Category Archives: technology

How “open” is open source business software?

I have worked for ProcessMaker, Inc. since 2009, mainly because the company allows me to work part time with flexible hours, but also because it develops free/libre/open source software (FLOSS). The core of ProcessMaker comes with an open source license, the AGPL, but the company has never functioned like an open source project. The development is almost exclusively behind closed doors. We have a public bug tracker, but the bugs get fixed in a private bug tracker, so the community can’t see when their bugs get fixed. We have no beta releases for public testing of the software. Anyone who downloads the software can play with the PHP and JavaScript code, so we get a couple dozen bug reports or forum posts per year that contribute bug fixes and new features, but there is very little community involvement in the development of the software, aside from bug reports and posts on our forum.

The open source license is great for marketing and helps attract new users. I love the fact that ProcessMaker allows anyone to change the code, because it gives me great flexibility when I answer people’s questions on the public forum, which I have maintained since 2009. When people encounter a bug or need a new feature, I can tell them to go to line 1205 in workflow/engine/classes/class.pmFunctions.php and change the source code to fix it. I try to answer people’s questions on how to hack the source code and develop plugins for the software, but I’m not a core developer, so my knowledge is limited.
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Questioning the benefits of Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies in general

When I first learned how Bitcoin worked, I thought it was a marvelous technology. Today, I am growing increasingly pessimistic about Bitcoin. The environmental costs of Bitcoin mining are very high when we consider the resources to fabricate millions of specialized chips and circuit boards and energy to run them. Moreover, Bitcoin can’t adjust its money supply, so it is highly prone to inflation. Although the number of Bitcoin transactions has stayed the same over the last year, the price of Bitcoin has skyrocketed, which makes it an unacceptable currency in my opinion.

Like many new technologies, it takes a while to find all the potential problems and design a blockchain technology that is capable of serving as a stable, widely-accepted cryptocurrency. Unfortunately, Bitcoin is stuck in the first iteration of the technology and it can’t evolve. I have no doubt that it will continue being used, but better cryptocurrencies are being designed and one of them will eventually take Bitcoin’s place as the premier cryptocurrency. Continue reading

Choosing the perfect laptop for programming

People who buy laptops for computer programming are often very picky about their hardware and generally have strong preferences about their type of machine. Some like a laptop which is thin and light, like a Macbook, and others demand a 7 row Thinkpad keyboard. People who spend hours using a machine for many hours a day tend to form strong opinions about it, especially if it is their job to understand how that machine works. Many programmers know exactly what kind of machine they want to work on, and it drives them nuts to use another type of machine.

If you are one of those types of people who already knows exactly what you want in a laptop, then you can ignore the rest of this essay. In fact, you should stop reading now, because the recommendations that I give will probably annoy you. If you like something different, this post will grate on your nerves and you will have a compelling urge to tell me why I am not only wrong, but also brain damaged, or at least slightly addled in the brain. If you have these urges, then you are passionate about your hardware, which is why you became a programmer in the first place. I understand, because I am cut from the same cloth.
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Can the new Firefox Quantum regain its web browser market share?

When Firefox was introduced in 2004, it was designed to be a lean and optimized web browser, based on the bloated code from the Mozilla Suite. Between 2004 and 2009, many considered Firefox to be the best web browser, since it was faster, more secure, offered tabbed browsing and was more customizable through extensions than Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. When Chrome was introduced in 2008, it took many of Firefox’s best ideas and improved on them. Since 2010, Chrome has eaten away at Firefox’s market share, relegating Firefox to a tiny niche of free software enthusiasts and tinkerers who like the customization of its XUL extensions.

According to StatCounter, Firefox’s market share of web browsers has fallen from 31.8% in December 2009 to just 6.1% today. Firefox can take comfort in the fact that it is now virtually tied with its former arch-nemesis, Internet Explorer and its variants. All of Microsoft’s browsers only account for 6.2% of current web browsing according to StatCounter. Microsoft has largely been replaced by Google, whose web browsers now controls 56.5% of the market. Even worse, is the fact that the WebKit engine used by Google now represents over 83% of web browsing, so web sites are increasingly focusing on compatibility with just one web engine. While Google and Apple are more supportive of the W3C and open standards than Microsoft was in the late 90s, the web is increasingly being monopolized by one web engine and two companies, whose business models are not always based on the best interests of users or their rights.
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Am I willing to pay the price to support ethical hardware?

