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
FOSDEM had started on a downbeat before I'd even left the house. In the 12 months between the 2016 event and this one, 27% of the UK population had voted to turn its back on my second home of Brussels, in the United Kingdom European Union membership referendum. (The other 73% either voted to remain, or didn't vote.) Furthermore, in the week immediately preceding this, the British parliament had voted to leave the EU against the will of their individual constituency voters, but in line their party whip.
On a personal level, I'd spent the previous four weeks in, and travelling between, London, Cambridge, California, and home. To say that I was feeling the mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion that it brings would be an understatement. Even now, two weeks on as I write this missive, it seems hard to believe it's not yet even the end of February!
Any reserve energy I that had left needed to be brought to bear since I had two talks planned for FOSDEM. One covering WebRTC (at 10.30 on Saturday) and another discussing computer games (at 9.00 on Sunday.) Clearly, someone doesn't like me!
So back to the trip! Arrival on Thursday evening was quiet and uneventful, albeit with a different route to normal. Ensuing the usual rule of “always take the last leg of the journey on foot” I endured two trains and drank a luck potion to get me to St Pancras on time. (The luck potion ensured my connecting train was 20 minutes early... or perhaps it made the previous train was 5 minutes late... I can't remember!) At least the rest of the journey went according to the rehearsal – the security checks, the tickets and passports in the usual pockets, metal objects were all known and accounted for, and my pre-rehearsed explanation of why I'm carrying a suitcase inside my suitcase.
We boarded the train under relatively peaceful conditions, although Eurostar have since limited the amount of free wine you get in premium, and seemingly reduced the portion size (and quality) of the food. Surely the purpose of the former is to make you forget the latter? Oh well...
At the other end we found the hotel, and had a quick night cap drink in L’Imaige Nostre-Dame. It was a welcome return to a bar I'd not frequented in years. Two drinks later and we were on our way. Not through choice, you understand, but in an uncharacteristic move it was closing on time! I'm aware my minor patronage isn't enough to keep it running until next year, but I hope so. I need to spend longer in here, like I did in the early days of FOSDEM.
BTW, the room was a bit cold so I thought I'd leave the heater on whilst we went drinking. Alas, the room key card needs to remain in the room, slotted into the reader, to run electricity to the run. However, the reader doesn't scan the card like the door lock does; it works solely on the card hitting a microswitch in the bottom left. So, I found a similar sized card and slotted it in. Bingo! Another use for my LEGO VIP card!
This would be a non-day in most calendars. Indeed, it was for me. But a late breakfast at new favourite, the “only just the safe side of British hipster chic” Peck 47, a saunter around the city, and beers are all I need to magically turn a non-day into a good day.
The random walk took in Sablon, with it's cobbled streets and art stores, is one of the few vantage points in the city where the Atomium is clearly visible. Other much-neglected haunt Toone, the puppet theatre, was unfortunately closed and the bar deserted except for an casually anti-social cat, so we left. Next time I return it will be summer, so Toone should be open and I can visit the main theatre for the first time in (many) years as its one of several places I miss, since life got busy and I'm not able to make as many mid-year visits to Brussels as I used to. Instead we ventured to the more en-trampled route of Poechenellekelder and Delirium. When there's space, Poechenellekelder is adorable, with a nice selection beers and courtesy nibbles. There's also a menu for Christmas beer specials which, this year, had mostly sold out. But I did manage to find a couple of worthy bottles, at least. And as for Delirium? Well, it's always a pleasure to sit in here... when it's quiet! Come the evening – any evening – it's usually too busy and noisy to be pleasant. But mid-afternoon you can work through the menu in comparative peace, enjoying your Christmas present, with a wistful leisure.
As well as Friday being a non-day, it was also the only real day, since we were leaving on Sunday night, giving us no other time for shopping or sightseeing. So the evening was a mad rush of beer, chocolate shopping, and dinner. This year, FWIW, we were serviced by Moeder Lambic Fontainas and Aux arms du Bruxelles.
