How to effectively merge free software advocacy with data privacy activism

I have been prodded to read Shoshana Zuboff Surveillance Capitalism and now I tell you to do the same. Her arguments are a perfect complement to Stallman’s GNU Manifesto (1983) and Moglen’s dotCommunist Manifesto (2003). Free software has a good chance to be at the center of the debate around Facebook’s power over democratic societies.

Zuboff’s argument is that the Google and later, Facebook, Amazon, etc feed on our personal data to predict and change our behaviors. In today’s editorial on The Guardian, she writes:

Surveillance capitalism is not the same as digital technology. It is an economic logic that has hijacked the digital for its own purposes. The logic of surveillance capitalism begins with unilaterally claiming private human experience as free raw material for production and sales.

The software behind the tech giant’s walls, whose same existence would not be possible without open source software, has enabled the surveillance capitalists to create systems that can

[…] tune and herd our behaviour towards the most profitable outcomes. Data scientists describe this as a shift from monitoring to actuation. The idea is not only to know our behaviour but also to shape it in ways that can turn predictions into guarantees.

Despite all the efforts to build software that can be “owned” by anybody, subverting copyright, 35+ years of shared innovation:

The big picture reveals extreme concentrations of knowledge and power. Surveillance capitalists know everything about us, but we know little about them.

This is a damning view of what winning for the open source movement looks like. If we won, why does it feel more like failing, like John Mark Walker argued in 2016?

Now go (re)read the dotCommunist Manifest and this passage in particular:

The liberation of information from the control of ownership liberates the worker from his imposed role as custodian of the machine. Free information allows the worker to invest her time not in the consumption of bourgeois culture, with its increasingly urgent invitations to sterile consumption, but in the cultivation of her mind and her skills. Increasingly aware of her powers of creation, she ceases to be a passive participant in the systems of production and consumption in which bourgeois society entrapped her.

Moglen talks about the power of the creators of software, music, poems against the big Disneys of the world. But you could read it in a wider sense: the bourgeois is one who shares her pictures and location and list of her contacts and… on Instagram. The dotcom era has made us all creators. What we create is being used against us by software that we don’t control.

And this passage from the GNU Manifesto:

Users will no longer be at the mercy of one programmer or company which owns the sources and is in sole position to make changes.

The manifesto somewhat predicted this shift in power and nevertheless, this happened. We knew the dangers of leaving software in the hands of powerful corporations and out of reach of digital citizens.

Yet, as a movement we agreed to swim with sharks, like Alessandro Rubini used to say talking about IBM’s first investment in Linux. And the sharks bit us. They may have even enabled surveillance capitalists to thrive, preventing to close the web app loophole during GPLv3 drafting.

We can fix this imbalance problem. Zuboff suggests solutions after warning that the current debate is heading in the wrong direction. Privacy laws are aiming at “data ownership” but it’s a red herring:

Even if we achieve “ownership” of the data we have provided to a company like Facebook, we will not achieve “ownership” of the predictions gleaned from it, or the fate of those products in its prediction markets.

Free software has the chance to get back to the center of the conversation about data privacy and democratic access to knowledge. Much like open source was at the center of anti-trust debate in the first decade of 2000s.

Zuboff solutions require legislation and collective actions to educate legislators. The free software movement has experience with those.

We may never get Shoshana Zuboff keynoting at OSCON (obviously) so how about inviting her to speak at FOSDEM? It’d be the start of a great conversation.

Of course Twitter is not representative of America

A new Pew study finds a gulf between the general population and Twitter users.

This report is interesting because they interviewed actual people. There is one fundamental statement in it but it’s not mentioning a fundamental piece of context.

The one interesting piece of data by Pew is that 10% of users create 80% of tweets, unsurprisingly. Twitter struggled for years on this and only when Dick Costolo came aboard I remember him saying this is a fact and designed the Twitter experience around it.

