Linuxchix, Government Officials and Pianolas—They Don't Call him maddog for Nothin'

by Richard Vernon

In the last couple of years, there have been a number of Geek Cruises on the Holland-America cruise line, but this year saw the first Linux Lunacy cruise. Featured speakers included Eric Raymond, Richard Stallman, Jon “maddog” Hall, Michael Johnson, Linux Journal's own Doc Searls and Reuven Lerner (okay, so he doesn't work for us full time, but we still claim him) and many others.

Doc and I took advantage of the position of so many Linux celebrities (that is, on a boat with LJ editors and nowhere to run) and got a number of interviews. Look for the interviews and other articles, including a full cruise report, here on the site and in the pages of the magazine.

One of maddog's talks was on why Linux is like a pianola (player piano), explaining that both benefit from open standards. I snatched about 15 minutes with maddog on the final day of the cruise to discuss with him his exploits with Linux International and his fascination with player pianos.

Richard: Could you briefly describe your role with Linux International?

maddog: I'm executive director of Linux International, which means that I try to keep the whole thing running. A lot of that is going around to different conferences, meeting with groups, etc., to talk about Linux. Some of it is trying to maintain the Linux trademark and protect it.

Richard: Is protecting it sometimes difficult?

maddog: Sometimes it's unpleasant because some people try to use the Linux name for things that really aren't very kosher. Like the time a guy tried to start a porn site with the name, and Deb Richardson, who started, was understandably upset about this and requested that we go in and stop it. But Linus wants the word Linux to be used in any legitimate form, so now we've set up a thing called the Linux Mark Institute; it's a nonprofit. It charges a minimal amount of money if you want to use the word Linux in a registered trademark. If you want to use it on a t-shirt or a coffee mug, a promotional item, then that's free. We're hoping that the money that comes from this will make it self-maintaining and cover legal costs. From time to time we have to pull in lawyers to sew things up.

Richard: So to this point it hasn't generated much money?

maddog: Well it hasn't generated much because we tried to grandfather as much as possible all the people who have used the word Linux before we had the mark set up. But we do have to police it, and it does cost money.

Richard: When I saw you at CeBITT in Germany, I noticed you had the chance to talk with the German Minister of the Environment and other important officials. Is that pretty typical for you, that you're able to set up meetings as you travel with such high ranking people?

maddog: Absolutely, as much as possible. I also do a lot of interviews with newspaper reporters. I really don't care that my name gets in print, that's not the issue. The issue is that what Linux is gets out there into the general press as much as possible, and that people get a good understanding of what Linux is useful for and how they can save money and have choices with Linux. One of the things I'm very proud of with Linux International is that we maintain a very balanced message. We don't over sell it, and we don't say that everything has to be open sourced. We have members like Oracle, who obviously put out a binary application. We're just happy that they decided to port it to Linux. When it comes to things like databases or office suites and things like that, you do have a choice. The higher up the food chain you go, the more choice you typically have. We're trying to make sure people have that choice and that Linux is the underlying choice as an operating system.

Richard: When you get a chance to speak to high-ranking official and have only a few moments with them, what's your strategy? What kinds of things to you try to discuss with them?

maddog: What I try to show them is that Linux gives them an opportunity to, number one, cut their costs of government and, number two, show them that they have the chance to build a computer infrastructure inside their company or government that they haven't had before. They can have an open operating system that allows their people to go in and make changes to fit their culture and save a lot of money. You can also save money in that it runs on typically smaller machines that Microsoft products run on.

And quite frankly, from a military standpoint, or a government privacy standpoint, it's better for them to have something they can take a look at in their own country as opposed to have to depend upon one company in the United States.

Richard: I remember that about the time we were in Germany for CeBITT, the German military was saying they would no longer use Microsoft or any US software for fear of a back door. Does that issue come up often?

maddog: Absolutely; you know you can't blame them. They see these messages come out of the United States where some of our legislators want back doors, and they wonder, “Are there going to be back doors in the software we install in our machines?” That brings up another thing that much of our government doesn't understand—that if there is a back door, other people can find out how to open that door just as easily as our government can. Fortunately, many of those who were putting forth that legislation were made aware of that and seem to have backed down from that.

Richard: In your talk “Linux Is Like a Pianola”, you mention that you started collecting old player pianos because your smaller collector items, such as clocks, became too expensive. But you must have had some interest or passion other than that to begin collecting something so large and difficult to restore.

maddog: Well, the passion came because, when I started with computers you ran one program at a time, you saw the blinking lights, you heard the grunts and groans the disk made—you could tell what the computer was doing. Today, because computers run multiprocesses, you couldn't differentiate one from the other.

Richard: The user is so isolated from the functions of the tool.

maddog: Right. So, I could watch everything that was going on inside this clock or this player piano and see just how it worked.

Richard: So it's a passion for the mechanical complexity, rather than a musical one?

maddog: It's a mechanical passion, I like music. But the other thing is I feel like I'm helping to preserve a little bit of history. I mean these things would have been flushed down the tubes if there hadn't been somebody to donate some money to fix them up and make them viable again. My feeling is that by doing this I can help keep these things alive. So, as I get on in years and maybe have to downgrade the size of my house, I will be donating my reed organs and player pianos to some museum that would like to have them.

Richard: Are you working now on restoring them?

maddog: They are restored.

Richard: Did you do it yourself?

maddog: I don't restore them myself because, like a lot of other things, if I try to do the restoration myself, they would end up in pieces in my garage for a long period of time. Clocks I can do in a day, but a player piano takes about a month or two of solid work to make it as good as it should be. So I pay people to refurbish it and then I enjoy it, you know, by playing it. And I research and I say okay, here's a Beckworth piano, when was it made? What was its life history?

In doing that I started to find the correlation between the player pianos and Linux. First it was just the player pianos and UNIX, and quite oddly that didn't work as well because there were different flavors of UNIX. You couldn't have one application run across all of them [maddog's talk explained that some player piano music reproducers were “proprietary” and couldn't be played on all pianos], but with Linux, because of things like the LSB, which I feel very strongly about, we hope to have one player piano upon which everything will work.

Richard: That will be terrific. Thanks very much for your time.

Richard Vernon is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal.

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