On Writing, Tech, and Other Loquacities

The collected works of Lana Brindley: writer, speaker, blogger


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Gemdale Travel Money Laundering Job Scam

Came home to an interesting email on Friday:

My first thought was that Seek shouldn’t be passing my details on to anyone, but as I dug further it got more and more interesting. Here’s the job description:

I don’t know about you, but “process payments between our clients and our company” sounds an awful lot like money laundering to me. No reputable company needs to transfer money through some random person’s bank account.

This is a slick operation, and it was pretty clear to me that this “Gemdale Travel” was operating outside of Seek’s terms of service, so I called Seek to let them know. The customer service operator was brilliant, and explained that Gemdale have been dogging them for some time. They obviously have no connection to the legitimate business Seek undertakes, and this is a sophisticated scam. Gemdale appear on the surface to be quite legitimate, until you scratch.

Most job scams tend to be of a more simple sort, where they extort money out of victims for expenses, but a job never materialises. This is another level, not so much a job scam, as a pure and simple method to find people to launder money for them. The victim could potentially sign up for this gig, do the job, and never know that they’ve been complicit in a crime until the police show up.

Be careful out there, lovelies.

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Leadership is not management: Carrots and sticks in an open source community

This article was originally written for http://superuser.openstack.org/articles/leadership-open-source-community/. I will be publishing a more detailed version shortly.

Leading a community group, it turns out, is completely different to being a manager. I learned this the hard way; I made mistakes, started (and continued) arguments, and sometimes, when faced with a large hole, simply continued to dig.

In late 2014 I had been working on OpenStack documentation for about a year. We were preparing the Kilo release, when the current project team lead (PTL) asked if I would be willing to put my name forward as a candidate for Liberty PTL. In early 2015, I was elected unopposed to lead the documentation team for the Liberty release, and all of a sudden I realised: I had no idea how to run a community group.

At this point, I had managed docs teams of various sizes, across many timezones, for five years. I had a business management degree and an MBA to my name, had run my own business, seen a tech startup fail and a new corporate docs team flourish. I felt as though I understood what being a manager was all about. And I guess I did. But I didn’t know what being a PTL was all about. All of a sudden, I had a team where I couldn’t name each individual, couldn’t rely on any one person to come to work on any given day, couldn’t delegate tasks with any authority and couldn’t compensate team members for good work. The only tool I had in my arsenal to get work done was my own ability to convince people that they should.

If you’ve spent time as a manager in a corporate environment, you’ll be used to keeping secrets, actively managing your employees’ careers, and pretending you know the answers to things (especially if you don’t). This is entirely the wrong way to go about managing a community, and if your team decides you’re treating them like that, they will probably only give you a couple of chances before they eat you alive1. If you get it right (even if it’s on the second go-round), the opportunities for growth and satisfaction are unbeatable. Not to mention the sense of achievement!

My first release as a PTL was basically me stumbling around in the dark and poking at the things I encountered. I relied heavily on the expertise of the existing members of the group to work out what needed to be done, and I gradually started to learn that the key to getting things done was not just to talk and delegate, but to listen and collaborate. I had to not only tell people what to do, but also convince them that it was a good idea, help them to see it through, and pick up the pieces if they didn’t. You will end up stumbling around in front of your team a lot in open source. Here’s how to make it work for you:

 

Rewarding the good, punishing the bad

The phrase ‘carrots and sticks’ is often used to describe the process of rewarding good behaviour (carrots)2 while punishing bad behavior (sticks)3. Rewards are everywhere in today’s corporations. From monetary incentives (bonuses, share schemes, gift cards and shopping vouchers), to various team activities (lunches, dinners, paintball, barista courses, and all manner of competitive activities), these awards are designed to make all your colleagues envy and despise you. Not to mention all those little branded tchotchkes (a stress ball in every imaginable shape!) we all seem to accumulate. There are so many carrots given out, that not getting any can often be a form of stick.

Of course, this is the first and most obvious thing you will notice missing when you start managing a community rather than a team in an organisation. You don’t get to pay them. You don’t get to give bonuses. And the tchotchkes are harder to find and more jealously guarded.

The first thing you have to do is work out what you have got. Got access to stickers, t-shirts, or other branded merchandise? Give them out! What about privileges (and no, giving someone more responsibility is not a privilege, so don’t count things like granting core access)? Things like discounted tickets or travel to conferences, access to company-sponsored events like code sprints or meetups, or things like the ability to vote on leadership positions can all be considered perks of being part of a community.

