LUGRadio Live 2006 report

Yesterday I went to the second LugRadio Live event in Wolverhampton, organised by the Wolverhampton Linux User Group who do a fornightly “podcast” in which they discuss the state of the scene and interview various important people. Last year it was in the Molineux stadium terrace bar and featured the BBC’s Bill Thompson and Mark Shuttleworth, the money behind Ubuntu. This time they had Sarah Ewen of Sony, discussing the Playstation 3 and running Linux on it, Michael Meeks of Novell (talking about the office suite OpenOffice.org, Stephen Lamb of Microsoft (talking about “how to securely integrate Linux and Windows”) and Simon Phipps of Sun (topic: “the Zen of Free”). I have to say that I didn’t hear all of these talks because there were other events going on at the sides, where I usually was. It ended with a live recording of a LugRadio show, as did last year’s. The event continues today, but I could only afford to attend one day (not due to entry fees, but travel costs).

This year’s was considerably bigger than last year’s, with the group booking out the Wolverhampton University student union. Besides the “main stage” talks, there were so-called Lightning talks (lasting 30 minutes) and “BOF Points” (BOF standing for Birds of a Feather). The lightning talks included one by Gervase Markham of the Mozilla Foundation on “how to destroy the Free Software Movement”, a talk on the upcoming version of Ubuntu, Bill Thompson on whether the open-source movement is guilty of cultural imperialism, lawyer Des Burley on open-source from a legal perspective, and a bloke called Bruno Bord talking about totting up the number of swear words the LugRadio team use (many). (This seemed to have far more attendees than the other Lightning Talks I listened to!) The BOF discussions (small groups - about 10 or so) were about Jokosher (the sound software being developed by LR’s Jono Bacon), Ruby on Rails (a web applications system, a bit like PHP), a meet-and-greet for the LugRadio IRC channel, Ubuntu Accessibility and the Novell iFolder system.

There was also plenty of exhibition room, and unlike the big Linux Expo, to which LugRadio Live was in part a reaction, it was not dominated by the big corporate players like IBM, Novell and so on, although Novell and Red Hat were represented. At the Expo, the so-called “.org Village” is rather cramped, with a tiny area within a pretty small area for each project, and some of these are the projects that actually build the Linux desktop (like KDE for example). Then again, I didn’t see these projects represented here; Novell, Red Hat and Ubuntu were though, along with the ByteMark web hosting company (which provides hosting for LugRadio and sponsorship for this event), O’Reilly (30% discount on its books), the Linux Emporium (which sells both boxed Linux distributions and copies of the downloadable free ones like Fedora and Debian, and also laptops with Linux pre-loaded), and an organisation which promotes and facilitates Linux in the voluntary sector.

Of the talks I attended, I thought Bill Thompson’s the most interesting; he expressed the opinion that the free software culture we know of is an expression of western values and despite its “rebel” attitude, it’s actually very close to and dependent on big tech companies which don’t exactly have a shining ethical record. We are content to cosy up to IBM and Intel, for example, but we draw the line at Microsoft. The licences which protect free software here, like the General Public Licence, are restrictive in ways which may not benefit users in developing countries, for example, by forcing small local companies to reveal all their code because it’s based partly on GPL material originating in the US or UK, though no doubt the people behind the GPL would see nothing wrong in this, and by requiring that disputes be settled in particular courts in Europe or the USA. He also mentioned as a possible solution the territories system found in the Creative Commons community, in which the rules are explicitly different in different parts of the world, although (as I pointed out) this is a recipe for politically-motivated obstruction of the “Greek-Turkish Eurovision” variety; he wasn’t very keen on this idea himself. This talk was curtailed from its original hour to thirty minutes so that Thompson and everyone else present could go and join the Mass Debate. I think it could have done with longer.

At the Mass Debate, the Sun rep was inevitably asked about the issue of releasing Java as open source, and he replied that it is basically going ahead but will take time, because it contains bits which were contributed by people who did not give their permission for their code to be released on an open-source basis. He also said that open-sourcing was about more than just dumping software in the street for people to pick up; there were people who had been maintaining aspects of Java for years who might not be too happy about the change in their status which might result in the code being opened up to the community.

