Other writing: September 2022

What have I been writing when I haven’t been writing here?

Stuff I wrote

Duck Alignment Academy

The Pragmatic Programmers

Fedora

Lafayette Eats

  • Sunrise Diner — Sunrise has been a staple of downtown Lafayette for decades.

Stuff I curated

Fedora

Open source is selfish: that’s good and bad

Back in May, Devin Prater wrote an excellent piece on Medium titled “Linux Accessibility: an unmaintained Mess“. Devin talks about the poor state of accessibility on mainstream Linux distributions. While blind people have certainly used Linux, it’s generally not an easy task. There’s a simple explanation for this: most open source contributors aren’t blind.

There’s no rule that you can’t make accessible software if you don’t need that particular accessibility feature. But for many open source contributors, their contributions are based on “scratching their own itch.” People work on the things that are personally interesting to them or impact them in some way.

That’s a good thing! It means they’re invested in how well the software works. I’m sure you’ve used some applications where you thought “there’s no way the people who made this actually used it.”

The problem comes when we’re excluding potential users and contributors. People with vision problems can’t contribute because they can’t easily use the software. And when they can use it, the tools for contributing add another barrier. I can’t imagine trying to understand a patch or an XML file read aloud, but there are people who have to do that.

In Program Management for Open Source Software, I wrote “software is only useful to the degree that people can use it”. I don’t have a great solution. As a community, we need to figure out how to keep the good part of the selfishness while being more inclusive.

SaaS makes the Linux desktop work

That take got fewer bites than I expected, so either it’s not very spicy or I need to repeat myself. But I want to give myself some room to expand on this idea.

To the average user, operating systems are boring. In fact, they’re mostly irrelevant. With the exception of some specialized applications (either professional or gaming), the vast majority of users could sit down at any computer and do what they need to do. Give them a web browser, and they can get to everything else.

For the purposes that matter, the Linux desktop has won. Except it’s not traditional distributions like Fedora or Debian. It’s Android and ChromeOS. And it’s not on desktop PCs. It’s on phones, tablets, and some laptops. If we meant something else when we spoke of “The Year of the Linux Desktop”, we should have been more specific.

That said, Linux desktops as Linux enthusiasts envisioned them are suitable for mainstream users. But it’s not because of native, locally-running apps; it’s because software-as-a-service (SaaS) makes the OS irrelevant.

This is not a cause for alarm. It’s actually an opportunity. It’s never been easier to move someone from Windows or macOS to Linux. You don’t have to give them a mapping of all of their old apps, you just say “here’s your browser. Have fun!” That’s not to say that the ecosystem lacks first-rate applications. Great FOSS applications exist for all OSes. But with SaaS, the barrier to changing the OS is dramatically reduced.

Of course, SaaS has problems, both technical and philosophical. We shouldn’t ignore those. The concerns have just moved up to another later. But we have the opportunity to move more people to Linux while we — as both FOSS communities and society in general —- address the concerns of SaaS. Or, perhaps more likely, move them up another layer.

Book review: Why Fish Don’t Exist

I found Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life by accident. Someone had shared a screen capture of a Tumblr post which talked about how trees aren’t a thing, taxonomically speaking. How weird. And then I saw that fish are also not a thing. Mindblowing. Somewhere in my searches to prove to my girlfriend that I was not making this up (although she can be forgiven, because that is very much the sort of thing I’d make up), I found Lulu Miller’s 2020 book.

I checked it out from the library as an audiobook so that Miranda and I could listen to it together. We were prepared to learn all about how fish are a lie. But we did not learn that.

Well, we learned it eventually. But only in the last chapter does Miller actually touch on the subject. The rest of the book is a mix of her life and the life of David Starr Jordan. Jordan was a famous researcher in his day, credited with discovering a fifth of the fish species we know today. He was president of Indiana University and later was the founding president of Stanford University. Oh yeah, he was also a eugenicist and may have been involved in murder.

Miller does an excellent job of tying the ups and downs in her life to Jordan’s. He serves as both inspiration and…whatever the opposite of inspiration is. The book is a fascinating and engaging tale. Had I not been waiting to learn about the fish, I would have loved it. Instead, I found it frustrating. I might read it again, knowing what to expect—and what not to expect.

