Monthly Archives: August 2006

Between Dachau and München

I write this in a youth hostel in Munich. I’ve just come back from a Munich suburb where I have spent two days with Sebastian, a German Ubuntu developer, talking about computers, the Ubuntu community, interaction design and much, much more.

Sebastian lives along the railway line between Munich and Dachau, the village now mostly known for being the home of the first Nazi concentration camp and the model which all of the other camps followed. Yesterday, we went to see the memorial site and the museum, and it is the kind of place that really affects you.

The concentration camp was opened on the very day that Hitler and the Nazi party took over the govermental authority of Bavaria, and it was quickly expanded to house more than 6.000 prisoners. Most of these were political prisoners such as Communists and trade unionists, but up through the 30s the nazis also incarcerated religious deviants such as Jehova’s witnesses, racial deviants such as jews and gypsies, sexual deviants such as homosexuals and social deviants such as the homeless or habitual criminals.

One of the prominent prisoners in Dachau was the protestant priest Martin Niemöller who was a supporter of the nazis in the early 30s but changed his stance and was promptly persecuted for it. His conclusion of the oppression that existed in Germany in the 30s is one of the most famous ever said of totalitarian regimes:

In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.

Walking through the Dachau museum, all of these atrocities are spelled out, pictured and expounded to leave no doubt about the way these things work. Sebastian told me that German children have extensive lessons exploring this history and the circumstances that brought them about.

He also mentioned how soon-to-be parents often drive to Munich to give birth to avoid having that dreaded name Dachau appear on both birth certificate and passports. But despite of this consciousness, people live there and focus on the good things. Though the old camp is located a long the main road into the old town of Dachau, it is well hidden by sports facilities, drive-in fast food places and supermarkets.

The strangeness of growing up in a place so closely associated with an often-repressed past is to some degree central to the German national identity. I see that there’s even a film about it.

Central Munich on the other hand has been washed completely clean of anything reminding people of the cruel past. Even though huge sections of the city were completely bombed out by the end of the war, the Muncheners have rebuilt all of it faithfully. It is hard to see that only a few of the central historical buildings in Munich are less than 60 years old.

The Odeonsplatz in central Munich was where Hitler’s 1923 coup was foiled. Hitler survived only because his bodyguard threw himself on top of him, taking 11 bullets from the 100 police officers barricaded by the square. When Hitler came into power in 1933, he erected a memorial on that site to honour the memory of the 15 nazis who died there that day. He also made it law that people passing by the memorial should salute it with the Hitler salute. There were police officers posted by the memorial at all times to enforce this.

Putsch memorial
The memorial then.

same site today
The site of the memorial today.
(more pictures can be found here.)

Non-nazis often tried to avoid this by walking through the nearby alley Viscardigasse that took them to the other side of the Odeonsplatz, bypassing the memorial. To discourage this, there were plainsclothes police officers posted to note if some people took this shortcut too often and question or threaten them as they felt necessary.

Today, the Coup memorial is gone, there is just a small plaque in the ground near the site commemorating the 4 police officers who died then. In the nearby alley, there is no plaque – but there is a swayed line of yellow bricks in the pavement to commemorate the people who quietly disagreed with the Nazi line. If you look at it, you would never know that it signifies anything special. That seems to be the state of things in Munich where they are happy to delegate that sort of memories to Dachau.

Part of the tribe

Yesterday, I was approved for Ubuntu membership and am now an official member of the Ubuntu community. Becoming a member is just about the most formal procedure in the Ubuntu community, and it is still very, very relaxed.

New member candidates are approved at the Ubuntu Community Council meetings which are held every two weeks on the ubuntu-meeting IRC channel. Members write a short introduction of themselves and the work they’ve done in the Ubuntu community and add themselves to the meeting agenda in the Ubuntu community wiki. And based on that, the four members of the Community Council make their decision to either approve membership or ask for further involvement or testimonials from other community members who can vouch for the candidates.

I, too, did a wiki page presenting myself and the based on the work I described there, I was asked questions by the members of the community council which I guess is the closest Ubuntu comes to having tribal elders. As all the Ubuntu IRC channels are logged, you can easily find and read the full transcript of the meeting with the review of, and interview with, all of the candidates.

It was a quite strange experience, sitting in a room full of Ubuntu developers as the meeting unfolded in complete silence, everybody working and only a few of them taking the time to follow the meeting on IRC.

So what does being a Ubuntu member mean? Well, officially it means that you’re allowed to vote on community-wide issues which has been put up for a vote. But so far, in the almost 2 years of active Ubuntu community, there has not been a single occasion for a vote.
What else? Well, I am now allowed to make my own Ubuntu business cards, have my own ubuntu.com email address and get my blog on the Planet Ubuntu aggregated community blog.

.. hey, wait. Maybe I ought to do that.

Sprinting the development

Late yesterday evening I arrived in Wiesbaden near Frankfurt am Main for the Ubuntu Developers’ Sprint. The sprint started this morning, and it is the big halfway point of the Edgy Eft release cycle. All of the Canonical-employed Ubuntu developers are gathered to recalibrate their efforts and coordinate the specifications that were approved in Paris.

