DFN Workshop 2015

As in the last few years, the DFN Workshop happened in Hamburg, Germany.

The conference was keynoted by Steven Le Blond who talked about targeted attacks, e.g. against dissidents. He mentioned that he already presented the content at the USENIX security conference which some people think is very excellent. He first showed how he used Skype to look up IP addresses of his boss and how similarly targeted attacks were executed in the past. Think Stuxnet. His main focus were attacks on NGOs though. He focussed on an attacker sending malicious emails to the victim.

In order to find out what attack vectors were used, they contacted over 100 NGOs to ask whether they were attacked. Two NGOs, which are affiliated with the Chinese WUC, which represents the Uyghur minority, received 1500 malicious emails, out of which 1100 were carrying malware. He showed examples of those emails and some of them were indeed very targeted. They contained a personalised message with enough context to look genuine. However, the mail also had a malicious DOC file attached. Interestingly enough though, the infrastructure used by the attacker for the targeted attacks was re-used for several victims. You could have expected the attacker to have their infrastructure separated for the various victims, especially when carrying out targeted attacks.

They also investigated how quickly the attacker exploited publicly known vulnerabilities. They measured the time of the malicious email sent minus the release date of the vulnerability. They found that some of the attacks were launched on day 0, meaning that as soon as a vulnerability was publicly disclosed, an NGO was attacked with a relevant exploit. Maybe interestingly, they did not find any 0-day exploits launched. They also measured how the security precautions taken by Adobe for their Acrobat Reader and Microsoft for their Office product (think sandboxing) affected the frequency of attacks. It turned out that it does help to make your software more secure!

To defend against targeted attacks based on spoofed emails he proposed to detect whether the writing style of an email corresponds to that of previously seen emails of the presumed contact. In fact, their research shows that they are able to tell whether the writing style matches that of previous emails with very high probability.

The following talk assessed end-to-end email solutions. It was interesting, because they created a taxonomy for 36 existing projects and assessed qualities such as their compatibility, the trust-model used, or the platform it runs on.
The 36 solutions they identified were (don’t hold your breath, wall of links coming): Neomailbox, Countermail, salusafe, Tutanota, Shazzlemail, Safe-Mail, Enlocked, Lockbin, virtru, APG, gpg4o, gpg4win, Enigmail, Jumble Mail, opaqueMail, Scramble.io, whiteout.io, Mailpile, Bitmail, Mailvelope, pEp, openKeychain, Shwyz, Lavaboom, ProtonMail, StartMail, PrivateSky, Lavabit, FreedomBox, Parley, Mega, Dark Mail, opencom, okTurtles, End-to-End, kinko.me, and LEAP (Bitmask).

Many of them could be discarded right away, because they were not production ready. The list could be further reduced by discarding solutions which do not use open standards such as OpenPGP, but rather proprietary message formats. After applying more filters, such as that the private key must not leave the realm of the user, the list could be condensed to seven projects. Those were: APG, Enigmail, gpg4o, Mailvelope, pEp, Scramble.io, and whiteout.io.

Interestingly, the latter two were not compatible with the rest. The speakers attributed that to the use of GPG/MIME vs. GPG/Inline and they favoured the latter. I don’t think it’s a good idea though. The authors attest pEp a lot of potential and they seem to have indeed interesting ideas. For example, they offer to sign another person’s key by reading “safe words” over a secure channel. While this is not a silver bullet to the keysigning problem, it appears to be much easier to use.

As we are on keysigning. I have placed an article in the conference proceedings. It’s about GNOME Keysign. The paper’s title is “Welcome to the 2000s: Enabling casual two-party key signing” which I think reflects in what era the current OpenPGP infrastructure is stuck. The mindsets of the people involved are still a bit left in the old days where dealing with computation machines was a thing for those with long and white beards. The target group of users for secure communication protocols has inevitably grown much larger than it used to be. While this sounds trivial, the interface to GnuPG has not significantly changed since. It also still makes it hard for others to build higher level tools by making bad default decisions, demanding to be in control of “trust” decisions, and by requiring certain environmental conditions (i.e. the filesystem to be used). GnuPG is not a mere library. It seems it understands itself as a complete crypto suite. Anyway, in the paper, I explained how I think contemporary keysigning protocols work, why it’s not a good thing, and how to make it better.

