State of my toolchain 2021

I’ve been doing a summary of the state of my toolchain now for around five years (2019, 2018, 2016). Tools, platforms and techniques evolve over time; the type of work that I do has shifted; and the environment in which that work is done has changed due to the global pandemic. Documenting my toolchain has been a useful exercise on a number of fronts; it’s made explicit what I actually use day-to-day, and, equally – what I don’t. In an era of subscription-based software, this has allowed me to make informed decisions about what to drop – such as Pomodone. It’s also helped me to identify niggles or gaps with my existing toolchain, and to deliberately search for better alternatives.

At a glance

Hardware, wearables and accessories

Software

Techniques

  • Pomodoro (no change since last report)
  • Passion Planner for planning (no change since last report)

What’s changed since the last report?

Writing workflow

Since the last report in 2019, I’ve graduated from a Masters in Applied Cybernetics at the School of Cybernetics at Australian National University. I was accepted into the first cohort of their PhD program. This shift has meant an increased focus on in-depth, academic-style writing. To help with this, I’ve moved to a Pandoc, Atom, Zotero and LaTeX-based workflow, which has been documented separately. This workflow is working solidly for me after about a year. Although it took about a weekend worth of setup time, it’s definitely saving me a lot of time.

Atom in particularly is my predominant IDE, and also my key writing tool. I use it with a swathe of plugins for LaTeX, document structure, and Zotero-based academic citations. It took me a while to settle on a UI and syntax theme for Atom, but in the end I went with Atom Solarized. My strong preference is to write in MarkDown, and then export to a target format such as PDF or LaTeX. Pandoc handles this beautifully, but I do have to keep a file of command line snippets handy for advanced functionality.

Primary machine

I had an ASUS Zenbook UX533FD – small, portable and great battery life, even with an MX150 GPU running. Unfortunately, the keyboard started to malfunction just after a year after purchase (I know, right). I gave up trying to get it repaired because I had to chase my local repair shop for updates on getting a replacement. I lodged a repair request in October, and it’s now May, so I’m not holding out hope… That necessitated me getting a new machine – and it was a case of getting whatever was available with the Coronavirus pandemic.

I settled on a ASUS ROG Zephyrus G15 GA502IV. I was a little cautious, having never had an AMD Ryzen-based machine before, but I haven’t looked back. It has 16 Ryzen 4900 cores, and an NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2060 with 6GB of RAM. It’s a powerful workhorse and is reasonably portable, if a little noisy. It get about 3 hours’ battery life in class. Getting NVIDIA dependencies installed under Ubuntu 20.04 LTS was a little tricky – especially cudnn, but that seems to be normal for anything NVIDIA under Linux. Because the hardware was so new, it lacked support in the 20.04 kernel, so I had to pull in experimental Wi-Fi drivers (it uses Realtek).

To be honest I was somewhat smug that my hardware was ahead of the kernel. One little niggle I still have is that the machine occasionally green screens. This has been reported with other ROG models and I suspect it’s an HDMI-under-Linux driver issue, but haven’t gone digging too far into driver diagnostics. Yet.

One idiosyncrasy of the Zephyrus G15 is that it doesn’t have built-in web camera; for me that was a feature. I get to choose when I do and don’t connect the web camera. And yes – I’m firmly in the web-cameras-shouldn’t-have-to-be-on by default camp.

Machine learning work, NVIDIA dependencies and utilities

Over the past 18 months, I’ve been doing a lot more work with machine learning, specifically in building the DeepSpeech PlayBook. Creating the PlayBook has meant training a lot of speech recognition models in order to document hyperparameters and tacit knowledge around DeepSpeech.

In particular, the DeepSpeech PlayBook uses a Docker image to abstract away Python, TensorFlow and other dependencies. However, this still requires all NVIDIA dependencies such as drivers and cudnn to be installed beforehand. NVIDIA has made this somewhat easier with the Linux CUDA installation guide, which advises on which version to install with other dependencies, but it’s still tough to get all the dependencies installed correctly. In particular, the nvtop utility, which is super handy for monitoring GPU operations (such as identifying blocking I/O or other bottlenecks) had to be compiled from source. As an aside, the developer experience for getting NVIDIA dependencies installed under Linux is a major hurdle for developers. It’s something I want NVIDIA to put some effort into going forward.

