elliot's blog


I installed Nvu today, as I've been reformatting a document from OpenOffice.org word processor format to HTML, and it's been painful using a combination of gedit (which I hate, by the way), the Kupu editor in our Plone content management system, and the online version of HTML tidy. So far, Nvu has been great, and does what it's supposed to (WYSIWYG web page editing). I haven't taxed it much, but so far it's an improvement on manual HTML coding. I used a version bundled for Ubuntu which some helpful soul has built (it's not been properly packaged for Ubuntu apt yet), but you can probably get a version from the main Nvu site.

Barry Malzberg

Barry Malzberg is a great science fiction writer. I've been reading Dwellers of the Deep, about a science fiction fan who is periodically abducted from earth, so that the aliens can try to persuade him to give him a copy of one of the magazines he collects. The dark atmosphere of helplessness is palpable, and it has the hallmark delirious rush of words I associate with his work. A nice quotation which gives a flavour of his work is this one:

Most of contemporary existence [...] is indeed a bad working draft of reality.

He really ought to be better known. Unfortunately, I think most of his 75 novels (he was very prolific in the seventies) and short story collections are out of print, though the better known ones crop up in second hand book shops quite a bit.

SourceForge upgraded

Is it just me, or is SourceForge actually usable these days? They've been doing hardware upgrades, which seems to be paying off. Also looking forward to their Subversion service (it pains me to say it, but CVS has always been a bit too arcane for me to grasp).

iPod Shuffle

I heard about the release of the SourceLabs AMP stack through some news site, and thought I'd go and have a look at what they've done with it. I have a professional and personal interest in the idea of software stacks, and their potential as a foundation for an open source business. Anyway, the stack itself installed with no problems, and presented me with a fairly straightforward LAMP installation, no frills. Pretty good, but I won't be swapping it for XAMPP any time soon.

More interesting, though, was SourceLabs' "maven" competition, where they are giving prizes for the best forum entries about their stack. I thought I'd post something to the forum about my experiences installing the stack on Ubuntu, on the off-chance I might win. The prizes were a weekly one of a DVD of Spinal Tap and an iPod Shuffle, with a grand prize of a Marshall amp which "goes up to eleven", in homage to Spinal Tap's guitarist Nigel Tuffnel (get it? AMP, amp). So I sent in my forum posting and crossed my fingers.

About a week later, much to my surprise and delight, I got an email telling me I'd won the weekly prize! I only really wanted the DVD (Spinal Tap is close to being my all-time favourite film), as I already have a 40Gb MP3 player, but thought I could give the iPod to Nicola (my wife). I received both prizes this week. The DVD: great. The iPod Shuffle: the task of getting it working with Linux soon reared its ugly head.

Well, it turns out that there are two main programs for working with an iPod from Linux: Gtkpod and Gnupod. The former is a GUI interface, which sort of looked like it worked, but then turned out to not support the Shuffle; the latter is a command line Perl script, which does support the Shuffle, though it is a bit arduous. I built Gnupod from source, after installing the necessary Perl XML libraries via apt-get on Ubuntu. It works like a charm, but I can't see Nicola getting to grips with it. I may have to resign myself to the duty of adding new tracks when she wants them, until Gtkpod supports the Shuffle (promised in the next release). At least Gnupod works, though.

Back from abroad

My trip to OSBC went well, and the conference was very enjoyable. I plan to write a report for my organisation's website, once I get round to it. I also have a ton of photos to put online, as I got a chance to have a look round San Francisco before the conference, and did some exploring. It's a great city. Busy this week, as I have a seminar to give this evening, and a training course on Thursday and Friday, so might have to wait until the weekend.

OpenOffice.org 2.0 and FOSS

OpenOffice.org 2.0 has increased its dependency on Java. For example, one of the key killer features in the new version is an Access-like database called Base; this is built on top of HSQLDB, which is a Java database. The problem is: Java is not open source, which means it isn't included in pure open source distributions like Debian. So distributions have several options:

  • Don't ship with OpenOffice.org. This is the stance taken by Slackware.
  • Ship OpenOffice.org with Java features disabled. Debian have gone this route in the past.
  • Attempt to get the Java features running using an open source Java (e.g. GCJ). RedHat has taken this approach.
  • Ship full versions of OpenOffice and Java. Commercial distributions like Suse have done this before.

But all these strategies are less than optimal. It would be a shame to see the adoption of OpenOffice stall because of licensing, or because it cannot be installed as a standalone product (instead requiring a separate JVM download). I'm hoping that Sun will eventually see the light and open source Java: we've already seen applets fail, and J2EE floundering in the face of LAMP, and I'd hate to see OpenOffice suffer for the same reasons. For Java to reach its full potential, it needs to be included in every distribution, the same way Python and PHP are. This requires a proper open source license so it can penetrate into every open source developer's toolkit.

Microsoft's Grand Plan To Go Vertical

Microsoft is planning to shift its focus to vertical markets (solutions) rather than horizontal ones (products), according to this article. Perhaps Bill has realised he won't be able to sell many software licenses in a few years' time, as open source penetrates further into other parts of the software market (moving out of the server room and onto desktops).

Technical support for the neighbours

This story from the BBC describes an experiment to find out how much work there is in computer repairs and who's doing it. The author found that his phone never stopped ringing once his advert went up in the local newsagent's, and is dismayed at the number of people who are reliant on "unqualified amateurs" to "fix the most complicated pieces of equipment that have probably ever existed". Well, at least if I'm ever out of work, I could put up a card in the local shop.

Open source cars

The GPL has played a significant role in a US court case, and has stood up to scrutiny. Drew Technologies, Inc., a Michigan Engineering firm, developed some software under the GPL; later, their work was "claimed as a copyrighted work" by the Society of Automotive Engineers (standards organisation for the automotive industry). The case ended up in court because the SAE was trying to charge Drew Technologies to use the very technology they had developed, claiming that the software was "an unauthorized 'derivative work' of an in-progress technical standard of the SAE".

To sum up: Drew Technlogies won the case, and retain the right to publish their software under the GPL. The full story is at the link included above.

As mentioned in the article, the wider issue is the right of consumers to have "open" cars. Cars are getting so computerised that the only people who can fix them are the dealers for that brand of car. If the software and standards which the car depends on can be copyrighted or made into trade secrets, the situation can only get worse. The Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association has the right idea with support for the Vehicle Owner's Right to Repair act: this "prevents vehicle manufacturers and others from unfairly restricting access to the information and tools necessary to accurately diagnose, repair, re-program or install automotive replacement parts".

I think it's about time we saw something similar for software. This week's Computer Weekly has an article (p.18) about escrow agreements between customers and software suppliers, which stresses the importance of source code being available to a firm if their supplier goes out of business. In effect, firms need a Right to Repair their software if their supplier disappears. Perhaps regulations like Sarbanes-Oxley will encourage firms to insist on their suppliers open sourcing code which is vital to their business.

Feral Robotic Dogs

Marvellous. Hacking toy robot dogs to sniff out chemical contaminants. They even plan to unleash a pack "into the wild".

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