Saturday, September 29, 2012

Tourist Activities

Once upon a time, in a land very much like this one, actually... this land exactly...

I went out tonight after an enjoyable afternoon of drinking, eating and catching up with people I'd not seen for a while. 2 guys of "variable ethnicity" and I went and had a bit of a walk around before stopping somewhere for a bite to eat.

They both had their camera equipment. Be still that green eyed beast. I was looking at cameras around my birthday thinking that it'd be great to do a bit of photography. I couldn't justify the expense and even buying something second hand seemed daunting given that at those prices I could only afford the body (no lenses).

I live in an incredibly aesthetically rich city. Auckland city is a mish mash of architectural styles through a vast range of ages with all sorts of fascinating influences. About half an hour away are the Waitakere ranges - a mostly untouched area of bush where there are bush walks galore as well as a variety of scenery. One walk I went on when I was a teen had bush with a waterfall, a river, sand dunes and a beach. The temptation is to take advantage of the scenery around you.

Anyway, we decided to go into town and take some photos. Always fun. I normally do it as a solo activity with my cellphone. Hell - you've seen some of the results. They're on this blog though I've normally thrown them into GIMP and done something to then.

Anyway, we're in town taking photos of buildings when I notice someone across the road taking photos of us. How very meta! Taking photos of people taking photos. I always thought it a bit strange when watching "The Making Of" things about movies. How a lot of the shots had been taken during the movie of the movie being filmed. They could only be taken for that purpose. A movie about a movie.

The guy comes to speak to us. Art mixing with art. How very cool! Except... he's suspicious of us. He asks if we're terrorists. He demands our names under "the new terrorist laws". The other two with me ask him "which law?", They're fairly well clued up on the various new laws - while not exactly their application, at the very least their rights under the laws. He's asking as a concerned citizen. He shows us a business card - probably not his own. He then continues to demand our names.

The three of us are horrified. Did he just accuse us of being terrorists? What does a terrorist look like anyway? And how does a terrorist act? Okay - so those who know me know that I make jokes about my "terrorist good looks" but I never actually thought that anyone would ever think that of me.

The sarcasm started to come out. "You're suspicious of us photographing buildings?". Were we stealing a piece of their souls?

And you've got to wonder about this guy. He's either very brave or very stupid. Just a quick side note: There's very little separating stupidity and bravery. In the right context stupidity is bravery though to me, there's one very important attribute of bravery: knowing that it's stupid and doing the right thing anyway.

So racism is alive and well in New Zealand. But the bit that's really galling... When I was in Christchurch I related an incident to the people at tech about a cop who followed me down my drive way for absolutely no reason. I had done nothing more than check my mail box, have a cigarette and then walk back up the drive way to my flat. The comment I got back from them was "At least they were doing their job". So there are potentially some people reading this thinking that this guy was acting in an appropriate way. He decided he was suspicious of us and decided to do something about it.


There's an awkward discomfort about this sort of thing. None of us want to be angry about it. We're laughing about it. We speculate about what he might be telling his friends about "the incident". We laugh about the idea that he might find out about our "workshop" (Tangleball) - one of the guys is making wine (I've tried a few of his wines. They're great). The other, he's got a project involving bikes and pong. I make a joke about wanting to attend a terrorist camp just to find out what can be done with a pair of nail clippers (though I'm sure I'd miss my creature comforts). I declare I hope he's able to identify me somehow - imagine what he might think when he finds out I work a lot with kids and that picture... that'd be great! But the truth is, it's horribly awkward. There's the risk of reverse racism - looking for ways that people around you are being racist. None of us want that.

I found myself doubting myself. Did he really say "terrorist?". Was he really saying "Tourist"? We were taking photos... we were indulging in tourist activities. I don't know about the other guys but I have very little idea about tourist laws. Surely this isn't how we're treating tourists. That particular industry is in a world of trouble if that's the case.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Unemployed

So I'm about to be unemployed again.

This is kind of an opportunity. I've been thinking about the whole employment process.

Say I'm looking for someone to employ. I am looking for a bunch of skills - actually - the skills can be learnt. The attitude means so much more. But HR want me to write up a list of skills needed. HR then employs an employment agency. They advertise a job. Applicants see the job listing and send in THE SINGLE most boring document about a person - a Curriculum Vitae. The employment agency filters through the CV's and pick the stand outs. They then interview/skill test. HR get a list of applicants that the employment agency think are suitable and present the ones THEY think are suitable to me...

I'm feeling resentment because I haven't really gotten a choice of the person I'm going to be responsible for and my original intention, of getting someone with a particular attitude, has been completely lost. The applicant is probably not all that happy because through the various levels of translation (from me to HR to an agency) - something that feels like Chinese whispers - the applicant potentially has no real idea of what they're applying for.

