Feb 16: FOSDEM 2011
After the boring holiday season is over and best wishes to everybody and his dog are taken care of there's something fun to do again: that most famous gathering of hackers called FOSDEM. I think this was my sixth time there. The disadvantage of living not too far from the event is that I don't stay at a hotel and have to miss the Friday beer event. Then again, I can have Belgian beer any day of the week.
My first stop was picking up my T-shirt, which this year has "I'm a hacker" printed on it. After quickly checking out the few stands that were already set up I went on to the Janson room to get me a good spot. The opening talk was funny and asked the crowd's participation again for the amazing FOSDEM dance. Unlike last year we didn't have to do the actual dancing, but provided the "music" instead, by clapping and stomping. Great fun.
Next up was Eben Moglen, with a talk about politics and free software. He said that decentralisation of social networking and setting up mesh networks could better empower freedom fighters and demonstrations like those in Egypt, who now rely mostly on US-controlled services like Twitter and Facebook. Moglen that we need to implement those things in the very short term or we'll never be able to catch up with the big guys. That's why during his current sabbatical he's setting up the Freedom Box Foundation, to get organised to make an easy to use free software powerplug server for every home happen. To be honest, he sounded a bit dramatical to me, but he's a smart guy and a good speaker and probably right on a lot of points.
The following presentation was about LLVM, a toolchain that's supposed to be faster, more efficient, more modern and more user friendly than gcc. He showed some impressive graphs and user interface examples, but maybe a debate (or joint presentation) between him and someone from the gcc side would have been even more interesting. The one thing that struck me in this Apple employee's talk is that he said he's not allowed to work with any GPLv3 software (including gcc). He didn't explain it further, so I don't know what the reason for that is. Probably Apple being paranoid.
Lunch time presented a pretty good selection of (Belgian) beer, both from the near-monopolist and independent ones. The sandwiches were yummy enough (though I suspect vegans had to look elsewhere), with a wrapping of paper rather plastic. I don't know how fish-friendly the tuna was, so I avoided it alltogether.
In the afternoon I learned about Emacs' much praised Org-mode. I missed some of the details on account of being in the back of the room for which it sucks to be in the back of, but it seems very functional indeed. It looks like the kind of tool that would boost productivity at work significantly, but would not be allowed on the workstation because it's not called Entreprise Emacs Productivity Suite, Bells & Whistles Edition. Actually, it has outgrown the tool stage and is now more like a syntax, because it's also implemented for other tools (e.g. ViM) now. I didn't get a good look at graphical representations of the data, but speaker assured us that at least HTML and LaTeX output was available. I was a bit saddened to see more non-free software at this second GNU gathering I attended. In this case, the slideshow was done with a proprietary PDF reader on Mac OS X.
I don't remember if Dave Neary's Community Anti-patterns talk was filmed, but I recommend it to any aspiring community manager or project leader. His advice: try to make your community an open and friendly environment. That may seem obvious, but it is easily forgotten when discussions get heated. If you think your community is in a bad shape, think of Dave whenever you're in a hurry to click that Send button.
Back to the GNU devroom. The FSFE guys their organisation is up to and challenges ahead. They've had some good responses to their PDFreaders campaign (and not surprisingly some not so positive ones), with many still pending (goverments are pretty slow to answer). If you haven't done it already, make sure to declare your love for free software and don't miss Document Freedom Day.
On Sunday I mostly hung around in the Distributions Devroom (thanks for organizing, Wouter). I remember from those talks that the Turkish locale makes much software crash, that automated distro testing is something we should consider for gNewsense (though it seems a bit limited in scope), that we must have more collaboration between distributions (but that takes time many people don't have) and that a simple cross-distro installer written in Bash is unlikely to be adopted by many distributions.
I also took part in the keysigning party this year. Although announced to be indoors, it took eventually took place in front of the main entrance (like every year). That dude in his T-shirt was not happy about that, but unlike some people with coats on he stayed until it was done (after about 1.5 hours). I get the whole web of trust thing and see the use of keysigning, but I'm still a bit fuzzy on handling keys. Should I keep a key backup in a vault, a revocation certificate in a separate vault and the password in a secret locked down nuclear shelter? Can I conveniently leave my .gnupg in my home directory or do I keep it on an SD card which I sew into my skin? What's up with subkeys? How do I know if your otherworldly ID card or drivers license is real? In short, I think that the web of trust is not going to be ubiquitous any time soon.
In the last presentation, Jonathan Corbet showed us that the Linux ecosystem is very meritocratic. As in every other kernel development talk I heard, the speaker said that anyone willing and able to work on Linux can easily get a job. I still wonder how many of those offers are about free software develpment. Still, I wish I heard that more often for other areas of free software (e.g. GNU). The job corner had mostly Web development offers, with the majority of those for using free software tools to create not-really-free software or software as a service.
A few days after the event I saw that they pulled my name out of a hat for a one-year Linux Magazine subscription (again). I stopped reading computer magazines over a year ago because there are too many ads in them and because the "Linux" magazines can't make up their minds about whether they want freedom or convenience. At least I'll have something to read until the next FOSDEM. See you there.