28 March 2011

My Top 5 Open Source Software Tools & Applications

Very recently I came across the fact that I use primarily open source software tools and applications on my computer. In fact, the main proprietary software I am still running, is the operating system that originates from Redmond, Washington.
Today I am going to give you an overview of what I use. I am also going to discuss some weaknesses I could detect as well as make a couple of recommendations.
You should know that I am not a technologist, but rather a random user, albeit an experienced one. Hence, you will need no technical background in order to read and comprehend this blog article.

Let me start with the

1. Office Suite

being the most important software tool in the course of my daily work.

Open Officephoto © 2008 Shannon Clark | more info (via: Wylio)

I first downloaded OpenOffice.org somewhere back in 2004 but did not find it as convenient as Microsoft Office. Nevertheless, the free office suite has made giant leaps since then. It has even drastically improved its interoperability with MS Office and, allegedly, such interoperability would work even better, provided the guys from Redmond did not obstruct it by all means.

As regards me – it is the text editor “Writer”, the presentation tool “Impress” and the graphics programme “Draw” I use most of the time.
Since redlining and commenting documents is a big chunk of my work, I heavily rely on a good commenting and merging & comparing function in a text editor.
What I personally do not like in Writer is that, unlike Microsoft Word, upon writing a comment the commented text passage does not remain marked and this is not very convenient for the next person reading the comments. Likewise, the merge and compare documents function took me a while to get used to.

Next in my order of preferences comes

2. Browsing and Email

Did you already download Firefox 4?

Mozilla Firefox 4 is here!photo © 2011 Jennifer Boriss | more info (via: Wylio)

I personally started browsing with the Mozilla browser (at that point in time it was not yet called “Firefox” and its version reference had a pre-decimal 0) since my IE has been steadily and severely hit by browser hijackers.
That never happened to Mozilla/Firefox!

Besides, it first introduced the many-tabs-in-a-single-window feature and offers tons of add-ons thereby allowing its user to customize and personalize their web browser!

Almost the same is true with respect to Mozilla Thunderbird – the email client of the Mozilla family.

The issue I have with Thunderbird relates to the signature: you first need to generate a separate signature file and then attach it to the client so it is displayed in a message as plain text. While there is also a HTML based feature, it simply does not produce satisfactory results.

By contrast, the available extensions such as Lightning are just fantastic and make Thunderbird appear almost as good as Microsoft Outlook.

When it comes to blogging, however, everybody needs a good plan. By the same token, a good plan is easily developed with a good tool.

3. Mind Mapping

According to Wikipedia, mind maps are used to generate, visualize, structure, and classify ideas, and as an aid to studying and organizing information, solving problems, making decisions, and, the most important for me – writing.


I discovered Freeplane by coincidence on a YouTube tutorial. Actually I was searching for information about another open source mind mapping software – Freemind, but learned that Freeplane was considered superior.

It helps me order my mind when I need to to write about more complex facts and circumstances.

Mind mapping is related to

4. Workflow design

I remember the first time I had to develop a process. I had heard that Microsoft’s Visio was the usual suspect to look for, but was reluctant to obtain a costly license for it. I sought for open source alternatives on Google and it delivered the answer:  Dia.


The tool is easy to operate and supports the export of your diagrams in a .jpeg or .png format. I have not discovered any flaws yet.

At the end, which

5. Media Player

do you use in order to play music or watch films?

VLCphoto © 2007 Pittaya Sroilong | more info (via: Wylio)

It was probably five years ago when I heard of the Video Lan Player (VLC Player) during a presentation dedicated to open source software. I downloaded it once I got back home and must say: I do not want to let go of it.
It displays practically any file formats and is kept well updated.

Why open source?

Why not? Not only are all the products I mentioned above royalty-free, they are also reliable tools to work with. Adding the possibility to customize them (or have them customized) at your discretion makes them in some instances even superior to commercially licensed products.

My personal decision was cost-driven: I did not want to pay the license fees commercial providers required for their products. Equally important, I needed a reasonable and lawful alternative that I found in the realm of open source software.

What is your experience with open source software?
Do you have a story to tell too?

 

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25 March 2011

Europe’s Last Stand Against Data Retention?

The Matrix has you...photo © 2008 Roman Pinzon-Soto | more info (via: Wylio)

Do you remember Morpheus saying “Wake up Neo… The Matrix has you!”?
Do you remember Agent Smith implanting an electronic tracking bug in Neo’s body?
I bet you do, because the image transported by this film does not appear that fictional anymore.
It may be just an arm’s length away.
Yes, I am talking about the retention of your communication traffic data. By “you” I mean all of you who live under the jurisdiction of a member state of the European Union. Any member state? Hmm, well, possibly not, but let me first explain

What is data retention and its purpose?

