The Epitome of Nerd-dom

A short while ago, I did a series of posts on computing based on the fact that I had done a lot of related research when studying the installation of Linux. I feel that I should now come clean and point out that between the time of that first post being written and now, I have tried and failed to install Ubuntu on an old laptop six times already, which has served to teach me even more about exactly how it works, and how it differs from is more mainstream competitors. So, since I don’t have any better ideas, I thought I might dedicate this post to Linux itself.

Linux is named after both its founder, Linus Torvalds, a Finnish programmer who finished compiling the Linux kernel in 1992, and Unix, the operating system that could be considered the grandfather of all modern OSs and which Torvalds based his design upon (note- whilst Torvald’s first name has a soft, extended first syllable, the first syllable of the word Linux should be a hard, short, sharp ‘ih’ sound). The system has its roots in the work of Richard Stallman, a lifelong pioneer and champion of the free-to-use, open source movement, who started the GNU project in 1983. His ultimate goal was to produce a free, Unix-like operating system, and in keeping with this he wrote a software license allowing anyone to use and distribute software associated with it so long as they stayed in keeping with the license’s terms (ie nobody can use the free software for personal profit). The software compiled as part of the GNU project was numerous (including a still widely-used compiler) and did eventually come to fruition as an operating system, but it never caught on and the project was, in regards to its achieving of its final aims, a failure (although the GNU General Public License remains the most-used software license of all time).

Torvalds began work on Linux as a hobby whilst a student in April 1991, using another Unix clone MINIX to write his code in and basing it on MINIX’s structure. Initially, he hadn’t been intending to write a complete operating system at all, but rather a type of display interface called a terminal emulator- a system that tries to emulate a graphical terminal, like a monitor, through a more text-based medium (I don’t really get it either- it’s hard to find information a newbie like me can make good sense of). Strictly speaking a terminal emulator is a program, existing independent of an operating system and acting almost like one in its own right, directly within the computer’s architecture. As such, the two are somewhat related and it wasn’t long before Torvalds ‘realised’ he had written a kernel for an operating system and, since the GNU operating system had fallen through and there was no widespread, free-to-use kernel out there, he pushed forward with his project. In August of that same year he published a now-famous post on a kind of early internet forum called Usenet, saying that he was developing an operating system that was “starting to get ready”, and asking for feedback concerning where MINIX was good and where it was lacking, “as my OS resembles it somewhat”. He also, interestingly,  said that his OS “probably never will support anything other than AT-harddisks”. How wrong that statement has proved to be.

When he finally published Linux, he originally did so under his own license- however, he borrowed heavily from GNU software in order to make it run properly (so to have a proper interface and such), and released later versions under the GNU GPL. Torvalds and his associates continue to maintain and update the Linux kernel (Version 3.0 being released last year) and, despite some teething troubles with those who have considered it old-fashioned, those who thought MINIX code was stolen (rather than merely borrowed from), and Microsoft (who have since turned tail and are now one of the largest contributors to the Linux kernel), the system is now regarded as the pinnacle of Stallman’s open-source dream.

One of the keys to its success lies in its constant evolution, and the interactivity of this process. Whilst Linus Torvalds and co. are the main developers, they write very little code themselves- instead, other programmers and members of the Linux community offer up suggestions, patches and additions to either the Linux distributors (more on them later) or as source code to the kernel itself. All the main team have to do is pick and choose the features they want to see included, and continually prune what they get to maximise the efficiency and minimise the vulnerability to viruses of the system- the latter being one of the key features that marks Linux (and OS X) over Windows. Other key advantages Linux holds includes its size and the efficiency with which it allocates CPU usage; whilst Windows may command a quite high percentage of your CPU capacity just to keep itself running, not counting any programs running on it, Linux is designed to use your CPU as efficiently as possible, in an effort to keep it running faster. The kernel’s open source roots mean it is easy to modify if you have the technical know-how, and the community of followers surrounding it mean that any problem you have with a standard distribution is usually only a few button clicks away. Disadvantages include a certain lack of user-friendliness to the uninitiated or not computer-literate user since a lot of programs require an instruction typed into the command bar, far fewer  programs, especially commercial, professional ones, than Windows, an inability to process media as well as OS X (which is the main reason Apple computers appear to exist), and a tendency to go wrong more frequently than commercial operating systems. Nonetheless, many ‘computer people’ consider this a small price to pay and flock to the kernel in their thousands.

