20 years of Debian

Debian has celebrated its 20th anniversary last week. IIRC, I’ve installed Debian in 1995 for the first time, version 0.93R5. My very first GNU/Linux distribution was SLS (who knows today what it was?). I switched to Slackware soon and after some time I decided it might be a good idea to try something else once again. Looking at our faculty FTP server I’ve found a distribution called Debian with interesting development model and with package dependencies (missing dependencies were quite a problem with Slackware that time and Debian was the only distribution solving the problem). About a year later I became one of the Debian developers.

I’ve never switched to another distribution again since I installed Debian for the first time and I’ve remained a Debian user (and developer) till today. Although I tried to install and use other Linux distributions during the time I wasn’t fully satisfied with any of them. Even in times when I wasn’t particularly happy with Debian my research led just to the conclusion there was no real alternative.

Although Debian has never been the most popular GNU/Linux distribution it has still been very successful for all the years, having solid user base and grounds. What makes it so successful? I can see three basic reasons.

For first, Debian’s top priority has always been software freedom, since its beginning. Debian’s insistence on being a truly free software distribution makes its development and use unrestricted, independent and cooperative.

For second, Debian has always been a non-commercial distribution directed only by its developers. Its development approach “users for users” makes it free from big commercial pressures, bureaucratic constraints or similar destructive problems. The development is based on democratic decision processes and efforts to reach consensus rather than making simple decisions dictating what to do. This is not always easy and quiet but it contributes to long-term success. Debian has also been successful in self-organizing and managing its growth, which isn’t easy for a group of more than thousand less or more regular voluntary contributors. Commercial activities are left to Debian derivatives, which is a good thing.

For third, Debian prefers stability over feature creep or release rush. I can confirm it’s sometimes annoying but in the final result it makes the life of users much easier. There is a choice between stable releases and testing, unstable and experimental continuous branches. Many other distributions, despite being smaller, are unable to provide equivalents to Debian stable (whether they offer something named this way or not), sometimes being even less stable than Debian unstable.

In my view Debian excellently demonstrates the strength of free software. It’s a unique phenomenon, being the only large, stable, independent and completely free software distribution with sustainable development. It perfectly complements the great and successful free software projects such as Linux, GNU and others. It also serves as a basis of many other GNU/Linux distributions of various kinds derived from it. Let’s wish to Debian the best for its next years.

Schneier on surveillance partnership

I strongly recommend reading the excellent essay on surveillance partnership of government and private sectors by Bruce Schneier.

I’d just add that I don’t believe changes in formal policies are enough to solve the problem (although they are very important). We also need to technically break the inherent surveillance grounds. We users can do it, I suggest looking at the overview of available software (and don’t forget that nothing is perfect from beginning and if you prefer temporary immediate profit over long term profit and over your freedom then you should look elsewhere).

Slaves of smartphones

I’ve been recently present in company of my colleagues for a week. My colleagues are all equipped with smartphones. Whenever and wherever we were doing something, it always ended up by half the people staring into their phones. Typically playing with them in some way as children like to do.

Well, we’re an IT company so some interest in computer devices can be expected. And I confess, I waste a lot of time with computers and I use to read newspapers while eating. But I don’t bring my computer nor my newspapers to dinners with my friends or colleagues. I hope I’m still sane enough.

Nevertheless it was a good opportunity to observe what the smartphones are used for in everyday life. They are typically used for: Taking snapshots of people and other objects. Presenting the snapshots to other people, typically in a chaotic way. Taking snapshots of dinner menu and other interesting documents. Taking notes. Sometimes reading the notes. Managing diaries. Finding out current location. Tracking locations of other colleagues. Finding out which way to take. Getting an idea what to visit. Participating in childish competitions (probably arranged for the purpose by their providers). Announcing that pizza is ready in the next room. Finding out what’s the outside temperature (based on data measured at a completely different place several miles away). Measuring angles (for no useful purpose). Buying and playing music and videos. Bothering other people by playing them the music and videos. Making and receiving phone calls (if it works). Finding out how to change washers in a tap. Passing the snapshots, notes, diaries, documents and information about where we are, what we are doing, what we are interested in, what we listen to and what and when we eat to other companies and people. Being instantly notified whenever there is new e-mail or other message, about each posted photo or when the pizza is ready.

It was a scary experience. The amount of information being transferred all the time to someone about each of us, whether a smartphone owner or not, is enormous. The devices are permanently disturbing their physical owners and all the people nearby. And we’re rarely able to talk without their assistance and supervision. They are quite close to the telescreens from 1984.

But what’s worse: Smartphones are our little gods. We adore them, we serve them, we sacrifice our relations, lives and freedom to them (and to those who control them). They may be one of the worst live changers since television conquered our homes.

I don’t reject TV nor smartphones, they may be useful tools which serve us. The problem is we often serve them instead. What’s the likely impact on the society and the lives of each of us?