Quarter Century of Innovation – aka Happy Birthday Linux!


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Happy Birthday, Linux! Thank you Linus for that post (and code) from a quarter of a century ago.

I distinctly remember coming across the post above on comp.os.minix while I was trying to figure out something called 386BSD. I was following the 386BSD development by Lynne Jolitz and William Jolitz back when I was in graduate school in OSU. I am not sure where I first heard about 386BSD, but it could have been in some newsgroup or the BYTE magazine (unfortunately I can’t find any references). Suffice to say, the work of 386BSD was subsequently documented by the Dr. Dobb’s Journal from around the 1992. Fortunately, the good people at Dr. Dobb’s Journal have placed their entire contents on the Internet and the first post of the port of 386BSD is now online.

I was back in Singapore by then and was working at CSA Research doing work in building networking functionality for a software engineering project. The development team had access to a SCO Unix machine but because we did not buy “client access licenses” (I think that was what it was called), we could only have exactly 2 users – one on the console via X-Windows and the other via telnet. I was not going to suggest to the management to get the additional access rights (I was told it would cost S$1,500!!) and instead, tried to find out why it was that the 3rd and subsequent login requests were being rejected.

That’s when I discovered that SCO Unix was doing some form of access locking that was part of the login process used by the built-in telnet daemon. I figured that if I can replace the telnet daemon with one that does not do the check, I can get as many people telnetting into the system and using it.

To create a new telnet daemon, I needed the source code and then to compile it. SCO Unix never provided any source code. I managed, however, to get the source code to a telnet daemon (from I think ftp.stanford.edu although I could be wrong).

Remember that during those days, there was no Internet access in Singapore – no TCP/IP access anyway. And the only way to the Internet was via UUCP (and Bitnet at the universities). I used ftpmail@decwrl.com (an ftp via email service by Digital Equipment Corporation) to go out and pull in the code and send it to me via email in 64k uuencoded chunks. Slow, but hey, it worked and it worked well.

Once I got the code, the next challenge was to compile it. We did have the C compiler but for some reason, we did not have the needed crypto library to compile against. That was when I came across the incredible stupidity of labeling cryptography as a munition by the US Department of Commerce. Because of that, we, in Singapore, could not get to the crypto library.

After some checking around, I got to someone who happened to have a full blown SCO Unix system and had the crypto library in their system. I requested that they compile a telnet daemon without the crypto library enabled and to then send me the compiled binary.

After some to and fro via email, I finally received the compiled telnet daemon without the crypto linked in and replaced the telnetd on my SCO Unix machine. Viola, everyone else in the office LAN could telnet in. The multi-user SCO machine was now really multi-user.

That experience was what pushed me to explore what would I need to do to make sure that both crypto code and needed libraries are available to anyone, anywhere. The fact that 386BSD was a US-originated project meant that tying my kite to them would eventually discriminate against me in not being able to get to the best of cryptography and in turn, security and privacy. That was when Linus’ work on Linux became interesting for me.

The fact that this was done outside the US meant that it was not crippled by politics and other shortsighted rules and that if it worked well enough, it could be an interesting operating system.

I am glad that I did make that choice.

The very first Linux distribution I got was from Soft Landing Systems (SLS in short) which I had to get via the amazingly trusty ftpmail@decwrl.com service which happily replied with dozens of 64K uuencoded emails.

What a thrill it was when I started getting serialized uuencoded emails with the goodies in them. I don’t think I have any of the 5.25″ on to which I had to put the uudecoded contents. I do remember selling complete sets of SLS diskettes (all 5.25″ ones) for $10 per box (in addition to the cost of the diskettes). I must have sold it to 10-15 people. Yes, I made money from free software, but it was for the labour and “expertise”.

Fast forward twenty five years to 2016, I have so many systems running Linux (TV, wireless access points, handphones, laptops, set-top boxes etc etc etc) that if I were asked to point to ONE thing that made and is still making a huge difference to all of us, I will point to Linux.

The impact of Linux on society cannot be accurately quantified.  It is hard. Linux is like water. It is everywhere and that is the beauty of it. In choosing the GPLv2 license for Linux, Linus released a huge amount of value for all of humanity. He paid forward.

It is hard to predict what the next 25 years will mean and how Linux will impact us all, but if the first 25 years is a hint, it cannot but be spectacular. What an amazing time to be alive.

