I support Software Freedom Conservancy

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know that free and open source software is important to me. It’s important to Software Freedom Conservancy as well. Conservancy is a 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to supporting software projects.

Conservancy provides a lot of services to member projects, including financial and administrivia. Conservancy also provides license enforcement services, including support of a high-profile suit against VMWare. Although Conservancy uses litigation as a last resort, it’s sometimes necessary. However, this has lead to some corporate sponsors pulling their funding.

In order to continue their efforts, Conservancy is moving to an individual-supporter model. I first became a Conservancy supporter last year, and when it’s shortly time to renew my support, I will contribute double. Free and open source software is important to my personal and professional lives, and the services Conservancy provide to projects is invaluable.

If you use computers at all, a Conservancy project is probably an important part of your daily life. Please join me in supporting the Software Freedom Conservancy with a tax-deductible* donation today.

*Consult your tax professional to see if donations are tax-deductible in your jurisdiction.

Upgrading to Fedora 23 and some meaningless torrent stats

Since Fedora 23 was released yesterday, I went ahead and upgraded my desktop over lunch. The process was mostly painless. I followed the instructions for using dnf in Fedora Magazine, but hit a small snag: a few of the packages blocked on requirements. So I removed an old kernel-devel package and gstreamer-plugins-ugly. But I still got this:

package kf5-kdesu-5.15.0-2.fc23.x86_64 requires kf5-filesystem >= 5.15.0, but none of the providers can be installed.

That’s not great, because you can’t remove that package without also removing KDE Plasma. Taking the –best off of the dnf invocation fixed it, without any weird upgrade issues (the –best option supposedly cancels the download if a package can’t be upgraded, but everything seems good after the fact).

Since I don’t have any great tales of technical prowess to share, I thought I’d comment on the torrents. Measuring usage of an open source operating system is a really tricky thing, so I thought I might see what the torrents tell us. Keep in mind that torrents are probably a terrible way of measuring popularity, too. I’m just going to assume that most people who torrent ISOs are only torrenting the ones they actually use (instead of me, where I torrent several just to be a good citizen).

Here’s my seeding ratios for Fedora 22:

Flavor i686 x86_64
KDE 16.1 32.9
Security 8.02 13.6
Workstation 24.8 31.2
Server 10.3 15

The “ratio ratio” as I call it is a comparison of seeding ratios between the two main architectures:

Flavor x86_64:i686
KDE 2.04
Security 1.70
Workstation 1.26
Server 1.46

So what does all of this tell us? Apart from “absolutely nothing!”, it says that KDE users install on x86_64 way more than on i686. Workstation is still really popular on 32-bit machines and overall. The first 32 hours of seeding for Fedora 23 show similar patterns. Yay?

HTCondor 8.3.8 in Fedora repos

It’s only been a month-plus since HTCondor 8.3.8 was released, but I finally have the Fedora packages updated. Along the way, I fixed a couple of outstanding bugs in the Fedora package. The builds are in the updates-testing repo, so test away!

As of right now, upstream plans to release HTCondor 8.5.0 early next week, so I got caught up just in time.

Odd touchpad behavior in Fedora 22

A few days ago, the touchpad on my HP 2000 Notebook PC began acting up. It would jitter around a lot and insert phantom mouse clicks. My desktop ended up with approximately Avogadro’s number of Notes widgets. At first, I thought the touchpad was going bad. I resigned myself to a life of using a USB mouse, at least until I could buy a replacement.

As it turns out, though, it appears to be a software problem. On a whim, I opened up the KDE System Settings. When I selected “Touchpad” from the “Input Devices” menu, I saw a warning message that the saved settings did not match the current settings. Clicking “Apply” fixed…the glitch. Hopefully this helps if someone else comes across the issue. I didn’t file a bug because I don’t know what changed or how to reproduce it.

#info as a measure of meeting productivity?

It all started with a tweet:

That started a discussion between Matt and Karsten Wade about how to measure whether or not a meeting was productive. Matt suggested a count of “#action”, “#agreed”, and “#info” MeetBot commands.

about how to measure whether or not a meeting was productive. Matt suggested a count of “#action”, “#agreed”, and “#info” MeetBot commands. At this point, I had to jump in. “#info”, I felt, did not really belong in a measure of whether a not a meeting was productive.

My take is that #info should be used primarily as a reminder of things that have already been brought up on the appropriate mailing list. It serves as context for what’s going on in the discussion and should not be used to bring up new ideas.

Fedora teams particularly, and many open source teams generally, are too geographically distributed for IRC meetings to be where new items come up. Ideally, even #agreed should be mostly a formal recognition of the consensus on the mailing list. When contributors span the globe, it is nearly impossible to find a time when everyone can meet, making asynchronous communication essential.

