hisham hm

David Bowie in 1999 on the cultural impact of the internet

It’s impressive to see David Bowie’s foresight on the cultural impact of the internet back in 1999, and how the interviewer was completely oblivious to it:

« Bowie: [When I was really young,] it still produced sighs of horror from people when you said “I’m in rock’n'roll”. Now it’s a career opportunity. And the internet now carries that flag, from the subversive and possibly rebellious, and chaotic, and nihilistic… Forget about the Microsoft element: the monopolies do not have a monopoly — maybe on programs.

Interviewer: What you like about it is that anyone can say anything, or do anything?

Bowie: From where I am, by virtue of the fact that I am a pop singer and writer, I really embrace the idea that there’s a new demystification process going on between the artist and the audience. If you look back at this last decade, there hasn’t been a single entity, artist or group that personified or became the brand of the 90s. It started to fade in the 80s… in the 70s there were definitely such artists, in the 60s… the Beatles, and Hendrix… in the 50s there was Presley.

Now it’s sub-groups, it’s genres: it’s hip-hop, it’s girl-power, it’s a communal kind of thing. It’s about a community, it’s becoming more and more about the audience. Because the point of having someone who led the forces has dissapeared, because the vocabulary of rock is too well-known. It’s a currency that is not devoid of meaning anymore, but it’s become only conveyor of information, not a conveyor of rebellion, and the internet has taken on that, as I said. So I find that a terribly exciting era.

So, from my standpoint, being an artist, I’d like to see what the new construction is between artist and audience. There is a breakdown, personified I think about rave culture, where the audience is at least as important as the person who is playing at the rave. It’s almost like the artist is to accompany the audience and what the audience is doing. And that feeling is very much permeating music. And permeating the internet. »

Speaking of aging

“How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day of June… If it were only the other way!” — Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

A while ago I realized that, as we live more and more of our lives online, many of us have turned into a sort of reverse Dorian Gray.

We create accounts in service after service, uploading our avatar images. Some of them are periodically updated for various reasons (Facebook in particular), but many of them stay unchanged for years. When was the last time you changed your GMail avatar?

As it happens, our online self keeps that perennial smile, that youthful face that’s sometimes years old by now, while our physical self, the one that’s locked in a room, sitting on a computer as the online self strolls around in cyberspace, ages day by day.

I have friends here on Facebook whose avatars I’ve known for years. Professors are known for having outdated pictures in their websites, with black hair that has long turned gray.

I met a guy at a conference who I expected to be a youthful long-haired dude in his 20s, and was a short-haired man in his late 30s. When I said “oh, you have short hair now!” he smiled, a bit confused, and then remembered his own picture. What is striking is that I should have known, since I knew that picture for over ten years myself, back when I was a dude in my 20s.

As for me, I have one nice pic of myself that I uploaded as an avatar in many services (Twitter, Github, etc) that I’m just too lazy to switch. I like the picture and I actually used it once as a reference at the barbershop when getting a haircut (was I trying to chase my “Dorian’s picture”?). Still, when switching back from my child picture here on Facebook back to my “current” picture, the thought that my usual profile picture is actually from 2011 came to mind. Hence, this picture.

A story of violence and gender

[Even though the title foretells its content, I’ve been advised to add a trigger warning at the top of this post. It doesn’t hurt to be careful.]

It’s been a few days that I’ve been meaning to write this. I even discussed with a friend two days ago about when would be a good time. Emma Watson’s speech on gender equality yesterday (transcript and video) inspired me to go for it: “if not now, when?”.

I want to touch a delicate subject, which she brought up masterfully: how gender inequality works on men.

The story of any oppression is that of three roles: a mass of oppresed ones; a few who oppress them; and a mass who turns a blind eye, who are oppressors by proxy. This is the story of racism, of religious discrimination, and so on. Ms. Watson’s speech shines a light that the issue of gender equality is even more complex than that. Men are hurting women, and also hurting themselves in the process.

