Hams, hackers, lovers and models of railways

Original author: Richard Hillesley
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Studying the roots of free software movement

In 2003, Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems, called GNU / Linux “a great environment for hobbyists,” but not for the industry. The relative success of Linux in Sun, and the subsequent sunset of Sun, proved McNealy's fallacy, but Linux certainly has its roots and inspiration among hackers and hobbyists

Hobbies - “interest or activity, outside of regular activities, and, above all, for pleasure”. A tedious job is “an undertaking project or a product built not only to fulfill some constructive task, but with some wild pleasure derived from simple involvement”. Early Linux kernel developers called themselves hackers and for the most part did their real work at home, pausing things for their hobby. The contribution to the core gave them intellectual capabilities and rewards that would otherwise be unavailable.

Linus Torvalds did not leave his job at Transmeta in order to devote himself to full-time work on the Linux kernel since 2003, but it can be argued that by that time the Linux kernel had more employees than any comparable project. The fact that developing the core was more of a hobby than a job, with a return that was more emotional than financial, can be seen as a virtue, not an obstacle to its potential success.

Access to computers should be complete and unlimited.

Linux developers in the early 90s grew up in the era of ZX80 and BBC micro, Acorn and Apricot, for whom the code was often obvious, and computing was an educational process. Jeremy Ellison, Samba's developer, argues the free software: “I want anyone in the world to have the same capabilities that I had when I was growing up,” he says. “The early eighties were a period of intense creativity in the computer industry in the UK.”

»I had a Sinclair QL, which was a 32-bit machine, even though it had an 8-bit bus. "The source code for the operating system, QDOS, turned on quite legally." Assembler sources, commented sources, you could buy and look at them, and disassemble and They were embedded in ROM, but you could modify them - there was a company that disassembled them for me quite legally - and then IBM PC and Microsoft came along and destroyed all this creativity, they simply leveled tank tracks with the ground. children growing in our days, they don’t know any of those things. They don’t know the basics of how things are arranged. They have black boxes that rattle because they are broken and they cannot look inside. You cannot learn from this. "

For those who spent their childhood or youth digging games in the home computers of the late seventies and early eighties, playing with software was gaining experience and something to share. One could say that Linux grew out of this ideal as much as it grew out of the free software movement or Usenet culture of the early 90s, where, “if you wrote something cool, you sent it to Usenet” and the only condition which came with the software was that "if the program crashes, you support both parts."

Also, for the early development of Linux, it was important that it was fun, or as Linus Torvalds put it in a statement dated August 25, 1991 at comp.os.minix - announced the arrival of the OS, which he intended to call Freax, “just a hobby, won't be big and professional like GNU. "

Gradual departure from the perception of software as a tool, understanding and rework, allowing users to better understand the machines for which they paid, often outdated, true or not, to the famous Open Letter to Lovers written by Bill Gates, “Principal Partner, Microsoft”, February 3 1976, in which Gates stated: “Since most hobbyists should know, most of you steal your software. Hardware must be paid for, but software is something to share. Who cares if the people who worked on him paid? ”

Gates’s complaint was directed against home computer owners who developed a culture of sharing software that they used to program their computers and unhappily asks: “Who can afford to do professional work for nothing? What kind of lover can spend 3 man-years programming, finding all the mistakes, documenting his product and distributing it for free? “A question that has been answered many times by free software developers.

Always yield to the Practical Requirement!

Sometime in 2002, Andrew Rodland flipped through the Linux kernel code and came across a random comment in the 'panic_blink' function, which described the purpose of the function as “telling the user who can start X and not see the console that we have a panic. This is for distinguishing from the 'real' hang. It is theoretically possible to send a panic message like Morse code, but this remains as the reader’s homework. ”

Rodland, “having no habit of retreating to a problem (unless it's really difficult),” created a patch that changed the kernel to report panic to the Morse Code.

In January 2009, Thomas Shepe updated Rodland's code to include Linux 2.6.29-rc1 in the Linux kernel. “When it’s turned on,” he wrote in the comments, “this code screams a kernel panic for help with Morse code, signals with LEDs on a possibly connected keyboard and / or beeper. You can turn your Morse code output devices on / off by choice using the “panicMorse” kernel boot option. A Morse code modification can be rejected as frivolous or playful (and what's wrong with that?), But the SOS sent by the crashing kernel also has practical applications as a debugging tool for kernel and hardware developers.

These days of satellites, GPS and spacecraft, the Morse Code no longer has the meaning that it once had as a means of calling for help or communicating with someone on the other side of the planet. But even in this millennium, experience in Morse code is still in demand for a ham radio license. And an amazing number of early contributors to Linux and other free software projects were hams. Among the most famous are Alan Cox, who wrote the Morse Code tutorial GW4PTS for Linux in 1993, Ted Tso, whose callsign is VE7RJT, Bruce Perens (K6BP), and Bdale Garby, who broadcasts as KB0G. Indeed, Perens led a successful campaign to remove the requirements for knowing the Morse Code, as a condition for obtaining an amateur radio license, a law that he described as the Most Stupid Technology Act in the World.

