Legion of Talk – Mark Shuttleworth on Ubuntu & Space Travel
Amber Case recorded the entire proceeding, which I helped edit.
Where:Monday, July 21, 2008, 6:00 PM – 9:00 PM
When: McMenamins Mission Theater
What It’s About: Mark Shuttleworth is both the founder of Ubuntu and the first African to go to space. If these are not enough of a reason for you to attend, I don’t know what else will.
On to the review:
*** BEGIN EVENT NOTATION ***
Tonight, I want to talk to you about two things that I’m most passionate about:
- Space: life and times of an average cosmonaut
So, who likes to fly into space? I’m going to talk to you about the life of a cosmonaut. What it’s like to actually fly? I’m delighted with the idea that we’re approaching a transition—after which, it will totally be possible for anyone to fly into space.
It’s a difference to see earth from a distance. Everybody I know who had been there had a profound experience.
So, thanks to all the profit I made from those SSLs [laughs], I found a chance to take on this challenge. Of course, this is a way to make my life potentially shorter—but also potentially more beautiful.
Traveling into space was my answer to the question “What’s the one thing you want to do before you die?”
I went to Russia and lived there for a year to train for the travel. It is an extraordinary place. Very different culturally and socioeconomically. Their language is excellent—I would call it a mixture of testoterone and ballet.
The first thing that I did there is cosmonaut medical testing—which everybody hated. I figured that, if I did this, everybody would take me seriously. Granted, after 2-3 weeks of spending my time in there, I questioned my decision [laughs.] But it was worth it.
The training consisted of many things. I remembered getting into a parabolic flight and was asking “where is the spare parachute?” when they answered “here in Russia, we don’t need any spare chute.” There were also the centrifuge training to condition your body to be able to stay alert, focused and functional during reentry. There were simulation of different processes in the flight. There were also survival training, because, you know, when you are in a vehicle that orbits the earth every 90 minutes, you do want some survival training for different situations that you might encounter. For example, when the suit is inflated, it restricts your blood supply. This was why they spent a lot of time tweaking your suit to make it as comfortable as possible.
And there was the final suit test, where they would inflate your suit, put you in a vacuum chamber, then suck the air out of it.
So there we were, 3 guys from Italy, Russia and South Africa.
There were all these activities that serve as a kind of “tunnel” that takes up you to the launch day.
The very scary day was really the night before the launch. That was when I said to myself, “Look, I have proven that I can do this. Now do I really want to do this?
In the morning of the launch, you went through all this tradition. The real irony of this is that it took 2 hours for guys in surgical suits to suit you up, so that the whole world knows that the suit is indeed sealed, then you would go into a bus, stop in the middle of the way, rip your suit off and take a piss on the bus’ wheels. Everybody did it, because the first cosmonaut did it.
This, by the way, was where all the “good stuff” got into the ISS (International Space Station) [laughs.]
The launch experience
You are in this rocket for 2 hours prior to launch. They would wake you up every now and then to check up various systems, but you actually had nothing to do (and probably a bad sleep the night before,) so most pilots slept. Then you have 2 day to live in this module before you dock in the space station.
Life in the ISS was hectic. The station itself had a very busy schedule. Previously, they had 2 guys doing full-time maintenance jobs before they reduced it. We were very lucky because the shuttle that was scheduled to take the ISS crew back to earth was delayed. So we had 3 guys from our crew and 3 from the station. The atmosphere was very collegial.
Eventually, it’s time to come back. Every cosmonaut knows that all the tragedy in the Russian space program happened at landing-time.
This is partly because the reentry was such a physically intense experience, in comparison with the launch. I remember seeing a bolt, like piece of a nut head floating just outside our window. This bolt goes at 25 times the speed of bullet and could easily blow of a part of a concrete wall. We don’t even have a rail gun that can shoot that fast.
Yet I feel like I can grasp it with my hand.
So, as you entered into the atmosphere, the blackness of space goes into orange-y splash of color. Then you see pieces of metal on your ship’s side literally vaporizing. The sight of molten metal running off the window was really terrible. Also, the Soyuz spins around and around. So you have this intense feeling of physicality as this thing lands.
You’re relieved when, after you finally entered the atmosphere, you have this “WHOOSH.”
All in all, going to space was an extraordinary experience. If I do fly again, I would like to take on more responsibilities, or to take Soyuz to new destinations:
Watch you wore at the space station, or was given by other astronauts?
