Search Results: "decker"

31 December 2021

Chris Lamb: Favourite books of 2021: Fiction

In my two most recent posts, I listed the memoirs and biographies and followed this up with the non-fiction I enjoyed the most in 2021. I'll leave my roundup of 'classic' fiction until tomorrow, but today I'll be going over my favourite fiction. Books that just miss the cut here include Kingsley Amis' comic Lucky Jim, Cormac McCarthy's The Road (although see below for McCarthy's Blood Meridian) and the Complete Adventures of Tintin by Herg , the latter forming an inadvertently incisive portrait of the first half of the 20th century. Like ever, there were a handful of books that didn't live up to prior expectations. Despite all of the hype, Emily St. John Mandel's post-pandemic dystopia Station Eleven didn't match her superb The Glass Hotel (one of my favourite books of 2020). The same could be said of John le Carr 's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which felt significantly shallower compared to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy again, a favourite of last year. The strangest book (and most difficult to classify at all) was undoubtedly Patrick S skind's Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, and the non-fiction book I disliked the most was almost-certainly Beartown by Fredrik Bachman. Two other mild disappointments were actually film adaptions. Specifically, the original source for Vertigo by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac didn't match Alfred Hitchock's 1958 masterpiece, as did James Sallis' Drive which was made into a superb 2011 neon-noir directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. These two films thus defy the usual trend and are 'better than the book', but that's a post for another day.

A Wizard of Earthsea (1971) Ursula K. Le Guin How did it come to be that Harry Potter is the publishing sensation of the century, yet Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea is only a popular cult novel? Indeed, the comparisons and unintentional intertextuality with Harry Potter are entirely unavoidable when reading this book, and, in almost every respect, Ursula K. Le Guin's universe comes out the victor. In particular, the wizarding world that Le Guin portrays feels a lot more generous and humble than the class-ridden world of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Just to take one example from many, in Earthsea, magic turns out to be nurtured in a bottom-up manner within small village communities, in almost complete contrast to J. K. Rowling's concept of benevolent government departments and NGOs-like institutions, which now seems a far too New Labour for me. Indeed, imagine an entire world imbued with the kindly benevolence of Dumbledore, and you've got some of the moral palette of Earthsea. The gently moralising tone that runs through A Wizard of Earthsea may put some people off:
Vetch had been three years at the School and soon would be made Sorcerer; he thought no more of performing the lesser arts of magic than a bird thinks of flying. Yet a greater, unlearned skill he possessed, which was the art of kindness.
Still, these parables aimed directly at the reader are fairly rare, and, for me, remain on the right side of being mawkish or hectoring. I'm thus looking forward to reading the next two books in the series soon.

Blood Meridian (1985) Cormac McCarthy Blood Meridian follows a band of American bounty hunters who are roaming the Mexican-American borderlands in the late 1840s. Far from being remotely swashbuckling, though, the group are collecting scalps for money and killing anyone who crosses their path. It is the most unsparing treatment of American genocide and moral depravity I have ever come across, an anti-Western that flouts every convention of the genre. Blood Meridian thus has a family resemblance to that other great anti-Western, Once Upon a Time in the West: after making a number of gun-toting films that venerate the American West (ie. his Dollars Trilogy), Sergio Leone turned his cynical eye to the western. Yet my previous paragraph actually euphemises just how violent Blood Meridian is. Indeed, I would need to be a much better writer (indeed, perhaps McCarthy himself) to adequately 0utline the tone of this book. In a certain sense, it's less than you read this book in a conventional sense, but rather that you are forced to witness successive chapters of grotesque violence... all occurring for no obvious reason. It is often said that books 'subvert' a genre and, indeed, I implied as such above. But the term subvert implies a kind of Puck-like mischievousness, or brings to mind court jesters licensed to poke fun at the courtiers. By contrast, however, Blood Meridian isn't funny in the slightest. There isn't animal cruelty per se, but rather wanton negligence of another kind entirely. In fact, recalling a particular passage involving an injured horse makes me feel physically ill. McCarthy's prose is at once both baroque in its language and thrifty in its presentation. As Philip Connors wrote back in 2007, McCarthy has spent forty years writing as if he were trying to expand the Old Testament, and learning that McCarthy grew up around the Church therefore came as no real surprise. As an example of his textual frugality, I often looked for greater precision in the text, finding myself asking whether who a particular 'he' is, or to which side of a fight some two men belonged to. Yet we must always remember that there is no precision to found in a gunfight, so this infidelity is turned into a virtue. It's not that these are fair fights anyway, or even 'murder': Blood Meridian is just slaughter; pure butchery. Murder is a gross understatement for what this book is, and at many points we are grateful that McCarthy spares us precision. At others, however, we can be thankful for his exactitude. There is no ambiguity regarding the morality of the puppy-drowning Judge, for example: a Colonel Kurtz who has been given free license over the entire American south. There is, thank God, no danger of Hollywood mythologising him into a badass hero. Indeed, we must all be thankful that it is impossible to film this ultra-violent book... Indeed, the broader idea of 'adapting' anything to this world is, beyond sick. An absolutely brutal read; I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Bodies of Light (2014) Sarah Moss Bodies of Light is a 2014 book by Glasgow-born Sarah Moss on the stirrings of women's suffrage within an arty clique in nineteenth-century England. Set in the intellectually smoggy cities of Manchester and London, this poignant book follows the studiously intelligent Alethia 'Ally' Moberly who is struggling to gain the acceptance of herself, her mother and the General Medical Council. You can read my full review from July.

House of Leaves (2000) Mark Z. Danielewski House of Leaves is a remarkably difficult book to explain. Although the plot refers to a fictional documentary about a family whose house is somehow larger on the inside than the outside, this quotidian horror premise doesn't explain the complex meta-commentary that Danielewski adds on top. For instance, the book contains a large number of pseudo-academic footnotes (many of which contain footnotes themselves), with references to scholarly papers, books, films and other articles. Most of these references are obviously fictional, but it's the kind of book where the joke is that some of them are not. The format, structure and typography of the book is highly unconventional too, with extremely unusual page layouts and styles. It's the sort of book and idea that should be a tired gimmick but somehow isn't. This is particularly so when you realise it seems specifically designed to create a fandom around it and to manufacturer its own 'cult' status, something that should be extremely tedious. But not only does this not happen, House of Leaves seems to have survived through two exhausting decades of found footage: The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity are, to an admittedly lesser degree, doing much of the same thing as House of Leaves. House of Leaves might have its origins in Nabokov's Pale Fire or even Derrida's Glas, but it seems to have more in common with the claustrophobic horror of Cube (1997). And like all of these works, House of Leaves book has an extremely strange effect on the reader or viewer, something quite unlike reading a conventional book. It wasn't so much what I got out of the book itself, but how it added a glow to everything else I read, watched or saw at the time. An experience.

