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Name: Luis Villa
Member since: 1999-11-09
Last Login: 2008-07-15 03:49:38

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Homepage: http://tieguy.org/


A former maintainer of legOS, I'm now actively involved in GNOME as bugmaster and release team member. I haven't updated my advo page since advo was in beta; please don't expect that to change drastically. :)

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Software that liberates people: feels about FSF@30 and OSFeels@1

tl;dr: I want to liberate people ; software is a (critical) tool to that end. There is a conference this weekend that understands that, but I worry it isn’t FSF’s.

Feelings are facts, by wrote, CC BY 2.0

This morning, social network chatter reminded me of FSF‘s 30th birthday celebration. These travel messages were from friends who I have a great deal of love and respect for, and represent a movement to which I essentially owe my adult life.

Despite that, I had lots of mixed feels about the event. I had a hard time capturing why, though.

While I was still processing these feelings, late tonight, Twitter reminded me of a new conference also going on this weekend, appropriately called Open Source and Feelings. (I badly wanted to submit a talk for it, but a prior commitment kept me from both it and FSF@30.)

I saw the OSFeels agenda for the first time tonight. It includes:

  • Design and empathy (learning to build open software that empowers all users, not just the technically sophisticated)
  • Inclusive development (multiple talks about this, including non-English, family, and people of color) (so that the whole planet can access, and participate in developing, open software)
  • Documentation (so that users understand open software)
  • Communications skills (so that people feel welcome and engaged to help develop open software)

This is an agenda focused on liberating human beings by developing software that serves their needs, and engaging them in the creation of that software. That is incredibly exciting. I’ve long thought (following Sen and Nussbaum’s capability approach) that it is not sufficient to free people; they must be empowered to actually enjoy the benefits of that freedom. This is a conference that seems to get that, and I can’t wait to go (and hopefully speak!) next year.

The Free Software Foundation event’s agenda:

  • licenses
  • crypto
  • boot firmware
  • federation

These are important topics. But there is clearly a difference in focus here — technology first, not people. No mention of community, or of design.

This difference in focus is where this morning’s conflicted feels came from. On the one hand, I support FSF, because they’ve done an incredible amount to make the world a better place. (OSFeels can take open development for granted precisely because FSF fought so many battles about source code.) But precisely because I support FSF, I’d challenge it, in the next 15 years, to become more clearly and forcefully dedicated to liberating people. In this world, FSF would talk about design, accessibility, and inclusion as much as licensing, and talk about community-building protocols as much as communication protocols. This is not impossible: LibrePlanet had at least some people-focused talks (e.g.), and inclusion and accessibility are a genuine concern of staff, even if they didn’t rise to today’s agenda. But it would still be a big change, because at the deepest level, it would require FSF to see source code as just one of many requirements for freedom, rather than “the point of free software“.

At the same time, OSFeels is clearly filled with people who see the world through a broad, thoughtful ethical lens. It is a sad sign, both for FSF and how it is perceived, that such a group uses the deliberately apolitical language of openness rather than the language of a (hopefully) aligned ethical movement — free software. I’ll look forward to the day (maybe FSF’s 45th (or 31st!) birthday) that both groups can speak and work together about their real shared concern: software that liberates people. I’d certainly have no conflicted feelings about signing up for a conference on that :)

Syndicated 2015-10-03 06:22:27 from Luis Villa » Blog

Wikimania 2015 – random thoughts and observations

Random thoughts from Wikimania, 2015 edition (2013, 2014):

"Wikimania 2015 Reception at Laboratorio Arte Alameda - 02" by Jarek Tuszynski,  under CC BY 4.0
Wikimania 2015 Reception at Laboratorio Arte Alameda – 02” by Jarek Tuszynski, under CC BY 4.0
  • Dancing: After five Wikimedia events (not counting WMF all-hands) I was finally dragged onto the dance floor on the last night. I’ll never be Garfield, but I had fun anyway. The amazing setting did not hurt.
  • Our hosts: The conference was excellently organized and run. I’ve never had Mexico City high on my list of “places I must see” but it moved up many spots after this trip.
  • First timers: I always enjoy talking to people who have never been to Wikimania before. They almost always seem to have enjoyed it, but of course the ones I talk to are typically the ones who are more outgoing and better equipped to enjoy things. I do hope we’re also being welcome to people who don’t already know folks, or who aren’t as outgoing.
  • Luis von Ahn: Good to chat briefly with my long-ago classmate. I thought the Q&A section of his talk was one of the best I’ve seen in a long time. There were both good questions and interesting answers, which is more rare than it should be.

