< December 2007 >
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Tue, 11 Dec 2007:

As fox2mike told me, "We're missing a kick-ass conference" (sitting behind the scenes).

Conferences are unnecessarily cruel on the organizers. After five days of FOSS.in, I was left drained & empty rather than re-energized. Compared to the last year, when I said it was Ardeo Redux, this year my emotions are completely different. Was no fun, this conference - show up early, baby-sit the hack center, feeling sick in the infernal cold snap. Anyway, I suppose that's what responsibility steals from all of us.

Kudos to everyone who's worked tirelessly behind the scenes all these years.

Some people grow with responsibility -- others merely swell.

posted at: 22:43 | path: /conferences | permalink | Tags: , ,

Tue, 07 Aug 2007:

FOSS.in is back and it is bigger than ever, stretching for five full days from tuesday to saturday (04-Dec to 08). But as I said last year, there are sort-of miniconfs this year. Instead of doing ordinary mini-conf style, this one is going to be project specific rather than topic-specific. This works out nicely for the big projects to get a little momentum going, but might be slightly bad for the small projects or platform coders (like me). I guess that's a chicken & egg problem which a conference cannot solve by itself.

there's a break in the wall

Since my previous post was about freed.in, I think there's something that needs to be said. While I was at OSCON, trying to convince people to submit talks to foss.in, I was asked an interesting question.

Not enough speakers ?: Sure, India does have enough qualified speakers to run a 5 day conference with the people we have. But foss.in, IMHO, has the resources to actually bring some really interesting people to India. Somehow the assumption that bringing in foreign speakers is an admission of weakness has to be debunked. I consider the fact that the conference can afford that as a strength. Actually being able to be in ad-hoc discussions with these folks itself brings about interesting results. No, I'm not talking about b-school style "networking". I'm talking about ideas getting thrown around, bounced off and suggestions being made by a group who probably would not have met if not for the conference. After all, the aim is to encourage communication, collaboration and contribution from India - not to merely showcase last year's work.

The new avatar of the conference itself has some modifications. The conference dinner is one of the things which has been borrowed from some of the more successful conferences. You can read the full announcement for more details.

You're not an alcoholic unless you go to AA meetings.

posted at: 03:53 | path: /conferences | permalink | Tags: ,

Sun, 10 Jun 2007:

Last monday afternoon, I tore myself from the mundane grind of office to go listen to Eben Moglen talk about GPLv3 and Beyond. The evening that was to follow was as brilliant as the golden monsoon sunset. I happened to miss the GPLv3 conference that went on last year, mostly due to personal reasons and I'd been out of the loop from the whole license process.

A Benevolent GPL: Most people assume GPL version 3 is going to get tougher on those who violate the license. But I was surprised to learn about the amnesty period for bonafide violations, to give the errant a chance to redeem themselves. The termination clause allows for a sixty day period to get back to compliance and avoid the penalties associated with copyright infringement.

Patents: I didn't hear this from Eben Moglen, but it bears repeating - "Where they were supposed to patent new inventions, companies have taken to inventing new patents". And with all due respect, that is exactly what is wrong with the current patent regimen.

The whole Microsoft deal was discussed in the meeting, where the failure of them to act up on the violations would automatically bring in Laches into effect. The FUD might actually work against Microsoft, even if they come up with the list of 253 patents because they will be deprived of all royalty claims for infringements wilfully ignored. Essentially, they're eating into their own war chest of patents with the bluffs.

The Process: There were several comments made about the GPLv3 process, which raises the bar for the creation of new licenses. If someone like OSI decides to ask more questions about community involvement in the development of the license, the proliferation of open source licenses will come to a quick grinding halt. Even moreso, the LGPL is going to become truly GPL+LE (for instance, dotgnu's class libraries and GNU classpath are GPL+LE rather than LGPL).

There will always be people who write BSD licensed code, but it lacks the unifying nature of GPL. The proprietary forks for most successful projects are doomed to die, due to the lack of the very things which make their mainline a success. It is a living tree which only sprouts dead branches - an enormous waste of manpower thanks to short term myopia.

Adoption: In this context, it would be good to remember that something as popular as Firefox is dual-licensed under GPL version 2 or *later*. As far as the world of code is concerned nearly all of that is as good as GPL v3'd, after the first commit which says "version 3 or later".

Freedoms: There have been too many comments of companies like Tivo and others who abide by the legalese, but violate the spirit of the license. But it serves some purpose to point out that the intention of the license upgrade was to plug some of the legal loopholes which have come up during the last half-decade. Those who shall suffer are those who have been exploiting those loopholes.