There was a long tradition of giving astronaut watches. We got an
AMIGA Omega (more specifically, an Omega Speedmaster Professional, thanks to Todd Kenefsky) on earth, so its time got set to GMT, but the Russian guys gave us something else to wear in the ISS, in which the time pointed to Moscow. So you literally get time-tranitioned the moment you dock to the space station. It was, in fact, the fastest time transition ever [laughs.]
Technologies that were involved in the vehicle?
Soyuz essentially had an 8-bit computer which you have to program in Octo. You have procedure that is essentially a series of number. Now, I can say that, from my days of copying software from BASIC, this is a particularly bad way of controlling. What about checksum? What about double checksum? [Laughs.] This was why we checked each other’s calculations frequently.
But, with this system, you’re basically saying: at this time, you point in this direction, then fire this engine x amount of times.
After 10 days in space, one of the experiment that I was part of was to measure that loss of strength and dexterity. You felt like you lose both very quickly during the trip. You felt a lot weaker. It turned out that your muscle was still as strong as pre-flight. They figured this out by measuring the difference between what you can recruit in your muscle (what your brain can get out) and what your muscle can actually deliver. After 10 days, you lose about 25%. It’s amazing. To actually see recruit weakening, it’ll take longer. Because we actually have people living and working in space, they have found and researched several ways to mitigate this. Granted, dexterity loss will happen, and only one lady ever came back with zero bone loss. But it is about the only way to study human in space, so it’s an essential and important research.
Memorable sights, sounds or smell—pleasant or otherwise?
First of all, you have six guys all cooped up in one pod [laughs.] But the sounds were interesting. My distinct impression of this happened immediately after reinsertion. On that moment, there was a period of silence, then suddenly, there was a series of clock noise, *tick tock tick tock*, that kicked in and cut off. So you went from complete silence to this very domestic sounds. Then there was also the sound of the fan, because the vessel have to create its own air circulation.
What’s funny was that, you were expecting all these things to sound “tech,” yet they didn’t.
The smell. The station was new. They put a lot of work based on their experience with MIR and put them into ISS. On MIR, you have fungus going in the panel. You have to actually open a panel, scrap all the fungus to, you know, find the vodka they were hiding [laughs.]
What’s really interesting was that, during reentry—as soon as we open our mask—there’s this warmed plastic and body… Very distinctive sort of smell.
“Oh shucks, I forgot to bring this on the way up and on the way down” moments?
Soyuz is a very simple vehicle to operate, but one of the key switch is a light switch, which unfortunately looked very similar to other switches. Sure, we pass gazillion tests to locate this button. But it wasn’t very easy to locate when the lights are actually off and it’s actually dark.
On reentry, as I’ve mentioned before, you start with a series of explosive switches. Now, it’s possible to do this process manually using a switch that’s located besides that light switch [laughs.] But it was actually only one of several overrides.
Thoughts on building a space station on the moon that will serve as a
waypoint launch point to reach Mars? (this was corrected by Jae Stutzman, who asked this question during the presentation.)
The moon is interesting, but I think that we should be going to Mars. There is life on Mars. And that is the single most profound piece of information we can find as a species.
Computer while in space?
The standard laptop at that time were Pentium-166’s [laughs.] So I took a risk and took two relatively modern computers (Pentium III 1 Ghz) into the station. I used them to track heat dissipation and pick up issues with cosmic rays, and they ran with no problem. About two shuttles later, there was a boxful of the same computer that I brought.
I want to go back up there and fix up their IT.
One of the most difficult thing for Crewmember was that there was no private ability to talk with family. Everything has to be monitored and mediated by the control center. In a very cunning move, one cosmonaut installed a piece of VOIP software on the computer, and didn’t tell anybody. There was suddenly a note going around the control center: people’s mood improved so much and crews were happier. Turned out that this was because they had the ability to phone home. The crews used this little ping tool that will give you green, orange and red light. If light is green, you can call.
It’s great, too, because when you call people, they always say “where are you?” [laughs.]
Ecosystem, air you breathe and food you eat. How much is recycled and how much is brought from the earth?
It depends. When we were up there, the water was produced using fuel cell that would fuse hydrogen and oxygen together. We had tons of bags of water. That’s what we were drinking mostly. There’s an air conditioning system and condensation, so you can drink that by putting it through the kettle. So that’s your hot water.
Oxygen is generated from the water. Food is carried up and, despite the general notion, was actually pretty good. There was a competition between the Russian and US crew, on which food gets eaten most often.
Let’s talk about Ubuntu.
