Tuesday, October 22, 2013

CERN Openday Weekend 2013


We got tickets to the CERN openday weekend for 2013 (28/29 September) and got to see the ATLAS detector, 100m underground! I have yet to write anything of note in this post but I want it up there to remind me... Come back soon!


Oggcamp '13

Oggcamp is an unconference (aka. barcamp) about open source hardware and software and that means that it mostly involves lots of Linux and Arduino's/Raspberry Pi's. I've been to everyone so far and so we (with the wife) found ourselves trekking up to Liverpool this year again for 2013's installment.

The name "Oggcamp" comes from a combination of being a barcamp, and the "Ogg" because ogg/theora is an open-source computer audio file format with no DRM rights restrictions (not inherent in the file format/encoding, anyway) - and the organisers of the event are two (uniquely different) podcasts about Linux, or specific distributions of, that produce their shows in ogg format as well as the standard mp3 format, working together for the community (and mostly in order to share the huge effort required to put it on)!

The fact this event exists and has become a regular staple of the UK open-source scene is wonderful because its the biggest (and really, the only one worth considering that focusses on consumer/hackable product level items) in the UK and we badly needed one! Its actually been going since 2009 now, replacing LugRadio Live and always brings together some great people and technologies from all sorts of areas of the Linux/other software/hardware world. Being a barcamp means you should expect surprises about what you'll find there, and you can never be sure from one year to the next who you'll meet or what you'll see. Hobbyists and professionals (often developers, designers, artists and activists) from anywhere and everywhere - from the UK and abroad walk, train, drive, beg/share lifts, and fly, to come to Oggcamp every year.

Hardware at OggCamp was particularly dominated by the Raspberry Pi this year (now the production line has ramped up with 1000000 made), with a "Raspberry Jam"-like space, but Arduino-based devices also had their fair share of the rest, as usual, including much of the robotics on show/in play. I (re?)learnt that Nintendo Wii wired controllers wires can be straight into the Pi GPIO I2C pins (if careful) so you can use a Wii Nunchuck as a joystick for things, if suitably programmed (online examples exist, I believe). I do have to mention the Minecraft 3D printer robot crane that was set up downstairs, taking up most of the space under reception with its cord trailing down from three corners and while it wasn't quite what I expected (having not seen pictures previously), it was lots of fun to control and I had a good chat about the idea of automating building using it and the maths involved; of course the attach/detach would need to be a remotely controllable mechanism first. I gave myself a minecraft-cube hat after careful maneouvring, but failed to have a picture taken of it.

Having recently vastly improved my Lego Raspberry Pi case (with a rather fetching R-Pi logo, think but hope the Pi/Lego folk are ok about that lookalike copy of the Pi logo for personal use), I was happy to see further Lego Pi symbiosis in a (Technical Lego) remote-control car with the wifi'd-up Pi and a battery pack on the car; though a broken/dead part (was it battery related? I forget) didn't allow it to be played with when I was looking.
The home-built Tri-copter I saw whizzing around at lunch on Saturday (and then it whizzed into a lamppost, when it became a two-part-'copter :( ) was pretty awesome too - not sure I've seen a tricopter before, with all the quadcopters and single-blade RC copters/RC planes around making up most of the market it seems.

The organisers had actually hoped to run screens next each talks room from a Pi (they were random laptops last year I think) as I understand it, but the screens failed to be provided and the Pi's failed to logon the network as its an academic-provided-thing and used unusual auth/certificate settings (still not sure which/what) that some devices just couldn't cope with, or that required lots of trial and error (my Eee netbook got on ok last year at the same venue but only after several tries, but then got kicked off almost immediately). So that was a bit of an issue early on, but the huge projected talk schedule in reception on the wall above you made it much more livable-with. Especially as all the rooms for talks were only spread between two floors (ground and lower ground, or whatever they call them). Last year they were all over the place and required use of the lift/several flights of stairs to get from one end to the other; great exercise for sedentary geeks but would have been terrible without screens next to each room telling you what was on then/next in that room and others.