However, the Linux kernel alone is not enough to make an operating system- hence the existence of distributions. Different distributions (or ‘distros’ as they’re known) consist of the Linux kernel bundled together with all the other features that make up an OS: software, documentation, window system, window manager, and desktop interface, to name but some. A few of these components, such as the graphical user interface (or GUI, which covers the job of several of the above components), or the package manager (that covers program installation, removal and editing), tend to be fairly ubiquitous (GNOME or KDE are common GUIs, and Synaptic the most typical package manager), but different people like their operating system to run in slightly different ways. Therefore, variations on these other components are bundled together with the kernel to form a distro, a complete package that will run as an operating system in exactly the same fashion as you would encounter with Windows or OS X. Such distros include Ubuntu (the most popular among beginners), Debian (Ubuntu’s older brother), Red Hat, Mandriva and Crunchbang- some of these, such as Ubuntu, are commercially backed enterprises (although how they make their money is a little beyond me), whilst others are entirely community-run, maintained solely thanks to the dedication, obsession and boundless free time of users across the globe.

If you’re not into all this computer-y geekdom, then there is a lot to dislike about Linux, and many an average computer user would rather use something that will get them sneered at by a minority of elitist nerds but that they know and can rely upon. But, for all of our inner geeks, the spirit, community, inventiveness and joyous freedom of the Linux system can be a wonderful breath of fresh air. Thank you, Mr. Torvalds- you have made a lot of people very happy.

Advertisements

The Great Madiba*

I have previously mentioned on this blog that I have a bit of a thing for Nelson Mandela. I try not too bring this up too much, but when you happen to think that someone was the greatest human who has ever lived then it can be a touch tricky. I also promised myself that I would not do another 1 man adulation-fest for a while either, but today happens to be his ninety fourth (yes, 94th) birthday, so I felt that one might be appropriate.

Nelson Mandela was born in 1918 as the son of a Xhosa tribeschief, and was originally named Rolihlahla, or ‘troublemaker’ (the name Nelson was given to him when he attended school). South Africa at the time was still not far out of the Boer war, which has been a difficult one for historians to take sides in- the British, lead by Lord Kitchener of the ‘Your Country Needs You’ WWI posters, took the opportunity to invent the concentration camp whilst the Dutch/German descended Boers who both preached and practiced brutal racial segregation. It wasn’t until 1931 that South Africa was awarded any degree of independence from Britain, and not until 1961 that it became officially independent.

However, a far more significant political event occurred in 1948, with the coming to power of the National Party of South Africa, which was dominated by white Afrikaners. They were the first government to come up with apartheid, a legal and political system that enforced the separation of white & black South Africans in order to maintain the (minority group) whites’ political power. Its basic tenet was the dividing of all people into one of four groups. In descending order of rank, they were White, Coloured, Indian (a large racial group in South Africa- in fact a young Mahatma Gandhi spent a lot of time in the country before Mandela was born and pioneered his methods of peaceful protest there) and Black. All had to carry identification cards and all bar whites were effectively forbidden to vote. The grand plan was to try and send all ‘natives’ bar a few workers to one of ten ‘homelands’ to leave the rest of the country for white South Africans. There were a huge number of laws, many of which bore a striking resemblance to those used by Hitler to segregate Jews, to enforce separation (such as the banning of mixed marriages), and even a system to be up- (or even down-) graded in rank.

Mandela was 30 when apartheid was introduced, and began to take an active role in politics. He joined the black-dominated African National Congress (ANC) and began to oppose the apartheid system. He originally stuck to Gandhi’s methods of nonviolent protest and was arrested several times, but he became frustrated as protests against the government were brutally opposed and he began to turn to more aggressive measures. In the early sixties he co-founded and lead the ANC’s militant (some would say terrorist) wing, coordinating attacks on symbols of the Apartheid regime. This mainly took the form of sabotage attacks against government offices & such (he tried to avoid targeting or hurting people), and Mandela later admitted that his party did violate human rights on a number of occasions. Mandela was even forbidden to enter the United States without permission until 2008, because as an ANC member he had been classified a terrorist.

Eventually the law caught up with him, and Mandela was arrested in 1962. Initially jailed for 5 years for inciting workers to strike, he was later found guilty of multiple counts of sabotage and sentenced to life imprisonment (only narrowly escaping the death penalty, and once turning up to court in full Xhosa ceremonial dress). He was transported to the imfamously tough Robben Island prison and spent the next 18 years, between the ages of 45 and 58, working in a lime quarry. As a black, and a notorious political prisoner, Mandela was granted few, if any, privileges, and his cell was roughly the same size as a toilet cubicle. However, whilst inside, his fame grew- his image of a man fighting the oppressive system spread around the world and gained the apartheid system notoriety and hatred. In fact, the South African intelligence services even tried to get him to escape so they could shoot him and remove him from his iconic status. There were numerous pleas and campaigns to release him, and by the 1980s things had come to a head- South African teams were ostracised in virtually every sport (including rugby, a huge part of the Afrikaner lifestyle), and the South African resort of Sun City had become a total pariah for almost every western rock act to visit, all amidst a furious barrage of protests.

