The First Free Software Conference

Intro and Disclaimer

This is a slightly edited writeup of my experiences at the Free Software Conference that was originally intended for a friend who was unable to attend the conference. Everything here is my opinion. Official info about the conference can be found here.


The youth hostel in Boston is cool, large and friendly and kind of run down. There are a number of communal rooms, a nice kitchen, etc. From there I walked across the river to the MIT campus, which is pretty imposing - I don't think I'd have liked it as an undergrad, it has an industrial feel. One cool thing about it is that you can pretty much walk across campus without going outside of a building - Lurking Horror isn't exaggerating much. On the east side of campus across the street from the conference center was the MIT press bookstore, which was awesome. Anyway, I got to the conference center kind of early and they didn't need help setting up so I bummed around looking for people to talk to. The first person I ran into was Eric Raymond - he's a short, energetic guy in his middle thirties or so; we talked about the Jargon File for a bit before some other people showed up. Then he went off to talk to somebody and I talked to a guy from Bell Labs for a while. He didn't seem worried about the labs splitting up, and (jokingly?) said that his side was coming out on top since they were losing the people responsible for the Korn Shell and C++ all at once. A little later Phil Hughes, the editor of Linux Journal, joined us. He's a cool, laid back type with long hair and a beard - I got to know him fairly well before the end of the conference. Around this time pretty much everybody else started showing up, so there was a lot of milling around and peering at nametags, since most people hadn't ever met most of the others in person.

At the reception later on, I sat at a table with Michael Bushnell, Roland McGrath, and some others that I don't remember. Both of them are both pretty young - definitely below 30, which kind of surprised me. mib is interesting; a little nerdy, but also kind of flamboyant and talkative; he holds strong opinions about lots of things. Roland is pretty quiet and harder to talk to, and doesn't seem to like small talk a lot. For a while the two of them were in a discussion/argument about the Hurd, which was interesting - they've implemented something cool in the Hurd which stops a misbehaving process rather than killing it and forcing a core dump since some information pertaining to the process is lost when it is killed. While I'm talking about the Hurd I might as well mention that I never met Miles Bader, even though he was at the conference. Later on I talked for a while with Chris Demitrou, formerly of the NetBSD core group, now (apparently) of the OpenBSD group - I didn't ask about it since I didn't know it existed until later on in the conference. It seems to be yet another *BSD splinter. Linus (pronounced with a short 'i', just like Linux) was there, but I didn't try to meet him since he was pretty much surrounded all evening. In fact, he was attracting more attention than rms, which is my preferred explanation for why, when rms walked by our table and mib asked him how he was doing, he said "annoyed" - when rms walked off mib and Roland exchanged shrugs. rms is a shortish guy with long black hair, and a force of personality that makes him seem more like a religious leader than a hacker. You really have to meet him sometime; he's eerily calm and kind of stifles arguments because he's so self assured that argument seems silly.

Things broke up a little before midnight when the hotel staff cleared everybody out so they could start setting up for Saturday. While waiting for a train I ran into Lisa Goldstein, who I hadn't heard of, but apparently ran the business end of the FSF for a long time. She seemed nice; when I asked her about rms she said he was great to be a volunteer for but not to get on his payroll; she wouldn't elaborate on that. The opinions that I formed of the free software community that evening seemed to be supported during the following days - I felt a little like an outsider since a lot of the people there knew a lot of the others. However, nearly everybody I talked to was very friendly and willing to talk about just about anything or anybody.