Other writing: May–August 2022

What have I been writing when I haven’t been writing here? Not much, but I’m picking up the pace again! And Program Management for Open Source Projects is now available in print and DRM-free ebook!

Stuff I wrote

The Pragmatic Programmers

Duck Alignment Academy

Opensource.com

Fedora

Stuff I curated

Fedora

Book review: Word Freak

I wasn’t sure what I’d get when I started reading Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive SCRABBLE Players by Stefan Fatsis. I’m a fan of the game, although I’ve never played it competitively. After reading this book, I never will.

It’s not that the book is bad. To the contrary, it’s surprisingly engaging. But the competitive game bears little resemblance to the game I play with friends. And the people who play at a high level? If Fatsis is to be taken at his word, they’re a pretty messed up bunch.

Can Fatsis be trusted, though? He’s hardly an objective observer. Instead of a distanced, sociological study, Fatsis immerses himself. He becomes what he studies, trying to achieve an expert ranking and befriending his subjects. Yet the way he describes them is hardly flattering. He paints them as a group of barely-functional obsessives.

Are they? Perhaps. It could be that he focused on the misfits because the normies don’t make for a good book. But whether or not the word freaks are representative of Scrabble’s top tier, Fatsis becomes one of them. Frankly, he does not paint himself in a very flattering light either. Although the arc of the book is his quest for an expert-level ranking, he’s not a sympathetic protagonist.

The history of the game is interesting. The strategies of the world’s top players are astounding. And the people are mostly pitiable. It makes for an interesting read, despite the length. But if you find yourself wanting to join that world, I think you should reconsider.

Book Review: Pleading Out

I was only a few pages in when Pleading Out: How Plea Bargaining Creates a Permanent Criminal Class made me angry. It wasn’t because of how Dan Canon wrote. It was because of what he wrote. In Bordenkircher v. Hayes, the Supreme Court held that prosecutors could, in effect, punish a defendant for asserting their right to a trial. Potter Stewart wrote that this was part of “any legitimate system which tolerates and encourages the negotiation of pleas.”

While legal systems in the United States do tolerate and encourage plea deals, a reasonable person can question the legitimacy of the system. That Paul Hayes received a life sentence for forging a $88.30 check calls the legitimacy of the system into question.

Canon spends the rest of the book making the case that the plea bargain system as practiced in the United States is not legitimate. It does not serve the interests of justice, but of power. “The American legal system,” he writes, “was designed by people in power as a tool to keep them in power whatever the cost.”

American exceptionalism

Plea bargains are rare in other countries. In the United States, 97% of convictions come from guilty pleas. Most of those are bargained. Why is that? Prior to the 1830s, plea bargains were rare in America. Attitudes started shifting when labor solidarity developed in the early industrial factories. Plea bargaining hid prosecution from the public eye, preventing scrutiny and revolt.

The expansion of federal crimes after Prohibition led to a need to process cases more efficiently. “What we have inherited is an amoral system of criminal proceedings; it cannot be called criminal justice. Expediency, not fairness, is the principal concern.”

It’s no coincidence that the United States has the highest incarceration rate and also the highest plea bargain rate. As Michelle Alexander explores in greater depth in The New Jim Crow, the legal system creates a permanent criminal underclass that has long-lasting effects.

Liberty and justice for some

The high volume of cases means that lawyers can’t keep up. Prosecutors can’t screen cases to drop the obviously bad ones. Worse, defense attorneys can’t mount vigorous defenses. Canon notes that in 15% of exonerations, the defendant gave a false confession. Thousands of innocent people are sitting in jail today because the police or prosecutors railroaded them into confessing to a crime they didn’t commit.

Because plea bargains are secretive, there’s no accountability. Wealthy defendants can work themselves into a sweet deal. Poor and middle-class defendants have to take what the prosecution offers. If they dare insist on a trial, they face persecution, not prosecution. Ask Paul Hayes. This does not benefit society.

So what do we do?

