Monthly Archives: December 2007

Ex 2007, Oh 2008

[First published at GOTOXO as Ex 2007, Oh 2008 on December 31, 2007.]

We got back from Venice yesterday. I will write more on that trip shortly; suffice it to say for now that I did indeed take my XO to San Marco Plaza on Christmas Day, and also took a picture with my XO during a layover on the way back at Schipol Airport in Amsterdam.

I was up quite early this morning due to jet lag, rising about 4AM. The day itself was both a summary of several developments and I hope an omen of some good things to happen in 2008.

Two more XO’s arrived while we were away. I left them in the boxes and drove down to the IBM Research Lab in Hawthorne in the morning to send them on their way to the Sahana project in Sri Lanka. It was a very satisfying experience to know the Sahana folks will soon be able to start bending the XO to their will, and I expect it will only be a matter of time before we will all see a picture of an XO at the scene of a major natural disaster.

When I read some of my email I learned that Josh and Zander Bolgar received their XO’s on December 27th, courtesy of the following email from Josh:

Dear Dave,

This is the first email sent from my XO! I’ve been working with Pippy to write my first programs. Here’s a logarithm calculator.
This is lots of fun. Can’t wait to program with you.

Josh sent along a small Python program that shows he has already started figuring out the language. I’m looking forward to working with both Josh and Zander soon.

I learned via phone mail that one of the folks at the k12 OpenMinds conference I attended back in October in Indianapolis wanted to continue some joint discussions we are having on some of the work of his company and possible opportunities for IBM. This might even lead to my attending an interesting conference that is coming up in a couple of weeks.

Later on in the afternoon I went to drop off a check to our dog’s caretaker, Alec. During our conversation I mentioned my new XO, as I recalled that Alec was a geek like me. He mentioned he had been trying to get MythTV running on his Ubuntu box, but was having some problems, so I went back to my house to get two Ubuntu books, and also took along the XO to show it to Alec and his dad. As we were talking Alec mentioned he was just learning Linux and wanted to know about how the kernel worked, as well as some of the details of the shell language. I then recalled I had an old SONY DVR that I had picked up a few months back at a garage sale. The owner said there had been a power surge and the remote stopped working, but that otherwise the device probably worked. So I asked Alec to hop into the car so we could go back to my house to get the DVR box and some more books.

I then had the great pleasure of loaning Alec O’Reilly’s book on Bash and my copy of The Unix Programming Environment by Kernighan and Pike.

Just thinking about K&P made me appreciate the great fun that some of the members of the XO Generation are going to have. The XO Laptop is powered by open-source software, the software created by applying the scientific model to programming. Though software is a relatively recent phenomenon, going back at most six decades, there is already a substantial literature about it. Some of that literature is quite good, and there are even classics such as K&P. I had thought of giving Alec my copy of another classic work, Richard Stevens Advanced Programming in the Unix Environment, but realized he should work through K&P first.

These incidents summarize what I think are the major developments of 2007 –at least from my perspective as a volunteer interested in promoting the use of open technologies such as open-source to help our curators, educators and librarians in their vital mission — as well as the immediate opportunities ahead:

  • The ongoing reduction in the cost of hardware so that it is now possible for about two hundred dollars to build a decent desktop (not counting the cost of the display, keyboard or mouse) or a laptop such as the XO. The cost of this hardware is now less than the cost of buying a copy of Windows and Office to run on it.
  • The k12 Open Minds Conference in Indianapolis in October. This was the first national conference to bring together educators and open-source folks in the U.S., and there was substantial participation from people outside the U.S. This was a historic event.
  • The first mass production and distribution of the XO laptop from the OLPC.

The major opportunity — and challenge — for 2008 will be to educate the new users of the XO, and using the XO not only to provide education in general, but education in computers and their programming in particular to at least some of these new users so they can go on to make the XO even better in the years to come.

