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GNU’s Having a 40th Birthday Party and You’re Invited!

Lordy! Lordy! Lordy! Gnu’s turning 40! The Free Software Foundation is pulling out all of the stops for a birthday celebration hack day on October 1.

Wowie zowie! The Gnu System is turning 40, and its parents — the folks at Free Software Foundation — are throwing it a party to celebrate, and y’all are invited!

Gnus eating cake

Officially they’re not calling it a party, it’s a hack day, but since they make it clear that no hacking is required (and go out of their way to make it known that there will be cake) I’m calling it a birthday party under the “if it walks like a duck” rule.

Here’s what Miriam Bastion, the program manager at FSF, had to say about it when she announced the event a few weeks back:

“No matter if you are an advanced hacker or a hacker-to-be, if you want to learn the basics of hacking or just hang out with others while working on your own project, you are invited. Bring your fellow students, family, or neighbors to hack along, get a gnu painted on your face, or just eat cake and socialize.”

Oh, there will also be some workshoppy-type things going on, so in addition to being an eat-all-the-cake-you-want birthday party and a hack day, this will sort of be an open source conference, too (with all this being crammed into a mere four-hour time span).

Gnu in a Nutshell

If the Gnu System is gnu to you, let me explain.

Gnu got started on September 27, 1983 as a project initiated by Richard Stallman to build a “free software” operating system to take the wind out of the sails of the many proprietary OSes that were floating around back in the days of the PC pioneers. By the early ’90s, GNU had a good start, having created a numbers of tools and stuff that would be necessary to make a totally free OS a reality, but basically still needed a kernel, since Hurd — the kernel project that GNU began in 1990 — wasn’t showing much progress.

When Linux came along in the early ’90s, it was basically a kernel needing the utilities the Gnu folks had developed to be a full operating system, so Linux enthusiasts began using Gnu software with Linux to build desktop operating systems that were free from the influence of Microsoft, Apple, IBM, and other tech companies that controlled computing at the time. To this day, Gnu’s utilities remain an important part of the Linux operating system.

The Whens and Wheres

So, who wants to go hang out with the people who were using and advocating the use of the GPL — the world’s most famous open-source software license — about a decade before the concept of open-source even existed?

If you raised your hand to that question, the next thing you have to figure out is if you can get yourself to Boston on October 1 (that’s the Boston in Massachusetts and not the one in Georgia, or one of the other Bostons, by the way).

If you can, then you’re going to have to go to Boston, and then get yourself to the Free Software Foundation’s offices, which are on the fifth floor at 51 Franklin Street (which might mean that you should ask yourself another question first: do you really want to risk your life riding in an Uber or a Lyft in Boston traffic where drivers routinely express their inner maniac?).

Oct 01, 2023
2:00 pm to 6:00 pm EDT
Free Software Foundation
51 Franklin Street
Fifth Floor
Boston, MA 02110

The Whys and Wherefores

But seriously, there will be some interesting stuff to do at this event — other than helping Gnu grow old gracefully.

For starters, there will be some cool stuff for children, that will include face painting and other activities, starting at 2:45 pm and continuing until everybody gets booted out the door at 6 pm.

Included in the kids programming for the day will be two “Music Blocks” sessions, that will introduce the wee folks to the basics of programming through music:

“Music Blocks is a visual programming language and collection of manipulative tools for exploring musical and mathematical concepts in an integrative and fun way,” Bastian said. “As seventeenth century German polymath Leibniz put it, ‘music is a hidden arithmetic exercise of the soul, which does not know that it is counting.'”

[Actually, my soul figures out there’s some heavy math going on every time I’ve tried to listen to Bach, which is why I cringe when I hear the words “Johann Sebastian.”]

Two one-hour Music Blocks sessions are on the schedule, at 2:45 pm and at 4:00 pm. Laptops will be provided for use during these sessions.

There will also be workships designed especially for people who don’t identify as children:

  • 2:45-3:45 pm: How to flash GNU Boot onto a X200 laptop

    FSF senior system administrator Ian Kelling will be conducting a workshop on how to flash the freedom-respecting boot firmware GNU Boot onto an X200 laptop computer and a KGPE-D16 workstation motherboard. Any attendees who have those computer models are welcome to bring them and get them flashed. GNU Boot is an ethical replacement for the nonfree boot firmware (or BIOS) included with all modern computers. This workshop is intended for a technical audience. This workshop is intended for a technical audience.

  • 3:45-5:45 pm: Exploring free software: Bash, Emacs, and more!

    Depending on your skill level, you can learn the basics of popular free software programs like GNU Bash (the command line), GNU Emacs (the programmer’s editor), and more! We’ll have laptop stations set up according to your familiarity with free software, allowing you to take the “next step” in learning the GNU System no matter where you’re at.

    And if you’re a veteran GNU hacker already? Feel free to join us and socialize while hacking on your own project or favorite piece of GNU software.

  • 2:45-5:45 pm: Hack for GNU

    Bring your own project or get started with a volunteer coordinator.

Although registration isn’t required to attend the event, the folks at FSF say that registering would be a help, as it will help them prepare for the event. It doesn’t cost anything to attend, but they will happily accept a donation if you feel like writing a check.

Organizers also say that you can email them at if you want to get involved in the event by doing something like offering a workshop, a learning station, or assistance for hackers and/or hackers-to-be.

The event will not be lifestreamed, but FSF will be sharing photos from event its social media channels on the day of the event.

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