-By Grant Gross -
The idea of Open Source is never far from the surface at the first Lulu Tech Circus, the new business venture by Red Hat co-founder Bob Young.
It's not like the Lulu Tech Circus -- which debuted in Raleigh, North Carolina, this weekend -- is focused solely on Open Source, but many of the presentations and exhibits fit into Young's larger concept of Open Source being open systems and empowering individuals to do their own thing. Many of the presentations are hands-on, how-to affairs, some deal with Open Source software directly, some use Open Source as a metaphor for larger issues, and some have a much more ... tenuous relationship with Open Source ideas.
Yes, attendees this weekend could take in an explanation of Microsoft's .Net architecture, but then they could listen to a talk on "The Future of Beowulf and Open Source Supercomputing." Around the corner from a local NT users group booth is the Triangle Linux Users Group booth.
If you like technology, you'd find something to capture your attention at the "five ring" circus, which continues Sunday. Each ring is a general topic area, such as extreme computing, gear and gadgets, and even expansive education. Among the most popular booths this weekend:
The LEGO Mindstorm section included hands-on sessions on building your own robot and a booth for teachers on using Mindstorm kits in schools.
3001 AD, a company that builds virtual reality games, had three VR machines at the circus. You could play a first-person shoot 'em up or ride a VR roller coaster. Company v.p. Bill Medico cornered me with a free test play card about 15 minutes after I arrived Friday evening, but his booth was always too busy for me to take him up on the offer.
DJs and digital bands performed several times a day in the Artis-Teka ring's theater.
The OpenSaurus project, a group of guys using Linux and commodity hardware to power battle robots, had a couple of battle bots on hand and were smashing up old copy machines and PCs with them, much to the delight of the crowd. (More on this project in a later story.)
The Unreal Tournament 2003 competition, which attracted a steady stream of players throughout Friday evening and Saturday. If you could get over feeling silly about watching a dozen 16-year-olds machine-gunning each other, watching the action on a large screen was kind of hypnotic. A Lulu staffer was adding commentary like, "I'm seeing some serious anger management issues here," and "If I were that guy, I'd send someone my dry-cleaning bill. It's a mother to get blood out of the uniform."
Despite the fighting pixels and fighting bots, the show attracted a wider age range than the typical tech expo, with preschoolers playing in LEGO-filled enclosures and gray beards attending highly technical presentations on topics such as writing Linux device drivers, digital editing and file-sharing using Gnutella. Other presentations ranged from an FBI special agent talking about computer crime to voice XML to the future of gaming.
The crowd seems sparse at times Friday evening and Saturday morning, with yellow T-shirted staffers almost outnumbering attendees, but that maybe was because the circus was housed in a huge building on the North Carolina State Fairgrounds. With sometimes 10 presentations happening at once, and the place seemed to empty out when most of the crowd went into the sessions.
Early Saturday, Elliot McGucken talked about "Homer's Open Source odyssey," using the ancient Greek storyteller as an example of someone who built on the stories of others to produce a written collection of myths that had been passed around for generations before Homer. McGucken, a n author and founder of JollyRoger.com, contrasted Homer's world with today's expansive patent and trademark laws.
"When we think of where we should draw the border of who owns what, it comes down to who has the most lawyers," he told a group of about a dozen audience members. In his rant against patent lawyers, he advocated a more Open Source approach where corporations couldn't take over individual inventors' patents and people could only get patents when they applied themselves, without the help of lawyers.
Later in the day, Donald Becker, CTO and founder of Scyld Computing, gave an overview of Linux Beowulf clusters. Becker, who was on the team at NASA that first started working on Beowulf clusters at NASA in 1993, also gave a Beowulf how-to talk.
Becker explained how Linux clusters save money by using commodity PC hardware and allowing organizations employing clusters to scale slowly by adding new machines. Technological advances are happening more quickly on PCs than other hardware these days, he said, and clusters allow organizations to replace one piece at a time.
He also told an audience of about 30 people that clusters are getting easier and easier to administer, with clustering software allowing administrators to load a full operating system on only one master machine, instead of all 100 or 1,000 nodes in the cluster. "You have multiple machines, and the software should make them seem like one machine as much as possible," he said. "We're dealing with machines that are as complex as people can handle right now."
Young, taking a break from the action Saturday evening, said offering attendees so many hands-on choices at once happened by design. "Consumers need a (tech) event that caters to them, not to the vendor," he said. "What a vendor wants is a one-way flow of information. What the consumer wants is a peer-to-peer conversation."
That consumer-driven, participatory focus was inspired by Young's roots in Open Source, he said. "The bulk of the world now gets into Open Source because it gives them more control of the technology than the proprietary model."
The show had some small glitches, like microphones not working, and music or Unreal weapons fire drowning out presentations next door. Young stressed that the Raleigh show is a "beta release" the Lulu Tech Circus, and everything will be up for discussion when the event travels to Boston, the D.C. area, and Chicago in the coming months.
"It's doing much better than our worst-case scenario," Young said. "We're pretty much on track with the mid-point of our optimistic projections."
Young's hope was that people could come and learn or see something they weren't expecting to see and that attendees coming for one type of presentation would exchange ideas with attendees interested in something else. "If people come, walk around, and leave thinking this was a typical trade show, that's my idea of a disaster," he said. "It's a circus -- the whole point of a circus is the oohs and ahhs. If we can't create the oohs and ahhs, we're just another trade show."
Young said he was a bit disappointed that most of the dozen or so user groups that had booths did the typical trade-show user-group thing: sit behind a table and let the attendees come to them. On the other hand, he was impressed by a group of junior high students who set up a booth, brought a digital camera and were selling refrigerator magnets with attendees pictures on them. At coming shows, user groups will get free booths only if they bring interactive presentations, Young said.
"If 12- or 13-year-olds can do that, why can't the 40- and 50-year-old user group people come up with something better than sitting behind a table and handing out fliers?" Young said.