Older blog entries for mattl (starting at number 638)

21 Oct 2011 (updated 2 Apr 2015 at 00:24 UTC) »

GNU/Linux Inside stickers are back and better than ever!

They're great for replacing that Windows sticker that comes plastered on so many laptops. In fact, they are made of almost the same material. Currently, they are available when you make a purchase at shop.fsf.org and include a donation of $10 or more.

In other shop related news, we only have a limited supply of our classic stuffed gnu in stock. As they are no longer being manufactured, once these classic gnus are gone, they are gone.

Do you have a great idea for something new we should offer at the GNU Press store? Add it to the ideas page on LibrePlanet.

Syndicated 2011-10-18 21:29:33 from fsf

Free Technology Academy

  • The Free Technology Academy consists of an advanced virtual campus with course materials that are followed entirely online.

  • The contents of the program are focused on free technologies and designed by e-learning experts.

  • The Free Technology Academy is specially oriented to IT professionals, students, educations and decision makers.

  • All learning materials used in the FTA are published under licenses that allow them to be freely used, modified and redistributed. Learners who enroll in the FTA receive tuition from the partner universities' teaching staff, and FTA credits are recognized by these universities.

  • The FTA aims to share the burden and benefits of developing and exploiting course modules related to free technology. Organizations interested in joining forces are welcome to strengthen the Partner Network.


The use of free technologies is considered a key factor for sustainability: Free standards guarantee interoperability and provide a level playing field for developers; free software implementations help to prevent the formation of monopolies that hinder free competition in the ICT sector.

The presence of free technologies is steadily growing in many sectors, such as public bodies, entertainment, embedded systems, mobile computing, etc. The FTA courses cover these fields form several points of view: technical, economic, organizational, and legal.

For whom?

FTA is for people who want to acquire knowledge about these topics and obtain a certificate that is accepted at the master level by the university partners. However, holding a university degree is not required to enroll. Typical particpants are ICT professionals, educators, students, civil servants, and decision-makers from different countries.

Learning methodology

All courses provided by the Free Technology Academy are conducted entirely online at the FTA Virtual Campus. The FTA learning methodology allows learners to define their own study schedules: asynchronus communication tools, few deadlines, and activities that can be joined at different dates and times. This model allows for anyone to follow FTA courses, regardless of their location and job, as long as they have regular access to the Internet.

Syndicated 2011-10-18 19:31:42 from fsf

Spotlight: Merlin Cloud

First, let's dispel this myth about cloud computing. What is it, and why is it compatible with free software ethics?

"Cloud computing," unfortunately, is one of the most misunderstood terms in the recent history of computing. Literally, it has a million different definitions to a million different people. I like to think of cloud computing simply as an abstraction: a system that provides methods for requesting and utilizing computing resources without having to know anything about the underlying systems providing them.

Primarily, cloud computing is about (a) aggregating server, network, and storage resources into a seemingly contiguous system ("the cloud"), (b) providing some kind of interface for the user to request or release these resources, and (c) making these resources network or location agnostic, so that the resources are accessible from anywhere, even in the face of system or network failures.

I agree that there are many ethical considerations with "the cloud," especially in its current invocation by larger corporations. However, their cloud need not be ours; it is becoming more and more possible to use free software to build clouds that respect free software ethics and don't require a user to compromise on their freedoms or privacy.

For instance, one could imagine a GNU cloud which only ran free software, and had strong privacy and data protection safeguards, but provided users the same type of experience they might expect from Amazon's EC2. This kind of vision is entirely possible.

Okay, so what's Merlin? Give me the 30-second overview...

Primarily, Merlin is a Ruby on Rails application that I created as a way of interacting and controlling EC2 API-compatible clouds. This can mean Amazon AWS, which has many significant ethical concerns, but it can also mean something like Eucalyptus/UEC (the GPLv3-licensed version), or other free software which provides similar services.

