Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday

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.


If I had to sum up this year, then the theme would be 'Annoyances'. Having been every year for the last ten, it might be because I'm just too old and crabby for these things now. But it seemed like the zealots, the idiots, the chavs, and the social retards had all teamed up to irk me at any point in the weekend, usually when I was just beginning to find some peace.

But let us begin at the beginning.

The trip began, as it does every year, with the navigation of the Eurostar terminal. This is easier said that done when the lost party (that's me) knows the most efficient route around the station while everyone else is there for the first time and uses the most obvious route. Of course, it doesn't help when the instruction is "we're by WHS". (there's two of them), or "at the main entrance" (there's at least four entrances, three of them could be considered as "main"). We found each other with about 30 minutes left to board.

Plenty of time.

Or it would have been had the security guards not been playing their version of "good cop-bad cop", which we shall call "stupid cop-pervy cop"! According to the first, steel-capped boots are acceptable to go through the metal detector (despite the owner's machinations), while the second sees the flashing light and uses this as an excuse to act like a doctor, or prostitute. That is - someone who gets paid to have a good feel around your bits. (Or 'junk', as I believe the phrase now is.)

The journey passed relatively smoothly after that, and I still owe someone some beers after realizing the sterling prices were significantly cheaper than the Euro ones.

Upon arrival in Brussels we did the usual suffering of Metro ticket machines (credit cards not being accepted, the cash ones which take only coins, etc.) before heading to our respective hotels. Here we showered (well, I presume everyone did - I was only present for my own!) and headed to Grand Place for the only place we all knew - 'The Roy'. This was less busy than usual, partly due to it being a Thursday (the official pub having moved to Delirium), and partly due to the price being now 6 Euro a beer. Which in depression-fuelled exchange rates means, it's 6 quid. At least the exchange rate conversions will be easier at 4am.

Then it was off to Keldekerk for grey shrimp croquettes and horse meat. The visit had the bitter-sweet quality of knowing it's still available, and that last year we were lied to (twice) about it. It's also where I learnt that '7 minutes' is the average time for a particularly elusive geek activity. I could probably manage 5; but only if I had an editor. And a body double!

As inevitable as night follows day, so beer follows food and it was off to the Delirium to try some different beers without the crush we knew was coming on Friday. We only stopped in for a couple. But ended staying for longer. I chickened out early at 2am, after getting nowhere with a cute Bulgarian girl (is there any other kind!?!?) and feeling the effect of having to work on that morning.


This day was earmarked for museums (Computer and music) and breweries (Cantillion.) Alas, I got a text at 10 saying that our meet-up at 12 was optimistic. And then a call at 12 saying we should start at 2pm. I was already out and about at this time, collecting a few beers to take home, and taking the odd photograph. I also bought my pre-requisite of cheese - Brugge Brune and Chimay Blue. Both are lovely, but at 3.50 for 5 slices, they had better be!

Whilst aimlessly walking the streets and thinking of Boris Johnson (don't ask!) I happened upon a gay sex shop called 'BorisBoy' and thought 'Gosh! Obvious no connection there!'. I also passed the comic shop which was selling a replica Harry Potter broomstick that, for the price, should have played a genuine game of Quidditch. I also saw a fantastic his and hers wedding outfit... then I realized a certain someone would tell me to 'man up' if I admitted how nice it looked :) So I won't mention it.

In fact, if I wanted to 'man up', I could prove myself by taking advantage of 'Fleur des Anges', one of the many cards in the hotel lobby with suggestions of 'What to do in Brussels'. Although, given the nature of the business on the cards, 'who' would have been better!

We convened by De Bruckere shortly after 2pm to hail a taxi. Which, by the way, is impossible in Brussels. So despite waving, jumping, smiling, and gesticulating wildly in their general direction, we slumped into the nearest hotel to ask them to order one for us. It appears that this is the only way to find one. Furthermore, due to the time dilation effect peculiar only to taxi offices, it means that "be there in 5 minutes", actually means "we'll think about it 20"! So we ordered a cab for 5 of us, thinking that the standard people carrier, so prominent everywhere else, would be the most cost-efficient option. It turns out, though, that there are no large cabs in the entirety of Belgium, so we were forced to take two.

The museum, once there, was great. Only I knew what to expect - a treasure trove of wonderful (and wonderfully old) technology. Kept, as all treasures are, along a corridor, down the lift, through the car park, and into the walk-in storage locker at the far end!

