Open Letter: Marketing Departments

Dear Marketing Departments of every company I’ve ever dealt with,

I am one of the few people in the world who uses an email client that prefers plain text emails. I pride myself in this, because I don’t like burdening people with undue formatting when I can express my opinions and requests in a much simpler way.

Whenever you send me an email, you use a content type called “multipart/alternative”. This content type is used to indicate that the email is available in multiple different alternative formats, and in the case of email, it usually means that I’m allowed to view the email in HTML or in plain text.

What it does *not* mean is: This email is in HTML, but we wanted to taunt you with the fact, so we included a plain text version that says “Get a better email client, you fucking philistine.”

If you’re going to send me HTML-only emails, that’s OK! I have a web browser that I can use to view them. You should probably consider writing a text-only version of the emails you send, but I can live without it. The height of annoyance, however, is when you send me an email I *can* read only to inform me that I *can’t* read it.


The New Shape of the Free Software Movement

Once upon a time, a movement started. Richard Stallman observed that he was better served by having the freedom to modify and share software, and he codified that observation in a manifesto, in several licenses over time, and in the software that he and others built that were distributed under those licenses.

Thirty years have passed.

Now, the free software movement consists of more than just one group. There are people who still work on free software, and advocate for it, because they are better served by free software, because it benefits them directly. But there are also those who work on free software because of the benefits to their community. There are still more who work on free software because of the benefits to the projects themselves. And further people work on free software just because they’re paid to do it as part of their job, or because it will look good on their CV.

I think it’s time we stopped drawing lines in the sand. I think we need to expand the free software movement to these new groups that may not be recognized by a lot of us. We need to understand the motivations that make sense to those people, and we need to start to accept them.

Personal Benefit

A lot of people who are already part of the movement want to help free software because it’s directly beneficial to them. There’s nothing wrong with this kind of advocate, but their perspective means they have a different view of things than others.

  • I should be able to use software under any conditions I choose.
  • I should be able to share software with people with whom I collaborate.
  • I should be able to fix or augment software however I like.
  • I should be able to distribute those fixes and augmentations to people with whom I collaborate.

Community Benefit

These are for community-minded people who want to work on free software that benefits the people around them. “Community” could mean almost anything, from the extremely small community of a family unit, to the extremely large community of “all humans.” The motivating factors are the same:

  • Members of my community should be afforded the right to use software under any conditions they choose.
  • I, and others, should be allowed to share software with my community, so everyone can benefit from it.
  • Members of my community should be allowed to fix and augment software to fit their needs.
  • I, and others, should be allowed to distribute those fixes and augmentations, so that my community may benefit from them.

Project Benefit

Some people work on projects that are free software only because they want that software to be better.

  • People should be allowed to use software under any conditions so they may better test the diverse functions of the software.
  • People should be allowed to distribute copies of the software to better enable the above testing goal.
  • People should be allowed to modify software so they can make it better.
  • People should be allowed to distribute modified copies of software so they can better test their improvements.

Career/Corporate Benefits

The last group of free software developers and advocates have slightly different motivations, but they still need a framework to enable them to act them out.

  • People should be allowed to use software under any circumstances so they can accomplish business goals.
  • People should be allowed to distribute copies of software to achieve word-of-mouth recognition of the software and its contributors (including corporate sponsors), as well as to solicit contributions from the community and other companies.
  • People should be allowed to modify software to better fit their business needs, and to give them a platform for recognition as a positive community force.
  • People should be allowed to distribute modified software so they are better recognized as benefactors to the community, and to solicit further improvements from the community and other companies.

How these groups play together

You probably noticed that I formatted each list of motivations along the lines of the original “four freedoms” document set out by Richard Stallman. Well, that’s all well and good, but Richard has a lot of opinions that get conflated with his written essays, so I have not restated those points here. I’m saying here today that I fully accept every single one of these groups as potential allies in the struggle to bring free software to mainstream awareness. No matter what your motivation for building up free software, I welcome your contributions.

