Monday, March 7th, 2011

New job

Today was my first day as the new executive director at the Free Software Foundation.

I'm really excited about the opportunity to do more at the FSF -- but also sad that I won't have the pleasure of working with Peter Brown any more, as he is moving on to more challenges. Peter's been an amazing mentor and boss to me in the eight years I've been with the FSF, and it's not going to be the same without him.

Along with the change in job positions, I have relocated from Seattle back to Boston.

This continues to be my personal space, not an official FSF channel -- but this is big personal news for me so I wanted to share :).

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Friday, July 30th, 2010

Presentations at Debconf in NYC

I'm excited to be giving two presentations at Debconf 10, held this year on the Columbia campus in New York City.

The first is "FSF's Campaigns for Freedom" on Sunday, August 1st, from 14:00 to 15:00 in 414 Schapiro. I'll give an overview of some of the current FSF campaigns, like the GNU Project, Working Together for Free Software, Defective by Design, PlayOgg, Windows 7 Sins, and the High Priority Projects List; and resources like the Licensing & Compliance Lab, Free Software Jobs page, Hardware Directory, and the Free Software Directory. But I'm going to save plenty of time to talk with the room about things the FSF should or could be doing.

The second is "Patent Absurdity: How software patents broke the system" on Thursday, August 5th, from 14:00 to 15:00 in the Davis Auditorium. We'll be watching the Patent Absurdity film, chatting about what's happened since, and what the Bilski decision means for the future of free software.

I'll be around the conference all week, so drop me an email at or catch me in the #debconf channel (johns) if you want to chat about the FSF or GNU.

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Monday, March 15th, 2010

GNU Hackers Meeting and LibrePlanet, Cambridge, MA, March 18th - 21st

I'm excited about the GNU Hackers Meeting in a few days.

We're going to meet for some curry on Thursday night with the people in town so far, then the bulk of the meeting will be on Friday. Things on the agenda so far include lightning talks from several of the people attending about the GNU projects they are working on, a discussion about the problems with Software as a Service and what GNU can do about it -- with a focus on the creation of a new GNU network services team, and longer presentations like David Sugar on Replacing Skype, Matt Lee on GNU FM (the software that runs replacement, and Michael Flickinger on Savannah.

This is the first US edition of the GNU Hackers Meeting -- there have already been a few in Europe. One cool thing about this one is the range of contributors we have represented. We have people from the origin of the project, including RMS, John Gilmore, and Rob Savoye -- plus new contributors like Steven DuBois of GNU Generation (the awesome project started last year by FSF intern Max Shinn for high schoolers interested in GNU).

After Friday, the Meeting segues into the rest of the LibrePlanet conference, which promises to be awesome as well. The Women in Free Software track is particularly important to me because I think it's progress in one of the most critical steps we need to take to really make the free software movement work for everyone. As one of the conference organizers I'm sure I'm going to be bouncing around a lot during the days, but I'm definitely going to make a point to catch as much as I can of all of the presentations in that track -- I'm especially interested in hearing Karen Sandler of the Software Freedom Law Center, and the panel on Sunday with Chris Ball, Hanna Wallach, Erinn Clark and Denise Paolucci.

It's not too late to register for either the GHM (if you're a GNU maintainer or significant contributor), or the LibrePlanet conference -- just follow the instructions on the wiki. Drop me a line if you're reading this and will be there.

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Monday, January 25th, 2010

Come to anti-DRM event in SF on Wednesday 8:30am at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

I'll be in San Francisco this Wednesday morning for the Defective By Design anti-DRM protest at Apple's launch event. We'll be out having fun handing out flyers, doing a little theater of our own, and talking to the media and people walking by about the danger DRM poses to the public's freedom and the history of Apple's support for it. We'll be focusing especially on the App Store model used on the iPhone (and possibly used on the tablet to be announced on Wednesday), which prevents users from installing any software from anywhere else.

We're starting at 8:30am (that's not our fault -- Apple is starting at 10am so people will be arriving by 9am I'm sure) outside the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater. A perfect time for stopping by on the way to work :).

Here's the full background info.

If you can come out and support the effort, please let me know at

We'll be meeting up outside the Theater entrance. Stay tuned to for updates. Hope to see you there, and bring some friends!

