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In free software, you're still not alone: the evolution of our weekly chats

by Deb Nicholson on July 29, 2020

We began our weekly chats in mid-March to give people a dedicated place and time each week to talk with fellow free software enthusiasts during the pandemic. During that first month, mostly we talked about what events were being cancelled and how frustrating it was that so many entities immediately embraced non-free tools for connecting remotely. We were also starting to contend with the financial effects of a global pandemic and some in our community wondered about job security and shared some information on who was doing layoffs and who might be hiring -- for remote work, of course.

Once the Copyleft Conf videos were posted in April, we hoped to sort of fill in the gap left by in-person events and so we hosted some chats based on some of those talk recordings. The talks we covered sparked some lively discussions about copyleft adoption and the effects of license choices for users. We discussed these presentations:

Then at the end of May, Black Lives Matter protests began happening every single day in the US as well as in many other places around the world. We thought long and hard about how we might support this long overdue moment of reckoning with systemic racism and violence. We felt we had a responsibility to look at how we might combat racism within our own community. We started with a fairly general discussion and worked towards more action-oriented topics as we went along. In the end, we hosted four discussions around racism and free software, including:

  • "How to Dismantle Systemic Racism in Free Software" -- This was an open discussion where people shared resources and talked about strategies for dismantling racism in free software projects and communities that have worked and some that haven't.
  • "How Racism is a Free Software Issue" -- Led by Molly de Blanc, in which "So you want to talk about race" by Ijeoma Oluo was heartily recommended.
  • "Allyship in FOSS and Beyond" -- Led by Ben Cotton in which participants shared a number of reading suggestions, many of which had already been compiled by the Chicago Public Library.
  • Finally, we watched Byron Woodfork's excellent talk from Strange Loop in 2017, "The Truth About Mentoring Minorities" and shared suggestions for participating in existing mentorship programs or starting programs within your workplace.
  • After the first Thursday in July, we hosted a "no topic" chat and noticed that the folks who showed up to that chat really appreciated the opportunity for no-topic chats. Most of the US is still limiting the size of public indoor gatherings, so we still don't know when we'll be able to do in-person FOSS events again. The virtual hallway track where we talk about installing free software on different devices, how to best advocate for software freedom, who might be hiring free software contributors and what's a good free software tool for some particular task, serves a very real function in the global, remote free software community. So, we've decided that we're going to be doing a topic on the first Thursday of the month and invite folks to share whatever's on their minds on the other Thursdays.

    Tomorrow's chat (July 30th) will be "no topic" and then on August 6th we'll have a topic again. Next week we're inviting people to talk about online resources for learners of all ages that either use or teach free software or otherwise support you -- or your child's -- development as free software user or contributor. The next chat with a topic will take place on September 3rd. Feel free to write to us with a topic suggestion and we encourage you to follow us on social media where we'll be announcing the topics and reminding folks about each week's chat, either on Mastodon or Twitter.

    All our public chats take place in #conservancy on freenode.net on Thursday afternoons at 2pm Eastern/6pm UTC. The #conservancy channel is accessible via your IRC client. If you don't already use an IRC client, you can come in through your browser. Just visit this page https://webchat.freenode.net/#conservancy and choose a nick (or nickname) and you'll be "in channel." In free software, you're still not alone.

    Tags: diversity, software freedom for everyone

Conservancy Staff at Virtual GUADEC

by Deb Nicholson on July 17, 2020

This year's GUADEC — the GNOME community's annual conference — will be virtual. Two Conservancy staffers are participating and the conference will be run using the free (as in freedom) Big Blue Button platform. We're especially looking forward to being part of an event that doesn't encourage attendees to engage with proprietary software.

Our Executive Director, Karen Sandler is co-presenting with Molly de Blanc on "Introducing Principles of Digital Autonomy", they'll be sharing an activist's perspective on how we interact with technology on a daily basis and how the technology using public could re-imagine that relationship in a way that better respects user autonomy and privacy. The talk will stream on July 22nd, at 18:45 UTC.

Our Director of Community Operations, Deb Nicholson will present two topics at GUADEC this year. On July 23rd, at 17:15 UTC, she will share her communication strategies in "Let's Have Great Meetings!" Then on Saturday, she will present "Building Ethical Software Under Capitalism" on July 25th at 18:45, a look at alternative tactics for creating software that doesn't exploit its users.

This year's event is free (as in cost) to attend and conveniently located online. Registration is open now -- see you next week!

Tags: events

Organizational Proliferation Is Not the Problem You Think It Is

by Bradley M. Kuhn on July 9, 2020

I've been concerned this week about aggressive negative reaction (by some) to the formation of an additional organization to serve the Free and Open Source (FOSS) community. Thus it seems like a good moment to remind everyone why we all benefit when we welcome newcomer organizations in FOSS.