Essentially, the license makes no pretence about the freedoms it tries to protect - the users'. In turn, it does protect the developers who in conjunction with the former, makes up the community - from underhanded attacks by for-profit redistributors. Basically, there are people who will lose out due to the changes, but it somehow looks as though the license is slanted the right way for Joe Hacker - both for individual gain and altruism.

The difference between the Mafia and an insurance agency is that the latter doesn't burn down your house if you don't pay.

posted at: 18:03 | path: /conferences | permalink | Tags: , ,

Thu, 19 Apr 2007:

Recently AfC wrote a HOW post on linux & open source, but the question I'm more often asked is WHY.

Most of the content in this entry comes from the similarly titled GNUnify 2006 BoF session with inputs from spo0nman, premshree, lunatech, pradeepto, G0SUB and the students at the conf. And it attacks the topic from the other side of the problem - what more does a F/OSS programmer bring to the table at a job than the other guy.

Not Technical Talent: For a long time, I had assumed that it was the proven technical competency which has been tested in the real world. But in the recent past, I've met enough technically adept folks from both sides of the divide to take that assumption to peices. People from the proprietary code land are equally capable and just because your code is open does not make it any better by default. Having your code out in the open does make it easier to judge your ability for a third party - but that'd be end of this blog entry if a programmer was merely a code producing machine.

Co-operation: The transition from college to the workplace is rather jarring. Having spent the last fifteen-odd years in constant competition with your peers, suddenly you are thrown into a world where you need to co-operate with, rather than screw over, the next guy. Most people who work in a successful open source project with multiple contributors have gotten past that particular hurdle much more earlier and the transition into a workplace where the focus is on getting things done rather than merely doing your own part is much more easier.

You got Bugs ! (and users): I've often been shocked by the way people deal with bugs and criticism. The immediate 'full power to shields' reaction is probably understandable, but rather unpleasant. But for someone who has worked with other people in a serious project, criticism from your peers is easier to handle or at least something they have handled in the past (or you'd think so). Also bugs from end users gives a developer some level of user focus which is totally absent in the college graduate. Seeing the user and his problems as one of the factors while coding is hard to acquire if you've written code for a college professor to run once.

Communication Skills: Most f/oss teams are spread across the world. Their communication happens mostly through filtered channels such as mailing lists, irc or bugzilla. It does take some effort to involve yourself in such a global environment when communication can be easily misinterpreted for tone and context. Working in such an environment easily carries across into the modern world of distributed development required for global product development.

Consensus: Have you ever been in a technical argument at work ? There are always people who have a hard time accepting someone else's point. If you've worked on a real peice of code long enough with a group, you've had one of these hard-to-swallow decisions to deal with. It does come as a nasty surprise to most graduates out of college when they run into one of those. Having gone through the standard sulk phase for the first few such run-ins, most f/oss developers are more understanding and less obnoxious about accepting someone else's idea.

Oh the humanity !: Somehow, getting involved with a project, working with different people and enjoying the experience does result in a more rounded work persona. The whole community effect can easily seperate the assholes from the good guys as easily as it seperates the men from the boys (uh... women from the girls too). In general, it also selects for a person of the community rather than the brilliant loner and most employers prefer the former.

There are many more qualities which are quintessential to the f/oss hacker ethos - passion, commitment and plain old curiosity. But they are not unique to the group - anybody who has run into a mac fanboi would agree on the passion part at least :)

I'm by no means the first guy to say that F/OSS hackers are better hires - virtual referral and loudthinking do reinforce my conclusion - but someone needs to tell the students.

Yacc owes much to a most stimulating collection of users. Their irritating unwillingness to learn how to
do things my way has usually led to my doing things their way; most of the time, they have been right.
          -- S.C Johnson.

posted at: 02:54 | path: /misc | permalink | Tags: ,

Thu, 05 Apr 2007:

In one of my previous posts, I'd commented off-hand that the Indian F/OSS community doesn't have enough rockstars. But that by itself blossomed out into a rather heated debate on #linux-india, mainly because we never got to hear lawgon's wisdom on what actually is lacking in India. The debate was more tilted towards the effects of the so called "rockstars" than their origins, causes and well ... mating habits (Freud made me do it !).

But before you actually read this blog entry, I'd advise you to watch Kathy Sierra's talk from LCA '07. You can download it from here [101 Mb]. I'll be borrowing some of her terms and ideas because they talk about how people get involved and become passionate users.

