Tag Archives: FOSS


I’ve written many times about the wonderfulness that is open source and free software. Going along with it is free culture and open sharing. It’s a beautiful thing when people give freely, expecting nothing in return but allowing others to use their work and build on it.

This past month I’ve been building some materials for our Middle School classes to use in Digital Citizenship lessons. I’ve published them within the school and I’m prepping them for proper publishing to the whole community. I could not have done this without other people sharing their work freely and generously.

A resource that I have used heavily in this is Pixabay, one of my favorite photo-sharing sites. It houses lots of gorgeous photographs as well as carefully-crafted clip art …and all of it is free, with no strings attached. All the images are licensed CC0 or public domain. That means anyone (me!) can download the images and use them to create new things without worrying about accreditation or needing to cite sources. (I always do for school work and often do on this blog.)

flowers-945450_640It is wonderful that people take beautiful photographs and then offer them completely free, with no strings attached. That act of sharing in and of itself is a beautiful thing.

I’m proud to say that I’ve contributed some of my own work to the site and that some of my few offerings have been downloaded, liked and (I presume) used. I’m happy if someone finds my photographs worthwhile or helpful …and I get a great feeling that I’m sharing and helping others.

If you haven’t used Pixabay, go check it out. If you like the free photographs that people share on it, give them some thanks. And then share something of your own!

Credits: the gorgeous image of the aurora borealis is from janeb13. The hands holding flowers are from the always terrific Unsplash. Freely licensed. Thanks!

Throwing in the towel

It’s been coming, and I’ve been dreading it. Now that it’s here, I’m just glad to have it over with.

I’ve been working for years to expand the use of free and open source software in my school and amongst our teachers and students. We started with OpenOffice, which did away with problems we had with different versions of Microsoft Office. Then we started using other free systems such as Zimbra for our mail & collaboration software, the GIMP for photo editing, Moodle for our virtual learning environment, Firefox for web browsing, etc. We had some students test out Ubuntu as a computer operating system and the response was positive, so we rolled it out as a system for all our students.

There were problems, but there were also successes. Students learned new skills, became adept at working with different systems, took delight in hacking their computers, etc. They shared the software with family and friends, and found workarounds to issues they faced.

But things change. We’ve got a 20% turnover rate here, and all our administrators and most of our teachers have only joined us in the past couple of years. They got frustrated when software wouldn’t install with ease on Ubuntu. They resisted using LibreOffice and complained about compatibility with their Microsoft software. They asked why we didn’t just spend the money to buy the software that they were used to and get in line with what most people use.

So we’ve decided to move back and restrict choices. We’ll all be using Microsoft Office. We can choose between Windows 8.1 or OSX 10.10. I’ll go back to using a Mac (I’ll still keep an Ubuntu system running on it as well).

I’m working on being upbeat and positive about the move. It will make many things simpler. It will reduce some of the friction in classrooms and in school.

But it sometimes feels like I’m in this cartoon:

©Dan Piraro - Bizarro! comics
©2009 Dan Piraro: Bizarro! comics (Used with permission. Thanks, Dan & Christy!)


Giving the gift of free software

box-15737_640It’s Christmas time and many people are rushing around, scrambling for presents. Here’s an idea: give things that are free.

Free software not only has a great price (who can beat $0?), but also come with an ethos of freedom, openness and collaboration. They’re developed by the community, as people create plugins and extensions and then share them back to everyone in the community. The same is true for documentation and tutorials. It really is a gift that keeps on giving!

Here are three of my all-time favourite free software tools – freely downloadable for any operating system.

Free Office suite: LibreOffice

libreofficescreenshotLibreOffice is a powerful cross-platform office suite that includes not only the usual word processor, spreadsheet and slide presenter, but also a strong database and math formula editor. It’s more powerful than the tools you get on Google Docs and definitely stands up to Microsoft Office. Two features that I use regularly which MS lacks: a one-click “export to PDF” function (which also includes the capability of embedding the doc itself, making the PDF editable) and a Draw environment for graphic layouts of posters, brochures, etc. (Far simpler than trying to force Word to do it.)

