Odd Event Reviews... LUGRadio Live 2005

Adam J Purcell logs his travels to LUGRadio Live 2005 on the 25th of June.

I survived LUGRadio Live 2005! It was insightful, it was fun, it was hot! It was the Linux and Open Source event of the year. Well, certainly the only one I'll be attending this year - how could anything else top it?

So, what is LUGRadio and why was it Live? Well, LUGRadio (that's lugradio.org) is an Internet based 'Radio' programme produced once a fortnight by a bunch of Linux users for Linux users. On their site they describe it as such 'LugRadio is a fortnightly British radio show that takes a relaxed, humorous look at Linux and open source'. LUGRadio Live is something they've been talking about for a very long time - basically a get together for them and their listeners, with talks from interesting Linux community members and associated activities.

So, what is Linux and why would anyone be interested in it? That's a tough one to explain to people outside of the computer industry but here's my attempt anyway. Most people will be familiar with Microsoft Windows these days. That's an Operating System. It allows you to run other programs on your computer, like a Word Processor or the Web Browser you are using to read this Web Page. Linux, like Windows, is also an Operating System. The biggest and most significant difference between Windows and Linux is that Linux is free. Most people probably don't realise that Windows isn't free as it comes preinstalled on their computer when they buy it. Of course, the price of the computer really includes what is often now called the 'Microsoft Tax'. In the lower end computers Windows is often the most expensive part of that machine. The fact that Linux can be obtained free, in a monetary sense, isn't the most important facet of the freedom of Linux. No, the most crucial aspect is that all of its underlying source code is available to the public and anyone can freely use, modify, and redistribute it - in fact no one can stop you doing so due to its licencing. This might all sound rather arcane but the upshot of this is that anyone in the world can improve Linux, that goes for both individuals and organisations. No one company holds a monopoly over Linux - in fact such diverse groups as NASA, the NSA, IBM, HP, Google, various governments and public bodies, universities and a large portion of the Internet Service Providers throughout the world use and contribute to it. You may already be using it without realising - TiVo PVRs, many firewall appliances and routers, increasing numbers of mobile phones and more have Linux embedded in them. Linux is a massive subject with a massive and ever increasing following, you can start to find out more a Wikipedia (that's en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linux).

That's the 'L' in LUGRadio but back onto LUGRadio (that's lugradio.org) itself. Originally devised by two members of the Wolverhampton Linux User Group (Wolves LUG - hence the name LUGRadio), Matt Revell (the short angry one) and Jono Bacon (the one with the beard). Two other members, Stuart Langridge (aka Aq, the Ging) and Stephen Parkes (aka Sparkes, the Brummie), joined them for the first season last year. This year Ade Bradshaw (aka The Bald, Baldshaw or On Call Bald) took over from Sparkes who wanted to spend more time with his allotment! (or something like that, anyway!) These fellows are normal people, down to earth people whose recorded banter is, we're told, very much like their 'real life' conversations. It certainly reminds me a lot of the Staggering Stories crew's Saturday nights, lots of silly humour, often at each others expense (particularly Tony's in our case!) LUGRadio has famously (in LUGRadio circles) being described as being "ribald" or "has some language at times" (to which Aq characteristically replied "Perhaps he was expecting us to make f*&king clicking noises or something. Of course it's got language!") I regularly find myself laughing at a particular comment for hours later! In only in the latest episode (Season 2 Episode 21) I nearly choked on a mouthful of water over certain Roy Castle comments towards the end of the show. Breathing down water doesn't half burn the lungs - thanks guys!! I highly recommend everyone gives the programme a listen at least once, even if you aren't interested in Linux or Free/Open Source Software, or even computers particularly - it's insightful but light humoured and very easy listening. You might not understand it all but you will learn something and, I've no doubt, be entertained along with it. I applaud the LUGRadio crew - their contribution is absolutely invaluable.