Burn Through the Zone: Success is often a matter of persistance. Most people hit the "Why Bother" phase in the first few weeks of trying something new. But what keeps the persistant folks going is the knowledge of an attainable goal, a sort of beautiful picture of "what could be". The so-called "rockstar" of the community is on such a pedestal of achievement. Bereft of such an example, there will be hundreds who hit their first snag and quit - people who are capable, but don't see it worth their effort. Or maybe they just ran into the "I suck" zone, in Kathy Sierra's words (or well, pictures).

The rewards for being good at something have to be obvious and evident for people to try their best - therefore they work hard and succeed - which is a circular argument from the outside. After all only an idiot would set himself on a mission with no goal and idiots aren't our target audience here.

Emulation Mode: The biggest problem people have with this concept is that a rockstar lends hiself to emulation, producing fad-followers rather than future leaders. But the whole basis of human culture and learning has been mankind's ability to recognize a good thing when it sees it and of course, to imitate by whatever means available. You learn more by doing than seeing and the obvious way to gap that bridge is to attempt what the other idiot/genius is doing.

The right people will split out of pure emulation mode very quickly, as they realize their innate urge to do their own thing. And in any case, people who can follow in a clear (albeit beaten) path are still valuable to any community. I personally prefer them over the self-propelled idiots :)

"Coolness" factor: During the formative years of your life, for a large number of reasons, you do what's cool. The urge to stand out or blend in, as the need be, is something which primeval and probably the conflict of which is the essential misery of man. The effect of the rockstar (who by definiton is cool), is to add an aura of coolness to the act of contributing to something. But for some strange reason, coolness is unacheivable in a group of peers.

The rockstar himself is part of the coolness ying-yang as well. In the real world, without a suitable audience to shower admiration, the hacker has nothing to aspire to but some obscure achievement in a world of peers who would rather play down your work compared to theirs. I think jace had called it the Great Wall of 'So What ?' - where anything you did can be dismissed by these two magic words.

The hard part of being a rockstar is not to put up such walls when someone new comes into the community. Trivializing someone's work is hardly a great way to welcome someone into a group and can be perceived as an outright dismissal of someone's hard work. And indeed it does happen to every other developer, at some point or the other.

Honestly, half the "Because I can" people are into it because it's cool ;)

Beacons: In a community with an insanely large number of potential contributors, it is nearly idiotic to try to seperate the chaff from the grain by brute-force. A rockstar by this definition is an evangelist by action and a touch-point by reaction. A prominent figure outside his or her area of action attracts a lot of potential talent who can then be nudged towards potential mentors who have the time & talent, but not the visibility.

Such rockstars, who inspire/guide/find contributors are required for any community. They are the glue that holds together the gears that drive the community (oh, I kid ... I kid). They are like tiger in the jungle, their visibility & influence indirectly showcases the community - to those outside the community.

Communities grow anchored to such people - their visibility and the ease with which they can handle that is a valuable asset to the community. But it is possible to overdo it as well - you know the examples ...

The key to building a superstar is to keep their mouth shut.
                              -- - Bob Ezrin, rock music producer

posted at: 06:40 | path: /observations | permalink | Tags: , , ,

Fri, 02 Mar 2007:

Kerala's IT Mission is sponsoring FOSS Meet @ NITC, which is going to be kicked off tomorrow by the honourable Chief Minister of Kerala. I'd talked there last year and was planning to just drop by there on my way back to Bangalore.

Had to cancel that trip, mainly out of laziness - travelling 10 hours in a train to reach a strange town with nobody to pick me up and no accomodation confirmed isn't my idea of a fun weekend. Was planning to catch up with some folks from around India, who have talks at this event - doing that once a year at FOSS.IN isn't quite enough. But as Mr Pradeepto said, this isn't the only conference - and it isn't as if I've got something useful to add to this conference.

There were a couple of talks I wanted to attend - especially lawgon's "What went wrong with FOSS movement in INDIA ?". I suspect that this has something to do with the what is stopping indian contributors thread which hit nearly all LUG lists in India.

I think the real question asked in the mail is Why are there are no FOSS *Rockstars* from India - people who are larger than life (taj might qualify). And there are FOSS contributors to be found India, but as shres put it bluntly - "contributors are hard to find" - the whiteboard at foss.in is proof that there are enough.

