Comic Book Hero? Busy Executive by Day and Linux Developer by Night

Posted by tadelste on Dec 31, 2005 10:40 PM EDT
LXer; By H. Kwint
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  LXer feature

Fabio Marzocca represents a new class of innovators in the twenty-first century. He's living proof that talented people can make a contribution to global technology even when the corporate maw would eat them up and spit them out. In what other era of human endeavor would such an individual be allowed to make a difference?

Fabio: Ubuntu developer, but also member of the Italian Ubuntu LoCoTeam, father of two children, and for his employment, dealing with company management and reorganizations.

LXer interviewed him, and asked him questions about his personal life, his view on Linux and Ubuntu in particular, and about two applications of which he is the developer and maintainer: the BUM graphical Boot-Up Manager, and the Baobab graphical disk-space viewer.

We invite you into his life to see what the future may bring.

LXer: Can you tell us something about yourself? Also, tell us briefly about your history in information technology. When did you get involved? How, and what have you done?

Fabio: I was born in October 1956 (yes.. 49 years ago), and I have a PhD in electronic engineering.

During my studies, I was employed as a technical writer at one of the first Italian computer magazines, McMicrocomputer. It was around 1980-1982, so computers were not what they are today! We experimented on electronic boards with CPUs like 8080, small ram, floppy disks (5”) and assembler programming. It was an amazing experience as I wrote about hardware tests on new-born computers, software and transmission protocols. I was also one of the first pioneers in the Italian packet radio transmission. I remember also I have completely disassembled the internal code of a pocket-computer (this was their name!) from Sharp, and published several articles concerning how to use assembler to write programs on it, using full range of undocumented functions. So, I was involved in IT during my electronics studies.

Then, after getting my degree, I started my professional life, and it was always far away from coding. I was mainly involved in managerial activity in the Aviation market. I was Technical Director for an aviation company, then I was Director General for a large government entity in the aviation and transport world, where I have managed the Agency’s privatization from public entities to companies. Now I am dealing with company management and reorganizations.

My IT story includes a period of coding SQL for Oracle applications in the years 1985-1986. Then, in 1992, I set up a program for music-composing for Windows named The Muzical Wizard (you can read the story here:, it's interesting!) It was first for Windows 3.1, then for 95 and then for ME. The application has been rewarded by Electronic Musician, a magazine for music lovers.

I have two children, a boy of 20 and a girl of 10.

LXer: Tell us some more about yourself please, such as where you live, the
things you like to do, anything important in your life.

Fabio: I live in Rome, Italy.

Things I like?? Wow... a lot! First of all, computing has always been my major activity in spare time. I feel coding activity as a sort of “creative process” that gives me a lot of personal satisfaction. I also like music (I play guitar and “try” to sing), reading books, experimenting electronic devices. Spending my time with my 2 children is always my best activity!

LXer How did you get involved with Linux, and Ubuntu in particular?

Fabio: I have a typical “experimenting” approach towards anything is new, and when Linux came out I was extremely curious. Then, about 4 years ago, I was tired about Windows capabilities because I felt it was choking any free experimenting activity, so I gave Linux a try.... and I fallen in love! I have developed several web-based applications. I believe that, in a large company, everybody should prefer using web- based application (where it's possible) so that they are not bound to operating systems, machine capabilities, different behaviors, and so on. Just use a browser, access the company's application with secure login, and everybody will have the same interface and behavior, on Windows, Linux, Mac, and so on. Further on, Open Source, GPL, FSF, all gave me a strong motivation.

I started with Debian, in order to have a solid base underneath me.. Now I have switched to Ubuntu for my day-by-day activity. Being an experimenter, I always like to play with CLI but I also understand that to spread Linux over the world you need to make it simple and more “human”!

My first switch to Ubuntu was due to their “Manifest”. I read the Ubuntu philosophy and I said to myself it was my philosophy! Of course, Ubuntu's philosophy was a sort of “life mood” and when you drop it on a big process as Canonical did, you have to deal with people that come from different experiences, and it is hard for Mr. Shuttleworth to keep his “ideal” world into a “real” one.
Ubuntu's project has been for sure one of the most interesting in the last few years. But what I want to stress is that it owes its success to technical reasons, not to his philosophy.

