Adobe Flash required by math professor; how to confront him?

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onpon4
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Hi guys, this isn't directly related to Trisquel, but I don't know of any more general free software community forums or mailing lists. I hope you don't mind.

So, here's my problem: my Math teacher at the university I go to requires us to use a website called WebAssign (webassign.net) to do our homework assignments. WebAssign is basically a site which allows professors to not have to grade the homework.

Even though this site is an example of software as a service, since all it entails is grading math problems, I don't have a huge ethical problem with using it to submit my homework in and of itself. What I do have a huge problem with is WebAssign routinely requires the use of Flash for many of the problems (basically, any non-multiple-choice problem with an answer more complex than a simple fraction requires a "special" box for entering formulas which uses Flash, and graphs also have to be plotted with some Flash thing), and it is incompatible with Gnash (requires Flash 10).

The class syllabus does not speak of any alternative methods for submitting homework, though it doesn't explicitly say that the professor is unwilling to accept an alternative grading method. It simply says that "[we] will be using the WebAssign homework system."

Now, I want to approach my Math professor to ask about this, but I'm worried about some obstacles:

First off, the university I go to is extremely terrible at software freedom (though I don't know if it's terrible in comparison to other universities). Use of proprietary software, including Windows, Microsoft Office, and iOS is actively encouraged, as is the use of "E-books" which are in a proprietary format, and the atmosphere in general is extremely supportive of proprietary software, where it seems (though it is not the case, as at least I am an exception) that no student or teacher on the entire campus uses anything other than Windows, Mac OS X, iOS, or Android. There doesn't even seem to be any awareness here that free software exists; I once experienced a mixture of amusement and sadness when a classmate claimed that Microsoft Office is the only office suite choice. The wording of my math class's syllabus is another example of this; the fact that WebAssign is used is just mentioned as something completely uncontroversial, as if it's a given that everyone can use it with no problems, and the fact that it uses Flash is completely ignored.

Second, I've been giving in and using WebAssign regardless up to this point (by doing my work on Windows, since I still refuse to install Flash on Trisquel), so it is plainly obvious that I am /able/ to do it. What can I possibly tell my professor? Given the general culture of my university, if I tell him that I have an ethical issue with using Flash, even though it is true, I don't know if he'll believe it, especially when it's so sudden.

Third, as far as I can tell, I don't have any leverage in this; if I refuse to do the work on WebAssign, he just gives me an F. It seems I'm entirely dependent on the goodwill of the professor.

Do any of you have any suggestions for how I could deal with this problem? Namely, what should I say to my professor? Would it be more effective to talk to him in person, or to send him an E-mail?

And hopefully this will not be the case, but if it turns out that my professor is completely unwilling to accept another method for doing my homework, or at least the parts of it that require Flash on WebAssign, what should I do then?

Alexander Stephen Thomas Ross
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Joined: 09/18/2012

If he is a non ethical person :o. One of these open source "practical
only" inhumans. Say it's a legal issue. You broke the licence agreement
by using it when you don't agree to it. You committed a crime (?) :P.

On 03/10/12 14:02, name at domain wrote:
> Second, I've been giving in and using WebAssign regardless up to this
> point (by doing my work on Windows, since I still refuse to install
> Flash on Trisquel), so it is plainly obvious that I am /able/ to do it.
> What can I possibly tell my professor? Given the general culture of my
> university, if I tell him that I have an ethical issue with using Flash,
> even though it is true, I don't know if he'll believe it, especially
> when it's so sudden.

akirashinigami

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In the worst case, you could just use the school's computers to do your homework. That way you wouldn't have to install Flash on your computer.

t3g
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I think the biggest issue is that your teacher is relying on a 3rd party service to grade and do all the work for him. What is the school paying for if he is offloading the work to someone else? That is sad. Especially when I went to a university with 40,000 students and the professors in each class made the time to grade each paper or math assignment.

jbar
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Joined: 01/22/2011

It's very unfair, as if you were forced to use a 'bic' pen and not any other kind of pen to do your homework.

Try to complain about that, but I'm afraid you'll have to use flash in other pc or from a live CD.

akirashinigami

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The issue of professors requiring the use of proprietary software, and how best to address it seems to come up here fairly often. I've written up something that could be used as a template for an email to a professor about this issue.


Dear (Professor):

My name is (Name), and I am a student in your (course name) course.  I'd like to talk to you about a problem I am having in your class.