Onto the day of LUGRadio Live 2005 itself. For me it was an early start as Wolverhampton is a three hour drive away and with my sense of direction I had to leave plenty of time for wrong turns! As it was I didn't get lost (thank you, maps.google.co.uk) and I got there safely before 11:00AM. potatoes? As I entered the volunteers on the door took my email receipt for my £5 entry fee (which I could also have bought at the door) and branded my hand with half a potato covered in black ink. Strange behaviour. The half potato actually had 'LRL' (as I recall) carved into it - the massive letters took up the entire width of my hand! There was no hiding that fact I'd paid to get in! It should probably be said that this event was entirely non-profit making, in fact I've no doubt that the organisers actually ploughed some of their own money into it - certainly the guests weren't paid, not even their travel expenses. This was an event for the Linux community by the community, very much in the spirit of LUGRadio itself. This was deliberately not a normal corporate expo, the majority of the speakers were not big names from the corporate interest side of Linux, they were grass roots people with interesting ideas or tales to tell. In many ways it felt a lot like a small British Science Fiction convention where you get to mingle with other members of the community alongside names everyone knows, on an equal basis. It had that very informal atmosphere that leads to such camaraderie.

Having said all that about the non-corporate nature of the event, the first thing I did was make a beeline for the O'Reilly (that oreilly.com)book stand. It should, however, be noted that O'Reilly are no ordinary book publisher. It's founder Tim O'Reilly is described in the Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim_O%27Reilly)as 'a heavy contributor to the free software and open source movements'. His company certainly follows that ethos, fostering partnerships with many leading community figures who write books for them and even making many of those books available free for reading on their web site. Like their integrity, their reputation for quality books is second to none in the computer industry. They were also giving a 30% discount on their books at the show - which was persuasive. I just wished I'd brought more cash with me! Their presence may also have had something to do with Jono's (the Beard's) new book Linux Desktop Hacks. Sorry, Jono, I could only afford one book and instead went for Cascading Style Sheets, Second Edition - I think everyone can agree this site could do with a bit more of that!

Having blown my wad (no, not blown anything else, Bald) I hurriedly grabbed a seat - it certainly didn't look like there would be enough, even at this early stage. Sure enough the Terrace Bar at the Molineux Stadium was filled to capacity (probably even a little bit beyond the fire regulations, I suspect, but lets keep that one quiet!) and it was quickly standing room only. As expected, of the roughly 250 people there I think I managed to spot maybe 5 or 6 women among them. What is it with computers and SF?!

The LUGRadio foursome were a little late getting started but that was understandable - the guys appeared to be organising the whole thing pretty much themselves. Next year they can definitely do with more gophers to help out. Clearly they had put an amazing amount of effort in - even to the point that the four of them each had their own LUGRadio Live tee shirt - with individualised words printed in very large letters on the back. They read BALD, BEARD, GING, and ANGER on the back. These chaps certainly don't take themselves too seriously! At one stage during their mad rushing about I noticed a couple of them talking and then looking around in surprise (or was it awe?!) at how many people had already turned up. I couldn't help but chuckle!! Was it just dawning on them what they'd let themselves in for? From what I gather the attendance was 2 to 3 times what they imagined in their best case scenario.

It was interesting to finally put a face to the voices we had all become so familiar with. We'd all seen photos of them but nonetheless I still found my mental image of them to be a little off, especially in the cases of Jono (the wierdy beardy) and Aq (the ginga). It's not unlike those voices you always hear on Radio 4 (like the dread Brian Perkins) - when you finally see a photo you just can't reconcile it with your mental picture of them so you end up continuing to believe your version rather than the real picture! Meeting such people in real life appears to be enough to break that though, it seems. See, LUGRadio was part psychology test too! I imagine the LUGRadio team must have had a bit of psychological testing too having to stand up in front of us lot. They did a fantastic job, however, they appeared fully at ease with public speaking which must have been a world away from their usual gathering around a few mics at Jono's place. I can't imagine the four of us, as the main Staggering Stories bods, being able to do the same (well, certainly not me, at any rate!)

Two streams of talks were scheduled, one on the main stage and a set of shorter talks in a side room (the lightning talk stage). Alongside those there were the small stands I mentioned, some, like O'Reilly, selling things such as books, T-Shirts, mugs, etc. Others were just there to drum up interest in their project, such as the brilliant Mambo (I'd love to move Staggering Stories across to this...) and the essential CentOS (which I use on my work desktop - thanks guys!) If that wasn't enough there was also LAN gaming (who was that wally using Windows 2000 for Unreal Tournament 2004 who claimed it was 20% quicker? Is that all it takes for you to abandon your principles?) To top all that there was Andrew "Splineboy" Lewis with his home-made 3D laser scanner! Apparently there were no blindings but a lot less people will need to wax their bikini lines from now on!

