Hi (again), I'm Zack, and this is my blog. Have a look at the most recent posts below, or browse the tag cloud here on the right.

Archives are available as well.

You can leave comments on my posts by following the relevant link associated to each post. Alternatively, you can mail me comments; note that unless otherwise requested, I will add mailed comments in the comment feeds.

The blog is mostly in English with some bits of Italian and French here and there.

Debian participation in Italy's CAD68 committee

(The initial policy change discussed in this document is a couple of years old now, but it took about the same time to be fully implemented, and AFAIK the role Debian played by Debian in it has not been documented yet.)

In October 2012 the Italian government, led at the time by Mario Monti, did something rather innovative, at least for a country that is not usually ahead of its time in the area of information technology legislation. They decided to change the main law (the "CAD", for Codice dell'Amministrazione Digitale) that regulates the acquisition of software at all levels of the public administration (PA), giving an explicit preference to the acquisition of Free Software.

The new formulation of article 68 of the CAD first lists some macro criteria (e.g., TCO, adherence to open standards, security support, etc.) that public administrations in Italy shall use as ranking criteria in software-related calls for tenders. Then, and this is the most important part, the article affirms that the acquisition of proprietary software solutions is permitted only if it is impossible to choose Free Software solutions instead; or, alternatively, to choose software solutions that have already being acquired (and paid for) by the PA in the past, reusing preexisting software. The combined effect of these two provisions is that all new software acquisitions by PAs in Italy will be Free Software, unless it is motivated—in writing, challengable by a judge—that it was impossible to do otherwise. Isn't it great?

It is, except that such a law is not necessarily easy to adhere to in practice, especially for small public administrations (e.g., municipalities of a few hundred people, not uncommon in Italy) which might have very little clue about software in general, and even less so about Free Software. This is why the government also tasked the relevant Italian agency to provide guidelines on how to choose software in a way that conforms with the new formulation of article 68. The agency decided to form a committee to work on the guidelines (because you always need a committee, right? :-) ).

To my surprise, the call for participation to be part of the committee explicitly listed representatives of Free Software communities as privileged software stakeholders that they wanted to have on the committee—kudos to the agency for that. (The Italian wording on the call was: Costituirà titolo di preferenza rivestire un ruolo di […] referenti di community del software a codice sorgente aperto.) Therefore, after various prods by fellow European Free Software activists that were aware of the ongoing change in legislation, I applied to be a volunteer CAD68 committee member, got selected, and ended up working over a period of about 6 months (March-September 2013) to help the agency writing the new software acquisition guidelines.

Logistically, it hasn't been entirely trivial, as the default meeting place was in Rome, I live in Paris, and the agency didn't really have a travel budget for committee members. That's why I've sought sponsorship from Debian, offering to represent Debian views within the committee; Lucas kindly agreed to my request. So what did I do on behalf of Debian as a committee member during those months?

Most of my job has been some sort of consulting on how community-driven Free Software projects—like Debian—work, on how the software they produce can be relied upon and contributed to, and more generally on how the PA can productively interact with such projects. In particular, I've been happy to work on the related work section of the guidelines, ensuring they point to relevant documents such as the French government guidelines on how to adopt Free Software (AKA circulaire Ayrault). I've also drafted the guidelines section on Free Software directories, ensuring that important resources such as FSF's Free Software Directory are listed as starting points for PAs that looking for software solutions for specific needs.

Another part of my job has been ensuring that the guidelines do not end up betraying the principle of Free Software preference that is embodied in article 68. A majority of committee members came from a Free Software background, so that might not seem a difficult goal to accomplish. But it is important to notice that: (a) the final editor of the guidelines is the agency itself, not the committee, so having a "pro-Free Software" majority within the committee doesn't mean much per se; and (b) lobbying from the "pro-proprietary software" camp did happen, as it is entirely natural in these cases. In this respect I'm happy with the result: I do believe that the software selection process recommended by the guidelines, finally published in January 2014, upholds the Free Software preference principle of article 68. I credit both the agency and the non-ambiguity of the law (on this specific point) for that result.

All in all, this has been a positive experience for me. It has reaffirmed my belief that Debian is a respected, non-partisan political actor of the wider software/ICT ecosystem. This experience has also given me a chance to be part of country-level policy-making, which has been very instructive on how and why good ideas might take a while to come into effect and influence citizen lives. Speaking of which, I'm now looking forward to the first alleged violations of article 68 in Italy, and how they will be dealt with.

