The kernel hacker speaks to polite people and assists in the flight of network packets - a conspirator's view of Alan Cox' April 2001 Bergen visit

It must be admitted, and it's better to do it up front - we were actually quite surprised that simply sending an email saying roughly "would you like to come visit our user group, with a couple of days for sightseeing and other stuff" to a major hero of linux kernel hacking would actually be answered with "Yes".

Okay, then. The current BLUG 'kernel' has been organizing monthly 'Last Thursday' meetings for about a year, slowly getting organized enough to get a web site which gets updated every now and again. Next up for the 'kernel' group of BLUG was a bit of arranging the boring bits (money) and thinking of a rough schedule for the four day visit. The boring bits resolved themselves when BDC (EDB Business Data Consulting, offered to sponsor the event in return for BLUG making sure to mention the sponsor every now and then in various material and at the meeting itself. When arrangements for a suitable venue were getting uncertain at a time inconveniently close to the meeting itself, the Institute of Mathematics at the University of Bergen ( saved the day by letting us use a rather roomy auditorium at the University. We then fast forward to late April, 2001.

Wednesday: Testing and arrival

One of the events scheduled to happen during Alan's visit, and one which needed a bit of preparation on our part, was the actual implementation of rfc 1149. Some random factors (including an almost botched upgrade of my laptop to Debian Woody aka testing) conspired against us for a while, but with all the necessary equipment in place we finally had a simulated sequence of ping packets via simulated pigeons. Initial reports of success were reported over GSM phone to the crew who had gone to meet Alan at the airport. Confident that the simulations were good enough for a three days still to go test, Vegard and I headed for The Harp, which is a small Irish pub conveniently located just around the corner from our offices. These offices are also where the preparatory meetings are held, and BLUGers have been known to mysteriously appear on early Thursday evenings. At the Harp BLUGers Øyvind Flaam and Jon Trygve Utne had apparently been waiting for a while. Roughly half an hour later, a bearded man with a red hat appeared with a few more BLUG kernel members. Soon the need for solids became apparent. We then discovered that Bergen restaurants all close at 23:00. The Yang Tse Kiang (Chinese, Torget) was able to fit us in and serve us. Various technical and slightly less technical anecdotes and sundry bits of British and Norwegian humor accompanied the food. At roughly midnight, everyone headed for hotels and other homey places.

Thursday: Penguin feeding time and a meeting

We didn't really have much planned before the 15:30 penguin feeding, so we (Peter, mainly) thought the a bit of sight-seeing would be in order. Conveniently within walking distance from the hotel is the Fløibanen 'funicular' -- a sort of tram designed for going up and down rather steep hillsides -- which runs from the Bergen city centre up to near the peak of the Fløyen, offering a nice view of the city and surrounding areas. The view would of course have been slightly nicer without the steady drizzle, but photos were duly taken, including one with a troll modelling with a red hat. After going down the mountain, a brief sightseeing around the remaining parts of the 18th century wharf buildings followed. Our office was literally within spitting distance, and we proceeded to have Alan hooked up via our network and almost downloading his mail (note to Alan: I've found out why actual SMTP transfers were not possible. Blame it on the firewall-howto :) ). Bergensers do not let visitors leave without showing them the fish market (with the live fish basins and all). Fortunately the fish market is conveniently placed in the natural walking path going from Bryggen (the old wharf) to the Aquarium. Once at the Aquarium, a little confusion ensued as the penguin keeper was not there. Distinctly linuxy people kept popping up, asking Alan questions while he was trying to photograph the penguins. After a little while (but still with time to spare) the penguin keeper was located. The keeper offered brief round of preliminary instructions on penguin feeding before spotting Alan's fedora -- red, of course -- which could not go with him into the penguin pen (penguins, it seems, are somehow red hat incompatible). The penguins were surprisingly uncooperative (in fact to the point that the rfc1149 working group were a bit discouraged with respect to extending the protocol in the waterfowl direction), but at least one penguin accepted a herring form Alan's hand, as evidenced by Magnus Wold's Aquarium pictures and somewhere under the BLUG web. With the penguin research out of the way, the next item on the agenda was the BLUG meeting in the University of Bergen Sciences building. After a pasta meal we headed for the hall, where Alan gave not one, but two talks - one about the features and pros and cons of the 2.4 kernel, the other about free software projects as projects - with interesting questions posed from the audience and enlightening answers offered from Alan. A photographic head count (Yes! We have the evidence!) has not been completed yet, but with the auditorium roughly two thirds full we estimate roughly 150 people were there. The extended BLUG kernel group descended on Dyveke's Vinstue (good just below-ground wine bar) for the remainder of the evening.

