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From Ken Thompson’s Keynote: My 75 year Old Project @ Southern California Linux Expo 20x (3/12/2023)

I asked Ken Thompson: “What’s your operating system of choice, today?”


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    half transitioned to Raspbian

    after having used Apple for most of his life

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      Which part is the surprising part?

      • Apple? Well OS X is a Unix. I’m pretty sure Rob Pike and many other Bell Labs people used OS X starting 15-20 years ago too. Not sure what they used before that.
      • Raspian. I think because it’s Debian Linux and in the past maybe Thompson didn’t like Linux. But that was a long time ago?

      The real surprise would be if he used Windows :)

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        It was an open source conference. I think it was pretty surprising to the crowd that he used a proprietary OS. When he said he was half transitioned to Raspbian he got a standing ovation. He looked a little flummoxed by the crowd’s response.

        Also, fun fact, he wasn’t sure how many raspberry PIs he had. He measured them by the height and number of stacked PIs he had.

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          I can maybe understand that younger people view “Unix” == “open source” and “Linux”, but I’m a little surprised that they were surprised. The history is a little backwards.

          OS X is built on top of the BSD source code (Berkeley variant of Unix), and Ken Thompson did a sabbatical at Berkeley, so OS X probably contains bits of his own code. (Obviously other open source BSDs do too.)

          Whereas Raspian Linux doesn’t contain his code (except maybe ports of minor user space utils, like column).

          At the risk of stating the obvious, Thompson developed Unix at Bell Labs before GNU or open source existed. I guess you can surmise that there’s a common ethos with research and open source, but I would expect Thompson to use something closer to what he invented, rather than choosing along the lines of open source vs. proprietary.

          I guess it’s a little surprising to me that he went to Raspian Linux rather than one of the BSDs, but I’m sure there is some practical reason for that. Probably because of the audio support on Pi (I didn’t watch the talk yet).

          FWIW I remember when Thompson / Pike / Cox and dozens of other Bells Labs alumni worked at Google, and my impression is that they somewhat reluctantly used Linux? Pike definitely thinks the Linux kernel interface is a huge mess, and the CLIs are a mess too.

          In the 90’s (and some of them were hired at Google in the 90’s!) there was definitely the perception that Linux was for “amateurs” and wasn’t “real Unix”, although obviously the situation has changed immensely in the last 2 decades.

          FWIW many 90’s dot com companies like eBay paid Sun or IBM for “real Unix”; they didn’t run Linux.

          Though the design of Linux is still a sore point. New kernel features like containers are pretty gross, since now they’re the first to do many things.

          I think they ported a lot of of Plan 9 stuff like the ACME editor to OS X so they could use it?

          I don’t think they ported any of it to Linux, because they didn’t use it. Although I’d be interested in any corrections on that.

          https://usesthis.com/interviews/rob.pike/ - 2012

          A bunch of Macs at home, Macs and Linux at work, plus of course the Google compute clusters. When I was on Plan 9, everything was connected and uniform. Now everything isn’t connected, just connected to the cloud, which isn’t the same thing. And uniform? Far from it, except in mediocrity. This is 2012 and we’re still stitching together little microcomputers with HTTPS and ssh and calling it revolutionary. I sorely miss the unified system view of the world we had at Bell Labs, and the way things are going that seems unlikely to come back any time soon.

          That said, my two-year-old 11” MacBook Air is the only piece of computing hardware to make me happy since I can’t remember when. For what it does, as opposed to what my dream setup would be, it’s fast and light and smooth and comfortable.

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            I can maybe understand that younger people view “Unix” == “open source” and “Linux”, but I’m a little surprised that they were surprised. The history is a little backwards.

            I think it’s a bit like how not all Christians are biblical scholars. There is popular belief and then there is deep understanding of the flow of history. (Which, to be clear, isn’t a knock against popular belief.)

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              (Small update) Some plan 9 users here probably know a lot more, but there are ports to “modern Unix”, which includes Linux.


              Some details/conjectures here: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=25777580

              My impression is that many OS engineers at Bell Labs started using OS X in the early 2000’s for their personal machines, but were “forced” to use Linux for work reasons.

              In those days Linux, and OS X were in different places of course. From the perspective of an OS engineer, Linux was perceived as much messier and not well designed.

              I think what most technical users would object to these days is the “rotting” GUI layer on top of OS X, but back then it was nice, consistent, and fast.

              OS X in 2023 vs. OS X in 2003 is basically like comparing Google in 2023 to Google in 2003. People forgot that it used to be an AMAZING, minimal, fast website, until all this “rot” set in. Employees left and the remaining ones don’t understand the code, or aren’t incentivized to maintain and improve it. When new features are added, they’re done in a way that slows the entire system down and adds bugs.

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                I guessed before watching it would be Plan 9.

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            ^^ This was the answer by Ken Thompson. He stated within the last month he has transitioned.

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            I was there and I was pretty surprised!

            I have to say I was disappointed by the question at 59:23. They seemed to expect a retrospective on Ken’s career or some grand philosophical statement on software or open source. To be honest, I was pretty surprised by the direction of the talk myself, but I ultimately enjoyed it.

            You see, Ken decided to talk about his 75 year project: his music collection. He talked about audio formats, collecting music from different groups, sourcing metadata, building hardware to play music and more. He was deeply interested in the topic and honestly probably a bit obsessive for multiple decades. This was very humanizing. And to be completely honest he reminded me a lot of my girlfriend’s father who we think is undiagnosed autistic.