“More than half of @duolingo‘s engineers work on figuring how to engage our users.” –@LuisvonAhn #Wikimania2015 pic.twitter.com/RU3nCqHoDY

— Moiz Syed (@MoizSyed) July 18, 2015

  • Keynotes: I’d love to have one keynote slot each year for a contributor to talk about their work within the movement. Finding the right person would be a challenge, of course, as could language barriers, but it seems like it should be doable.
  • US English: I was corrected on my Americanisms and the occasional complexity of my sentence structure. It was a good reminder that even for fairly sophisticated speakers of English as a second language, California-English is not terribly clear. This is especially true when spoken. Verbose slides can help, which is a shame, since I usually prefer minimal slides. I will try to work on that in the future, and see how we can help other WMFers do the same.
  • Mobile: Really hope someday we can figure out how to make the schedule legible on a mobile device :) Good reminder we’ve got a long way to go there.
  • Community engagement: I enjoyed my departments “engage with” session, but I think next year we need to make it more interactive—probably with something like an introduction/overview followed by a World Cafe-style discussion. One thing we did right was to take questions on written cards. This helped indicate what the most important topics were (when questions were repeated), avoided the problem of lecture-by-question, and opened the floor to people who might otherwise be intimidated because of language barriers or personality. Our booth was also excellent and I’m excited to see some of the stories that came out of it.
  • Technology and culture: After talking about how we’d used cards to change the atmosphere of a talk, someone deliberately provoked me: shouldn’t we address on-wiki cultural issues the same way, by changing the “technology” used for discussion? I agree that technology can help improve things, and we should think about it more than we do (e.g.) but ultimately it can only be part of the solution – our most difficult problems will definitely require work on culture as well as interfaces. (Surprisingly, my 2009 post on this topic holds up pretty well.)
  • Who is this for? I’ve always felt there was some tension around whether the conference is for “us” or for the public, but never had language for it. An older gentleman who I spoke with for a while finally gave me the right term: is it an annual meeting or is it a public conference? Nothing I saw here changed my position, which is that it is more annual meeting than public conference, at least until we get much better at turning new users into long-term users.
  • Esino Lario looks like it will be a lot of fun. I strongly support the organizing committee’s decision to focus less on brief talks and more on longer, more interactive conversations. That is clearly the best use of our limited time together. I’m also excited that they’re looking into blind submissions (which I suggested in my Wikimania post from last year).
  • Being an exec: I saw exactly one regular talk that was not by my department, though I did have lots and lots of conversations. I’m still not sure how I feel about this tradeoff, but I know it will become even harder if we truly do transition to a model with more workshops/conversations and fewer lectures, since those will be both more valuable and more time-consuming/less flexible.
  • Some day: I wrote most of this post in the Mexico City airport, and saw that there are flights from there to La Habana. I hope someday we can do a Wikimania there.

Syndicated 2015-07-23 03:12:54 from Luis Villa » Blog

What tools are changing our world next?

Quick brain dump after a bike ride home: free software took a huge leap in the late 90s and early 00s in large part because of non-ideological advantages that the rest of the world is now competing with or surpassing:

HDR automatically created from old pictures of Muir Woods by Google Photos.
HDR automatically created by Google Photos from my old pictures of Muir Woods. Not perfect, but better than I ever bothered to do!
  • Collaboration tools: Because we got to the ‘net first, our tools for collaborating with each other were simply better than what proprietary developers were doing: cvs, mailman, wiki, etc., were all better than the silo’d old-school tools. Modern best-of-breed collaboration tools have all learned from what we did and added proprietary sauce on top: github, slack, Google Docs, etc. So our tools that are now (at best) as productive as our proprietary counterparts, and sometimes less productive but ideologically agreeable.
  • Release processes: “Release early/release often” made us better partners for our users. We’re now actively behind here: compare how often a mobile app or web user gets updates, exactly as the author intended, relative to a user of a modern Linux distro.
  • Zero cost: We did things for no (direct) cost by subsidizing our work through college, startups, or consulting gigs; now everyone has a subsidize-by-selling-something-else model (usually advertising, though sometimes freemium). Again, advantage (mostly?) lost.
  • Knowing our users: We knew a lot about our users, because we were our biggest users, and we talked to other users a lot; this was more effective than what passed for software design in the late 90s. This has been eclipsed by extensive a/b testing throughout the industry, and (to a lesser extent) by more extensive usage of direct user testing and design-thinking.

None of these are terribly original observations – all of these have been remarked on before. But after playing some with Google Photos this weekend, I’m ready to add another one to the list:

Worth asking what your project is doing that could be radically changed if your competitors get access to new technology. For example, for Wikipedia:

  • Collaborating: Wiki was best-of-breed (or close); it isn’t anymore. Visual Editor helps get editing back to par, but the social aspect of collaboration is still lacking relative to the expectations of many users.
  • Knowledge creation: big groups of humans, working together wiki-style, is the state of the art for creating useful, non-BS knowledge at scale. With the aforementioned machine learning, I suspect this will no longer the case in a (growing) number of domains.

I’m sure there are others…

Syndicated 2015-06-06 15:00:06 from Luis Villa » Blog

Come work with me – developer edition!

