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Ontario LinuxFest 2008

By David Graham on October 28, 2008 (6:00:00 PM)

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They're back! John Van Ostrand and his gang of idealists put on another great money-losing all-volunteer effort to get Linux users and developers to connect in Toronto last weekend. An estimated 250 people attended the one-day Ontario Linux Fest at the Days Hotel near Toronto's major airport. Among the 27 sessions were keynotes from Jeremy Allison of Samba fame and numerous interesting sessions on everything from Nintendo Wiimote integration in X to an introduction to a group called Geekcorps that seeks to bring usable computers and the Internet to rural West Africa.

Wii have a solution

Student Scott Sullivan, in a talk called "The Horizon of the Human Interface," discussed new hardware to let us interact with our computers. We are reaching the limits of the capabilities of keyboards and mice, Sullivan said, brandishing a Nintendo Wiimote.

The Wiimote, he said, has three accelerometers, allowing it to recognise relative movement in space. It is also equipped with a relatively high-performance infrared camera and Bluetooth, sells for about $45, and has been fully reverse-engineered. "There are oodles of drivers for it," he said, some in X, and he made the point by changing to the next slide in his presentation by pressing a button on his Wiimote.

Sullivan briefly touched on the latest touch-screen technology, describing something called FTIR -- Frustrated Total Internal Reflection. Current touch-screens, he said, allow only one input at a time. FTIR touch-screens work differently, and allow an infinite number of inputs at a given time. The technology operates simply, he explained, by employing a piece of plexiglass with LEDs around its edge pointed inward. An image is projected on it from behind. The light from the LEDs reflects around inside the pane of plexiglass, and when someone makes contact with it, it breaks that reflection and the input can be read from an optical sensor out near the projector.

Returning to the Wiimote, he showed how its infrared camera worked. Pointing it toward the ceiling, his computer showed four black dots moving around the screen, reflecting the positions of the overhead lighting in the room. The Wiimote picks up an infrared image, he explained, and interprets it to up to four dots, which are returned as X/Y coordinates to the computer. This allows the game controller to know its relative position in space for game-play. He demonstrated how the accelerometers worked with some graphs on the screen and, in response to a question, acknowledged that the Wiimote could even be used as a G-force metre.

With such capabilities already available, Sullivan forecast the end of what he called the one keyboard, one mouse paradigm, and showed a screenshot of X with 18 mouse pointers on it at once -- along with some confused-looking instances of xeyes.

Keynote address: Livin' la Vida Linux

The conference was well served by Samba developer Jeremy Allison's keynote address, entitled "Livin' la Vida Linux." Allison was introduced as the development coordinator for the Samba project and its corporate liaison. His work on Samba is funded by Google. His highly entertaining talk was loosely based on a recent column Allison wrote for ZDNet.

Remember "home taping will kill music," he asked, showing photos of a record, an eight-track, a cassette tape, and a CD. He noted that through all this evolution, we have to repurchase our music for each new format. He said he recently finished moving all his CDs to a 320GB USB hard drive, encoding the music using FLAC, the Free and Lossless Audio Codec.

Music storage should be lossless, he said, and should have wide support on media players across the board, free of patent restrictions. Freedom of formats is important, he said, noting the threat of submarine patents -- patents that are hidden in plain sight and can be used by their holders to cause problems after a technology spreads.

Software patents, Allison said, are designed to prevent, not help, implementation, which is against the original intent of patents. The HTML 5 implementation, he noted, will have no video stream specification because of the risk of submarine patents.

FLAC, he said, has no patents, no digital rights management (DRM), and is a compressed format with which he can make mix CDs. But is it safe, he asked? Do I have the right to do this copying? Let's just say, he said, that I wouldn't go to the US to give this talk, but we are in a safe country -- though was heckled with a comment about bill C-61, Canada's own DMCA-type legislation that would be winding its way through Parliament if the country were not busy having elections so often.

Lawyers, he said, are vague on the topic of whether CD copying is legal. "It depends...", he said, is the universal legal answer. The only US Supreme Court ruling vaguely relating to the issue is a generation-old ruling about VHS tapes in which the court ruled that time-shifting is OK. Ripping CDs sounds like time-shifting to him, Allison commented, but it has not been tested by the courts.

From there, Allison segued into NAS storage devices by noting people can use them to store large amounts of music. It was thanks to low-end $50 NAS storage devices that Microsoft finally began to work with Samba instead of fighting the project, he said, because so many of these consumer-grade mass storage devices are running Linux with Samba internally.

Linux, he commented, is not going anywhere. Is this the year of the Linux desktop? It doesn't really matter, he said. The question isn't whether, but when, since, as he put it, we are patient.

He asked if anyone in the room had ever had to reboot their televisions. Several people had. Embedded systems are now everywhere, Allison said, from TVs on down. Why is it important? "Freedom matters" he asserted, and cost is important. The result is an increasing prevalence of open hardware. Android and OpenMoko are working on ports for each others' devices, for example. There are no restraints, he said, with open hardware as a concept. And with no license fees, costs are down.

However, he said, there could be trouble if we do not enforce our licenses. Original equipment manufacturers do not understand that you have to pass freedoms on to users. But the goal of enforcement for the free software and open source community is compliance, not vengeance, he cautioned.