Abundant popcorn will certainly be needed.

Links & press

If you want to know more about this topic, I've collected below links to resources that have documented, in various languages, the publication of the CAD68 guidelines.

Posted Fri 24 Oct 2014 02:20:59 PM CEST Tags:

je.code(); — promoting programming (in French)

jecode.org is a nice initiative by, among others, my fellow Debian developer and university professor Martin Quinson. The goal of jecode.org is to raise awareness about the importance of learning the basics of programming, for everyone in modern societies. jecode.org targets specifically francophone children (hence the name, for "I code").

I've been happy to contribute to the initiative with my thoughts on why learning to program is so important today, joining the happy bunch of "codeurs" on the web site. If you read French, you can find them reposted below. If you also write French, you might want to contribute your thoughts on the matter. How? By forking the project of course!

Pourquoi codes-tu ?

Tout d'abord, je code parce que c'est une activité passionnante, drôle, et qui permet de prouver le plaisir de créer.

Deuxièmement, je code pour automatiser les taches répétitives qui peuvent rendre pénibles nos vies numériques. Un ordinateur est conçu exactement pour cela: libérer les êtres humains des taches stupides, pour leur permettre de se concentrer sur les taches qui ont besoin de l'intelligence humaine pour être résolues.

Mais je code aussi pour le pur plaisir du hacking, i.e., trouver des utilisations originelles et inattendues pour des logiciels existants.

Comment as-tu appris ?

Complètement au hasard, quand j'étais gamin. À 7 ou 8 ans, je suis tombé dans la bibliothèque municipale de mon petit village, sur un livre qui enseignait à programmer en BASIC à travers la métaphore du jeu de l'oie. À partir de ce jour j'ai utilisé le Commodore 64 de mon père beaucoup plus pour programmer que pour les jeux vidéo: coder est tellement plus drôle!

Plus tard, au lycée, j'ai pu apprécier la programmation structurée et les avantages énormes qu'elle apporte par rapport aux GO TO du BASIC et je suis devenu un accro du Pascal. Le reste est venu avec l'université et la découverte du Logiciel Libre: la caverne d'Ali Baba du codeur curieux.

Quel est ton langage préféré ?

J'ai plusieurs langages préférés.

J'aime Python pour son minimalisme syntactique, sa communauté vaste et bien organisée, et pour l'abondance des outils et ressources dont il dispose. J'utilise Python pour le développement d'infrastructures (souvent équipées d'interfaces Web) de taille moyenne/grande, surtout si j'ai envie des créer une communauté de contributeurs autour du logiciel.

J'aime OCaml pour son système de types et sa capacité de capturer les bonnes propriétés des applications complexes. Cela permet au compilateur d'aider énormément les développeur à éviter des erreurs de codage comme de conception.

J'utilise aussi beaucoup Perl et le shell script (principalement Bash) pour l'automatisation des taches: la capacité de ces langages de connecter d'autres applications est encore inégalée.

Pourquoi chacun devrait-il apprendre à programmer ou être initié ?

On est de plus en plus dépendants des logiciels. Quand on utilise une lave-vaisselle, on conduit une voiture, on est soigné dans un hôpital, quand on communique sur un réseau social, ou on surfe le Web, nos activités sont constamment exécutées par des logiciels. Celui qui contrôle ces logiciels contrôle nos vies.

Comme citoyens d'un monde qui est de plus en plus numérique, pour ne pas devenir des esclaves 2.0, nous devons prétendre le contrôle sur le logiciel qui nous entoure. Pour y parvenir, le Logiciel Libre---qui nous permet d'utiliser, étudier, modifier, reproduire le logiciel sans restrictions---est un ingrédient indispensable. Aussi bien qu'une vaste diffusion des compétences en programmation: chaque bit de connaissance dans ce domaine nous rende tous plus libres.

Posted Sun 05 Oct 2014 04:48:03 PM CEST Tags:

Vale più il dolce o la ricetta?

Sul numero 21 del mensile BBC Science Italia, in edicola questo (in Italia) questo Ottobre, Alberto Agliotti ha scritto un bel pezzo divulgativo sul software libero a tutto tondo. Tra gli intervistati per l'articolo anche Angelo Raffaele Meo ed il vostro affezionatissimo.

Il PDF dell'articolo è disponibile anche qua.

Buona lettura!

