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hpr1984 :: A Love Letter to linux.conf.au

Why I've been to fifteen linux.conf.au conferences

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Hosted by Clinton Roy on 2016-03-10 is flagged as Clean and is released under a CC-BY-SA license.
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Linux.conf.au, is the name and website of my favourite conference. Known by insiders as simply lca, it is an annual technical conference, focusing on Linux and Open Source technologies. LCA is a roaming conference, going to a different city of Australia and New Zealand every year. I've helped organise the two lca's in my home town of Brisbane, Queensland, and it was in fact the first of these that introduced me to lca. This year lca was held in Geelong, down in the state of Victoria and it counts as my fifteenth linux.conf.au. Clearly this conference has become quite a big part of my life and it's probably a mature thing to stand back and have a look at why.

lca is a technical conference, it's not a sales oriented conference, as an engineer having non-salesy, technical content makes me feel at home. For the most part, the paper committee only accept talks from people directly working on a project, so the speakers we select know their topic. lca is explicitly an open source conference, and mostly a low level conference.

lca is a week long conference, so I often add some extra time on the end to make a holiday out of it. A fair percentage of our attendees are from overseas, and it makes sense for them to do the same. I have taken the train to a Perth (Western Australia) lca, that's the Indian Pacific train, a three day trip from one side of the country to the other. I've done a day trip on a train in New Zealand, from Auckland to Wellington. I've done a couple of motorcycle trips, down to Ballarat and Geelong (both cities in the state of Victoria). Those two tours are roughly a 3600km (or 2200 mile) round trips taking three to four days each way.

I've done a motorcycle tour of Tasmania (an island state of Australia) after a Tasmanian lca. Next year, the conference is back in Tasmania for the Hobart lca, I'm planning on doing a week long hike of about 85kms (50 odd miles) before the conference along the South Coast Track.

There are a bunch of people that I only get to see at lca, from year to year, sadly some of these come from my own home town. Keeping these connections strong is an important part of lca for me.

Every year, the parent organisation of lca, Linux Australia holds their Annual General Meeting during lca. I've been an Ordinary committee member on the Linux Australia council a couple of times now. This year I didn't get enough votes, which means I have more time to devote to other things, like HPR recordings :)

Registration for lca normally starts Sunday afternoon, there's often a beginners guide to the conference. After fifteen years, I don't think I've ever attended one, but I should probably help lead it next year..

It's very common for lca to choose a charity to raise money for. For many years this meant a loud, long, often raucous auction. In recent years we've had a raffle over the full length of the conference. We've helped many worthy charities over the years, the one that comes to mind was the 'Save the Tasmanian Devils' fund, for which we raised a substantial amount of money, something around forty thousand dollars, partly based on the auction prize of changing the linux's kernel logo from Tux to Tuz, the lca mascot for that year. Tuz is a Tasmanian devil wearing a costume Penguin beak to cover over his case of the Devil Facial Tumour Disease, a communicable cancer, that is threatening their existence. This was also the conference where Linus shaved bDale's beard off to raise money for the charity.

We often hold lca at a university, and we often use student dormitories as accommodation. If we're lucky, this means that a large percentage of attendees can meet up in common areas of the accommodation at the end of the day and continue the conference long into the night. A particularly memorable lca on this front, somewhere in New Zealand, I forget which city, had a whole level of a student accommodation centre set aside as a common area, so a large percentage of the conference were able to fit and continue the conference late into the evening.

The first two days of the conference are generally reserved for miniconferences, or miniconfs as we refer to them. These miniconfs go for one or two days and are organised around a particular topic, and separately to the main conference. The miniconfs change every year, but commonly include miniconfs focused on the kernel (this is primarily attended by kernel coders), hardware (based around ardunio, raspi, and this year espy), multimedia and music, sysadmin, OpenRadio, Open Source in Government. A highlight from the second Brisbane lca was the rocketry miniconf, where 25 odd rockets were put together and later launched. We've been blessed over the years to have miniconfs working to improve and enlarge our community, including LinuxChix, Haecksen and the Community Leadership Summits.

After the miniconf days are done, the conference proper begins. These days start off with a keynote, have four or more streams of talks during the day, with longer tutorials running for half the day.

My favourite keynote from this year was Genevieve Bell, from Intel. From previous years, Tim Berners Lee, Eben Moglen and Kathy Sierra have left long term marks. These are people who have fundamentally created the world I live and work in now, their contributions cannot be understated.

There are a bunch of talks from every year that change the way I think about something, or the way I work. This year, I reckon the Record/Replay talk will probably change the way I debug programs. RR is a Mozilla tool, you run the buggy program under rr, which records exactly what the system calls the program runs, what state effects the program has, then you run that recording under the standard debugger, gdb. Typically with gdb you can only step forwards into the program, but with rr you can actually step back in time as well!

A hardware talk that really caught my attention this year was the Linux Microwave, a regular microwave with a set of scales and a thermal imaging camera added, so that whenever you heat/warm/defrost something, the microwave will never ever burn/under/over cook the food!

The other bit of hardware that I feel warrants a mention was the large loom that one of our venues, the National Wool Museum was built around. It is programmed by a large bunch of punch cards! There's always local attractions that add something to the conference.

During the week, ad-hoc groups form around common interests, we call these Birds-of-feather sessions. I usually end up attending the Emacs BoF. A recurring BoF is the jobs BoF, where employers and hopeful employees come together.

I don't tend to attend too many tutorials myself. A number of years back I ran a tutorial on Antlr, a recursive descent parser toolkit.

There are a number of social events that happen most years, the conference dinner, the speakers dinner, and the professionals session. These events target the different audiences at the conference. A favourite spin on this was during a Melbourne lca where diners were given food and drink tokens to use around a market, rather than a traditional sit down dinner. The speakers dinner is a smaller, more private thank you to the speakers, many of whom have flown in from overseas. The professionals session tends to be the most varied, as it tends not be a full meal, but just a place where folks can meet, greet and swap business cards.

I can't say it's always been a bed of roses, I've had a couple of hospital trips over the years, one for myself where, along with almost half of the conference, I came down with the dreaded noro-virus, a gastro bug that is prevalent on cruise ships. During another lca when I was chaperoning another attendee to hospital I figured my lca was over, but then I struck up a conversation with our ambulance driver, and it turned out he'd been working on pdp-11s during his uni days!

The other awful lca experience I have to mention was the flooding that occurred just one week prior to our second Brisbane lca. All of our venues were affected, some were destroyed completely. We had to shift our main venue about 5kms up the road, hire buses, find new caterers at the last minute, a whole world of pain.

For many years now, most of our talks have been recorded, using our own recording system. All of these videos are up on the Linux Australia server and youtube. This means that weeks, months after the conference is finished, I find myself watching a recording that someone has recommended, and it takes me back to that one week in every year where the world makes sense to me.

As I mentioned previously, the next linux.conf.au is in Hobart, January 2017, I hope to see some hpr listeners there.


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