Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Free software makes computers knowable

Mar 22, 2017 GMT

The other day, a high school class mate of mine posted a comic piece about the problems with new software systems. The unspoken assumptions were that computers always caused problems, but that nothing much could be done about the situation. I smiled, but I realized that I no longer shared this attitude -- and that free software was the reason why.Helplessness in front of the computer is probably part of the general anti-intellectualism in North American culture. More specifically, though, I blame the computer industry. For decades now, proprietary operating systems have been constructed so as to encourage what I call the grimoire approach to problems -- that is, collecting magic formulas...
Why universal packages aren't universal solutions

Mar 09, 2017 GMT

The initial announcements of Flatpak and Snap presented them as the solution to all of Linux's packaging problems. These claims soon proved to be ahead of actual development, but they linger in the minds of many users. A few weeks ago, for example, someone on Google+ was complaining about how long their distribution was taking to package LibreOffice 5.3. They looked forward, they wrote, to the day when one universal package manager or another would eliminate such delays. However, while universal package managers might one day simplify maintaining a distribution, whether they will ever have the effect that the complainer anticipated seems doubtful -- for which we can all be thankful.I...
LibreOffice drops Type 1 font support

Mar 01, 2017 GMT

Should decisions about free software be determined by the needs of developers or users? This recurring question has become relevant again in LibreOffice 5.3, which is dropping support for Type 1 fonts.Type 1 fonts, also known as postscript fonts, were one of the first font formats for digital typography. They have been superseded by TrueType (TTF) and OTF formats, but, unlike many earlier formats, have remained adequate for design work. As a result, many designers have continued to use them, since over the years they have a significant investment in Type 1 fonts, particularly from Adobe. At an average cost of US$35 per font family, replacing a collection made over a decade or more could...
Reglue Needs Your Support

Feb 25, 2017 GMT

Forget, for a moment, how open source seems to be the solution to business problems. Instead, return to basics and think of how free software helps to provide computers for the impoverished, and to reduce technological waste by extending the useful life of older hardware. These are among the ideals that attracted many of us to free software in the first place, and for years, Ken Starks and Recycled Electronics and Gnu/Linux Used for Education -- better known as Reglue -- have been on the front lines of such issues. Now, Reglue faces a significant shortfall in operating costs unless it can raise another $7000 in its current fundraising campaign in the next few days.Why should you care?...
NTPsec: The Wrong Fork for the Wrong Reasons

Feb 23, 2017 GMT

 Forks -- the splitting of one project from another -- are a natural part of free software. They are implicit in the Free Software Foundation's Four Freedoms, and I would no more attempt to deny the right of a fork to exist than I would attempt to insist that everyone use one Linux distribution or desktop environment. However, a few weeks ago, while preparing an article about the animosity between the Network Time Protocol and its hostile fork NTPsec, I came to the conclusion that there are forks that deserve support, and others that do not. The more I investigated, the harder a neutral presentation of NTPsec became. Increasingly, it seemed a fork made for most of the wrong...
Having a bug fixed

Feb 15, 2017 GMT

Last week, for the first time in a long while, a bug I filed saw action. I filed it over a year ago, and had almost forgot about it, which made the sudden activity around it especially welcome.I filed Bug 98993 for LibreOffice in March 2016, as I was putting the final touches on my book Designing with LibreOfice. As I was writing, I noticed that how LibreOffice Writer handled line spacing had changed some time around release 4.2. Before then, line-spacing could be set to one-tenth of a point. After that, however, any attempt to use decimals was automatically rounded off.If you never design documents, that change may seem trivial. After all, a point is a measurement equal to 1/72 inches,...
Wanna-be Software for Wanna-be Novelists

Feb 06, 2017 GMT

A whole industry exists to encourage would-be writers. Magazines, websites, seminars, and reading services all support an entire sub-culture that for many becomes more of a social club than a means for members to realize their literary ambitions. Written in Java, bibisco is a free software contribution to this sub-culture: a database for planning everything in a novel from the characters to the setting and the plot. As a way to organize your ideas, it seems sensible enough, but whether it is actually useful probably depends on your work habits. Personally, as a very occasional fiction writer, I remain skeptical.The most useful feature of bibisco is its organization. It consists of a...

Issue 197/2017

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