Starting with the old Burroughs calculating machines, Mr Laffut talked his way around a hundred or so exhibits including typewriters, Univacs, drum memory, tape drives, mainframes, and microcomputers. The man himself is a delight; knowledgeable, fun, and enthusiastic after all these years - he started as a salesman with Burroughs in 1961, back when the sales department needed to know about the technology because the public didn't - which made it a good fun two hours. Naturally, with 5 geeks, we did know more concerning some of the technical features of the hardware, but it didn't matter. His job, as Mr. Laffut proudly states, is to pass on this history to the next generation of computer scientists, of which we are some. All photos taken were for private use only which didn't bother me, until I saw that I'd got some good ones!

Upon returning to the centre of Brussels, we spent some time in the Poechenellekelder (by the Mannekin Pis) as we waited for the last of our group to arrive. I like this place. A good selection of beers, quiet, table-only service, free nibbles, and they put the beer _bottles_ on to the beers mats, not the glasses. Once we'd regrouped (and Bush Noel had been tested) we left for food.

Despite Poechenellekelder being right next to the statue, one of our group hadn't seen it on his way in - despite the fact he must have walked straight passed it to get into the pub - so we pointed it out to him. The Mannekin Pis, by the way, is a boy putting out a fire by peeing on it. He's stood there in his full glory, holding his willy. The immediate quote was "it's smaller than I thought".

Story of my life!

After food at Le Cap (another traditional place), we headed back to an over-busy Friday night at the Delirium (as usual), and somehow managed to vulture a table for our group. We had only intended to stay for one beer to see and be seen with the usual crowd, but a few too many beermats were purchased and so we were forced to stay a little later than planned. Only 3 or 4 hours later, mind. Here we played the 'guess the distro' game (some geeks are just _too_ easy to read) and complained like tourists about the influx of tourists!


Despite my early night, I'd mis-calculated the time, so I left the hotel at 12.00, expected to attend a talk at 11.45. I later discovered that the schedule was in error, which made me feel slightly vindicated. In fact, much of the programme seemed disjointed this year. So much so that I turned up at Janson on Saturday 17:00, not realizing the talk was actually on Sunday. (Note to organizers: when the left and right side of the pages read "Saturday", I don't expect a Sunday keynote sandwiched on the bottom of one of them.) This affected me worse, I think, because I tried to be clever and use a schedule based on rooms, not talks.

The route to ULB was fairly uneventful. But I did pass a shop called 'Veritas', which I thought meant 'truth'. It sold lingerie. Which looked padded. Ironically. I also paused by the market on Flageyplain to avoid the beggar.

So, arriving too late for my intended talk, I instead queued for a 2 Euro beer (a Rochefort) and when it fizzed over (by being too warm) another was fetched. This is one of the reasons I like Belgium - they take their beer seriously, and aren't afraid to understand and rectify the problem without fuss. I also like the fact that on-site bar is not over-priced, like so many others. (OK - so you can get the same beer for 1.20 in the supermarket down the road, but you have to walk there, and keep it cold, and SuperGB is not open on Sundays.)

I began the afternoon by trundling my weary bones to the Arduino talk, which was more about Forth really. I was happy with the gentle start to the day, since all my memories of 'colon to make a word', 'postfix notation', and 'stack manipulation' came flooding back. As is the case these days, I am able to remember the structure of a programming language I haven't used for 15 years but not the name of the girl I was talking to the night before! Typically, the flashing LED demo broke, but was easily fixed. Running an interpreter on such a chip was a nice idea, and something that I doubt many other languages could manage.

Annoyance #1. Guile talk. Of the 7 empty seats in front of me, guess where the fat bloke sat?

The talk reminded me about Guile (a Scheme-like language) which I'd included in my second book and, again, the principles came flooding back. This also featured ideas about changing program states on the fly. It's something I've done for years... but only because I have no tests suites to tell me not to! I wonder what the Agile guys would say about it.

I then visited the home automation talk, which was not about home automation. Certainly not as I understand it. It was more about the hardware elements; and that UBL (Universal BootLoader) is not universal enough, so it was rebuilt as BUBL. It also reminded why companies like to send marketroids - they might be simple, facile, and uneducated, but you don't usually get people walking out.

Annoyance #2. Even more rude people talking on their mobile (OK - so they were saying "this talk is sh!t, I'm leaving")

Next up was the Gallium talk. You know you're getting old when the police look young. Or FOSDEM speakers look younger. Especially when they've spent a few years to write a graphics abstraction layer and think it's innovative. (Sorry!) But it was nice to see Foley/Van Dam being explained to me again after 20 years.

Annoyance #3 as newcomers enter the room late, and try to move into the centre seats, instead of taking the free ones near the end.

