Friday Saturday Sunday Monday Afterwords

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.


I have been thinking about this FOSDEM for last few years. Not just it being another FOSDEM, but about it being this FOSDEM. The 20th. And back in December I learned I would be giving the keynote, so it took on a special significance. That said, I still adopted my latest tradition of arriving on Thursday night for a quiet beer. This year, however, was the time of the UK leaving the EU, and the Grand Place had been illuminated with the Union Jack. (Whether it was in celebration, or commiseration, of Brexit I could not say. But every one I spoke to was sad to see the UK leave.) Alas, I arrived too late to see it, and so retired to have a beer by myself.

There's something peaceful about that. Me. Alone. With a beer. I have nowhere to go, no one to meet, and no expectations for me to hold a conversation. Plus, as a bonus, I can listen to those at the neighbouring tables talking about FOSDEM. All the time without them knowing that the speaker they're talking about is a friend of mine. Or that I was at last years incident they were describing. Or that the closing talk that they're looking forward to would be given by yours truly.

It's a quietening comfort.

And if my keynote goes well, I'll be too famous to experience again :)


Knowing I was giving a talk at 9am on Sunday meant that Saturday night would be a polite evening with no diversions. So I was contractually obliged to do the rounds of bar-hopping, rock clubs, and other incidental debauchery on Friday!

The day itself was a casual catch up with friends, and a chance to beta test my keynote with one of the organisers, where I also picked up a few tips and stories that also found their way into the presentation. No matter how often you talk about, and listen to events about, FOSDEM you can guarantee there will always be more to discover.

Maybe I should write a book.... Hmmmm!

We had gatecrashed the CentOS event around lunch time with the intent of experiencing one of the many "FOSDEM Fringe" events taking place that weekend. Unfortunately, both the food and seats were in short supply, so by the time the usual suspects were assembled there were equal numbers of empty bellies and empty plates. So we left looking for a snack - which turned out to be beer and meatballs - and booked a restaurant for the evening.

The rest of the afternoon was filled with beer at various establishments, including the Brussels Beer Project, which looks to be a new tradition in the making. As you might expect, every establishment serving beer was serving it to FOSDEM attendees. Again, all oblivious that any story overheard might get used!

A rather nice surprise was running into three old friends in a random bar next to St Catherine. One had no idea I was keynoting. One didn't understand why I was keynoting. And one I'd not seen for 11 years - almost to the day.


I awoke much later than planned, due to the previous nights escapades. I can probably make a good guess as to what they were, but the order might be a bit hazy, so I'm not going to embarrass myself by trying to remember. Suffice to say, it was a good night, and a slow morning!

Guessing that everyone else was at the conference I started to make my way there alone, before receiving a message that in fact, no, they were still in the hotel. So, I doubled back on myself and got a taxi with them.

The only thing on my Saturday schedule was to meet Jon 'maddog' Hall to ensure our two talks didn't clash, or contradict each other. (They didn't, but it's always good to check these things.) So, I spent my time wandering between which ever room had space and/or a power socket. But most of my time was spent with the stall owners in both K and the (oft-forgotten) AW buildings.

Saturdays always feels like a short day, giving the two morning keynotes. But this year it felt even shorter as the rooms were busier, and so more time was spent (wasted?) walking around the campus. While the app has a nice notification system to tell you whether a room is full, or not, it's a very manual process and not all room hosts have mastered it!

The evening was as quiet as predicted - Dim Sum at Flageyplein, to avoid the 3x cost of getting an Uber back to central, beer at Brew Dog (Slowest. Service. Evar!) and home by 1.30am. The only point of note was the stop at an off license to get some beer for tomorrow; but I shall explain why later.


As a veteran of FOSDEM, I've given talks on Sunday at 9am before. This year it was to be about that warm chocolatey topic of WebMIDI. But, like every talk, you never know what you're gonna get! Some 9am slots have been a capacity room with 200+ people, while some have been 40 bleary-eyed geeks wondering if either of us were even in the correct room. But, if you come to a talk expecting to see me - look for the bottle of beer in hand. It's a tradition I started back in 2008 and, regardless of the time of day, have upheld ever since. Unfortunately, that often means bringing my own beer to the venue because the cafe, quite sensibly, isn't serving 10% alcohol at 8.45am!

