Helping Devils at Linux.conf.au

Jan 26, 2009

Linux.conf.au came to a close Friday after dozens of excellent talks, great social events, and the unexpected shaving of Bdale Garbee for the Tasmanian Devil.

As mentioned in Wednesday's coverage, LCA consists of rather a lot of talks. Thursday, I spent a fair portion of the day preparing for my own talk on marketing FOSS projects. (It should be pointed out that the LCA folks are very nice to speakers, including giving small tokens of recognition and holding a dinner for speakers at the begining of the conference. For a volunteer-run conference, LCA certainly could teach a lot to commercial conferences.)

When the Kernel and Userspace Don't Talk

On Thursday, Michael Kerrisk gave a presentation on communication and collaboration between kernel and userspace developers. Kerrisk talked about some of the challenges in the current model of kernel development, and presented some suggestions to help solve the problems.

Key among Kerrisk's identified problems is the amount of testing: or, rather, lack thereof. Kerrisk said that there wasn't enough testing of new features in the kernel before they'd become part of the stable kernel. While features would undergo review and revision by kernel developers, Kerrisk pointed out that the actual consumers of features (i.e., userspace developers) might not really interact with features until they were part of the shipping kernel – and thus, part of the kernel ABI, which should remain stable. After becoming part of the stable ABI, refactoring features to meet real world needs could be a problem.

So, Kerrisk encouraged the kernel developers to communicate "better" with userspace developers. This seems like common sense, but actually realizing this may be a bit more difficult. However, Keith Packard's discussion earlier in the week, where he noted that the X.org team went out of its way to coordinate with the kernel team to get changes accepted, show that it's not impossible.

In addition to more communication and collaborative devlopment between kernel and userspace devs, Kerrisk also suggested that testing of the kernel needs to be improved. However, as he pointed out, reading kernel code isn't trivial – so getting testers who can read and review kernel code who aren't kernel developers, might be somewhat challenging.

One hopes Kerrisk will evangelize his suggestions beyond LCA. However, Kerrisk noted that the funding for his position (he works for the Linux Foundation) is drying up. Minus new funding, Kerrisk noted that he'd have to look for new work that might likely not leave time for his kernel work.

A Mighty Network, A Waning Desktop

One of the biggest problems at a lot of conferences is that the conference network folds like oragami as soon as the first traffic rush hits it – usually about 20 minutes into the first keynote.

While LCA's network exhibited some mild flakiness on a few occasions, overall it was a very stable and usable network. This is pretty important for all kinds of reasons. The conference organizers are to be commended on the success of supporting thousands of LCA attendees – no doubt through updates and even ISO downloads.

Unfortunately, it would seem many of the systems partaking of the network were not, in fact, Linux-based. While there was plenty of Linux to be seen at LCA, a significant percentage of attendees were sporting Macbooks and MacBook Pros – running the native Mac OS X.

It's not at all unusual to observe Mac OS X as far as the eye can see at OSCON or other open source shows. However, One might expect the LCA crowd to be a bit more partisan in its choice of desktop. I quizzed a few attendees with Mac OS X and received a range of answers – usually boiling down to "convenience." Simon Phipps, Friday's keynote, a Sun employee and advocate of OpenSolaris, also gave his presentation using a Mac. Participants in other projects with free desktop offerings were also found using Mac OS X. This is a bit discouraging. I have to hope that this is a short-lived trend.

A Close Shave

In an effort to raise money for worthy causes, LCA organizers hold auctions each year to raise money during the Penguin Dinner. This year was no different, but the outcome was a tad unusual.

When bidding stalled at A$2,500, Bdale Garbee, longtime Debian contributor and HP's Linux and open source CTO, had his beard added to sweeten the auction – assuming the bidding went above A$25,000. Indeed, when all was said and done, the kitty went well over A$36,000, which will go directly to research to help Tasmanian Devils.

The beard was collected in front of a massive audience on Friday. Linus Torvalds himself took garden shears to Garbee's beard for one snip, then went after Garbee's beard with clippers. Garbee finished the shave himself, all while onlookers took numerous pictures and even sent status updates to Twitter (which were displayed on a large overhead projector. The best tweet was something akin to "umount /dev/beard").

Arjen Lentz also gave his all – all of his hair, that is – prior to Garbee's shaving. It's either a testament to deep altruism or odd sense of humor (or both) that the community was able to raise tens of thousands for Tasmanian wildlife by sacrificing the pelts of some of its leading lights.

The event made local Australian news – turning up on television and in the local paper. (Oddly, the headline in the Mercury cited "Linux rivals," though no one seems to understand the rival comment.) If the organizers had hoped that the event would drive a bit of publicity, then they were indeed rewarded far beyond expectations.

Open Media

Friday afternoon I sat in on Rob Savoye's talk about open media. Savoye is well-known for working on Gnash, and is working on Open Media Now, a non-profit that's working on open media projects.

Savoye talked about the issues surrounding free software, media patents and codecs, and the general problems that FOSS enthusiasts encounter in supporting multimedia. Savoye says that the problem is well known, but that no one has been tackling the problem before Open Media Now.

One of the points Savoye stressed is that we should use open formats in order to preserve data. He related a story where his local government had a system go down without backups, and no way to access government data because they'd lost the proprietary software and the company was no longer in business to acquire it from again. Because the data was in a proprietary format, they had no way to get at it without reverse-engineering it – and no resources to do so.

From the audience reaction, it's clear that this is an issue that many FOSS supporters are passionate about. The session was very lively, with a lot of back and forth between the audience and speaker.

Peace, Love, and Rockets

What's a Friday at LCA without a talk on high velocity projectiles? After donating his beard to charity, Garbee still delivered his popular talk on rocketry.
This talk was quite a lot of fun, and also included some cautionary tales on hardware that requires proprietary software or firmware. Garbee talked about some of his efforts sending up rockets, building his own motors and control systems. Bad things happen, he pointed out, when recovery chutes deploy before the stopped accellerating... for example, the rocket tends to break into rather more pieces than the rocketeer may have desired.

Of course, free software plays a role in Garbee's work with rockets, and while not the main focus of the talk, the examples given were useful to highlight the advantages (for users) of open systems over closed and proprietary ones.

He also showed a few videos of rocket launches, which were enough to make this geek want to run out and start buying launchables at the nearest opportunity.

Closing

The final LCA session consisted of lightning talks and giving credit to the organizers for their hard work – and, of course, announcing the next location for LCA.

Once again, the conference will depart the lush shores of Australia and take place in New Zealand. In 2010, LCA-bound geeks can set their sights for Wellington, New Zealand.

Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier is a longtime FOSS advocate, and currently works for Novell as the community manager for openSUSE. Prior to joining Novell, Brockmeier worked as a technology journalist covering the open source beat.

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