I propose to further decentralise OpenPGP by enabling people to have very small keysigning “parties”. Currently, the setup cost of a keysigning party is very high. This is, amongst other things, due to the fact that an organiser is required to collect all the keys, to compile a list of participant, and to make the keys available for download. Then, depending on the size of the event, the participants queue up for several hours. And to then tick checkboxes on pieces of paper. A gigantic secops fail. The smarter people sign every box they tick so that an attacker cannot “inject” a maliciously ticked box onto the paper sheet. That’s not fun. The not so smart people don’t even bring their sheets of paper or have them printed by a random person who happens to also be at the conference and, surprise, has access to a printer. What a gigantic attack surface. I think this is bad. Let’s try to reduce that surface by reducing the size of the events.

In order to enable people to have very small events, i.e. two people keysigning, I propose to make most of the actions of a keysigning protocol automatic. So instead of requiring the user to manually compare the fingerprint, I propose that we securely transfer the key to be signed. You might rightfully ask, how to do that. My answer is that we’ve passed the 2000s and that we bring devices which are capable of opening a TCP connection on a link local network, e.g. WiFi. I know, this is not necessarily a given, but let’s just assume for the sake of simplicity that one of our device we carry along can actually do WiFi (and that the network does not block connections between machines). This also prevents certain attacks that users of current Best Practises are still vulnerable against, namely using short key ids or leaking who you are communicating with.

Another step that needs to be automated is signing the key. It sounds easy, right? But it’s not just a mere gpg --sign-key. The first problem is, that you don’t want the key to be signed to pollute your keyring. That can be fixed by using --homedir or the GNUPGHOME environment variable. But then you also want to sign each UID on the key separately. And this is were things get a bit more interesting. Anyway, to make a long story short: We’re not able to do that with plain GnuPG (as of now) in a sane manner. And I think it’s a shame.

Lastly, sending the key needs to be as “zero-click” as possible, too. I propose to simply reuse the current MUA of the user. That sounds easy, but unfortunately, it’s only 2015 and we cannot interact with, say, Evolution and Thunderbird in a standardised manner. There is xdg-email, but it has annoying bugs and doesn’t seem to be maintained. I’m waiting for a sane Email-API. I mean, Email has been around for some time now, let’s now try to actually use it. I hope to be able to make another more formal announcement on GNOME Keysign, soon.

the userbase for strong cryptography declines by half with every additional keystroke or mouseclick required to make it work

— attributed to Ellison.

Anyway, the event was good, I am happy to have attended. I hope to be able to make it there next year again.

FOSDEM 2015

It’s winter again and it was clear that FOSDEM was coming. However, preparation fell through the cracks, at least for me, mainly because my personal life is fast-paced at the moment. We had a table again, and our EventsBox, which is filled with goodness to demo GNOME, made its way from Gothenburg, where I actually carried it to a couple of months ago.

Unfortunately though, we didn’t have t-shirts to sell. We do have boxes of t-shirts left, but they didn’t make it to FOSDEM :-\ So this FOSDEM didn’t generate nearly as much revenue as the last years. It’s a pity that this year’s preparation was suboptimal. I hope we can improve next year. Were able to get rid of other people’s things, though ;-) Like last year, the SuSE people brought beer, but it was different this time. Better, even ;-)

The fact that there wasn’t as much action at our booth as last years, I could actually attend talks. I was able to see Sri and Pam talking on the Groupon incident that shook us up a couple of months ago. It was really nice to see her, because I wanted to shake hands and say thanks. She did an amazing job. Interestingly enough, she praised us, the GNOME Foundation’s Board of Directors, for working very professionally. Much better than any client she has worked with. I am surprised, because I didn’t really have the feeling we were acting as promptly as we could. You know, we’re volunteers, after all. Also, we didn’t really prepare as much as we could have which led to some things being done rather spontaneously. Anyway, I take that as a compliment and I guess that our work can’t be all too bad. The talk itself showed our side of things and, if you ask me, was painting things in a too bright light. Sure, we were successful, but I attribute much of that success to network effects and a bit of luck. I don’t think we could replicate that success easily.

