UX Stability

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When I help friends and family with technical issues, or listen to them complain generally about their tech issues, one big theme comes up often: the upgrade treadmill. I don’t just mean that they complain that they have to always buy a new computer (though this is certainly an issue), but when they get a new computer they don’t know how it works. Every time an update for any piece of software installs, they have to learn their system all over again. And they feel like they didn’t really have a great handle on it to begin with.

This, I believe, actually leads to users being less willing to learn in the first place, since they (often rightly) believe that any knowledge they gain will be obliterated by changes to their User eXperience in short order. Software systems are, in this way, very user-hostile.

One way to solve this problem might be to simply not install updates, but this leads to a whole host of issues. The first one technical people will talk about is that not installing updates means your computer is even more full of security holes than usual. Enterprise-focused solutions involve so-called “Long Term Support”, where security fixes are backported to older versions of software for some support window. This can help in the short-term, but faces its own dilemma: if the support term is too short, then users are still upgrading fairly often, and the longer you make the support term, the longer users have to wait for new features and (sometimes) bugfixes.

But wait! Don’t the users not want new features? Isn’t this a good thing? Wrong. Users want updates what they don’t want is change. When Firefox gains the ability to play a new kind of video, users want that, because they want the webpages they visit to work. When Libreoffice improves support for a popular file format, users want that, because they want to be able to open files they get sent. Even straight-up new functionality may be welcome in certain cases. So long as the new feature does not invalidate the user’s existing workflow. This is the key. A user that can trust their workflow will keep working (and you won’t replace all their menus with new menus, or worse, non-menus) is (I think) more willing to learn to begin with. Certainly more happy in the long run.

So keeping a system stable in the way that, say, Debian or RHEL or Ubuntu LTS do is a very useful start, but it’s not the whole story. We need a system that stays the same (or at least, whose core components change very little) while also receiving bug fixes and new functionality. Backporting, from time to time, bugfixes and new features in a way that preserves the user’s experience. For what support window? This is a big task, and starting with shorter timeframes may be needed, but ultimately? Forever. Or for the life of the users at least. A user should never be put into a position where they are forced to re-learn their system just to keep using it. Computers are tools that many people find essential to their daily lives, and there is a duty to provide them with systems that keep working, not just technically, but for the user.

Obviously, we cannot achieve this with proprietary software, so software freedom is an important part of this. And also, we cannot easily achieve it with any application that delivers the UI remotely (such as a “web app”), so native clients for popular web applications and similar technology may be needed in order to be able to provide this kind of stability. This is not a small task that we can accomplish overnight, but I believe it is part of the essential solution to the problems our society faces with their daily computing needs.

Disney, Copyright, Trademark

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Some interesting thoughts on Copyright and Trademark from Twitter:

@doctorow said at

Mickey Mouse is almost certainly in the public domain already, because of procedural missteps in registration/renewal of PLANE CRAZY

@doctorow said at

But Mickey is also a trademark, so spending millions to establish that Plane Crazy put Mickey in the public domain would get you very little

@doctorow said at

Disney would use trademark law to shut down any commercial use of Mickey, whether or not PLANE CRAZY was public domain

@jmcgarry0 said at

@doctorow This why I always thought the copyright thing was sort of silly. Trademark will let them control characters forever.

@JulianLives said at

@doctorow A great example of this is Tarzan, who entered the public domain in the 2000s, but who is under trademark by the ERB Estate.

@doctorow said at

Tarzan’s just copyffraud (same as Conan/Lovecraft/Buck Rogers, and until recently, Sherlock

@doctorow said at

Much as they’d prefer to keep rivals from making their own Pinocchios, they’re really worried about $0.99 reissues (re:

@doctorow said at

Of course. That’s not the point. Disney worries about commercial works based on their work and cheaper editions (re:

@doctorow said at

If Disney fails to secure copyright term extension in 2018, then by 2028, it will also lose Snow White

@doctorow said at

Five years later, it will lose Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, Bambi, and Saludos Amigos

@doctorow said at

By the time we get to works from 1950, Disney starts to lose 1 major film/year:

@doctorow said at

That’s why Disney fights tooth and nail to keep Steamboat Willie in copyright: nothing to do with Mickey, really

@doctorow said at

No, they’re buying other franchise because they’re fully financialized (as are all other major corps) (re:

@doctorow said at

When you make big bets that are closely watched by shareholders, you hedge those bets.

@doctorow said at

That’s because Disney has a lot of capital. Large bets, well made, are better bets than small undercapitalized ones (re:

@doctorow said at

This produces winner-take-all effects that also choke out new franchise development

@doctorow said at

The best predictor of success in your next film is remaking a film that was already successful.

@doctorow said at

The intrinsic conservatism of large film bets means more remakes, reboots, sequels and prequels from all parties

@doctorow said at

Financialized orgs prefer making capital investments to actually making stuff.

About Public Domain Day

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Mike Linksvayer says:

Copyright is unjust. Works created under that regime are tainted. Extreme position: the disappearing of works subject to copyright is a good, for those works are toxic for having been created under the unjust regime.

While I understand where he is coming from, I have to disagree with this position. Many works released under a highly-restrictive “All Rights Reserved” license are done so more out of laziness than anything else. If a creator creates something they wish to share with the world, but is not aware of how the system is at work to prevent sharing (many creators I find to be unaware or misinformed, generally, about copyright) we should definitely celebrate the liberation of that work. That the liberation may eventually come through the expiry of the copyright and not through a conscious act of the creator does not, in my view, taint that liberation.