As a personal matter, I only install and run free software on my computer.  Free software is software that respects its users' freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change, and improve it.  The complete definition of free software can be found at https://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.html.

Software freedom is very important to me, especially with regard to education, so I was disappointed to find out that the use of (non-free program) is required in your class.

I'd like to discuss this issue with you in greater depth.  Hopefully we can reach a solution that is acceptable to both of us.

Sincerely,
(Name)

moilami
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That is a very good text, however I strongly recommend to go talk face to face with the teacher/professor instead of sending email. He can just trash that email but he can't ignore you as easily.

onpon4
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Well, it can't hurt to send the E-mail first, then talk in person. I sent my professor an E-mail based on that and he basically said "OK, you can talk to me in my office at the usual time." So I'll be talking to him today, hopefully he'll be understanding! :)

aliasbody
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Joined: 09/14/2012

I based my email on yours, and add a little bit of information like the license that I don't agree (Oracle License in this case), and send it to all of the teachers in school teaching this technologie... I will do the same for every other software with the same problem.

Just need to find a solution to Packet Tracer (by Cisco) before sending and email about this software.

Even if I'm not the one who asked for help I would like to say thank you :D

akirashinigami

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No problem. I was hoping other people could get some use out of it, too. Like I said, this problem seems to come up fairly frequently here.

andrew
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Wow, that's the same as my university. We have to use Cisco Packet Tracer in an exam but it makes it difficult to study because I can't study at home.

I've been in contact with the unit coordinator, with no luck. However, I'm going to see if some of my friends will complain about it as well. Fortunately none of my friends can install it on their own computers as well, because it requires some special registration (and acceptance to draconian EULAs, no doubt) and the unit I'm doing isn't part of Cisco's special units.

So, I'm hoping that more complaints might make the unit coordinator rethink making an exam based on Cisco Packet Tracer.

IMHO the university should not have based a unit on proprietary software with no free replacements.

aliasbody
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I agree with you, the real problem here is the fact that we have a software without any free (functional) replacement.

We have GNS3 but it requires the Firmware from the Cisco router in order to work (since it emulates it). And therefor there is no solution here at all.

I have a little bit of luck since we only use this software in class for some labs and after this we use Wireshark, SSH and Apache, but it is still a problem, when I personally just couldn't accept the EULA License so I just stopped using the software.

t3g
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A pen is a pen no matter what brand it is and it is a universal tool that anyone can use. With Adobe Flash being used with his school, I am guessing they contracted a 3rd party company to assist with the schoolwork and that company sold the idea that their solution is the best.

The 3rd party company probably chose Flash for the universal exposure meaning it can be ran on any browser and operating system. It is used more than Java and can even be run on the archaic Internet Explorer 6. If they were to offer a more native version that used SVG, Canvas, and CSS3 animations, they run the risk of it not being able to run on older versions of IE.

If it were me, I would probably go for the standards route and use Modernizr to detect features and polyfill where needed. Of course using a JS library like jQuery is helpful too as they aim for compatibility with multiple browsers by using workarounds for each one.

Either way, the original poster may be screwed as the school may have a contract with this 3rd party and he may be the vocal minority speaking out against this. In other words, you may just have to deal with it or not do your homework and fail the class.

icarolongo
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onpon4
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Thanks for the replies, everyone. :)

akirashinigami, thank you for the template. I have sent a message using that as a base (but modified to more perfectly fit my situation, of course) to my professor, and I am now waiting for the response.

> Try to complain about that, but I'm afraid you'll have to use flash in other
> pc or from a live CD.

That sounds like a brilliant suggestion. I still have live DVDs for a few recent versions of Linux Mint, too, so they'll work perfectly for that.

> Wow, students have to pay to have their homework graded? That's outrageous!

Correction: students have to pay to /do/ the problems. Specifically, WebAssign requires each student to open an account and pay a fee of IIRC $75 each term. From what I've read, it's especially devious because teachers don't have to pay anything at all. But in terms of cost, it really isn't much different from the more regular practice of barely changing a textbook every year just enough so that you need to buy the latest one to do the homework problems, paying $100 for a new book instead of $20 for a used book.

> You can try the latest development version (0.8.11).

I have 0.8.10, and it doesn't look like much has changed with the latest version (not better compatibility, anyway).

Chris

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The fewer people who have flash installed (including gnash) the better. The reason companies can get away with this is because everybody has it installed. You might want to complain, call technical support, etc. The more it costs them the less likely it'll be used in the future.

Complain to the teacher too!