Colour customisation of the terminal with Gogh

I use Ubuntu Linux for 99% of my work now – and rarely boot into Windows. A lot of that work is based in the Linux terminal; from spinning up Docker containers for machine learning training, running Python scripts or even pandoc builds. At any given time I might have 5-6 open terminals, and so I needed a way to easily distinguish between them. Enter Gogh – an easy to install set of terminal profiles.

One bugbear that I still have with the Ubuntu 20.04 terminal is that the fonts that can be used with terminal profiles are restricted to only mono-spaced fonts. I haven’t been able to find where to alter this setting – or how the terminal is identifying which fonts are mono-spaced for inclusion. If you know how to alter this, let me know!

Linux variants of Microsoft software intended for Windows

ANU has adopted Microsoft primarily for communications. This means not only Outlook for mail – for which there are no good Linux alternatives (and so I use the web version), but also the use of Teams and OneNote. I managed to find an excellent alternative in OneNote for Linux by @patrikx3, which is much more usable than the web version of OneNote. Teams on Linux is usable for messaging, but for videoconferencing I’ve found that I can’t use USB or Bluetooth headphones or microphones – which essentially renders it useless. Zoom is much better on Linux.

Better microphone for videoconferencing and conference presentations

As we’ve travelled through the pandemic, we’re all using a lot more videoconferencing instead of face to face meetings, and the majority of conferences have gone online. I’ve recently presented at both PyCon AU 2020 and linux.conf.au 2021 around voice and speech recognition. Both conferences used the VenueLess platform. I decided to upgrade my microphone for better audio quality. After all, research has shown that speakers with better audio are perceived as more trustworthy. I’ve been very happy with the Stadium USB microphone.

Taskwarrior over Pomodone for tasks

I tried Pomodone for about 6 months – and it was great for integrating tasks from multiple sources such as Trello, GitHub and GitLab. However, I found it very expensive (around $AUD 80 per year) and the Linux version suddenly stopped working. The scripting options also only support Windows and Apple, not Linux. So I didn’t renew my subscription.

Instead, I’ve moved to Taskwarrior via Paul Fenwick‘s recommendation. This has some downsides – it’s a command line utility rather than a graphical interface, and it only works on a single machine. But it’s free, and it does what I need – prioritises the tasks that I need to complete.

What hasn’t changed

Wearables and hearables

My Mobvoi TicWatch Pro is still going strong, and Google appears to be giving Wear OS some love. It’s the longest I’ve had a smart watch, and given how rugged and hardy the TicWatch has been, it will definitely be my first choice when this one reaches end of life. My Plantronics BB Pro 2 are still going strong, and I got another pair on sale as my first pair are now four years old and the battery is starting to degrade.

Quantified self

I’ve started using Sleep as Android for sleep tracking, which uses data from the TicWatch. This has been super handy for assessing the quality of sleep, and making changes such as adjusting going-to-bed times. Sleep as Android exports data to Google Drive. BeeMinder ingests that data into a goal, and keeps me accountable for getting enough sleep.

RescueTime, BeeMinder and Passion Planner are still going strong, and I don’t think I’ll be moving away from them anytime soon.

Assistant services

I still refuse to use Amazon Alexa or Google Home – and they wouldn’t work with the 5GHz-band WiFi where I am living on campus. Mycroft.AI is still my go-to for a voice assistant, but I rarely use it now because the the Spotify app support for Mycroft doesn’t work anymore after Spotify blocked Mycroft from using the Spotify API.

One desktop utility that fits into the “assistant” space that I’ve found super helpful has been GNOME extensions. I use extensions for weather, peripheral selection and random desktop background selection. Being able to see easily during Australian summer how hot it is outside has been super handy.

