Archive for August, 2006

Currently, if you want to find out where a postcode refers to, you have to pay for access to the database owned by the Post Office, or use a service that pays for it and comes with various restrictions. Free The Postcode are linking postcodes with latitude/longitude and making this information publically available. The data could be used for, say, compiling maps of free events, or searching Open Street Map by postcode. In the past couple days, my bloke and I have input about a dozen postcodes, along with gps readings, and with our most recent batch we’ve just pushed the number of postcodes in their database over 1000!


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Silver Linings

It’s just taken me four hours to complete what should have been a one hour drive. This was caused by traffic jams, roadworks, accidents happening right next to me, major accidents happening on the road I’d intended to use and traffic jams caused by people avoiding traffic jams. I did the entire journey between Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent without using motorway. In short, my afternoon sucked. However, I had my other half’s GPS with me and logging, so with any luck, Open Street Map will have some lovely new tracks of places that have never been mapped by them before. Of course, it would be just typical of today if I got all the logs uploaded and discovered it ran out of memory half a mile down the road and didn’t capture any of the interesting bits.

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Subtle Advocacy

In my experience one of the best ways to advocate Free software is to do it subtly. If you bang on about it all the time, people get bored. If you pick the right moment to drop the right comment into the right conversation, you can gain ground quite easily, even if it’s only a tiny bit at a time.

Earlier this week, I wandered into the office to the sounds of a conversation about Skype and VoIP. One of the hobbits is thinking about setting up his own system at home. I spy an opportunity! “Have you looked at Trixbox?” say I. One url later, and he’s considering using Free software. I’d say that’s a square inch conquered. If he decides to go with it, I’ll be claiming a square foot.

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Manpower, or even womanpower

Sometimes, when people decide they should do something about the situation, they attack it from completely the wrong side. They start attacking percieved symptoms, instead of the root cause. They overcompensate in areas that are meaningless.

The English language is littered with words based on the word “man”. They refer to “man” as in “human” rather than “man” as in “bloke” – manpower, chairman, man hours, mankind. Every now and then, someone, almost always male, tries to suggest that we should change all these words and have feminine variants (chairwoman, postwoman, womankind…) or they amend themselves in conversation “Hello guys…and Jen.”

This annoys me for two reasons. Firstly, the words themselves are not the problem, so all it would achieve is making conversation more cumbersome and awkward. Secondly, whether a person in a particular role happens to be male or female is almost always irrelevant, so why bother drawing attention to it? Can’t we just accept that all those words refer to human and get on with more important things?

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Some of the members of the LUGRadio community have made a podcast of their own, called hashlugradio. The thing that’s amusing me even more than the extreme meta-ness of this post is that this is one of those moments of clarity when you suddenly see what’s going on around you. There are 496 members of the forum who have posted more than once. There are currently 102 accounts logged into #lugradio. LRL was a big enough success that LRL06 was viable, and bigger and better, and there are already the beginnings of plans for LRL07. There are active members of the community as far flung as America and Singapore. And now there is a return to the roots of the community, with the creation of a podcast.

All too often the world seems set up to tell us that we ordinary people don’t matter, and that we little folk can do nothing to change the world. Here is proof that it just isn’t true. A bunch of mates in someone’s spare bedroom have created a community across the world. In between the cool technology and the bling and the legal issues and the philosophy, the Free Software world is full of such examples of ordinary people having an extraordinary effect on the world around them. We should take more time to notice them.

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The idea behind OpenHelp is that it’s very difficult to take that first tentative step into the FLOSS community. You’ve picked up/been given a CD, you want to try it out, and something just doesn’t quite work. Where do you go for help?

Google? You’ll get loads of confusing information that may or may not be relevant, but you just can’t decipher enough to figure it out.

Forums? They’ll tell you to RTFM, or┬ásend you to the stuff you found and failed to understandwhen googling.

IRC? You’ll be lucky to find somewhere that isn’t either so quiet nobody answers anything or so busy you can’t follow what’s going on.

Mailing list? If you can find the right one, and if there’s enough subscribers to even notice your question, they’ll probably tell you to search the logs, and you’re back at square one.

Local LUG? Well, if there is one, and if it’s populated by friendly, helpful people who go out of their way to welcome new people, then you’re very lucky. You’re even more lucky if one of those people happens to be able to help with the problem you’re having.

And, of course, all this assumes you know what question you should be asking in the first place. All too often it’s tricky to figure out which bit isn’t working. If you can’t play an mp3, how do you work out if it’s codecs, the player, ALSA, the sound card, the speakers, some settings somewhere?

So here’s where OpenHelp comes in. If we can get it up and running, and if we can get some serious support, it will be a single place where people new to the community can ask any free software related question they like, and get a sensible, helpful answer, written in English rather than Geek. We’ve got loads of ideas going on about how to set it up and how to get it moving. I will be posting more about it and about how to get involved soon.

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For some reason that predates me and has never been explained, in our company techies are known as hobbits and we, the admin staff, are known as pixies. We’re currently recruiting hobbits, and had one potential who was female. My boss’s comment was “I can’t imagine a girl hobbit.” I considered myself very restrained by not rising to the bait and just calmly stating that I knew loads of them. I can’t quite decide if I was more annoyed by the fact it was said (and meant), or by the fact that it was said by a woman.

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