Happy birthday Linux. You’ve defined how we should be using and adoption technology. You’ve disrupted and continue to disrupt, industries all over the place. You’ve helped define what it means to share ideas openly and freely. You’ve shown what happens when we collaborate and work together. Free and Open Source is a win-win for all and Linux is the Gold Standard of that.

Linux (and Linus) You done well and thank you!

Joseph Schooling should not be the last


It was a supreme delight to have been able to sing Majulah Singapura (the video cannot be viewed because the IOC mafia thinks they own the copyright) with Joseph Schooling after being medaled at the Olympics for winning the gold for his 100m butterfly event.

There are plenty of analysis of what had happened over the last eight years that saw him leave Singapore at 14, go to the US, attend a school that has great sporting traditions (and coaches) and the to UT Austin – and benefiting from world class coaches.

Ultimately, if Joseph did not want ths medal, no amount of training, coaching, sacrifice of his parents would have gotten him to where he is today. He wanted it badly. He set his mind to it and made it happen.

But, despite his single minded persistence, his ambition would have been thwarted because of some of the structural blockages we have in Singapore for sportsmen to excel.

If Joseph is not to be last one to achieve that pinnacle of sporting achievement, we have to address a few things:

a) The secondary school system of sports is rather dismal. Back when I was in school, when you got into secondary one, you could go try out what ever sports the school had. The assumption (right one I would say), is that there are never enough opportunities to try things when you are in primary school, let alone become “good” in it. Today, however, secondary schools only ALLOW students who have proven previously to be able to play some sport before they can have that as their ECA. It is a chicken-and-egg situation. I am sure that there are some schools that keep the net wide and open to get all comers to experiment and try. Without that mindset, we will continue to fail in creating champion sportmen/women.

b) Lots of the national sports associations are helmed by well meaning and forward looking people who were themselves sportsmen. But, there are quite a few that have vested interests in play that does not allow for someone not from the annointed group to get involved. I will refrain from naming them here, but will happily share them if you contact me privately.

c) National Service: I don’t think anyone is doubting the value of National Service to build a strong citizenry. The fact that the full-time NS period has been revised and reviewed to make it useful and appropriate, we are, nonetheless, placing a huge premium to serving NS over sporting excellence especially for those who are talented and have potential. This is where Joseph Schooling’s NS stumbling block comes into play. His parents had to fight to get his NS liabilities deferred so that he can continue training and be able to peak just at the right time for him to win the gold medal at the Olympics. And peak, he did.

I am mindful of all those who could have gone on to sporting excellence if only they had the persistence to get deferment (and be granted). We will never know how many there could have been.

Here’s a suggestion

We *must* have a fair and equitable means to assess people who have potential and let them flourish. Grant them the deferment, easily, but ensure that they are encouraged to keep at the vision/goal and if they succeed (like Joseph in getting his gold), grant them the status that they’ve completed their National Service. Naturally, if the person wants to discharge of his obligations, grant him the opportunity to do so. We can be magnanimous and forward thinking like that. We are Singapore. We can do this. Training to excel in sport is no different from training to defend the country. The mental, physical and emotional challenge may be comparable. The rewards are different, but the value accrued in both cases to the individual and country is immense.

d) Creating sporting excellence among the polytechnics, ITEs and universities. Have a league for the various sports. All of these institutions would benefit from having mascots that go a long way to building the school identity and pride. I was from RI and we have the Gryphon although we never did use it as a mascot. It has served the school well (I think) and we must encourage all schools to have mascots.

Look at UT Austin, home of the Longhorns, Joseph’s school. Look at their website today.

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Sport has pride of place today. That’s outstanding. If you are a UT Austin alum, if you are called upon to donate to the school, would you hesitate? No. I went to Oregon State, and yes, I’m a proud Beaver. The US schools have a tradition of inspiring students via sport even if you are not sport oriented or interested. Sport unites people in amazing ways. Remember the Kallang Roar? It united a people. We stood together. We don’t have that now.

Our schools don’t have any of that as well. Start with schools having mascots, start with a sporting league. Webcast the games (it is 2016, get with it already).

Let’s open up and ideate to make sure that Joseph Schooling is not the last one. He succeeded because of his exiting the Singapore system to make it happen. He still honours Singapore. I am sure he will come back after graduation and I hope his achievement will call into question that absurd assumptions we have in place today on how to build a sporting nation.