Sunday, October 9 2016

Back to basics: lessons from the founding fathers

It is sometimes important to stop for a second what we are doing, and ask ourselves some basic questions. Why are we here? What are we doing? Why are we doing it? What do we want to achieve?

In order to find the answers that best fit us, it is useful to look back at what were the answers given by other people that we respect.

In one of my cherished fields, Computer Science, a few examples shed some light, and I would like to share a few pointers, starting from an excerpt of a speech to HP managers, given in March 8, 1960, by Dave Packard.

He said:

I think many people assume, wrongly, that a company exists simply to make money. While this is an important result of a company's existence, we have to go deeper and find the real reasons for our being. As we investigate this, we inevitably come to the conclusion that a group of people get together and exist as an institution that we call a company so they are able to accomplish something collectively which they could not accomplish separately.

Yes, the sense of accomplishment is one strong feeling, and it can be more rewarding than the feeling of owning something like a hefty bank account.

Thursday, February 25 2016

A rule of thumb for assessing electronic voting systems

Electronic voting systems are now getting used more and more, and we are expected to be happy and see this fact as a sign of modernity, devoid of any danger. Supporters of electronic voting say we should trust these devices, because they they have been approved by experts.

But it's a huge error of assessment: in the case of high stakes elections, like the political elections, a voting system is acceptable not when an expert tells you, but when you, the voter, are able to convince the experts that it is safe to use it.

I had the pleasure to meet Barbara Simons last week in California, a great lady that is wholeheartedly committed to make sure unreliable voting machines are not deployed.

She told me that this important argument was not well known in the anglo-saxon world, and encouraged me to share it widely. That's why I'm now posting this translated (and enhanced) version of my 2006 post on the subject.

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Sunday, June 10 2012

Open Data for transportation at Trimet : an example to follow!

While in Portland to meet many Free and Open Source leading actors, I was delighted to shake hands with Bibiana McHugh, the visionary lady that was the driving force behind the Open Data initiative at Portland's Trimet (the public transportation company of the city of Portland). She really understood what this is all about, when saying “Our transparency allows people to use our data and develop smart, innovative mobile applications to help riders—at no cost to TriMet.”

Let me try to explain why.

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Saturday, June 9 2012

A trip to the Oregon State University and the Open Source Lab (aka OSU OSL...)

Visiting Oregon State University, I had a chance to meet the people of the Open Source Lab, that have provided the primary hosting for many of the open source software we are all using today, with unfailing dedication, since 2003.

Ever wanted to see where the code for the Linux kernel, the Apache projects, Gentoo, Drupal and many others, are physically located? Just come along with me...

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Thursday, May 24 2012

Using external solvers with apt-get in Wheezy

Thanks to the effort of many wonderful people (see at the end of this post), it is now possible to call an external solver from apt-get, if you use at least version 0.9.5, which will be the case in Wheezy.

It's pretty simple, just install apt-cudf :

apt-get install apt-cudf

but please check that you get version 2.9.16~rc1-1 or later of it!

dpkg -l apt-cudf
ii  apt-cudf  2.9.16~rc1-1   CUDF solver integration for APT

This package will also install one of the available solvers that support CUDF, for example aspcud.

Then you can simply use the --solver option of apt-get to have the dependency solving delegated to aspcud:

apt-get -s --solver aspcud install totem

On my machine, this gives a solution with these characteristics:

49 upgraded, 47 newly installed, 1 downgraded, 9 to remove and 2551 not upgraded.

Which might be more interesting than what the standard internal solver of apt finds, as it changes and removes quite a few more packages

79 upgraded, 98 newly installed, 15 to remove and 2520 not upgraded.

Continue reading...

