Category Archives: Open Source

The Internet’s Own Boy

Ever since I read about the making of this movie “The Internet’s Own Boy”, I have been wanting to watch it. It is about the sad story of early demise of Aaron Swartz, the whiz kid of Internet who did pioneering work in RSS and galvanized the US public against SOPA.

The-Internets-own-boy

Last week when the movie was released it was available only as a Pay per view from Vimeo and geographically restricted to US only (later they had a different link for rest of world). It was an irony that both the restrictions (pay-wall and geography lock) was against the ethos that Aaron stood for and died for. On the other hand it raises the question of how do the producers of the movie earn their investment and livelihood, after all the $93000 raised through Kickstarter would have met only a portion of the cost. This dichotomy is not surprising as it has been the defining theme of Aaron’s life.

Fortunately the movie is now available for free from Internet Archive.

The documentary film includes original clips of Aaron Swartz at the age of 12 or 13 talking in Industry working groups on upcoming Internet standards. I have been a passive watcher in W3C lists and active member in Tamil IT standards body and first-hand I am aware on how intensive these can discussions can be. Intensive both in terms of depth of technology and the politics. Watching this kid of 12 or 13 doing that with ease was unbelievable, at the same doubles our sadness on losing him on an issue which could have been negotiated.

Aaron took his life after he was hounded by US Government (and its security agencies) with a felony carrying 75 years imprisonment and millions of dollars fine over an act of illegal download of millions of scientific papers from JSTOR (academic journal firm) archives through MIT computers. When I first read about this tragic incident early last year (January 2013) I couldn’t understand on why the US Government went all-out nuclear towards a whiz-kid who was never known to be a threat to their national security and who had potential to contribute enormous value to US economy and technology leadership. I hoped the movie will answer the question, but listening to the interview by Aaron’s father and brothers throw up more questions. They keep repeating that US Government’s actions indicated that they were hell bound to make an example of Aaron, but why?, that remains unanswered and buried along with Aaron.

For all the adulation the developing world has towards USA Justice system for its citizens, Aaron Swartz case is a proof that all around the world Law Enforcement are capable of abuse and USA is no different. Its duty of the parliament (congress) to be ever more watchful, put checks and balances adequately.

The below eulogy posted in W3C forum by Tim Berners-Lee (Father of Web) captures the essence of Aaron’s life. Period!

From: Tim Berners-Lee <timbl@w3.org>
Date: Sat, 12 Jan 2013 12:06:05 –0500

 

Aaron is dead. Wanderers in this crazy world, we have lost a mentor, a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down, we have lost one of our own. Nurtures, careers, listeners, feeders, parents all, we have lost a child. Let us all weep.

The year without pants

Before you think the book is about something sleazy, it is about Software Project Management with a fancy title.

Scott Berkun was a former Microsoft manager, in charge of first five releases of Internet Explorer. After which he turned to full time writing. His earlier books on The Art of Project Management and Myths of Innovation are famous titles. WordPress is the Open Source blogging software that’s powering this very blog of mine. Its used by 60 Million other websites and is used by 22% of top 10 million websites. So when I saw a book by Scott Berkun writing about his experience working for a year+ as a team lead/product manager at “Automattic” which powers WordPress.com, I immediately bought it to my Kindle.

Scott was hired by founder of WordPress Matt MullenweG in August 2010 as employee #58 at Automattic.  Automattic is a commercial firm also founded by Matt Mullenweg uses WordPress open source software to provide an online cloud hosted service of WordPress at WordPress.com with enhancements and additional services.

This is Scott’s first full time employment after resigning from Microsoft nearly a decade ago and working as a writer/consultant. Scott says his objective to take up the assignment was to experience a “new” age firm’s culture, contrast it with Microsoft’s and to see whether he can follow the advice himself that as a freelance consultant he was giving to his clients. Scott works in Automattic for next 18 months and this book is a first person narration of that. I like these first person narrations and biographies on management and technology, as you get to see how others are doing it,  get exposed to alternate ideas and viewpoints. The last few books I read on this genre was The Maruti Story and I am feeling Lucky (Google Employee 59). 

