Geeks on the Half Shell 2.0: Cruising the New Dominion with Linus and Friends, Part 1

by Doc Searls

It was hard to top the first Linux Lunacy Geek Cruise, but the second one did the job nicely.

Co-sponsored by Geek Cruises and Linux Journal, both trips departed Ft. Lauderdale for a week of topical talks and intensive schmoozing, interrupted by shore excursions at various ports of call. Where last year's trip journeyed to the Eastern Caribbean (the far points were Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands), this year's looped around the Western Caribbean, stopping at Cozumel, Grand Cayman Island, Jamaica and Half Moon Cay. The latter is a tiny island owned by Holland America, which operates the ms Maasdam, our ship for both cruises.

Geek Cruises is the brainchild of “Captain” Neil Bauman, who has led thirteen of these junkets so far. The original idea was to combine the best of two very different worlds: the industry event and the vacation cruise. The result is more than the sum of those parts. I go to a lot of trade events, and I don't think any of them does more to move forward the thinking of everybody who participates. And certainly none of them does more with a venue.

Geeks on the Half Shell 2.0: Cruising the New Dominion with Linus and Friends, Part 1

ESR, Multitasking

In real estate, the old saying goes, the three things that matter most are “location, location and location”. Geek Cruises pluralizes all three and then some. How many hotels move from one ideal setting to another, treat you to food and room service around the clock and let you wander around the roof to visit the sun or the stars whenever you like? And how many put two pools, two hot tubs, a tennis court, a basketball court, a bar, a cocktail lounge, a volleyball court and a kids' playroom up there too?

The Maasdam isn't the biggest cruise ship in the world, but at 55,451 gross registered tons (each ton is 100 cubic feet), a length of 720 feet and a beam of 120 feet, it's large enough. I don't know if the ship was full, but its 633 staterooms hold up to 1,266 guests. With 128 Linux Lunatics on board, that meant at least one in ten passengers belonged to our crowd.

Did we stand out? Who cares. We had an outstanding time. And I'm betting Linux is the better for it.

The Venue

The sessions were held in a variety of meeting rooms, dining rooms, bars and theaters of various sizes, all of which were quite comfortable. All the talks were highly interactive, in some cases more like seminars or master classes than like lectures.

Neil provided power bars so participants with laptops could keep their batteries charged. He also arranged to have the library and adjacent meeting covered with a WiFi signal that connected participants to the Net. The cost was 30 cents per minute, sold in 100, 500 and 1,000 minute blocks. This was well below the fees charged for the dedicated Windows machines in the internet cafe. Throughput each time I checked it ran around 150kb downstream and 85kb upstream, which wasn't bad considering the route traveled by all those packets: 50,000 miles between dry land and a rocking boat, by way of geosynchonous satellite.

The connection was provided by Digital Seas, and it was a huge improvement over the first cruise, when all we had was the internet cafe. My only frustrations with the WiFi system were caused by its eagerness to terminate connections after five minutes of idle time (which often seemed like less)--a cost-saving kindness I could have could have done without.

But this was something of an experimental setup, and the Digital Seas people were eager to solicit suggestions for future cruises. Mine was to sell the whole week as a block of time, so users won't have to watch the clock like a hawk.

Day-by-Day Rundown

Day One (Sunday, October 20) saw the boat open for boarding at 11 in the morning. Passengers steadily streamed in until the 3pm deadline; we had a scheduled launch of 5:30pm. Even though the temperature was hot and muggy (it stayed hot and calm through the entire trip) and some of the lines were long, boarding was a fairly fast and easy process (much easier than for the first cruise). Departure was slightly delayed when the captain kindly held the boat so a straggler could make it from the airport. Apparently it didn't make much difference, since ours was the last ship out of the harbor.

The Holland America people made hanging out and schmoozing very easy from the moment of arrival. Live (and expertly played) Caribbean music played on the decks, and there was plenty of food and drink to go around. If you want, you can pretty much eat, drink and party your way around the clock for the whole cruise.

Day Two (Monday, October 21) was a full day at sea, with plenty of classes to attend while the ship eased past the Florida Keys and the Sierra del Rosario, the rugged mountains of Western Cuba. In the card room, Ted Ts'o gave his “Introduction to the Linux Kernel” talk. Down in the movie theater, Dirk Elmendorf gave a talk titled “Introduction to PHP”. In another meeting room, Randal Schwartz did “Learning Perl”. In the piano bar, Greg Haerr spoke on “User Interface Programming and Architecture Using Embedded Linux”. (The only bummer there was he declined to play the piano, even though he's reportedly as good on the ivory keyboard as he is on the QWERTY.) At lunch Eric Raymond talked about “The Open Source Revolution”. In the afternoon, Randall and Ted revisited their subjects while Guido van Rossum gave his “Introduction to Python” talk.

The evening talk was Eric Raymond's “The Zen of UNIX”, which ended at 7:30. Dinner in the vast formal dining room followed at 8:15 each night of the week.

Two families were assigned to our large round table: the Torvalds and the Searls. At its maximum this totaled four parents and four kids (their three girls, our one boy). On most evenings, though, two or more kids were elsewhere, and we were joined by other adults—usually Ted T'so and Greg Haerr, plus one or two others who jumped in from other tables. Even though the seating is assigned, there's a fair amount of swapping around. So at various times our table also included folks who hacked professionally for Lindows, Emperor Linux, USA Today and Nickelodeon (yes, Linux has entered those bastions too).

Each dinner had its own dress code: formal on Tuesday and Thursday, and either informal or casual on the other evenings. For men informal meant wearing a jacket. Casual meant pants. Shoes and shorts were required in every case. The result was a kaleidescope of costumery, with fun combinations of everything from tuxedos to old schwag t-shirts.

Cutest, of course, were the three Torvalds girls, who were extraordinarily charming, smart, funny and well-behaved, especially after they fell asleep at the table. (Yes, there were other kids; but I didn't sit with them, so I can't say.)

Day Three (Tuesday) began at Cozumel, an island off Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, not far from Cancún. There we dispersed to a variety of towns, beaches and Mayan ruins before reconvening on the ship for talks on filesystems (Ted), Perl (Randall), “Vim for Vi Users” (Steve Oualline) and “Preparing for Incident Response and Forensics” (Brian Carrier). I gave the pre-dinner keynote, “The Silent Majority: How Linux Got to Be Everywhere While Nobody Was Watching”. It was a fun talk for a fun crowd. The only criticism came from one guy who said, “There weren't enough laughs at the end.” Which still means he was entertained for nearly an hour.

Day Four (Wednesday) began with a series of tender boats that ferried passengers from the Maasdam to Georgetown, Grand Cayman. Here our family of three recruited Greg Haerr and Ted Ts'o to join us in a taxi tour of the island. The high point of that trip was a lunch on the porch of the Cracked Conch restaurant, not far up the road from a tourist trap called Hell. The food and drink was excellent, along with the setting. We finished the day hanging out on Seven Mile Beach, a beautiful place. That evening Linus treated the crowd to a wide-ranging Q&A. (More about that later.) Charles Shapiro recorded the talk and encoded it as an Ogg Vorbis file that you can listen to here.

Geeks on the Half Shell 2.0: Cruising the New Dominion with Linus and Friends, Part 1

Hungry Editor at the Cracked Conch

In Part 2, Doc attends a Jamaica Linux Users Group meeting with Linus Torvalds and other speakers from the cruise, climbs a waterfall, reports on to the man who has been on all thirteen Geek Cruises, and summarizes the trip with six big realizations about the future of Linux. See the photo gallery.

Doc Searls ( is senior editor of Linux Journal.

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