FOSDEM - a geek trip to Brussels. Going abroad to experience different cultures. Or at least, a chance to eat chips, suffer rain, and watch American TV in a different country.Thursday
Travelling early to FOSDEM is one of the joys of being a programmer and not a sysadmin . it's easier to get a couple of extra days off when you're not on call. Consequently, my weekend started at 6am on Thursday as I packed my large gym bag inside a large suitcase (so both could be stuffed with beers on the return journey) and boarded a local train to St Pancras International. My logic was that by getting an early train I would have an quiet journey, and a full day in the capital, without incurring the cost of a hotel room.
So what are 30 kids doing on a train to Brussels at 8 am?
And why do none have a volume control?
I tried plotting a graph of train speed-to-noise, distance-to-noise, and time-to-noise without any correlation. The only truth was that the noise was proportional to the distance from their one ineffectual teacher. I also wondered why these near-illerate chavs were playing hangman.
The hotel was a new one this year, the Four Points in Louise (which is an easier commute by 81 tram than whatever combination of trams, buses, and foot you're told by Metro staff.) It's certainly more upmarket than usual since it had a bidet, and a "toilet paper fail" where the holder was 6 feet above the toilet. So far above, in fact, that my camera wasn't able to capture the distance. It was also my first experience of a queen-sized bed, which come as standard here. These are big enough for three people. Unfortunately, although I experienced it, I didn't experience it.
Leaving bags at the hotel we ventured on to the Museum of Musical Instruments (MIM). This is a fine museum with exhibits occupying 3 floors of a 10 floor building. Mechanical music on the lower floor (labelled -1 in true QI style) is my favourite and contains synthesizers, piano rolls, music boxes, and... more kids! Specifically, three separate school parties all experimenting in the 'hands-on' room and drowning out everything else on the headphones. The plus side, however, was there was a "hands-on" session with the Theremin for the kids. I pretended to be 12 years old, and the instructor was gracious enough to let me play while he helped the kids by demonstrated the next exhibit. It was a wonderful and novel experience for me. I definitely want such an instrument, although not at their current sale value. I also got a photograph of the ironic sign on the Theremin saying "Do not touch".
We were the last ones out of the museum, and forced into taking several pictures of the harpsichords and pianos on the way out, for review later. From here we took a slow walk into town, pausing every 30 seconds to take another photograph, for beers and food at Delirium and T'Spinnekopke, respectively. It was, by all accounts, a very pleasant if unremarkable day.
There were several hours to kill on Friday before the beer event, so a quick walk the chocolate shop was in order to satisfy my taste buds. And pacify those of my expectant co-workers. This was followed by a typical Carrefour lunch of Brioche, beer, and cheese. In addition to my usual favourite (Chimay Blue cheese) I discovered that the tourist trap cheese labelled "Brugge" is decidedly good - if a little smelly if left open. So, after a brisk detour, where this photograph was taken (no GIMP'ing, honest!) it was back to the Delirium Café for the first time in 24 hours to sample more beer. Alas, this was the beginning of end for me, as the procedure had changed. This year you had to buy beer tokens which entitled you to one of the draft beers, thereby limiting you 12. A fine selection, true, but for the experienced drinkers it was a case of TUBS - the usual beer suspects. After all, you don't visit Delirium with its 2600 beers to drink the standards. There were a few more choices in the upstairs bar, and by flaunting the "no drinks from downstairs are allowed upstairs" rule, our group was able to enjoy our beers together. The upstairs bar, by the way, is new to some which caused the original plan of meeting "upstairs" to begin with a two hour impasse where both sides of the SMS conversation insisted they were "upstairs" in Delirium, and near the back. A multi- dimension paradox of Dr Who-sized proportions, to be sure. We did eventually find each other, but not before it became too crowded to be worthwhile. (In truth, I found it too crowded when I first arrived, but refused to leave until finding until three of the six different groups of friends present.) Consequently, we left early to find somewhere better. This was a shame since I still had beer tokens; a nice if very expensive reminder of the evening. If the same procedure is in place next year, my advice is to buy beer with cash.
