Shallow Thoughts : tags : conferences

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing, Science, and Nature.

Wed, 23 Apr 2014

Some code from PiDoorbell

If anyone has been waiting for the code repository for PiDoorbell, the Raspberry Pi project we presented at PyCon a couple of weeks ago, at least part of it (the parts I wrote) is also available in my GitHub scripts repo, in the rpi subdirectory. It's licensed as GPLv2-or-later.

That includes the code that drives the HC-SR04 sonar rangefinder, and the script that takes photos and handles figuring out whether you have a USB camera or a Pi Camera module.

It doesn't include the Dropbox or Twilio code. For that I'm afraid you'll have to wait for the official PiDoorbell repo. I'm not clear what the holdup is on getting the repo opened up.

The camera script, piphoto.py, has changed quite a bit in the couple of weeks since PyCon. I've been working on a similar project that doesn't use the rangefinder, and relies only on the camera to detect motion, by measuring changes between the previous photo and the current one. I'm building a wildlife camera, and the rangefinder trick doesn't work well if there's a bird feeder already occupying the target range.

Of course, using motion detection means I'll get a lot of spurious photos of shadows, tree limbs bending in the wind and so forth. It'll be an interesting challenge seeing if I can make the code smart enough to handle that. Of course, I'll write about the project in much more detail once I have it working.

It looks like the biggest issue will be finding a decent camera I can control from a Pi. The Pi Camera module looked so appealing -- and it comes in a night version, with the IR filter removed, perfect for those coyote, rabbit and deer pictures! -- but sadly, it looks like its quality is so poor that it really isn't useful for much of anything. It's great for detecting what types of animals visit you (especially at night), but, sadly, no good for taking photos you'd actually want to display.

If anyone knows of a good camera that can be driven from Linux over USB -- perhaps a normal digital camera that supports the USB camera protocol? -- please let me know! My web searches so far haven't been very illuminating.

Meanwhile, I hope someone finds the rangefinder and camera driving software useful. And stay tuned for more detailed articles about my wildlife camera project!

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[ 11:57 Apr 23, 2014    More hardware | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Thu, 17 Apr 2014

Back from PyCon

I'm back from Montreal, settling back in.

The PiDoorbell tutorial went well, in the end. Of course just about everything that could go wrong, did. The hard-wired ethernet connection we'd been promised didn't materialize, and there was no way to get the Raspberry Pis onto the conference wi-fi because it used browser authentication (it still baffles me why anyone still uses that! Browser authentication made sense in 2007 when lots of people only had 801.11g and couldn't do WPA; it makes absolutely zero sense now).

Anyway, lacking a sensible way to get everyone's Pis on the net, Deepa stepped as network engineer for the tutorial and hooked up the router she had brought to her laptop's wi-fi connection so the Pis could route through that.

Then we found we had too few SD cards. We didn't realize why until afterward: when we compared the attendee count to the sign-up list we'd gotten, we had quite a few more attendees than we'd planned for. We had a few extra SD cards, but not enough, so I and a couple of the other instructors/TAs had to loan out SD cards we'd brought for our own Pis. ("Now edit /etc/network/interfaces ... okay, pretend you didn't see that, that's the password for my home router, now delete that and change it to ...")

Then some of the SD cards turned out not to have been updated with the latest packages, Mac users couldn't find the drivers to run the serial cable, Windows users (or was it Macs?) had trouble setting static ethernet addresses so they could ssh to the Pi, all the problems we'd expected and a few we hadn't.

But despite all the problems, the TAs: Deepa (who was more like a co-presenter than a TA), Serpil, Lyz and Stuart, plus Rupa and I, were able to get everyone working. All the attendees got their LEDs blinking, their sonar rangefinders rangefinding, and the PiDoorbell script running. Many people brought cameras and got their Pis snapping pictures when the sensor registered someone in front of it. Time restrictions and network problems meant that most people didn't get the Dropbox and Twilio registration finished to get notifications sent to their phones, but that's okay -- we knew that was a long shot, and everybody got far enough that they can add the network notifications later if they want.

And the most important thing is that everybody looked like they were having a good time. We haven't seen the reviews (I'm not sure if PyCon shares reviews with the tutorial instructors; I hope so, but a lot of conferences don't) but I hope everybody had fun and felt like they got something out of it.

The rest of PyCon was excellent, too. I went to some great talks, got lots of ideas for new projects and packages I want to try, had fun meeting new people, and got to see a little of Montreal. And ate a lot of good food.

Now I'm back in the land of enchantment, with its crazy weather -- we've gone from snow to sun to cold breezes to HOT to threatening thunderstorm in the couple of days I've been back. Never a dull moment! I confess I'm missing those chocolate croissants for breakfast just a little bit. We still don't have internet: it's nearly 9 weeks since Comcast's first visit, and their latest prediction (which changes every time I talk to them) is a week from today.

But it's warm and sunny this morning, there's a white-crowned sparrow singing outside the window, and I've just seen our first hummingbird (a male -- I think it's a broad-tailed, but it'll take a while to be confident of IDs on all these new-to-me birds). PyCon was fun -- but it's nice to be home.

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[ 10:20 Apr 17, 2014    More conferences | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sun, 06 Apr 2014

Snow-Hail while preparing for Montreal

Things have been hectic in the last few days before I leave for Montreal with last-minute preparation for our PyCon tutorial, Build your own PiDoorbell - Learn Home Automation with Python next Wednesday.

[Snow-hail coming down on the Piñons] But New Mexico came through on my next-to-last full day with some pretty interesting weather. A windstorm in the afternoon gave way to thunder (but almost no lightning -- I saw maybe one indistinct flash) which gave way to a strange fluffy hail that got gradually bigger until it eventually grew to pea-sized snowballs, big enough and snow enough to capture well in photographs as they came down on the junipers and in the garden.

Then after about twenty minutes the storm stopped the sun came out. And now I'm back to tweaking tutorial slides and thinking about packing while watching the sunset light on the Rio Grande gorge.

But tomorrow I leave it behind and fly to Montreal. See you at PyCon!

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[ 18:55 Apr 06, 2014    More misc | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Wed, 29 Jan 2014

PyCon Tutorial: Build your own PiDoorbell - Learn Home Automation with Python

[Raspberry Pi from wikipedia] The first batch of hardware has been ordered for Rupa's and my tutorial at PyCon in Montreal this April!

We're presenting Build your own PiDoorbell - Learn Home Automation with Python on the afternoon of Wednesday, April 9.

It'll be a hands-on workshop, where we'll experiment with the Raspberry Pi's GPIO pins and learn how to control simple things like an LED. Then we'll hook up sonar rangefinders to the RPis, and build a little device that can be used to monitor visitors at your front door, birds at your feeder, co-workers standing in front of your monitor while you're away, or just about anything else you can think of.

Participants will bring their own Raspberry Pi computers and power supplies -- attendees of last year's PyCon got them there, but a new Model A can be gotten for $30, and a model B for $40.

We'll provide everything else. We worried that requiring participants to bring a long list of esoteric hardware was just asking for trouble, so we worked a deal with PyCon and they're sponsoring hardware for attendees. Thank you, PyCon! CodeChix is fronting the money for the kits and helping with our travel expenses, thanks to donations from some generous sponsors. We'll be passing out hardware kits and SD cards at the beginning of the workshop, which attendees can take home afterward.

We're also looking for volunteer T/As. The key to a good hardware workshop is having lots of helpers who can make sure everybody's keeping up and nobody's getting lost. We have a few top-notch T/As signed up already, but we can always use more. We can't provide hardware for T/As, but most of it's quite inexpensive if you want to buy your own kit to practice on. And we'll teach you everything you need to know about how get your PiDoorbell up and running -- no need to be an expert at hardware or even at Python, as long as you're interested in learning and in helping other people learn.

This should be a really fun workshop! PyCon tutorial sign-ups just opened recently, so sign up for the tutorial (we do need advance registration so we know how many hardware kits to buy). And if you're going to be at PyCon and are interested in being a T/A, drop me or Rupa a line and we'll get you on the list and get you all the information you need.

See you at PyCon!

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[ 20:32 Jan 29, 2014    More hardware | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Fri, 27 May 2011

PII 2011: Privacy, Identity and Innovation conference

I'm just now finding time to write up some of my notes from PII: Privacy, Identity and Innovation last week. PII was a fabulous conference, fascinating and well run. It was amazing to be in a room with so many people who actually care about these issues.

There were two days of speakers and panels, most of them in the same room, which surprised me: usually conferences have multiple tracks to give you lots of choices. But I ended up being glad for the single track. Almost all of the speakers and panels were interesting, including some I might not have chosen on my own. I had my laptop along with some projects I figured I'd work on during the boring sessions -- but that never happened. I didn't even get time during lunch or breaks -- too many fascinating people to talk to in the hallways.

Then Saturday was "Privacy Camp", a less formal "unconference" full of round-table discussions about some of the issues raised during the regular conference. Conversations were lively and informative.

Usually after a conference I have a couple of suggestions for improvement. For PII I really can't come up with anything. The website was very informative (they even had detailed parking information), everything ran pretty close to on time, rooms were easy to find, they had an A/V crew recording everything, and wow, that Thursday lunch. Plus: Best. Badgeholders. Ever. Great job, PII organizers!

And I couldn't help but notice the gender balance: a third of the speakers were women, and by my rough count-of-nearby-tables, women were close to 40% of the attendees. At a tech conference! That's about double most conferences. Most of the women I talked to were entrepreneurs, many with a history of successful startups already, plus some researchers and a few developers.

The opening talk was worth getting up early for: Julia Angwin, the journalist who wrote the Wall Street Journal's excellent "What they know" articles, discussing the research that led to to the series and what they've learned from it.

Later, once the panel discussions got started, the biggest takeaway from the conference was a question mentioned early on: "Were users surprised? When were they surprised?" Sometimes companies say they care about privacy, but haven't thought much about user expectations. Asking yourself this question is a great test of how well you're really protecting user privacy.

Privacy statements don't work

One of the panels I wouldn't have chosen that was unexpectedly interesting discussed web site privacy statements. First, M. Ryan Calo of the Stanford privacy center presented a study on user behavior with regard to privacy statements. They tried several different types, on websites of very different designs, to see what worked best for users. The upshot? "We couldn't test how well various privacy statements worked, because no users clicked on them. Zero."

Then Aleecia McDonald of Mozilla presented a study where they tried structuring privacy statements in different ways to make the information clearer to users. How can you improve on the "natural-language" policy you see on most websites, consisting of several pages of dense obfuscated text? They tried hierarchies where they showed the basics and let users click through to the details; interactive pages where you could expand and contract sections or mouse over a category to see more; colored tables, cute icons, the works. They found that most of the seemingly easier formats were actually worse than the long natural-language expositions no one reads.