There are a number of pernicious trends in the tech industry that need to be opposed. Over the last decade there has been a massive shift toward planned obsolescence, ever since Apple introduced the iPhone in June 2007 and the Macbook Air in January 2008 with sealed cases, non-replaceable batteries, RAM and SSD soldered on the motherboard and a lack of expansion slots.

Apple’s designs have been widely copied by the consumer electronics industry, so that it has become much harder to fix and upgrade electronics. Most ultrabooks, Chromebooks and 2-in-1 convertibles being sold today have copied Apple’s Macbook and no longer have replaceable batteries. Even brands such as Lenovo’s Thinkpad and Dell’s Latitude which are marketed for their fixability and ease of maintenance are now offering models such as the Thinkpad T470s and Latitude E5450 without removable batteries. Continue reading

Questions about how to reform the electronics industry

A friend of mine asked me why I wrote a recent post about how capitalism has failed to produce a smartphone that I want to buy. Don’t I know that a socialist economy would produce far worse phones, so why am I complaining? Consumer electronics wasn’t exactly a strong point of the Soviet block countries or Maoist China.

I don’t want to live under pure socialism or pure Capitalism because they both lead to too much concentration of power in too few hands. Both are lovely in theory but both lead to dystopias in the real world, especially when practiced in their extremes. However, the vast majority of the world lives in a mixed economy. The real question in almost every society is what areas of the economy should be socialized and what areas should be run by private enterprise which are subject to governmental regulation and what should be the degree of that regulation.
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The wonder of the free market of smartphones

1.5 billion smartphones are manufactured every year and they come from a 1000 different brands of phones. You would think that it would be easy to find a phone that fits my needs with so many options. Everyone keeps telling me that Capitalism gives me choice, so I’m ready to enjoy the wonders of the free market. Let’s be good consumers and go shopping for my new phone.

Here are my criteria for a new phone:
1. The phone must have a removable battery, so that I can replace it after two years when it can no longer hold a decent charge. My previous phone lasted me 4 years, and I would like to match that same longevity again. Unfortunately, that requirement cuts out 90% of all current phone models and every high end model introduced in 2017. See: https://www.productchart.com/smartphones/sets/3

2. The phone must have an external memory card slot, since I don’t want to throw it away once the internal memory fills up. That cuts out phones from Apple, Google and OnePlus, plus high-end Xiaomi models. You couldn’t pay me to use Apple’s iPhone or Google’s Pixel, but OnePlus phones do look nice, except for their planned obsolescence.

3. The phone maker must have a policy of allowing users to unlock the bootloader, since I want to be able to install my own operating system that doesn’t collect my personal information and send it to some company’s database. I hate sharing all my data with Google, and I hate using an operating system whose raison d’etre is to spy on me. Maybe some people like giving Google their data for targeted advertising which allows the company to earn $22 billion from Android every year, but I don’t.

Besides I happen to believe in free and open source software, so I don’t want all that proprietary garbage and spyware installed on my phone by Google and the phone manufacturer. Only phones from Motorola, HTC and Google’s discontinued Nexus line allow the user to unlock the bootloader. Of course, there are cracks to unlock the bootloader in some models, but I don’t want to support companies that make a policy of not respecting user freedom.

4. The phone must run Lineage OS, which is the open source core of Android without Google’s spyware and a some handy modifications. It is maintained by a passionate community of volunteers, rather than a company driven by the profit motive. There are only a couple dozen new models that work perfectly with Lineage OS, but many other models work to some degree with a few problems and missing features. Most phones that don’t have a Qualcomm Snapdragon or a recent Samsung Exynos processor are automatically eliminated, so no phones with processors designed by Huawei, MediaTek, Spreadtrum or Apple.