After Robben Island, Mandela spent a further 9 years in mainland prisons during which time he refined his political philosophy. He had also learned to speak Afrikaans and held many talks with key government figures who were overblown by both his physical presence (he had been a keen boxer in his youth) and his powerful, engaging and charming force of personality. In 1989, things took a whole new turn with the coming to power of FW de Klerk, who I rate as the South African equivalent of Mikhael Gorbachev. Recognising that the tides of power were against his apartheid system, he began to grant the opposition concessions, unbanning the ANC and, in 1990, releasing Mandela after nearly three decades in prison (Mandela holds the world record for the longest imprisonment of a future president). Then followed four long, strained years of negotiations of how to best redress the system, broken by a famous visit to the Barcelona Olympics and a joint awarding, in 1993, of the Nobel Peace prize to both Mandela and de Klerk, before the ANC got what it had spent all its years campaigning for- the right for black citizens to vote.

Unsurprisingly Mandela (by now aged 75) won a landslide in the elections of 1994 and quickly took apart the apartheid regime. However, many white South Africans lived in fear of what was to come- the prospect of ‘the terrorist’ Mandela now having free reign to persecute them as much as he liked was quite terrifying one, and one that had been repeated multiple times in other local African nations (perhaps the best example is Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe went from the first black leader of a new nation to an aggressive dictator who oppressed his people and used the race card as justification). Added to that, Mandela faced the huge political challenges of a country racked by crime, unemployment and numerous issues ranging from healthcare to education.

However, Mandela recognised that the white population were the best educated and controlled most of the government, police force and business of his country, so had to be placated. He even went so far as to interrupt a meeting of the national sports council to persuade them to revoke a decision to drop the name and symbol of the Springboks (South Africa’s national rugby side, and a huge symbol of the apartheid regime) to try and keep them happy. His perseverance paid off- the white population responded to his lack of prejudice by turning a boom in international trade caused by apartheid’s end into a quite sizeable economic recovery. Even Springboks became unifying force for his country, being sent off to coaching clinics in black townships and being inspired to such an extent by Mandela and his request for South Africans of all creeds to get behind the team that they overcame both their underdogs tag and the mighty New Zealand (and more specifically their 19 stone winger who ran 100m in under 11 seconds, Jonah Lomu) to win their home World Cup in 1995, igniting celebrations across the country and presenting South Africa as the Rainbow Nation Mandela had always wanted it to be. Despite his age, declining health he would only ever sleep for a few hours every night (claiming he rested long enough in prison). donated a quarter of his salary to charity on the grounds that he felt it was too much, and had to juggle his active political life around a damaged family life (his second wife having divorced from him & his children having some disagreements with his politics).

It would have been easy for Mandela to exact revenge upon his former white oppressors, stripping them of their jobs, wealth and privilege in favour for a new, black-orientated system- after all, blacks were the majority racial group in the country. But this is what makes Mandela so special- he didn’t take the easy option. He was not, and has never been, a black supremacist, nor one given to knee-jerk reactions- he believed in equality for all, including the whites who had previously not extended such a fair hand to him. He showed the world how to ‘offer the other cheek’ (in Gandhi’s words), and how to stand up for something you believe in. But most importantly, he showed us all that the world works best when we all give up thoughts of vengeance, and petty selfishness, and we instead come together as a brotherhood of humanity. Mandela’s legacy to the world will none be of his brilliant political mind, nor the education, healthcare or economic systems he put in place to revive his country, or even the extraordinary dedication, perseverance and strength of will he showed throughout his long years behind bars. Nelson Mandela taught the world how to be a human being.

*Madiba was Mandela’s Xhosa name, and he is referred to affectionately as such by many South Africans

What good are Olympians?

In my last post I talked about the Euro 2012 football tournament, an event that no European could hope to ignore unless they lived in a particularly well-soundproofed cave. The event I’m going to talk about today however, has a strange power akin to osmosis meaning that it is physically impossible to avoid hearing about it from any distance less than 50 miles from any living being or, if you live in Britain, the centre of the earth. It is, of course, the London 2012 Olympics.