Merlin allows you to quickly request the creation of new virtual machines and storage volumes, and can also assist in provisioning them (getting them ready to do real work). It handles a lot of details in the background (such as Puppet certificate signing, BIND dynamic DNS updates, etc.) and aims to make day-to-day cloud operations as easy as a couple of clicks. It also aims to provide a free software option versus the proprietary software or closed web services that are used to interface and interact with clouds today.

What technologies are used to make Merlin work?

As I said, Merlin is a Ruby on Rails project. I actually used the project as an excuse to learn Ruby/Rails, as I had only used Django or Zope in the past. Underneath the hood, it uses ActiveMQ to pass messages between the front end and the back end, and of course a whole basket of Ruby gems. Merlin also assumes that you are using Puppet to provision your systems.

What can developers who are interested in Merlin do to help it succeed?

Merlin, primarily, needs more attention. It works for me, in my environment; it would be helpful if others would try using it. It really needs better packaging and documentation: it isn't as simple as installing it and clicking a few things. It also needs quite a bit of work on its UI, and I am hoping to get it to a beta release where a lot of the basic functionality will be a bit more implemented than it is now. In the future, Merlin will support spawning entire groups of machines, or entire self-contained systems, within the cloud. I would also like Merlin to be API-agnostic, and support a wide variety of cloud software. All that being said, the software is available today, so anyone who wants to hack on it can do so.

We've seen some rather gloomy-looking options from big companies who are talking up the cloud as the solution to all our problems. What can Merlin do to give people some flexibility without requiring them to give up their control?

Primarily, the real issue with the pervasiveness of clouds with ethical issues for users is simply that they are there, and they are the only real option unless you are looking very carefully. The average user isn't yet aware of the traps and pitfalls involved in using cloud services, and is very much attracted to the ease of use and simplicity that the cloud promises -- especially the idea of their files or data being available "everywhere." Unfortunately, this simplicity comes with a price -- it is inherently linked to an expropriation of freedom and privacy which becomes harder and harder to reverse the more one relies on the corporate clouds.

To my knowledge, no one has attempted to build a large, scalable free software cloud that inherently respects the freedom and privacy of its users. I sincerely hope Merlin can be helpful in this regard, even if it is only to encourage communities of users to build their own small private clouds instead of always using the big companies.

How do you use Merlin?

We use it internally to provision new virtual machines within our private cloud. Merlin will then provision these instances and even register them automatically in DNS. It makes the rapid creation of large numbers of provisioned virtual machines particularly quick and easy, which I would say is a general, if unwritten, expectation of cloud computing.

Syndicated 2011-10-18 19:31:39 from fsf

Welcome to the Bulletin

We also have some changes at the Free Software Foundation. After ten years with the Foundation, our former executive director Peter Brown has decided to move on to new pastures -- handing over the reins to a familiar face, John Sullivan. John has held a number of positions in the Foundation, most recently serving as operations manager. He has returned to Boston after his brief dalliance with life on the West Coast. Josh Gay, who some of you may remember as a campaigns manager from a few years ago, has also returned to continue that work.

Finally, throughout this issue you will see various pieces of GNU artwork. These were recently rescued from our decaying archive and scanned. Our thanks go to Etienne Suvasa for all of his work over the years providing us with these glorious pieces of art.

Syndicated 2011-10-18 19:31:29 from fsf

LibrePlanet 2011

Because we planned a smaller event, we chose a smaller venue than in previous years. With only a single track of talks, it was clear we could find a suitable lecture hall at many of the universities and colleges in the Boston area. For us, Bunker Hill Community College proved ideal for our needs. Minutes from the heart of downtown Boston and so close to the subway system that it has its own station, BHCC features prominently in the movie Good Will Hunting in the office of Robin Williams's character.

