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A Perspective on FOSDEM

By imrdkl in News
Fri Feb 14, 2003 at 02:27:27 AM EST
Tags: Software (all tags)

This year's Free and Open Source Developers of Europe Meeting (FOSDEM) took place at the Université Libre De Bruxelles in Belgium last weekend. It seems fitting that a conference about Software Libre should be held at a Libre University, although I'm told that it does cost a bit to attend the university as a student.

This year's conference again featured Richard M. Stallman (RMS) as keynote speaker. For the second year running, RMS spoke primarily against European software patents. Jon "Maddog" Hall also gave a keynote address this year, where he spoke about the history of Free Software. It's interesting that the organizers of this European conference would pay so much attention to these two aging American hippies, but I guess we must all choose our own heroes. In any case, the dedication and hard work of the organizers made for another good show. There appeared to be about 750-1000 people in attendance this year, although formal registration is not required, so an official count really isn't possible.

More exciting details inside.

FOSDEM is a two-day weekend conference which has been going on for a few years now. Although I don't actually develop any free software myself, I am an avid user of it, so I attended for the first time last year, and wrote a short summary. Hopefully, this years report will be even more interesting that last year's.

Due to a mixup on my part, I arrived a bit early this year, and found the volunteers busy setting up tables, signs, and equipment in anticipation of the opening. While they were clearly busy, they were kind enough to direct me to a coffee machine, while I waited for the show to start. Unfortunately, the coffee machine only accepted digital cash cards, so next year I may pack a thermos. Fortunately, a lovely young french-speaking Belgian student showed up with her cash-card and bought me a cup of joe, for which I happily reimbursed her with with a half-euro coin.

While the organizers were busy with the business of making conference navigation and presentations go smoothly, the folks from O'Reilly were also hard at work, setting up their own stand. O'Reilly is FOSDEM's primary supporter, and deserves an honorable mention for their continued enthusiasm for this meeting. They gave away a free book of your choice to anyone who donated at least one hundred euros to FOSDEM. Interestingly, O'Reilly uses their competitor, Wiley, to handle shipping and distribution in Europe - so all of their books were packed in Wiley boxes. I guess that's globalism for you. Other supporters include OpenBSD, Debian, and Gentoo Linux.

Well, Mad Dog's talk finally started a bit past 10 am, which formally kicked off the conference. He had some interesting points to make, and spoke at length about the beneficial aspects of using free software, while reviewing the developments within free software during the last 700 years or so. He also reminded us that the name, Linux, is a trademark which is owned by Linus Torvalds. Seems there was a site which wanted to use the name, LinuxChicks - and they were threatened with legal action to protect the good name of Linux.

Richard "Da Pope" Stallman wandered into the theater near the end of Mad Dog's talk, and sat unobtrusively at the edge of the audience until he was finished. As mentioned, RMS was on again this year about software patents, and why they should never be adopted in Europe. While I was familiar with some of his points, his focus and delivery seemed more refined this year, and even more convincing. He gave an analogy, which he recommended for use by anyone who finds themselves in need of a persuasive argument against software patents, which I'll try to reproduce now:

Suppose that, during the late 1700's, the governments of Europe had granted music-composition patents to composers like Bach or Mozart. Then, during the 1800's, Beethoven comes along and finds that many compositional techniques must be licensed, before he can use them to create his own works. That certainly might have stifled his creativity a bit.
RMS spoke at length about how software patents put ideas off limits, and how the notion of Intellectual Property lumps together many areas of the law which have evolved independently, and are not interrelated. He discussed the "twisted" legal language, and the ambiguity of patent applications, which can lead to unintended claims, and other consequences as well. He also claims that the small developer protecting his profits with a patent is "really an unrealistic scenario", since other ideas which she has surely used in her software are patented by somebody else, leaving the developer awash in a sea of negotiations which rarely yield profit, except for the big companies.

After the keynote sessions concluded, the regular sessions began. There were several tracks, and lots of good tutorials this year - covering everything from kernel development to graphical design with the Gimp. Security was again a focus, albeit not as strongly as last year. Open source Certificate Authority software was featured for the second year in a row, however. This years candidate was OpenCA.

The education track was new this year, with the focus being on education using free software. This track included an interesting series of sessions, including one about DebianEdu, a Linux distro which is dedicated to educational use, as well sessions dedicated to individual software tools for learning and educating. I was most impressed with a nifty little geometry-learning package called DrGenius, which is authored by one Hilaire Fernandes. He gave a demonstration of how DrGenius is used, along with the newer scripting features and macros. Using DrGenius, a student can gain an insight into the mechanics and laws of geometry which I would have gladly paid for, when I was trying to prepare for the calculus. For example, one can easily develop an application in DrGenius which dynamically illustrates Pythagoreus' theorem, or simple wave-slope properties. The problem, according to Fernandes, is that there's not enough teachers out there who are willing to try something new, making it difficult to get feedback and contributors.

All in all, this year's FOSDEM conference was worth the trip. Now, that's easy to say, because the conference is free - but the level of enthusiasm and dedication to be found there simply can't be bought. Slides and other media related to the conference are now becoming available on the FOSDEM website.


Voxel dot net
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Related Links
o Université Libre De Bruxelles
o Software Libre
o Richard M. Stallman
o Jon "Maddog" Hall
o summary
o O'Reilly
o convincing
o tracks
o tutorials
o OpenCA
o DebianEdu
o DrGenius
o FOSDEM website
o Also by imrdkl

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A Perspective on FOSDEM | 23 comments (7 topical, 16 editorial, 0 hidden)
Article (1.69 / 23) (#10)
by Hide The Hamster on Thu Feb 13, 2003 at 05:58:05 PM EST

This is boring as shit, buddy. I feel sorry for you.

Free spirits are a liability.

August 8, 2004: "it certainly is" and I had engaged in a homosexual tryst.

Ah. Useful commentary indeed. (4.90 / 10) (#11)
by freebird on Thu Feb 13, 2003 at 06:06:08 PM EST

Having made some comments on tone myself, that I think were considerably less nasty and (I hope) actually contained some honest critique, I feel obliged to ask you to shut the hell up.

Firstly, this is clearly an editorial comment and belongs there. Are you aware of this subtle distinction?

Second, if you're not interested in the subject that's fine; if you have nothing better to do than spend time insulting those who are, I would humbly submit that it is in fact you who is deserving of pity.

[ Parent ]

I love you too. (2.57 / 7) (#13)
by Hide The Hamster on Thu Feb 13, 2003 at 06:08:18 PM EST

Free spirits are a liability.

August 8, 2004: "it certainly is" and I had engaged in a homosexual tryst.

[ Parent ]
I feel sorry (4.42 / 7) (#17)
by imrdkl on Thu Feb 13, 2003 at 06:22:00 PM EST

For your hamster.

[ Parent ]
RMS... (1.00 / 10) (#20)
by X3nocide on Fri Feb 14, 2003 at 12:50:16 AM EST

is a communist hippie. I think he might benefit from an understanding that not everyone can sleep at the MIT computer center...

He never slept there. (4.50 / 2) (#22)
by Slothrop on Fri Feb 14, 2003 at 07:13:39 AM EST

He mostly slept in his office in the LCS/AI Lab building when I was working there.
Provide, provide!
[ Parent ]
URL (4.66 / 3) (#23)
by vinci on Fri Feb 14, 2003 at 10:04:56 AM EST

The URL for tutorials is wrong the right one is: http://fosdem.org/index/tutorials Vinci

A Perspective on FOSDEM | 23 comments (7 topical, 16 editorial, 0 hidden)
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