Posted by Jedd on 2013-02-05


The 2013 conference was the third one I've wandered along to – it's always a delightful conference, and we have nothing quite like it back in Australia.

Heck, I think we probably have a total of 5,000 hackers in the population at large. I heard a rumour on the weekend that they reckoned numbers for FOSDEM this year were closer to six or seven thousand – certainly it felt substantially busier than 2010. One of the downsides of a free conference is that it's impossible to do much more than just wildly guess at total attendee counts.

The hot food stalls that set up out the front could probably provide a useful (relative) count I suspect.

The best bit for me was to finally sit and watch Eben Moglen do his thing – he's a tremendously charismatic, engaging, persuasive and inspiring public speaker. If you've not seen any of his talks, I can recommend watching the one he did with Tim O'Reilly a few years ago.

It was quite brutal, and out of character by all accounts, but it displays the obvious frustrations he (and the rest of the FSF) have been suffering for more than a decade. Plus Tim deserves all the grief he can get for all that 2.0'rrhea bollocks.

But there's plenty of other videos that lack the drama while retaining the inspiration – and the obvious one in this context would be the original FreedomBox (though it wasn't called that at the time) initiating talk he gave in New York (USA) a couple of years back.

There was a vaguely humorous moment when the volunteer introduced Eben Moglen and Bdale Garbee, making them both look more than a smidge uncomfortable with his opening line:

These two great software developers, open source developers actually, and they have great experience in open source ...

I'd seen rms wandering around, and suspected he was in the audience for this one – so there were at least three people in close proximity who would have liked to poke this guy in the eye with a shitty stick for burdening Eben and Bdale with the generally bewildering, but in this instance just plain inappropriate, open source appellation.

It may just have been a language thing, though that would be all the more bewildering as many European languages have separate words for the free as in beer and the free as in speech concepts, so they tend to not get (or seek) the dubious benefit that many North Americans seem to find from avoiding the f-word.

Bdale and Eben
Bdale Garbee with a FreedomBox, and Eben Moglen

Beyond that particular highlight there was the usual collection of fat hackers, panting from waddling up one flight of stairs.

People choosing stairwells and narrow corridors to slowly crawl to a stop to ogle their phone, oblivious to the hundreds of people eager to get past, smokers who believed the best place to light up & loiter is right bang in the first doorway they find, forcing people leaving or entering to navigate through a discourteous fug.

The anticipated abundance of finger sucking, nail biting, pen clicking, foot tapping, knuckle cracking, lolly gobbling, snack crunching, plastic bottle crinkling, nose whistling, queue jumping, deodorant unaware types.

Bless 'em all.

The fucks.

As always there was a surfeit of talks, with the very rare half hour block where nothing even vaguely interesting was going on.

And lots of good talks you had to miss just because of timing conflicts. All the sadder as it seemed this year that fewer of the talks were being taped.

The DevOps room was woefully under-sized, with the guys having to post volunteers at each door stopping people coming in (fire regulations, apparently, meant no one was allowed to stand) ... and I recall that same room was similarly under-sized and over-popular last year, so I'm not sure why they let that happen again.

Eric Sorenson, Nathen Harvey, Sigurd Teigen's combined Intro to Chef, Puppet and CFEngine was a great idea that seemed to work well, and as the first talk in the DevOps room on Saturday morning set the trend of having to turn people away.

Though you had to feel for young Sigurd, representing CFEngine, who was definitely fronting the least interesting (to people in the room) of the three players. Everyone was very diplomatic about the other suites, which matches my online experience with these communities, and it would have been great to have someone just give a five minute comparison for things like Ansible and Salt. Particularly odd was that Salt wasn't even mentioned when someone asked a question like 'What do you suggest for people who don't like Ruby?' – though to his credit I recall Sigurd piped up humorously at this perfect question.

I'd have loved to go to Nathen's subsequent Learning to Automate talk, but it was packed out a good half hour before its scheduled start.

Actually it was in that Intro talk that I first exchanged a few words with the quite delightful Bryan Berry (also of Food Fight fame). Despite originally just mildly berating him for incessantly playing with a noisy wind-up toy (I'm usually pretty careful as one never knows if the guy sitting next to you at these things is about to be revealed as the author of some piece of software you've loved for a decade) he was pleasantly tolerant of said berating from a stranger. We bumped into each other the following day, and congenially agreed that FOSDEM could benefit from a policy of having OCD and fidgety types sit on opposite sides of the room.

It was really good to see Lennart Poettering's talk about the state of systemd, especially after enjoying the earlier systemd in Debian talk given by Tollef Fog Heen and Michael Biebl.

Lennart Poettering talking about systemd
Lennart Poettering talking about systemd

I was very much looking forward to someone asking Lennart how he thought Ubuntu would deal with any formal migration by Debian to systemd, given their (Ubuntu's) commitment to their home-grown, and somewhat lesser-featured upstart system.

Sadly, no one asked.

Also, interestingly, it wasn't one of the bits of software he identified as being made obsolete by systemd.

It'll be fascinating to watch ... though Ubuntu do seem to be losing fans these days, as people slowly start to realise what it was that they liked about Debian GNU/Linux in the first place, and return to the fold.

And, more to the point, Debian seems to be not going ahead with shipping systemd enabled as default in Jessie unfortunately.