There are also other, less obvious, things that you can do to motivate people: always be willing to call out great work (or even mediocre work, especially if it came from someone surprising) in a public way, but keep any criticism private. Thank people, a lot, for everything. Make sure when people email you asking questions you add other people into the conversation, with a note like “this person is an expert on this topic, and I’d love to hear their opinion”. Flattery and thankfulness are some of the best tools you have to motivate people on your team, and they’re entirely free. Just try and keep your ego in check and let other people take credit wherever possible.   

 

Performance measurement as a behaviour management tool

One of the more popular performance measurement methods is referred to as a nine box, or a talent matrix4. The idea of ranking employees can be quite distasteful, so it’s important to remember that it’s not about ranking staff against each other, but against themselves and their own past performance. You should be able to see each employee move from the lower left to the top right of the matrix as they improve in their role. Once they hit the top right box, you must be ready to promote them, at which point they drop to the centre of the matrix, and start the journey up and to the right again. Of course, the opposite is also true: if an employee starts to track down and to the left, you need to be having some serious discussions about the role that the person is in, whether or not they’re having personal issues, or whether they’re the right fit for your team, or your company. The point is, there’s something of a science to this when you’re in a corporate environment.

That science becomes much more of a dark art when you’re leading a community. For starters, though, you need to remember that it’s not really your responsibility. Most of the people in the your community already have a job, and a career path, and a manager who (hopefully) cares about those things. And that person isn’t you. Also, those things are (and should be) fairly opaque to you, it’s really none of your business. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t care about your team’s performance within the constraints of your group. Most communities have levels of responsibility within them. From leading sub-teams, to being involved in testing, sitting on advisory boards, or becoming core contributors with greater levels of trust and expectation, right up to leading the group itself, you need to be aware of the aspirations of your community members, and ensure you’re letting people know the options available to them should they wish to progress. An extra added complication is where these two things intersect. You never know if a team member is getting pressure from their corporate manager to achieve a certain role within your community, or what value (if any) companies might place on metrics, roles, or positions of trust within your community. You can’t always rely on team members to tell you what they’re trying to achieve, either, sometimes they make you guess.

The best way to ensure you’re helping individuals succeed in their performance goals is to make sure you understand what those goals are. This isn’t always easy and you can’t necessarily assume that all team members want to progress, either. This is even more true in communities than in companies, since a promotion often means more responsibility without any increase in benefits (you’re not paying them, after all). The best way to do this is to ask people, and the best way to get a good answer is to do in private. Don’t be afraid, as a community leader, to reach out to people directly, saying something along the lines of ‘hey, I noticed you’re doing great work, and wanted to have a chat to you about the kinds of things you’re interested in working on, and how I can help you achieve your goals within our community.’ You won’t always get all the answers you might want, in the detail you might need to really help them, but at least you’ll have a better idea than just assuming everyone wants to become a team leader some day.

 

The performance art of trust

Perhaps more important than rewarding staff, or accurately recording their performance improvements, is proving that you trust them. A little trust goes a long way and can positively impact loyalty, morale and retention. As a manager, there are many occasions where you are privy to information you can’t share with staff: financial or company performance information, restructures, or even layoffs. The thing is, your team members are probably pretty smart and they probably know that this is a thing. You need to reassure them that as soon as you can tell them, you will. But there’s more to it than that; there’s something I like to call the performance art of trust, which is more about telling them when you don’t know something than when you do. If someone asks you a question, and you don’t know the answer, don’t make things up! Just come right out and say it: “I don’t know.” You might find it helpful to practice, because it’s not easy to do when you’re trying to be all manager-y and stuff. In fact, most of your training to become a manager has probably been about pretending you know the answers when you don’t, which is exactly the wrong way to go about it.

Of course, as a community leader, you almost never have access to information before anyone else, so you may be wondering why this is relevant. It’s because the principles of honesty and trust are just as important, if not more so, in community situations than they are in a workplace. Community members will work with you if they want to work with you, and they won’t work with you if you’re a twit. The best way to look like you’re someone worth working with is if you appear open, honest, communicative, trustworthy, and reasonable.

One of the hallmarks of many open-source communities is the somewhat impassioned email communications5 that occur. Flamewars on mailing lists are a feature6 of open source communities and they happen out in public. Treat them as performance art, where your audience is focused on one thing: is this person someone I trust to lead this group?

