Emacs is a text editor used for everything from editing text to writing code to organizing one’s entire life. It’s an older piece of software–originally written in 1976. It’s strength comes from extensibility–you can make emacs do whatever you want if you have the patience, time, and skills. Another way to word this is that it’s super crunchy and hard to use. It’s hard to save files, it’s hard to copy and paste, and it’s hard to become involved. One emacs hacker/user I know said:

…for social and technical reasons contributing to the project is hard and some people view this as a good thing and that’s really shitty.

My criticisms of FLOSS projects have a lot to do with difficulties in install processes, usability, and accessibility (a11y). Inaccessible software is bad. Software that is hard to use is bad. Software that is hard to install is bad.

(I will note that, from this perspective, all text editors are bad.)

Thinking about free software development and usability from a business perspective begs up the question: What does the customer want? The customer for a community is a contributor–the customer for an application, operating system, package is the person installing it. Looking at emacs as a case study, I recently found myself asking if it needs to be accessible and easy. I am not the natural user for emacs. I don’t use it now. Why is it important for it to cater to my needs?

Being able to code is important. So is being able to change a flat tire, swim, sharpen a kitchen knife, unclog a toilet, and understand the basics of how your hot water heater works so that if the pilot light ever goes out, you know what to do or at least how to figure out why your shower is cold.

Initiatives like Hour of Code are important because computers need to be normalized. Not everyone needs to be a developer, but everyone does need to know the basics of how computers work. It is not–and should not–be acceptable to say (with pride even) that you don’t know how computers work, what code is like.

It is not the job of emacs and the community to make sure I can use it to code–or use it at all. However, it should be the imperative of the community to make sure I know and understand the fundamentals of technology–this includes the basics of how computers actually do things. From a perspective of self-preservation, keeping technology in a black box is useful to the technical. As long as computers are not only difficult, but also scary, I need them. But, the fact is, I am going to need them anyway because I do not want to become an expert. I’d rather be an expert at growing delicious peppers, making an asplenium flourish, and identifying trees by their smell.

Technologists and hackers have made their way to where they are, in some cases, through trials by fire. They have fought against communities, proven themselves, and hacked their way through impenetrable code and processes in order to become a member of the club. They should have the tools they want. They should be able to have fun and be kind of elitist in their in-group the same way I should be allowed to have fun and be kind of elitist about building a bike, knowing Hume, and having a favorite designer in any given season of Project Runway. But, none of those things should be scary. The mentality that a project being hard is a good thing is not just mean, but detrimental and dangerous.


(This post explains why I donated to the FSF. Really.)

“Your entire life here is from MH and MM, isn’t it?”

One of my housemates asked me this over coffee. Well, she’s was drinking coffee. I had tea. I could not deny what she said. MH and MM, and the IRC channel they started, have led me to the life I have now. They suggested I visit. They suggested I move here. MM suggested an internship for the Free Software Foundation when I was trying to figure out how I to stay after the summer ended.

My internships (I also had one at OLPC), led me to an RA position at Berkman. The friends I made interning at the FSF helped me get the job I have now, by giving me both an understanding of free software, and general free as in freedom issues, and some pretty kick-ass references.

When I first got to the FSF, I wasn’t entirely convinced. I got the importance of free software (have access to your tools, own your tools, understand your tools, etc, etc, etc), but I thought a lot of the arguments I had been hearing where too ephemeral. I was going through a brief spat of rejecting the idea that “moral underpinnings” were what you needed for an argument–I thought needed practical points to even be worthwhile. (That phase ended pretty quickly.) I also didn’t buy that negative campaigning stuff, and I didn’t see what the Foundation had actually been doing.

In the fall of 2010, the FSF was in the financial red. Two people were laid off during my time there. Everyone else quickly became overworked. A significant portion of my internship shifted to helping with mailings, membership databases, and writing blog posts.

I started getting e-mails from people who read my blog posts. None of them declared undying fan-love, which was a bit of a downer (I thought my brief stint with semi-celebrity blogging was supposed to lead to fame, fortune, and cute nerds trying to sleep with me). Instead, I got thoughtful responses thanking me for bringing attention to issues or projects, or just explaining things in ways that were easy to understand. Not only did I feel good about myself, but I got that the FSF was actually reaching people.

Being in the community allowed me the luxury of thinking everyone thought the way I did. Everyone knew freedom was important, but just used Apple or Windows products because they were easy–they consistently worked without any effort. Once I left the FSF, understanding (though not entirely believing in) the arguments they had and used, I began to see the privilege I had had to work with people who got it.

Freedom is like health insurance. We want it to be there. What we have we think is good. But then, when pressed, we can see it isn’t actually good. Ferrett told me that you don’t know the quality of your health insurance until you have cancer. Similarly, you don’t know the quality of your freedom until it’s tested.

The freedom of software is tested when DRM content you purchased is removed with no recourse offered to you. When a single switch being flipped on or off restricts your operating system. When you’re using a piece of software and want it do something differently, but can’t change it because you don’t have access to it. Freedom in software is about agency, which is something we generally don’t have.

Software is something that is such an integral part of life, realizing you have no control over it is pretty scary.

Or comforting. Some people just don’t care about freedom. Caring about it is hard and depressing. Using what you’re given, what is functional, is easy.