It was a quiet room. Maybe 40 people.

A few more had crept in by the end, but it was an slightly underwhelming turnout. But, someone has take one for the team and open the room, and this year it was me. Luckily, those that did attend seemed attentive enough to laugh in the right places, so I had done my job. (It was my fault that I had decided to take a MIDI keyboard with me to Brussels and now, talk completed, was doomed to carry it around every room and talk for the rest of the day!)

Most noticeable for me is that I made a mistake! During the questions I was asked "Do I think there will be librarian software written in WebMIDI?" and I said "Probably not - WebMIDI was too late to the party, and such software has already been written natively." I now think that's wrong. On reflection, the vast number of sysex messages, patch formats, and so on, will demand a web app because it's the only thing which can keep pace with the vast array of devices on the market. Plus, providing a way to preview, swap, or sell, patches via the web would create a brand new form of social network.

So, if you're that person - sorry. Please see above.

Everyone else. If you want a free business idea, please see above!

After my WebMIDI talk I stayed to watch the VR/AR talks, and then headed out for a stint in the lightning talks room to learn about routers and emissions. Then back to the JavaScript room for the second of this years three talks.

Strangely, this was the talk I was concerned about. It was about composing a symphony using JavaScript, and was a last minute addition to the schedule. The previous time I'd given the talk it was 90 minutes long, and could have been longer! Additionally, this was a more technical audience and my "10% inspiration - 90% perspiration" quote mapped quite nicely to "10% JavaScript - 90% composing a symphony with..."

But, despite being unable to get the sound hooked into the video boxes (organisational hint!) I could hold a microphone close enough to the laptop to get my compositions heard in the room. This was essential, and well received. Maybe it was the novelty of the topic, or the fact that I'd laid the groundwork of JavaScript composition with my WebMIDI talk previously, but no one was asking questions about the technical aspect of the process! They were interested in the process, the art, and the role of the composer. All good stuff!

From here I headed to the RTC room. I've presented here many times before, and was greeted like an old friend by the devroom organisers. I also got to speak to some people from my previous talk. While discussing the composition a little more, and mentioning that I was there to spread ideas and not sell my album, my phone beeped. Someone had bought the album!

Another 149 sales and I've paid for this years trip to FOSDEM!

The rest of the afternoon was a blur. I sat outside K.4.401 listening to the talk inside, hoping to pick up some tidbits about the FOSDEM video boxes for my keynote. Then I headed to the info desk to meet Raphael to discuss his role in the talk.

Yes, that Raphael!

He was at the meeting, in the building, and talking with me. He was as down-to-earth as he was back in the day. I knew he wouldn't remember me, and he didn't. And I wasn't a fan-boy, so that worked out nicely. Of course, you might expect me to be a fanatic, because of my devotion to the conference, but back when we first met he was 'just another user group organiser', and I had met plenty of them. Over time he stepped back from organising, and so had less of a status amongst the normal conference goers. In fact, when I asked at the info desk if Raphael was hiding in the staff room they said "Who's Raphael?"

But we found each other and walked around K building looking for a quite room to talk. I outlined the presentation, how I would introduce him, and what I wanted him to do. He was very amenable to everything. At this point, and not before, did I realise my talk could be a success. In the worse case, I knew there'd be at least one person enjoying it!

Spoiler alert: his whole "bit" on stage was scripted. It was his idea to wear his original shirt, and his desire to perform the FOSDEM dance. There's no way I would potentially (or intentionally) embarrass anyone that gets onto stage with me, so it was great that he wanted to do something so silly.

