Cruising the Kernel with Andrew, Ted and the Gang, Part I

The ship may not win any interior design awards, but the latest Geek Cruise made up for that with smart minds giving great talks--both on the schedule and off.

There have been 29 Geek Cruises so far, and I've been on five of them, including four Linux Lunacy cruises. The latest was the the one completed just a few days ago, Linux Lunacy V. I missed Linux Lunacy IV last year in the Mediterranean. So it had been two years since I'd been on a Geek Cruise. I hadn't realized how much I missed them.

You can think of Geek Cruises as conferences at a hotel with a hull. You'd be right, mostly. In fact, they're more like intensive lectures in a subject, given by Masters at a small Caribbean or Alaskan or Mediterranean or Hawaiian university that features bars, night clubs, pools, music, a casino and unlimited quantities of food.

What I missed, I realized, was the coursework, even though much of it is intended for real hackers, which I am not. In case you don't know, my beat is Linux in Business, including the Large Issues surrounding that topic. The only code I know is Morse.

A sampling of the talks, which were more like seminars:

Ted Ts'o -- Introduction to the Linux Kernel (two parts, taking up a whole day at sea), The Linux Boot Process, New Developments in ext3 Filesystem and Recovering from Hard Disk Disasters.

Andrew Morton -- Linux Kernel Development and Linux Kernel Disk I/O.

Ken Pugh -- Socket Programming for Linux, Setting up iptables and Firewall basics.

Scott Collins -- Hands-on GUI Programming with Qt 4.

The other guest lecturer was Yours Truly. I gave the closing keynote, summarizing what I've learned as a journalist covering Linux for nearly a decade, plus the new insights I gained aboard the ship. If you're eager to hear a summary of the latter, jump ahead to the end of this piece. If you want to hear what I'm still learning, read my next few reports. (Not sure how many I'll have. Earlier cruises have yielded two or three). Meanwhile, I'll talk about the Cruise Experience, which was, well, amazing.

All of my other Geek Cruises have been on Holland America ships. I like Holland America. They provide food on par with any fine hotel and service that's a good four stars, if not five. It never occurred to me that Holland America's decor was in any way distinctive, because it's not. Okay, the front desk on Holland-America ships all flank a roundish lobby with a two-story art object in the middle that we jokingly called "the reactor core". But that was about it.

This time the cruise was on the Carnival Miracle ship, one of the latest in the "Spirit" class of hulls, which are immense. Imagine a 12-story hotel the length of two football fields, and you begin to get the idea. This thing is freaking huge. Here are the details:

  • 88,500 tons

  • Passengers: 2,124

  • 960 feet in length

  • 105.7 feet wide

  • Decks: 12

  • Crew: 930

  • cruising speed: 22 knots

  • Registry: Panama

  • Entered service: February 27, 2004

But that's not what makes the Carnival Miracle distinctive, especially for a veteran of Holland-America cruises. It's the décor. It's as if they took every rejected idea for a Las Vegas hotel and put them all in one big boat. I can imagine a dialog that goes like this:

"Let's do a bar called 'Frankie & Johnny's', based on the song--"

"--or the movie."

"There was a movie?"

"Maybe. Whatever. Go on."

"Okay. We have a shiny ceiling and floor, with reflecting balls and triangular stalactites hanging down over each table."

"Good."

"With sharp corners at about the hight of a kid's head."

"Good."

"And a bullet hole in the mirror behind the bar."

"Why?"

"Because Frankie shot Johnny."

"Let's leave that one out."

"Okay."

"But yeah, we'll do the rest of that stuff."

Above the lobby/front desk bar, an atrium rises 12 stories to a transparent reddish ceiling over a glass curved stairway that leads to Nick & Nora's supper club. A vast classic-style painting covers one whole wall, opposite glass elevators trimmed with blue lights. Lighting everywhere is thick with blue, orange and mauve. A mauve allergy would put one in shock.