Milkman (2018) Anna Burns This quietly dazzling novel from Irish author Anna Burns is full of intellectual whimsy and oddball incident. Incongruously set in 1970s Belfast during The Irish Troubles, Milkman's 18-year-old narrator (known only as middle sister ), is the kind of dreamer who walks down the street with a Victorian-era novel in her hand. It's usually an error for a book that specifically mention other books, if only because inviting comparisons to great novels is grossly ill-advised. But it is a credit to Burns' writing that the references here actually add to the text and don't feel like they are a kind of literary paint by numbers. Our humble narrator has a boyfriend of sorts, but the figure who looms the largest in her life is a creepy milkman an older, married man who's deeply integrated in the paramilitary tribalism. And when gossip about the narrator and the milkman surfaces, the milkman beings to invade her life to a suffocating degree. Yet this milkman is not even a milkman at all. Indeed, it's precisely this kind of oblique irony that runs through this daring but darkly compelling book.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August (2014) Claire North Harry August is born, lives a relatively unremarkable life and finally dies a relatively unremarkable death. Not worth writing a novel about, I suppose. But then Harry finds himself born again in the very same circumstances, and as he grows from infancy into childhood again, he starts to remember his previous lives. This loop naturally drives Harry insane at first, but after finding that suicide doesn't stop the quasi-reincarnation, he becomes somewhat acclimatised to his fate. He prospers much better at school the next time around and is ultimately able to make better decisions about his life, especially when he just happens to know how to stay out of trouble during the Second World War. Yet what caught my attention in this 'soft' sci-fi book was not necessarily the book's core idea but rather the way its connotations were so intelligently thought through. Just like in a musical theme and varations, the success of any concept-driven book is far more a product of how the implications of the key idea are played out than how clever the central idea was to begin with. Otherwise, you just have another neat Borges short story: satisfying, to be sure, but in a narrower way. From her relatively simple premise, for example, North has divined that if there was a community of people who could remember their past lives, this would actually allow messages and knowledge to be passed backwards and forwards in time. Ah, of course! Indeed, this very mechanism drives the plot: news comes back from the future that the progress of history is being interfered with, and, because of this, the end of the world is slowly coming. Through the lives that follow, Harry sets out to find out who is passing on technology before its time, and work out how to stop them. With its gently-moralising romp through the salient historical touchpoints of the twentieth century, I sometimes got a whiff of Forrest Gump. But it must be stressed that this book is far less certain of its 'right-on' liberal credentials than Robert Zemeckis' badly-aged film. And whilst we're on the topic of other media, if you liked the underlying conceit behind Stuart Turton's The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle yet didn't enjoy the 'variations' of that particular tale, then I'd definitely give The First Fifteen Lives a try. At the very least, 15 is bigger than 7. More seriously, though, The First Fifteen Lives appears to reflect anxieties about technology, particularly around modern technological accelerationism. At no point does it seriously suggest that if we could somehow possess the technology from a decade in the future then our lives would be improved in any meaningful way. Indeed, precisely the opposite is invariably implied. To me, at least, homo sapiens often seems to be merely marking time until we can blow each other up and destroying the climate whilst sleepwalking into some crisis that might precipitate a thermonuclear genocide sometimes seems to be built into our DNA. In an era of cli-fi fiction and our non-fiction newspaper headlines, to label North's insight as 'prescience' might perhaps be overstating it, but perhaps that is the point: this destructive and negative streak is universal to all periods of our violent, insecure species.

The Goldfinch (2013) Donna Tartt After Breaking Bad, the second biggest runaway success of 2014 was probably Donna Tartt's doorstop of a novel, The Goldfinch. Yet upon its release and popular reception, it got a significant number of bad reviews in the literary press with, of course, an equal number of predictable think pieces claiming this was sour grapes on the part of the cognoscenti. Ah, to be in 2014 again, when our arguments were so much more trivial. For the uninitiated, The Goldfinch is a sprawling bildungsroman that centres on Theo Decker, a 13-year-old whose world is turned upside down when a terrorist bomb goes off whilst visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, killing his mother among other bystanders. Perhaps more importantly, he makes off with a painting in order to fulfil a promise to a dying old man: Carel Fabritius' 1654 masterpiece The Goldfinch. For the next 14 years (and almost 800 pages), the painting becomes the only connection to his lost mother as he's flung, almost entirely rudderless, around the Western world, encountering an array of eccentric characters. Whatever the critics claimed, Tartt's near-perfect evocation of scenes, from the everyday to the unimaginable, is difficult to summarise. I wouldn't label it 'cinematic' due to her evocation of the interiority of the characters. Take, for example: Even the suggestion that my father had close friends conveyed a misunderstanding of his personality that I didn't know how to respond it's precisely this kind of relatable inner subjectivity that cannot be easily conveyed by film, likely is one of the main reasons why the 2019 film adaptation was such a damp squib. Tartt's writing is definitely not 'impressionistic' either: there are many near-perfect evocations of scenes, even ones we hope we cannot recognise from real life. In particular, some of the drug-taking scenes feel so credibly authentic that I sometimes worried about the author herself. Almost eight months on from first reading this novel, what I remember most was what a joy this was to read. I do worry that it won't stand up to a more critical re-reading (the character named Xandra even sounds like the pharmaceuticals she is taking), but I think I'll always treasure the first days I spent with this often-beautiful novel.

Beyond Black (2005) Hilary Mantel Published about five years before the hyperfamous Wolf Hall (2004), Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black is a deeply disturbing book about spiritualism and the nature of Hell, somewhat incongruously set in modern-day England. Alison Harte is a middle-aged physic medium who works in the various towns of the London orbital motorway. She is accompanied by her stuffy assistant, Colette, and her spirit guide, Morris, who is invisible to everyone but Alison. However, this is no gentle and musk-smelling world of the clairvoyant and mystic, for Alison is plagued by spirits from her past who infiltrate her physical world, becoming stronger and nastier every day. Alison's smiling and rotund persona thus conceals a truly desperate woman: she knows beyond doubt the terrors of the next life, yet must studiously conceal them from her credulous clients. Beyond Black would be worth reading for its dark atmosphere alone, but it offers much more than a chilling and creepy tale. Indeed, it is extraordinarily observant as well as unsettlingly funny about a particular tranche of British middle-class life. Still, the book's unnerving nature that sticks in the mind, and reading it noticeably changed my mood for days afterwards, and not necessarily for the best.

