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.Friday
For various health reasons I had been on a three day fast before FOSDEM. That ended when I arrived on Thursday evening. In fact, I even made use of the one hour time difference so I could finish it earlier. A quick stop to drop bags at the hotel and it was out to Le Poechenellekelder to spend the first of my budget of euro, and the last of my allowance of calories.
I had no idea what three beers would do after fasting.
So I headed back to the hotel (at only 00.30 or so) and spent a couple of hours working on the emulator I was writing on the train over here. But, whatever magic was at work, it meant that I finished a working version! This included a basic debugger, tape reader, and a test program to write 'Hello world.' I should probably check the file datestamps to work out when I went to bed, but I'm not sure I want to know. All I want to remember is that it was the most productive journey I've had in a long time.
With such a late finish the night before, meant I could have a lay in the morning after. It was well deserved. But since I had to switch hotels, I still needed an alarm. You see, this year I was a speaker on one of the main tracks (a first for me!) so the organisers had booked me into the 'official' hotel at the Atlas. I, due to 'reasons' was travelling out on the Thursday and so needed a single night in a vacant place the night before. Consequently, I spent Friday morning dragging a suitcase through the streets of Brussels, in the rain, to my second home for the weekend. I checked in. Found that my room was decorated with photographs of places in South Africa that I had visited (as if they knew), dumped by bags and headed out for supplies. Knowing that I'd spend at least 40% of my weekend exhausted I headed to the nearest supermarket for cola, sweets, chocolate, and (of course) beer! I always give each of my FOSDEM talks with a beer in hand. It's a tradition. (One I like to think I started.) And since I had three talks on the schedule this year, meant I needed to find three beers. This is the hidden code of FOSDEM!
The afternoon was to be spent trawling the second hand electronic shops, but I got distracted by humans - which in this case was a good thing. A rare occurrence! This ended up with two of us accidentally discovering the Brussels Beer Project, a bar in St Catherine, before making our pilgrimage to Delirium. (A place I'm only now beginning to learn how to spell!)
The Delirium Cafe has, for the last few years, hosted the Friday night beer event. Every year I think it'll be my last trip, as the place is too oversubscribed and the token system results in a much smaller selection than the bar offers. (Since they have over 3000 beers in their cellar, and you have a choice of 20, that's an understatement.) But we arrived at 6pm so the place wasn't stupidly busy, and we did get to spent a couple of decent hours here. However, seeing as the place hadn't exceeded 8.5 on the 'Steevs Sardine Density' score when we left I think that either, a) the incoming trains were all delayed, b) people had been put off by last years experience and decided to not bother. On the plus side it meant the bar could be traversed in a time less than the heat death of the universe. But the beer was served in such small plastic cups you felt like you weren't getting your money's worth and, as I'm a beer sommelier in my other life, I couldn't understand why Delirium Nocturnum should taste like bad coffee.
When the sardine density hit 9.0 we left and headed towards 'the horse place' for dinner, so called because it's where one can get good quality horse meat. Tonight's choice, however, was plain. Carbonade flamande. A regretful choice, since it wasn't as good as the ones I make at home. But I'll know for next time.
I returned to Delirium, for the sole reason of using the remaining tokens I'd bought, and bumped into an old friend (that I thought was still in Australia) and some new friends and chatted tech, geek, and life for a few hours before both tokens and wakefulness power had been depleted. Back to the hotel. Tomorrow was a big day.Saturday
This year, FOSDEM was already going to be the best ever when I heard that I had a main talk, in a main track, on the main stage. I have been to every FOSDEM, and always wondered what it must be like to have an ability to earn a place on that stage. Having now done, I still wonder what it must be like to have an ability to earn a place on that stage! But even so, the planning of my talk had been relentless. Too much. In fact, in rehearsals that talk lasted just under an hour. I had 50 minutes. So I pruned, and streamlined, and fixed, and improved.
On the day I ended up lasting only 30 minutes.
It was mortifying.
Digital archaeology is a massive area, and I was discussing a topic that most people would have never previously considered. It deserved longer. I could have spent the time talking about my emulation projects, or my archive project, or my museum work. But it's not about me. I had given the links to the projects if people were interested. Most attendees (of which there were probably 400-500) had read the abstract and/or my interview and decided that it was something worth listening to. So, instead of ending early, I opened up the floor for questions and held one of my best geek discussions ever.
My thoughts are this: if you attend a talk and listen, that's great. You learn stuff. You're inspired by stuff. You go away and improve the world. That is great. But you could do that on the live stream. So if you engage with the speaker, or the audience, and use the talks as a stepping stone to something else, that's greater. You can't do that on the live stream. As a consequence of my talk I had 10-12 people continuing the conversation afterwards with Roberto from Software Preservation Library, someone needing inspiration to work on a Nokia N-Gage emulator (which I hope I inspired further!), some people involved in ScummVM, and many others. I even played matchmaker in the Q&A, with one audience member helping another find a home for his father's collection of French computing history ephemera. Which was nice.