LXer: How do you manage to balance work, personal life and your work as a voluntary programmer for Ubuntu? This must all take a lot of your time.

Fabio: Yes, that's true. It is like a sort of tightrope walking between all of these activities! What I am really trying to do is not catching any time from my sons. It is a daily balancing activity, but I can't give up coding as it gives me so much emotional strength.

LXer: Can you tell us short about what your father did in WW II ?

Fabio: If you are referring to Raffaele Marzocca, he was my uncle. He was an aviator, a fighter ace and he was multi-decorated during the second world war. You can find some biographic note on my web site at this page: He died in 1997.

LXer: Do you spend much time making music (on the computer, or do you play instruments)? Do you use Linux for music now? Which Linux programs can you advice for musicians, if any?

Fabio: I play guitar and in the past I was used to make electronic music and composing with the PC. Recently, due to what we said at previous question, I had to slow down with this activity. With Linux I used Rosegarden and Audacity to make music.

LXer: How do you feel about software patents in the EU? Can they be a hindrance for developers like you?

Fabio: I don't believe they will ever be an hindrance if you really write free software, using only free software tools. Recently, the European Council stopped the proposal to allow software patents in EU, so maybe things are going towards the right direction. Introducing software patents in Europe, will cause great economic problems in all European software markets.

LXer: Can you tell us, in your own words, what makes Ubuntu different from the other GNU/Linux distributions?

Fabio: Ubuntu has a great community that is working hard on development and specifications, and it is released regularly and predictably; a new release is made every six months. Each release is supported with free security updates and fixes for at least 18 months. This means that the operating system is constantly monitored for quality and performance. The support is very strong, also through local communities. I am one of the four members of the Italian Ubuntu LoCoTeam and we have set up:

-A web site,,

-A forum,,

-A wiki,,

-A guide,,

-A mailing list,,

-And finally, an IRC channel, #ubuntu-it on FreeNode.

The current stable version, 05.10, is running Gnome 2.12 on a very stable and strong environment.

LXer: Was it difficult to get Ubuntu running on your Thinkpad?

Fabio: No, it was a cakewalk. You can read my experience here:

LXer: What is the story in Italy about Linux? Is the government moving into it? Are you an advocate? What about the community? How active is it? Are you active in it?

Fabio: Several local authorities (counties, cities) have adopted Linux, but the way is still very long. There is still a general conviction that if something is free, it is not valuable. Italian Linux communities have still to work a lot to improve on this. I was involved several times in setting up the Italian Ubuntu community, and now I'm a member of the Italian LoCoTeam. I also have a lot of friends in it and they are becoming very active.
Other older communities (Debian, Gentoo, Fedora) are very active too.

LXer: How do you see the (near) feature of Linux, worldwide, but especially in Italy?

Fabio: The problem of Linux in Italy is mainly due to a lack of information. Very often companies, professionals and privates do not adopt Linux just because they do not know about its features and power. Linux does not have great economic strength to support international marketing and promotional activities, but it only relies on volunteers. Recently the City of Rome has adopted Linux in all of its desktop and servers. Increasing the information about Linux, will increase use of Linux. And this is only true for desktop, as the server market is already well-acknowledged about Linux and FreeBSD superiority concerning performances, security and stability over other Operating Systems.

LXer: Why did you decide to write BUM? Tell me about the technical
difficulties involved. It's a wonderful utility - do you have further plans for it?

Fabio: I decided few months ago, looking at the forums and mailing lists, where a lot of users where asking how to activate and deactivate scripts at boot time. I took the decision after reading the answers to those questions! A normal user will become mad and also – sometimes – the suggestions where very wrong (just delete a symlink, change the executable script to non-executable, use update-rc.d). The runlevel configuration world is a mess if you don't have a deep knowledge the whole runlevel process. So i decided to setup a graphical application using Perl-Gtk2. It wasn't worth to use C on such an application, and as I needed strong string-parsing capabilities, Perl was the best choice. At the beginning it was hard to give to the user a simple view of what runlevel system is in! So, I introduced a “Summary” view which can be easily used for simple activate and deactivate actions. Then I noticed that the description of the service was not so friendly for a lot of new users, so I have coded “human” short description for each service. I collected this descriptions through a
wiki with the participation of the community.