It’s easy to come out of a flamewar looking like a buffoon, so here’s a couple of tips:

  • Always read the email you’re replying to thoroughly, several times, and try to understand the sender’s point of view. Work out what the question is (if there isn’t a question, then don’t send a reply).
  • Start your reply by thanking the sender: for bringing up a point you hadn’t considered, for asking questions, or even just for taking the time to put their thoughts into words. This forces you to assume good intent.
  • Answer the question, AND ONLY THE QUESTION. Give reasons for your answer, using dot points if necessary, but don’t bring other issues into it, and certainly don’t launch into personal attacks. Be prepared to question your own beliefs about things (you don’t have to change your mind, but you need to be open to other perspectives).
  • Ask a question of your own: Do they think this is reasonable? Can they think of something you might have missed? Do they have further comments?
  • Don’t hit send yet. Leave it as long as possible; at least a couple of hours, preferably overnight. This not only gives you time to calm down a little, but it also slows down the exchange on the mailing list, which will hopefully remove some heat.
  • Before you hit send, proofread, and take out all the emotional language. Work out if you can consolidate some points, reorganise the content to be clearer, or take out irrelevant information. Be as concise and to-the-point as possible.
  • If the thread has been dragging on and there’s no progress, take it offline. Admit that perhaps you don’t fully understand their viewpoint and offer a video or phone call, even if it’s an early morning or late night for you. Be the bigger person, take the hit. People are always much nicer on the phone, and if nothing else, it stops the flamewar.

To conclude, communities are definitely more forgiving than corporations, so you’ll probably get away with stumbling around a little bit before you find your feet. However, they’re also run almost entirely on trust and goodwill and you can erode that really quickly and sometimes without noticing. Be honest when you don’t know something, own up to your mistakes, never shift blame (even if you really didn’t do it), and always lift your team members up. If you can nail those things, then you’ll find a way through, and I’m willing to bet that you’ll become a better manager in the process as well.  


1. OK, maybe not actually eat you, but they won’t like you for it. Not even a little bit.
2. Why anyone would continue a good behavior for a carrot reward, unless they were a bunny, is beyond me (I prefer chocolate biscuits, personally), but it’s as good a shorthand as any to describe this process.
3. Please don’t actually beat anyone with a stick. It’s poor form.
4. The nine box performance matrix is usually attributed to McKinsey, who invented it in the 1970s for GE. If you’ve done any classes at business school, you’ve probably done a course on it. For the purposes of this article, however, it is simply a method of plotting team members on a graph from lowest performing in the lower left, to highest performing in the upper right. Most nine box models plot performance on the x-axis, and behaviour on the y-axis, but there are many variations.
5. Some would call them ‘flamewars’.
6. Some would call them a ‘bug’.

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The Language of Change, and the Changing of Language

A conversation on the Australian Tech Writers mailing list prompted me to dig up these old blog posts from 2008 and repost them here. It was a short impromptu series of the changing face of language, and how we as wordsmiths deal with it:


Merriam-Webster – Bringing The Mondegreen To Linguistic Fanboys Everywhere

July 2008

Spotted this one on Slashdot today. Reading the comments, I came along quite a few that expressed what appears to be complete and utter dismay at the introduction of new words into the language. For example, this one:

“Even if you can guess what it means, it’s always good fun to pounce on neologisms and jargon and grill the user why they are using them instead of a more traditional word.”

And then there was this one:

“my old boss used to love these damn things and every time he’d say the word “webinar” a peice of me died a little inside”

It reminds me of a time I was driving around Brisbane with a friend, it was Christmas time, and I noted a sign in front of a church that stated something along the lines of “Christmass Services”. I made an offhand comment about the mispelling, and my friend pointed out that the origin of the word indicates that it should, indeed, be spelled “Christmass” (as it derived from the Mass for Christ). The main point of her comment though was the fact that language is an ever-changing and constantly evolving beast. Wordsmiths – myself included – are often very quick to point out that something is not a word, or is a neologism, or just isn’t right for some other reason.

We all use language in different ways every day – the language we use to speak to our friends is not the same as we use to speak to our children, or to authorities. The language that we use to write emails to our friends is different to the language that we use to write a complaint to the phone company. In my case, the language that I use to write technical documentation is different to the language I use to write fiction, and is different to the language I am using to write this blog post. The most interesting thing about that is the language that I use to do all those things has changed – as I’ve gotten older, as my opinions have changed, as my knowledge has increased, as my tastes have changed, and as I’ve come across new words.

I was working on the latest fiction project last night, writing very short snippets in first person for several different characters, and consciously trying to alter the ‘voice’ of each section to suit that character. Not as easy as it sounds, but I’m reasonably pleased with the results, so far.

Language, in all its forms, shifts and changes with attitude and society. While I’ve never considered Merriam-Webster to be authoritative, and I certainly wouldn’t rely on it for any of my work, at least we ought to give them credit for trying to document the language as it is used, rather than how it ‘ought’ to be. And for that reason alone, it has a place in the world.


