Ten Years On …

September 2nd, 2014

There are a number of significant dates in the history of OpenNMS. I wasn’t around when the project was started, but I’ve been told it began some time in the summer of 1999, most likely in July.

We do know, however, that the project and first bits of code were posted on Sourceforge on 29 March, 2000, so we have used that as the official birth date for the OpenNMS project.

My personal involvement with OpenNMS started on Monday, 10 September 2001, when I joined Oculan. For obvious reasons it is an easy date to remember. I decided that I was going to take over the OpenNMS project when Oculan decided to stop working on it on 7 May 2002, which happens to be my mother’s birthday.

But probably the most important date in the history of the project is 1 September 2004, which was the first day of business for the OpenNMS Group, Inc., the company I started with David Hustace and Matt Brozowski. It’s been a wild ride this last decade, but we’ve managed to survive if not prosper when a lot of other companies, including Oculan, are no longer around. The office in which I write this was the first office for the company, when all three of us squeezed into its 120 square feet.

I meant to write something yesterday, but I was off on my usual Labor Day retreat in the mountains where there is no electricity and no mobile phone coverage. I spent most of the day climbing a mountain, and so it seems appropriate to end with this song.

To paraphrase Mr. Shatner, why do I work on OpenNMS? Because I’m in love.

Keep Austin Weird

August 22nd, 2014

I got to spend a few days down in Austin this week. I like this town, and as most people know it has become a bit of a hotbed for tech with a lot of companies either moving here or opening offices (I just found out that Atlassian, makers of Jira and Bamboo, among other things, is opening an office in Austin).

Usually when I come to town I get to see Eric Evans. Eric, the guy who coined the modern usage of the term “NoSQL“, lives an hour away in San Antonio and outside of the daily scrum call I don’t get to see him as much as I’d like. However, he just had rotator cuff surgery and when I sent him a text about meeting for dinner his reply was “I’m not yet wearing pants and can’t tie my shoes so the answer is probably no.”

Yeah, there is a “no pants” theme to this post.

On a whim I decided to see if my friend, favorite mad scientist and evil genius William Hurley (aka whurley) was around. As luck would have it, he was.

Speaking of people I don’t get to see very often, whurley is one of them. I think it would be a full time job just to keep up with his projects, and we haven’t had a chance to spend any time together for several years so we tried to cram a lot of catching up into a short evening.

When we drove up to his house the first thing I noticed was a candy apple red Cadillac ELR parked out front. whurley has a large Twitter following, so Cadillac gave him the car to drive and tweet about. This is Cadillac’s entry into the luxury electric hybrid market. It has pretty aggressive styling for a Cadillac, but it is more of what we old folks used to call a “2+2” instead of a true four seat car. It took some acrobatics to get three full sized adults into it for a short trip to grab some Chinese takeout.

Another pleasant surprise was to find out that he is now married, and I got to meet his bride Pamela. As might be expected with anyone associated with whurley, she is exceptional, and welcomed us into her home with short notice.

William + Pamela // Kauai Wedding from John Hoel on Vimeo.

whurley knows that I am a privacy advocate, so he showed me a TED talk he did on the issue, but instead of leading with, say, references to 1984, he goes back in time to talk about the Jacquard loom. This loom was one of the first programmable machines, a forerunner of computers, and it was used to manufacture cloth for clothing. If you think about it, clothing could be considered the earliest form of privacy, so it is a bit ironic that this ur-computer was used to create privacy whereas modern computers are now used to decrease it.

One of the reasons I like being around him is he makes me think. As an old guy, I am constantly amazed at how the younger generation seems to be so eager to give up privacy by sharing pretty much all details of their lives on-line. I’ve also noticed that there seems to be less concern about nudity. I’m not saying that all twenty year olds are running around naked, but compared to 30 years ago when I was in high school, the socially accepted norms for modesty have changed greatly.