Actually, and somewhat unsurprisingly, the subject has come up in a number of forums over the past year or so, often accompanied by abrasive sentiments coming from the Ubuntu / upstart community.

As Lennart observed on Google+ in November 2012:

It's interesting to see that Canonical intends to push Upstart into the User Session now. Doing something similar with systemd has been a long term item on our TODO list for a while. ... There are a number of reasons why we didn't do that, but one of the biggest issues certainly was that we didn't want to open another can of worms where the systemd world would start to differ greatly from the Ubuntu world, API-wise. It's one thing after all, to have incompatible system management APIs, but it's a very different thing having incompatible application environment APIs, because suddenly all the apps for your platform have to deal with the incompatibility. ... In a way Canonical is just doing something that Android has pioneered. Take the kernel, share some userspace components, but turn it all into your own private platform. That's certainly a valid strategy. And they might even pull it off.

Anyhoo ...

The final presentation of note was the late Sunday afternoon Introducing GNOME Photos by Debarshi Ray. A combination of it being after 4pm, quite the niche subject, a release that can't even be called pre-alpha, and no subsequent talks booked for that room, led to quite the small turnout which engendered some interesting (read full and frank) discussions during the question time.

Lots of people talked about using Shotwell (I'd only ever vaguely heard of this software) as the basis for a 'native' GNOME Photo app – the consensus seemed to be that the Shotwell folk didn't want their code re-used for this project (bit bewildering to me, as Shotwell is released under the GPL (though I gather the full answer is a bit more complicated than that - check the comments section)).

I mentioned that lots of the problems and features that had come up just in that talk and the questions after (eg. the constraints from using a single-user DB - they are using Tracker - which precludes any kind of concurrency or index sharing, being able to store tag information back in the images (EXIF and/or IPTC), options for plugins like face detection and red-eye removal, separate repositories on a single account, handling of images that change content (but file name and location don't) as well as images that change location (but not content) need to be handled sanely and predictably, which necessitates keeping a hash of all images (something not currently done at all - files are tracked purely on name & directory). Super-groups or categories or some level of hierarchy of tagging is a design decision that's easier to implement before, rather than after, you've finished writing a new system from scratch.)

All these things have come up, been discussed, been resolved, and been implemented in the excellent KPhotoAlbum (by Jesper Petersen, et al) over the past several years.

It was particularly weird that no one else in that room – about 20 or 30 people – had even heard of KPhotoAlbum.

And especially weird that Debarshi hadn't found it when he was doing some old-fashioned competitor analysis, or whatever we call it in the free software world, when you find some ideas to .. erhm .. borrow and augment.

I really thought that after the whole GNOME3 thing all these kids would have at least given KDE a quick fondle out behind the sheds.

Oh well.

Technology in evidence. Quite a few Apple Airs, but definitely way more ThinkPads & Lenovos.

A handful of Apple iPhones, but vastly more Samsung Galaxies – plenty with cracked screens.

One forlorn Blackberry user. Heck, I saw twice as many Nokia N900's than Blackberries. When I was there last year I saw three, one of which was mine, so I suspect these are the same two I'd seen before.

Noticeably increasing numbers of girls, which is reassuring. Also lots more yank accents. Which is less so.

Extra-curricular activities included the usual Delerium turnout on Friday night, just as mad as ever, and perhaps it's being a year older (but more likely the absence of the two bad influences on my drinking habits that kept me out until 5am last time) that meant my friends and I didn't stay long before wandering off in search of a less rambunctious bar, and where you could actually purchase a drink in less than 30 minutes.

On Sunday night I was abandoned by everyone I knew (I think the idea of spending an extra day in a foreign city is something that's far less appealing to Brits than, say, Strines) so I headed off in search of a pizza restaurant that Trip Advisor assured me made the best pizza in the whole of Brussels – La Luna – which required about an hour suffering the metro system and freezing cold drizzle, finally locating it, seeing a guy reading a newspaper in the front window, in the semi-dark, with a table full of people way down the back that had some lights on around it ... and the place was evidently not open.

Very sad.

A two-hour round trip just to be shrugged at by someone who allegedly makes great pizzas.

I ended up, back in the main part of town, eating possibly the most slowly prepared Japanese food I've ever had, but at least they also had €2 wheat beers. And afterwards I consoled myself with a return trip to the always spectacular Poechenellekelder Cafe to read my book and take some recommendations from the exceedingly knowledgeable waiter there. I vaguely remember, at the end of the evening, arguing with the chap – assuring him he'd forgotten to add at least one beer to my bill, as there was absolutely no way I could be this inebriated with a bill of only €20 – and in turn he just recited the alcohol content of each of the beers I'd gone through.

Mystery solved.

The next day I discovered that every fucking museum in Brussels closes on Mondays.

For reasons that are far from clear.

What the last person thought about closing all the museums on Mondays

Apart from the Parlamentarium, which chooses to just take half of Monday off.

Parlamenterium 1
A brightly lit but very closed Parlamenterium

Parlamenterium 2
People pointing a bit too excitedly at 55% on a globe

Parlamenterium 3
Kids enjoying themselves with some hybrid daleks / dodgems

Oh, and a gratuitous picture of some ducklings I met in a park – despite it being early February.

Hopefully they make it through the next couple of months.

Out of sync ducklings