As Scott narrates his first experiences at we get a feeling its a company that is all counter-culture when it comes to its management style. All the (then) 50 employees were reporting to CEO or Matt directly, there were no managers in between. One of the reasons for Matt in hiring Scott was an experiment in introducing leads to the roughly 10 newly created teams. Automattic employees were mostly working remote from their homes or shared offices  or coffee shops from around the globe. This indifference to a location or an office allowed Automattic to hire the best talent out there, which follows the culture of open source development, where contribution can come from anywhere in the world. As a result the company relies heavily on online tools including Skype, IRC (yes the old platform) and for Project tracking/Group discussion a WordPress template they call “P2″. Reading about P2, I can see my firm at Vishwak Solutions trying out Microsoft Yammer for similar purposes.

Because of people working across timezones and many comfortable doing multi-tasking Automattic’s employee interactions online tend to be mostly textual (typed) and not even voice/video. For myself who is comfortable with online tools and social, a phone call or a face to face “coffee” meeting is invaluable. Scott claims the company used little of email, which was surprising to me. Even in my small office of 60 people all sitting mostly in our Chennai office, I see email being used for everything from ideas to project tracking.  I am curious to see on this as what works on a Products company may not work on a IT Services company like mine – but this will be a good experiment for me to try out.

After joining the first task Scott gets assigned is to work for a month on their customer support team “Happiness” after a 6 half-a-day training. This idea of having every new employee to work in customer support sounded similar to one that Tony Hsieh follows in his company Zappos. Automattic uses its occasional company meets not for founder speeches, strategy outlining but for individual teams to double-down to code and release a new feature, a concept similar to early days in FaceBook and its hackaton culture. Scott then narrates about how he gets his first team members. How they meet up for the first time after working for three months in a team offsite at Athens, Greece. It is in that meeting they plan to develop JetPack, one of the most popular plug-ins for WordPress. I am a big fan and user of JetPack especially its analytics features that it provides for free even for my self-hosted WordPress blog.

Scott says in Automattic culture there was no real central planning of features, individual engineers being smart work on items they see being talked in P2 by other teams or raised by customers in Happiness tickets. Being a manager myself and an entrepreneur this sounded like a dysfunctional idea and my gut feel says it can never work. Scott outlines the reasons why it works in Automattic. In 2014, Automattic has about 250 employees and I doubt whether that old federated approach still lives anywhere in the company. If in the first half Scott butt-kisses Matt for his brilliance, in the second half he goes about writing to Matt on the limitations of the online collobration tools used by Automattic. Apart from that you get lot of preaching from Scott on management best practices and quotes.

year-without-pants

The book was an easy read with sections that made you think. Apart from new online tools of collaboration, reading this book I learned  more about various tools of Automattic that might be of use in my work.

calibre ebook management

While I have used calibre – ebook management in the past, those usages were limited and I had mostly used it as a ereader.

Books I bought from Amazon goes into my Kindle Touch and managed easily from Amazon.com. But I realized I have lot of ebooks from non-amazon sources especially PDFs of magazines I subscribe like IEEE Spectrum which needed better management than simply storing in OneDrive shared folders. So I explored the landscape. Since I use Apple iTunes to manage all my music, videos and iPhotos for pictures, I turned to Apple iBooks (now in Mac OS) but that didn’t work out. iBooks won’t help in Windows, which was a major dampener for me. So I turned again to calibre.

calibre is a free and open source e-book library management and ereader, written by Kovid Goyal. Its available for free download for all 3 desktop OS (Windows, Mac OS X and Linux) and numerous compatible apps from 3rd party exists for iOS, Android & Windows Phone.

my calibre library

calibre allows you to import ebooks from various formats, export to all imaginable ebook formats including ePub, PDF, Mobi & Kindle. It allows excellent meta-tagging of books, searching of books and sports a clutter free reader view. Best of all the calibre library (just like iTunes library) can be synced between PCs across OSes. I created my calibre library in my iMac to my shared OneDrive folder, synced it to my Surface Pro (Windows 8,1 Update) and everything works fine. One of the popular features of calibre is its ability to sync books from any format automatically to Amazon Kindle using USB cable or email.

