Hanging with the linux geeks

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(August 2000)

Kinichi Kitano wore a red and orange plaid shirt, tan shorts and black Birkenstock clogs.

“Today we’re going to tour Akihabara for Made-for-Linux items. Does anyone want to buy anything special?” he asked the group assembled in the Computing books section of Shosen Book Tower.

A short list of desired items was produced: a SCSI hard drive and two internal, 50-pin (narrow), terminated SCSI cables. And soon we were out of the bookstore and on the broiling hot streets of Akihabara.

Akihabara is Tokyo’s famous electronics district. It grew from a few small shops under the railroad tracks selling black-market radio components after World War II. The district was originally called Akiba-hara, after a shrine in the neighborhood, but when the train station opened in 1890, a misprint on the station sign turned it around to Akihabara. Akihabara is still called Akiba by those who like nicknames.

Tokyo neighborhoods are well known for their specialties—near Ueno station you’ll find many motorcycle shops; Otsuka has love hotels; Nezu offers up art supplies in abundance. So when the original radio stores became famous, many related shops opened up in Akiba.

Nowadays the electronics district spans many blocks and includes hundreds of stores ranging from the behemoth Llaox to tiny one-room shops on upper floors of narrow buildings. You can find everything from resistors and soldering equipment to the latest model of dishwasher or massage chair. If you know where to look, you can still find radio parts and antique radios.

Kitano-san was going to show us where to look for cheap computers and components. He’s a member of the Tokyo Linux User’s Group (TLUG) and had volunteered to lead an expedition around the bewildering maze of shops to show us the best places.

Our group comprised seven people. In addition to me and Tod, there were five men, all gaijin. Michael was youthful but very quiet; his clear eyes revealed depths that he otherwise kept to himself. Victor, from the Ukraine, had been a chemist until deciding that programming was more fun than research. He credits the ease of his career transition to the free availability of the Linux operating system.

One member of our group, a tall lanky man with a tangle of curly grey hair, never identified himself to me. Tod recognised him from previous TLUG gatherings, but didn’t learn his name.

Two Steves rounded out our group. One Steve was an impassioned man who pretty much disagreed with every topic discussed for the seven hours we were together. Except for zsh, I can’t think of a single thing he spoke positively about. He looked completely bemused when non-computing topics were introduced to the conversation. I found him to be slightly irritating; Tod was amused.

The other Steve was an engineering professor at a local university. He fit the mold of an academic to a tee—curious and opinionated. He’s co-authored a popular book on Japanese in Linux recently published by O’Reilly. At the post-tour nomikai (drinking party), several people brought out their copies for an impromptu signing, but conversation moved as swiftly as the beer flowed and Steve absentmindedly neglected to sign them.

Weekends are especially crowded with tourists and locals coming to shop so we battled our way through human traffic to reach our many stops along the tour.

Kitano-san valiantly attempted to keep us on track in and out of the dozen or so shops on our route “It’s difficult,” he confided to me. “We get into a store and some people are really excited about what’s there and others are bored.” He managed pretty well, though, pacing us through several kilometers of streets and up and down countless elevators and stairs.

“There are some Akihabara rules” Kitano-san intoned before we started out. “No smoking or drinking in the stores. And don’t mention Linux, you’ll just be wasting your time. Nobody knows what you’re talking about.”

Later on he added an explanation of ‘junk,’ the Akiba term for most used or out-of-date goods. “Junk has different meanings in different stores, but usually it means the staff won’t answer technical questions and there’s no guarantee it will work. Sometimes junk is tested by the staff, but sometimes it isn’t.”

The tour covered a lot of ground over the course of four hours. There were some overall favorites: everyone seemed to like the glass-topped computer rack-cum-desk,; we laughed over the mouse shaped like a nude female torso; but the best of all was the first store we visited--it had a mix of used computers and office equipment, including a pay phone.

Kitano-san imparted some of the local lore to me, giving me tips on good places to eat. And he paid me an indirect compliment by telling me about a female colleague who came to Akihabara with him but decided that every store was exactly alike. That is patently untrue, though I will admit that after a few hours searching fruitlessly for a particular item, the stores do start to blur together. I suggested that next time his friend comes along, he drop her off at Livina, an upscale furniture and household goods store on the fringes of Akihabara.

By the time we neared the end of the tour, everyone was weary and even the genki Kitano-san was getting tired. We all hoped it was “one more store and then to the nomikai for a beer.” Victor made the last purchase of the day, and then our tour group broke apart at the train station as quiet Michael headed home. The mysterious man abandoned the tour halfway through. The remaining six of us met up with five other TLUG members at the Ebisu Garden Place beer hall.

I sat between Victor and Simon, who spent some time discussing the merits of various Ukrainian and Polish vodkas. Simon, a 25 year old programmer originally from Montreal, taught me the differences in pronunciation of the Polish z. He’s learned Polish and English recently (French is his first language) and now is working on Japanese. This is a young man with a very big brain.

The general conversation was naturally centered on computing and there were some very spirited discussions of the best 1970’s era terminal, how to improve your programming by using a profiler, and whether or not Xemacs has stylish code. Richard Stallman, known to the Unix world as rms, was invoked as a hot potato topic—he owns the copyright to all of the freely distributed GNU programs; will rms ever choose to betray the foundation of his intellectual property and cash in on all that open source software?

Ah, being geeky is fun. Often I deny being a geek, but I followed every conversational thread with interest and with some familiarity, and although I didn’t feel the same passion for the topics as some people did, I found it quite entertaining. Particularly after several beers.

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