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Government Open Source Software Linux

The US Government and Open Standards: a Tale of Personal Woe (thevarguy.com) 256

An anonymous reader writes: This article details a Linux user's struggles to submit a grant application when the process requires finicky, proprietary software. It also covers familiar ground made timely by the upcoming elections: the U.S. should prefer open source software and open standards over proprietary alternatives. The grant application required a PDF created by Adobe Acrobat — software Adobe no longer supports for Linux. Once the document was created, attempting to submit it while using Ubuntu fails silently. (On Windows 7, it worked immediately.) The reader argues, "By requiring Acrobat the government gives preference to a particular software vendor, assuring that thousands of people who otherwise would not choose to use Adobe software are forced to install it. Worse, endorsing a proprietary, narrowly supported technology for government data poses the risk that public information could become inaccessible if the vendor decides to stop supporting the software. Last but not least, there are privacy and fairness issues at stake. Acrobat is a totally closed-source program, which means we have to take Adobe's word for it that nothing sketchy is going on in its code. ... It would seem to be in the interest of the public for the government to prefer an open source solution, since it is much harder to hide nefarious features inside code that can be publicly inspected."
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The US Government and Open Standards: a Tale of Personal Woe

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  • The government (or a corporation's lobbyists) have no problem with a requirement to trust them.

    • by serviscope_minor ( 664417 ) on Wednesday January 27, 2016 @04:37AM (#51380361) Journal

      No, in this case I disagree. I'm not usually a fan of Hanlon's razor, but I think it applies here. I recently had an experience with the US Govt in this regard submitting an application to the NIH.

      It was a second stage grant so a chunk of the proposal was how you did on the first stage. And they let you submit a video. So far so good!

      What about the formats, well, not only did they allow wmv and mov, they also allowed the industry standard, open (if not unencumbered) and widely supported h.264 in an mp4 file.

      Woah! That's amazing. Open standards are great, that should work anywhere, easy to make, etc etc nice happy flowers and bunnies and rainbows and unicorns yay!

      Oh and the file has to be embedded in a PDF.

      er, what? I mean, u wot m8? I mean WHAT THE EVER LIVING WHAT WHY WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT WHAT DO YOU EVEN MEAN???

      I am not kidding that was a requirement. So this comes with about a billion problems. First, "embedded" is ill defined: some versions of PDF support video playing in the PDF, but they can also hold files you can simply download. In the former case, Adobe (tm) decided to do it two different ways in two different versions. The first (older) way is to embed the video file and use the system's video player to play the video.

      That's moderately sane. Was PITA before every platform supported MPEG4, but even back then I had a PDF which would play on Windows, OSX and FreeBSD (probably Linux too---sis not check). These days it should be easy---just use MP4.

      Except it doesn't work that way any more. No, the newest version which not everyone has will only play stuff using flash. So, you have to find a flash player for the video and convert the video to flv and embed it that way. So far, so bad. Flash player is getting somewhat rare now, at least the standalone flash plugin not bundled with a browser (chrome?). And it ain't bundled with acroread.

      Well that's all pretty obnoxious. Firstly the methods are mutually incompatible, of course. Naturally because one is for older acroread, one for newer. The file size is strict so you can't embed it both ways and hope for the best. Actually we couldn't get the flash version to work on anyone's (windows) machine. Well, fuck you very much Adobe.

      So what I did was the third method which is to have it as an attached file. Double clicking on it invites you to save or open it.

      Naturally of course NONE of these things work in anything other than acroread. None of the other PDF readers---the sort everyone seems to have now, like the firefox and chrome ones, the mobile ones or the one embedded in newer versions of windows---work with these methods.

      And thankfully someone figured out how to do this in LaTeX. Scott Pakin of course---anything sufficiently obscure in LaTeX always ends up there. Anyone else noticed that?

      So there it was, I had the nice, standard works anywhere video file embedded in a uh... PDF where you had to piss around to open it. It was still accessible to submit for anyone using open tools, but WTF?

      Oh and of course I tried including a youtube link for when it didn't work and the PDF got bounced with a snippy message pointing out angrily that of COURSE links weren't allowed (heaven forfend!) because then someone might CHEAT by linking to a longer video than is allowed!

      This is one of the cases where I think only incredible incopmetence and not malice describes the situation.

      • When you submitted for the grant, did remember to add a dedicated computer, software and administrator's wages to it ?

  • "On Windows 7, it worked immediately."

    Oh, you fixed it. I don't have time to be outraged about this. Get a citizens united corporate backing and fight, otherwise fuck off Bennett hassleton.

