Ottawa Linux Symposium: May get by with a little help from its friends


Paw Prints: Writings of the maddog

Jul 29, 2014 GMT
Jon maddog Hall

I do not often do this, but old friend is in trouble.  Please stay with me as I tell this story.
It was around the year 2002, and I was in Brazil.  I met two young college students who were very interested in Linux, and who impressed me with their enthusiasm and willingness to help others.  I asked them what they would really like to do, and their answer was to attend the Ottawa Linux Symposium (OLS) in Ottawa, Canada and to meet Linus Torvalds.
I was not surprised about either desire.  OLS had been going on for a number of years, taking the place of the Raleigh Linux Expo that had been run by Red Hat.  But while the last Linux Expo was more like a hippie be-in, with people in bare feet throwing Frisbees on the lawn of Duke University, OLS was a conference that required papers to be written about the presentations being done.  Real papers, with a real book made out of them.  Several times workshops were set up for various sub-groups to do "hackathons", and over several years the Kernel Summit was held at OLS.
For those of you who just use software instead of producing it, and even for some of you who develop software, sometimes there are many more steps than just “sitting down and hacking out code”.
A lot of thought and research often goes into the code.  Perhaps someone has solved the problem before, or perhaps there are better ways of solving the problem.  This research is often written into papers, reviewed by other programmers (peer review), and made as public as possible so people will look at it, think about it and comment on it.  This happens at most conferences, but often the work is only talked about with the aid of slides, and not the detail and thought processes that would be included in a written paper.  OLS was one of the conferences that encouraged writing of a paper, and having it published in a book.
OLS was also one of the conferences where a “first time paper writer” might have a chance of having his paper selected, published and (for the first time) stand in front of a knowledgeable audience, with the speaker's legs shaking, as they presented their thoughts and asked for opinions.
The list of major and minor advances in Linux architecture which were first discussed at OLS is quite impressive, and often these papers led to actual implementation in later kernels.
Another advantage of OLS is that visas, difficult for many nationalities to get for the USA, are relatively  easy for potential speakers to receive from Canada, and certain obnoxious laws, such as the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (among others) do not exist in Canada either.  Alan Cox has never had to voice his disdain over visiting Canada, as he has done for the USA.
OLS was not all work however, and often the organizers would be leading a bunch of geeks through a
downtown area where good bars and restaurants waited for talk that extended late into the night.  It is at one of these receptions that I met a young man with hoop earrings in his ears that later became one of the leaders of the quantum computer project at the University of Waterloo.
The two university students from Brazil mysteriously found two round-trip airline tickets appear in their mailboxes, which flew them to Boston's Logan airport and then a short drive to Linux International headquarters in New Hampshire.  After that a drive across country to Ottawa (being subjected to stories of early computers) they arrived at a hotel in Ottawa and were taken out to dinner by their mysterious benefactor.   While at dinner, the architect of the Linux kernel happened by, and joined the two students at their table.  Even ten years later they still list OLS as one of the highlights of their computer career.  This is the type of environment that existed.
The astute reader may notice a past tense to this blog entry.  After fifteen years OLS is closing its doors.  The economy, along with what we will call an “unfortunate sponsor situation”, has forced a financial burden on the main producer of the event.  In a last ditch attempt to keep the event alive, he has turned to an Indiegogo “crowd-sourcing” project to help raise awareness to the situation and to raise funds for the next event.  He has created a page with “perks”, which include discounts to future OLS symposia, assuming they happen.
For those of you who have gone in the past, and for those of you that want to go in the future, think about donating a bit of money to help get this symposium back on its feet.  Even the smallest donation on the site will show potential sponsors that symposium like this are important.
Carpe Diem!

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