Free and open source software has produced numerous off-shoots, from the open hardware movement to the open access movement in academic publishing. But one of the offshoots I had never encountered before last June was the Maker Movement.
For me, visiting a small Maker Faire in Vancouver was like visiting a shop full of magical curios.
Spider-legged vehicles, chocolate printers, programmable light displays built from bicycles -- all these wonders put me very much in mind of the hacker ethic and ingenuity of free software. I can't say that I was tempted -- much -- to start tinkering, any more than I'm tempted to start serious programming just because I hang out with free software developers. But I appreciate what I saw in much the same way.
The GNOME 3 series is a radical departure from previous releases. Among other innovations, it removes customizable applets from the panel, and requires users to switch to the overview to add virtual workspaces. Vocal users have complained long and loudly about such changes, and been mostly ignored by GNOME.
Now, GNOME Shell Extensions are starting to appear -- and many of them restore the features that GNOME 3 omitted as needless clutter. In particular, Linux Mint 12 was recently released with Mint GNOME Shell Extensions (MGSE), a collection of a dozen extensions that restore GNOME 3 to much of the look and function of GNOME 2.
Not being primarily a GNOME user, the extensions don't affect me much. But their ingenuity and the determination behind them seems so typical of the free and open source software community that they make me smile in appreciation. So much for top-down control of the desktop.
The name grates like a piece of tin foil ground between your teeth, but DuckDuckGo is what all search engines should be. It doesn't record your searches, and presents results by relevance, rather than on the basis of your preferences as determined by past searches.
Better yet, it includes dozens of behavorial and cosmetic options, including the ability to turn off ads and filter by regions. In addition, it includes dozens of advanced search features, including the ability to search within certain popular sites, and do calculations and conversions. You can find many of these features in other search engines, but not the variety and sheer number that DuckDuckGo provides.
Even more importantly, DuckDuckGo is a hybrid search engine, doing some of its own crawling, but also drawing results from over fifty other sources, ranging from Google and Bing to small specialty engines. The results are then filtered to remove spam sites, all of which returns more relevant information for the users.
If you use the latest release of Linux Mint, then you are already using DuckDuckGo by default. If you're not, take a look, especially if you are worried about how large a role Google is playing in your life and want an alternative.
I may have missed one or two discoveries. Free software is a sprawling community, and someone always seems to be emerging from an obscure corner with something ingenious.
But these are the discoveries I remember as I look back on 2011. All of them are the sort of application or endeavor that confirms my conviction that, despite the disappointments from some of the larger projects, free software is still a creative center that, for all my criticisms, I remain pleased and privileged to write about.
I can hardly wait to see what small treasures 2012 reveals. I'm sure there'll be plenty -- maybe even more than I can write about.