This year’s group photo (by Aigars Mahinovs). I really like the tagline

On Sunday night I got back from Montréal, where I attended both DebCamp17 and DebConf17. It was a wonderful two weeks. All I really did was work on Debian for roughly eight hours per day, interspersed with getting to know both people I’ve been working with since I first began contributing to Debian in late 2015, and people I didn’t yet know. But this was all I really needed to be doing. There was no need to engage in distracting myself.

I enjoyed the first week more. There were sufficiently few people present that you could know at least all of their faces, and interesting-sounding talks didn’t interrupt making progress on one’s own work or unblocking other people’s work. In the second week it was great to meet people who were only present for the second week, but it felt more like regular Debian, in that I was often waiting on other people or they were waiting on me.

While I spent one morning actually writing fresh code, and I did a fair amount of pure packaging work, the majority of my time was poured into (i) Debian Policy; (ii) discussions within the Emacs team; and (iii) discussions about dgit. This was as I expected. During DebConf, it’s not that useful to seclude oneself and sufficiently reacquaint oneself with a codebase that one can start producing patches, because that can be done anywhere in the world, without everyone else around. It’s far more useful to bring different people together to get projects unblocked. I did some of that for my own work, and also tried to help other people’s, including those who weren’t able to attend the conference.

In my ordinary life, taking a step back from the methods by which I protect my PGP keys and other personal data, I can appear to myself as a paranoid extremist, or some kind of data hoarder. It was comforting to find at DebConf plenty of people who go way further than me: multiple user accounts on their laptop, with separate X servers, for tasks of different security levels; PGP keys on smartcards; refusal to sign my PGP key based on government-issued ID alone; use of Qubes OS. One thing that did surprise me was to find myself in a minority for using the GNOME desktop; I had previously assumed that most people deep in Debian development didn’t bother with tiling window managers. Turns out they are enthusiastic to talk about the trade-offs between window managers while riding the subway train back to our accommodation at midnight—who knew such people existed? I was pleased to find them. One evening, I received a tag-teamed live tutorial in using i3’s core keybindings, and the next morning GNOME seemed deeply inelegant. The insinuation began, but I was immediately embroiled in inner struggle over the fact that i3 is a very popular tiling window manager, so it wouldn’t be very cool if I were to start using it. This difficulty was compounded when I learned that the Haskell team lead still uses xmonad. The struggle continues.

I hope that I’ve been influenced by the highly non-judgemental and tolerant attitudes of the attendees of the conference. While most people at the conference were pretty ordinary—aside from wanting to talk about the details of Debian packaging and processes!—there were several people who rather visibly rejected social norms about how to present themselves. Around these people there was nothing of the usual tension. Further, in contrast with my environment as a graduate student, everyone was extremely relaxed about how everyone was spending their time. People drinking beer in the evenings were sitting at tables where other people were continuing to silently work on Debian. It is nice to have my experience in Montréal as a reference to check my own judgemental tendencies.

I came away with a lot more than a new MUA: a certainty that I want to try to get to next year’s conference; friends; a real life community behind what was hitherto mostly a hobby; a long list of tasks and the belief that I can accomplish them; a list of PGP fingerprints to sign; a new perspective on the arguments that occur on Debian mailing lists; an awareness of the risk of unconsciously manipulating other community members into getting work done.

With regard to the MUA, I should say that I did not waste a lot of DebConf time messing with its configuration. I had actually worked out a notmuch configuration some months ago, but couldn’t use it because I couldn’t figure out how to incorporate my old mail archives into its index. Fortunately notmuch’s maintainer is also on the Emacs team … he was able to confirm that the crazy solution I’d come up with was not likely to break notmuch’s operating assumptions, and so I was able to spend about half an hour copying and pasting the configuration and scripts I’d previously developed into my homedir, and then start using notmuch for the remainder of the conference. The main reason for wanting to use notmuch was to handle Debian mailing list volume more effectively than I’m able to with mutt, so I was very happy to have the opportunity to pester David with newbie questions.

Many, many thanks to all the volunteers whose efforts made DebCamp17 and DebConf17 possible.