A Very Brief Introduction to Free Software

Published by Matthew Davidson on Tue, 13/11/2012 - 4:51pm in

Introduction

A lot of software is published under licenses that restrict your freedom to do what you want with it. Unfortunately, the widespread use of these restrictive licensing terms coincided with the widespread adoption of personal computers, so many people don't see the restrictions as anything unusual.

Definition

A program can be considered free software if it is distributed under conditions which guarantee the user:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs
  • The freedom to redistribute copies
  • The freedom to improve the program, and release these improvements to the public

Free as in Freedom

In general use, the word free has two possible meanings; "free from restrictions", or "free from monetary cost". In the context of "free software", it is the first of these that applies.

It is possible to sell free software, and it is also possible to acquire software at no cost which does not meet the above criteria for free software (such software is often called "freeware"). As a practical consequence of the four freedoms above, it is generally possible to acquire copies of free software at little or no cost, but low cost is only one of the benefits of freedom.

Copyleft

"Copyleft" is a technique employed in some free software licenses to ensure continued freedom by the imposition of one restriction. If you redistribute copylefted free software or software derived from existing copylefted free software, you must do so with no additional restrictions.

That is, you can't take copylefted free software and redistribute it under a non-free license.

Open Source

In 1998, a number of prominent members of the free software community began applying the term "open source" to free software, in the belief that it was a less ambiguous term which might encourage wider adoption of free software, particularly in the corporate world.

While this has undoubtedly been the case, the term "open source" is not without it's own ambiguities. These ambiguities, along with the open source movement's emphasis on the practical benefits of collaborative software development rather than freedom, have allowed some unscrupulous companies to imply that their products are "open source" simply by making the source code of their software available in some way, even if the precise distribution terms of the software do not meet either the Free Software Definition, or the Open Source Definition.

Because of this, and because we believe that freedom is desirable in itself, we prefer to use the term "free software".

Further Reading

Tuesday, 13 November 2012 - 4:44pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Tue, 13/11/2012 - 4:44pm in

A while back we rebuilt our work website from scratch. It was decided almost unanimously (I abstained) that pretty much everything I'd written for the site was far too grumpy, beardy-weirdy, and alienating for potential clients, so none of that was preserved. I was since contacted by a university lecturer who wanted to know what had happened to one of these articles, as he wanted to assign it to his students as required reading. So, ha!

For the benefit of other connoisseurs of sharp wit and devastating insight, I'm finally getting round to retrieving such bits that are worth salvaging and republishing them here, under the tag rescued. Enjoy. Or not.

Friday, 9 November 2012 - 2:56pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Fri, 09/11/2012 - 2:56pm

Fiscal austerity in NSW, splendid! It's working so well in Europe. What was that adage about the definition of insanity?

The representative of Macquarie Street in Coffs Harbour has a point. It's still early days for the arts. We have no idea whether music, literature, and so on are anything but a passing fad. Until these kids have the hard numbers to prove that it's as worthy of public support as - for example - sport, his hands are tied.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012 - 10:09pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Tue, 06/11/2012 - 10:09pm in

Tim knew that the type of vehicle he was in was known as a "ute", and was pretty certain that the bit he was in was the "cab", and that the bit behind him was probably called the "tray". He was disappointed that the tray wan't carrying bales of hay, crates of live chickens, and a dog or two. It had a big, manly, galvanised iron box containing either tools or human body parts, several coils of nylon rope and widgety metal things that presumably added value to the nylon rope, and Tim's bags.

The cab smelt like an ashtray. Much of it was an ashtray. Bent cigarette butts sprang like mushrooms from niches all around him. It was very early in the morning; he hadn't time to shower, and he really didn't like being out in public unwashed, with greasy hair.

"Where ya from?"

"Sydney."

"Sydney," echoed his driver, who Tim assumed was the landlord of the Railway Hotel at Tailors Creek, by virtue of the fact that he was probably the husband of the woman he assumed to be the landlady. That was in fact the case, and the man's name was Ken. Tim didn't know this because he had appalling social skills and hardly ever introduced himself, nor asked anybody their name.

For a while Ken looked as though he was trying to remember where he'd previously heard the unfamiliar word "Sydney", then said finally "You want to keep your back to the wall down there."

"Ah. Yes."

They crossed the highway, heading towards the coast, and Tim was very, very glad that he hadn't attempted to walk the distance. He'd clearly misjudged the scale of his map.