The Wall (2019) John Lanchester The Wall tells the story of a young man called Kavanagh, one of the thousands of Defenders standing guard around a solid fortress that envelopes the British Isles. A national service of sorts, it is Kavanagh's job to stop the so-called Others getting in. Lanchester is frank about what his wall provides to those who stand guard: the Defenders of the Wall are conscripted for two years on the Wall, with no exceptions, giving everyone in society a life plan and a story. But whilst The Wall is ostensibly about a physical wall, it works even better as a story about the walls in our mind. In fact, the book blends together of some of the most important issues of our time: climate change, increasing isolation, Brexit and other widening societal divisions. If you liked P. D. James' The Children of Men you'll undoubtedly recognise much of the same intellectual atmosphere, although the sterility of John Lanchester's dystopia is definitely figurative and textual rather than literal. Despite the final chapters perhaps not living up to the world-building of the opening, The Wall features a taut and engrossing narrative, and it undoubtedly warrants even the most cursory glance at its symbolism. I've yet to read something by Lanchester I haven't enjoyed (even his short essay on cheating in sports, for example) and will be definitely reading more from him in 2022.

The Only Story (2018) Julian Barnes The Only Story is the story of Paul, a 19-year-old boy who falls in love with 42-year-old Susan, a married woman with two daughters who are about Paul's age. The book begins with how Paul meets Susan in happy (albeit complicated) circumstances, but as the story unfolds, the novel becomes significantly more tragic and moving. Whilst the story begins from the first-person perspective, midway through the book it shifts into the second person, and, later, into the third as well. Both of these narrative changes suggested to me an attempt on the part of Paul the narrator (if not Barnes himself), to distance himself emotionally from the events taking place. This effect is a lot more subtle than it sounds, however: far more prominent and devastating is the underlying and deeply moving story about the relationship ends up. Throughout this touching book, Barnes uses his mastery of language and observation to avoid the saccharine and the maudlin, and ends up with a heart-wrenching and emotive narrative. Without a doubt, this is the saddest book I read this year.

31 December 2020

Holger Levsen: 20201231-no-source-change-source-uploads

On doing 540 no-source-change source-only uploads in two weeks So I've been doing 540 no-source-change source-only uploads in the last two weeks and am planning to do 3000 more in January 2021. We'll see how that goes ;) Let me explain what I have been doing and why. So, starting with the Bullseye release cycle the Release Team changed policy: only packages which were build on buildds are allowed to migrate to testing. Which is pretty nice for reproducible builds as this also ensures that a .buildinfo file is available for anyone wanting to reproduce the binaries of that package. However, there are many binary (and source) packages in Debian which were uploaded before 2016 (which is when .buildinfo files were introduced) or were uploaded with binaries until that change in release policy July 2019. Then Ivo De Decker scheduled binNMUs for all the affected packages but due to the way binNMUs work, he couldn't do anything about arch:all packages as they currently cannot be rebuilt with binNMUs. Ivo and myself discussed what could be done about the remaining packages and (besides long complicated changes to Debian's workflows) the only thing deemed possible was doing many many source uploads with just a new changelog entry:
  * Non maintainer upload by the Reproducible Builds team.
  * No source change upload to rebuild on buildd with .buildinfo files.
These packages are all inherently buggy, because Debian policy mandates that packages should be reproducible and without .buildinfo files one cannot reproducibly rebuild packages. So instead of filing many many bugs we've decided to just fix these bugs by doing a no-source-change source uploads. One nice aspect of these uploads is that there's no follow-up work imposed on the maintainer: whether they keep that changelog entry or whether they discard it, it does not matter. So Ivo had developed an SQL query which showed 570 packages needing an update roughly two weeks ago, on December 18 and so I started slowly. This is the amount of NMUs I did in the last days:
for i in $(seq 18 30) ; do echo -n "Dec $i: " ; ls -lart1 done/*upload grep -c "Dec $i" ; done
Dec 18: 12
Dec 19: 0
Dec 20: 3
Dec 21: 13
Dec 22: 13
Dec 23: 16
Dec 24: 4
Dec 25: 28
Dec 26: 0
Dec 27: 38
Dec 28: 198
Dec 29: 206
Dec 30: 9
About ten packages had FTBFS bugs preventing an upload and seven packages were uploaded by the maintainer before me. I've seen two cases of sudden maintainer uploads after 8 and 10 years of no activity! So what did I do for each upload? Much to my surprise I didn't get much feedback, there were like 6 people on the #debian-reproducible channel cheering and one on #debian-qa, though that person is a Release Team member so that was kind of important cheering. And I've seen some maintainer uploads to packages which haven't seen uploads since some years. And really nice: no-one complained so far. I hope this will stay this way with the plan to do 3000 more uploads of this kind: Those 570 packages were only key packages but there are 3000 more source packages which have a binary in bullseye for which no .buildinfo file exists. So I plan to upload them all in January 2021 and you can help me doing so, by uploading your packages before me - and maybe fixing some other bugs in the process! I've posted the list of packages (sorted by ddlist) to debian-devel@lists.d.o, see Many thanks to Ivo and the whole Release Team for their support of Reproducible Builds and generally speaking for the many many enhancements to the release process we've seen over the years. Debian in 2021 will rock'n'roll more than ever! So thank you all, once again, for making Debian what it is and what it will be!