New Words, Old Words

August 2008

Not so long ago, I wrote this. To summarise, it was about new words adopted into the English language by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, most of which had their genesis in online culture. So it was with great joy that I came across this article which outlines some of the words that the internet has succesfully killed. It’s a lovely piece of work, I suggest you read it. My very favourite is at the top of the list – “friend”. Once a word meaning ” someone you knew, had a personal relationship with, occasionally spoke to, and frequently drank beers with” it now, according to the article, means “someone who found your email address and typed it into Facebook and/or LinkedIN. You may have met said person at a conference once, and possibly even conversed with for 5 or more minutes”. Of course, my second favourite is in there too – “startup”. Once, it meant “a company with a novel idea, service, product, or technology, and a vision on how to build that company into a successful, profitable entity”. Now, it means “a college graduate and three friends who have an incremental idea, service, product, or technology, and a vision on how to build that company such that it gets acquired by Google, Microsoft, or Yahoo (in that order), preferably within 18 months for at least 9 figures.”

The article is tongue-in-cheek – and readily admits it – but there’s a whole lot of truth in there (albeit disguised nicely behind humour). Language is evolving, and the major vehicle for change is that thing that has become so pervasive in our lives – the internet – and the culture that goes with it. Not only have new words entered – “w00t” and “mondegreen” instantly spring to mind – but ‘old’ words have had their meanings modified to fit the new medium. I maintain that it’s not a bad thing, it’s progress (whatever definition you choose to use for ‘progress’). Sometimes it seems like backwards progress, but it is nevertheless the direction we are heading. Don’t like it? That’s OK – the new generation do. And when they’re all grown up and complaining about the “young ‘ens”, well, that’s OK too. Their kids will be busy picking up the slack by then.


All The World’s A Stage, And All The Men And Women Merely Players

August 2008


In what has become a somewhat impromptu series on the evolution of the English language, I just had to mention something I read whilst on holidays last weekend. I picked up Bill Bryson’s take on the life of Shakespeare whilst away. I’ve been interested in the great mystery of Shakespeare’s life for some time now. I own a copy of Nolan’s “Shakespeare’s Face” and have read numerous other accounts (or, more accurately, guesses) of his life and works. Add to this the fact that I have been wanting to start reading Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything”, and it was a fairly predictable attraction. Not incidentally, I’m intending to read his “The Mother Tongue” shortly too.

The book is quite short, and I finished it mere days after purchase – helped along by a few days in a warm climate with no pressing demands, I might add. It is written in true Bryson style, very conversational and light hearted, and he gives a lovely (or not so lovely, depending on your take on plague and wanton violence) picture of 16th century England, and Shakespeare’s somewhat unassuming – so far as we can tell – place in it.

However, my favourite part is this discussion of some of the many words that Shakespeare (allegedly) introduced into the English language:

And there was never a better time to delve for pleasure in language than the sixteenth century, when novelty blew through English like a spring breeze. Some twelve thousand words, a phenomenal number, entered the language between 1500 and 1650, about half of them still in use today, and old words were employed in ways that had not been tried before. Nouns became verbs and adverbs; adverbs became adjectives. Expressions that could not grammatically have existed before – such as “breathing one’s last” and “backing a horse”, both coined by Shakespeare – were suddenly popping up everywhere. Double superlatives and double negatives – “the most unkindest cut of all” – troubled no one and allowed an additional degree of emphasis that has since been lost.

Bryson goes on to mention the notorious variability of spelling known in early English society, noting this little gem –

Perhaps nothing speaks more eloquently of the variability of spelling in the age than the fact that a dictionary published in 1604, A Table Alphabeticall of Hard Words, spelled “words” two ways on the title page.

Of course, it just goes to show that the language has been evolving apace for many hundreds of years. Indeed, despite the naysayers it is happening much slower now than it was back in Shakespeare’s day. I can imagine that back then there were people (perhaps among the upper, educated, classes) who complained that artists such as he were mangling the language, and doing things the wrong way, although the attitude towards English was reasonably fluid then, thanks to Latin and French being considered ‘proper’. Surely, as time went on, and English took hold first in business and legal matters, and later in the sciences, that there have been people unwilling to accept change, even as it occurs around them. Nothing has changed in that respect, I imagine, it’s just that now they have access to the internet – and a world full of people reading their opinions. Hopefully, it won’t impede the progress overly. Much as I still cringe a little at “truthiness”, “coopetition” and “incentivise”, I am completely capable of embracing the words that I like – “blogosphere” is one of my favourites, along with “jumping the shark” and “backronym”. It’s only a matter of time before the language evolves to the point that our grandchildren will be almost incomprehensible, and Shakespeare’s scribblings will have taken another step towards total obscurity.

