Today was the last day of linux.conf.au :(. Arguably some of my favorite talks were today.
This is a last continuation of this post here about my first Linux.conf.au, here.
The Keynote today was Deploying software updates to ArduSat in orbit by Jonathan Oxer [ Video ]. Basically this was a project which got it’s funding from kickstarter which allows low-cost experiments to occur on arduinos on cube satellites in Lower Earth Orbit. This really was a the future is now type talk. Never before would you have thought regular people would have a chance to do anything with space other than look at it.
Raspberry Pi Hacks: Building Great Pi Projects by Ruth Suehle and Tom Callaway [ Video ] was a pretty light talk about some different projects the speakers and others had achieved with the raspberry pi. It’s actually convinced me to give the pi another shot. I bought one when they first came out and used one for a bit as a torrent server however I found it kinda sucked with stability but I think part of that now has to do with my power adapter (apparently they have to be 5v 1A regulated) and the fact it was the original model (apparently things have been fixed in the newer ones). They also had written a book on the pi for sale here (the discount code AUTHD gives you 40% off!)
The Rust language: memory, ownership and lifetimes by Nicholas Matsakis [ Video ] was an introduction to the new Rust language being developed by Mozilla. Now I’m not an expert on rust, but from the talk my impression is that it is C++ with some extra checks to avoid memory management issues. Basically you have an owner (like a variable/pointer) of a piece of memory that the owner can lend memory to others or transfer ownership. This prevents aliasing and means there doesn’t need to be garbage collection which worries about reference counting and other things. Obviously there are some other additions, but this is the one that was mainly emphasised. Rust sounds like an interesting language, I hate memory issues as much as the next guy. However, one issue I had with this talk was that programming languages were evaluated on this zero sum balancing act between safety and control. C++ gives you lots of control but sucks at safety. Haskell is very safe, you have basically no side effects but you don’t have much control or freedom which is why it isn’t used much. Python is pitched as being somewhere in the middle. Rust however is pitched at being simultaneously giving lots of control and lots of safety, which I feel like was extending the truth a bit. Rust gives safety through the ownership system which forbids dangerous things like aliasing and shared memory. Rust offers C++ like freedom by having unsafe blocks, which do allow these things. Clearly an unsafe block is not safe. So can a language offer high control and high safety at the same time? I’m unconvinced, but I haven’t used rust, so maybe somebody could comment on how it makes their programs more safe. It seems to me like Rust mostly just enforces a commenting policy of marking areas of code where memory management is messy. I do believe Rust has the potential, because of these rules, to improve code readability and debugging, but only compared to poorly documented code.
Pettycoin: Losing Tiny Amounts of Bitcoin At Scale! by Rusty Russell [ Video ] – I was looking forward to this talk. I’m a fan of the Bitcoin protocol so generally new ideas excite me, plus Rusty Russell is super nice to newcomers which is always great! Rusty also admitted the idea and implementation is in it’s infancy. Firstly, let me say I like that he is thinking out of the box and I am so glad there are people out there making things that aren’t more alt-coins. Stop making alt-coins people! Rusty talks about some good ideas. Sharding the network is pretty smart, so is sending out double spend alerts and shirking transaction size. However it is fundamentally flawed. The reason is Gateways. Bitcoin is supposed to be decentralized and gateways are centralised. It seems like the whole protocol relies on gateways and because of this I don’t see any advantage this would have over sending your bitcoins to a dedicated, centralised micro-payment service (like paypal lite or something). I would even argue a dedicated micro-payment service would be more secure as there is no risk of double spends, only traditional hacking.
Finally there were lighting talks at the end. Mostly used as an opportunity for people to spruke their open source project or group, these are usually hit and miss. I’m excited I discovered DLect after mostly giving up on my blackboard scraper project, it turns out somebody from University of Queensland has had the same idea but gotten a lot further. Hopefully I can get it working with Curtin. There were also a couple of talks on Bitcoin. Lightning talks are free as in free speech, so they’re sometimes not the greatest. Here is my quick guide if you’re interested in spreading the word of bitcoin.
Don’t talk about it like it’s an investment or stock
Don’t talk about it like it’s going to make money (saving money (from fees) is OK)
Don’t be misleading by refering to thousands of % growth
Don’t talk about how it’s a “store of value“
Do talk about the lack of fees for transferring
Do talk about the decentralised nature of the protocol
Do talk about the safeguards against hacking (eg Proof of Work)
There tend to be two views on bitcoin, one is that it is a ponzi scheme and one that it is the future of money transfer. I think it’s both. There is no doubt that a lot of ‘early adopters’ will become very rich (or have done already) if bitcoin becomes mainstream, and many of them have become mouthpieces for bitcoin, but I think this does not detract from the theoretical qualities of bitcoin and that the protocol will still exist even when all the scheming has died down and the ponzi schemers have lost all their money.
So after that slightly divergent rant, LCA2014 is now at a close. LCA2015 was announced to be held in Auckland so maybe I’ll see everybody there next year! I’ve had a great time and I recommend any other student interested in Linux to take advantage of the cheap student entry.