The most fundamental context worth adding is that Twitter audience is 9-15% made of bots and these bots are programmed to amplify those 10% top users. It’s worth repeating this fundamental fact every time social media channels are mentioned: robots are an important part of them, algorithms decide what’s published, when and what humans see at what time.

Twitter is the dumpster fire near Facebook’s radioactive wasteland.

Source: Twitter Is Not America

OpenStack releases its most important artifact

The strongest legacy of OpenStack Foundation is showing how to do open source at scale, with millions of dollar budget. Going well beyond the garages, the university labs, the funded startups and the small non-profits of the years before. OpenStack its practice on top of past experiences like the Apache way and the Ubuntu community habits. On top of those, the original teams at Rackspace and NASA built a solid fund-raising campaign, business development and marketing never seen before for an open source project.

At the core of all that effort stood four strong principles, today published in a book embedding the practice of open source. These are what makes OpenStack different and as of today, it’s the only place where open source projects get help with their open collaboration practice, beyond IP and events management.

OpenStack was started with the belief that a community of equals, working together in an open collaboration, would produce better software, more aligned to the needs of its users and more largely adopted. It was therefore started from day 0 as an open collaboration model that includes as many individuals and organizations as possible, on a level playing field, with everyone invited to design open infrastructure software.

It was from these conditions that “The Four Opens” were born:

  • Open source

  • Open Design

  • Open Development

  • Open Community

Read the book Four Opens just released by the OpenStack Foundation.

Fornetto publishes to WordPress with Raspberry Pi and Python

Finally I took the time to clean up the Python code that publishes to images from the modified microwave toy to a WordPress site. I’m lying: the code is not clean at all but it serves its purpose… ship it!

In the process I learned a few things about WordPress REST API, Python and the Raspberry Pi. All fun. Python is basically the default language for Raspberry Pi. There are numerous modules to access all the hardware functions of the board and countless examples, tutorials, blog posts, wiki pages, meetups all about Python. The REST API Handbook is the main resource I used.  Many tutorials online were written when the WP APIs were a separate plugin and they seem outdated. The handbook seems to be written with developers working within WordPress, with all examples provided in PHP and Javascript. I ended up writing a brief tutorial on how to create a post with images to WordPress using Python.

There are lots of photobooth applications targeting Raspberry Pis out there. I ended up forking drumminhands_photobooth which seemed polished enough. It’s originally designed to snap 4 pictures at the press of a button, blink a LED and show previews of the pictures on a screen, then create an animated GIF from the snapped poses and publish them to tumblr. Alternatively, publishes 4 independent JPEGs, based on a configuration option.

One cool thing about tumblr APIs is that they have a Python library dealing with authentication and the basic publishing operations. WordPress REST API don’t have anything like that (yet). Even authentication from a Python app requires an external plugin, which is not ideal.

The core of the photobooth app is the function publishing to WordPress:

def wp_make_post(gif, wp_title, wp_content):
        wpupload = + "/media", headers=wpheaders, files=gif)
	print "Your image is on " + json.loads(wpupload.content)['link']
	# get the post ID from WP
	wpimg = json.loads(wpupload.content)['id']
	print wpimg
	# prepare the post content in json
	wppost = {'categories':'3', \
                  'title':wp_title, \
                  'content':wp_content, \
                  'format':'image', \
                  'featured_media':wpimg, \
                  'author':'1', \
	print wppost
	# post the json to WP
	wpdopost = + "/posts", headers=wpheaders, json=wppost)
displayStatus("Your image is on " + json.loads(wpdopost.content)['link'], 14)

Now every time someone pushes the Start button on the toy microwave, its light blinks and the screen shows instructions while snapping pictures and uploading them.

On the WordPress side, I picked Morphology Lite because of how the home page can be turned into a mosaic of images from the Featured image of the post. That’s it! I’ll update this post once I have enough images from an event.