After the space trip, I feel that anything that I diverted time to should potentially have a global impact. While I was in Russia, some guys had set themselves up the goal of figuring out how cheaply they can put up computer at schools at a sustainable basis. I read the report and became very intrigued.
The next opportunity came when I was in Cape Town. I was stunned seeing kids using Linux desktop, and using it really productively. So I thought that there was an opportunity to have a global impact by maturing the Linux desktop.
So I ask myself the question: What would move Linux forward in a significant way?
This was 2003. At that time, Linux was really steady. There were two very steady, commercially sustainable companies.
So it struck me as strange that we were only scratching the surface when it comes to free software. We need to find a new way to deliver a free software. And that meant trying to figure out a business model that’s entirely service-based.
I’ve been a Debian developer since 1996. It does a good job. So how could we add to that, and deliver services that Debian didn’t?
So, I thought, we should have a metronome-like, Predictable release schedule.
So we conceived Ubuntu by focusing relentlessly on this piece called delivering. There’ s a real art to the process of delivery.
I had discussion with people from other Linux distros about this. We feel that the process of delivery is a real responsibility.
- For the user: you have the right to expect something robust, secure, stable and tested—regularly.
- For the upstreams (the guy at Apache, GNOME, KDE and Linux kernel): we have to try our very best to deliver their intents to the users.
In free software space, in the very first time, we were able to separate R&D with production cycle. We effectively have allowed people to pick pieces of the ecosystem that are more important to them.
But what’s really missing is the execution piece… The delivery model.
So far, the result is very encouraging. So encouraging that I believe that it will be comercially sustainable without changing our business model.
And the real volume is happening emerging markets like India, China. A lot of them buy computer, but what’s surprising is that, up to 20% of them actually leave Linux on their computer. People are beginning to see Linux as “This thing that I can use,” rather than taking the risk of installing pirated windows on their PCs.
And, by the way, people says that installing Linux is hard? Try installing Windows [laughs.]
So, you see, there’s a real room for Linux and Canonical to thrive.
We aim to broaden the mission by having two spaces:
- Service. This space is a very natural extension for developer to deploy friction-free, rather than having them develop on on CentOS or Fedora. I am very encouraged by increasing interests from serious hard/soft vendors.
- Mobile. I have no doubt that Linux is a platform for future consumer electronic devices. Sure, we all know that iPhone set the benchmark. But we’re not just talking about that. We’re talking about remote controls, refrigerators, and other devices that you can use at home.
What’s a little less clear is what the stack gets to be. We believe in X86 for consumer electronic. It’s an open enough church, and Intel had strong enough commitment to deliver that. It’s also very closely aligned with GNOME, our primary desktop environment. The very first version of this platform is going to be released sometime this year. It’s fascinating, interesting, though not yet very crystal clear.
The bottom line: we would have an economic model of delivering high quality, free software without taxing it. And that, to me, is a very compelling vision that makes not going to space again worthwhile.
Q & A
OLPC—what’s your interaction to that?
It was an extraordinary success. It has completely change the way how the industry sees low-cost computing. Before OLPC, it was always a question of “How much you can cram in?”
What Negroponte did was turn it upside down.
The classmate PC that Intel produced wouldn’t happen without the OLPC. The entire category of the sub-notebook wouldn’t happen without the OLPC. And regardless of it becoming a de facto platform, I think it’s a profound success.
How do you determine that Linux usage in China was as high as 20%
We looked at analysis of return, in particular at return after one year of ownership. By this time, you would think that people who switched to Windows will do already.
And yet, they don’t.
These number, in China, was close to 20%. It was a surprising data point. This means that a significant people were very happy with Linux. This is the benchmark that we measure ourselves against. It was a surprising number.
Ubuntu Foundation? Canonical registered in the Isle Of Man?
Canonical Limited was registered in the Isle Of Man, a very tax-lenient region—but we’re a global company.
With regard to the first question: we set aside $10 million into the Ubuntu Foundation. We know how much would it cost just to maintain a regular LTS releases. This is a way that I know that, no matter what happens to me and Canonical, we will be able to release and provide support for 5 years. This was the purpose.
Customer characteristics/market segments?
70% of our business is server oriented. Very surprising.
60% of workers based in the US.
What matter most for us is getting other companies to get successful with Ubuntu. There’s no requirement to interface with Ubuntu through Canonical, but doing it through us is a reasonable way to do it.
Gaming possible on Ubuntu? Game developers? Linux as gaming environment?