This lines up with my philosophy about meetings in general. It’s better to share information ahead of time so people can evaluate it before the meeting. This saves time, since less explanation is required during the meeting, and it gives people the opportunity to more rationally consider their position on the topic.

Matt also suggested that #info is a way to call out things that were brought up as new in a meeting. To the extent that it’s better than not calling out new things, I agree. However, as Karsten suggested, perhaps #idea is a better.

Each team will have, to some extent, its own culture and its own rules for coming to decisions. The important thing is to make sure that contributors who can’t regularly attend IRC meetings still have the opportunity to participate in the decision-making process.

The Fundamental Theorem of Developing FLOSS

Recently Fedora developer and all-around good gal Máirín Duffy has been working on what she calls “The Fundamental Theorem of Developing FLOSS“. Inspired by what she called “opinionated non-doers”, this is an attempt to catalogue the sorts of behaviors a FLOSS developer should expect. Most of the entries revolve around change, particularly the addition or removal of features.

This isn’t some “those damn lusers” screed. Instead, Máirín offers a fairly objective summary of the experience of her and others. It’s a rather useful, if cynical, checklist of the kinds of feedback a developer might expect when introducing a change. Knowing what will happen in advance allows a project to better communicate the reasoning and impacts for a change (though the Axiom of Assuming the Worst would suggest this is a futile effort).

If I were to claim any beef with the theorem as it currently exists, it would be the Axiom of Ignoring the Source. It’s not that it’s wrong, necessarily, but that it’s incomplete. There are certainly those who are capable of reading the source, making changes, and submitting those change and yet decide not to. Sometimes it’s laziness, sometimes there are other reasons.

But there are a lot of people, and I would generally count myself among them, who lack the ability to understand the source or to make the changes I want. I think we, as various open source communities, often assume the hypothetical user is as knowledgeable as the developer and forget about the non-developer users. “Whining in an online forum” is often as much as someone can do (though it’s certainly not a productive way of expressing discontent). I’d also argue that access to source is not “the entire point” of FLOSS, but instead a means to an end. That’s more of a semantic quibble than any actual disagreement.

I suspect there’s a Fundamental Theorem of Using FLOSS to be written that is the user perspective of some of the same issues.

File a bug!

The ability for users to submit patches is often touted by advocates of open source software. “Patches welcome!” is a common refrain on mailing lists. Even if someone lacks the ability to diagnose and fix an issue, they can file a bug in the project’s system. Indeed, there’s an unwritten social expectation that users file a bug.

Sadly, these are often just empty words. “Patches welcome” can be a seemingly-polite way of saying “your problem is not important to me. Go solve it yourself and I’ll accept your solution.” And telling a user to go file a bug can be equally dismissive, especially if the bug-filing process is unpleasant.

I certainly don’t mean to imply that all or even most open source developers use these phrases as a polite cover for their disinterest. There are jerks, of course, but I suspect most developers genuinely want bug reports and patches. Last week, a very busy developer replied to a mailing list post with a terse “file a bug.” Now, I happen to know this particular developer and I know he’s keenly interested in fixing bugs. On this day, he was swamped and didn’t have time to get to the issue right away. Suspecting from the original email that the user who reported the bug wasn’t deeply technical, I took the liberty of reproducing the issue and filing a bug with the details.

Would the person who originally reported the issue have filed the bug done so if I hadn’t? We’ll never know, but I do know that he didn’t by the time I did. After creating a Red Hat Bugzilla account, selecting the right options, and filling out the bug report, he’d have to hope the developer meant it and that he bug would get fixed. As anyone who has been around a while can attest, just because a bug is filed, that doesn’t guarantee it will be fixed in the next few years.

One particular bug that I filed sticks in my memory. It was undeniably a bug, I attached a patch to fix it, and yet the bug remained untouched through several Fedora releases. Granted, it was a relatively minor issue, but if I weren’t involved with the project, I’d have been pretty put off by this. Of course, no one owes me a fix, but as Chris Siebenmann noted, if there’s a social obligation to file a bug, there’s also a social obligation to deal with the bug.

This morning,I asked on Twitter if anyone had what they’d call a “positive” bug reporting experience (as opposed to simply a not-negative experience). I was pleasantly surprised when several people chimed in to say they had. Small projects were generally the ones that drew the good responses (Jordan Sissel was mentioned by multiple people).

