Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Reactions to women speakers

Oct 23, 2012 GMT

Congratulations! You've managed to attract more women speakers to your conference. But, if you think your problems are over, you may be in for a surprise. If the experiences of Moose, the chair of Ohio LinuxFest 2012 are typical, instead of relaxing after your efforts, you may find yourself answering second-guessing from not-so-closet sexists.Ohio LinuxFest is one of the regional conferences that has made special efforts to encourage women to speak. In 2010, thirty percent of its speakers were women -- a rate higher than most leading free and open source software conferences in recent years. In 2012, the percentage declined to fifteen percent, but included three out of four keynote...
The problems with Ubuntu's Amazon results legal notice

Oct 16, 2012 GMT

Every Ubuntu release seems to have its own controversy. For Ubuntu 12.10, codenamed Quantal Quetzal, that controversy is the inclusion of results from Amazon when you use the dash for searching. Thanks to the controversy, this feature has been heavily modified. However the legal notice that has been add as one of those modifications is as much cause for concern as the feature itself.To be fair, Ubuntu has shown many signs of listening to the complaints. Amazon search results can now be toggled off in the Privacy settings, and the feature now uses a blacklist of keywords to reduce the chances of returning pornographic results. Results are also encrypted before being transmitted to ensure...
Ada Lovelace, Technical Writer

Oct 11, 2012 GMT

Ada Lovelace is often credited with being the first computer programmer. However, a few dissenters gleefully debunk this claim, insisting that she merely organized Charles Babbage's notes. Trying to evaluate these conflicting claims, I realized suddenly that, even if the debunkers are right, Lovelace should still be called the first technical writer -- a role that deserves equal credit, and no less so for being frequently under-valued.The controversy about Lovelace's status as a programmer centers on her translation of Luigi Menabrea's transcript of a lecture by Charles Babbage at the University of Turin in the early 1840s. Lovelace added seven notes that were longer than the translation...
Features vs. Benefits

Sep 30, 2012 GMT

The other day, I received an announcement about a new distribution. That's not unusual; I receive announcements about new software each week. But what struck me about this one was that, while the announcement mentioned a few new features, it gave no reason why I should care about them as either a reviewer or a user. As a result, it failed to interest me in the distribution, and the sender of the announcement might have saved his efforts.Or, to put the situation into marketing terms, the announcement mentioned features when it should have been talking about benefits. Understanding the distinctionThe distinction between features and benefits is one that all marketers learn. However, it...
Ubuntu, Function and Fee

Sep 23, 2012 GMT

Ubuntu has a history of trying to profit from the desktop. But its latest announcement that shopping suggestions would be integrated into the next version of the Unity desktop is proving too much for many users -- and I'm leaning that way myself.Ubuntu's efforts at making the desktop pay began several years ago with the addition of a commercial repository to its package management system. Later, it added direct connections to Ubuntu One, its cloud storage, which offers both free and paid accounts. It considered making Yahoo! its default search engine as part of an aborted affiliate program, and unilaterally changed the revenue-sharing from the Banshee music player. More recently, in the...
The limits of crowdfunding

Sep 19, 2012 GMT

Suddenly, everyone has discovered crowdfunding. The idea of user-funding is far from new, but in the last six months, every free culture and software project seems to be attempting it. In theory, I'm all for the experiment, but in practice I'm starting to worry about how long requests for funding can be made before indifference sets in.I understand why crowdfunding sounds promising. If you haven't a corporate sponsor, then your ability to earn a living while doing what you love is limited. A few projects can fund themselves by offering services; for instance, the ebook manager Calibre derives some of its income from a portal for DRM-free books. However, many are not so lucky as to have...
The Results of the Survey That GNOME Would Rather Ignore

Sep 11, 2012 GMT

In October 2011, I wrote about Felipe Contreras' attempt to poll GNOME users, and the resistance he met. Ten months later, Conteras has only crunched about 20% of the replies, but has seen enough of the rest to suggest that they would not greatly change the results. And guess what? The survey seems to have produced reasonably useful and unbiased results.If you remember, Felipe Contreras claimed last year that his attempts to interest the GNOME project in a poll caused GNOME developers to attack both him and his proposal. Many insisted that no online poll could ever claim accuracy, while others claimed than only those already biased against the GNOME 3 release series would bother to...

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