Fedora's advisory board is debating changing its long-followed tradition of selecting a code name for each new release according to a peculiar formula. Although the code names have never been an integral part of the distribution's marketing plan, the impending release of Fedora 17, with its crowd-selected moniker "Beefy Miracle", has stirred up several critics — some to take offense at the name itself, some who find it a burden to explain to outsiders, and some who simply want to do away with release code names altogether.
Fedora's release code names have a history pre-dating the project itself; the tradition started at Red Hat, which assigned a code name to each Red Hat desktop release according to a peculiar pattern wherein each pair of consecutive code names shared some relationship, but that relationship differed for every pair of releases. In those days, however, the connection between each new name and its predecessor remained a secret; the code name originated behind closed doors and when the new release landed, figuring out the link was part of the game.
That all changed when Fedora picked up the code name mantle, and instituted a public procedure for suggesting, vetting, and voting on each new release name. The project now takes suggestions on its wiki for each new development cycle, where submitters list the connection between the previous code name and their proposed follow-up. Red hat's legal department and the Fedora Advisory Board whittle down the options to a manageable number, and voting takes place on the Fedora project site.
Code name selection has not always been a smooth process, but no name
was quite as divisive as "Beefy Miracle," which was first proposed as a
code name for Fedora 16, and which lost out narrowly to the eventual winner
"Verne" — despite a public marketing campaign run on the behalf of
"Beefy Miracle". The name then resurfaced as a proposal for Fedora 17, and
this time won the poll. Fedora 17 is slated for release on May 8.
Even during the Fedora 16 voting cycle, "Beefy Miracle" was a controversial choice, partly for its nonsensical nature, but also because its connection to the previous code name "Lovelock" stretched the rules. The official guidelines state that each pair of code names must share an "is a" relationship (e.g., Laughlin is a city in Nevada, and Lovelock is a city in Nevada). The submitted connection between "Lovelock" and "Beefy Miracle" was that both strings would eventually produce the number five when fed through an iterative formula. The code name lost out to "Verne," of course, but the submitted connection for the Fedora 17 release name was also tenuous: that both "Verne" and "Beefy Miracle" had been proposed as possible code names for Fedora 16.
In October 2011, after the voting, there were several critics. Michael Schwendt called it impossible to explain to users; Christoph Wickert said it had no connection to the actual product, and another user named Roger lamented that it did not signify anything "important." But the most extreme reaction came from Bob Jensen, who stated his desire to end the use of code names altogether.
Jensen's 2011 call to end code names outright was terse and isolated to
his sole email, but more users echoed the same sentiment as the planning
cycle for Fedora 18 got underway in March. Stephen Smoogen called for an
end to the naming cycle or changing to a different format in a message
to the Fedora advisory-board list, saying "I am not sure what
'naming' does for us anymore. It is way too early in a release cycle to
'produce excitement'. [And if we can change out init systems, filesystem
layout, we can surely examine whether naming does much or if there is
something new we want to try.]"
In the resulting discussion, many of those who favor abolishing code
names seemed to see no value in the actual names themselves. Seth Vidal, for example, said that selecting names consumes time and effort, but that no one remembers them. In a separate message, he said that release numbers were more useful because they enable one to quickly figure out how old a particular release is by counting backwards, which Fedora's unordered code names do not.
Fedora project leader Robyn Bergeron countered that the code names are incorporated into wallpapers, other design elements, and marketing materials, that participants in the naming process enjoy it, and further contended that release numbers are only "memorable" because people memorize how to count when they are children. Máirín Duffy (who leads the Fedora design team) said that the designers rarely find the code names inspirational, and although she was not in favor of abandoning them entirely (saying release numbers alone would be "cold"), she advocated selecting an consistent, ongoing theme like many other distributions use. "The current naming system usually results in awkward names that require lengthy explanation to those not involved."
Others pointed out additional value in having code names. Jason Brooks observed that when looking for help, code names make for more useful search terms than do numbers. Zoltan Hopper likened naming releases to naming children, and said each release is the creation of the community and thus ought to have a personality or identity.
Nevertheless, many of those who stood up for preserving release code names found room for improvement in the process itself. Clint Savage (who defended the use of code names as a part of Fedora's traditions and pointed to the value of non-artwork marketing such as "Beefy Miracle"-themed hot dog roasts), argued that the value of the code names outweighed the work involved in the process of selecting them, and that "maybe the problem is just a matter of streamlining."