PC World gives it 4 stars, calling it “an extremely capable office suite …highly configurable, extensible and cross-platform.)

Free photo editor/manipulator: GIMP

gimpThe GIMP has an awful name (it stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program), but it’s an awesome product. The GIMP is an image manipulation software – you can edit photos and other images, use a wide variety of tools and filters to apply artistic effects, change colors, etc. It’s comparable to the commercial Photoshop software. People do some amazing work with the GIMP.

A review in ExtremeTech lauds the GIMP’s “extensive and powerful set of features” and states that “in some areas …it actually outshines Adobe Photoshop.”

Free graphics creator/editor: Inkscape

InkscapeInkscape has made even a non-talented person like me an “artist.” (Well, at least I’ve created some graphics that one might consider art …or just clip art.) With Inkscape, you can create graphics projects that are simple diagrams, plain clip art or complex artwork. It’s all SVG files – scalable vector graphics – so you can zoom in as much as you want and the graphics are crisp and detailed. There’s a great plugin (Sozi) which lets you create zoomable presentations. (Check out a workshop I presented about it here.)

MacWorld gives Inkscape 4 mice and calls it “powerful” and “highly extensible.”


Want more? Audacity is great for audio/podcasting, VLC is simply the best for playing any videos, Thunderbird is a terrific email client, KeePass is a secure way to store your many passwords, Celestia is incredible astronomy software, GeoGebra is a fantastic math learning program…

Check out the OpenSource.com website for much more information, or see these sites for free & open source software for Mac OSX or Windows.

Why I use free/open source software

In my job – and in my life – I use open source software. I advocate for it. I defend it. I promote it. Sometimes I win converts. Sometimes I lose battles. But I will keep on using and promoting it.

I wasn’t always that way. I used Apple hardware and software for years. I liked Macintosh computers – I liked their simplicity, their ease of use. I liked their sleek design. I still do. I still use them. There’s something beautiful about the way they’re put together.

But I’ve been converted to the open source/free software movement and am a firm believer in the benefit of openness and freedom. I recognize the warts (geez, some of this stuff is butt-ugly!) but I am willing to put up with the negatives of free/libre/open source software for some very real reasons.

Freedom means choices

The opposite of 'open' isn't closed. The opposite is 'broken' @cgreen @wilbanks #oercongress #oer
Opposite of ‘open’ is ‘broken’CC-BY-SARon Mader

When I use Macintosh software or an Apple device, my choices are limited. They’re limited by what the folks at Apple decided I should do. They often build options in – there are some settings I change in how things work – and I can use different software – I use Firefox on my Mac – but in the end they make decisions and I have to go along with it. Sure, there are limitations even on open software, but those are simply limitations of coding, not necessarily decisions made. Apple does not want me to pull music from my iPod to my Macintosh …so I am limited by that. Apple doesn’t want me to have to deal with the files in iPhoto, so it’s all saved in a database. I have to live with that. (And cope with the loss of dozens of holiday photos when I maxed out my database!) I can find ways around many of these restrictions, but it feels like I’m living in a prison (or a “walled garden” if you prefer) and have to resort to subterfuge to do what I really want.

Open isn’t easy

This may be counter-intuitive but it’s something I’m growing to appreciate more. When I advocate open software, many times I hear from people, “It’s too hard to learn.” or  “It takes too much time.” etc.

jona3 – Pixabay – CC0

Think about it: what’s hard in life? Becoming successful. Making your marriage work. Raising a child. Learning new skills. Cooking an elegant meal. Convincing someone of your viewpoint. Nearly every good and valuable thing in life is hard.

Things that are easy in life are often not valuable or good for you. It’s easy to slob out and watch television all day. It’s easy to go grab a bag of fast food. It’s easy to throw the trash out your car window. It’s easy to do a Google search for an image and copy & paste it into your blog without considering the license or copyright.