If you make the page interactive, users won't expand the sections and won't find the important mouseovers. If you make sub-pages, users won't click through. If you use icons, users won't know what they mean. But too often, they'll end up thinking they understand, making assumptions about the details that don't match what's really in the policy. So most simplified, "user-friendly" policies are actually worse than a dense wall of text.

The only style that tested slightly better than natural-language policies was the "Nutrition label" style, where they presented several aspects of privacy with ratings for how good or bad the site was.

I felt sorry for the two panelists after Ryan and Aleecia, who were there to show off their cool hierarchical privacy statement page designs. They'd obviously put a lot of work into trying to make their policies clearer ... but we'd just been convincingly shown how ineffective such policies really are.

How to be stupid much faster

One panel discussed big data collection, and some of the ways data can be misused. Someone (Beth Givens?) related a story of a family arrested for marijuana growing after their power company's algorithms flagged them as suspicious for their heavy late-night use of power. Turns out they just had two teenagers who liked to stay up late playing video games. Terence Craig, in my favorite quote from the conference, quipped: "It used to be that it took weeks to accumulate that data. Now you can be stupid much faster."

I enjoyed a workshop given by Brian Kennish of Disconnect and Calvin Pappas of SelectOut about their projects. Disconnect arose from a chrome browser extension, Facebook Disconnect, to block Facebook tracking from widgets on third-party sites. SelectOut also arose from a chrome extension, making it easy for users to opt out of all the major advertising networks at once. The workshop turned into a lively discussion of opt-out versus do-not-track solutions, and what future directions might be.

In another workshop, Martin Ortlieb described a Google study comparing attitudes toward privacy of people in several countries. Someone in the audience asked a question about data being collected and held by government agencies versus private companies. Martin commented that attitudes in the study tended toward "I'd rather companies have my data, because then the government might regulate how it's used. If the government has it, no company's going to regulate it."

Assorted notes

Someone mentioned that Mozilla didn't seem to be taking "Do not track" very seriously, hiding it in the Advanced preferences tab, not under Privacy where you'd expect it. Why? Later we heard that Mozilla is listening to those concerns, and Firefox 5 will move Do Not Track to the Privacy tab.

Esther Dyson: "Personal data can be traded; reputation can't. Reputation is not a currency." She was responding to someone who described a business model involving trading reputation points.

M. Ryan Calo: The government doesn't need a warrant to access your webmail if it's older than 6 months, something most webmail users don't realize.

Finally, Raman Khanna observed: kids get tattoos, then when they're older they pay a lot more for laser removal services. There will be data services like that. "You were stupid when you were in college, and you put all this info online. We'll clean it up for you."

A good insight, and it reminded me of the old threat they used to give us in school (do they still say this to kids?) "This is going on your permanent record." Nobody was ever sure what this permanent record was or why anyone would want to look at it. I wonder if mine still exists somewhere?

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[ 11:32 May 27, 2011    More conferences | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Fri, 04 Mar 2011

Thoughts on moving SCALE?

I've been going to SCALE for about four years now, and this year's SCALE9x was as good as ever.

There's really only one aspect of SCALE I'm not wild about: the LAX location.

On the conference's #scale-chat IRC channel Sunday night, some folks were discussing whether it might be possible to move away from LAX. It seemed like a great idea, which I want to examine.

Apparently there's a Marriott at the Burbank airport that handles conferences very well, if being near an airport is important, Other folks have suggested Pasadena, a great conference venue if it's not so important to be right next to an airport.

In Burbank or Pasadena, there would be more space, better and cheaper parking, nice scenery, and options for lunch besides overpriced hotel restaurants and fast food. But there's another factor, too: out-of-towners would come away with a much better impression of LA.

I grew up in the Los Angeles area, and I love going back to visit. But I've lost count of the number of times I've heard "Ugh! I bet you're glad to be out of there!" I always ask how much time they've spent in LA, and where; the answer is invariably, "Not much, just a few days near LAX."

It makes me wince. The area around LAX is one of the most smog-ridden, characterless hives of asphalt in four counties. It's a long way from either culture or nature, it's hard for locals to get there on traffic-choked freeways, and it's difficult and expensive to park. It's not even easy to fly in and out of, last I tried; the smaller airports are much friendlier. But face it: a lot of people never see anything of Los Angeles besides LAX. And those folks go away thinking what a pit LA is -- even if the conference itself was great.

While I was at SCALE, my husband amused himself in Burbank. On Saturday, it snowed (!) and he drove around watching folks having snowball fights and ogling the snow piled on their cars. Sunday dawned clear and beautiful, and he went for a hike in the Verdugo hills, with spectacular views of the snowy San Gabriel mountains, and the resident raven flock practicing aerobatics like snap rolls, inverted and knife-edge flight.

Okay, so you won't see any of that while listening to talks. But in Burbank or Pasadena, you could get out during lunch, walk to a restaurant, see the mountains looming over you, make a Trader Joe's run (I heard more than one attendee asking about the nearest TJs). And parking and hotels would be much cheaper, for those who can't afford to stay at the conference venue.

A reader points out that I forgot to mention there's a Fry's Electronics just across the street from the Burbank Marriott -- geek paradise! Even more important than Trader Joe's!

I know, you're thinking people don't go to computer conferences to walk around outside, or to go to zoos or museums or whatever. But ... don't they? I've sure had fun exploring the attractions of cities like Melbourne or Brussels, hiking with friends in the Blue Mountains near Sydney, visiting Powell's books in Portland, or petting a koala in Hobart before or after Linux conferences. I'm sure I'm not the only one.

Sure, they could rent a car and go driving after the conference. But if all they've seen is LAX, they probably don't even know any of that other stuff is there. LA is just endless freeways and parking lots -- everybody knows that, right?

I know there are lots of arguments for staying at LAX, and I'm sure it's a lot easier for international visitors flying in. But, SCALE organizers, you do such a fantastic job running the conference; please consider some day moving it to a venue that lives up to the rest of the conference.

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[ 20:59 Mar 04, 2011    More conferences | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Mon, 28 Feb 2011

SCALE9x

Another year of SCALE, the Southern CAlifornia Linux Expo, is over, and it was as good as ever.

Talks

A few standout talks:

Leigh Honeywell's keynote was a lively and enjoyable discussion of hackerspaces -- from the history of the movement to a discussion of some of the coolest and most innovative hackerspaces around today. She had plenty of stories and examples that left everyone in the audience itching to get involved with a local hackerspace, or start one if necessary.

John Wise and Eugene Clement of LinuxAstronomy.com presented the entertaining "A Reflection on Classroom Robotics with Linux Robots in classrooms". They've taught kids to build and program robots that follow lines, solve mazes, and avoid obstacles. The students have to figure out how to solve problems, details like when and how far to back up. What a fantastic class! I can't decide if I'd rather teach a class like that or take it myself ... but either way, I enjoyed the presentation. They also had a booth in the exhibit hall where they and several of their students presented their Arduino-based robots exploring simulated Martian terrain.

Jonathan Thomas spoke about his OpenShot video editor and the development community behind it, with lots of video samples of what OpenShot can do. Sounds like a great program and a great community as well: I'll definitely be checking out OpenShot next time I need to edit a video.

It's worth mentioning that both the robotics talk and the OpenShot one were full of video clips that ran smoothly without errors. That's rare at conferences -- videos so often cause problems in presentations (OpenOffice is particularly bad at them). These presenters made it look effortless, which most likely points to a lot of preparation and practice work beforehand. Good job, guys!

Larry Bushey's "Produce An Audio Podcast Using Linux" was clear and informative, managing to cover the technology, both hardware and software, and the social factors like how often to broadcast, where to host, and how to get the word out and gain and keep listeners while still leaving plenty of time for questions.

The Exhibit Hall

In between talks I tried to see some of the exhibit hall, which was tough, with two big rooms jam-packed with interesting stuff.

Aside from LinuxAstronomy and their robots, there were several other great projects for getting technology into schools: Partimus from the bay area, and Computers4Kids more local to LA, both doing excellent work.

The distro booths all looked lively. Ubuntu California's booth was always so packed that it was tough getting near to say hi, Fedora was well attended and well stocked with CDs, and SuSE had a huge array of givaways and prizes. Debian, Gentoo, Tiny Core and NetBSD were there as well.

Distro Dilemma and "the Hallway track"

Late in the game I discovered even Arch Linux had a booth hidden off in a corner. I spent some time there hoping I might get help for my ongoing Arch font rendering problem, but ended up waiting a long time for nothing. That left me with a dilemma for my talk later that day: Arch works well on my laptop except that fonts sometimes render with chunks missing, making them ugly and hard to read; but a recent update of Ubuntu Lucid pulled in some weird X change that keeps killing my window manager at unpredictable times. What a choice! In the end I went with Ubuntu, and indeed X did go on the fritz, so I had to do without my live demo and stick to my prepared slides. Not a tragedy, but annoying. The talk went well otherwise.

I had a great conversation with Asheesh from the OpenHatch project about how to make open source projects more welcoming to new contributors. It's something I've always felt strongly about, but I feel powerless to change existing projects so I don't do anything. Well, OpenHatch is doing something about it, and I hope I'll be able to help.

The Venue

Not everything was perfect. The Hilton is a new venue for SCALE, and there were some issues. On Saturday, every room was full, with people lining the walls and sitting on floors. This mostly was not a room size problem, merely a lack of chairs. Made me wonder if we should go all opensource on them and everybody bring their own lawn chair if the hotel can't provide enough.

Parking was a problem too. The Hilton's parking garage fills up early, so plan on driving for ten minutes through exhaust-choked tunnels hoping to find a space to squeeze into. We got lucky, so I didn't find out if you have to pay if you give up and exit without finding a spot.

Then Sunday afternoon they ran short of validation tickets (the ones that reduce the cost from $22 to $9), and it wasn't clear if there was any hope of more showing up (eventually some did).

To top it off, when we finally left on Sunday the payment machine at the exit swallowed my credit card, requiring another 15 minutes of waiting for someone to answer the buzzer. Eventually the parking manager came down to do a magic reset rite.

So I didn't come away with a great impression of the Hilton. But it didn't detract much from a wonderful conference full of interesting people -- I had a great time, and would (and do) recommend SCALE to everyone with any interest in Linux. But it left me musing about the pros and cons of different venues ... a topic I will discuss in a separate post.