Drop the class if you can.

Chris

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If anybody has a complaint start blogging about it. Name the schools, professors, and let others know not to apply/transfer to them.

Bad publicity might actually make a difference.

onpon4
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A small update on my issue:

I talked to my professor earlier today about this, and although he doesn't seem like he really understands the issue of free software vs. nonfree software (he didn't read the link that explains free software, and of course assumed that I meant "free of cost" when we first started talking), he has basically said that he is willing to see about other options. The only suggestion I could come up with was for me to turn in my homework the traditional way (on paper), or at least do that for the homework problems that require Flash to submit the answer; although WebAssign does not work with Gnash, its presence fools the site into thinking I have Flash installed (and therefore lets me see the problems), so this will work out OK (and I need to go to WebAssign to read the problems anyway; the numbers in the problems are randomly changed on a per-person basis, so I can't just use the book).

My professor asked if he could forward the E-mail I sent him to the math department so he could ask them for ideas, to which I of course said "go ahead". Time will tell if they'll be of any help.

My professor seems to mainly have two concerns: the first concern he is having is that my turning in homework the more traditional way would mean more work for him. To make this less than a burden, I have set my acceptance threshold to submitting any answers which don't require Flash (i.e. the ones that either are multiple-choice or use standard textboxes) so that he only needs to check those that do require Flash. His second concern is fairness; he has it set so that on WebAssign, we get to keep trying to submit answers to problems until we get it right. I have said that I don't mind this slight disadvantage (and that's true), but he was insistent that it needs to be fair (i.e. my ability to get the points on the homework needs to be essentially equal to those who use WebAssign on all of the problems).

When I was talking to him, the only solution I could think of was to give him the answers to the problems on paper. Though it's not much different, I can also use LibreOffice Math to enter the answer and then use LibreOffice Writer to embed it into an ODT (if Microsoft Word can read ODT files with formulae in them, since that is the program he would likely be using) or PDF file; I'll mention that possibility to him as well.

Does anyone have any other ideas?

Chris

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You are getting much farther than I would have expected.

For better or worse.

onpon4
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I don't really understand, how could it be for worse?

Chris

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:) well... I don't know. It's taking a lot of time to work around this issue. What happens the next time you or another user runs into the problem? Focusing on one little instance and succeeding may be blinding to a better approach. In that sense this could be for worse.

onpon4
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Actually, the cool thing is he thought about that. When I talked to him, he mentioned that there might be others like me, and that for fairness he would like to accommodate them too.

Chris

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:) Awesome. Maybe this was "for better" then.

If you are successful here it might be worth writing something up about the situation. Then make some phone calls/send some emails.

No company wants a bad reputation. It might influence them to fix the issue. This doesn't seem like it should be that hard of an issue to fix.

onpon4
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You mean WebAssign (i.e. complain to them)? I don't understand why I should only do that if I'm successful, though.

aliasbody
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I think that you as a student should complain to booth parts, the teacher and the Service (WebAssign). But once again, as a student (and knowing that it is a tool especially made for teachers) won't have much "power" so your teacher should talk to other teachers and send a collective message to this platform.

It is just an idea.

I had in the idea to send an email to the teacher in top of all teacher (I don't really know the english technical term for this), to talk about the JavaFX problem, but I finished by sending a message to all teachers, and now I will have to wait for an answers and see what will happen, but if it works then I should be able to change no only my class but every class that use JavaFX.

Chris

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No, wait until you have something more before going to WebAssign. A complaint can be ignored. A community of users isn't ignorable.

Ultimately you should contact them either way. When teachers/schools are actively making a decision to discontinue use of the software due to this issue that will be something that gets WebAssigns attention.

onpon4
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Alright, will do. :) Thanks for the advice.

andrew
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Quick suggestion: you can enter formulae into LibreOffice Writer directly, using Insert > Object > Formula.

I used to use Microsoft Office last year (before using Trisquel), and formulae from LO import fine. I think I may have had to use .doc to make it work, but I can't remember.

PDF is probably the best solution though, if editing isn't required. I recommend PDF/A as it is probably the most widely supported version of PDF.

aloniv

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For math, LaTeX creates much more professional looking equations than LibreOffice. The easiest way to use it is via a graphical editor such as Lyx which either produces its own format or lets you export to LaTeX or lets you export to PDF. If you plan on sharing source files in LaTeX format with other people who might use other templates and other LaTeX editors then a proper LaTeX editor such as Gummi or Emacs with Auctex is preferred.

onpon4
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Will do, thanks for the suggestion.

moilami
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Not sure what is easiest. I found that writing Tex equatitions (in Texinfo) was very easy. Using Open Office equation editor was on the other hand just pain. Not so long time ago I took a look at Lyx and after fiddling with it for some time I uninstalled it. Was too confusing to use and did not want to invest time on learning yet another clickety click editor.

