The meeting this year was a scaled-down version of the events they've had in years past, although they tried to gloss over the changes: For example, instead of the FSF hosting a GNU hackers meeting as part of the members meeting itself, they invited interested parties to get together informally ("in coffee shops") to work on projects. The wiki explained that the Foundation was planning something extra special for next year, but no one could tell me what that might be. They'd also moved things from Cambridge to Bunker Hill Community College, over on the Orange line of the T.
I arrived in the middle of Máirín Duffy's talk, which was about an educational program she'd designed (with sponsorship from Red Hat) to teach middle schoolers digital media design using Free tools; she'd been running it with a Massachusetts Girl Scouts troop and made her lesson plans (along with write-ups of her observations) available online. Her presentation elicited a lot of interest from the assembled nerds: People wanted to know whether she thought she'd created many converts to FLOSS. I was still pretty groggy at this point, but I recall her saying something about having graduates of her course assist in teaching it the next go-round, which sounds like success to me.
Matt Lee coordinated a round of lightning talks next; eager nerds queued at the stairs at the sides of the auditorium. Asheesh Laroia gave a truncated but inspiring version of a talk about successful strategies adopted by projects and user groups attempting to increase the diversity of their contributor base. He pointed out that isolation is self-reinforcing, and proposed that user groups adopt rules like the ones Jonathan Ames describes for orgies: You can show up if you're a dude, but you gotta bring ladies. James Vasile talked about a project dreamed up by Eben Moglen, a home networking appliance called FreedomBox that acts as a sort of federated social networking aggregator and privacy guard. Mary-Anne Wolf had some questions for the community about finding people capable of modifying the hardware and software component of electric wheelchairs, for the benefit of Arthur Torrey, who'd been injured and partially paralyzed in a recent accident.
Aside from some coffee and muffins, there wasn't any catering for the conference this year. The web site helpfully suggested that we investigate the strip mall across the street from BHCC; I followed Asheesh and his cadre over to a Papa Gino's, where we ran into Brad Kuhn and some other FSF people who generously shared with us some of the salty pizzas they'd ordered.
Richard Stallman's keynote was after lunch. As has been his habit for the past several years, he gave a kind of rambling talk that touched on a number of topics; he focused mostly on the ground he felt had been lost with regard to software running on mobile devices, and on the role the Internet had played in the recent uprisings in the Middle East. On the former, he was pessimistic, although he had some positive things to say about projects like the free Replicant, which has made a lot of technical progress recently.
"They've got it working on the HTC Dream, I think it's called," he said.On the latter topic, he was also pessimistic: "We took it for granted that it would be good for humanity because governments were not attacking it very hard," he said. "But the Internet may turn out to be a disaster for human rights." He also praised the actions of Anonymous in launching distributed denial of service attacks against the web sites of companies that agreed to help cut off funding from WikiLeaks, comparing them to "suffragettes chaining themselves to doors and such." I thought that was kind of a problematic position to take, but I didn't say anything. The questions period that followed was characteristically... tense, if not combative. Several members questioned the urgency of the projects on the High Priority Projects list, like GNU PDF.
"It's the G1," Matt Lee piped up from the first row.
"That's its marketing name."
"I don't know," said RMS. "These things are just... sounds to me."
Brad Kuhn gave the last talk of the afternoon, in which he gave a brief history of the FSF's operations from its inception to the present day, which was neat to have laid out explicitly, having spent . One thing he went into some detail on was the fact that for the first twelve years of its existence, the Foundation devoted a significant portion of its budget to funding developers to work on the GNU system. He popped up a slide with a list of names on it, of which I recognized several. But, for better or for worse, the FSF now concerns itself primarily with marketing and lobbying for Free Software, and with managing the, uh, "intellectual property" that has been assigned to it by developers. To that end, he explained, he'd helped the FSF go through the laborious process of establishing itself as a 501(c)(3) corporation, which, among other benefits, enabled it to raise funds much more effectively. The experience inspired him to create the Software Freedom Conservancy, which acts as an organizational proxy for independent software projects that want to reap the rewards of Tax-Exempt status but lack the time or expertise to go through with the filing process.
The Free Software awards this year went to Rob Savoye, who's certainly put in enough hours of debugging Flash media server wire traffic to deserve it; and to the Tor project. Hard to argue with that.
BHCC gave us the heave-ho at around 5 o'clock. Deb Nicholson and I exchanged contact info (she's no longer with the Foundation), although we were interrupted by RMS chewing out a star-struck fanboy ("For the last time, don't ask if you can take a picture with me! Either take the picture or don't take it!"). I managed to tag along with her, plus Thomas Dukleth and James Vasile, for dinner at a walk-up vegan Thai restaurant in Boston Chinatown called My Thai, which was really, really good -- the most convincing "fake meat" I've ever had, for whatever that's worth. We were joined by Jeanne Rasata and some other FSF people, including the two volunteers I'd met at HOPE last summer, Forest and Fizza. People actually remembered me, which was nice. It grew dark outside the large colonial windows of the restaurant; we talked about reading mail in Emacs and whether anybody posts on Usenet any more about topics that aren't related to Usenet itself (probably not).
And then I looked at my watch and it was almost 8 o'clock, meaning that I had to gun it back to South Station if I wanted to get back to NYC before 1 AM. I did plan to try to work on the way back, but I popped another Dramamine, and quickly wound up back in a pleasant but hard-to-shake twilight state. I tried to rally by listening to The Monitor in full on my iPod, which I'd found to be a potent shit-disturber having just purchased it when I made the trek last year, but no dice: I fell asleep in the middle of the fourteen-minute epic "The Battle of Hampton Roads." The guy in front of me was sitting lengthwise across two seats, staring intently out the window. He kept a napkin pressed to his mouth for the entirety of the trip, as if overcome with emotion or motion sickness. It was a strange sight to wake up to over and over again in the eerie half-light of the Lucky Star.