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[ 22:39 Feb 28, 2011    More conferences | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Wed, 21 Jul 2010

Writing scripts for your Canon camera with CHDK

On Linux Planet yesterday: an article on how to write scripts for chdk, the Canon Hack Development Kit -- Part 3 in my series on CHDK.

Time-Lapse Photography with your Inexpensive Canon Camera (CHDK p. 3)

I found that CHDK scripting wasn't quite as good as I'd hoped -- some of the functions, especially the aperture and shutter setting, were quite flaky on my A540 so it really didn't work to write a bracketing script. But it's fantastic for simple tasks like time-lapse photography, or taking a series of shots like the Grass Roots Mapping folk do.

If you're at OSCON and you like scripting and photos, check out my session on Thursday afternoon at 4:30: Writing GIMP Plug-ins and Scripts, in which I'll walk through several GIMP scripts in Python and Script-Fu and show some little-known tricks you can do with Python plug-ins.

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[ 10:31 Jul 21, 2010    More photo | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Mon, 05 Apr 2010

Where 2.0 2010

Last week I had the opportunity to go to the Where 2.0 conference (thanks, Linux Pro Magazine!) Then, on the weekend, the free WhereCamp followed it up.

I'd been to WhereCamp last year. It was wonderful, geeky, highly technical and greatly inspiring. I thought I was the only person interested in mapping, especially in Python, and after the first couple of sessions I was blown away with how little I knew and what a thriving and expert community there was. I was looking forward to the full experience this year -- I figured Where 2.0 must be similar but even better.

Actually they're completely different events. Where 2.0 was dominated by location-aware startups: people with iPhone games (Foursquare and others in a similar mold), shopping apps (find the closest pizza place to your location!) and so on. The talks were mostly 15 minutes long, so while there were lots of people there with fascinating apps or great stories to tell, there was no time to get detail on anything. I think the real point of Where 2.0 is to get a sketch of who's doing what so you can go collar them in the "hallway track" later and make business deals.

Here are some highlights from Where 2.0. I'll write up WhereCamp separately.

Ignite Where

The Ignite session Tuesday night was great fun, as Ignite sessions almost always are.

The Ignite session was broken in the middle by a half-hour interlude where a bunch of startups gave one-minute presentations on their products, then the audience voted on the best, then an award was given which had already been decided and had nothing to do with the audience vote (we didn't even get to find out which company the audience chose). Big yawner: one minute isn't long enough for anyone to show off a product meaningfully, and I wasn't the only one there who brought reading material to keep them occupied until the second round of Ignite talks started up again.

Best Ignite talks (Ignite Where 2.0 videos here):

Wednesday talks

Patrick Meier gave a longer version of his Ignite talk on Mobilizing Ushahidi-Haiti, full of interesting stories of how OpenStreetMap and other technologies like Twitter came together to help in the Haiti rescue effort.

Clouds, Crowds, and Shrouds: How One Government Agency Seeks to Change the Way It Spatially Enables Its Information, by Terrance Busch of the US Defense Intelligence Agency, was an interesting look into the challenges of setting up a serious mapping effort, then integrating later with commercial and crowdsourced efforts.

In Complexities in Bringing Home Environmental Awareness, Kim Balassiano of the US EPA showed the EPA MyEnvironment page, where you can find information about local environmental issues like toxic waste cleanups. They want users to enter good news too, like composting workshops or community gardens, but so far the data on the map is mostly bad. Still a useful site.

Thursday talks

There were a couple of interesting keynotes on Thursday morning, but work kept me at home. I thought I could catch them on the live video stream, but unfortunately the stream that had worked fine on Wednesday wasn't working on Thursday, so I missed the Mark L. DeMulder's talk on the USGS's National Map efforts. Fortunately, they were at WhereCamp where they gave much more detail. Likewise, I missed the big ESRI announcement that everyone was talking about all afternoon -- they released some web thing, but as far as I can tell they're still totally Windows-centric and thus irrelevant to a Linux and open source user. But I want to go back and view the video anyway.

There was another talk on Thursday which I won't name, but it had a few lessons for speakers:

Base Map 2.0 was a panel-slash-debate between Steve Coast (OpenStreetMap), Timothy Trainor (U.S. Census Bureau), Peter ter Haar (Ordnance Survey), Di-Ann Eisnor (Platial), and moderated by Ian White of Urban Mapping. It was fabulous. I've never seen such a lively panel: White kept things moving, told jokes, asked provocative and sometimes inflammatory questions and was by far the best panel moderator I've seen. The panelists kept up with him and gave cogent, interesting and illuminating answers. Two big issues were the just-announced release of Ordnance Survey data, and licensing issues causing mismatches between OSM, OS and Census datasets.

Community-based Grassroots Mapping with Balloons and Kites in Lima, Peru by Jeffrey Warren was another fabulous talk. He builds balloons out of garbage bags, soda bottles and a digital camera, goes to poor communities in places like Lima and teaches the community (including the kids) how to map their own communities. This is more than an academic exercise for them, since maps can help them prove title to their land. Check it out at GrassrootsMapping.org and build your own aerial mapping balloon! (He was at WhereCamp, too, where we got to see the equipment up close.)

Visualizing Spatio-temporal War Casualty Data in Google Earth by Sean Askay of Google was just as good. He's built a KML file called Map the Fallen showing US and allied casualties from Iraq: the soldiers' hometowns, place of death, age, gender, and lots of other details about them with links to tribute pages, plus temporal information showing how casualties changed as the war progressed. It's an amazing piece of work, and sobering ... and I was most annoyed to find out that it needs a version of Google Earth that doesn't run on Linux, so I can't run it for myself. Boo!

Overall, a very fun conference, though it left me hungry for detail. Happily, after a day off there was WhereCamp to fill that void.

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[ 22:34 Apr 05, 2010    More conferences | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Wed, 24 Feb 2010

SCALE 8x

I'm finally getting caught up after SCALE 8x, this year's Southern CA Linux Expo.

A few highlights (not even close to a comprehensive list):

Friday:

The UbuCon and Women in Open Source (WIOS) were both great successes, with a great speaker list and good attendance. It was hard to choose between them.

Malakai Wade, Mirano Cafiero, and Saskia Wade, two 12-year-olds and an 8-year-old, presenting on "Ultimate Randomness - Girl voices in open source". Great stuff! They sang, they discussed their favorite apps, they showed an animated video made with open source tools of dolls in a dollhouse. Lots of energy, confidence and fun. Loved it! I hope to see more of these girls.

I liked Nathan Haines demo of "Quickly", an app for rapid development of python-gtk apps. It looks like a great app, especially for beginning programmers, though his demo did also illustrate the problems with complex UIs filled with a zillion similar toolbuttons. (I'm not criticising Nathan; I find UIs like that very difficult to use, especially under pressure like a live demo in front of an audience.)

Happily, the UbuCon and WIOS scheduled their lightning talks at different times (though UbuCon's conflicted with WIOS's "How to give a Lightning Talk" session). So lightning talk junkies enjoyed two hours of talks back to back, plus the chance to give two different talks to different audiences. Hectic but a lot of fun.

Saturday

I was a little disappointed with the Git Tips & Tricks panel; I wanted more git tips and less discussion of projects that happen to use Git. I liked Don Marti's section on IkiWiki; it looks like a great tool and I wish Don had had more time to present.

I liked Emma Jane Hogbin's useful and interesting talk on "Looking Beautiful in Print", full of practical tips for how to design good flyers and brochures using tools like OpenOffice.

Diana Chen, who got introduced to open source only a year ago at SCALE 7x, gets the award for courage: she gave a talk on "Learning python for non-programmers" using a borrowed laptop that I'm not sure she'd even seen before the presentation. Unfortunately, the laptop turned out to be poorly suited to the task (no Python installed? Dvorak keymap?) so Diana struggled to show what she'd planned, but she came through and her demos eventually worked great. I hope she wasn't too discouraged by the difficulties, and keeps presenting -- preferably with more time to practice ahead of time. The room was absolutely packed -- they had to bring in lots more chairs and there were still a lot of people standing. There's obviously a huge amount of interest in beginner programming talks at this conference!

Shawn Powers' talk, "Linux is for Smart People, and You're Not as Dumb as You Think", was as entertaining as the title suggested -- an excellent beginner-track talk that I think everyone enjoyed.

Sunday

I'm not going to review Sunday's program, because I was busy obsessing over my own "Featherweight Linux" talk. I'll just say that SCALE is a great place to give a talk -- the audience was great, with excellent questions and no heckling and, most important, they laughed when I hoped they would. :-)

Exhibitors

I didn't get to spend much time on the show floor, but it looked active and fun.

The Linux Astronomy folks had a fantastic display, with a big table with a simulated Martian landscape and a couple of robotic rovers exploring it and a robotic telescope driven by a milling machine program, as well as computers exhibiting a selection of Linux astronomy, science and math-teaching software.

ZaReason had a booth, and my mom was able to get info on how to get a spare battery for her laptop. (Can I take a moment to say how cool it is to be wandering around a Linux conference with my mom, who's carrying her own Linux netbook?)

An Ubuntu/Canonical table was testing people's laptops for compatibility with the next Ubuntu release. (There may have been other distros tested as well; I wasn't clear on that.)

Engineers Without Borders, Orange County looked really interesting and assured me that not all of them were in Orange County, and there's activity up here in the Bay Area as well. Definitely on my list to learn more.

Linux Pro magazine was giving out copies of Linux Pro and Ubuntu User, both fantastic magazines packed with good articles.

Beginners and Hobbyists

One notable feature of SCALE is the low price. This conference is very affordable, which means there are a lot of hobbyists, beginners and even people just considering trying Linux. They've offered a "Beginner track" for several years, though not all the talks in that track are really accessible to beginners (speakers: here's your chance to propose that great beginner talk the other conferences aren't interested in! Help some new folks!) There's a lot of energy and diversity and a wide range of interests and knowledge -- yet there's still plenty of depth for hardcore Linux geeks.

Overall, a fantastic conference. The SCALE organizers do a great job of organizing everything, and if there were any glitches they weren't evident from the outside.

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Sat, 20 Feb 2010

Grub2 lightning talk at SCALE 8x Ubucon

I gave a lightning talk at the Ubucon -- the Ubuntu miniconf -- at the SCALE 8x, Southern California Linux Expo yesterday. I've been writing about grub2 for Linux Planet but it left me with some, well, opinions that I wanted to share.

A lightning talk is an informal very short talk, anywhere from 2 to 5 minutes. Typically a conference will have a session of lightning talks, where anyone can get up to plug a project, tell a story or flame about an annoyance. Anything goes. I'm a lightning talk junkie -- I love giving them, and I love hearing what everyone else has to say.