"Poofs," Ken added, by way of clarification.

"Mmm. Hasn't been a problem so far, but I'll bear it in mind." Then, realising he probably sounded a little supercilious, he thought he should socially reciprocate, in the form of "You lived here long?"

"Yep. Where you want to be dropped off?"

Tim knew the answer, but pulled the map out of his satchel anyway. "Nolan Place. I think it's the house at the end."

"Doug Henshaw's place?"

The name sounded familiar. Tim ferreted around in his satchel and retrieved another bit of paper. "Yes, that's it."

"You want to watch out for him."

"Back to the wall?"

Ken frowned. "No, nothing like that."

Tim noticed that the empty space on his map, which he had presumed to be native bushland or grazing land for ruminants, was in reality anything but empty. On both sides of the road was Colorbond™ corrugated steel fencing with an occasional gap for an entry road, or perhaps driveway. Behind the fences, he could see ceramic tiled roofs, crowned with aerials and satellite dishes. It was like a series of medieval walled towns in attractive designer colours.

"Doug's alright. You just don't want to get into his bad books." Barely slowing down, Ken gave the steering wheel a sudden twist, and they crossed the road into one of these gaps in the wall a split second before meeting a car coming the other way. "He can finish you."

Tim had no idea what was meant by that, or even whther he'd heard correctly, but he was excited that they were now into territory covered by his map. Tim liked maps. From this branch off the main road into town, all the streets flowered off into gently curving crescents or cul-de-sacs which on the map looked to Tim like the gaily coloured cross-sections of the human brain you see in New Scientist magazine.

There was something about the whole landscape here that was distinctly odd, but it was still quite early in the morning, and Tim couldn't put his finger on it.

Ken pulled on the hand brake at the end of one of these asphalt fronds, near the top of a hill, on the side of which stood a house significantly more grand than it's neighbours. It was multi-story, where everything around was resolutely California Bungalow, and it had a couple of quite old, tall trees in the front yard. Tim hadn't seen anything else that could be considered more than a sapling in any of the surrounding properties. Maybe that was what was odd.

"Thanks very much," said Tim, to a slow nod from Ken, who appeared focussed on something tremendously significant in a nearby rock garden. Tim fetched his bags from the back of the ute, and through the open passenger window called "Thanks again!"

"No worries mate." With a crunch of the gears, Ken Henshaw was off for his daily run into town.

At the top of a presumably charming garden path, lined with quite possibly tasteful native shrubs and grasses, Tim set down his rucksack and bin bag and rang the doorbell. The door was answered by an elegantly-dressed woman, possibly late fifties, more likely early sixties, who executed a well-practiced smile of greeting.

"Hello. Tim Curlis. Here for the granny flat."

"Ah. We were expecting you yesterday."

"Yes, sorry about that. Transport troubles."

"Never mind. Never mind." She beamed with appeared to be genuine bonhomie and stood aside. "Come in. Leave your bags there; I'll get Douglas to sort you out."

Tim crossed the threshold tentatively. "Thank you, er..."

"Oh, forgive me. Glenda. My heavens; what a handsome young man! What a handsome young man!"

Tuesday, 6 November 2012 - 1:51pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Tue, 06/11/2012 - 1:51pm in

"No-where else on the east coast do we have such a large and stunning tract of land that hasn't been stuffed by over-development," Mr Manson said.

... and we can fix that!

Sunday, 4 November 2012 - 5:41pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 04/11/2012 - 5:41pm in

"Would all passengers wishing to alight at Tailors Creek please make your way to the rear door of Car D?"

Tim gathered up his satchel, a rather expensive rucksack (the legacy of an aborted plan to go backpacking around New Zealand), and a rather less expensive heavy-duty bin bag which he carried St. Nicholas fashion. He found he was the only passenger on this sparsely-populated train to want to get off at this stop, which worried him slightly.

He was worried further when Tailors Creek railway station turned out to be a one-carriage-long platform with a small boarded-up ticket booth bearing a sign saying that as of 1st July 1990, all tickets could be purchased from the nearest Countrylink office in Port Dalston. The signs along the platform said "Alight here for Port Dalston", but there was no bus stop or other evidence of public transport to be seen; just a deserted little carpark. Across the road was a small weatherboard shop bearing a sign advertising, in letters of decreasing size, like an optometrists' test chart, "Post Office, Sub-Newsagent, Bread, Milk, Fishing Tackle, Bait, Licenses...", and another sign on the door saying "CLOSED". To one side of that versatile establishment was one of those quaint cafés that appear to have been embroidered rather than built, also closed, and on the other - Lennon be praised! - was the Railway Hotel. It didn't look the most enticing place, but it was civilisation of a sort.