If you find a license violation, he advised, don't shout it out to the world. Report it to the developers and the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC). License violations are usually the result of dumb mistakes, not malice. Don't punish violators, make them comply, he reiterated.

He described software patents as the "serpent in paradise." We must prevent the European Union from allowing software patents, he said, warning that the "usual suspects" are trying to change EU laws to allow them. Politicians, he commented, tend to be ignorant rather than evil.

Use version 3 of the GPL, he urged strongly. It closes loopholes in version 2 of the GPL that allowed patent cross licensing. GPLv3 declares software either free or not and, he said, "makes everyone suffer equally." Allison expressed a hope that the Linux kernel would move to GPLv3 in spite of Linus's reluctance to do so, and suggested that Sun releasing ZFS under GPLv3 might be enough to cause it to gain traction.

DRM is another risk, he said. DRM, he said, only serves to secure computers from the people using them. Trusted Platform Module (TPM) chips are a huge threat, he warned, comparing them to Clipper chips. Clipper chips, he said, were chips introduced by the NSA in the 1980s in an attempt to encrypt all telephone calls in the US, but provide the decryption key to NSA. It was ultimately killed by a flaw in the algorithm as opposed to a defense of freedoms.

Allison quoted US President Andrew Jackson, saying "Eternal vigilance by the people is the price of liberty," and commenting that the people have largely forgotten about the part of the quote that mentions them.

Who controls the code matters, he warned, citing the example of the arrival of digital doorknobs on the market. If you do not have control over it, you will get locked out. Users need to be in control. Linux, he tied it back together, needs to be under GPLv3.

Geekcorps

One of the most interesting sessions of the day was by Ian Howard, who spent two years traveling in Africa, mostly in the west African country of Mali, working with Geekcorps to bring sustainable computing to remote areas.

Mali, he said, is the third poorest country on the planet. It has serious starvation and security problems, but Howard described the country as having a very welcoming culture.

Places like this cannot afford proprietary software, he said. Free and open source software is appropriate for their needs. While some consider Africa a blank slate for technology, Africa has a tendency to leapfrog the rest of the world. Consider, he said, his three trips to Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, over three years. The first year, he said, there was some amount of mobile phone coverage in the capital. A year later, there was cell coverage in most major urban centres. By the third year virtually every populated area of the country had service.

Howard described parts of Africa where one can fly out of a major city and go deep into the countryside, beyond electricity and the road network, land in a little village, and be greeted by someone talking on their cell phone. The ability to use cell phones to communicate with other communities is saving residents of agrarian rural areas a lot of time and money. Instead of walking two days each way to pick up information or items in a neighbouring community, it is possible now to call up and request things. Countries that never had copper or fibre networks have leapfrogged the west and have very good cell coverage where no other infrastructure exists.

Open source software, he said, has a role in developing markets. In Mali, Howard and his team produced a Linux distribution called Kunnafonix that is intended to be installed on the customised ultra low power computers they were using. When the CD is inserted, there are two options: reinstall or full reinstall. For the reinstallation, it reinstalls the operating system; for the full reinstallation, it wipes the hard drive and reinstalls the operating system. The software needs to be restorable by locals without any outside help or serious expertise. Previously, when a computer had a problem, it could take several days for someone to get into the town, fix it, and get back out. Three years on, the computers Geekcorps set up are still running.

In many small communities, there is already one person who has access to and knows how to use a computer. The arrival of Geekcorps and the computers and knowledge they bring to the people can cause social tensions because the one person whose role it is to handle the computer for the town may not be thrilled about the removal of his niche. As much as possible, Howard said, they tried to work with rather than apart from these people to bring technology to these remote communities.

To connect communities to the Internet, Geekcorps developed home-made parabolic antennas to allow a relayed network from one community to the next. They gained the assistance of locals who could then fix them themselves.

With a 40-degree Celsius ambient temperature and a lot of dust, magnetic disks and moving parts were out of the question. The computers Geekcorps used were fanless, diskless computers operating directly off DC power, largely with laptop parts. Running about $400 a piece, Howard and Geekcorps were providing computers that could operate at 20-30 watts, a far cry from the 400+ watts that computers we use tend to require. The computers were dubbed Desert PCs. Many were used in radio stations, along with transmitters Geekcorps rebuilt to use a lot less power so as not to drain community batteries as fast.

What use is information if it is not available in the vernacular, he asked? As part of the project, they started a localised Wikipedia in Bambara, the language in the part of Mali where they spent most of their time working. Using a competition with rewards that are small only by western standards for students who provided the most changes and new information, the site quickly grew to about 900 pages. In the intervening three years, Howard said, it has only grown by about another 100 pages.

Howard intended to go to Mali for only four months, but stayed two years until the project ran out of money. He described the prevailing problem in the region as a lack of information more than a lack of money. The technology he and the group brought are to empower the people and induce change, he said. To be successful, the project has to be self-perpetuating, with enough local interest to keep it going. He is not sure if they reached that tipping point.

Money is not Africa's problem, Howard concluded, knowledge is. If people want to help, he suggested looking at organisations like the Digital Opportunity Trust.

It's a wrap

This was the second year of Ontario LinuxFest. With a better venue, more attendees, and a slate of excellent speakers with fascinating topic matter, the second year was even better than the first. When the biggest problem you have at a conference is that your printed program does not map sessions to presenters, you are on to something. I look forward to attending Ontario LinuxFest 2009.

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