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2021-02-07 - FOSDEM, and Using Free Software Happily

I was able to catch some FOSDEM talks yesterday and this morning, and enjoyed them very much. As I get older I've become more interested in the sessions around community and legal topics. I'm happy to read about technical stuff, which is quite factual, but it's nice to see and hear people present or discuss more opinion driven matters.

As usual from an event with a lot of European speakers, I'm left feeling more optimistic about FOSS and technology in general than from a purely US viewpoint. The consumer and privacy legislation in Europe, and advocacy / rules working toward public availability of publicly funded code and data, make it clear there is a world outside of VC driven US focused computing.

Regardless of the origin of the speakers, it's also good to hear people making considered and reasonable arguments and acknowledging the gaps and flaws in the free software world. I enjoy using free software, and I try to support it, but I have periodic episodes where I mostly throw in the towel for a time. Generally it's as a result of having read or heard too much zealotry, often hostile, on mailing lists, forums, issue trackers etc. I'm not talking about impassioned stances for or against free software. Rather, the cheap insults, childish name calling, and endless complaints directed toward people providing others with code freely… code which of course nobody is obligated to use if they object to!

A bit more than a year ago I was involved a small amount in contributing to Trisquel GNU/Linux [1], toward the 9.0 release. I've always been interested in seeing how far you can get with strict free-software adherance, though I'm a semi-pragmatist who has always had Windows and Mac machines around. Contributing to Trisquel was enjoyable but reading the forums / mailing lists, and other public zealotry of many people adjacent to the project, was not. I ran away dissappointed, but in awe of the tolerance of the few people who patiently answered questions, continued to work on the project, etc. I've been much the same way when I looked into possibly getting involved in Guix in some small way. In that case there was actually a much larger core of very reasonable, friendly developers and users… but also a lot of GNU/Stallman related drama on the periphery [2]. Guix was also less of a draw for me over time… I decided I didn't actually want to learn a LISP, or manage my machines like that.

I've actually come back to using Trisquel, in one of my roughly yearly 'how much can I survive on only free software' attempts. It has stuck for a couple of months now. I currently use it as an OS daily. I have donated financially a small amount, and may contribute some patches in the future. I like it for what it is, a strict free distribution, derived from Ubuntu, minus snaps, with MATE. It's very niche and I don't think it'll ever be that useful for many. That doesn't stop it being pleasant for me.

I've noticed that I can continue to enjoy using it if I don't go and look at the mailing lists, the forums etc. There is some sparse chat on IRC among people who work on it, and they do not indulge in the same type of discussion that makes me run for the hills. These are actually the people I should be taking notice of. I've also had some brief interaction again with one of the patient and polite souls, who nonetheless holds strong beliefs, over email and mastodon.

Clearly this is what I have to do to enjoy free software long-term. Find a way to interact with some of the good, quiet, patient folks out there. Avoid and/or ignore the posturing and nonsense that seems to invade most public fora.

I'd be really interested in hearing from anyone who has had similar internal battles… a strong wish to get actively involved in free software projects, and stay involved, but constantly put off or scared off by the nonsense that surrounds them. How do you ignore / avoid / tolerate the crap? I feel I'm mellowing and getting slightly better at that as I age… but I'm really not great.


[1] Note that I personally don't believe in the stated importance of using GNU/Linux vs Linux, but in this case it is the project's chosen name, so I'll use it. It's not really an issue I'd argue on strongly either way.

[2] I am one of those FSF associate members who is glad that Stallman is no longer the figurehead of the organisation.

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