linux.conf.au (LCA) 2010

I have just returned from an amazing week at LCA, which was held in Wellington, New Zealand this year. I am really, really tired. A week at LCA make feels more like the jet lag from flying around the world a couple of times. It is just so intellectually stimulating, both during the conference, in the hallways and after hours. I met people who had flown from Europe and the US just to attend LCA – it’s that good.

Lots of interesting ideas at LCA, I thought I’d share some of them with you:

Electric Vehicles at LCA

Wellington impressed me with it’s vibrant trolley bus network, and many taxi companies driving the Prius.

I obtained my Electric Vehicle fix from Bill Dube and his amazing KillaCycle, which pulls 6 second quarter mile times and accelerates at 3G – thats 100 km/hr in less than 1 second. My wife only pulls two Gs backing out our driveway :-) (at least it feels like that). Best of all it uses the exact same Advanced DC motor as my EV (actually two of them)! Bill was in New Zealand as a guest of the local drag racing community and attended some of LCA and exhibited the KillaCycle at the nearby Te Papa museum. An inspiring guy who is doing wonderful things for Electric Vehicles. His philosophy is to promote EVs by making people want them. He makes them want them by showing how EVs can out perform Internal Combustion (ICE) vehicles. It’s actually really easy to make a very fast electric vehicle, and the KillaCycle costs a fraction of ICE drag bikes with equivalent performance. This is because Electric motors are small, don’t need a gearbox, and are all torque off the line.

Also present was Tom Parker and his electric mini, a nice AC conversion with an advanced microcontroller based Battery Management System (BMS). Tom is firmly in the “full function microcontroller per cell” camp of BMS design, compared to the simpler analog designs that some people favor. This is an interesting debate. Although I run an analog BMS I can see pros and cons in both approaches. Analysing failure paths for a BMS is a interesting exercise. Putting any software between my batteries and sudden death in a high EMI environment scares me. A “crash” in electric vehicle software (say a speed controller) can be very literal. So I like the idea of multiple analog and digital interlocks in failure paths. I considered building a uC type BMS, but I wanted my EV on the road fast, rather than go through an extended development and debug cycle.

Tom and Phillip Court are also working on the Tumanako project, which includes an open source AC speed controller for EVs, a very worthwhile project.

Key Notes

Both Key Notes were very good, really captured my attention and made me think. One part of Glyn Moody’s talk suggested the idea of open notebooks – sharing science as it develops in an open fashion. I think I have been doing just that on this blog: “open engineering” where I discuss projects I am working on as they develop. I make a point of talking about how it feels to have a bug, talk about the wins and losses, and use a narrative rather than text book style.

If you look to the right of my blog home page, you will see that these posts are consistently the most popular.

Benjamin Mako Hill had some really interesting ideas on how locked down phones, unskippable first tracks on DVDs, and other anti-features in software really mess with our life. A nice examples is cameras that won’t boot with third party batteries. Implementing these anti-features are actually complex programming jobs for some poor lost souls. I mean it’s hard to lock down Vista Basic to make sure it can only run 3 applications at once.

A really scary thought is that 3 Billion of us pass our most sensitive data through devices completely controlled by companies we don’t trust at all. These devices are called cell (or mobile) phones. Gives new and important meaning to telephony projects like the Village Telco and OpenBTS.

Mako’s memes are strongly aligned with the Cell-networks as a Walled Garden ideas of Steve Song.

Tridge, FOSS, and Patents

Great talk by Andrew ‘Tridge’ Tridgell on Patent Defense for Free Software. In particular how to analyse patents from an open source perspective. The key message for me was not to be frightened off by patents. Instead, we should apply the same serious analysis and rigor we apply to FOSS development to analyse patents so we can avoid them interfering with our FOSS projects. He also discussed various defenses – to my surprise the “prior art” is the weakest and hardest to prove. The best defense is to annihilate the specific claims of the patent. This requires careful analysis, far beyond simply scanning the patent abstract.