I got to the conference center in time to snag some breakfast; I sat down with people I didn't know - one of them had an FSF account that had been wiped out by an intruder. I went to the Linux tutorial that morning, which I wasn't terribly interested in since it didn't go into technical details, but it was the only morning half-day session, and I wanted to do the advanced emacs tutorial that afternoon. It was really interesting anyway since I learned a lot about the Linux Journal, because Phil Hughes ran the session. rms has apparently tried to get him to refer to Linux system as "Linux based GNU systems," and he refused on grounds that LJ is there to report, not to proselytize. So, yes, there is some tension between the two camps, and it was quite apparent at the conference. Lunch that day was cool; I was at a table with Eric Raymond and a bunch of others. Meal conversations tended to be quite interesting, and as often as not didn't revolve around computers. Then the advanced emacs tutorial started; rms pretty much adlibbed it - he went through some of the strange but useful features that people who use emacs on a daily basis probably wouldn't have encountered. Then he answered questions for a while and talked about future plans for emacs. They include making it easier for new users, integrating word-processor like features such as better control over alignment, centering, and things like boldface, underlining, italics, etc. He also wants to integrate some of the xemacs display code (proportional fonts, inline graphics, etc), but apparently the authors won't agree to GPL it. The only real surprise to me was that he's going to replace the elisp interpreter with a scheme interpreter. I hadn't known that Sussman and Abelson were on the FSF's board of directors; that might explain why they're jumping whole-hog into scheme. Later on I went out to dinner with Phil Hughes and some other guys, to a seafood place that served some good beers, and later on I went out for beer with a pretty big group including Linus and his girlfriend (who was visiting the states with him), some of the Hurd people, Tom Christiansen, and a bunch of others, to the Cambridge Brewing Company, which was awesome - they had a great stout and a barleywine that seemed to be very good, but I can't be sure since I'd already had about three pints of stout. I know I was impaired since I tried to order a pint of the barleywine before I realized what I was saying - luckily for me it's illegal to serve so large a quantity (or so the waitress claimed). Anyway, this was a pretty wild and loud bar, so I talked only to the people close to me, and I've forgotten who they were. Again, I didn't meet Linus since he was mostly paying attention to his girlfriend and it would have been rude to intrude; he also turned in fairly early in order to figure out what he was going to say the next day. Tom Christiansen is interesting, he's a little obnoxious but mostly cool. He makes a living with Perl, consulting and teaching classes and stuff like that. The free software crowd definitely seems to be oriented towards good beers; I like that a lot. I took off around midnight since I didn't want to miss the last train; the subway stations were packed with Boston's college crowd doing the same thing.


Linus gave the keynote speech in the morning. He's a pretty interesting guy; sort if quiet and hesitant, but also funny. He seemed pretty well adjusted to the fact the he's created a minor industry, but emphasized that good timing was an important factor in making it what it is. He appeared to be somewhat shaken about a couple of things: first, some group has gotten a hacked Linux kernel to pass the POSIX.1 validation tests, and he thought that eventually the mainstream kernel would do so too. Second, the only obstacles to getting Linux registered as a real UNIX are another set of tests and a $25,000 fee that some group is apparently willing to pay. Things will get interesting if that happens. He also talked about the various Linux ports; Alpha and Sparc are pretty stable, with MIPS and PowerPC progressing well, and the multiprocessor Linux for Pentium boards is working but inefficient. There has been a major reworking of the virtual memory architecture in version 1.3, improving performance a lot. The code freeze for 2.0 is in effect. Well, it must be more of a code slush since some pretty significant patches have come out since the conference. Then came the rest of the talks; I'll only talk about the more interesting ones, though they were generally of high quality. A CS professor from New Mexico talked about using Linux for OS courses. Some students of his have done interesting things, including putting Linux on top of a little real-time kernel, which can preempt the entire Linux kernel; Linux runs in the idle time of the real-time executive. They had also added a lot of instrumentation code to the kernel, to measure statistics about buffer cache efficiency and things like that. Some people from OSF in Grenoble have gotten Linux to run on top of Mach 3.0, on the Pentium and PowerPC - you may have seen things about this on the net. I was under the impression that Mach 3 is inherently slow, but they claim that their system outperforms a stock Linux kernel in all of the areas that they've spent time optimizing, and it can potentially be faster everywhere. One of the guys from Red Hat talked about their package system, which I've subsequently found to be very nice - I picked up a Red Hat 2.1 CDROM for free at the conference, and it's now running on three machines here including the new P6 (and my machine, as of today). The last talk was by Peter Deutsch, who now makes a living from ghostscript. He talked about alternative licenses for free software - I'd imagine that rms didn't like that one. At the end rms gave the other keynote speech. He's a great orator; he talked about why he got into the GNU business, and how it's doing. He seemed somewhat put out that Linux has usurped the Hurd's position, but was fairly confident that the Hurd would win out in the end. I don't agree, although I think it'll have a significant following in the academic community, as a research OS if nothing else. There were BOFs that evening; I went to one about Perl, where there was in interesting discussion of a Perl compiler. Tom Christiansen seemed to be against it since it would interfere with source distribution since people could just make binaries and give them out. The other one I went to was a demo of the OSF Linux - it was pretty amazing to use Linux on Mach on a PowerPC; it even ran X. Linus seemed to be bemused. Later I joined a group at the hotel bar; it was kind of cheesy but served guinness. Finally I was sitting near Linus - he's a pretty real guy. That phrase was heard a lot at the conference, as in "have you met Larry Wall? Yeah, he's pretty real," as if to emphasize that these net personalities are humans too. I was sitting across from Len Tower, who I had (embarrasingly) never heard of. He's the other one besides Abelson and Sussman on the FSF board of directors, and definitely comes from the old school of hackers. He's totally laid back, and was willing to talk about the old days. He said the hacker culture is slightly alive, in Sussman and Abelson's research groups for example, but the good old days are over. He's somewhat unwillingly migrated from hacking towards the administrative end of the FSF, since somebody had to do it. At the conference there was an interesting contrast between the old hackers, long haired and laid back, and the new ones; still casually dressed but more aggressive, and argumentative. Len had a paternal attitude towards mib and the rest; he said Roland had been programming for the FSF since he was a freshman in high school. He said mib is really talented and likes to think he knows better than rms on Hurd design issues, even though rms knows at least six operating systems inside and out.