GNOME’s presence at FOSDEM was not too bad though, despite the lack of shirts. We had a packed beer event and more talks by GNOMEy people. The list includes Karen‘s keynote, Benzo‘s talk on SDAPDS, and Sri‘s talk on GNOME’s impact on the Free Software ecosystem. You can find more here.

A talk that I did see was on improving the keysigning situation. I really mean to write about this some more. For now, let me just say that I am pleased to see people working on solutions. Solutions to a problem I’m not sure many people see and that I want to devote some time for explaining it, i.e. in s separate post. The gist is, that contemporary “keysigning parties” come with non-negligible costs for both, the organiser and the participant. KeySigningPartyTools were presented which intend to improve they way things are currently done. That’s already quite good as it’ll reduce the number of errors people typically make when attending such a party.

However, I think that we need to rethink keysigning. Mostly, because the state of the art is a massive SecOps fail. There is about a gazillion traps to be avoided and many things don’t actually make so much sense. For example, I am unable to comprehend why we are muttering a base16 encoded version of your 160 bit fingerprint to ourselves. Or why we must queue outside in the cold without being able to jump the queue if a single person is a bit slow, because then everybody will be terribly confused and the whole thing taking even longer. Or why we need to do everything on paper (well, I know the arguments: Your computer can be hacked, be social, yadda yadda). I did actually give a talk on rethinking the keysigning problem (slides). It’s about a project that I have only briefly mentioned here and which I should really write about in the near future. GNOME Keysign intends to be less of a SecOps fail by letting the scan a barcode and click “next”. The rest will be operations known to the user such as sending an email. No more manually comparing fingerprints. No more leaking data to the Internet about who you want to contact. No more MITM attacks against your OpenPGP installation. No more short key ids that you accidentally use or because you mistyped a letter of the fingerprint. No more editing raw Perl in order to configure your keysigning tool. The talk went surprisingly well. I actually expected the people in the security devroom to be mad when someone like me is taking their perl and their command line away. I received good questions and interesting feedback. I’ll follow up here with another post once real-life lets me get to it.

Brussels itself is a very nice city. We were lucky, I guess, because we had some sunshine when we were walking around the city. I love the plethora of restaurants. And I like that Brussels is very open and cultural. Unfortunately, the makerspace was deserted when we arrived, but it is was somewhat expected as it was daytime… I hope to return again and check it out during the night ;-)

GNOME at FSCONS14 in Gothenburg, Sweden

I was glad to be invited to FSONCS 2014 in Gothenburg, Sweden. Remember that this is also the place for next year’s GUADEC! This year’s FSCONS was attended by around 150 people or so. I guess it was a bit less. That might not sound like a lot, but it’s a very cool event with many interesting people and talks.

We, GNOME, had a presence at the event due to me bringing the EventsBox and T-Shirts to Gothenburg. It was quite a trip, especially with those heavy boxes…

The first keynote of the conference was given by Karl Fogel. He declared the end of copyright in 1993. He imagined copyright as a tree whose bottom has been chopped off, but the, the top hasn’t noticed that just yet. He put copyright on a timeline and drew a strong relation to the printing press. He claimed that in the United Kingdom, a monopoly used to control who prints and distributes books and it then transferred to a differently shaped monopoly which involved the actual authors. These could then transfer their rights to printers. He went on with ranting about the fact that nowadays you cannot tip the author for their (free) work. He appealed to the authors of f-droid or the firefox mobile app market to integrate such a functionality. Overall it was an interesting talk with many aspects. He is a talented speaker.

The second keynote was given by Leigh Honeywell. She talked about communities and community building. She said that she got most of the ideas presented in her talk from Sumana Harihareswara‘s “Models we use to change the world”. During her talk she referred to her experiences when founded the HackLabTO Hackerspace after having attended the CCCamp 2007. She basically shared models of understanding the community and their behaviour. The Q&A session was inspiring and informative. Many questions about managing a community were asked and answered.