The talks were great as usual, and this year it felt particularly awesome at how last-minute-organised talks or sessions just happened seemingly almost out of nowhere and taught us useful and practical stuff about 1) Firefox vs. Ubuntu Touch mobile OS's (via Top-Trumps like battleing! lots of fun for us as audience! plus examples of the phones running each OS worked their way round the room so we could try them for real); and 2) Git version control (after Tobias complained in a previous talk that he didn't understand it, I said Jon 'theNiceGuy' Spriggs (CampfireManager creator, and hero) and I had had a similar chat at the party the night before (because thats what parties for geeks are like sometimesalways) and (IIRC) he'd said he would go through some of the stuff I didn't get yet on Sunday, then Popey and another lady admitted the same; cut to Jon/Lorna/Mark creating a talk on the spur of the moment to fix that, scheduled a mere 30mins(?) later in a luckily-free slot). Lorna's a very experienced, and highly competent talker as all regular OggCampers should be aware (and if not, heartily recommended to watch if you get the chance/one of them is even vaguely in your interest area) and did a great job of filling in gaps and providing another take on usage scenarios for git and the wider overview around it as well as some hyper-speed demos on-screen during the (only 30-minute) talk. Even though she definitely wasn't going to do a talk that weekend - so many thanks. But thanks lots also, to Mark and Jon for everything else in that planning & talk whirlwind. It just goes to show the power of unconference-style events!

It did feel a little quiet due to the lack of a Fab, and a few other regulars were missing too (Andy Stanford-Clark of IBM for instance who usually gives great talks, and Simon Phipps from the last couple of years who's - well, energetic and charismatic to say the least) but it never felt like the crowd was mourning their absence. There's always enough new people and different stalls that keeps the fresh and exciting vibe topped up. For instance, this year there were a couple of girls promoting their PCB manufacturing business (and breadboard?) for small-scale hobbyists or prototypers (or business plan thereof, I'm not a hardware guy so much so I didn't read the detail - feel free to comment and fill in info).

Campfire Manager, the tool developed for OggCamp some years ago but now also used at other barcamps (eg. Blackpool I believe), did its usual solid service (sorry, did I mean stolid? hmmm... I never noticed any issues though some things always break temporarily for some people). Maybe I didn't notice any problems because my smartphone (an N900 that I love and will eventually miss the hardware keyboard of, for any curious geeks reading) is currently bricked out of action and awaiting a new USB port (hopefully working for data - its a known issue with some of the early batches) for a chance to reflash it into action - if I can I'll love it even more.. So I had my wife's old blackberry backup phone, and the "Curve" really does not do the internet in a way you might expect of a wifi+2G enabled app&sync-capable "smart"phone. I just gave up and SMS-tweeted/followed instead. Bringing the netbook(an original Eee, yes the comes-with-Linux one that started the netbook market) on Sunday to try and fix this situation just meant I had more to carry around - basically I was too lazy to figure the wifi connection out again and its battery is somewhat old, reducing the time I could really keep it out of suspend mode. Of course it wouldn't tether to 2G via the Blackberry - don't be silly! (or at least not without spending out on a too-expensive app, I think - this should only be a temporary solution). Where's the win on the raffle-prize tablet when you need it?!! ;) What's that? I suddenly got your attention? Yes, the sponsors between them had donated some fantastic prizes, as always:
* 2 brand new Nexus 7 (newest model) tablets
* Kobo eReaders (that weren't Kindles because Mark pointed out how freedom-hating they are with their DRM and lock-in, so thank him for not having a Kindle if you're a winner and slightly miffed by that! Or just install an OS you prefer and tada! win! (ish) - errr. wait; is there a proper choice for eInk devices?!!).
* lots of O'Reilly techy books
* some random other (ahem...) "prizes" that Tony had bought on the way up. Pineapple chunks, anyone? (seriously! fun for everyone else not winning those though!)
* some other stuff I don't remember. Not the usual clump of Canonical clothing/accessories (like laptop bags),

There were other little compo's/give-aways too, a "decorate your swag bag" for example or basho T-shirts for anyone with anything even remotely valid to say in the Sunday raffle-cast feedback segment. I could probably have stood up and said "The" and got a T-shirt for it, they had that many to get rid of "give away". Who-the-f&*! are basho anyway? Does anyone want to type that into Google to find out? I can't be bothered. This is another pokebo... (from a few years ago) err... pokebo... err.... No, I can't remember who they were either..