BUM is still evolving, heading towards a strict compliance with the Debian SysV-rc system. You cannot imagine how complex it is... The new version 2.1.2 is out.

Currently, Debian is undertaking the process for inclusion of BUM in Debian's archives.

[Ed: - Update: Fabio told me, BUM, Baobab and GtkOrphan are all on Debian testing/unstable and Ubuntu Dapper Drake! - hkwint]

LXer: Could BUM also run on other non-Debian distributions? Are there / have there been any plans to 'port' it to other distributions?

Fabio: Boot-Up Manager is written in Perl-Gtk2, so really no "porting" is needed as it can run on any distribution and any platform (it only needs perl gtk2 libraries). The problem is that BUM will be useful only on distributions that use the System-V like system of booting, shutting down and changing runlevels configured through symbolic links in the /etc/rc?.d directories, like Debian and other Debian-derivatives do. This is also true for one of my other projects, GtkOrphan which detects and removes any "orphaned" libraries or packages on a Debian-like system.

LXer: About Baobab: I discovered this is a big Indian tree. How did you came up with the name, since it isn't a common name?

Fabio: I knew about the Baobab tree many years ago and it was in my mind every time I had to figure something that is nested through many levels, like Baobab's branches. When I started coding the program, the Baobab tree was the best suggestion I had to imagine the directory trees, nested many levels down.

LXer: Why did you start with Baobab? What value do you see in it?

Fabio: I wrote Baobab as I was tired to switch to GUI to launch 'du' and check size of my directories in hard disk. In almost all cases, I am receiving mails saying “You don't know how many Gigabytes were lost in my files in the disk, and I didn't even know before using Baobab!”. I felt the need to see what was going on in my file system: that's why Baobab born.
In this case I used C/gtk+ as I needed speed while scanning the whole file system.

LXer: What does the next picture show us?

Fabio: It is the graphical tree-map representation of the /etc folder on my PC! With v.2.0 Baobab has introduced graphical tree-maps. By right-clicking over a folder, you can select the "Folder graphical map" option. This will open a new full screen window with the graphical tree-map of the selected folder. The user can open as many tree-map windows as he wants. Each selected folder can be represented as a tree-map graph, with the big advantage of showing , at a glance, how exactly is space allocated and what is occupying the space, even the directory is nested many levels down. The level of depth can be adjusted and the tree-map can be zoomed in/out as far as wanted, and saved into an image file (png, jpeg or bmp format).

The tree-map concept has been developed by Schneiderman in the '90s. The tree-map is constructed via recursive subdivision of the initial folder. The size of each sub-rectangle corresponds to the size of the node. The direction of subdivision alternates per level: first horizontally, next vertically, etcetera. As a result, the initial rectangle is partitioned into smaller rectangles, such that the size of each rectangle reflects the size of the leaf. The structure of the tree is also reflected in the tree- map, as a result of its construction. Color and annotation can be used to give extra information about the leaves. Tree-maps are very effective when size is the most important feature to be displayed.

LXer: What are the advantages off Baobab over Nautilus?

Fabio: Baobab is a tool that works "with" Nautilus, and not "in place of" Nautilus. It integrates things that Nautilus doesn't show such as the tree view with sizes and percentages on each branch, and the graphical tree-map. When you need to have a correct view of how disk space is spread and distributed over your hard disk, you should use Baobab.

LXer: What are the future plans for Baobab?

Fabio: Just last week I have released v. 2.2.0. It now fully supports scanning of remote folders on remote servers through SSH, FTP, WEBDAV, SMB, etcetera. This is a nice feature, as you can also analyze hard disk distribution space on a remote server. Baobab is on Gnome CVS and it is a project. The 2 last versions has been developed concurrently with 2 great Gnome developers: Benoit Dejan and Paolo Borelli. I think that a future plan will include a deeper integration into Nautilus.

» Read more about: Story Type: Interview, LXer Features; Groups: Debian, Ubuntu

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