Current gaps in my toolchain

I don’t really have any major gaps in my toolchain at the moment, but there are some things that could be better.

  • Visual Git Editor – I’ve been using command line Git for years now, but having a visual indicator of branches and merges is useful. I tried GitKraken, but I don’t use Git enough to justify the monthly-in-$USD price tag. The Git plugin for Atom is good enough for now.
  • Managing everything for me – I looked a Huginn a while back and it sounds really promising as a “second brain” – for monitoring news sites, Twitter etc – but I haven’t had time to have a good play with it yet.

Setting up an academic writing workflow using Pandoc, Markdown, Zotero and LaTeX on Ubuntu Linux using Atom

This year, I started a PhD at the 3A Institute, within the College of Engineering and Computer Science at Australian National University. I came into the PhD not from a researcher or academic background, but from a career in industry as a technology practitioner. As such, my experience with formatting academic papers, for example for publication in journals, is limited. Our PhD program is hands-on; as well as identifying a specific research topic and articulating a research design, we undertake writing activities – both as academic writing practice, and to help solidify the theoretical concepts we’ve been discussing in Seminar. I needed an academic writing workflow.

For one of these writing exercises, I decided to build out a toolchain using LaTeX – the preferred typesetting tool for academic papers. This blog post documents how I approached this, and serves as a reference both for myself and others who might want to adopt a similar toolchain.

In summary, the process was:

  • Define overall goals
  • Install dependendies such as pandoc, Zotero and the BetterBibtex extension for citations, LaTeX
  • Experiment with pandoc on the command line for generating PDF from Markdown via LaTeX

Goals of an academic writing workflow

In approaching this exercise, I had several key goals:

  • create an academic writing workflow using my preferred Atom IDE on Linux;
  • that could easily be set up and replicated on other machines if needed;
  • which would allow me to use my preferred citation editor, Zotero;
  • and which would allow me to use my preferred writing format, Markdown;
  • and which would support available LaTeX templates available for journals (and from the ANU for formatting theses)

Why not use OverLeaf?

For those who’ve worked with LaTeX before, one of the key questions you might have here is “why not just use a platform like Overleaf for your academic writing workflow and not worry about setting up a local environment?”. Overleaf is a cloud LaTeX service, that provides a collaborative editing environment, and a range of LaTeX templates. However, it’s not free – plans range from $USD 12-35 per month. Overleaf is based on free and open source software, and then adds a proprietary collaboration layer over the top – it abstracts away complexity – and this is what you pay a monthly fee for.

In principle, I have no issue with cloud platforms adding value to FOSS, and then charging for that value, but I doubt any of the profits from Overleaf are going to folks like John MacFarlane – writer of pandoc, and Donald E. Knuth and Leslie Lamport – who contributed early work to tex and LaTeX respectively. I felt like I owed it to these folx to “dig a little under the hood” and learn some of that complexity instead of outsourcing it away.

So, to the process …

Installing pandoc

Pandoc is a free and open source tool for converting documents between different formats. It’s widely used in academia, and used extensively in publishing and writing workflows. Pandoc is written by John MacFarlane, who is a philosophy professor at UC Berkeley.

One of the other things that John is less known for is Lucida Navajo, which is a font for the Navajo language, a Native American language of the Southern Athabascan family. Although it’s based on Latin, it contains a number of diacritical marks not found in other Latin languages.

Pandoc is available for all platforms, but because my goal here was to develop a workflow on Ubuntu Linux, I’ve only shown installation instructions for that platform.

To install pandoc, use the following command:

$ sudo apt install pandoc 

I also had to make sure that the pandoc-citeproc tool was installed; it’s not installed by default as part of pandoc itself. Again, this was a simple command:

$ sudo apt install pandoc-citeproc

Installing Zotero and the BetterBibtex extension

My next challenge was to figure out how to do citations with pandoc. In the pandoc documentation, there is a whole section on citations, and this provided some pointers. This blog post from Chris Krycho was also useful in figuring out what to use.

