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Preview: Shallow Thoughts

Shallow Thoughts

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


Random LCA Comments

Fri, 08 Feb 2008 12:49 PST

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: a live demo going "from database to web app in 45 seconds" by someone listed only as "Flame"; Paul Wayper describing some of the pitfalls of trying to fit a real wood veneer onto a laptop; a discussion of a PHP code quality analysis tool; A talk entitled "Getting Laid", by Jeff Waugh, which turned out to be a more general discussion of open source involvement; Pia Waugh describing her plans for OLPC Australia, to distribute XO laptops to needy children; I (Still) Hate Threads, in which Rusty Russell explained why threads are often less efficient than a separate process; and finally: "Fixing the Web", in which Paul Fenwick demonstrated the Greasemonkey extension to Firefox, and how you can use it to turn a cluttered, impossible myspace page into a nice neat login page. 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[...]

The Final Day

Thu, 31 Jan 2008 23:44 PST

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".

LCA Thursday

Thu, 31 Jan 2008 17:52 PST

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!


Thu, 31 Jan 2008 15:27 PST

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!

LCA Miniconfs

Wed, 30 Jan 2008 20:50 PST

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.)