What made me want to write this was something that happened last week. I was with two friends, a guy and a girl, at a bar in a foreign country. (It was in Russia, but it could have been anywhere.) A disgusting scene happened. I didn’t see it firsthand, but the girl who was with us was looking straight at it, so I’ll reproduce her report:

At one point the guy who seemed to be the manager started to harass the waitress, just like that, in front of anyone. She froze. And so did I. She stood still in front of the counter while the man held her from behind rubbing his penis violently against her ass. I watched, petrified. I zoned out of my friends’ conversation. The pleasant look in the girl’s face was gone. After he let her go, I tried to approach her in another corner of the bar. The manager went to annoy two other women who were customers. One of them pulled her arm so he’d let her go. And they stayed in the bar! In the corner of the bar I asked the waitress [using Google Translator] if he was her boyfriend and if she was okay. She didn’t speak English, didn’t answer and just said “it’s okay, it’s okay.”

Of course it was not okay. My friend shared her concern with us. Dismayed as we were with it, our only reaction was to express our impotence with the situation. The reflex instinct of being part of “the mass who turns a blind eye”. We think ourselves better because we don’t do such things (and we probably are). Still, being “oppressors by proxy” is not a place we’re proud to be. Our sense of impotence, however, was very much real.

We said “What can we do?”. She said, “I don’t know, if he does it again I’ll make a scene in this place! A scandal!” Then I said “Women have that option.” I didn’t mean to sound rude, but that’s true. The way things work with men is that if we were to confront the (shirtless, tattooed, long-haired) guy, things would soon go violent. We told our friend: “What can we do? Get into a fist fight in a foreign country?” Her reaction was “Oh, men.”

This story highlights a less-discussed aspect in gender inequality. The prevailing rule of male violence serves not only to harm women, but also to stop other men from taking action. My male friend and I, we both knew we were under an unspoken law that if we were to do something, things would get violent.

(A flashback: The only time in my adult life that I got in a fist fight was years ago, also in Eastern Europe. I was walking down a street with a group of friends. Some guys across the street started yelling at the only woman in our group. She yelled back. They crossed the street and went for her. We stood in the way and it quickly got ugly. I think eventually someone shouted “police” and they ran away. One thing that strikes me from that story is that I’ve rarely retold it, and I’ve never seen any of my friends telling it. Men get ashamed of getting in a fight like that, even if it was for standing up for a woman. The other guys probably just made jokes about beating up some foreigners the next day.)

Back to last week’s story, we all felt the waitress really just meant “please don’t get into this”. Still, I wanted to think of something to do. If were we in our home country, we’d know how to report the manager in a safe way. We didn’t know if he owned the place, if anything we did would just get her fired, or worse. All these things crossed my mind.

We evidently didn’t want to stay in that place and give them any more money, so we spoke of leaving. We were waiting for a local friend, and I could just message him saying we had to leave. Then I told my friend “No, let’s wait for my friend and then we’ll explain him what happened and ask him to talk to her in Russian.” She replied, “Good idea.”

As soon as he arrived I told him the story, and that we wanted him to talk to the waitress about what happened before leaving. He seemed surprised; both with what happened and with our seriousness about it. We called her to our table. My Russian friend talked to her, and she told him that he was her boss, not a boyfriend, that he was “like that” but that it was “okay”. Before leaving the waitress went to my friend and repeated to her “it’s okay, it’s okay”, but her sad look said otherwise.

Even if she did think that enduring that guy was “just part of the job”, I hope that our concern reminded her that no, it’s not okay. And if she already felt it’s not okay (as I think she did), now she knows she’s not alone in thinking that, and that she’s not invisible. I’m very proud of my friend for reaching out for her, and shaking us up to do the same. The next day I had a long conversation about it in the airplane with my male friend who was there. These things matter.