    I didn't ask why I should care, I know that. I just don't have time to do more than ask if anonymous helpless cares more than just preach to the choir.

    • by pz ( 113803 ) on Wednesday January 27, 2016 @12:39AM (#51379559) Journal

      Hmm. I use Firefox / Fedora to access both the NIH and NSF web sites without any problems.

      I also use Adobe Reader / Windows to fill out the SF424 forms because, well, if it screws up because you've got your panties in a twist about not using one company's software versus another's, and you don't get the grant because the form was unreadable or inconsistent, you have no one to blame but yourself.

      Indeed, I was just submitting the JIT (Just In Time) information for a DARPA award and the PDF form wasn't working correctly despite having been recently downloaded. Whom do you think gets the sharp end of the stick if I were to submit a wonky form? You go ahead and be pendantic and self-righteous and blame the government; I want to keep doing science. So the old copy was deleted, and a new copy re-downloaded. Fortunately, it wasn't some hidden, Fed-sponsored pro-Adobe conspiracy, but likely a simple TCP error during the first download, as the newer copy worked just fine.

      Moreover, when it comes down to it, grant applications to the US government are likely accessible by the public through FOIA requests, so it's not like the information is really private or protected in any deep sense. What sort of nefarious activity does the OP suspect Adobe will commit with the data in the application anyway?

      The current use of a PDF-based application is phenomenally better than it was before when the applications required a specific program to be downloaded in order to fill them out. That was frustrating to say the least, highly non-portable, and full of bugs. The present PDF-based mechanisms are great, simply great, in comparison. They also work very, very reliably.

      There are battles that are worth fighting, and those that aren't. I'm always pleased when the US government allows me to use my Linux box (and I do that preferentially), but as a realist, I also have a dedicated Windows box on my desk for exactly the times when the assumption has been made that Windows is the computational substrate. That the government no longer requires .DOC files in its grant applications (at least the ones I see), and takes PDFs instead is a huge, huge win.

      • I also use Adobe Reader / Windows to fill out the SF424 forms because, well, if it screws up because you've got your panties in a twist about not using one company's software versus another's, and you don't get the grant because the form was unreadable or inconsistent, you have no one to blame but yourself.

        This is true: if you want the grant, you must comply with whatever rule the funding agency requires. If they ask for a photograph of the PI with a herring on his head [419eater.com], then you better fish-up.

        The question is whether those bureaucratic rules are necessary or appropriate. Is your DARPA grant allowed to include a windows computer for the sole purpose of filing grants? Is there some technical superiority to Acrobat forms over html or javascript forms?

        I'm always pleased when the US government allows me to use my Linux box (and I do that preferentially), but as a realist, I also have a dedicated Windows box on my desk for exactly the times when the assumption has been made that Windows is the computational substrate.

        Seems pretty wasteful if you, and dozens (? hundreds?) of

        • Seriously? If the current solution accommodates more than 99% of the population, just borrow someone else's computer. Problem solved. Saying "it's pretty wasteful is dozens or even hundreds of people have to buy a second computer is small potatoes compared to the cost to the taxpayer of making sure that everything works under linux as well.

          It's obviously not that big a problem if we almost never hear of anyone complaining about it. A few hundred people complaining out of more than 300,000,000 is just pissi

        • I don't think anyone's asking you to pick up the banner and fight the power, but don't denigrate the people who are trying to push the government to move to better systems.

          If they were trying to push the government onto a better system, that would be a valid point. But that's not what they're pushing for. They're pushing the government to change to a system that's not only more 'convenient' for a minority, but also fits that minority's particular philosophical and political beliefs.

        • by pz ( 113803 )

          Seems pretty wasteful if you, and dozens (? hundreds?) of other people, have to go buy a second computer, OS, and other software from a specific vendor just for communicating with the government.

          Ah, there's the rub. The default computational environment in my institution is Windows. I bought an extra computer not because I needed compatibility with everyone else, but so that I would have the freedom to run the environment of my choice. The extra computer is really my Linux box.

          ... don't denigrate the people who are trying to push the government to move to better systems.

          Yes, I suppose you're right. The shrill tone of the OP, with self-serving attitude and utter lack of historical perspective was a little off-putting. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't work toward a completely universal

      • "The current use of a PDF-based application is phenomenally better than it was before when the applications required a specific program to be downloaded in order to fill them out. That was frustrating to say the least, highly non-portable, and full of bugs."

