Paul Brown: more than an interview, a talk

Paul Brown

As you know, we have started a series of interviews to some relevant people and also to companies in the sector. But this has been special, since, as I say in the title, Paul Brown He proposed to me to change the methodology and do it as a talk. Finally decided to do it on Telegram, which certainly gives a feedback that I have not had the opportunity to have with the rest of the interviews. I hope you like the result too ...

As for the protagonist, I don't think too many presentations are needed, but if there are still some clueless out there, say that Paul Brown is one of the editors of www.linux.com, is the founder of Linux UK, and also writes on his own site quick fix. In addition, if you follow closely the entire KDE mega project, surely you will also know that it is in charge of communications as well as promotions. Do you want to know a little more? Well, keep reading ...

PDP-8

Linux Addicts: Can you tell me what took you from being an English teacher to Linux? And what was your first contact with free software?

Paul Brown: Of course. He had always been a computer enthusiast. I programmed a PDP-8 in 1979 and had a Commodore 64 in 1982. The other thing is, I was a Linux magazines nut. When Linux magazines started coming out back in the late 90s, I was very intrigued and bought them all. It was like a virus: first the technology infected me, then the philosophy. It was a revelation of all the bad things that happened to computers.

When one day I found myself explaining to my students (in English) what I had discovered instead of the uses of the Present Perfect, I realized that I had to change professions.

LxW: Was the DEC machine from some company you worked for?

PB: It was from a textile company, but I didn't work there. I was only 13 years old! I was in high school. A friend of my parents was the installer and programmer of the whole assembly. There was a PDP-8 and a PDP-11. Huge junk, with (external) hard drives the size of a washing machine. The PDP-8 was programmed with a teletypewriter and you could "store" the programs on paper tapes. How everything was very hot, they had the air conditioning on all the time and you could only enter with a white coat so that the threads and dust from the clothes did not affect the machines. All very science fiction of the time ...

LxW: Very interesting, I did not know about the clothes ...

PB: My parents' friend said they were exaggerating a bit. But, taking into account that the entire system was worth millions of pesetas at the time ...

LxW: Now that you talk about those old machines ... I don't know if you've seen the documentary Code Linux, I remember that Linus Torvalds' father said that the machine where his son had his first contact with computers facilitated his learning because of its simplicity. Now they are perhaps too complex to understand how it works. Do you agree?

PB: Yes, but there is something else. I keep a manual for the Commodore 64 and on the back are the blueprints for all the electronics inside. The manuals were very comprehensive in everything: they explained the entire operating system, applications, and hardware. That has been lost. Most of the machines that people buy are black boxes, without any documentation. While in the 80s users were invited to mess around (they were given the means to do so), now there are companies that pretend to make you believe that it is even illegal.

Source code

LxW: Totally agree. That is why projects such as the Raspberry Pi and Arduino have penetrated the educational world so well, right? They are much simpler, they have returned to those times in some way and you find a lot of documentation ...

PB: Yes, in fact the Raspberry Pi was designed by engineers who worked on the personal computers (the "micros" as they were called then) of the 80's. They realized that the closedness of the hardware turned computers into almost household appliances.

It had made a dent in the quality of students who were enrolled in computer-related careers. That is to say, computer science students of the 80s and early 90s knew much more than those who enter now. And it is not because "all past times were better", but because the industry decided that the less the user knew, the better. It is the idiocy of personal computing that has led to a talent crisis.

I'm not saying that democratization and simplification are bad, eye. But it has another effect that cannot be ignored. What is bad is hiding what is going on inside for those who are curious.

LxW: Idiotization and distrust, beyond what you mention, also in distrust in terms of security and privacy. You don't really know what the software does, but neither does the hardware ...

PB: And that brings us to things like Specter and Meltdown: bugs and vulnerabilities that have been in systems since the 90s and that people like Intel knew but should not disclose.

LxW: Do you think the Raspi would have lacked an open CPU as well? Instead of an ARM core IP ...

PB: Yeah right. It irritates me quite a bit that we cannot have hardware where all the components are open at this point of the century. It is a pending issue that the community has to solve.

LxW: I have spent 15 years researching microprocessors and there are interesting projects such as OpenSPARC, OpenPOWER, RISC, ...

PB: There are several projects there ... The RISC V looks promising, but at the moment it is more of a project than anything else. I am also a little aware of OpenPOWER. Agh… I don't know how open that is. I suppose it is a step in that direction, but until you see all the diagrams distributed under a license approved by the FSF or OSI ...

