57 Channels (And Nothing On)

Posted on 29th January 2009

This Christmas the UK TV programme schedulers and makers obviously decided to have a holiday like the rest of us. Thus what we got was Dr Who, barely a handful of decent films and a vast amount of dross. I thought it was bad last Christmas, but it was decidedly worse this Christmas. Having cable, you might think we have more choice ... and we do, more choice of dross.

20-30 years ago I can remember pouring over the Christmas Radio Times, trying to figure out what I should watch and what to record. Some nights it was a logistical nightmare as all 4 channels (no Channel 5 back then) would occasionally have something worth watching on. Thankfully I had 2 video recorders so I could cover 3 channels okay, but 4 required sweet talking my parents to let me borrow theirs.

Shows like the Dr Who special were a common feature at Christmas, and made for a great night in. The Dr Who special this Christmas was a gem, but it seems to have been the singleton in a once jewel encrusted crown of British TV. These days we have an overwhelming glut of "Celebrity" reality TV shows, dubious talent shows and soaps. The only saving grace has often been the comedy quiz shows, which these days are the stable diet of the Dave channel on cable, but even then you end up craving for a bit of variety.

Once upon a time I would avidly watch the Christmas Lectures, but these days they're buried in the schedules and it becomes too easy to miss them. I'd forgotten about them this year until I turned over to see the end of one. BBC used to make a big thing of the series, but this year I never saw one advert for them. I've been trying to think why other Christmas schedules were so different, but I can't really pinpoint anything precisely, apart from the feeling that there was, and has been for a while now, a distinct lack of imagination for programming schedules. I'm willing to admit that it may just be because I'm getting older, but to be quite honest, teen shows and those catering for the early 20s market are a bit sparse these days too. I get the feeling that the schedulers must be choosing programmes they don't want to watch, so they can go out and party!

Here's hoping next year we get a better choice for those who stay in and watch TV.

File Under: rant / tv
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Déjà Vu

Posted on 27th January 2009

Recently there has been a very strong reaction to a news story regarding a woman who bought a Dell laptop that came with Ubuntu preinstalled. Now until Jono's personal post, I hadn't heard about it, but after reading Jono's reaction, I decided to look into it further.

Unfortunately for the woman in question, her name is now so tightly tied to this news story, should a future employer ever search for her name, it's not necessarily going to put her in a good light. However, the same is true of the many reactionary members of the Linux and Ubuntu communities who responded to the story, and later blog posts by the news reporter. There are reactionary people in every community, whether it involves computers or not. Even though many are accutely aware that these reactionaies are a small portion of a community, and rarely represent the true community, unfortunately they by their very nature are the first to react and often shout the loudest .

In this particular news story though, there are a couple of elements to the story that don't quite ring true. Firstly, the woman claims that she accidentally ordered the laptop with Ubuntu pre-installed. Now, although Dell were very vocal about the fact they were going to offer Linux distributions on their laptops, unless you specifically search or ask, the default install is still Windows. It takes a concious effort on the part of the buyer to choose Ubuntu on their site. That's not to say she didn't somehow accidentally select the wrong operating system, but it does seem rather odd that she wasn't aware she'd done it.

Secondly, the woman claimed that she dropped out of classes for two semesters, because she couldn't install Microsoft Word (which was unfortunately implied as being a necessity for the course) or connect to her ISP. Take a moment to read the first part again. She dropped out of classes for 6 months because she couldn't get her laptop to work correctly. Personally I can't believe that she never sought help or advice from the college, friends or classmates. Ignoring the fact that Ubuntu wasn't for her, why did it have to drag on so long before she went to a news reporter to stir up a lot of bad feeling? And following on from that why go to a news reporter at all, other than to make a name for yourself? Personally I'm inclined to believe that struggled for a couple of weeks trying to sort this out, then got frustrated and thought talking to the local news channel might resolve it quicker. I'm assuming of course, but would you really wait 6 months before deciding to complain?

In this type of case the fault usually lies in one of two camps. Either Dell for not exchanging the laptop for one with Windows installed, or the woman for not contacting Dell soon enough to try and resolve the problem. Reading the story it would seem the woman did contact Dell and was told Ubuntu should work fine. Without know the exact details of the conversation, I'm inclined to say the fault lies with Dell for not replacing the laptop with a Windows install. In the UK, and I would assume the US has something similar, all online retailers must replace or refund within a set time period and product that does not meet the buyers expectations, regardless of reasons.

Had Dell replaced the laptop, without trying to convince her of the virtues of Ubuntu, this would have been a non-story. Instead it's created some very negative press for all concerned. The news reporter has since followed up the original story and after initially seeming to generate some positive feedback, settled to generate more bad press. It really is sad that news stories such as this don't get more accurately reported, but hey modern journalism is all about sensationalism, so it shouldn't be a surprise. But what saddens me much more, is the fact that so many first reactions have been to name call, harrass and belittle their percieved opponents.

