The View from Durham on Software Freedom Day 2014

web-banner-chat-participating-hThis Saturday (September 20th 2014) is the tenth annual Software Freedom Day. As a group of free software users, we thought this would be a good opportunity to take stock of what the FLOSS world looks like from our perspective, and celebrate the things we like about it.

As Linux users, we’re already users of free software by definition however we all use other pieces of free and un-free software to varying degrees, so we are a heterogeneous group. To bring together our ideas we used a collaborative text-editing tool called etherpad and are publishing on the wordpress platform. What with the medium being the message and all that, it seems relevant to point out these things. Oh hang on, we just relied on a page on the MediaWiki platform. Now can we talk about the LAMP stack that it sits on? And we haven’t even started yet.

So before we disappear up a dependency tree of what we have to mention, let’s just make the point that it is (as we are) everywhere and you don’t have to be a card-carrying member of anything in order to rely on free technology and free culture more generally. Now let’s have a run through some of our favourites.

Linux Distributions

Everyone has their own preference, but worthy of special mention for both its free ideological purity, and for being the mother of so many other distro’s, is Debian. Having started in 1993 it has since spawned a large number of sub-projects as well as forking into new distros the best know of which is Ubuntu. Some of us feel that Ubuntu has somewhat ‘lost its way’ since it’s recent emphasis on touchscreen interfaces and sending all of your base search queries to a certain tax-avoiding vectoralist corporation. Boo-buntu, boo, we say. Try Mint if you want easy.

Other more specialised Debian derivatives include AVLinux, a pre-configured media production workstation, of which Mark reflects:

“I spent years – happy years –  trying to make music with GNU/Linux before. Sometimes it had worked, sometimes it hadn’t. Basically it was just a bit too hard for me at the time, or to look at it another way, tinkering with the machinery was more interesting than my musical ideas. But when I discovered AVLinux, all  of those excuses evaporated because everything was already configured to produce, from the start.”

In the interests of balance, he adds,

“mind you it’s a PITA to install over lvm2 or dmcrypt because remastersys doesn’t play nicely with /dev/mapper/*”


Winning on Every Scale

From immense databases down to chip-level support, FLOSS is a core part of our electronic lives. At one end of that spectrum, Helen is a fan of PostgreSQL:

“… an enterprise-class relational database management system, which gets a lot of commercial developers working on it, is very well documented, has lots of neat features and extensions. The PostGIS extension underpins Open Street Map by providing a scalable means of storing the map data (the points and lines).”

Others are also fans of Open Street Map and it’s dependants, for example cycle streets which adds bike-friendly route calculations. Not only does it take free software, but open data licenses to make these projects possible. These are legal rather than technical innovations, but they are vital for creating a sense of shared, common ownership of a resource, without which people would be less likely to maintain and contribute to it.

Barry is impressed by the way hardware is handled;

“I like Linux’s hardware detection: how things “just work”. I like not having to spend time searching for, or updating, drivers.”

Did you think we were going to say something about desktop apps? OK. Audacity. You can even use it on non-free OSes.

We like free resources / Free resources we like

Apart from mapping, there are plenty more educational and informational networked resources. Floss Manuals are books that you can remix in order to create educational materials for specific audiences. Topic-specific resources often have a thriving community around them, for example music production.

All in all it seems that the view from Durham is of a free software ecosystem which supports us as we support it. GNU/Linux is an important part of that ecosystem, but there are lots of other bits too; the tall trees of software; the broad plains of open knowledge; the mingling streams of cultural remix; the deep caves of cypher and harvest of guano within; and all over, the shifting breezes of ontological flux.

These are not the flux you are looking for

These are not the flux you are looking for

Onto-what? Just this. There used to be ownership, but now being owned is not a singular state. Much of that change is the result of different varieties of licensing. Many of the licenses were inspired by the GNU General Public License. As this gets older it’s easy to forget what a critical innovation it was to consolidate the notion of copyleft, so that whatever we make openly, building on the open work of others, is held in common and shouldn’t be fenced off. The number and varieties of such licenses is a testament to their power to change the way people conceive of intellectual property: ownership hasn’t been abolished, but it’s a highly maleable thing now.

Learn to program the DIY way

Starting this week, some of Durham’s Free Software Skill-Sharers will be learning to program together. We’ve formed a small study group which will have face-to-face meet-ups for peer support, and we’ll be keeping in touch by email as well.

At the moment we’re open to more people joining in – if you’d like to give it a try, join in the conversation on our mailing list (read the archives to see what’s happening, then subscribe and post a message to the list). This is completely free of charge, but comes with no guarantees; we’re just some people doing it because we want to.

We’re going to be learning a language called Python, using a book called “Learn Python the Hard Way” which is available for free on the internet. The name is inaccurate – the author is just making a point that you need to practise in order to get good at anything. It is suitable for people who have never programmed before.

With the new national curriculum, kids have to learn to program in school from a very young age, so this is an opportunity to be able to help your grandchildren / children / buddies / self with your homework (depending on how old you are), or just to be able to say, “Aha, let Grandma show you how I’d do that in python”.