Freedom, in general is important. There are a lot of great groups trying to help with freedom. The American Civil Liberties Union, the National Lawyers Guild, Amnesty, Occupy Together, City Live–just to name a few.

However, in my financial support of freedom, I decided to become a member of the FSF during their membership drive.

[FSF Associate Member]

I have a button and everything. (Which you could click on to donate, should you so desire. Today is the last day of their membership drive, but one could join, or donate, at any time.)

Mostly I decided to give them money because of peer pressure. When you see the majority of the employees socially, it’s hard not to feel the expectation that, now you have a job, you’ll join. But I also support what they do and want to help them do more because they can do more. I like that they’ve been adding their voice against proposals like ACTA, PIPA, and SOPA. I like that they’ve restarted the GNU Education Project. I like that they take digital/electronic rights issues (like DRM), draw on the relationship of these issues to software we don’t realize we’re using and become involved. They need to be in a position to hire more compliance officers, to help people (student people, adult people, people involved with computers, and people not involved with computers) understand not just the insane role software has in our lives, but what it means to have no control over this software. They need financial help to be in a position to help change the way we interact with the things we own.


“[Cupcakes] would be a big change in direction away from Open Source.”

A boy said this to me. Naturally, I told him that they could be open source cupcakes. I mean, after all, we made that Debian Cake. That’s like open source cupcakes. Yeah.
I spend a lot of time in my personal life talking about ‘free’ and ‘open source.’ We toss around words like ‘transparency’ and ‘commons’ as though we are jugglers and they are on fire. I spend very little time posting about it on the internet.

In the urban legend currently known as The Neiman-Marcus Cookie Recipe, someone buys a recipe for “two fifty,” thinking it will cost $2.50. They learn it is $250 and then, in anger, share the recipe with everyone they can.

Today, recipes are easily available and widely findable on the internet. Epicurious has a red velvet cupcake recipe from the Magnolia Bakery, which I’ve never heard of before, but they have a lovely looking pie on their home page. Conde Nast, owner of Epicurious, claims reserve to all rights and maintains that none of the content on Epicurious can be “reproduced, distributed, transmitted, cached, or otherwise used, except with the prior written permission of Condé Nast Digital.” This particular recipe comes from “More From Magnolia: Recipes from the World Famous Bakery and Allysa Torey’s Home Kitchen,” the copyright to which is held by Allysa Torey. Ms. Torey reserves all rights, including those of reproduction in the whole or part in any form.”

But, you see, this is wrong. At least, that’s what my lawyer tells me.

There are two parts to a recipe, the ingredients and the explanation.

The recipe itself is a “mere listings of ingredients.” (U.S. Copyright Office – Recipes. Updated, November, 2010.) In the case of the Neiman-Marcus recipe, we have:

# 2 cups butter
# 4 cups flour
# 2 teaspoons baking soda
# 2 cups sugar
# 5 cups blended oatmeal
# 24 ounces chocolate chips
# 2 cups packed brown sugar
# 1 teaspoon salt
# 1 (8 ounce) Hershey Bars (grated)
# 4 large eggs
# 2 teaspoons baking powder
# 2 teaspoons vanilla
# 3 cups chopped nuts (your choice)

This list of ingredients is not copyright protected. What is copyright protected, however, is the story about how to make the cookies–the “substantial literary expression—a description, explanation, or illustration” that tells us what to do with this list of ingredients. (U.S. Copyright Office – Recipes. Updated November, 2010.)

In this case, we have:

Measure oatmeal and blend in a blender to a fine powder. Cream the butter and both sugars. Add eggs and vanilla. Mix together with flour, oatmeal, salt, baking powder and soda. Add chocolate chips, grated Hershey Bar and nuts. Roll into 1 inch balls and place 2-inches apart on a cookie sheet. Bake for 10 minutes at 375° or until golden.

I’m leaving that unattributed, but I am assuming that someone wrote this, someone holds the copyright to it, and my posting it without permission may actually be illegal!

In short, the ingredient list, totally okay. The directions, they belong to someone.

We can take any recipe we want and post the ingredient list anywhere. If we want to post the fancy explanations, we need permission. And there are people that supply that. Open Source Food–a product of random googling–maintains a copyright of content on the site, but comments that recipes are available under a CC license “where indicated.” It’s up to user discretion.

Recipes I post here generally are released under a CC-BY-SA license, meaning that you can reproduce it however you want, as long as you say where you got it from and also share your reproduction in some similar manner. This isn’t to say that my recipes are so fabulous you should share them, merely that you can.

But they are pretty good.

Cooking communities come up in conversations about open source communities. In these communities, people share their “blue prints.” They tell you how they made something, how you can make something, and you can take these blue prints and modify them, change them, and use them. These activities inherently encourage modification, adaptation, remixing, and sharing. I take lots of recipes and make them vegan. People leave out salt, or replace coriander with cumin. They add garlic. People take these blue prints and turn them into their own. They share the changes they have made, in comments or in original postings.

Cooking communities, despite their lack of knowledge of copyright law, truly are participation driven groups that encourage collaboration, personalization, understanding your tools, manipulating them, and sharing them. They are totally all about free/libre/open-source.

(1) Free Cake courtesy of paulproteus, CC-BY-SA.

(2) Chocolate Chip Cookies courtesy of Vicci, CC-BY.