I No Longer Support FSFE

This post replaced a technical post that is now scheduled for some time in January, but for once, breaking news took precedence, and given my past writing on the topic, I thought I should state this explicitly as soon as possible.

You may remember that I have, many times, singled out FSFE (Free Software Foundation Europe) from FSF (Free Software Foundation — the original one). They (used to) have a positive attitude to Free Software, contrasting the “attack ads” strategy of their USA-based peers, and that alone set them aside in my views. And despite me having had doubts at times, I thought that active, positive engagement such as Public Money, Public Code, and REUSE were worth ignoring other “side projects” that I would disagree with, when it comes to Cloud solutions.

Well, today something entirely different (and yet something that didn’t surprise me) came to light:

Edit: you can also read the long form text, which is definitely easier to read through than the images.

I have no reason to disbelief this summary. I never interacted with Matthias face to face – though we have exchanged polite email before – so I cannot reconcile this with his character, but a significant bias against foreigners in the FSFE? Yeah I don’t need to stretch my mind to accept that.

Indeed I have twice raised my concerns with FSFE about how much focus was given to German issues overall, compared to more Free Sofware related issues. Both times I ended up not publicly ranting about this because of the Public Money, Public Code project (once because I was told it was coming, and the second time because it actually was announced), despite fairly unconvincing arguments that felt like “Well, it’s not my fault that it’s mostly Germans who get involved.”

While I would have loved to be involved more myself, there were problems with that. The first being that, since my previous employer was nearly directly targeted by one of their campaigns, it would be a difficult conflict to solve. The other being that, in an all too common play in Free Software community, there’s been a purity test on how to engage — in-person meetings are obviously not the easiest to attend, and with the strict constraints of privacy, finding a proper medium for discussion is always hard.

This is not to move the attention over from gama’s story — but to show that the attitude of “Yeah, there’s a problem, but can’t really fix it, can we?” in that story is not a surprise to me, and I can totally accept it.

And given the way their peer organizations in the USA and Latin America have been behaving over the past few years, particularly in defending Stallman’s behaviour as if he was a religious leader, and the still strong connections between them, I guess it’s time I publicly distance myself from FSFE – just as much as I did over the years with FSF — which fits with having been called an “enemy of Free Software” before.

I guess this is yet another community I don’t belong to, being a fan of nuance, and seeing that there’s a lot of good coming out of things that are not perfect. On both sides.

Languages, native speakers, culture

People who follow me probably know already that I’m not a native English speaker. Those who don’t but will read this whole post will probably notice it by the end of it, just by my style, even if I were not to say it right at the start as I did.

It’s not easy for me and it’s often not easy for my teammates, especially so when they are native speakers. It’s too easy for the both of us to underestimate or overestimate, at the same time sometimes, how much information we’re conveying with a given phrase.

Something might sounds absolutely rude in English to a native speaker, but when I was forming my thought in my head it was intended to be much softer, even kind. Or the other way around: it might be actually quite polite in English, and my interpretation of it would be, to me, much ruder. And this is neither an easy or quick problem to solve, I have been working within English-based communities for a long while – this weblog is almost ten years old! – and still to this day the confusion is not completely gone.

It’s interestingly sometimes easier to interact with other non-native speakers because we realize the disconnect, but other times is even harder because one or the other is not making the right amount of effort. I find it interestingly easier to talk with speakers of other Latin languages (French, Spanish, Portuguese), as the words and expressions are close enough that it can be easy to port them over — with a colleague and friend who’s a native French speaker, we got to the point where it’s sometimes faster to tell the other a word in our own language, rather than trying to go to English and back again; I promised him and other friends that I’ll try to learn proper French.

It is not limited to language, culture is also connected: I found that there are many connections between Italian culture and Balkan, sometimes in niches that nobody would have expected it to creep up, such as rude gestures — the “umbrella gesture” seems to work just as good for Serbs as it does for Italians. This is less obvious when interacting with people exclusively online, but it is something useful when meeting people face to face.

I can only expect that newcomers – whether they are English speakers who have never worked closely with foreigners, or people whose main language is not English and who are doing their best to communicate in this language for the first time – to have a hard time.

This is not just a matter of lacking grammar or dictionary: languages and societal customs are often interleaved and shape each other, so not understanding very well someone else’s language may also mean not understanding their society and thus their point of view, and I would argue that points of view are everything.

I will make an example, but please remember I’m clearly not a philologist so I may be misspeaking, please be gentle with me. Some months ago, I’ve been told that English is a sexist language. While there wasn’t a formal definition or reasoning for why stating that, I’ve been pointed at the fact you have to use “he” or “she” when talking about a third party.

I found this funny: not only in Italian you have to do so when talking about a third party, but you have to do so when talking about a second party (you) and even about a first party (me) — indeed, most adjectives and verbs require a gender. And while English can cop-out with the singular “they”, this does not apply to Italian as easily. You can use a generic, plural “you”, but the words still need a gender — it usually become feminine to match “your persons”.

Because of the need for a gender in words, it is common to assume the male gender as a “default” in Italian; some documentation, especially paperwork from the public administration, will use the equivalent of “he/she” in the form of “signore/a”, but it becomes cumbersome if you’re writing something longer than a bank form, as every single word needs a different suffix.

I’m not trying to defend the unfortunate common mistake to assume a male gender when talking about “the user” or any other actor in a discussion, but I think it’s a generally bad idea to assume that people have a perfect understanding of the language and thus assign maliciousness when there is simple naïve ignorance, as was the case with Lennart, systemd and the male pronouns. I know I try hard to use the singular “they”, and I know I fall short of it too many times.

But the main point I’m trying to get across here is that yes, it’s not easy, in this world that becomes more and more small, to avoid the shocking contrast of different languages and cultures. And it can’t be just one side accommodating to this, we all have to make an effort, by understanding the other side’s limit, and by brokering among sides that would be talking past each other anyway.

It’s not easy, and it takes time, and effort. But I think it’s all worth it.

Book (short) Review: Open Advice

Open Advice is a collection of essays edited by Lydia Pintscher which me and Luca (and the rest of the libav trolls developers) have heard of at last FOSDEM. I’ve downloaded it directly I came home, but I forgot about it as I was finishing the other books first… I remembered about it when I noticed I had it already on the Kindle, and then finally got a hold of reading it last week. I was actually hoping to write this review earlier but work came first (is it Friday already? Gee!).

Honestly, considering I didn’t catch the whole presentation at FOSDEM, I was expecting a more “community oriented” book, knowing Lydia, but instead I was (pleasantly) surprised that it encompass a much wider range of issues, all with the common thread of things well-known and well-placed developers would have liked to know when they started.

While for most people who have been involved for a long enough time there isn’t much new to know for, it’s helpful to remind yourself that people are not born with the knowledge, and to contribute properly to a project, they need to know what the “proper” way are. I think this is the kind of book that LUGs should keep around for the newcomers, and that they should suggest when people want to take a more proactive role.

Out of all the essays of the various authors, the only one I couldn’t finish reading, because I was disagreeing with what seemed to be the main point of the topic, was Jono Bacon’s — and you can probably guess, why, if you’ve read it already.

I’m not sure if I can say much more, beside suggesting everybody to take a read to it, whether they are developers, contributors, users or just are interested in trying to take a few more steps into our world.