I agree on that thougt that LaTeX makes much more beautiful equatitions than LibreOffice editor, but not just equations, the document as a whole can look better.

It takes time to learn to write LaTeX, but it can be worth it if you have to do many "academical" documents.

aloniv

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I don't use Lyx either (although I did in the past), but for someone who has never used LaTeX before it is in my opinion the easiest method for creating math formulas and professional looking academic documents.

aliasbody
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I know this isn't a solution (in the short term) but in my University we also do our assignments via Online and for this we use the Moodle platform (plain HTML, CSS and JS), this is cool because it works for everyone and it gives the note (grade) just after finishing it.

You could propose it, but this will make time to adapt and I don't think that they have the time :S

(PS: I tried the demos from the website and didn't had any problem to see them. Maybe it is different :S)

onpon4
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Thanks for the mention. I suggested in a follow-up E-mail I sent today that he look into migrating to Moodle sometime in the future.

onpon4
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Update:

My math professor suddenly sent an E-mail which basically said that I must use WebAssign or forfeit the grade (citing that I have been able to do my homework at this point... I knew that would bite me in the butt). He then referred me to another professor. I'm guessing he was told that working around the system is impossible, or otherwise assured that he has no obligation to help me.

I have replied by saying that if that is the case, I would like to talk about migrating out of using WebAssign in the long term, and I have asked who is responsible for making the decision to use WebAssign. If he doesn't respond or the response is too vague before Thursday (which is when his office hours are), I will talk to him directly. I'm not letting him off the hook that easy.

For now, at least, I'll do my homework, or at least the parts that require Flash to answer, on a live CD or on university computers.

Just a note before it is suggested: I don't think threatening to drop the class can help, since it's not possible to get a refund on my tuition anymore (for that, you need to drop in the first couple of weeks). Is there a way that students dropping classes affects professors which I don't know about, which would still make dropping the class a meaningful threat?

Should I contact WebAssign now, or should I wait?

Any other advice to push for a long-term change?

aliasbody
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It is a complicate situation and I'm sorry to know that you got to that point. Dropping a class isn't a solution because the only person that would "suffer" from this would be you and no one else (that could be a solution only if a lot of people, more than 50%, would stop doing their assignment on WebAssign at the same time, you can call this a boycott).

If I was you I would :

-- Send and email to every math teacher on the university talking about the problem and a possible solution

-- Talk about this issue to other students in order to make them do the same (sending the same email or signing a petition)

-- Send an email to WebAssign talking about your problem

But since you don't have any other solution, you need to do it, I feel horrible for saying that but it is preferable for you, as a student, to do this using a LiveCD than loosing your class (and the money by the same occasion). A lot of people may not agree with me (and I don't agree with myself either), but (for me) it is better than just saying "OK I Will do what you want !".

I had the same problem with Cisco Packet Tracer (where there is no alternative for doing what they want), but I am "discussing" about that and I maybe found a solution, because the teachers can actually listen to the students (not all, but it is better than no one at all).

The best you could do, is to find a professor that agrees with you and would be likely to send an email do WebAssign with the same problem, that could make WebAssign change a little bit the way they work.

Hope it helps.

onpon4
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The problem with talking to the other students is none of them care, as far as I can tell. I mentioned before that the culture (for lack of a better word) of this university is terrible; nobody cares. I once mentioned the topic of free software to one of my classmates outside of class; I suggested she try LibreOffice instead of Microsoft Office, and all she had to say was that it would go over her head (something like "when I get home, I'm going to be thinking, 'what was that thing he was talking about?'").

Most importantly, I really have no clue how to talk to many people (preferably all 20-30 students in my class, at least) about the issue effectively, so that some people will think about it. As far as I'm aware, I have no way to know their E-mail addresses or even their names without asking them personally, and at that point I might as well explain free software to everyone individually, especially considering how weird it looks to ask someone for their E-mail address so randomly. There is a short amount of time before the teacher comes in when most people are in the classroom, but I can't think of any way to take advantage of that.