Inevitably with two streams of talks (and all the other activities, not to mention the bar) people wouldn't be able to see it all. The general idea of ensuring there was always something happening to entertain everyone was good but did they have to make all of it so interesting?! There were a few things I missed I would have liked to see (such as Shuttleworth's main stage talk and a few lightning talks I missed like GreaseMonkey, Phishing and how to make an open source website). I'm hoping that more of the Audio/Video captured during the event will yet surface on the LUGRadio site (that's lugradio.org/live/2005/).

The first talk I did manage to catch was Rufus Pollock's How to Fight Software Patents. It was a very insightful presentation and really highlighted the dangers to the software industry, especially open source and small commercial software houses, that software patents would bring. In basic terms a patent is a monopoly on an idea for a set period of time, during which anyone else who uses that idea (even if they come up with it independantly) must pay royalties to the entity that owns the patent. The original idea was to promote technology - someone will spend time and money inventing something new and useful, they register that invention for all to see and in return the state guarantees them a monopoly on that for a number of years so the inventor can recoup their costs. Once the patent expires, or an agreement is negotiated, other parties can then use that new knowledge for themselves, often improving on it or using it in new and interesting ways the original inventor hadn't. It worked well and, indeed, continues to work well in most traditional sectors. It is more of a problem when it comes to software, though. A 20 year patent in the pharmaceutical industry is very different to a 20 year patent in software - just imagine basic computing ideas such as icons or resizable fonts being held by one company for 20 years? The entire industry will stagnate, competition and innovation will die. It can cost millions to develop a new drug and go through the clinical trials (which in themselves last years, hence it being as long as 20 years on patents). A lone open source programmer, in his/her spare time can come up with a good new software idea and develop it in days for effectively no cost - at least assuming they don't have to check every idea they have with the patent office in case someone has beaten them to it. A few examples of recent patents taken out in the USA (where they already have software patents) include a patent over using the Tab key to move between hyperlinks on a web page (try it - this 'new' invention has been around for about a decade and exists most, if not all, web browsers), a patent covering emoticons (e.g. :-) smilies) and Amazon's famous 'one-click shopping' patent. A couple of good quotes I've just come across on the Smiley patent: Jonas Maebe, a spokesman, and colleague of Rufus Pollock, at the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure (FFII) said "It is unfortunately quite clear such patents have nothing to do with protecting investments nor R&D, and only with obtaining exclusion rights which can help them [Microsoft] maintain their dominant position in the market". Felipe Wersen, also of the FFII, said "Patents were ultimately designed to benefit society - to have companies disclose things that benefit society which they wouldn't otherwise disclose. Who does this patent benefit?" Well, I'm glad to say that the controversial EU Patents Directive was voted down, convincingly, a few days after LUGRadio Live 2005. No one expects that to be the end of it, the monopolistic lobbyists will continue to try to revive the idea, let's just hope that people like Rufus and the FFII (and the rest of us open source users) keep up the fight, as I'm sure will be the case.

Being that LUGRadio Live was a few weeks ago I can't exactly remember the order of all the talks but I think next I went to see Daniel Barron's talk on his Dan's Guardian web categorisation and filtering software in the Lightning Talk room. An interesting talk, if a little overprepared, and as a home user of IPCop I was vaguely aware of his software being available as a plugin. Sounds like a great system - he even said it was being used by a somewhat repressive government somewhere (I forget which - certainly nothing as large as China, though), open source is there for everyone for good and ill! Certainly worth checking out if you run a school or even just want to stop your own kids from coming across certain types of website (Staggering Stories not included, of course!)

