Tag: freedom

World book and copyright day, 23 April

Today is World book and copyright day. UN mentions a lot about books and the diversity of values they bring along but very few words are written on copyright per se. It’s true that books are vectors of values and knowledge, depositories of the intangible heritage. But in a world progressively going towards digital books, it could be worth having a real debate about what type of knowledge we want to preserve for the next generations, in which formats, under what types of conditions.

I was in New York recently and I was happily surprised to see the number of people still reading something (real books but also magazines, e-books, and of course their e-mails). E-book readers are more and more common, especially in planes and other public transport. Every big book store on 5th Avenue has its own e-reader, even web-based book stores promote their own e-readers. Most if not all of those e-readers promote its own closed, freedom-depriving file format.

Bill Blass Public Catalog Room - NYPL

We’ve all in mind pictures of the Rose Main Reading Room of the NYPL Schwarzman Building, where the beautiful room is packed with people reading and their laptops. I was also surprised to see the amount of computers available in other rooms (like the Bill Blass Public Catalog Room above). Books – real ones, made of paper and cardboard – are consigned to the walls, very few people are actually browsing through them. We now look for books in electronic catalog ; these books are stored in more functional room for librarians to find them. We now expose our collection of books in “social bookshelves” like librarything.

It’s not a reaction of an old man (well, maybe …). It’s more that we should think about what we want to create and what we want to leave for the next generations. It’s good to have a business plan to allow customers to have the best possible experience while reading your e-books for the next 2 years ; it’s even better if you would allow the same customers to keep their library open, transparent and “sharable” with others. Gutenberg’s invention allowed books and knowledge to be widely shared ; don’t let the “digital revolution” take that freedom back!

A good issue of Nature, obviously!

The October 14th, 2010 issue of Nature is obviously a good one. It had to be a good one! I usually advocate Open Access but it is always nice to reading complimentary issues of Nature which is Closed Access but is also publishing very good articles about science at the same time.

In this issue, I was interested in various topics …

First, there is a serie of articles about the US midterm elections and what (US) scientists feel about two years of Obama administration. Obama promised total transparency in American science, a new era of integrity and more freedom for scientists. From what I read, this isn’t the case yet.

Then, there are two article about publishing computer code from scientific experiment. In a World View, Nick Barnes, director of the Climate Code Foundation takes some concerns about that to pieces. The main reasons to provide computer code is to improve programming skills (the software author’s and others’) and enable others to engage with your research. Don’t be ashamed of the quality of your code. Don’t be afraid of starting the trend if no one around you share their software. Don’t be afraid to refuse support when badly asked for. Don’t overestimate the intellectual property value of your code. Nick Barnes also wrote a blog post about it. And you can comment on the Nature article here.

In a News Feature, Zeeya Merali tells stories of scientists who found themselves in uneasy positions regarding to the software they wrote but, at the same time or later on, realised publishing their software was the best thing to do. Besides formalising one’s training in programming, Zeeya Merali advocates some simple steps to practise “safe software”: use a version-control system ; track sources, data and events ; write testable software ; test the software and encourage sharing of software.

I was also interested in these articles in two ways. First, I also realised the need of a formal training in programming during my Ph.D. and I eventually got a B.Sc. in computer science. In the team and field where I’m now working (Health Economics and modelling of infectious disease), I can clearly see the benefit of having such training. Don’t get me wrong: I meet wonderful colleagues every day who don’t have the training but have lots of skills and can solve lots of problems ; I just often see the ease to grasp algorithms as well as some better procedures and testing that comes with training. And, second, I would like to addd that free software licences are to be considered when publishing your software (for science or not).

In the same issue, there was also a small news about the Europe’s use of research animal. This reminded me of the good-old-days :-). Fundamental biology still account the largest proportion of animal experiments but what intrigued me is the 12.2% of “Other” usage.

There was also a comment on a book, The Professional Guinea Pig, about paid participants in phase I clinical trials. Interesting perspective from “the other side” of trials.

There is also an Outlook on the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. It features interviews with 10 Nobel laureates (it’s always nice to readd their comments on science) and an article about science in the digital age (not yet read but it seems interesting).

Finally, an ad for my previous lab (GIGA ULg) caught my attention, as well as the small article about Science in Belgium. I must however write that this article is a bad summary of the research landscape in Belgium with, for example, mention of only two universities: the KUL and the UCL (we have many more). Souvenirs, souvenirs.

Happy Software Freedom Day 2010!

Today, September 18th 2010, it’s Freedom Software Day all over the world. It is an annual worldwide celebration of Free Software, a public education effort with the aim of increasing awareness of Free Software and its virtues, and encouraging its use.

On the SFD website, there isn’t a lot of events registered for Belgium. There is only one, in fact, in Oostende (LiLiT is doing an install party in Liege but I can’t see any reference to SFD; still, it’s a good initiative!). Well, a SFD on September 18th in Belgium might not have been a good idea if the goal is to increase awareness of Free Software: more than half of the population is celebrating the Walloon Region or preparing a Sunday without car in Brussels (while others are just looking for a government since April 2010!). So, at a personal level, I decided to give Ubuntu a try (10.04 LTS).

