linux.conf.au 2011: lightning talk take homes

As usual some rather important things went on in the lightning talks.

Rusty Russell got irritated at Geoff Huston’s “IPocalypse” keynote (which argued that the last minute no-options-left switch to IPv6 runs the risk of IPv6 being outcompeted by a closed solution) and he got coding. The result is a CCAN module (so, C code) to support simultaneous IPv4 and IPv6 connections, thus not penalising either. He’ll fix the dependency’s licence shortly. It might not work perfectly yet.

Donna Benjamin is trying to raise $7500 to get The National Library of Australia to digitise The Dawn, Louisa Lawson’s journal for women from the nineteenth century.

In intellectual property news (specifically, anti-stronger IP news) Kim Weatherall wants us to worry about the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, which Australia will likely ratify, the Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement, which it would be really great to oppose, the impending result of the Federal Court appeal in the iiNet case, which iiNet may lose, and even if they don’t there will probably be legislative “three strikes” discussion about copyright violation.

linux.conf.au 2011: Day 1

Slow first day for me. I had a stressful Sunday getting a toddler to the airport on my own and Andrew has just flown in from the US.

We weren’t very impressed with our hotel, iStay River City. For starters, it has extremely limited keys. Many, but not all, rooms have two keys, which would be hard enough with four adults per room, but one of the keys for our room is missing, which means one key (and suggests that somewhere out there a former guest still has a working key to our room). The hotel reception wasn’t even sympathetic. People steal our keys all the time! What else are we to do?!

There’s no way to leave a key with reception and get yourself back into the room unless you have a second key to the room. There are buzzers for the rooms, but the reception smilingly conceded that it does only get guests into the lobby. You have to go down the lift yourself to get them up to the room. (Interestingly, this has meant with a lot of confusion from other LCA attendees. “How hard is it to make a new keycard?” Bad assumption. They are using keys, as in, those chunks of metal with notches in them.)

There’s also several things broken in our apartment: a couple of lights, the phone, the bathroom fan.

Anyway, after a restless night, LCA! I mostly spent time at the Haecksen miniconf, although partly working on my laptop in an introversion bubble. I wasn’t really ready, after the travel and the settling in, to sit down and listen to talks well. Some talks I did catch in whole or in part:

  • Pia Waugh Applying martial arts to the workplace: your guide to kicking arse
  • Brianna Laugher An Approach to Automatic Text Generation
  • Andrew Gerrand Practical Go Programming
  • Noirin Shirley Open Source: Saving the World
  • Donna Benjamin We are here. We have always been here
  • Valerie Aurora and Donna Benjamin Training Allies (workshop)

I didn’t really fully follow any of them, except for Training Allies, which is of professional interest to me now. (More on that later, I guess.)

LCA2011: unofficial planet

In lieu of an official Planet site for LCA2011, I’ve set up an unofficial one. http://lcaplanet.puzzling.org/

Q. I want to be on it!

If you would like to add your own blog to the site, please see http://conf.linux.org.au/wiki/Planet for info and contact me in comments if it doesn’t work out.

Q. What happens when there is an official planet?

I’ll add 301 redirects as appropriate as soon as an official planet is announced.

Q. Wait, can this BE the official planet?

LCA organisers, I’m happy to be the official Planet if it makes things easier for you. Get in touch with me.

LCA2011: preliminary picks

One week to go and the conference is definitely going ahead.

Here’s my early plans for spending my time at LCA. I should note that my husband and our one year old son will be in Brisbane, and for various reasons I won’t be doing a lot of socialising at night. Anyone for lunch?

Monday

I’ll mostly be at the Haecksen miniconf, but also potentially interested in:

(PS, Brianna, how many talks is it physically possible for you to give on a single day?)

I will not be at the Girl Geek Dinner, sadly, but this is only one night after Andrew will have flown in from Dallas and so I’d like to see my family early in the week.

Tuesday

At present I think this will mostly be hallway track.

Wednesday

I will also attend the Linux Australia AGM, since I am standing for election (and I think results are available by then, it seems that voting closes at 26/01/2011 00:00, which is maybe an unfortunate choice of time, since many people will read “votes close 26/01/2011” as giving them that day to vote too).

I won’t be at the Professional Delegates Networking Session, since I am registered as a Hobbyist. I might be at the informal UnProfessional Delegates Session if there is one, and if my husband and son can come.

Thursday

I will be at the Penguin dinner.

Friday

We fly home lunchtime Saturday, so won’t be around for Open Day.

linux.conf.au 2011 call for papers

We’re seeking a wide range of papers across the whole spectrum, encompassing programming and software to desktop and userland, education, community and law…

Some typical topics (but not limited to these) include:

  • Aspects of kernel development, including recent data structures and algorithm developments
  • Database and File system developments
  • Desktop topics, covering aspects of the user experience
  • Networking topics, from device drivers to servers
  • Novice user’s introduction to exploring FOSS
  • Professional development, including Software Engineering & System Administration techniques
  • Scalability, both embedded and enterprise
  • Development topics, including concurrency and toolchain advancements
  • Open Source Software usage, including business, education & research
  • Graphics & sound advancements, from low level drivers to end-user applications
  • Open Source culture, including open content creation

More information is here, and submissions close August 7.

Unlike for the previous three conferences (Melbourne 08, Hobart 09, Wellington 10), I’m not heavily involved in selections: I will be reviewing abstracts but not (co-)chairing the process. I probably won’t even be at the infamous day-long meeting to finalise selections, a long awaited visit from Andrew’s sister will clash.

I’m hoping to attend the conference — it’s fairly safe to say by now that unlike this year, it will not clash with giving birth — but I’m not sure yet. It probably will clash with producing a PhD thesis, and ACL (computational linguistics’ main conference) usually has a deadline that nicely clashes with LCA too.

Fantasy linux.conf.au 2010

I won’t be at LCA, but since I wish I was, here’s what I wish I could see most. (Note that I haven’t picked something in every timeslot and so this wouldn’t be my complete talks list. This is just my personal highlights.)

I’ve never seen Mako Hill speak, but you can’t be interested in free software and culture activism without stumbling across his name. Because he’s involved in the FSF. And Debian. And Ubuntu. And Wiki[mp]edia. And OLPC. And autonomo.us. Among others. I actually don’t know what his keynote is about, the webpage is just the speakers’ biographies, but I’m just going to go ahead and assume that whatever it is, I’d enjoy. I’m also sure Gabriella Coleman‘s Tuesday keynote would be interesting.

Build Your Own Contributors, One Part At A Time. I don’t know that the Dreamwidth project has good name recognition in the LCA community: consider this an attempt to rectify that. It’s a blog hosting company on the Livejournal model with a fork of Livejournal’s codebase. It’s also very, almost uniquely, innovative and successful in mentoring new and non-traditional contributors. (Kirrily Robert has some information, mostly focusing on their very unusual developer gender ratio.)

Loyal fans of my writing will remember that I’m generally suspicious of how to run an Open Source project submissions to LCA, because so many members of the audience have either run one or seen one run at close range. But I really wanted to select this one because it’s successful at something very unusual. There’s a lot more talk than action on mentoring and diversity in Open Source development; here’s your action.

Introduction to game programming. Yeah, this clashes with Build Your Own Contributors, but since I’m not going at all, it can still be a Fantasy LCA pick, can’t it? Richard Jones is an import from the OSDC scene, he’s a good speaker, he wrote a good chunk of the tools he’s talking about and he regularly puts them to use and watches others put them to use in the PyWeek challenge.

I’m very curious about how Matthew Garrett’s Making yourself popular: a guide to social success in (and for) the Linux community goes and I’d also like to see Claudine Chionh’s Unlocking the ivory tower: Free and open source software in collaborative humanities research: luckily, again this is Fantasy LCA and I don’t have to choose. I’d also get along to FOSS and Māori Language Computer Initiatives later in the afternoon: it’s not exactly my field, but close enough that I’m interested in language and computer interfaces in general.

I don’t know that I’ve ever actually made it to one of Matthew Wilcox’s talks, but I heard great things last year, so I’d get along to Discarding data for fun and profit for sure.

Gearman: Map/Reduce and Queues for everyone! sounds like something I’d enjoy hearing about and might put to use. Can’t lose.

I was accused of being a fangirl when reviewing Adam Jackson’s The Rebirth of Xinerama, if I recall. I don’t think I qualify without, say, asking for autographs, but I enjoyed his 2009 talk a lot. It was not at all aimed at the Mary demographic (short version: I know nothing about X, long version: I know nothing about X) but was still accessible even while totally ignoring my demographic. I love that kind of technical talk. And the more competent parts of the audience seemed fine with it too.

After seeing Andrew Tridgell’s OSDC keynote in 2008 I am wretched about missing Patent defence for free software. Just as you can find Mako Hill everywhere when it comes to free culture activism, you can find Andrew Tridgell everywhere in building… anything. From chess playing server software to homemade coffee roasters. And on the side he’s spent a long time with the Samba team testifying and advising on aspects of the EU’s antitrust investigations into Microsoft. And because of that and because he’s a great speaker and essentially is LCA, it would be a great talk to get to.

Finally, thank goodness this is Fantasy LCA, so I don’t have to tell you which I’d choose of Rusty Russell’s FOSS Fun With A Wiimote, involving Rusty, who is a marvellous speaker, and babies, who… are babies, and Wiimotes, which are white and blue, or Liz Henry’s Hack Ability: Open Source Assistive Tech about the advantages of hacking up assistive tech and thus adapting it to individuals. What a cruel world that timeslot is.

Ethics of Free Software community research

Most of this entry is exactly a year old today and it’s just sat around in draft form all that time. Since I posted something similar on Geek Feminism about research into women in tech and similar topics, I thought I’d get it out there.

In January 2009 a researcher named Anne Chin of Monash University Law emailed the chat list for the linux.conf.au 2009 conference asking for research subjects to be interviewed about licencing and Open Source software. There were several responses criticising her use of HTML email and Microsoft Word attachments. I’ll leave the specifics of this alone except that people should be (and probably are) aware that this is almost always an unknowing violation of community norms.

I did, though, think about making some notes on research ethics and Free Software research. A bit about my background: I am not a specialist in ethics. I’m somewhat familiar with ethics applications to work with human subjects, but not from the perspective of evaluating them. I’ve made them, and I’ve been a subject in a study that had made them.

For people who haven’t seen this process, the ethical questions arising from using human subjects in your research in general covers the question of whether the good likely to arise from the outcomes of the study outweighs the harm done to the subjects, together with issues of consent to that harm. (There are many philosophical assumptions underlying this ethical framework, I don’t intend to treat them here.) Researchers in universities, hospitals, schools and research institutes usually have to present their experimental designs to an ethics committee who will determine this question for them and approve their experiment. Researchers who work across several of these (eg, a PhD student who wants to interview schoolchildren) will need to do several ethics applications, a notable chore when the forms and guidelines aren’t standardised and occasionally directly conflict. Researchers working for private commercial entities may or may not have a similar requirement. Researchers who use animals also have to have ethical reviews, these are done by animal ethics committees, which are usually separate.

At my university, essentially any part of your research that involves measuring or recording another person’s response to a research question and using it to help answer that question needs a human ethics application.

The good/harm balance may include very serious dilemmas: is there a health risk to subjects? how will the researcher manage the conflict between maintaining subject confidentiality and research integrity and the good of her subjects or the requirements of the law if she uncovers, say, episodes of abuse or violence? But it also involves less immediately obvious and serious ethical questions. Is this study a giant waste of subjects’ time? is considered a question of ethics by ethics committees, and is in fact the most serious problem for linguistics research, since there’s very seldom an outcome of particular interest to the subjects themselves.

The study in which I took part a few years back was towards the serious end actually: it was a study into the psychological profiles of people who have an immediate family member who had cancer as a child and involved both questionnaires and a phone interview with a psychologist. Both because the study explored memories of the illness and because the profiling included evaluating depressive episodes, suicidal ideation and so on, it came with a detailed consent form and with information about a counselling service that had been informed of the study and was prepared to work with its subjects.

In the case of the Free Software community the ethical questions are often more towards the waste of time? end of the spectrum than the more immediately serious end. It’s important to understand that this isn’t necessarily the case though. Here are some more cutting ethical problems:

  • getting findings that expose your subjects and/or their employers to intellectual property claims; or
  • revealing that your subjects are breaching employment contracts in some way (generally also related to IP) and thus exposing them to job loss and possible civil action.

Getting ethics approval to carry out workplace studies can be fairly hard precisely due to problems like these. But in the rest of this post I will treat the waste of time problem.

Firstly the basics: are your subjects going to be identifiable in your final reports or to the general public? If not, who will know who they are? Can a subject opt to have their responses removed from the study? When and how? All this should be explained at the start. (Usually if an ethics committee has been involved, there’s a consent form.) If doing a survey look into survey design, in order to construct non-leading questions and such.

Now, for specifics. Most of them arise from this principle: there are a lot of researchers working, in various ways, on the Free Software community, possibly making it a slightly over-studied group if anything. This places the onus on the individual researcher to demonstrate to the community that their project is worthwhile and that they’re going to do what they say. Thus:

  1. demonstrate some familiarity with the background. Depending on your research level this could mean anything from demonstrating a knowledge of existing anthropological work on Free Software (say, if the research project is for your anthropology PhD) down to at least understanding the essential concepts and core history (say, a project at high school level). This can be demonstrated by research design, eg asking sensible well-informed questions, but actually mostly requires a bigger time investment: making appearances in the community, either virtually or physically, ideally for a little time before asking the community to help you get your PhD/A-grade/pass.
  2. don’t get the community to design your experiment for you. Have a specific goal, more specific than get people to write me lengthy essays about Free Software, and get ideas from that and write about them. In the general case, the ask people incredibly vague stuff and hope they say something interesting technique fails the waste-of-time test.
  3. give your results back to the community. The most common problem with the various surveys, interviews and questionnaires sent to the Free Software community is that responding to them is like shouting into a black hole. It is not unheard of, of course, to see the thesis or essay or roundup that comes out of these, but it is unusual, relative to the number of requests. Most of the time the researcher promptly disappears. Researchers should come to the Free Software community with an explanation of when and where they will make the results of the study available. They should explain the aims in advance unless this would compromise the results. (On that note: Anne Chin is giving a linux.conf.au talk this year.)

Donating our OLPC XO

Way back at linux.conf.au 2008 there was a large OLPC XO giveaway, but with the rider do something wonderful with this, or give it to someone who will. Neither Andrew nor I received one directly, but Matthew Garrett gave his to Andrew essentially on the grounds that he wasn’t going to do anything wonderful with it. (If I have the chronology right, Matthew had a stack of laptops in his possession at the time and did things to them regularly, generally making them sleep on demand.)

In any event, neither Andrew nor I did anything wonderful with the XO: Andrew intended to look at some point at Python or Python application startup times (the Bazaar team have a bunch of tricks in that regard), but two years is a lot of intending.

Still, better late than never. In the spirit of the original giveaway, we’ve handed it over to be taken to New Zealand by someone going to linux.conf.au 2010. It will be donated to the Wellington OLPC testers group, who meet weekly to work on various projects and who are somewhat short on machines.

If you are similarly (morally) bound by the linux.conf.au 2008 giveaway conditions, aren’t doing anything wonderful with your XO, and are going to linux.conf.au 2010 or can get your XO there, you could do likewise. You could drop off to Tabitha Roder at the education miniconf, the OLPC stand at Open Day or otherwise get in touch with her. (You probably want to let her know yours is coming anyway, so she has a sense of whether to expect one or two, or a truckload.)

Other possibilities include getting involved in the Sydney group or checking if they’d have a use for laptop donations. (They meet more regularly than that wiki page implies; they are now meeting at SLUG.) I don’t know what the status of the OLPC library is. The webpage being down is probably not a great sign, but perhaps collaborators would help John out there. You’d at least be doing something meta-wonderful.

Plans for 2010

I don’t intend to write much about my just announced pregnancy over on the thoughts/geeky side of my weblog, but there are a couple of geek implications, assuming all goes well:

  • it’s unlikely in the extreme that I will make it to OSDC 2009 in Brisbane in November (it’s very close to the deadline when airlines will stop letting me fly, in addition to discomfort and so on); and
  • it’s completely impossible that either Andrew or I will make it to linux.conf.au 2010 in Wellington in January.

I’ll not be especially available for additional volunteer tasks in 2009, since I will be trying to finish my PhD work with a small human trapped in my abdomen.

