Ohio LinuxFest report: "Forty Years of Unix"

Posted by tuxchick on Sep 28, 2009 12:26 PM EDT
LXer Linux News; By anonymous
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LXer Feature: 28-Sept-2009

I just got back from OhioLinuxFest "Forty Years of Unix," and I want to report on what I heard, who I saw, and what I learned. I wasn't sure how it would be this year, with a slowed economy. Compared to last year, it had fewer exhibitors, but roughly the same number of attendees. The raffle tickets sold out, which is a good sign for any fund-raising activity.

I just got back from OhioLinuxFest "Forty Years of Unix," and I want to report on what I heard, who I saw, and what I learned.

I wasn't sure how it would be this year, with a slowed economy. Compared to last year, it had fewer exhibitors, but roughly the same number of attendees. The raffle tickets sold out, which is a good sign for any fund-raising activity.

I arrived shortly after 10:00, and the day of exhibitions and speeches was already in full swing. Given some of the recent articles on LXer, I decided to take note of how many women were there. Roughly 1/3 of the exhibit staff, and about 1/10 of the attendees were women.

Of the exhibitors, three got my particular interest: the Columbus Idea Foundry, Linux in a Hamshack, and the Free Software Foundation.

The Columbus Idea Foundry (http://www.columbusideafoundry.com/) provides tools, workspace, and training for people who have design ideas, but aren't sure how to bring them to fruition. They had on exhibit a steampunk-inspired clock, specially designed for the occasion, to present to Dr. Douglas McIlroy for his lifetime achievement in promoting good program design. (More on that later.)

Linux in a Hamshack is exactly what it sounds like. Looking at their setup, and talking to the staff at the table, re-invigorated my desire to get my amateur radio license. They strongly suggested an online study guide, as well as a nearby "cram session" that concludes with the Technician class test.

The Free Software Foundation was taking membership subscriptions, which sadly I had to decline. However, I did get to demonstrate their new "bootable business card," an SD unit in a "unibody" USB dongle. I'm hard-pressed to describe it, except to say it's like a hard-shell business card with a USB plug molded out from one end. The demo unit had 1G of storage, with gNewSense 2.3 installed, but dropping storage costs means their next version will have 2G. I tried it on my EeePC, which quickly turned into a demo for passers-by. I could let it run for only a few minutes, as the battery was already below 50% as gNewSense was booting.

Kudos to the OhioLinux staff and Paul "fericyde" Ferris for organizing a mini "job fair" at the last minute. The format was simple: Potential employers announced themselves, then took tables in the back, and those looking for work mingled and chatted. I saw several resumes and first interviews; hopefully someone will find new opportunities.

I got to see two impressive speeches, by Elizabeth Garbee and Dr. Douglas McIlroy. Unfortunately, I lost track of the time, and missed most of Dr. Peter Salus' speech.

Elizabeth Garbee may have been simply "dale's daughter" at one time, but she is now a name to watch for. Her talk was titled "How to Pay for College with FOSS," focusing on how FOSS figured into her pursuit of scholarships. At the (*ahem*) tender age of 17, she is showing an ability to organize and reflect that most of her peers don't yet have. Partly the talk was how FOSS kept her from being tied to proprietary tools. For example, compared to Microsoft Word, Open Office.org Writer is more user-friendly, makes fewer assumptions, and has fewer wasted bits (like the annoying, cloying "Clippy").

But she also talked about the benefits of involvement in a FOSS project, such as communication skills, inter-cultural familiarity, and the publicly available record of commitment to the project. These can all make a difference, not only to a college recruiter, but to anyone considering bringing you on board. She offered her own presentation as an example of the benefits of taking risks. Her first talk at age 13 was "Extending Tuxracer – Learning by Playing," and her original intention was to accompany her father to Australia. But her creative bent, and her clear passion for FOSS, has benefited her four years later in ways she didn't expect.

Immediately following, I got the chance to thank Dru Lavigne for her excellent FreeBSD articles. There was a time I used FreeBSD on the job; what I learned about it, came from two sympathetic sysadmins. Since then, I have examined FreeBSD only from curiosity, and probably 80% of my research efforts have led me to Dru Lavigne's articles. Without exception, her writings have been clear, concise, and focused on results, rather than arcane philosophy. I dropped Carla Schroder's name, and Ms. Lavigne expressed similar admiration for her ability to "cut through the cr@p." Both of you, keep up the good work.

The closing keynote speaker was Dr. Douglas McIlroy, on "A Surfeit of Sophistication." He is most famous on the Internet for his concept of "Unix pipes," borne from his philosophy that "a program should do one thing, and do it well." His thesis was that sophistication should not be expected of the user, but rather built into the program, and his career in programming backs this up. In a life-imitates-art moment, he demonstrated just how literal is Mies van der Rohe's statement "less is more": the man page for "more" shows 10 options and 20 commands, while the man page for "less" shows 46 options and 60 commands. For an interactive demonstration of option overload, simply type "less --help" on a Linux command line.

As an example of appropriate sophistication beneath a simple interface, he discussed "egrep". Its strength is not that it can search for an unlimited number of phrases, but that its speed is not affected by the number or length of search phrases. The sophisticated programming to accomplish this is hidden from the user, but nonetheless necessary for its utility.

He made special note of early Unix developer Norman Wilson, who in 5 years made a negative contribution to the Unix base. That is, he removed more code than he added. His efforts made Unix smaller, more robust, faster, and easier to maintain.

But perhaps Dr. McIlroy's statement that most demonstrated the benefits of the constraints of simplicity was this, on switching from MULTICS to early Unix: "Going from a megabyte [of RAM] to eight kilobytes was an improvement in stability, an improvement in usability, and it was a helluva lot more fun." This drew applause from the audience, surpassed only by the standing ovation he got at the end of his presentation.

This year's OhioLinuxFest was just as informative and entertaining as the years past. I hope the OhioLinux crew keeps up the excellent trend!

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Subject Topic Starter Replies Views Last Post
Good read. Who's anonymous? Sander_Marechal 14 2,053 Oct 1, 2009 3:27 PM
Greg Boehnlein organized the job fair PaulFerris 0 1,339 Oct 1, 2009 3:14 AM

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