But now this seems to make sense. If clothing is the primal form of privacy, one would expect this from a culture in which privacy is less important. And I’m not sure this is a bad thing, as I don’t believe anyone should be ashamed of their bodies, plus it helps me toward earning my “Dirty Old Man” merit badge.

(grin)

In David Brin’s book Earth he envisions a world without privacy, and there are a lot of positive aspects to it. Recently Scott Adams has blogged about the subject, and he makes a number of valid points. The issue I have is that the world we are creating isn’t a utopian transparent society but instead one in which an oligarchy controls the majority of information to use however they see fit, and to me that is dangerous.

So I plan to strive to increase my privacy and, with few exceptions, I’ll keep my pants on.

Time Warner, Really?

August 15th, 2014

Once again I find myself jumping back into the fray and helping a friend get Internet/phone/TV from Time Warner. Here is the offer:

So, $89.99 per month for the first year. Not bad, right? Unfortunately, it comes to nearly $150 with equipment and taxes, but what can you do.

What bothers me is this bit at the bottom:

Do you want to guess what the reverse of the letter looks like?

In the interest in transparency, would it have been too much trouble to use a larger font? I know there is probably some kind of design constraint that includes phrases like “negative space” that made you put the terms in teeny, tiny letters at the bottom of a mainly blank page, but it makes you look like you are hiding something.

Review: Question Bedtime by MC Frontalot

August 15th, 2014

The best perk of my job is that I get to meet some truly amazing people. From the people I work with, to others in the open source world, to people like Damian Hess, my life has definitely been enriched by the people in it.

I was able to sponsor Damian, aka MC Frontalot, to perform at the Southeast Linuxfest (SELF) last year in Charlotte, and it was a great weekend. One evening ended up with a group of us in a hotel room, and Damian played some of the raw tracks from what would become his sixth studio album, Question Bedtime.

When he told me that he was doing an album based on bedtime stories, I was like “Wha?”. It didn’t seem to fit in with his “nerd” focus, but now that the album is out I can see why it works. First, while classics like “Goldilocks” and “Little Red Riding Hood are represented, most of the songs reference more obscure tales. Fairy tales are, by definition, fantastical, in much the same way as comic books or other geek friendly literature, so it isn’t as much of a stretch as I originally thought.

One of the tracks I heard that night at SELF was called “Devil in the Attic”. It is based on an obscure Japanese fairy tale called “The Ugly Son“. Such was their vanity, the parents of a very beautiful girl send out notice that she should only be wed to the fairest youth in all the land. Some grifters with a deformed (but intelligent) son think up a plan to wed him to her. They claim he is the fairest in the land and a courtship ensues, but based on tradition they do not see each other at first. On the night of the wedding, the boy’s father goes up into the attic of this grand house and starts claiming to be a demon who will visit a curse on the boy for daring to wed the girl, which the demon claims for himself. The curse turns out to be to deform the features of the boy – thus explaining his looks once they are revealed.

Front puts his own spin on the tale, turning it into a story of the oppression when women were considered property, as well as a lesson on conceit. In the chorus the father of the girl brags “Anything you could have, we have it. Even got a devil in the attic.”

Well, more than a year later, the CD Question Bedtime is now available for pre-order and immediate download. I’ve been listening to it for several weeks now and just got the final copy when it released this week.

The “his own spin” theme flows throughout the album. In “Gold Locks” the classic “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” story is retold from the bear’s point of view, portraying Goldilocks as the boogie man, creeping into your house to chop you up and eat you. The opening track “Start Over” is the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” as told by Front to a group of children who, in the chorus, exclaim “That ain’t how it happened”.

Just like in Solved, the album is laid out with tracks separated by little interstitial skits, this time with the theme that Front is a babysitter talking to his charges. Only they are all adults. In the opening one Front is trying to get “Li’l Kyle” (comedian Kyle Kinane) to go to sleep, and Kyle questions the arbitrary nature of a “bed time” – hence the name. It’s funny just to hear the arguments presented by the “children” in the skits – I wish I could have thought up some of those when I was younger.

