I spent Saturday mostly on the train, en route to and from the Free Software Foundation's annual associate members meeting in Cambridge. The conference is one of the highlights of the year for me -- good news delivered by smart people, bad news framed as motivation. And as, I think, one of the board members pointed out a few years ago, you get the superficial pleasure of seeing what they spend the money on.
On the way I listened to the excellent new Titus Andronicus album, The Monitor, which I'd purchased along with some other music (The Airing Of Grievances, also by T.A.; Art Brut's Bang Bang Rock And Roll; Arcade Fire's Neon Bible) in a semi-impulsive bid to update my music library. It's very, very good: Wrenchingly earnest, unabashedly pretentious, with maddeningly catchy guitar melodies. "Richard II" is my favorite song as of this writing, but I've found myself singing the unwholesome chorus of "No Future Part Three" to myself more than I probably should: "You'll always be a loser, you'll always be a loser..." It's been frustratingly long since I've bought a record where I didn't feel bored and alienated by all but a few songs; this one's a very nice treat. I'm glad to finally own Neon Bible as well, but it's almost too scary to listen to all in one go -- "Black Wave/Bad Vibrations" is a grotesque and upsetting little kernel of discomfort nestled snugly in the middle of the track list.
I'm embarrassed to admit that taking the Acela is also something I look forward to. Why it costs $80 is beyond me (as Chris would sing, "that's a whole lotta dough!"), and the sandwiches they sell in the bar car are unpleasantly damp; but god the scenery is breathtaking, and I get four solid hours to devote to programming, a rare treat for me. This year I spent the time finishing a pretty large project that I'd started around this time last year and which had gotten variously stalled and started up again several times in the intervening months. It was satisfying. I made a lot of progress.
The train was late getting into South Station, though, and it was close to noon by the time I got to Harvard Yard. The first few speakers had already gone. It was almost lunch-time, so I just kind of lurked awkwardly outside the auditorium. It being spring break, Crimson Catering was out of commission, but Deborah Nicholson had arranged for some pretty good burritos to be airdropped in. I ate one with tofu in it, outside on the warm rocks. My lunch companion was Debra Cauley, who writes technical manuals for a lot of Free Software projects; she had some interesting stories about being a long-term Alphabet City dweller, with all the attendant stressors and excitement. A friend of hers, whose name I didn't catch, gave me a few handmade stickers that said "Free Software - Fuck Yeah."
After lunch I had the good fortune to see Eben Moglen give a state-of-the-Free Software-nation talk. He's no longer on the board, and was going to be abroad doing the SFLC's business instead of at the conference, but apparently he'd come down with a cold that caused him to miss a flight to India (but which allowed him to give a one hour, ad lib lecture? I don't get it either). Cold or no, he's always a great talker. He devoted a lot of time this year, as he did last year, to software patents -- in particular, the difficulty in negotiating disarmament in the patents arms races between corporations engaged in IP détente. He also talked about Sun's semi-recent purchase by Oracle: "We in the Free world have not traditionally looked to Oracle for pro-Freedom practices," he said, getting laughs. Still, he thought, it was possible, or even likely, that Oracle would keep the MySQL project, which they'd acquired with the rest of Sun, going, as a way of eroding Microsoft SQL Server's position. The last thing he talked about was freedom for network services and making the relationship between Free Software and privacy more manifest. "It'll be as hard as anything we've ever done," he said, "but not harder."
I stayed in the room after Prof. Moglen's talk for Walter Bender's presentation on Sugar, the desktop environment for the OLPC project. A lot of Free Software people seem to also have a bent towards alternative education and teaching practice, and Sugar's always had a secondary roles as a proof of concept of its designers' pedagogical theories. Walter demonstrated some interesting features of the platform, like the ubiquitous "view source" command that brings up the source code to any component of the system; he discussed how this feature dictates some organizational requirements for the software itself: We can better facilitate learning on the Sugar platform, he said, by making the platform's software easy to understand and decompose into simple pieces. I was skeptical -- View Source works well enough for the system's chrome, which seems to be written in Python, but doesn't let you dig any deeper. (Maybe that's good enough, though?)
There was a meet-up scheduled afterwards at a local bar, which I considered going to. I hadn't seen anyone I knew, though; and aside from lunch, the only interactions I'd had were with Robert Collins, from GNU bzr, and this uncannily persistent Gnome usability guy, both of whom wanted to tell me how much they hate GNU Guile. Plus, although the conference, like last year, was extended to go for three whole days, I hadn't arranged for anywhere to stay in Boston. Greg's living in China, and my dreamed-of invitation to crash on the couch at the Acetarium didn't materialize. So I had to catch an evening train back to NYC, and the last one 'til, like, late was leaving at 6:30. As it happened, hanging out at the pub turned out to be off the table -- I made a run to the bank to get cash and lost sight of the procession of beardos I'd assumed I could count on to lead me to the place from the Science Center. I wandered around the shopping district near campus for about ten minutes, swearing audibly, before giving up and getting back on the T for the four hour trip back home.
I got some more programming work done on the way, but there was something missing: That knot of yearning in my chest for the tall grass and salt marshes of New England wasn't there. Maybe it's this cold spring we've been having.
My band, Hotel For Dogs, continues its inexorable ascension to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: We just wrote a song about a guy who works at the zoo and has to distinguish the boy pumas from the girl pumas. It's a fraught kind of husbandry.