The noble semi-colon

A few weeks ago, sildenafil thumb my friend Ethan Zuckerman wrote a post on the difficulties of running a Linux desktop. Even the relative success of Ubuntu, this the popular version of the Debian distribution professionalized into consumer-grade ware by Mark Shuttleworth’s company Canonical hasn’t got me convinced that a Linux desktop is for everyone, prostate and Ethan outlined why very effectively.

Today, I flew to Kiev, Ukraine with a colleague of mine who is an unusual breed: a relative non-techie who is also a Linux desktop user (Suse) and a Linux enthusiast/defender. At least until, perhaps, this morning at 7:30 a.m., when we sat down next to each other at the airport in Budapest and simultaneously flipped open our matching IBM Thinkpads. Mine started up, caught the Ferihegy airport free wireless (Pannon, if you’re looking) and downloaded my last dregs of email; his did something that, to me, looked like those bad command line moments in hacker movies where the untutored audience is supposed to easily get it that Something Has Gone Wrong. So, my colleague was without his computer all day as we sat through three hours in Munich and two plane rides. After a consultation with the Linux guru back at our office, the problem was potentially isolated (a problem with the encryption container that holds all his data); as we’re visiting our colleagues here in Kiev tomorrow morning, we’ll set up my colleague’s computer with a static IP address tomorrow morning and Linux Guru from our office will tunnel in from Budapest and try to sort out the problem.

To my way of thinking, this is an interesting illustration of when, for non-techies, running a Linux desktop can work, and when it may not work so well. My colleague may be able to solve his problem because he:
1. Has a dedicated Linux guru in our office
2. Has a mobile phone on which he can call said guru when he’s out of the office
3. Has an office to go to in a foreign country where he can set up a particular help desk situation on the fly
4. Has been patient enough and dedicated enough to his Linux experiment not to toss his laptop out the window and restart with a Windows machine when things go wrong.

This situation led to a dinner discussion tonight with an open source savvy Ukranian colleague: when is it appropriate to encourage non-profit organizations to use Linux machines? From one perspective, open source seems like a logical solution to the tech woes of many low-resource organizations struggling to survive, sometimes in very hostile political environments: an open source desktop means you’re not using pirated software that could potentially give the authorities an excuse to close you down; if you’re Tajik or Georgian or another non-Microsoft language, it might mean that you can use software in your own language, instead of in English or Russian; if you have some command-line confidence, you may be able to customize it in ways that make the software more useful to you than a Windows desktop would be. However, given the type of situation outlined above, I think it’s difficult to suggest that for an individual organization without an easily accessible Linux-friendly tech support person, open source desktops would be the right choice (although I do think anyone can use the open source triple play of Open Office, Firefox, and Thunderbird with little trouble, if they are launched in the right direction).

What we concluded over a meal of Ukranian pickled vegetables, kvas, and stuffed cabbage was the utility of institutional structure in a Linux desktop deployment: universities, libraries, schools, and government offices all have the advantage of structure, usually some tech support, and better yet (at least in educational environments) a set of users who may also willingly become the techies needed to solve others problems. This is the kind of situation where I think it makes a lot of sense to deploy Linux desktops, and indeed, from Shuttleworth’s TuxLabs to SchoolNet Namibia to the Deerleap Project in Georgia to the Armenian national library’s experiments with open source, that model has started to bear real fruit; it’s also started to acclimate real users to a new system without the same level of risk that they’ll be alienated through frustration or poor support.

Update: we couldn’t get a static IP address in our Kiev office, so Colleague is out of luck until we get back to Budapest on Friday.
In Kiev today, medicine and I spent an interesting hour with three of the leaders of UAFOSS (Ukrainian Free and Open Source Software). They’re involved in the now-familiar struggle to acquaint people with open source software, to convince the government to adopt it (or at least consider it in what are widely thought to be corrupt tendering processes), to encourage use in schools, libraries, and businesses. What’s slightly unusual, according to my companions this afternoon, is that there are still laws on the books in Ukraine, holdovers from the still-looming Soviet days, which render use and production of open source software illegal. Apparently, a software developer needs to be able to show that he has been paid for the production of software that he has developed, and a user needs to be able to display a license agreement from a vendor licensed by the state. This would mean that, technically speaking, downloading and installing Firefox or Open Office is a crime in Ukraine, and contributing to an international project would also be out of bounds. A note on accuracy: I’ve googled this up and down and can’t come up with anything concrete because, I suspect, I don’t read Ukrainian, but have been assured by numerous Ukrainian colleagues that this is indeed the case. UAFOSS dedicates a significant amount of effort to having this law changed, although the somewhat regular collapse of the Ukrainian government (and the fact that there has only been a caretaker government here since January) has slowed their lobbying efforts considerably.

