08.08.20

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For the Want of a Pixel

Posted in Free/Libre Software, FSF, GNU/Linux at 12:18 am by Guest Editorial Team

2020 figosdev

Index

Pixel screenshot
Chapter 9: For the Want of a Pixel

Summary: “It is still possible to win, but the FSF has practically left the field.”

Fundamentally, putting graphics on the screen is like anything else — numeric data is moved to a location where it changes the output of the video device. Whether the device is in text mode or a graphics mode, you either decide to send character data or data on individual dots. Doing this efficiently involves more complex code.

The projects most relevant to this chapter are desktop environments or DEs, window managers or WMs and toolkits or libraries. The choices we make there decide what kind of crappy developer politics we end up saddled with.

“The choices we make there decide what kind of crappy developer politics we end up saddled with.”But to start with, we need a graphical environment to work in. Our choices for the most part are SVGAlib, directfb, Weston/Wayland and X.Org. SVGAlib is ancient, directfb is in a sort of limbo, Wayland is the new corporate love-interest and X.Org is what I’m using now — sometimes you get both X.Org and Wayland, but the former is still common and has been a de facto standard for ages.

X.Org does not draw or manage windows — the programs that decorate and move or resize the windows are called window managers. X just displays the rectangles and the contents of each window.

Suites that incorporate relevant utilities (often including a window manager) are called desktop environments. This may or may not seem complicated, but really they stack up like this:

4. Other graphical programs (applications)
3. Window manager OR Desktop environment + Window manager
2. X.Org
1. Operating system

One thing to note is that you can swap out options at each of these layers. You can have these things on a different OS, with a different graphical environment, running a different WM with various different applications.

Right now, I’m typing this with the following:

4. My own Python/Tkinter editor (running with PyPy)
3. dwm
2. X.Org
1. Tiny Core GNU/Linux (CorePlus)

Usually someone makes these choices and puts these things together for you — but you can still change the defaults. CorePlus comes with X.Org, but I installed PyPy (instead of CPython) and told it to replace the regular choice of WM with dwm.

“My editor is only 200 lines of code, and I wrote only some of them — this 200 line count is misleading anyway.”Python is a programming language, PyPy is a 3rd-party Free software version of Python, dwm and X.Org supply and manage the graphical environment, and PyPy uses the Tkinter library to tell dwm and X.Org what to do with graphical controls and windows.

My editor is only 200 lines of code, and I wrote only some of them — this 200 line count is misleading anyway.

Each line of code in turn calls many lines of the Tkinter library which I have never even looked at. With PyPy, you might use one or two lines to tell Tkinter to create a window of a particular size — then a couple more lines to add a text box. Tkinter is a well-established Free software library, it is even used to implement Python’s standard editor, IDLE.

There are many graphical toolkits that Python or PyPy can make use of: including Qt, Tk, Gtk2, Gtk3, wx and Motif. Tkinter is the standard Python library for dealing with the Tk graphical toolkit.

“Gtk is a victim of all kind of corporate political crap I want no part of.”On the practical side of things, I do not relish writing code for Gtk or Qt. Qt is a very nice toolkit, you get a very nice “product” out of it, but it isn’t something I personally want to code with if I don’t have to — or pull in as a requirement. Gtk is a victim of all kind of corporate political crap I want no part of.

In fact my favourite editor (the one I hope to replace with my own, and haven’t opened in days) is Leafpad. I like its simplicity, I love that you can redirect text to it without saving or opening a file first, I used to have many Leafpad windows open. But my own editor will also run shell code.

Leafpad is written in Gtk and is a hostage of Microsoft GitHub. As I encourage people to boycott GitHub as much as possible (this is no easy task, and deserves its own chapter) I try to find alternatives to GitHub-based projects as well.

“…Microsoft is working hard to gain influence over the standard CPython, the Python Foundation itself, and CPython (like Leafpad) is hosted on Microsoft GitHub.”Incredibly, every graphical toolkit I know of (including Tk, sadly) depends on GitHub directly or indirectly, due to using either Zlib1g (a library related to PNG compression) or libffi, or both.

I have two reasons to switch to PyPy over the standard Python offering. One is that Microsoft is working hard to gain influence over the standard CPython, the Python Foundation itself, and CPython (like Leafpad) is hosted on Microsoft GitHub.