Friday: The impossible bits of Norwegian topograpy, viewed from every angle

Friday was officially sightseeing day. The plan was the "Norway in a nutshell" round trip (Now somebody tell O'Reilly the title is taken), going Bergen-Myrdal (Train), Myrdal-Flåm (train), Flåm-Gudvangen (boat), Gudvangen-Voss (Bus) and finally Voss-Bergen (train again). This particular itinerary is designed to expose tourists to the most impossible-looking parts of Norwegian topograpy, including a stretch of railroad which descends a valley mainly by a tunnel spiralling the really steep parts (with holes in the cliff wall strategically placed to scare tourists) to the fjord at sea level 800-some meters below through terrain bumpier and rather steeper than almost anywhere else. This is followed by a boat trip on a fjord where most of the shore is pretty much vertical, rising up to peaks in the 1000 to 1300-something meter range. Looking up at some of these will make you dizzy. This site (and a selection of others - ask google or similar) has the usual touristy info, a selection of the pictures we took are at the BLUG web. Much oohing at the sights was had with a liberal helping of various unrelated humor and anecdotes. Back in Bergen, after a tiny rfc1149 simulation, some of our party were quite astonished to find that good Indian food is to be had outside the UK. The rather incredible amounts of fresh air combined with the late dinner had everybody rather sleepy and off to sleep elevenish.

Saturday: As the bird flies

With the serious content and hard-core sightseeing parts out of the way, Saturday was Impossible Stunts Day. The man from the pigeon racing club had indicated a filling station which would be a good place to meet at 10:30, giving us a reasonable amount of time to drive people and equipment to the two pigeon homes and set up in time for the test scheduled for 12 noon. While at the filling station, Vegard in vain tried to explain the project to one of the national TV networks. In fact, as the conversation went on, it sounded to us (who heard only one part of course) that the poor soul at the other end grew more frustrated and confused the more information he was given.

Arriving at the first pigeon home (Bråtet Terrasse), at first nobody was home. This lead to a slight anxiety, almost to the point where various plan B options were considered, when the man we had been waiting for turned up. Setting up the main base with Vegard's laptop, a scanner and a printer started almost immediately, and a smaller group headed for Lyngbøveien to set up the satellite base -- the place to be pinged. Setting up in Lyngbøveien was a matter of only a few minutes, and the satellite crew ran a couple of test packets saved from the night before to check that the setup was still working. Noon passed, and -- OK, it felt a bit like cheating -- we rung the main base via GSM phone to find out if the first packet had been sent. Not yet, we were told, the documenting took a little more time than exptected. Several more mobile phone calls followed, relaying information about the number of pigeons sent and the rough location of the largish flock they had joined. After a little more than an hour, a pigeon turned up, only to land at the top of the roof (Kjell's house is a three-story affair) and proceeding to clean the odd wing feather. Audun and Svein Arne made several attempts at getting the bird to find its way to the pigeon den, and finally succeeded. At last, the initial packet had arrived. The tape was rather sticky, and the strip of paper had been rolled, then flattened a bit, making the optical character recognition somewhat unreliable. We were to discover that hand smoothing (say, with the help of a ruler or even the edge of a table), then attaching the strip of paper to a full A4 sheet of paper before placing it on the scanner improved character recognition significantly. The next four packets arrived simultaneously within minutes of the first one, leading to some congestion in the scanning queue. When the fourth packet had been sent, we were startled to hear intensive flapping of wings. The two remaining carrier pigeons had managed to escape without being fitted out with a payload, and we unexpectedly found ourselves in a NO CARRIER condition. Two more packets arrived, but we were unable to respond. Nothing left to do but unplug and start packing. Our ride arrived after a little while, and after thanking our host, we set off to unload the equipment at the office and returning some of it to the owners. The participators headed in different directions for a couple of hours, with a plan to reconvene at Håvard's to help Alan clean out the tax-free quota. Suffice to say, the combined efforts of several people got us most of the way there.

Sunday: Goin' home

Bjørn had been tasked with driving Alan to the airport on Sunday, and all indications are that this all went well. Alan's diary entries seem to indicate that he had a nice time here. Vegard's rfc1149 writeup was published Sunday afternoon, and a slashdotting made our previously 200 to 1200 hits a day web aquainted with the feeling of more than a million hits on the Monday. Number of hits has been tapering off after that, but is still (Wednesday) in the hundreds of thousands per day. Well, it looks like Telsa will make Alan bring her next time.

- Peter

Peter N. M. Hansteen is a member of the BLUG organizing group whose day job at Datadok, mainly consists of doing strange things to text files. 2001-05-04