This involved installing the BetterBibtex extension for Zotero (which I already had installed). You can find installation instructions for the BetterBibtex extension here. It has to be downloaded as a file and then added through Zotero (not through Firefox).

BibTex is a citation standard, supported by most academic journals and referencing tools. Google Scholar exports to BibTex.

Once installed, BetterBibtex updates each Zotero reference with a citation key that can then be used as an “at-reference” in pandoc – ie @strengersSmartWifeWhy2020. Updating citation keys can take a few minutes – I have several thousand references stored in Zotero and it took about 6 minutes to ensure that each reference had a BibTex citation key.

In order to use BetterBibtex, I had to make sure that the specific export format for Zotero was Better BibTex, and that Zotero updated on change:

Installing LaTeX

Next, I needed to install LaTeX for Linux. This was installed via the texlive package:

$ sudo apt install texlive Based on this Stack Overflow error message I got early on in testing, I also installed the texlive-latex-extra package.

$ sudo apt-get install texlive-latex-extra

Zotero citations package for Atom

Next, I needed to configure the Atom IDE to work with Zotero and BetterBibtex. This involved installing several plugins, including;

Once these were installed, I was ready to start experimenting with a workflow.

Experimenting with a workflow

To start with, I used a based workflow to go from a Markdown formatted text file to PDF. pandoc converts this to LaTeX as an interim step, and then to PDF, using the inbuilt templates from pandoc. This first step was a very basic attempt to go from pandoc to PDF, and was designed to “shake out” any issues with software installation.

The pandoc command line options I used to start with were:

pandoc -f markdown \
writing.md \
-o writing.pdf

In this example, I’m telling pandoc to expect markdown-styled input, to use the file writing.md as the input file and to write to the output file writing.pdf. pandoc infers that the output file is PDF-formatted from the .pdf extension.

Adding citations

Next, I wanted to include citations. First, I exported my Zotero citations to a .bib-formatted file, using the BetterBibtex extension. I stored this in a directory called bibliography in the same directory as my writing.md file. The command line options I used here were:

$ pandoc -f markdown \
--filter=pandoc-citeproc \
--bibliography=bibliography/blog-post-citations.bib \
writing.md \
-o writing.pdf

Note here the two additional commands – the --filter used to invoke pandoc-citeproc, and the --bibliography filter to include a BibTex formatted file. This worked well, and generated a plainly formatted PDF (based on the pandoc default format).

Using a yaml file for metadata

Becoming more advanced with pandoc, I decided to experiment with including a yaml file to help generate the document. The yaml file can specify metadata such as author, date and so on, which can then be substituted into the PDF file – if the intermediary LaTeX template accommodates these values. The basic LaTeX template included with pandoc includes values for author, title, date and abstract.

Here’s the yaml file I used for this example:

--- 
author: Kathy Reid 
title: blog post on pandoc 
date: December 2020 
abstract: | This is the abstract. 

...

Note that the yaml file must start with three dashes ---and end with three periods ...

The pandoc command line options I used to include metadata were:

$ pandoc -f markdown+yaml_metadata_block \
  --filter=pandoc-citeproc \
  --bibliography=bibliography/blog-post-citations.bib \
  writing.md metadata.yml \
  -o writing.pdf

Note here that in the -f switch an additional option for yaml_metadata_block is given, and that the yaml file is listed after the first input file, writing.md. By adding the metadata.yml file in the command line, pandoc considers them both to be input files.

By using the yaml file, this automatically appended author, title, date and abstract information to the resulting PDF.

I also found that I could control the margins and paper size of the resulting PDF file by controlling these in the yaml file.

---
 author: Kathy Reid
 title: blog post on pandoc
 date: December 2020
 abstract: |
   This is the abstract.
 fontsize: 12pt
 papersize: a4
 margin-top: 25mm
   margin-right: 25mm
   margin-bottom: 25mm
   margin-left: 25mm
...

Adding in logging

It took a little while to get the hang of working with yaml, and I wanted a way to be able to inspect the output of the pandoc process. To do this, I added a switch to the command line option, and also piped the output of the command to a logging file.