I can send an E-mail to every professor, though, and I intend to do that. What exactly I say depends on my professor's answer to my question (about who makes the decision to use WebAssign; professors, or some single authority).

lembas
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I'd say go talk to the (wo)man in person. Explain briefly what free software is all about and your position. tell her/him you're facing an ethical issue and ask for help.

Kudos to you for seizing the opportunity to explain to the professor what free software is. If only more people did it.

moilami
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Just noticed that you have written updates. This forum where you can inject messages between messages is confusing.

I am very sorry and pissed to hear what happened after your great success. I probably would drop the class without even giving it a second thought (after negotiating with the teacher and telling him that alright, I will take FAIL as a grade if I must use the Flash thingy). The thing just is that I am an reckless idiot xD

If the subject you are studying is worthwhile to you I could recommend you to just keep going, and keep the flag high. You did great job.

Chris

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I'm not so sure giving in is the answer. Continuing the class may not be the right answer. I would probably drop the class.

onpon4
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I really don't think dropping the class would help. Like I said, it's too late to get the tuition refunded, so all that would look like to them is me "giving up". In other words, lots of harm to me, no message delivered to the school.

However, I do intend (once my professor has answered who is responsible for choosing WebAssign) to threaten to leave this university after this term (or year, if that proves to be impossible) for another one, and if I see no indication of change, I will carry out that threat gladly.

moilami
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Maybe you could change the curriculum?

For example I studied electrical engineering and computer engineering instead of software engineering and managed to avoid with that every single "windows programming" shit.

Missed some programming courses, for what they would had been worth, but learned "a lot" of hardware, which I found very interesting. It is nice to know the basics how for example computers work. It is really fascinating, I can say.

Chris

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I would not expect dropping the class to make a difference. I would do it because I believe what they were asking is unethical. I'd prefer not to hurt myself or others. Dropping the class may not help others. It will on the other hand still be doing yourself a favor.

moilami
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I chose to do whatever possible to avoid "windows programming" courses because I could not imagine ever programming something proprieatary stuff on windows.

So unless you go for a career where you program proprieatary stuff for Windows I can't really see much point in doing windows programming courses. There are certainly ways to chose some other courses instead. Whatever from management and economics for example will be much better. I took quite some of those courses and don't regret it a bit. There must be a way how you can get shit courses replaced with courses actually giving value to you.

Edit: In Finland we have gratis education. But if I would have to *PAY* of my education I can't even imagine a situation where I pay to learn programming on windows using proprieatary tools. Seriously, how come that if you pay of your education you can't chose to not pay of shit you never want to do?

Chris

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I can tell you why they can get away with it. They offer something most people perceive is of value. Its a piece of paper. A degree. Despite that this piece of paper costs money and time should you choose not to get it there are lots of people willing take your place.

moilami
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Hahaha, there is a lot of truth in that.

However, academical degree could open you a lot of doors paying big money and status even if all you had learned was skills to write good English. Novadays things has changed and people will become more aware what sort of scam higher education is. Employers will still require more and more higher education people though because there is no shortage of them. In the most ridiculous situation you would need a degree in economics in order to be qualified to work as a cash check-in (dunno of the correct word) on drug store.

Basicly higher education is a way to make masses on average a little bit more /educated/. So it is not a bad thing. There is however nothing magic in higher education and observant and curious persons never really need it. They can find their way on life without it - yet they can benefit of that piece of paper you mentioned.

(In before some thread police begins to claim this is off-topic.)

aliasbody
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If you allow me to ask this question even if it doesn't have (almost) anything to do with this post. But... Do anyone here work as a programmer ? And if yes do you only work on free software or sometimes with proprietary software (working with or creating them).

Thanks in Advance (and sorry for this little hijack).

oysterboy

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I am a software developer. My company creates proprietary software, and our tools are proprietary as well. Free Software is non-existent within this company. A few years ago, a brave colleague of mine was asked to stop using OpenOffice and stick to Word. Witnessing how we screw customers with forced upgrades, files in non-standard formats, and stupid bugs that they could fix themselves if they had the source code just makes me appreciate Free Software even more!

moilami
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Wow, I honestly wish you earn a lot from doing what you do, so that the time spent in what you do is well compensated.

oysterboy

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Well 'screw' was maybe a bit harsh; that's just the way proprietary software vendors work. I give money to free software projects and never use proprietary software outside of my job so my conscience is clean ;). I'd say working for such a company just constantly reinforces my personal commitment to Free Software ;).

Chris

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If you ever meet Richard Stallman you may not want to bring up what you do.