And it occurs to me that the applicant is quite likely the best judge of what position they're most suitable for. Perhaps the interviewing process should work in reverse?

What if people were to advertise what they wanted from a job and were really horribly honest about their shortcomings? This would allow people to find a job they could actually be happy in. Companies could then send some information about themselves, what they do, what their values are, why they think they'd be a right fit. etc. Imagine it - people doing things they were actually happy doing rather than "paying the bills".

So... I'm thinking I might see for myself if it might actually work. Get it out there I'm looking for a project with loads of heart to work with. Preferably with children and doing something that means something... In other words, watch this space.

Ethics

In computing, ethics seems to, almost, be a profanity. Us sandal wearing Free software hippies are sitting there talking about ethical computing while the world looks at us as if we're talking about something completely foreign.

But it's real! Take Flash for example. Loads of websites offer learning opportunities through educational games using Flash. The license for Flash is such that you can't redistribute it. So including it in an image for school computers, for example, is breaking the license.

But surely there's a higher ethic here. The learning of our kids is surely more important than some silly licensing agreement. But why are computer professionals asked to criminalise themselves? And if we're talking about higher ethics...

If the "Beast of Blenheim" was found dead - shot in the head, would anyone bat an eyelid? Sure, it'd end up on the news. Given the harm he's done, and the total lack of remorse he's shown, he's still considered a risk. But more importantly, I don't think many people would have an ethical dilemma with his death. Perhaps they'd feel differently if they were the ones doing it. It could be argued that it would be more ethical to do something about him than to leave him out there doing more harm.

But there's a conflict there. Killing another human being is unethical right? To today's standards at least ("Going to war for God and country" implies that it was not always considered unethical. Do we consider soldiers at war unethical?).

But do we ask someone to kill him?

But back to computing. Your average I.T. professional is asked to act in ways which may be considered unethical. This is a fact of the industry. Microsoft's online magazine site, Technet, says this about Windows licensing:
"If you're an admin in an enterprise with more than 25 desktops and/or five servers, if your organization takes advantage of a volume-license program such as an Enterprise Agreement or Select Agreement, and if you purchase Windows 7 Professional or Ultimate (or you upgrade to those versions as part of Software Assurance), you should do the following: Print out a short stack of Volume Activation documents from tinyurl.com/volact, pour yourself a few ounces of a bold Tuscan wine and start studying.
When you eventually declare yourself completely confused..."
Do a search on the internet for "Confusing Microsoft Licensing" and you'll find a skew of results. I can't find a citation but I remember a few years ago being an admission about Windows licensing being intentionally confusing.

The ethical dilemma/burden is a business practise!

Apple do the same sort of thing. Perhaps not by making their licenses ambiguous but with their licensing model for App Store. They're at odds with a lot of the developers who support their platform. That may seem an overly strong statement, but bear with me.

Firstly, Apple's (the conflict appears in multiple terms of use/conditions) terms of conditions is incompatible with the GPL. The App Store limits use and distribution of applications whereas the GPL, at it's very core, seeks to allow distribution and use (it's covered in the "Four Freedoms"). This means that a lot of developers wanting to support GPL applications on an iOS platform simply can not.

Secondly, there's the lack of any sort of deployment options. I've talked about this before. There's a lot of things that aren't said on the subject. When I say "aren't said", they're things that normally are said but are preceded by a "I'm not saying this but..." or "Completely off the record...". Sure, there are ways of doing it - but doing it without criminalising yourself?

While we're on the subject, with my laptop I got a Microsoft license. I know I can't move that license to another computer, but what if it's running on the very same laptop the license came with? Well... that depends. The OS very helpfully tells me I'm probably using a counterfeited copy of Windows. And before I'm inundated with a series of comments about me using Windows, I've got it installed on a virtual machine.

The argument can be made that given that it's being run on the same hardware that it's licensed for, it's completely ethical. On the other hand, a virtual machine presents as different hardware thus requiring it's own license.

The Information Technology field is fraught with all sorts of legal issues. Worst of all, we enable it to happen. We criminalise ourselves, play on ignorance, don't stand up and say "That's not fit for our purposes". Instead we justify it to ourselves. We do the things that we're told we can't do. What would happen if people started to pick their software based upon the terms of use? Would various companies then be made to evaluate those End User License Agreements? So when your geek starts to look uncomfortable about something, it's probably worth asking, how is that person criminalising themselves?

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Tartare Source

I've been horribly remiss. There have been a few mistakes I've made recently really... but this one in particular I can do something about. As a lot of you know, I'm a huge fan of Free software. There are multiple reasons for this - I'm not criminalised for fulfilling a customer's needs for example. I'm free to learn things. etc.