$ pandoc -f markdown+yaml_metadata_block \
  --verbose 
  --filter=pandoc-citeproc \
  --bibliography=bibliography/blog-post-citations.bib \
  writing.md metadata.yml \
  -o writing.pdf 
  > pandoc-log.txt

The --verbose switch tells pandoc to use verbose logging, and the logging is piped to pandoc-log.txt. If the output wasn’t piped to a file, it would appear on the screen as stdout, and because it’s verbose, it’s hard to read – it’s much easier to pipe it to a file to inspect it.

Working with other LaTeX templates

Now that I had a Markdown to PDF via LaTeX workflow working reasonably well, it was time to experiment using an academic writing workflow with other templates. Many publications provide a LaTeX template for submission, such as these from the ACM, and ideally I wanted to be able to go from Markdown to a journal template using pandoc.

I’d come across other blog posts where similar goals had been attempted, but this proved significantly harder to implement than I’d anticipated.

My first attempt entailed trying to replicate the work Daniel Graziotin had done here – but I ran into several issues. After copying over the table-filter.py file from the blog post, an ACM .cls file, and copying the ACM pdf file to default.pdf in my pandoc-data directory, and running the below command, I got the following error.

$ pandoc -f markdown+yaml_metadata_block \
  --verbose \
  --data-dir=pandoc-data \
  --variable documentclass=acmart \
  --variable classname=acmlarge \
  --filter=pandoc-citeproc \
  --filter=table-filter.py \
  --bibliography=bibliography/blog-post-citations.bib \
  writing.md metadata-acm.yml \
  -o writing.pdf
Error running filter table-filter.py:
Could not find executable python

My first thought was that python somehow was aliased to an older version of python – ie python 2. To verify this I ran:

$ which python

This didn’t return anything, which explained the error. From this, I assumed that pandoc was expecting that the python alias resolved to the current python. I didn’t know how to change this – for example changing the pandoc preferences to point to the right python binary. Instead, I created a symlink so that pandoc could find python3.

$ pwd
/usr/bin
$ ls | grep python 
python3 
python3.8 
python3.8-config 
python3-config 
python3-futurize 
python3-pasteurize 
x86_64-linux-gnu-python3.8-config 
x86_64-linux-gnu-python3-config 
$ sudo ln -s python3 python 

Installing pandocfilters package for Python

I attempted to run the pandoc command again but ran into another error.

Traceback (most recent call last):
   File "table-filter.py", line 6, in 
     import pandocfilters as pf
 ModuleNotFoundError: No module named 'pandocfilters'
 Error running filter table-filter.py:
 Filter returned error status 1

My guess here was that the python module pandocfilters had not been installed via pip. I installed this through pip.

$ pip3 install pandocfilters
Collecting pandocfilters
Downloading pandocfilters-1.4.3.tar.gz (16 kB)
Building wheels for collected packages: pandocfilters
Building wheel for pandocfilters (setup.py) … done
Created wheel for pandocfilters: filename=pandocfilters-1.4.3-py3-none-any.whl size=7991 sha256=3c4445092ee0c8b00e2eab814ad69ca91d691d2567c12adbc4bcc4fb82928701
Stored in directory: /home/kathyreid/.cache/pip/wheels/fc/39/52/8d6f3cec1cca4ceb44d658427c35711b19d89dbc4914af657f
Successfully built pandocfilters
Installing collected packages: pandocfilters
Successfully installed pandocfilters-1.4.3

This again swapped one error for another.

Error producing PDF.
! LaTeX Error: Missing \begin{document}.
See the LaTeX manual or LaTeX Companion for explanation.
Type H for immediate help.
…
l.55 u

Luckily, I had set –verbose, and piped to a log file. I went digging through the log file to see if I could find anything useful.

Class acmart Warning: You do not have the libertine package installed. Please upgrade your TeX on input line 669.
Class acmart Warning: You do not have the zi4 package installed. Please upgrade your TeX on input line 672.
Class acmart Warning: You do not have the newtxmath package installed. Please upgrade your TeX on input line 675.

