Libre Planet 2009, aka the Free Software Foundation's annual members meeting, was this past weekend, and this year the powers that be planned two days of software activism-related... fun. I emailed Greg to see if I could crash on his sofa again, but he replied to say that he was going to be NYC that weekend. I started researching hostels but secretly planned to get a private room at a commodity motel chain such as could be located. Luckily, in the middle of the week, Greg wrote back again to say that he was so swamped with work that he'd canceled his visit to the city. I went out and bought him a bottle of scotch. And then I got up at 6:00 AM, every bone in my body wishing I could scrap the weekend, and schlepped it up to Penn Station to catch the 8:00 AM train to Boston. Trying to sleep on the train, I couldn't get comfortable and sort of draped myself over the armrest in the pair of seats closest to the bathroom like a homeless person, making no usage whatsoever of the AC adapter in the business-class seat I'd shelled out extra for.
Nonetheless, I did get to Boston about forty minutes earlier than I would've on the regional, and managed to find my way to the Science Center (it was at Harvard this year). At the sign-in desk they were giving everybody these little badges that said either "Staff" or "Blogger" or "Activist." That last one was me. (Although, as I pointed out to Joshua Gay later, I'm fuckin' blogging this, aren't I?) The format of the first day was pretty much what the meetings have been like every year -- technical-political talks with breaks for portabello mushroom sandwiches and cookies.
I missed Mako's talk about freedom for network services, which is too bad, since I really liked where they were going with the Franklin St. Statement.
Rob Savoye, who's running the Gnash project, gave a really entertaining talk about what it takes practically to do a clean-room implementation of a jealously-guarded piece of proprietary software -- spoiler: it involves having a friend of yours install Flash Player so that you don't have to agree to the EULA and then sniffing their network traffic. He also described, entertainingly, his conversion from skeptic to enthusiast with regard to Flash on the web: He didn't know what the fuss was about at all until he saw YouTube. Now he's an addict, he says.
Ciaran O'Riordan gave an update on what the FSFE's been up to, specifically with regard to the EndSoftwarePatents campaign that he took over from Ben Klemens (never heard why he stepped down). He had some good stories about camping out at the European Parliament during the debate over the European software patents directive: "We were sleeping on the floor. Eventually someone came and told us that there were beds in the building that we could sleep in. They were kept around for the politicians to sleep in. So we went and slept in those beds."
"With the politicians?" someone asked.
Ciaran paused. "That's not the kind of lobbying we do," he said.
Bradley Kuhn and the two guys from the EU did short panel discussion on activism. Brad made some good points about the importance of "showing up" (which is apparently how he got the executive directorship at the FSF). And he had a funny anecdote about following RMS into a bathroom to talk to him about Free Software. "Especially if you're an awkward person, it's probably not a good idea to follow your intellectual idols into the bathroom. Luckily, Richard's such an awkward guy himself that he didn't seem to mind."
Evan Prodromou, the author of (net http), but more prominently the CEO of Control Yourself, Inc., the company that runs identi.ca, gave a talk on the practical issues related to creating and running a Free network service.
After the talks were done, I stood around for a while chatting with Josh and some other FSF types. And then, this year, instead of everyone going to The Middle East for a pay-your-own-way dinner party, we walked over to redline, where some generous software person had bought out the space for the FSF for the evening, complete with vegetarian hors d'oerves and drink tickets. (Drink tickets, courtesy the Free Software Foundation! The mind boggles.) I wound up having a long talk with Mike Linksvayer, the guy who'd accepted the FSF award on behalf of Creative Commons (a plaque inscribed from the FSF to CC! The mind boggles further), who turned out to be a super nice dude. And I got to plug the new bytecode VM to Evan, who admitted, in a moment of candor, that he'd be writing network services in Scheme if he could. Mako invited everyone to the Acetarium ("Your place!" I said. "Your place is the place that has a name!"), but I was pretty pooped.
I gave Greg a tipsy call and managed to navigate to his apartment based on half-remembered phone instructions and an assortment of visual Cambridge landmarks. His new place is a grad student's dream of an apartment: enormous, newly-renovated, exposed brick, the works. He'd called off his academic efforts for the day and seemed kind of beat, but he shared his pizza and cookies with me and we watched a bunch of premium cable: We found this on-demand movie called Alex Rider: Stormbreaker that starred basically every famous British person, plus, inexplicably, Alicia Silverstone and Mickey Rourke. It was about a kid who discovers that he's been sort of covertly trained his whole life to be a secret agent, and he uses his spying and martial arts skills to thwart a plot involving deadly (!) computers donated to public (or is it private?) school classrooms. The computers were the things called "Stormbreakers." I don't get why they were called that; it's a scary name to give to an educational computer.
Then the second half of Knocked Up was on, so we watched that. I don't know, I guess it was pretty funny? But the main characters are pretty loathsome and there wasn't much of a catharsis for me when they wound up together at the end. I was like, is this a joke? They hate each other. After that I went to bed -- and slept great, actually, although I had to get up once in the night and do bathroom stuff because of all the vegetable kebabs.
The second round of talks was a free-er form dealie. I got there late and in my hurry to find a talk to sit in on, I wound up in the room for the track I was least interested in, which was Free Software activism. Nonetheless, the guy giving the spiel had some tips that I was glad to hear articulated, moreso because he was sort of pitching from the perspective of a super awkward dude who'd had to clean up his act a bit to appeal to normals.
After that I listened to a tired-looking guy from the coreboot project talk about some of the technical / business difficulties inherent in developing a custom BIOS from scratch. After him a striking-looking Russian guy with a white ponytail and a missing eye gave a talk about running free software on digital cameras: apparently the hardware resources are so limited that you have to compile all your code using scary proprietary compilers that do things to optimize the layout of the heap at build time. After more cookies, I listened to Tom Dukleth, whom I know from various NYC Free Software activities talk about free access to bibliographic data, which is his particular thing. And then I had to run because I wanted to catch a reasonably-timed train back home. The whole thing cost a lot, but, man -- the emotional difference between this year and last year, when I'd barely slept and felt totally strung out the whole time, was huge. And they have fucking Internet on the train, man. I bet you didn't know that.
But then I watched Come And See because it was in my Netflix, and it was fucking terrifying.
Sunday, March 15, 2009
[Ironically, after finishing editing a post about a conference where everyone was fretting over the ubiquity of not-free-as-in-freedom network services like the ones Google offers, Blogger freaked out and deleted this post -- from its internal database *and* from undecidable.net. It did this silently: the timestamps on the files on my site were the only indication that anything had changed. What's more, it turns out there's no way to get Google to help you with this kind of thing, not even if you give them money. So, hey, case in point. WordPress ahoy?]