Category Archives: FOSDEM
King Canute famously failed to prevent the tide coming in. I can’t help wondering if Eben Moglen is setting himself on a similarly futile course, when he calls for decentralisation of our information infrastructure.
The subject of Moglen’s opening keynote at FOSDEM was liberty, and how technology can work for or against it. He spoke of current and recent topical events, from Wikileaks to the role of the ‘net in Egypt’s (so-far) peaceful revolution. And of how technology can serve those who might threaten freedom: how much sensitive information could a heavy-handed government pick up from something as simple as a legal action on Facebook. How Data Protection in Europe has merely served to outsource handling of personal data to countries like the US with no such protection of privacy.
His call to developers was to build decentralised networks, where we can publish, communicate, interact as we do on the ‘net without submitting all our data to any centralised database that might become the focus of malign attention. Examples of tasks he spoke of ranged from Facebook-style networking to building a citizens cellphone network from $20 base stations in people’s homes. Tasks which are at least technically feasible to prototype and develop.
Listening to this, my reaction was that he’s battling against history here. History on the ‘net has shown different media and channels becoming more, not less, centralised. The once-popular Usenet medium for public discussion has given way to web-based fora: a wholly inferior medium for the task, and one for which I must admit my small measure of guilt (though it seemed like an interesting thing to implement in 1995). IRC discussion remains popular amongst geeks, but elsewhere there came chatrooms, and now we even have Twitter making a grab for that space. Every time, the geek medium gives way to an inferior one because the latter gets the mindshare. Non-technical journalists will routinely invite us to ‘tweet’ them, or mention a web forum relevant to a topic under discussion, so the public learn of these media. Meanwhile the old, decentralised, shared, and in both these cases altogether superior, media are relegated to enclaves of geekdom (or, in the case of much of usenet, to wastelands of spam and other abuse). My suggestion to him was, you need to concentrate your efforts not so much on legislators, but on communicators. Journalists in mainstream media!
OK, ‘net history is short. Why should a campaigner for freedom not call for trends to be reversed?
A wider perspective tells us that the online centralisation trends of which I have written are merely examples of similar trends backed by far more history. The most striking parallel in English history is the Enclosure of the Commons. The absurd valuations given to some websites (headed by Facebook) tell us a new aristocracy is profiting from enclosing an online commons, albeit an ephemeral and transient one.
And I plead guilty to hosting my blog at another aristocrat of web-land, WordPress. Yep, my rantings are centralised as a matter of simple convenience.
An entertaining talk at FOSDEM was Michael Meeks, on the fork from OpenOffice to LibreOffice. At the same time as delivering the now-popular message of community and open development, he was taking some quite partisan potshots at other FOSS models that unambiguously share those very values. Hmmm … good entertainment, but perhaps unduly provocative. Interestingly OpenOffice and LibreOffice both had stalls at FOSDEM, separated by only one independent exhibitor!
From an outsider’s viewpoint, there was one thing I found reassuring. Namely, the tensions that led to the split had existed during Sun’s time, before the Oracle takeover. Thus whatever mistakes may have happened are not new. I like to think Oracle is building on what Sun did right and drawing a line under what was wrong. It would’ve been sad to hear that Oracle had damaged something Sun was doing right, and Meeks’s talk reassures me that hasn’t happened in this case.
The open-source-but-owned-and-controlled development model such as (most famously) that of MySQL can work, but seems to have fallen comprehensively out of favour with FOSS communities. It’s at its best where third-parties are minor contributors, but is likely to lead to a fork if outside developers are taking a major interest. And it’s never good to send mixed messages to the community: they’ll remember the big claims when you back-pedal.
 How is anyone supposed to promote a program the pronunciation of whose very name is a stumbling-block? Shot in the foot there, methinks. Is that the laughter of Redmond I hear?
 I’m a user of OpenOffice but have never contributed to its development, nor am I familiar with its community.
I’ve got around to the most tedious post-FOSDEM chore: keysigning. Last night I signed 89 keys verified at the keysigning, and this morning I imported a bunch of signatures people have mailed me (though I expect the latter may continue arriving for a while). All great for building a web of trust, especially in terms of bootstrapping the new 4096-bit key.
The FOSDEM keysigning event itself was … different. It took place outdoors, with a gusting wind that made wielding a wodge of paper quite challenging, let alone writing on it, all the while with an extra hand required to exchange identity documents with everyone. At least it didn’t rain!
This year’s FOSDEM weekend was quite mild for early February – in contrast to the past two years. I was fine in just my middling-weight fleece and good layer of natural organic insulation, but then I’m always fine when others are shivering. It was evidently a bit more of an ordeal for some from warmer climes, leaving one with a hint of a moral dilemma. Surely as a gentleman I should go to the aid of the (very attractive) spanish girl who was visibly suffering from cold/wind? But alas, that defeats the purpose of being out there in the first place, not to mention being open to …. interpretation. Maybe I’ll take Don Quixote to next year’s FOSDEM, to be mentally prepared for chivalrous folly
If anyone thinks I should have signed their key but haven’t, feel free to drop me a line. If it’s because I didn’t in fact make a note of having verified your identity, then sorry, no deal. But it could also be that I overlooked someone when reviewing my notes last night, in which case I’ll be happy to re-check the notes for the tick against your key.
Back from FOSDEM, much to blog about in due course. Also of course things to catch up on, not least sleep.
So, first things first, having now stayed three consecutive years at the Renaissance Hotel, I shall definitely look elsewhere next time. I also unreservedly withdraw my past recommendation for it: it’s neither as comfortable nor as quiet as before, there are some minor but shoddy omissions, and what is truly unforgivable: the hotel itself hosted an event on the Friday night that resounded through the rooms like a pile-driver. So much for a rest after an early start and a long day’s travel, and ahead of another early start and a big conference!