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linux.conf.au 2012 Call for presentations!

linux.conf.au is the biggest Linux and open source conference in the southern hemisphere, and rightfully so! I was a speaker at the conference last year in Brisbane (the video is on my videos page) and had a great time.

This year it’s being held in Ballarat, Victoria, and I must say I’m quite looking forward to finding out what a regional LCA is like. Anyway, the CFP is open, I’ll be submitting again, and I suggest you do too. More details on the LCA website.

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The Grass is Greener on The Open Side

The Grass is Greener on the Open Side

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Oh my, here we go again. Another open source advocate banging on about freedom”. Well, yeah, I have to admit to at least a little bit of truth in that. Open source advocates do like to talk about morals, and they do like to say things about open source being ‘good for society’ and how it’s the ‘way of the future’. Most of all, though, open source advocates like to bang on a lot about ‘freedom’. But I’m not your average open source advocate. Every tech writer has their favourite program to use, and in many cases you don’t get a choice about which one that is. I’m not going to tell you that you shouldn’t be using those programs, and I’m not going to tell you to go to your boss and tell them that you’re not going to be using those freedom-hating platforms any more. It’s just not practical. I will tell you to use whatever works for you. If there is a program that you use that ticks all your boxes – that does absolutely everything you need it to do, then by all means go ahead and use it. All I want you to do is to be aware of the alternatives, and to understand the differences between them. That way, you’re making an informed choice about the software you use, and the way you interact with technology.

Freedom, and how it relates to beer

So, I said I wasn’t going to bang on about freedom, but I do need to mention it, if only to straighten out some of the terms I’ll be using. Freedom gets mentioned a lot when discussing open source software, and thanks to Wikileaks there are a lot of nonsense phrases doing the rounds right now like “information wants to be free”. I would like to explain what we actually mean when we talk about open source software being ‘free’. As I’m sure you’re all painfully aware, English can be a bit confusing sometimes, and we quite frequently come across words that have two or three different meanings, depending on the context it’s used in. The English word ‘free’ is a perfect example. We can steal two words from the Romance languages to describe the different ways we use ‘free’ in English. First of all, a word I’m sure you all know and love, is ‘gratis’. The word ‘gratis’ means free of charge, or without cost. The other word is ‘libre’ which means the state of being free, or of having liberty. There’s a much easier way to illustrate this concept though.

We all know that the best beer is the beer you don’t have to pay for. That is, it’s beer that is ‘gratis’, or free of charge. We can refer to software as being ‘free as in beer’ when we mean that it doesn’t cost any money to use. This is the type of ‘free’ that is being used when we discuss freeware, which you’ve probably all come across before. Freeware is free as in beer, but it has its catch: you still need to read and agree to the end user license agreement in order to use it, and you won’t be allowed to change the way the program works, or create any add-ons or extras, such as documentation or translations. In many cases, freeware can only be installed on personal networks, not business ones, and there are quite often restrictions on how easy it is to share the program too.

When we talk about the ‘libre’ sense of free, we say ‘free as in freedom’ or ‘free as in speech’. Essentially, when we talk about freedom with open source software, this is the freedom we mean. It’s the freedom to see the nuts and bolts of the software you’re using, the freedom to make changes and share them with your friends, the freedom to take the code and use it in your own project, and the freedom to suggest and submit changes to the code itself, or the stuff that wraps around the program, like the documentation. It is also possible to have software that is free as in freedom, but isn’t free as in beer, too.

Have you got a licence for that thing?

So before we move on there’s one other term I’d like to straighten out: pirates. My entire network at home was set up using free software – that’s free as in beer, it didn’t cost me a cent. However, I’m not a pirate (and that’s not just because I don’t have a wooden leg and a parrot). Every piece of software I use in my home network is open source and was obtained perfectly legally.

This is because the free-as-in-freedom and the free-as-in-beer is written into the license agreement for the software I use. You’re probably familiar with the End User License Agreement (EULA). That’s the bit that you have to agree to when you install closed-source software. It’s usually a big long chunk of text, all written in legalese, and we all ignore it and hit “I agree” to continue. Open source software doesn’t use a EULA, but it does have a license. The license works in more or less the same way as a EULA, except instead of saying “You may not sell, license or distribute copies of the software” it says something more like “you can use this software free of charge, as long as you keep it that way”. In other words, if I wanted to pay for it, or I wanted to sell it to my friends, I would be breaking the agreement, in the same way that giving away copies of Microsoft Office for free would be breaking the EULA. There are lots of different open source licenses, but they all work in much the same way, with only minor differences between them. The main one is the GNU General Public License, which is referred to as the GPL. The main restriction on the GPL is that whatever you do with the code, it needs to include a copy of the GPL with it. And that’s really as scary as it gets. I could go on at length about licensing, but there’s probably another whole article in there, so let’s move along.

