A New Easter Tradition

The Water Of LifeWhen the children were small, Easter eggs were a repeat of the excitement of Christmas. But now they are adults, I’ve decided we need a new Easter tradition that’s safer than all that sugar and more authentic than eggs.

There are two data points I’ve considered. First there’s the evidence of Dr Robert Lustig’s research on the effects of sugar. You can watch the video (which is probably the most important hour of video I have watched recently) but the relevant advice in this context is to treat sugar as if it were alcohol – in moderation and knowing it will harm you otherwise.  Second, the Gaelic expression for “water of life” is uisge beatha, which has given us the English word whisky.

Joining these together, it does no more harm to drink whisky than to eat chocolate; in fact, since it’s easier to detect the effects of whisky on your body, it may well be safer than chocolate. Whisky is also sufficiently symbolic of the message of new life at Easter to make an ideal token. As a consequence, I’ve decided on a new tradition for the adults in our extended household who consent. Instead of chocolate eggs, they each have 200ml bottles of single malt whisky.

This year it’s Caol Ila, and we’ll be toasting new life with the water of life a little later. Happy Easter!

Migration Needs A Plan

Homeward BoundHave you ever thought of migrating your company to an open source desktop productivity suite? You don’t switch just to save on license fees; think that way and the differences in the replacement package – which can never be a drop-in replacement – will kill your migration like they did Freiburg’s.

While the saving on Microsoft license costs seems like the biggest motivation, actually the most important outcome is changing everyone’s behaviour. Among the goals of this change are reducing the rate of change in the tools and file formats and thus making documents accessible for the longest time and ensuring that the features in use across your company’s ecosystem are as interoperable as possible. One simple but big win is to get people to stop distributing editable document versions of any format. open or not. Hybrid PDFs are the first step to freedom.

With that reduced rate of change and a cross-platform interoperability that allows use of Linux, Mac and Windows, flexibility is enhanced and you’re given much more control over your IT environment as a result. It’s important to invest rather than skimp on the migration; the cost savings come later as the flexibility takes effect

Achieving these outcomes can only happen with planning and purposefulness. Continuing their practice of creating resources and “letting the work do the talking” The Document Foundation issued a white paper explaining how to conduct a successful migration. I’ve read through it and summarised it for you in my InfoWorld column this week, along with a few tips of my own.

TDF naturally use LibreOffice as the open source suite to install, but other open source alternatives work just as well with the same ideas. Hopefully the paper will evolve as the community adds its experience – it’s a hybrid PDF after all, anyone can edit it and this would make a great focus for the cross-community collaboration some folk are calling for.

Tina Dico at Union Chapel

Tina Dico at Union Chapel, originally uploaded by webmink.

We had an evening out last night in London at Union Chapel, an excellent venue for acoustic gigs. We saw & heard Tina Dico, who has a wonderful voice and writes strong, reflective songs.

Reader Reminder

My Infoworld Open Sources article for this week is now live. It takes the demise of Google Reader as a reminder that without open source software processing open standards, we have no freedom to “rehost and carry on”.

Leveson Collateral Damage

Now I am clearer on the details of the press hacking regulation that’s being railroaded through the UK Parliament, I just sent this to my MP.  Feel free to borrow from it.

Dear $MP,

I’m one of your constituents ($postcode), as well as being a pro bono director of Open Rights Group and a writer on digital rights issues.

I am extremely concerned about the way the Leveson response is being railroaded through Parliament. I see all the main decisions have been made without Parliamentary scrutiny and are about to be introduced with a nod & wink in the Crime & Courts Bill discussion in the Lords on Monday (see http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/cbill/2012-2013/0137/amend/pbc1371803m.pdf). I’m contacting you directly as time is very short for you to act by expressing concern over the lack of due process and the risk of collateral damage.

I’ve discussed this with my colleagues both in my own consulting practice and at ORG. We believe that serious conceptual flaws exist in the language of the amendments, and that unwittingly the Leveson responses – nominally targetting large media corporations – will end up introducing new rules that regulate internet publishing by much smaller entities which were never targetted by Leveson.

As an example, Apple could use these new provisions to chill disclosure of newsworthy product leaks such as http://www.macrumors.com/2011/12/26/2011-biggest-apple-product-leaks/. A company like Monsanto could use them to discourage public criticism of its strategies. Energy companies could use them to threaten and chill coverage of climate change. Perhaps even whalers could use them to silence Greenpeace supporters.

From reading amendment NC29, pretty much any web site with adverts or run by someone with a consulting activity could be construed as “in the course of a business” and many bloggers have guests, co-writers and translations that plausibly qualify as “written by different authors”. It’s entirely feasible that a corporation could threaten litigation under these measures to chill discourse. Amendment NS5 offers no comfort.

These corporate repurposers don’t have to be right, and it doesn’t even need to go to court to have a chilling effect. With such high stakes, most of us would just fold rather than risk such enormous penalties. As drafted, the amendments create new weapons for corporate litigants that worry me and others greatly.

It doesn’t have to be this way, but the whole response is being railroaded by very narrowly-focussed non-experts with no concern for the collateral damage they are doing. The last time I recall this sort of panic – over the Terrorism Act Section 44 which started out as “preventing terrorism” – we ended up with “random stop-and-search powers being exercised by the Met on any motorist they felt like bothering”.

Please can you consider the matter and if you agrees urgently express my concerns? I am available for discussion by phone.

Update: ORG now has an easy form to help you write to both your MP and the party leaders.

Demand A Proper Consultation

The UK’s Home Office continues to push for maximum surveillance powers with minimum accountability in the latest adjustments to the Communications Data Bill. I decided to find out just how much consultation with non-corporates there had been before the Bill was introduced originally.