So why then, have I not been more active in promoting the source code for the bits that I've been writing for Manaiakalani? Sure, you could download the code. But that's completely different from trying to develop a community around it.

It turns out I'm going to have a lot of time in the very near future. In which case, now's the time to do it. I've started to write the notes for a web page even. So what is it that I'm proposing?

The name, Tartare Source kind of says it all. If you were to think of Ubuntu as the mayonnaise (the fat, the median), then you still need the interesting stuff - gherkins, capers, lemon juice etc. All of that stuff that makes it interesting. So... Tartare Source is a brilliant analogy. The deployment system - gherkin (with sweet gherkin being a rescue partition?). What I've been referring to as "Initial Login" would be Capers. A rebuild of the Ubuntu Software Centre allowing for things like a black list of applications backed up with conflicting packages to enforce such restrictions - Lemon Juice. Perhaps a unobtrusive update system ... Lime Juice?

Basically, a suite of tools for developing a "deployment mode Ubuntu".

Ultimately, I'd love to extend this to an interface system. i.e. the proposed modifications to Gnome-Shell (and by extension, gsettings) I referred to in another post. Basically, the ability to point a gnome session to a folder of javascript scripts that could then allow for multiple interfaces via different sessions. So you could have a Mac OS X style interface, Unity, Default Gnome Shell etc. sessions all co-existing on the same system but using the same core. Hell, I got a couple of ideas looking at the Windows 8 interface - what would it take to be able to switch sessions within the same session? i.e. go from a MATE interface (gnome 2 kind of) to a more tablet orientated interface. The best of both (multi?) worlds all in the one. I've got to admit, there are problems. Gnome-shell seems to get slower the more javascript you use (as expected. I wonder how hard it is to do it in C instead). But completely doable.

In fact, I still don't understand why Ubuntu/Canonical didn't do this in the first place. The name Unity just seems ironic.

Look for more on this in the coming months.... I'm aiming to have Tartare Source up, at the very latest, by the end of the year.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Software Patent Issue As I Understand It

The patent system is broken. It's outdated. For software and it's fast advancements, the patent system makes no sense whatsoever. The patent system seeks to advance technology/inventions by granting the inventor a limited monopoly on that invention. But 20 years is ridiculous in a software world.

The effect? Stifled technology. Submarine patents (patents that are never acted upon until someone else tries to use something that sounds like that patent) drive up the cost of development. The risk and uncertainty around development just makes patents nasty.

So in New Zealand we had thrown up our arms in victory over a sensible move - to exclude computer programs/software from patentability. The amendment got wide industry support, including from New Zealand's biggest software exporter.

Fisher and Paykel had a concern - that this exclusion could potentially get a bunch of their patent applications thrown out because they included embedded systems. Lawyers for Microsoft and other international big players were still pressuring the government but it seemed good sense was prevailing.

Change of economic ministers and just a year later, 2 simple words - 6 letters, has caused an uproar. The words? "As such".
10A Computer programs
(1) A computer program is not an invention for the purposes of this Act.
(2) Subsection (1) prevents anything from being an invention for the purposes of this Act only to the extent that a patent or an application relates to a computer program as such.
What do those 2 little words do? They create a great big giant loophole - big enough that the paper that "10A" is written on is worth more than the clause itself. How do we know this? Because it happened in Europe. We can see the effect of it. We know it's a great big mistake. It creates confusion which of course, leads to administration costs (while feeling your way around what is patentable and what isn't and defending or enforcing such patents is likely to leave everyone with a headache).

The battle is on - a week to make changes. The lawyers for those international concerns, trying to push it their way. Local developers... there's been a mammoth effort to start a petition with cross interest support. i.e. It should not be just Open Source advocates but those who want to be able to develop software without the fear of litigation over what are normally vaguely termed and horribly inclusive "specifications".

Why don't we need software patents? Because software is already adequately protected under copyright. I can not copy a program without permission from the copyright holder to do so. My implementation of a feature is going to be different from someone else's unless it's obvious (in which case, can't/shouldn't be granted a patent anyway). And the way of getting there is probably going to be quite different. i.e. A customizable deployment system for Linux could take into account the users or a system administrator and although they may look quite similar, probably take different concerns into account.

Have doubts that software patents are ridiculous? Check out:
These aren't fringe cases. Microsoft are the original assignees in most (all?) of those cases. So considering that's part of only one company's portfolio, imagine how many other ridiculous software patents are out there.

I remember reading a story last year about a person who was using accessibility software on their iPad for a child who was otherwise unable to communicate. The software was taken down as it violated another company's patents. The other company had a competing piece of software (something ridiculous like 5 times the price of the first piece of software) that didn't fulfil their needs. It was a fringe case but it did add a human face to it.