As he pushed open the door, the pub extruded a perfectly door-shaped beam of tobacco smoke that eventually flattened and thinned as it snaked into the street. Once his eyes and nose had adjusted to the smoky interior, neither organ found themselves glad of the additional clarity. The tobacco smell had temporarily masked a variety of more horrible odours. Stale sweat and stale beer were easily identifiable to the layperson, but the possible source of others were horribly mysterious. The connoisseur of offensive smells might close their eyes, flare their nostrils, purse their lips, knot their brow, and declare "Hmm. Yes. I'm picking up notes of dirty washing basket and mouldy drain, but carrying through is the unmistakeable zest of half a tin of dog food left out in the sun for three days, with a crisp, formaldehyde finish."

Nor was the decor the cliched rustic country pub interior he was expecting. Instead he guessed the furniture, fixtures, and fittings were cannibalised from half a dozen qualitatively wildly different but equally tacky suburban pubs. Formica, cane, leather, and wrought iron all jostled gaudily for attention, which had the virtue of providing a distraction from the patrons, all of whom had apparently just finished a hard day's work modelling for one of Hogarth's more scabrous cartoons.

Tim wondered why the impossibly old man rolling a cigarette at the bar was wearing his "I ♥ NY" singlet over the top of a loose, dark brown skivvy, then realised that it wasn't a skivvy; it was his skin.

At least the ruddy, cherubic landlady met expectations. He approached the bar with what he calculated to be a winning smile. "Hello. I've just got off the train, and was wondering when the next bus into town was due."

The impossibly old man chortled evilly. Or perhaps coughed.

"Only bus comes out here is the school bus," she drawled, in the Australian Film Industry approved manner. "I could call for a taxi, but at this time of night he'd want to be paid for the trip out as well."

Tim looked at his watch. It wasn't yet six o'clock. It was still broad daylight outside. "Is that legal?"

"They do it," she said severely. Then her mood brightened, "Tell you what: I could let you have one of our rooms upstairs. Just been renovated. For a nice young man like you, say thirty-five bucks. My husband's going into town in the morning; he can give you a lift. A lot cheaper than the taxi, and you can drink the difference."

Not the most subtle sales pitch, but he was less inclined to trust taxi drivers. A couple of experiences, when Tim was in need of transport but lacking the fare, had shown them to be a lot more agile than their physique would lead you to believe. To his mind this constituted a deliberately deceptive trade practice. On this occasion he had the money, but it was part of a lump sum intended to see him through the next six to twelve months, so he was keen to start as frugally as he meant to continue.

Tim had earlier thought that the distance was walkable, at least according to his well-studied photocopy of a relatively current map, but now burdened with a bulging backpack and garbage bag, in weather which despite being a good few months into the year was still, to use the meteorological jargon, "fucking hot", he decided not to risk it.

The room was perfectly serviceable, and the smell didn't seem so bad upstairs. However when he returned downstairs he found the smell didn't seem as bad there now, and was quite content with an evening meal of four or five or six beers, some chips and nuts. He made his way through a pile of newspaper, avoided eye contact and was delighted to find the compliment returned.

The Australian inclination against intellectualism fits very neatly with a taciturn nature. If you are going to bore me as much as I know I am going to bore you, and for that matter as much as I bore myself, it would be better for both of us to not converse at all.

Tim wasn't sure about the bedsheets, which had the sheen and rigidity of butchers' paper, and didn't look at all comfortable. That and the fact that he was a bit pissed convinced him to sleep on top of them, more or less fully clothed. He was glad of that when he was woken at dawn by a hammering on the door and a male voice crying "She said you wanted a lift into town!"