        No kidding. After I retired from real 40-50 hour a week IT work, I worked part time for a school in Vermont. Every year we got two or three new/altered forms from various state agencies trying to collect data on all sorts of stuff. Some of the stuff w

    • On Windows 7, it worked immediately.

      Oh, you fixed it.

      That's not fixing it. That's paying Microsoft Corporation to fix it. And if this were required for a grant in any country but the United States, that would be paying a foreign company to fix it.

      • Nonsense. It's not "paying Microsoft Corporation to fix it." Last I looked (a couple of minutes ago) Microsoft still does not own Adobe.
        • by tepples ( 727027 )

          The user tried running authentic Adobe Reader software in Wine. It didn't work. So the user paid Microsoft to fix the incompatibility with Adobe Reader.

          • No, he didn't pay ANY money for Microsoft to "fix Adobe Reader." It already ran just fine under Windows. That he didn't use Windows was his choice, not Microsoft's. Microsoft has zero liability for either wine or linux.

            His complaint is the same as with any other software - buy a game that works under windows, if it doesn't work on wine you have zero grounds for complaining. Ditto hardware - unless (and even when) it says that it works under linux, it probably won't.

    • Additionally, what is a suitable replacement for PDF? There used to be some alternatives, but they all died, from what I can see.

      There are times when the closest thing to an open standard, is one published by a business, because there is no other appropriate open standard.

      If there are a lack of tools on the Linux side, then that is something the Linux community needs to address. On MacOS X, the PDF tools that many people use on developed by Apple and not Adobe, but work with the specification as published.

      • The Open Document Format would work well as many different office applications can read and write it.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

        • The goal of the Open Document Format is closer to a general MS Office document, than what a PDF is trying to achieve. In many ways a PDF represents a 'print equivalent' rendition that is also generally considered as final form of submission. It is not designed, for the most part, to be edited once produced. This is also the reason a number of friends and contacts prefer sending their resumes to head hunters in PDF form.

          One other factor regarding PDF, it is the largest common denominator, in terms of human o

  • Adobe Acrobat (Score:5, Insightful)

    by wisnoskij ( 1206448 ) on Tuesday January 26, 2016 @11:47PM (#51379383) Homepage

    ... Is the worst program to use to create PDFs. Just use one of the free applications.

    PDF is the open standard for sharing documents. Adobe does not offer any open source or free creation tools, but there are half a dozen great PDF creation tools available some of them open source, many of them free.

    • by antdude ( 79039 )

      What are the best PDF applications to edit existing PDF files?

      • by temcat ( 873475 )

        Infix. It's proprietary and Windows based, though the author says it also works on Linux under Wine (I didn't check it).

      • What are the best PDF applications to edit existing PDF files?

        THIS. Yes, creating a PDF using open source software on Linux or whatever is obviously trivial.

        But editing a PDF is a different matter. To my knowledge, nothing comes close to Acrobat is terms of its flexibility and ease of use in editing existing PDFs, particularly if you're looking for open source on Linux. (And I'm a big supporter of non-proprietary alternatives in general.) Yes, you can cobble together functionality from various tools, and certain command line utilities can even be faster for cert

      • PDF-XChange is a good viewer/editor, and the free version has most of the features of the pro version. I use it for filling in and signing forms.

  • Um, does the OP mean that using the default bundled browser on Ubuntu fails? Because that could just be Mozilla's fault for not following standards on their Ubuntu branch.

    • by larkost ( 79011 )

      My guess is that this was one of Adobe's form systems. Those produce overly-complex PDF's that then submit the form content back to specially crafted servers in a non-documented way. Creating these "workflow systems" are how Adobe has been making money on the Acrobat "platform" for some time now. So none of this corresponds to any standards, so nothing works except Adobe Acrobat (usually only on Windows, even MacOS need not apply).

      Five years ago I might have thought that using these systems was an ok idea,

  • by Duckman5 ( 665208 ) on Wednesday January 27, 2016 @12:27AM (#51379521)
    The application process required opening a PDF in Adobe Acrobat READER. It used some proprietary extension and if opened in any other application just had a note that said to use Acrobat Reader.