So about that petition then.... At the time of writing, it has 600 co-signers. Considering the size of the developer community in New Zealand, this isn't bad. Especially given that it's only been open for 2 days...

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Fit for Purpose

Just before I get started on a post, there's a situation developing around software patents in New Zealand. For more information, and a petition around it, go here. It's a worthwhile cause.

I've been meaning to write this particular post for a while now. I've had a few other things on my plate - the future of "The Image" i.e. how can I get it resourced (I'll talk about this another time)? My place in the Manaiakalani project. My identity outside of that project. My identity inside it for that matter.

Something that always gets to me is how people see the whole "fit for purpose argument". Take Apple's stance on the iPad. The iPad is sold as a personal device BUT is marketed to the education sector as something desirable for schools. But is it fit for that purpose?

I am of the strong belief that it's not. Why? Not for any technical reason but because of legal ones. The user agreement for AppStore and the like is that each device will be associated to the user's account. What if:
  • The user isn't old enough to have an account?
  • The device isn't owned by an individual but rather, by an entity?
The management becomes troublesome. Not so bad for cellphones (at the moment). Terrible for computing devices. So you buy an App (short for application) off AppStore (short for Apple *moan*) and it syncs with all of your devices? (I'm not sure this is true). But what if you need 3, 4, 100 distinct licenses of a piece of software? The AppStore, in it's current form, doesn't allow you to buy multiple licenses for the one account. You would need 3, 4, 100 distinct accounts to do so. To not do so would be a violation of their terms of usage.

So is it fit for purpose if using it for a particular purpose seeks to criminalise you even if that purpose is being pushed by that particular company?

While we're at it, Android also isn't that great a fit. It too is a personal device but not marketed in the same way as it's Apple counterpart. Android really does lack the management tools to make it easy to use on a mass scale and we still talk about exploits and rooting...

I got told about the savings on Microsoft's 365 over Office recently. I have my suspicions that these savings won't actually be savings as you're talking about a completely different way of licensing - previously you licensed per machine. Now you'll be licensing per user. This might not sound vastly different BUT what happens when you have staff turn over? Do you then have the admin costs around deactivating an account and activating another one? This sounds a whole lot more complicated to me than throwing a computer with Office already installed at the new employee. But more importantly, does MS 365 have the functionality that users are already using?

In the deep dark recesses of Office there's VBA. And scaringly, it's used quite extensively. Various Windows business orientated applications plug in to Office using VBA. I heard that the financial market use it quite a lot (it's not a great platform - it works .... mostly .... but can be temperamental). This puts me in mind of South Korea's reliance of ActiveX. MS dropped the support for ActiveX after Explorer 6. That article linked to there does not paint a grim enough picture. Not only is the nation stuck with Internet Explorer - they're also stuck with a horribly outdated web browser. And this from a nation whose on top of Internet connectivity and speed.

Is MS 365 fit for purpose? For a lot of people, yes. For a lot of people, they'll find that things they took for granted just don't work quite the same. Things like Cognos. I came across a whole skew of them while doing some work for New Zealand's biggest company. I'm sure there are companies using a bunch of unsupported applications that make use VBA features. Why would they still use unsupported software? Because often a viable alternative simply doesn't exist yet.

The question for me as an I.T. person, do I criminalise myself or knowingly sing the praises of something knowing that it might not be a good fit (often trickier when no good alternative exists) in order to try and shoehorn in a solution for a client/user/company/customer? And while these questions of ethics are about, is it fair that the expectation by those clients/users/companies/customers is that these solutions are fit for purpose without understanding the underlying problems?

Flash is a perfect example of this. Macromedia (and now, to a lesser degree, Adobe) made their money by certifying a device as fit to run their software. It can't legally be distributed (as part of an image or in a package for example). It can be downloaded off their site. This has caused me all sorts of headaches. The Ubuntu way of doing it is to include a package that then, during it's installation, downloads and installs the program from Adobe. If that installation is interrupted for whatever reason, the package manager doesn't usually know and so you end up with the packaging system being broken or a dysfunctional "installation" of Flash. Packages should be self containing and not need to download ANYTHING during installation - or risk breaking the packaging system "when things go wrong" (That's so going to be a TV show).

Knowing that flash is absolutely essential to A LOT of great online educational applications, what is the ethical road? Telling the user that they'll have to go through the god awful experience of downloading and installing the plugin themselves even though there's no technical reason why it couldn't be distributed to their machines? Or breaking the license agreement and criminalising yourself? Perhaps manageable when you're talking about ... less than 20 machines. Not so much if you're talking about thousands.

The technical reasons for Free software often hold a lesser place for me than the philosophical - but they're there and very much real.