Saturday, 3 November 2012 - 4:48pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sat, 03/11/2012 - 4:48pm in

It was early 1992, and the most important issue in the world was the recent sacking of charismatic London Irish punk icon Shane MacGowan by his band, the Pogues. Actually, in the grand scheme of things, this was probably one of the more insignificant events, but it was what Tim Curlis chose to obsess about in order to keep other, less comfortable thoughts at bay. On his northbound country train he pored through the NME, enthusiastically imbibing the celebration of the limitless artistic potential of raggle-taggle and Madchester, and cursing pale, lanky, earnest wall-of-distortion shoe-gazers and Fucking Nick Kent, with a savage determination to ignore the real personal significance of this day.

As the view from his window changed from the sandstone and eucalyptus of the Sydney basin to the hills of the Hunter Valley - as rolling and green as hills come - he distracted himself further with a sausage roll from the dining car and some Interesting Facts from the New Scientist magazine purchased at Central station that morning. Apparently dogs may avoid lung cancer from passive smoking due to the remarkably effective air filtration bestowed by their long snouts. Seems only fair. Hard luck for the Pekingese, though.

The train swung from side to side in long, lazy arcs around the aforementioned hills until at last it appeared to tire of such exuberant frivolity, and settled down to the serious business of plowing straight through the swamps and occasional granite cutting that signalled it's entry to the north coast of New South Wales. By this time Tim had consumed a curried egg sandwich, a packet of chips and another sausage roll. He'd read a handful of pages of each of three books and a couple of magazines. He'd mused about the possible evolutionary advantages of asexual reproduction. He'd noticed that all the trees in the fields looked as though they'd been uniformly trimmed from underneath by some very sophisticated machinery to exactly the maximum height attainable by the mouths of the animals grazing there. He'd raised and lowered his footrest countless times and ultimately judged it to be of dubious utility. He'd rummaged through the dozen or so audio cassettes in his satchel, selected one, used a biro to wind the spools tight so as not to have the machine mangle the tape and, thus prepared, he fed it to his walkman, which consumed it with a satisfying snap.

Billy Connolly once ventured that to the Queen, the world must smell like fresh paint. To Tim Curlis, the world sounded like tape hiss. He'd not set foot outdoors without a personal stereo since 1983. It was perhaps the most valuable tool in his kit of techniques for avoiding thinking unwelcome thoughts. On this occasion however, it backfired. A particularly malicious inner demon reminded him that the LP dubbed onto this casette was currently sitting in a cardboard box in the garage of Serious Girlfriend Number Two.

It must have been that same demon who then made him realise that, at the age of 25, with an extensive record collection, he had never personally owned a record player. His parents owned a record player; they were also currently in possession of the majority of his record collection, as well as a sizeable number of books, periodicals, and VHS tapes, all stored in cardboard boxes in the family's former outside lavatory/laundry (turned into a storage shed when the sewer was connected and indoor plumbing became de rigeur for the 1970s householder).

Serious Girlfriend Number One and Serious Girlfriend Number Two also owned record players, and both had likewise been enlisted as part-archivists of the Curlis Collection as a de-facto condition of release from Serious Girlfriend status.

And this morning Tim left a note on the kitchen bench of Serious Girlfriend Number Three, another fine, upstanding, record-player-owning citizen, asking if it would be alright if he came back at some indeterminate point in the future to pick up a few things he'd left in the spare room; in cardboard boxes. There was of course no way for her to answer in the negative. What mattered to him at the time was that he was taking a calculated risk over the survival of priceless cultural assets accumulated during the course of Serious Relationship Three. She could throw them out in a fit of pique, though it was more likely she wouldn't.

What mattered to him now, however briefly, was that all the evidence pointed towards his being a serial parasite, leaving behind cardboard boxes as a mosquito leaves behind red welts after moving onto the next host. This most unwelcome of unwelcome thoughts assaulted his sense of himself as the quintessential rational human. He does not behave unjustly; only in error. He is not moved, nor does he move others, by emotion. To fracture this bedrock is to allow that, perhaps, he was just a thoughtless, selfish little shit.

"Tailors Creek, next stop."

Hallelujah! Thoughts must now be directed to getting self, satchel, big bag of clothes, other big bag of clothes, off the train, then onto the bus to Port Dalston and into new digs before nightfall.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012 - 4:41pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Tue, 30/10/2012 - 4:41pm

Mine's the one on the right. Don't fancy yours much.

