Last weekend I went to Mumbai to attend the Mini-Debconf held at IIT-Bombay
. These are my impressions of the trip.
Arrival and Impressions of Mumbai
Getting there was a quite an adventure in itself. Unlike during my ill-fated attempt to visit a Debian event in Kerala last year when a bureaucratic snafu left me unable to get a visa, the organizers started the process much earlier at their end this time and with proper permissions. Yet in India, the wheels only turn as fast as they want to turn so despite their efforts, it was only literally at the last minute that I actually managed to secure my visa. I should note however that Indian government has done a lot to improve the process compared to the hell I remember from, say, a decade ago. It's fairly straightforward for tourist visas now and I trust they will get around to doing the same for conference visas in the fullness of time. I didn't want to commit to buying a plane ticket until I had the visa so I became concerned that the only flights left would be either really expensive or on the type of airline that flies you over Syria or under the Indian Ocean. I lucked out and got a good price on a Swiss Air flight, not non-stop but you can't have everything.
So Thursday afternoon I set off for JFK.
With only one small suitcase getting there by subway was no problem and I arrived and checked in with plenty of time. Even TSA
passed me through with only a minimal amount of indignity. The first leg of my journey took me to Zurich in about eight hours. We were only in Zurich for an hour and then (by now Friday) it was another 9 hours to Mumbai. Friday was Safala Ekadashi but owing to the necessity of staying hydrated on a long flight I drank a lot of water and ate some fruit which I don't normally do on a fasting day. It was tolerable but not too pleasant; I definitely want to try and make travel plans to avoid such situations in the future.
Friday evening local time I got to Mumbai. Chhattrapati Shivaji airport has improved a lot since I saw t last and now has all the amenities an international traveller needs including unrestricted free wifi (Zurich airport are you taking notes?) But here my first ominous piece of bad luck began. No sign of my suitcase. Happily some asking around revealed that it had somehow gotten on some earlier Swiss Air flight instead of the one I was on and was actually waiting for me. I got outside and Debian Developer Praveen Arimbrathodiyil was waiting to pick me up.
Normally I don't lke staying in Mumbai very much even though I have relatives there but that's because we usually went during July-August the monsoon season when Mumbai reverts back to the swampy archipelago it was originally built on. This time the weather was nice, cold by local standards, but lovely and spring-like to someone from snowy New Jersey. There have been a lot of improvements to the road infrastructure and people are actually obeying the traffic laws. (Within reason of course. Whether or not a family of six can arrange themselves on one Bajaj scooter is no business of the cops.)
The Hotel Tuliip (yes, two i's. Manager didn't know why.) Residency where I was to stay while not quite a five star establishment was adequate for my needs with a bed, hot water shower, and air conditioning. And a TV which to the bellhops great confusion I did not want turned on. (He asked about five times.) There was no Internet access per se but the manager offered to hook up a wireless router to a cable. Which on closer inspection turned out to have been severed at the base. He assured me it would be fixed tomorrow so I didn't complain and decided to do something more productive thank checking my email like sleeping.
The next day I woke up in total darkness. Apparently there had been some kind of power problem during the night which tripped a fuse or something. A call to the front desk got them to fix that and then the second piece of bad luck happened. I plugged my Thinkpad in and woke it up from hibernation and a minute later there was a loud pop from the power adapter. Note I have a travel international plug adapter with surge protector so nothing bad ought to have happened but the laptop would on turning on display the message "critical low battery error" and immediately power off. I was unable to google what that meant without Internet access but I decided not to panic and continue getting ready. I would have plenty of opportunity to troubleshoot at the conference venue. Or so I thought...
I took an autorickshaw to IIT.
There also there have been positive improvements. Being quite obviously a foreigner I was fully prepared to be taken along the "scenic route." But now there are fair zones and the rickshaws all have (tamperproof!) digital fare meters so I was deposited at the main gate without fuss. After reading a board with a scary list of dos and don'ts I presented myself at security only to be inexplicably waved through without a second glance. Later I found out they've abandoned all the security theatre but not got around to updating the signs yet. Mumbai is one of the biggest, densely populated cities in the world but the IIT
campus is an oasis of tranquility on the shores of Lake Powai. It's a lot bigger than it looked on the map so I had to wander around a bit before I reached the conference venue but I did make for the official registration time.
