Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

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...
The FOSS Elite

Aug 24, 2012 GMT

Earlier this week, I found myself being attacked because of an article I had written about GNOME 3. I was called a troll, a liar, and several other unpleasant things, and I spent some time on my personal blog cataloging the comments and my responses to them. But what I didn't mention was a fact I observed years ago: Nearly all the flames I've received in my writing career come from relatively junior people in a project. The senior, more established ones have more perspective.I recognize, of course, that part of publishing articles is to make myself a target for responses. By that, I don't mean that I set out to deliberately provoke responses, angry or otherwise. Rather, in return for...
Lunatics: The First Two Scripts

Aug 21, 2012 GMT

Some of the articles I write have a way of lingering with me. My recent report on Lunatics is one of those. Free culture? Science fiction? Animation? Producers Terry Hancock and Rosalyn Hunter couldn't have pushed more of my buttons if they tried. So, wanting to learn more, I asked to see some of the scripts.Hancock obliged by sending me the drafts of the first two scripts, "No Children in Space" and "Earth."The first thing to say about the first two Lunatic scripts is they are amateur only in name and not in execution. Both are shootable scripts, formatted to the usual standards of TV and film. "No Children in Space," the more finished of the two, even...

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