Scott James Remnant of Canonical gave a similar 30-minute presentation about plans for the upcoming Ubuntu distribution. He gave a presentation intermingling slides from recent and past Ubuntu conferences with talk about the new version; new features include a radically redesigned start-up process. The buzz is that this version will be more radical than any previous version, although whether having a four-month development time rather than the usual six (or eight, in the case of the most recent version) is consistent with making a radically-redesigned version stable I don’t really know. In the exhibition area I also talked quite a bit with Jonathan Riddell of the Kubuntu team, particularly about the lack of updates in Ubuntu for the software I use. I also attended the Ubuntu accessibility BOF session, which was in a small room away from the noise of the main stage (a brilliant idea; the Ruby BOF was so near the main stage that it was sometimes very difficult to make out what was being said). The talk was very much about visual accessibility rather than any other concerns: to what extent Ubuntu could be installed, and used, by a visually-impaired person. (A few years ago SUSE boasted that its own distro could be installed by a blind user with a braille display; I’m not sure if that’s still true). It was said that Ubuntu was nearly, but not quite, at that point; the main issue with usability for the visually-impaired was Firefox, whose browser widget (for the uninitiated: every item in a graphical environment is a widget, like buttons, scroll bars and even windows) does not communicate well with the GNOME magnifier and screen-reader application (the same is therefore probably true of other Linux Mozilla products). As for KDE, accessibility for the visually-impaired will have to wait until the next version, based on Qt 4 which has its own accessibility system built in. The meeting was chaired by former Ubuntu/Canonical webmaster Henrik Nilsen Omma, who is involved with Ubuntu on the accessibility side himself (he is physically rather than visually disabled). Among the important points raised here was that some of the things that annoy the visually-impaired annoy everyone - like, for example, the system switching you to another program while you are in the middle of something; a visually impaired attendee raised the issues of turning off sounds unrelated to accessibility and of meaningless promptings.

The climax of the event was the live show, and I’m happy to report that it was very much improved on last year’s backslap-fest in which there was next to no Linux content at all. It started off with the group’s latest game - a kind of “pass the parcel”, in which the “parcel” is a cuddly Tux toy. (This “penguin” had a furry coat, strangely enough.) Whoever caught it was invited to introduce himself and ask a question, which I did at one point, and ended up unable to think of a question (even a Qt4-related question) to ask, which was somewhat embarrassing. They interviewed a guy from the MythTV project and talked about how to raise Linux’s profile on the desktop; one suggestion was to sort out the problems of “newbie flaming” and “RTFM” replies to supposedly stupid questions.

At this point my head started filling up with things I really could say, such as that we had advantages in the area of user interaction as well - for example, we don’t have the whole problem of hardware snobbery which plagues the Mac community (I had not encountered the tendency to compare Macs with BMWs when I wrote this piece which got me a whole load of extra traffic a few months ago; since then, I have encountered it (albeit a comparison to Mercs rather than BMWs; see here for my recent experience of a long journey at the wheel of a Merc). Linux, unlike OS X, is not burdened with a single manufacturer obsessed with “lifestyle” marketing which has a habit of putting high price tags on underspecified kit with poor expandability. For the amount you pay for a Mac Mini with an 80Mb laptop hard drive, you can get much better kit to run Linux on; for the price of an iMac, you can get very well-specified PC kit. I also wanted to point out that the Linux desktop has presentational problems which might put people off, and that we have a golden opportunity now that Windows XP is on the brink of being replaced by something that it’s said won’t run decently on any computer released earlier than this year, and even then it has a number of unwelcome features.

And if we are discussing what is to be desired in the culture of the Linux community, perhaps the jocularity and laddishness of areas of it needs to be addressed as well as the old “RTFM” issue. An example appeared in the current edition of Linux Format (Aug 2006) in which a letter from a reader in Malaysia was printed complaining about ads showing pictures of girls in bikinis. This was their reply:

The adverts in the magazine … are largely out of our control. Of course, we’d kick and scream if someone asked us to place a Microsoft ad, but it’s a bit harder for us to complain about ads featuring women in bikinis. Sorry!

And this shows a lack of understanding of the audience, which in this case was located in a somewhat conservative corner of the Far East where, besides the religious sensibilities of most of the population, government censorship is known to go on. How widespread this sort of advertising is in that part of the world I’m not sure, but it’s alien to the culture of many places and causes genuine offence. You might call them prudes, suggest that they really can’t get enough of it and laugh, but they certainly are not laughing, and it’s perhaps an example of the sort of cultural imperialism Bill Thompson was talking about - ignorance of, or flat-out contempt for, your audience’s culture. And you don’t want copies of the magazine appearing with the naughty bits physically cut out, along with whatever might have been on the other side of the page. Even here, there are plenty of people with religious objections to that sort of thing, and others who feel that it drags a serious publication down into the territory of low-class tat. Admittedly the LugRadio team themselves have drastically raised their game since the terrible 2005 live show, but I still think we should stop beating ourselves round the head about “RTFM” (nowadays you’re more likely to get succinctly referred to an older forum thread or bug report if you ask a question that’s been dealt with already) and deal with how inclusive and accessible the scene, both online and in “real life”, is.

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