Another interesting talk was given by Guilhem Moulin who went on to talk about Fripost. It is a democratic email service provider from Sweden. He gave a bit of an insight regarding the current Email usage on today’s Internet. He claimed that we have 2.7 billion internet users and that the top three email service providers accumulate roughly a third of this population. His numbers were 425 million for GMail, 420 million for Hotmail, and 280 million for Yahoo. All these companies are part of PRISM, he said, which worried him enough to engage with Fripost. In fact, he became a board member after having been a user and a sysadmin. As someone who operates a mail server for oneself and others with similar needs, I was quite interested in seeing concentrated efforts like this. Fripost’s governance seems to be interesting. It’s a democratic body and I wonder how to thwart malicious subversion. Anyway, the talk was about technical details as to how to create your own fripost.org. So I can only encourage to run your own infrastructure and found structures that care about running ecosystem. A memorable quote he provided to underpin this appeal is attributed to Schneier: “We were safer when our email was at 10,000 ISPs than it was at 10“.

My talk went sufficiently well. I guess I preached to the choir regarding Free Software. I don’t think I needed to convince the people that Free Software is a good thing. As for convincing the audience that GNOME is a good thing, I think I faced a big challenge. Some of the attendees didn’t seem to be very enthusiastic about their desktop which is great. But some others were more in the, what I would call, old school category using lynx, xautoscreenlock, and all that stuff from the 90s. Anyway, we had a great session with many questions from the audience such that I couldn’t even go through my slides.

I had a lightning talk about signing OpenPGP keys using GNOME Keysign. I probably need to write up a separate blog post for that. In short, I mentioned that short key IDs are evil, but that long key IDs are also problematic. Actually, using keyservers is inherently problematic and should be avoided. To do so, I showed how I transfer a key securely and sign it following best practices (thanks to Andrei for an initial version!). Bastian was nice enough to do the demo with me. We needed to cheat a little though, as currently, they key is transferred using the WiFi network you are on. The WiFi, however, didn’t allow us to create a TCP connection to each other. We thus opened a WiFi hotspot and used that. I think this would be a useful feature.

The last talk of the conference was given by Hans Lysglimt from Norway. He is, among other things, a politician, an activist, and an entrepreneur who founded an email service. His runbox has around 1000000 accounts and 30000 paid subscriptions, so it’s fairly big, compared to Fripost at least. Again, running email services myself, I found it interesting to listen to the stories he had to tell. His story was that he received a gag order for running his commercial email service provider. It remained unclear whether it was send because of his interview with Julian Assange or not.

Interestingly, he didn’t seem to have received many correct subpoenas in the sense that they were Norwegian court orders. However, in one case the American authorities went through the Norwegian legal system which he found funny in itself because the two legal system were not very similar. He eventually mentioned that every email service provider has at least one gag order, either an implicit or and explicit one. Ultimately, he concluded that you cannot trust a corporation.

FSCONS is an interesting event. Their manifesto is certainly impressive. I am glad to have visited and I am looking forward to visiting again. It is very atmospheric, very relaxed, and friendly. A very nice place to be.

mrmcd14 in Darmstadt – DOM-based XSS

After last year’s fabulous event, I was really looking forward to this year’s mrmcd in Darmstadt, Germany. It outgrew last year’s edition and had probably around 250 to 300 people attending. Maybe even more. In fact, 450 clients generated 423 GB traffic during the conference which lasted 60 hours or so. That’s around 2MB/s. That’s megabytes. Per second. Every second. I find that quite impressive. Especially as the outdoor area was very inviting to just hang around, grab a beer, and chat to your fellow hackers. So some people must have had an amazing demand of … updates…

This year’s theme was construction sites. As IT, and especially security, is a major, never ending, and dangerous construction site. It was well done, with a lot of warning tape, the people wearing helmets, hi-vis vests, some security boots, etc. Although it couldn’t excel last year’s aviation theme, but the watermark was set extremely high. Anyway, the speakers received cool gadgets, like a tool set, a level, and other very well done gadgets. The talks were opened by Unicorn who, as you can see, was wearing proper safety gear. We were given instructions as to how to behave in case of fire, flood, or lack of alcohol. A nifty feature of this event is the availability of carbo hydrates in form of various food stuffs. It’s very cool to always being able to walk up to the buffet and fill up energy reserves.

