May 12

Penguicon 2017 Report

As always, this is my report on the things I did at Penguicon over the weekend of April 28-30, 2017. Penguicon is a huge event, with probably 500 hours of programming over all of the tracks, so joining in even a fraction of the possible activities is about the best you can do.

This was also my final year as “Track Head” for the Tech Track, a position I have held for 4 years now. I need to refocus my attention, and I think these conventions are better served by the regular infusion of new blood, so it seemed like the right time to move along. I will of course continue to attend each year, as indeed I did before becoming part of the staff, and I will be available to answer questions or provide support for my replacement.

Penguicon starts on Friday evening, and in past years I have been able to grab dinner near my office and then go up the road to Penguicon (one town over from my office). But this year I had a physical therapy appointment after work, so I was rushing around a bit. I did get to Penguicon in time to pick up a white board for the use of one of our Guests of Honor, Sumana Harihareswara. She gave a talk called Things I Wish I Had Known About Open Source in 1998.  The reference here is to when she started in Open Source software, and the lessons she had learned. I’m really glad I started my Penguicon with this talk, she was a very engaging speaker and had some valuable lessons to share.

After that I went by the Ubuntu Release Party, which was in the hotel bar, and caught up with some friends. We chatted for a while, and then I realized I was very tired between the end of a long week and the physical therapy, so I elected to go home and get a good night’s sleep to prepare for the next day.

Saturday I went back in the morning, and had a very nice breakfast at the hotel. They have a great breakfast buffet with a number of things I can actually have (a story for another day; I am diabetic). I could have raced through this to get to panels, but instead took my time, and at 11am I went to the Women in Tech panel. This was put together by Jennifer Cline from Grand Circus, a local training company that also offered several coding workshops at the event. But this panel had a couple of colleagues form Grand Circus, an entrepreneur, and someone from Google (who have a local office in Ann Arbor).  I enjoyed the discussion, and they did a great job. That was followed by a panel on Distributed Game Development: The Benefits of Open Source. The interesting (to some people) twist is that the panelists (Adina Shanholtz, Amanda Lange, Rachel White) all work for Microsoft. I know some in the Open Source community still think of Microsoft as the “Evil Empire”, but I think there is change happening, and if they want to discuss the benefits of Open Source I am happy to encourage that. These ladies did a great job, and even showed some games they had created and told us how they did it.

Then I went to a panel on Creating Webcomics: Logistical Nonsense and Shameless Self-Promotion, with Erirka Wagner and Laura Cascos. They have a comic I really like called Sidekick Girl, but this panel focused on the production issues, web hosting, etc. I then went to Marching Toward the World Brain: Chaos and Self-Organizing Networks, by Michael Grube. He gave a great talk, looking at some his own experiments, and the biggest problem I could see was the room was too small. There were more people on the floor or against the wall than were in the seats. Michael’s talk looked at network theory to see how a computer network could be decentralized and still be programmable and have goals.

Then James Valleroy made a presentation on Freedom Box, Libre Personal Server, This is a project to provide a completely open personal server, which will have its first release in Debian Stretch, and which can be run on a Raspberry Pi. I was very interested since I see a couple of needs that I have which might be met by a Free, Open Source server platform. Then at 4pm I went to panel on Ancient Egypt. That is one of the things that makes Penguicon so special, you can have all of the Technical stuff, but there is lots of other information available. This panel looked at people’s misunderstandings about Ancient Egypt, and a professor from the University of Michigan did some serious myth-busting (no, the pyramids were not grain storage facilities). Following this I went looking for the Tricorder Project Demo, but never did find it, so I instead opted for the Con Suite and some food (again, props to the Con Suite for having stuff I could eat, like fruit and vegetables).

Then it was on to Scientific Linux. This is a distro based on Red Hat that was developed at FermiLab just outside of Chicago, which is a major particle accelerator facility. they had a need for lots of computers to handle the enormous data being generated and analyze it, and turned to Linux as the solution. We had Connie Sieh, who was the founder, and Bonnie King, who took over as Team Lead when Connie retired, so this was very authoritative. Scientific Linux may have started at FermiLab, but it has spread to other facilities, and is a great resource.

I had planned to attend the panel on The Works of Miyazaki, Part 2, but the panel was canceled when the main presenter had to stay with a sick child, so I caught Karen Burnham and Bob Trembley on Space Travel Woes, with and Without Potatoes. Karen formerly worked for NASA, and Bob is with the Warren Astronomical Society, so they had some pretty good stuff to share. Then I went to the presentation All About The Tricorder Project, with Peter Jansen. This was our Hack of Honor this year at Penguicon, and Peter told us the story of how he decided to create a tricorder. This is not a medical tricorder, but it is a hand-held multi-instrument device, with things like GPS, temperature sensors, magnetic sensors, and so on. Peter explained exactly how he did it. And after htis I decided to call it a day and go home.

Sunday started out like Saturday, with a breakfast in the hotel restaurant, and then on the Astronomy 103, with Bob and Connie Trembley. This really turned into a group discussion, and I was able to recommend some podcasts and video casts that they were not aware of. Generally, this became a discussion of astrophysics and weird cosmological stuff. This was followed by Re-Dentralizing the Web, by Ed Platt. Ed looked at the problem  of social media being controlled by a few large companies, and presented alternatives, which I plan to check out, such as Mastodon, a kind of Federated alternative to Twitter. I don’t use Twitter, but I might like Mastodon.

Then it was on to Breaking Into Bots, by Gabrielle Crevecoeur. Her focus here was on creating bots that could answer questions and otherwise converse, and she demonstrated the tools she used to do this and how to to set up your bot in the cloud. I had intended to then go to another Miyazaki panel, but this too was canceled for the same reason because it had same presenter with the sick child. I hope these panels get rescheduled for next year. My wife and I love Miyazaki movies, and I was really looking forward to these panels. so without my Miyazaki fix I kind of wandered the floor and got into some conversations with other Penguicon folks.

Then at 3pm it was Closing Ceremonies time, and following that I went home. I was pretty tired (and how is it that sitting on your butt all day is so tiring?) and looking forward to relaxing a bit. But before I left the Con I made sure to purchase my pass for 2018. Penguicon gets better every year, and I want to be there to see what the next team comes up with.