Picks from #fosdem2020

Although I’ve never managed to get to Brussels for FOSDEM (yet), it remains one of the biggest open source and free software events on the calendar. The videos are now online – and here are a few I found insightful.

Daniel Stenberg (@bagder) on HTTP/3

HTTP/3 has been in the works for a couple of years now, and Daniel’s talk was an excellent overview of how HTTP/3 differs markedly from its predecessors, HTTP/1 and HTTP/2. The key change that I took away from this talk is that HTTP/3 runs over UDP, rather than TCP, which eliminates the header blocking issues seen in both HTTP/1 (http header blocking) and HTPT/2 (TCP header blocking). This is achieved through an as-yet unstandardised new protocol called QUIC.

There are some drawbacks, however;

  • Many networks block UDP traffic because it is often the transport protocol used most for hacking or penetration attempts against networks
  • And to a firewall, QUIC traffic often looks like a DDOS attack.

So, it is likely to be a few years before HTTP/3 sees widespread adoption.


Esther Payne (@onepict) on RFC1984 and the need for encryption and privacy

Drawing on historical examples such as Ovid and Bentham’s panopticon, Esther outlined trajectories and through-lines of privacy and surveillance. She called upon the technical community to be aware of RFC1984, penned in 1996 by members of the Internet Architecture Board and the Internet Engineering Task Force, and put themselves in the shoes of those who are surveilled. She outlined how RFCs are not universally observed and implemented, particularly by Big Tech, who have the reach and network power to implement their own standards.

Moreover, many governments around the world – including the Australian government – are seeking to implement backdoors into systems, allowing cryptographic measures to be subverted and privacy to be impugned. Data is being used against classes of citizens such as immigrants.

She called on tech communities to help our friends and families to realise that we “are the cow” being surveilled.

Side note: There were significant parallels between this talk and Donna Benjamin’s keynote at #lca2020, “Who’s watching?”.


Reuben Van der Leun (@rvdleun) builds smart glasses with Javascript

I have to admit, I’ve always been a fan of smart glasses, and was a little surprised that Google Glass didn’t take off over 10 years ago. In the interim, there seems to have been something of an augmented reality “winter”, with AR and VR type goggles being constrained to industrial and experimental usage, rather than being adopted into the consumer mainstream.

Reuben’s project – a DIY approach to augmented reality glasses using a bunch of Javascript APIs and open hardware – may be the harbinger of the “next wave” of augmented reality glasses, powered by freely available APIs for facial recognition, contact management and even speech recognition.


PyCon AU 2019

As folks probably know, this year I’m in Canberra at the 3A Institute at the Australian National University, as part of the first cohort of Masters in Applied Cybernetics – itself an experiment in helping to build a new applied science in taking artificial intelligence and cyber-physical systems safely to scale. I haven’t written much about the experience to date; nominally because the course is quite intensive, and doesn’t leave a lot of free time, and, importantly, because many of the reflections that surface belong within that experience.

That said, the course is broadly structured in two brush strokes; a theoretical foundation in multiple disciplines – anthropology, sociology, computer science, cybernetics, artificial intelligence, machine learning and human computer interaction – and a technical foundation in several components – Git, Arduino, 3D printing, and, importantly, Python.

To this end, many of us from the cohort headed to PyCon AU 2019 in Sydney as an excursion to gain a deeper understanding not just of the language, but the community, the ecosystem, its standards, its norms and its idiosyncrasies.

Members of the 3A Institute – Staff and students – at PyCon AU 2019
From left to right: Tom Chan, Matthew Phillipps, Zaiga Thomann, Katrina Ashton, Felicity Millman (seated), Elizabeth Williams, Zac Hatfield Dodds, Kathy Reid, Charlotte Bradley (seated), Sam Backwell, Danny Bettay, Alison Kershaw
Photo courtesy of E. Dunham

Aurynn Shaw – Making lasting change

Aurynn has written extensively on the topic of contempt culture; the default communications culture we have adopted both in Western society and in tech organisations in general. Contempt culture is where we identify ourselves by being pejorative to other languages, practices and disciplines. We create distance rather than intimacy – hostility rather than harmony. Aurynn’s keynote called for long lasting cultural change by understanding what businesses really need – they care about stability, and risk and outcomes. As technologists we need to communicate these pieces effectively. Businesses have stopped listening to us, because we haven’t cared about their needs in the past.