Now, I want to be clear that I’m not negating my past position on companies who make token efforts towards free software – I still do not suggest using GitHub, Facebook, or Google services, because they are all based on non-free software. But I’m saying that we should be welcoming of the contributions that they make nonetheless, and that we should also accept the contributions of the other groups.

For example, while many die-hard free software advocates are currently skeptical of people motivated largely by community forces, we should start to embrace them instead and work towards their goals in conjunction with our own.

Likewise, people who are working on free software solely so they can have the tools they need to accomplish their own goals should be welcomed with open arms, and invited to join in the grander advocacy efforts.

I worry that too much of the free software movement has been trained to reject these groups, to be distrustful of corporations, to be dismissive of people who are utilitarian in their contributions. I hope we aren’t too far gone to rescue this movement that needs to be so much bigger than it currently is.

A Free License Isn’t Enough

Today, GitHub announced that Atom, their full-featured IDE, would be “Open Source”.

GitHub, that’s not enough.

You announced Atom several months ago and told the community that it would be “hackable to the core” but that you were “aiming for a common ground between fully-closed and fully-open”. You shamelessly doublespoke to your community, and you promised them that you would be mistreating them by disallowing them the right to change the core of the application.

Now you’ve changed your mind. Well, I don’t buy it.

I don’t buy that a company dedicated to providing a system that traps free software developers in a non-free ecosystem has the best interests of the free software community at heart.

I don’t buy that a project once described as “between fully-closed and fully-open” should ever be embraced by a community that actually values continued freedom.

I sure as hell don’t buy that GitHub is done deliberating on this matter.

Atom users: Fork now. Don’t let GitHub keep your code on their servers, under their control. Make sure you still have your freedoms when they decide to stop distributing updates to you under the MIT license.

Others: Don’t use Atom. There are lots of other great editors out there. You don’t need this one to be a successful programmer.

And while you’re at it, stop using GitHub. Gitorious and GitLab are awesome alternatives to it, and removing the network power from GitHub will help chip away at their influence that lets them toy with their community this way.

Drawing the Line

I’ve had some experiences recently where very devoted and thoughtful free software advocates have told me that they prefer not to consider the tenets of free software when they evaluate the merits of network services. They’re referring primarily to the essay from RMS that explains that other issues are more prevalent in that situation – people should avoid using services over software, and when using services, they should leave the decision about the software choice to the administrator of the server.

While I understand the arguments put forward in the essay, and I understand that people think that way, I tend not to. It seemed like a good idea to talk about the dissonance I have with other free software advocates.

In the prior generation of hackers, I think there was, and is, a lot of focus on being aware of what was going on in systems where you were active, where you had an account or spent time working on things. People wanted the source code to programs they actually ran, but programs they didn’t run weren’t as important. This is largely, I think, because single machines, or smallish clusters, held most of the computing power any single person would need. There were network services, but for the most part they were ancillary, or peer-to-peer, and the protocol or service backend didn’t really matter, and even if it did, it played such a minor role in the day-to-day computing of a person.

However, this generation, in my opinion, is far more focused on the web, and networks in general. We grew up working on the web, playing games, writing documents, even working on code, without necessarily running much code on our own computers. We matured in the time of Google Docs, Dropbox, GitHub, Facebook, Twitter, and the rest. Our lives are on the web, and software is slowly being pushed away from our computers.

Not that that’s a bad thing. For software like Google Docs, sure, it’s not ideal, because the software making the word processor (or spreadsheet, or presentation) is non-free JavaScript running on our computer. But the primary function of a lot of these services is to provide us with a centralized connection to other people using the web. We talk to friends on Facebook, we collaborate with people live on Google Docs, and so on.