Blogging Geek to Geek

[First published at GOTOXO as Blogging Geek to Geek on December 31, 2007.]

My wife mentioned earlier today that she had mentioned my interest in the XO laptop to one of the members of her book club, a woman who is quite well known in the NY publishing industry. She learned that her friend knows both Negroponte brothers: Nicholas, the computer scientist and OLPC founder and CEO; and John, a Deputy Secretary of State and former director of the CIA. Her friend also said that I must be a “geek.”

I realized later during dinner that her friend was right. As we were recalling our recent visit to Venice, I mentioned that whenever we went from one part of Venice to the other I always first decided how many bridges we would have to cross. For example, our hotel was near the train station. So if we were going to Plaza San Marco then we would cross no bridges if we turned to the right. If we turned to the left we would cross at least two bridges, unless we went by boat, in which case we would cross none.

My wife replied she would never even think of this, and that’s when I realized I really am a geek. I confirmed this even further a few minutes later when I mentioned that visting Venice reminded me of Euler’s Seven Bridges of Konigsberg.

Then again, my geekiness was apparent when first we met. She once said that after our chance meeting she thought she would never see me again, since I had never asked for her phone number. I replied that I hadn’t needed to ask for her phone number, for I had learned during our conversation that one of her roommates was a fellow student at the Courant Institute, NYU’s graduate school of mathematics. I thus knew that I could find her phone number just by asking her roommate for her phone number, since the numbers must be the same. I then went on to explain that this was an example of what is called a “lemma,” an intermediate result that simplifies getting things done in mathematics, and thus began my wife’s education in living with a geek.

Crunch Time

[First published at GoToXo as Crunch Time on December 31, 2007]

Software, like mathematics, is but a form of writing. I have been doing one or the other for several decades, and so have come to know some of the fellow authors who do this kind of writing. While authors of novels tell stories about people, the authors of software and mathematics write about other things, but they are also people, and have their own stories, as I was reminded by a recent post in Slashdot that brought back memories of a chance meeting back in the 1970’s, my “Crunch Time.”

I just noted via a post in Slashdot, A Look Back at One of the Original Phreaks, that the New York Times recently ran a story, Dial-Tone Phreak, that reported the death of Josef Engressia, one of the original “Phone Phreaks.” Though I never knew Mr. Engressia, nor had I heard his name before, on reading the story I learned he was an associate of “Captain Crunch” himself, John Draper, whose web site can be found at John T Draper (AKA Captain Crunch) .

I once met Mr. Draper, as they say, “back in the day.” This would be during the SETL project, around 1974 or so. I was one of the few people who were around for the entire history of the project, over a period of close to a decade. Many other people were associated with the project, some for several years, others for just a few months. For example, I recall that Lambert Miertens spent about a year with the project around 1978. On his return to the Netherlands, Lambert worked on a programming language called “ABC” that included some of the ideas from SETL, as well as some of the work he had done on Algol 68. Guido Rossum, the inventor of Python, was familiar with this work, and it played a role in the design of Python, the main programming language used in the XO Laptop.

One of the visitors who spent some time around SETL, though I think it was just for a few months, was Bob Bonic. His story was interesting in itself,in that he was a tenured professor of mathematics who gave up his career to open a bar in SoHo (the area in New York City just “SOuth of HOuston (street).” I just found mention of this episode via Google in DIALECTICAL MARXISM The Writings of Bertell Ollman. Several other stories about Bob can be found via this, that, and the other.

It was Bob who introduced me to Captain Crunch. Bob came into my office on the fourth floor one day accompanied by someone he thought I might like to meet. After a while, as the new acquaintance talked about some of his work, I realized I was talking to Captain Crunch himself. Later on Captain C. offered to teach me some of the tricks of his trade, but I politely declined. Though I had never been a Phone Phreak, I had been an undergraduate at Caltech, and so had some experience with activities at the boundaries of the law, as for several months I carried around a set of lockpicks, tools that were part of the curriculum at CIT devoted to an obscure ritual called “Senior Ditch Day.”