LxW: Changing a bit of third ... How about you see the boom in video games with Linux support?

PB: Hehe… This is a subject that also has its dark side. On the one hand, fine. So all those who say "I don't go through the games" will no longer have an excuse. On the other hand, the idea of ​​free software is not to create environments that facilitate the distribution of proprietary software. It's a bit like Android, yes the kernel is free, but no one will mistake the system for a free system.

One wonders that for that, what difference does it make if the kernel is free or not? It is also like who argues that when we will have Microsoft Office or Photoshop for Linux. MY answer to that is, 'Please don't.' That would kill projects like LibreOffice, or GIMP, or Kirta, ...

But I admit that the games thing is complicated. I can understand how to generate business with free office or design software, you can create documentation, give classes, technical support, but in the case of free video games ... What other businesses exist apart from selling the game?

LxW: This reminds me of an interview we did with Richard Stallman, where he said: "If someone uses Visual Studio on GNU / Linux, it is much better than using Visual Studio on Windows, because Windows no longer submits them." You also think something similar about videogames ...

PB: Yes, but it is a much smaller incremental step than people think. But it is still a step. Playing free games on free platforms… that would be clear progress.

LxW: And now that we've cited Microsoft, what do you think of the latest moves? Like the purchase of GitHub, opening of certain projects, the Linux-based distro, contribution with money and code for the Linux Foundation, the latest movement on patents… Sounds good, but when you see Linux Sucks 2018, Bryan Lunduke says something that gives chills, about Microsoft's strategy of destroying from within: "Embrace, Extend, Extinguish."

Microsoft Love ??? Linux

PB: It's a little bit more complex than that. Microsoft is a large corporation. As such it cannot do good or bad things. That is anthropomorphizing. Like any large company, like IBM, Red Hat, or any other, only its shareholders respond first. Now Microsoft's interests align (somewhat) with Linux's. Nothing more.

In fact, note that none of these companies ever use the term "free software", they always use "open-source", which has no moral connotations. That's right: companies cannot be credited with morality. So it follows that Microsoft loves Linux is pure marketing.

Let's see, I do not doubt that there are MS engineers who like open source, and who are good citizens in the community, but fall into the fallacy that a company, more in one the size of Microsoft, can have feelings or a morality is delusional. Be careful, I think the same about Red Hat, IBM, Samsung, and whatever ...

Also, if you think like that, you will never be disappointed when they do something that you don't agree with. The reasoning behind their motivation is always simple: 'With that they have managed to increase the value of their shares'. That's all. It's all the justification you need. That is why they need to be regulated to the death. In fact, I don't think that any company should allow itself to grow and accumulate as much power as a Microsoft, Google, Apple, Amazon ...

LxW: Yes, unfortunately the shareholders rule, I have seen many companies change course even at the cost of going over their own employees or engineers just because the money moves to another sector. For example, I am reminding myself of the case of AMD, when shareholders saw a potential market for low-power and mobile devices and wanted to sacrifice performance to reduce power consumption and there was a stampede of old-school engineers. And that caused the company to kneel in front of Intel until the arrival of Zen, when they have recovered a good handful of good architects. But I wonder which comes first, the chicken or the egg? I mean, for these shareholders to move a tab there must be a carrot in front of them that encourages them to do so ... Steve Jobs was a magician at this, generating a need and then exploiting it ...

PB: Man, generating a need is a bit of a contradiction in terms, right? I don't want to get philosophical, but having an iPad is not a necessity.

LxW: Yes, but they make you believe that if you don't have it, you're not "cool." In fact, there are many schools that want their students to work with iPads and not with just any tablet, forcing parents to make a large outlay of money and all the rest of the things that it entails ... If you carry an Android tablet, you will be the weirdo of the class or you won't even be able to work, this is just criminal. Besides that if you get used to that, then you will want that ... There are also studies that say that the iPhone has become one of the indicators of the current economic level. And people kill themselves for having them ...

PB: … Free software could use a little of that… er… glamor. And that people thought that installing Arch or Debian is to be the master. That it is…

Other interviews in the series:

Linux interviews

Thank you very much for everything Paul, a pleasure… I hope readers found this interview interesting. Do not forget to leave your comments.


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  1.   rafagcg said

    Very interesting. Thanks