After reading through this Stack Overflow article, these all looked like font issues. I used the solution given in the Stack Overflow article, which was to install another Ubuntu package:

$ sudo apt-get install texlive-fonts-extra

Again, this swapped one error message for another.

! LaTeX Error: Command `\Bbbk' already defined.
See the LaTeX manual or LaTeX Companion for explanation.
Type H for immediate help.
l.261 …ol{\Bbbk} {\mathord}{AMSb}{"7C}
! ==> Fatal error occurred, no output PDF file produced!
Transcript written on ./tex2pdf.-bf3aef739e05d883/input.log.
Error producing PDF.
! LaTeX Error: Command `\Bbbk' already defined.
See the LaTeX manual or LaTeX Companion for explanation.
Type H for immediate help.
l.261 …ol{\Bbbk} {\mathord}{AMSb}{"7C}

Another Google search, another solution from Stack Overflow, which suggested removing the LaTeX line \usepackage{amssymb} from the template. The challenge was, I wasn’t sure where the LaTeX template for pandoc was stored. Reading through this Stack Overflow post, it looked liked the default LaTeX template is stored at:

~/.pandoc/templates 

But on my system, this directory didn’t exist. I created it, and used a command to store a default LaTeX file in there. Then I was able to remove the line.

\usepackage{amssymb,amsmath}

This then resulted in yet another error which required Googling.

! LaTeX Error: Missing \begin{document}.See the LaTeX manual or LaTeX Companion for explanation.
Type H for immediate help
…l.54 u
sepackage{booktabs} setcopyright{acmcopyright} doi{10.475/123_4}
! ==> Fatal error occurred, no output PDF file produced!

Looking through the log file, this was generated by the parskip.sty package. More Googling revealed another incompatibility with the ACM class. I removed the parskip package from the LaTeX default template, but was continually met with similar errors.

Parting thoughts

In the end I gave up trying to get this academic writing workflow to function with an ACM template; there were too many inconsistencies and errors for it to be workable, and I’d already sunk several hours into it.

On the plus side though, I learned a lot about pandoc, how to reference with it, and how to produce simple LaTeX documents with this workflow.

What sort of academic writing workflow do you use?

linux.conf.au 2020 – Who’s watching?

Yes, it’s July, and linux.conf.au 2020 #lca2020 happened over 6 months ago – but like everyone in The Time of ‘Rona, the last few months have been a little strange, so better late than never!

Location

This year, linux.conf.au headed to the Gold Coast – a location that it’s never been to before. That in itself is a major accomplishment by Joel Addison, Ben Stevens and the linux.conf.au 2020 #lca2020 team. linux.conf.au, and other open source events in the Linux Australia stable such as PyConAU and DrupalSouth, are entirely volunteer-run. Those volunteer communities tend to spring up geographically – and due to population and surrounding ecosystems this tends to happen more frequently in large capital cities. For example, if we look at the Startup Genome ecosystem reports, only three cities in Australia are significant enough to make the global map – Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane – frequent locations for linux.conf.au.

As a location, the Gold Coast was outstanding (n=9). There were plentiful accommodation options to suit a range of budgets, nearby food options, plenty of outstanding venues for conference events like the Penguin Dinner and PDNS, and a beach a couple of blocks away. The Gold Coast Convention and Exhibition Centre was a an excellent venue for the conference. It had a mix of room sizings, comfortable seating, breakout and quiet space, organiser space and enough “space” in general for the 600-ish delegates. I can’t remember whether Wi-Fi this year was venue-provided, or whether AARNet deployed this as they often do – but I do remember Wi-Fi being strong, fast and reliable. A convention centre is always a tough choice for LCA – the additional venue costs compared to, say, a University, are a major proportion of the conference budget, so to justify that the venue really has to deliver, and as a delegate, this one did.

Community

The Welcome to Country was given by the Yugambeh people of the Gold Coast. A Welcome to Country is now part of the LCA tradition; however I also know from experience how difficult it can be to arrange – when we tried to arrange a Welcome to Country for LCA2016 we were unable to get in contact with the Traditional Owners of our region.