Decision time!

Consider you’re in the market for a new bit of software. Often your purchase decision will come down to features, and if one option has the features you need and the other one doesn’t, then by all means go ahead and install the software that has all the bells and whistles you require. Provided you agree to the terms of the license or the EULA, and you pay whatever is requested, then there’s no problem. But what about when the features are equal, and the differences come down to licenses and cost? Most of the big name software will cost you money in some form or another for the full version. After you’ve paid your money the product is yours though, right? Wrong. The software company can decide to change the software whenever they want. You would have all seen this happen on your Windows machines. You agreed to a EULA when you installed it, but Windows gets new updates every other day. Got any idea what’s in those updates? No, nor do most people. We need to trust that the big software companies are going to do right by us, and in most cases that’s not difficult to do. They’re big companies with millions of users, and if they tried anything nasty, we’d probably know about it. So that’s a risk most of us are perfectly willing to take.

>So you’ve paid your money, you’ve got your software, and you’ve been happily working away with it for a while. Then someone sends you a file that you can’t open, because it was created with a newer version of the software. All of a sudden, you realise that your old version doesn’t have the features that the new version has got. So what do you do? You have to upgrade. Which costs more again. Once again, you click through the EULA, agree to it, pay your money, and you’re off again. You’re probably very familiar with this process.

Now, what happens if you don’t like something about the program, or if you discover a bug in the program – something that doesn’t work properly? For the most part, you probably shrug it off. There’s not much you can do about it. What about the documentation? We’ve all come across laughably bad documentation, hopefully you weren’t the author of too much of it. What happens when the documentation for your piece of software doesn’t describe things properly? Or doesn’t include information you need? Have you ever thought “Gee, I could write that so much better”. If you’re multi-lingual, have you ever wished that a company would provide documentation in a different language? Have you ever wanted to create a guide that covers a situation you use every day, and you think others would find it useful too? You can’t do any of that stuff with closed source software, because the EULA specifically forbids it. The only way to be able to make those changes would be to go and get a job at Adobe or Microsoft. And while I’m sure we’d all love to land a position like that, unfortunately for most of us it’s not horribly likely.

So let’s look at the alternative. Most open source software will cost you nothing, it’s free as in beer as well as free as in freedom. You would go to the website, pick the version you want, and you’re off. If you need help, you can check out the embedded help, or the official documentation on the site, just like with any other program. And if you don’t like either of those options, there are heaps of other places to get help: wikis, forums, chat channels, numerous blogs and websites. You could also go to an open-source manual website, like flossmanuals.net and find out if someone else has written a full guide. And what about problems or bugs? The first thing to do is to search the web, it’s possible that someone else has come across the issue and has already found a solution. If not, then get in contact with the developers – all open source projects will have a number of ways to do this – and let them know about it. They’ll probably ask you for some more details about the problem so that they can get it fixed, and then they’ll go right ahead and fix it for you.

The other fun part is if you think you have something to add. If you’re a programmer, and you’d like to write a new feature, or fix a bug, you can do that. If you’re a writer, and you want to improve the documentation, or you want to do a translation, then you can do that too. In those cases, you will usually be welcomed with open arms and given everything you need to get started. And that’s because open source software is not developed by a group of paid engineers in an office block, but by people like you and me. It’s created by a community, and anyone who wants to be a part of that community and work to improving the software they’re using will always be welcome. Of course, you don’t have to contribute to a project, though, if you don’t want to. You can also just download and use it, just as you would with any other software.

Arguments, naturally

Of course there are arguments both for and against open and closed-source software. Most of them on both sides are reasonably valid. One of the main ones is that closed source stuff is usually more stable than open source, because they have a room full of developers who are paid to fix bugs and write features. This is interesting, because in some cases it’s true. But to be a fair comparison, you can’t really compare the stability of Word against the stability of a project that was created by two guys in their garage for their three friends to use. If you want to compare them fairly, compare the stability of Microsoft Word to the stability of Open Office, which is an open source project by Oracle and is supported by IBM, amongst others, and has been around for over 10 years. Neither of these projects are likely to go away any time soon. The other side of the coin is the little software development groups. Anyone can produce software and sell it, and if those little shops go bust you end up with an unsupported product. That doesn’t change whether it’s open or closed source. The difference is that with open source, because the code is available to anyone who wants to look at it, there’s at least a chance that someone at some point will pick up the code and have another bash at it. That’s never going to happen with closed source projects, simply because the licensing doesn’t allow it to happen.