In terms of user experience, you can’t beat the installation process of Ubuntu (my comparison criteria are Fedora 13 and any version of Windows XP, Vista or 7 that are not on a PC-specific image disc). Seven configuration screen with rather simple questions and that’s it. There are choices you can’t make like the selection of software you want to be installed and available on the next reboot. But, most of the general software is there: a web browser, a word processor, some games, a rudimentary movie player and a music player. The “Software Center” is also readily visible so you can’t miss it and it seems to be an obvious choice if you want to install any other software.

New Ubuntu desktop for Freedom Software Day 2010

The real test will now be if one can actually work with it. If I don’t post any furious comment against some features or if I don’t post anything about the installation of some software in the coming days / weeks, you’ll know I’m still working with this Linux flavour.


Frankly speaking, I don’t really understand the passion for the new Apple iPad (an "iPhone on steroids"?). It’s a beautiful-looking machine but it also jails its user in the "Apple ecosystem". It’s just consumerism.

Apple has a record of launching beautiful-looking devices and shiny products. In the beginning of the years 1980s, they popularized the computer mouse and the graphical user interfaces as we know them today. In the beginning, one would love the simplicity of use of Apple computers and software, especially compared to the MS-Windows or GNU/Linux versions at that time (I’m speaking of the years 1990s). The end-user was then at the center of the "computer experience". But now, it seems the end-user becomes a (paying) consumer, nothing else.

Since a few years, Apple developed its own, closed ecosystem and is now cleverly taking advantage of the miniaturization of electronic devices to sell content via this ecosystem. Indeed, Apple first developed the iTunes Store that was initially only a music store but later offered other multimedia content and applications (most of them for a fee). Legally selling music via the internet was disruptive at that time when most music available on the internet was only personal copies from some individuals. With the miniaturization of electronic devices, phones became "personal digital assistant" with the ability to play music, play games, run office application, take photos and videos, surf the web, exchange e-mails and instant messages, etc. Computers also became miniaturized, giving birth to netbooks.

The great thing about these small devices is that they are usually forced to save data in common formats in order for their clients to be able to use these photos (jpeg), videos (3gp) and music (mp3) on other devices than their phone or netbook. However, nearly all manufacturers also created their own "Store", websites selling multimedia content and applications (not only music anymore) specifically created for a platform but also specifically locked to a platform. One may argue that Apple iTunes Store is easier to use and provides more content than any other platform (which is probably true) but nevertheless, Apple is locking its customers to its platform.

The advent of the iPhone and now the iPad further locks its users to use Apple Store thus to use Apple-approved content, Apple-approved music, Apple-approved applications, Apple-approved books, etc. Of course, there is a way to open some of your own documents previously saved in a more usual format. But there is no way to share the content you bought from a Store with your child, spouse, parents and friends. Apple owns the content you bought, you are just leasing it from Apple for your own personal use.

So, technically, the iPad may be a nice looking device but it’s also an iPrison for your data and what you can/can’t do. I agree computers and electronic devices needs to be user-friendly and shouldn’t annoy users with technical details. But I also would like that the same computers and electronic devices give the freedom to modify, share content, look at details if that’s the user wants.

Finally, I like this citation from Laurian Gridinoc, before Apple annoucement:

HAL-9000: What is going to happen?
Dave: Something wonderful.
HAL-9000: I’m afraid.
Dave: Don’t be. We’ll be together

Don’t be afraid, indeed: Apple will know what you want, dictate what you’ll like but won’t disable any life support systems as it needs your money!

Some useful software for programmers stuck on MS-Windows

Sometimes, even if you mainly develop on Unix/Linux boxes, you are stuck with MS-Windows on your desktop. Moreover, although your are a developer (i.e. someone who is supposed to know how to run a computer), you have no administrator rights so you can’t install the right tools that can improve your productivity and enhance your code stability/security. This is for the sad part.

Fortunately, Free Software are there and most of them can even be run without being installed on your machine, just copy the software and use it! Here is a list of some of the software I’m using. Feel free to promote your favourite application in the comments.

  • CamStudio: record video of bugs for support (free to use)
  • Virtual Desktop Manager: many desktops on MS-Windows (free to use)
  • doxygen: automatically generate documentation from your code (Free Software)
  • Eclipse: integrated development environment with support of many languages (including old COBOL!) and version control systems (Free Software)
  • FileZillaPortable: move file to/from servers (Free Software)
  • Firefox: test web application in a popular browser (Free Software)
  • freemind: mind mapping application (Free Software)
  • GIMPPortable: edit screenshots when you encounter a bug (Free Software)
  • htmlhelp: edit help files for end-users (free to use)
  • InkscapePortable: easily draw any scheme (Free Software)
  • j2sdk1.4: support old Java applications (free to use)
  • jdk1.6: develop and run new Java applications (free to use)
  • LaTeX (MiKTeX): write your dev reports (Free Software)
  • Lynx: surf fast without distraction (Free Software)
  • Netbeans: integrated development environment with support of version control systems (Free Software)
  • PuTTY: connect to servers in SSH (Free Software)
  • PuTTY connection manager: regroup PuTTY windows (Free Software)
  • SumatraPDF: free PDF reader (Free Software)
  • TeXnicCenter: LaTeX editor working with MiKTeX (Free Software)
  • tidy.exe: tidy your HTML code (Free Software)
  • todolist: simple todolist (Free Software)
  • TOra: Oracle database front-end (Free Software)
  • VLCPortable: listen to music and watch all movies (Free Software)
  • wget.exe: easily get files without a browser (Free Software)
  • xmlstarlet: check and process XML files (Free Software)

