Outreach Program for Women

I have increasingly been reading, thinking and writing about the question of inclusion and diversity in the world of technology in general and within FLOSS more specifically. I am most in read and learn mode.

When I come across something worthwhile, though, I do like to share; especially examples of people and projects actively working to improve things. One that I not only came across recently but have the very good fortune to participate in for my day job, is the Outreach Program for Women being run by the Gnome Foundation.

Outreach Program for Women (OPW) internships were inspired in many ways by Google Summer of Code and by how few women applied for it in the past. This was reflective of a generally low number of women participating in the FOSS development. The GNOME Foundation first started the internships program with one round in 2006, and then resumed the effort in 2010 with 4 more rounds organized every half a year. In the previous round, the Software Freedom Conservancy joined the Outreach Program for Women with one internship with the Twisted project. This round, we’ve expanded the program to include several other FOSS organizations.

You cand find the full information on the program, including details on mentoring organizations and how to apply, here.

While, full disclosure, I am writing this post for the benefit of my employer and the work I do at the Open Technology Institute, this is an endorsement, and a request for help in spreading the word, that I can whole heartedly personally endorse as well. The Outreach Program for Women isn’t just a good idea but in the short span it has been run, it has yield some sustained, concrete successes in terms of interest and participation from women.

My sole regret is that I was unable to write and publish this post sooner. The deadline is Monday but since this is the final wekk before applications are due, mentors are able to work more closely with candidates in selecting and completing their first contributions to the participating projects.

MP3 Decoder Written in JavaScript

At firest I was a little puzzled by this Geek.com story to which Slashdot linked last night. HTML5 includes natively capabilities for playing back audio though not all formats are supported equally by all browsers, for reasons similar to the much more visible debates over video formats. A JavaScript powered player on cursory inspection would seem to be yet another front end to this multimedia capability increasingly available in newer browser.

jsmad isn’t a front end, though. Digging into the story a bit more, it is actually a native decoder for several variations of the MP3 format that runs entirely in JavaScript. It has more in common, then, with the the recent x86 emulator and several game emulators that have been ported or written from scratch to execute in the browser without using any plugins or any special multimedia capabilities.

Porting notes

Obviously, porting low-level C code to Javascript isn’t an easy task. Some things had to be adapted pretty heavily. jsmad is not the result of an automatic translation – all 15K+ lines of code were translated by hand by @nddrylliog and @jensnockert during MusicHackDay Berlin. Then, @mgeorgi helped us a lot with the debugging process, and @antoinem did the design of the demo during MusicHackDay Barcelona.

It performs well enough to decode and play MP3s in realtime on Firefox on modern computers, although if you do lots of things at once, Firefox might forget at all about scheduled tasks and let the soundcard underflow. There is a rescue mechanism for that in the demo, which works most of the time.

There is a fully capable demo, written in a very brief amount of time as part of the Music Hackday. I ran into a couple of issues with playback but outside of that, the experience is entirely comparable with the usual Flash players.

If it is possible to run a fixed point, compute and data intensive decoder like this with nothing more than the browser’s JavaScript engine, I have to imagine it should also be possible to port many of the open formats, like Ogg Vorbis and Flac. As a podcaster, the possibilities here are very alluring. jsmad is free software, available under the GPL v2 so it isn’t unreasonable to expect as interest increases, so should performance, accuracy and stability.

JavaScript decoder lets MP3s play in Firefox without Flash, Geek.com via Slashdot

FLOSS and Tech Geek BoF III at Balticon 45 – Updated

(Updated to correct the obviously wrong date.)

For the past two years at Balticon, the annual convention run by the Baltimore Science Fiction Society, I’ve organized an unofficial and largely ad hoc gathering of FLOSS and general technology enthusiasts. (Here’s my announcement from last year.) Turnout has been small but dedicated and I enjoy doing it as a bit of a warm up before getting into the con proper.

I will be convening the birds of a feather again this year, in the same place around the same time. Instead of two hours, I’ve decided to simply offset it by half an hour from the official schedule and hang around for an hour. Why offset it? For the same reason I scheduled it for 2 hours in years past, so folks can join even if they have other commitments. If enough people show and want to keep the discussion going, there is no reason we cannot continue the conversation.

What: Birds of a feather, a term from technology conferences that simply refers to an off schedule or unofficial gathering driven by mutual interest rather than a specific topic or event

Where: The Paddock Bar (You cannot miss the hotel bar, even if you’ve never been to the Hunt Valley Marriott, it is straight through the lobby. Also it is a public space so if you are in the area but not attending the con you can still join us.)

Who: The bald hacker (me) with the Tux table sign and small, bean bag penguin

When: Friday, May 27th from 9:30PM to 10:30PM (longer if there is interest)

Why: Because there is a not surprisingly high proportion of FLOSS and tech geeks amongst the usual con going crowd

Hope to see you there!