Given my early start on Saturday morning, and even earlier start on Sunday, it was deemed appropriate that the only sensible night to visit the rock club would be Friday. By sheer and utter fluke, there was a Jimi Hendrix cover band playing. And he was good. Very good. The trip was looking up.Saturday
We had picked a hotel based on its proximity to the bus stop. Specifically, the 71 to Delta. Boarding anywhere except the first few stops and you're lucky to find standing room, let alone a seat. This year we found a seat... by taking a taxi. Both days! The only constant thing about FOSDEM is change. And anyone's inability to stick to the plan. Even mine! So much so that I had to make a supermarket excursion whilst waiting for the taxi to buy some breakfast and the beers I'd need for my talks.
Upon arrival at K.3.401, the real-time room, I found it half empty. Which, as a pessimist, means most people think of it as being half-full. Either way, I was 20 minutes early so perhaps it wasn't so bad. I hadn't expected too many people at all to turn up at 10.30 for a talk on WebRTC, so I set-up the iPad and sat in the front row waiting it to start. (Being one of only a few presenters that use an iPad for presentations, I realised that it's not the smartest thing to do since your passcode is very visible on-screen when you sign in! ) But by 10.25, the room was full and I vacated my seat so a punter could use it... and it turned out that the punter in question was a friend from London!
By 10.30 it was standing room only. And then some.
Over the years I have given 9 different talks at FOSDEM, every one with a beer in my hand. Regardless of the time! 10.30 is a bit early to start drinking, to be honest, but as a gimmick I'm happy to use it. Furthermore, it's a tradition I like to believe that I started. I never saw it in the first lectures I attended 16 years ago, but have started seeing it a little more often now. But this year was probably the first time someone recognised the correlation of “me giving a talk” and “the speaker has a beer” so that was reaffirming. It's good to know my liver isn't going to waste for the sake of a missed joke!
After answering the questions from the audience I left the room (still standing room only) only to realize I was meant to be back in that room, watching the next talk! Alas, the room was already full so I couldn't ignore the sign and return. Well, I did return using the sense of 'speaker privilege' but left shortly afterwards, since I felt bad for doing so, and headed to the talk on software heritage. En route I picked up a 1 euro open source beer.
A 1 euro open source beer.
And it fulfilled every promise. It was made for OpenSuse. It used the same ingredients as beer. And it tasted like a product costing 1 euro! (By way of a snob-related disclaimer, in one of my other lives I'm a beer sommelier who prefers the darker beers, so this light and sharp brew from Mahrs Brau was never going to win awards from me.) However, the bottle, being of FLOSS origins is a much-valued part of my collection and is still sat on my desk (as inspiration) as I write this. Something worth much more than a euro, I'm sure you agree.
I continued to the other planned talks of the day, Passbolt, HAT on Raspberry Pi, SPI, and so on. All good talks, and all things I wish I had the time to dig deeper into. And them. Something that was much more noticeable this year, over others, is that almost every talk was brief. Most were only 20-25 minutes. Which, after introductions, questions, and change over, leaves very little time for content that really gets into the meat of the subject. I know I'm not alone in wanting deep dives (according to the self-perpetuating echo chamber which is Twitter!) so hopefully things will change next year. It is therefore unsurprising that my favourites were the ones afforded 50 minutes or more.
And, as per last year, around 40% of my first choices were full by the time I'd reached the room. Therefore, I'm looking forward to FOSDEM 2017.2 at the end of April when (after running the London marathon) I will watch the videos of everything I missed, with some reminiscent Belgian beers to hand.
After the talks it was time for a quick “talk and walk” back to the hotel. We hadn't gone for more than 100 meters before we decided, nay, needed, to stop into a bar to quench our collective thirsts. Of all the bars in all of Brussels we ended up walking in on a place full of FOSDEM developers. What are the chances of that happening?