Sunday, 21 October 2012 - 10:42am

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 21/10/2012 - 10:42am

A friend asked what I thought of the Council's initiative to look into the possibility of outsourcing services, particularly IT services, from outside the Coffs Local Government Area. Here's my typically long-winded response:

There are a couple of big issues here. On the more general one - of council cost-cutting via outsourcing to businesses based outside the Coffs LGA, I can't imagine how this would be anything but a very bad idea.

The justification for such policies is often by inappropriate and misleading analogy to business or (worse) household management. Of course government isn't a business. A business is run for the benefit of it's owners on a "one dollar (or share), one vote" basis. Family households are run, if memory serves, as a "Because I said so, that's why!" dictatorship. A government has obligations to all of it's citizens (or residents) equally, as well as to other levels of government, and external interests via inter-governmental agreements. Try running a business like that, and you'll get the sack.

People who make these analogies are arguing that just as business or household debt or deficits are to be avoided, so governments should never accumulate debt or run deficits. This idea has an immediate appeal, which evaporates after a moment's consideration. Anybody arguing that businesses or households should never go into debt, or at any time spend more than they earn would immediately be dismissed as a crackpot. Indeed more celebrated and conservative thinkers than yours truly have called the failure of governments to deficit spend during times of economic crisis like our present one "economic suicide" and "just insane".

There is I think a significant parallel between the failure of governments elsewhere in the world to apply the lessons of the 1930s depression to our current one, and the Coffs council, after losing money in financial speculation with Lehman Brothers no less, considering likewise "punishing the victims" by exporting jobs from a region which even in good times has traditionally suffered one of the highest rates of unemployment in the country. That a tinpot influence peddler like Keith should thereby seek to retain, and even enlarge, his discretion to dispense largesse from the community's coffers to favoured mates, while the community's "most valuable asset, its human capital, is being wasted and even destroyed" is nothing short of scandalous.

In the specific case of software services which, as you correctly observe, appear to constitute the bulk of Civica's products, the case for outsourcing is perhaps weaker than in any other domain. Here we have an industry where the only barrier to entry is possession of a computer, an Internet connection, and a bit of expertise; and the product is something pretty much everybody uses (whether they know it or not); and there is no chance we'll be using any less of it any time soon. If a council is looking to support local industry, the fruit doesn't hang any lower than this.

When shopping for software systems (the issues in the case of hardware are broadly similar but a bit more complex), governments (or indeed any organisation or individual) should ask the following two questions:

(In the case of Civica, cursory investigation turns up no evidence that the answer for both these questions is anything other than "no" for all their products. In fact their website contains no technical information about any of their products, beyond the promise that their National Sales Team can provide more information, which should ring alarm bells.)

If the software that council uses is free software, support for the software, including bugfixes, improvements, and customisation can in principle be provided in-house, or from any software developer willing to take on the job. Even if the initial provision of the software is contracted out to a non-local business, this does not preclude the future in-house or other local provision of services related to the software. In the case of non-free (or "proprietary") software, the only party entitled to offer these services (or at most to extend this entitlement to approved business partners) is the copyright holder of the software. This leads to - at best - monopoly pricing, or - at worst - users stuck with software that can't be fixed, improved, or customised to suit their needs if it is not in the business interests of the copyright holder to offer such services.

The only way to remedy this state of affairs is to switch to another software package. Hopefully by then you will have learnt your lesson and be switching to free software, but either way the process will likely be expensive. It will be worse still if the data can't be extracted from the old system in some readily decodable open standard format. In this case you've not only got the sunk cost of the now useless software you originally acquired, but all the time and money you've spent entering data into that software has also gone down the drain. It's a rare proprietary software vendor who doesn't hold their users hostage like this.

A large and increasing number of governments around the world have been adopting free software systems for many years now, and a review of these projects would in my opinion be more productive than Keith's junket. This document is a good place to start, although it's rather dated and a good many high-profile government free software migrations have kicked off since, most recently a plan by the French government.

There are also many people in Australia much more qualified than I to speak to on this topic, top of the list would be Pia Waugh, who's been working in this area for years.

Friday, 19 October 2012 - 2:40pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Fri, 19/10/2012 - 2:40pm

Now I know why you never see any non-anglo faces featured in Coffs Coast marketing material. It's concern for the safety of the racially-disadvantaged! Of course we'd love them to come here, but we're morally obliged to send a subtle message suggesting it's better if they don't. Here I was thinking it was unconscious racism; I feel so stupid! Mind you, there's no indigenous Australian faces either for some reason...

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