Swatantra 2017: Behind the Scenes

The Swantantra conference on Free Software is a rather unique conference organised by ICFOSS in Trivandrum. Its unique because of the extremely rich discussion that it creates around the ideology of software freedom, rather than the technology. I was fortunate to be a part of this conference in multiple ways in December 2017. And this is a short account of the same.

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The Tyranny of Convenience

The Tyranny of Convenience by Tim Wu (New York Times)

An extremely deep and insightful essay on what convenience is doing to us and how “things” that are meant to liberate us via the convenience they provide also serve to enslave us with that convenience… so much so that:

… it is about minimizing the mental resources, the mental exertion, required to choose among the options that express ourselves… It would be perverse to embrace inconvenience as a general rule. But when we let convenience decide everything, we surrender too much.

I have long argued that, in the context of Free Software, as long as we keep valuing convenience only, we will never seek to value the freedom that free software provides us. And in a way, this essay puts that exact thought into a much larger and useful context.

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Why is it difficult to fight against DRM?

The Defective by Design initiative was formed almost 10 years back to raise awareness about DRM and how it harms users. It has evolved into a movement that encourages users to reject DRM instead of just making them aware of its existence, abuses and dangers.

July 9th, 2017 is going to be celebrated as the International Day against DRM and on this occasion I’d like to highlight my personal view on why the fight against DRM is difficult and why DRM-enabled platforms have been growing and becoming more mainstream.

However, it doesn’t mean that its not possible to choose a world without DRM. And I have some suggestions on how to get started, should you choose to.

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Billy Joel: The keyboard is a percussion instrument

While consuming “Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography“, I came across a very interesting comment by him about keyboards (Joel is a pianist). He says:

… the insurgent energy of rock [music] was well represented by guys pounding at keyboards. After all, it’s a percussion instrument – you strike the keys, literally pounding the instrument. It was meant to be played hard, like the drums.

This is as relevant when referring to mechanical keyboards. One does pound them after all. Hard. And the clicky keys make a wonderful, almost musical percussion sound.

How did you arrive at that conclusion?

Recently I observed that the process of arriving at a conclusion is far more important than the conclusion itself. A conclusion, when doled out, is a recommendation, a best practice and a lesson learned, perhaps after many trials. It hides, in its finality, all the errors, failures and trials experienced in the process of arriving at it. And unless someone can really look behind the conclusion and appreciate the effort involved or the problem that the conclusion offers a solution for, they might actually not appreciate the solution as well.

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Hackable Hardware Obsession

For quite some time now, I have become obsessed with using and building hardware that is hackable. A part of this is my paranoia about using a system that is a black box (sometimes literally) and another part is about using a system that I can’t open up or fix or study or extend. It’s no fun using a system just as a normal user – without being able to look inside it and learn from it and basically being a superuser in it.

However, if you go by this logic that any hardware you own should be hackable, then you’re going to end up limiting your choices. Not all hardware is hackable. Very few hardware designers / manufacturers have any incentive or motivation to develop open hardware. A lot of hardware suffers from being badly locked down and impossible to hack. Often the methods employed to deploy alternative operating systems and firmware are themselves extremely smart hacks – sometimes the vulnerabilities of a system are exploited to replace it with something open, flexible and usable.

So hardware choices have to be made wisely. It all depends on how strongly you care about this hacker and DIY ethic. This means choosing your laptop, mobile phone, server, tablet, wireless router, single board computer, keyboard, digital picture frame, set top box, television and more by using a lot more decision making than just what is the best possible system that can be purchased at a given price.

Not just that, there might be compromises to make – sometimes you might end up buying a costlier product than what you wanted to just make sure that it does not compromise on your freedom.

You might wonder what is there to gain practically out such hackable hardware. Well — apart from a certain pride and peace of mind, there is also a lot of functionality that you can gain. And in subsequent posts, I will talk about each hackable / open source hardware that I have built, what it took to build it and what was to be gained from the whole process.