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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.


This years FOSDEM was all about the numbers. It was the 15th FOSDEM I'd attended (i.e. all of them), the 7th at which I'd spoken (on 7 different open source projects!) and the one that meant I was now the most-attended member of my peer group. Consequently, it didn't really matter what happened, so long as I got there in one piece.

And I managed it.

The start of the journey was from London at stupid o clock... er... I mean 6am, so even allowing for an hour delay on the incoming suburban train, and an hour delay at check-in, meant that I was awake earlier than usual, and had more time to kill than usual. Not that I kill time (as it will kill you right back) but I invested the opportunity to get basic medicines and then proof-read a chapter of my new book. It's a nice feeling. Knowing that everyone else on the benches were reading a book, I was busy writing one that they could be reading this time next year!

We arrived in Brussels without incident and walked the 15 minutes to the hotel. A rather grand affair, to be honest, and the length of the stay meant an upgrade to a business room. That is, it's bit bigger than normal, and has a sofa. Alas, the early morning journey meant an arrival too early for check-in - that wasn't possible for another couple of hours. So, what does a computer geek do in Brussels? For two hours?

Drink beer. That's what!

It was a short walk to the Manneken Pis and Poechenellekelder, one of my favourite bars, for a glass or two. Being January, there were still a selection of the special (read: strong, high ABV) beers from Christmas-time. I indulged in a 75 cl bottle of St Bernadus Noel. They also brought ham and cheese. Normally they only bring crisp-based nibbles. Maybe they recognized me. Maybe it was the 75cl bottle I'd bought for myself. Needless to say, it was the first (and to date, last) time I got so well fed there!

We had general chats over beer, followed by a detour back to the hotel to formally check-in. This was followed by a mid-afternoon beer at Delirium Cafe. While this is the place for Friday night beer, the experience has been so disappointing over the last few years (too noisy, too crowded, etc) that we took the opportunity to enjoy the surroundings on Thursday, in the manner they're intended - with relative sedation.

From here it was a short walk to dinner which, tonight, was ribs. I have no idea as to the decision making process, or how I got there. Or back. Suffice to say, I enjoyed the beer very much, and the early start meant that returning to the hotel at 10pm was a welcome (albeit early) end to the day.


This was the only day that was truly planned, and with a plan that we stuck to. It started with a hotel breakfast which was a traditional continental affair of bread, cheese, and ham. Still to this day, I have no idea what do they do with all the taste they extract from hotel food!

From here we made it to Heysel. Not for the football, or for the Atonium, but for ADAM. ADAM is Atomium Art & Design Museum, a gallery of plastic from 1960-2000. It was a very new, and interesting collection. It's worth a visit - if you can find it, tucked away in the middle of nowhere - although it's best to take your own guide book or encylopedia of plastic furniture since nothing is effectively labeled. Each neatly folded cardboard name plate will detail the year and the manufacturer, but not the item in question, nor what it does. Some of the items are obvious and famous, some you have to guess based on the number of headphone sockets and whether you can find a tuning dial or not. Otherwise, its use will remain a mystery. My solution: photograph it now, and Google it later! The other most obvious omission from ADAM was the lack of any 3D printed work. Something I hope they rectify.

Being in the area there was a compulsory walk around the Atomium taking selfies (or 'self portraits' as I used to call them!) and having a quick beer stop. Then it was onto the Chinese museum and Japanese tower. Neither was open. But we got some nice enough external shots, which I've compared with those I took in 1998 only to find that nothing has changed. At least the Atomium has had replacement stainless steel panels since I was last here. It meant I could get an original selfie from the reflection in the atom 25 meters above me. I know it's original because I submitted the photograph to the Atomium 'submit a selfie' address and got told it was. Or maybe they say that to all the boys!

Being so far out (in Brussels terms) we headed back to central for waffles and beer. (What else?) We also frequented the Delirium for the second time in two days as we met the third member of our FOSDEM party. Again, we stayed here until the crowds became annoying and unbareable, at which point we went for food at 'the horse place.' After all these years I don't know it's real name, nor on which street it resides. But I can find my way there blindfold. Next year, though, I'm trying the mussels since they appear to be as widely praised (if not more so) than the horse steaks.

Knowing I was speaking in the morning (we're over for a conference, in case anyone had forgotten!) it was back to the hotel for a nap, before heading out for a few cheeky evening beers with the fourth member of the group. It now felt like the proper start of FOSDEM!


The day started early, and it started wet. Our, usually pleasant, walk through the streets discussing the plan for the day had turned into a cold sodden drudge through the rain trying to take a route near shops with canopies. I arrived like the proverbial drowned rat with 7 minutes to spare before my talk. This still gave me time to prepare in the usual fashion. That is, appear on stage with a beer, have the slides, examples, and source code available on separate screens. And to have my waistcoat buttoned up.

The talk was on WebRTC and went very well, with standing room only before I had even started. Plus, people were stil coming in. A sure sign, in my book, that they were there to listen, and not just grab a good seat for the next talk! Afterwards I had the usual round of usual questions, met some interested people who are now hyped by WebRTC, and carried on with questions in the corridor outside. The questions went on so long that by the time I'd finished answering them the next talk had started, and there was no more space left. A shame, for sure, since it's one I'd wanted to see. Oh well, I hope they recover the video and watch it later!

My first talk to attend was on Migen and MiSoC. It's one of those talks similar in style to what I remember from FOSDEM all those years ago, when I understood only half the terms being spoken. The difference was that these days I can search for the term and its meaning before they've moved onto the next slide. This has the benefit of understanding more, but the problem of my wanting to build more, too. I continued to seek similar talks, such as the PCBmodE one by Saar, based on the distance I'd have to walk outside! I don't think I was the only one.