The feature freeze deadline – the date when development work on new features stops in order to leave time to fix the bugs that necessarily appear – is September 7th, and is thus fast approaching. And as Canonical Chief Technical Officer, Matt Zimmerman, puts it, this is “The Reckoning. It’s time to make a decision on goals which are behind on progress, and drop goals which aren’t going to make the feature freeze deadline.”

Even though people are hard at work, the atmosphere is still rather relaxed. “Sprint” is the key word here as it is all about getting people together to have them energized and synergized for run-in of the release cycle. Getting people together for quality face time and fast-paced work is an essential part of how Ubuntu is developed.

After the sprint, I’ll be going around Germany, visiting Ubuntu developers to interview them and get a better idea of how they work in a more everyday setting. To that end, I have invested in a 3-week interrail ticket so that I can go around visiting people without having to worry too much about travel expenses. It’ll be fun!

The The

Why didn’t anybody tell me about how nice The The’s Dusk is?

Oh, somebody did, I guess. 5 years ago, when I wasn’t really ready to appreciate it. Telling somebody at the age of 20 that “you’ll love this music in 5 years time” is a surefire way to make them avoid it. And then when you finally get around to listening to it. 5 years have passed and the time is just right.

Uncanny.

But songs like True Happiness (this way lies), Helpline Operator and Slow Emotion Replay hit home in a quietly unsettling way:

Everybody knows what’s going wrong with the world
I don’t even know what’s going on in myself

Lord I’ve been here for so long
I can feel it coming down on me
I’m just a slow emotion replay
Of somebody I used to be

Curiously, The The makes Google go all wonky. Such too-clever 80s band names not only have a hard time with the search engines, but with most people as well. Recall this scene from the Commitments:

Jimmy Rabbitte: What do you call yourselves?
Derek: “And And And.”
Jimmy Rabbitte: “And And fuckin’ And?”
Derek: Well, Ray’s thinking of putting an exclamation mark after the second “and.” Says it’d look deadly on the posters.
Jimmy Rabbitte: Psshh…
Outspan Foster: You don’t like it? You think it should go at the end?
Jimmy Rabbitte: I think it should go up his arse.
Outspan Foster: Well, we’re not married to it.

Added old writings

I just went through some of my old stuff, and came across my old articles for the University of Copenhagen Institute of Anthropology magazine known as “Den Vilde Tanke” – which is the Danish translation of the French La Pensée Sauvage.

I helped with the layout, editing and writing for most of my first 3 years at university, and I’ve added the articles I wrote to the Writings page. All the articles are in Danish, of course – so sorry to get your hopes up if you aren’t proficient in that language. 🙂

Non-technical contributors in F/OSS projects

As a not-too-technical person, my experience with the Ubuntu community has been somewhat rocky. The few non-technical projects – Documentation, Marketing, Translation – do not get very much attention compared to the technical tasks, and those involved are nowhere as well organized as the technical teams. As fellow non-technical Ubuntu contributor Matthew Revell noted:

When trying to find a project to which I could contribute documentation, I found that I was welcome but:

a. no one really knew how to use my skills
b. the onus was on me to navigate my way round the project to find where I’d fit in
c. I was thrown in at the deep end.

Mitchell Baker, “Chief Lizard Wrangler” of the Mozilla project, has had to deal with this as well, coming to Open Source with a lawyer background. And as more non-technical people join the Mozilla Foundation, she has had to consider how these people can get to work well with the development community. The main issue is that there is no established path to meritocracy for non-technical roles:

Open source has been around for decades, and there is a significant group of engineers who participate as volunteers, and a significant group whose work involves open source projects. We know what the set of activities are that lead to acceptance and leadership. That’s no so clearly the case for the set of other activities.

She argues that the crux of the matter is trust:

Integrating non-engineering contributors takes a lot of trust and feeling our way gently. Those people joining us in non-engineering roles must trust that the technical contributors will give them a fair chance to participate, add value, become respected and gain influence and leadership. The engineering community must trust that these people who may be new to the Mozilla community and don’t have deep technical expertise are worth listening to and giving a fair shake.

She concludes:

people are effective when they are known and respected. This is the basis of shared values, community cohesiveness and continuity. It’s one of the tenets of open source software development that I believe must permeate everything we do. Our challenge is to use this approach in places where engineering “chops” aren’t a sufficient and may not be a particularly necessary criteria.

GNOME Board member Dave Neary has raised this issue in the GNOME community, and reaches much the same conclusion:

When Mitchell says that we need trust on both sides, it’s because when someone who isn’t technical asks a techie to do something for them, often the reaction is either “who do they think they are?” or “I know better”, or “show me the code”.

