Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Ethical Boundaries and Free Software in the Reign of Trump

Nov 22, 2016 GMT

How far would you compromise your ethics? In the aftermath of the election, this question is suddenly ruthlessly practical for Americans.It is one thing to make inquiries and plans to emigrate. These are still distant enough possibilities to be a mixture of sensible precaution and indulgent melodrama, like assembling an emergency survival kit. For every person who emigrates, there are likely to be dozens who remain where they are, and for those people, the problem of ethics are certain to arise in the next few years.Would you create or implement a database of illegal immigrants? Of Moslems? What about project management software for building a border wall or scheduling waterboarding?...
Crowdfunding vs. Patronage

Nov 02, 2016 GMT

Originally, free software was the work of volunteers. Many were university students. But as the years passed, the volunteers earned degrees and accumulated marriages and children. At first, they sought the support of sympathetic companies, and were often given a free hand so long as they showed results. However, more recently, free software developers have sought the support of crowdfunding -- a development that leaves me with mixed feelings.I have no trouble with crowdfunding for a specific project. I would be a hypocrite if I did, because I am contemplating my own crowdfunding campaign in 2017, using the success of my book Designing with LibreOffice to fund my next book and allow me to...
The X1 music player

Oct 27, 2016 GMT

When I searched for a new music player recently, I was looking for an inexpensive device with support for free formats like Flac and Ogg Vorbis. Ogg Vorbis support alone was enough to seriously restrict my choice. Serendipitously, however, the restriction of support for Ogg Vorbis resulted in me finding something much better than I was wanting. It is as though I were looking a car with the quality of a Hyundai, and instead stumbled across a Tesla for the same price.Fiio calls its X series of devices music players, and that is accurate, so far as it goes. However, the devices are really portable sound systems, capable with the addition of speakers and perhaps one or two other extras of...
Replacing Google Maps with Marble

Oct 24, 2016 GMT

Several years ago, Google Maps was ranked as the most popular app on smart devices, installed on over half of all devices. The convenience is obvious, but few stop to investigate privacy concerns. For that reason, for the last ten months, I have used Marble, KDE's geographical application, instead. So far, it is a completely satisfactory substitute.My switch was not paranoia about online applications. However, when I have a choice between sharing your activities with a corporation and keeping them private, I opt for privacy. That is simply a basic privacy precaution.Admittedly, Google's privacy policy states several times that the company will use your information only with your consent,...
Music players for free software users

Oct 18, 2016 GMT

The sales of music players, like those of ereaders, have fallen in the last decade. No doubt all-purpose phones and tablets have replaced them. However, if you have a large digitalized music collection and want something better than the tinny speakers on most mobile devices, then music players still make sense. And these days, I found recently, even free software advocates -- that is, those who choose to store their music is in Flac or Ogg Vorbis format -- can find something on which to play it, although the choice includes more problems than I had imagined.At first, the list on XiphWiki of music players that support free formats seems healthy enough. It lists fourteen manufacturers and...
Has Linux lost the Unix Philosophy?

Oct 11, 2016 GMT

Whenever a technical dispute breaks out in Linux, someone is sure to condemn a solution for not following the Unix Philosophy. The argument makes sense, because, although GNU may be short for GNU's not Unix, the structure of GNU/Linux remains an obvious derivative of UNIX. But is the Unix Philosophy even relevant to modern GNU/Linux, with its emphasis on the desktop and efforts to attract disaffected Windows users? In some ways, definitely.The Unix Philosophy  is a design aesthetic describing how programs and operating systems should interact. It exists in several versions, many of which are expansions or summaries of others. However, the versions remain roughly consistent with each...
Criticizing Less Than Free Hardware

Sep 29, 2016 GMT

With a boost from crowdfunding, efforts at free hardware are becoming a reality. Inevitably, though, most of these efforts are criticized as not being free enough, usually because of proprietary firmware. I sympathize with the criticism (and, in fact, I have been frequently offered it myself), but, the more I learn about the realities of manufacturing and of the semiconductor industry, the more I am becoming convinced that it is criticism with neither knowledge or responsibility.A case in point centers on ORWL, a physically secure computer being developed by Design Shift  that, as I write, is winding down an already successful crowdfunding campaign. ORWl includes an encrypted hard...

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