The Welsh hacker Alan Cox is one of the main men behind the Linux kernel, often referred to as Linus Torvalds' chief lieutenant or second-in-command. Due to Linus' work at Transmeta (from which he recently took a leave of absence so he can work on Linux full time), in fact Alan has done more coding on Linux than Linus himself. The Linux TCP/IP stack was Alan Cox' brainchild, and he personally ported the kernel to m68k architecture. While he had never used a m68k Mac before making his port, he used to be an Amiga user (like early Macs, the Amiga is m68k-based). On the Amiga, some of his work was to try to get it to exhibit Unix-like behaviour.

Alan started out fiddling with Linux while he was a student who spent too much time playing MUDs, and decided to build his own MUD. He needed an operating system to host his AberMUD server on, and being low on cash, he decided to give this new strange Linux thing from Finland a try. He found some bugs in it and some room for improvement, so he hacked a little with the code and sent it to Linus. The rest is history. By now, he works for Red Hat, who pays him to work full-time on the Linux kernel -- since the kernel doubles as his hobby, he says to spend around 60 hours a week hacking on the kernel.

He has sort of a fan following in the Linux community, and is the subject of many a hacker legend. A satirical website about him, www.alancoxonachip.com, speaks about the Alan Cox On-a-Chip (fictional) product, which is a Transmeta processor with the following features:

  • Most efficient in the dark.
  • Features Jolt Cola(tm) power amplifier
  • Temperature control using Beard(tm) technology
  • Optional 5C00B1 D00 multimedia coprocessor
  • Backwards compatible with original 8-bit model
  • Four levels of power management: Sleep mode, snooze mode, snore mode and "rumbling earthquake".
  • Telsa-authenticated NMI dispatcher
  • Windows 2000 snapshot capability
  • The ultimate Linux platform -- it writes drivers for *and* debugs itself!

People used to speak of him in hushed, awed tones, claiming that he never sleeps, has a rampant Jolt addiction, and that even if he did sleep, he certainly dreams in C. He is widely regarded to be the archetypical ubergeek, the hacker to end all hackers.

The picture of Alan as the uberhacker with all the features and bugs of traditional geek personality sort of falls apart when you take into consideration that he also happens to be a happily married man. His wife, Telsa (whose name is often misspelled "Tesla" -- she isn't related to the Master of Lightning), is herself a computer geek, although she, by her own accounts, is not a hacker (although she has contributed bug reports and the occasional fix to dozens of Free Software projects over the years). When not messing about with the kernel, Alan has a number of other strange hobbies, including growing spider plants.

Depending on how you look at it, he achieved fame or infamy in 2001 after the Dmitri Skylarov case. He resigned his post in the USENIX ALS, because he felt that going to the United States would be dangerous for non-US software engineers. The Skylarov case had shown that even if a programmer was not breaking his country's copyright laws while programming, he could still be tried in the US under the draconian DMCA. Since the DMCA explicitly outlaws public documentation of security holes, Cox released the changelogs for some of his 2.2 kernels on an alternate site (thefreeworld.net, which Cox maintained together with Rik van Riel among others, now defunct), where people must sign that they aren't American before they're allowed to read the changelog. The argumentation was that kernel changelogs openly document security holes in earlier kernels, making them illegal reading for Americans. This made him seem silly to some, anti-American to others, and fiendishly clever to others. He encourages all non-American computer professionals to boycott conferences in the United States until the "DMCA mess is resolved".

He looks like some weird cross between a biker and a hippie, complete with GNU/Beard and all. He is one of those few hackers who isn't militant about his software preferences; he likes Linux but also respects FreeBSD, and he's opted out of the vi vs. Emacs flamefest by using a third editor, joe. While he works for Red Hat, he claims that he isn't pro-Red Hat, and that other distributions have merits of their own.

"Total domination is bad. The Microsoft dominance already badly misled people about how to choose systems. Instead of 'what tool do I use for the job' it's 'well it was shipped with the box'. Linux is a tool, Windows is a tool and so are numerous other systems. It's really important people go back to looking for the right tool for the job. That will never always be Linux. No single tool can do everything well."
--Alan Cox

References

  • http://www.softpanorama.org/People/Cox/index.shtml
  • http://www.alancoxonachip.com/
  • http://lwn.net/1999/features/ACInterview/
  • http://www.chguy.net/news/jul01/smart.html