I had some simple slides for this particular talk. Generally I've used bold or other set-offs to indicate terms I showed on a slide.

SCALE 8x, by the way, is awesome so far, and I'm looking forward to the next two days.

Grub2 3-minute lightning talk

What's a grub? A soft wriggly worm.

But it's also the Ubuntu Bootloader. And in Karmic, we have a brand new grub: grub2!

Well, sort of. Karmic uses Grub 2 version 1.97 beta4. Aside from the fact that it's a beta -- nuff said about that -- what's this business of grub TWO being version ONE point something? Are you hearing alarm bells go off yet?

But it must be better, right? Like, they say it cleans up partition numbering.

Yay! So that confusing syntax in grub1, where you have to say [SLIDE] (hd0,0) that doesn't look like anything else on Linux, and you're always wanting to put the parenthesis in the wrong place -- they finally fixed that?

Well, no. Now it looks like this: (hd0,1) THEY KEPT THE CONFUSING SYNTAX BUT CHANGED THE NUMBER! Gee, guys, thanks for making things simpler! [boring ubuntu boot screen]

But at least grub2 is better at graphics, right? Like what if you want to add a background image under that boring boot screen? A dark image, because the text is white.

Except now Ubuntu changes the text color to black. So you look in the config file to find out why ...

if background_image `make_system_path_relative...
  set color_normal=black/black

... there it is! But why are there two blacks? Of course, there's no documentation. They can't be fg/bg -- black on black wouldn't make any sense, right?

Well, it turns out it DOES mean foreground and background -- but the second "black" doesn't mean black. It's a special grub2 code for "transparent". That's right, they wrote this brand new program from scratch, but they couldn't make a parser that understands "none" or "transparent".

What if you actually want text with a black background? I have no idea. I guess you're out of luck.

Okay, what about dual booting? grub's great at that, right? I have three distros installed on this laptop. There's a shared /boot partition. When I change something, all I have to do is edit a file in /boot/grub. It's great -- so much better than lilo! Anybody remember what a pain lilo was?

#
# DO NOT EDIT THIS FILE
#
# It is automatically generated by /usr/sbin/grub-mkconfig using templates
# from /etc/grub.d and settings from /etc/default/grub
#

Oops, wait -- not with grub2. Now I'm not supposed to edit that file. Instead, I edit files in TWO places, /etc/grub.d and /etc/default/grub.conf, and then run a program in a third place, /usr/bin/update-grub. All this has to be done from the same machine where you installed grub2 -- if you're booted into one of your other distros, you're out of luck.

grub2 takes us back to the bad old days of lilo. FAIL

Grub2 really is a soft slimy worm after all.

But I have some ideas for workarounds. If you care, watch my next few articles on LinuxPlanet.com.

Update: links to Linux Planet articles:
Part 1: Grub2 worms into Ubuntu
Part 2: Cleaning up your boot menu
Part 3: Why use Grub2? Good question!

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Tue, 21 Jul 2009

Tracking down performance hogs

It's been a day -- or week, month -- of performance monitoring.

I'm posting this while sitting in an excellent OSCON tutorial on Linux System and Network Performance Monitoring, by Darren Hoch. It's full of great information and I'm sure his web site is equally useful.

And it's a great extension to topic that's been occupying me over the past few months: performance tracking to slim down software that might be slowing a Linux system down. That's the topic of one of my two OSCON talks this Wednesday: "Featherweight Linux: How to turn a netbook or older laptop into a Ferrari." Although I don't go into anywhere near the detail Darren does, a lot of the principles are the same, and I know I'll find a use for a lot of his techniques. The talk also includes a free bonus tourist tip for San Jose visitors.

Today's Linux Planet article is related to my Featherweight talk: What's Bogging Down Your Linux PC? Tracking Down Resource Hogs. Usually they publish my articles on Thursdays, but I asked for an early release since it's related to tomorrow's talk.

For anyone at OSCON in San Jose, I hope you can come to Featherweight late Wednesday afternoon, or to my other talk, Wednesday just after lunch, "Bug Fixing for Everyone (even non-programmers!)" where I'll go over the steps programmers use while fixing bugs, and show that anyone can fix simple bugs even without any prior knowledge of programming.

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Mon, 04 Aug 2008

Back from OSCON

No postings for a while -- I was too tied up with getting ready for OSCON, and now that it's over, too tied up with catching up with stuff that gotten behind.

A few notes about OSCON:

It was a good conference -- lots of good speakers, interesting topics and interesting people. Best talks: anything by Paul Fenwick, anything by Damian Conway.

The Arduino tutorial was fun too. It's a little embedded processor with a breadboard and sockets to control arbitrary electronic devices, all programmed over a USB plug using a Java app. I'm not a hardware person at all (what do those resistor color codes mean again?) but even I, even after coming in late, managed to catch up and build the basic circuits they demonstrated, including programming them with my laptop. Very cool! I'm looking forward to playing more with the Arduino when I get a spare few moments.

The conference's wi-fi network was slow and sometimes flaky (what else is new?) but they had a nice touch I haven't seen at any other conference: Wired connections, lots of them, on tables and sofas scattered around the lounge area (and more in rooms like the speakers' lounge). The wired net was very fast and very reliable. I'm always surprised I don't see more wired connections at hotels and conferences, and it sure came in handy at OSCON.

The AV staff was great, very professional and helpful. I was speaking first thing Monday morning (ulp!) so I wanted to check the room Sunday night and make sure my laptop could talk to the projector and so forth. Everything worked fine.

Portland is a nice place to hold a convention -- the light rail is great, the convention center is very accessible, and street parking isn't bad either if you have a car there.

Dave went with me, so it made more sense for us to drive. The drive was interesting because the central valley was so thick with smoke from all the fires (including the terrible Paradise fire that burned for so long, plus a new one that had just started up near Yosemite) that we couldn't see Mt Shasta when driving right by it. It didn't get any better until just outside of Sacramento. It must have been tough for Sacramento valley residents, living in that for weeks! I hope they've gotten cleared out now.

[Redding Sundial bridge] I finally saw that Redding Sundial bridge I've been hearing so much about. We got there just before sunset, so we didn't get to check the sundial, but we did get an impressive deep red smoky sun vanishing into the gloom. Photos here.

End of my little blog-break, and time to get back to scrambling to get caught up on writing and prep for the GetSET Javascript class for high school girls. Every year we try to make it more relevant and less boring, with more thinking and playing and less rote typing. I think we're making progress, but we'll see how it goes next week.

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Fri, 08 Feb 2008

Random LCA Comments

Here I am in LA at the start pf SCALE, still catching up on blogging LCA and the Australia trip.

I didn't write about the Lightning Talks session just before the closing ceremonies. I love lightning talks -- to make a point in three minutes you really have to condense your talk to the single most important point.

Alas, I didn't come up with a topic in time, so I didn't give a lightning talk myself. But there were some excellent talks! Some of them included:

Paul's demo concluded to overwhelming applause, and there wasn't much question as to who had won the lightning talks session. I believe Paul won an Asus Eee (nice prize!) (Oops, Paul tells me after reading this that it was nothing quite that cool, but he did get a very nice book voucher), and deserved it for a very polished and funny talk. You can watch the video of Paul's Lightning talk on youtube.

Other observations from the week of LCA 2008:

Linus was around and listening to kernel talks, but not presenting. Rusty's "LCA for Newbies" presentation on Sunday night included a bullet point on "Don't fanboy the speakers" presumably applies, and everybody behaved themselves pretty well (myself included).

I stayed in Trinity College. We didn't have wi-fi in the dorm rooms like last year, only in the common room; but actually it was just as well to have a good reason to hang out in the common room and talk to people. The bathrooms were co-ed, but the doors closed so there was enough privacy.

But the weirdest thing about Trinity was the corridor and outside doors. Every corridor had doors at both ends, usually locked doors that required a card key from one direction, and the push of a button from the other direction. Sometimes an alarm went off if you didn't wait quite long enough between pressing the button and opening the door (fortunately, pressing the button again cancelled the alarm). It was very strange to walk down the building corridor continually pushing buttons and then carding back in; I have to wonder whether the high security was worth it. The outside gates were worse: to get out to the street you need a card key, there's no button press allowed. (Fortunately on the weekend most of us checked out, they left one of the outer gates open so we could leave even after we'd returned the card key.)

There were tons of Asus Eees around. Turns out other Linux geeks find that little laptop just as interesting as I did! Everybody seems quite happy with them, and I mostly saw them being used as real laptops ... in contrast to the many OLPCs, which were numerous but mostly being used as toys to network with other OLPCs. I saw more and more of them as the week progressed -- turns out a lot of people were heading over to a nearby computer store to buy one, either because of hardware problems with their normal laptop, or just for a toy.

(In contrast, here at the first day of SCALE I haven't seen a single Eee yet, nor any other small laptops besides my own Vaio.)

I talked to someone who'd tried one with a projector, one of my main concerns with the very low resolution Eee. He said it drove the projector just fine ... but only at the Eee's native resolution of 800x480. Hard to imagine giving a GIMP talk (or, indeed, any sort of technical talk) like that. Bummer!

I also got a good look at one of the modern Toshiba Librettos (a year-old model). Lovely machine, smaller but thicker than the Eee, but much more capable (also much more expensive). The keyboard was noticably smaller than my Vaio or the Eee, but quite well designed and apparently it's no problem typing full speed on it once you adjust to the size.

Other interesting small laptops I noticed were a couple of Vaios (the 10-inch models descended from my SR17), a couple of Toshibas and Lenovos, and a couple of rare birds like Val's uber-cool grey-market Panasonic.

Also highly popular were Macs. Some were running Linux, but a surprising number were running OS X; I wasn't able to get an estimate of percentages.

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Fri, 01 Feb 2008

The Final Day

How can it be the last day of LCA? Wait! I'm not ready for it to end yet!

Well, at least Friday was a pretty full day, starting with the keynote, Anthony Baxter's "One Snake Enter, Two Snakes Leave" covered the two upcoming Python releases: 2.X (a minor stability/feature release) and 3.0 ("the release which will break all your code").

I hadn't seen him give a technical talk before, only the talk he'd given on flashy talks last year at the LCA Speakers' Dinner, and I was curious about how well his style worked for a real talk. Very well, as it turns out -- he was entertaining, clear and still plenty technical. The video of the keynote is well worth checking for anyone who programs in Python and needs to know about the upcoming changes.

