2018 Sydney – A little bit of history repeating

This year, 2018 headed back to Sydney, where it hasn’t been held since 2007. This year I skipped quite a few sessions due to having Linux Australia duties and tasks to do, and because the heat and humidity were exhausting. Thankfully, the videos by Next Day Video were released very quickly, so I’m spending “Week 2” of catching up!

On reflection, several themes came through.

  • Volunteers, volunteering and volunteer labour – There are several free software and opensource organisations across the world, and they’re all vying for volunteer contributions. Moreover, the volunteer base itself is ageing; we’re getting older and having children and families and other family responsibilities – we simply don’t have the time to contribute that we once did. At the other end of the demographic curve, younger people don’t have the same passion and ‘fire in the belly’ for free and open source software. In one sense, that’s a product of the success of the free and open source software movement – because it’s been normalised; but on the other hand this leaves us with a gap in the ‘compelling-reasons-to-join-a-free-and-open-source-project’ list. As a concrete example, during the opening of, no less than three organisations – Open Source Initiative, Free Software Foundation, and Code Club Australia – did a shoutout for volunteers. At the same time, Linux Australia – the auspicing body of the conference – had fewer nominations to its board than open vacancies. I want to be clear: The Organisers and Volunteers of did a phenomenal job. They were dedicated, professional, resilient and awe-inspiring. As individuals, and as a conference team, amazing. Systemically though, open source has some major issues to address to avoid burnout, and worse, resentment.
  • Infrastructure-as-code continues to gain maturity – As more and more devices become internet-connected, and we’re managing more and more devices, we need better orchestration. We’re seeing this manifest in container-all-the-things, in MQTT for unified messaging and in our approach to IoT hardware and open hardware. Standards however remain a barrier to interoperability and greater maturity in code-based orchestration, as outlined brilliantly by Kathy Giori.
  • Open source touches many disciplines – the range of Miniconfs available this year sent a strong and undeniable message – free and open source software, hardware and practices are touching many disciplines. Art, genomics, games, galleries, libraries and museums (GLAM) – Linux and open source touch each of these in fundamental ways. Personally, I’m delighted to see this cross-pollination happening in our communities. Together, we do better.

On communities, volunteering and volunteer labour

“A division of labour in free software” – Molly de Blanc, Free Software Foundation

Molly’s talk used the results of different surveys of opensource communities to show visually that labour in free software is gendered, ageist, and that these schisms also apply to what is considered technical and non-technical work. The implications of these findings are that these patterns are repeated without intervening action, such as having quotas on leadership boards. Importantly, anecdotal data shows that we still value technical work over important non-technical work; people still justify their non-technical contributions to an opensource project by emphasising the technical contributions they do make.

This resonated strongly with me; as the leader of an organisation that turns over around $AUD 1 million a year – Linux Australia – there are a number of skills I need to have – budgeting, strategic communications, strategic and operational management – and of course, the ability to be an efficient administrator. None of these are technical skills; yet, as the leader of a technical organisation I am expected to have a strong grasp of technology issues. Even in a non-technical role, you’re not allowed to be non-technical.

“Dealing with Contributor Overload” – Holden Karau

Holden Karau is a core contributor to the Apache Spark project, and this war story and guidance was learned the hard way – when the project became so big that contributors were significantly overloaded. She provided a number of strong pieces of guidance for dealing with contributor overload, including:

  • Developing a contributor pipeline to allow users of the project to become contributors, and in time, core committers
  • Not ‘raising the bar’ for changes and requests because these have very unattractive downsides such as making the contribution pipeline harder and paradoxically increasing the contributor workload by increasing questions and requests for assistance.
  • The power of having clear roadmaps which make it clear what the core project is, and is not going to do, so that people can either start their own project, or plan around it. The Roadmap also helps guide contributions, and show how smaller tasks contribute to larger milestones.
  • Focussing on committer productivity – such as better tools to merge changes, making it easier to review changes, and more tests – can have significant long term dividends. Imagine what a 1% productivity increase would mean across say 10-20 committers? 50 committers? 100 committers?
  • Creating safe spaces to ask questions and contribute without being mocked – people who feel safe to fail are going to commit more.


“Burning Down the Castle” – Daniel Vetter, Intel (previous graphics kernel maintainer)

Daniel’s talk was an eye-opener. As a previous graphics kernel maintainer, Dan has seen a whole range of poor behaviours that contribute to maintainer burn-out, rage-quitting and other unproductive outcomes. His talk advocates for a kinder, gentler approach to maintaining a technically elite community.