Olympians are, of course, the pinnacle of human physical perfection- or so we keep on being told, despite Usain Bolt’s famous obsession with chicken nuggets. In fact, it can be hard, on occasion, to believe just how amazing Olympians are meant to be. This is especially true given the amount of media attention they have attracted in recent times presenting them as ‘just normal people’, involving talks with their families and discussions of their home lives and ‘normalness’.

To an extent, some of their achievements don’t seem to be super-amazing either, when you think about it. Usain Bolt is a prime example- the man is the fastest on earth and is able to cover 100 metres in a little under 10 seconds.  This, we are told, is amazingly exceptional- despite the fact that anyone watching athletics willquickly notice a far larger number of people all able to run the same distance in less than a second more time. Then there are the dozens of other amateur or schoolboy sprinters, and fast sportsmen such as rugby wingers, who are able to do their 100 in around 11 seconds- in fact one England Sevens player (Dan Norton) has been clocked as quicker than Bolt over 20 minutes, and as a sportsman rather than athlete probably has a broader range of physical skills than him. Admittedly, most of us are probably not going to come close to any of that- but the fastest guy any given person knows is likely to be able to cover 100m in around 12 seconds, despite probably having no formal sprint training and not dedicating their lives to running very quickly in a straight line for an incredibly short period of time, which is perhaps not the most versatile of life skills.

A similar idea can be applied to quite a range of Olympic fields. Most people who keep themselves fit and lead an at least reasonably active lifestyle could cover 400m in around a minute with a little practice, so perhaps covering it in 45 seconds is not something super-amazing. I am not an especially serious rower, but I use a machine occasionally and can clock a time over 2000m of around 7:30- just a minute slower than the men’s world record on-water time for single sculls, and only 2 minutes slower than the record for a machine. A lot of blokes in the pub would consider themselves enough of a dab hand in a fight to be an at least reasonable boxer with a bit of training, and amateur boxers can’t be all that amazing can they? And have you seen the bows they use for archery? They make a laser sniper rifle look like a nerf gun- anyone could hit a target with one of those, surely?

And that’s before you even consider the practical implications of what it means to be an Olympian- I’ll use handball as an example. Up until winning the bid for the 2012 games, Britain had never had a handball team, and after the people who run these things had insisted that Team GB would enter a competitor in every event they had to produce an acceptable outfit within 4 years. This meant recruiting from people who’d already played high level sport (which mainly ended up being rugby players and basketballers) and retraining them as handballers. This required them all to spend countless weeks at special training camps. Most of them had to give up their jobs and entire lives for a worse-paid job with poorer facilities, all in pursuit of their one shot at the Olympics. As far as I know, they have yet to win a game. Surely a balanced life, sampling all there is of the human experience, makes one a better person than this relentlessly single-minded devotion?

Well… maybe, but to sell the achievements of an Olympian short is to seriously devalue them. True, in some events the differences between amateur and world-leading may not be huge, but in others the difference can be truly staggering. Consider distance running- I consider myself to be a reasonably fit guy, and go running of occasion around a 4-mile (6.4 km) course near where I live. There’s the odd small hill, but the majority of it is flat. I can cover that course in about half an hour, by the end of which I am usually sweating like a paedo in a nursery (my apologies for the rather crude expression). However, the other day a news item I saw featured a 10km event in which a few soon to be Olympians were taking part. Bear in mind that this course was over half as long again as mine… and yet they covered it in three minutes less time than I could my course. And they barely looked tired. Worse still, at my rate of running it would take me around three and a quarter hours (assuming I could somehow replicate my pace for six and a half times the distance) to complete a marathon, whereas even a mediocre Olympic marathon runner would expect to hit just two. Usain Bolt can typically keep a top speed of around 12 metres per second up for around 4 or 5 seconds, whilst a marathon runner can keep up six for hours on end. Consider events such as the javelin- they might look all light and easy to throw, but from experience trust me, they’re not. I can get one perhaps 15 metres- an Olympian six times that distance. In a long jump, most of us would struggle to exceed a metre or two, whereas the poorest Olympian jumper can hit six or seven with ease.

In these events the gulf in ability between an Olympian and a mere mortal is obvious- but do not be mistaken. That difference in terms of sheer class is present in every single Olympic discipline, and every athlete attending the games in London this year represents a world leader in their field. The Olympics is a showcase of the top 0.01% of the human race, and just how amazing we can be- and they deserve every ounce of admiration and respect that they get.