Welcome to Country from the Yugambeh people of Gold Coast

Another beautiful community memory I have of #lca2020 was this gorgeous rainbow “Yarn Chicken” pin gifted to me by Keith Packard – also an avid knitter (for anyone of a similar purl-suasion, there is an LCA knitters group on Ravelry). Keith’s sister owns Island Wools in PDX, and if you would like a pin you can get one from there (‘Rona permitting).

Badge from linux.conf.au 2020

Notable presentations

Donna Benjamin – Who’s watching?

You can see Donna’s keynote here on YouTube

Using the experience of her grandparents escaping Nazi Germany as a departure point, and her Dad’s ASIO file – created for such hideous crimes as advocating for Indigenous people to be able to vote (applause), Donna posed some very uncomfortable questions to the audience.

We are surveillance arms dealers for the persuasion industry. Are we accountable for the tools we make?

In a nuanced, multi-dimensional talk about the benefits and drawbacks of surveillance of technology, Donna took intent as her index point, outlining how intent is the key differentiator for whether technologies contribute to collective good, or collective evil. What is the intent of our actions? How does that intent change over time?

Drawing trajectories and threads from the past, she painted some clear trajectories for the future, and outlined the key actions we as a community can take to shape the world in ways we want to see – collective privacy, and collective efforts to hold others accountable for the ways in which they use technology.

Donna left me with a clear and resounding resonance.

The fight isn’t over, and our work is not yet done.

A/Prof Vanessa Teague – Who cares about Democracy? The sorry state of Australia’s election software and what we can do about it

You can see this presentation on YouTube

Vanessa’s keynote was a state-of-the-landscape talk which outlined the cryptographic deficiency of several of the e-election software models being deployed across the country. Using mathematical proofs of cryptography – something the deeply technical LCA audience was at ease with, she shows how flaws in implementation imperil not just the integrity of elections, but undermine our democratic processes.

Vanessa is someone I admire greatly.

Her personal integrity – she recently resigned from the University of Melbourne shortly after LCA after the Department of Health pressured the University over her (and colleagues’) research findings that supposedly unanimous and de-identified health records were re-identifiable – is something I deeply respect. Her work on assiduously interrogating the COVIDSafe app and, again, identifying flaws in its implementation, makes her a vanguard of privacy, digital rights, and of building systems that are able to be validated.

Associate Professor Vanessa Teague's keynote at linux.conf.au 2020 on e-election systems

Open Education Miniconf Keynote – The Who of CSIRAC – Roland Gesthuizen, Gillian Kidman, Hazel Tan, Caroline Pham

You can see this presentation on YouTube

This talk was one of my favourites from the conference, and provided a history of CSIRAC – Australia’s first programmable computer. The talk drew through-lines from HAL, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Memory Alpha, to the NASA space program and rope memory, to the women who first occupied the skilled role of “computers”, doing astronomical trajectory calculations. It went on to outline key milestones in the history of CSIRAC – being switched on for the first time in 1949, using the electricity of a small town, how it adopted technology from the telegraph, and the jacquard loom. It highlighted the small obstacles the team had to overcome to reach larger goals – which on reflection appears to be a recurring theme in technological development – the need for horizontal axis storage, and the problem of digital decay and bit error.

The talk went on to explore the role of Trevor Pearcey in CSIRAC’s development and his contribution to Australian computation, and his role of opening up CSIRAC “to the people”, and furthering their understanding of its capabilities – virtually unknown at the time. Issues such as trust and faith in technology were examined; one failed program on CSIRAC meant that people would be wary of using it a second time – something that echoes through our use of technology today. The talk highlighted the culture that surrounded CSIRAC – one of tinkering, one of playing, and exploring, one of creativity.

What would have happened if the research assistants were required to submit a project plan? You need freedom and the space to explore; and from this can emerge unexpected and unanticipated benefits.

