FOSDEM - a geek trip to Brussels. Going abroad to experience different cultures. Or at least, a chance to eat chips, suffer rain, and watch American TV in a different country. What follows is my diary of the event, told from a primarily personal and social aspect... but with all personal details withheld to protect the innocent and guilty alike.
I began my FOSDEM odyssey on Wednesday evening at Waterloo International train station. This is where all London Eurostar trains leave for Brussels, and all the continental tourists arrive when coming to London. (Yes, the French are forced to alight at Waterloo - someone in Government had a sense of humour!) My keenness was mirrored by just one other GLLUGer whom I met in the departure lounge. Here, we covered the important questions for the weekend; where to eat, where to drink, and where to collapse in the gutter without being arrested.
Thursday began quiet enough with a walk around the city to remind myself of the various drinking establishments I wanted to visit. The place looks lovely in the daylight. And sober. And is to be encouraged. As a bonus, most shops and museums are open. Unlike Monday.
On Thursday afternoon I visited the computer museum in Brussels (Yes, there is one!) at the Unisys building. This is only reachable by bus, and takes 45 minutes from De Brockere. It's by invitation only, and had been planned a month previous. The founder and curator, the very kind and courteous Mr Jacques Laffut, showed us personally around the collection, including many old Burroughs adding machines, explaining the history and relevance of the various models. (Briefly: the lack of zero, the price increase on machines that supported subtraction, the use of complement addition to mimic the same.)
Also in the museum are components from various 1960's mainframes. This included core memory, a PDP-8, and parts from one of only two machines to use the QCD-1245 format - instead of the more usual BCD-1248. This is so rare most people don't even know of its existence. There were also many examples of valves, transistors, microprocessors, control panels, and relics from my personal golden age of computing - the 1980's. Many more pieces of hardware where visible behind the bar, but lack of space prevented us from seeing them properly. I do hope this collection remains available for my grandchildren, but it's based in the sub-basement next to the car park and in desperate need of more room. It's a wonderful slice of history, and comes alive with Mr. Laffut's diction and obvious love for the machines.
Friday never really begins until you've paid your first tenner at the Roy d'Espagne. The drinks arrangement this year, as with last, was to pay for what you think you're going to drink, and add more money when you think you've gone over. This works better than expected as money flows faster than beer after the third Leffe Brune. I arrived shortly after 6.30 and met many Londoners I see more often in Brussels than in London. So many, in fact, I only really managed half a conversation with each before being accosted by another asking the perennial "so when did you get here" opener. Usually followed by "I'm hungry. Wanna eat?"
By half eight the Roy was getting very busy and we were ready for food, so yours truly led a pack of 8 geeks (remind me: what is the collective noun for geeks? A byte? A RAM? A cluster?) The place I thought of was Le Cap (or is it L_a_a Cap?) and I navigated our way there. Eight geeks were successfully tabled, without reservations, after just a two minute wait where we had decent, reasonably priced, Carbonade with beer and sorbet. Wonderful!
Upon returning to the Roy we found that so many people had arrived for FOSDEM that only those already seated were being served. And others where still leaving. We were probably still owed a drink or two from the money we'd paid previously, but since it all goes to the FOSDEM fund no one minded too much. This might have also been a ploy by the telecoms companies to induce a flurry of phone calls and text messages to see who was in what pubs, and who was headed where. After losing one group, and finding another, some of us made it to somewhere I believe was called 'Porte Noir' for late night drinks. Further phone calls continued throughout the night as the hostel messed up the room booking for some of the guys with me. And then called again, as the room numbers changed again. Some went home to find French men in their beds. Some met with women.
I wasn't quite so lucky!
I headed to the bus stop relatively early on Saturday morning aiming to see the second lecture. I passed by the other hotels in the hope of grabbing a cab share, but to no avail. But before reaching the 71 stop I'd met an attendee friend of mine, and before the bus had gone two stops, another had joined us. Although the bus also contained another 20 people with long hair, goatee beards, and glasses, so there's a chance they too were headed for FOSDEM!
The route provided the realization that sign-writers in Brussels, who charge by the letter, must earn twice that of anywhere else in the world since every sign is in both French and Flemish Dutch. Apotheek and Pharmacy. Both meaning chemist.