16 July 2020

Louis-Philippe V ronneau: DebConf Videoteam Sprint Report -- DebConf20@Home

DebConf20 starts in about 5 weeks, and as always, the DebConf Videoteam is working hard to make sure it'll be a success. As such, we held a sprint from July 9th to 13th to work on our new infrastructure. A remote sprint certainly ain't as fun as an in-person one, but we nonetheless managed to enjoy ourselves. Many thanks to those who participated, namely: We also wish to extend our thanks to Thomas Goirand and Infomaniak for providing us with virtual machines to experiment on and host the video infrastructure for DebConf20. Advice for presenters For DebConf20, we strongly encourage presenters to record their talks in advance and send us the resulting video. We understand this is more work, but we think it'll make for a more agreeable conference for everyone. Video conferencing is still pretty wonky and there is nothing worse than a talk ruined by a flaky internet connection or hardware failures. As such, if you are giving a talk at DebConf this year, we are asking you to read and follow our guide on how to record your presentation. Fear not: we are not getting rid of the Q&A period at the end of talks. Attendees will ask their questions either on IRC or on a collaborative pad and the Talkmeister will relay them to the speaker once the pre-recorded video has finished playing. New infrastructure, who dis? Organising a virtual DebConf implies migrating from our battle-tested on-premise workflow to a completely new remote one. One of the major changes this means for us is the addition of Jitsi Meet to our infrastructure. We normally have 3 different video sources in a room: two cameras and a slides grabber. With the new online workflow, directors will be able to play pre-recorded videos as a source, will get a feed from a Jitsi room and will see the audience questions as a third source. This might seem simple at first, but is in fact a very major change to our workflow and required a lot of work to implement.
               == On-premise ==                                          == Online ==
              Camera 1                                                 Jitsi
                 v                 ---> Frontend                         v                 ---> Frontend
    Slides -> Voctomix -> Backend -+--> Frontend         Questions -> Voctomix -> Backend -+--> Frontend
                 ^                 ---> Frontend                         ^                 ---> Frontend
              Camera 2                                           Pre-recorded video
In our tests, playing back pre-recorded videos to voctomix worked well, but was sometimes unreliable due to inconsistent encoding settings. Presenters will thus upload their pre-recorded talks to SReview so we can make sure there aren't any obvious errors. Videos will then be re-encoded to ensure a consistent encoding and to normalise audio levels. This process will also let us stitch the Q&As at the end of the pre-recorded videos more easily prior to publication. Reducing the stream latency One of the pitfalls of the streaming infrastructure we have been using since 2016 is high video latency. In a worst case scenario, remote attendees could get up to 45 seconds of latency, making participation in events like BoFs arduous. In preparation for DebConf20, we added a new way to stream our talks: RTMP. Attendees will thus have the option of using either an HLS stream with higher latency or an RTMP stream with lower latency. Here is a comparative table that can help you decide between the two protocols:
  • Can be watched from a browser
  • Auto-selects a stream encoding
  • Single URL to remember
  • Lower latency (~5s)
  • Higher latency (up to 45s)
  • Requires a dedicated video player (VLC, mpv)
  • Specific URLs for each encoding setting
Live mixing from home with VoctoWeb Since DebConf16, we have been using voctomix, a live video mixer developed by the CCC VOC. voctomix is conveniently divided in two: voctocore is the backend server while voctogui is a GTK+ UI frontend directors can use to live-mix. Although voctogui can connect to a remote server, it was primarily designed to run either on the same machine as voctocore or on the same LAN. Trying to use voctogui from a machine at home to connect to a voctocore running in a datacenter proved unreliable, especially for high-latency and low bandwidth connections. Inspired by the setup FOSDEM uses, we instead decided to go with a web frontend for voctocore. We initially used FOSDEM's code as a proof of concept, but quickly reimplemented it in Python, a language we are more familiar with as a team. Compared to the FOSDEM PHP implementation, voctoweb implements A / B source selection (akin to voctogui) as well as audio control, two very useful features. In the following screen captures, you can see the old PHP UI on the left and the new shiny Python one on the right. The old PHP voctowebThe new Python3 voctoweb Voctoweb is still under development and is likely to change quite a bit until DebConf20. Still, the current version seems to works well enough to be used in production if you ever need to. Python GeoIP redirector We run multiple geographically-distributed streaming frontend servers to minimize the load on our streaming backend and to reduce overall latency. Although users can connect to the frontends directly, we typically point them to and redirect connections to the nearest server. Sadly, 6 months ago MaxMind decided to change the licence on their GeoLite2 database and left us scrambling. To fix this annoying issue, Stefano Rivera wrote a Python program that uses the new database and reworked our ansible frontend server role. Since the new database cannot be redistributed freely, you'll have to get a (free) license key from MaxMind if you to use this role. Ansible & CI improvements Infrastructure as code is a living process and needs constant care to fix bugs, follow changes in DSL and to implement new features. All that to say a large part of the sprint was spent making our ansible roles and continuous integration setup more reliable, less buggy and more featureful. All in all, we merged 26 separate ansible-related merge request during the sprint! As always, if you are good with ansible and wish to help, we accept merge requests on our ansible repository :)

8 November 2015

Andrew Cater: MiniDebconf ARM CAmbridge 1400 - ARM, Cambridge 8 November

Andy (rattusrattus) on Video team sprint over the last few days with Ivo de Decker and Stefano Rovera

Background/Existing infrastructure/Why change? [DV/Firewire are EOL]
Things to do

1. Replace twinpact video slide capture system with something that can capture HDMI - better resolution,- digital all the way
Using a pre-production prototype at the moment. CCC also hoping to use this. All kit needs to go into one big box with sensible power supplies
2. Replace DVswitch
Better resolution, select sources, record all inputs, record all edits
Gstreamer based transport solution - import/output format agnostic
GST-Switch - possibly dead? VoctoMix looks more promising - CCC are testing this. First use in anger may be December
3. Improve streaming - single stream out. Encode stream on in-room hardware.
Sharing is a thing ... CCC workflow and setup are good - everyone should share technology. FOSDEM has 25 rooms ...
4 Replace/expand AV equipment
Workstation PC - SDI capture/video mixing/local record and encode
Laptop for remote UI
2 cameras
Opsis frame grabber
5 BoF Room recording - lots of options to handle differently
1 Operator maximum / preferably automated
Video conferencing camera / microphone setup
Frame grabber for slides / Gobby feed
6 Logistics
Organise equipment by room
Kit must be kept deployable
Quartermastering necessary
Checklists for each box
Set up a lab for development and release

