FOSS Events @ Shaastra 2008
As always, I'm a week late on this post. Shaastra, our annual techfest wrapped up on the 5th of October. This last week has been terribly hectic with all of our teachers catching up on lost time.
We handled three distinct "events", namely a mini-FOSS conference, a HackFest, and of course the VC with Guido van Rossum. Looking back, we probably could have handled things better, but as a first attempt, I think we fared rather well. This is a retrospection of the event, in the hope that it will help others find out something that helped and a lot of things that didn't.
Our motto for the FOSS events was to transform the passive user to an active contirbutor.
Talk 1: FOSS Foundry
Shreyas and I gave a talk, "FOSS Foundry", that was aimed at teaching the audience how to approach developing or as Shreyas puts it, "scratching your itch", and the various obstacles one faces along the way and how to tackle them. The talk was very ambitious, and modeled along the lines of AfC's "User to Hacker in 90 minutes" that he gave at foss.in/2007. In that talk, Shreyas was AfC's aide, and I was to play a similar role during this talk. Unfortunately, there were a huge number of technical snags, ranging from projectors to failing internet connections, so the full awesomeness of Shreyas' talk was compromised. Shreyas being a very dynamic and entertaining chap still managed to pull it together and entertain the audience.
Talk 2: Luser to Superuser
Kapil Hari Paranjape gave a talk on a very similar set of topics as Shreyas', only more oriented perhaps to packaging issues, etc. (Kapil is the 2nd Indian Debian Developer). Kapil's wide experience with computing, and giving talks really showed, and his presentation was huge success.
Slides (I haven't gotten them yet. I will put them up here once I do)
Talk 3: An Introduction to KDE development
The next day, Akarsh Simha gave a talk on how to get into KDE development. The talk was slightly delayed due to issues with a preceeding sponsor talk. Our sponsors, NetApp, were very generous to sponsor us, and it was heartening to see that the speaker himself (Kartik something) is a contributor to GCC. The focus of their talk was very centered around the technical contributions of NetApp (which were actually pretty impressive). Akarsh's talk again was plagued by techincal issues, but luckily an ssh -X through my system saved the day (my laptop got a lot of air time through out the FOSS events. Apparently it was the only linux laptop that the projectors liked).
Talk 4: The FreeSmartPhone.org framework
The final talk, and definitely my favourite, was given by Sudarshan (Sup3rkiddo), on the FreeSmartphone.Org stack that he worked on during the summer. He showed off the simplicity of using python + dbus to control the phone. Later, during a one-on-one session with him (actually a two-on-one, Kirtika joined me in bugging Sudarshan), he taught me a lot of interesting aspects about sysfs and the "netlink" socket (which is a socket for kernel events).
Except for the technical snags, I was happy with the talks. While I would have loved hardcore technical talks like Sudarshan's, the aim of the conference was to convert as many users into hacker wannabes as possible. Judging by the number of "repeat customers", and the number of people who had a good chat with the speakers after the talk, I think we achieved this goal.
The hackfest was definitely the ambitious thing we've ever tried. While Akarsh had attended a KDE.in hackathon, I had never done anything like it. The closest I had ever gotten was one or two sleepless nights spent hacking along side Akarsh during foss.in and before the GSoC Bangalore meetup. Those were great times, but the scale of it was incomparable with those of the Shaastra hackfest.
I had naively assumed that the people coming would be able to immediately jump onto a project and start hacking. I also had foolishly assumed that the turnout would be restricted to 20-odd people. I had accordingly prepared a presentation outlining some "low lying fruit" to attempt, and planned for a highly interactive session with everyone, guiding them into contributing. I had trustingly thought that all the systems would work. I was so very wrong.
More than 50 people had turned up, many of which had never even used linux before. We had no filtering mechanism in place, and almost every single system utterly failed. For the better part of an hour, utter pandamonium ensued. We couldn't make any head way until some groups decided to leave. Shreyas advised us to segregate the participants into two groups, one for complete novices, and another for those more proficient at programming. We tried to help the former category through makefiles. For the latter category, we started with a brief introduction to version control, and I began to walk them through Tomboy code. I regret choosing Tomboy as a hackable, because a lot of people saw the fact that it's in C# as a mental barrier. I couldn't think of anything else at the time though.
The second day was a lot more comfortable, with a much reduced, but very enthusiastic crowd. Akarsh gave a nice session on including DBus support into Mcabber, a terminal chat client (that I incidentally introduced to Akarsh). I continued my Tomboy sessions, and then broke away and fixed a bug or two in my program (Vimjuta).
Despite the success of the dry run, it seemed that someteing *had* to go wrong... Skype would transmit video, but audio would work. And the funky VC equipment we had would transmit audio, but video was broken. After about 15 minutes spent in vain, we just decided to make it an audioconference. I did manage to throw together a quick picture slideshow of Guido's pictures :-P. The conversation between our moderator (Shankar Balachandran, a professor of the CSE department here at IITM) and Guido was very candid. We covered a lot of interesting topics. And of course we touched upon which editor he uses. Emacs. *But* he did mention that he recommends vim to everyone and that emacs is saturated. He left off saying (paraphrased):
"Just go and do something you've never done before; something random and something you think you'll never need in the future"
The Group + Organizational Structure
Officially, we just had 5 members working on the mash of events, with a very hazy line drawn between "coordinators" and "volunteers". The five members were, Akarsh Simha (KDE, emacs-as-notepad user, core hax0r), Sanjeev Sripathi (responsible for contacting all the guest speakers, and keeping the adminsistrative hassle off our heads), Vikram S.V. (adminsistrative handler, and Debian point man), Kirtika Ruchandani (the always helpful extra hand) and last and I hope not the least, myself (GNOME dude, vimmr). Like any open source project, the work load was distributed on a volunteer basis, and this at times did cause delays when real life decided to rear it's ugly head.
We got such great help from other GSoC students, project leads, and other members in the Indian FOSS scene (notably Pradeepto Bhatacharya, Arun Raghavan and Shreyas Srinivasan), without which we really wouldn't have been capable of pulling the events off.. In many ways, I have to thank Google for their SoC program, because I got to know so many people through those hectic months, and the GSoC students who had come (Santhosh Vattam, Madhusdan, Sudharshan) really supported us. So to all of you, thank you! I tried to organize a hackfest around Tomboy, and was really grateful for Sandy's help and encouragement. Sadly nothing came out of the hackfest, but atleast we tried.
At the end of this awfully long monologue, my only regret during the entire event was not having actually made a patch. I've been so guilty of not managing time well enough to hack on my SoC project, or anything on my growing wishlist. We touched the topic of a lot of SoC projects being "completed", but not complete and not usable. I don't want my project to go down that road. I have exams this week, but I promise Vimjuta-2.0 will release next weekend (17th - 19th)