With all this going on, the event (daytime talks+podcast and night-time partying) was fabulous, as always! Regarding talks, I particularly remember the automotive automation one because it taught me so much about non-google aspirations in that business (and reminded me who the hell made QNX and why it might lose favour) as well as because it was a very professionally given and clearly spoken talk; and of course the (as expected by reputation) Freaky Clown talk this year about (ahem) certain means of security testing and by inference, how to keep yourself and your tech more secure. A full auditorium - close to as many in there as for the live podcast, which is for most people a highlight of the weekend. And, given the main stage after last year's bursting side-rooms for his Image Forensics talk (so well-received it was repeated on the Sunday so more people could see it after the room overflowed on the Saturday), he didn't disappoint. I can only wish that were I to do a talk, it would be as entertaining and educating as this, and I'm sure he'll continue to improve delivery of it even further in future. Note to self: try to post on (oggcamp), and lanyrd (oggcamp)? are they the setup? for talk reviews/other stuff (you should too, if you were there).

Even the wife, who's not a geek but came to the party and of course,... lovingly supports me in my geekery - until stuck talking to too many slightly-socially-awkward less-experienced folk, or through tiredness from a hard day shopping and sightseeing - hard life eh! - oh where was I; even she had a great time in Liverpool, which was mainly accomplished by NOT staying at the Adelphi (really, avoid it) like last year, and having a pretty decent view out our windowed "Z Hotel" room and a huge Sky-enabled TV and (really) big fluffy towels. Its couples only, really, considering the wetroom position, frosted-glass wall inside the room, and limited space; but the odd combination of 2-star (no bedside telephone, no mini-bar, slightly reduced maid service I think, standard rooms don't have windows, shower was just about ok-ish and slightly odd behaviour during adjustment) and 4-star (awesome towels and nice bed, free wine and cheese (awesome "Kick Ass" cheddar cheese brand must find out more and good raisin-walnut bread too) in reception every night, and comfortable quality, if modern-minimalist, design). But this hotel review should go somewhere else (eg. tripadvisor).

The live podcast on Saturday afternoon is always a good event to finish off the day before the party and I don't think I actually feel much need to comment - listen for yourselves from their podcast-feed (I'm too lazy even to link to it!). Except to say, in summary of the weekend,...

Though comments were made on, and I still slightly miss, JonO/Aq's banter and chemistry from the LugRadio (Live) days, between the UUPC/Outlaw podcasters they make it work pretty well and the organisation of it all is due some massive respect (particularly for Dan doing the metaphorical and literal heavy-lifting to get the venue sorted). Popey does have more hair than you can make work for imagining as a modern-day JonO, and the colour is all wrong for Aq; but don't try to compare - its evolved since then. The quality and content from all the speakers and just community-based positive reinforcement, entertainment and fun levels just push your mood higher through the whole weekend, just as always. It was made even better by winning a pocket-guide to Git (chosen from available O'Reilly books at that point) in the raffle(cast), which was immediately after our hastily-produced Git talk just half an hour before! I think the ratio of prizes to tickets is always pretty favourable to winning something at these events if you spend a bit and if you're realllly lucky it might be something to change your life (just a little bit). Proof: I won my Asus Eee netbook back in 2009, the last full LugRadio Live, but I've consistently won books or other tat in the years since by spending ~£10 on tickets, give or take a few quid.

Just one Q left: WTF! happened to my custom (Bytemark provided to all attendees who rsvp'd in time) mug, with my name on it! FreakyClown had his stolen - well he did use an xkcd security-hack quote as his name so could easily be relevant to any attendee, but mine had my actual name on it. So either it broke before arriving at the venue or someone took it. Basts! (that'd be courier basts or thief basts).

Hunt for ("#"-prefix as needed) "oggcamp" on twitter/social media or see @oggcamp for more.

My filtered photos from the event will be appearing vaguely soonish on my flickr account (jgbreezer) as the OggCamp13 set.