We can’t fight gender inequality only by having women to stand up to men. Men have to stand up against inequality as well. And by “standing up” I don’t mean picking up fights. That is only reinforcing the gender stereotype. It’s a matter of redefining gender roles. I feel that society is slowly making progress (though clearly not at the same pace everywhere), but it’s a struggle into which both women and men need to take part. We men have to learn how.

That constant background noise in the head

I just came to an interesting realization. In this World Cup, since I’m watching so many games in Globo TV, Brazil’s main network, a side effect is that it’s been a long time that I didn’t watch so many commercial breaks, and so many times the same ads. Each ad individually doesn’t bother me that much. Many of them are even fun. But realizing this constant repetition — with its jingles and slogans echoing in my head — is very uncomfortable.

That got me thinking now of people who watch, for example, telenovelas (or series on network TV), or the same nightly news, every day, six days a week… watching the same commercials. It’s only now that I got unused to watch commercials, that I realize the dimension of this constant background noise in the mind that they are.

Whenever I see someone browsing the internet in a computer without an ad-blocker installed, I have this same shock. I’m reminded of what the internet actually looks like. People are apparently “anesthesized” to watch sites full of ads. When I point this out to them and I recommend an ad-blocker, they say they “don’t really notice” or that it “doesn’t bother” them. But I personally doubt it has no effect (or else a company like Google would be multibillionare based on ads, as it is).

This all makes me, at the same time, a bit happy for myself, as I realize that I found a way to live free from some of these sources of mental noise, but sad for remembering that this noise is so widespread.

Anatomy of a (failed?) free-software fundraiser

UPDATE 2014-05-02: The fine folks at Bountysource extended the fundraiser for a few more weeks! Hurry up!

After more than 10 years developing free software (htop, GoboLinux, LuaRocks), this month I made my first organized attempt to get some funding for a project. Or rather, am making, since the fundraiser is still up at the time of this writing. But with 2 days to go and 22% of the funding goal met, I think it’s already a fine time to take a closer look at the experience and see what we can learn from it.

The idea, in short

htop is a text-mode process viewer. The backend code is Linux-specific, so unlike most free software, it’s not a portable project. Still, some people run it unmodified on FreeBSD (and GNU Hurd!) by using Linux emulation layers. There’s no such layer for Mac OSX, so one user ported htop by replacing its backend with a native implementation. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course — the source is open precisely to allow this kind of thing!

The problem is that, due to the way this fork was done, it couldn’t easily be merged back. So, it hasn’t kept up with the development and bugfixes of htop over the years. This hasn’t stopped it from making its way to Homebrew, through a series of forks. They’re all based on that version of htop 0.8.2 from five years ago, though. The result is that I keep getting bug reports from Mac users, some of them for very old bugs!

My time for free software is short as I usually take on lecturing and freelance jobs in addition to my PhD, so I though that, if there was enough interest, I could take on solving this situation as this season’s “freelance job”. I had just learned about BountySource through the neovim fundraiser so I thought “why not”, and created a fundraiser titled “Mac OS X support in the official htop 1.x tree”.

First contacts

I went through Github and searched for every fork of AndyA’s original htop-osx repository (when this fork was made my own htop repository was still in SourceForge, so his fork is not a “Github fork” of mine) and contacted every author to make them aware of my project. I also looked at the update history of the htop-osx formula in Homebrew and contacted everyone mentioned there. My goal was to reach everyone connected to htop-osx, let them know about the fundraiser (I didn’t want it to look like a “hostile fork” (even though I’m the original author!) ) and ask them how to better reach the OSX community.

Everyone was fine with the idea and nice to me, but unfortunately nobody had any tips on how to reach out to the audience. Fork authors suggested contacting Homebrew; Homebrew told me to contact the “htop-osx project”. Having had already contacted both, that didn’t take me far.