It doesn’t have to be this way. Canon writes about the decade when Alaska eliminated plea bargaining. The system adjusted. Prosecutors dropped cases they couldn’t—or shouldn’t—prove. Police got more careful with their investigations, knowing they’d actually be accountable. It wasn’t perfect, but it was an improvement.

Our current system doesn’t have to be our system forever. But it won’t change on it’s own. The first step is an informed populace. That’s why I’d recommend Pleading Out to anyone who cares about justice.

Other writing: April 2022

What have I been writing when I haven’t been writing here?

Stuff I wrote

Fedora

Stuff I curated

Fedora

Twitter’s future

So Elon Musk is planning on buying Twitter. I say “planning” here because the deal hasn’t closed. But let’s assume it happens. What will it mean?

Not a Musk fan

I’ll be blunt: Elon Musk is a charlatan who gets a lot more credit than he deserves. I don’t doubt he’s a smart person, but being the richest person on the planet has allowed him to engage in unrestrained buffoonery. Whatever his areas of expertise, they clearly don’t extend to understanding tunnels. The best thing he could do would be to leave Twitter alone, but you don’t spend $44 billion to not play with you new toy.

But free speech!

No. Elon Musk doesn’t believe in free speech. He canceled someone’s Tesla order for saying mean things. “Free speech” arguments are almost never about anything other than “I should be allowed to say what I want without consequences.”

Free speech, as envisioned by absolutists, is only free for those with power. If your free speech is used to harass others into silence, the platform does not promote free speech. I’m fine with letting the Nazis and democracy subverters go off to any of the other Twitter-like sites they’ve set up.

So what next?

The key question is “to the degree they left, will the Nazis and democracy subverters come back to Twitter?” I can’t say. For now, I’m not planning to leave Twitter. If it becomes intolerable, I’ll go. To where? Good question! Mastodon holds no appeal to me for a variety of reasons, but maybe I’ll move there at some point. Maybe I’ll just drop that form of social media from my life.

It seems more likely to me that Musk will discover that running a social media site is less fun than criticizing a social media site and get bored. He does have two other companies to run already. Three if you take The Boring Company seriously. While he certainly could do damage, I hope that it remains the shitty hellsite we’ve come to hate. After all, Twitter has mostly succeeded in spite of itself.

Balancing advancement and legacy

Later today, I’ll submit a contentious Change proposal to the Fedora Engineering Steering Committee. Several contributors proposed deprecating support for legacy BIOS starting in Fedora Linux 37. The feedback on the mailing list thread and in social media is…let’s call it “mixed”.

The bulk of the objections distill down to: I have old hardware and it should still work. Indeed, when proprietary operating systems vendors (both in the PC and mobile spaces) embrace varying forms of planned obsolescence, open source operating systems can allow users to continue using the hardware they own. Why shouldn’t it continue to be supported?

Nothing comes for free. Maintaining legacy support requires work. Bugs need fixes. Existing code can hamper the addition of new features. Even in a community-driven project, time is not unlimited. It’s hard to ask people to keep supporting software that they’re no longer interested in.

I think some distros should strive to provide indefinite support for older hardware. I don’t think all distros need to. In particular, Fedora does not need to. That’s not what Fedora is. “First” is one of our Four Foundations for a reason. Other distros focus on long-term support and less on integrating the latest from upstreams. That’s good. We want different distros to focus on different benefits.

That’s not to say that we should abandon old hardware willy-nilly. It’s a balance between legacy support and advancing innovation. The balance isn’t always easy to find, but it’s there somewhere. There are always tradeoffs.

I don’t have a strong opinion on this specific case because I don’t know enough about it. We have to make this decision at some point. Is that now? Maybe, or maybe not.

Sidebar: it’s hard to know

One of the benefits of (most) open source operating systems also makes these kinds of decisions harder. We don’t collect detailed data about installations. This is a boon for user privacy, but it means we’re generally left guessing about the hardware that runs Fedora Linux. Some educated guesses can be made from the architecture of bug reports or from opt-in hardware surveys. But they’re not necessarily representative. So we’re largely left with hunches and anecdata.