Ramblings of a Techno-Viking

DebConf 11 -- Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina

I'm writing this on my way back from my fifth DebConf, waiting in the Frankfurt Airport for my flight to Munich then another wait for a flight back to Los Angeles.

DebConf is the annual convention of Debian Developers and other interested in how Debian Linux (or Debian BSD) works, and want to help make it better. Debian is an international volunteer project, and Debconf is held each year in a different city, normally not on the same Continent two years in a row. Only one so far has been held in the United States, last year Debconf 10 was in New York City. (Mexico and Canada have also hosted Debconfs.)

DebConf is a week long conference, with one day designated as "Debian Day" with more introductory level talks, frequently in the local language, and local people are invited to learn about Debian. The rest of DebConf is held in English. This year had over 350 attendees from a couple of dozen countries.

Unlike most computer conferences, DebConf is free to attend. (Professional and Corporate memberships are available for those who would like to financially support DebConf.) If you apply early enough, you can request help paying for food, lodging, and travel as well, but such support is limited and you have to justify it. This is all make possible by our generous sponsors, who include some major corporations who use Debian.

This year DebConf was held in Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Bosnian bid won partially based on the generous support of the Bosnian government, not only financial and letting us use one of their buildings for the conference, but also help with getting visas and other such aid. (Visas are not required from the US or most of Europe, but they are from some other countries.)

I arrived on Saturday about 24 hours after I left home, starting with too little sleep. I actually managed to eat dinner before passing out in my hotel bed. The hotel room I had in Hotel Vidovic (accent on the c) was nicer than any I have stayed at in Europe (although I always chose by price), and the conference price was less than half what a similar room goes for at a US hotel. There was a nice breakfast buffet included in the hotel cost. (Hot omelets and sausages as well as the usual cold cuts, cheese, fruit, juice, coffee, tea, cereal, yogurt, etc.) The in-room ethernet connection worked all the time except one morning, although it was not particularly fast. The hotel is relatively new, the Lift (elevator) had a date of 2005 on it and I suspect that is when the building was constructed.

Sunday was Debian Day, and I went to a couple of sessions before deciding to take a nap in the afternoon. My nap wound up being from 3pm to after 11pm, sleeping through dinner. I was awake for an hour or so checking my email, and then slept till 4am. That was the morning I made it to breakfast before 7am. This was the first time I ate breakfast at normal breakfast hours for a full week for many years.

After breakfast Monday, I spent several hours at the front desk helping give out badges, conference bags, and t-shirts. Lunches and dinners were in the Hotel Bosna, across the street from venue. For lunches we were served soup, salad, a plate of food, and desert. For dinners there was a buffet. The food served at Bosna was fairly good, but repetitive from day to day. (I've had much worse hotel food in the US for much more money.)

Tuesday was more or less a repeat of Monday, with me opening the front desk by myself and not nearly as many new arrivals. The sessions varied of course, and I played "Debconf Experimental 5-card Mao". (Mao is a card game, popular in Cambridge and at DebConf.)

Wednesday was the Day Trip. One day at DebConf is dedicated to socializing while seeing some of the local culture of the hosting city/country. This year there was an option of rafting (with some white water) or visiting a historical monastery and hiking to a waterfall with several grain mills powered by diverted water. This is the first time I had seen one actually grinding grain. (It's mainly a historical tourist attraction, but I don't know what happens to the flour made.) We then met at the rafting location for a BBQ lunch. Apparently there was some miscommunicaiton and the rafting place was not prepared for 70 or 80 people who wished to go rafting, so some did not get to raft until after lunch, and I'm not sure all that wanted to did. Dinner was back at Bosna.

Thursday was another normal conference day, with the new wrinkle of distributing food tickets since Bosna was not willing/able to follow our instructions on who should be allowed to eat at Debconf expense. Those who wished to dine with the other Debconf attendees could purchase the tickets from the front desk, although this was not well publicised and few people took us up on it. The special "Conference Dinner" was Thursday night. This was held at a restaurant on the 14th floor of a building a few blocks away, and was a fancier buffet. There didn't seem to be much difference between the first and second course, and they ran out of desert before many people got any. This one was not as memorable as the one in Mexico, but that one was for the wrong reasons, including an unplanned indoor waterfall. After the dinner I played Mao again, this time till 2am.

Friday was the only day I did not arrive at the venue in time for the first session (10am).

Saturday I opened the front desk by myself again. In the afternoon was the "Debbugs Skills Exchange" that was requested by several people, so Collin Watson, Ian Jackson and I gave some information about it and Don Armstrong (who has done most of the recent coding on debbugs) participated via voip. (Debbugs is software for the Debian Bug Tracking System, often called the BTS.) Collin and Ian are emeritus members of the BTS team, and not active in it, while I am handling the spam filtering and haven't done much with the rest of the BTS. This was in the small "Meeting Room" (rather than the Auditorium or the round room) so we don't have to worry about video archives of it being available. (All the sessions is the two main rooms were streamed live on the internet, and will be edited and archived on http://meetings-archive.debian.net/pub/debian-meetings/2011/debconf11/.) We created a mini intro to the BTS document at that session that should be cleaned up and published. Less than two hours after that talk, the conference was over and teardown was started. As usual, the teardown and cleanup of what we had set up over several days was done is several hours, with many people helping.

Sunday was leaving day. I was one of the people on the 11am charter bus to Zagreb DebConf arranged. The two such charter busses were an excellent idea, since the normal busses and trains would not have been able to manage that many extra passengers. This actually took longer than the planned 4 hours due to the long lines at the border crossing on Sunday afternoon. Both Bosnia and Croatia check passports both coming and leaving, so it is checked on both sides of the river that is the border between the countries. The check is pretty cursory unless you are from a country that needs a visa. I then had a plane flight to Frankfurt, and am currently in the middle of my 11 hour layover here. After that I fly to Munich early in the morning, have an 8 hour layover, and fly to Los Angeles. This schedule was in order to get flights at something resembling reasonable cost when I did it.

From what I saw of Banja Luka, it's a nice place to visit, although most of the people do not speak English. Vegetarians may have a hard time finding meals, and sometimes they try to serve fish to them. (Assuming vegetarian means "no meat".) Transportation to Banja Luka is a bit hard, there are only six or so flights per week to the local airport, and one of the airlines is not on the international ticket sites. Most DebConf attendees flew to Zagreb then took busses, trains, vans, or taxis to Banja Luka (a 2.5-5 hour ride depending on border lines, road construction, etc.). The weather was rainy off and on throughout Debconf, but the day of the Day trip the rain held off until most of us were back and we had a lovely day. Temperatures were warm but not overly hot, and I never needed my jacket.

There are many large alarm clocks in Banja Luka, (such as the one pictured here, across the street from the venue) but there doesn't seem to be a way to change the time setting or put them on snooze.