Data retention in the sense of the Directive 2006/24/EC provides for the storage data arising out of telephone calls made and received, emails sent and received and websites visited. Since location data counts to traffic data, it is collected too.

The introduction of data retention has always been justified with combating terrorism and serious crimes, but it aims to fight file-sharing users instead.

Owing to its controversy, legislation produced by transposition of the data retention Directive has been contested in some EU member states. While Ireland challenged Directive’s compatibility with formalities under the then current EC Treaty,  the constitutional courts of Romania and Germany were asked to deal with data retention’s compatibility with fundamental human rights. As a consequence, the respective provisions got abrogated, but not annulled.

Data retention gains territory

Until recently, Austria managed to postpone the transposition of the Directive 2006/24/EC into its national law. Well, the ostensible resistance grounded on discrepancies between the two coalition forming parties rather than on human rights deliberations.

Doris Bures, Austria’s Minister of Transport, Innovation and Technology announces the upcoming enactment of data retention. Courtesy to APA (Archiv/Fohringer)

However, some weeks ago the farce went to an end and a bill amendment to the telecommunications act was nodded through the council of ministers prior to its submittal to the parliament. Reportedly, the bill is being heavily discussed among the members of the parliament justice committee. The result will be, despite all assurances, the total control of communication.

Now that Austria will no longer be a safe harbour in terms of privacy, are there any other member states that still have not implemented the data retention directive?
Let us have a look at the map of Europe…
Is someone missing?
Yes, there is!

The land of milk and honey

Flag countrysidephoto © 2009 Håkan Dahlström | more info (via: Wylio)

 

Can you imagine: the Swedes usually known for their discipline and law-abiding behaviour are now obstructing the implementation of Directive 2006/26/EC.
It seems that an arrangement among the Left Party, the Green Party and the Swedish Democrats managed to apply a procedural loophole in order to delay the transposition for at least a year.

What does it mean?

As I previously mentioned, the data retention directive has been referred to a judicial review a few times already. These reviews’ action items towards legislation always read the same: improve!
In this respect, it is likely that the Court of Justice of the European Union delivers a judgment dealing with data retention’s compatibility with fundamental human rights under the acquis.

The good news at the end

I still have hope that this madness will come to an end. Not only because hope springs eternal, but because anyone can make an effort and engage in lawfully fighting data retention.
At least anyone who cares about fundamental human rights.

And if Sweden should fail, then it could be us as individuals who form Europe’s last stand against data retention!

 

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22 March 2011

Thou Shalt Not Have Any Patent Courts Before Me!

European Court of Justice - Luxembourgphoto © 2006 Cédric Puisney | more info (via: Wylio)

What do the Bible and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) have in common?
Perhaps it’s that they both represent various collections of sacred scriptures that are exclusively interpreted by specifically established bodies. Yes, the Pope’s authority as the sole authentic and true interpreter of the Bible can be correlated with the rights of the Court of the European Union (“Court” ) with respect to the TFEU.

The Court’s currently published Opinion 1/09 on the creation of a unified patent litigation system and a European and Community Patents Court is a good example of this. Its holding reminds me of the First Commandment and evaporates any hope of moving the European patent system closer to the US American one.

In the beginning… was the European Patent Convention

The European Patent Convention (EPC) provides a legal framework for the granting of European patents via a single, harmonized procedure before the European Patent Office (EPO).

Nevertheless, subsequent to its granting, a European patent is not a unitary right, but a group of essentially independent, nationally enforceable and nationally revocable patents.
And this is where the problems start: a patent holder with a number of equivalent European patents might have to choose where, e.g. under which patent and legal system, to sue an infringer. Factors influencing this choice of forum would include, among other things, the likelihood of success, or the speed and cost of the proceedings.
However, if litigation in multiple jurisdictions proves to be necessary, it is possible that different courts will reach different decisions, even with patents granted by the EPO and containing identical claims…

As is known, this is not the case in the US where they have a unitary patent law, a single granting authority and a unitary patent jurisdiction.

