Originally Published: Thursday, 8 March 2001 Author: Jessica Sheffield
Published to: daily_feature/Linux.com Feature Story Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Rob "lilo" Levin on IRC, the Open Projects Network, and Everything

"Open Source, Open Technology, and Open Information." Sounds like a winning combination to us... so we chased down Rob "lilo" Levin for an interview. Find out about Rob's reading list, favorite ice cream, and oh yeah, a little thing called the Open Projects Network.

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Linux.com recently had the privilege of speaking with Rob "lilo" Levin, founder of the Open Projects Network. OPN is home to, among others, irc.linux.com (see Linux.com Live! for more details). Rob was gracious enough to answer all of our questions in depth, even the ones regarding food choices. OPN is doing some fantastic work for the community, and we recommend checking out its homepage or logging on to irc.openprojects.net to find out how you can help.

Linux.com: How/when/why did you get involved with Linux?

Rob: I got involved with Linux in 1992. I haven't kept much history of my first involvement, but at the time I was running a FidoNet bulletin board system in Victoria, Texas. The first record I can find is an email archived by Alan Cox in which I sent him a message asking about the source for a 'who' command. That was in early August, 1992.

I found Linux interesting because I was in the process of leaving the mainframe world. I had decided that mainframes were an expensive, obsolescent solution to problems that could often be handled better with PC's. Linux was the first free software operating system I had run into, even though the BSD's came first. It appealed to me because it was an operating system with the features I had found so useful on IBM's VSE and VM operating systems. You could get the source code and it was emphatically free software, not just available to customers the way IBM's was. It had multitasking and a whole array of powerful utilities. It seemed to be an excellent basis for a bulletin board system, or possibly for a revolution.

Linux.com: What projects have you worked on/with over the years? Currently?

Rob: I have not been a big single-project person in the free software community. I'm currently working on maintaining compiler tool chains packages for PocketLinux at Transvirtual Technologies. For a while, I maintained a very kludged version of the 'dip' dialing program for SLIP. Early on I passed Linus one or two simple kernel patches. I've written a few little programs I've actually released, such as 'stopafter' and 'makepasswd', in C and in perl. Mostly I just hack on things that serve the needs of the moment.

My real ongoing project is not a coding project per se. It's OPN, which is more of an infrastructure and social engineering project.

Linux.com: What prompted you to choose to start OPN?

Rob: OPN began as #LinPeople, a small support channel on EFNet #linux. When I first went back to school in late 1993, at the University of Texas at Austin, I got my student internet account a few months early and started poking around the network. I had not spent much time on the Internet up until that point. I wound up on IRC, on EFNet, in #linux, which was sort of a logical place to end up---I had made the classic mistake of thinking it would be a support channel, since my experience with the Internet and the Linux community up to that point suggested that people were pretty friendly.

It wasn't a very good support channel, though. It was a very elitist place, and newbies with questions tended to be kicked from the channel more often than they were helped. By this time channel takeovers were a very common thing on EFNet and I watched the management of the channel change back and forth, with the people who actually had some reason to be there, i.e., to get help, being treated most poorly. At one point, embarrassingly, I got three or four 'warbots' together and took over the channel myself. I remember sitting in the channel, realizing that I could only keep it for about 48 hours, and I eventually let go of the channel and wandered off to another small channel I had created along with two or three friends, called #LinPeople.

After we spent a few days of being harrassed by the people I had handed #linux back to, things began to settle down, and I began to think about how useful interactive discussion could be, and how you would go about making it live up to that promise. With the help of the other participants, I began to evolve an approach, which I've followed, however imperfectly, all the way through the present with OPN.

#LinPeople changed networks twice, then became a network of its own. By early 1998, we had about 100 users and projects like Debian GNU/Linux had taken up residence. It seemed like a big place to me at the time, though we've since grown to nearly 3,000 users and are still getting larger.

Back then, the term "open source" had started its climb to fame and I began thinking about the fact that Linux was just one open source operating system of several, not synonymous with the whole world of free software operating systems and applications. So it seemed logical to broaden the mission to supporting projects and users involved with "open source, open technology and open information". I registered openprojects.* and moved the servers over to irc.openprojects.net.

Linux.com: Tell us a little about your vision for OPN.

Rob: My initial vision for OPN was to provide a venue for projects to do interactive project coordination and support. I wanted a place for newbies to grow into the community, and pick up values that would serve them in good stead in their community interactions, helping to improve the way the community as a whole interacted. I wanted a place where developers could find each other without too much difficulty, and establish better lines of communications between projects. I guess in some sense I wanted a "City on the Hill", where the best values of the community would be practiced and improved on a daily basis.