Actually, come to think of it, what is the collective noun for a group of FOSDEM developers? Might I suggest, “a commit”?
Anyway, we had our drinks and hurried back to central for food and (more) drink. But, having learned our lessons from the previous night, we were tucked up in bed (comparatively) early so I could be fresh for my 9.00am talk on Sunday.Sunday
Another early morning and yet another worry about a (lack of) audience. This time I was headed to AW1.126, the Open Game Development devroom, to discuss the hows and whys of computer games not being as easy to develop as they look. While it should be less worrying on the second time around, it was more so. It was earlier, for one. Sunday, secondly. And there were no previous talks before mine anywhere on campus. Anyone and everyone in that room had got up at stupid-o-clock specifically to see me. In my commercial presentations I wouldn't worry – I've been a game developer for 20+ years, with number 1 selling games, and 3 books to my credit – but in the open source game development community, I'm still mostly unknown. In fact, I hadn't even put my game credits in FOSDEM bio, or on my slides, so no one had a chance of finding that out. (A mistake I shall rectify next time.) Any audience I got for this talk would be governed by my ability to write an abstract.
But I need not have worried.
While the crowd was not the size it was the day before, I had a 95% full room with some standing by the door. The talk itself went well, but it wasn't until I reviewed the tweets afterwards I realized it was better than I thought. (And I don't think it was because I gave away some of my books as bribes... er... I mean prizes!) Knowing that it was “worth getting up early for”, and “one of the best speakers [at] FOSDEM” were gratifying to hear, even though in the rush to get to the venue on time (again by taxi) I hadn't time to get any beer. So, it was first ever FOSDEM talk I'd given without one. I hope there's not a correlation!
Upon leaving the room to head to the security talk I wanted to see, I was hit by the cold. Not just a literal phrase, but a metaphorical one. For the 25 minutes previous, I had been the centre of attention in a small cosy world. But now, as I strode across the road heading from AW to H, I was just one of 8000 hackers all of whom were just getting on with the development tasks at hand and whose name might mean something on-screen, or adorning the cover of a book, but whose face is as anonymous as the next. In my case, balding, with a beard and glasses.
Sunday had more 'full' rooms than the day before, at least in my recollection, although I was to return to the warmth of the games room a couple of times. Mostly I was unknown to the late-riser crowd, but was also acknowledged by those that had camped there since the morning. Which, funnily enough, was most of them. It used to be obligatory that at least half of the audience should change between talks, causing system disruption like an over-zealous GPU context switch, but these days it feels less so. Just one of the myriad changes over the years.
Something that never changes is randomly meeting friends between lectures to catch up on the news I've missed. This year was no exception - with one getting married, and another discovering a sewer museum in Brussels, I lost out on both counts of providing the more interesting news!
The Sunday evening home journey was delayed in an annoyingly painful way, and Eurostar's continued limit on wine servings didn't help. So it was a very welcome state of affairs to get home that night. Buoyed by the weekend, but still with the over-arching sadness that it could be my last. As FOSDEM grows, my role within it dwindles. There's less I can learn from the brief overviews given at most of the talks, fewer opportunities to interact with the people I want, and I have fewer words to write in these diaries that hasn't been said before. It's mostly a chance for me to share what I've learned over the last two decades with a new generation. But are they interested? Have I become irrelevant?
Plus, without a company to pay for my trip it's a bigger financial burden, the inclination of balance is to move the learn-to-fun ratio heavily towards in the second category. That said, whilst planning this essay on a slow train to Cambridge at 8am one cold Tuesday morning, I had an idea for another style of devroom, which I've not seen before. I also sat thinking about the intellectual properties (and lack thereof) in the domains of recipes, clothing, housing, and similar life essentials. Surely with software becoming an essential item nowadays, perhaps it was time for a change in licensing. Or, at least, a rethink. Which made me think of other interesting edge cases in IP law. Which gave me idea for a fantastical magical talk.
So maybe I will be back next year, after all...