There are, I think, two critical ingredients for a gaming platform:
- Networking, where Linux is very strong at.
- Graphics, where we’re not as strong.
For gaming on Linux to be successful, we need to focus on casual gamer. I don’t think Linux can compete for a platform for the next Crysis, but we can certainly deliver elements that you need. I wouldn’t be surprised to see handheld gaming with Linux as a platform. Use it as a tool to leveling the playing field. From my perspective, I wold focus on casual gamers. Reach people who are well-paid, smart, and online all the time.
Backstory behind alliteration (Gutsy Gibbon, Hardy Heron, etc.)?
I downloaded all kinds of mailing lists from a bunch of communities, Debian and others. Spent weeks getting seasick in the ocean reading all the messages to try to find people to hire. I finished of in Australia. One guy that I was about to hire talked about calling the release “Worthy Warthog.” I will defend this tradition to the very end, though some people want us to drop the animals [laughs.]
No longer in South Africa?
I want to work globally. Investment in South Africa is very difficult. London is convenient, and it has been quite good to me. I expect to go back to South Africa, but for the moment I’m enjoying seeing the rest of the world from various angles—and attitudes.
Ubuntu sold as boxed products?
Absolutely fine. That’s the nature of the free software ecosystem. You cannot resent somebody else who uses your software in ways that you don’t directly benefit from. I want to see company benefits around the platform. The vision is not to have Canonical “own” it, but to have people deliver it in a lot of different ways and formats. We have some trademark policies, but in a sense, we’re only the custodian of it. We have an amazing community, because everybody feels that he/she has some parts in it. If the shrinkwrapped product gives people—who otherwise hadn’t had the confidence to try free software—to try free software, then that’s great.
Difference between education in South Africa and the US? (Editor’s note: I’m not positive on whether this question was asked verbatim.)
I grew up in a country which was a living nightmare, with institutionalized injustice. So American history was the best way for our teachers to teach us about a system that’s so prone to abuse.
Deal with Microsoft?
I have great respect for Microsoft. I know. This horrifies a lot of people. But we forget that Microsoft made software cheap, accessible and standardized—and in the 80’s, this was the best way to move software forward.
But today, creating free software is the best way. But we still have to win people over, so it’s frustrating to me when Microsoft did something like this: they just signed a deal with South Africa to give out free copies of Windows to use at school.
At one level, it’s frustrating, because it’s a game that’s being played by them. On the other hand, it’s good that kids had access to more technology.
Microsoft gives out software because they earn it.
We give out software because we own it.
The amazing thing about free software is that you’re free to explore every one of your interest on; and that, behind every tools, there is a mailing list full of people who are as passionate about the software as you are.
Business Model/Venture Funding?
From past history, I have a VC team in South Africa. People continually express interest in Ubuntu. We haven’t and won’t take VC until we have taken the risk out of the [business] model. Before we take outside money, we need our management team to do the right thing at the right time. It seems like a dangerous thing. This is a reasonable criticism.
But we’ll first establish ourselves as cash-positive. In a very real sense, we will have to choose. Some parts of our operation are already profitable. Some are not. We just choose to have all those parts to have all the grounds covered.
In the next 5 years, we can pick and choose which pieces to turn up and which to turn down to make ours a sustainable business model. We will choose when we become fiscally self-sustaining.
When you started off the evening, you said “within our lifetime, space travel will be possible.” A lot of things have changed, things are up and down. What role do you see free software playing in the next 20 years?
In a very real sense, some people thought that software doesn’t matter anymore. To me, this is amazing, because more and more of our lives are actually defined by software. It used to be that software is this thing that you interact in the office. Now, for example, if you look at the iPhone—it’s a pure software experience. Fundamentally, the whole thing is a software experience. The hardware dissolves in the background. Interaction with companies and government becomes possible today, thanks to softwares.
I think that, first, software is profoundly important, and second, it will define how we work.
If so, I think that we need to define how it will shape. And the only way that we could make this happen is with freedom.
*** END EVENT NOTATION ***
Technicality: ☝ ☝ ½
Translation: Half and half. Sure, not everyone knows about Ubuntu and the Linux kernel; but don’t you want to, like, fly into the orbit like Mark Shuttleworth did?
Interestingness: ☝ ☝ ☝ ☝ ☝
Translation: Legion of Tech have outdone themselves again by getting an inspiring character to Portland to share their wisdom for free.
What I Learned From The Event In Six Words:
More inspirations than you can handle.