In the last few years, the community has fragmented a bit, but I've never viewed "open source" and "free software" people as two separate communities. I don't think we can afford to be. Economic choices and personal freedoms are very connected things. Some of us are more concerned with ethics, some with evangelism, some with economics, some with choices, some with the joy of coding for its own sake, but if we work together well, we have a better opportunity to make our own little corner of the world and the world at large better places.

Traditionally, there has been a thread of cliquishness that runs through the community. Some of the best developers are not inclined that way, but others are. One very impressive kernel developer recently told me that I was "not a member of the community." I'm not sure what he meant by that. I'm certainly not a kernel developer and I have not made impressive code contributions to a number of projects. But I've been using Linux and providing support since 1992 and 1993 and I think that, as a user alone, I am certainly qualified to consider myself a member of the community. It's easy to define "community member" in a very limiting way. One of the goals of OPN is to improve the communication and coordination skills of the community as a whole, and to help the community to be as inclusive as it can be as an institution.

Linux.com: You've got an interesting list of "required reading" for Open Projects admins on your personal page. Why those books, and are there any others you'd recommend as well?

Rob: The books I list fall into two general classifications, "anarchist-utopian" and Taoist. I'm not a religious person, so the Taoist books are not about that for me. Taoism is a dynamic yet relaxed way to look at the world. It's a way for people to slow down, relax, open their eyes, pay attention to what they're seeing and act. It's of the world, yet calm. If you're going to participate in a very interactive environment and try to get useful work done, the view of the world it promotes is a very positive and useful one.

The "anarchist-utopian" books address the question of how individuals can accomplish worthwhile things as part of groups. Utopian visions are simplified visions. But if you don't start with simple, elegant ideas, you get lost in complexity. These books are visions of worlds, presented with the idea that people will benefit from thinking through their implications.

Linux.com: What advantages do you feel IRC offers over other forms of communication (specifically, mailing lists)? What features do you wish IRC was capable of?

Rob: The most significant feature of IRC is the close-coupling of the minds of its participants. IRC lets you interact quickly and easily. If you're good at working with people at relatively close range, IRC can help you a lot.

Things I wish IRC included: More resistance to denial of service attacks. The option for anonymity through location indirection (identification of client and server nodes by key, not by network location). Trust metrics, encryption and signing of communication. Better indexing of discussion areas. Better indexing of participants. Differentiated geography (the IRC channel space is a flat space). Maintenance features designed to promote a bit less ego involvement. Less violent metaphors for channel and server operation than KICK and KILL. Integrated directory service. (This is not an exhaustive list. :)

Ultimately, I don't believe that IRC will scale for OPN, in a culturally and technically useful way, forever. Its design prevents it. That's why I'm at the very early stages of setting up a project called Corridors which I hope will provide OPN with something to replace it.

Linux.com: What's your favorite flavor of ice cream?

Rob: Chocolate peanut butter. Please don't buy me any, I really need to lose weight.

Linux.com: What features/services is OPN looking to add in the near future?

Rob: Our near-term emphasis is improving the robustness of the OPN operating environment. We'll be adding features such as server hiding, user cloaking, channel forwarding and ban/invite exception. We'll be adding hidden hubbing and servers for trust groups. And we'll be improving the resistance of the network to client-based attacks.

Linux.com: If you could have one wish granted regarding OPN, what would it be?

Rob: I'd wish that OPN could help propagate its core value, the ethic of the individual as the basic unit of voluntary, cooperative group effort, as widely and effectively as possible as more people enter the community.

If I get a second wish, I'd like to be able to grow OPN, to help propagate that vision, as a full time job.

Linux.com: If you could chain Linus to his desk and make him code any one feature that currently doesn't appear in Linux, what would it be?

Rob: Linux is a very rich operating environment, so much so that I have trouble keeping track of all of the drivers and features that have been implemented in the latest production kernels. Between it and the BSD's, I think we're blessed with most everything we need, and if not I expect we'll see it by next Thursday. So I would just tell Linus, "Keep coding. You're doing great." 8)

Linux.com: What advice do you have for people looking to get started in the Open Source community?

Rob: Treat it as a community, and resolve to help it be close-knit and positive. Read a lot and ask lots of questions. Pick up the source code for a project that interests you and poke around in it. Use the code. Find the mailing list and offer patches, or help us document the applications we have. Use the code. ;)

The community is something like a river. Wade in, splash around a bit, and dive in when the time seems right for you. We'll be glad to have another hand.

Jessica Sheffield (starlady@linux.com) is the Volunteer Coordinator for Linux.com (and a wondergeek). She still owes OPN a couple of banner ads.

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