On October 21, 2022, I had the privilege of being interviewed by Derek Taylor of DistroTube about my advocacy and use of free and open source software as a professional Catholic theologian. Here, I share a full transcript of that interview.
Theology Professor and Free Software Advocate, Corey Stephan Ph.D.
DT: Today, I’m sitting down with a very interesting guest, because this guest is not a Linux Distro maintainer, is not a programmer or developer by trade. Today, I’m going to talk to a theology professor who has a real love for free and open source software and is a strong advocate for free and open source software. And I’m talking to Corey Stephan. Professor Stephan, please introduce yourself.
CS: Yes, thank you for that great introduction. So, I’m really pleased to be on DistroTube. I’ve been a fan of this channel for years, since back in the Obscure Window Manager Project days, before DT got all of his fancy equipment at all of that. So, I’ve really learned a lot from it. So, anyway, as you said, my name is Dr. Corey Stephan. “Corey” for a good old Derek here. And I currently serve as Assistant Professor of Theology and Fellow of the Core at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. So, I’m a Catholic historical theologian professionally and by education. But I also, and together with that, do some advocacy for free and open source software. I’ve given a talk for the FreeBSD Foundation. I’ve written a couple of articles for the FreeBSD Journal. I’ve given a talk for the Free and Open Source Developers’ European meeting, FOSDEM. I blog about this stuff. And perhaps most directly related to my work, I always tell my boss that we should be using free software [laugh], and I have a Statement on Software Freedom at the end of all of my class syllabi, where I promise my students that I will work to ensure that they’re able to have software freedom as much as reasonably possible within the context of being at the university within my classes. So, that’s a bit about me.
DT: Wow. People say I’m a free software zealot, but you are the real die hard here. [Laugh]. Well, how did you get into Linux and BSD, free and open source software? How did you discover that philosophy?
CS: Oh, thank you. Yeah, that’s a great question. So, when I was a freshman or sophomore in high school in the Ubuntu 8[.04] days, I had my first laptop computer, and it was slow. It had, I think 500 megabytes of RAM, which to the greybeards will sound like, well, that’s rather a lot, but, you know, even for that time, that was quite low. The standard was two or four [GB].
DT: Yeah, it was, because I also had a machine during the Ubuntu 8.04 time, and I was running 512 megabytes. And even then, web browsers would just run at a snail’s pace, yeah.
CS: Exactly. So, it came with Microsoft Winblows – Windows – [laughs] did I almost say something crude?
DT: I’ll censor that out. Nah, I’ll leave it in. Go ahead.
CS: It came with Microsoft Windows, and I was looking for something better, something that would be more efficient, something that had a lot more customizability also with regard to workflow, because even then I did not like being limited in how I set up my working environment. I was only doing high school work things, but I didn’t like being limited. And I did what any millennial does when you want to find an answer to something with regard to computers. I think I was still using Google in those days.
DT: And it’s interesting. Yeah, the 2008 period was a real explosion in Linux desktop popularity back then, because that was the Vista days, where people that were using XP and loved XP really hated Vista. So, lot of people started –
CS: Oh, that’s right. It was Vista. And so I found Ubuntu, and it was on GNOME 2 then. And oh my goodness, did I ever fall in love with it!
DT: And with the Comp pills, desktop or the effects. Yeah, that was great.
CS: And then you know, I went back and forth with different things. I was a Mac guy for several years, but basically, Macs became worse and worse over time, too. And once again, I found myself dissatisfied, and I went: Wait a second, I have all this background. I already did some of this legwork in high school, and so let me pick this up again. And that’s how I found DistroTube, and that’s how I found RoboNuggie‘s FreeBSD channel. And just kind of bit by bit, I grew, all self-taught, and I went from zero to hero. So, I went from, you know, using Manjaro GNOME edition to using a combination of having read every word on every page of Michael Lucas’s glorious Absolute FreeBSD. Great book, by the way, for anyone interested in UNIX-like OSes at all. It makes you better at Linux and better at everything to do with this stuff. And a combination of that and Derek’s videos, especially those about spectrwm and window manager configurations and things like that. And I wrote my own dot files from scratch. I call them “theological-dots.” They’re on GitHub and in the FAQ. I have a little imaginary FAQ, of course, nobody’s asking me questions about this. I did get an email or two about them, but I have an imaginary FAQ. And one of the questions is: “Why are these called theological dots?” And I make a little joke, you know. Well, they’re not blessed by a priest or something. It’s just, I’m a theologian who uses my dot files for efficient research and writing. And it’s great, you know, because […] things like having a database of ancient Greek texts and a Bible study tool with six texts open in parallel, Zotero for reference management, LibreOffice with a bunch of extensions. The best of those definitely is this little known but really powerful ancient Greek extension for LibreOffice. It does spell checking even on Byzantine Greek that’s quite accurate. It’s amazing. And so I can have all this stuff open in parallel all, you know, tiled for me, and it’s just wonderful. And so, I just love exploring things, too. I think that’s probably a trait that just about all scholars share in common is, you know, we’re nerds, and […] I was just telling my students yesterday: How do you know that the kid who’s going to become a scholar? It’s the 4, 5, 6 year old who won’t stop asking his mother and then his teacher, why, why, why?