My takeaways from this talk were that understanding our technical history, and the challenges that have been faced, and overcome, help us to understand how the technologies of today emerge, evolve, and go to scale – and provide lessons on how we can shape those trajectories. We have a role to play in ensuring students are creators of technology, not just consumers of technology.

Christopher Biggs – The Awful Design of Everyday Things

You can see this presentation on YouTube

Drawing links between design, documentation and technology, Christopher took us on an entertaining, insightful and challenging tour-de-force of design fail. He challenged us to improve our human-centred design skills – because;

Documentation is required when the design has failed

Drawing from Asimov’s laws of robotics, he put forward rules for human-centred design of technology:

  • Machines must be beautiful (or invisible)
  • Machines must co-operate for the benefit of humanity
  • Machines must communicate, and obey instructions
  • Machines must be as simple and reliable as possible

Extrapolating these to the internet of things, he provided principles for design;

  • discoverability – how does the user discover how to use the interface?
  • test on beginners – how does someone without context use the interface or product? Watch people, what do people expect?
  • feedback – how does the interface provide useful feedback?
  • affordances – what are the affordances of the interface? How does the user know this?
  • completion – how does the user know they’ve completed their task?

A house is a machine to live in – and we need to be friends with the machines.

Joshua Simmons – Open Source Citizenship

You can see this presentation on YouTube

Josh’s presentation focused on the ways in which companies and large organisations can be good open source “citizens”. As citizens, we have a duty to the society and communities of which we are a part – and from which we benefit, and companies that profit from open source software have similar obligations.

He outlined practical ways in which businesses can support open source, and in doing so, support the technical foundations on which their profits are generated, including;

  • understanding the technical dependencies of their products, and supporting the components on their stacks. It’s this contribution that helps the communities maintaining those projects to continue to do so. Open source is part of a business supply chain – and if you don’t want part of that supply chain to vanish, then it needs to be supported.
  • sending people to conferences, and paying for travel, as conferences themselves – such as linux.conf.au – often provide a revenue stream to open source organisations.
  • encouraging universities to give students credit for contributing to FLOSS projects – as this is analogous to “paid” work in industry.

A huge congratulations too to Josh for taking over the reigns recently at the Open Source Initiative.

Josh Simmons talking on open source citizenship at linux.conf.au 2020

Jussi Pakkanen – Fonts and Math

You can see this presentation on YouTube

From the Creative Arts Miniconf, I really appreciated Jussi’s presentation as an amateur font designer, working through some of the approaches in font design. One of the approaches is to design each glyph in the alphabet individually, which is time consuming.

This led Donald Knuth in 1977 to mimicking the way that a person draws with a nib – the shape of the pen – by defining the strokes of the pen mathematically. This information can then be used to generate the glyphs in the alphabet, using a set of linear equations.

The work of Knuth has been extended to projects such as MetaFont and Tex.

My key takeaway from this talk with that it sits at the intersection of both the mathematical and the artistic – maths has an inherent beauty to it – the curves of linear equations. It is by combining both the artistic and the mathematical that we can design beautiful, re-usable, extendable, scalable fonts.

Thank you to all the Volunteers, Core Team and Sponsors

I know how hard it is to deliver an outstanding LCA – I’ve done it twice. It’s a huge amount of work, for a long time – planning for an LCA can take 12-18 months – and in that time other priorities can slip – like family and relationships. A huge, huge thank you to the whole #lca2020 team for your outstanding efforts, dedication and contribution not only to Australia’s open source community, but to open source efforts worldwide.

Call for Volunteers for #lca2021 – linux.conf.au goes online

Following the announcement earlier this year that linux.conf.au 2021, originally set to be in Canberra, would be postponed to 2022 due to the coronavirus pandemic, and that linux.conf.au 2021 would be an online event, the Call for Volunteers has now opened. Being a Volunteer at linux.conf.au is a significant commitment, but is also a great way to meet new people, and get experience in many areas that might complement your career path, such as project management, team leading and people management, media and marketing, audio visual, logistics and event co-ordination.