I was happy to meet several old friends (Such as Kartik Mistry and Kumar Appiah who along with Praveen and myself were the other DDs there,) people who I've corresponded with but never met, and many new people. I'm told 200+ people registered altogether. Most seemed to be students from IIT
and elsewhere in Mumbai but there were also some Debian enthusiasts from further afield and most hearteningly some "civilians" who wanted to know what this was all about.
With the help of a borrowed Thinkpad adapter I got my laptop running again. (Thankfully, despite the error message, the battery itself was unharmed.) However, my streak of bad luck was not yet over. It was that very weekend that IIT
had a freak campus-wide network outage something that had never happened before. And as the presentation for the talk I was to give had apparently been open when I hibernated my laptop the night before, the sudden forced shutdown had trashed the file. (ls showed it as 0 length. An fsck didn't help.) I possibly had a backup on my server but with no Internet access I had no way to retrieve it. I still remained cool. The talk was scheduled for the second day so I could recover it at the hotel.
Professor Kannan Maudgalya of the FOSSEE
(Free and Open Source Software for Education) Project which is part of the central government Ministry for Human Resource Development spoke about various activities of his project. Of particular interest to us are:
- A scheme to get labs and college engineering/computer science departments off proprietary software by helping them identify relevant free software (writing it if necessary.) and helping them transition to it. Similarly getting curricula away from textbooks that use proprietary software by rewriting exercises to use free equivalents.
- A series of videos for self-instruction kind of like Khan Academy but geared to the challenges of being used in places where there might not be a net connection or even a trained teacher.
- The Vidyut tablet. A very low cost (~5000 Rupees) ARM-based netbook that runs Linux or Android software. You may have heard about earlier plans for a cheap tablet like this. Vidyut is the next generation correcting some flaws in previous attempts. Not only the software but the hardware is free too. It is currently running a stripped down version of Ubuntu but there was a request to port it to Debian and I'm happy to report several Debian users have accepted the challenge.
is well funded, backed by the government and has enthusiastic staff so we should be seeing a lot more from them in the future.
Veteran Free Software activist Venky Hariharan spoke about his experiences in lobbying the government on tech issues. He noted that there has been a sea change in attitudes towards Linux and Open source in the bureacracy of late. Several states have been aggressively mandating the use of it as have several national ministries and agencies. We the community can provide a valuable service by helping them in the transition. They also need to be educated on how to work with the community (contributing changes back, not working behind closed doors etc.)
Debian History and Debian Cycle
Shirish Agarwal spoke about the Debian philosophy and foundational documents such as the social contract and DFSG
and how the release cycle works. Nothing new to an experienced user but informative to the newcomers in the audience and sparked some questions and discussion.
One of my main missions in attending was to help get as many isolated people as possible into the web of trust. Unfortunately the keysigning was not adequately publicized and few people were ready. I would have led them through the process of creating a new key there and then but with the lack of connectivity that idea had to be abandoned. I did manage to sign about 8-10 keys during other times.
Future Directions for Debian-IN BOF
I led this one. Lots of spirited discussion and I found feedback from new users in particular to be very helpful. Some take aways are:
- Some people said it is hard to find concise, easily digestible information about what Debian can do. (I.e. Can I surf the web? Can I play a certain game? etc.) Debian-IN's web presence in particular needs a lot of improvement. We should also consider other channels such as a facebook page. A volunteer stepped up to look into these issues.
- Along these lines it was felt that we cannot just wait for people to come to us, we should do more outreach. I pointed out that one group that we need to reach out more to is the Debian Project at large. We need to do more publicity in debian-project, DWN, Planet etc. to let everyone know whats going on in India. I also felt that we have a strong base amongst CS/engineering students but should do more to attract other demographics.
- Debian events have suffered from organizational problems. Partly this is because the people involved are not professional event planners. They are learning how to do it which is an ongoing process and execution is improving with each iteration so no worries there but problems also arise because Debian-IN is dependent on other entities for many things and those entities do not always have, shall we say, the same sense of urgency. Therefore we need legal standing of our own for accepting donations, inviting foreign guests etc. This doesn't necessarily have to be a separate organization. Affiliating with an existing group is an option providing they share our ideology. Swathanthra Malayalam Computing was one suggestion.
- There is still not much Debian presence in the North and East of India. (Which includes large cities like Delhi and Kolkata.) Unfortunately until we can find volunteers in those areas to take the lead on organizing something there is not a lot we can do to rectify the situation.