All information should be free.

Hams were truly practical amateurs. This hobby dates back to the early decades of the 20th century. According to a radio amateur under the pseudonym iceowl ( here ), “Ham radio enthusiasts of the 1920s and 30s were at the forefront of technology. The transmitters and receivers they built at home were ultramodern. ” As people who are passionate about their hobbies in many areas, hams often organized professionals to carry out some of the most daring aspects of their hobbies.

Part of the appeal of talking with amateur radio buddies in deserted corners of the world through a machine that you built yourself from radio tubes, wires and glue has evaporated in recent years, superseded by the instant pleasure provided by mobile phones, netbooks and VoIP. But the hobby continues in pursuit of more esoteric goals, such as Moonbounce , communication “with other stations, reflection of the radio signal from the moon”, ,, or DXing, “A geopolitical game played by psychos with wires, radio transceivers, and generators,” the goal of which is to “establish contact, verifiable with one of the many of the 335 geographical and political units that the American Radio Relay League recognizes as separate countries. ” Iceowl concludes that “for many crazy radio operators, magic detector radio is where the infection begins. DXing is a disease in full swing. ” In fact, just like the beginning of personal PCs, in the 1920s and 30s at the beginning of public broadcasting, it was mainly possible to hear heated discussions about the best methods for building detector receivers on the upper decks of double deckers, and the number of magazines available on the topic.

In the early years of home computers, a reliable way to connect to the Internet was throughKAQ9 NOS , originally written by Phil Karn in 1985 for CP / M, and later ported to DOS for use with amateur packet radio. KAQ9 was the call sign of Karna. “KA9Q NOS was only the second known implementation of Internet protocols for lower-end computers” after the PC / IP of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and “attracted many contributors and became very widely used during the late 1980s and early 1990s in amateur packet radio and in various educational projects. In a way, "wrote Karn," it was the Linux of its day. " KAQ9 was the recommended Demon Internet software as early as 1995.

Although better known as an ex-Debian leader and HP Open Source and chief Linux technologist, Bdale Gaby was a contributor to KA9Q NOS, and says his most famous contribution was “a silly little mail program that I wrote for the KA9Q NOS networking program, under by the name BM, although I assume I am more proud of my role as an integrator and author of documentation for the package until April 1989. "

According to Perens, “Amateur radio can greatly contribute to education in an area that cannot be found on the Internet: you can learn about analog electronics, and about building analog and digital wireless communications. You can build your own equipment from improvised materials, while most computer scientists just put the cards together. You can communicate all over the world without the Internet - only the air between you and the person you are talking to. You can even call the World or the Shuttle, or control one of the many satellites that the radio amateurs have built and launched as 'hitchhikers' in conjunction with commercial space cargo. ”

Distrust of power - promoting decentralization

Another radio enthusiast who was prominent in the computer world was Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, together with Steve Jobs. Wozniak's early interest in technology stemmed from his interest in amateur radio, but he later became involved in a more esoteric pastime “phone phreaking” through his friendship with John Draper, who received two prison sentences for breaking telephone networks, but later redeemed himself when writing Easy Writer, a word processor for Apple II, allegedly while in jail.

Bruce Sterling says in his book Hacker Crackdown that “the true roots of the modern hacker underground are most likely to grow” from a group of the 1960s and 70s known as the Youth International Party, or the Yippies, who were the first to advocate phone phreaking. The most notable of the Yippies was Abbey Hoffman, whom Sterling speaks of as "a gifted publicist who regarded electronic media as both a playground and a weapon."

Sterling says that “during the Vietnam War, there was a federal surcharge imposed on telephony services. Hoffman and his company had the opportunity, and engaged in the systematic theft of telephony services, claiming that they thereby participated in civil disobedience: virtuously withholding taxes for illegal and immoral war. ” To this end, Hoffman and his co-editor, euphemistically known as Al Bell, published a newsletter called Youth International Party Line, “dedicated to the collection and dissemination of hacking methods for Yippie, especially telephones,” using devices to trick switchboards to allow easy access to calls, imitating the telephone system’s own signals, an activity known as “phone phreaking”.

Hoffman was a prankster for political purposes, but phone phreaking was a surprisingly widespread activity. Before founding the more orthodox empire of Apple Computers, Wozniak and Jobs' first business venture was to design and sell a boxed phreaking device, known as the Blue Box , that tricked Bell telephone systems into allowing free long distance calls to their users.

