflects that, or its openness is a sham.

Try it on for size

These days almost any webhosting company that offers a GNU/Linux package also offers a plethora of one-click installs of free and open source content management systems, database servers, blogging software, wikis, control versioning systems (cvs), and more. With so much choice, you will want to try it all. And you should. It’s fun, and you will learn a great deal.

There is probably some marketing term for a product that promotes itself by letting potential customers use it. In the case of open source software, that trial use merges seamlessly with actual use, with no discernible transition or acquisition cost.

So, I come, I try out some software, I like it so much that…I just keep using it.

The opportunity to try something that isn’t a cut-down version, or a lost leader for a “pro” version, is one of the great strengths of free and open source software.

Recently I have been learning how to administer Mailman. Just another one-click install option from the webhoster for a project site I am helping with. I already know it does the job I need it to do. I need to set up a development discussion list and an announcement list. I know this because I’ve engaged with Mailman interfaces as a list subscriber on countless open source project sites. Now I’m discovering that administering lists is reasonably straightforward as well. What should I do now?

Just keep using it!

In the news

It’s always a little embarrassing when you find yourself in the news, Public sector catches wikimania. I was interviewed back in December about OSS Watch’s Wiki. Freelance writer for The Guardian Steve Mathieson was interested in why we had gone down this route and how we were planning to avoid some of the problems Wikipedia was experiencing on trust issues.

To be honest, the interview took place on the day before we left for Canada for Christmas, so I’d largely forgotten about it when I was contacted by the photo desk at The Guardian in January and asked to make myself available for a photo shoot. Get real! But then the article failed to appear in January. So I forgot about it again.

Then yesterday, after a long but enjoyable advisory committee meeting, I found an email in my inbox from Steve letting me know that the article had come out. No photo of me (thank heavens!) but a really nice piece. Good for OSS Watch, good for JISC (our funders), good for Oxford University (I think).

Still, a little embarrassing though 🙂