CS: And so that was me, and it still is me.
DT: Yeah. I would say that’s very similar to my path as far as timeframe and some of the reasons behind why I got into Linux, and a lot of this stuff is really just to learn. It’s just, I was interested in it, and I wanted to explore it. It wasn’t necessarily out of necessity. I wouldn’t say, you know, I had to move to Linux. It was more of, I just wanted to explore this avenue, and the more you go down it, it’s just such a deep rabbit hole. You’ll never learn everything. Like, it’s impossible to learn everything.
CS: It really is impossible to learn everything.
DT: Getting back to your work at the University. I know one of the big reasons why you advocate so strongly for free and open source software is because you want to really champion privacy, especially for your students because these days here in the U.S., especially in the schools and universities, more and more – really ever since the lockdown, but even before the lockdown started – these schools are forcing their students to use proprietary software – proprietary spyware, in many cases – where students have to keep a camera and a microphone on them all the time, even when they’re doing their schoolwork at home. And, of course, there’s some serious privacy concerns related to that. And not to mention proprietary software, when you force kids to buy into one particular piece of closed source proprietary software, you don’t necessarily know what that company is doing with this information, because they’re also getting the video feed and the audio feed from your students. What’s happening with that information? No one knows. So, you want to speak a little bit on that?
CS: Oh, that’s exactly right. So actually, a blog post I wrote early in the days of the COVID 19 pandemic, part of it was writing about this problem, and it’s, you know, instructors at colleges and universities found themselves saying: Oh, well, I’ve never done any kind of remote testing before, and so I’m just going to default to using something like a lockdown browser – where, you know, you’re letting your computer system be hijacked by proprietary code, and there are people monitoring your every move, even if you are pupils in your eyes dart one way because you’re thinking. Well, there are all kinds of problems with this. I mean, of course, it’s running proprietary code. You don’t know anything about it. Hijacking a person’s private computer running on their own home private internet connection –
DT: Who wrote the Chrome extension that these kids had to install? I mean, that’s another thing. The universities, they don’t even think about that stuff.
CS: It’s not equitable. So, I actually recently had a student write to me in confidence to say, Dr. Stephan, I’m really glad that you’re doing this, because I have a sibling who has autism, and he’s always flagged by remote testing services as a cheater because he can’t keep his eyes focused in one direction. And I’m going, well, how is that, that’s not even remotely, pun intended, fair. I mean, that’s absurd. I mean, he should, you know, he or she should be able to have the same educational experience as everyone else is having, and that shouldn’t matter. And so there are lots of alternatives for remote testing […] Essay writing always works. And something that I really like to do is have a face-to-face video chat, oral exam, kind of like this, and just have it be very welcoming. You can have your notes open. I don’t want to see your bedroom. I just want to talk to you. And students really thrive doing that. And they appreciate that. I’m not saying I’m going to be, you know, they appreciate that I specifically say, “I’m not going to be taking over your systems.”
DT: But oral examinations require the teacher to work a little harder. And I think in some cases, that’s part of the problem is just the school system’s trying to be economic as far as their time, you know, unfortunately.
CS: No, that’s exactly right. So, the University of St. Thomas is a small liberal arts college, and so I’m blessed that I don’t have hundreds and hundreds of students. I might have a hundred or, you know, total or something like that. So, it’s hard to schedule all that, but I’m able to do so. Yeah, a full professor at a big state university who has, you know, 2000 students in, you know, three conglomerate lecture halls, well, that person’s not going to be going to be able to do one-on-ones with every student. But there are still ways of, you know, where you don’t have to be –
DT: Well, I even think at the really big institutions, you could have enough graduate assistance also to give some of these oral examinations, where it could … I don’t know. It’s tricky, right? It’ll be a tough problem to solve. But I do think having a camera, having to be on a person in their home is also a tricky situation. I know technically they’re at school, but in real life, they’re at home. And we’ve had court cases here in the U.S. here recently, especially involving the workplace where companies have fired people from working at home because they refuse to put on a camera on them while they were working at home, because for privacy reasons, they’re like, no, I’m not turning on the camera while I’m in my house. And companies have fired these people and courts have ruled in favor of these people that got fired, saying, no, you can’t force your employees to have this camera on in their house.