The keynote was involuntarily given by dodger who did not miss the opportunity to show us various constructions sites, such as the Utah Data Center. Ultimately, (now I am maybe over interpreting things), it’s also hackers like us who make those possible. We usually decide for ourselves where to go and what to do. It was a good round-up on how we as a community work or should work. Also with some political references which I think is important as I have the feeling that many people lose that focus too easily.

An interesting series of talks was given by Ange Albertini, who first presented the PDF file format. It was interesting to see how the format actually looks like. I knew already a little but I’ve never really cared about the details. This was a very interesting and visually appealing talk. Pretty much like his other presentations which were again on file formats and on crypto.

My own talk was scheduled after the second night. I was positively surprised to see a half-filled room on a Sunday morning, after two nights of demanding partying… Anyway, I had an interested crowd which I think I could entertain. You can find my slides here. I was talking on DOM-based Cross-site Scripting. I presented a modified Chrome browser which is able to stop all identified DOM-based XSSs. I will need a separate post to cover the details. As a brief summary: Both WebKit and V8 were modified to track taint, that is, to annotate strings with the information of the source. Such a source could be the document.URL or the window.name. This taint information is evaluated whenever it is about to be compiled to code. The simple approach of blocking every tainted string to compile is not followed as it breaks the Web. Instead, the compiler will notice which token is about to be generated and only allow generation if and only if the string is untainted or of a data type (String, Boolean, Number). If the tainted token is, for example, function call, assignment or pretty much anything else, then it is replaced with an illegal token in order to abort compilation. There is a video of the talk here:

As we are on videos, the video team is just plainly amazing. It released videos of the event pretty much after they finished. And in a quality that is hard to excel. You check the videos of this conference, but also others. You may find some gems that are well worth watching. Be aware though, some talks are also very much on the vapor-ware side of things… I guess I don’t need to point to specific talks as it should be easy to identify…

I am already looking forward to next year’s event. The watermark has, again, been set high and I expect the next year to be able to raise that bar. But I hope it will be able to stay small enough to not lose the cosy and comfy feeling. Maybe I shouldn’t blog about that fantastic event to not generate too much attention ;-)

LibreOffice Con in Bern, Switzerland

I was invited to give a talk in Bern, Switzerland, for the LibreOffice Conference. The LibreOffice people are a nice crowd with diverse backgrounds. I talked to design people, coders doing rather low-level GL things, marketing folks, some being new to Free Software, and to some being old farts. It sounds like a lot of people and one is inclined to think of boat loads of people attending the conference when having the community statistics in mind. But it has been a very cosy event, with less than a hundred people. I found that surprising, but not necessarily in a bad way.

I couldn’t make it to many talks, because the conference took place on week days. But judging from the schedule there were many interesting talks. The only thing I didn’t like about the schedule was the weird formatting. Seriously, who makes the track’s name more visible than the talk’s title..? Also grouping by room and not by time is a bit weird.

Anyway, my talk went well although it was in the first slot after the free beer party ;-) You can find my slides in the collection. I was talking about GNOME in general, but with a twist for those who migrate from proprietary software to Free Software. I hope I could convey that the GNOME desktop might be a viable alternative to proprietary products.

As this was a great, comfortable conference, I’m looking forward to visiting next year’s event.

Attending the DANTE Tagung in Karlsruhe

Much to my surprise, the DANTE Tagung took place in Karlsruhe, Germany. It appears to be the main gathering of the LaTeX (and related) community.