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Sunday, December 27th, 2009

FreeRunner running Android in a different case looks like a pretty neat hack.
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Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

Phone freedom and double-talk

This article confusedly says, "Will carriers be willing to subsidize the N900 and its locked-down Maemo OS?" The "lock down" that it's describing refers to the comments by a Nokia executive saying that Nokia would not do customizations for carriers. These customizations are usually proprietary, often relating to locking the phone to their network, or implementing carrier-specific features like "MyCrap" or whatever. Nokia's comments were in contrast, for example, to Google's Android operating system, which is licensed in a way to specifically allow proprietary software extensions on top of a free software core. So apparently, unlocked is the new locked. Or something.

Unfortunately, Nokia quickly retracted the executive's comments anyway, saying they are leaving room for the possibility of such customizations.

In other phone freedom news, Palm has been working hard to demonstrate the fundamental incompatibilities between free software and the exclusive "app store" model of software distribution.

My OpenMoko FreeRunner has still been having some voice quality issues in low-reception areas, but is otherwise working quite well running the SHR distribution. Unfortunately one of those low-reception areas is my home, but I've been compensating for that by using the free VOIP software Ekiga and Asterisk more when I'm home.

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Tuesday, September 1st, 2009

Stripping iPhone notices from e-mails in Gnus

I'm not a fan of the iPhone, because of its proprietary software and Digital Restrictions Management (DRM).

Sometimes people e-mail me from iPhones, and so I see that little "Sent from my iPhone" note at the bottom of their messages.

While I would prefer that people change that note (if Apple allows them to do that) to say something like, "The iPhone is Defective by Design (", my second choice would be to just not see the note. Fortunately, in Gnus — my favorite free software e-mail client — it's easy to "wash" messages.

Today to my .gnus file I added:

(setq gnus-parameters
        (banner . iphone))))

(setq gnus-article-banner-alist
      '((iphone . "\\(^Sent from my iPhone$\\)")))

Now I don't have to see those notes.


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Tuesday, July 21st, 2009

Double-plus ungood: give Amazon's Kindle a 1-star review

This is an article I wrote for the FSF Bulletin, and also posted as a review of the Kindle on, as part of DefectiveByDesign's campaign to let the public know about ebook DRM. You can help by digging the campaign action at and posting your own review.

2009-07-22: They rejected the review the first time, because I neglected to read their guidelines and included URLs (as well as some things that might be interpreted as appeals for more votes, which are also prohibited). So I revised and resubmitted, and the reviews are now posted here and here.

Don't get swindled

Proprietary software and proprietary formats are vehicles for the exercise of power by some over others. Companies that claim ownership over the software and formats involved in the delivery of information become gatekeepers determining who can and cannot access that information. The point isn't whether the people who claim such power — and are granted it by our legal system — use it for good or bad. The point is that they shouldn't have it at all. But as it turns out anyway, they generally use it for bad.

The Amazon Kindle (more appropriately known as the "Swindle"), which uses proprietary software to distribute ebooks in proprietary formats within a Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) scheme, is an example of a company claiming and being granted power they shouldn't have over books and the terms under which we can access them.

Amazon's speedy move to shut off the Kindle's text-to-speech (TTS) capabilities in response to complaints by the Authors Guild was a clear demonstration of this power. Authors Guild president Roy Blount, Jr. borrowed our "Kindle Swindle" monicker as the headline for his New York Times op-ed piece complaining that the TTS feature infringed on authors' rights. Amazon twiddled some bits and suddenly all Kindles refused to read certain titles aloud. It's still a mystery why a computerized voice reading a book aloud to you in your home is infringement on any author's right — but in this case, it's Amazon's secret software that makes the law.

This action sparked a backlash that is still gaining momentum. Blind people have been protesting in large numbers, because the TTS feature is incredibly useful to them. Their point is powerful — taking it further, we should not be content with case-specific exemptions. The problem isn't that Amazon and the publishers don't use the power properly, it's that they have it at all. In this case, they used it in a manner that disproportionately impacted blind users, and that was wrong. But if they retain the power, they will be able to use it later against someone else.

