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.

Growing up, or why I don’t really feel part of the community

I have said that I’ve been wrong multiple times in the past. Some of it has been buying too much into the BOFH myth. With this I mean that between reading UserFriendly and the Italian language Storie dalla Sala Macchine, I bought into the story that system administrators (which now you may want to call “ops people”) are the only smart set of eyes in an organization, and that most of other people have absolutely no idea what they are doing.

But over time I have worn many hats: I left high school with some basic understanding of system administration, and I proceeded working as a translator, a developer for autonomous apps in an embedded environment, I taught courses on debugging and development under Linux, and worked on even more embedded systems. While I have been self-employed as a sysadmin for hire (or to use a more buzzword-compliant term, as a MSP, a Managed Service Provider), I ended up working on media streaming software, as well as media players and entire services. I worked as a web developer, even in PHP for a very brief time, I wrote software for proprietary environment as well as Linux and other open source systems. In addition to my random musings on this blog, I wrote for more reputable publications. And I’m currently a so-called Site Reliability Engineer, and “look after” (but not really) highly distributed systems.

This possibly abnormal list of tasks, if not really occupations, has a clear upside: I can pass for a member of different groups relatively easily. For months I had people think that I was an EE student, at work a bunch of people thought I had previous experience with distributed systems, and of course at LISA I can talk my way around as if I was still a system administrator. Somehow I also manage to pass for a security person, because I have a personal interest in the topic and so I learnt a bunch of things about it, even though I have not worked or researched that officially.

On the other hand, this gives me a downside that, personally, is much heavier: impostor syndrome. In all those crowds, while I can probably hide within for a while, I’ll feel out of place. I have not used a soldering iron (or a breadboard) for years by now (although I’m working to fix that), and I have not really worked on much on the small discrete electronics for years — the last time I worked as a firmware engineer, it was for a system that had 8GB of RAM and an i7 Xeon. I don’t have the calculus skills to be an actual multimedia developer: I know my way through container formats, but I need someone else to write the codecs as I have no clue how to go to decode even the simplest encoding, well maybe except Huffman codes at this point.

So while I can camouflage in these groups, I can’t really find myself feeling as a real member of them.

You could say that the free software community should be something I’m more at my ease with, given I’ve been a developer for over fifteen years at this point, but there is are two big problems with it: the first is that I’m not a purist, I use proprietary software any time I feel it’s the best tool to do the task, and the second is that free software and privacy advocacy mix up too much nowadays, and my concept of privacy does not match that of the activists.

While at 33C3 I realized I don’t really match up to this crowd either, and not just for the privacy topic. I somehow have more respect for the rules than most of the people I see around here, though I still enjoy the hacking and breaking, so when the Twitter people starts complaining that Nintendo and PS4 exploits are not released, I find that a perfectly reasonable approach. After all, hiding behind outrage for blocking Linux on PS3 was the intention to pirate games, and that’s not something I’m happy to condone.

I have hang around a few of my previous acquaintances, and friends of theirs, while they were working on the CTF — and that was kind of cool, but that’s also not something I’m very interested in: while I can work m way around security problems, and know what to look out for, I don’t really like that kind of puzzle. Just like I don’t enjoy logic puzzles, or sudoku. I much enjoy Scrabble, though.

The evenings were the least interesting to me, too. Most of them included parties that revolve around alcohol, and you know I don’t care for it. Given that this is C3, I’m sure a number of other drugs involved too — I’m not an expert, but I can at this point tell the smell of weed quite clearly, and the conference centre was smelling more than Seattle. So effectively the only night I left after 10pm was the first, that only because Hector was talking at 11pm. (On the bright side, Hamburg makes procuring sugar free fritz-kola very easy.)

To stray away a bit from technology, I should add that even when going to non-software related conventions, such as EasterCon and Nine Worlds, I feel as an outsider there too. Much as I’m a fan of sci-fi and fantasy, and a would-be avid reader, I don’t have the time to read as much as I would like, and I’m clearly not tailored to be a cosplayer or a fanzine writer. And most of these events also involve a disproportionate amount of alcohol.

So why did I title this post “Growing up”? The answer is that acceptance comes with growing up. For some of the subcultures and groups I get myself sometimes in, but I know I won’t fit in. For some of them it’s because I don’t have the time to invest to join them properly, for instance while I would love to actually be an EE, I did not really go to university (two weeks don’t count) and going right now is not an option, I’m too old for this. And I would not be ready to compromise my ethics with regard to piracy or legality.

And, much as I understand people do enjoy those “responsibly”, I don’t really think that weed or any other drug would be something I care about using. I know how I feel when I’m not in control, and though that may be able to “relax” me enough to not be afraid of every single social interaction, it is not a pretty feeling afterwards. Even though there is a chance I’ll always feel isolated without one of those “social lubricants”.

Unfortunately this does mean that for many things, I’ll always be an outsider looking in, rather than an insider, which makes it difficult to drive change, for instance. But again, accepting that is part of growing up. So be it.

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.