Saturday, December 31 2011

Combo-economics at work in Argentina, or how to get a cheap Big Mac thanks to The Economist

Traveling in Argentina, I happened to stop by a MacDonalds. That might seem a silly thing to do in a country where you can have a fantastic piece of prime grilled beef for the price of a typical, lousy Mac combo, but I was just looking for a quick coffee on the route. It turned out that the highly overpriced cup of coffee was lousy too, but the day was not completely lost: I just found out another mind boggling example of the creativity of the people in this country. Bear with me for this short journey from a MacDonalds to finance mangling...

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Friday, July 29 2011

Humble Indie Bundle #3 on Debian amd64

I just got my copy of the HIB games from, and while they do come for my preferred software platform (GNU/Linux), you need to do some tweaking to make them run properly on a 64 bit machine. This short blog post details the steps you need to make to have them run on your system. In particular, I loved CrayonPhysicsDeLuxe, which was a real pleasure to play with my young son.

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Monday, April 19 2010

How to manage your software upgrades: tales from the Mancoosi frontline

Upgrading software components has become an ubiquitous need: if Mac OS X and Windows users have seen nice, flashy popups proposing "software updates" for years, iPhone users upgrade their full OS every few months and get proposed updates from the AppStore daily.

In the Free Software world, we have been living with sophisticated tools to manage installation, removal and upgrade of software components for more than ten years, and we are used to be more picky and sophisticated in our desiderata than the average user on a proprietary platform: we do no just casually click on the 'OK' button in a popup, even if this kind of GUI gadgets is making its way into GNU/Linux distributions that are more end-user oriented.

According to our goals, we might have in mind precise upgrade policies, like "only get updates of system packages from the stable release finalised last year", or "install this new package, but please, please try not to touch anything else on my machine".

This is why we ended up with a whole wealth of different package managers, that try to offer appealing features for a user base that might range from the casual computer user for the advanced system administrator.

In recent years the growth of the available package base has been so impressive (in the picture above, you can see the evolution of the number of packages in the different Debian releases), that traditional package managers have started to show some serious limitations: algorithms and methodologies that were reasonable for small-scale collections of packages are hitting severe limitations now that the number of available components in a GNU/Linux distribution has passed the 25.000 unit mark.

The Mancoosi project, that I am happy to lead, started in 2008 to address some of these limitations, and the preliminary results coming out after less than two years of work show enough promise to justify a series of posts on the difficulties that we are all facing when managing our GNU/Linux distributions with traditional tools, and on the solutions that Mancoosi may have in store for us.

We start here with some concrete examples of issues faced when trying to install or upgrade a software component on a recent Debian distribution.

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Tuesday, March 30 2010

Constitutional Court in Italy rules out anti-free-software lobbyist arguments...

While walking around in some corridors in Brussels, Paris and other capitals to explain why the state, which is different from a private company, must focus on Free Software, I had on many occasions the opportunity to cross officials encumbered by sincere fear. They explained to me that some major players in the proprietary software industry (and it was not just Microsoft!) threatened to file suite against the for breach of competition law as soon as they showed some interest in Free Software.

The lobbyists argument went more or less like this:

"If you make a tender, or worse, if you write a law or directive requiring the use of Free Software, it prevents us from participating in these tenders with our proprietary software, so you violate the right of free competition because you exclude some of the software industry from your markets. We'll sue, and you will see what you will see! "

On each occasion, I tried to explain to this particular civil servant that this argument was completely hollow: there is violation of the competition when we exclude from a procurement a potential competitor on criteria other than technical needs real, not when a provider excludes itself by refusing to provide what is asked in the tender.

For example, we might attack for violations of rules on competition the innumerable public tenders poorly written that, instead of requesting an "integrated solution for email and calendar compliant with RFC822 and following standards, and able to exchange calendars in the published ICAL format" just mentions " 300 licenses for Microsoft Outlook "; misteriously, the lobbyists who roam the corridors have really nothing to say against these flagrant violations.

On the other side, if a government opened a tender for the construction of a building complying with (public) standards of high environmental quality, it is quite natural that manufacturers not knowing or not wanting to meet these standards are excluded: this is not an infringement of competition law.

