Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the Swiss Open Systems Group

by Jon maddog Hall

Few people know that I collect and repair mechanical antique clocks. I prefer a pendulum clock with either weights or springs; balance wheels and quartz turn me off. So last year, when I was able to visit Basel, Switzerland to speak at a conference named Orbit, I took the time to visit the Black Forest of Germany, home of the cuckoo clock, with my old friend, Herald von Fellen.

Unfortunately I was not in the proper clock-buying mood, and when I saw two perfect clocks for me, I did not buy them. And they sat there for a year in my mind.

Soon afterwards Harald contacted me again and asked if I would speak at the twentieth anniversary of the Swiss Open Systems Group, formerly the Swiss UNIX Group in Zurich. I accepted.

This speech would prove to be different from most of my other talks, as it would delve backward into time to talk about some of the early machines I programmed, then lead forward into the future. It was also the first time I had ever been to Zurich.

Zurich is an interesting place. A center for banking and industry, it also offers nightlife, architecture and cultural venues. Situated beside a large lake, with a river running through the center of town, Zurich offers plenty of venues for eating and for drinking good beer and wine. The city is so clean and the air is so fresh that people continually drink out of the fountains that exist throughout the city--bottled water sells slowly there. It also has several universities, with all of the energy and enthusiasm that university students possess.

Fresh Water Flows Everywhere

I was pleased to visit two of these fine institutions during my visit. One was the Federal Institute of Technology, where Niklaus Wirth worked before he retired and where Ueli Maurer still works. The other was the University of Applied Sciences of Rapperswil, which is about thirty kilometers by train from Zurich, with a beautiful campus directly on the same lake. To both of these universities I gave a talk about the value of using Open Source in education, not only for the education of computer science but for education in other fields.

Friendly Students

It has long been my conviction that some universities are sliding into the teaching of programs and processes rather than the more fundamental elements, such as how to learn from books, how to recognize problems, how to research these problems and how then come up with a solution. Part of the modern educational process for all students has to be learning what the computer generally can and cannot do for them and how to convey their needs to the person who can help them solve their programming problem, the computer science major.

This is not to say that each biology student should be able to write a complex computer program, but each should have enough computer knowledge to be able to know what is possible to help them solve their problems.

Likewise missing from some computer science programs is the education of the computer science student in how to draw out and define the needs of other disciplines when writing programs. A good computer scientist should be able to work with a biologist, a chemist, a civil engineer or any other discipline to extract what each needs from a program, then develop that program.

I feel that Open Source programming is a major factor in educating students in how to do these tasks. To that end, I would like to see more coursework that brings together computer science students and students in different disciplines. As projects, they could work together to develop Open Source programs that illustrate points in those other disciplines.

I also feel that Open Source is the only legitimate way of doing research at a publicly funded university. In a lot of ways this applies to privately funded universities, too. In the end, the public always pays for universities' research. By using Open Source for software projects, they will not have to pay for it twice (or three times, or four times).

I received a warm welcome from both universities, and the only bad part of the visits is there wasn't enough time after the Rapperswil talk for beer and pizza by the lakeside. However, at the Federal Institute of Technology we made up for that.

A Fine Glass of Beer

I also spoke at a major bank in Zurich that was beginning to use Linux. I do not know if they want me to name the bank, but I was told that they had a very large room under the bank that stores a lot of gold. I asked for a small sample, but they told me the vault was closed. Here, my talk was different because I was addressing the needs of business rather than education.

The following day was the celebration of /ch/open. Since it was in the evening, Roberto Nibali, one of the core developers of the Linux Virtual Server project was kind enough to take me sightseeing. We had a leisurely boat ride on the lake, which turned out to be free since we both had "transportation" tickets, and the boat was actually part of the Zurich ferry service. While on board we had a few beers.

A Bit of Beer on Board the Boat

Then we went to a small Renaissance faire that depicted a marketplace of the Renaissance. There were jesters, magicians, jugglers, sword fighters and a wide variety of food and trinkets to purchase. I bought three small toy mice to give to my godchildren when I see them next. We also met two Linux hackers who had heard my talk at the university the day before. They told me that a lot of Linux people participated in the Renaissance faires, and it did seem like fun.

Two Renaissance Linux Hackers

By that time we were headed towards the party. Marco Demarmels, who had helped me make my travel arrangements and was kind enough to ferry me around to all of my appointments, picked us up once again and took us to the former monastery(!) that now houses an educational and conference center.

First we had a bit of wine. The real problem with the area around Germany and Switzerland is that you cannot decide between really good beer and really good wine. I was lucky in that I did not have to decide this time, they just kept refilling the wine glass. After a while I had to switch to orange juice, since I was expected to give my talk.

The Former Monastery with Wine Dispensary

But before I gave my talk, a local "surprise" speaker, Snoopy of Datadragons.de gave a light and funny talk (it must have been funny, since people laughed) in German. He offered to give it in English, but I know how sometimes humor in one's own language does not translate well, so I encouraged him to give it in German. It turns out that I had met Snoopy once or twice before at LISA conferences. Snoopy is relatively easy to recognize, if for no other reason than that he has blue hair.

Snoopy Giving His (Obviously) Funny Talk

Then it was my turn to speak, and in the discussion of the history of UNIX, I went all the way back to the EDSAC computer, which had a mercury tube memory and was constructed in Cambridge by my friend Maurice Wilkes and his team. I then went on to talk about how computers had changed over time, becoming faster and better, but always having the operating system tailored to the hardware, never to the method of programming--until Ken Thompson wrote UNIX.

I went through the first few years of UNIX, showing how there was an iterative effort to make UNIX portable and what that meant to the operating system. Then I showed how the UNIX wars pulled things apart, and how the BSD, GNU and Linux projects pulled it together again. Finally I asked the people in the room to give themselves a pat on the back for having helped to make this all possible over the years.

After the talks, we had a great meal, and everyone received a /ch/open T-shirt. I received a Swiss military pocket knife, which really is a handy tool for working with computer hardware. It had everything you need to pull your PC apart and, well, never mind. In a drawing for prizes, a member who was attending for the first time won the grand prize of an entire PC!

The Winner of the Grand Prize

We started with so many appetizers that for a while I thought it was the whole meal, but then they brought on the second and third courses and desert. The beer flowed well (I had switched from wine by then) and everyone had a good time.

The Last Day

I had wanted one last day to right a wrong that happened the year before. Roberto Nibali and I met at the rental car counter in the Zurich airport and drove to Triberg, Germany, deep in the Black Forest. There, in the same building that houses the world's largest cuckoo clock, were the two clocks I had not purchased the year before. This time I did not fail in my duty, and the two clocks are now being shipped my way. Since we arrived late in the day in Triberg, we decided to stay the night locally, which of course led to a beer garden and...

Yes, that is the pendulum of the cuckoo clock behind Roberto, who is wearing his /ch/open T-shirt.

Jon maddog Hall is executive director of Linux International.

email: maddog@li.org

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