Besides pub-based events in the evenings, they also had talks. I knew some people on the program by name and was eager to finally see them IRL. One of those was Markus Kohm, from the KOMAScript fame. He went on to present new or less used features. One of those was scrlayer which is capable of adding layers to a page, i.e. background or foreground layers. So you can add, e.g. a logo or a document version to every page, more or less like this:

DeclareNewLayer[{
    background,
    topmargin,
    contents={\hfill
        \includegraphics[width=3cm, heigth=2cm]
                                  {example-image}
}%
}[{Logo}
\AddLayersToPageStyle{@everystyle@}{Logo}

You could do that with fancyhead, but then you’d only get the logo depending on your page style. The scrlayer solution will be applied always. And it’s more KOMAesque, I guess.

The next talk I attended was given by Uwe Ziegenhagen on new or exciting CTAN packages.
Among the packages he presented was ctable. It can be used to type-set tables and figures. It uses a favourite package of mine, tabularx. The main advantage seems to be to be able to use footnotes which is otherwise hard to achieve.

He also presented easy-todo which provides “to-do notes through­out a doc­u­ment, and will pro­vide an in­dex of things to do”. I usually use todonotes which seems similar enough so I don’t really plan on changing that. The differences seem to be that easy-todo offer more fine grained control over what goes into a list of todos to be printed out.

The flowchart package seems to allow drawing flowcharts with TikZ more easily, especially following “IBM Flowcharting Template”. The flowcharts I drew so far were easy enough and I don’t think this package would have helped me, but it is certain that the whole process of drawing with TikZ needs to be made much easier…

Herbert Voß went on to talk about ConTeXt, which I had already discovered, but was pleased by. From my naïve understanding, it is a “different” macro set for the TeX engine. So it’s not PDFTeX, LuaLaTeX, or XeTeX, but ConTeXt. It is distributed with your favourite TeXLive distribution, so it should be deployed on quite a few installations. However, the best way to get ConTeXt, he said, was to fire up the following command:

rsync -rlpt rsync://contextgarden.net/minimals/setup/.../bin .

wow. rsync. For binary software distribution. Is that the pinnacle of apps? In 2014? Rsync?! What is this? 1997? Quite an effective method, but I doubt it’s the most efficient. Let alone security wise.

Overall, ConTeXt is described as being a bit of an alien in the TeX world. The relationship with TeXLive is complicated, at best, and conventions are not congruent which causes a multitude of complications when trying to install, run, extend, or maintain both LaTeX and ConTeXt.


The next gathering will take place in the very north of Germany. A lovely place, but I doubt that I’ll be attending. The crowd is nice, but it probably won’t be interesting for me, talk-wise. I attribute that party to my inability to enjoy coding TeX or LaTeX, but also to the arrogance I felt from the community. For example, people were mocking use cases people had, disregarding them as being irrelevant. So you might not be able to talk TeX with those people, but they are nice, anyway.

GUADEC 2014 in Strasbourg

This year, GUADEC took place in the lovely Strasbourg in France. It was really nice to attend the conference and to hang around with people who care about Free Software. In fact, the venue itself ran Debian which was nice to see :-)

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend many of the great talks as I wasn’t available for all days. And when I was, I was busy meeting people. Although it felt smaller than the last GUADEC, I think I’ve never met so many people who I wanted to talk to.

The conference offered a two-track program. Interestingly many of them looking out for a future of GNOME. John Stowers gave one of the more important talks, I think. He was describing the situation in academia. Python is very popular in the scientific computing space, he said. He was not satisfied with JavaScript being the new “default” language for GNOME applications, because the contestants are numerous and powerful. So we would compete at least against the Web and Qt. The former apparently being nice on other platforms such as Windows. GNOME’s bindings, however, were very good, he said. The technological foundation is excellent and we should leverage that potential and make people use it. However, GNOME’s story on Windows is not all too good, he said. GTK+ is becoming more and more irrelevant and even Wx appears to be as popular as Gtk. I also heard others claiming that the Windows situation is a problem. What I don’t understand is whether there are technical problems blocking easy to use ports. Apparently introspected GNOME libraries for Pyhon on Windows exist, but I don’t understand why that doesn’t do the job.