Hackers should be convicted of their hacks, and not by false criteria, such as education, age, race or position.

The more moralistic ideal of hacker culture, as represented by the free software movement, grew out of another amateur playground, the Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in the late 1950s.

Stephen Levy tells the story in Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. “Some participants liked the idea of ​​spending time making and painting replicas of certain trains with historical and emotional value, or creating a realistic landscape for the site. It was a knife-and-brush group, and they subscribed to railway magazines and registered a club for trips on old railway lines. Another faction gathered in the club’s subcommittee on Signaling and Power (Signals and Power Subcommittee), and they cared most about what was happening under the site. It was a System that worked like a collaboration between Rub Goldberg and Werner von Braun, and constantly improved, updated, improved, and sometimes broke (gronked - in the jargon of the club). People S &

S&P participants became known as The Midnight Requisition Committee (also TMRC), so-called because, “when TMRC needed a set of diodes, or some additional relays, to add some new feature to the System, several people from S&P waited for the dark and looked for the way to the places where these things are stored. None of the hackers, who were, as a rule, scrupulously honest in other matters, seemed to consider this theft. ”

The MIT computer hacker tradition began when TMRC discovered the TX-0 computerat Building 26, and decided that the best time to gain access was at night, “when no one in their mind goes into the hourly session with a piece of paper left every Friday near the air conditioner in the RLE laboratory ... TMRC hackers who most likely considered themselves hackers TX-0, changed their lifestyle to adapt to the computer, "and this is the moment when the real fun began. Their midnight raids on TX-0 led them into a new world of mysterious and wonderful hacks that carried them away from the disgusting railroad model and the clinging tangles of wires under the covers of the tables.

The core of the TMRC hacker group was ultimately taken over by the AI ​​Group at MIT, under the competent guidance of Prof. Marvin Minsky and John McCarthy, inventor of Lisp. The AI ​​Group, initially as part of the MIT project - MAC (Multiple Access Computing) - for the development of collective access and machine recognition, eventually gained independence and became the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, or AI Lab.

You can create art and beauty on the computer.

One of the AI ​​Lab’s hackers, Bob Saunders, later described Levy himself and others as an “elite group. Other people were doing research, spending their days in four-story buildings doing smelly fumes or in a physics lab, throwing particles at things or anything else they do. We simply did not pay attention to what other people did, because we were not interested. They studied what they studied, and we studied what we studied. And the fact that most of this was not in the officially approved curriculum was, generally speaking, inconsequential. ”

Work became a hobby, and a hobby was work. Art, politics and social mores of hackers revolved around the life of the machine. Richard Greenblatt, who, in the context of the role he invented for himself at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sometimes described himself as a 'hacker hacker', failed his course because he received the best education and was too fanatic of machines to go to lectures or pass exams, working during the night and sleeping in the afternoon, while he was supposed to be in lectures.

It is said that Greenblatt did not devote too much time to personal hygiene and he dressed very randomly, but he also excellently wrote the first computer chess program and created Maclisp, the Lisp dialect for the MAC project on PDP-6. He co-authored the revolutionary ITS (Incompatible Time sharing System) operating system, which became the vehicle for the development of hacker software, and was largely responsible, together with Tom Knight, for the invention of MIT's Lisp Machine, which became the first commercial single-user workstation.

Railroad modeling may not be cool, but the TMRC hackers, who became the main members of AI Lab, developed the first workstations, the first computer games, the first music software, and the first to show hacks - and the culture they developed inspired the creation of a free movement software.

Computers can change your life for the better.

Railroad models, amateur radio, and computer hacks were the entrance of a hobbyist into the mysterious world of programming. Alan Cox “worked on things like multiplayer game (AberMUD), which accidentally attracted me to the kernel” before he became one of the most famous experts on the Linux kernel. In his free time, he “uses his hacker skills to repair the locomotives of a tiny railroad of scale model N for the sake of entertainment.” He also wrote the kernel module for the packet radio protocol, AX.25, which is vital for amateur radio users. And he is not alone in his interest in models of railways. Neil Young, the 'godfather of grunge', holds seven US patents in digital control and monitoring systems for railway models (which he developed,

He once said about modeling railways - “This is meditation for me. It’s such a relief to avoid creating music, and the impact of music, to implement all this in algorithms and principles of work. ”

All this is to prove that amateurs, those who pursue unpaid interests only to get the best out of their hobby, can to bring passion, commitment, aesthetic balance and imagination to a project that often does not fit into the world of work, where initiative and opportunities are often sacrificed by the need to know your place and follow the schedule.

Still, it’s strange that most of the most famous hackers who worked at home to create Linux and other free software projects are now hired by relatively high salaries by billions of corporations to do what they would do anyway - work on their hobby ...

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