Category Archives: Me

Why ‘Free and Open’ matters

Adobe is dropping Linux support for their Adobe AIR development platform. To be honest, I don’t really care. Why? Because I’ve been careful enough to not tie my efforts to a proprietary platform.

I’ve had several groups offer to write applications/activities for OLPC Australia using proprietary tools like AIR. I’ve discouraged them every time. Had we gone with the ‘convenient’ route and acquiesced, we would have been in quite a spot of bother right now. My precious resources would have to be spent on porting or rewriting all of that work, or just leaving it to bit-rot.

A beauty of Sugar and Linux is that they are not dependent on a single entity. We can develop with the confidence of knowing that our code will continue to work, or at least can be made to continue to work in the face of underlying platform changes. This embodies our Core Principle #5, Free and Open.

Free and Open means that children can be content creators. The television age relegated children (and everyone, for that matter) to just being consumers of content. I have very fond childhood memories of attempts to counter that, but those efforts pale in comparison to the possibilities afforded to us today by modern digital technologies. We now have the opportunity to properly enable children to be in charge of their learning. Education becomes active, not passive. There’s a reason why we refer to Sugar applications as activities.

Growing up in the 80s, my recollections are of a dynamic computing market. Machines like the ZX Spectrum and the early Commodore models inspired a generation of kids into learning about how computers work. By extension, that sparked interest in the sciences: mathematics, physics, engineering, etc.. Those machines were affordable and quite open to the tinkerer. My first computer (which from vague recollection was a Dick Smith VZ200) had only a BASIC interpreter and 4k of memory. We didn’t purchase the optional tape drive, so I had to type my programs in manually from the supplied book. Along the way, I taught myself how to make my own customisations to the code. I didn’t need to learn that skill, but I choose to take the opportunity presented to me.

Likewise, I remember (and still have in my possession, sadly without the machine) the detailed technical binders supplied with my IBM PC. I think I recognised early on that I was more interested in software, because I didn’t spend as much time on the supplied hardware schematics and documentation. However, the option was there, and I could have made the choice to get more into hardware.

Those experiences were very defining parts of my life, helping to shape me into the Free Software, open standards loving person I am. Being able to get involved in technical development, at whatever level of my choosing, is something I was able to experience from a very early age. I was able to be active, not just consume. As I have written about before, even the king of proprietary software and vendor lock-in himself, Bill Gates, has acknowledged a similar experience as a tipping point in his life.

With this in mind, I worry about the superficial solutions being promoted in the education space. A recent article on the BBC’s Click laments that children are becoming “digitally illiterate”. Most of the solutions proposed in the article (and attached video) are highly proprietary, being based on platforms such as Microsoft’s Windows and Xbox. The lone standout appears to be the wonderful-looking Raspberry Pi device, which is based on Linux and Free Software.

It is disappointing that the same organisation that had the foresight to give us the BBC Computer Literacy Project (with the BBC Micro as its centrepiece) now appears to have disregarded a key benefit of that programme. By providing the most advanced BASIC interpreter of the time, the BBC Micro was well suited to education. Sophisticated applications could be written in an interpreted language that could be inspected and modified by anyone.

Code is like any other form of work, whether it be a document, artwork, music or something else. From a personal perspective, I want to be able to access (read and modify) my work at any time. From an ethical perspective, we owe it to our children to ensure that they continue to have this right. From a societal perspective, we need to ensure that our culture can persevere through the ages. I have previously demonstrated how digital preservation can dramatically reduce the longevity of information, comparing a still-legible thousand-year-old book against its ‘modern’ laserdisc counterpart that became virtually undecipherable after only sixteen years. I have also explained how this problem presents a real and present danger to the freedoms (at least in democratic countries) that we take for granted.

Back in the world of code, at least, things are looking up. The Internet is heading towards HTML5/JavaScript, and even Microsoft and Adobe are following suit. This raises some interesting considerations for Sugar. Maybe we need to be thinking of writing educational activities in HTML5, like those at tinygames? Going even further, perhaps we should be thinking about integrating HTML5 more closely into the Sugar framework?

I’ll finish with a snippet from a speech given by US President Obama in March (thanks to Greg DeKoenigsberg for bringing it to the attention of the community):

We’re working to make sure every school has a 21st-century curriculum like you do. And in the same way that we invested in the science and research that led to the breakthroughs like the Internet, I’m calling for investments in educational technology that will help create digital tutors that are as effective as personal tutors, and educational software that’s as compelling as the best video game. I want you guys to be stuck on a video game that’s teaching you something other than just blowing something up.

Lew Zealand

Yes, this is quite belated. I’ll explain why in a subsequent post.

linux.conf.au this year was in Wellington, New Zealand. It just keeps getting better! It’s always great meeting people you otherwise only know online. I was especially impressed by the OLPC NZ team.