Reading the pieces of the story that I have, and more specifically some of the replies, I agree with Jono. Community is about communication, and more specifically education, and not rude and offensive comments. I cannot even comprehend how these people ever thought their replies were in any way helpful. Flamewars are a waste of time and effort on all sides, and usually only serve to let the most reactionary fall into carefully laid traps. The original story now appears to have been taken down, possibly due to the overwhelming amount of hits it has received from around the world. However, the reporting itself had all the hallmarks of a trap. There were inflamatory accusations and inaccuracies, so it wasn't a surprise to discover that it got the reaction it did. Thankfully some of the replies were from well reasoned people, who did try and point out the inaccuracies, and better inform the news reporter and readers of places to find more out about Ubuntu. But the overwhelming weight has been negative and does Linux, Ubuntu and Open Source no favours.

Ubuntu is a great operating system, and has helped to advance the Linux desktop perhaps more than any other in recent years, but it isn't for everyone. In this story, the woman obviously isn't as familar with a Linux desktop as she is with a Windows desktop. I have no doubt that she could use it, but change is difficult for most people, and having learnt how to use Windows, this woman just didn't want to learn something different. Did she deserve the derision for that point of view, certainly not. And what about the perception of the Linux, Ubuntu and Open Source communities to those who are not part of them? I doubt any of them will be closer to giving any flavour of Linux a try.

In all likelihood, had this woman been able to get some reasoned advice early on, and maybe even had some technical support to get her online and using Open Office to create her Word documents, she could quite easily have been converted. Instead the reactionaries have alientated her, and only served to reinforce the wrong impression that the Linux community still has a lot of growing up to do. I doubt Linux or any Open Source community is ever going to be rid of these reactionaries, but I do wish they would realise that they do themselves, and the communities they apsire to represent, a considerable disservice.

It will be interesting to see if Jono covers these unwanted elements of communities in his new book, Art of Community, as while we all have wanted help and advice to building a community, it would also be useful to suggest ways to restrain those that might otherwise unintentially put it in a bad light. "A chain is only as strong as it's weakest link."

File Under: community / linux / opensource / rant
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Rockin' In The Free World

Posted on 26th January 2009

Earlier this month, a good friend of mine, Jono Bacon announced that we was starting to write a book about building communities. It's been a subject that has been discussed at length by many communities, many times over many years, and there is no one right answer to it. Some methods work in one context and don't in another. You see it all depends on the people, and specifically the personalities, who are part of the community and who you want to encourage (or discourage as the case may be) into joining, rather more than the project or common interest element itself.

Jono's book, titled Art Of Community, will be a look at how to build communities from different perspectives. He's getting several notable Open Source community members to help contribute their stories and it looks like it will be a really useful book for those starting a project, or user group to get some ideas of how to make it happen.

The hard part of starting any community, is promotion. Jono himself is taking note of this for the book's promotion too. You see the book itself has started a community of people who are early supporters of the book, and want to help make it a success. Part of making it a success is letting people know it exists. As Jono is already widely well know in technical communities (I've known him for about 8 years thanks to him starting WolvesLUG near me), he does have a head start. But it still needs people to talk about it, discuss it and eventually review it. I thought I'd write this blog post, partly to help promote the website that the book now has, but also make others aware that the book is being written.

I'm looking forward to reading the completed book, as apart from being a great read, I expect it to become a great source of reference for helping new communities promote themselves and florish.

Having started Birmingham Perl Mongers back in 2000, been a Perl community member, a member of the YEF Venue Committee and a major contributor to the CPAN Testers project, I've been very accutely aware how hard it can be to build a community. Though it should be noted that the building part isn't just about getting a project or user group off the ground, it's also about keeping it going, and encourage others to get involve and help the community thrive.

A good case in point is the CPAN Testers project. I first became a CPAN Tester back in 2004, and contributed several thousand reports for the Win32 platform. It was thanks to Leon presenting a BOF at 2003 YAPC::Europe in Paris, that I first became interested enough to join the volunteer effort. Shortly afterwards I started contributing to code for the smoke tools and the websites, creating the CPAN Testers Statistics website in the process. With the help of the Statistics site I was able to promote the project to other Perl programmers at YAPC events, by show how valuable the service the project provides is. Over the last few years the number of testers has grown, and the number of test reports submitted has gone from a about 100 per day to over 5,000s per day. In June 2008, Leon handed over the Reports website to me, as I was eager to improve the websites and make them more useful. Since then, I've had several developers help contribute patches and ideas to the project and it has been very encouraging to see the community driving the site forward. CPAN Testers now have their own server, a whole family of websites and a great tester community. In our case the community has built itself and mostly promoted itself from being a useful set of websites for developers. It'll be interesting to see if Jono pinpoints anything that we actually did do to build the project community and just never realised we were doing it.

I'm also interested in reading the book, as it is likely to have some useful references for a book project I'm currently working on. Although I don't plan on making it a hard copy book, it will be available online, and I hope to encourage contributions and improvements. My book doesn't have a working title as yet, but the subject matter is 'organising Open Source conferences', and will also have thoughts for workshops, hackathons and large technical meetings. The blue print for the project is based largely on my own experiences of organising The 2006 YAPC::Europe Perl Conference, but will hopefully include other thoughts and comments from conference organsiers for other Open Source events, such as the organsiers of LUGRadio Live, which Jono himself was significant instigator of. Like Art of Community, my project will also be available online under a Creative Commons license, and I'll be watching to see how the Art of Community community establishes itself and see whether there are any good ideas I could use too.

I look forward to finally reading the book, but in the meantime I'll just have to keep an eye on the Art of Community website updates.

File Under: community / opensource / people / website
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