People give many different reasons for learning to program (also know as learning to code) including:

  • self-directed learning looks good on your CV
  • it could lead to higher study or employment in IT
  • it enables you to make your own programs which work just how you want
  • you learned how to program in BASIC on the BBC Micro and you want to know what’s changed since then
  • it teaches problem-solving
  • it provides a way in to an understanding of the world of information
  • it is a creative act that demands no other justification

We’re just starting now, so it won’t take you long to catch up… just start at the beginning of the book and let’s see where it leads us…

Time to share that free (software) love

In February, I met a bloke in a local bookshop who was bemoaning the fact that he couldn’t find out what was going on in his area, because he didn’t have a computer. There used to be some in his local library, but they broke down. I was surprised at first – everyone I know uses computers every day – but this man was from a generation that relied on leaflets and newspapers to find out what was going on. He couldn’t afford to buy a computer, and also he’d need some help and a few pointers to get started. So we talked about getting an unwanted computer and installing a free OS on it. And as we spoke, we figured out that the time was ripe for this sort of thing.

Some of us have been banging on about the merits of free software for so long that it can get to feel like we’re always going to be a minority. Perhaps we get so familiar with trying to convert skeptical users of proprietary operating systems to join us in our eccentric linuxy ways, that it just feels like it’s always going to be like this. But what if external factors coincided in such a way that fairly suddenly, it made much more sense for Windows users to switch to desktop GNU/Linux than ever before? And it became easier for volunteers to put working machines in the hands of people who otherwise wouldn’t have any? Would we be ready to push at that open door, and grow the desktop-user numbers in our communities exponentially?

Here are a few things that have happened recently, which I’m going to suggest conspire to create just such a moment of possibility. Firstly, consider that a lot of people are seriously skint at the moment, so buying a computer is going to be difficult. Secondly, there are loads of computers knocking about that used to run Windows XP, which as of last month reached the end of its support life, so there should be lots of people looking for a new operating system; they might even have heard that the new versions of Windows are very different and unpopular with many ex-XP users; likewise, there’ll be lots of machines getting decommissioned by organisations that won’t install a new OS. Thirdly, open formats are gaining acceptance, so the days when people are expected to do simple tasks with proprietary formats (docx for example) could soon be over.

If you combine all of that with the things we’ve been talking about for years; all the social, technical and environmental benefits of running a free operating system; it starts to sound like this really could be a significant moment in the uptake of GNU/Linux by ordinary, non-technically-minded folks. I’ve talked to a lot of people over the last couple of months about how we can work together to make this happen.

Looking around, there are these amazing things already going on:

  1. NELUG – a great bunch of helpful, knowledgeable and highly skilled linux users
  2. Transition Durham – a network of people and groups who (amongst other things) are interested in re-use and recycling, planned carbon descent and building resilient communities
  3. Durham Community Support Centre – who are working with a lot of digitally excluded people, and are interested in education

So, we had a meeting on April 24th 2014 to sort out how we could work together and make something good happen. Here are a few of the key points to come out of that.

  • We agreed that the model of skill-sharing without hierarchy, as pioneered in the Escuela Moderna and subsequent practice was a good fit with the ethics of free software and community education. This means that people can both learn and teach, and are encouraged to do both. The idea of a gift economy was also mentioned, as being a community-reinforcing aspect of free culture.
  • We recognised that we were a diverse group of people with some common interests but also some differences, and for that reason it was important to set up a project that was autonomous, so we can benefit from association with the three organisations listed above, without anyone feeling that they need to belong to organisation x,y or z to participate. We want to be open to all-comers.
  • We talked about who we would like to attract as participants, and decided to target beginners who needed help either getting a machine to run a free operating system, or using free software applications. We could also signpost people to other organisations, e.g. user groups, and resources, e.g. free online courses.
  • We agreed to work towards holding our first event on Saturday, July 26th 2014 from 10am to 3pm at Durham Miners’ Hall. They have wifi.
  • We’ll work up an evolving document (see this skillshare proposal) to introduce what we’re doing and why, and propose a loose structure for the first event.
  • D. volunteered to design some posters/fliers, with some help on the content
  • We noted that a lot of our target group won’t have regular computer access, so we’ll need to reach them through off-line means, e.g. suitably positioned posters & fliers, via other groups, word of mouth, etc.

Progress since then…

  1. M. and B. have been to the Miners’ Hall and checked out the room – it is suitable for the kind of session we have in mind. Also, we’re helping the Community Support Centre (in the same building) to get some old XP machines running Linux Mint, for use by their visitors.
  2. Because we agreed to be autonomous from the three organisations above, we need our own blog, although there’ll hopefully be a lot of cross-referencing with this one you’re reading now. So M. has set one up provisionally (domain to be discussed and mapped later)


March LUG – Kindling

Somewhere out over the North Sea I took off my jacket, leaned back, and sipped on my beer. My jacket has a nice big inside pocket and, if I take the cover of my kindle, it fits perfectly in the pocket. It’s a perfect fit. I mean, you wouldn’t know it was there …

A few days later I dug out my kindle and noticed the display was suffering from a split personality. The bottom half was telling me to switch it on, while the top half was still showing three little birds, outside my window, singing a sweet song. Oh dear. After a visit to the University of Google it became apparent to me that this problem is not uncommon. Weird, but not uncommon. Weird because you can run your finger across the screen and feel nothing; no cracks no blemishes. But it’s clearly broke. It may be silky smooth on the outside but it hides a shattered interior.

