Visit to Debian Party at Cambridge, UK

Posted on 2016-09-08

I had the pleasure to attend one day out of the 3-day OMGWTFBBQ organized every year (for the past ~15 years) by Steve McIntyre.

Introduction

A few weeks ago, I sent an email to debian-private list announcing my dates of visit to London and I got back a friendly personal email from Steve McIntyre, who had been DPL twice before, that there is a Barbeque happening at his home in Cambridge and that I am welcome to join them. I jumped at the opportunity to meet so many Debian developers and added my name into the wiki page set up for the event.

Arrival

I reached London on 28th evening and was very tired. I woke up very early on 29th (at around 2.30 am) and couldn’t sleep afterwards .. and was wondering if I should go or not. But in the end, I decided I should go and not miss the opportunity to meet some great folks behind Debian from the Cambridge area. The list had two former DPLs (Neil McGovern, besides Steve) attending the event, so it wasn’t something that I can miss.

So, I took a Tube on the Metropolitan lane from Uxbridge to Kings Cross, and from there I crossed over to the side where the National Rail services are operated and bought a to and fro ticket to Cambridge for 16.60 Pounds and rushed into the train that was starting in 4 minutes from Platform 6.

The train’s first stop was at Cambridge and took about 45 minutes. The Hotel coffee machine wasn’t functional, so I was suffering from a bit of caffene depletion, so I grabbed a cup of coffee from the platform. It was a nice and small station. The coffee was quite nice too. From the station, I took a taxi to Steve’s home which wasn’t too far away. The station is in CB1 area and Steve’s home in CB4 area. But these are all close by.

I could see a lot of cyclists on the road, a welcome change from the Bangalore traffic, roads and pavements (or the lack of it) that chokes pedestrians and cyclists.

A lot of folks were hanging out at the living area of Steve and Jo’s house. I could only recognize Lars Wirzenius on that room. There were several (I lost count) thinkpads on that room with Debian/FSF/Conservancy stickers on it and I immediately knew, these are my kind of people. :) There were tons of Debian swag around that people were using - like mugs with debconf stickers, people wearing debian t-shirts and so on..

And there was little Izy playing with the BBC microbit that her dad got from ARM and Pepper, the pet of Steve and Jo who was getting along with everyone.

Rest of the day

Daniel Silverstone and Vincent Sanders were hacking on some stuff. Daniel on a Lua program that does something with the GPG and Vince on NetSurf. Lars was looking on. There were two other folks and I forgot their names. :(

And then I went to the backyard and met a bunch of folks. One one of the table was Andy Simpkins preparing some breakfast and another guy doing some drone hardware stuff with KiCad. Andy is a hardware/low-level software hacker too. We had some nice conversations there after a brief introduction. Apparently everyone knew each other there for many years and that really showed.

Meanwhile more people were trickling in and some were leaving. There was Geert from Netherlands. Paul Martin was hacking with his ChaosKey. Peter Green was working on Raspbian. I later learned that Peter is one of the two founders of the Raspbian project.

I had a brief chat with Lars, we chatted about Free Software, copyleft and privilege. Lars had to leave but even the brief interaction was wonderful and inspirational.

A few of us played the board game Bohnansa. Steve patiently explained the rules of the game to me and everyone else helped me get along with the game. The game and the spirit of the people were so synchronous with the Free Software philosophy of helping your friends and neighbour.

While we were playing, Ian, another Ham radio operator dropped in. Had a brief chat with him as well.

I briefly met Ben Hutchings and Nattie and had some nice conversations with Nattie. Turned out that we have a common friend.

We had some late breakfast (mushrooms, bread that Paul made ..). There were lots of vegetarian food as well. Lots of nice conversations with Andy and others on Open Hardware and various hardware tricks like using i2c based i/o expanders instead of eeproms etc.. I later figured out many talks Andy had given at Debconf and such events.

I also met Edward Betts, one of the former Internet Archive employee and a top wikipedia contributor. It so happened that we both had some common friends too. World is such a small place when it comes to people.

I also have to say, there were a disproportionate number of people who were interested in hardware and doing real stuff with it. This is not surprising. Debian always had a bunch of ham radio operators since its early days and the Cambridge group has a number of people working at ARM and other places.

On the way back in the train, I had nice conversations with Peter, the Raspbian maintainer and Chris (I forgot to note down the full name).

I missed noting down names of many people. Sorry for that.

Community

Looking at the way people use the word “community” these days in the programming world, I think if I have to say what a community really is, then this is the one. I haven’t seen anything better than this community before. Among programmers (especially in India), there is no sense of a community feeling. Most of them are in it for narcissism or money or both. Of course, we have a nice small set of four or five DDs in Bangalore and meet often and discuss stuff. But the one in Cambridge was so diverse, large and old. People came from all over the place. There were people who were classmates with Steve many years ago and had started playing with Debian at that time. Steve did a lot more stuff but those people with whom he was doing stuff, also turned up. Isn’t that wonderful?

The fact that Debian puts people first instead of technology is the thing I like best about Debian. There had been long fights etc on mailing lists in the past and even now. But having a face to associate a name with, makes those discussions more friendly.

Above all, this is the community that truly has a shared goal of making the world a better place through Free and Open software (and I learned in this BBQ, hardware). I am quite proud to be part of this community, albeit in a small way. I should step up. The #debian-uk irc is very vibrant too.

I have been working in the software/semiconductor/hardware industry for a while now (~16 years) and I have never ever seen such a nice community of people anywhere in these cubicle farms.

IRC as the real social network?

Most folks at the BBQ said they hang out at #debian-uk on the oftc. And indeed a bunch of people on the irc who know each other in person is the real electronic social network, in my opinion, rather than things like Twitter and Facebook, which promotes a certain style (Twitter, imho has a lot of introvert, narcissist, link swapping folks, facebook seem to have very different set of people that I can’t even explain).

Some pictures from the event

Though I am wearing a Golang T-shirt, I am not a Go programmer.

Cambridge Railway Station Me with Lars Wirzenius The Grill DDs engaged in various activities Geert Stappers With Edward Betts Back to London King’s Cross