FSFE and the cross we bear

I’ve been a fellow of the Free Software Foundation Europe for just over a month, and recently a visiting friend commented on a point that, until then, I’ve only noted to myself: that the fellowship logo is rather similar to the Christian cross.

FSFE is certainly not a Christian organization. One could argue that it is a by-product of a traditionally Christian civilization, but one could equally argue that it traces its heritage to Greco-Roman philosophy! The green cross, with a slit on the bottom so that the entire shape looks like an icon representing a person standing with open arms, is probably closer to the Red Cross in iconography than to Christianity. That being said, being a fellow does have some similarities to being a committed Christian.

  • The cross we bear: Joining has a price, whether financial, in time commitment, or other means
  • A mission: we bear this price gladly because we believe in what the respective organizations stand for. In case of the FSFE, it’s freedom. Freedom to learn. Freedom to innovate. Freedom from unreasonable restrictions imposed on you by software patents (at this point, I’d like to extend a special welcome to any budding cinematographer who just discovered that by recording your video in H.264, the MPEG-LA consortium owns your soul — er, I mean your work)
  • Diverse voices: just as Christianity is represented by a myriad denominations, some with higher profile than others, some with a more tarnished reputation than others, yet all based on the same foundation — no matter how garbled in the transmission (we are all humans!), the same is true of the Free, Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS) community. There are differences between the free and open source camps, between the copyleft and liberal-license camps, etc. But deep down we believe in sharing our works with others, whichever way we justify it to ourselves and others.

The struggle against the anti-commons nature of overly-restrictive intellectual property will be with us for a long time. We have made huge technical leaps — FLOSS software is competitive in diverse fields including server operating system (Linux, the BSDs, OpenSolaris), instant messaging (Jabber, standardized as XMPP), audio codecs (FLAC, Vorbis, Speex), and are catching up in video (Theora, Dirac, and thanks to Google, WebM, née VP8). Even users still locked into proprietary systems can thank FLOSS, and open standards, for the Web they surf (served mostly by Apache), their web applications (often built on top of the Java platform), and further down, the network protocols they use, all developed in collaboration instead of in proprietary isolation.

Yet the road ahead is a long and winding one. Flash is still omnipresent on the Web, Apple is proving a huge disappointment (after contributing to, and sponsoring, so many open source projects, now they’re starting to shrilly attack any competitor to their iPhone/iPad lines — be it Android, Flash, Theora, or WebM). To quote Benjamin Franklin,

Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety

I’m not giving up my liberty, and neither should you. It’s true that it is hard to completely give up proprietary software — don’t be discouraged, many free software advocates are not there yet either. But you can start by following these simple guidelines:

  • Favour open standards — does your calendaring solution support the ICAL format? does your mail provider provide IMAP and POP3 access? is your instant messaging platform XMPP-based (e.g. Google Talk), or are you locked onto a proprietary protocol?
  • Vote with your wallet — if a company has a history of abusive behavior (sadly, Apple is now there), attempt to discourage this kind of behavior. Don’t buy the products they’re trying to protect by this behavior, tell them why you’re not buying, and tell other people why too.
  • Be aware of your rights — you have the right to make a personal copy of your music and movie collections. Yet the RIAA and MPAA tries their hardest to make this impossible — in case of DVDs and Blu-ray, to the point of making it illegal

I highly recommend reading Against Intellectual Monopoly and Gridlock Economy; both are accessible and highly illuminating accounts of the damage our current legal IP regime is doing to our societies. The solution is not anarchy — copyleft licenses *are* legal copyright documents — but to work for reform; if you agree, consider donating your time — or money — to organizations such as the Free Software Foundation, its affiliates — including FSFE; the Open Invention Network; your favourite free/open source project (whether in code, documentation, useful bug reports or donation); or projects that enrich our cultural commons by making public domain information more accessible — e.g. Wikipedia and Project Gutenberg.

I thank you. Future generations will thank us too, for whatever little we can do for them today.

Discovering Emacs: Org-Mode

Needing to find a tried-and-tested GTD application, I finally discovered Emacs’ Org-Mode. It’s a planner, a note-taking application — and more. I’ve taken to using it to generate most documents — whether they’ll end up as text (for email) or LaTeX (for reports). Amazingly flexible and well-documented.

You’d want to install the latest version, rather than relying on the version bundled with Emacs (since version 22) — otherwise some features described in the documentation simply won’t work (e.g. quick-selecting the initial state of a TODO item).