    When opened in Acrobat Reader it had a form with a button at the bottom to submit the information. He tried to process it using the most recent version of acrobat for each of the following operating systems:

    • On Linux, the button did nothing.
    • On Windows XP in a virtual machine, the button half worked (asked for login info)
    • On native boot Windows 7, it worked all the way

    The takeaway is this: a government process used a supposedly open format but ruined it by using a proprietary extension that only worked on a recent version of proprietary software running on a recent version of a proprietary operating system.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      It was probably written using the Adobe LiveCycle program and uses the XFA form technology. XFA PDF's are different in that there are no actual postscript commands in the PDF and they do not use the AcroForms technology. The layout and form inputs are defined in an XML document embedded into a PDF container. Adobe Reader then dynamically generates the postscript to render the document on the fly when the PDF is opened. If the PDF reader being used doesn't understand XFA (for example. pdf.js), then they get

      • What is the point of that, though? Why can't Adobe just make a new format with a new file extension? PDF is about print-ready formatting. Adding a crappy, dynamic, proprietary thing inside a PDF is like using a Word DOC to send someone a video. Who does that???
      • by nmb3000 ( 741169 ) <nmb3000@that-google-mail-site.com> on Wednesday January 27, 2016 @02:18AM (#51379969) Journal

        XFA PDF's are different in that there are no actual postscript commands in the PDF and they do not use the AcroForms technology. The layout and form inputs are defined in an XML document embedded into a PDF container. Adobe Reader then dynamically generates the postscript to render the document on the fly when the PDF is opened. If the PDF reader being used doesn't understand XFA (for example. pdf.js), then they get the generic "Please open in Adobe Reader."

        Good god. Just when I started thinking Acrobat couldn't get any worse... What ever happened to the Portable part of the Portable Document Format? :(

        Adobe needs to stop riding on the coattails of the PDF standard and just create their own damned document format completely separate from PDF. They've been shoving more and more of this kind of stupid shit into PDF files for years, all under the guise of PDFs being a "standard" -- just to encourage the spread their bug-ridden malware by making the files unusable in other programs. It's gotten worse than the ActiveX webpages from the early 2000's.

        • by temcat ( 873475 )

          What ever happened to the Portable part of the Portable Document Format?

          Now it's Proprietary Document Format.

    • Government did insufficient platform testing
  • by RightwingNutjob ( 1302813 ) on Wednesday January 27, 2016 @12:46AM (#51379595)
    that the US government is Bad At Computers? Where have you been this whole time? And are you interested in buying a bridge? I've got in Brooklyn that just happens to be for sale.
  • between Acrobat and Flash, Adobe provides the bulk of the vulnerabilities the NSA needs to operate. Quid pro quo.
  • by Zombie Ryushu ( 803103 ) on Wednesday January 27, 2016 @06:04AM (#51380535)

    In order to get this working under Linux, you have to install the (Ancient) Adobe 9.5.5 Reader and its associated npppf module. Then it will work. I have alot of experience with this. While Okular, Evince, and XPDF can fill out forms, there is no support for submitting an XFA Form under anything other than the real Acrobat Reader.

    • This is a normal thing I've known about for ages. You can't download 9.5 from Adobe's site anymore, you need to get it from Suse, or Fedora's Repo.

  • The Poppler Project, which both Okular and Evince use was supposed to start work on figuring out how XFA Worked years ago when adobe Dropped support for Acrobat 9.5.5 on Linux. They never completed their work. There was too little demand for it.

  • Open or not, PDF is the standard for portable documents. Has been for so long, the cost of establishing and implementing another format is prohibitively high. Also, there are alternatives to Acrobat/Reader.
    • by tepples ( 727027 )

      Also, there are alternatives to Acrobat/Reader.

      Which such alternatives support XFA forms?

  • I filed my state tax return a few days ago and had to use my work laptop (a POS Dell) instead of my Mac because I refused to install Adobe software on it. They even prevented me from SEEING the form on my Mac so that I could print it out and fill it in by hand, it just showed an error page instructing me to install Adobe software. Even after completing and submitting the form I couldn't convert it to a flat file that was readable on my Mac, which is just fucking stupid.

    Before that I couldn't even access
    • You didn't HAVE to use yor work laptop. You even admitted it - " because I refused to install Adobe software on it." PEBCAK ID-10-T error.
      • by tepples ( 727027 )

        Does "Because I disagreed with points X, Y, and Z in Adobe's EULA as well as Adobe's poor security record" sound less whiny?

  • PDFs are not PDFs (Score:5, Interesting)

    by rickb928 ( 945187 ) on Wednesday January 27, 2016 @09:59AM (#51381177) Homepage Journal

    At work, my clients use PDFs to submit to us regularly. We immediately convert this to a TIF for our use...

    This is not so good as it seems.