Those who live in the European Union writhe in pain, waiting for relief

A number of reform proposals have been made to ease the difficulties I outlined above, such as: the creation of a unitary Community patent, the establishment of a Community Patent Court, or the replacement of the EPC with a Community patent system.
And, recently, it seems things have started to heat up a bit: the newly authorised Enhanced Cooperation On Creation Of Unitary Patent Protection may smooth the way to a unitary patent, granted as an EU designation within the EPO framework.
But, owing to Court’s Opinion 1/09, an EU patent will still need to be enforced country by country.
It’s still not the whole nine yards.
Besides, I do not understand why the Court behaves just like the jealous God and shows itself anxious in tolerating a parallel (patent) jurisdiction it cannot control.
By the same token, the specialists at the EPO insist on an own court, serving as the ultimate authority in patent cases . Their reasoning is that the court Court would not have the sufficiently skilled personnel and thus the capability to properly deal with patent matters.
Looks like a dead-end to me.

Revelations for holders of European and future Community patents

Given the problem with the Enhanced Cooperation, it will take years to evaluate its overall effect on the European patent system.
Moreover, without unitary jurisdiction and enforceability, its main objective appears limited to merely language -related cost savings.

So pray, my brothers and sisters! Pray that the Court in Luxembourg shall be manned with skilful judges to rule on our patent cases!

 

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19 March 2011

Are Bloggers Immune Against Damages If They Say The Truth?

bloggers for free speachphoto © 2006 Hanan Cohen | more info (via: Wylio)

It all started this Tuesday while I was reading my daily Slashdot newsletter. I was about to close the tab displaying the headlines, when a single textline caught my attention.
It read : Blogger Fined $60K For Telling the Truth .
What I initially thought was an absurd story turned out to be a verdict delivered by a jury at the Hennepin County District Court!
But let me first present you with

The Facts

John Hoff, a blogger who maintains The Adventures of Johnny Northside, came across a mortgage fraud in which the former community council director Jerry Moore was involved.
Hoff wrote on his weblog that he had  discovered that, Moore whose malpractice had already cost him his job at the community council, had once again been fired by his then current employer. As a consequence, Moore sued Hoff  claiming damages for lost wages and emotional distress. Albeit that the jury found that Hoff’s blog post was true, it held  that Hoff intentionally interfered with Moore’ employment contract thereby causing Moore emotional distress and was thus making him liable to pay 60.000 USD (see Sheila Regan’s court notes and the Hennepin County District Court Jury Verdict that John Hoff emailed me upon my request).

Why the jury erred

No doubt, this jury verdict is just outrageous.

I guess that Moore chose to pursue the course of interference with an employment contract and emotional distress, because he would have failed to produce evidence of Hoff’s actual malice had he opted to sue for libel.

But even if Hoff was trying to get Moore fired, people are constitutionally entitled to speak the truth about others, even with such an objective (The Volokh Conspiracy delivers a profound explanation why). Provided that the jury was instructed of this, its judgment is simply wrong.

As regards emotional distress, the US Supreme Court held in Hustler v. Falwell that the elements usually required to demonstrate that tort has occurred, are not sufficient in cases involving public figures.
In Snyder v. Phelps the Supreme Court went even further, holding that the obvious and hatred-motivated disturbance of a military funeral did not qualify to inflict emotional distress among the mourners, since it dealt with issues of public concern and was hence protected by the First Amendment.

In light of the quoted decisions, the judgment of the Hennepin’s jury is not only wrong; it is pathetic.
From what I read, John Hoff is going to appeal the decision against him and I believe he has a fair chance of getting it overturned.

Why I blog on this

I blog on this simply because the freedom of expression and the freedom to access information represent our fundamental rights and we must protect them by all means.
What would be the alternative? Any wrongdoer discovered by bloggers or journalists would then be able to muzzle and gag them by suing them for, say, emotional distress? Perish the thought!

Therefore, I expect the higher judicial instances in the US to provide for bloggers’ immunity against damages, provided, of course, they tell the truth.

 

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11 March 2011

Digital Oblivion: To Be Or Not To Be?

1 if 3 Zoom blur experiment - Woodphoto © 2008 Mike Baird | more info (via: Wylio)

Have you ever tried to search the web for information relating to yourself?
If yes, how accurate were the results that showed up, say, in Google?
And what would you do if you found information or data that were not really up-to-date, or were inaccurate or even libelous?

Well, you might rely on the law of data protection and undertake certain actions. And if you are domiciled in Spain, which is known for its higher standards on data protection, your actions are likely to be more fruitful than elsewhere.
This is at least what the story of the Spanish doctor Guidotti Russo evidences.

Imagine

that a 20 years old newspaper article covering some accusations against you, is still being accessible via Google’s search engine. Imagine further that, in the mean time,  you have been cleared from all those accusations.
What would you do? Or put another way, what are the remedies you may rely upon?

