- By Julie Bresnick -
Open Source people
Swiss born Austrian, Werner
Almesberger first tried Linux in January of 1992. Linus Torvalds had just
released version 0.12. Almesberger had liked it before but he
"didn't want to buy Minix
to run it." Gradually, Linux took center stage. Now Almesberger jokes
that I've come to him because the "patch a day" principle he's adopted
"seems to be good for drawing attention." (That pace only lasted for about two
weeks.)Awarded his Ph.D. in communications from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology at Lausanne (EPFL) in November 1999, his name is more descriptive of him when preceded by the title of "Dr." Sure, a doctorate is not such an anomaly among prestigious programmers, but when he mentions the clubbing till the break of dawn "or longer" that
he likes to do, contrast makes things more interesting. Both activities
are intense, but the dancing till dawn gives a classic vocation a private
edge which is amplified when you enter his homepage this way. He also likes to drive fast,
ski downhill and bring work home with him, at least the part that has to do
The last one's not a challenge because he digs it so much. He's
currently a senior researcher at EPFL's Institute for
Computer Communications and Applications (ICA). He started working
part-time for the University in Zurich in '91. He was working on design and
implementation of site information systems. He then went, for about a
year and a half, to IBM Zurich Research
Laboratory in Rueschlikon where he concentrated on ATM switch
control software development. Finally back at EPFL/ICA again (only this time
in Lausanne) in 1994, he has developed application requested IP over ATM
(RFC2170; used in several European R&D projects), ATM on
Linux (principal maintainer/coordinator until July 2000; part of 2.4 kernel),
and differentiated services on Linux (on-going; part of 2.4 kernel).
That's just a selection from his work hours. During his free time
he's worked on LILO
boot loader, the Canon PowerShot A50 driver of gPhoto, original FAT file system inheriting file system
(abandoned), the psmisc tools, and a bit of hacking in the linux-7k project.
Being so prolific in the computer sciences one might expect him to
be of technically inclined stock but, in fact, he was born to an agriculturist and
a tailor. At least that's what they were formally educated to do. His father was poised to inherit his parents' farm until the land was "re-zoned" and he became a corporate archivist instead. His mother, studied to be a tailor and then worked as a corporate secretary and assistant to the head of a Yoga school, a job, Almesberger notes; that must have been fun given that yoga was a burgeoning trend among the rich and famous.
But they were savvy, says Almesberger, more than supportive of his
pursuits, they generally understood them. Which was instrumental considering he
wasn't going to progress due to computer classes at school which he
remembers being markedly inadequate. It was at home, in 1980, that he
first learned to program. He was 13 and started studying a 1965 manual
on the design of a TI-57
programmable pocket calculator. With both the manual and the calculator at home,
he learned fast and soon confounded his teacher at school with such sophisticated questions, and corrections, that he simply turned over the manuals to Almesberger and gave him the keys to the copy machine. From there on Almesberger was self sufficient.
"One of the nicer things I did was combine my impressions from
Pascal and a bit of C into my own programming language design, and to build a
compiler for it. My compiler generated even faster code than Turbo Pascal, which
was pretty much the state of the art back then ('86 or '87). Obviously, I
didn't really understand C the way I do today, or I would have realized that
it's already almost perfect. ;-)"
This was all in Zurich, which is where Almesberger was born and raised. He moved himself to Lausanne as an adult and plans to
relocate to Buenos
Aires by the end of March. The short explanation is that he got drunk one
night in Pittsburgh where he was attending a conference. The next morning,
his enthusiasm for Pittsburgh hampered even further than his innate
aversion, by a hangover, he declared to move to Buenos Aires. His determination did
not lessen with sobriety. Any further justification, he admits, was an
after thought even if it does make more sense.
"Of course, when people ask me that question [Why Buenos Aires], I
also have some more complicated analysis in store of what I like in Buenos
Aires (I've been there twice for holidays).
"Life in South America is quite dynamic, and I like that. Also, I
find that people in South America tend to be more open and less focused on
maintaining some status quo. I also have the impression that many
countries in South America seem to be fed up with being the economical backyard
of the world, and they are willing (and, for once, perhaps also able) to
change that. Particularly, the IT area seems be moving fast these days.
"I like to be at places where new things happen."
He also says he finds Argentina's strain of European culture
different enough to be new and exciting but sufficiently familiar to avoid
So his instincts were good. Spiritually, professionally, its a
positive move. As he enters the final stretch with his current employer, he
finds himself working almost entirely on Linux, which used to comprise only
"about 60% not counting activities on Linux that don't yield anything intended
for 'mainstream' use, e.g. for my Ph.D. I also produced a traffic control
component which I prototyped on Linux." His plan is to continue
working on Linux in Buenos Aires but, in his own words, he hasn't "decided yet
with which employer."
He has no cats or dogs or fish, no roommates or siblings or live-in
lovers. He works hard all day, goes out late at night. The guy is
ready to go, is on the go, lives hard, drives fast. While writing his Ph.D., he
visited Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Cuba, Finland,
France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden,
the United Kingdom, the United States, and Uruguay. Places where he didn't ski, he at least found a club to dance in, all while publish
ing papers regularly. His favorite place so far is, of course,
Argentina, then Brazil, Austria, Spain. And first on his list to visit after
the move is Asia.
I guess the obvious question would be ... what kind of laptop does he
Werner Almesberger's favorites
What he likes most about 2.4 kernel release:
"It better supports concurrency, many ugly spots in the design have
been cleaned up, new capabilities or features before only available as
separate patches have been integrated, some new clever solutions have replaced
more traditional concepts, etc."
For most of the techno: I don't know the names. I depend on what
they play on the radio, and knowing the right clubs.
trip hop: Massive Attack, Waldeck, Hoover(phonic), Air ...
Hard rock: AC/DC, Def Leppard ...
Rap: Sens Unik (local).
General pop: Everything but the Girl, Texas, Fleetwood Mac.
General rock: Genesis, Coverdale/Page, Meat Loaf...
Drum & Bass: Apollo 440, Adam F.
Stuff I don't know where to put: Single Gun Theory, Smoke City,
George R.R. Martin (fantasy), Greg Egan (sci-fi), Neal Stephenson
(sci-fi), Tad Williams (fantasy), Robert Jordan (fantasy; don't like
his more recent works that much, though), Terry Pratchett (fantasy;
Favorite place to ski ... so far:
"Zermatt, last year. Went there very early (beginning of December), and
I actually didn't even expect to find a lot of snow, but it turned out
to be excellent, with hardly any people around. See pictures.
Favorite club (on the road or at home):
Buenos Aires: Ave Porco (techno/disco; closed now)
Rio: that spot right at the corner between Ipanema beach and
Lausanne: Loft (mainly Techno), Movida (latin), V.O. (chill out),
4310 (gay/lesbian but also the best techno in town.)
Barcelona: Porto olimpico (lots of small places. You don't go to
only one of them.)
Vienna: Bermuda Triangle
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