I’ve booked my travel and hotel for FOSDEM. Arriving Friday early evening, leaving Monday after lunch, so I have a few hours beyond the core event. Hope to meet some of my readers in person next weekend in Brussels!
In preparation for FOSDEM, I uploaded my PGP key to FOSDEM’s server for the keysigning – assuming I make it this year! And in doing so, I found a spare round tuit to generate a new 4096-bit key in anticipation of a time when Moore’s law overtakes my existing 1024-bit key. My new key has number B87F79A9 and fingerprint
3CE3 BAC2 EB7B BC62 4D1D 22D8 F3B9 D88C B87F 79A9
and should by now be propagating its way around the keyservers, along with my signature with the old key.
This year I’ll be actively looking at the jobs desk, for anyone whose needs might fit my expertise and aspirations.
Back from FOSDEM. I didn’t blog whilst there ‘cos although I’m OK with carrying low-sensitivity passwords (such as my WordPress one) on a mobile device, I had neglected to copy it to the pocket-puter. Also missing – this time deliberately – the key to decrypt the backup copy available from my webserver. And finally, a reset seemed OTT for such a brief interruption to blogging.
So what did I get this year? Socially, I put faces to the names of long-standing online colleagues jMCg and (much more briefly) sjorge, and renewed acquaintance with a few other folks. Techie-wise, I went to several talks, some of which were discussions in which I participated actively. Finally jMCg and I met and chatted to Alex and Martin, who I didn’t know previously, but who are developing a really exciting-looking Apache module.
A new theme for me this year was mobile platforms. I think quite a lot of folks are making that jump around now, as the ‘puter and smaller devices converge. As I already said, lots of folks this year have foregone the pleasures of a bigger screen and keyboard for the convenience of devices that can be handheld and that run the whole day without having to find a power source. While there were many different devices in use, the N900 seemed to be possibly the #1 geek gadget ahead of Android: evidently I’m not the only one to see it as the pocket-puter!
An old theme was upstream-vs-downstream, as Gentoo man Petteri Räty gave a session on how to be a good upstream. Actually he just spoke briefly to bootstrap a discussion (a format well-suited to the subject). Much of what he said was familiar because where I’ve done the wrong thing in the past, packagers have contacted me to explain how I could improve things. Speaking as an upstream source for him, I was able to put the complementary view, and add my conclusion that what really matters is good communication. There was general agreement when I cited Debian vs OpenSSL as exemplifying the perils of failure to communicate.
Alas, I missed the keysigning. Two reasons: one a clash (to see Andrew Tanenbaum speaking is history in action, and might be a once-in-a-lifetime), the other a muddle (I hadn’t realised I needed to print out the list of keys/attendees myself back home first). Tanenbaum, who spoke compellingly of the virtues of microkernels, was indeed one of the highlights of the event.
FOSDEM is huge and busy. There’s a bit of a walk from the hotel to the venue. And it’s only a weekend.
Last year I got some use out of the laptop, but it was also sometimes a liability: for example, when standing up, or when power outlets were scarce. This year I have the pocket-puter, with sufficient battery life to last the day, and usable while standing.
So I’ll make the latter my primary device. Question is, can I bring myself to leave the laptop at home this morning, and force myself to use exclusively the new toy?
Oh, and if you’re going to FOSDEM, see you there
Yes, I’m planning to be at FOSDEM next month. Traveling by Eurostar Friday and Monday for a full weekend in Brussels.
I’ve booked the Renaissance Hotel, which is the same place I stayed last year. I can recommend it to anyone who isn’t afraid of a bit of a walk: it’s a nice place, and quite a bit closer to the FOSDEM venue than a city-centre hotel. And at winter weekend rates, the room price is vastly more reasonable than is usual in European conference cities! But I don’t know if there’s a bus/tram route for non-walkers.
Anyone keen to meet up, drop me a line (if we’re not already talking about it). Also, don’t forget to sign up for the PGP keysigning.
OK, highlight of the afternoon seems to have been Neil Williams on emdebian (well, I had to support our local man from the southwest). Unfortunately it was two talks in one (long) slot, and I had to leave to go elsewhere before the end of the second, the more interesting talk. Tailored small distros for embedded devices, while maintaining the benefits of debian package and update compatibility and management.
The talk I had to go on to was caldav: wearing my Apache hat, I thought that could be directly relevant. Having seen it, I now think that’s unlikely: it was mainly a call to clientside developers – even if I find myself revisiting Apache’s (ugly) mod_dav.
Finally, closing keynote from Leslie Hawthorn, on Google’s SOC. She’s an entertainer, as befits someone whose job is program manager for some huge people-focussed thing like SOC. I’ll stop blogging now, and enjoy
[update] Quote of the day: Our lawyers are paid to say yes. Just one group she has to work with, alongside geeks, beancounters, security staff (“paid to say no”), … Oh dear, sounds better when she tells it.
I wouldn’t normally go to a talk on a games engine. But I have a gap between 2 and 3 in ‘serious’ talks, so I’m back in the lightning talks. There’s a possibly-interesting one just coming up, on music notation/composition software.
So Steve Goodwin’s talk on the subject came as a pleasant surprise. He’s a brilliant and entertaining speaker, and what he had to say was a lesson in Good Practice for most if not all of us involved in software development. It’s the kind of principles you know at one level, but don’t necessarily always put into practice.
What really struck me was the strong relevance to my work in web accessibility. He stressed that in a cross-platform environment, you cannot rely on particular devices, even at the basic level such as graphics or audio. That’s the same problem we battle with when we ask that websites should work well in a text-only presentation, at least up to the point where the contents themselves are inherently visual, or that they shouldn’t make Granny Arthritic chase a vanishing menu option with a mouse she can’t operate.