Sunday, January 3, 2010

Switching to Free Software (Sometimes)

It's no secret that I'm an Apple fanboy. I bought the iPhone when it was brand new and silly expensive; still sporting that first-generation now. The last two computers I bought were Macs, a final-generation and now defunct iBook and an iMac. We have three iPods in the house. Hell, I lined up for Leopard. That's right: I stood in line for an operating system.

But lately I've been playing with Linux (dual-booting on the iMac) and other free and open source software. See, as much as I love Mac build quality and user interface design, there's still a nagging problem, and it's not one limited to Macs: most of the software simply isn't mine.

Proprietary software (including DRMed media like music and movies) isn't owned by you at all, it is licensed to you, with terms and conditions. Technically, when you spend money on proprietary software you're buying a license to use something someone else owns.

Imagine if you went to the hardware store to buy a hammer. The guy behind the counter rings you up. "This hammer is licensed to you and may be used on five projects. You may not loan it to anybody, nor may you disassemble it. If you violate the terms if this license, we'll sue you for $25,000."

Unlike any other form of sale in the world, software companies decided that even when you buy stuff from them, they still own it. They call it "intellectual property," but unlike actual property it can't be transferred. Every form of publishing that converts to digital distribution seems to get this same bright idea. First music, then movies, now books and even fonts! They all tell the buyer: "Give us money for our product, but then only use it how we say you can."

There are alternatives. The term "free software" means free as in speech, not free as in beer. Free software can be bought and sold, but once it's yours it's yours, to do with as you please, down to the source code itself. A lot of high-quality free software is free as in beer, too, from whole operating systems (like the flavors of GNU/Linux) to word processors and web browsers.

Nobody would claim most free software is always as polished and friendly as Mac software, and Apple still makes some of the best-built hardware around. But when you get free software it's all yours, and that's worth more than all the eye-candy in the world.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Blogging Is Dead

Blogging is dead. In a lot of ways, it really is. Yet, at the same time, more people are blogging then ever, in both the traditional sense and with the rise of microblogging platforms like Twitter and Facebook status updates.

But the old-fashioned blogging died the instant blogging became profitable, or at least helped make other things profitable. In the ancient era prior to 2007 or so, blogs had something special that no other media had. Nobodies were somebody. Blogging was a hobby, not a career, and you were paid in respect, admiration, and influence.

The problem, if it is a problem, is not that nobody does the good old-fashioned blogging anymore. The problem is that nobody cares. I'm being slightly facetious here; of course some people care. Even the lowliest blog with semi-regular updates has a few dozen followers. But this is all lost beneath the influence of the blogging industry. If Technorati still means anything, look at the top ten blogs: all are professional, and most are corporate, with the sole exception of Boing Boing at the time of this post. Boing Boing remains one of my favorite blogs, but even it isn't quite good old-fashioned anymore. It's a business that makes a substantial revenue for its bloggers through advertising. It's still good old-fashioned in spirit, but certainly not in operation.

All is far from lost, however. I am certain that in terms of actual numbers, far more people blog today than ever did in the good old days, especially outside the US and Europe. I confess freely to reading and enjoying large numbers of professional and/or corporate blogs, and I follow celebrities of Twitter (of both "real" famous and "net" famous varieties). But I also go out of my way to read the obscure stuff, and it's all still there. People are still plugging away, sharing new ideas and viewpoints, if you dig past the first page of Google results or down the Twitter lists past the top hits.

We had a taste, from about 2000-07, of a world where the average person's opinion could be as important and disseminated as any news anchor, columnist, or author. The only way to keep that magic alive is to do it. Maybe its harder to rise above the corporate money today, but if you keep saying what needs to be said, someone will hear it. At least I hope so.

My Digital Life

I started blogging in 2004. In internet years, that dates back to prehistory. When I started blogging I wanted it to be easy to find me. My blog was eponymous. I blogged about whatever was on my mind. Things that happened to me, movies I saw, news, politics. It was fun to blog.

Then I got a job in a traditionally conservative field in a traditionally conservative state and I came to realize that I couldn't say what I wanted anymore. It was just too risky. For all my ideological views that I wouldn't want to work for someone who would fire me for being an atheist, or a socialist, or whatever else objectionable I am, the fact is that I needed that job more than I needed to stick it to them.

Enthusiasm waned. Eventually, I started a new blog with a new name, so that I could feel free to say whatever I wanted. Two things killed that blog. First, I found that anonymity is hard. It didn't take terribly long before googling my real name brought up my allegedly anonymous blog. Second, I didn't feel free to write whatever I wanted about certain topics, I felt compelled to write about certain topics. I felt like having a blog with a political reference as the title meant I had to be a political blogger.

This is my third blog. When I set it up a few months ago, I imported all the old entries from my old blogs, and posting has been sporadic at best since then. It's the same old story. I felt like since I was anonymous it wasn't personal, but I didn't feel like I had anything fresh, or even clever, to say about the subjects I'm interested in talking about.

Well, fuck it.

It's a new year, and I've decided that anonymity makes this blog more personal. I'm as free as I've ever been to write about whatever I want. My Twitter and Facebook are all locked to maximum privacy, so even if I link to posts here it stays there. If you google me this blog doesn't come up. If you know me personally you can read this and get a look at what I'm thinking. If you're an employer, there's no way to connect it to my name. I am going to use this blog, damn it, and often. I have thoughts, opinions, things to say, and if you've read six paragraphs of me bitching you might be interested enough to read them, too.

My problem before was that I not only wrote like I had an audience, I wrote like I had to entertain that audience. I'd love an audience, but I want them to be reading what I write because they want to read it, not because I tailored it to get them. Not that I lied or anything; it's more that I didn't say things I was thinking because I didn't want to alienate readers, or because I felt like I was just repeating what they could read, better said, elsewhere.

So my 2010 resolution to you, whoever you are, why ever you are reading this, is that you will actually have something to read here again. Resubscribe to my RSS feed. Comment on what I have to say, and often. I'm back.

Until I get bored.