Thursday at linux.conf.au 2008 kicked off with Stormy Peter’s keynote Would you do it again for free?. Stormy discussed the effect of paid remuneration on open-source developers who have previously worked on a project for love, glory or ideology. For me, the most interesting part of the talk was the presentation of related research- check out Stormy’s blog for links. Often incentives are thought of as quite simple- if an activity X becomes more profitable, then more people will start doing X or people already doing X will do it more. And vice versa. But the research Stormy presented shows that sometimes financial incentives work in a more complex way, especially when they interact with other motivations such as social norms.
While I understand that this issue is of interest to Stormy’s employer, I’m not sure it has much relevance to the wider community. The involvement of companies in the development of free and open source software has been a huge success, and projects seem to move fairly easily from being developed mostly by volunteers to being developed mostly by people paid to do it. The only example given of a project damaged by commercial involvement was Easel, so it doesn’t seem to be a widespread problem.
Making money selling OSS is not necessarily easy, but I’m going to make a handwaving argument that using an open source development model actually makes finding and keeping good people easier. For example, while I was at LCA I met Giuseppe Maxia from MySQL. He told me that he was a regular contributor to MySQL before being hired by MySQL AB, and that’s pretty much how the company does recruitment- by cherry picking the best out of the wider developer community. As a company looking for talented people, it must be great having a steady source of potential hires who have both interest and expertise in your product. Open source development also allows for much wider recognition of ability and contribution, a major attraction for talented people that costs the company paying them nothing.
So overall this keynote was interesting, but I didn’t find the topic particularly compelling.
Last year I attended a SLUG meeting where Eric De Castro Lopo gave an introductory talk on flex and bison. With the knowledge gained, I used these venerable Unix tools to implement a configuration file parser for my rroller project, and while they got the job done, they also left much to be desired. First implemented in the early 70’s, they don’t quite meet modern standards for flexibility and ease-of-use. In particular, getting bison to produce good error messages is more work than it should be.
The ANTLR Parser Generator promises to change all this and late last year I spent some time checking it out for use on a personal project. While I wouldn’t describe it as difficult to use, I did think the online documentation could be better. For this reason I picked up a copy of The Definitive ANTLR Reference. I haven’t actually read it since I decided to postpone the project before the book arrived from Amazon, but I’ll get around to it eventually.
This is a long-winded way of explaining why I decided to attend Clinton Roy’s tutorial An Introduction to ANTLR: A parser toolkit for problems large and small. The tutorial combined Clinton’s amusingly deadpan outlook on life with a very lucid introduction to the basics of ANTLR. Things started to make sense very quickly and if you’re looking to get started with ANTLR you could do a lot worse than check out the video. The first hour or so is the best part; towards the end the pace began to stall. During the tutorial Clinton made extensive use of ANTLRWorks, a Java-based visual development environment for ANTLR grammars. This tool looked incredibly useful even though Clinton claimed that it’s not quite ready for prime time in terms of stability.
After lunch I attended a talk on NUMA pagecache replication presented by the remarkably unassuming Nick Piggin from Suse. Kernel hackers are generally- how can I put this- quite assertive, but Nick seems more chilled out. In any case he knows how to give a good talk, with adequate time spent at the beginning to bring the less NUMA-aware members of the audience up to speed on NUMA architectures and the particular performance challenges they present for the kernel.
The other cool thing about this talk was that the pagecache replication patch is small, only about 700 lines, so it’s the sort of thing that can be explained adequately in less than an hour.
Once Nick started discussing the new data structures introduced in the patch there was a bit of a pile-on from the audience with the many kernel hackers in the room observing that Nick’s current implementation is sub-optimal in several ways. This continued until Dave Miller pointed out that it’s probably best Nick gets things working correctly first before people go crazy with micro-optimizations. There are also no performance benchmarks available yet, so it’s not clear what the performance benefit will be- and whether it will justify the increase in complexity of the page cache.
In contrast, the Parrot VM is most definitely not the sort of thing that be explained in less than an hour, but Allison Randal had a go anyway in her talk Parrot: a VM for Dynamic Languages. Before the talk I was under the totally mistaken assumption that Parrot is the VM for Perl 6, but it’s much more than this- it’s designed to support any number of dynamic languages and provides a bunch of powerful tools for creating new ones. By creating more powerful tools, the Parrot crew hope to accelerate the pace of dynamic language development.
Allison gave an overview of how Pynie (Python on Parrot) is implemented using the Parrot compiler construction tools. This was interesting but moved a bit fast for me. At the end of the presentation she said that “The amount of knowledge that you have now is actually enough that you could write a compiler”, but I think I’d a little bit more time to get up to speed.
One nugget I found particularly interesting is that Parrot is a register-based virtual machine. I’ve spent some time recently looking at the very cool LLVM project, their VM is of a similar vintage to Parrot and is also register-based. The most widely used VMs today are the Java VM and the .NET CLR; these are both stack-based but the trend seems to be towards register-based designs. Allison cited a paper titled The case for virtual register machines which demonstrates considerable performance advantages for the register approach.
This year at work I’ve been spending much of my time doing multimedia stuff, mostly audio processing, so I thought I’d get some useful information from Michael Smith’s presentation GStreamer: More than just playback. I was intrigued to find out that GStreamer’s design is heavily influenced by Microsoft’s DirectShow which I’ve been getting intimately familiar with recently. Just as DirectShow is built on top of COM, GStreamer is built on the GLib 2.0 object model. The basic architectural components such as elements, pads and caps also have direct counterparts in DirectShow.
Michael gave a gentle introduction to GStreamer and had a cool demo where he streamed audio from his laptop to a laptop belonging to an audience member. Because of the funky over-the-network synchronization features in GStreamer, the audio playback from the laptop was perfectly synchronized with the video image playing on Michaels laptop. Nice.
I’ve always taken an interest in automated construction, probably because I’ve read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy a few times. Automated machines that build machines are essential if the human race is going to pull off stunts like building a space elevator or terraforming Mars. In Robinson’s trilogy, a space elevator is constructed by robots that capture an asteroid, move it into orbit and then mine it for the raw material used to make the elevator cable. Very cool stuff.
With these lofty ambitions in mind, I wandered into The Replicators Are Coming! given by Viktor Olliver. Viktor is a primary contributor to the open source Reprap (Replicating Rapid-prototyper) project, and he somehow managed to get his Reprap through customs for our edification. This reprap can produce some of its own parts from extruded plastic (see photos), and considering the low cost of the device (under $AUD 1000), the strength and precision of the extruded parts is really impressive.
Slightly disappointing is the number of its own parts the reprap can’t make, including metal rods, electronics, wires and fasteners. So there is quite a way to go yet. Still, I loved Viktor’s grand vision of what’s possible and the long-term perspective required in starting to move towards a difficult goal. Very inspiring work.