After a later-than-planned start, I popped into the Delhaize supermarket by the hotel for supplies and a beer reconnaissance. I made a note to return here for my beers, and purchased my usual conference sustenance: pain au chocolate, cola, a couple of beers, and some random foodstuffs. With six items in hand I queued behind two people in the quick self-service checkout. "Quick" in this instance was defined by the International Committee for Glacial Dynamics. Once I did succeed in scanning my items, the machine decided to require a random check involving a 10 minute wait for the assistant to stroll over, and another (annoying) two minutes for me to re-scan everything. I guess "random check" was defined the logic of "whoever pressed the English language button, and is buying quality Belgian beers instead of the Carling pap we're known for". Maybe it was because I'd scanned everything in the same fashion as I do in London. i.e. competently quickly because I had somewhere to be. Or maybe the till was just racist.
These snacks were supplemented by a proper breakfast on the corner of Flagey. And by "proper" I mean, overpriced. The moules were positively awful. There were so many broken mussel shells I thought I must cracked a tooth instead. But at least the service was... er, slow. No wait, let me polite for a change... Ok! But at least the service was leisurely. Even compared to glaciers. Normally, slow service is a sign of them trying to pry more drinks out of you. It wasn't the case here, as the sole waiter could never be found, acknowledged, or persuaded to work. On the plus side, I encountered one of the instances that make Belgium great - the old two ladies on the table nearby ordering mussels and Jupiler for elevenses. They didn't order beer... they ordered Jupiler. Now, despite previous years comments on that particular beverage, it didn't take away from the fact that both ladies had discovered a brand that suited them, and knew the beer by name.
Eventually we were all paid up members, and on our way.
As for the conference that afternoon, nothing much happened. Several talks were oversubscribed, and all seemed to have a tag-team of conversationalists practising in the doorway of each lecture hall - first it was loud Americans interrupting the presentations, then the French. (Although they might have been Belgians, as I could only concentrate on the sound of a small pistol cocking instead my head.) This was the second of several rudeness incidents that occurred this year - the first being the film crew in MIM which made a nuisance of themselves at the next table as we tried to finish up in peace.
I also stopped by the O'Reilly stand as usual, and while Josette was her usual busy and productive self, the weak pound had made the books look less enticing than usual. Particularly as many were more expensive "Today only" in Euros than their "normal price" in sterling.
I left the conference by 6pm so I'd have time to purchase some beer at Delhaize. The advantage of an early February FOSDEM is that the supermarkets still have stock of Belgian Christmas beer. Notably, they had cut-price presentation boxes. So I cheerfully paid 6 euros for the sublimely great Kasteel pack of four beers and branded glass, and a book of Grimbergen which cunningly hid four of their beers and own glass. And just in case the journey was too much for my Kasteel Brune (winner of the "Try before you die" award on episode 10 of my Beer Crate podcast) I also brought back a full 75ml bottle. This year I opted for known quantities. In addition to the gift packs I bought 4 Keizer Karel/Charles Quint, 4 Belle-vue Kriek, 4 Tripel Karmeliet, and an Angel (a Delhaize original!)
The Saturday evening was the usual mess of SMS conversations in attempt to get as many friends together in one suitable locale. This is complicated by everyone's various allegiances (Debian, KDE, Gnome, me!) and the fact that anywhere known will be full already. So, despite missing the first lunch date at Leon, I was still in time for food at Le Cap - an old faithful FOSDEM haunt, which is still far enough away from the Grand Place for the majority to discover. I had my usual, and always wonderful, Carbonnade Flamande. This year I noticed some stalks in the gravy, and realized the secret the sweetness was probably due to grapes. From Le Cap it's a short walk to Porte Noire, where we emptied our pockets of cash over the rest of the night. We certainly weren't the only geeks in there (as I personally knew two groups without searching the second half of the bar) but it was comfortably busy. Here we drank a couple of new beers from their rapidly depleting fridge, discussed their use of the bell which range every half an hour and clearly wasn't "last orders", so maybe it's a Pavlovian thing for the British. We also invented a number of punk songs such as "I've got find someone to fall in love with", "My ex- girlfriend rolled my car", and "Shit! I'll have to rape her, now". I have the lyrics and chord sequence to the first two, if anyone's interested!