As you might have guessed, when presenting on the main stage everything that happens before or after it pales into insignificance, so there's big gaps in memory. One thing I do remember is the blood. As I've mentioned, I have a beer with every FOSDEM talk I give. This year, however, I had the wrong keys with me and so had no keyring. No one has ever described me as a "mans man" (whatever that truly means) and so the idea of opening a bottle cap with a pen, key, or desk edge was completely foreign to me. I tried using a key but, unbeknownst to me, I had bloodied by hands in doing so. Luckily, one of the organisers knew a trick and prepared the bottle for me, just as I was about to go on stage. But, as I say, once your name is read out, and the audience applaud your entrance, there isn't much to think about except the next words out of your mouth. And the words flowed faster than the blood so it was OK, and I did (what I feel) was a good job!
As a consequence of this talk I upgraded my own status from Z-list geek celebrity, to Y-list geek celebrity. Primarily because everyone that saw me would say "why are you a celebrity?" But I attended a variety of other talks throughout the day, made a number of notes, and gave myself a chance to quieten down.
In the evening we headed back into central, via Flageyplein. This has now become a traditional half-way stop that has a number of nice bars, and has less of a taxi scramble than ULB. (On more than one occasion we'd had our taxi swiped when someone else claimed to be us - someone needs to explain authentication to these drivers!) So we stopped for a couple of beers while I explained (bored?) our small table with the minutiae of how the Elliott 903 computer (from 1965) would bootstrap software using only three words of memory.
But, falling into the familiar bosom of Saturday night, we headed back to central for food and beer. The restaurant that used to serve only duck (which we loved) has closed down. In its place is a restaurant that serves only beef. Which was fine by us. Good food but, with the sandman lurking (in a bad way) there was no rock club to be had tonight, instead I was alone with a broken phone (stupid iD/T-mobile network) and a thirst. So, I did what any self-respecting Sherlock-wannabe would do... reasoned where another group of friends would be staying, wandered the streets in my virtual mind palace, found the nearest good bar, made some adjustments based on where the FOSDEM-related parties would be (knowing they wouldn't be so obvious as to attend them), and picked a place. I headed straight there in the hope of finding them.
First time! (As LEGO Batman might say.)
They were sat at the table by the door, so we enjoyed a few beers and magic tricks (not just from me - although in my other life I am a magician) before I headed home, since I had a 9am talk to present.Sunday
This is the second year in a row that I've been asked/coerced/bullied into giving a talk at 9am on a Sunday morning. Last year it was computer games, and I packed the room. This year was WebRTC, where I didn't. I suppose you can't win them all. But anyone that's prepared to make the journey to ULB at that sort of time is committed enough to make a good audience, so it was all good. I stuck to time, took questions, and introduced the day of real-time communications. Granted, it was my second time giving this exact talk at FOSDEM, so I should be getting better at it by now, but I'd still like a few more chances to hone it. (In both code and presentations, I'm rarely happy with anything as there's always something that can be improved upon.)
I stayed in the RTC room for a while, since it's one of my main areas of study, before heading to IoT (one of my other main areas of study) to hear a couple of talks before my presentation. (My second of the day, my third of the weekend, and my 12th at FOSDEM overall!)
Of all the talks, this was the one I really liked in preparation (having giving only once before to a truly wonderful Perl audience) but, whilst sitting in the third row in the previous talk, felt it was lacking. I ran through the slides... still lacking, but I couldn't tell why. Luckily, the previous talk finished early and my machine and I were ready 10 minutes before time. I had a chance to talk to the organiser about stuff and, by sheer luck, between that chat (which opened up some repressed memories!) and my second slide I realised the hook that the talk needed and let rip. In my mind it was a success. And the noise of applause and laughter in my ears (I hope in a good way) suggests it was. I got to speak with a couple of people afterwards and we carried the conversation into the bar behind Janson, where we stayed for the rest of the day.
I don't remember much else!
I was gifted a bottle a beer, brewed in a server room (a first for me!) by Techinc.nl and used the remainder of my Euro on beer. I also found time to use my speakers 'free meal' voucher on a cheese baguette. I was going to use it for a hot meal, but the queues were so long I couldn't be bothered to wait. So I got the cheese, emptied out all the green stuff (i.e. vegetables) and made do. By the time the closing keynote had come around I was so tired I could barely keep my eyes open. So, I followed half of what JCM was saying and made notes to watch it again.
It was a long walk home in some bitter winds. I discovered only one thing - bollards are so named because they are at the same height as a gentleman's boll... testicles, and you can quite easily walk into them when distracted!
With everyone else on trains home, I decided to have a quite night catching up on news and correspondence. Alas, my online order of food never came (stupid pizza place) so I was forced to trudge the streets looking for something suitable for a sad lonely geek. An inauspicious end to the day.Monday
I had already planned my Monday - quietness. I bought a suitcase full of beer (literally) and some chocolate to take home (so much so that the shop keeper recognised me.) I then spent the day on a contemplative pub crawl, visiting as many new places as I could. There's a new Roi d'Espagne now, a Little Delirium, and many others. I logged onto WiFi into each of them so that (should I ever have phone problems again) I have a person grid network of every WiFi hotspot in the capital!
In addition to beer and some food, I used the time (and WiFi) to read the news and write jokes for a new radio series. (Which ultimately never got used, but that's the way it goes.)
It was a strange day. I wondered the streets like a local but managed to forget which of the streets would take me to location X the quickest. What made it doubly weird was the fact I could still remember the layout of every beer supermarket I visited, and the shortcuts between them. At least my trip to the states, the week before, had meant I knew which side of the road heralded the traffic!
But, as planned, it was a quiet day. A quiet, if busier than expected, Eurostar to London. And a quiet evening at home.