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.