So what makes for a positive experience? Rapid acknowledgement and resolution were mentioned several times. Those who replied mentioned courteous and helpful interactions (e.g. asking constructive questions, filing an appropriate bug when the original bug was mis-filed). @phrawzty summed it up well: “Most importantly, however: good intentions were assumed. I never felt treated like a dangerous outsider.”

This is an area wide open for study (and I may end up doing just that), but in the meantime projects should consider how they present themselves. Large projects with more resources should make an active effort to devote some time to bug handling as a community outreach effort (I suspect large projects have worse bug experiences, in part due to the fact that nobody owns the process). When you say “patches welcome” or “file a bug”, consider what you’re really saying and if people will take it the way you mean it.

(Thanks to those who provided feedback: @cpj1, Matt SimmonsMatthew General, Patrick Cable@phrawzty, Rick Waldron@SysAdm DreddThomas Ballinger, @Twirrim, and anyone else I failed to mention.)

Using systemd tmpfiles

As part of my regular duties at my day job, I provide some community support on the HTCondor users’ mailing list. At the beginning of the week, someone came to the list with Fedora RPM troubles. I was able to track it down to the fact that the RPM didn’t correctly create some temporary directories.

But why not? It’s been a while since I did any RPM building, but at first glance, the spec file looked fine. The systemd tmpfiles configuration looked good, too. Then someone else found the cause of the problem: according to the Fedora packaging guidelines, a package should write the config file andcreate the directory. It turns out that tmpfiles.d is only processed at boot time (or when manually invoked), so a package that needs a file/directory to exist needs to create it at install time (or require a restart).

I was going to file an RFE, but I found a related one marked as CLOSED->WONTFIX. I understand the reasoning here, so I won’t reopen it to argue. It’s just a surprising behavior if it’s not something you regularly deal with.

Oh no, I can’t scan!

Printing is evil. Less evil but related is scanning. I don’t have to scan documents very often, but I needed to a few weeks ago. I fired up XSane and it immediately quit because it couldn’t find any scanners. I have an all-in-one, and the printing worked, so I felt like it should probably be able to find the scanner. Running `lsusb` showed the device.

“Maybe it’s a problem with XSane”, I said to myself. I tried the `scanimage` command. Still no luck. Then I ran scanimage as root. Suddenly, I could scan. My device was on /dev/bus/usb/001/008, so I took a look at the permissions. Apparently the device was owned by root:lp, and the permissions were 664. I wasn’t in the lp group, so I couldn’t use the scanner. So I added myself to the group.

I’m assuming something changed when I upgraded to Fedora 21, since it had worked previously. Perhaps a udev rule is different? In any case, if you happen upon the same problem, enjoy this shortcut answer so that you don’t spend an hour trying to debug it.

elementary misses the point

A recent post on the elementary blog about how they ask for payment on download created a bit of a stir this week. One particular sentence struck a nerve (it has since been removed from the post): “We want users to understand that they’re pretty much cheating the system when they choose not to pay for software.”

No, they aren’t. I understand that people want to get paid for their work. It’s only natural. Especially when you’d really like that work to be what puts food on the table and not something you do after you work a full week for someone else. I certainly don’t begrudge developers asking for money. I don’t even begrudge requiring payment before being able to download the software. The developers are absolutely right when they say “elementary is under no obligation to release our compiled operating system for free download.”

Getting paid for developing open source software is not antithetical to open source or free (libre) software principles. Neither the OSI’s Open Source Definition nor the Free Software Foundation’s Free Software Definition necessarily preclude a developer from charging for works. That most software that’s free-as-in-freedom is also free-as-in-beer is true, but irrelevant. Even elementary touts the gratis nature of their work on the front page (talk about mixed messages):

100% free, both in terms of pricing and licensing. But you're a cheater if you take the free option.

100% free, both in terms of pricing and licensing. But you’re a cheater if you take the free option.

Simply put, the developers cannot choose to offer their work for free and then get mad when people take them up on the offer. Worse, they cannot alienate their community by calling them cheaters. Of the money the elementary receives, how much of it goes upstream to the Linux Foundation, the FSF, and the numerous other projects that make elementary possible? Surely they wouldn’t be so hypocritical as to take the work of others for free?

An open source project is more than just coders. It’s more than just coders and funders. A truly healthy project of any appreciable size will have people who contribute in various ways: writing documentation; providing support on mailing lists, fora, etc.; triaging bug reports; filing bug reports; doing design; marketing (including word-of-mouth). This work is important to the project, too, and should be considered an in-kind form of payment.

It’s up to each project to decide what they want in return for the work put in. But it’s up to each project to accept that people will take from all of the choices that are available. If that includes “I get it for free”, then the right answer is to find ways for those people to become a part of the community and contribute how they can.