Next up was Ralph Giles' "Seeking is Hard", an explanation of the Ogg container format (as he recovered from running across campus to find a needed video adaptor to get his Mac to talk to the projector). I got a little lost in the discussion early on distinguishing packets from pages (someone asked what the motivation was for each, and that would have helped me too).

But the core of his presentation -- why seeking is hard (for a media format that has to encompass video as well as audio) -- was clear and interesting. Seeking means finding a file location corresponding to a specific time offset; Ralph discussed the difference between seeking to a file position directly proportional to the time (which works only in uncompressed formats no one uses any more), using a seek table (a good optimization, but they're often wrong so you can't count on them) and the real solution, putting timestamps in each page. He covered problems like keyframes (a video frame from which a set of subsequent frames are calculated, so you can't seek and then start playing right away; you have to search backward to the last keyframe) and multiple tracks (you have to seek in each track to get them all in sync before starting to play).

Quite interesting, and I understand video formats a little more than I did before (which was "not at all").

Of course, you have to laugh at the title of Matthew Garrett's talk: "Suspend to Disk: Why it doesn't work, can't work and never worked in the first place (and what to do about it)." And we kept laughing throughout the talk. Who knew that kernel swsusp was such a funny topic? But the talk was informative and detailed as well as funny ... a strong contender for best talk I saw at the conference.

After lunch, Keith Packard of Intel told of "Pain and Redemption on the Linux Desktop." At the beginning of his talk, Keith announced Intel's release of a Programmers Reference Manual for their graphics chipsets -- some 1700 pages of detail used in their current driver, all released under a Creative Commons license (no derivative works). Horray, Intel!

The meat of the talk was a discussion of problems with the current X model, and fixes for them, including lots of information about who was working on what. Sort of a "state of the server address".

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Thu, 31 Jan 2008

LCA Thursday

Thursday's keynote was Stormy Peters' "Would you do it again for free?" She talked about motivation: what motivates open source developers, and does paying them reduce the motivation to work for free? She reviewed lots of motivation studies (like the Israeli day-care experiment) and discussed the implications for open source contributors.

(During the Q&A period, she recognized one of the questioners and said "Oh, you're going to tell me how many 'um's I had." Indeed she did have a few, though not many for an hour-long keynote. But it made me wonder if she's in Toastmasters.)

Moving on to the tutorial slots ... Dangit, I got the time wrong on Wednesday and missed Rusty Russell's prep session for his Thursday morning hands-on tutorial on kernel hacking with lguest. He'd made it very clear that no one should come without being fully prepped, and indeed, I had severe doubts about my poor old Vaio's ability to survive a 2-hour session of kernel compiling -- certainly the battery I'd brought couldn't last that long without an external power source.

And my second choice, Malcom Tredinnick's tutorial on website performance, was packed to the rafters and not letting anyone else in. So I took the opportunity to catch up on some email and do some shopping.

I got back in time for Peter Hutterer's interesting talk, "Redefining Input in X". Finally, an explanation of what that confusing "core" terminology means in the xorg.conf file when fiddling with graphics tablets. Basically, X has two different sets of input events: core pointer, and XI (X input). But GIMP is the only Linux app that registers for XI events -- everything else only gets core events. So to deal with this, when X sees an event from an XI device, it also generates a core pointer event.

His real subject was a new model which would allow X to have multiple pointers and keyboards at once. X would have "master" (virtual) devices with which "slave" (physical) devices can be associated. It makes the event setup more, not less, complicated: for each physical input event, you generate not two but three events: an XI event from the slave, an XI event from the master and a core event. Maybe there's no way around that. His demo, showing two mice and two keyboards active at the same time, was quite fun to watch.

Skipping forward to the final talk of the day, it was a tough choice between Vic Olliver's talk on his "RepRap" 3-D printer, and Elizabeth Garbee's "Introduction to Open Source Animation". I finally chose the animation talk, because I know the Vic would have the RepRap at Open Day on Saturday.

Elizabeth is 15 and can already hold her own as a clear and confident speaker. She covered the pros and cons of a wide range of options for making animations with open source software, ending with a recommendation for her favorite, synfig. Hurray for smart up-and-coming Linux-using Chix!

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W-Day

Wednesday was W-Day -- the day I was giving my tutorial on GIMP Scripting, first thing after the keynote. (Cue portentous music.)

But first, the keynote: the day opened with a highly anticipated appearance by Bruce Schneier. He discussed the illusion of security versus the reality, and how to bring the two closer together. Most of his points were familiar to anyone familiar with his writing, but he's still an excellent and polished presenter. Worth noting: no slides, just Bruce. Worked great.

After the keynote I skipped the morning tea and headed over to the lecture room to make sure I had enough time for setup. (You never know when a particular projector and laptop will develop a dislike for each other, though I'm happy to say I've been pretty lucky with my Vaio.)

The talk went well. I had been worried about the code-heavy topic being too dry, so after watching Jacinta's coding talk on Tuesday I'd made an effort to find more graphics and add more variety to the slides. I think it worked -- I got laughs where I hoped for them, and people were certainly following closely, as they were quick to point out when I made typos or other errors in the live coding section. A great audience -- I hope I lived up to their expectations.

In the afternoon, Dirk Horndel's "Make hardware vendors love open source" was right on target and very well presented. (Again, no slides, and as with the keynote, there was no need for them.) Dirk offered plenty of food for thought, even for those of us who don't often interact directly with hardware vendors.

Following afternoon tea, I squeezed into Bdale Garbee's standing-room-only "Peace, Love and Rockets" presentation. He has a little board bristling with sensors (a pressure sensor for altitude, a three-axis accelerometer and I forget what else) that includes a processor and enough RAM to record a rocket's flight profile. It's all designed under the Open Hardware License and driven by GPL software, of course. Very cool!

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Wed, 30 Jan 2008

LCA Miniconfs

Monday I wandered among several different miniconfs. In the morning I checked in at the Debian and Wireless miniconfs, but found nothing inspiring there (unfortunately I missed the wireless mapping talk, which sounded like it might have been interesting). But I ended up spending the afternoon in the security miniconf, ending with a massive keysigning. Unfortunately, the room had no document projector, and the attempts at using a mac with a camera to project people's IDs made several people uncomfortable since the mac offered no way to project an image without also saving it. So we ended up with two long lines out in the hallway, checking IDs one-on-one.

I spent Tuesday morning in the LinuxChix miniconf.

Pia Waugh got us off to a rousing start with an energetic and cogent discussion of women in open source. There are more of us than most people realize I was glad to hear that I'm not the only one who questions the numbers in the oft-quoted FLOSSPOLS study -- the one that claimed that the percentage of women in open source was vastly less than in proprietary software. (My own problem with the study is that they compared numbers from two completely different surveys.) Pia began by challenging everyone in the audience to write a list of ten women we know who inspire or impress us. By the end of the talk, I hope even the people who couldn't think of ten have a better idea of who we are and what we do.

Then Joh Clarke kept the audience laughing with true stories of sysadmin mishaps and words of wisdom to avoid making the same mistakes.

Jacinta Richardson spoke next -- she raced through an informative and entertaining discussion of code optimization and algorithm complexity. From watching her I learned as much about how to put together a good presentation on code as I did about code optimization -- she kept a potentially dry subject lively by alternating between funny pictures and source code listings. It inspired me to go find some images to spice up my tutorial, scheduled for the following day.

Brenda Wallace finished up the morning session with a talk about memcache, a useful daemon which can speed access to commonly used database queries, generated web pages or other CPU-intensive functions.

One thing that struck me about the chix miniconf was how well I understood everyone's speech. I'd noticed in several of Monday's presentations that I was having some trouble understanding several of the speakers, particularly one in the wireless miniconf who mumbled. I thought the aussie accent was giving me trouble. But Pia's and Jacinta's talks dispelled any such notion. Pia talks about twice as fast as any other speaker I've heard, and Jacinta had a lot of information to get across in a short time, yet I had no problem understanding anything they said. It's not the accent ... just inexperienced speakers who weren't enunciating clearly. (In the main conference, where all the speakers are quite experienced, I found I didn't have trouble understanding anyone.)

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Wed, 24 Oct 2007

She's Geeky tech unconference

I just got back from She's Geeky. What a rush! It'll take me a while to wind down from this fabulous all-women meeting.

I have to admit, I was initially dubious. A conference for geeky women sounded great, but it struck me as kind of expensive -- $175 (with a $125 early-bird rate). That's very cheap as tech conferences go, but for a two-day "unconference", it was enough to turn off most local techie women I know: nearly all of them knew about She's Geeky and said "I'd love to go but I can't afford it." Full disclosure: I said the same thing, and wouldn't have gone myself had I not gotten a "scholarship", for which I am immensely grateful. (In retrospect, considering how well run it was, it probably would have been worth the early-bird price. But that's not easy to tell ahead of time.)

Monday consisted of lunch and informal discussion followed by two sessions of scheduled talks. I particularly liked the afternoon schedule, which included two different sessions of speaker training: the theory being that one factor holding women back in technology jobs is that we don't make ourselves visible by public speaking as much as we could. I went to the "Lightening (sic) Talks" session, headed by Danese Cooper. It didn't make me lighter, but we got some great advice at giving conference talks (lightning and otherwise) plus two rounds of practice at three minute talks. I'm not sure what I enjoyed more, the practice and useful feedback or the chance to listen to so many great short talks on disparate and interesting subjects.

Tuesday started way before normal geek time, with bagels and espresso and an explanation by conference organizer Kaliya Hamlin on how we'd use the Open Space process. Sessions would be an hour long, and we had eight rooms to work with, all charted on a huge grid on the wall. Anyone could run a session (or several). Write it (and your name) on a card, get up and tell the group about it, then find a time and space for it and tape it on the grid. Rules for sessions were few. For session leaders, Whoever comes to your session is the right audience, and whatever happens is what should have happened. For people attending a session there's the Rule of Two Feet: if you're not getting anything out of the session you're in, you should get up and get yourself to somewhere where you're contributing and/or learning. Not hard when there are seven other sessions to choose from.

This all worked exactly as described. Whatever hesitance many women may feel toward public speaking, there was no lack of volunteer session leaders on a wide variety of topics, both technical and social. I signed up to give a GIMP session before lunch; then in a morning session on server and firewall configuration given by fellow LinuxChix Gloria W. and Gaba, I noticed a few people having a lot of general Linux questions, in particular command-line questions, so I ran back to the wall grid and added an afternoon session on "Understanding the Linux command line".