“Mirror, mirror on the wall: testing Conway’s Law in open source communities” – Lindsay Holmwood

Lindsay provided an outline of Conway’s law of organisational communication patterns, and the concept of mirroring – the mapping between the organisational structure and the supporting technical structures for communication. Strong mirroring leads to strong ownership – you are led to the actors who own a system. Using an overview of the empirical literature on organisational development and he explained how organisations try to solve the problem of communication – using different structural strategies. But mirroring works poorly in unstable environments – those undergoing radical change and innovation. This has led to the rise of structures like guilds. These theories are then applied to open source to show that shifts away from the ‘core’ of an open source project can indicate a decline in the project itself. This necessitates a need to build a pipeline – again the pipeline – of people moving closer to the core in their contributions.

This talk was intense – but the key takeaway was that the way we design organisational structures has a significant impact on organisational outputs and long term organisation success. This is of particular importance for projects that are scaling up significantly; poor choices during scale up will lead to poor productivity later in the project’s lifecycle.


Orchestrate all the things. With code.

“MQTT as a Unified Message Bus for Infrastructure Services” – Matthew Treinish

This was an excellent talk by Matt Treinish, who outlined the reasons behind the design of MQTT, which was originally designed for sensor telemetry. He goes on to show there are different levels of quality of service for the broker. An excellent introduction to how MQTT can be used as a unified messaging bus – as used in FireHose.


“What does the buyout of @arduino mean for #openhardware?” – Kathy Giori, IoT at Mozilla

I was truly disappointed not to be able to make it to Kathy’s presentation, as it came about partially because of a tweet I’d sent out to #lcapapers in mid-2017 – and which Kathy shouted out to me for. Thank you, and apologies for not being there in person.

Giori provided an overview of the corporate history of Arduino and how it’s now consolidated under one company; lamenting the drawn-out legal process that led to this point.

She continued to outline some of the challenges in licensing for open hardware and how manufacturers are being cheated by lower-quality knock-offs; with those same manufacturers then expecting the original author of open hardware / open software to provide ongoing support. This led to a discussion on the different levels of openness in open hardware, and the pros and cons of each.

Concluding the talk, Kathy provided an overview of the Mozilla Web of Things project, which is attempting to bring some standardisation and streamlining to the very fragmented IoT and open hardware space. There are competing standards, competing platforms, and the piece that I didn’t realise was that this is actually inflating costs for consumers. Because individual companies need to make hubs and supporting infrastructure for “their” range of IoT hardware, this means each endpoint device – light bulb, sensor, thermostat and so on – is quite expensive. Mozilla is seeking to have stronger interoperability in this space by creating the ‘Web of Things’:

“The “Web of Things” (WoT) is the idea of taking the lessons learned from the World Wide Web and applying them to IoT. It’s about creating a decentralized Internet of Things by giving Things URLs on the web to make them linkable and discoverable, and defining a standard data model and APIs to make them interoperable.”

If anyone can drive this, Mozilla can, but my personal feeling is that they’re going to come up against significant corporate interests in doing so – at a time when their own corporate mis-steps (Mr Robot, anyone) have significantly backfired. I live in hope.

Cross-pollination, because together we do better

“The Future of Art” by J Rosenbaum

This was the mind-blowing talk of #lca2018 for me personally. Academic and artist J Rosenbaum took us through their research, which sits at the intersection of machine learning, neural networks and the production of art.

J’s talk started with an overview of machine learning projects, such as Botnik and Janelle Shae, and moved on to underscoring the collaboration between human and machine in generative art.

The future is not man versus machine  – the future of art is man with machine.


“The Knitting Printer” by Sarah Spencer

Again a brilliant intersectional talk by Melbourne-based hobbyist and knitter, Sarah Spencer, in which she provides an introduction to knitting machines, and provides a breakdown of how she reverse engineered a hack to a 32-bit knitting machine to be able to get images from her computer to the knitting machine.

Massive respect, @chixor.


“Wearing access: a story about open collections, a sewing machine and the nation’s secrets” – Bonnie Wildie

Bonnie’s talk, from the OpenGLAM Miniconf, was very much a hidden gem of the conference. She talked about the concept of redaction art, created from files that have been redacted – and remixed. Bonnie even turned the redaction art into a dress, which opened up a conversation on the politics and power of what we wear. Dress and costume become media for subversion. Much awesome.

My talk picks for #lca2018 – 2018 heads to UTS in Sydney – where it hasn’t been since 2007 – which is a very long time in technology.

This year’s line up has swung away from the community-focused content of 2017 Hobart, back to technically-heavier talks. Personally I think this was the right move – without robust technical depth, risks losing its traditional audience of kernel and Linux hackers.