I’m still not sold

The good news is that you don’t need to be totally sold on either open or closed source software. You don’t have to go totally one way or the other. Because open source software is free to use, and easy to get, you can go ahead and download any number of programs, just to see if you like them. And if you feel like making a contribution to the program, or joining the community around your favourite program, then go ahead and do that too. The great part is that you can install and use open source software anywhere you want, and use closed source software in exactly the same way. They will happily co-exist on the same system.

It’s not just about the freedom

I said right at the beginning that a lot of open source advocates bang on a lot about freedom, and I guess that in a lot of ways they’re right. Freedom really is a big part of open source, and explains a lot of why it’s awesome. But I think there’s something more to it. It’s not just about the freedom, it has a lot more to do with the community. Whenever you get group of people together with a common goal in mind, they can achieve just about anything. When the goal of that group is freedom, then I think that the world can really only become a better place because of it.

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This article was originally a web seminar for the Society of Technical Communicators. Since then, I have also presented it for the Canberra Society of Editors. It was longer as a speech, but had fewer funny bits.

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A shortened version of this article was published in Words: A Quarterly Bulletin for Technical Writers and Communicators. Volume 3, Issue 2: May 2011

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Taking a Walk on the Open Side

Tonight, I gave a talk about Open Source for the Canberra Society of Editors (who invite the ACT branch of the Society of Technical Communicators, of which I am a member). There was a reasonable crowd, who all seemed interested and who asked lots of questions. It is always satisfying to give a talk and to see a light go on in people’s eyes, see that spark of something flash in their faces as they learn something new, think about something in a different way, or experience a different perspective. That, my friends, is what makes it all worth it.

This talk wasn’t recorded, unfortunately, so I won’t be providing video, but I can tempt you with my slide deck. Unfortunately, my slide decks don’t tend to have many words on them, so you might not learn much, but there are lots of pretty pictures. And if you were present at the discussion tonight, thanks for coming, and I hope you found some inspiration. Please feel free to drop a note in the comments if you’re after more information about anything.

If you do want to know more, there is a fairly severely shortened version of it in this month’s edition of Words. I’ll put the full text of that up here in the next few days, or you could head over to their website and check it out there.

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Rule 16 of the Internet

In her introduction to the 1994 edition of “Damned Whores and God’s Police”, the wonderful Anne Summers wrote “I believe that to address these questions [of women’s struggle for equality] adequately, a new book is needed and I hope that someone, somewhere, right now is hatching another ‘big book’, a sweeping feminist perspective on contemporary Australia, because we need another interpretation, a new perspective … We need new voices, and new visions.”

 

I read those words for the first time in 2003. I had gotten married that year, and was busy falling pregnant. I gave birth to my daughter early in 2004, and settled neatly into my new found role as wife and mother. I helped in my husband’s business as a secretary and book-keeper and cooked healthy and satisfying meals for my family from the Women’s Weekly. I kept the house clean, my husband’s shirts ironed, and my baby’s bottom dry. Sometimes when the baby was asleep I would write short stories to amuse myself that I never shared with anyone. Occasionally, my feminist best friend would call me on the phone, we’d chat, and at some point she’d laugh and say “you are the typical housewife. You’ve turned into your mother”. Of course I hadn’t, I scoffed back. I had a job, my child went to daycare three days a week. This being the epitome of working motherhood to me. That, and all the associated guilt that came with it that Ita Buttrose (“Motherguilt: Australian Women Reveal Their True Feelings About Motherhood”) and her ilk told me was right and proper that I should be feeling. I had read Greer’s “The Female Eunuch” and Summers’ “Damned Whores and God’s Police”. I thought I understood the issues, and I empathised with the few feminists I had met. What I didn’t understand was why they had to be so angry about it all the time. They were missing the point. We had come so far, already. We didn’t have to worry about getting the vote, or equal pay for equal work, or sexual freedom. We had all that. What more did they want? Really?

 

Four years later, I found myself celebrating the second anniversary of my divorce with a melancholy kindergartner torn between two homes. At the age of 27 I had finally discovered that it was possible to have a job that I enjoyed and that also paid the bills, and it was the only thing keeping me sane. I started watching the world around me with jaded, cynical eyes, and writing down the things I saw. I found myself re-reading Anne Summers book, and her words sang away in the back of my mind. I dug further, craving more information, and gradually became familiar with the online world of hurting, angry, and pained feminist bloggers. I started reading what they wrote – not the vitriolic and accusatory words they used, but what they actually were trying to say. And when I cut through the verbiage, I heard one thing over and over again: Why is this still happening?

 

Feminism is now a dirty word. Efforts to achieve gender equality are encouraged to employ language that is less confronting and not quite so scary. Young women don’t want to be feminists any more, we’re told. Feminist rhetoric everywhere is beset by women commenting that the authors are beating dead horses, and they just wish we’d all stop talking about it already.