Now, a government that takes seriously its obligation to ensure the sustainability of access to public data and confidentiality of personal data of its citizens, it must ask in its bidding that the software solutions provided are based on open standards and are made with free software: it is simply demanding software with the features necessary to accomplish its public service mission. If a software vendor can not or will not provide software with these characteristics, he is free to do so, but he can not pretend that there is a violation of competition law.

But this was, of course, just the opinion of an academic against that of heavy lobbyists.

A recent development of case law in Italy, that I just learned of thanks to Assoli, should finally help our dear frightened officials to fight back. Here are the key points.

  • The Piedmont Regional Council had approved a law containing this language: "... The Region, in its choice of software, supports free software and software whose source code is verifiable by end users. » (article 6, alinéa 2) "(Article 6, paragraph 2)
  • The Presidency of the Council of Ministers objected to this, asking the Constitutional Court to cancel a number of provisions.
  • On March 23, 2010, the judgement is out, and among the rest, we note that the Court debunks the arguments by the Council of Ministers (argument which is, unmistakably, a copy of 'the argument propagated by the lobbyists).

"The concepts of free software and open source software are not concepts relating to a specific technology, brand or product, but express a legal feature ... (and) the choice (of this feature) belongs to the ... buyer of the software. It follows that ... there is no breach of competition (when giving advantage to Free Software in a regional guideline). "

I would like to thank deeply, in order, the Piedmont Region in Italy for having shown to be aware of the fundamental duties of a public administration in the era of digital technologies, the Italian Council of Ministers for having, by challenging this regional law, tested the validity of the specious arguments peddled by lobbyists of proprietary software, and the Italian Constitutional Court to have decided the issue clearly, in a language understandable even for the general public.

Now, let us forward this information to all the civil servants in our countries.

Friday, March 19 2010

Microsoft under fire in Argentina: it faces a fine of more than 50 million euros for anticompetitive activities

(Version Française ici).

About five years ago, I wrote a detailed report on how one could have the choice between GNU / Linux and other operating systems in Argentina. that was most surprising for French people, that have always had the greatest difficulties in getting such a choice, despite the remarkable efforts made by the Working Group Detaxe and Racketiciels. It was even possible at that time in Argentina to compare on the website of major retail chains (Fravega, Garbarino, the equivalent of Darty or Boulanger in France) the price for the same machine with another operating system or with a Debian-based, customised Argentinian GNU / Linux, developed by an SME named Pixart (not to be confused with the studio Pixar!).

But starting from 2 years ago, I have seen that it has become impossible to find any longer a single machine with GNU / Linux in retail: worse, we saw some very dubious agreements negotiated under the high patronage of the founder of the multinational software company that monopolises the operating systems market.

One may well ask why: this is not without reminding us of the situation here in France, where after SFR placed on the market more thatn 250000 Netbooks all equipped with GNU / Linux about two years ago, we can not find now a single netbook without Windows (yes, I write the name in full letters now, because I am particularly upset: I wanted to buy one for personal use this Christmas, but despite my efforts, I have not found a single model with a GNU / Linux preinstalled in France).

The few remaining fans of software monopolies like to say that this sudden vanishement proves that the other operating system is superior to GNU / Linux.

Well, I happen to have in my hands right now a copy of the appeal filed against Microsoft by the little Argentine SMEs Pixart, and it is very helpful in understanding what really happened there ... and very likely what is happening here too.

Continue reading...

Friday, January 15 2010

Open Access, reloaded...

In the US, a new report on Scholarly Publishing Roundtable Report and Recommendations wants to be optimistic about Open Access, but contains, as its recommendation n. 2, the following:

Agencies should establish specific embargo periods between publication and public access. An embargo period of between zero (for open access journals) and twelve months currently reflects such a balance for many science disciplines. For other fields a longer embargo period may be necessary.

