Richard Stallman Comes to Dallas

I heard RMS speak at the DFWUUG meeting last night. A lot of other people showed up too, in spite of the cold, wet weather. It’s the first time I’ve seen him in person and he was very much what I expected with a few exceptions. He told the story of the Free Software Foundation, the GNU GPL, and the GNU Operating System project. I got the impression that this was a talk he’d given many times before and much of it was almost word-for-word what you can read on the GNU and FSF web sites.

Overall he didn’t sound nearly as dogmatic as he is made out to be. He said the Open Source movement was not the enemy of the Free Software movement, just “the other political party within our community”. He made a point of saying that while the BSD license didn’t provide as much protection to the end user’s freedoms, it was a Free Software License. He also made a point of mentioning the KDE/QT disaster – noting that QT was now under GPL and the KDE system could be used within a Free Software based OS. He emphasised that Free Software was not about preventing businesses from making profit, just about prevent business from profiting at the expense of end user’s freedom.

He made the usual plea for people to use the correct terminology – use “Free Software” if you support Free Software. Use “Open Source” if you support Open Source. Pronounce GNU as “Guh-new”, not “new” or “Gee-In-You”. Pronounce Gnome as “Guh-gnome” (this one still bugs me – why make an acronym that forms a normal English word and then try to make people pronounce it incorrectly – I say it should be pronounced like it’s spelled. Oh well…)

Towards the end of the talk, RMS donned his famous Church of Emacs outfit including a black robe and disk platter halo.

After the talk there were the usual assortment of questions from the clueless:

Q: How can I make money if I can’t sell my software?

RMS: You can sell your software. The FSF is selling software and books today just outside this meeting room. Please buy some of it.

Q: How did X get its name?

RMS: I don’t know

Q: How many operating systems run within the GNU thing?

RMS: I’m sorry I have no idea what you mean by that.

Q: Is using VI a sin in the Church of Emacs?

RMS: In the Church of Emacs, using VI is a penance.

There were a few more volatile exchanges with someone who insisted he had the legal right to make non-free software and seemed upset that RMS wouldn’t approve of him doing this.

Okay, now the weird part. Why is it that Eccentric Geniuses like Stallman are always so, well, eccentric? He spent about 15 minutes prior to the talk sitting on the floor by the podium with his shoes off reading email on a laptop. All during the talk he drank iced tea (with no ice) from a large glass with two straws. Each time he neared the end of one glass of tea, a courier would rush forward with a replacement glass (each with no ice and two straws). He’d gone through three or four by the end of the talk. In fact, one of the questions he got during the Q&A was, “after all that Tea, do you need to go to the bathroom yet?”. He also would periodically stop talking and spend what seemed like a fairly large amount of time picking things out of his teeth or hair. He looks rather like a cave-man so this was fitting in an odd sort of way but it was clearly creeping-out a lot of people (though some seemed to find it really funny too).

Overall, an interesting evening.

Ringtones via SMS using Perl

I managed to find some time to study the problem of sending ringtone data to my cell phone. As I mentioned in a previous news item, I’m sick of only being able to download silly melodies as ring tones and want to be able to create some ringtone datasets that are more interesting ringing sounds. The first step towards that is to figure out how the whole thing works.

I’ve managed to code up a quick and dirty Perl program that creates an RTPL bitstring, converts it to text formatted hex data, and sends it to the phone in SMS format. At present it doesn’t really do anything useful besides providing a working example of the packet format and testing the sonic range of the phone. I’ve hard-coded a ringtone that emits sound over the entire range that the RTPL data can cover.

The next step would be to make some sort of algorithmic sound synthesizer that could generate RTPL data. If anyone wants to play with what I’ve got so far, I’ve put it up on our free software page. It should work with any Nokia phone that accepts ringtone data and perhaps other types of phones as well.

More on Broadband

I’m posting todays news from Mozilla 0.7. This version is another incremental improvement over v0.6. This version finally includes SSL support and it seems to work. On Windows NT, it crashes maybe once per hour or so. On my Red Hat 6.1/Intel box it has crashed a couple of times. On my newer Red Hat 7.0 box (my main workstation), it has been running for several days under heavy usage with no crashes. I haven’t found any sites that break it yet. It still sucks up a lot of memory but seems a bit faster than v0.6.