Hopper, like Duffy, suggested picking a single theme. Choosing a theme wisely, such as scientists or inventors, he said, would also assist in marketing the distribution by lining up with Fedora's efforts to stay cutting-edge. Replacing the current process with a new one was also suggested by Matthias Clasen, who said "the naming thing started as a fun game, then it got 'standardized', and now it is just one more process that has stopped to be either fun or useful. [...] Time to reevaluate and come up with something fresh and fun that we can do for each release."
Selecting a code name that offends no one
A distinct (and arguably more serious) issue raised on the
advisory-board list is the difficulty of choosing a code name that does not
offend the beliefs or sensibilities of anyone. That tricky subject was
raised first in a non-public ticket filed on the Advisory Board's issue
tracker. The bug filer, Rajesh Ranjan, subsequently agreed to make the
ticket's comment thread public by posting
it to the advisory-board list.
The specific problem Ranjan raises
is that the name "Beefy Miracle" is "is having a huge negative
cultural, social, and political connotation with respect to India and
several religions of India and [the] world." The cow is considered sacred in Hinduism, he said, so the term "beefy" is offensive because it refers to food made from beef, and it may be offensive to members of other religious groups as well as secular people from the Indian subcontinent. One commenter replied that as an international, non-religious and non-political project, Fedora should not seek to "appease" any specific belief systems — and that any code name chosen will inevitably offend someone.
That led others on the list to suggest picking a non-offensive code name "theme" — although upon further debate, finding a neutral theme is not so simple. Mario Juliano Grande Balletta suggested astronomy terms, but Josh Boyer pointed out that many astronomical object are named for potentially offensive things like the Roman god of war, and that any names of deities can be offensive to atheists. Duffy suggested coffee drinks, but Richard Fontana observed that some religions find caffeine offensive. Fontana also pointed out that the suggestion of famous scientists will undoubtedly skew towards men for historical reasons, while Ranjan noted that even numbers themselves can have negative cultural connotations.
Of course, picking names that have positive connotations
everywhere on the globe is no simple task; consider the Mer project's
debate in October 2011, which produced gems like "Meer" (which sounds
diminutive in English), "MerDE" (which is unflattering in French),
"Mermade" (which looks like a typo), and "Mermer" (which sounds
difficult to understand on a phone).
Given the impossibility of pleasing all of the people all of the time,
talk turned to practical measures that the project could take to weed out
offensive names during the code name selection process.
asking the translation mailing list to look for offensive terms, since it
encompasses a wide cultural circle.
Nicu Buculei said
that sounded like too much work, and user John Rose (aka inode0) speculated that it would be too hard to get volunteers to tackle the necessary code name vetting.
the importance of avoiding offensive terms, but expressed her faith in
the Fedora community to catch and call attention to such offensive terms
in code names and elsewhere:
I believe that 99.999% of the time, if or when an
egregiously offensive *anything* comes up, people speak up. We've seen
this in the past with a small handful of issues, and the community has
always taken the steps to assess and sometimes correct those issues,
case-by-case, through discussion and reasonable judgement.
Nevertheless, she advocated forwarding the code name suggestion list to the
the translators for review, at the same time that it is sent to Red Hat's
legal office for approval.
As to abandoning code names altogether, there has yet to be a real consensus on the board. Several people suggested adding an option to the Fedora 18 ballot to drop code names in future releases, while others felt that that question should be submitted to a separate vote. The window for suggesting code names for Fedora 18 is now closed, and the board has until March 30 to perform its own analysis of the suggestions. Voting will commence April 6; thus whichever route the board decides to take on the no-more-code-names question, the world will see it soon enough.
Fedora would not be the only distribution to make releases without a code name if it does choose that route; openSUSE, Slackware, and many others work without them, too. On the other hand, code names are an accepted practice — although most others do use a set theme. Debian uses Toy Story characters, Sugar uses fruit. A dimension not raised on the advisory board thread is that many projects stick to an alphabetic sequence for their code names, which makes them easier to sort into the correct order. That list includes Android's desserts, Ubuntu's adjective animals, and even Maemo's trade-winds. Plenty of other open source projects also use release names, whether they are chosen to communicate a message or are fully tongue-in-cheek. Perhaps Fedora's experience with "Beefy Miracle" will prompt a change of pace, but whichever direction the project heads from here, it will at least have made a conscious decision about what role — if any — its code names ought to play in its overall message.
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