My night ended around 3am, with the committed staying until nearly 6am. The last part being enforced by the lock-in.
By the way - the main reason for choosing Porte Noire was not it's beer choice or close proximity to the restaurant. It was a misunderstanding in the English language. I received a message stating that Delirium was full of "clunge". I took this to mean "dirty smelly people" (i.e. geeks) and was "wall- to-wall horribleness". Consequently, we went elsewhere. It is, however, an American word taken from The Inbetweeners to mean "attractive and fit women". And that's "fit" meant in the modern sense of the word.
My Sunday morning plan was foiled before it began. I had intended to sweat out the previous nights alcohol with an 8am Sauna. But even with the best will in the world, no amount of promise could entice me from my three hour sleep to go and get sweaty with whatever over-enthusiastic punters happened to be in there at silly-o-clock on a Sunday.
Despite a mad rush to pack beer into my two cases (and deciding whether clothes or beer should be sacrificed in the name of space) I was still late to check-out. Fortunately, they didn't charge extra as I've heard other places do. There was then no other plan than to get to ULB. A walk that took me past several un-curtained windows; which I'd adopt too if I had a full-sized giraffe or skeleton sitting at home. (Really!) I also got to watch the Sunday morning joggers working off last nights beer, and others carrying their empties to the bottle bank.
I finally made the conference at 12.05, seeing the outside of the Janson building for the first time ever, and missing only the first few minutes of the fantastic Minix3 talk. Admitted, I snuck in through the only one of the five entrance doors labelled "Do not enter". This was followed by trips to the embedded room (Andy Green is probably right when he says "cross-platform tool chains are pointless since you can now compile on embedded devices themselves" and was refreshing to hear, especially when everyone else was a mumbling ESL), lightning talks (where I presented QuBit, in my third different talk in three consecutive years), and PostgreSQL. I also used the gaps in the programme to look at the 3D printer, discuss changes to my new book with my editor and reviewer, and take a last peak at the O'Reilly stand. Now severely depleted. I also entered the embedded competition where you dropped your business card in a box, and they'd draw a winner at 5pm on Sunday. A good ploy, since many people attended that 5-6 session... and several left at 5.15pm when it hadn't been drawn and there was train to catch.
The final hoorah involved the announcement of the subscription winners (where at least one person on the list is known to me - but not me - every year) and a light but entertaining enough talk about "how to submit kernel" patches. It was amusing to see several people reviewing the slides online with their laptops, instead of making use of their distance vision to read the same text on-screen! This is my yearly reason to focus on anything greater than 30cmd from my face, so I make the most of it. This is followed by a mad scramble for the bus back to the Eurostar. Or in my case, a casual saunter back to the hotel to bpick up bags and catch a different, less geek-infested, tram.
The train home was later and allowed me to catch up with friends in the buffet car. Curiously, the train home had run out of beer - so we had to suffer Kronenberg! This was odd, since the train going had Leffe Blonde and Bruin, along with Duvel, whereas this return train stocked only Kronenberg and Stella. Although both were expensive (as in "bend over and take it", expensive) at least the outgoing journey didn't need Pringles to give the beer some taste.
The Eurostar made good time, as it does when it isn't on fire, so it was the responsibility of my other train home to create some well-planned misery. Which it did. Slowly. A keyword also employed by the junior cabby who took me and my beer home from the station; he hadn't yet discovered puberty, let alone 4th gear. But I slunk indoors around 11pm, where I returned to the normal drudgery of life. Except my pizzas were now coated with near magical special cheese, my snacks included Belgian chocolates and waffles, and all were washed down with rather good beer.
Roll on next year...