If you want something good, if you want something that means something to you, you have to put some work into it.


Openness means forever. I have a bunch of files that are .cwk …remember ClarisWorks? AppleWorks? Those were decent programs… but they are no more. What can open those files now? We still have AppleWorks groaning along on our iMac. One day that won’t even open. And then the data in those files ….gone forever.

Meanwhile, any .odt file will be able to be opened forever. Because open source and open standards means anyone can and will use it.

Openness and Freedom Encourages Tinkering

tinkering – photo by me

This is a vital reason for me, working in a school. As students come to use open software, they are encouraged to tinker. Want to change something? You can! You just need to learn how.

And this is an important skill for our students to learn. They are growing up in a world of computers: of hardware and software. They should know how these things work. They should know what goes into making software. They should be able to figure out how the hardware is put together.

When Apple glues its laptop batteries in, when it hides the screws on its phones, when it purposefully designs the devices to prevent a user from experimenting, tinkering, etc. then it is restricting not only our freedom as users but our opportunity for really understanding the device. It’s as if it’s all a secret that’s only available to a select elite. (And how can you become one of the elite?)

Coping with Unknown Unknowns

This one came at me today as I was advocating for open software. As you use something, you know its uses and know what you need it to do. (Known knows.) There will be new things that you can anticipate you may need it to do later. (Known unknowns.) But somewhere down the line you may need the software to do something that you can’t anticipate. (Unknown unknowns.)

At that point, having open software will become invaluable. If you need the software to do something new, you will be OK if it’s open. Either you can make it function properly by tweaking the software or building some new component, or you can find someone to do that for you.

If the software is closed, you will be dependent on the company that makes it. They may do it for you. They may not.

While this may not be important for you as you choose a web browser or a photo editor …or at least it may not seem important… it certainly will become vital if it’s a complex system you’re using to run your payroll or document management or whatever.

Need more?

There are plenty of other reasons, big and small: ability to share, avoiding licensing issues, cost, transferability, cross-platform compatibility, etc. Here are some other reasons: from the Free Software Foundation, from Saigon South International School, from a technology company, and the UK Government. If you have your own reasons, please leave it in the comments.


Save me!

LibreOffice 4.0 has landed!
licensed CC-BY-SA by Document Foundation

It was quite exciting! A new version of LibreOffice was being released: loads of new features, compatibility improvements, code clean-up. I was eagerly looking forward to trying out the built-in Logo coding, importing Microsoft Publisher documents, testing the integration with document management systems, and experimenting with the personalized themes.

When I got the tweet, I quickly went to the download site. I had to wait a few minutes (darn!) before the traffic slowed down enough. Then I got it downloaded. Quick: unpack the .zip file, uninstall the old version and one (well, two) little sudo dpkg -i *.deb later and I was up and running!

Then I saw it:

I wanted to run like the Flash and shout my frustration into the Grand Canyon. What the heck is that old-fashioned floppy disk icon doing in my brand new LibreOffice? What happened to the previous icon of an arrow pointing down to a hard drive? Who decided that a backwards move was needed?

So instead of playing around with new features, I went searching through the web to find out what the story was.

It’s not just the floppy disk icon that is old-fashioned. The clipboard, bookmark, etc. are all icons out of the 18th century. The telephone icon for modem connectivity is one of the earliest models of corded handsets. And let’s not forget the very concept of cc’ing someone! (For you youngsters, “CC” stands for “carbon copy” – go look up carbon paper!)

In the study of semiotics, there’s a concept of the arbitrariness of the sign: it doesn’t really matter what the symbol is as long as everyone agrees what it means. And so the floppy disk persists because through repeated use everybody agrees that it means save – even if people don’t really know what it’s a picture of. People have tried to come up with alternatives – leading to interesting options from graphic designers discussing merits and disadvantages of alternatives. The problem is that an icon needs to be simple enough, attractive enough, and suggestive enough. …My favorite suggestion was an icon of Jesus …because “Jesus saves!” 🙂

Discussions on various LibreOffice forums showed a back-and-forth of what kind of icon should be used, and whether it should have been changed in the first place. Discussions included whether the decision-making process reflected FOSS development as a meritocracy or democracy. There was discussion about the licensing and consistency of the Tango icon sets. And studies were done showing that the floppy icon greatly improved the usability of the software. (I couldn’t find any definitive decision …I must admit I grew fatigued with the search and the back & forth.)