This is totally unreasonable, coming from the "Committee on Science and Technology of the United States House of Representatives, in coordination with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy".

I would suggest that these people, representing The People, reconsider their position: this recommendation simply states, openly and plainly, that the interest of the publisher has diverged completely from the interest of the scientists they are supposed to serve.

I would recommend to read again my old article on Scholarly Publishing, which, by the way, got the best paper award from Novatica in 2006.

Friday, July 3 2009

Interview with I-CIO

I gave an interview to I-CIO on Free and Open Source Software, Open Standards and the French experience, recalling some of the basic principles that governments and businesses should follow, when it comes to their Information System. It was a refreshing occasion of stepping back, and draw some lessons after so much time and energy spent on, and for Open Source lately.

Tuesday, November 4 2008

Electronic voting: Open Source is not a solution

It is election day in the US, so the time is particularly favorable to attracting public attention, again, to electronic voting machines... probably the most funny example of this is Oprah's vote getting lost on a touch screen; knowing Oprah's tremendous reach, maybe a non negligible amount of North American citizens now knows that computers don't do good voting devices. Unfortunately, Oprah's blamed this on herself, in the all too common old mood of blaming oneself for somebody else's bad software design that made companies like Microsoft immensely rich.

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Thursday, October 23 2008

Open Source Governance event in Rome next week.

I will join a panel about Open Source strategic issues in Rome on october 28th, aiming at bringing back to my home country some significant experiences and lessons learned in many years of Free Software and Open Source Software (FOSS) activity in France.

I do believe that Italy has an economic structure that could really benefit from a vigorous adoption of FOSS, as it is in this very moment happening in other countries that are not so far, like France and Spain.

Yet, the public sector has an essential role to play in converting this high potential into a concrete reality, and I will be happy to learn whether things are finally changing back home.

Wednesday, October 15 2008

Towards a Free and Open Source curriculum in higher education for IT professionals.

There have been many disparate experiments worldwide in building higher education diplomas offering some form of specialization in Free and Open Source Software over the last years.

We are many to believe that it is time to bring all academics having worked in this area together to build together a Free and Open Source Software curriculum schema for higher education in IT. It will be a long lasting effort, and the first significant step will be the FOSS Curriculum event in Paris, in the framework of the Open World Forum.

The following call for comments and contribution details the scope of this action.

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Sunday, April 6 2008

Microsoft's Embrace and Extend strategy for Open Source

If you follow the OSS news, it will be difficult not to have noticed the long list of agreements between software companies in the Open Source world, and Microsoft.

Is it a sign that Microsoft has seen the light? Is Microsoft going to change its monopolistic and anticompetitive behavior? Is the battle over, and Open Source has won?

I do not think so: Microsoft has a very precise strategy in mind, which is, on top of it, not particularly new.

Unfortunately, I still have found not a single decent analysis of their strategy on the web, or the professional press, and I have to say that in the F/OSS community some people seem too keen to congratulate themselves for passing agreements with this juggernaut, to take the time to sit down and look at what they really have agreed to.

So, I think it's time to give a different point of view. Ready? Let's go!

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Wednesday, March 5 2008

Price cuts with a Vista on emerging countries

Microsfot announced on February 29th a massive price slash on its Vista family of operating systems. The truth is, at 399$ (which converts to a whopping 500+ euros for us in Europe) for the Ultimate version, a full copy of Vista was massively overpriced especially considering how it expensively cripples the user experience to enforce DRM.

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Sunday, June 17 2007

The Microsoft way to standards and law compliance

For people following even loosely the actions of the software juggernaut, there is a definite trend emerging when it comes to compliance with standards or laws.

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Friday, March 26 2004

It's not all about the money.

The recent remedies announced in the EU to counter Microsoft's illegal and anti-competitive behavior have sparkled a wealth of comments in the media, but I would like to try and offer another point of view, because I think some of the most important consequences of what is happening have been up to now somewhat overlooked.

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