While I suspect I haven’t seen the last of my Verizon DSL billing problem, I am one step closer to getting decent Net access at home. This is a Good Thing. I seem to be the last person left on Earth who has to access The Net through a dial-up modem. I described my Verizon DSL horror story previously. I’ve also tried contacting ATT about their wireless broadband service. It sounds cool – high speed Net access plus local and long distance phone service. The downside is that it doesn’t use Ethernet to connect to the computer like DSL or Cable Modems. It has some sort of special hardware that requires a USB connection and they only provide drivers for Windows 95/98. We have a Linux/Intel box and a Windows NT4 box at home and I’m not inclined to downgrade either of them. I called a few other wireless boradband service providers such as Broadbandnow but they don’t provide service in my area (or provide it only to business or apartment complexes). I’ve also called our local cable company several times over the last year or so and they always say they’re going to offer cable modem Net access but it’s always a few months away.

Well, I called the cable company yesterday and they said they were scheduled to start providing Internet service as of next week. They took down some info from me and I’m on the list to get it installed. I don’t know how fast it will be or what kind of hardware they offer or if I’ll get static or dynamic IPs. And I’d prefer DSL but anything beats dial-up. I just hope the installers don’t make any trouble for me because of my Linux box.

Verizon DSL Disaster Continues

GTE may have changed their name to Verizon but they still have the same really bad customer service. They could give Verio a run for the money when it comes to having the least helpful, most incompetent customer service.

Several months ago I made the mistake of calling Verizon and asking if I could possibly get DSL service. They said it wasn’t available in my area and I thought that was the end of the matter. But Verizon decided to bill me for DSL even though I can’t have it. So I’ve spent several hours on the phone with them since then trying to get the bogus DSL charges removed from my bill. Every month when a new phone bill arrives it turns out that not only have they not fixed the problem, they’ve added a new month of charges.

The general process you go through in a case like this is to call the phone number provided on the phone bill for billing problems and explain the problem (even when you ask them to, they never keep a record of any previous calls, so you always have to start from scratch). Next the billing office will tell you that you have to talk to the Internet office. The Internet office will tell you to call the DSL office. The DSL office will say they can’t get involved in billing problems, they only handle DSL problems. Sometimes if you complain enough and sound angry enough, they forward you to a supervisor who makes up some whacky explanation for the how to get DSL charges off your bill.

These whacky explanations will be different each time you call and, of course, none of them work. Today’s supervisor insisted that I had to get someone in the DSL department to send an email to the accounting department requesting that the non-existent DSL service be removed from the bill. This was because, they said, the accounting department isn’t allowed to correct billing problems discovered by customers, but will instantly fix billing problems discovered by other internal Verizon departments. Yeah right. last months solution involved setting up a three or four person conference call with representatives from all three departments because they had to all simulaneously fix the problem. At one point it was even suggested that the easiest solution would be to “just pay the bill since it wasn’t very much”. I can hardly wait to see what they come up with next month.

New Nokia 8260 Phone

Well, I’ve finally replaced my old Nokia 6160 cell phone. The new phone is a Nokia 8260 in Electric Blue. It’s much smaller and lighter but has all the same features. I would have liked something that combined cell phone and PDA functionality but there’s not much available in the US like that yet. Maybe something along the lines of the Nokia 9000 will be available here within another year or so.

Like most phones, my new one supports programmable ringtones. And, unfortunately, also like most other phones, most of the available ringtones are not ringtones at all – they’re very lame musical melodies. My opinion is that anyone with a phone that plays a melody instead of ringing should be fined and have their phone confiscated. It’s highly annoying. It’s also annoying that while my phone documentation claims that there are 40 different ringtones available – there are in fact only about 5 ringtones and 35 obnoxious ringmelodies.

It is possible to download new ringtone data through SMS and there are plenty of web sites out there that claim to offer replacement ringtones (none of them actually do, of course, they only offer ringmelodies). The ringtone data is sent using the RTTTL protocol, so my new personal quest is to implement some actual ringtones and download them to the phone. I’ll probably put them up on a web page somewhere on the off chance that there are others out there who think it would be cool to have alternative ringtones for their phones. Maybe the Star Trek communicator boatswain wistle or the sound of the hotline on Our Man Flint. Maybe even the bonus life sound effect from the Robotron 2084 Arcade game. Now those are the sorts of things I would consider alternative ringtones. Hmmm… I wonder if a WAV to RTTTL converter is possible? I’m sure it couldn’t be done with enough resolution to reproduce complex sounds but simple sound effects might be possible.

Technocrat: RIP

Looks like Bruce Perens is shutting down Technocrat. That’s unfortunate. Technocrat is one of the small number of news sites that I read regularly and it had a much better s/n ratio than Slashdot and Kuro5hin. And while I find there’s usually a lot of overlap between the other news sites, quite a few of the articles that were posted on Technocrat didn’t show up anywhere else. I wonder if anyone has volunteered to take over the site for him (or if he’d even be interested in passing it on?). In any case, thanks for running a great site Bruce. It will be missed!