After the final talks we headed to Flageyplein for drinks, and then onto "somewhere to the west" for dim sum. Or rather, we tried, but being out of ULB's WiFi range we took a wrong turn and resorted to various methods to regain our bearings. By the time we arrived it was full, so we booked a table for 40 minutes hence and popped down the street... for drinks. But we did return for (a later than advertised) dim sum (which was lovely) before heading back to central for our traditional dose of Rock Classic. Unfortunately, the music choice was poor (to put it politely) so I left around 00.30 or 1.00, with everyone else leaving not long after. A damp end to a wet day in both literal and metaphorical senses of the word.


It's very unusual for me to make it into FOSDEM before 11am on Sunday, but the failure of RC the night before meant that it wasn't a difficult achievement to unlock. With the weather no better than the day before, we took a cab to ULB and dropped straight into the first talk on games. While it's always fun to hear about the open source community developing games, it's also rather disappointing. Lessons from professional game developers (of which I'm one) and authors on the subject (again, I'm one) have been largely ignored by those building the software. It's something I've not seen in the other areas of the community. Those working on communications projects have looked and learned from the last generation of comms tools to improve upon what went before. But games seems different. Maybe it's because the last generation of game devs had to make it all up as they went along because there were no resources to help them, and the current generation want that same thrill. Maybe it's inherent in game developers. It's not restricted to software, either. In the games hardware arena it's taking the developers a year to build something that most engineers would have ready in a couple of weeks. Ignoring the experience present just seems rude...

And thinking of manners, I think they're getting worse. After 15 years you'd like to think that a cache of geeks (if that's the correct collective pronoun!) would have understood that it's more beneficial to let people out of the room first, before trying to pile in.

Other talks involved Alice and Bob. Yes, it's security, but thinking of them as Alice in Wonderful and Spongebob Squarepants might have now irrevocably changed my opinion on security for the worse! I learned about Mainflux, how irony was programmed into the FOSDEM streaming platform (it was inactive for about 50% of the time, and the first time I had it working Ray Tsang was saying "something will fail".. at which point it did), OIN (who had the cleverest URL if you want to join them:, and quantum computers.

Also, one should mention the FOSDEM game. Simply watch the pictures sent with tweets about the talk you're in. Then, using the angle of the shot, try and work out who @JRandomGeek is from that alone!

There was also the FOSDEM sweepstake: how many times did the BBC Open Source department get asked about the (delay) appearance of the micro:bit, despite it not being their product. I think the result went negative after a while!

We ended Sunday's talk earlier than usual, cementing 'early' as the second keyword for the trip. Back to the hotel for a nap, and a beer or three with an old friend that was attending their first FOSDEM who I, despite following their Facebook posts regularly, hadn't realized was attending. I introduced them to Westvleteren 12 which is no longer the achievement it once was, but a minor win nonetheless. (I remember my first bottle, from the cafe opposite the monastry in 2007, which I did as pilgrimage for my beer podcast 'The Beer Crate.' Nowadays, it looks like it's available in half the bars in Brussels.)

Again, it wasn't a late evening by FOSDEM standards, but it did mean that Monday wouldn't be written off via a haze of hangover.


Breakfast was at Peck 47. Noms! This was only the second place on the trip that I'd never been to before. It was very good, and a place to which I'll return next year. The casual walk around town also added chocolate eclairs on the list of food to try. But we'd just had breakfast. So before Eclair Time there was a chance for a walk along the shopping streets, through the Botanical gardens, and (courtesy of a wrong turn) through half the red light district! Although being daylight, the women sitting on the chairs in the window were less enticing than normal! Luckily we were able to make a quick exit back to the mall for more shopping and frozen yogurt. In February.

In order to introduce some culture into the proceedings a trip to the Magritte gallery/museum was scheduled. Lots of interesting work, but nothing I truly understood. His more famous work is not here, although several variations on the same themes, are. And the shop was closed so I couldn't even educate myself in retrospect. Ho hum...

It was surprising how quick the day went. A beer stop at La Lunette here. A chocolate stop there. And it's already 4pm. We did make our annual trip to Mary chocolate shop, to which the lady asked "Do you know Mary chocolate?" I hadn't the heart, nor the language skills, to tell her that I used to walk to their shop by Congres 15 years ago, and over the years have spent more here than any other establishment. Except maybe Delirium.

Or Carrefour.

Since it was there that I bought a small selection (around 20 bottles) of beers to take home. Not that I could drink them at home, of course, since I'm running a marathon soon and so am on an enforced 'no alcohol' diet. Those beers are still in my wine cooler. Gloating at me. At least they're being kept at an optimal temperature for when the marathon's over.

Anyway, back to Brussels, and the final evening meal was in L'Entree des Artistes on Grand Sablon. A very nice place, where the beer costs less than water. As if I needed an excuse.


The final day was a traditional Belgian affair with a beer at Le cirio for breakfast, followed by duck at 'the duck place' (again, I don't know it's real name, nor how to get there!) We were there so early it could have been considered brunch, or even breakfast. But the beer and wine we used to wash it all down meant that lunch was probably the best term to avoid the accusation of alcoholic! p.s. the foie gras was excellent, even though it spawned the term "foie gras revenge" for when you've had so much (lovely) duck that you feel as full and stuffed as the poor birds do when they're being fattened.

We went from here to the chocolate shop for the eclairs we couldn't get on Monday (another Ferme le Lundi moment, See 2003 for the origin) and more beer at Delerium. Well, it wouldn't be FOSDEM if we didn't end our journey here.