I've been involved in helping found many different organizations — in roles as varied as co-founder, founding Board member, consultant, spin-off partner, and “just a friend giving advice”. Most of these organizations fill a variety of roles; they support, house, fiscally sponsor, or handle legal issues and/or trademark, copyright, or patent matters for FOSS projects. I and my colleagues at Conservancy speak regularly about why we believe a 501(c)(3) charitable structure in the USA has huge advantages, and you can find plenty of blog posts on our site about that. But you can also find us talking about how 501(c)(6) structures, and other structures outside the USA entirely, are often the right choices — depending on what a FOSS project seeks from its organization. Conservancy also makes our policies, agreements, and processes fully public so that organizations can reuse our work, and many have.

Meanwhile, FOSS organizations must avoid the classic “not invented here” anti-pattern. Of course I believe that Conservancy has great ideas for how to help FOSS, and our work — such as fiscal sponsorship, GPL enforcement work, and the Outreachy internship program — are the highest priorities in FOSS. I also believe the projects we take under our auspices are the most important projects in FOSS today.

But not everyone agrees with me, nor should they. Our Executive Director, Karen Sandler, loves the aphorism “let a thousand flowers bloom”. For example, when we learned of the launch of Open Collective, we at Conservancy were understandably concerned that since they were primarily a 501(c)(6) and didn't follow the kinds of fiscal sponsorship models and rules that we preferred, that somehow it was a “threat” to Conservancy. But that reaction is one of fear, selfishness, and insecurity. Once we analyzed what the Open Collective folks were up to, we realized that they were an excellent option for a lot of the projects that were simply not a good fit for Conservancy and our model. Conservancy is deeply steeped in a long-term focus on software freedom for the general public, and some projects — particularly those that are primarily in service to companies rather than individual users (or who don't want the oversight a charity requires) — just don't belong with us. We regularly refer projects to Open Collective.

For many larger projects, Linux Foundation — as a 501(c)(6) controlled completely by large technology companies — is also a great option. We've often referred Conservancy applicants there, too. We do that even while we criticize Linux Foundation for choosing proprietary software for many tasks, including proprietary software they write from scratch for their outward-facing project services. We know that large for-profit companies and their employees generally don't mind using proprietary software (even to develop FOSS), so we don't hesitate to refer those kinds of projects (with our activist caveats) to Linux Foundation.

Of course, I'm thinking about all this today because Conservancy has been asked what we think about the Open Usage Commons. The fact is they're just getting started and both the legal details of how they're handling trademarks, and their governance documents, haven't been released yet. We should all give them an opportunity to slowly publish more and review it when it comes along. We should judge them fairly as an alternative for fulfilling FOSS project needs that no else addresses (or, more commonly are being addressed very differently by existing organizations). I'm going to hypothesize that, like Linux Foundation, Open Usage Commons will primarily be of interest to more for-profit-company focused projects, but that's my own speculation; none of us know yet.

No one is denying that Open Usage Commons is tied to Google as part of their founding — in the same way that Linux Foundation's founding (which was originally founded as the “Open Source Development Labs”) was closely tied to IBM at the time. As near as I can tell, IBM's influence over Linux Foundation is these days no more than any other of their Platinum Members. It's not uncommon for a trade association to jumpstart with a key corporate member and eventually grow to be governed by a wider group of companies. But while appropriately run trade associations do balance the needs of all for-profit companies in their industry, they are decidedly not neutral; they are chartered to favor business needs over the needs of the general public. I encourage skepticism when you hear an organization claim “neutrality”. Since a trade association is narrowed to serving businesses, it can be neutral among the interests of business, but their mandate remains putting business needs above community. The ultimate proof of neutrality pudding is in the eating. As with multi-copyright held GPL'd projects, we can trust the equal rights for all in those — regardless of the corporate form of the contributors — because the document of legal rights makes it so. The same principle applies to any area of FOSS endeavor: examine the agreements and written rules for contributors and users to test neutrality.

Finally, there are plenty of issues where software freedom activists should criticize Google. Just today, I was sent a Google Docs link for a non-FOSS volunteer thing I'm doing, and I groaned knowing that I'd have to install a bunch of proprietary Javascript just to be able to participate. Often, software freedom activists assume that bad actions by an entity means all actions are de-facto problematic. But we must judge each policy move on its own merits to avoid pointless partisanship.

Some Work-At-Home Tips for FOSS Contributors

by Bradley M. Kuhn on June 23, 2020

The global COVID-19 pandemic has changed everyone's lives, and taken the lives of so many of our family members and friends. For those of us that have been spared, our lives must continue, and this is particularly true for those who work in Free and Open Source Software (FOSS), since so many of us already worked from home. Doing so when our world faces so many simultaneous crises is undoubtedly difficult. I share below a few ideas that I've had that might be able to help my fellow FOSS contributors.