 

Where does this disconnect come from? Why was it that while I was fulfilling my role as a wife and mother that I thought we had equality? Why was it that not until I ventured into the online world did I discover this apparent lingering inequality in our society? I think it had to do with a number of different factors.

 

Perhaps the most glaring answer was that I was now viewing the world via the social web, rather than the mainstream media. My news was no longer filtered by what would sell newspapers and magazines, but by what people found interesting. The natural result of this of course is that when you read one feminist blog, it links to another so you read that one as well. That one might link to a few different articles, and another blog. Eventually, you find that your entire morning news consists of feminist ranting and not much else. That, in itself, had a lot to do with my perspective, but it didn’t fully explain whether the deception occurred in the years before I started reading blogs, or after.

 

I also wondered if it was because I now had access to individual and very personal accounts of sexism and inequality. These were stories being shared directly by victims. Prior to reading my first ever feminist blog, I had never been friends with anyone who had experienced anything so brutal, demeaning, and sometimes violent as these stories I was reading now. Was this a matter of statistics? It is entirely believable that the number of people recounting these acts were statistically insignificant, meaning the problem where it existed was truly horrifying, but probably not anything worth actually getting upset over, unless you were the victim of course. After all, there are a small percentage of people in the world that can only be considered sick fucks. We all know they exist, we do what we can to combat it legally and socially, and we all recognise that the whole of human society is not at all like that. This had a ring of truth about it too, but it was still hard to swallow as a complete answer.

 

Eventually, something came up in a conversation with a friend of mine. We were discussing geek culture, and how being a ‘geek’ suddenly had street cred and everyone wanted a piece of the action. Everywhere she turned, she was faced by people who had never done anything more with technology than log into Facebook, but they were suddenly branding themselves as a geek. Icons of geek culture – such as Star Wars, the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy series, Battlestar Galactica, and an overt interest in fonts – were being adopted in the most mainstream ways. It was enough to make HG Wells turn in his grave, she said. Suddenly, geek was the new black: everybody was making jokes involving hex codes, everyone had a Twitter account, and every photo of a cat had a poorly spelled caption. And that was when it hit me. It wasn’t that the internet had opened my eyes to sexism that had existed all along. It was that sexism existed on the internet in a way that it no longer existed in the rest of society. Online society reflected real life, but it was socially many significant steps in the past.

 

Internet culture has long been the stronghold of the uber-geek. Before MSN Messenger, Google, and Facebook made the internet accessible for everyone it took quite a lot of technical know-how to be able to get online in the first place, let alone find your way to online social groups and communities. Not everyone knew someone technically literate enough to get them online, and keep them there. Many people weren’t quite sure what they would do if they did get online. The internet was full of strongholds like USENET and IRC, inhabited by mathematicians, engineers, scientists and university students. They all spoke a special language comprised of acronyms, in-jokes, and slang that served to filter out the general public. For the most part, they were quite happy to keep it that way. I was at university in those days, so hanging out in an IRC channel or two was expected, but you didn’t dare speak up too loud, or wander into the wrong BBS, because it wouldn’t take long before you either showed your ignorance, or had some channel operator ask who you were and what you thought you were doing there. By keeping the riff-raff out of the networks, they were able to discuss their projects in detail without being bogged down by silly questions; they were able to monitor and filter what was said, and by whom. Although it was probably unintentional, these enclaves were also able to maintain the notion that they were part of an elite minority. They were the ones who ruled the internet – they would choose who could come, and they would choose who could stay. Overwhelmingly, the people who were making these decisions were male. It was not that they did not allow women in, so much that there were very few women who wanted in, or even knew about it. There weren’t that many women in their offline communities, so there were very few women invited into the newly developed online ones. So it was that with this technological leap forward into the early dotcom years, the skewed gender profile of generations of science and engineering labs filtered into the next great social revolution.

 

Acronyms and industry jargon have always been used to delineate those who are in the group from those who don’t belong. This is true in no place so obviously as the internet, particularly in those early days when internet access was just starting to creep into homes. Just like the offline world, outsiders have increasingly found themselves having to fight for acceptance into this culture. The technology that allowed access to all and sundry has, unfortunately, moved slower than the norms and rituals surrounding it. Which leads us to an interesting situation. Offline, women have achieved a lot in terms of gender equity. Sure, there is still work to be done, but for the most part women enjoy freedoms and equality that Germaine Greer and Anne Summers, when writing their seminal works, didn’t even have the words to describe. Online, however, is a different story. Rule 16 of the internet states: “There are no girls on the internet”.

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