Easily my favorite session of the conference was the Google Maps API talk by Pamela Fox of Google. I've been meaning to experiment with Google Maps and KML for a long time. I even have books on it sitting on my shelf. But I never seem to get over the hump: find a project and a specific task, then go RTFM and figure out how to write a KML file from scratch to do something fun and useful. Pamela got me over that in a hurry -- she showed us the "My Maps" tab in Google Maps (you have to be signed on to a Google account to use it). It includes tools for generating some starter KML interactively, and it even has a polygon editor, all implemented in AJAX (Javascript) and running in a browser. Wow! What a great way to get a running start on map mashups. There's also a whole open source Javascript API and set of libraries for writing creative web mapping apps. I'm sure I'll be experimenting with this a lot more and writing about it separately. Just this talk alone made the conference worthwhile, even without all the other great sessions.

But I didn't get a chance to experiment right away with any of that cool mapping stuff, because right after that session was one by speaker and comedian Heather Gold. Heather had given Saturday night's evening entertainment, and I am very sorry to have had to miss the show to go to a night class. The session was on self confidence, getting over fear of speaking, and connecting with the audience. Since the allotted space was noisy (the same one I'd ended up with for my GIMP talk, and the noise was definitely a problem), Heather led our small group out onto the balcony to enjoy the warm weather. The group was diverse and included women at very different levels of speaking, but Heather had great tips for all of us. She has great presence and a lot of useful things to say, and she's funny -- I'd love to see her on stage.

Everybody had a really positive attitude. At the Lightning Talks session on Saturday, Danese stressed "No whinging" as a general rule to follow (in talks or anywhere else), and I'd say the whole conference followed it. While we heard about lots of serious topics women face, I didn't hear any whining or "men are keeping us down" or that sort of negativism. There were some bad experiences shared as well as good ones, but the point was in finding solutions and making progress, not dwelling on problems. This was a group of women doing things.

There are only two changes I can think of that could have improved the conference at all. First, I already mentioned the cost. While it was fair considering the fantastic organization, great people, plus catered meals, it still lets out some of the women who could have benefitted the most: students and the un- and under-employed. A few of us LinuxChix talked about how much we'd love to see a similar conference held at a cheaper facility, without the handouts or the catered meals. Maybe some day we'll be able to make it happen.

Second (and this is a very minor point), it might have been helpful to have runners reminding people when sessions were ending, and perhaps making the sessions 55 minutes instead of an hour to encourage getting to the next session and starting on promptly.

Even without that, people mostly stuck to the schedule and Tuesday finished right on time: pretty amazing for a conference whose agenda had been made that morning with cardboard, tape and marking pens. I've seen unconferences before, and they're usually a disorganized mess. This one ran better than most scheduled conferences. Kaliya and her fellow organizers clearly know how to make this process work.

We all pitched in to clean up the room, and I braved the rush-hour freeway. And arrived home to find that my husband had cooked dinner and it was just about ready. What a nice ending to the day!

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Sun, 12 Aug 2007

Powertop BOF at Linuxworld 2007

The best thing at Linuxworld was the Powertop BOF, despite the fact that it ended up stuck in a room with no projector. The presenter, Arjan van de Ven, coped well with the setback and managed just fine.

The main goal of Powertop is to find applications that are polling or otherwise waking the CPU unnecessarily, draining power when they don't need to. Most of the BOF focused on "stupid stuff": programs that wake up too often for no reason. Some examples he gave (many of these will be fixed in upcoming versions of the software):

And that's all just the desktop stuff, without getting into other polling culprits like hal and the kernel's USB system. The kernel itself is often a significant culprit: until recently, kernels woke up once a millisecond whether they needed to or not. With the recent "tickless" option that appeared in the most recent kernel, 2.6.22, the CPU won't wake up unless it needs to.

A KDE user asked if the KDE desktop was similarly bad. The answer was yes, with a caveat: Arjan said he gave a presentation a while back to a group of KDE developers, and halfway through, one of the developers interrupted him when he pointed out a problem to say "That's not true any more -- I just checked in a fix while you were talking." It's nice to hear that at least some developers care about this stuff! Arjan said most developers responded very well to patches he'd contributed to fix the polling issues.

(Of course, those of us who use lightweight window managers like openbox or fvwm have already cut out most of these gnome and kde power-suckers. The browser issues were the only ones that applied to me, and I certainly do notice firefox' polling: when the laptop gets slow, firefox is almost always the culprit, and killing it usually brings performance back.)

As for hardware, he mentioned that some linux LCD drivers don't really dim the backlight when you reduce brightness -- they just make all the pixels darker. (I've been making a point of dimming my screen when running off batteries; time to use that Kill-A-Watt and find out if it actually matters!) Wireless cards like the ipw100 use a lot of power even when not transmitting -- sometimes even more than when they're transmitting -- so turning them off can be a big help. Using a USB mouse can cut as much as half an hour off a battery. The 2.6.23 kernel has lots of new USB power saving code, which should help. Many devices have activity every millisecond, so there's lots of room to improve.

Another issue is that even if you get rid of the 10x/sec misbehavers, some applications really do need to wake up every second or so. That's not so bad by itself, but if you have lots of daemons all waking up at different times, you end up with a CPU that never gets to sleep.

The solution is to synchronize them by rounding the wakeup times to the nearest second, so that they all wake up at about the same time, and the CPU can deal with them all then go back to sleep. But there's a trick: each machine has to round to a different value. You don't want every networking application on every machine across the internet all waking up at once -- that's a good way to flood your network servers. Arjan's phrase: "You don't want to round the entire internet" [to the same value].

The solution is a new routine in glib: timeout_add_seconds. It takes a hash of the hostname (and maybe other values) and uses that to decide where to round timeouts for the current machine. If you write programs that wake up on a regular basis, check it out. In the kernel, round_jiffies does something similar.

After all the theory, we were treated to a demo of powertop in action. Not surprisingly, it looks a bit like top. High on the screen is summary information telling you how much time your CPU is spending in the various sleep states. Getting into the deeper sleep states is generally best, but it's not quite that simple: if you're only getting there for short periods, it takes longer and uses more power to get back to a running state than it would from higher sleep states.

Below that is the list of culprits: who is waking your CPU up most often? This updates every few seconds, much like the top program. Some of it's clear (names of programs or library routines); other lines are more obscure if you're not a kernel hacker, but I'm sure they can all be tracked down.

At the bottom of the screen is a geat feature: a short hint telling you how you could eliminate the current top offender (e.g. kill the process that's polling). Not only that, but in many cases powertop will do it for you at the touch of a key. Very nice! You can try disabling things and see right away whether it helped.

Arjan stepped through killing several processes and showing the power saving benefits of each one. (I couldn't help but notice, when he was done, that the remaining top offender, right above nautilus, was gnome-power-manager. Oh, the irony!)

It's all very nifty and I'm looking forward to trying it myself. Unfortunately, I can't do that on the laptop where I really care about battery life. Powertop requires a kernel API that went in with the "tickless" option, meaning it's in 2.6.22 (and I believe it's available as a patch for 2.6.21). My laptop is stuck back on 2.6.18 because of an IRQ handling bug (bug 7264). Powertop also requires ACPI, which I have to disable because of an infinite loop in kacpid (bug 8274, Ubuntu bug 75174). It's frustrating to have great performance tools like powertop available, yet not be able to use them because of kernel regressions. But at least I can experiment with it on my desktop machine.

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[ 14:06 Aug 12, 2007    More linux | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sat, 11 Aug 2007

Linuxworld 2007

Last week was the annual trek to Linuxworld.

There wasn't much of interest on the exhibit floor. Lots of small companies doing virtualization or sysadmin tools. The usual assortment of publishers. A few big companies, but fewer than in past years. Not much swag. Dave commented that there was a much higher "bunny quotient" this year than last (lots of perky booth bunnies, very few knowledgeable people working the floor). The ratio of Linux to Windows in the big-company booths was much lower than last year, especially at AMD and HP, who both had far more Windows machines visible than Linux ones.

The most interesting new hardware was the Palm Foleo. It looks like a very thin 10-inch screen laptop, much like my own Vaio only much thinner and lighter, with a full QWERTY keyboard with a good feel to it. The booth staff weren't very technical, but apparently it sports a 300MHz Intel processor, built-in wi-fi and bluetooth, a resolution a hair under 1024x768 (I didn't write down the exact numbers and their literature doesn't say), a claimed battery life of 5 hours, and runs a Linux from Wind River. The booth rep I talked to said it would run regular Linux apps once they were recompiled for the processor, but he didn't seem very technical and I doubt it runs X, so I'm not sure I believe that. For a claimed price of around $400 it looks potentially quite interesting.

Their glossy handout says it has VGA out and can display PowerPoint presentations, which was interesting since the only powerpoint reader I know of on Linux is OpenOffice and I don't see that running on 300MHz (considering how slow it is on my P3 700). Apparently they're using Documents To Go from DataVis, a PalmOS app.

Aside from that there wasn't much of interest going on. They split up the "Dot Org Pavilion" this year so not all the community groups were in the same place, which was a bummer -- usually that's where all the interesting booths are (local LUGs, FSF, EFF, Debian, Ubuntu and groups like that: no Mozilla booth this time around). But this year the dotorgs were too spread out to offer a good hangout spot. It didn't look like there was much of interest at the conference either: this year they gave us Exhibit Hall pass attendees a free ticket to attend one of the paid talks, and I couldn't find one on the day we attended that looked interesting enough to bother.

However, that changed at the end of the day with the BOF sessions. The Intel Powertop BOF was an easy choice -- I've been curious about Powertop ever since it was announced, and was eager to hear more about it from one of the developers. The BOF didn't disappoint, though the room did: they didn't even provide a projector (!), so we all had to cluster around the presenter's laptop when he wanted to show something. Too bad! but it didn't keep the BOF from being full of interesting information. I'll split that off into a separate article.

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[ 12:34 Aug 11, 2007    More conferences | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sat, 27 Jan 2007

linux.conf.au 2007

Australia! I spent the last week in Sydney as a speaker for linux.conf.au 2007. My first time overseas, and first time in way too long at a technical Linux conference.

I had lots of plans to write about it as it was happening. Jot down events of the day, impressions of the talks, etc. In retrospect I have no idea how anyone manages to do that. There's just so much stuff going on at LCA that I was busy the whole time. Blogging or sleep ... that might be a hard choice for some people, but I like sleep. Sleep is good. Sleep lets me have a lot more fun at the talks and the social events afterward.

First, about technical conferences. With the emphasis on technical. In California we have a bunch of conferences like Linux World Expo and the O'Reilly Emerging Tech conference, where a few geeks-turned-PR-people make whizzy presentations to marketing and CIO sorts. Ick. Sometimes there are a few presentations that are actually technical, but not many. And oh, did I mention the multi-kilobuck reg fees?