A Tithe for Free Software and Open Source

I spotted this via Hacker News, a proposal from the founder of DuckDuckGo. The idea is to develop another support model beyond corporate patronage and donation. Gabriel Weinberg is putting his money where his mouth is, committing a fraction of the search engine’s profits to funding FOSS projects.

A tithe is a voluntary tax (often 10% of income), usually paid yearly to a religious organization. I’d like to adopt this concept for free and open source software (FOSS), which in many ways is like a religion.

Incidentally, I hadn’t realized DDG is so small, though clearly it empowers them to do something so bold, and to open up direction of how funds should be distributed in part to their community. I already am a fan for their commitment to privacy, well beyond that of just about any other web service.

Weinberg has put the call out for other companies to follow his example. If the funds are offered without condition, as in this first case, I think it is worth spreading the word. I suspect that a huge number of companies owe their success to the use of FOSS so a voluntary tax would seem like a fair return, in addition or in place of technical contributions back to such projects.

Help me start a FOSS Tithing movement, Gabriel Weinberg

feeds | grep links > iPhone Apps Leak Personal Data Too, Monitoring Employees Online, Why Comcast Can Read Your Email, and More

  • Many top iPhone apps collect unique device ID
    I wondered about the reality of data leakage on the iPhone after last week’s story about a studio of Android apps that were snarfing up location data and other tidbits. Slashdot links to some research that answers that question, not surprisingly demonstrating that both mobile platforms suffer from these issues.
  • Monitoring employees’ online behavior
    Bruce Schneier links to a piece that I believe made the rounds late last week. It didn’t really catch my eye until you pulled out the two most interesting points. The first is the sort of social data mining being discussed isn’t just for workplace behavior but encroaches into the personal life of employees. The second is the usual fear based rhetoric being used to whip employers into a lather so they’ll more likely buy this load of nonsense instead of trusting and respecting the privacy of their workers.
  • Why Comcast can, but probably won’t, read your email
    Nate Anderson at Ars Technica draws attention to a clause in the cable operators Ts&Cs that shouldn’t be surprising at this point. He goes on, though, to ask them why they need the broad right to monitor customer communications. The answer should resonate with concern over the recent news of a renewed push by US law enforcers to gain broad, new info gathering powers over the net. If you think Comcast is covering its rear, now, imagine how much worse this could get.
  • Free Software Foundation turns 25, Slashdot
  • Malcom Gladwell critical of potential for social media to effect change
    Sara Perez was one of a few folks who linked to a piece by the author at the New Yorker. I cannot say I entirely disagree with Gladwell but I think the tools are immaterial. No new capability is going to spark motivation to act in and of itself or more critically fuel the determination to overcome challenges. That being said, I think he definitely underestimates how social networks and messaging can aid devoted change agents and possibly awake those who don’t realize they have a calling to act.
  • Technology cases on the Supreme Court docket, Wired
  • DC voting systems pwned by UMich researchers, Wired

Help Support Free Video Formats

I saw via Groklaw’s news picks a plea for help over at the FSF. What they are looking for is the kind of advocacy and education work I actually rather enjoy. Rather than just declaiming creators should use free video formats, like WebM and Ogg Theora, they want help in answering specific questions that arise from the actual people trying to do so.

Logistically, it involves being subscribed to our low-traffic GNU audio-video team mailing list (audio-video@gnu.org) and responding to the questions and problem reports sent to the list by people making the videos. In the remaining time, you could assist with the written documentation we are working on to help guide people through the video production process.

My own experience falls much more on the audio side but I may sign up anyway. Often the simplest questions go unanswered causing a potential adopter of free and open technology to give up, permanently writing it off as a waste. I see mailing list archive after forum littered with these kinds of questions that would take the bare minimum effort to answer.

If you have deeper experience with any part of video production using free software and encoding into unencumbered formats, consider signing up as well. Having been both a provider and recipient of these kinds of answers, I cannot impress on you enough how far a little bit of help really goes.

Interested in free video formats? We need your help! FSF

Library at the Heart of Linux is Finally Free and Open

A nice bit of software archeology by Simon Phipps. Not just digging up the history of this old Sun code that was up until this month still under a restrictive license, but the challenges and Phipps’ own part in correcting that situation after a few attempts.

This may come as a shock, but all GNU/Linux distributions to date have been built with essential software under a licence that clearly meets neither the Open Source Definition nor the Free Software Foundations’ requirements for a Free software licence. The tenacity of a Red Hat hacker has finally solved this problem for everyone, however, and I’m proud to have played a part too.

The code in question is the original SUN RPC code, buried in the guts of Linux’s, and other OSes’, networking code. The most fascinating aspect is how the original, informal licensing terms purely as a function of time evolved from seeming liberal to quite conservative. As Phipps notes, this code well predates the GPL so didn’t benefit from the kind of legal theorizing and scrutiny that came to software licensing later on.