If you have more than one ebook, calibre is a must have app for your PC.

Use CDs in a PC with no optical drives

This is an old trick, but an useful one especially for new PCs & Tablets which don’t come with optical drives to read CDs or DVDs. The other day my son brought a book with a CD of “The Human Body” and wanted to know how he can use it in his laptop.

 

His laptop being one of the new convertibles (Tablet and PC) doesn’t have an optical drive and it was running Windows 8.1 Update (what else you will expect in my house). First I tried copying the entire contents of the CD to a folder in a USB thumb drive, copied it to the laptop, tried launching from the copy. As suspected it didn’t work, complaining it needed the CD to be present to execute properly. This meant I needed to have the exact binary of the CD content available in a drive letter in the PC.

The only PC I have in my house with Optical Drive was my iMac. I have an utility there called Burn. This free open source app allows you to Burn Data files to a Disc, Burn Audio CDs, Burn Video CD/DVDs and do an exact copy of your Disc into a file (ISO image). The copied file (ISO)  can then be burned back to a Disc using the same program.

For PCs running Windows, you can this other app called IMGBURN which is free too and one I have been using for years in my Windows PCs.

Once you have downloaded and installed Burn or IMGBurn as appropriate run them and follow the instructions to make an ISO file of the CD drive. I just did that for “The Human Body” CD. Copied the file through a USB flash drive to my son’s laptop. Since the laptop was running Windows 8, I had to just double-click on the ISO file, which instantly mounted the file as a drive letter (in my case F:\). I navigated to F:\, double click on the setup.exe and installed the CD, then ran the app. It worked fine now.

If your PC is running older versions of Windows, like Windows 7/Vista/XP you can use these programs to mount the ISO file as a drive: Official Microsoft Virtual CD-ROM Control Panel or Slysoft Virtual CloneDrive (my favourite).

Heartbleed–Internet Software should be polygamous

The last few days the news has been all about the Heartbleed internet security vulnerability that may have helped hackers to access thousands of users passwords and security certificates from websites around the world. This is a serious issue that has affected Internet due to the fact that over two-thirds webservers (Apache and nginx) run the vulnerable version of OpenSSL. WSWS explains at the software level on how 5 lines of erroneous code by not including a memory bounds check has resulted in this bug.

heartbleed-icon

If you look into the list of websites, services and devices affected by this bug in OpenSSL, you will spot many popular Linux & FreeBSD distros, companies, government departments and device manufacturers around the world. It is evident that all those organizations benefitted from reusing OpenSSL, freeing their resources to focus on newer innovations on their areas of expertise rather than reinventing the wheel. This is one of the big advantages of Open Source software.

While many used and benefitted from OpenSSL, only few donated money/resources to the OpenSSL foundation which maintains and improves the underlying code, there is only one full time engineer for OpenSSL. Many organizations were simply “freeloading”.  I am sure the Heartbleed incident will help in future those good Samaritan engineers working in large software/device companies to convince their management to donate sufficient resources to improving Open Source projects that their businesses depend on.

Heartbleed has put the spotlight on one other important issue -  the need for choice in the underlying software powering the Internet. Open Source software like Linux, Apache, PHP, Mozilla FireFox have done a great deal to software ecosystem and businesses around the world in the last two decades. At the same time, the world needs more choice. All our eggs can’t be in one basket (Open Source) however great & virtuous it may be. Monogamy is bad for any technology ecosystem, especially for a connected world & IOT. In recent months even Wikipedia has started to show decline in contributions and authors. There are numerous Open Source projects going on around the world and there can’t be sufficient resources available for all of them. This is where I see tremendous value that commercial software vendors like Microsoft, Oracle, SAP & Adobe bring to the table.

We have seen this week that the Internet never goes down, even if 2/3rd of servers in it which run  Linux distros got affected it still chuckles along on those servers that run other software like Microsoft Windows or Apple OS X Server. This resilience is due to the underlying software powering the Internet being polygamous. 

Let me be clear, I am not implying in any way one model of software development is better than other (Commercial software vs Open source). There is a place and need for both and for other models that will come in future.

Long live Polygamy in Software!