Linux.conf.au isn't like that at all. It's all geeks, all the time. Not everyone is a programmer (though the majority are), but of the hundreds of people I talked to during the week of the conference I didn't meet a single person who wasn't deeply and passionately involved with Linux in some way. You could pick any person at random, start a conversation and immediately be deep in conversation about interesting details of some aspect of Linux you hadn't thought much about before.

Picking people at random and talking to them? What sort of a geek would do that? Well, the cool thing is that in an environment like LCA, the shyest geek can still network pretty well. If you can't make small talk or force a fake smile, you can jump to the meaty stuff right away and start trading notes on filesystems or network configuration or IRQs or python GUI toolkits. I was almost late to the post-conference LinuxChix meetup because it turned out the person sitting next to me at breakfast was a udev expert who knew how to get my memory stick reader recognized (more on that in a separate article).

Not that you'd really need to talk to random people if you didn't want to. One of the many highlights of the conference was the chance to meet people from all over the world whom I'd only met before on IRC or mailing lists. I already "knew" lots of people there, even if I'd never seen their faces before.

There were tons of talks, with four or five tracks going at all times, and all on good topics. It was quite common to want to go to two or three or even more simultaneous presentations. Fortunately nearly everything was video taped, so with any luck we'll be able to catch up on sessions that we missed (and folks who couldn't afford the trip can benefit from all the great talks). The videos are still being uploaded and aren't all there yet, but they've done an amazing job getting as many transcoded and uploaded as they have so far, and I'm sure the rest won't be too far behind. (Some of them are on the mirror but not yet linked from the Schedule page.)

How do they get all those great talks? I must say, LCA treats its speakers well. In addition to the super-secret "Speakers Adventure", which we were assured was worth getting up at 6am for (it was), they gave us a dinner cruise on scenic Sydney harbor, which included an after-dinner talk on how to give better talks (focused on flash rather than content). I didn't agree with all his points, but that's okay, the point is to get people thinking. I bet every one of us (certainly everyone I talked to) went back and revised our talks at least a little bit based on the presentation.

I hope my GIMP tutorial and my miniconf bugfixing talk lived up to the organizing committee's expectations -- it's intimidating sharing a schedule with so many smart people who are also good speakers!

The first two days of the conference were taken up by "miniconfs". I originally had my eyes on several of the miniconfs, on topics such as Kernel, Education and Research, though I knew I'd start the day at the LinuxChix miniconf. As it turned out, that miniconf was so excellent that I spent the whole day there. It included a mixture of technical and social issues: talks on women in FOSS (Sulamita), my talk on "Bug Fixing for Non Programmers", "Demystifying PCI" (Kristin), a set of terrific "Lightning Talks" under five minutes, and eventually concluded with talks on networking in the social sense (Jacinta) and negotiating wages (Val). After Jacinta's and Val's talks we broke up into small groups and headed for the lawn outside for some very productive discussions of networking and negotiation, which were so interesting we kept the discussions going all afternoon.

The LinuxChix miniconf was Standing Room Only all day, with plenty of men listening in. It was quite a rush to see so many technical women all together, giving talks and discussing details of Linux and FOSS.

Another miniconf-like activity was Open Day, on Thursday afternoon, when the conference invited people from the area (particularly teachers and students) to wander through displays on all sorts of FOSS topics. There were booths from most of the major distros handing out CDs or inviting people to do network installs, a booth showing the One Laptop Per Child project, booths showing games and interesting projects such as amateur rocket and satellite projects or the open source Segway clone, a Linuxchix booth, and booths from a few companies such as Google. Open Day was jam packed, people seemed to be having fun and they gave away a few amazing prizes, like Vaio laptops (donated by IBM) which came in an amazingly small box. I was itching to see what was in those little boxes (we never get the cool small laptops in the US, where the national philosophy is "Bigger is Better") but alas, I wasn't one of the lucky winners.

A couple of other notable talks I went to: Making Things Move: Finding Inappropriate Uses for Scripting Languages by Jonathan Oxer, which included live demos of hooking up radio switches and controlling them from the commandline (with a little simple C glue); and "burning cpu and battery on the gnome desktop" by Ryan Lortie, who not only gave an excellent and entertaining list of programs and services which use up system resources inefficiently by polling, opening too many files or other evils (several other speakers offered similar lists), but also gave concrete advice for finding such programs and fixing them. I'm looking forward to seeing his slides uploaded (I'll link them here when I find them).

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[ 23:30 Jan 27, 2007    More conferences | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sat, 19 Aug 2006

A Week of Linux Get-Togethers

It's been a week jam-packed with Linuxy stuff.

Wednesday I made my annual one-day trip to Linuxworld in San Francisco. There wasn't much of great interest at the conference this year: the usual collection of corporate booths (minus Redhat, notably absent this year), virtualization as a hot keyword (but perhaps less than the last two years) and a fair selection of sysadmin tools, not much desktop Linux (two laptop vendors), and a somewhat light "Dot Org" area compared to the last few years.

I was happy to notice that most of the big corporate booths were running Linux on a majority of show machines, a nice contrast from earlier years. (Dell was the exception, with more Windows than Linux, but even they weren't all Windows.)

Linuxworld supposedly offers a wireless network but I never managed to get it to work, either in the exhibit hall or in the building where the BOFs were held.

Wednesday afternoon's BOF list didn't offer much that immediately grabbed me, but in the end I chose one on introducing desktop Linux to corporate environments. Run by a couple of IBM Linux advocates, the BOF turned out to be interesting and well presented, offering lots of sensible advice (base your arguments to management on business advantages, like money saved or increased ability to get the job done, not on promises of cool features; don't aim for a wholesale switch to Linux, merely for a policy which allows employees to choose; argue for standards-based corporate infrastructure since that allows for more choice and avoids lock-in). There was plenty of discussion between the audience and the folks leading the BOF, and I think most attendees got something out of it.

More interesting than Linuxworld was Friday's Ubucon, a free Ubuntu conference held at Google (and spilling over into Saturday morning). Despite a lack of advertising, the Ubucon was very well attended. There were two tracks, ostensibly "beginner" and "expert", but even aside from my own GIMP talk being a "beginner" topic, I ended up hanging out in the "beginner" room for the whole day, for topics like "Power Management", "How to Get Involved", and "What Do Non Geeks Need?" (the last topic dovetailing into the concluding session Linux corporate desktops).

All of the sessions were quite interactive with lots of discussion and questions from the audience. Everyone looked like they were having a good time, and I'm sure several of us are motivated to get more deeply involved with Ubuntu.

Ubucon was a great example of a low-key, fun, somewhat technical conference on a shoestring budget and I'd love to see more conferences like this in the bay area.

Finally, the week wrapped up with the annual Linux Picnic in Sunnyvale, a Silicon Valley tradition for many years and always a good time. There were some organizational glitches this year ... but it's hard to complain much about a free geek picnic in perfect weather complete with t-shirts, an installfest, a raffle and even (by mid-afternoon) a wireless network. Fun stuff!

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[ 20:52 Aug 19, 2006    More conferences | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Thu, 11 Aug 2005

Linuxworld San Francisco, 2005

There's really not much to say about Linuxworld this year. It was smaller than last year (they moved it across the street to the "little" Moscone hall) and the mood seemed a bit subdued.

SWAG was way down: to get anything remotely cool you generally had to register to watch a presentation that gave you a chance to get something to wear that would enter you for a chance to win something cool later. Or similar indirections. You had to be pretty desperate. But maybe people were, since I saw lines at some of the booths.

I did my annual sweep of the big booths to see who was running Linux on their show machines. This year was the first time that all the major booths used predominately Linux (except on machines running fullscreen presentation software, where it's impossible to tell). It was a huge change from past shows -- I stopped keeping tabs after a while. I saw only one or two confirmed Windows machines each at most of the big booths, like Intel, AMD, IBM, Sun, and even HP. They seemed fairly evenly divided between SuSE and Redhat.

At the AMD booth, lots of machines sported cardboard signs saying "Powered by Redhat" or "Powered by SuSE". One of the "Powered by Redhat" machines clearly had a Start menu, so I had to ask. The AMD rep gave me a song and dance about virtualization technologies, pointing out that although the machine was running Windows, it displayed both Redhat and SuSE windows which he said were running on the same machine. Okay, that's a perfectly good reason to be running Windows at a Linux convention. No points off there. I suspect most of the booths showing Windows had similar excuses.

"Virtualization is the wave of the future! Everybody here is displaying virtualization technologies," the AMD rep told me. Indeed, virtualization was everywhere. I don't know that I'm convinced it's the wave of the future, but there was no question that it was the wave of the present at this year's Linuxworld.

Sweeping the hall, I passed by the Adobe booth, where someone was giving a presentation to an audience of maybe ten people. The projector showed a window which showed ... nothing. A blank window border with nothing inside. "Now, it's connecting to San Jose", explained the presenter with apparent pride, "to get permission to display the document." I kept walking . It hadn't finished connecting yet by the time I was out of earshot. Perhaps the audience was somehow persuaded by this demo to buy Adobe software. I guess you never know what people will like.

A bit past Adobe was the weirdest booth of the exhibit hall: SolovatSoft, offering offshore software development at rates starting at $18/hour. Honest, this was an actual booth at Linuxworld. I should have taken my camera.

Gone were most of the nifty embedded Linux displays of yesteryear. I saw only two: one (Applieddata.net, I think) which I've seen there before, showing an array of fun-looking custom embedded platforms of all sizes, and another showing Linux on various cellphones and similar consumer devices. Only one laptop maker (Emperor) made it there, and none of the smaller-than-laptop manufacturers -- I was hoping Nokia, Sharp, Psion or some other maker of nifty Linux PDAs might be there.

The "Dot Org Pavilion", the place where free software groups like Debian, Mozilla, the FSF, and the EFF have their booths, was on a completely separate floor, and would have been easy to miss if you didn't look at the maps in the convention guide. But it wasn't all bad: someone on a LUG mailing list pointed out that this put them in a nice quiet area away from the raucous advertising of the big commercial booths in the main hall, so you could actually have a conversation with the booth folks. Also, the dot-orgs got a nice view out the second-floor windows compared to the cavernous indoor commercial hall.

I only went to one keynote, "The Explosive Growth of Linux and Open Source: What Does It All Mean?" The description made it look like a panel discussion, but it was really just five prepared speeches: three suits repeating buzzwords (Dave and I amused ourselves counting the uses of the word "exciting", and with Toastmasters reflexes I couldn't help counting the "ah"s) and two more interesting talks (well, okay, Eben Moglen was also wearing a suit but at least he didn't spend his whole talk telling us about the exciting opportunities ahead for company X).