6 March 2015

Raphaël Hertzog: My Free Software Activities in February 2015

My monthly report covers a large part of what I have been doing in the free software world. I write it for my donators (thanks to them!) but also for the wider Debian community because it can give ideas to newcomers and it s one of the best ways to find volunteers to work with me on projects that matter to me. Debian LTS This month I have been paid to work 14.5 hours on Debian LTS. I worked mostly on CVE triage (41 commits in the security tracker) and organizational issues. One maintainer complained that he had not been kept in the loop for an LTS update of his package. After some discussion, I decided to change the way I did CVE triage so that any time that I add a package to our list of packages needing an update, I also send a mail to the maintainer, thus offering him the opportunity to step in. To make this sustainable, I wrote a small helper script that will generate a mail out of a template. And to kickstart the process I mailed all maintainers of packages that were already listed in our queue of packages to update. To improve the email generated, I requested a JSON export of the security tracker data (see discussions in #761859). In the mean time, Holger worked on this already and after a few iterations we did converge on an output format that will be really useful both for my needs in terms of CVE triage but also for the Package Tracker to be able to display the list of security vulnerabilities affecting each release (see #761730). Last but not least, I don t want to be the only one doing CVE triage for our LTS release so I documented the process in our wiki page. As a side note, I sponsored an e2fsprogs update prepared by Nguyen Cong and I sent the DLA for the embargoed samba update that had been prepared by Ivo de Decker (thanks to both of them!). Tryton Like last month, I invested again a copious amount of time on Tryton, fixing some bugs that were affecting me and improving the French chart of accounts to properly manage purchases and sales within the European Union. Here are some links for more details: Debian I did some work on Distro Tracker, I fixed #777453 (password reset not working because the generated email was using an invalid From email) and #779247 (obsolete build reproducibility action items were not dropped). I also started to work on restructuring the mail handling in distro-tracker (cf #754913) but it s not public yet. While I have no plans to stop contributing to Debian (it s part of my day job!), I reduced my non-work related involvement by officially recognizing that I was no longer properly assuming some of my responsibilities and that I was following too many mailing lists and RSS feeds. The most notable changes are that I removed myself from the maintenance of dpkg, developers-reference, quilt, sql-ledger, and a few perl/python modules. Misc Voting software. Part of the reason why I m reducing my involvement in Debian is that I got more involved in Nouvelle Donne (a French political party) and in particular in the handling of its digital infrastructure (currently running on Ubuntu, doh!). As part of this, I was looking for free software to handle secure votes and elections (and if possible adhering to the principles of liquid democracy). There s no perfect solution and no clear winner. That said I started following the evolution of AgoraVoting because it seems to have a good momentum and has some interesting features (it already supports votes with ranked choices, supports good crypto, has been used for elections involving large numbers of voters in the context of Podemos in Spain). But it still has some ways to go to establish itself as a truly international and community-backed project. GDM bug. Due to my work on Kali, I filed a bug against GDM (this one has been quickly fixed upstream, it s still open in Debian) and another one against accountsservice to request the possibility to define the default graphical session. Dirvish formula for Salt. I contributed another formula to manage backups with dirvish. Thanks See you next month for a new summary of my activities.

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31 August 2013

Christian Perrier: DebConf 13: hacking outcome

I *did* some hacking at DebConf, as usual. For once, I had no TODO list: after all, I never complete these, so why make one? Still, I participated to discussions around samba packaging, mostly animated by Ivo De Decker and I think we're making good progress towards samba 4.x packages. The road is long, quite complicated, but we now have a stronger team, with a very active Ivo, Jeroen Dekkers who officially joined, Steve Langasek who still cherishes one of his pet packages (and even branched in our git with the Ubuntu packages). Great work and thanks to Ivo for pushing this forward. I also worked quite actively on the migration of fonts packages to git (I now reached the point where I'm more comfortable with git than SVN, yes, everything can happen). These packages were modernized at the same time and checked for new upstream versions (I have to say that few of these fonts had new upstream versions, indeed). We unfortunately found no time to have a good font BoF in Vaumarcus, indeed...but I'm not sure we would have many things to say. The work is done and done well, in this team. Some progress was made, also, for restoring a working "monolithic" build of D-I. This build gathers together all udebs from unstable, which means it offers a D-I image that uses ALL udebs from nustable.....which is not the default of other images. This would be very helpful for translators who want to check their work as soon as possible. In the future, with a Jenkins task that would build each package at each commit and then build a monolithic image, we could have a way to provide a tes snapshot of D-I git repos.....which could help catching more bugs (or more of my stupid mistakes). So, in general, I consider this a quite successful DebConf when it comes at "real" production.

27 January 2013

Gregor Herrmann: RC bugs 2013/04

yeah, the RC bug count is going down, mostly due to the bug squashing party taking place in cambridge, uk, this weekend (with participation of some release team members). here are my contributions during the last week:

23 December 2012

Gregor Herrmann: RC bugs 2012/51

I just realized it's sunday again, so here goes my list of RC bugs I've worked on during the last week:

Gregor Herrmann: RC bugs 2012/51

I just realized it's sunday again, so here goes my list of RC bugs I've worked on during the last week:

16 December 2012

Gregor Herrmann: RC bugs 2012/50

have I said before that we are running out of easy RC bugs? the list is a bit short this week: to make up for this poor performance, I've uploaded ~14 new lib.*-perl packages to the NEW queue yesterday & today :)

2 December 2012

Gregor Herrmann: RC bugs 2012/47-48

I was a bit busy (mostly in pleasant ways) during the last two weeks, so this reports covers a longer period of my RC bug activities:

18 November 2012

Gregor Herrmann: RC bugs 2012/46

it's seems we're starting to run out of RC bugs with the implicit usertag easy-enough-for-gregoa

what I've done in the last days besides working on the bugs listed below is to tag quite a few bugs pending that were uploaded into a DELAYED queue. please try to remember to set this tag on delayed NMUs, nmudiff is quite convenient here.

26 August 2012

Gregor Herrmann: RC bugs 2012/34

good news: I'm seeing more & more people contributing to RC bugs in the BTS. here are my own contributions for the past week:

