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. Continue reading

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)


Durham Linux User Group

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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