Mozilla blew it with the Mr. Robot add-on

I trust Mozilla to do the right things… in general. I trust so much that I agree to share Firefox telemetry data to its server. I trust Mozilla to hold my traffic data, bookmarks etc with Sync. The thing is that I remember being informed of those options the first time I start Firefox on a new machine. Trusting Mozilla and Firefox is a choice I make, even if it’s the default one.

I didn’t like waking up and reading that Mozilla partnered with a TV show and silently installed an add-on on my computer. I don’t care what that add-on does: Mozilla sneaked it in on my computer. I don’t remember seeing any notification upon restarting Firefox, like “Hey, we partnered with XYZ Corp to collect anonymous data and do something great with it” or “Sorry, we just need to make money… It’s all good, we keep everything private as usual and no marketing bozos will bother you… Do you mind not changing the default and let this add-on run?

Mozilla blew it today and as a result, no more ‘Studies’ from me. Just disable them in about:preferences#privacy:

PowerPC (and Amiga) is still around and may one day power your desktop!

Speaking of surprises, an old friend contacted me to let me know of an ongoing campaign to raise fundings to build a Power-based motherboard for a laptop. The association hopes to raise 12,000EUR to complete the design of the motherboard as phase I, and their website lists the ranges for the other milestones. It’s pretty cool that nowadays one can design a whole new system basically from scratch and with such little investments.

While reading the PowerPC Notebook website, I realized that Amiga also is still producing new PowerPC motherboards and Amiga OS runs on them. Quite incredible… Loved that machine.

Would you like to have a laptop powered by PowerPC? Go fund it.

Building a photobooth with Raspberry Pi and a toy microwave

A few weeks ago I found an old first-generation Raspberry Pi hiding in a closet. At the same time I started investigating WordPress REST API at work. I also wanted an excuse to buy a Dremel. Everything seemed to align when I was strolling by the local Goodwill where my wife found an old toy microwave. Perfect excuses assembled, I had to buy a Dremel to fit a Raspberry Pi, its camera and a screen in a toy microwave to build a photobooth machine.

Several nights after, the hardware is ready. I found a used Dremel on Craigslist: great machine to cut the plastic quickly. I carved an opening in the microwave’s front door and mounted the Landzo display on it. For holding the Pi in place, I used a very low tech hack of wood sticks and glue, plus a rubber band. Unfortunately the first-gen Pi doesn’t have mounting holes on its base and I didn’t want to spend more money on a case. Good enough.

The microwave came with buttons and a LED that I connected to the board’s GPIO: the Start button starts the photobooth app, and the LED blinks while taking pictures. There are 4 more buttons that I will probably connect too for something fun, like show a video of actual food being cooked in the microwave… something for version 2 though.

In the next post I’ll talk a little more about the Python code I modified to use WordPress REST API.

Configure Landzo 7″ Display for Raspberry Pi

I’ve started building a photobooth using one of the first generation Raspberry Pi I found in a drawer. More details are to come. Meanwhile, here are some notes to configure the Landzo 7″ touchscreen display.

The display is sold as compatible with Raspberry Pi and probably it is but it didn’t work out of the box. The box comes with a CD-ROM but I don’t have any way to read that old stuff anymore. The website doesn’t seem to host the content of that CD-ROM either.

The Pi doesn’t use the correct video modes for the display out of the box so I had to read the documentation. The gist of it is that you need to add a new custom mode to /boot/config.txt as below:

# uncomment to force a specific HDMI mode (this will force VGA)
hdmi_cvt=800 480 60 3 0 0 0

If you’re interested, here is how I got to those numbers. I rebooted the Pi in VGA mode (hdmi_group=1 & hdmi_mode=1) and then ran the tools to interrogate the display:

pi@raspberrypi:~ $ /opt/vc/bin/tvservice -d edid.dat
Written 128 bytes to edid.dat