The event kicked off with a welcome from our newly appointed executive director John Sullivan, who listed some of the things he'd like to achieve now that he's running the show: better access to the people running the organization and an increased focus on our campaigns work. This was followed by a talk from Brett Smith about the work of the GPL Compliance Lab. The Compliance Lab is responsible for resolving license violations that involve GNU software. Brett acts as the liaison between the FSF and its attorneys at the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC) in New York City.

With the first two FSF talks out of the way, it was time for an outside perspective. This came from conference regular Máirín Duffy, who works on the Fedora distribution of GNU/Linux. Her talk Empowering Girl Scouts using free software described a collaborative effort to teach groups of Girl Scouts and other young people in Massachusetts how to use free creative software like GIMP and Inkscape. The children made a variety of creative works, including t-shirts and posters, which were later printed and put on display.

After lunch, Richard Stallman gave his keynote speech. Unlike previous years, he did not announce a new philosophical essay, but instead offered a warning about the dangers of cell phone tracking and proprietary software on mobile devices. There was positive news to report in this space: the Replicant project has successfully built a fully free, functional version of the Android/Linux operating system for the HTC Dream phone.

Lightning talks followed. Bob Call, Jason Self, Asheesh Laroia, Mary-Anne Wolf, and Dave Crossland offered short but sweet insights into their work on router hacking, Python advocacy, real-world accessibility for disabled people, and free fonts.

The conference concluded with our annual Free Software Awards ceremony. GNU Gnash maintainer and GNU veteran Rob Savoye received the Award for the Advancement of Free Software, while Andrew Lewman from the Tor Project stepped up to take home the Award for Projects of Social Benefit.

Syndicated 2011-10-18 19:31:29 from fsf

GNU Hackers Meeting: Gothenburg, Sweden

ML: Do you think awareness of GNU is increasing?

BG: That's hard to measure but the community is certainly getting stronger. We had about 40 people at the most recent GNU Hackers Meeting in the Hague, and that number has been increasing every meeting over the past years. At FOSDEM in February 2011 we will have a dev room for 100 people.

GS: In these last years I have noticed a wider awareness of what the Free Software and the GNU Project are, and the understanding of the importance to have a Free operating system. On the other hand, I have got the impression that the number of real contributors hasn't increased at the same rate. Communities are a great thing but it is also important to get hands ``dirty,'' there are new problems to face every day and there is definitely need of new contributors. Everyone can contribute and support actively the development of the GNU system, there are many ways to do it without be a programmer.

AS: Over the last 5 years I've seen a younger generation getting involved, including things like the GNU Hackers Meetings that are popping up all over the world. There also seems to be a wider awareness of what the GNU Project has done; people don't seem as suprised if you say you work on the GNU system of the GNU Project. So yes, I would think so.

ML: Of all the projects represented here, gNewSense and GNU PDF are perhaps the most likely to be used by a typical nondeveloper user. What are the goals of these projects?

JM: The goal of the GNU PDF project is to provide a free (GPLv3+) and complete implementation of the PDF format and associated technologies. It is not yet ready for end-user usage, but we are working on it.

GS: These projects share the same final goal: give users the full control of their computers and data. GNU IceCat is the GNU version of the famous Mozilla Firefox browser; differently from Firefox, IceCat suggests to use only free addons and free plugins. GNU PDF project aims to develop a free library to manage the PDF file format. gNewSense is a fully free GNU/Linux distribution without any nonfree component. I would like to remind another very important GNU project, GNU Gnash, that provides a free Flash movie player. All of these projects (as any component of a GNU/Linux system) are very important. Unfortunately still there is much work to do. Some features are missing but GNU/Linux and gNewSense are a reality -- you can already get a taste of a Free operating system.

ML: What makes the GNU networking utilities different from those found in other operating systems and distributions?