So, the import to us is a bit higher. Especially for me, I struggle constantly with a need to be connected and a relative inability to accomplish connection. I can try to pull people into free, distributed networks like and MediaGoblin, but it’s hard to convince them that the benefits outweigh losing the network effect of Twitter or Flickr. While it’s easy for me to not use those services, it’s hard to not have a connection to people who are important to me.

So, we build web applications that help us connect and give us that nice feeling that the rest of the world is experiencing. springs up, Diaspora starts to work a little bit, free web games crop up every once in a while, and MediaGoblin provides a free image hosting service. But there’s still a big disconnect.

While I appreciate RMS’s focus on building normal-software replacements for SaaSS services out there, I’m going to look towards the future, and this generation of hackers, and what they need. They need something they can call their own while still feeling connected to the world. Let’s not fight the wave, and evolve with it instead. The AGPL already does a great job of this, but we need to throw our development resources behind it, too.

I encourage you to think long and hard before signing up for the next non-free web service. Encourage people to be a little more mindful. Run your own instance of a free service that accomplishes a similar task. Let’s move forward instead of still thinking like we’re in the past.

I put dvorak stickers on my laptop keyboard today

””””’,,,……………………………..e..pppppppppppppppppppppppppppyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyffffffffffffffffffffffffffffmfffffff//ggggggggggggggggggggcccccccccccccccrrrrrrrrrrrllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaadddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddoooooooooooooooooooooooooooeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuiiiiiiissdddddddddddidddhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhtttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttt/nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnsssssssssssssssssssssssss;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;qqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqq xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx xxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx x xbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////================================================“““““““““““““`[[[[[[[[[[]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]\——-\—————–nnnnnn

On Feminism


Sorry to top-post, but a friend of mine has recently convinced me basically the opposite of what I’m saying in this post, and I needed to be sure that this historical context-providing post was framed in the right light, which now includes me disagreeing with my past self.

The conversation that convinced me to change my mind culminated in realizing that while women-only programs are bad, a situation where no women-only programs exist would be even worse, leaving women at a disadvantaged stage, because society is still pretty unbalanced.

At first I was happy to say that things like women-only support groups and hackerspaces were OK, because they provided support that was integral to giving women an edge, especially in such a male-dominated field like the tech industry, but that policies governing the distribution of salaries or stipends should be radically gender-neutral. The turning point on that principle was the realization that, to quote an unnamed wonderful person, “money is the primary medium for transferral of social power!” After making that connection, I stopped being particularly opposed to OPW, because I realized the necessity of that transferral and that money is one of the best ways to accomplish it.

The original post is preserved below, again, for historical reasons.

One of my favourite teachers ever was my 11th grade history teacher, Ms. Conway. She would give lectures that made us laugh and cry. But the most memorable thing she ever said to our class follows:

How many of you are feminists? (a few people raise their hands) You know, feminism only means that you think women and men should have the same rights. Now, how many of you are feminists? (nearly everyone raises their hands)

(see the definition of feminism at Merriam-Webster, e.g.)

Since then, I’ve firmly identified as a feminist. Maybe that makes me a member of a minority, especially considering the sort of person I seem to interact with on a daily basis. My feeling is that feminism is viewed as an extreme, radical thing, and that feminists are seen as people who hate men. Neither are true – feminism is the simple belief that neither women nor men are better than the other.


With that in mind, let’s talk about GNOME’s “Outreach Program for Women” (OPW), for which I was a mentor from January through April, and through which I met a lot of cool and interesting people. Another Wikimedian, an OPW intern herself, has already written about the idea that OPW is a sexist program, and I have to say, I have had a very similar feeling about it from the start.

In December, when I was asked whether I’d like to be part of more mentorship programs, I responded “yes” emphatically. A few days later, I got some emails and IRC messages about OPW, and read the literature. I was excited that the program would be bringing in more contributors for Wikimedia, so I again responded yes.