CS: No, that’s exactly right. And I’ve heard of cases where companies are hiring, say, from Silicon Valley who are doing this. And I can, wow, can I ever commiserate with that! Because, of course, software development is, you know, its nine parts planning and one part executing. And it’s the exact same for me as a historical theologian. It’s nine parts gathering all of my resources, reading them, taking notes on them, and one part writing. And so, if I had somebody, you know, spying on me while I’m working and saying, oh, you haven’t typed a single word in the last three hours, well, that would be very damaging, because I might not have typed a word in the last three hours, but I might have been working really hard to figure out what some obscure piece of Greek is saying or whatever it is –
DT: I think another important same sort of point is the cost. The fact that so many college students obviously are not wealthy, and they have to borrow money to even go to school, borrow money to buy books, and forcing kids sometimes to pay for proprietary software, I think is really unfair.
CS: No, that’s exactly right. So, at the University of St. Thomas, I have a lot of first generation students, and they’re really bright and very hardworking. I love my students. They’re great. But, you know, not all of them can afford very much. Some of them, you know, they come in, and […] the best piece of technology they’re able to have is a beat up old, retired, you know, work laptop that an uncle gives as a gift, something like that. Or, it’s an old, iPad two or something like that. And, you know, if the tools that we’re requiring them to use do not run on those devices, that’s not equitable. And not only is it not equitable, I actually am of the opinion that it’s breach at a Catholic university of our own ecclesial law regarding the fact that we’re supposed to strive to make our educations accessible to as many people as possible. Now, tuition is the greatest hurdle to that, and part of that involves getting more donations in all of that. But things that we can do as instructors to help with it include things like, well, not requiring brand new multi-hundred dollars textbook purchases, but rather –
DT: Not forcing students to buy a MacBook, which is something many –
CS: Not forcing brand new. Yeah, exactly. You know, all of those things we can. So, yes, you have to buy resources to be a student, but making sure that it’s limited and sensible and that these are things that you actually need. You actually need this textbook, but you can buy used, and it maybe can be a lower cost version or, you know, you have to have a laptop, computer or something you can use for writing, but you don’t need to be running anything high powered. You can just use Ubuntu and fire up, you know, Abiword, and write your paper, you know, something like that, very simple. So, that’s exactly right.
DT: Heck, you don’t even need a graphical environment on Linux to use text editors. There’s so many command line text editors. Like, there’s literally not a machine that doesn’t have enough power to run the command line.
DT: That’s exactly where I was going. You know, and once you get into to Vim and LaTeX at the command line, I mean, that’s so many, especially once you get into the math and sciences, especially require students to eventually learn LaTeX, anyway.
CS: Exactly. So even in theology, I make a strong point of […] really strongly encouraging students to start learning the tools that they’re going to need to use in their respective majors – and really in their chosen career fields – even within my class. So, I’ll say things like, you’re doing a skit, a group skit for class today. Well, if you’re in communications, go use this open source script writing tool that you might use if you go work in multimedia for a news network or something and figure it out, and that’ll be a part of your grade. You know, […] I want to see you flexing your stepping outside of your comfort zone knowing, you know, with regard to computer usage, you know, points and click. That’s very rarely the most efficient way to make use of a computer. It’s only most efficient with dialing a phone number or something like that. And there’s no awareness of that among students today. And so I try to get them to have that awareness. Yeah, there is this thing called LaTeX, and if you are in computer science or chemistry, I want you to go dabble in it if you have that desire to do so, to be somebody writing lab reports or, you know, that sort of thing. I want you to dabble in this stuff. And yeah. That’s another thing that really, I make a point of doing that. And I try –
DT: And it’s just a weird kind of flex too, because now you have some of your students that are also taking a physics class and they tell their professor, they know LaTeX now, and where’d you learn it? Well, Dr. Stephan.
CS: I’m not teaching them LaTeX. I’m just saying, I encourage you to go learn it.
DT: You’re just pushing them in that direction, right?
CS: Right. To be totally clear. But I like that “weird flex.” That’s really funny. And then also, you know, I try to put into practice what I preach. So, I contacted the head of IT and I said, can I install the new Linux on this laptop that you’ve given to me? I know that KDE will work out of the box with the docking setup you put in my office, and you know, nice people. But the answer is no. So, I brought my Raspberry Pi from home with FreeBSD on it and that’s what I’m using in my office right now because, you know, on the Microsoft windows setup our IT provides, I can’t even install anything. And so how am I supposed to do my work if I have to make a phone call when I want to install Zotero or LibreOffice or the terminal emulator that I want to use so I can be keeping an informative IRC open on the side or whatever it is?
DT: And this is the problem with the workplace in general, these days and so many places of business have their computers locked down, especially their Windows machines locked down in such a way, many times they’re running inside virtual machines. And you really can’t do anything. You have no permissions at all to do anything on that particular operating system on that machine. And it really does limit the amount of work you’re able to do sometimes. I’ve run into this situation before as well.
CS: Yeah, yeah. It really can be.
DT: Now let’s talk about some of the free and open source software, not just for your students that you think is important for your students, but for you personally. What free and open source software is important to you in your work?