21 April 2008

Andrew Pollock: [life/americania] Four days in San Diego... just not enough time to see the place properly. I took Friday and Monday off, and Thursday night a week ago, Sarah and I flew down to San Diego for a bit of a "Yay, we've achieved normality" escape. We'd intended to go to SeaWorld on Friday, vege out for two days, go to San Diego Zoo on Monday, then fly home on Monday night. Well we did SeaWorld and the zoo as planned, but lazing around the pool never happened, we ended up running ourselves ragged exploring San Diego all day Saturday and Sunday instead. We stayed at The Dana on Mission Bay, which we picked because it was the closest to SeaWorld. The accommodation was more like a motel than a hotel. There were numerous two-storey buildings across a fairly sprawling area. It had frontage onto what I presume was Mission Bay, and also had a Marina attached to it, so the outlook was quite nice. It also had free WiFi, so we could upload photos throughout the stay. The food offerings were pretty good, and reasonably priced as well. SeaWorld was really good. It's been a long time since I've been to the Australian equivalent, but I don't remember it as being as interactive. San Diego's SeaWorld had a Bay Ray feeding area, where you could purchase food (small whole fish), and hand-feed the Bat Rays. That was pretty cool. It took a bit of a courage to leave your hand in the water, palm up, with something the size of sardine dangling between your fingers and let these huge rays literally swim right over your hand so they could suck the fish from between your fingers. There was also a dolphin feeding area, where you could purchase some small fish again, and give the dolphins a pat on the head and then throw them a fish. I really love dolphins, and one day I'd like to be able to swim with them. The main attraction of SeaWorld is the various shows that they do. I think we caught all of the different ones. The killer whales are just amazing. There were a few different programs where for an additional fee, you could swim with various animals. Dolphins and Beluga whales seemed to be the ones we noticed in particular. There were a few oddities, though: The park is owned by a beer company, so there was a part where you could go and get free samples. Two per person per day (I think on the honour system). At least at the food outlet where we bought lunch (they don't allow you to bring in any food or drink from the outside "for the safety of the animals", so they have a nice monopoly on catering) every kid's meal came in a commemorative Shamu blue plastic lunch pail - whether you wanted it or not. There were two empty ones left on the table that Sarah and I sat down at. The lady cleaning up the tables asked us if we wanted them, and we said no, and she promptly chucked them out with the trash. This just struck me as a terrible waste. They obviously cost money and energy to produce, and they're just going to end up in landfill. They could have been washed and reused instead. I felt this was very hypocritical for a park that was trying to send people away with a message about conservation. Other than this nitpick, I thought SeaWorld was really great. It was a good size, and it was doable in one day, in their normal opening hours. I guess it'd be a bit slower with kids. Photos from the day are here. The next two days we spent exploring San Diego. The hotel was conveniently located on an MTS loop, which ran surprising frequently for a weekend (at least compared to public transit in the Bay Area), so we bought day passes on Saturday and Sunday and used it to get to the Old Town transit centre. On Saturday we explored Old Town, which was a historic preservation of how San Diego looked "back in the day". In the afternoon, we also bought 48-hour tickets for the red double-decker "hop on, hop off" tour bus, and did one of the two loops that it offered. The next day, we caught the loop in the opposite direction, and checked out Mission Beach, which was probably the best beach I've seen in California so far (although the water was still far too cold), saw some pretty cool alternative accommodation (possibly for next time), and did part of the other loop on the tour bus, getting off at the USS Midway. This massive retired aircraft carrier is permanently moored at San Diego, and for a fee, you can crawl all over most of it. It was very interesting, and gave a good insight into the life of a sailor. We blew a good 4 hours or so here, and ran out of time to see the entire thing (we didn't make it onto the "island" part of the ship, which we were a bit bummed about). We then caught the trolley back to Old Town, and grabbed a beer at a pub that sold it by the yard glass and half yard glass. We opted for the half yard glass, since the full yard glass seemed a bit unwieldly, and we thought it looked like a hell of a lot of beer, but the half yard glass, whilst also looking like a lot of beer, was only about one and a half pints. We then grabbed some dinner at one of the very authentic looking Mexican restaurants (they had women out the front, almost on the sidewalk making fresh tortillas on the spot) and headed back home. Photos from our exploration are here. On the last day, we went to the San Diego Zoo (which every time I read the URL for, I read it as "Sandie go Zoo!"). This zoo is purportedly the best zoo in the country, but it really didn't blow my socks off. We seemed to have a really hard time navigating the place, and spent a lot of the day walking around in circles trying to find various exhibits. It's also in a bit of a valley, so the circles tended to be up and down hills, which was tiring. I really don't think we were very efficient at all in our coverage of the place. The other thing that I personally found annoying was the cages. The wire was very close together, which made it really hard to take photos, because the camera would keep focusing on the wire, instead of what was behind it. I guess this is why God invented manual focus, but that made it very hard to photograph big cats stalking their cages. The photos we did manage to get are here. Overall, we had a great time in San Diego, and it seems we didn't really scratch the surface. I'd like to go back again and see Balboa Park, the Gaslamp district, and I thought there were more naval vessels that you could look at, but I might be mistaken. Definitely a very nice city.

20 February 2008

Jeff Bailey: Met with the surgeon.

Angie, Leif and I met with one the two surgeons who will be doing the work. I s'pose it's good and bad that the co-director of the UCSF Spine Centre, Dr. Mummaneni is personally taking on the case. Good that I'll have the best possible care; Bad that I'm apparently interesting enough to warrant it.

Meeting with him was matter of fact. He talked about how he'll approach the surgery (from the back, since the placement of my aortic arch and innominant vein would make coming through the front problematic). It looks like I'll have rods and screws from T1-T6, with a cage replacing the vertebra at least at T3 and possibly at T4. People don't usually do that much movement in their thoracic back so, ongoing, his opinion was that I largely won't notice it.

In hospital-time will depend on whether or not the surgery can be done in one shot. Because of the trickiness of the area, it may not be possible to get it entirely from the back, and he'll do two surgeries rather than one if that can avoid me winding up in a wheelchair. Ideally, there's one surgery, and a week later I'm home and able to take care of myself. The way they take the tumor out in a couple pieces is known as "en bloc spondylectomy", but may not be possible with the way the spinal nerve is being pinched. He described the surgery itself, and the simple version is "remove one or two vertebra, replace them with cages, stabilize the surrounding area". Yay to the Black and Decker surgical division.

He'll be assisted by Dr. Chau for spinal cord monitoring and the rest of the surgery.

The last thing they did as I left the hospital last Saturday was a full body CT scan with contrast, and the radiologists have declared that that they see no additional tumors in the body. I'll visit with an oncologist to do some final tests, but consistently the answer is coming back that this isn't cancer, it's more likely an isolated mutation. Dr. Mummaneni doesn't feel that this is a side effect of sitting at a computer since I was 3 years old, any of the car accidents, or being hit across the back with a flute case in grade 9.

I did ask if I'll set off metal detectors at airports after this, and apparently the titanium used doesn't do that.

So, erm. What are the risks? Honestly, pretty consistently less than doing nothing. Having this thing would eventually result in paralysis anyway, and aside from the usually OMG-they're-cutting-me-open-anything-could-happen type of things that don't keep me from biking to work on a regular basis, all the other options are "And life improves from here". Informed consent means that I have statistics in my head that I'd rather not dwell on and a laundry list of things to panic about when I wake up in the middle of the night but those really are just nerves acting up and stress wanting to come out. Nothing wrong with any of that.

Surgery is booked for March 3rd. We'd hoped to go to Vancouver for Leif's birthday around then, but I've been asked not to fly. Rapid pressure changes apparently will aggravate what's there now.

I feel good about this. I'm back to pretty much 100% after the hospital time last week, and noticed that after the embolism that I'm moving a bit freer than I was before. That's enough to start the optimism going already. We've also twiddled my medicine for every 8 hours rather than 6, which will help me sleep better, and reduced it, which will help me feel better.

Having time-frames and knowing that I'm in good hands is a lovely place to be after all that.