Furthermore, he suggests that the FOSS community make patent infringement claims so painful that closed companies wince at the thought of tangling with FOSS developers. Many patent claims are very narrow in practice so this is not as hard as it sounds. For example if a FOSS developer is hassled over a specific patent they should develop a work around and publish it. A free alternative to the patented (and presumably licensed) technique greatly reduces the value of that patent. I have written about the need for free speech codecs, an area where people constantly get spooked by patents.

This talk and a few questions to Tridge gave me a great plan for ensuring my codec2 project won’t hit any patent hassles. More on this topic in this APC mag story and of course check out the LCA talk videos when they are posted.

Village Telco at LCA 2010

I was involved in three talks at this years LCA. The first was presented by Joel at the business mini-conf on behalf of Atcom. Atcom are keen on building custom hardware for open source projects. This helps them create new business and I feel is “a good thing” for open source. I want to encourage the idea of hardware companies working closely with open source developers. So Joel, Edwin, and I put together a presentation on Hardware for Open Source. The presentation went well, thanks Joel.

I presented on A Big Phoney Mesh – an update on the Village Telco and Mesh Potato over the last 12 months. To keep the talk fresh I chose to talk mostly about topics that interested me, like the recent antenna experiments. I also made a point of finishing in just 30 out of the allocated 45 minutes, allowing plenty of time for questions. Too many talks run over time. You can’t inform people about your topic unless they have a chance to drive the content via questions.

We had an ambitious demo planned for the talk. At the start of the talk we threw 5 Mesh Potatoes into the crowd and told the audience to set up a Village Telco for me. Meanwhile I continued the talk. About 10 minutes later “ring-ring” goes the phone next to me – our little Village Telco was alive! Amazing! To cap it off we called Elektra in Berlin – half way around the world in Berlin, who was also using a Mesh Potato. I was impressed this all worked, the LCA Wifi is very busy with 500 people using laptops in a small area.

I had a lot of help from Elektra, Steve, Edwin and the Atcom guys, Joel, Paul, and Mike in setting up the conference bling and these demos – thanks everyone.

We also had a Village Telco booth at the open day where I must have talked to several hundred people over 4 hours. We set up a bunch of Mesh Potatoes in other booths so we could demo the system. I had a lot of very encouraging comments and could have sold a box of Mesh Potatoes – everyone wants them for first world applications!

Several people are interested in slight variations of the Linux plus microcontroller idea that we use for the Mesh Potato. Think of an Arduino with a Linux/Wifi back end, or a Wifi router with serious analog and digital I/O of a microcontroller for interfacing to the physical world.

Other

I enjoyed the annual (unofficial) LCA Hadley-David session. Hadley runs Nicegear, and distributes IP04s in New Zealand. Like last year we hooked up for an enjoyable couple of hours chatting about a variety of topics, for example geeky cell phones (Hadley has a N900), solar power, IP04 GUIs and the laid back, hacker lifestyle we both share.

I attended a Hacker Space BOF in a kebab shop (I survived on a diet of chicken kebabs at LCA this year). I really like the idea of a physical space where I can go to to work and interact with other hackers. Especially as I work at home and only interact virtually most of the time. Especially if it eventually has machine tools. So now I am talking to a bunch of people in Adelaide about setting one up. Key issue is how to boot strap, physical spaces cost money.

It was also nice catching up with Jason White who demoed the latest svox-pico TTS software. Good open source speech synthesis software is really important for the Blind Linux community.

Conclusions

I think I am getting more out of LCA each year as I develop as a hacker and become more a part of the open source scene. However fatigue is a serious problem for many of us. Think I need to “taper” next time, no more hacking other projects right up until I get on the plane to LCA.

3 thoughts on “linux.conf.au (LCA) 2010”

  1. I enjoyed having a chat with both David and Hads at LCA2009, but missed out this year, I even walked past them chatting on the couches, but had to rush off to get another part of on the conference organised.

    I’ll have more time next year!

  2. Ahh I remember a third person from last year’ H-D session but had forgotten it was you Andrew! Oh well there is always next year. Great job on organising the conference BTW. I have nearly recovered :-)

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