CS: Oh, thank you. That’s a great question. So, I think it’s always just about what the best tool is for the given job. So, right now I’m talking to you in Manjaro KDE with Bismuth so I can have all of my tiling window manager key bindings set how I like them and all of that.
DT: Is that Manjaro ARM on the Pi or is this on a … ?
CS: No, this is on a ThinkPad. So it’s the 64, you know. AMD 64. But I have FreeBSD on my Pi in my office, and that ends up being mostly like for doing emails and things like that.
DT: Yeah, because I was asking cause if you were on Manjaro on the Pi, I was going to have to rethink what the Pi could do because this has been a great stream so far as far as the video feed and all.
CS: Oh, no, no, no, no. No, this is orders of magnitude more powerful than a Pi. The Pi doesn’t keep up with video conferencing at all.
DT: Not at all.
CS: Not even the Pi four. I bet the Pi five will, but –
DT: I hope so.
CS: Yeah, yeah. It’s close. It just skips a beat. So the Pi 4 does.
DT: The P 4 is so close to being able to be a desktop replacement, other than the CPU as the bottleneck. Really. It’s just not quite.
CS: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. So anyway, at that level, I really believe in using the tool for the job. So Manjaro KDE ’cause I’m docked with my ThinkPad here, and docking works out of the box. Everything does with the latest Linux kernels, and Manjaro makes it really easy to set up the latest kernel and all of that. I’m even able to choose what kernel I want, which is pretty nice.
DT: You don’t find a rolling release distribution unstable, cause that’s what I get asked all the time.
CS: Well, I do, actually.
DT: You do? Okay.
CS: Yeah, I’ve had some problems actually with the rolling release in the past. So, there was a LibreOffice Fresh branch update that was pushed as a part of a Manjaro update that made my whole dissertation uneditable for a day. That’s not fun [laughs].
DT: I’ve run into the same problems because I depend on OBS, Kdenlive, and GIMP. I use those three tools almost every day to do what I do. So, I’ve decided I can’t have those rolling anymore. I don’t install them through pacman anymore. I have appimages for them all, and I just never go get the new version. If the version I’m on is working, I just keep that appimage. I never want that thing to update because the update, the only thing it’s going to do is potentially break something. It’s not going to give me anything. If what’s working is working, there’s no need to have it rolling.
CS: No, that’s right. So, I like it and I don’t. There are pros and cons. Yeah, I think with this exact setup here, basically as soon as like Debian stable has a newer kernel, I’ll just switch to that and stay with that for time eternal. And, you know, it’s just different needs. I really don’t need the rolling other than that everything works out of the box right now with this exact setup. So again, it’s all about the best tool for the job, and for this job, that’s Manjaro right now.
DT: Now, if I didn’t do what I do with videos and didn’t need sometimes to test out the latest and greatest software, I would be a Debian stable user. That’s kind of what I was before starting YouTube. I always ran static release distributions. The idea of running a rolling release just seemed ridiculous to me until I needed to actually test some of this software. And then, it kind of makes sense.
CS: Yeah, yeah. That’s right.
DT: If I ever retire from YouTube, though, I’m going back to Debian.
CS: That’s going to be the quotation that everyone places in the comments for this.
DT: I’m going to get hate comments.
CS: I’m being very, I’m trying to be very politically neutral with regard to what UNIX-like operating system is “best.” And then, you know, you just said that. It’s kind of a bomb drop, so to speak. Anyway, as far as some of the tools that I use for myself, though, software applications that are available that are all free and open source. I’ve talked about Zotero. That’s really, really potent for citation management. And one thing that’s great about that is, I mean, there’s a Firefox extension and a LibreOffice extension, and so all three then of those great open source tools just work together seamlessly. You know, if most library database websites are running the same software or the same database rather – I didn’t say that quite correctly. Anyway, most of them are running the same stuff and Zotero detects that stuff automatically in the extension. So you just click “Add to Library” in the Firefox extension, and then – poof! – it’s there in Zotero locally and being synced with Zotero’s secure server. And then, it’s just, you know, a quick either keystroke command or one click in the LibreOffice document to add that citation. And it is so seamless and powerful, and it’s all completely free and open source software. And then, within Firefox, I use a ton of extensions that are really useful for work. It is very straining on the eyes to read student work, for example, on a computer screen. So being able to switch everything to dark mode. I mean, just simple things like that, that sound so obvious, but they’re just so useful. In LibreOffice, I normally am running a venerable suite of extensions, a Latin language spell checker, the Greek extension that I was talking about earlier. It’s just called Ancient Greek and it’s available for OpenOffice and LibreOffice.
DT: And one of the things with free and open source software, we have a ton of really good spell checkers. We have a ton of good translation programs. Like, a lot of people that come from like the proprietary software world, I think would be shocked at how well we do in that particular area.