16 June 2007

Andrew Pollock: [life] In the Mother Country

So I'm off travelling again. I've done way too much lately, and I'm looking forward to getting home and staying there for a while. I flew from San Francisco to London yesterday for my first ever business class trip. United business class is whole different experience to United economy, that's for sure. Aside from getting ridiculous amounts of legroom, and much better cabin service, the thing I like best about the whole experience was the preferential treatment. I arrived at SFO, and there was an unholy amount of people at the economy check-in counters, so it was really nice to breeze around to the business check-in counters and wait in a much more manageable line. At Heathrow, I got to used the priority immigration line, and my bag came out pretty quickly, so I'd breezed through Heathrow and onto the tube faster than you could say "Pussycat, pussycat, where have you been?". Very happy with all of that. I caught a Piccadilly line tube from Heathrow to Acton Town, then changed to the District line to Victoria station. The tube (particularly the first one) was smaller than I expected. The ceiling was pretty low, the aisle narrow, and it just felt pretty squishy. The second one seemed a bit wider and taller. It didn't feel like it could really deal with peak-hour commuting, but I guess maybe the frequency makes up for the capacity... Buckingham Palace Road turns out to have pretty wacky numbering. Just because you're opposite number 80, doesn't mean the odd numbered 80's are anywhere near you. So it took me longer than it should have to find the hotel, and I wandered up and down Buckingham Palace Road for a while before I'd managed to calibrate myself to the numbering. More frequent numbers on the buildings would have helped immensely. So I've hardly seen anything, I'm really just passing through on the way to Edinburgh for Debconf, but I love what I've seen so far. The red double-decker buses. The taxis. The post boxes. The phone booth's. It all feels really really old, but still really really alive. We've got to come back and do the place properly. The office is really nice as well. Very modern looking. Very open-plan like the Sydney one. I wasn't able to sleep on the plane unfortunately (I couldn't convince my brain to switch off), so I was pretty zonked by the end of the day (got into the office shortly after 9am). I had a fairly productive day, and went to the hotel and crashed at about 6:30pm, woke up at about 2:30am and couldn't get back to sleep. Hopefully if I just soldier on through today, I'll get to sleep a bit later this evening and do something closer to a normal night's sleep. I'm catching the train to Edinburgh today (I blame Mark (who doesn't appear to believe in permalinks) for putting the idea in my head). Looking forward to another tube ride and seeing some of the countryside. I've been really apprehensive about this trip ever since I booked it. Mainly because I'm going over to Dublin after Debconf to try and apply for a new visa. For some reason, I'm just really worried that's all going to go pear-shaped. I'm feeling better now that I'm here, but I'll feel even better once the trip to the consulate is behind me. Even better still when I get my passport back successfully. Best still when I'm home again.

14 June 2007

Christine Spang: Impressions

The Real Cambridge is quite a lot different from the US Cambridge. There are vast stretches of green grass everywhere. People drive little brightly-coloured Volkswagons on the wrong side of the street, and in some places one can be walking down the middle of the street and not realize that vehicle traffic can go there too until a car creeps up behind you, trying to get through. Everywhere that’s not explicitly marked “no cycles” (the colleges, historic important buildings, etc.) features dozens of locked up, often step over-framed commuter bikes, decorated with panniers and front baskets. I still find it vaguely nerve-wracking being in a British vehicle, since I’m always expecting cars traveling in the opposite direction to come wheeling towards me. But I have yet to step off the curb and almost get hit by a double-decker bus because I looked in the wrong direction before starting across. The Cam River is frankly quite puny. Walking alongside it you can witness such events as crew boats nearly crashing into tour boats, and apparently a sort of crew racing called “knocking” is often used because of the river’s narrowness. It’s also not very deep, as can be proven by the periodic punt hires along its shores. And here punting is not to procrastinate (very much an MIT-ism) but to propel a punt , which is a flat-bottomed boat with square ends, by pushing a pole against the bottom of the river. It’s difficult to go six hours without being offered a cup of tea, especially if one is visiting many different people. And I have no idea how people can manage to get drunk off of beer, because a pint is quite enough to fill my stomach and leave no room left for more. So much liquid! And the prices of everything here are just about the same as in the US–except in pounds sterling, not dollars. Which means things really cost twice as much. But since the only things I really need to buy are food, drink, and miscellaneous (like anti-death-by-hay-fever-histamine), things will work out alright. Things have been awesome so far, and the local free software-Debian-Ubuntu-GNOME crowd has made me feel right at home. Maybe someday I will actually swap Cambridges for a while. I’ve gotten to see a bit of Cambridge University here too. Since Hanna’s (really awesome) dad is a fellow of King’s College, we got to go in and look around even though it’s exam season and the general public isn’t allowed in — there’s always a person in funny academic robes standing at the gate and shooing away tourists. Right through the gates there is a large, pristine mowed lawn. It’s in such a condition because no one is allowed to walk on it — unless they’re a fellow of the college. Flaunt that. Her dad also supervises the Cambridge end of CME, so we crashed an end-of-the-year garden party for that this past afternoon. And Saturday it’s off to Scotland, which should be just as awesome! And with more people and more Debian! I’m excited.