I declined the offer to learn how to make free calls. When I read a few months later than Captain Crunch had been indicted I realized I had made the right call.

XO in Venice

[First published at GO TO XO as XO in Venice on December 22, 2007.]

I’m off for a week’s vacation in Venice, Italy, and environs. I am taking my XO with me, and plan to take it to San Marcos Square on Christmas Day.

Earlier that day my cutie-pie (aka my wife, Karin) and I hope to reprise the Christmas Morning dining experience recounted in my post On Ferrara Cafe. Any recommendations on a suitable cafe would be welcomed via a comment to this post.

We’ll also be in Padua Monday morning to see the Giotti Frescoes.

If you’ll be in either vicinity then look for a dark green backpack with a couple of Tuxers — tiny stuffed penguins — peeking out from the mesh pockets on the side. They are always looking for company, especially from Linux folks.

Happy Holiday,

How do you turn off the OLPC XO Laptop wireless feature

[First published in GoToXo as on December 22, 2007.]

I received my new XO laptop yesterday, and am about to take it with me while I will be on vacation in Europe.

I would like to use it while on the plane but do not yet know how to turn off the wireless.

If you know how to do so, or how to turn off wireless in Linux in general (the XO runs a stripped-down version of Fedora), please post a comment to this blog post.


The Tuxers and Dave welcome the XO-1 to the Shields Family

[First published at GoToXo as The Tuxers and Dave welcome the XO-1 to the Shields Family on December 21, 2007.]

The Tuxers and Dave Shields wish to announce the arrival of the newest member of the Shields Family, XO-1.

We took some photos to record the occasion:

XO-Tux, Fedora, and XO-1
XO-Tux, Fedora, and XO-1

XO-1 Box
XO-1 Box

XO-1 in Box
XO-1 in Box

Scout, Dave, and XO-1 Shields
Scout, Dave, and XO-1 Shields

XO-Laptop T-Shirts
XO-Laptop T-Shirts

XO-Laptop T-Shirts
XO-Laptop T-Shirts

AWS-ome Amazon XO Opportunity

[First published at GoToXo as AWS-ome Amazon XO Opportunity on December 21, 2007.]

If you know something about the new XO Laptop then go visit this page,

AWS stands for Amazon Web Services. Here are some of the interesting web pages that can be found at the AWS site:

  • Amazon DevPay – Limited Beta: “Amazon DevPay is a simple-to-use billing and account management service that makes it easy for developers to get paid for applications they build on Amazon Web Services.”
  • Amazon SimpleDB™- Limited Beta: “Amazon SimpleDB is a web service for running queries on structured data in real time. This service works in close conjunction with Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) and Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2), collectively providing the ability to store, process and query data sets in the cloud. These services are designed to make web-scale computing easier and more cost-effective for developers.”
  • Ooyala Wins Amazon Web Services Start-Up Challenge, Receives $100,000 in Cash and Services Credits Plus Investment Offer from
  • Create “Pay Now” Widget
  • Why Use Amazon Web Services?
  • AWS Blog
  • Amazon Mechanical Turk (Amazon MTurk) – Beta: “Complete simple tasks that people do better than computers. And, get paid for it.Choose from thousands of tasks, control when you work, and decide how much you earn.”
  •>Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3): “Amazon S3 is storage for the Internet. It is designed to make web-scale computing easier for developers. Amazon S3 provides a simple web services interface that can be used to store and retrieve any amount of data, at any time, from anywhere on the web. It gives any developer access to the same highly scalable, reliable, fast, inexpensive data storage infrastructure that Amazon uses to run its own global network of web sites. The service aims to maximize benefits of scale and to pass those benefits on to developers.”
  • Amazon Simple Queue Service (Amazon SQS): “Amazon Simple Queue Service (Amazon SQS) offers a reliable, highly scalable hosted queue for storing messages as they travel between computers. By using Amazon SQS, developers can simply move data between distributed application components performing different tasks, without losing messages or requiring each component to be always available.”
  • Alexa Web Services: “Alexa’s Web Services offer a platform for creating innovative web solutions and services based on Alexa’s vast repository of information about the web. Developers, researchers, web site owners, and merchants can incorporate information about web sites directly into their own web sites or services. Users can access web site traffic data, related links, contact information, as well as a powerful search engine based on the Alexa crawl, and a wide variety of other functionality and data.”
  • Solutions Catalog: “Welcome to the new Amazon Web Services Solutions Catalog. Developers are constantly innovating with Amazon Web Services to build software that empowers a multitude of audiences. The Amazon Web Services Solutions Catalog is a venue where businesses, consumers, Amazon Associates, Sellers, and other developers can find AWS-based solutions that meet their needs.”