5. It must have a decent camera.

6. It must have a decent processor, so a Snapdragon 625 or better or a similar Exynos processor.

7. It must be relatively sturdy, so it can’t have a back panel made of glass like the iPhone X or the HTC U11; nor can it have a screen that isn’t protected by a bezel, so no Samsung Galaxy Edge. I don’t buy phones to make a fashion statement.

8. It must have a 5.5 inch or larger screen, since I use my phone to read the news while I’m on the bus.

9. At least 2 GB of RAM and 16 GB of storage.

Is it possible to find a single current phone model which meet all these criteria? No.

OK, let’s get rid of the requirement that the manufacturer must have a policy of allowing users to unlock the bootloader. If I can find a crack, I can get around the manufacturer’s asinine policy of not letting me choose my own operating system. Any phones? Nope.

OK, Let’s get rid of the requirement that it needs to have a processor that is at least a Snapdragon 625 or better. Any phones?

Wow, I found one–the Samsung On8 with an Exynos 7580 Octa processor, which is roughly equivalent to the Snapdragon 617. The processor has 8 Cortex-A53 cores, which are optimized for low power, but their performance is also low. Usually these cores are paired with Cortex-A73 cores which have better performance, but the 7580 only has low performance cores and its graphics processor isn’t that great either. Honestly, I’m not that particular and I can live with a processor which isn’t that fast since the only time I will really notice it is when I’m trying to scroll through large PDFs. The camera isn’t great, but it is acceptable for my undiscerning eye. It doesn’t have fast charging or USB Type-C, but I can live without those conveniences. Lineage OS can be installed, but VoLTE doesn’t work and the camera doesn’t work in certain conditions. The camera not working reliably is the last straw for me. No, I can’t live with the Galaxy On8, so let’s keep looking.

OK, let’s get rid of the requirement that the phone be a current model. Any past phone models I can use?

Hooray! I found a couple of good ones: LG V10, LG V20, LG G5 and Samsung Galaxy Note 4.

There is not a single phone from HTC or Motorola, which are the two companies that I want to support for allowing users to unlock the bootloader, so I can’t reward them for respecting my freedom. Oh well, let’s forget about using my buying power to make a statement.

The Galaxy Note 4 is ancient and Lineage OS causes its camera to randomly crash and its microphone doesn’t work in headphones. Let’s scratch that one off the list.

The LG G5 is good, but the V20 is far better and it is very rugged so it won’t easily break. The reviews say that it feels like carrying around a brick, but I can live with that. Hey, it costs a third of the price of the new iPhone X. OK, let’s buy it!

Too bad I can’t buy the V20 where I live. Oh well, I will have to wait 10 months till my next trip to the US to get it.

Please, tell me again about the wonders of Capitalism. Please lecture me about all the benefits of the free market and how it is the perfect system that responds to the consumer’s desires and gives us so many choices in life.

What I see is an industry where every phone manufacturer is incentivized to produce phones based on planned obsolescence and restricting user freedom. In the name of generating profits, the software is designed to spy on us and collect our data in order to colonize our minds with advertising that convinces us that we can only be happy in life if we consume more and more.

Of course, little brother (Google) has all this data about us which he then shares with big brother (the NSA), so we have to fear that we are always being watched. Of course, we tell ourselves that it doesn’t really matter if the government knows everything about us, but we still have to wonder from time to time whether it is safe to exercise our political right to dissent. We still have to worry that maybe we should not express too loudly our disgust with the current system. It is safer to keep hidden our distant hope that we might see one day see this callous system overthrown.

Gee, why can’t I just be one of the mindless sheep that just wants the latest shiny gizmo from that fruit company? Why don’t my consumptive desires lead me to a techno wonder from a company whose logo comes in a splash of oblong blue or an infinitely large number? Clearly, my desire to not throw away my communication device every 2 years and consume again and again must place me beyond the pale of normal society. Clearly, I must be some kind of deviant if I don’t want to be spied on and my data monetized. Clearly, there must be no demand in the market for a device that I control, rather than one that controls me.

Clearly, I need to be reeducated, because I’m not buying any of the wonderful devices that all those Capitalist companies want to sell me.