Earlier this month, tea_cantata and I went to Helsinki, or rather the neighbouring settlement of Espoo, to attend this year's Debconf (Debian conference). I found it immensely rewarding, both technically and socially. It was also our first visit to Finland and, on the way, to Estonia.
Early in the morning we took a taxi and bus to Stansted airport and got the 6:45 flight to Tallinn. This worked out somewhat cheaper than flying to Helsinki and gave us the opportunity to see another place on the way, if briefly. We struggled with Tallinn's bus system and eventually found ourselves at the port, where we got lunch. Tallinn is evidently a favoured destination for Finnish booze cruises, as evidenced by the large number of liquor stores scattered around the port. I decided to take advantage of their low prices and bought a variety of flavoured vodkas.
We caught a ferry to Helsinki around 15:00, found some seats and a table. I took a few pictures of the view from astern, then had a nap. Once disembarked, we attempted to follow the directions we'd been given to HUT. There didn't seem to be a convenient bus running from the port, so we had to drag our suitcases about a mile to the main bus terminal (Kamppi). There we soon caught a bus in the right direction, though not before I wasted €16 on a 5-day ticket for travel within the city, which turned out to be useless for travel between Helsinki and Espoo. On the bus we met Marga and her husband, heading the same way as us.
Finally the bus arrived at our stop, the end of the line, and we followed a long chain of signs to the courtyard and dormitory that were the centre of Debconf. We met and greeted many who had arrived before us, checked in and found our room, and dragged our baggage up to it. I had brought a case full (or nearly full) of T-shirts on behalf of Debian UK (or more precisely Steve McIntyre) for sale at the conference, which I promptly passed over to him. We were too late for dinner in the canteen, so we were directed toward the "night grill" - basically a kebab van, but in a hut - where I learned the Finnish word "kasvishampurilainen" (vegeburger). Also I remembered to say "kiitos" (thank you). I think I may have hung out with the Debian UK crowd after this, but I was very tired and can't clearly remember. We got to bed around 2, setting a pattern for the rest of the conference.
The first day of the conference proper, and I was up around 8:30 to claim breakfast in the canteen (since this was sponsored and thus free of charge to me). I was surprised to find that breakfast consisted of a sandwich and a biscuit, with a choice of various kinds of milk. I mistakenly picked sour milk, which is OK but not particularly to my taste. Coffee was also available, but of appalling quality. Shortly after breakfast I made my way over to the Computer Science Department where the first talk, an introduction to the conference, was beginning.
Following this talk there was nothing I was particularly interested in until the afternoon, so I found my way to "Smökki", the hall which had become a "hack lab" for the duration of Debconf, kitted out with large amounts of networking equipment and power points. I eventually achieved wireless network connectivity despite the trials of WPA. I caught up on mail and blogs, worked a little on sgt-puzzles, and then went to lunch. Lunch was better than breakfast - nothing wonderful, but wholesome and fairly tasty. Not that I can remember what it was. I continued in much the same way after lunch, then went to Enrico Zini's talk on Debtags. It looks like Debtags will be an increasingly useful and important way of finding software within the vastness of Debian, though I think a simpler front-end might be necessary (maybe something like iTunes?).
I can't remember much else about Sunday.
Again I rose around 8:30, in time for breakfast. I spent much of the day reading and hacking in Smökki. In the afternoon I went to Andreas Barth's talk on Debian Release Management. This was quite instructive, though it's sometimes hard to understand his heavily accented and rapid English speech. After that I hacked on sgt-puzzles and finally learned how to carry out controlled package builds with pbuilder, with some help from those present. Later on there was a party, or possibly several parties, in the dormitory, resulting in much drunkenness, and worse, playing of the Chairman's game.
After breakfast I went straight to Simon Richter's talk on "Alternate approaches to package management". He had some very good ideas on how to handle dependencies better - for example comparing the costs of different ways of satisfying depdencies, and breaking circular dependencies by decomposition of some of the dependent parts - but I wonder whether they are really practical. He is continuing to work on implementing them so I suppose we shall find out in a while.
After this I was at somewhat of a loss as to what to do, so I asked a group in Smökki for something to work on, Steve McIntyre suggested I could work on an improvement to his JTE patch for mkisofs. JTE makes mkisofs generate jigdo "templates" along with the full CD images which can then be used to reconstruct the CDs by downloading packages from any mirror and then joining them together with CD metadata. This saves the need for mirrors to carry full CD images that simply duplicate the content of package files. The next step beyond JTE would be to make mkisofs lay out a filesystem and generate a template without using the full contents of files at all. This would allow layout of Debian CD images without having a local mirror of Debian, and would permit optimisation of CD layout by rapid iteration. So I got to work on that.
At some point Steve had identified what seemed to be a good restaurant in Helsinki, and came up with the idea of going there to eat reindeer. So that evening a large group of us - 19, I think, mostly from the UK - took the bus there (or in one case cycled) and invaded the restaurant. Not too surprisingly, we had to wait a while in the bar while tables were prepared for us. The wait was worth it. The meal began with a buffet of various breads, with a cheesy garlic butter, which was odd but very good. For the main course, I along with most others had reindeer steak accompanied by gravy, cranberry sauce and potatoes, which were all fantastic. For dessert I had some variety of crème brûlée, which was not quite so good; I think the kitchen was about ready to shut down and it was made in a rush.
It's late, so I'll finish this in another entry.