As I considered it, I realized that none of these icons worked for me anyway.

One of the main alternatives was a filing cabinet – that’s even more old fashioned.  The icon I had been using was a stylized hard drive with an arrow pointing down to it. My laptop doesn’t have a hard drive – it uses solid state storage. (Should I use a microchip icon?) Various people and places suggest a cloud icon – representing storage up in the cloud. Not what I use (and not appropriate for a desktop application.)

I threw my hands up in frustration. The floppy icon isn’t going anywhere. It’s like the QWERTY keyboard: an artifact of an older era and older technology that lives on through sheer inertia.

Maybe I’ll just use my own icon: something simple, easy to identify and profoundly linked with the concept of saving…

I’ve got it!

Freedom’s just another word for being in control

Big engine, little car!
Big engine, little car!CC-BYStephen Bowler

Using a computer is kind of like using a car. The device lets you do all kinds of things. It needs some maintenance. Most owners show some pride and prejudice about their chosen brand/model/etc. Owners like chatting about the pros, cons, features, etc. of the model they own, etc.

Users of Free & Open Source Software (FOSS) – especially Linux users – want to get under the hood, figure out how the engine works, re-configure the timing and so forth to get better performance, customize the paintjob, etc. We want to know, to understand, to be in control.

Most users just want to get in the car and drive. Let it get you where you’re going – who wants to know the details of how an internal combustion engine works? For the most part that works OK. But the less you know about how the device works, the more you are  at the mercy of mechanics.

Many computer users can do basic maintenance tasks (check the oil, add brake fluid) and deal with minor issues. They’re not completely helpless. So who needs Linux or FOSS?

The problem is that things are changing. Computing devices and the things we do with them are changing and users have less and less control. Go watch Alistair Croll’s brilliant presentation: “Clouds of Loving Grace: the other war on General-Purpose Computing (or read the related post by Cory Doctorow: “Lockdown: The coming war on general purpose computing” or his follow-up talk on “The coming civil war over general purpose computing“).

Consider devices: when you’re using something like an iPad, it’s literally impossible to get under the hood. No maintenance, no performance enhancement. You are not allowed. Imagine your car’s front hood welded shut. And not only must you go to a specialist for any repairs or modifications, but you also have to go to one licensed by the manufacturer. No use going to a mechanic at the corner shop: you have to go to the dealer itself to get service.

Consider software: when you’re reading digital books, you are locked into specific software or particular devices. Buy an e-book in PDF form and you have to use a registered copy of a specific Adobe e-reader. Want to transfer it to your tablet? Sorry. Not allowed. It’s like only being allowed to listen to certain radio stations in your car. (And no use buying a new device made by another maker – you’re stuck with that brand.)

Consider the cloud: when you store things in an online service like Dropbox or Google Drive, you get a great service but it’s at the discretion of the company. If they want to change terms, or stop the service, or if they go out of business… that’s it. You’re out of luck. Remember Google Wave? Remember when Ning stopped providing free service? The only choice was to accept their new terms or go elsewhere. Imagine if Peugot went out of business and your car disappeared. Suppose Toyota went completely green and you had to pay to upgrade your car’s engine to a hybrid one, otherwise your car would just stop working.

Sure, these limited, controlled devices and software and services make life easier. It’s less messy. Things just work. But they work the way the companies allow them to work, not the way you want them to. They work fine until they don’t …and then you’re helpless. You as the computer owner or user are not in control. The corporations are.

It’s all about control. Computer users have less and less these days. It’s why Linux and FOSS make sense. It’s all about freedom.