CS: No, that’s right. So, yeah, a couple of things right there. I use a bunch of command line utility tools. There’s one called Whitaker’s Words that’s existed for decades now, but it’s a Latin word parsing tool, and it is so potent that it’s unbelievable, and you know, you can compile it in any Unix like OS. It’s in the AUR [here], you know, so on and so on. And so, normally, I just type “latin,” hit Enter in my terminal emulator, and I get this great word parsing, where I get the declension, I get a short definition and – wow! – does that ever, I mean, the number of hours saved from doing that versus opening a big physical lexicon and flipping through the pages is absolutely uncanny. I use a Greek Bible in the terminal and Latin Bible in the terminal. Luke Smith, actually. Here’s another one that’s going to invoke some comments for this video, but just to talk about his repositories that he hosts in GitHub. A couple of things that he hosts that are really great for community service as a whole are these terminal-based Bibles. And I can type “grb” for Greek Bible and then say, you know, “Mark 1,” and – poof! – there’s Mark 1 in the original New Testament Greek or in the Latin Vulgate. By the way, for people thinking about this stuff, oh, I’d like to do some of this, Alacrity is actually almost essential to use because you really have to be using a modern terminal emulator that has full modern Unicode built into it from the ground up, or the polytonic Greek text, for example, just doesn’t show correctly. So, it doesn’t show in the suckless [simple] terminal.
DT: Yeah, ST is pretty good with Unicode, but it’s not Alacritty. And I can tell you one that’s terrible. URXVT, which I know is popular, is like the worst terminal for Unicode.
CS: That’s right. Yeah. Actually, I’ve tried both URXVT and ST, and polytonic Greek doesn’t show correctly in either of them, but it shows beautifully and in any monospace font that has polytonic Greek, the Hack font has a really nice platonic Greek, Hack Nerd, whatever. And that all shows really nicely in Alacritty. So, that’s just an aside, you know, for people who are listening thinking, oh, I might like to get into some of this. You’re going to have a really bad time unless you’re using the right software that has full modern Unicode built from the ground up, because it won’t display all of the characters, so then you just get annoying boxes or nothing.
DT: Well, that’s another thing with the terminal emulator getting back to not just the special characters, but also drawing boxes or, you know, some of the mathematical stuff people like to do, the ligatures. You know, if you pick the wrong terminal emulator, a lot of that stuff is just not going to render.
CS: Oh, sure. Let’s see, what else? Oh, so I’m not a Bible scholar. I’m dealing with the history of Christianity mostly in my work. And then, my teaching is mostly in kind of theology as a part of traditional Catholic liberal arts. But, of course, I deal with biblical texts all the time as a part of my work. And there’s this Qt-based free and open source tool that runs on the SWORD Project called BibleTime, and BibleTime, it seems like nobody knows about it, but it’s available in every UNIX-like OS’s repository. And it is super powerful, and the developers are really responsive to comments to their work in GitHub. I’ve made at least a couple of points of feedback that they’ve said, oh yeah, we love this idea. It’s nice to hear feedback from somebody who’s using this professionally. Let us work to improve that, you know, for you. And that sort of thing is really great, and it’s something that I encourage people to do as you’re looking to get into the free and open source software world. Always give that feedback. Something with FreeBSD that I’ll just point out that relates to that is I was getting really annoyed with LibreOffice in FreeBSD because it wasn’t compiled with Java by default, and you have to have Java, the Java flag enabled at compilation of LibreOffice, to use just about any extensions. But I thought, you know what, this is a really friendly community. And so I went into IRC to the #freebsd-desktop channel, and one of the people who maintains the LibreOffice port for FreeBSD was right there. And I said, look, for anybody who’s going to use a full-size office software suite rather than a lightweight something else, extensions are a big part of that, because we’re probably using it professionally, and we probably need the extensions that let us do our jobs professionally. And within a matter of two to three hours, he had enabled that flag for all builds of LibreOffice for all of FreeBSD. And that is just really cool to have those community connections.
DT: I think a lot of people imagine that some of these software maintainers, devs, some of the package maintainers for various Linux distributions or for the BSD operating systems, they imagine that these people are not going to be friendly. But that’s usually not the case, because I’ve seen people go to like a Linux distribution’s forums or IRC chat and say, Hey, I really depend on this program, it’s not in your repo. And within hours somebody will package it, just because that one person asked for it. You know, people do this in their free time too, you know, just out of the goodness of their heart.