Another talk related to the future of GNOME was given byAllan Day. In order for GNOME to be successful, amongst other things, a focus on quality must be established, he said. Various ways to improve the current release process were mentioned and the audience engaged in a vivid discussion. I don’t remember the detail so I hope this will be followed up and discussed more broadly in the GNOME community.

“Why do we do desktop”, asked Matthew Garrett in his presentation. When I read that title for the first time I thought the question of the desktop becoming irrelevant was being picked up. But that was not the case. Instead, he wanted GNOME to differentiate from the existing desktops which, as he claimed, are continuing to be simple multiplexors for running several programs (such as clocks) at the same time. In contrast to existing desktop, GNOME should become the secure desktop. Other desktops, he said, would only exist in order to sell more things to the user, i.e. to tie the user to an existing ecosystem. An advantage of GNOME is it being free from corporate control. Decisions are made very transparently which enables it to focus on brining privacy and security to the user. Even if the user is not aligned with our core values and principles. As such, every user deserves as much privacy and security as we can possible provide.

Many thanks to the local team for having organised the conference. I hope next year in Gothenburg will be at least as good.

Sponsored by GNOME!

GPN 2014 in Karlsruhe

The Gulash Programmier Nacht (GPN) took place in Karlsruhe, Germany. The local subsidiary of the Chaos Computer Club organised that event, which apparently took place for the 14th time. So far, I wasn’t able to attend, but this time I made it.

It’s a 200 to 300 people event, focussed at hacking, making, and talks around that. It’s very cosy and somewhat similar to the mrmcds. Most of the talks were held in German, a few in English, but I think that could easily change if there is a demand.

The conference was keynoted by tante, who talked about the political aspects of code and the responsibility every developer has. It was good to hear someone saying that you do create reality for people with the software you write and that you are indeed responsible for the view on the world the users of your software have. There were a few other interesting thoughts and I think I agree with the results of the analysis conducted to a great extent. But I think a few areas are not well covered. For example, he said that you limit the people with your software. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. If you provide your users with enough freedoms, i.e. by choosing a Free Software license, than I don’t think his argument is valid anymore.

On the more funny side, a chemist taught us about chemistry based on the stories of Walter White. It was a funny talk with many interludes of the TV series. She explained what the people in the episodes were doing and how close that is to reality. Turns out, it is quite close and at least stupid mistakes were not done.

We also learned about Perl 6. If you think Perl is ugly, he said, it’s not modern Perl. The new and shiny Perl 6 allows you to write short code while looking nice, he said. He showed some features that make it easy to write command line tools. You can simply declare an argument to your main function and Perl would expose that to the user, e.g. by presenting a help screen. It would also detect the types provided and do some magic fancy stuff like checking whether the provided argument is an existing (or empty) file.

A very interesting talk was given on the Enigma, the German crypto machine. He showed the machine that broke the crypto and now stands in Bletchley Park. He told stories about the development and operation of that machine. Very interesting indeed. Also well done on a technical level, the slides were really well done.

I was invited to give talk on GNOME. As you can see in the video, my battery didn’t even last the full 90 minutes slot I was assigned. Something is certainly wrong, either this Linux thing or my battery. Anyway, the talk itself went very well, and it was particularly well attended for that early slot. I was also positively surprised by the audience asking many questions and while I specifically asked for flames, I didn’t get that many.

GNOME.Asia Summit 2014

I was fortunate to be able to attend this year’s GNOME Asia Summit in Beijing, China.

It was co-hosted with FUDCon, the Fedora Users and Developers Conference. We had many attendees and the venue provided good facilities to talk about Free Software and the Free Desktop.

Fudcon Beijing Logo

The venue was the Beihai University somewhat north of Beijing. Being Chinese, the building was massive in size. So we had loads of space, anyway ;-) The first day was reserved for trainings and attendees could get their feet wet with thinks like developing a GNOME application. I took part myself and was happy to learn new GNOME APIs. I think the audience was interested and I hope we could inspire a few attendees to create their next application using GNOME technologies.

