March 2, 2001

Kernel Traffic's Zack Brown, a hero in his own right

Author: JT Smith

- By Julie Bresnick -

Open Source people
Zack Brown, not to be confused with kernel contributor Zach Brown, started summarizing
collaborations between Linux kernel hackers prior to each new release a
couple of years ago. Since January 1999 he's been making those summaries
available to the public under the heading of Kernel
Traffic
(hosted, until recently, at linuxcare.com).It's his way of giving back to a community that has offered him a
rich and rewarding tool as Linux.

He first learned to program at home on a TRS-80 Color Computer, the
kind that plugged into the TV. He worked for years in a Microsoft
environment -- "where each different tool had its own proprietary binary format,
constantly changing to maintain non-interoperability with its competitors" --
which, in the end, provided a nice contrast to the freedom he finally discovered
with Linux, or Unix rather.

"The power of Linux is really available with almost any version of
UNIX; but at the time, UNIX was only available as an expensive commercial
product. I remember calling up AT&T and being told that the single-user license
for UNIX on my 386 would be over $900. At that point I was ready to give
up, when someone at school mentioned Linux.

"It was the same with all the powerful development tools. Under MS
DOS or Windows, things like a C compiler cost hundreds of dollars, while under
Linux it was all free."

Beyond his original migration, his attachment to Linux is about more
than budget, about more than the ease of "piping date from program to
program," it's about inspiration. Though a programmer himself, he's never
actually worked on the kernel but he'd be honored to.

"It's one of the most exciting projects in history, both from a
technical standpoint and also from a moral or political standpoint. The freedom
and self-possession that they grant the world is not only immensely
valuable in itself, but has also changed the way commercial software companies can
behave. They now have a competitor that cannot be squeezed out or
bought out or intimidated, and whose code is capable of much greater stability and
speed of production than their own. Vendors can no longer charge huge
prices for their software and expect people to pay. Since Linux gives it all
away for free, the vendors have had to come down a lot in their prices, so
tools that once cost hundreds or thousands of dollars, now cost less than a
hundred. I attribute that change directly to Linux and free software."

With an Open Source project everybody's an insider but Brown clearly
informs himself more than the average patron, tracking, even before he
started publishing chronicles, the details of each new release. He is
about as seasoned as a seasoned follower can get.

"When I first started using Linux, I always upgraded to the latest
kernels as soon as they became available. Well, maybe not always, but
every few weeks or months. At that time (late 1993/early 1994) there was no
such thing as a 'stable' versus an 'unstable' kernel series, so most folks
just ran alongside, trying to keep up with the latest releases.

"After Linus split the tree into the stable and unstable branches, I
tried the unstable branch for awhile until I got burned. The whole
philosophy had changed, and it became unwise to use the development
branch for production work. Before the split, each new release was really
supposed to be as stable as possible (with some exceptions). After the split,
each unstable version could have huge chunks of code simply break, and
entire subsystems would be unusable for version after version. So now I stick
mainly to the stable branch. At the moment I run 2.2.18 and don't plan
to upgrade to 2.4 for awhile, at least until they root out those pesky
file corruption problems."

He works on Kernel Traffic about 20 hours a week, and it has
spawned a number of "cousin"
publications
chronicling the progress of other major Open Source projects such as Wine and Hurd. More than
news services, which concentrate on the environment both inside and out of
the projects, these newsletters summarize the evolution of the software
itself by tracking the collaboration between core developers. In turn, this
act edifies the core component of the Open Source equation, the community.
And Brown, recording from the sidelines, humbly personifies the very values
to which he is drawn.

"My own personal experience has also been that folks in this
community are pretty diverse, often wild, in their private lives, very open
minded and adventuresome. Maybe a better way to put it would be to say that they
don't accept any moral authority that doesn't make sense to them. So some
folks in the community might appear to go to the other end of the spectrum, and
seem to be extremely conservative; but in ways that manifest themselves very
personally, stemming from much thought and introspection, rather than
mere obedience.

We, each of us, contribute to our communities in individual ways.
Brown may not give the gift of great kernel code but even more than
documenting the process he gives us erotic
Origami
. (Ed: The link is broken at the moment.)

For Brown's "above ground" Origami page go here.

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