While a poorly-documented copyright holder or future retroactive extension may steal this work back from us, the same holds true even for work born free. We take at face value most declarations of a free birth, but poor documentations or changes in the law may yet steal more of even these works from us (though, of course, we work to avoid that fate).

Separately, I believe that Linksvayer sees works that have spawned significant proprietary legacies (take for example, James Bond) are tainted by these legacies. In this case I agree that the acceptance to the commons of the origins of such a legacy (such as the James Bond novels) must be taken with caution, since anything building on this source often serves to promote the still-encumbered legacy more than it does to add to the commons, and may even run afoul of legal actions by the owners of such legacy (similar to the problem of clean room reverse-engineering).

However, without an effective system of cultural copyleft (which we lack, though CC-BY-SA is a fine attempt) there is nothing to prevent a fully-encumbered legacy from springing from born-free work. There we would find ourselves stuck with the same conundrum. If a proprietary television program based on, say, Pepper & Carrot became very popular, would it thus become useless as a free body of work? Would we have to move on for fear of providing more benefit to the encumbered program than to the existing free work? I hope not, but I don’t know the answer.

So, I say, celebrate Public Domain Day! Much new work enters the commons, not just the select samples that have spawned an encumbered legacy. Use, study, share, remix!

in reply to

How About That Tablet?

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Last year I announced that I would spend a good chunk of 2015 working on the creation of a freedom-respecting tablet computer. How did that go?

Well, first, unsurprisingly, I ran into the massive wall of companies-will-not-talk-to-you. I only managed to get a tiny number of PCAP vendors to even begin discussions with me, and even fewer were willing to sell me prototyping gear. I spent too much on some stuff that ultimately wouldn’t work well (too bulky/heavy) but that I’m still tinkering with anyway. However, back to where I started, I eventually got in touch with people at Chalkboard Electronics about doing custom/bulk orders. They will do very small (MoQ 100) custom board spins (for simple changes like “please use LVDS directly instead of a built-in HDMI converter”). I have tested their generally-available hardware with my Novena and it works quite well.

The software situation is overall much better than I expected. Many GNOME applications support multitouch gestures already, and there are several on-screen keyboards that work reasonably well. Auto-rotation of the display on the Novena is a pretty simple shell-script. Though getting a browser that works well might be some more effort.

The battery situation turned out to be more complex than I had imagined. There is no (that I have found) good, free-design USB battery charging + passthrough solution. Maxim proved to be pretty willing to sell an eval kit for their MAX8895 series if I want to try building a solution based on that. The Novena and PiTop both use a higher-voltage barrel-jack charger, which could work for a tablet but is not ideal. The PiTop ended up going with a “smart battery”, so there is not reusable part to try there. I have an extra Novena battery board that I hope to experiment with this year and get it to power alternate SBCs.

I also got distracted this year, not least of all by my Free Culture project which resulted in a (very) small-run print of the Big Buck Bunny Board Book, of which I gave one to my niece for Christmas.

Also making good-looking progress is LKCL’s projects at rhombus-tech. While he has some strange ideas, he seems very close to executing on the laptop design and has been quite willing to share information about his suppliers, etc.

So where next? Am I going to really build a tablet for sale? Probably not any time soon. But I’ve learned a lot, and will keep tinkering with the hardware that I have. Maybe I’ll get a battery charging solution working this year, that would be nice.

A Non-viable Professional Remix

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Last night, I went with my fiancée and her family to see Canadian legends Barenaked Ladies in concert. Near the end of their set, they launched into what I later heard called a “mashup of pop songs”: a delightful medley of everything from current pop hits, to Bohemian Rhapsody, finishing with a wild rendition of Let It Go. A performance that connected with most everyone in the audience, and was for some their favourite part of the show. By quoting from the culture around them, they created a piece that resonated deeply with the audience.

Part way through, my fiancée turned to me and said, “Stop thinking about copyright infringements.” But I wasn’t. I was thinking about how sad it is that they would never release something like that on an album.

You see, I wasn’t thinking about infringements because none were obvious. The venue where the concert took place has an up-to-date license from SOCAN, the copyright collective administering compulsory licensing for musical public performance in Canada. They could thus perform any song or derivative of a song that they wished to, because the license has already been cleared. This gives performers an avenue for free expression at their concerts without fear.

Then why might they not be able to record the piece? In Canada, there is no compulsory license for recordings of music, only for public performances. In order to record this kind of music the group would have to trace each composition they wished to honour, find the current copyright holder, and negotiate a license. A negotiation that the copyright holder is not even required to engage in. If any holder of any song cannot be found, or simply is not interested in participating, then the project dies. If they’re lucky, the songs are covered by a licensor like CMRRA, but they will have to research each individual piece to find out. If they want an International or radio release, then more research must be undertaken in each new jurisdiction, since licensing regimes are different everywhere.

Even with a major label behind them, this kind of task is quite daunting. And so, this kind of culturally-resonant art stays confined to concert performances and bootleg YouTube camera videos (which eventually get taken down, because they are infringements).

This is just one poignant example of how productive arts are often strangled by the lack of culturally-relevant works from the commons to quote, and a lack of legal structures to empower artists.