CS: That’s exactly right. Another related story to that, and just a real testimony to the friendliness of the FreeBSD ports maintainers and kind of community overall. In the talk that I gave for the FreeBSD, I said, you know, Zotero, we run it in wine. There’s a group of us running a FreeBSD forum thread about how to keep Zotero running. But I said, look, we need either Zotero or JabRef, which is another open source citation management tool, just for the sake of people doing professional work, whether it be in the natural sciences or the physical sciences or mathematics or history, whatever, doing these kinds of professional, you know, scholarly work or writing, we need one of those two tools to be in the ports tree and packaged. And so, I issued a little challenge, a little call to arms, and I’m really proud to say that now there are not one but two ports of Zotero in the FreeBSD. One that’s based on Linuxulator, on the Linux compatibility layer, and one that is a native build, and they’re both available. So, you can just do “pkg install zotero,” “pkg install libreoffice,” and they both work together now. But, you know, that responsiveness and, you know, rather than complaining, if you’re not a person who’s writing the code, here are a few really key rules to live by that are somewhat professionally inspired by me, I guess, just because of the kinds of things that I do, but also just being human. If you’re not writing the code, always just say, “thank you.” And if you don’t know how to make the change, find a really respectful, targeted way to ask the question for the change to happen. So, don’t just, you know, go on some tirade in a public facing forum about something. Join a private IRC room and say, you know, hey, Mr. So-And-So, I love that you’re doing this. Can we talk about an idea to make this better for people doing this kind of work? And that’s a great way to make positive change.
DT: Especially when you’re not paying these people anything to help you. In some cases, these people are not asking for pavement. They’re just there as just a service to the community. Really, it’s just, in a lot of ways, it’s altruism, right? They’re just trying to, which probably, now that I think about it, you being Catholic, part of your faith, altruism, I think maybe that’s probably why you gravitate maybe to bring open source software, I don’t know. Maybe I’m making a connection there that isn’t there.
CS: No, there is a connection there. It’s inspired by faith and by just the kinds of things that I do that, for example, all of my educational video lectures that I release on Odysee, I have under a Creative Commons license, and I want there to be academic freedom. And I like the idea of the free exchange of ideas. I like that … It’s very important to me that we all be working together for the work that I do, supporting people’s education, you know, that sort of thing, so, that’s absolutely right.
DT: And I should mention that I had actually met you on Odysee.
CS: That’s right.
DT: It’s how we did this interview, set this up is because of my channel on Odysee and you’re on Odysee.
CS: No, that’s exactly right. And yeah, why Odysee? This is a great line to go down. So, I’m very deliberate about all of these things. I was going to find in my new, so in my new position, I knew I needed to make a lot of video lectures and lessons and help guide students through really challenging dense readings and things like that. A lot of students where maybe their parents, you know, English is not their first language. And so, getting into really dense readings, it’s just a matter of guiding. And I love doing that. It’s so rewarding and so much fun. But I wanted to pick, I needed to pick, a platform that was accessible to students and immediately intelligible to them while respecting their software freedom and not putting me at risk of corporate censorship. Because being a Catholic theologian, what are the kinds of topics that I have to talk about all the time? Well, I have to talk about matters of dogma and doctrine, I have to talk about –
DT: Immorality and sin, and there’s a lot of things that could get flagged on YouTube.
CS: I have to use words like fornication or damnation. And those are all words that are not going to be received well in a corporate platform like YouTube just because of the nature of what it is. So, Odysee, I think that it gets misunderstood as like, oh, this is a place where, you know, paranoid persons or hate mongers go.
DT: It’s all conspiracy theories.
CS: Yeah, that’s right. But actually, why am I there? I am there because I could not think of a better way to protect my own academic freedom and my students’ software freedom simultaneously than being in Odysee. And so, is it perfect? It’s absolutely not perfect. The whole cryptocurrency thing there is, it’s goofy, to be frank. And I’m really glad that my students just ignore that.
DT: Well, they’ve moved away from it recently, ’cause now you can actually take donations in US dollars, and I think that’s going to become the preferred currency on the platform now that that’s available.
CS: Right. So, that’s not why I’m there. I’m not looking to get paid extra by being there. But yeah, just the idea of having it built from the ground up with freedom in mind is just very potent.
DT: And well, as people imagine that like, there’s nobody moderating Odysee. There’s nobody in charge. That’s not the case. Certainly, they have to take down anyone involved in any illegal activity, because it is a US-based company. They have to follow US law. But unlike YouTube, they don’t have a bot that goes around that’s triggered by certain words or images and thumbnails. And that’s the problem with YouTube is it’s all automated and 90%, more than 90% of the stuff that gets flagged in YouTube did not need to get flagged. It was false positives, essentially. And that’s what frustrates creators. It’s because you put in so many hours of work in something, and then YouTube just deletes it. Or sometimes, they delete entire channels, ban people, kick them off the platform for no reason.
CS: That’s right. That’s right. Come to think of it, maybe I shouldn’t have used those words, because this video is also going to be on YouTube.
DT: Well, it’ll be all right.
DT: Thankfully, I’m to a size where they’re not as quick to jump to … They’ll still demonetize a video, but I can appeal, and it always gets reversed. I’ve never actually had anything that was actually striked on my channel, that was striked for a legit reason. And thankfully, I’ve been able to get all of them reversed at some time, or another. One of them, it took me almost two years, though, for them to finally monetize one of my videos on Qtile, because something triggered the algorithm on a video where I was scripting in Python. I don’t know what I said while I was writing the Python code, but something triggered.