If there is indeed a drought of new comers to the FOSS world, the general argument is that "You're not looking at the right place" to invest time and resources. For example, second tier colleges, with lack-lusture cookie cutter graduate programmes, produce more FOSS contributors than premier institutions (like the IITs). But I've had my own theories about why that happens and why it happened a lot during the post-Y2K bust. So I think that investing into these colleges in a big way might in fact upset the process that is producing hackers today.

So, I've got a feeling that this talk would be well worth attending - to throw more light on what's going wrong and to look at the solutions suggested. I'd be really interested in helping with any practical solution to the contribute-or-mentor problem that I've been fighting for a while (do you mentor or do you contribute directly ?). So if anybody attends it, please blog about it.

I've got fond memories of last year - preparing the slides at the last minute, walking about in that big campus, spending time at Calicut beach. We had a lot of fun and I mean, A LOT. And the conference is really good, the kids do use Fedora on the desktop in their labs. The XGL demos were a particular attraction last year.

Maybe next year.

The best way to avoid responsibility is to say, "I've got responsibilities."

posted at: 02:44 | path: /conferences | permalink | Tags: ,

Wed, 29 Nov 2006:

For the past weekend, I've been roaming the corridors of FOSS.in. I've never attended a talk about something I could figure out for myself, but still there were four talks which I sat through - a grand achievement, compared to the meager two talks last year.

But I wasn't in Bangalore for most of last week. I'd gone home to tie up some loose ends and cleanup my act before I dived into the conference. I reached back in Bangalore only early morning of Thursday, just in time to catch up to some sleep. I took a preliminary peek at the venue on thursday itself. The place was hum of activity with the volunteers stuffing delegate kits, falling lampshades and power mayhem.

And then on friday, it all began. As I watched the lines for registration grow, I noticed a general paucity of the number of delegates this year. Since the conference was on a weekend, I had hoped for more students in the crowd, but that was not to be (as far as I could make out). But thanks to the weekend, there was a larger crowd from outside Bangalore and that's always a good thing.

Since I was a care-free delegate, I had planned to do a security BoF at the conference. But when that didn't quite materialize, I gave up on the idea. Backporting a dbus-send shared connection patch was trivial, but was wasted because we couldn't get beryl to flip the windows for the projector display. Except for that random hack, I didn't touch a single line of code during the conference.

The inaugural keynote was by Suparna Bhattacharya, a kernel developer from IBM. As much a fan I'm of minimalistic development, I skipped out early to find a decent cup of coffee instead. My abominable behavior notwithstanding, it is a proud day for the Indian FOSS community to have an Indian on the podium, for a change.

And then I ran into a surprise. One of the dotgnu libjit developers, krokas, had flown in to India and met me in one of the corridors. Even though I'm not a great fan of his business ideas on professional opensource, it was nice to actually meet one of your fellow developers face to face. Met a couple of people from Microsoft too, discussed a bit of C#/.NET technical quirks (GC-able assemblies), dodged the "what'll it take to get you to work at Microsoft" question and kept wading through the crowds.

One of the talks I actually attended, by Andrew Cowie touched up on a few problems the ubquity of mono brings along, especially considering the latest Novell developments. Initially voiced by Seth Nickell, I find it is a valid concern. For instance, I've never suggested dotgnu to anyone who's wanted to write an application from scratch. Anyway, that talk covered all the normal obstacles that developers place in the way of external contributors and in general was interesting enough to keep me from wandering out.

Another one of the talks I dropped into was Get Rich with Php5 talk by Rasmus. I knew from the slides that it featured my work for the last year - APC. But the content of the talk was still interesting, especially the benchmark numbers for each increment.

The BoF tents looked more interesting than last year. But the initial lack of chairs killed a bit of the enthusiasm. Also moving the FOSS Expo area out of the main lobby area made it almost pointless. Before long we had converted the project expo into a live demo for ioquake3 - sweet GPL love from Id. Though Dalfry ruled the roost for the first fragfest, I eventually climbed the levels due to the basic advantage of knowing the maps by heart.

The other couple of talks I dropped into were the panel discussions about 10 years of Linux India and spo0nman's monitoring with nagios talks. The panel discussion was slightly boring, mainly because the panel wasn't split on most of the issues and the crowd lacked the trolls required to make the discussion interesting. And the only question I held in my hands was about the history of PCQLinux, without which half the FOSS folks in India today wouldn't have ever used it - probably the action of greatest consequence in the last 10 years of FOSS in India. But that was skimmed over with a passing reference.

And then there was the cool stuff left - the jokes, the corridor conversations, the conclusions and the arguments. I'll let a few pictures speak for themselves. And maybe this video (mp4, 12.1 Mb).

