posted on Wed, Oct 21 '20 under tags: freedom, foss

Free Software Camp 2020 opened last week and it has been a pretty nice experience till now

I am one among the organizers of free software camp which is an online program for bringing people into free software.

It is rather unsurprising that in an otherwise depressing world, the camp is giving me inspiration and hope. It was only last month that we launched the first beta of Health Heatmap of India portal. The paper about it got published in a special issue on digital health in the IISc journal as well. While I was working on it intensely, I was distracted from problems in the world including COVID. But the moment I lost focus all those things started crowding my mind - a failing public health system, an ill-thought technology governance framework, and then multiple policy consultations with potential to change health system drastically (including the National Digital Health Mission framework). When there is a simultaneous onslaught on everything you believe in from all directions, you need to find something to latch on to - to give you hope and direction. For me, it has been the free software camp.

The camp has had registrations that exceeded our expectations by a factor of 5 or 10. All the registrations didn’t convert to participation in the camp. As pointed out by a good friend, this is the season of online programs and people will sign up for everything without even knowing what they’re signing up for. So, understandably, when we started the sessions, there were only a manageable number of people turning up. We have about 40-50 learners who are comfortable in English, Malayalam, and/or Hindi who are attending sessions as of now. (It has only been less than a week). There are a few people who have joined late. I think there is a good chance that most of these learners will stick till the end of the camp.

The camp running wholly on free software has made me really appreciate the value of things we have. I have been having lots and lots of meetings on skype, google meet, and zoom in the last so many months. But the five hour long marathon calls that the organizing team would have on Jitsi felt much better. Also, Big Blue Button is a refreshingly great piece of software. I absolutely love the quick polls and the multi-user whiteboard. The other day while we were waiting for people to join we turned multi-user whiteboard on and the things that got painted reminded me of r/place. It is truly incredible the kind of stuff that humans can build through collaboration (and a healthy bit of competition).

We have been using FSCI’s mailman3 instance for email messages. This has been a strength and a weakness. It is a very reliable service with very little downtime, lag, etc. Hyperkitty archives can act like a good forum with members-only section and public section. The weaknesses are the weaknesses of email itself. Many service providers put our mail in spam. Outlook was outright rejecting our mails. And the subscription flow of mailman3 were confusing some learners. This led to mailman changing the default template for confirmation emails, even.

And matrix has been the de facto chat platform, with element being the most used client. The home server on had some major synchronization delays in outbound federation exactly when we were dividing the learners to multiple groups for our “Controls in the current society” activity. This led to some major confusion. Nevertheless, communication has been smoothly happening. I believe not having to explain IRC to those who have never heard of it have been a major success in this regard.

Around the time the camp started, I started using emacs (again). I joined the M-x butterfly group after the FOSS NSS mini-conference and had been looking for a reason to start using emacs. At the same time, I have been thinking about a stack for building browser-based desktop applications using the native binary compilation of graalvm and quarkus. The idea requires a frontend built in javascript. But the economics of npm (HT: Akhil Varkey) made me consider a non-npm approach. And that led me to Elm and later Clojure. The last time I tried to learn either of these languages, I was not very good at functional programming. But now that I cannot live without function components in React and streams and lambda in Java, both Elm and Clojure sound reasonable to use again. And on this reading of braveclojure, I finally realized what emacs truly is - emacs is lisp. And lisp is anything you want.

I became ambitious and started preparing the slides for the opening session of the camp in emacs using org mode and beamer. This was a failure. I don’t know how to navigate org-mode yet. And I cannot align pictures in latex. And I love putting pictures on my slides. So I gave up on emacs and switched to libreoffice impress. I had briefly considered using revealjs through which is what I used for making the “introduction to mailing lists” video. But I had only a couple of hours to make the presentation and settled for the quickest option available.

It was while preparing for the opening session that I realized how powerful the quick polls in BBB are. It gives the presenter a very very quick sense of how the audience is following along. No wonder BBB is a good platform for teachers. After making the slides I realized I had put too much text and very little images. So I decided to put a quiz in between. I put the logos of many free software projects and asked the learners to identify them in the public chat. There were hundreds of messages in a flash and I was very excited to see the way it panned out. I can’t recommend BBB enough to instructors trying to engage with an audience online.

The opening session saw many questions about free software which was not entirely unexpected. But we were hoping the questions would be about the structure of the camp itself. Anyhow there is plenty of time to answer all questions.

The next day we made the learners “build a tree of knowledge wishes”. The idea is to capture the most important piece of knowledge that you think should be preserved for the future (in a time capsule, if you may). And to put it on the tree. For the online format, Kannan, Bady, and others made a simple program using to allow learners to collaborate on one tree. You can see the output here. Click on the leaves to see the ideas. (Clicking on the birds will not make the birds chirp). While putting on the tree what they thought was the most important piece of knowledge to be preserved like that, we got to know about each learner a bit more. Turns out there is a wide variety of fields that learners have joined the camp from - including mathematics, physics, health, education, social science. As we mentioned in a note to learners, this diversity is organically generated by the relevance of free software in every field of human life.

As I’m writing this the learners are exploring freedom, or the lack of it, in the current society. They’ve been divided into groups and each group given a topic to work on. You can see the topics on the camp wiki. Throughout the week they will be working on creating something presentable about their topic and they will present this at the end of the week to everyone. The topics are thought-provoking. It makes one question what freedom really means. When one goes through them, one can see that the argument for free software is often just a different form of the argument for humans to be able to enjoy freedom.

Just as I publish this, there is news that Kerala government is amending police act to bring back section 66A style restriction on free speech. There is also news about health ID being used in COVID vaccine delivery, which of course comes along with “reassurances” that it will not be mandatory. It has been shown time and time again that “not mandatory” means “mandatory” where the rubber meets the road. If the citizens of our country (and any country) has to have freedom and be able to live like human beings, then it is imperative that there be a generation of people who question these arbitary exercise of power. And the free software camp is one such place where we get to draw inspiration from many similar minded people to gather energy to fight these wrongs.

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