The general advice was to go through word-of-mouth. The thing is, I’m a Linux guy, and so I tend to gravitate around that universe in my online communities. I posted links on Twitter and I’ve got some pledges from friends, who were sure not that interested in the port but wanted to help out (thank you!). Then I posted in the htop mailing list, from which I also got some pledges, as shows of support.

Trying to reach wider audiences, I posted on a few Mac-related subreddits, where I got some pledges from /r/apple (and also on Hacker News, where it instantly tanked of course). After a couple hundred dollars in initial pledges the first few days, the fundraiser sat mostly dormant.

I wondered what else I could do to shake things up, but at the same time I couldn’t dedicate a lot of time to promote the fundraiser, between preparing classes and other commitments. This is a sign of a classic mistake: I didn’t do any planning beforehand. In particular, I was taken by surprise that once went through the BountySource fundraiser signup process, there was no option to set the duration of the campaign (yes, that means I didn’t read the fine print carefully; I guess I just skimmed it to see what was the percentage of their cut — 10%, by the way). It was only when I was up and running that I realized I only had one month to go. With only one month, I’d probably have set a lower goal.

BountySource has since remodeled its site to deemphasize “fundraisers” and focus more on developer teams and “bounties”, which are feature/bugfix requests for which one can set a value but, as I understand, can stay open with no time limit. I think that’s a better model.

An unexpected gift

Things were pretty quiet for a while, when I got a notification from none other than the original author of the Mac fork, AndyA. He got my email early on but could only respond a few weeks later. He apologized about the bug reports that were sent my way (mostly because htop’s segfault handler outputs a message directing the user to report bugs at the main htop website — something that none of the various Mac forks actually changed!) …and was extremely generous to pledge $500 to the fundraiser, which essentially doubled the amount I had raised at that point!

That was really kind of him, and it made me especially happy to know that my porting project had full support from the author of the original Mac fork. With that spur of motivation, I rushed to put to practice an idea I had a few days earlier. I thought of the best way I know to make the userbase of a free software project take notice, which is…

Making a release

htop is a mature piece of software, over ten years old by now. It had been over a year since the last release. There were some new features, bugfixes and performance improvements already sitting in its repository, that I had implemented and merged from contributors over the last year. So, I combed through the bugtracker fixing other pending issues and packed version 1.0.3.

I announced it at the usual places and made a post on /r/linux where it got a quite nice reception. That didn’t translate considerably into pledges, but at that point I didn’t really expect it would shift the fate of the fundraiser.

I even got a comment saying “I do not need a MacOSX version so I donated a few bucks on the regular site”.

What was learned

That comment above sums up a lot of what happened in this fundraiser. My userbase consists of Linux users, not Mac users, so they weren’t really engaged by this project.

Also, there were some fundamental problems with the idea of turning this Mac port into a fundraiser:

With that in mind, I think the fundraiser would have had much better chances if it were aimed at Linux users and proposed cool features, such as

Those are things I keep meaning to do at some point, but they require care in their implementation, in order to keep htop focused and lightweight.

What now

Even though the campaign hasn’t reached its funding goal, I think it has been a positive experience and a learning process (and the raised money is surely welcome, especially because there’s a particularly nice feeling in being compensated from developing free software). And at the very least, if I get new Mac bug reports in the future, I can point them to this and say “I tried!”

Aside from the mistakes listed above, I think the main thing I did right was contacting everyone related to the htop-osx fork. Not because the largest donation came from that, but because it opened a positive channel of communication with other developers, which will hopefully be fruitful for the project in the future.

With the current level of funding I will still have to take other freelance jobs this season, so I won’t have the time to produce a full Mac port. But the raised money will be used in sponsoring the development of the platform abstraction layer, which is the first step. Once I isolate the Linux-specific parts, it should be easier for the Mac development community (some of whom I was able to reach out in this project) to contribute a native backend and hopefully we’ll get the situation of htop on the Mac sorted out sooner rather than later.

UPDATE 2014-05-02: The fine folks at Bountysource extended the fundraiser for a few more weeks! Hurry up!