Immediately following linux.conf.au, I jumped on a plane to Christchurch to embark on a week-long tour of the South Island. Long story short, it was the time of my life! I made some amazing friends. I also saw and did incredible things, including:

  • awe-inspiring views of glaciers, glacially-formed landscapes, turquoise-coloured rivers and lakes, beautiful skies and more
  • helihike: a helicopter trip onto a glacier, then hiking on it
  • a night on a boat on Milford Sound, probably the most beautiful place on Earth
  • every extreme activity I could get my hands on, including:

I have most of my photos online now:

I think what surprised me most was how adventurous I can be when I’m not in my ‘natural habitat’. I’m not normally a thrillseeker at all, but in NZ I made the decision to take a holiday from myself as well as from work and home. I even made a concerted effort to not touch computers at all. My phone was offline for most of the trip (I was using it as a camera). I never thought that being cut-off could feel so liberating.

A bit of corporate indulgence…

Apologies for pimping my employer, but I became the subject of the inaugural ‘Meet the Team‘ portion of the BizCubed newsletter.

It’s a good feeling knowing that you work for a company that actually cares about open source and open standards. For example, we sponsored the Government 2.0 event in Canberra last week.

For the sake of posterity, I’ll reproduce the interview here:

Meet The Team — Sridhar Dhanapalan

We are more than a consulting company – we are a great team! In this section we will be introducing one member of our team in each newsletter.Sridhar Dhanapalan

What do you do at BizCubed?

I make sure that our Support subscribers are receiving legendary service. We like to be an open company, and so knowledge sharing is important to us. I write a lot of documentation on our wiki for the benefit of the Pentaho community.

Internally, I ensure that our team is properly enabled with any information or infrastructure that they need. I take care of our servers and deployments. I also do the occasional development of BI solutions. It’s a varied role — I never have a reason to be bored!

What attracts you to open source BI?

It seems incongruous that while we demand transparency from, for instance, our political systems and financial institutions, they rely on software that is opaque.

Processes and organisations cannot be thoroughly audited if the software that drives them is closed. I also believe that in using open source and open standards, you are showing respect for your users and customers. Your users can see what you see; touch what you touch. They can inspect and interrogate to their heart’s content, and even make their own modifications if they so wish. They may not opt to exercise those rights, but ultimately it’s their choice and not their vendor’s.

What were you doing before joining BizCubed?

I’ve been using computers since the early 1980s, and I discovered open source just over ten years ago. I’ve been fortunate enough to make a career out of it. I have a background in network engineering, satellite communications, systems administration and good ol’ fashioned tech support.

I completed university with a Science degree majoring in the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, which I feel gave me an appreciation for the intersection of technology and society. I think there should be more attention paid to this in ICT, and it’s an area I often encounter in the field of BI.

Do you work with any projects other than Pentaho?

I’ve been very active in the open source community over the past ten years. For the first half of this decade, I was an administrator, editor and author at what was at the time the largest Mandrake (now Mandriva) Linux community Web site.

I’m currently the president of the Sydney Linux Users Group and also on the Linux Australia Council. Through those, I organise and co-ordinate meetings and events for the Australian Linux community. Other than that, I’m involved in the Ubuntu community, One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), the Grameen Foundation and a few other projects.

What do you do in your spare time?

My open source contributions take up the bulk of my non-work hours. I read a lot of news and current affairs, and I’ve been known to go on Wikipedia binges. Other than that, I spend time with family and friends.

What is Linux Australia?

This is a follow-on from my last post, where I announced my candidacy for Linux Australia Council. I’ve posted this to the linux-aus mailing list, but thought it wouldn’t hurt going here as it raises issues that I feel are fundamental to Linux Australia’s existence.

I’m a candidate for Ordinary Committee Member (shouldn’t that be Ordinary Council Member now?). Before I repeat the spiel I made on the Elections page, I’d like to talk about what I feel LA represents in out community. There’s the obvious linux.conf.au, which proves year-after-year to be a world-class conference. Linux Australia represents the FOSS community throughout Australia (and going by LCA2006, perhaps also New Zealand in a way). It brings together the disparate groups throughout the country/region and gives them one voice. The community is thus able to be more influential as whole.

This leads into my original spiel, where I extoled the values of scalability in our community. Through enhanced support of grass-roots groups, Linux Australia will be able to grow the community in a more sustainable manner..

One pattern I discovered when examining previous LA elections is the low voter turnout. On most years the total number (not percentage) of votes was around 65-70. Why is this the case? Do we need to be doing more to engage the community? Are we not well-known enough? Are we not transparent enough? These are issues that we should be addressing.

Shameless plug

The Linux Australia Council elections are in full swing, and I thought it only fair to abuse my blog to pimp my candidacy for an Ordinary Committee Member position. You’re an LA member (it’s free!), drop in and exercise your democratic right (i.e. vote for me :p ).

My official platform is as follows:

I have been participating in the FOSS community for over ten years. I have managed Linux Australia’s presences at CeBIT and the Education Expo. I have also represented LA at other events such as the Moodle Conference in 2006, and was the lead video encoder at the A/V Team at linux.conf.au 2007.