- We must have Debian-IN t-shirts.
Kumar Sukhani was a Debian GSoC student and his project which he demonstrated was to be able to install Debian on an Android phone. Why would you want to do this? Apart from the evergreen "Because I can", you can run server software such as sshd on your phone or even use it as an ARM
development board. Unfortunately my phone uses Blackberry 10 OS which can run android apps (emulated under QNX
) but wouldn't be able to use this. When I get a real Android phone I will try it out.
Debian on ARM
Siji Sunny gave this talk which was geared more towards hardware types which I am not but one thing I learned was thee difference between all the different ARM
subarchitectures. I knew Siji first from a previous incarnation when he worked at CDAC
with the late and much lamented Prof. R.K.
Joshi. We had a long conversation about those days. Prof. Joshi/CDAC had developed an Indic rendering system called Indix which alas became the Betamax to Pango's VHS
but he was also very involved in other Indic computing issues such as working with the Unicode Consortium and the preseration of Sanskrit manuscripts which is also an interest of mine. One good thing that cameout of Indix was some rather nice fonts. I had thought they were still buried in the dungeons of CDAC
but apparently they were freed at one point. That's one more thing for me to look into.
My cousin met me and we had a leisurely dinner together. It was quite late by the time I got back to the hotel. FOSSEE
had kindly lent me one of their tablets (which incidently are powerful enough to run LibreOffice comfortably.) so I thought I might be able to quickly redo my presentation before bedtime. Well, wouldn't you know it the wifi was not fixed. As I should have guessed but all the progress I'd had made me giddily optimistic. There was an option of trying to find an Internet cafe in a commercial area 15-20 minutes walk away. If this had been Gujarat I would have tried it but although I can more or less understand Hindi I can barely put together two sentences and Marathi I don't know at all. So I gave up that idea. I redid the slides from memory as best I could and went to sleep.
In the morning I checked out and ferried myself and my suitcase via rickshaw back to the IIT
campus. This time I got the driver to take me all the way in to the conference venue. Prof. Maudgalya kindly offered to let me keep the tablet to develop stuff on. I respectfully had to decline because although I love to collect bits of tech the fact it is it would have just gathered dust and ought to go to someone who can make a real contribution with it. I transferred my files to a USB
key and borrowed a loaner laptop for my talk.
Debian Packaging Workshop
While waiting to do my talk I sat in on a workshop Praveen ran taking participants through the whole process of creating a Debian package (a ruby gem was the example.) He's done this before so it was a good presentation and well attended but the lack of connectivity did put a damper on things.
Ask Me Anything
It turned out the schedule had to be shuffled a bit so my talk was moved later from the announced time. A few people had already showed up so I took some random questions about Debian from them instead.
Shell Accessibility With Orca
Krishnakant Mane is remarkable. Although he is blind, he is a developer and a major contributor to Open Source projects. He talked about the Accessibility features of GNOME
and compared them (favorably I might add) with proprietary screen readers. Not a subject that's directly useful to me but I found it interesting nonetheless.
Rust: The memory safe language
Manish Goregaokar talked about one of the new fad programming languages that have gotten a lot of buzz lately. This one is backed by Mozilla and it's interesting enough but I'll stick with C++ and Perl until one of the new ones "wins."
Building a Mail Server With Debian
Finally I got to give my talk and, yup, the video out on my borrowed laptop was incompatible with the projector. A slight delay to transfer everything to another laptop and I was able to begin. I talked about setting up BIND,
postfix, and of course dovecot along with spamassassin, clamav etc. It turned out I had more than enough material and I went atleast 30 minutes over time and even then I had to rush at the end. People said they liked it so I'm happy.
I gave the concluding remarks. Various people were thanked (including myself) mementos were given and pictures were taken. Despite a few mishaps I enjoyed myself and I am glad I attended. The level of enthusiasm was very high and lessons were learned so the next Debian-IN event should be even better.
My departing flight wasn't due to leave until 1:20AM so I killed a few hours with my family before the flight. Once again I was stopping in Zurich, this time for most of a day. The last of my blunders was not to take my coat out of my suitcase and the temperature outside was 29F so I had to spend that whole time enjoing the (not so) many charms of Zurich airport. Atleast the second flight took me to Newark instead of JFK
so I was able to get home a little earlier on Monday evening, exhausted but happy I made the trip.