Parsed the file with the edidparser:

pi@raspberrypi:~ $ /opt/vc/bin/edidparser edid.dat 
Enabling fuzzy format match...
Parsing edid.dat...
HDMI:EDID version 1.3, 0 extensions, screen size 15x10 cm
HDMI:EDID features - videodef 0x80 !standby !suspend !active off; colour encoding:RGB444|YCbCr422; sRGB is not default colourspace; preferred format is native; does not support GTF
HDMI:EDID ignored unknown descriptor tag 0x10
HDMI:EDID ignored unknown descriptor tag 0x10
HDMI:EDID ignored unknown descriptor tag 0x10
HDMI:EDID does not yet know monitor vertical range, setting to default 24 to 120Hz
HDMI:EDID failed to find a matching detail format for 800x480p hfp:40 hs:48 hbp:40 vfp:13 vs:3 vbp:29 pixel clock:32 MHz
HDMI:EDID calculated refresh rate is 66 Hz
HDMI:EDID guessing the format to be 800x480p @70 Hz
HDMI:EDID found unknown detail timing format: 800x480p hfp:40 hs:48 hbp:40 vfp:13 vs:3 vbp:29 pixel clock:32 MHz
HDMI:EDID established timing I/II bytes are 00 00 00
HDMI:EDID standard timings block x 8: 0x0101 0101 0101 0101 0101 0101 0101 0101 
HDMI:EDID adding mandatory support for DMT (4) 640x480p @ 60Hz
HDMI:EDID filtering formats with pixel clock > 162 MHz or h. blanking > 1023
HDMI:EDID no known preferred format has been set
HDMI:EDID filtering preferred group has been changed from Invalid to DMT
HDMI:EDID best score mode initialised to DMT (4) 640x480p @ 60 Hz with pixel clock 25 MHz (score 0)
HDMI:EDID best score mode is now DMT (4) 640x480p @ 60 Hz with pixel clock 25 MHz (score 36864)
HDMI:EDID preferred mode is updated to DMT (4) 640x480p @ 60 Hz with pixel clock 25200000 Hz
HDMI:EDID has only DVI support and no audio support
edid_parser exited with code 0

From there I saw this interesting line:

HDMI:EDID guessing the format to be 800x480p @70 Hz

I know the display’s resolution is 800×480 so that has to be my clue for the new mode. The docs gave me the rest.

hdmi_cvt=<width> <height> <framerate> <aspect> <margins> <interlace> <rb>

Value Default Description
width (required) width in pixels
height (required) height in pixels
framerate (required) framerate in Hz
aspect 3 aspect ratio 1=4:3, 2=14:9, 3=16:9, 4=5:4, 5=16:10, 6=15:9
margins 0 0=margins disabled, 1=margins enabled
interlace 0 0=progressive, 1=interlaced
rb 0 0=normal, 1=reduced blanking

The next challenge is to enable the touchscreen: the driver is probably in the CD-ROM and I haven’t found it online yet.

The Slack-IRC gateway is a trick to lock-in customers

Well, here is another reason to resist using Slack:

[…]when you use /me on the IRC gateway while in private chat with someone, Slack just drops the message on the floor and doesn’t deliver it!

The company brags about their IRC gateway to lure in more groups and teams, but Slack and IRC are two totally different beasts: there will always be an increasing amount of pieces that get lost in translation.

The Slack-IRC gateway is just a trick to lock more users into the walled garden. Resist!

Source: rjbs’s rubric: The Slack IRC gateway drops your messages.

How To Use Vagrant And Git To Develop A WordPress Theme


Sometimes I like to sit down and play with technology. My colleague Mike Shroder mentioned VVV a few weeks ago and I had to try it. Check out this tutorial I wrote on how to create a new WordPress site, use Vagrant and git to develop a new theme locally, then push the modifications to a live site running on DreamHost (but it could run anywhere else, really).

Source: How To Use Vagrant And Git To Develop A WordPress Theme