Arriving at ULB I passed by the O'Reilly stand were I learned that my Make subscription was unlikely to arrive any quicker in the future :( and that there's a new O'Reilly blog :) I also grabbed a flashing Google fridge magnet, and flashing yoyo. The latter that, it turns out, I correctly predicted as the "must have" geek fashion accessory of the conference.
I went to the OLPC talk, and the Java one. Everyone else has blogged the talks to death, so I shall not bother.
After an uneventful lunch, we returned to the main auditorium for more lectures. Tip: sit on the right hand side, and no one else has realized there's a second door, and so inconsiderate latecomers won't scuffle past you as you try to make notes on the talk. The two talks I remember were LinuxBIOS and Andrew Morton. I guess the most important comment of the latter talk was that he hated virtualization, and he thought the kernel should be doing that sort of thing. Ok - it's not a groundbreaking idea (most of us have been saying the same for years) but the fact that someone so high up in the kernel tree is saying it means that: 1. it might happen, and 2. despite the fact he puts such technology in anyway shows that not all kernel hackers deserve their egocentric stereotype.
Before heading home, we had a quick drink in the ULB bar (at 4 euro it was the cheapest round of the weekend) and met friends I see more often here than at home. I also learnt you can make flicker book porn by using the camera on your mobile phone to film late night TV shows. It was such a good hack I promised to keep the contributors identity secret.
After a shower and a change we met up in the hotel lobby and headed to 'T Kelderke. Another suggestion of mine, I have to say, that was well received. Going for the safe options we had snails, frogs legs, and horse steak. Some Fedora developers had found the place independently and were sat at the table two down from us, but I'm sure others found it, too.
With the night still young we sought something to age us, our livers, and the evening. First call was Chutney's. A hotel bar at the end of 'pitta street.' Decent enough beer, but too posh for the likes of us, and the Debian developers we met in there so we headed to the Coffin Bar. Although I don't know why! It's cool that the tables are coffins. It's cool that the mugs are skulls. It's not cool that the jukebox plays Prince (music was more themic when Depeche Mode came on) and it's not cool that drinks are 7 euro a pop. And we still can't tell the difference between large and small! Highlight of the night, though, was hearing Trio's "Da Da Da" for the first time in years. Ich liebe dich nicht, du liebst mich nicht, aha.
Some left at this point. The rest of us headed to Rock Classic for more good music, even more beer, and arguments, conversations, and a purpose to put the whole world to rights. Which we did! And all before 4.30 am. But upon waking up with an incredible hangover, I'd forgotten all the answers. Sorry world!
After an excessive regime of re-hydration I left for ULB on Sunday afternoon. Hoping to save time, I took the Metro to Delta, which backs directly onto ULB. During this journey I disproved an earlier point; sign-writers on the suburban part of this Metro line earn half as much as those in the city.
Once at Delta I wondered if I'd lose my way, but there are 'ULB' signs inside the station, and outside. So I followed them.
And followed them.
And followed them.
Until I realized I was lost.
It turns out I wasn't the only one, as someone else was going to see their friend give a Python talk. We decided to get lost together and ambled around the campus for a while before realizing that Belgium duality is not absolute; just because Apotheek and Pharmacy mean the same thing, it doesn't that ULB and its translation, VUB, are. In fact, they are different campuses, separated by a mile or two of identical looking roads. On discovering this minor fact we took a direct route to the other campus via exit gates 13, 12, 11, then 13 again, 11, 13, 12, 14, 8, before spotting a map that helped us. Every year, I comment about the comparative small size of Brussels (compared to London). After this trek, I probably won't.
The talks were good, although I was cold and this diverted much of my attention. Alas, after last nights torrential rain my coat was still sodden, and wearing it just made me colder. But I managed to stay awake until the end and returned back for a quiet evening's dinner. Observations on this journey involved the tram progress indicator (light bulbs showing at which station each train is at currently), the 'you are here' back-lit indicator (shown by cutting a hole at the very point on the map you want to see) and the length of the tram platforms, compared to the trams. My tired brain still managed to navigate my body home, however, by using the same method it had last year - and using the same broken escalator as a waypoint.
An incredibly early start was necessary to ensure I got into work by 10.00; which I did! What was more surprising, however, is how I never counted more than 100 people in the boarding lounge, yet all 18 carriages of the Eurostar were nearly full.
If you think this is a one-off, think again! FOSDEM is every year. And this diary is for life. You can review the antics of the other years here:
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