After a few more days had passed, though, I thought back on some of the literature, and on some of the things I’ve read in the past about affirmative action programs. I asked a few questions in various channels about why this program, specifically, needed to exclude men. Why was it that a program offering paid internships for working on free software was being offered to half of the population but not the other? The answers were a little dismissive, but satisfactory for me at the time, and ones that I had heard before and would hear again: Women are disproportionately affected by the current lack of women in the tech industry, we need to actively seek them out, and it’s helpful for them to have a place where they feel comfortable when they start out working somewhere, as well as a place that specifically indicates to them that they’re qualified to apply.

During the program, there was a lot of busy time. Not a lot of progression of my ideas on the matter. When the program closed, though, I asked in the OPW channel about the same thing. The same answers seemed to come out, but for the most part, I’m not sure I was convinced. While I’m glad that women feel more comfortable in that scenario, it’s at best a stopgap measure. Sustainable growth isn’t accomplished by treating women specially, it’s accomplished by making sure that the industry, and the communities where women will be joining along with men, are friendly enough places that nobody feels excluded.

More generally

Segregation isn’t the way to solve segregation. Affirmative action was maybe a good idea once upon a time, to open the door, or maybe just because we didn’t fully understand the issues at play, but we’re in a different time. Discrimination, at least in the Western world, is not looked upon as acceptable, and sexism is no exception. So maybe we should stop practicing it as if we still need to use these temporary solutions to crack open the door. The door is already open, or opening, and we just need to let everyone through. Having women-only events or programs excludes men who might want to learn too.

Things People Say

When I ask people why they’re choosing a women-only event, group, or program, I often hear many of the same answers and continue to be unimpressed. A few of the ones I’ve heard are below (please, comment, and I’ll try to add yours!) (also, if you want to rebut one or more of these, I’m happy to continue the conversation in the comments)

Women need to be able to count on support from peers
This is one of the more common explanations I hear, though it comes in different forms. Women and men sometimes have different needs, but some men have the same needs as most women and some women don’t have the same needs as other women. It’s ridiculous to offer a service to women and not men just because most women need the same service.
Women are intimidated by the male-dominated industry and need a women-only place to find support
While there’s certainly some truth in the intimidation, I reject the concept that women can only find support with other women. If there’s some *quality* of women that you’re looking for, maybe you should start a group that allows entry based on that quality rather than based on the professed gender of a person. It’s insane to block men from entry simply because they’re men.


I fully recognize that I’m missing things here. I invite people who understand this topic better than I to comment and help me understand. Hopefully we can learn from each other. I promise not to dismiss your ideas out of hand and strive for a fair conversation on the subject. I want to learn from you just as much as you want to learn from me.

On the W3C DRM business

From the W3C CEO’s Q&A pages:

A situation where premium content is relegated to applications inaccessible to the Open Web or completely locked down devices would be far worse for all.

When I first visited the page, commenting was disabled, so I wrote one anyway. Its text is below.

But of course you realize that’s what you’re doing.

If you build DRM into an HTML spec, and some free browsers decide they want to implement it differently, or not at all, then those browsers won’t be able to access the premium content.

And how do you intend to decide whether a browser implements these interfaces correctly without unnecessarily impeding free development and experimentation in the browser world? Are you going to have Microsoft sign our browsers’ binaries? Is the W3C going to issue keys after reviewing each browser version? I run Firefox Nightly, how am I going to access premium content?

This is a step away from your precious “Open Web” and it’s obvious. Let the backend and delivery systems deal with security, the browser shouldn’t be the police force against the user. If someone really wants to shackle their viewers, let them do it through their own applications like they always have. HTML is *our* media format and it would be unfair of the WHATWG or the W3C to suddenly give it to the media industry.

Hello, Worl?d(press)?

Oh hi, world!

In classic Mark fashion, I’ve changed my blog platform again. I was using a static site generator, but I figured I’d give WordPress another shot. It looks like it’s doing OK so far, so I guess I’ll stick with it!