For the past two years I have been serving on the SLUG Committee (including one term as President), organising most of its meetings in that time and running events like Software Freedom Day.

A key focus of my efforts in the community over the past few years has been to foster co-operation between groups and contributors. As an Linux Australia Council member, I feel that I would be even more effective in this endeavour.

The wonderful thing about free software code development is that it can scale so well. I would like to see a similar level of scalability with the wider community outside of the coding realm. LA is uniquely positioned to provide the resources and support to enable community members and groups to achieve great things. The benefits of this are many-fold:

  • it makes it easier to engage, hence breaking down separations between contributors and users;
  • it grows the community of contributors;
  • it allows us to do more and better things on the whole; and
  • it aids to reduce dependence on a small group of actors, thereby addressing the ever-present danger of burn-out amongst contributors.

We must remember, however, that the ‘community’ is much larger than the membership of LA and LUGs. I have come across many people who are interested in some aspect of ‘Linux’ or ‘open source’ but know very little about LA or their local LUG. In many cases, their interests are more directly served by other groups, such as:

  • industry associations (e.g. OSIA)
  • language groups (Java, Python, etc.)
  • other operating systems groups (OpenSolaris, Mac OS, etc.)
  • standards bodies (IEEE, W3C, etc.)
  • computer clubs
  • groups devoted to a field (education, embedded, etc.)

LA has a fantastic community, but in the grand scheme of things it is but one of many. I hope – in an official Linux Australia capacity – to improve networking with these other organisations to grow the overall community and extend the reach of free and open source software to more sectors of society.

A fabulous fortnight

The last two weeks have been quite eventful. Each of these probably deserves its own blog post, but since I don’t have the time to write them all I’ll just give a summary.

Document Freedom Day, 26 March

The first annual Document Freedom Day (inspired by Software Freedom Day) was celebrated globally. In Sydney, the celebrations were hosted by Google at their offices, supported by the Internet Society of Australia and the Sydney Linux Users Group (SLUG). As the SLUG representative, I was asked to say a few words about our organisation and its relevance to document freedom. Not having time to prepare, I managed to ad-lib a speech, drawing on memories of what I had written before on the Domesday Book and Domesday Project. I’m not an experienced speaker, so I’m very glad that it came out well.

Senator Kate Lundy and David Vaile delivered great talks that made us think about openness of information and their importance to society. For the most part, we didn’t mention the war (which unfortunately has been lost), but there was no escaping acknowledgement of the Waughs. Anyone disillusioned at the state of politics in Australia ought to speak with Kate. Even after 12 years in parliament, she is still inspiring.

All in all, it was a fantastic night. Thanks to Alan Noble, Andrew McRae and the other folks at Google for making it happen. Andrew and Sarah Maddox have written good summaries of the evening.

I would have loved to have taken Kate up on her invitation to join her ‘Foundations of Open: Technology and Digital Knowledge‘ local 2020 Summit, but alas a trip to Canberra for one day was a bit much. I’m glad to see it all went well, though.

Sydney Linux Users Group Annual General Meeting, 28 March

What can I say? Thanks to everyone in SLUG who supported my candidacy for the role of President. The new Committee looks like a great mix of talents, and we already have some good ideas in the pipeline. The next twelve months is looking to be exciting indeed.

We had the first gathering of the new Committee on Sunday. It was a handover meeting, with the old Committee members present to pass on their wisdom and experience to the new. My sincere gratitude goes to the departing Committee members. I feel truly honoured to have worked with them over this past year.

Australian Open Source Industry & Community Report 2008 launch event, 1 April

Free software and free beer! It appears that with FOSS, you can have your cake and eat it too 😉

Note: there was no cake — but there were Iced Vo Vos! Sweet!

It’s great to finally have some authoritative statistics to back our cause. Common myths were dispelled, and we had confirmation of things that seemed so obvious to us but might have been less so for others.

BarCamp Sydney, 5-6 April

BarCamp 3 was notable for expansion to two days of revelry. The venue migrated from UTS for the first two BarCamps to the UNSW Roundhouse for the third, which despite the longer commute I feel was a good move. Attendance did seem thinner than in previous years. This was probably due to visitors spread over a larger venue and across two days. One thing I like about BarCamp is that I get contact with people and ideas that I otherwise wouldn’t notice from FOSS gatherings like SLUG. BarCamp has considerably more proprietary software developers and entrepreneurs. Less Google, more Microsoft. As much as I love FOSS, I do like to see what’s happening in the rest of the ICT universe.

I made an effort this time to attend talks that were less technical and more business or personal development oriented. Stand-out speakers included Nick Hodge, Matt Moore and Richard Hayes.

Perhaps the highlight was the Saturday evening. Mike from Atlassian led us through a few rounds of Werewolf, a variation (and an improvement, IMHO) of the classic Mafia game. I still can’t believe that we didn’t deplete the bar tab that Mike set up for us. We’ll have to have SLUG’s DebSIG present at BarCamp 4 😉

LotD: OpenOffice.org en masse in NSW schools!