So far as I can tell, this law is totally obscure and widely ignored. A Google search will turn up a lively open source community in Ukraine, and after narrating the above story today, the UAFOSS guys went on to talk about all the open source work they *are* doing in Kiev, including an exciting-sounding localization project that involves the Ukraine’s national language office and an effort to set up a network of help-desk centers around the country. Still, I can certainly understand why UAFOSS are working to change the law. Unfortuantely, unenforced and outdated laws languishing on the books can come back to bite at a later date if they’re not cleared off. Further, forcing a discussion on open source licensing could help to break open other discussions on intellectual property issues that still tie the hands of other industries in Ukraine.
Actually, search it’s not really a death match. Mel has Ukraine on the mat accordig to Google news, search with 1800-and-counting stories covering all aspects of the alcoholic actor’s anti-semitic rant and subsequent apologies versus the not-quite-500 stories on the resolution to the young democracy’s mutli-month constitutional crisis. I had actually been quite pleased at the amount of coverage Ukraine’s situation was getting until I compared it the ever-blossoming Gibson story.

Anyway, buy more about it’s not just a matter of brute numbers. The endless Mel coverage means that every aspect of the crisis has been dissected for the public. Not so with the media coverage of the Ukranian resolution, which has been fantastically bad. With the exception of the International Herald Tribune‘s article I read on the issue, every major newspaper I’ve read has either misreported or under-reported the story. If I hadn’t been in Kiev last week and had the situation explained to me by Ukranian colleagues, I would come away from the mainstream coverage of the situation understanding that Yushchenko, the hero of the Orange Revolution, had inexplicably turned his back on the party and appointed his arch nemesis, the Russian-backed Yanukovych, as prime minister. In fact, the parliamentary coalition of socialists, communists, and Yanukovych’s Party of Regions (the Russian-leaning nationalists) nominated Yanukovych, meaning that as president of the country, Yushchenko was faced with a devil’s bargain: either accept his rival as PM and try to work around him, or dissolve Parliament altogther and call new elections, which would almost certainly mean that he would not be re-elected as president — by most accounts, he’s done a pretty lousy job of being president and his ratings are in the single digits. Pretty rotten decision, but faced with that choice, it seems obvious why he would choose to do as he did. Now, that’s a pretty straight-forward story. Why have I only read one article that explains it?

For useful information on understanding the situation Ukraine, follow Transitions Online’s series of articles on the country, or the always thoughtful Neeka’s Backlog.
My Polish colleague Jerzy is one of those crushing European polyglots who make single-language Americans like me despair over our upbringing, check education, viagra sale and entirely unrigorous way of life. Jerzy effortlessly speaks Polish, Hungarian, and English. If you’re at all into language families, you know that’s not like being able to speak Italian, French, and Spanish. Polish, Hungarian, and English are, to put it mildly, way, way, different.

To lull me out of my despair, Jerzy occassionally asks my advice on the finer points of composing in English; mostly recently, he asked me when it was appropriate to use a semi-colon in a sentence. Since Americans of my age (33, if you must know) were not requried to study grammar (at least in California, I kid you not), I actually haven’t the slightest idea what the official answer to that question is, and so waxed philosophical about semi-colons, linked sentences, the emotional qualities of punctucation, and so forth. Then I recommended Strunk and White’s classic The Elements of Style, and slunk off to my office, embarassed at my loquaciousness on a topic that I don’t actually know the answer to.

Today, the question came back to me, and I googled “When do you use a semi-colon?” The magic 8-ball gave me back this answer, which I thought was much more accurate than what I told Jerzy:

Q. When do you use a semicolon?
A. After you’ve attended grad school.

So, there you go. Sorry, Jerzy, I got it wrong.

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One thought on “The noble semi-colon

  1. Oh, so the answer is so simple. And I have just bought “The Elements of Style”!