Next up was Robert Postill with his Linux Disaster Recovery talk. Another vital subject that I really should do more about (just look at the trouble I had rebuilding the Staggering Stories Forum after our ISP lost a HDD - why am I still using them?) Robert had some very good observations to make and even handed out some information packs at the end (mine is on my desk at work, reminding me daily that I should push for more funding...) I know for a fact that at least 3 out of 4 of the Staggering Stories team have lost data as a result of poor or nonexistent Recovery procedures (myself very much included). I urge everyone to think about their valuable data and how to preserve it in the event of Disaster. Off site backups, people. If you're a business or have time critical needs to access that data/software you'll also need to think about how to recover your hardware configurations and programs in a hurry. Robert's talk may have been a Lightning 20 minutes but he really hammered home some points!

Back onto the Main Stage to catch the LUGRadio team interview the legendary Ian Bell, co-creator of classic 1984 computer game Elite. This is what I had really been looking forward to, having been such a big fan of the game in the hallowed 80's (and beyond). As ever when questions were opened up to the audience, or even after at the bar, I couldn't think of any decent questions to ask. I just wish I'd thought about it a bit harder. Oh, well, maybe next time! Still, the 'four large gents' (as the LUGRadio team has, inexplicably, started to be referred as) did a fine job of getting a lot of good questions in there. I was a little saddened to hear Ian Bell, somewhat reluctantly, reveal that Generation Ships didn't really exist in the game, that was just something added into the manual to add a little mystery! Ian Bell himself came across as a very decent chap, somewhat New Age hippie but otherwise very normal and soft spoken. I was amazed to hear that he's basically been living off his Elite money for the past 20 years and it's only just starting to run out now! It obviously didn't let that money go to his head! Most of all, though, he has inspired me to do a version of Elite for my handheld Zaurus. I remembered a version good version for the Palm Pilot and I plan to take that as a basis and build on it. Don't hold your breath, however, time is always shorter than my TODO list!

Then I think it was Bill Thompson, technology journalist you will see occasionally on the BBC and beyond, who gave us some real world tales of the practical benefits of Open Source Software. Using the previously mentioned Mambo he was able to build a large scale, multilingual, publicly funded community website over a weekend! The website, Open Democracy is designed to be a discussion forum on global affairs and came online for the anniversary of the Madrid Train Bombings. Bill drove home the point that it wasn't idealism that made him go to Open Source software - it was simply the best choice, the only feasible choice, when he sat there on a Friday evening needing to deliver a complete system the following Monday morning. The power of Open Source is that you can take it and bend it to your needs. No propriety software could have done that for him. This, more than anything else, is the reason, he believes, that Open Source software is the inevitable future. I think he's probably right - corporates happily throw money at boxed software, money isn't the issue for them, but all too often the software isn't quite what they need.

With past radio programme titles like 'The Testicle of Insanity' and 'Ribald for her Pleasure' it isn't surprising that the panel session was called the 'Mass Debate'. These guys would really be at home at a Staggering Stories Saturday night! Multimillionaire space tourist, philanthropist and Linux fan (founder of the free and highly regarded Ubuntu Linux Distribution - they drink it in the Congo, apparently...) Mark Shuttleworth, Kevin Carmony (CEO of Linspire, a Windows looking Linux Distribution), Rufus Pollock and Bill Thompson mass debated before us. Again, a very interesting event and, again, I wish I could have thought of some decent questions to throw at them. I hope this will appear as a video on the LUGRadio site in the not too distant future, if only for the question to Shuttleworth that asked if he'd use his millions to dress up as a bat and fight crime!

The final event, the BIG EVENT, was the first ever live LUGRadio episode! Yes, the LUGRadio gang doing what they do best in front an an audience (with farmyard animal noises, too!) Always funny, this time they had an audience to act up to and they certainly did! I won't say too much about it as you can see it (or listen to it) on the LUGRadio Live and Unrestrained page of their site. It was probably funnier to be there but it's got to be worth a look, nonetheless. As for the hairy palmed Pickle... Dirty boy!

And that was about it but for another exhausting 3 hour drive home. It really was a fantastic day - a big thankyou to the LUGRadio team and everyone else who helped with it - especially all the speakers who gave their time (and travel) for free, even those from across the pond. It was also great to meet all these other LUGRadio listeners and see the LUGRadio team (if not actually talk to the overly busy chaps!) I hope next year I can persuade some of the Staggering Stories team to come along, they might not know Linux but I'm sure they'd enjoy it nonetheless. This is how all Linux events should be!