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Amherst’s Jon ‘Maddog’ Hall is still leading the Linux legions, from do-it-yourselfers to supercomputers

From: David R.
Sent on: Tuesday, November 26, 2013 3:48 PM
Amherst’s Jon ‘Maddog’ Hall is still leading the Linux legions, from do-it-yourselfers to supercomputers

David Brooks

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Staff photo by David Brooks

Jon "maddog" Hall of Amherst in his natural habitat - Union Street Grill on the Milford Oval - describes the BeagleBone Black, one of many low-cost computing components that are the latest wave of the open-source movement.

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New Hampshire’s most famous software geek has a bone to pick with the world: “Operating systems never get any respect.”

That’s how Jon “Maddog” Hall of Amherst, who has championed the benefits of the Linux open-source operating system for almost a quarter century, started breakfast the other morning.

“Companies spend billions on operating systems, and time making them more efficient, and they don’t even get a mention!” he groused to me while waiting for his special hot sauce to be delivered from a secret spot behind the counter. It’s kept there so nobody accidentally gets their palate obliterated (I declined to try it).

Hall requested a meeting at his regular a.m. watering hole, the Union Street Grill on the Milford Oval, to lament that I hadn’t mentioned the operating system in my recent column about UNH’s new Cray supercomputer.

So let me say right now: Lurking behind all that shiny new digital brainpower in Durham is – you guessed it – Linux, which was used partly because Cray targets the scientific community and Linux-based systems are used in many of the national laboratories.

But Hall had a bigger point to make during our meal.

He displayed a variety of small, cheap computer motherboards with fun names like BeagleBoard and Parallela-Board, to show that the open source software movement, of which Linux is the most public face, is flowering in interesting ways: not just big and powerful, but small and flexible.

“Raspberry Pi and Arduino shows there’s a lot of kids out there who really want to learn,” he said. “This makes it accessible, fun.”

Raspberry Pi and Arduino are cheap (under $100) single-board computers, roughly the size of a credit card – an Altoids mints can is a favorite case for them. They are designed to be easily tweaked by hackers of all types, and tweaked they are.

These little computers have been used to create more do-it-yourself projects than you can shake an open-source stick at, ranging from the trivial (silly computer games) to the unexpectedly useful (remotely feed your aquarium fish) to the obviously useful (dirt cheap web servers) to the weird (a “beet box” that turns vegetables into a musical instrument).

They are part of what can fairly be called a revolution: the “maker movement” that has brought the concept of do-it-yourself back to the forefront. Nashua’s MakeIt Labs, the state’s first “hackerspace,” epitomizes this attitude, and you’ll find plenty of Arduinos and Raspberry Pis amid the plasma cutters, car lift, soldering irons and welders.

Many small companies have been launched on the back of products powered by these astonishing little boards, and I wouldn’t be surprised if an Arduino or two lurks inside some big-name products.

This revolution was made possible by lots of advances, especially the continuing Moore’s Law shrinkage of size and cost for digital components. But key is the idea that the beating heart of the digital world – the operating system on which all of a computer’s acts reside – can be free and open to adjustment by the teeming digital masses.

If you can alter the operating system you can do almost anything, which means you needn’t be beholden to the Microsofts of the world, as Hall gleefully notes (he’s no Steve Ballmer fan). It also means, he added with a nod to current events, that you have a better chance of creating a system which doesn’t contain a secret back door to allow government, or corporate, spying.

The 63-year-old Hall, who cut his teeth improving COBOL programs for an insurance company, has been espousing Linux virtually since Linus Torvalds released the first kernel in 1991.

He is famous among the geek set for his entertaining Linux advocacy and expertise. I think the most-read story I have ever written was a profile of Hall that was shared by the Slashdot crowd.

Hall has even taken his Linux evangelizing to Brazil, where he regularly lectures and acts as a consultant (He’s either in Rio or Sao Paulo as you read this). Free software is one of the best tools for bringing the digital revolution to the developing world, and Hall has been leveraging it to help people in favelas, the slums of big cities, create small digital businesses via Project Caua – a local word for “eagle.”

But closer to home, he wants to make sure that the rush to smartphone apps and flashy stuff whipped up with a little Java and HTML code, tomorrow’s digital pioneers don’t forget what’s underlying it all. The Linux revolution might be entering middle age, but it’s still got a lot of surprises in it.

During our breakfast, Hall recalled a presentation he gave to folks at a major computer firm back in 1994, a couple computer-aeons ago: “I had a slide that said ‘Linux is inevitable’,” he remembered. “They didn’t believe it.”

They probably believe now.

GraniteGeek appears Mondays in The Telegraph. David Brooks can be reached at[masked] or [address removed]. Also, follow Brooks on Twitter (@granitegeek).

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