SJ: Most distributions are using a variety of tools from a variety of sources: NetKit is widespread for telnet, ftp, and tftp. Debian GNU/Linux uses Marco d'Itri's whois client while other programs, such as traceroute are separate packages too. Several of these packages are poorly maintained with no releases in many years -- the last date in the changelog files for the 'telnet' and 'ftp' packages is 2000! Given this mixed picture, having a single source for network utilities, one that even makes regular releases and show some code activity, would be much better. At least that is why I'm helping the inetutils effort.

AS: The GNU Network Utilities are portable across different platforms, something that the BSD versions aren't. We also support IPv6, Kerberos authentication, and TLS encryption, something that most other GNU and BSD systems lack in their standard version.

ML: Brian, what is the GNU Advisory Committee, and how is it changing the way GNU acts as a community?

BG: The GNU Advisory Committee was created about a year ago to improve coordination within the GNU Project. It provides an initial point of contact for questions from maintainers, FSF, and others. Members of the committee are appointed by Richard Stallman and meet by phone each month to discuss current issues. Stallman, the founder of GNU and the president of the FSF, remains the Chief GNUisance with overall responsibility for and authority over the GNU Project. The Advisory Committee is trying to encourage more project-wide activities and get more people involved in GNU. For example, it helped to organise the first US GNU Hackers meeting in Boston at the FSF's LibrePlanet in March 2010. Prior to that there had not been a meeting where GNU contributors in the US could get together for many years. In the past, developers have mainly worked within their own projects -- we want to encourage more communication and sharing of ideas among the project as a whole.

Syndicated 2011-10-18 19:31:22 from fsf

Free Software From An Artistic Perspective

ML: GNU social is one of the latest round of free software social networks. What opportunies do you see for these networks in the artistic community?

RM: When I spoke about GNU FM at the Make Art conference in Poitiers, France, last year, I mentioned GNU social briefly at the end of my presentation, and everyone really wanted to hear more about it. Artists thrive on the ideas, critique, and publicity that Internet technologies can give access to, but are often concerned about the control that proprietary social networks give hidden actors over them. Free software social networking systems return the power to create your own virtual social space to the artistic individuals and institutions that participate in them. It's reminiscent of the email listserv era, which was very important for several different art movements in the 1990s and early 2000s. MySpace and Facebook really haven't replaced that -- they lack the focus and sense of community.

Artists can take control of their online social presence much more effectively with free software -- galleries, museums, artists groups, individual artists, can all have their own nodes in the distributed social network. Some of these will almost certainly be declared artworks in themselves by an enterprising conceptual artist.

ML: You previously made an art project out of bots that communicate with each other on networks like StatusNet and Identi.ca. What work is happening with these, and how can other people use them for their own purposes, artistic or otherwise?

RM: They've been running for over a year now. Some post short, random, colour or shape descriptions for people to use for inspiration (or to be amused by). There's another group consisting of an artist, critic and collector who make up a simulation of precisely how the art world doesn't work called The Cybernetic Artworld. They don't pretend to be anything other than bots, so it's fun when people encounter them and still attribute personality to their output or suggest ways they could be improved.

I've also written bots to generate and post random recipes or random design project ideas for commercial projects. Having them as a stream in a social network makes people consider them differently. It can be a good way of introducing ambient information or entertainment into your social network feed. Because I like Lisp, the bots are written in Common Lisp, but people have said that the code is very readable even if you don't know Lisp so it's still worth looking at. And everyone should learn Lisp. I've never written a spectator bot for The Cybernetic Artworld, so maybe people could write their own using the microblog-bot library.

ML: To any artists who are still using proprietary tools, what advice would you give in their switch to free software?

RM: There are tutorials and books that can help you learn free software replacements for proprietary tools, but the best thing to do is to get involved in the community. If you can find someone who knows the software you want to use, then their advice can be invaluable. Free software tools can seem very different to proprietary ones, particularly if you've been using proprietary software for years or even for decades. But the differences are usually just in how the interface is organized, and the major difference is a positive one: you have the freedom to study and extend the software to better be able to achieve what you want.

