This week I’m at linux.conf.au, the southern hemisphere’s premier open-source conference. This year it is being held in Ballarat, about an hour’s travel from Melbourne. I’ll be documenting the trip and conference as much as I can given the limits of my enthusiasm and awakeness.
Thursday 19th January:
The morning started off with a keynote from Karen Sandler, Executive Director of the GNOME Foundation. This was a fascinating talk about the dangers behind having proprietary computer systems running our essential services, the things we rely on every day for our modern society. Her biggest example (and an amazingly powerful one) is the pacemaker that runs her heart (or gives it a jolt if it stops, at least). Attackers could quite easily crack into some of the modern pacemakers via the wireless signal they emit, and cause all kinds of damage (like giving a shock when it’s not needed, or failing to give one when it is). In addition, there are all other kinds of things we rely on (voting machines, car control software, etc.) that are closed source and pose a risk to us because of this. So basically it was about how we really need to move to open source systems to make the world a better place, not just because of reliability or business reasons.
Between morning tea and lunch I viewed included a tutorial on setting up a Linux HA cluster using pacemaker (with an example MySQL set-up) which I learned a lot from. I’m going to have to try out the techniques at home more, and see if I can apply them to my systems. I’m not sure how well these practises will work over wide-area networks though, as they’re primarily designed for LANs (as Michael Wheeler said to me, “It’s not redundant until it’s geographically redundant.”).
After lunch was another tutorial, this time on the basics of computer security. There are some crazy things you can do to try and break into a computer. I finally understand how buffer overflows work, and what can be done to prevent them (quite a lot, actually). Breaking into encryption was another strong topic. You can measure how much power a CPU is using to figure out whether it’s doing add or multiply, and things like that. But basically what you really need to do is maintain a much higher consideration of security while coding than you did before, and I hope this tutorial will help me achieve that.
After afternoon tea (during which I consumed a suspiciously large quantity of fruit… I must be craving healthy food) it was time for the talk given by my friend Chris and his friend Paris, titled “Android is not vi”. It’s probably the funniest talk I’ve seen the entire conference, and several delegates have mentioned it wouldn’t be out of place in a comedy routine. The talk was mostly about making the user experience on Android better, but with a surprise ending: the general principles apply to pretty much any user experience design, because they’re all the same. Not making the user think is pretty much the key.
Then of course, Thursday night means the Penguin dinner. This is the opportunity for the speeches and the presentation of the Rusty Wrench award, named after Rusty Russell who started running the conference back in 1999. This year it was given to Mary Gardiner for her services to the Ada Initiative, amongst other things. This is very well deserved too, as there is a nearly 20% female attendance rate at LCA this year. The meal at the dinner was also excellent. I had a pork salad starter, the chicken thigh main, and then an amazing mango cake dessert (pictured). After dinner, we received a speech by Senator Scott Ludlam on the surveillance state that Australia is turning into. 250000+ people have had some sort of police surveillance performed on them in Australia last year. Scary stuff, and I think it will only become scarier once we have heard what Jacob Appelbaum has to say in his keynote tomorrow morning. All in all, a great event.