My key reflection here is that multi- and trans-disciplinary practice will be a key feature of work of the future. As practitioners, we will need competencies in understanding, responding, communicating and engaging with the needs of others in ways that build rather than erode social and intellectual capital.

Watch Aurynn’s presentation on YouTube here.

Mark Smith – It’s Pythons All The Way Down: Python Types & Metaclasses Made Simple

Even though I have a deeply technical background – see my toolchain if you’re in doubt – Python is still a bundle of dark magic in many ways. Mark’s talk was well structured, conceptually clear, and disambiguated types, classes and inheritance patterns in an engaging way.

The talk here covered basic data types in Python – Python is a strongly typed language – and then went deeper into the rabbit hole of types and meta classes by explicating the different types of inheritance that the language uses.

Kudos to Mark on an excellent presentation here – it’s a fantastic introduction to Python types and metaclasses for people transitioning from other programming languages.

Watch Mark’s presentation on YouTube here.

Amanda J Hogan – Pretty vector graphics – Playing with SVG in Python

Why would you do SVG in Python rather than Javascript? Excellent question, and Amanda’s talk shows why Python is a fantastic tool for experimenting with generative art. The talk covered basic SVG primitives, and went on to more complex constructs such as paths and symmetry. Her work with algorithmic generation of art using SVG was incredible – both the mathematical approach and the end result.

Amanda’s work is beautiful, engaging and an intriguing ‘in’ to working with generative art.

SVG linters

One comment I did ponder at length here was the lack of SVG linters available – in Python or otherwise. Having used Inkscape for several years – whose default output format is SVG, I was surprised that there weren’t more linters or validation approaches in this space. So, I went digging and found this linter on GitHub. Unfortunately my npm is segfaulting at the moment and I don’t have time to debug it, so it will have to wait.

Watch Amanda’s presentation on YouTube here.

VM Brasseur – The real costs of Open Source Sustainability

Grounded by Nadia Eghbal’s excellent “Roads and Bridges” report, Vicky’s talk started with a critique on the current methods for improving open source sustainability – for example the funding that comes in for donations needs to be managed – through legal entities, through tax. This can place additional burdens on maintainers.

Drawing from the experiences of other communities, she laid out a three-pillared plan for improving open source sustainability;

  • Contributing back: this can take the form of “time, talent or treasure” (per Tiffany Farriss) – contributions don’t have to be about just money. We need to find ways to attract non-technical talent to open source – and that starts by valuing it on an equal footing.
  • Human and environmental diversity: Diverse teams outperform non-diverse teams. We especially need to look at linguistic diversity – the open source world is English-centric. We also need to think about open source in the supply chain. What happens when open source companies are acquired and absorbed? Open source can also be single provider, single service, auspiced by a single foundation – and thus a single point of failure.
  • Community safety: Creating psychological safety for teams allows tough conversations to take place.

View VM’s talk online here.

StixCampNewstead is go for 14th-15th March – call for sponsors

You’ve probably heard of the BarCamp phenomenom which brings together technically minded folks in a forum to share, innovate, learn and collaborate. Victoria has now had two BarCamps, both organised by Ben Balbo. The first, in rural Victoria was held in 2007 with a very successful city based event in 2008.

This year, a rural based BarCamp event, StixCamp, will be hosted in Newstead, central Victoria.

We’re now putting out the call for sponsors – whether it be $$$, products for prizes, in kind sponsorship such as catering or anything else you can think of. So if you or a business you know of is keen about technology and wants to assist in growing and nurturing the bright young sparks of Victoria, then please get in contact. In return, we can offer the following;

Sponsors will have their logo on the http://vic.au.stixcamp.org/ website and the http://barcampmelbourne.org/ web site, linked to a URL of
their choosing. These logos will be on the main page until the nextBarCampMelbourne or Victorian StixCamp are announced, at which time they will be available in archives within those two sites.

Sponsors will also receive verbal thanks and recognition during the opening and closing speeches, and in any communication with reporters.
Press releases will also name all confirmed sponsors at the time of release.