CS: Oh, you know, those tiling window managers [laughs]. You’re hacking, so therefore you’re doing something mischievous.
DT: Well, I think that’s great that you’re on a free and open source platform, like the LBRY Protocol, Odysee being a front end to library. So, when I say, you’re a free and open source zealot and a die hard, I mean, that’s really the case because, you’re not on YouTube at all, are you?
CS: Well, I mean, I have a Google account.
DT: Right. Well, everybody has a YouTube account, I guess, technically, but –
CS: But so I am on, like I subscribe to some channels there, but generally, I won’t comment there or anything like that. And also, you know, YouTube has just become less user-friendly over the last couple of years.
DT: I’ve seen the comments.
CS: Yeah. If you’re not using uBlock Origin, or another effective ad blocking tool, some videos are unwatchable.
DT: The problem with YouTube, too, is it’s a social network. There’s a social aspect to it with the community and the comments. But when YouTube removes so many comments because of their algorithms, and, again, more than 90% of the comments they remove are just false flags that, for whatever reason, Google decided to remove these people’s comments for no reason, really benign comments. And that frustrates people that are trying to have a conversation. When you can’t have a conversation because the comment, you took time, five minutes to write this paragraph, and then it just instantly gets deleted. You know, that causes people to explore alternatives.
CS: No, that’s right. And, you know, maybe somebody watching this video in five years will be in a situation in which there are better alternatives or better places to host video content, but for right now, I just decided on Odysee.
DT: Well, Corey, one last thing I wanted to talk about with you for free and open source software, getting away from the software you use for work and, you know, for business essentially, right. To earn a paycheck. What about software for fun, free and open source gaming?
CS: [laughs] Oh, what a great question! So, obviously 0 A.D. is the best free and open source computer game and maybe the best computer game that exists. So, I love 0 A.D.
DT: You have a point with that one. Yeah. I think it’s one of the best, I think it’s the best real-time strategy game out there.
CS: It’s so fun. You know, it’s built. So, I don’t get much time for […] to do that sort of thing. I’m just so busy with work and my wife and children and so on. But –
DT: The historian though, you being really as a theology professor, you deal a lot with history. You probably love the historical aspect of all the various historical figures in the game. All the heroes, of course, are real people that, you know, led these civilizations.
CS: Yeah. The makers of 0 A.D.. something that I love about the project, and one reason why I really say, yeah, it’s definitely the best free and open source game out there right now. Although there are several that are really great and fun to play. I mean, there are flight simulators and space simulators and all these things, but I mean, one thing that’s so great about it is they have a really fanatical attention to detail. And I love that. I mean, it couldn’t be like that with a proprietary project because you really just have to have a community-based project where a bunch of eyes are looking over it and it’s people doing it for the love of the thing for there to be such fanatical attention to detail. I mean, in the forums, people are citing scholarly publications about ancient civilizations as the reasons, you know, for making certain decisions about what their units ought to look like or what characteristics they ought to have.
DT: And the Greek civilizations, there’s three of them in the game that the fact that the characters speak Greek, when you click on them.
CS: They speak Greek. The Romans, they speak Latin. And the pronunciation for those things, all of it is actually exquisitely done. As in, I don’t know who the people are behind that. I want to look into that, but I’m certain that they’ve had professional consultations.
DT: Well, I think this is a situation where being open source helps them because they can source all of this pronunciation from people all over the world that would be much more familiar. You know, for example, the correct Greek and Latin and Persian, you know, all these languages that are in the game that a proprietary company would actually have to go probably pay people to do, where you could just put out a call to the community and they’ll take care of translation for you.
CS: Yeah. And it’s not just the, I mean it’s restored or what we’d typically call restored ancient pronunciation. So, it’s even at the level of we want it to sound as close as we can approximate to how the people sounded in antiquity speaking these languages. And – oh, my goodness! – it’s just so much fun. It’s so fun, in fact, that I’ve been asked to teach a Greek class this spring, and I’m planning on using 0 A.D. If my dean is listening to this video lecture, I’m going to use 0 A.D. as a highly effective educational resource. So, that’s for my boss. But you know, there’s team building in there, and the Greek is great, and it’s just, it’s a lot of fun. And you can run it on anything. It’s available in every, you know, it’s available as an appimage, so you can run it on any GNU Linux distribution. It’s in the FreeBSD repositories, OpenBSD, NetBSD, MacOS, Microsoft Windows. Basically, if a person is running a computer that has a reasonably recent graphics card or an integrated one from a recent processor, the person can run 0 A.D., and that makes it a lot of fun too, ’cause you can like, you know, I can play against the, like, my brother and I will play against each other and totally different [setups]. I can host it on a ThinkPad, for Heaven’s sake. You know, that’s something.