I like every track on the album, but as can be expected I like some more than others. Almost all of them have a hook that will give you more earworms than the victims in The Strain. This morning I was walking around getting ready for work with “Gold Locks, gets in through your open door” on repeat in my brain.

My favorite track is “Two Dreamers” which is based on a tale from 1001 Arabian Nights. What has always attracted me to Front’s work has been the quality of the music. Too much of nerdcore rap tends to focus on the lyrics. While the lyrics are important, and Front excels at them, it is the music that takes it past novelty act and into valid art. In “Two Dreamers” there is even a bit of auto-tune, which I usually shun, but in this case it works. Quite frequently while listening to the album I switch over to Banshee and put that track on repeat.

Of course the track that is bound to be talked about the most is Wakjąkága. It is based on a tale from the native American Ho-chunk (Winnebago) tribe. Let’s just say that when I was learning how classical mythology explains things like why the sun rises and sets and why we have winter and summer, my instructors skipped over this little origin story.

If you are an MC Frontalot fan, you’ll like this album, and if you haven’t been exposed to him before, this album is his most accessible CD for non-geeks. It showcases his progression as a musician, and while my favorite tracks from Solved (“Critical Hit”, “Stoop Sale”, “Victorian Space Prostitute”) resonate with me more than the tracks on this album, they are offset by a couple of tracks I either don’t care for or actively dislike, such as “Invasion of the Not Quite Dead”. Overall, I like the album Question Bedtime the most, and tend to listen to it straight through.

As a bonus if you are an audio nerd, the download includes an 88.2kHz FLAC version which is as close as you can get to the music exactly as he mixed it. Be sure to read the README that comes with it though – if your audio card doesn’t support it he also ships a mastered 44.1kHz FLAC version that will sound better than if your media player is forced to downsample the 88.2kHz one.

OSCON 2014: Is Open Source Dead?

August 6th, 2014

After visiting OSCON this year, I have to ask myself: is open source dead?

I don’t mean open source software. Software published under licenses approved by the OSI is booming. What I mean is the ideal of open source software, that people would get together to build collaborative applications that would be given away for free.

I’ve never been a fan of software in an of itself. I’ve always looked toward software for what it can allow me to do. I don’t care about spreadsheets unless they help me manage my company. I don’t care about word processors beyond their ability to allow me to express my thoughts. Even games can be judged on how well they allow me to escape into them. So I don’t see “software” as a product – it’s the thing that helps me make the product.

It seems that open source applications have all but disappeared. What’s doing very well are open source libraries and languages that allow people to build proprietary products. Take a look at the biggest sponsors of OSCON. There’s Bluehost, a hosting provider “built on open source technologies”. There’s Paypal, “using open source foundations in their technology stacks”. The list continues: Citrix, Google, HP, Github, Microsoft and Rackspace. Of all of those, only Github strikes me as an open source company. The others are using open source technologies but to build closed products. The “open” has come to mean “open protocols” more than “open source”.

Is this a bad thing? I really don’t know.

If you look at the sponsor page, you’ll see “We’re Hiring” banners next to the names of many of the companies. Being fluent in open source technologies is a good way to get a job, and seems to be the primary reason many of the companies were there in the first place.

The only large truly open source company I know of, Red Hat, was there, but in a little bitty booth. There are still a lot of “open core” companies represented: those companies that provide a feature limited version of their products under an open source license but charge for the full featured one. While I think this is a bad thing, they seem to be doing well.

Is it because no one cares anymore? This saddens me.

There seems to be a lack of concern about the lock-in that comes with proprietary software, even more so than in years past. There is a huge gold rush to provide software as a service (SaaS) offerings, but no one is caring about security or portability. A lot of the business models of these SaaS companies directly involves analytics of their users. Was anyone in the tech world really surprised when it was revealed that Facebook was experimenting on its user base? Yet people seem to be in a rush to turn over their most important information to third parties. Even at OSCON, the premier open source conference, most of the people wandered around with Macbooks and iPhones.