You know how it's possible to be surprised by pronunciations of things you only see in text? Well, I was. All these guys pronounce things like system calls, function names, and variables how they look, regardless of derivation. For example, sprintf would be "sprint" as in run fast, and "ef"; insn is "in sen", rather than instruction. Weird. Len took credit for persuading rms to use rtl (register transfer language) as gcc's internal representation - it's responsible for most of gcc's portability. I guess rms wanted to get something working and extend it later; that would have been a bad move. I was curious about rtl since it was developed here (UVA, I mean) by the prof I took computer architecture from last semester. I'm waiting for a chance to take his compiler course; it's supposed to be pretty awesome. Anyway, I sort of alternated talking with Len Tower on one side, and Linus and Tom on the other; which was cool. I missed the last train home so I had to walk across the river in below zero weather - ouch.


The morning tutorial I went to was about 4.4 BSD internals, done by a Harvard CS prof and one of her students, who ported NetBSD to the Sparc20. It was interesting, since I'm fairly ignorant of BSD internals. afternoon session was about writing machine descriptions for gcc, taught by rms. It was awesome - he went through the whole thing - the tutorial went a full two hours overtime. Towards the end I started getting worried about missing my plane. The group attending was pretty small, so there was room for questions. I don't remember their names, but two of the guys there are working on the GNU Ada translator. I'm much more impressed by gcc than I used to be - the back end is truly amazing. Like I said, it went overtime, so unfortunately pretty much everybody had cleared out by the time the tutorial was over, so I headed directly for the airport; that turned out to be a good idea since I had to use three subway lines to get there. Then, when I got to Washington I discovered that my car had been plowed in up to the license plate. Luckily the motel had a spare snow shovel!

Oops, I left out the media lab. Well, I didn't see much. I realized over lunch on Monday that I wasn't going to get chance to see it after the conference, so I headed over there with only a few minutes to spare before the gcc tutorial. I avoided the floor with Negraponte's office since I'd heard that the staff there is unfriendly, and walked around the third floor, mostly looking at displays and peeking into windows. Actually, a lot of the walls are glass so I didn't really have to peek. I wanted to walk into one of the rooms and ask if somebody could show me around, but I had only a little time and I didn't want to impose and then run off a few minutes later. I didn't meet Vernor Vinge at the conference - he was on the program committee but didn't make an appearance as far as I know. Furthermore I never made it into the LCS, also due to time constraints - I really wanted to see the FSF headquarters. Maybe next year...

Comments and criticism are welcome.

Last modified: Thu Feb 6 00:48:33 1997