I was invited to keynote the conference. It was my first time to do such a thing and I chose to give a talk that I would expect from a keynote, namely something that leads the conference and gives a vision and ideas about what to discuss during the conference. I talked on GNOME, GNOME 3, and GNOME 3.12. I tried to promote the ideas of GNOME and of Free Software. Unfortunately, I prepared for 60 minutes rather than 45, so I needed to cut off a good chunk of my talk :-/ Anyway, I am happy with how it went and especially happy with the fact that I wasn’t preaching to the choir only, as we had e.g. Fedora people in the audience, too.

We had RMS explaining Free Software to the audience and I think the people enjoyed his talking. I certainly did, although I think it doesn’t address problems we face nowadays. People have needs, as the discussion with the audience revealed. Apparently, people do want to have the functionality Facebook or Skype offers. I think that addressing these needs with the warning “you must not fall for the convenience trap” is too short sighted. We, the Free Software community, need to find better answers.

The event was full of talks and workshops from a diverse range of topics, which is a good thing for this conference. Of course, co-hosting with FUDCon helped that. The event is probably less technical than GUADEC and attendees can learn a lot from listening and talking to other people. I hope we can attract more Asian people to Free Software this way. I am not entirely sure we need to have the same setup as with GUADEC though. With GUADEC, we change the country every year. But Asia is about ten times larger than Europe. In fact, China alone is larger than all of Europe. It makes it somewhat hard for me to justify the moving around. We do need more presence in Asia, so trying to cover as much as possible might be an approach to attract more people. But I think we should investigate other approaches, such as focussing on an annual event in one location to actually create a strong Free Software location in Asia, before moving on. I wouldn’t know how to define “strong” right now, but we have absolutely no measure of success right now, anyway. That makes it a bit frustrating for me to pour money over Asia without actually seeing anything in return.

Anyway, Beijing is fun. We went to see the Great Wall and enjoyed the subway ;)

I would like to thank the organisers for having provided a great place us, the Free Software community, to spread the word about the benefits of free computing. I would also like to thank the GNOME Foundation for enabling people like me to attend the event.

Sponsored by GNOME!

[Update: Here is the recording of the talk]

LinuxTag 2014

I attended LinuxTag 2014 in Berlin. The event reinvented itself again, after it lost attraction is the recent years. We, GNOME, couldn’t even get enough volunteers to have a presence there. In Berlin. In perfect spring time. Other projects were struggling, too. For this year, they teamed up with re:publica and AndroidCon. The venue changed and the new format of the event made it more attractive and made a good number of people attend.

The venue was “Die Station“, apparently used by those Web people for their Web conference for a couple of years now. It has much more character than the expo in the west where LinuxTag used to be located. But it’s also a bit too unpolished to have a proper conference there. It’s very nice for the fair or expo part of LinuxTag, but not so nice for the conference part. The problem is the rooms. The infrastructure does not really allow for a nice conferency feeling. E.g. many plastic chair made the seats for the audience, the rooms were right next to each other and not sound proof so that you could hear the other talk from the other room. Some lecture halls were actually not really separated from the corridor, so people were walking by and making noise. As for the noise: Except for two big stages, the audio was really bad. I can’t really tell why, but I guess nobody actually tested whether the microphones would sound alright…

While I was grateful to be invited to give a talk on GNOME, I think someone in the organisation team didn’t like me ;-) The conference party started at 18:00 that day and my talk was scheduled for the last slot at 21:30. So I had to compete with the beer outside and other talks in the slot that I wanted to see myself. At least I only had very motivated people in the audience ;-)

The LinuxTag deserves its name as it’s unusually kernel focussed for a “normal user” event. As in depth kernel session do not necessarily make sense for the every day computer user, teaming up with DroidCon seemed promising. But the two events were too separated. I actually have not seen any schedule for the DroidCon. And I couldn’t find a joint schedule anywhere on the Internet nor in the venue itself. I don’t think it’s bad intentions, though. It’s probably due to lacking resources to pull it off. A big thank thank you to the organisers. I think it’s an important event that connects many people, especially those from the Industry with the Community. Keep rocking, guys.