So, open source is really succeeding in core technologies such as libraries and languages but fails at the end user application level. I think part of it is the lack of a good business model. People are more than willing to pay exorbitant amounts of money for software licenses but are loathe to pay for an open source support contract. I also think that it fails when it comes to usability. Without the business model, there just aren’t the resources available to make a lot of the software accessible to the casual technical user and much less to the Muggles. Heck, even Apple, which did such a good job with Time Machine, has pretty much moved backup from the user space to iCloud.

This doesn’t mean that I’ve given up on open source. I still use a Linux Mint desktop and an Android phone running OmniROM. Almost all of the software I use is open source, but even I have to admit that in many cases the stuff I use isn’t ready for the basic user. But I may have to rethink my relationship to the term “open source”.

This post may sound like I’m really down, but I’m not. I’m actually kind of upbeat overall. And I really enjoyed the short amount of time I spent at OSCON. While not as open source-y as I might like, this is one of the few times a year I can be assured of running into a lot of cool people I’ve met over the years. When I arrived at the exhibit hall, I made a beeline for the unfashionable booths in the back and toward the left known as the “Nonprofit Pavilion” or as I like to call it, the “Geek Ghetto”. It’s pretty cool that some commercial shows like this offer free booths, but one must realize that they don’t include things like carpet padding, power or Internet access. I know a couple of projects that got booths next to each other so they could share.

The first booth I stopped at was the Software Freedom Conservancy booth where I got to see Bradley Kuhn and Karen Sandler for the first time in over a year, and I got to meet Marc Delisle, the maintainer of phpMyAdmin. They seem to be doing well and the list of Conservancy projects keeps growing. While I was there, open source guru Stormy Peters stopped by, as well as Deb Nicholson from the Open Invention Network.

I also was happy to see the LibreOffice booth. That is one project that really does try to do a fully open source application and they seem to be succeeding (I use it every day). Back when I was a Mac user I started using Keynote and Pages until I realized that the stuff I was creating was going to be tied to Apple forever. To my knowledge none of the Microsoft Office or iWork stuff support an open format, but maybe that will change now that the UK government has formally adopted ODF as their standard.

While interest in open source applications is waning, it is fun to see the open source spirit is still alive in projects other than software. I met Kevin from Free Geek, a non-profit that started in Portland but has grown to over ten other cities. Free Geek recycles technology and provides training for a variety of disciplines including computer hardware, software and even lock picking (who knows when you’ll get locked out of the server closet).

Something I don’t believe they had at OSCON last time was an “open hardware” section. I got to play with a beagleboard which is used by Prof. Thomas Bewley in his robotics classes as UCSD. I’m kind of jealous at all the new toys college students get to play with these days, for credit even.

One project is to create a balancing, two-wheeled robot. The one I played with was managed with a radio controller, and it was quite robust, even when I purposely drove it into other things (people, other robots).

On the opposite corner of the hall from the Geek Ghetto were the booths of some of the smaller open source projects with more commercial backing. The Red Hat booth was over there, and it was nice to run into Greg DeKoenigsberg at the Anisible booth. I met Greg when he was at Red Hat and it was also nice to see a local face (he’s nearby in Durham). Anisible seems to be a pretty cool project and I loved the tweet from an emphatic user who said “If a vegan, Crossfit, Anisible enthusiast meets you, what do they talk about first?”.

Speaking of meeting people, I got to chat with Erica Brescia over at the Bitnami booth, and later on ran into Jono Bacon and Stephen Walli. We ended up at Baileys along with Chris Aniszczyk from Twitter and some others, but as they say, what happens in Portland stays in Portland, so no pictures.

Plus, you really, really don’t want to know about that evening’s particular discussion. Ah, good times.