Daily Archives: September 17, 2006

Release 2: open-source + volunteers => open-source-volunteers

The about 100 prior postings here collectively constitute “release 1” of this project. They are various musings with open source as the dominant theme, written on my own time as an exercise in this new thing called blogging, to see if I could find any value in it, and in the hope that it might provide some entertainment — and perhaps from time to time even some insight — to those who came across it.

Release 1 had as its theme “open source.” Going forward, as we start work on “release 2,” we will have a new — and even more fundamental — theme, that represented by the word “volunteer.”

By volunteer I mean a person who offers a service of their own free will: something that person has chosen to do, not something that is normally expected or that was paid for, though of course one can can choose to do something which is expected and perhaps even paid for. For example, we all have an obligation — and society has the expectation — to educate our children. A special few even care about this so much that they get special training so they help train our children; they are our educators. They are paid for this work, but we all know that they aren’t paid enough, which means they are volunteers. They are giving more than we should expect and we should be thankful for their service.

By “service” I mean efforts undertaken to assist, or on behalf of, educational and non-profit organizations.

I am not talking about efforts to enlist people to volunteer their time to work on open source projects, though perhaps some of that will happen as part of this project.

Yes, open source is a collaborative effort relying on volunteer efforts, but it has become more than that. And all the developers hard at work as I write this don’t need to be told they are volunteers.

But what if a few of the folks with open source skills, especially the open source developers who write the code so many have come to rely on, stepped back from their work, looked for the appropriate opportunities, and volunteered to use their skills on a part-time basis to help educational or non-profit organizations?

And what if some the folks with open source skills realized the success of open source is not just due to the code that has been — and is being — written, but is due in no small measure to the model for team building and collaborative innovation that has been developed and perfected over the last decade or so? That model has both fueled, and been fueled by, the growth of the internet.

And what if some of those skilled developers were being paid to write open source code because their employers needed it to meet a requirement or to further a strategic objective?

And what if some of those employers felt a corporate responsibility to be a good citizen of the community, to encourage and support volunteer efforts by their employees?

And what if some group tried to educate both those employees and their employers on the opportunities to use open source technology to provide new solutions and to start new innovation in the educational and non-profit sector?

I think those are *very* interesting questions. I plan to spend the next few years working with others to look for answers to some of them, doing this work on a volunteer basis as time permits.

“I’m by myself.”

As I was just starting to compose what wll be the next entry in this series, I happened to visit the internal IBM website and came across an article entitled, “‘I’m by myself.’ Tips for staying connected in a mobile world.'” It begins by noting that about 20% of my IBM colleagues work from home, and goes on to say that while many employees find it more productive with fewer distractions, others find it it a be a challenge due to their isolation.

It’s equally a challenge to begin a new project, especially where you start just as a team of one with a goal that you know will require the help of others.

The article includes a number of tips to employees to help them feel like part of a team even when their work address is also their home address. I won’t copy all the tips here, but here are a few that also apply when starting a new project:

 

  • Find a mentor or become a mentor.
  • Don’t always rely on technology. Pick up the phone and call a team member, it’s more personal than instant messaging.
  • Communication is key. Set up weekly or biweekly calls.
  • Have a team call/meeting once a quarter where the agenda is just about getting to know each other, not about work. Have some fun.
  • Join a local group and participate in their events.
  • Volunteer for projects or opportunities that will give you exposure beyond your immediate work group.
  • Try what one mobile employee calls “speed mentoring.” Reach out to others in your area. Invite them to lunch and find out more about their job and organization.

Keep in mind the suggestions about volunteering and having fun. We’ll by trying to follow them soon…

 

 

Security Through Obscurity

Some software is not secure — it is vulnerable to attack. Witness the all to numerous prevalence of security fixes; patches to commercial operating systems and open source packages; the amount of criminal activity, notably in the form of “phishing,” that has been enabled by security lapses.

This is the subject immediate concern and ongoing debate, and incomparisons between commercial and open software you wll find mention of “security through obscurity.” One group argues that software should not be available in source form, as doing so makes it harder for attackers to mount attacks and they must first deduce how the software works. Another school argues that it is better for the software to be open, so it can be freely examined by both attackers and defenders, on the grounds that the collective efforts of the defenders will result in changes that will make the software less vulnerable to attack.

By the way,I once asked a leading expert at IBM about this issue, not so much about open versus closed, but as to whether it made much difference what programing language was used. Was Java more secure than C or C++, that sort of thing? The gist of his response was “it really doesn’t matter. Writing secure software is hard, and you will about the same number of bugs per thousand lines of software.”

But I write this not to engage in the security debate, but to express the lesson I took away from my brief encounter with non-obscurity recounted in the previous posts, namely:

Don’t write a blog expecting that anyone will read it. It’s hard to write an interesting blog that will attract attention and there are millions of other bloggers competing for attention. You are laboring in obscurity.

But I also find this observation liberating. It means that while of course you are writing words you hope you will be read, you should only write those words if the act of doing so brings its own rewards. One of them is to improve your writing skills. Another is to clarify your thoughts. And, perhaps most important, you need to find something to write about to which you can bring a passion that goes beyond your own private views and concerns.

Put another way, you aren’t really writing to attrach the attention of others. You should write only if you can atract and sustain your own attention and, knowing that you are laboring in obscurity, you should not play it safe, but need be willing to take a risk, to try something new.