The law on data protection

in the European Union is approximated by the Directive 95/46/EC. Accordingly, its Article 6 provides that “… every reasonable step must be taken to ensure that data which are inaccurate or incomplete… are erased or rectified.”
This is what Dr Russo appears to have requested before the Agencia Española de Protección de Datos, namely that Google be ordered to cease the access to that newspaper article.
Not surprisingly, Google, asserting the right to information access, did not obey and the issue landed before an ordinary court in Madrid.
From what I read, this court has been considering to ask the Court of Justice of the European Union for a preliminary ruling.

Other commentators on the Web did already make a link between this case and

“The right to be forgotten”

which the European Commission recently presented in its communication COM(2010)609. That oddly named right seems to be a part of Commission’s plan to revise the data protection rules, in order to strengthen individuals’ rights.
The Commission defines it as “the right of individuals to have their data no longer processed and deleted when they are no longer needed for legitimate purposes. This is the case, for example, when processing is based on the person’s consent and when he or she withdraws consent or when the storage period has expired;”

Hmm, I do not see any significant difference to the language of the Data Protection Directive I quoted above. Do you?
So, I guess clarifications will follow.
Anyway, my personal opinion is that a right to be forgotten should result in a mechanism of data self-destruction or data fading away which individuals should be able to configure as they like. Equally important, such right should be incapable of being contractually waived. 

Once introduced, however, a right to be forgotten will very likely collide with another fundamental right –

The right to access information

It is obvious – in today’s information society the right to access information has become important more than ever. Data or information that is subject to a self-destruction will, however, seriously challenge that rights’s fundamental character.
At a first glance, this argument seems to hold water.
But hey! What data should the right to be forgotten concern?
Is it not about personal data?
And since it is, why should someone else’s right to access my personal data trump my right to determine whether that someone should access it in the first place?

Invitation to discuss

For me, the existence of a digital oblivion right evokes questions upon questions. It appears to be a really promising discussion topic, does it not?
Hence, do not hesitate to tell me what you think about it!

 

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4 March 2011

Worth A King’s Crown

 

Project 365 #2: 020110 Vegetarian e-mailphoto © 2010 Pete | more info (via: Wylio)Obviously, spam is the subject of my today’s blog post.
Spam? What has a King’s crown anyway got to do with it?
Well, I would say “a lot”, but in order to figure it out, you will need to read this one to the end.

Spam is manifold

The most spam messages I have ever received used to be dull, but some were trickier.
Some time ago I described my personal expirience with a rather unusual spam email. It is funny, but that blog post brought me a surprisingly high amount of visitor traffic. On the other hand this is comprehensible, since spam arguably causes one fourth to one third of all traffic on the Internet. It seems I was not the only one to receive  an identical or a similar message to the one I described.
Also, spammers no longer distribute their content merely over e-mail. Comment sections of websites and/or weblogs have emerged to one of their newer field of interest and activity.
For instance, I used to receive some 20-40 spam comments daily on the Reguligence Weblog. The most of them appeared under older articles and this is the reason why I turned off the commenting mode to articles older than 4 weeks.

But why do spammers send spam in the first place?

Spam is an economic factor

As a matter of fact, the average spammer sends out 1,000,000 emails per day. According to the previous source, a spammer would have made $150 in 24 hours, or $4,500 a month. Equally important, the Business Pundit reports that in 2008 a spam botnet called “Storm” made some $3,5 million in pharmaceutical sales having a conversion rate of just 0,000008%…
Not bad, huh? The numbers remain attractive even notwithstanding the legal risk.

Is sending spam legal?

In a nutshell: it is not.
The United States, being the origin of 19,8% of spam messages have introduced their Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act of 2003 (CAN-SPAM Act). Critics refer to it as You-Can-Spam-Act, alleging it actually allows senders to send spam, provided that they comply with some minor statutory obligations. Nevertheless, the CAN-SPAM Act helped hunting down some villains as  Sanford Wallace.
Although the European Union provided for more rigid rules in its E-Commerce (2000/31/EC) and E-Privacy (2002/58/EC) Directives,  courts within the EU cannot vaunt such examples of judicial success.

Back to the headline

A promise is a promise and now I will reveal why I chose the headline of this article.
Today I read about Robert Soloway, a Spam King, being released after nearly 4 years in prison. While he was active, that guy managed to send the unbelievable amount of 10 trillion spam e-mails, resulting in $20,000-a-day proceeds.

Isn’t  spam indeed worth at least a king’s crown? Your turn.

 

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