In spite of the almost countless public spaces in the ship's interior--many of them quite large--they all have a closed-in feel to them. Perhaps this is because architect/designer Joe Farcus wanted to take the "Fun Ship" motto of the cruise line to its full extreme. Perspective: the large casino is open almost around the clock, except when the ship is at a port, when shore excursions are encouraged, while the Raven Library/Internet Cafe is a cramped little space with a tiny stock of books in locked cabinets. Unlike the library-like library in Holland-America ships, the Raven Library contains almost no books about places to which the ship sails. In fact, at all of the desks there are little carrels occupied by Windows workstations. There is no place to sit with a laptop, other than two little facing couches, neither of which is close to a wall outlet.

On the other hand, the public spaces on the boat are amply filled with Wi-Fi. Internet access is bought in chunks. I bought 500 minutes for $125. That's 25¢ a minute. And I ran out, because an enormous percentage of that time was spent trying to cope with a slow connection. Only on the last day of the cruise did the speed widen to truly broadband dimensions: 900Kbps down and 80Kbps up. For the first half of the cruise, speeds were down in the dial-up range and worse. Latencies with satellite communications are high in any case--don't expect anything under half a second--making IMAP mail difficult. There were times during the cruise when I measured ping latencies of up to 12 seconds.

That covers the negatives.

The positives were remarkable, starting with the food. I had expected "Fun Ships" to have bad food, frankly. Instead, the food was outstanding. Nick & Nora's, an outstanding restaurant, was one of the best I've ever experienced. The almost intolerably gaudy Bachus dining room had excellent food, every evening. Horatio's Dining Room on the Lido deck--the top one that runs fore to aft on the ship, including three or four pools--featured a baffling variety of cuisines for every meal, plus a round-the-clock pizza counter.

I'm writing this on the way back from the cruise, waiting to board a plane from JFK to SFO. I'll pick it up in the next report, once I'm back home and can organize all my notes, recordings and photographs.

I was able to take advantage of the high speed connection at a hotel to upload about 400 hundred pictures to this photoset at Flickr. They're not in order, but they show more than a little about the cruise and especially the ship. I'll organize and annotate them when I get back.

Meanwhile, take a look through the links below, which include reports on earlier cruises.

Oh yes, the summary of my talk. The slide said this:

  1. Linux is the kernel.

  2. It's "a 15-year old implementation of a 30-year old architecture".

  3. It's "more like a city than a cathedral".

  4. The kernel is pure infrastructural building material.

  5. Kind of like wood. Or steel.

  6. It has a natural source: working human minds.

  7. It's adaptive. Like a species.

  8. Someday the desktop chickens will lay kernel eggs.

The first point was made clear by Linus in the two "State of the Kernel" talks he gave on Linux Lunacies II and III. Then, it was detailed, at least for me, by Andrew and Ted, for whom "kernel space" was as central to Linux as, say, a church to its grounds.

After Andrew said he expected Linux to be in use a hundred years from now and that he expected to be working on Linux, "stamping out bugs", for the rest of his life, the image of skilled masons working on a cathedral came to my mind. Later, in the middle of a long conversation with him, I brought up the cathedral analogy. That was when he said Linux is more like a city.

Andrew's thinking was fascinating to me. His responses to questions were quick, yet gentle, thoughtful and sometimes remarkably deep--even when he seemed to be insisting that things were not all that deep or complicated.

When I vetted the ideas in numbers 4, 5 and 6 with him, he listened politely and seemed to agree. But he also was supportive when I told him I wanted to go deeper. It was the conversation that followed that led me to the key point, #7: Linux is adaptive, like a species.

Both Andrew and Ted had pointed out that kernel development was largely reactive and incremental, improving gradually over the long haul. With my (too) many years in marketing, launching dozens (hundreds?) of products into the world, I saw how sharply this contrasted with what Andrew, Ted, Linus and other kernel developers concerned themselves with. Linux isn't a product, like Windows or OS X. It grows and evolves as conditions change, like a species. A bird doesn't say "Hey, the polar caps are growing and it's going to get colder; better develop thicker feathers". It adapts to changing conditions. When I vetted this idea with Andrew, he agreed.

I'll visit all these subjects in more depth in my next reports.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal, for which he writes the Linux for Suits column. He also presides over Doc Searls' IT Garage, which is published by SSC, the publisher of Linux Journal.

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Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal