Here I am at the end of a few whirlwind days visiting our Neighbor to the North, O Canada! I’ve been visiting Toronto for both the 2008 Free Software and Open Source Symposium and the Ontario Linux Fest. My only travel difficulty thus far was the fact that I absent-mindedly left a paper soda cup in the center console of my car, half full of ice. That means I’ll likely be returning to a fair-sized mess tonight when I get back to the Dulles garage. Ah well.
Arriving Wednesday evening was fairly easy, although the cattle lines at Canadian customs were extremely long, and the cab ride extravagantly expensive. Thursday morning I hooked up with Greg DeKoenigsberg and after a quick breakfast we got in a cab (much less expensive, thankfully) to head to the SEQ building.
I spent the entire first day in the Teaching Open Source @FSOSS panels. It was ingeniously set up to provide separate panels for each perspective on the process and difficulties. First up was the student perspective, with a group of fine young people who unanimously agreed that working with open source communities was an enlightening and mind-freeing experience. Following that was the professors’ experience, including folks like David Humphreys, one of the folks at Seneca who put this conference together with Chris Tyler. It was interesting hearing how open source teaching also changes radically the way that the instructors work with their students and their knowledge base.
The institutional perspective came next, with Greg participating with several other representatives of companies and non-instructional EDU departments. One of the most interesting phrases I picked up there was a better positioning of what I’ve always called collateral content — “precarious values,” those contributions that are usually at much higher risk in FOSS communities. I liked it so much I borrowed it when I took part in the fourth panel, which consisted of people in leadership positions in well-known FOSS communities.
The video content of the talks and panels are to be published on Seneca’s site soon, but I took some notes anyway and posted them on the Fedora wiki.
But once the panels were over, we continued on with a further 90-minute open floor discussion, a brainstorming session led by David Eavey about how to break down the ideas that had been explored on the panel into actionable work. Jack Aboutboul has posted a bit about that discussion already so I won’t rehash it here. You can find our brainstorming notes here on the Seneca wiki.
Thursday night we had a lovely dinner at the executive center. My dining partners included a cross-section of organizers and attendees such as the Mozilla Foundation’s Mark Surman, Fedora Board member and Seneca professor Chris Tyler, and Greg, among others. The conversation ranged further along the lines of the day’s panels and discussions, and eventually, after some adventures with Canadian wildlife and a lot of SMS messages, Jack caught up to us after dessert (and a couple bottles of a not-bad cabernet mix).
During Friday I spent a bit more time catching up to my email and other aging tasks, although not particularly well. There were a lot of good conversations to be had by people who caught up to me in the “ready room,” and I got the chance to dispel some of the common misperceptions about Fedora and some of our technical capabilities for several people.
I also got a chance to talk to a very personable older duo, a teacher and a non-profit owner, who respectively teach open source and use it to provide rejuvenated and recycled computers for seniors. I am seeing more and more of that latter use case for open source across the board; at Ontario Linux Fest on Saturday Greg and I discussed with Yaakov ways to better engage with and empower these types of purveyors of social good. As most people probably know, I’m pretty vocal (and somewhat moralizing) about the good that free software can do for the world, and why we should all spend serious time thinking of how our volunteerism is going to impact communities around us outside of our comfortable world of geekery.
Friday night Greg and I took Ignacio Vazquez-Abrams to dinner — well, OK, it wasn’t fancy, but still — at Perkins, since it was one of the only places we could walk, safely, from our hotel. Ignacio’s been a contributor since way back and I wish I’d had a better thank you for him. I’ll figure something out, Ignacio, keep an eye on your holiday $SHRUBBERY! And thanks to Greg for reminding us that dessert is a dish best served, uh, first.
Saturday was another early morning awakening, to check out of the hotel and head over to the Ontario Linux Fest, which turned out to be only about 10 minutes from our hotel. Our table was ready when we walked in the door, and just as Greg and I were saying, “Gosh, I wonder if there’s a kit coming?”, in came Andrew Overholt, Behdad Esfahbod, and Deepak Bhole with the famous black Pelican case with Fedora stickers! In no time flat they had posters up and the banner in full glory across the table front, to go with the piles of CDs and DVDs, and we were off and running!
I got the chance as usual to interact with a lot of different community members, including a couple of the guys from Joomla! who seemed really excited about PackageKit and the progress of KDE in Fedora 9 and soon 10; the customary hordes of people who wanted to play with the OLPC XOs on display; Rob Day, a technical reviewer for O’Reilly, with whom I talked docs a bit (of course!); and lots of curious questions like “Is there a package that…?”, to which the answer was almost invariably, “YES! We have over 10,000 packages in Fedora, and you probably want one of these: ….”
Andrew showed me some really cool features of Eclipse for interfacing with Bugzilla and then collaborating with others — Eclipse will actually store your various open contexts and then share them with your partners. So you can get tired at night, give up, and go to bed, but transfer data to your team members on the other side of the globe with a note saying “I can’t figure this out, maybe you can.” Then your buddies can open up the bug with the same open files and information you were working with, to get an idea of where you left off and proceed from there. Sweet!
After Scott Sullivan’s father told me Scott would be speaking about new human interfaces in Linux, I wanted badly to see it. Unfortunately I only made it to the last 20 minutes, but he was a good presenter who knew his stuff. He was showing off ways to use interfaces like Wiimotes for interaction. He even gave a nice shout out to Fedora when he saw us, thanking Fedora for carrying so much easy-to-install software that allowed him to pursue his passion using our distro. (And yes, he was running F9 on his presentation system too!) I made a point of coming up to introduce myself and give him the little bit of schwag I had on hand by way of thanks and encouragement.
Greg, Yaakov and I talked at some length (and sometimes as a tag-team) to Bob Gobeille from HP, about educational initiatives. Unfortunately Bob had missed out on FSOSS, which was a shame, but there’s no lack of work left to do.
And of course I went to Greg’s talk on OLPC, which was spectacular and engaging. He was thinking I’d heckle him, but the only time that went on was when Greg heckled folks about paying too much attention to rumor and hearsay and not enough time focusing on OLPC’s clear path and getting involved in furthering their progress down it. Of course, he was funny and engaging about it, but there was a clear call to action as well — stop using Redmond as an excuse to give up.
OLPC will have over a million units in the field by the end of next year — a million laptops that according to some people would never work, could never get off the design board, could never work properly with free software, wouldn’t be accepted by teachers or students or governments. And here we are today, because the right people persevered where it was needed. That’s not to say there are no missteps, but overall OLPC is still a great milestone in the story of free software, and the power we have to change the world.
And as I always say, if you want to make that difference, you can’t just use free software and think that makes any difference to the world around you. You have to get involved to make a difference — whether that be by filing bugs, translating some text, writing a wiki page, speaking at a classroom or boardroom, or just helping others get started. It’s a challenge we all face every day, to stand on the sidelines and watch the world roll on its merry way, or to jump in and help turn the wheel. I know what I prefer to do — how about you?
So as a coda, energized by Greg’s session, and the knowledge that Fedora is changing life for the better for hundreds of thousands (soon millions) of children worldwide, I got myself packed up and said my goodbyes to everyone. Next year I’d like to have a little more time to hang out with the Red Hatters here in Toronto that I don’t see often, but this time it was not to be.
Behdad graciously offered me a comfortable ride to the airport, and I found out that he is a huge Bob Dylan fan. We talked music a little, as well as about his work in GNOME on pango and cairo that enables better internationalization and with the GNOME Foundation. And suddenly my first ever trip to Toronto was over! I hope to be back next year for both these fabulous conferences.
Big thank you’s go out to Chris Tyler, David Humphreys and the staff and crew of Seneca and FSOSS for making that conference a huge success. And thank you also to the folks at the Ontario Linux Fest for also putting on a great show.