We need to have some way to get the first non-technical contributors heavily involved in things like release co-ordination and marketing to get that meritocracy bootstrapped. We need to trust that new people coming into those roles are capable, and trust them, until they prove otherwise 😉

He also points to the proposed Code of Conduct, inspired by Ubuntu, as a way to ensure an friendly environment that will encourage new contributors to join the community. But another challenge is to simply make non-technical people aware that they can contribute

In Ubuntu, Ubuntu Membership Process does not require technical contributions, thus stating that any contribution to Ubuntu will be valued equally. And hopefully extending the necessary trust to help developers and non-developers to work together.

But once that membership is granted, it becomes difficult to further meritocratize within non-technical contributors, whereas technical contributors can go on to apply to become an Ubuntu developer with appropriate upload rights as well as the somewhat arbitrarily administered Karma points.

As it is, upload rights and karma points are no way to distinguish between good and bad marketing or community support contributors, and it is debatable when it comes to translation and documentation contributors. And as more non-technical roles within the community appear, the situation will not improve.

The fact is that social trust in Open Source communities is earned through merit and participation, and as Ubuntu grows, this trust may be strained. I think Dave Neary’s suggestion of further integrating the non-technical contributors in the main technical processes such as specification and release planning will be essential to this. And that will require these processes to be both transparent and open, as well as considering the various non-technical teams’ relation to these main processes.

At the moment I’m drafting a document that is to be shipped with the system documentation as part of the next Ubuntu release. The goal is to make a reference guide for new or would-be community members on how to get involved in the Ubuntu community. But it is also meant to be an introduction to the tools and communication channels within the community, I hope that it will help new contributors to get an easy overview of the community structure and of how the various teams – technical and non-technical both – interact.

At the same time, I’m learning loads of stuff on community procedures, which is great for my fieldwork as well!

Making the most of your education

Students always complain about their teachers. Teachers often complain about their students. But you know things are turning worse when students are complaining about their fellow students. But that is just what this American graduate student is doing in this letter:

Consumerism as ideology manifests itself in the academy, an unfortunate development that I hear professors griping about on a regular basis. In my personal experience, for example, my students fill out “class evaluations” at the end of every semester, offering critiques of the class they have taken. You wouldn’t believe how many of them view education as a commercial transaction, saying that they don’t believe that they “should pay money to attend this required class (science, history, whatever in the core curriculum) that has nothing to do with my major.” They seem to think that college is like Burger King — Get It Your Way!

The letter contains a lot of remarks like this, and sparked a lively debate in the comments. A commenter monikered peBird posted a list of advice to students to help them understand what getting an education is all about. I’ve taken the liberty to cherrypick from that list (leaving out advice on golf and horseback riding):

Try this:

  • Don’t expect anything of value from the administration except bullshit.
  • You can’t avoid smelling it, but don’t swallow.
  • Read more than you ever thought you could.
  • Learn a foreign language. Or two.
  • Read about the history of slavery in the US.
  • Turn off the iPod.
  • Learn to work.
  • No body cares what degree you got or what courses you took – just that you had the endurance to get one.
  • Network with students to build relationships beyond school.
  • Remember there is no crystal ball; your parents raised you for a world that no longer exists.

This may sound conceitedly cranky and bitter, but I find myself agreeing with most of this. The essence of this list is that education is not about “Getting it your way” but about “Making it yours”:

Don’t think that education is just a commodity – just a step on the way to your career. Going to school is about exposing yourself to all the ideas, theories and possibilities imaginable and finding out for yourself what you would like to pursue. It never becomes simply a matter of acquiring skills. It is always about finding yourself in what you learn.

Think for yourself. Find out how you can use what you’ve learned and seek new knowledge that interests you. Learn to work. Work to learn.

Make it yours!

New look!

Welcome to WordPress. I’ve finally gotten around to moving my blog off Blogger, and getting into all the CSS and categorizing goodness of the Web 2.0.

I finally got around to doing this when I read usability guru Jakob Nielsen’s top 10 weblog design mistakes, and I hope to have fixed most his concerns now. The only ones I won’t be able to fix by switching blogging software is his points on content:

7. Irregular Publishing Frequency

Establishing and meeting user expectations is one of the fundamental principles of Web usability. For a weblog, users must be able to anticipate when and how often updates will occur.

8. Mixing Topics

If you publish on many different topics, you’re less likely to attract a loyal audience of high-value users. Busy people might visit a blog to read an entry about a topic that interests them. They’re unlikely to return, however, if their target topic appears only sporadically among a massive range of postings on other topics. The only people who read everything are those with too much time on their hands (a low-value demographic).The more focused your content, the more focused your readers. That, again, makes you more influential within your niche. Specialized sites rule the Web, so aim tightly.

If you have the urge to speak out on, say, both American foreign policy and the business strategy of Internet telephony, establish two blogs. You can always interlink them when appropriate.

Eh. Guilty. But somehow I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Just having one blog is plenty of bother for me already.
Anyway, I hope all of this works, and that it won’t mess things up for anybody reading this off a RSS feed.

No man is an island

While I was pondering the Ubuntu philosophy below, I remembered the following quote which also sums up the that philosophy, but from a different angle:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

– John Donne – Meditation XVII (1623)