Me Tube

Soon after the posting of #95 back in March that was followed by the modicum of attention reported in #96, I had another brief brush with non-obscurity.

I attended LinuxWorld Boston in early April of this year. LinuxWorld (LW) is one of the major Linux / Open Source trade shows. I was at the first one back in March 1999. This was the most memorable in that I was there as part of the IBM booth to talk about the Jikes Project. It was challenging in that I manned my part of the booth with no backup and so spent 22 hours on the floor over the course of three days. The most rewarding part was the occasional chance to chat with someone who was actually using Jikes.

Another memorable LW was in New York in February 2003. This was just as I was about to begin my current job at IBM helping to manage various open source activities, and by chance it happened that I met several other members of the team who all happened to be at LW. Indeed, some of them had never met each other personally before.

LW is a mix of keynote speeches by well-known speakers from industry and the open source community and an “exposition” consisting mainly of booths from companies such as Red Hat, Novell, IBM, Oracle, and so forth.

My favorite part of the exposition is something known as the “dot org” section. This is where you find the folks from the open source community, groups such as the Free Software Foundation, Gentoo, NetBSD (and other BSD’s), Slashdot, and so forth. This section can usually be found in the back of the hall, the part much less spiffy than the entry part with the major vendor presentations.

But the amateurish atmosphere is more than balanced by the folks you meet there. For example, while visiting the booth of one of the New York user groups a couple of years back, I got to talking with another visitor, only to learn he was Klaus Knopper, the creator of Knoppix, the prototype Linux LiveCD effort. At another LW I met Daniel Robbins, creator of Gentoo; this was personally interesting in that at the time he was living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which happens to be my home town. (He later left for a brief sojurn at Microsoft and has since returned to live and work in ABQ.)

(One can trace the history of Linux and Open Source in part by the size of the “dot org” crowd. In the early days it was a substantial presence. As Linux has gained widespread use and corporate use you will find more “suits”, and less “dot org” folks. Though the “dot org” presence is shrinking it’s still the place to have the most fun and meet the most interesting people.)

If you dig back into my prior posts you will see I have a special fondness for Slashdot, so while in Boston I was pleased to see Slashdot had its own booth in the backwaters of the hall. I introduced myself to some of the folks there and soon found my self talking to Robin “Roblimo” Miller himself.
Roblimo has been writing about Linux and Open Source for a long time. He’s one of my favorite writers in that I’ve always enjoyed his articles. They are very pragmatic and down to earth. Also, as I explained to him, I was aware his nickname “roblimo” is based on his background running a limousine service, and I have had a similar experience in my dual role of “hacker Dave.” I have spent most of my career as a programmer, along the way acquiring the Ph.D. that was the key credential that helped me secure a job at IBM Research as a research programmer. That is “hacker dave” the programmer. But I was once “hacker Dave” the New York taxi driver. I drove a taxi part time in the months before my PhD orals since I realized I could not learn the necessary amount of mathematics and computer science needed to pass that exam while also continuing to program; programing would be too convenient an excuse not to study.

Soon after I started chatting with Rob, in part about my experiences with Slashdot back in 1998, he picked up a video camera, pointed it at me, and asked if I would please describe some of those experiences.

The result can be found at Glimpses of LinuxWorld . (There is also a brief cameo appearance by Bruce Perens, my “license consultant” from the Jikes days.)

The article also contains the video he shot. If you bother to view it you will find me staring off into space from time to time. This was because I knew both that I was describing events involving IBM and that IBM has strict rules about talking to the press, and here I was not not only being interviewed but was being recorded so there could be no question about just what I had said. In any event I threw caution into the winds and went ahead.

After the article was posted I decided to run a simple experiment. While I told a few family members about it so they could take a look I consciously decided not to mention it to anyone else, as I was curious to see if anyone would notice it, perhaps even send me a note about it.

Those who have read the prior post can guess the result: nothing, not a mention, not a whiff of notice.

Hopes dashed by the WordPress Dashboard

My previous Post #95, “The Open Source is a Dumpster Myth,” attracted a modicum of attention. I first made it as a
comment about an article or comment at one Linux site, and mentioned my blog in that posting. Soon thereafter the post
was noticed, in the form of a short summary posted on another, much more well-known site, NewsForge, as one of their
news feeds: http://newsvac.newsforge.com/newsvac/06/03/20/1616250.shtml .

This was the first-ever mention of one of my posts in a public forum, and I was keen to see the response. I had high
hopes.

As you know I’m using WordPress (WP) to write this blog, and as an author when I log into WP I am given several options:
New Post: write a new post;

My Account: modify my account profile;

My Dashboard, which includes among its features reports on blog activity. As I recall there was a definite spurt of activity that soon — very soon — dropped off.

I just took a look at the blog stats as of today, several months after that post (I’ll discuss the reasons for the
hiatus in my blogging in a future post). The status includes a display of the activity over the last 30 days, along with
the number of total views to date, and the number of views of the Best Day Ever. Here are the current results as of
today, 17 September 2006:

Total Views, 407; Best Day Ever, 140; and the graph for the last 30 days shows an average of no views of most days,
with two views on two of those 30 days.

What is notable is that over one third of the reads of my blog to date were on just one day, soon after posting #95.

I had another brief flurry of attention. I’ll talk about that in the next post, and then on to describe some of the lessons about blogging I have learned so far.

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