Posted Thu 02 Oct 2014 10:45:38 PM CEST Tags:

debsources debbugs oh

My ongoing quest for lowering the barrier for contributing to Debsources continues.
In this chapter:

  • I've migrated bug reports from the previous ad-hoc text file in the Git repo to the Debian BTS, under the umbrella of the qa.debian.org pseudo-package.
    From now on this is the recommended (and documented) way of reporting bugs against http://sources.debian.net.

    Look ma, it also has one of those newfangled short URLs: http://deb.li/debsrcbugs!

  • While at it, I've also properly tagged the current easy hacks on Debsources using the gift tag. There are definitely opportunities for new contributors there, and there might be more if you submit your own Debsources' pet peeves to the BTS.

    Again, mandatory mnemonic/short URL: http://deb.li/debsrceasy.

What's your excuse for not contributing to Debsources, again?

Posted Thu 11 Sep 2014 07:31:13 PM CEST Tags:

my setup, take #1

Among the various things I've catched up with during the summer, I've finally managed to set aside some time to answer a pending interview request for The [GNU/]Linux Setup: a blog run by Steven Ovadia that collects interviews about how people use GNU/Linux-based desktops.

In the interview I discuss my day to day work-flow, from GNOME Shell to Mutt, from Emacs to Notmuch, and the various glue code tools I've written for integrating them.


Feedback is most welcome.

Posted Wed 03 Sep 2014 10:48:14 AM CEST Tags:

Debsources now has a HACKING file

Here at DebConf14 I have given a few talks. The second one has been a technical talk about recent and future developments on Debsources. Both the talk slides and video are available.

After the talk, various DebConf participants have approached me and started hacking on Debsources, which is awesome! As a result of their work, new shiny features will probably be announced shortly. Stay tuned.

When discussing with new contributors (hi Luciano, Raphael!), though, it quickly became clear that getting started with Debsources hacking wasn't particularly easy. In particular, doing a local deployment for testing purposes might be intimidating, due to the need of having a (partial) source mirror and whatnot. To fix that, I have now written a HACKING file for Debsources, which you can find at top-level in the Git repo.

Happy Debsources hacking!

Posted Sun 31 Aug 2014 10:02:45 PM CEST Tags:

Debsources: Live and Historical Views on Macro-Level Software Evolution

The paper entitled Debsources: Live and Historical Views on Macro-Level Software Evolution, which I've co-authored with Matthieu Caneill, has been accepted at ESEM 2014: the 8th international symposium on Emprical Software Engineering and Measurement.

In the paper we have described Debsources as a software platform for monitoring the evolution of Free Software through the lenses of Debian, and used the main Debsources instance (http://sources.debian.net) to replicate and extend a former study on macro-level software evolution.

Now we "just" have to integrate all the nice charts and data we have extracted for the paper into Debsources' stats page... /o\

Posted Fri 06 Jun 2014 01:22:34 PM CEST Tags:

moar, and moar, and moar debsources stats

A while ago I've announced the availability of several stats about Debian source code on http://sources.debian.net. Since then the statistical basis of those stats has increased a lot, and now includes all Debian historical releases, from hamm (July 1998) onward. This allows to appreciate macro-level evolution trends in Free Software, over a period of more than 15 years, through the eyes of a distro that sits at the nice intersection of the eldest, largest, and most reputed distros.

To get there I've added support for sticky suites to the plumbing layer of debsources, and then injected historical releases from http://archive.debian.org. The injection process took about a week (without any sort of parallelism, pretty slow disks, and computing sha256 checksums, ctags, and sloccount on all source files) and has been an "interesting" experience.

When you go back decades in technology time, bit rot is just around the corner, and I've found my share while injecting archive.d.o into sources.d.n. In both cases the respective maintainers (Guillem and Ganneff, kudos) have been positive about and helpful in improving the situation, despite the low impact of the bugs I've found on the average user. That's quite important for the long-term preservation of digital information in general, and for the perennity of access to Free Software in the specific case of Debian.

While we are it, I'm now maintaining a list of bugs affecting sources.d.n but belonging to other packages, in case you fancy helping out but are not a Python hacker. Interestingly enough, quite a bit of those bugs are related to the fact that tools debsources uses (e.g. ctags, sloccount) are also starting to show their age.

You might wander why buzz, rex, and bo are still missing from sources.d.n. That's in fact for similar reasons. Before hamm Debian didn't have complete archive coverage in terms of Sources indexes and .dsc files. Given that debsources rely on both to extract source packages, it first needs to grow an additional abstraction layer that can cope with their absence. It's SMOP, and planned.