The forums on Amazon buzz with feel-good stories of customers phoning Amazon and getting great trade-in deals on their ‘just out of warranty’ kindles. My Kindle was not just out of warranty, it was exceedingly, comfortably and generously out of warranty, and had been for a couple of years. Still worth a try …

Well that didn’t go anywhere useful. Nice chap all the same, and together across the ether we visited the Amazon website where we discussed the nice shiny new kindles and he advised me that I could ‘buy’ one, at the price shown. Apparently bears also go to the bathroom in the woods. Ok, let’s go to ebay.

Aha … Now we’re cooking … This looks just the chap. A couple of days later a huge ball of bubble-wrap arrives at work, and somewhere inside, is a shiny new kindle screen. And there’s even a link to their Youtube video, yeah, well whatever. Why watch a youtube video when it’s NELUG night, and, well, you can run linux on a kindle can’t you? Apparently.

Durham - kindle - nelug -- Tue 19 Mar 2013 21-23-04 GMT_640x480

Richard takes the kindle to bits

That evening I turned up with a broken kindle, a new screen, and a random selection of small screwdrivers. I dumped them on the table and headed for the bar. A few minutes later I returned with my drink to find surgery was already underway. In the time it takes to say “a pint of Black Sheep please” Richard had prised open the cover, removed the battery, and was poking at various bits of the kindle’s anatomy with professional interest.

I made a perfunctory pretense of watching the instruction video on youtube but the Nelug hive mind was working quite well without it. With the new screen fitted re-assembly was, as they say, simply the reverse of disassembly. I stuck to the Black Sheep while Richard stuck to the screwdriver and, despite some frisky screws that had decided to go for a wander and wanted to live somewhere else for a while, it all ended well.

Mission Accomplished

The broken screen on the left with the repaired Kindle on the right

LUG meeting report, 18 September 2012

Much fun was had learning about the difference between BIOS and UEFI booting, with the help of a Fedora 17 live USB: booting a BIOS system with this gives you syslinux, but a UEFI laptop loaded GRUB with a broken set of configurations. A few internet searches told us this was a known problem, and we were able to fix the UEFI booting.

We also spent some time diagnosing CUPS and wireless driver problems, and discussing the implications of Google’s recent announcement that is supporting OAuth 2.0 authentication for several of its APIs.

A Brief Introduction To Regular Expressions

What is a Regular Expression?


A regular expression is a flexible way of defining patterns of text. It is a formal language which is interpreted by a regular expression engine (which might be part of an application or a programming language) that parses input text and compares it to the regular expression, and then performs operations on text that matches the regular expression.

Common uses of regular expressions include:

  • Matching text
  • Substituting text
  • Extracting text


The basic syntax of a regular expression is /pattern/flags. The main part is the text pattern description, and the flags control the behaviour of the regular expression engine.

Different regular expression engines support different features, and also slightly vary in their syntax. After a overview of general regexp syntax we will look at some common applications and languages and how they support regular expressions.

Continue reading

Durham Linux User Group

We are in the process of updating this site… Apologies if the content you were looking for is no longer here… If you want to help, please get in touch.

You can join the mailing list by going to

Meetings are held in Durham (In the bar at Durham Rowing Club – See the location page).

We meet on the 3rd Tuesday of every month, from around 19:30, until around 22:30

Book review: ‘Digital Audio Essentials: A Comprehensive Guide to Creating, Recording, Editing, and Sharing Music and Other Audio’

Book cover
Title: Digital Audio Essentials: A Comprehensive Guide to Creating, Recording, Editing, and Sharing Music and Other Audio
Author: Bruce Fries, Marty Fries
Price: £24.95
Publisher: O’Reilly
Published: May 2005
Reviewed by: Dougie Nisbet
Review date: October 2006
Rating: 4/5


This book presents itself an interesting challenge in that it attempts to present a comprehensive guide to digital audio in a book that isn’t the size of a brick. The authors do this successfully and the book is a worthwhile read. Continue reading

Book review: ‘802.11 Wireless Networks: The Definitive Guide (Second Edition)’

Book cover
Title: 802.11 Wireless Networks: The Definitive Guide (Second Edition)
Author: Matthew S. Gast
Price: £31.95
Publisher: O’Reilly
Published: April 2005
Reviewed by: Martin Ward
Review Date: December 2005
Rating: 5/5

Calling your book “The Definitive Guide” sets the bar high at the start, and Gast does well to live up to his title and provide virtually everything you need to know about 802.11 networking.

If you are a wardriver looking for plans to make antennae out of Pringles cans, then you won’t find them here (but they are readily available on the Internet!) If you need to set up a wireless network of any size, or are just curious about how they actually work, then this is the book for you. Continue reading