Archive for June, 2010

Free Software & Me

June 23rd, 2010

Since Stuart posted the previous post, and having read through the comments, I thought tonight an apt time to describe my view on FOSS – though I hope people don’t care.

When I first came across Linux in 2004, I was enthralled. I spent hours with a friend of mine trying to get it installed on an old Aspire 1350 laptop I’d just got to go away to University with. I finally got a ‘flavour’ called College Linux installed. It came with lots of apps relevant to academia – quite cool – but ultimately unusable. I wasn’t doing a CS degree, I had no experience of any computing other than a ZX81, and Windows. Oh, I’d once played ‘Blood Bath’ on some kind of Mac at summer camp.

The idea though was what bit me. The philosophy of everyone throwing their contributions into the hat, and then everyone selling their bit. Some guys might be better at Sales, so they’d just burn & sell the CDs (and hopefully pass some profit back to the project), Developers could pool their talents to create better software, and if a company needed a ‘bespoke’ application, they could get it developed and passed back to the community in return for having access to other companies’ ‘bespoke’ applications. It was a winning formula. Sure, there were places for it to be abused – but a system that allows no freedom only benefits the person that writes it.

Not long after that, I came across the InGOTs. Whilst I may have gotten the wrong end of the stick at the time, I saw it as a potential extension of that very same philosophy – but to enable educators to pool their resources to help students. It is that, but it’s also alot more.

The next ‘philosophy’ to pass across my desk was that of ‘Ubuntu’ – “I am who I am because you are who you are.” Coming from an African philosophy, this idea is much older than anything a Computer Scientist could have thought up. It’s about recognising that your life is intrinsically tied to the rest of your community. We all have certain skills that we can offer, but we also benefit massively from the other people around us. For me, this was a winning formula.

I wanted to use this. I wanted to use this philosophy to do some good. Woo. Go me. The problem I realised was that I was using the philosophy to market software to users – that’s missing the point by a significant margin.

In the same way that Developers, Testers, Users and Sales are all tied into the ecosystem of software development, this same ecosystem can be extrapolated up to a higher level to society. We have Doctors, Teachers, Consultants, Athletes, Military, Public Servants all working in the same ecosystem. Do these guys share Ubuntu? Where once there was a respect for the professionals across all walks of life, groups have been fighting against each other and poisoning the inter-group relationships and respect.

As an example, were I to ask people about the Teaching profession – many people would say “Long Summer Holidays,” and for Doctors – “Overpaid.” We’ve forgotten the “I am who I am so you can be who you are.” Teachers provide us with experiences and frame our learning long after we’ve left their classrooms. Doctors can do for us things which we will never be able to comprehend, and the Military protect us despite our lack of support.

It was this revelation to me that made me realise that I could no longer spend my time espousing the benefits of Free Software. Coupled with a very poor showing by Richard Stallman at the University of Manchester, when he flagrantly and aggressively dismissed the questions “Should software used to control a Microwave be free?” with the short answer ‘No’ (yup, go figure). Freedom with your software is what I’d prefer to support – and that includes the Freedom to run Vista if you really really want – no matter how inadvisable it is.

A thought on self development

June 23rd, 2010

In a hot office in Stockport, with the Air Conditioning keeping me cool whilst working away on Oracle, Solaris and MySQL issues, I often think about how different life is in comparison to my time out in India. Since starting the IT job in 2006, I have learnt a wealth of detail about how to maintain a Linux system. I’ve learnt how the internet works, how it’s all connected together, and have regularly been in a data-centre with thousands of servers, all storing and delivering information.

I’ve also travelled around the country, teaching and learning howto improve my maintenance and slowly improve systems to get the results that I require. I’ve made plenty of mistakes, but I’ve done them in a controlled manner and learnt from them. I’ve worked by myself for hours on end, and also worked in teams across multiple offices.

Some of the work I’ve done has been technical. As a Systems Administrator you would expect most of it to be of a technical nature; but much of the work has also been socio-political. How do you walk into an organisation and get them to change to a completely different system? How do you manage client expectation for the new service you’re putting in? When things go wrong, how can you best serve the customer so they know that a) it’s not going to happen again and b) they’ve got the best man in helping them through a shared problem?

I felt like my time in India was a bit of a crash-course in personal development. There were things I failed at, things I was good at, and things that inspired me. The biggest thing I learnt out there was the value of transferable skills. Much of what I do at the moment is seemingly irrelevant to any other job I would ever end up doing. However, that is not the case. I see lessons now that I know are going to be invaluable to me in the future, and I hope that I’ll get to use them.

So if you’re stuck working away at a problem that appears to have no other benefit, do a quick analysis of what you’re actually doing, compare it to what you’d want to be doing, and look at the similarities. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised how useful your seemingly irrelevant works are.

Political Discussion

June 22nd, 2010

Sometimes it isn’t easy. It can challenge the beliefs you have, and it can make you feel very uncomfortable when you view the world through other peoples eyes. However, it is immensely beneficial for identifying the politics that most strongly define you.

I’ve been throwing up a bit of rhetoric over the past few weeks and discussing it with different friends to see their opinions. It’s all to do with the welfare state and tax, and the extent to which cutting it, or not cutting it is down to political leaning.

As I’ve found out over the past few weeks, there are arguments for both cutting it and not, from both sides of the argument – with each person bringing a very different perspective that appeared very much at odds with my prejudiced views.

It makes me feel much better that I voted for someone with whom I’d don’t agree with 100% of the time, but acts with integrity. I don’t think there’s anyone in power that I would agree with 100% of the time, therefore the best I can hope for is someone who has a reasoned and sound argument for that course of action.

I’ve not had much time to look at the budget, and nor do I expect to cover it in this blog – but could you identify parts of the budget that despite appearing to be typical ‘Tory’ would probably have been implemented the same by ‘Labour’ – but for different reasons?