I would have liked to have heard Mike Shaver's keynote on web technologies, but it wasn't worth going back to San Francisco for a second day just for that.

In the end, the real highlight of the day was hooking up with Sonja at the Novell/SuSE booth for a nice lunch. Hooray for conferences that give you an excuse to meet friends from far away! Catching up with some of the Mozilla crowd was good, too. That made the trip worth it even if the exhibit hall didn't offer much.

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[ 22:25 Aug 11, 2005    More conferences | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Tue, 10 Aug 2004

James Todd, Sun, and Linux

A Sun employee named James Todd has been posting paeans to Sun and their Linux support on the svlug list (the thread). I don't intend to follow up to that thread, because I expect after 18 messages in four days (including 9 from jwtodd spanning over 800 lines) I expect most folks on the list would prefer to move on to other topics.

James attacks me repeatedly for my earlier blog entry wherein I say that the machines I saw in the Sun booth were all running Windows. He says he worked in the booth, and there were no Windows machines there.

If that's true, then that's terrific! I'm very happy to hear that all the machines I saw with "Start" menus and Redmond-looking icons and themes were actually just a theme Sun puts on their Linux (or Solaris?) desktop boxes. I don't know why Sun feels it necessary to make Linux look just like Windows -- maybe that's part of their theory that you don't need to know what OS you're on (which is really quite a good idea for corporate installations, and reportedly is working quite well internally at Sun). Perhaps they further assume that if they make the non-Windows installations look like Windows, people will be more accepting of the idea. I'm not sure this part is a good idea -- wouldn't it be better if the theme sent the message "Sun" rather than "Windows", so customers don't get the idea that they can just zip off to Dell or somewhere and buy cheaper machines that will do the same thing? Wouldn't it be better marketing at a show like Linux World to show off a theme that didn't look like Windows?

But that's all marketing. If the machines were in fact running Linux and Solaris, I'm happy to hear that I was wrong. Time will tell whether the Windows-like theme is the choice, and whether Sun sticks with Linux in the long run. Of course I hope they do, and that they succeed in selling linux boxes to corporate customers, and that the recent settlement agreement with Microsoft does not herald a withdrawal from open source, as it has with some other companies.

(Whether Sun has helped open source is not at issue, and never was part of this debate, as far as I know. They've already contributed quite a bit, with the Open Office project, and with contributions to Gnome and Mozilla accessibility and internationalization.)

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[ 14:29 Aug 10, 2004    More linux | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sun, 08 Aug 2004

Picnix 13

Hey, cool! The Linux Picnix 13 T-shirts came in a women's version! Looked like they had a bunch -- I hope they don't end up with too many extras and regret making them, 'cause they're very nice and I'd love to see this catch on. (It's black, so maybe not too useful outdoors, but it looks great.) (Followup: actually it's very thin fabric and even outdoors it's okay.) The picnic was fun, too, and well organized. Oracle sponsored the food. Thanks to Google, Oracle, and the Linux Picnix crew (Bill Kendrick, Bill Ward and whoever else helped out).

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[ 00:05 Aug 08, 2004    More linux | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Tue, 03 Aug 2004

Linux World Expo 2004

I just got back from Linuxworld.

The exhibit floor isn't very different from last year. A few more desktop booths, a few fewer embedded and small (e.g. PDA) booths, still dominated by server oriented exhibits -- clustering, network monitoring and similar sysadmin tools. The "Dot Org Pavilion" was quite a bit bigger than last year (which I like, since that's where most of the interest is for me).

The most interesting corporate booth was Psion, which was showing a small device midway between a large PDA (like their old Revo) and a small subnotebook (like my Vaio SR). It has a keyboard that looks smaller than my Vaio's, but which types very well, surprisingly comparable to the Sony. It uses CF as its main disk, but also has a SD/MMC slot, and PCMCIA and USB (no actual hard drive). And a touchscreen. They claim 8 hours battery life. They told Dave that it might sell for around $1000-1500 (too much, probably because of the touchscreen).

They've been trying to sell the hardware as a WinCE box to corporate buyers and vertical markets, and I guess it isn't doing well, so they put linux on it (a Debian variant) and brought two of them to the show to gauge interest. It looked like they weren't expecting any interest at all: their booth was spare, with a table with two of the devices on it, one guy who seemed to know something and two women who just stood around and didn't seem inclined to talk to anyone or answer questions. No fliers, no sign, no nuthin. There were people crowded around the booth (not thickly, but a few) both times I passed. Perhaps they'll decide there's enough interest to go ahead.

The linuxastronomy.com guy was there again (with a friend) showing off a live homebuilt seismometer, recording on the show floor. Very cool. Someone who came to visit the booth showed his latest hack, a knoppix that boots from an NTFS partition (so it's fast and doesn't require a CD). I suggested he show it to the open source in education guy in the booth next door, since I'd just been commiserating with him about how hard it is to get people at schools (or any Windows users, really) to try something like Knoppix.

The Mozilla booth was doing great and always had a crowd around it. Apparently they sold out of the plush firefox toys immediately, surprising everyone since they hadn't been selling on the web site. The Debian and local LUG (shared between LUGoD, SVLUG, PenLUG and BayLUG) booths were both doing well, and the Gentoo booth always had a few visitors typing on the demo machines. The Fedora staffer looked lonely; hardly anyone seemed interested in the Fedora booth.

I did my usual quick survey of which of the big booths were running linux in their booth. Oracle and Redhat were clear winners, with no definite Windows boxes (a few in each case which were running full screen presentation software so I couldn't tell what the OS was). Sun was the worst, with only one Linux box I saw, and the rest all Windows: no Solaris that I saw. AMD leaned toward Linux (maybe 60%), Veritas leaned the other way (60% Windows) and IBM was about 50-50 (no better than last year).

The "Golden Penguin Bowl" was strange. It's a trivia contest between two teams of luminaries; but in this case, one team (the Nerds) was three big-name Linux luminaries, and the other team (the Geeks) was all Apple or BSD people with no connection to Linux at all. Dave kept wondering, "And his connection to Linux is ...?" About half the questions dealt with sci-fi rather than computers, and the Geeks had a strong lead there, but the Nerds cleaned up on the computer questions and ended up with the prize. Timothy D. Witham (of OSDL) was particularly impressive with his knowledge of obscure CPUs, and got several major ovations from the audience after correcting the judges.

Then it was BOF time, and I chose the Zeroconf BOF. I'd done a little research into Zeroconf a month ago for a possible article, but hadn't been able to get it to work, and ran into a snag that the sourceforge page on zcip says it's been removed because of Apple asserting intellectual property rights over the protocol. I hoped that the BOF would shed some light on what I was missing.

Boy, was that wrong! The BOF was a long advertisement for Apple, run by an Apple employee, Stuart Cheshire, and an Apple user (and former employee? I wasn't clear). It consisted of a powerpoint presentation followed by numerous demos of two Mac laptops talking to each other, or a Mac laptop talking to some obscure-but-nifty piece of hardware that implements rendezvous (or whatever Apple is calling it now). After about an hour of this I finally asked where linux fit in, and the answer boiled down to, "Gee, linux doesn't really do zeroconf very well and we wish it did, we're hoping someone writes it."

He mentioned zcip as one of the options, so I made the mistake of asking about the message on sourceforge about Apple's patents, and got a long lecture on how beneficent apple was and how they'd never sue anyone other than in self defense, and anyone who says otherwise is probably trying to push an anti-patent political agenda, but poor apple has to have patents to protect itself from mean companies. And besides, he thinks the patent expired a couple of weeks ago, but it was a good patent, which may seem obvious now but probably wasn't back when it was issued.

Hoping to get back on track after unintentionally derailling the conversation, I asked what Linux users should use given that his first suggestion, zcip, was unavailable. He mentioned HOWL, by Scott Herscher (who was there at the session), which implements all three parts of zeroconf. Googling later at home, I found it at Porchdog software. It's apparently a mixture of BSD licensed code and Apple licensed code. But it doesn't seem to require signing the Apple developer agreement to download it. I haven't tried it yet.

He said that the zcip part of zeroconf would be much better implemented in the kernel, where it would be only about twelve lines of additional code. (He seemed to be talking about the "choose a random number, check for traffic, and back off if it's occupied" portion. Isn't there more to zcip than that? Or is the rest already there in the kernel?) He wondered why no one was adding it. Dave asked, "So, why don't you do it? C'mon, just twelve lines!" Stuart was not amused, and said that while writing the twelve lines wasn't a problem, setting up the build environment for the kernel takes a lot of time, far more than he had available.

Speaking of that Apple license and agreement, Stuart says that there's nothing prohibiting Apple licensed code like zeroconf from being distributed in any linux distro, and he seemed surprised and perturbed that no distro was shipping it (of course, the fact that it just released a couple weeks ago might have something to do with that. :-)

Other bits I wasn't previously clear on: a machine can have a link local address and a regular IP address concurrently, on the same ethernet card. I'm not clear how this shows up in ifconfig (if it does). Link local addressing is not required for the other two parts of zeroconf: MDNS and service discovery should work even over normal IP addresses.

Some of the docs on the web about zeroconf say that MS is backing a service discovery protocol called SLP, rather than the DNS-SD protocol used by Apple, and that most people think SLP scales much better than DNS-SD. As presented at the BOF, both Apple and MS support Rendezvous as it exists now (but then why point out that Apple's Rendezvous is now available for Windows? If Windows already does it, why would anyone need to register with Apple and download different software? I wasn't clear on that) and UPNP, backed by MS, is losing ground and probably won't win in the long run. Perhaps UPNP is a renaming of SLP. I declined to ask about the scaling issues, having already unwittingly caused enough trouble asking about patents.

Great quote from Stuart, possibly sufficient to justify sitting through an hour and a half of Apple advertising: he was talking about somebody having trouble with a networked printer which it turned out had been configured to have a non-default IP, then returned to Fry's, and added "Fry's is the Silicon Valley Hardware Lending Library."

Incidentally, the BOF area was supposed to have wi-fi, with an essid that was given on the signs, but I got "access point out of range". I guess I really should try one of the other drivers, linux-wlan or hostap. Dancer says hostap is easier to set up, and apparently it uses the normal wireless-tools, unlike linux-wlan which uses its own set of tools. I don't need hostap mode, but if it's a good driver for normal client use then I guess that's what matters. Though the Apple people didn't see a network either, but maybe that's because they didn't know about the essid.

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[ 23:36 Aug 03, 2004    More conferences | permalink to this entry | comments ]

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