See the FOI request I placed and the response I received – there were a total of four, and no meetings worth keeping records of the content were held.  Although the Parliamentary Joint Select Committee said consultation with civil society organisations was needed, by all accounts the meetings since then have been worthless too, with just notification and talk rather than true consultation. One small note for any BCS members listening to their claims they represent you; they are not listed in the response.

Open Rights Group now has a form for citizens to ask for a proper consultation to be held. They would welcome both individuals and organisations completing the form to show demand for a proper consultation.

Python Trademark Safe In Europe

Seems all that community pressure worked. The Python Software Foundation confirmed that the UK hoster that was threatening their name has withdrawn its trademark application. More at InfoWorld.

Royal Charter or Star Chamber For Stars?

Alec Muffett points out that the new Royal Charter being rushed through the UK Parliament includes some drafting that appears to drag blogs, Twitter and other social media into the penalty net.  This is an extremely worrying development that needs rapid response from the meshed society of citizen creator-consumers (that almost certainly means you).

Unpacking all the nested definitions in the draft Charter, a person who:

  • publishes in the United Kingdom or for an audience mainly located in the United Kingdom
  • news or information about current affairs or
  • opinion about matters related to the news or current affairs or
  • gossip about celebrities, other public figures or other persons in the news, on
  • a website containing news-related material (whether or not related to a newspaper or magazine)

falls within the remit of this Charter as a “relevant publisher”. This is the only clear scope I can find in the whole proposed regulation.  Yes, that clearly includes my blog, Twitter, public posts on Facebook and pretty much any other social media channel. I do not believe this is a drafting error; I believe it’s an intentional gag on whistleblowers and individual attention, on anyone who doesn’t have a boss someone powerful can call to have them shut up.

Of course, the proposals have no regard for this meshed world of creator-consumers. All the thinking revolves around Big Media, so there’s no representation for me or you in the regulatory body it creates, nor accommodation for the realities of the meshed society we inhabit. By including the new meshed world of creator-consumer citizens into this measure intended as a leash for dinosaurs, nothing is achieved in terms of realistic regulation.

But a new, deadly weapon is created to allow the rich to chill and punish any of those creator-consumers who dare to challenge them. When an established publication publishes a diatribe, they provide an umbrella for its author to shelter them from the new threats made available through this new regulatory mechanism. They are already pretty good at shielding authors; as long as they have jumped through the new hoops and behave reasonably, there’s not much more threat here than before.

But when the same writer tweets an opinion, or when I post my opinion about it on my personal blog, this new regulation allows the well-resourced members of the media elite to subject us to weapons tuned for deterring the Murdochs of this world. The penalties involved are out of all proportion to any harm as well as way beyond your and my means even to buy insurance, let alone to pay.

Just the threat that we might get dragged into this Star Chamber for the stars would be enough to chill most of us. Until they were caught public figures, politicians and police were quite happy with the old arrangement, under which they and journalists committed illegal acts that benefited both sides. I’m sure those same people will be pleased to see a new arrangement that can be used to shut us all up, in prison if not in word.

You say such an abuse could never happen?  Tell Paul Chambers. Tell the security researcher imprisoned in the USA for longer than teenage rapists under a similarly “misdrafted” regulation. Tell Matthew Keys. Tell the family of Aaron Swartz, hounded to his death by over-empowered investigators. Legislation aimed at powerful individuals and corporations kills people like us when it’s misapplied.

Cory Doctorow puts it this way:

In a nutshell, then: if you press a button labelled “publish” or “submit” or “tweet” while in the UK, these rules as written will treat you as a newspaper proprietor, and make you vulnerable to an arbitration procedure where the complainer pays nothing, but you have to pay to defend yourself, and that will potentially have the power to fine you, force you to censor your posts, and force you to print “corrections” and “apologies” in a manner that the regulator will get to specify.

The problem is not regulation; it’s that the politicians appear to have bought the acquiescence of the media industry to this limited restraint on their abuses by providing them with a new way to prevent inconvenient independent expression from further eroding their power. As Nick Cohen wrote in The Observer, “Did you not notice that Leveson hurt no one in power?”  The big story here is not erosion of press freedom; it is rather the chilling of the voice of the citizen.

(Also published on ComputerWorldUK, where of course it would be protected under the new rules; is that fair?)

Google, VP8 and Codec Standards

The politics around codecs are complex and the incumbents are prone to deceptive feints, like in 2010 when MPEG-LA claimed that H.264 was available “free” for web uses (but content owners probably still paid multiple fees in the production chain).  So it is perhaps understandable that some people misunderstood Google’s agreement with MPEG-LA and interpreted it as a victory for the patent circus and the end of any claim of freedom for VP8.

In fact, my reading of the available facts suggests Google won. The license with MPEG-LA looks mostly face-saving for the patent pool, and the attacks from the incumbent companies suggest they’re falling back on the next line of defence. The whole situation is an object lesson in why software patents simply must not be tolerated. Read more in InfoWorld.

[En Français]

Speak Up For SHIELD

If you’re a US citizen, your support for the bipartisan SHIELD Act could strike a decisive blow to patent trolls by making them pay costs if they lose patent actions and allowing judges to require a bond for costs from them before a case can proceed. Striking at their ability to build a fighting fund could well be the key to making the “business” they conduct unprofitable and dangerous.

While advocates of patent maximalism claim this also disadvantages small businesses legitimately prosecuting patents against larger foes, my take is small software businesses should be avoiding patents anyway. There are a few counter examples from the world of hardware (Dyson is frequently cited) but they are an expensive weapon; expensive to wield and likely to bring more value to the vultures who will pick over the wreckage of your business than to you yourself.

Read all about it over on InfoWorld.

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