Annoyance #4, BTW, is second hand knowledge and concerns "MySQL ranting guy" who apparently failed to grasp the difference in requirements for master and slave databases. But I wasn't there.

After the day's hungover had worn off we headed back into town, via Marcolini's chocolate shop on Mini Me's road, to start the food and drink process all over again. Citing reasons of variety we were going to eat somewhere new tonight - but in order to ensure a successful navigation we would meet at Poechenellekelder for a swift one first at 7.30. Alas, it was already full, so diversions to cash machines and the odd scouting mission meant that we were only ready to move by 8.00 and consequently had to head straight to a restaurant.

Being tourists we picked Drug Opera.

Everywhere else around we'd either been to in previous years (this was my 10th, so it's not surprising) or we know it to be cheap/expensive/tacky/rubbish (pick any three.) Our selection fell in the same category of Leon - big enough for groups, decent-ish food, but you wouldn't take a date here. (The main clue is that it has a fixed price menu outside, written in four languages.) Oh, and there was a FOSDEM contingent on all three floors of the place. Most sporting Debian shirts. I repeated my order for shrimp croquette and carbonnade (doesn't match Le Cap) and left at 11.10. We were now ready to face an entire pub full of peeps for the Debian party. A party which, incidentally, consisted of drinking beer in a pub. Which is exactly the same as every other night, as I understand. The difference here being that they probably washed and ironed their t-shirts first!

So we headed off to Monk (navigating using only my memory from when I last passed this way 3 years ago) The revellers were already overspilling onto the pavement so we decided to cut our loses at head directly to Rock Classic. Odd selection of music tonight. Not sure why. There was also reams of chat, beermat flipping, and beer. No one saw me flip 15 in each hand, while drunk. Apparently I feel asleep, while my 'friends' balanced beer mats on my head for a while. Naturally, I saw the photos the following day to prove the fact. I eventually left at 4, those more committed stayed until the bar staff went home.


Another late start for me, today, as I packed up my things and left my bags in the luggage room at the hotel. And by 'hotel luggage room' I actually mean 'a corner in the restaurant next door'. Ho hum. I headed out in the general direction of ULB and arrived at the campus around 12.00, only to realize the next available talk was at 13.00, so I marched off to get some supplies. And more beer glasses. Carrefore was Closed on Sunday, which meant I missed out on getting stroop waffles, licorice and the Westmalle glass and beer pack. But I did find some waffles at Delhaize, just further down the road, so it wasn't a complete waste.

It was then back to ULB for quick chat with Josette a the O'Reilly stand where she proved, without any doubt, that I was getting old! Another quick chat with Heike, Murb, and Phil at the Debian stand (where all three failed to sell me a tartan tie). And other random chats with fellow London-based geeks on their way to various talks. With nothing burning its desire into my mind, I eventually settled on the Gluon talk. I certainly like the idea of including no compiled code in game, although I'll reserve judgement until I see a real-world game done this way. Naturally, plug-ins do exist for the library, and the draw method had an inexplicable 'time elapsed' argument. I lacked the time to understand in detail about the whys and wherefores of this approach (I'd dismissed it due to complications on console hardware, although I understand its benefits), but I did like the message passing system (which reminded me of EventDispatch in AS3). They also hyped a live demo... which lived up the standard expectations by crashing on exit!

Getting the cab back tonight was even more trouble than usual; and I fear many were ready for fisticuffs! After the time dilation effect turned '15 minutes' into 'half an hour', we eventually got back to the Eurostar (detouring past both our hotels) with an hour to spare. So we, like everyone else and their luggage, popped into the place opposite for a quick snack before the trip. The journey was moderately uneventful, filled only with quiet conversation, concerning the Kindle, Germany, and how to measure the speed of light with a microwave and a bar of chocolate.

Once back on UK soil, we said our goodbyes and I made the 20 minute journey from platform 8, to platform 3. Although this didn't matter since there was no train there for me (Sunday's timetable has subtle, annoying, differences), so I had to resorted to one on B... which I made within 2 seconds of the doors shutting. Running is quite an achievement for me at any time. More so with two cases of beer, and 4 hours sleep since Wednesday. I therefore elected to stand up on the journey home, lest I fell asleep and woke up in Bedford. I couldn't deny my tiredness, as even the UK train announcements made no sense as I tried to translate them from French.

By 11pm I put my bags down for the last time this year in my hallway. All 31 bottles of beer got home intact. My Maredsous earthenware goblet got home intact. My chocolates got home intact. My luggage got home intact. My liver got home.