By the time we'd finished planning it was 4.30. The talk was at 5.00, so we left and stood outside Janson waiting for maddog to finish. (I had seen maddog speak many times, and already had his slides so I knew roughly what to expect, but it was still a shame to miss the electricity by standing outside. I didn't want to be seen walking into the talk halfway through, as that would appear rude. When the audience do it noisily it's off-putting, but for a fellow speaker I consider it unprofessional.)

So, Raphael and I waited outside as a queue began to form. A queue. For me! This tells me that there will be an audience for my talk, at least. It also told me that no one knew who I was, despite giving 16 talks at FOSDEM. And that no one knew who Raphael was, despite starting this little shindig! Surreal doesn't describe it. If a movie is ever made of the history of FOSDEM I would like those minutes to be the opening scene: two geeks commenting casually in the corridor of a Belgian university, filmed in near-silhouette, as a nearby group of developers comment on the upcoming talk, oblivious as to who was next to them. Then the camera pans. The bright lights of the auditorium appear, and the roar of the crowd. And a flashback to the first FOSDEM with people fiddling with incompatible projectors...

Well. That's how I see it...

Of course, the reality was nothing like it.

After maddog had finished speaking, we filed in normally. Raphael headed quietly to a seat in the middle of the front row. The technicians and I prepared the laptop, microphones, and slides. It took a little longer than planned, and even then we still forgot to plug the laptop back in so the talk had a 4 minute improvisational routine from me.

By way of a sidebar, I did receive a message from an eagle-eyed viewer of the live stream that my laptop was running low on juice. But, as a professional, I had already put my phone on mute so I didn't get the message!

The talk seemed to go well. Filling the time as required. And not lagging too much, and with only a couple of audio problems that I was aware of. The video is now live, so I'll let you make up your own minds.

I could give a whole talk about the process of writing and giving that keynote. It was, after all, a talk that took me 20 years to write! The only moment I'll divulge here is the roar that Raphael got when I brought him on stage. The video is good. But it does no justice the physical power and emotion I felt when that laugh and applause happened. It was a true sign that people loved FOSDEM, and they loved the people (and the person) that make it happen.

After the talk I kept talking in attempt to stop people walking out before the closing remarks (I almost succeeded!) and then joined my compadres outside for a photograph. The plan was to have a line of people wearing FOSDEM t-shirts, one for every year. We didn't get every them all, but did quite well! In fact, in true open source style, I was late leaving the auditorium because I had some clean-up to do and so my idea was forked, and someone else organised the photoshoot. This meant I was only in a couple of the pictures. A shame, for sure, but as Raphael said to me earlier, about FOSDEM "if it can go on without me, then I've done a good enough job"

With cupcake in hand my group and I hailed a taxi and went for dinner in town, with our new friend. I still had a bit of a buzz, which I was able to slightly placate with Ommegang and Carbonade flamande. But it was a night of reflection as much as celebration, since we had two nights booked in Leuven, so before it got too late we left to find a train. Our hotel. And then a rock bar. Where, once again, I was an anonymous nobody in a crowd of people with more interesting stories than mine.


Our two days in Leuven were spent in museums, galleries, town halls, and bars. Mostly reflective, and not very interesting to anyone that wasn't there, so I won't waste CPU cycles documenting it here.


Suffice to say, this was the FOSDEM to which I contributed the most. And took least. It has generated more diary blogs, more dev rooms, more fringe events, and more people than I've ever known. Perhaps my paltry efforts are no longer required? If so, that's fine. I've done my time! Perhaps someone will invite me on stage in 2040 to talk about these first 20 years.

I've since seen reviews saying things like "A very emotive talk", and "Very entertaining" so I guess I have connected with other people. There was also a reddit thread dedicated to my talk.

Of all the talks I gave over the weekend, the only one I'm linking to here is my keynote. It's something I'm going to remember for a long time. Not necessarily because of the presentation, or that it's the best one I've ever given, but because of the 20 years it represents. Most of my adult life has been spent here, outlasting friendships, relationships, and most Microsoft operating systems!

It's been a blast. Thank you to everyone who's been on these journeys with me. And to Raphael who helped so many of us find our tribe!

The video