But let me calm some fears expressed in the discussions. The growth of FOSS in India has been fairly organic for the hobbyist category, while the explosion of user mass worldwide has pulled up the number of programmers getting paid to write FOSS. The community entries in this game has still retained single digit significance in the last year as it has for the past years - but that is not something to get alarmed about, because we've now got employees contributing to FOSS. Things could be a little better - but that's always the case.

All in all, a good conference. But I've got more plans for next year. Rather than mere BoFs, we should be able to run a mini-conf in the middle of a conference with the speakers present. I suspect that it might be possible with a bit of fine-tuning in the event in real time, rather than organizing a whole parallel set of talks. But next year is nearly a year away ;)

People who go to conferences to talk are the ones who shouldn't.

posted at: 04:12 | path: /conferences | permalink | Tags: , ,

Thu, 23 Nov 2006:

T minus 20-odd hours left for FOSS.IN and if you aren't going to show up, you don't know what you're missing. This isn't just one technical conference by itself; it is sort of an excuse to meet up for a couple of un-conferences.

While talks dazzle the audience in the big halls, the crowds milling around in the corridors run their own version of foss.in, swapping stories, discussing the last year's developments. Largely unorganized, a large majority of the indian foss community meet up, touch bases and in general have a lot of fun. And eventually something like this gets discussed.

So prepare ...

I'm prepared for all emergencies but totally unprepared for everyday life.

posted at: 14:42 | path: /conferences | permalink | Tags: ,

Mon, 16 Oct 2006:

The first shortlist of talks for FOSS.in/2006 is out. Let me be the first to say that there are a couple of surprises there. First and very surprising one would be a talk by none other than spo0nman himself. Second was botsie talking about Gentoo - not about XFCE. Yet another, sort of surprise, with bluesmoon about libyahoo2 - I suppose he can indeed talk about it, though not commit stuff ?

And then, a few names were obvious by their absence. I don't see a talk by KingDiamond or BigBeard - And kryptic too is missing, which was probably not as much of a surprise (*click* *click*).

The talks list seems a bit biased towards the kernel/library/OS land and a little left of the eyecandy section, but I'm sure that is probably not a real problem. Just make sure one of the computers around is running Beryl with the keyboard on a recorded cycle with xsendkey.

I like the word "indolence", makes my laziness seem classy.
            -- Bern Williams

posted at: 01:53 | path: /conferences | permalink | Tags: ,

Fri, 17 Feb 2006:

Just got back from FOSS.MCC and was wondering about the state of educational instituions and students trapped with in. These kids don't have enough exposure to what is going on outside. You could say that it is their fault for not going out and finding out things for themselves - but it is not '99 anymore.

Me and spo0nman walked back from the event and ended up talking about what happened out there. The audience, at least what was left of it by the time I got there, emanated vibes of helplessness at what was happening up there. Swaroop's attempts to download Feedparser from sourceforge, Shreyas's tricks with gdb and emacs and finally Atul's talk about because you can felt quite out of place. I went through a similar experience talking about compilers at Freedel, with the whole crowd wondering what the hell this guy is talking about. It is not fun when you talk about what you really like doing and have the audience indirectly say we don't care.

The solution is to go back to 1999 when we were all kids looking at FOSS and saying oooh. Next time someone organizes a sort of first level talk at a college, please do the following at least for half a day. Just pull 10-15 machines off the college computer lab, bring enough ubuntu/knoppix/<whatever> liveCDs, boot them up and let the kids wander through them. There will be a few interested questions about mail, chat and what not - but they have to see the utilitarian side of these before they see the l33t world of emacs whizes or gdb gurus.

I say this with a bit more pain because I've actually convinced a bunch of people to use FOSS not because of the coolness of being able to read the code, but simply because they saw what I was doing with it. A big percentage of those have run away behind shiny things (Silver XP !!!) later, but I've got more real users (who understand the word Freedom now) out of it than if I had taken the path of showing them how I debug thunderbird to fix a thread-order bug in message views. Developers aren't that easy to come by, sometimes you've got to settle for users and bait them with eye-candy. That's what was missing today.

Sadly our colleges are the same they were in '99, though we and the world has moved on. So, back to 1999 I say ... back to '99.

We cannot disregard philosophy merely for personal gain, no matter how important that gain might be.
               -- Spock, "Journey to Babel", stardate 3842.4

posted at: 22:44 | path: /conferences | permalink | Tags: ,