30 October 2006

Axel Beckert: BarCamp Zurich -- Resume

The BarCamp Zurich 2006 is over. On the way there I thought about what I would do during time slots with no interesting talks. But when I tried to make up my personal schedule, I noticed that I rather would have the opposite problem: Too many interesting talks at the same time… Well, to many interesting talks at all, although I only went to tech talks and left out the biz talks. I first went to the Podcasting & Co. talk by Timo Hetzel, since I never heard or made a podcast, but was curious about podcasts in general. Besides statistics and rankings he spoke about where people listen to podcast (most listeners seem to do that during commuting), what people like in podcasts, why companies podcast, etc. And that a very big share of all podcast listeners use iTunes as podcast client and except juice (never heard of it before) all other podcast clients seem to be irrelevant. My conclusion: I haven’t missed anything not having listened to or made podcasts neither do I need to listen or make podcasts in the future. They’re irrelevant. To me. :-) Then I had to choose between the talks AJAX@localhost (PDF) by Harry Fuecks and Realtime Collaborative Text Editing and SubEthaEdit by the Coding Monkeys. I heard about realtime collaborative editing once know that it’s a challenging task for the developer. I also know what AJAX is (and that I would only use or recommend it for bells and whistles, but not for content in general), but “AJAX@localhost” sounded like writing normal applications using AJAX. It sounded interesting and evil at the same time. I had to go there! ;-) Others had similar expectations after reading the talk’s title, so I was quite surprised that it was about something completely different, namely about debugging AJAX on the localhost but under conditions usually only appearing if you’re running AJAX application not from localhost but from somewhere on the net: You may have different lags with every request, so some requests may reach the server before others, which may screw up the whole AJAX application, if the developers didn’t think about it and only tested it on localhost. (Hence the talk’s title…) My conlusion: I will use and recommend AJAX even more seldom, since there seem to be even more design misconceptions than I thought before. But I’ll once have a look at the Webtuesday meeting, he mentioned. For the third time-slot, I didn’t need long to decide where to go: I already knew a little bit about Microformats and I wanted to know more. Tag Trade also sounded interesting, but the second part of the talk’s title, Paid Learning sounded like business and so I had no scruples to cold-shoulder that talk. I probably didn’t learn anything really new in the microformats talk, but my knowledge about microformats is now more concrete, and after talking with Cédric Hüsler later during a break, I would even trust myself to start and define a new microformat. Then I went to the HG Caféteria together with Gürkan and two German guys. While waiting in the queue, we were talking about our jobs and our favourite Linux distributions. I got some rhubarb pie and a rum truffles, assuming that the Caféteria uses no alcohol in their products like all other SV restaurant I know. But this one seemed to have quite a lot of alcohol, since it felt like my breath was burning… Well, this resulted in my second SV feedback form submission… Next I went to Alex Schröder’s talk about multilingual websites, Oddmuse and the Emacs Wiki, although also the talk A-Life about simulating evolution sounded promising. Alex asked the listeners about their experiences with multilingual websites and showed what Oddmuse offers as partial solution to the general multilingualism problems. But regarding the comments from the auditorium, there probably won’t be a perfect solution until computers can translate perfectly… The next talk I visited was Gabor’s talk about his master thesis Organizing E-Mail which resulted in a soon to be released Mozilla Thunderbird extension called BuzzTrack. From the other concepts he showed, I found Microsoft’s SNARF (Social Network and Relationship Finder) and IBM’s Thread Arcs most interesting as well as the fact that there is no e-mail client seems to have a majority at all. Directly after Gabor I had my own talk about Understanding Shell Quoting, so I also couldn’t go to Adrian Heydecker’s talk about Learning with Hypertext and Search Engines. I had only about three and a half listeners of whom several to my surprise where here because they didn’t know what “shell quoting” is. I really didn’t expect that. But that seems to be one of the differences between a BarCamp and a Linux Conferences: People come here to see something new, something they haven’t heard about before. On Linux events most people come, because they already heard about some special topic and want to know more or learn something about it. On Linux event my shell talks usually were attracting many visitors while at a BarCamp, talks presenting an idea, a concept or a tool seem to much more interesting for the attendees. So for the next BarCamp I perhaps exhume my Website Meta Language talk which never seemed to hit the nerve of Linux event attendees, since it tried to “sell” a different concept of generating website than most were used to. At least one listener excepted the talk to be named “shell escaping”, but IMHO escaping is only one quoting technic and it’s not only used for quoting. But perhaps I should take the word “escaping” in the title though for the next time. Happily most of the listeners seem to have learned something new from the talk and Silvan Gebhardt was really happy about his new knowledge about ssh ~ escapes, although I mainly talked about how to quote them than how to use them. :-) During the last slot I visited the session about the upcoming BarCamp Alsace 2 and the yet to be planned BarCamp Rhine, a BarCamp to be held on a ship traveling from Basel in Switzerland down the Rhine, stopping in Strasbourg, Karlsruhe, Rhein-Main-Area and perhaps even Cologne and Amsterdam. Contrary to my initial thoughts, the day was over very fast and I had no single boring minute during the BarCamp. Wow! After we’ve been kicked out of the building by ETH janitors, we joined again at the Bar N-68. On the way there I met Urban M ller who attended BarCamp Zurich, too. We talked quite a lot and it was very interesting to see behind the scenes of e.g. Later I joined the French speaking table, talking with Gregoire Japiot from WineCamp France and Alex Schröder. Around 9pm I left the N-68 as one of the last BarCampers, tired but with new knowledge, new ideas, new acquaintances and a new hobby: BarCamping. What a luck that BarCamps aren’t that often, otherwise I couldn’t afford this new hobby. ;-) As a relaxing end I met with Alex Schröder and Christophe Ducamp on Sunday morning for brunch in the restaurant Gloria in the Industriequartier. When we were leaving the Gloria I noticed their book board with a lots of BookCrossing books and I took “The Da Vinci Code” with me, since I saw the movie and people were telling me that the book is much better. I’ll see…

15 January 2006

Andrew Pollock: [life/americania] First outing on the train

We caught the Caltrain to San Francisco yesterday, and it was our first train ride so far. I have a bit of a childhood interest in trains, so it is always fun for me to compare and contrast the differences in rail systems that I see around the place.
There are these huge ticket machines, where you purchase a ticket before boarding the train. Fares a calculated on how many zones you travel in. So you have to consult a map of the line (it's just a single line) and work that out first. The machines take cash or a credit/debit card, with the usual disturbing lack of authentication for the latter. The tickets themselves are just a piece of card. There's no magnetic stripe or anything. The 10 ride tickets are also just a piece of card, from what I could tell. You "validate" them before riding by putting them in a gadget the essentially chops a portion of the side of the ticket off.
The trains themselves
I can't remember precisely, but I don't believe there were power-lines over the track. I'm pretty sure we had a diesel-hauled train. The engine on one that went in the opposite direction was certainly big and noisy. The cars are double-decker. Upstairs is pretty unusual. They are single-seats on either side of of an open void through to downstairs. There's a stainless steel shelf that runs the length of upstairs at about chest-height for putting luggage on, and below that you can see right through to downstairs. (I later discovered that this allowed a ticket inspector to walk down the aisle downstairs and view everyones tickets on both levels). The seats were all high-backed. The whole thing had a "long-distance" feel about it. There was a baggage car. You could take your bike on board (so, like the light rail, I think we'll do some cycling tours of places further away than what we'd directly cycle to).
Ticket inspection
Speaking of ticket inspectors, on the ride in, there were none (though there did seem to be hoards of roaming Caltrain employees wandering up and down the train), and on alighting at the station, no one checked our tickets on the way out, and there were no barriers or anything. You just wander in and out of the station as you pleased. Frankly, I was quite amazed. We did have a very diligent ticket inspector on trip back.
Definitely not the fasted thing in the world. We had all-stops trains both ways, and it took about an hour and a quarter. But it was fairly cheap, compared to driving and parking: $10.50 for a "day-pass" (what I'd called a "return").