And now let's have fun with ctags bombs.

Yours truly,
Stefano “Indiana” Zacchiroli
(credits: KiBi, #debian-ftp)

Posted Sun 06 Apr 2014 01:19:12 PM CEST Tags:

Debian: watch your stats!

Over the past few weeks, myself and Matthieu Caneill have worked quite a bit on Debsources. As we have now deployed most of the new features on http://sources.debian.net, it's time for another "What's new with Debsources?" blog post. Here is what's new:

  • Debsources now knows about Debian suites, i.e. which package is in which "release" (stable, testing, unstable, ...). This knowledge is already useful for some of the other features below and will be used more in the future.

  • since last summer Debsources has been running sloccount on all unpacked source packages, together with ctags and du, but the resulting information wasn't exposed on the Web. This is now fixed. Each package now has an infobox (example) which shows: disk usage, archive area, suites, and sloccount with per-language breakdown. The new infobox also subsumes the old puny list of package links.

    You can easily embed the infobox in other webapps if you need to (example). Check the URL scheme doc for more info.

  • Debsources now gathers and plot accurate Debian sources statistics, both overall and per-suite, in both snapshot and historical trends flavors.

    (Yeah, I know, the charts are not particularly good looking ATM, but that's easy to change without impacting the rest. So if you're a matplotlib artist and willing to help, please step forward!)

  • many changes have been going on also at the plumbing layer to make the service less resource hungry and more maintainable, in view of a migration to the official Debian infrastructure --- which I've in the meantime started discussing with DSA. Some highlights:

    • Debsources now has a rather comprehensive test suite, built using Nose. Most notably, we do test full update runs down to source unpacking (of a small subset of a Debian mirror), DB injection, and plugin execution --- which is quite neat.

    • the updater is now much faster (about 2x) and might require, in pathological cases, 10x less memory than before. Memory usage now caps at around 300MB, even when injecting ctags for large packages such as linux, chromium, and libreoffice.

    • the DB schema went through several refactoring cycles, and now uses a separate file table to index all known source file paths. In the past path information were duplicated across the checksums and ctags tables, not only wasting DB space, but also making the presence of file information conditional on the enablement of at least one of the two corresponding plugins. This is now fixed --- and migrating the full DB has been quite "fun". Unfortunately, we've also added quite a few large-ish indexes, resulting in no significant overall changes in DB size (currently at ~50GB), but at least in much faster queries :-)

      The next step on this front will be the addition of path-based searches, using the excellent Postgres trigram indexes.

Want more? Sure, we'll be happy to! But it'll happen faster if you help. Speaking of which: we've got Debsources into the new contributors game (see announcement) and we're looking forward to mentor new contributors.

Posted Thu 27 Feb 2014 08:22:00 PM CET Tags:

skyrocketing how-can-i-help popcon count

how-can-i-help by Lucas Nussbaum is one of the best things that happened in the area of attracting contributions to Debian in quite a while. It can be used both as a standalone tool to list opportunities for contributing to Debian which are related to your installed packages, and as an APT hook (which is also the default configuration) that at each upgrade will inform you of new contribution opportunities.

how-can-i-help is great for newbies who are looking for ways to give back to Debian which are a good match for their skills: among other things, how-can-i-help shows bugs tagged "gift" related to packages you use.

how-can-i-help is also great for experienced developers, as it allows them to find out, in a timely manner, that packages they use are in dire need of help: RC bugs, pending removals, adoptions needed, requests for sponsor, etc. (As highly unscientific evidence: I've noticed a rather quick turnover of RFA/O/ITA bugs on packages installed on my machine. I suspect how-can-i-help is somehow responsible for that, due to the fact that it increases awareness of ongoing package issues directly with the people using them.)

So, if you haven't yet, please apt-get install how-can-i-help RIGHT NOW.

I daresay that we should aim at installing how-can-i-help by default on all Debian machines, but that might be an ambitious initial goal. In the meantime I'll settle for making how-can-i-help's popcon count skyrocket. As of today, it looks like this:

how-can-i-help popularity contest graph, 10/02/2014

which is definitely too low for my taste. Please spread the word about how-can-i-help. And let's see what we can collectively do to that graph.

how-can-i-help is just a tiny teeny helper, but I'm convinced it can do wonders in liberating dormant contributions to the Debian Project.

Posted Mon 10 Feb 2014 03:52:08 PM CET Tags:

See the archives for previous posts.