I didn’t spend several years migrating away from Windows just to have all my computing controlled by Microsoft again, and their purchase of GitHub falls perfectly in line with their plans outlined in the Halloween documents. Leafpad is (was) one of the programs I used the most on my computer — the fact that I could find a replacement is a bit of a triumph, though the struggle is ongoing.

To compare the various choices in this example:

Leafpad:
* Gtk (GNOME) – GNOME is absolutely toxic to Free software
* Hosted on Microsoft GitHub – Microsoft is absolutely toxic
* Needs libffi and/or Zlib1g (GitHub)

Python (standard CPython):
* Hosted on Microsoft GitHub
* Needs libffi and/or Zlib1g (GitHub)

Tkinter:
* Tk is not hosted on GitHub (minor win)
* Sadly needs libffi and/or Zlib1g (GitHub) as do all the graphical toolkits I know

PyPy:
* Not hosted on GitHub (huge win)
* Sadly needs libffi and/or Zlib1g (GitHub) as does virtually every friendly scripting language I know — but even if it didn’t, I would still be using it with Tkinter which does

So there are a few lessons here:

1. Importantly, it is often possible (and in my opinion, desirable) to move from projects based on GitHub to projects based elsewhere. It is better, as much as reasonably possible — to be less GitHub/Microsoft encumbered than more. I have no interest in supporting an organisation dedicated to destroying Free software or exploiting users.

2. Even if you move your programming language and toolkit away from GitHub, you’re still probably going to need libffi and/or Zlib1g (every program/language/toolkit that supports PNG graphics does).

3. It really sucks that Microsoft has libffi (I think some alternatives may exist, but they are rarely used in mainstream projects) and Zlib1g (no known alternatives for PNG support) in their clutches.

4. We have many “choices” but so many lead to GitHub that “no matter what you choose, you always get Microsoft” — this is a clear violation of antitrust law, but antitrust law is obviously a unicorn anyway.

GNOME was debatably part of several coups against the Free software world over the years, most recently in taking a fall on behalf of software patents — which constitute a serious (but heavily mitigated) threat to software freedom. I have little more desire to support GNOME or any of its ilk than I do to support Microsoft itself.

Technically speaking, you are free to make your own choices, as it were. But also technically speaking, they aren’t really choices then.

“I didn’t spend several years migrating away from Windows just to have all my computing controlled by Microsoft again, and their purchase of GitHub falls perfectly in line with their plans outlined in the Halloween documents.”I know this paints a bleak picture, and I know that some people understand these problems — a lot of money is poured into being dismissive of exactly this sort of thing. Microsoft Loves Linux, don’t you know — but they are referring to GNU.

“Linux” is what you call GNU if you prefer corporate hegemony to freedom. You can call it whatever you like, but if someone really loves you, they probably won’t call you a different name (where that name is used to mislead and exploit the user).

Love is real, I believe — but Microsoft is not. O.J loves Nicole, Oscar loves Reeva, Microsoft loves Linux; if you believe it. What is even funnier than the idea that Microsoft “loves” something it spent more than a decade trying to kill is the narcissistic idea that we are obligated to love it back.

“What is even funnier than the idea that Microsoft “loves” something it spent more than a decade trying to kill is the narcissistic idea that we are obligated to love it back.”At most, we are obligated to be fair, not that Microsoft has. Myself, I think if someone treats you the way that Microsoft has treated competition and customer alike for the entirety of its existence, you owe it to yourself to try to get away from them.

Now that we largely have, Microsoft has purchased a single house that at least thousands of us have stupidly decided to all live in, and decided that we should love them — under their rules.

But all is fair in love and corporate takeover, I guess?

“Myself, I think if someone treats you the way that Microsoft has treated competition and customer alike for the entirety of its existence, you owe it to yourself to try to get away from them.”Free software cannot be free and also controlled top-down by corporations. Where the FSF has screwed up fundamentally is in focusing too much on the (admittedly vital) license issues, and ignoring various other ways that monopolies can exert influence and ultimately control over the work we rely on.

It is still possible to win, but the FSF has practically left the field. Sadly, most of these projects are not fighting for us either.

“It is still possible to win, but the FSF has practically left the field.”Without a viable movement, nothing will push or really so much as nudge the makers of these tools to care about the user — or their freedom. Freedom requires eternal vigilance, and the vigilant have become either silent, or purged.

Licence: Creative Commons CC0 1.0 (public domain)

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