Here are some questions:

  • Who will be the first person to organize a team of XO users who will earn one million euros via Mechanical Turk? How long will it take?
  • Who will be the first person to use the XO to create a business based on AWS that earns a million euros. How long will it take?
  • What will be the name of the first company to set up consulting and development services solely to assist XO-based entrepreneurs in making the best use of AWS?
  • Who will be the first to integrate a payments plan suited to their culture and environment with Amazon’s payment system?

If you know about AWS and don’t know about the XO, then you have come to the right place, as this suggests you have already started worrying about the arrival of companies built by XO-based entrepreneurs who will use AWS to take on your company.

If you don’t know about AWS or the XO, or don’t care about either, then go buy a Nintendo Wii. That should be game enough for you. The real fun and games will be found in figuring out how to make best use of the XO and the many opportunities it will provide.

An apology about Apple’s Imac from screwup Dave Shields

[First published on GOTOXO as on December 21, 2007.]

I made mention of the Apple Imac and its operating system in a recent post, On the Apple Imac: It’s a Unix system. I know this!, that ended as follows:

However, I did notice some odd behavior. For example, when the mouse wandered off the terminal window onto another part of the screen I saw some square edges become rounded. I think the mouse had landed on a browser window. Though I expect the folks at Apple see this as a nice value-add I cannot imagine its purpose. Perhaps I am a square guy after all.

I decided not to push on too far as it seemed better for them to get their real education on Unix, Linux and Python on the XO itself. The XO is a true Unix/Linux machine, not a Unix wannabe wrapped in a bunch of Java code and sundry other gimmicks.

I’ll put off visiting them until their XO’s arrive. For the life of me I cannot see why a serious Unix programmer would use an Imac. Why use a commercial version of Unix that is not open-source running on proprietary hardware when you can get full open-source Linux and apps written in Python courtesy of the XO?

Earlier today I received two comments about this post. The first was from Kevin Stevens:

“The XO is a true Unix/Linux machine, not a Unix wannabe wrapped in a bunch of Java code and sundry other gimmicks.”

OS X 10.5 is certified commercial Unix by the largest Unix vendor in the world. It supports Python, Ruby, gcc, and a variety of other programming components, with both Quartz and X support.

If you prefer the XO, that’s fine, but you only damage your own credibility by attacking a different system of proven quality.


The second was from Chris Abbey:

Oi. Dave what’s with the Apple bashing? This is hardly the first time. Mac OS/X 10.5 is a certified UNIX platform. Mac OS/X is largely Open Source (far more so than AIX, Solaris, or windows).

The description you gave sounds like your friends have installed some non-apple hacks to the system and modified it beyond normal. Two reasons I say this, first of all, Mac OS/X does not have “focus follows mouse” that many of us enjoy from other unix platforms. Secondly, stock OS/X’s gui rendering for which window has focus doesn’t change the geometry, only the colors and shadow.