It has been a long time since I was able to say to developer friends “come work with me” in anything but the most abstract “come work under the same roof” kind of sense. But today I can say to developers “come work with me” and really mean it. Which is fun :)

Details: Wikimedia’s new community tech team is hiring for a community tech developer and a team lead. This will be extremely community-intensive work, so if you enjoy and get energy from working with a community and helping them achieve their goals, this could be a great role for you. This team will work intensely with my department to ensure that we’re correctly identifying and prioritizing the needs of our most active editors. If that sounds like fun, get in touch :)

[And I realize that I’ve been bad and not posted here, so here’s my new job announce: “my department” is the Foundation’s new Community Engagement department, where we work to support healthy contributor communities and help WMF-community collaboration. It is a detour from law, but I’ve always said law was just a way to help people do their thing — so in that sense is the same thing I’ve always been doing. It has been an intense roller coaster of a first two months, and I look forward to much more of the same.]

Syndicated 2015-05-06 05:51:20 from Luis Villa » Blog

Free-riding and copyleft in cultural commons like Flickr

Flickr recently started selling prints of Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike photos without sharing any of the revenue with the original photographers. When people were surprised, Flickr said “if you don’t want commercial use, switch the photo to CC non-commercial”.

This seems to have mostly caused two reactions:

  1. This is horrible! Creative Commons is horrible!”
  2. “Commercial reuse is explicitly part of the license; I don’t understand the anger.”

I think it makes sense to examine some of the assumptions those users (and many license authors) may have had, and what that tells us about license choice and design going forward.

Free ride!!, by https://www.flickr.com/photos/dhinakaran/
Free ride!!, by Dhinakaran Gajavarathan, under CC BY 2.0

Free riding is why we share-alike…

As I’ve explained before here, a major reason why people choose copyleft/share-alike licenses is to prevent free rider problems: they are OK with you using their thing, but they want the license to nudge (or push) you in the direction of sharing back/collaborating with them in the future. To quote Elinor Ostrom, who won a Nobel for her research on how commons are managed in the wild, “[i]n all recorded, long surviving, self-organized resource governance regimes, participants invest resources in monitoring the actions of each other so as to reduce the probability of free riding.” (emphasis added)

… but share-alike is not always enough

Copyleft is one of our mechanisms for this in our commons, but it isn’t enough. I think experience in free/open/libre software shows that free rider problems are best prevented when three conditions are present:

  • The work being created is genuinely collaborative — i.e., many authors who contribute similarly to the work. This reduces the cost of free riding to any one author. It also makes it more understandable/tolerable when a re-user fails to compensate specific authors, since there is so much practical difficulty for even a good-faith reuser to evaluate who should get paid and contact them.
  • There is a long-term cost to not contributing back to the parent project. In the case of Linux and many large software projects, this long-term cost is about maintenance and security: if you’re not working with upstream, you’re not going to get the benefit of new fixes, and will pay a cost in backporting security fixes.
  • The license triggers share-alike obligations for common use cases. The copyleft doesn’t need to perfectly capture all use cases. But if at least some high-profile use cases require sharing back, that helps discipline other users by making them think more carefully about their obligations (both legal and social/organizational).

Alternately, you may be able to avoid damage from free rider problems by taking the Apache/BSD approach: genuinely, deeply educating contributors, before they contribute, that they should only contribute if they are OK with a high level of free riding. It is hard to see how this can work in a situation like Flickr’s, because contributors don’t have extensive community contact.1

The most important takeaway from this list is that if you want to prevent free riding in a community-production project, the license can’t do all the work itself — other frictions that somewhat slow reuse should be present. (In fact, my first draft of this list didn’t mention the license at all — just the first two points.)

Flickr is practically designed for free riding

Flickr fails on all the points I’ve listed above — it has no frictions that might discourage free riding.

  • The community doesn’t collaborate on the works. This makes the selling a deeply personal, “expensive” thing for any author who sees their photo for sale. It is very easy for each of them to find their specific materials being reused, and see a specific price being charged by Yahoo that they’d like to see a slice of.
  • There is no cost to re-users who don’t contribute back to the author—the photo will never develop security problems, or get less useful with time.
  • The share-alike doesn’t kick in for virtually any reuses, encouraging Yahoo to look at the relationship as a purely legal one, and encouraging them to forget about the other relationships they have with Flickr users.
  • There is no community education about the expectations for commercial use, so many people don’t fully understand the licenses they’re using.

So what does this mean?

This has already gone on too long, but a quick thought: what this suggests is that if you have a community dedicated to creating a cultural commons, it needs some features that discourage free riding — and critically, mere copyleft licensing might not be good enough, because of the nature of most production of commons of cultural works. In Flickr’s case, maybe this should simply have included not doing this, or making some sort of financial arrangement despite what was legally permissible; for other communities and other circumstances other solutions to the free-rider problem may make sense too.

And I think this argues for consideration of non-commercial licenses in some circumstances as well. This doesn’t make non-commercial licenses more palatable, but since commercial free riding is typically people’s biggest concern, and other tools may not be available, it is entirely possible it should be considered more seriously than free and open source software dogma might have you believe.

  1. It is open to discussion, I think, whether this works in Wikimedia Commons, and how it can be scaled as Commons grows.

Syndicated 2014-12-02 16:14:16 from Luis Villa » Blog

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