February 10, 2003 Vol.73, no. 4S
|BORN TO PROGRAM: The members of the
eXperimental Computer Facility (XCF) have a history of elitism and
competition. While a passion for programming has replaced a high
skill level as criteria for membership, the group says that the
spirit of competition is still dominant. Photo
by Angela Privin.
Computer Facilitys proud present and impressive past
While the term hacker has earned an unsavory connotation
(thanks in part to its depiction in movies and all the bad press), the
real definition of the term is quite innocuous, say members of the eXperimental
Computer Facility (XCF) at Berkeley.
Hacker used to just mean someone who was good with computers,
says EECS senior and XCF member Walter Rader.
While some hackers have wrought their share of destruction by hacking
into important and highly secure computer systems, others have helped
protect the same systems from being broken into.
Just 17 years ago, while still a student at Berkeley, the co-founder
of XCF, Phil Lapsley, was instrumental in diagnosing and curing the
Internet Worm, a virus that nearly crippled the Net.
Since then XCF has helped expand the Internet by directly or indirectly
contributing open-source software such as one of the first-ever Web
browsers. The group also developed two free software heavy- weights,
the GTK tool kit (useful for creating graphical user interfaces), and
the GIMP, a Photoshop clone.
In the past, such achievements have led to excessive pride, an elitist
culture and stringent admission requirements, say members. But the current
XCF is a different animal. We had our glory days and then membership
dwindled. Now we are trying to revive the organization. We welcome anyone
who is interested and motivated. We are looking for people with heart,
because skill is something we can teach, says club president Jeff
Teaching is nothing new to XCF members, who traditionally hold Unix-based
help seminars for more advanced students.
XCF members also have a lot to teach each other. The group was founded
on the premise that many cooks will sweeten the pot. In programming
the ability to bounce ideas off each other will also produce better
ideas and results, say members.
At XCF, people choose a project they are passionate about, then meet
with the group to get feedback and advice. While members serve as mentors
for each other, the climate is anything but nurturing.
Through competition and brutally honest peer review members hope to
push one another to do their best. Its like Darwinism: If
youve got a bad idea, you get flack for it and the idea dies,
Members say the competitive vibe inspires them to be better than the
The 10-member group is currently working on projects like a video game,
an Internet-broadcast radio show, media player plug-ins to be distributed
on a wide digital network, and a program that allows instructors with
minimal computer skills to create a course Web site.
Each semester the group recruits new people interested in initiating
their own projects or helping out with existing projects.
For more information log onto www.xcf.berkeley.edu.