    We have one client that uses a custom font. Yeah, really. Being not just custom but copyrighted, and they do not include it in the PDFs, when they submit, and our converter makes the best choice it can to make this into something we can use internally. Sadly, the mapping is off by one character code. The original word 'carrot', for instance ends up being 'dbsspu'. Really. They could not change this. We could not change this. They submit using PNGs now. 'Solved'.

    Another client uses some third-party PDF software to send those to us. Their solution results in perfectly readable files that our converter refuses to recognize as a PDF. I looked at the data, and it looks ok to me with an unuusal qualifier in the header. Seems their software creates PDFs with version numbers that can't really exist... Solution? Open the PDF before they send ti to us, save it, and magically somehow it changes things.

    Another client sends us PDFs that often convert perfect images, hidden behind what can be described as zebra stripes. Except for when it looks like black & white leopard stripes. Solution? Send us JPGs.

    PDFs are a lot more complex and difficult than people think. So many third-party apps that generate almost-compatible PDFs, Adobe probably trying to kill these by modifying the file format, adding features that just don;t come out so well, it's not bliss with PDFs.

    But to the OP, what open document format would we want the government to use? It should be first, read-only when needed, for instance for applications and submissions, though read/write as an option, of course. Signable. Able to secure, probably via certificate. Forms capability of course. Does this readily exist?

    • by e r ( 2847683 )
      So... What's wrong with just sending plain text? Or if they must include images then why not use LaTeX or HTML and just .zip the whole folder together?
  • by caution live frogs ( 1196367 ) on Wednesday January 27, 2016 @10:21AM (#51381335)

    I am an Administrative Official for a large organization. Uploading grants is literally a major part of my job. (As a research scientist, I also write my own grants - so I understand this from several angles.)

    The argument that open standards should be used is a fair one, but it is missing the bigger picture here. The vast majority of grants (NIH, NSF, Veterans Affairs, DoD, etc.) are SF-424 NIH standard packages obtained through Grants.gov and submitted by an AO such as myself, not by the applicant. Very few grants require the person authoring them to be the signing official who agrees on behalf of the organization to administer funds if the grant is successful. The vast majority of the applicants therefore route grants through a corporate or University network, where Windows (and to a lesser degree OS X - I'm a Mac user myself) predominate. In all of these cases, the organization will be providing the tools necessary - Acrobat is handed out like candy in my organization. It's part of the corporate image for all computers. Using Acrobat forms streamlines and simplifies submission for 99% of the applicants. The government is not going to change this to address a few edge cases.

    The suggested alternative - web forms - is laughable. It might be good for one person, but in an average submission cycle I am sending 10-15 grants with widely varying requirements including esoteric formatting issues, hard-coded naming conventions, and etc. - not to mention that the typical grant includes dozens of required components and attachments, each with set formatting restrictions. It is hard enough to comb through an assembly SF-424 package to check for errors prior to submission as it is. If I had to manually upload each of these grants, one at a time, one piece at a time, into a web forms system, I would not be able to do my job. Period.

    Post-submission, forms are processed by a clunky system in eRA Commons, then get referred to Grants.gov for eventual routing to the reviewing agency. The system has a series of automated checks built in to verify that the package is complete before it is assembled. This requires the various bits and pieces to be separate documents, as they are in an Acrobat package (and it is a package, with embedded attachments, not a flat PDF). This process is flaky and fragile enough as it is. Web forms are not going to improve the process, but they certainly would increase the workload for the AO by about 1000% and would definitely increase the error rate. This is also ignoring the fact that the forms are modular, in that some sections (like the budget) are only inserted as needed, and the necessity of being able to assemble and pre-check these things offline precludes any kind of web form system. The article writer is being intentionally obtuse and a bit naive here to make a shallow argument in favor of open standards. Heart is in the right place but reality is being ignored here.

    Tl;dr version: it's hard. We do the best we have with the tools provided. Just be glad Grants.gov didn't decide to use InfoPath instead of Acrobat.

  • Treasury Dept requires the use of Adobe Acrobat to fill out and submit the 'foreign bank account' form (I have to report every year on my Canadian RRSP - 401k equivalent- since it's more than $10k.)

    You would think the obvious way to do this is with a (secure) website. But no, that's not how Treasury does it. Instead, they have to have some back-end that extracts information from the specially crafted PDF that can only be submitted through Acrobat Reader (you can't just email or upload the filled-out PDF f

  • ...of 135 ISIS agents working within Adobe, Microsoft, and Apple.

    Look, it worked for McCarthy. I know it's mean, but we're playing for keeps here.

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