DT: Well, I love 0 A.D., so that great to hear. And again, I think if you’re a fan of history, you’d love the game. Everyone should check out that game.
CS: Yeah. And you have my professional imprimatur that […] – wow! have they ever done a good job with the attention to detail! I mean, it’s a game. So, fun is first, but there’s other, the attention to detail with, with making the heroes and all their characteristics that they have and the architecture and everything is just, it’s really good.
DT: One minor gripe I have with the game is the name of the game, 0 A.D. People often make the mistake of thinking there is actually a year 0 A.D.
CS: Oh, right.
DT: Because even back in my school days, people would talk about the year zero or 0 A.D. And it’s like, no, because 1 B.C., the year after that was 1 A.D. There was no zero. There’s no year zero.
CS: Right. And which is why they named it that was to be clever, because it’s an imagined time that never existed, just like, for example, it was never the case that most of these civilizations were at war with each other. The Romans were never at war with –
DT: Like the Egyptian civilizations, Chinese, the Indian civilizations.
DT: But you can do the Spartans and the Persians, and that makes sense.
CS: Right, right.
DT: So you can relive the movie 300.
CS: That’s right. Yeah. We are Sparta. Oh, it’s so much fun. You know, one other thing that I’d just like to point out, I know that we’re winding down here is that while I tend to stand alone right now in the world of Catholic theology, it’s not as though the things that I’m advocating and the reasons for them are entirely without precedent. I mean, at the Vatican archives there are 80,000 manuscripts that are being digitized. This is a multi-decade long process. And the file type that’s been chosen for that is the open imaging file type that NASA produces. And why? Well, it’s really high quality, and it’s an open standard that will never go obsolete. So, if you’re going to go through this extremely expensive, extremely technically precise process that takes years and years and years with a whole team of scholars and so on, well, of course, you need to have it be an open standard.
DT: Now, you can’t choose a proprietary format, not for something that you want to be able to be opened centuries from now. If you choose proprietary software, it’s going to be obsolete within a few years. The company that made that proprietary format could be bankrupt within your lifetime. Right? So, it’s not like it’s going to be around 500, thousand, 2,000 years from now. Those documents will be lost if you depend on –
CS: Yeah, that’s exactly right. And it’s supposed to be, the end goal for that project is to have basically all of the Vatican archives available for the whole world in a digitized format. And of course, they really have to be largely locked down in their physical form because that’s the only way to protect many of materials. But once you’ve digitized them, then anybody can look at them in really high quality graphical images from anywhere in the world with a high speed internet connection. And, you know, that project is under work. And there are other projects like that where it’s, well, of course, it’s just using open standards because the open standards are what have the best odds of security, they’re what have the best odds of long-term usability, you know, so on and so on. The list just goes on of the benefits of employing –
DT: Open source software never dies.
CS: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right […] So, those images, the idea is that somebody could write a tool to use them on whatever, you know, quantum computers were using, you know, 250 years from now, which is really beautiful to think about building that for posterity now.
DT: Well, that’s a good point. Well, Corey, would you like to disclose any contact information? Where can people follow you online? You got any social media accounts? Obviously, you have an Odysee channel.
CS: Sure. So, if anyone is interested in watching videos from a free software geek, but they’re instructional videos about Catholic theology and history and liberal arts, you can, of course, go to my Odysee page. My channel is just Corey Stephan, Ph.D. But the website, which is where I blog, and I blog about using free software, and I kind of keep everything consolidated there, is just coreystephan.com. I like to keep things nice and simple. I don’t like to manage a huge online presence. I like to manage one tidy little professional presence. And so, that’s what it is. And so, that’s the best place to go.
DT: I’ll be sure to link to those in the video description for this video as well.
CS: Sure. And oh, and if somebody wants to write to me to ask questions about anything, I have a little contact form right there. And unlike a lot of private website contact forms, I keep that up-to-date, and I always respond immediately when somebody writes to me there. So, that’s the best way to get in touch with me.
DT: Great. Well, Corey, thank you for talking with me today. And thank you for all your hard work in promoting free and open source software, and I especially appreciate that you’re fighting for your students as far as privacy rights and our school systems and universities. So, I want to thank you for that.
CS: Well, thank you so much, and thank you for the work that you do. I always, I know that some people might think, oh, you know, Derek Taylor of DistroTube, he has just this really cool job where he just gets to sit around and talk about GNU/Linux and free software all day. And it is a really cool job. And he does, there’s a degree to which that’s what’s happening. But I always describe you first as an educational content creator. As in, you are teaching people how to be really empowered to take ownership of our digital lives. And – wow! – I mean, thinking about it in those terms, it’s so much more than just a really cool job. It’s also a really important job.
DT: I appreciate that, Corey. Thanks for hanging out with me, and I hope you have a great rest of your day.
CS: Yes. You, too. Take care.
DT: Peace.Tags: foss freedom