On reviewing their posts I realize they are right and I was wrong. I made over-the-top statements without a proper technical understanding, and in doing so committed the grievous error of not giving Apple credit where credit is due. If Mac OS/X meets all these standards then is it a good Unix-based platform, and what software is put above it is Apple’s call to make.

I will strike out the cited part of the post and include a link to this one by way of explanation.

I have thus added yet another chapter to the ongoing saga of Dave the screwer upper.

At least three steps are needed to deal with a screwup, though being a self-confessed screwup I may have missed a few:

  1. Recognize the error;
  2. Take the appropriate remedial action;
  3. Review the situation and see what lessons can be learned.

I have done the first two, with the remedial action being a public admission that my post was ill-written and ill-advised, and that I apologize for any offense it may have caused.

That leaves the lessons to be learned.

Though it in no way excuses my comments, I think they came about in part because only a short time before writing the post I had learned of a legal dispute between Apple and an independent blogger, Mr. Nicholas M. Ciarelli. I had not even know of the suit before reading about the settlement, which is described in today’s NY Times in the article Apple Rumor Site to Shut Down in Settlement. The only part relevant to this post as that Mr. Ciarelli, now a senior at Harvard, became involved in not just one, but in a series of legal actions as a result of writing a blog about Apple.

This reminded me of what I called the “nightmare scenario” of the early days running the Jikes project back in early 1999. I was then the project maintainer. We had committed to running the project from a URL ending in “,” meaning we were committed to using available IBM IT infrastructure and doing our work from inside the IBM firewall. Though we were able to deal with email by setting up a small mail server in an old box that sat near my desk, we were not able to offer full CVS support. However, even if it had been possible for others to access the CVS tree directly, I would not have allowed them to do so.

I started my days running the Jikes project in the full knowledge that I had no background doing this sort of thing. I also had earlier dealt with a corporate screwup in that some IBM attorneys, for understandable reasons, sent a letter to Rob Malda of Slashdot in early October of 1998 telling him to stop using the IBM logo. I first learned of this when I saw a post Rob wrote about it. Though I could understand why the letter was sent (to protect the IBM logo), I also felt sympathy with Rob. He was then nearing the end of his undergraduate studies, and the last thing he needed to have on his desk was a letter from IBM legal folks suggesting he had done something wrong. I suspected that the attorneys involved didn’t appreciate that Slashdot was not the work of a single individual, as was the case with Mr. Ciarelli, but happened to be the most influential web site on the planet in those days when it came to news and discussion about Linux and open-source. Fortunately, with some prompt assistance from others, I was able to clear up the situation in a few days, as described in the post Me Tube.

My hypothetical nightmare was that some time after the Jikes project got off the ground, I would find myself in a room with an open-source developer and one or more IBM attorneys and executives, so we could discuss the mess the developer was in, and how we could best get him out of it. Though the scenario was highly unlikely, I also knew I was a novice in this area, and thus acted on the assumption it might happen.

Not wanting that to happen, I unilaterally decided that I, and only I, would make all changes to the CVS source tree, so I would be the only person who could be held accountable if something went wrong. I wanted all the blame to be placed on my shoulders so that none might land on someone else’s.

That’s the way things stood until late in 1998, when IBM started developerWorks, and was finally able to provide full hosting capabilities.

Looking back, my error was taking advantage of my being an IBM employee by exerting control because I felt it was justified, since I was acting to protect the “best interests” of the developers. Vadim Zaliva sent in a very good patch to Jikes within hours after it was first posted, so a better solution would have been for me to suggest that Vadim form a team to review all contributions, with the majority of members not being IBM employees. That would have accomplished the same end without requiring IBM exert undue control.

Having several more years of experience dealing with open-source, I now believe that the founder of a project, especially when the founder is a corporation, should exert no control on the project once the code is released under an open-source license other than that earned by the skills and efforts of any employees the corporation provides to work on the project. Let the coders, and the code, speak for themselves, for it then belongs to them, not the founder.

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