We have a weekly meetup of FOSS contributors where I live, which once upon a time met at a restaurant for late breakfast, but now meets weekly on a Jitsi instance installed by one of the members. During a recent session, one contributor complained about a real problem she faced, as she put it: All my non-FOSS friends keep asking me ‘Teach me how you work from home; I'm doing it for the first time and failing’. The answer she gave them was that what is happening now is not the “working from home” that she had trained herself for all this time.

Specifically, she meant that most of us who already work from home have built quite easy routines of having the home to ourselves. Roommates, children, life partners, and family who live in the house often have at least some of their day when they're away. Now, everyone is staying at home, so the personal procedures and systems that those of us who stay while the others go have simply evaporated.

My colleague's observation was quite salient. I've seen plenty of articles talking about how to work from home, but few have tips for how to handle the unique situation where everyone in the house and must all work from home together. I have a few ideas that I thought might help in this regard. Admittedly, some of these tips are likely FOSS-specific, but if you've found this article and don't work in FOSS, there might still be a hint or two that helps. Here's a list of changes that I've made that have really worked for me:

  • Hour-shift if you can. If you're able to, attempt to try new times of day. For me, I've been attempting to wake up earlier than everyone else in the house and get a few hours of work before others in the home start their day. Our Executive Director, Karen Sandler, has been working late in the evening after her children are in bed. Of course, shifting to inconvenient times is difficult and annoying, but we've found it can help to fit in a few hours of focused work during these difficult times.

  • Reorganize rote tasks for right time of day. When lots of people are around the house, some times of the day are inherently going to be louder and more chaotic than others. Keeping that in mind, I often try to plan out a day so that tasks that require serious concentration are scheduled for the most quiet moments and rote tasks are saved for those moments when it feels like nothing else can be done. For example, if I have to write complex correspondence with FOSS project leaders, I try to do that early in the morning, and save the Git repository reorganization project — which is mostly waiting for long rebases to finish and cherry-picking changes from other branches — for those times when my quarantined neighbor is power-washing his driveway.

  • Mix housework with conference calls. My colleagues at Conservancy already know this, but for those of you who have been on the phone with me now may be in for a shock: if you've had a conference call with me recently, I was probably loading or unloading my dishwasher, cleaning the kitchen, or doing laundry while I spoke with you. The amount of housework for all of us has gone up now that we're all going nowhere else, and it's tough for all of us to fit it in. Most of our work in FOSS is at a keyboard, but for those moments when I don't need the keyboard and screen in front of me, I look for tasks that need attention that I can easily do while wearing a headset. Of course, I recommend the double-mute button solution to really ensure that your colleagues don't hear the kitchen sink spigot on the line!

  • Not everything needs a video chat. Video chat is now mainstream and everyone seems to want to use it. Of course, I (and all of us at Conservancy) encourage use of FOSS solutions, such as Jitsi and Big Blue Button. However, not every meeting needs a video chat, and, fitting with the previous point, being tied to your desk for a long video chat at a time when you're in a crowded house can be difficult. Encourage your colleagues to use a simple phone call when it will do for a meeting. Use a mobile or cordless phone so you can take a walk while talking, even if it's just wandering around the house. Furthermore, being cognizant to the increased noise levels in all our homes — be it from children playing, or that power washer next door that I mentioned — consider meetings on IRC, XMPP or other forms of FOSS online chat. This also allows folks the flexibility to step away for an emergency and come back to catch up.

  • Keep working on context switching skills. I admit that I envy people who can truly multitask and keep clear attention on two complicated things at once. It's a skill that I've never been able to develop, but there's another skill that can be equally valuable: the ability to switch between two tasks quickly. Those of us that program know that speeding up context switches on a computer speeds just about everything up on the computer. It's also (at least a bit) true with a person. If you can handle a surprise issue that someone in your house is asking you about, and quickly return to work without losing too much time to re-acclimate yourself, it really helps to keep work efficient during these tough times. Like any skill, it requires practice to develop. I find the best way to practice is be very mindful about what I'm working on at any moment and why, and when a distraction comes along, I evaluate it carefully by sub-vocalizing, and then note down something about where I was with the task I'm on before switching. I find that even the briefest of notes (3-5 words) makes a huge difference when I attempt to swap the task back into my mind.

Finally, keep in mind that one good fact in the sea of bad things in our world is that all of humanity is facing COVID-19 together. Those of us who are fortunate enough to do our jobs from relative safety in our home owe it to do our best to work efficiently and keep going, while the essential workers who are caring for the sick, searching for a vaccine and shelving our grocery stores take risks on our behalf to help our society survive the pandemic. I try to have empathy for all the others facing challenges that are greater than mine during the pandemic, and do the best I can in my own work to honor their sacrifices.

Tags: conservancy, FOSS Sustainability, resources

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