Update: They just made this prediction come true, by remotely deleting purchased copies of 1984 and Animal Farm from hundreds of Kindles. Along with the books, they deleted students' annotations on the books (

This has not been the only such instance. Earlier this year, DefectiveByDesign supporters sent Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos jars of peach baby food — a reference to an episode of Seinfeld where Kramer is banned from his favorite fruit market for attempting to return a peach — to call attention to Amazon's ban of a user for returning too many Amazon purchases; a ban which prevented the user not only from purchasing any ebooks for his Kindle but also from accessing ebooks he had already purchased ( Though the ban was rescinded after the outcry, the leopard had shown its spots.

Amazon spokeswoman Cinthia Portugal told Wired that "Amazon is agnostic when it comes to DRM with ebooks," and that they "give content owners the choice." While Amazon has been a positive force in the world of DRM-free music, they are anything but a neutral party in the ebook world. They control the format, the device, and the store where the media for the device is purchased. If all they wanted to do was "give content owners the choice," then why did they send a DMCA takedown notice to a site hosting a tool which facilitated loading books from other companies onto the Kindle (

Statements like Portugal's show Amazon's strategy: Don't look behind the curtain. Trying to get an exact description of what the DRM on the Kindle does is impossible. DRM is not even mentioned much less explained — outside of user-contributed reviews — on the purchase page for the Kindle. And yet, while the Kindle already does support some DRM-free formats, access to the restricted Kindle store is the feature being marketed most heavily by Amazon.

Whatever happens with the Kindle, we need to work to eliminate DRM on all ebooks. Here are some things you can do to protest these restrictions and promote DRM-free ebooks:

Don't get swindled. Other portable devices can both run free software and read DRM-free ebooks. FBReader is free software that runs on Android mobile devices, the OpenMoko FreeRunner, and other systems running GNU/Linux. The Bebook e-ink device publishes their reader software as free software under the GNU General Public License (GPL). As of this writing, the Bebook still includes a proprietary module for DRM support, but maybe if enough people request it, they will offer a completely DRM-free version.

Support authors who offer their ebooks without DRM. Creative Commons licenses sensibly prohibit DRM, so look for books under licenses like CC-BY-ND, CC-BY and CC-BY-SA. Another group of authors is working to tag all of their own DRM-free ebooks with "drmfree" on Amazon. You can help by supporting their work and by helping in the tagging effort (

Insist that Amazon start being honest about their DRM. Write to Amazon asking them to answer author Cory Doctorow's questions about DRM — and publish your letter online ( If Amazon is just doing what the authors want, then why aren't they answering him?

Hand out copies of "The Right to Read" ( Richard Stallman's short story illustrates the kind of world we can expect if we buy into proprietary devices, proprietary formats, and DRM for our ebooks.

Review Amazon on Amazon. This worked to call attention to DRM on video games, when many people reviewed Spore negatively for its DRM. The same can be done with the Kindle. Take a few minutes to write your own review of the Kindle, emphasizing the problems with DRM.

Review the Reviewers. Write to tech reviewers and point out that they failed to mention the Kindle or other device's DRM restrictions in their review. Some reviewers wield a lot of influence — people like David Pogue of the New York Times. It's mystifying that they exclude such an important misfeature when they review devices in this genre.

Please do write to us at about anything you do to protest ebook DRM, and use the LibrePlanet wiki at to share the texts and reading lists you've created. Together we can achieve the same in the arena of ebooks that we have achieved in music — a widespread recognition that people will no longer tolerate DRM.

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Thursday, March 12th, 2009

MBTA: A little privacy please

I don't really care that much about my contact information being easily available on the Internet, but other people care quite a lot about that and often for good reason.

As I'm still sorting out how to get my FreeRunner to decipher the MBTA's text message alerts (which are in an MMS format that gets presented to me as "This is a binary message," I decided to disable them for the time being.

I went to the page for changing subscription settings, and entered my email address, expecting to then have to enter a password. But no, there's no password. If you know someone's email address, you can just enter that and see their settings -- which likely include their cell phone number, alternate e-mail addresses, and zip code. Pretty handy stalker information when combined with seeing what specific subway lines and bus routes someone is monitoring. It's also inconsistent with the MBTA privacy policy.

They should probably rethink this.

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Saturday, February 28th, 2009


Mokomaze is a maze game where you use the FreeRunner's accelerometer to navigate a ball around obstacles. It's the first application for the accelerometer that I've used on the FreeRunner, and it seems to work very, very well. The control is responsive and fun. It's installable in Debian via apt-get install mokomaze.

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