The problem with TinyURL …

The problem with TinyURL.com is that its source code is not free. And I can’t find any other open services/projects that offers the same features (1).

I realized this when trying to add a long link in a Twitter update (2, 3). A maximum of 140 characters doesn’t allow you to add much text around. And it seems that a lot of Twitter users are using the TinyURL.com service which allows you to translate a small URL it gives you to the full, “regular” URL. For example, http://www.poirrier.be/~jean-etienne/ (37 characters) becomes http://tinyurl.com/6kq84z (25 characters).

But … TinyURL is trademarked and its terms of services explicitely tell us they may report your activity to some “agencies” … In addition to the reasons why Udi hates TinyURLs, I wonder how is stored your URLs. Well, it’s not exactly “how?” but “with which additional information?”. I guess they store your IP address, ISP and location (to be able to report your activity to your ISP and U.S. agencies) along with your submition, date & time, … Nothing is said about privacy in their page. Nothing is said either about the time they will keep your URL (what if you try to use your TinyURL in 5 months or 5 years?). And obviously, no source code available. On the other hand, if you don’t want to use the service, you are also free not to use it.

The only problem is that I can’t find proper, free/open alternatives. There are dead/unborn projects like this one at Mozdev or url(x) (no, GiganticURL is not a solution 😉 ). And there is even a PEAR service to TinyURL. Decent URL is not a solution since it’s only a variation on TinyURL (still not open/free and nothing about privacy). BURL is often cited but the only link I have is broken.

It could be nice to have a TinyURL-like service with open source/free source code and a clear overview of privacy settings (why not à-la-carte settings defined when the user submit his/her long URL?). (Note that Udi also has interesting additional ideas in his previously cited post, mainly about knowing what kind of media you’ll get with the short URL)

(1) The first sentence of this post is a kind of “executive summary”. I hope I’m not getting too old to indulge myself in this kind of thing 😉
(2) Yes, I now have a Twitter account. I don’t know the real purpose of having this kind of thing along with my own blog. Let’s see …
(3) I know, Twitter doesn’t have an open/free source code too. But open source microblogging site may become Twitter fallback.


A few days ago, I was sad to see that the Association Electronique Libre (AEL) website was down and only replaced by two measly <html> tags. For those who didn’t know it:

The Association Electronique Libre is a belgian association protecting the fundamental rights in the information society.

The Association Electronique Libre supports the freedoms of speech, press, and association on the Internet and any electronical mediums, the right to use encryption software for private communication, the right to write software unimpeded by private monopolies, the right to access and preserve public domain and free digital information.
(from an old copy of the AEL website)

Although it was based in Belgium, the information it contained as well as the actions that were supported exceeded the small Belgian borders. The wiki was a very useful and valuable source of documents, links and comments about freedom in the electronic media. “Fortunately” we still have a 2007 version of the website on archive.org and some messages from the mailing-list were kepts on the mail-archive and open subscriber (and I will preciously keep my archives!).

Following a small exchange of e-mails with one of the main guy behind AEL, the machine hosting the AEL is simply dead (the fact the machine was dying was announced a long time ago, no one apparently reacted). I guess (or rather hope) that the data is still available on the hard disk(s).

Now what? Beside the fact we are all getting “older” with other priorities in life, how come we don’t feel more concerned about our freedom in the cyberspace? Internet liberties are still in danger [1], the Electronic Frontier Foundation website has more and more issues, a paper-media publishing house is printing comics to “educate teenage youth about an array of issues ranging from privacy, free software, security and the impact of politics on personal freedom as it relates to the use of technology”, … Are we too lazy to try to understand what’s behind Facebook, LinkedIn, Orkut, Ning and other “social networking websites“? Maybe the technological gap between these polished websites and what indivuals can do “in their garage” radically increased since the advent of so-called Web2.0, inhibiting our will to actively participate in it [2], to make it ours? Did most of us “surrender” in front of the razzle-dazzle aspects of new communication media?

The idea behind this post title (AEL – New Generation?) is simply that something should be done to bring back to life a central, hopefully community-driven website to gather information about our freedom in cyberspace …

[1] Ironically, in this post, this reference is written by the main person behind the AEL
[2] About the “creativity” of people in Web2.0 applications, we could read with interest this article from C. Jonckheere and F. Schreuer (unfortunately in French only)