The conference theme of

a little bit of history repeating

plays out in the programme in a couple of ways. First, the conference welcomes back Karen Sandler as a keynote. Karen last keynoted 2012 in Ballarat, in one of the best presentations I’ve ever seen about bodily autonomy, and the impact that software freedoms have not just on technology, but on our personal health. Her talk at 2017 Hobart on ‘Surviving the next 30 years of free software‘ was also thought-provoking – as our community ages, how do we prepare for the death of our community members – and importantly – how to we curate their code legacy? I can’t wait to hear what Karen speaks out in Sydney.


History repeating also plays out in the Miniconfs that we’re seeing this year. The Open Education Miniconf is back after a several-year hiatus, while the stalwart Sysadmin Miniconf is back. Open Hardware is as popular as ever, and has already sold out.

What I love above this year’s Miniconfs is the reach-out and cross-pollination with other disciplines. The Bioinformatics Miniconf is back, after debuting at 2016 (disclosure: I was 2IC of LCA2016). The Art and Tech Miniconf, led by the amazing Kris Howard, is going to be my top pick, because of the cross over with elements such as data visualisation, and even a Knitting Printer.

Main talks

The next generation

  • History can’t repeat unless we have the next generation to repeat it – and David Tulloh’s war-story from volunteering to teach kids to code will provide insights to those running MakerSpaces and HackerSpaces, coding camps and so on about how to engage students in learning code.

Continual learning

Accessibility and inclusiveness

Open source community

Open hardware

Open source making the world a better place


Book review: Technically wrong: Sexist apps, biased algorithms and other threats of toxic tech by Sara Wachter-Boettcher

A must read for anyone who designs digital experiences, and doesn’t want to be an inadvertent dude-bro.

Against a backdrop of increasingly ubiquitous technology, with every online interaction forcing us to expose parts of ourselves, Sara Wachter-Boettcher weaves a challenging narrative with ease. With ease, but not easily. Many of the topics covered are confronting, holding a lens to our internalised “blind spots, biases and outright ethical blunders”.

As Wachter-Boettcher is at pains to highlight, all of this is not intentional – but the result of a lack of critical evaluation, thought and reflection on the consequences of seemingly minor technical design and development decisions. Over time, these compound to create systemic barriers to technology use and employment – feelings of dissonance for ethnic and gender minorities, increased frustration for those whose characteristics don’t fit the personas the product was designed for, the invisibility of role models of diverse races and genders – and reinforcement that technology is the domain of rich, white, young men.

The examples that frame the narrative are disarming in their simplicity. The high school graduand whose Latino/Caucasian hyphenated surname doesn’t fit into the form field. The person of mixed racial heritage who can’t understand which one box to check on a form. The person who’s gender non-conforming and who doesn’t fit into the binary polarisation of ‘Male’ or ‘Female’. Beware, these are not edge cases! The most powerful take-away for me personally from this text is that in design practice, edge cases are not the minority. They exist to make us recognise of the diversity of user base that we design for.

Think “stress cases” not “edge cases”. If your design doesn’t cater for stress cases, it’s not a good design.

While we may have technical coding standards, and best practices that help our technical outputs be of high quality, as an industry and as a professional discipline, we have a long way to go in doing the same for user experience outputs. There are a finite number of ways to write a syntactically correct PHP function. Give me 100 form designers, and I will will give you 100 different forms that provide 100 user experiences. And at least some of those 100 users will be left without “delight” –  a nebulous buzzword for rating the success (or otherwise) of digital experiences.

Wachter-Boettcher takes precise aim at another seemingly innocuous technical detail – application defaults – exposing their (at best) benign, and, at times, malignant utilisation to manipulate users into freely submitting their personal data. It is designing not for delight, but for deception.

“Default settings can be helpful or deceptive, thoughtful or frustrating. But they’re never neutral.”

Here the clarion call for action is not aimed at technology developers themselves, but at users, urging us to be more careful, more critical, and more vocal about how applications interact with us.

Artificial intelligence and big data do not escape scrutiny. Wachter-Boettcher illustrates how algorithms can be inequitable – targeting or ignoring whole cohorts of people, depending on the (unquestioned) assumptions built into machine learning models. Big data is retrospective, but not necessarily predictive. Just because a dataset showed a pattern in the past does not mean that that pattern will hold true in the future. Yet, governments, corporations and other large institutions are basing large policies, and practice areas on algorithms that remain opaque. Yet while responsibility for decision making might be able to be delegated to machines, accountability for how those decisions are made cannot be.

The parting thought of this book is that good intentions aren’t enough. The implications and cascading consequences of seemingly minor design and development decisions need to be thought through, critically evaluated, and handled with grace, dignity and maturity. That will be delightful!