For Andrew’s other 2009 and 2010 availability check with him, I can’t see that I’ll be volunteering to travel before at least April 2010 and that might depend on someone donating a nanny to accompany me.

I am cut about lca2010, especially considering the effort I’m sinking into it. I really hoped that wouldn’t happen, but it’s turned out to have the worst possible timing. If a generous donor offers to fly, say, 20 of the speakers to Sydney afterwards and re-stage the conference for the sole benefit of me, I will not say no.

Possible structures for a technical talk

Edited version of a private email I sent about linux.conf.au 2010 preparation, but not conference-specific. The email discussion led to me enumerating the kind of talks that I think you can give about technical subjects at a linux-conf.au-style (non-academic developer-oriented) conference.

Recitation of facts; or the architecture diagram talk

In this kind of talk, the speaker walks the audience through, say, the architecture of a project. The talk contents are dictated by the architecture. Five minutes on the input module, five minutes on preprocessing, five minutes on transforming into a new set of matrix bases, five minutes on postprocessing, five minutes on sanity checking, five minutes on rendering.

This is the most obvious structure for a technical talk. It’s also the driest structure. It is useful mostly for audience members who want to work on or with the project code, which is for most talks a small fraction of the audience. It best suits very major projects with years of cruft in their architecture and a wide potential userbase.

Insane hack adventure; or "hacking the Tivo", Andrew Tridgell, linux.conf.au 2001

In this kind of talk, the speaker usually talks about a project he or she personally undertook and structures it as a battle against the odds. So of course Y is the most obvious solution, although not trivial. So I tried Y for a couple of months. And then it turns out that the X protocol absolutely makes Y impossible for these reasons [dramatic pause] and at this point any normal human being would have given up, but I retired to a monastery for six months and returned refreshed and a lotus blossom I saw on my return inspired me to try Q…

This is probably the most effective structure for a technical talk and it’s surprisingly widely applicable (you can frame a lot of things in terms of here’s the current problem, here’s what you think the obvious solution is, here’s what happened when I tried it). The biggest limitation is that it’s very hard to do it about work you didn’t do yourself so it’s not available to all speakers. And you can misjudge it: so of course I tried Y says the speaker uh, Y is obviously dumb, why didn’t you go straight to Q? asks the audience (at some conferences, they might well ask it out loud, repeatedly). It doesn’t work for speakers who don’t have expertise (at least narrowly on this one topic) over that the audience has.

Demonstration of surprising ease

In this talk, the speaker proposes a task which sounds too formidable to complete in the talk slot. (Pretty much any task, for some talk slots.) They then proceed to show how it can be done despite the odds using their tool. Edward Hervey edited a video PiTiVi at linux.conf.au 2008. At OSDC 2008 Thomas Lee added a ‘unless’ keyword to the Python language.

This structure can be fun but it has a lot of pitfalls. Edward was continually battling to type while dealing with a handheld microphone. Speakers should recruit an assistant for these talks. The Python keyword talk was kind of fun, but it was also hard to follow: and now I am going over to this totally other tree and adding several lines to this other file at line 1099 and 1346 and is obviously required: he did not succeed in making me think I could easily edit the Python language. In all cases, it needs a decent amount of rehearsal: even more so than other talks.

Dropping of wisdoms

These talks are generally (at linux.conf.au anyway) talks about the social/community/artful aspects of coding. For example, Jonathan Corbet’s talk about how kernel hacking actually works in terms of the trees and maintainers etc at 2009. (One of Linus Torvalds’s bigger 2009 contributions was being in the audience for that talk and adding occasional commentary on his various prejudices.) Andrew Bennetts has had some good luck with a series of talks that began at OSDC 2008, in which he essentially lists every tool he can think of to help you make your Python programs faster. I didn’t see it but I would guess Paul Fenwick’s talk about awesome things you’ve never heard of in Perl was the linux.conf.au equivalent in 2009.

These are useful talks, the main pitfall is that they require considerable expertise over the bulk of the audience. Otherwise someone is just listing a bunch of stuff you do every day back to you. They also need to be about tasks or tools that a lot of people actually use or want to use. No one wants the hidden tricks to using libnousersexceptme.