Starship Century Symposium, London (Oct'13)

I attended my first ever astronomical conference (symposium or whatever you wanna call it) today. I've always been interested in astronomy and more recently learnt more and kept up with hopes, ideas, and plans for potential future (unlikely in our lifetime) inter-stellar travel. I regularly go to (and even organise) star party(meet) events in London(UK) - yes, we can see stuff. I also follow the very informative and interesting Centauri Dreams blog by Paul Gilster - hereafter referred to as CD.

When I read on CD. that there was a conference coming up in central London soon, particularly as most seem to happen in the USA, and it was to be the Monday after my OggCamp weekend, I thought I should use my Monday recovery-day-off and go. This was the “Starship Symposium London” (2013).

So who was there? These folk from the interplanetary/interstellar community and variously famous SF authors (in no particular order):

I didn't know quite what to expect and a couple of casual attempts at finding out more beforehand didn't get much more info so I thought I'd just turn up and find out. I was nervous that it was going to be for existing society members only and I wouldn't be allowed in - it was never made that clear. The description just said "free" (iirc, 'scuse lack of fact-checking). Thoughts like "should I dress smartly", "do I need to request permission to attend", "will I understand anyone", or "will they let me in if I'm late" (as I was hoping for a lie-in after the long weekend in Liverpool and getting back late Sunday) and so on had me uncertain.

But I needn't have worried. People were friendly and while I felt slightly in-awe of the calibre of speakers/attendees, I never felt like they were being condescending or we were spoken down to. I do think it was worth knowing some basics about interstellar research, just reading Paul's CD blog for a while should be enough on that and a regularly updated knowledge of the universe through general news and space-related articles in the press was more than enough to cope (though secondary-school(high-school equiv.?) maths was expected a couple of times), or even enough to provide input. There was good opportunity to ask questions and debate, with a joint panel from the headline talkers at the end of the day (last hour and a half) for just such desires.

At times it went almost to the joe-bloggs level of no-assumed-knowledge (some of Lord Martin's afternoon talk), but in the more specialist talks it got more technical on techniques and physics principles. Though a couple of references (mostly to journal/other scientific papers) slipped me by, I think it was generally explained (or with only optional need of detailed understanding) such that I didn't feel lacking in an astrophysics A-Level or degree. Note I'm fairly science oriented though, and do follow New Scientist and BBC Science/Technology news sections and especially space-related news, sometimes places like and NASA (when they're allowed to work!).

The speakers were mostly in suits, but the audience was a range of casual, business-wear though most of the "casual" was smart-casual with shirts, so I think I judged it about right - jeans and funky-but-smart black kinda awesome velvet-embroidered-pattern shirt, in case you were there/wondering; but that was a touch more than needed - I just get so few chances to wear those shirts :)

I enjoyed the day. I felt I was in the presence of giants, and couldn't help but feel humbled, not just by reputation but by the insight of the discussions and points raised. There was a good variety of topics discussed (talk list is currently at the official site). I made notes of just some of the quotes that came up and made me think/caught my attention, remembered as well as possible; context/my interpretation added from said notes so please excuse any inaccuracies, happy to correct if you comment/message me and I see it..:

  • Dr.Greg
    clothes are a machine
    [to help us live on this planet, when discussing how humanity has developed technology to extend our habitable zone on this planet]
  • Lord Martin [expects a]
    bumpy ride this century
    [regarding Fermi paradox, "filters" for long-lasting civilisations, ie. us surviving]
  • Dr.Greg
    maybe just the desire to expand is an oddity [specific] to us
    [and what caused the Out-of-Africa phase and every exploration since]
  • Lord Martin(or requote?) [us moving into the rest of the galaxy is a]
    post-human enterprise
    [ie. we will evolve or design ourselves away from current humanity into beings, biological or otherwise, that will be able to explore the universe with fewer & more flexible time/resource requirements]

(disclaimer: I'm not a journo, please do not requote these without checking with sources or even permission or interpretation).

I also have some photos I took through the late morning/afternoon that will be appearing on my flickr account as this set.

If you were there and felt you were part of the discussion and have a known name for yourself in this community, I'll be happy to add you if I've forgotten you, comment/write to me (comment might be better); please excuse my early day inexperience in this arena.