My profound sadness that I can no longer blog from vim, but hopefully this will work just as well. And maybe encourage me to be a little more prolific.

Anyway, I’ll be moving over the old posts to this blog. Hopefully I manage to move all of them over correctly!

Keys to Whose House?

In their efforts to vet job applicants, some companies and government agencies have started asking for passwords to log in to a prospective employee’s accounts on social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter. Civil liberties groups, social media users and others have criticized the practice as a serious invasion of privacy, likening it to handing over the keys to your house. (source)

As I read this, I couldn’t help but thinking, “Your house? Really?”

In my mind, it’s really more like copying a key that opens the doors of a stranger’s house, going inside and leaving a bunch of personally identifiable and sensitive information, and then leaving copies of that key in really stupid places. I can appreciate that the above analogy is designed to illustrate the security risks in giving out your passwords (which, I suppose, could possibly still be news to someone, if they were an IDIOT), but the insecurity is much more fundamental than that—if you use Facebook’s warehouse to store information, any information you store is essentially theirs. Talk about privacy and confidentiality policies all you’d like, but the way they process and store it is totally up to them, and you have no way of knowing what they choose to do.

Total topic change

I’m sure I won’t convince anyone, since the people reading this are either free software advocates who have heard this and either accepted or dismissed it for one reason or another, or they’re people who read because they know me and for whatever reason can rationalize their use of Facebook and the like.

Maybe that means I shouldn’t write this stuff anymore? Maybe it means it’s late and I’m tired? I’ll read this again tomorrow and see if it makes any sense. Mark out.


Return to Freedom and Order

Almost a year ago, I wrote about a combination of freedom and order that had been necessary in the early days of the United States, and that may still be necessary here and now, in the context of the Free Software movement. Without going too deeply, I basically extolled the idea that people should focus on higher concepts, rather than the nitty-gritty details like prices, economics, and so on. My theory was that people would be more likely to be interested in the higher concepts.

This article is not a re-examination of the concepts set forth there, though that may be necessary. This is a more philosophical approach to analyzing a phrase I’ve been considering for months.

Great worlds come into existence due to great order.

Great works come into existence due to great freedom.

Though diametrically opposed, both are necessary for a thriving society.

This statement, to me, sums up why the above-linked post is vital to the success of the Free Software movement. Basically, without order to the madness, there will not be a movement for very much longer. We’ve far surpassed our years in chaos, and we need an organizing document, perhaps one written by someone not in the FSF, that might help us to push in the same direction, rather than fighting each other and being unproductive.

Wait, what?

I know! It’s different! I usually write about total and absolute freedom, but this is a very different tone, and I’m sure I haven’t been clear about what I think is necessary.

The previous “Freedom and Order” post used the Constitution, and the American Revolution, as an example of a successful document establishing order. Well, they needed to provide order for a nation, a set of people, and so they defined ways for those people to give input on their laws.

Perhaps what I’m saying is, we could use a democratically-elected board of people, perhaps with some small amount of pay, who could help create things like codes of conduct, funding for new free projects, and ways for the Free Software movement to be economically viable. The money flowing in and out would likely be nothing compared to the U.S. Congress, but there might be enough to provide for a few “law” makers and a few people to help bring those “laws” to fruition.

OK, I’ve derailed my intent a bit. Let’s get back on track.

The Free Software movement has no real, focused purpose as of right now. A lot of people advocate, and a lot of people make new software, and some people do testing, documentation, translation, et cetera. But, very few people are following any particular goal. They simply make what they need to make in order to do their jobs, or accomplish their own selfish goals. If they want to help the community, they make a project that helps the community, or they triage bugs, or they help people in IRC. If they feel like spreading the word, they advocate. But there’s no central, absolute purpose for the entire movement, and that means a rather unfocused effort from everyone.

For fear of rambling, I’m going to stop now, but I hope I made sufficient sense. Go freely.