GNU/Linux – finally it’s free software, Computer World UK

feeds | grep links > Still More on P and NP, Google Responds to Oracle’s Java Suit, Touch is Coming to Ubuntu, and More

  • Eight signs a claimed P != NP proof is wrong
  • P vs. NP for dummies
    I don’t always follow Scott Aaronson’s explanations of quantum computation and classical mathematics and computer science but not for want of clarity and accessibility in his posts. If you’ve been swimming in deep water following the proposed P != NP proof, his lay explanation of the underlying concepts and problem are required reading.
  • World’s first voice call with a free GSM stack
    The project in question, OsmocomBB, not surprisingly has been targeting the now defunct OpenMoko phone as well as a limited number of Motorola phones. Slashdot links to a mailing list message marking this critical milestone. The cellularl modems have been a pretty consistent holdout even for phones, like those under the OpenMoko project, designed to be as open as possible.
  • Google responds to Oracle’s Java lawsuit
    As the H describes it, there isn’t much to their comments other than accusing the claims of being baseless and promising to “strongly defend open-source standards”. The H quotes some of the other responses to the suit from around the web, including James Gosling, one of Java’s inventors, and outspoken software patent critic, Florian Mueller.
  • Google chief suggests future norms may include name change privilege on reach adulthood
  • Linux distribution Debian turns 17
  • Next Ubuntu to include software stack for touch, gesture interfaces
  • Tab Candy to become standard feature in Firefox
    I had already just assumed this would be the case, but Wired’s WebMonkey confirms it. Chris Blizzard tweeted just the other day that both Tab Candy and Sync, formerly an extension but already on the road map for conversion to a proper feature, had landed in the nightly builds. We may see both show up as soon as the next beta. I intentionally don’t use a lot of tabs in Firefox, I think having a lot open is a symptom of poor focus. I may have to re-think that view after some time with this new way to organize tabs, even saving groups of them for later work or switching between groups to pursue different tasks.

Deputizing Patent Trolls to Defend Free Software

I wrote a bit ago about DPL, a patent license to help defend free software and open source projects from those exploiting patents to suppress innovation and competition. Even though DPL is still at a very early stage in its development, outspoken anti-software patent advocate, Florian Mueller, doesn’t think it is aggressive enough. He suggests we need an “offense is the best defense” strategy, trying to convince some patent trolls to accept the DPL, protecting other signatories, then turning their attentions to non-DPL protected projects and companies.

This general idea is not new, trying to co-opt an otherwise bad actor to try to re-focus them to a more constructive end. The example I see pop up every few years is that of re-writing a computer virus to deliver some inoculation or fix. I seriously doubt the DPL is set up with this in mind and following through on Mueller’s idea could trigger a potentially disastrous early test of the license. The unintended consequences are usually what forestalls trying this sort of harnessing of dubious tactics for good ends.

I understand the frustration he expresses in his explanatory post, I do. I still don’t think this idea is a good one, one that will achieve the intended effect. He wants to increase the difference between standing within the safe circle of the DPL and acting on the outside, where predatory patent claims and interlocking, high cost licensing deals are more the norm than peaceful cooperation. I think there simply has to be a better way to produce that gradient between membership and non-membership than through deputized and endorsed trolling against non-DPL members.

New Patent License for Free Software, Open Source

Slashdot links to a good explanation of how the Defensive Patent License will work. It is not the same as the GPL’s traditional patent clauses which have much in common with defensive patent pools. Both are used more to execute a sort of mutual patent litigation approach, rather than conditioning use or access.

It does have some aspects in common with a patent pool, ones distinct from the approach in the GPL or the W3C rules around royalty free grants for any patents involved with a recommendation. It sets up sharing rules, though, more similar in spirit to the GPL’s and other licenses’ conditions on copyright that create a shared commons in their execution.

The DPL is still a work in progress. But so far, Schultz and Urban have worked out the following rules for the DPL:

  • Members of the DPL would make a business decision that they are obtaining patents strictly for defensive purposes and not because they want to sell licenses or go on the offensive with lawsuits.
  • Members of the DPL contribute all of their patents in their patent portfolio – they don’t pick and choose (and this is what differentiates it from other defensive patent pools).
  • Members of the DPL allow all other members to use its patents without royalty and without fear of patent infringement lawsuits from other members as long as a member does not file offensive lawsuits or remove their patents from the DPL.
  • Members may choose to leave the DPL but cannot revoke the royalty-free license from members who used it during the time the company was a member.
  • Members that join after a company leaves would not have royalty-free access to a former member’s patent portfolio.
  • The royalty-free cross licensing applies only to members of the DPL. Members are free to pursue royalties or lawsuits with companies outside the DPL.

This is clearly aimed at FLOSS projects where it would be practical for them to go all in with their patents. As the article notes, many projects hold back from patent applications for a variety of reasons. The primary effect of this project may be to change that, to give projects an ethical framework in which to acquire patents and make them available widely.

Adoption is going to be key, something the article doesn’t touch on. I think a single high profile project committing to this, perhaps even the Linux kernel itself, could do a world of good for jump starting this commons which really is long overdue.