            Ultimately, I think the reason why Ken was so prolific over such a long time is his ability to be deeply interested in problems. He was not too fussy about tools. He didn’t push Go or Linux or UNIX. He wasn’t self aggrandizing. He just wanted to tell people about his project that he’s been working on. Honestly, I thought it was a great lesson that might have gone over a lot of people’s heads.

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              I have to say I was disappointed by the question at 59:23. They seemed to expect a retrospective on Ken’s career or some grand philosophical statement on software or open source. To be honest, I was pretty surprised by the direction of the talk myself, but I ultimately enjoyed it.

              I dont think it was mention to be disrespectful in hindsight, but I definitely could see that Ken might have taken it that way from his response. I was happy that he showed insight into his other interests. I had no idea he was so into audio.

              I enjoyed the entirety of the talk as well.

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              Title is clickbait as hell. Just say he’s transitioning to Raspbian.

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                I have very much the same point of view. After 10+ years of using only Apple’s ecosystem, their current CEO managed to “break” me and forced me to move to FreeBSD+Linux workstations. There’s just too many hostile UI/UX changes shipped with security patches and Apple for some years now doesn’t feel user-friendly (at least not power user-friendly), but only investor-friendly.

                Their support’s responses to feedbacks and bug reports phrased like “the feature works as intended” shows lack of concern for users’ experience.

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                  Sneaking changes in the user/vendor power relationship into security patches is the ultimate in cynical perversion.

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                    As I get older, I do find that it’s more likely that any change to software is a change in a direction I don’t like, because by now I’ve set up a system that works for me.

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                      I agree with this, and for me at least it goes even a bit further. I can often recognize the value in something new, but I still may not want to start using it. As an example, neovim has a ton of IDE-style abilities (powered by LSP) that part of me thinks are probably objectively good and helpful, but that I never use. Why not? Because it feels like I would have to effectively relearn how to use my editor, and I do not want that. I guess my real point is that “a direction I don’t like” can often involve something I don’t like (overall) even though I recognize its value and (sometimes) even regret that I’m not more flexible.

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                        There’s just too much new stuff coming out, this industry moves too fast. At least when you’re a bit older you learn to pretty effectively dismiss silly stuff as such. And even then occasionally something cool comes out but you don’t have the time and energy to learn it. So you file it away, knowing it may one day be a useful tool (hopefully not forgetting that “there was this thing” when the time comes that you need it).

                        Of course, once in a while you still get blindsided, and the “silly thing” was actually useful and takes over the world (e.g. I dismissed React based on one failed experiment, and dismissed git for having a shitty UI). And other times you do invest a lot of time into something promising and clearly superior to other options, only to see it get ignored and dismissed by others and it fades into obscurity (like in my case Git’s contemporary DVCS competitors, NetBSD, Scheme).

                        But you have to manage your energy in some way by investing time strategically, or you’ll burn out. For me, I’m fortunate that I spent so much of my younger years “believing in” Open Source and Linux over proprietary software and Windows/.NET, and later PostgreSQL over MySQL. Those choices paid off dividends (although being too dogmatic probably also cost me a lot of opportunities at the start of my career - in some way it’s better to be a bit more pragmatic and invest time when something you already deem good appears to be growing more popular).

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                      I’m in a bit of a middle ground at the moment, using macOS/iOS/iPadOS on my laptop and mobile devices, with a reasonably powerful PC running Gentoo (and some scripts to spin up short-lived spot instances on AWS) that I can remote into when I need Linux.

                      I like the hardware, and the level of integration when you have multiple Apple products (yes, yes, “you can already build such a system yourself quite trivially by getting an FTP account, mounting it locally with curlftpfs, and then using SVN or CVS on the mounted filesystem” /s). Fortunately, I’ve been lucky enough that recent UI changes haven’t impacted my workflow much.

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                        What hostile UX changes do you have in mind? I tried looking it up, but couldn’t find anything.

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                          From the top of my head:

                          • OS X installation process was asking whether the user wants to share data with Apple. macOS only informs the user what will be shared. These invasive changes were introduced alongside “dark mode” and tech media focused on the color scheme feature.
                          • I held installation files for multiple OS X versions in the /Applications and considered them safe but Apple modified them during one of system updates.

                          I switched from macOS some time after the 2017 MBP keyboard fiasco and don’t remember workflow-disrupting UI changes in macOS but as I still use an iPhone, I can mention “rich” text mode in Mail, Notes and several other apps which unnecessarily occupy screen space, “search” button on the screen while swipe down still has the same functionality, unnaturally over-tweaked pictures (3rd party app can be used to access “raw” versions), inability to switch off “volume to loud” in many world regions (Apple’s headphones have good upper volume level but for example JBL are more silent) and this is really the “top of my head” list of things.

                          M1 has great performance and battery though and I’m considering buying M1/M2/M3(?) when Asahi Linux will support all of its hardware well.

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                        Reminds me of the saying “when the facts change, sir, I change my mind” (which is often incorrectly attributed as a Churchill quote).

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                          You were there. Is the answer to your particular question really more interesting and relevant to Lobsters than Ken’s whole talk?

                          Thanks for letting us know about that talk anyway. :)

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                            lovely talk!

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                              Ken literally just trolled everyone there “half transitioned to raspbian” 🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣

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                                Could you expand on that? I’m not understanding what trolling you’re talking about.

                                He seemed to genuinely be about 50% transitioned from Apple to Linux/Raspbian.