The one thing that you will need to be patient about is CMYK support. Some tools support CMYK, most don't, but you can create CMYK print-ready art in GNU/Linux. For me the common thread to all this is the fact that despite the cliched images of the solitary hacker in their cubicle or the solitary artist in their studio, free software and art are both social activities. I'd love to see them come together more. Artists need the freedom to pursue their ideas, and they'll use free software in ways that will lead to interesting new possibilities.

Syndicated 2011-10-18 19:31:21 from fsf

The Appleseed Project

ML: Michael, Appleseed is getting a lot of attention as a free software social network. How can users of Appleseed help the project and what can developer-minded developers do besides running their own Appleseed nodes?

MC: Other than bug testing/fixing and documentation, which are always needed, the best thing developers can start by doing is familiarizing themselves with the framework. Appleseed is a very large project, and it's a lot easier to plug people in to building features in the roadmap if they have a sense of how it works. There's some documentation, and a heavily commented example component as a starting point, and the best bet for learning is to build a component from scratch, even if it doesn't do much. From there, it should be pretty easy to start working on the core components and functionality, and helping out with building new features.

ML: Now is a good time for free software social networks, with Diaspora getting lots of press attention, and projects like Appleseed and GNU social also actively working on the problem. How are these projects working together, and do you think there is room for multiple projects in this area?

MC: We're all tackling the same problem, but this is undiscovered territory, so we're all doing it in our own way, which is very healthy at this early point. GNU social seems to be doing a lot of good work with OStatus, something the Appleseed project has watched closely for the future. And Diaspora has helped popularize the possibility of decentralized, open networks as an alternative to walled gardens like Facebook. I don't doubt we're all interested in interconnecting, and once the various software projects stabilize, it won't be until protocols are finalized, and adopted across all the free software social networking projects.

Syndicated 2011-10-18 19:31:20 from fsf

GNU Parallel: A Design For Life

ML: Ole, GNU Parallel is a specialist tool for running multiple jobs at the command line at the same time. Why did you develop it, and what are your uses for it?

OT: I often get in the situation that I need to run a script on each line of a bunch of lines, so back in 2001 I made a wrapper script for make -j to run command lines in parallel. This was the first basic version of parallel that later became GNU Parallel. The full history of GNU Parallel is at http://www.gnu.org/s/parallel/history.html

Today I use GNU Parallel even for tasks that do not really need to be run in parallel, simply because of its ease of replacing arguments on the command line. Like emptying all tables in a database:

sql -n mysql:/// 'show tables' | parallel sql mysql:/// DELETE FROM {};

To me it has become a bit of a sport to see if the tasks I do can be done more efficiently using GNU Parallel. When you have gotten used to it, a lot of the once-off scripts can often be written on a single line using GNU Parallel -- and they are often even easier to read. As an example, if you wanted to convert all *.mp3 to *.ogg running one process per CPU core on local computer and server2 you could simply do:

parallel --trc {.}.ogg -j+0 -S server2,: 'mpg321 -w - {} | oggenc -q0 - -o {.}.ogg' ::: *.mp3

I encourage my users to share their smartest command lines on the email list parallel@gnu.org, so new uses can be found.

ML: Like many people, I'm sure, I often forget I'm using GNU Parallel. Has this ubiquity hurt your development efforts at all?

OT: A good tool is a tool that does not get in your way, but tries to support your work by providing reasonably defaults while remaining configurable for you own needs. GNU Parallel strives to accomplish this. This often also means that you do not really think about GNU Parallel as the tool is simply a step to accomplish your task.

The role that GNU Parallel plays will never be more than a supporting role and thus the best GNU Parallel can hope for is to be an integral part of every UNIX user's toolbox, so I would love to see people mentioning GNU Parallel when someone uses xargs or while-read loops for tasks that was better done with GNU Parallel.

Syndicated 2011-10-18 19:31:15 from fsf

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