Last weekend I attended Oggcamp, a free unconference on the subject of technology, open source and community.

I had a fantastic time, and my head is still buzzing with ideas. Since I’ve been focussing mainly on music for the last few years, my geekier side has been somewhat dormant, modulo the occasional Perl script, but since Oggcamp I can feel it beginning to reawaken.

I was there because Dan Lynch of Rathole Radio and the Linux Outlaws podcasts, and one of the Oggcamp organisers, had asked me to give a talk about Pro Audio Production on Linux, and also to play a few songs at the party on the Saturday night. I don’t claim to be a particular expert on Linux audio as such, but since both Fit and the Conniptions albums were produced on Linux boxes, it struck me that I could easily give such a talk, so long as I stressed that all I could do was share my own non-expert knowledge and experience, and give pointers to resources for further information.

I’d hoped to prepare the talk well in advance but it wasn’t to be, and I ended up staying up until 5am the night before Oggcamp making notes. Foolishly I opted to make the notes directly into OpenOffice Writer - what was I thinking? - rather than researching the possibility of online slideshows, so I didn’t discover the excellent Slidy until too late. Slidy is the slideshow software written by Dave Raggett and used as standard by W3C people - you write your slideshow directly in HTML according to a simple format easily customisable with CSS. Upload that and bam - a full-featured slideshow for your talk capable of doing anything HTML can do, such as embedding Soundcloud widgets, say.

Here, for example, are the Slidy slides I really really should have made before Oggcamp.

My talk was scheduled for 12pm on the Saturday, which, due to various journey-related catastrophes, is also when I managed to arrive in Farnham. Fortunately, another talk was slotted in at the last minute, which turned out to be the fascinating and horrifying story of Karen Sandler of the Gnome Foundation and her experience of being fitted with a pacemaker running proprietary software; it turns out that in the US at least, there are little or no quality controls on the software being used to keep people with heart problems alive; it also turns out that Karen was the first person to query this, and the answers she received are very troubling. Bugs that cause an application to crash are one thing; bugs that could cause people to die are on a very different level. She’s given the talk before, and you can see a video of it here.

I was kindly lent a notebook for my own talk and attempted to punctuate it with a few illustrative web pages, which meant that I did that dreadful thing where the speaker pauses every five minutes to try to type in a URL on an unfamiliar machine. Ugh. Overall I was disappointed with myself for not having prepared the session as well as I should have done, but there were some interesting questions at the end and I received a certain amount of positive feedback from people.

I spent the rest of the weekend happily bumbling about talking to interesting people and attending other, better prepared sessions, highlights of which were as follows:

  • Ken Fallon’s session on Hacker Public Radio, a daily podcast focussed on the interests of that community of people who know what the word ‘hacker’ actually means, and to which I am in grave danger of contributing (apparently they want a series on music theory…); Ken also interviewed me at some point for the podcast. Which was nice.
  • Tim Dobson on the UK Pirate Party and his experience of standing for them as a candidate in the last General Election. This was both fascinating and informative. While I am more than broadly sympathetic to the aims of the Pirate Party in terms of digital freedoms, this session confirmed for me that there are still many serious problems which the party has yet to solve before I could begin to consider voting for them. Two separate people pointed out that the name ‘pirate’ has unelectably negative connotations; Tim’s suggestion that the party was ‘reclaiming’ the word ‘pirate’ seemed somewhat thin, to say the least. While the PP are very clear about their views on digital freedoms, they have yet to address the issue of ‘all other policies’, and Tim’s answer - when you vote Pirate you’ll get someone in favour of digital freedom who may have any view from extreme left to extreme right or anywhere in between on other issues - did not seem to me to be satisfactory. Finally Tim was unable to answer the simple question, ‘what are the underlying values of the Pirate Party’; I don’t think that any of these issues are Tim’s fault - I’m not sure there is an answer to them - they are all things that the PP needs to look at very hard and find proper answers to if they want to be taken seriously.
  • Christopher Gutteridge’s session on Open Data. The truth is that I actually missed this session completely but was fortunate enough to run into Christopher at lunch afterwards, who proceeded - possibly not entirely intentionally - to give me a two and half-hour personal tutorial on the subject of Open Data, RDF, SPARQL and the really great things that can be done with semantic datasets and the mixing and matching thereof, with numerous real world examples, both practical and otherwise. This was the absolute highlight of my weekend, as Christopher knows this stuff as deeply as anyone in the world, while I have been failing to get my head around the semantic web since my first encounter with it at the WWW conference in 1999; following this impromptu tutorial I felt like I was beginning to get a handle on it. Not only that, but I’m pretty sure that buried somewhere in there is a solution to a particular problem I share with basically every other musician online in terms of having to enter gigs data (and other data) seventeen times over on different listings sites for each and every gig. Thanks to Christopher I now have some ideas for solving at least part of this problem, but that is a matter for another blog post.
  • The joint live podcast by Linux Outlaws / Ubuntu UK Podcast. Essentially an hour’s worth of live talk radio recorded with a large and geeky audience, it was kept highly entertaining from beginning to end by the onstage chemistry both between each podcast team and within them. Some felt that it got ‘too political’, given the extent to which the recent riots and their aftermath was - inevitably - discussed, but I felt that precisely the right balance was struck and that it was handled extremely well.
  • Dan’s set on the Saturday night - not just a fine podcaster and event organiser, but he’s got a great voice and some excellent songs. You can hear his band, 20lb Sounds, here; his own write-up of the whole event is here.
  • Generally hanging around chatting to people - I haven’t met such a friendly, interesting and intelligent crowd in ages. I’m not going to list everyone - you know who you are - but the whole time I was there I didn’t talk to a single person who didn’t have something interesting to say, though it is more than highly possible that I got a bit drunk on Saturday night and talked a lot of bollocks - apologies to anyone who had to endure that.

In particular, I need to thank: Dan, for inviting me in the first place, for very kindly sorting me out with accommodation in the Premier Inn Aldershot and for sorting me out generally all weekend; Mark, for lending me his notebook for the talk; Andrew, for sorting out the sound during my talk and for the excellent question at the end; Marshall, for very kindly looking after my guitar and case on the Saturday night in the very crowded pub; Mike, both for buying my CD and for his own story about wrestling with Linux audio (Pulse and JACK can after all be made to co-operate sometimes, it seems); Les, for helping me sell another CD to CC Hits Jon who couldn’t be there; Kris and Gordon, for beers and fine conversation; Christopher for the impromptu RDF tutorial; everyone involved in the team of people putting the event together and everyone else who was there.

In sum, an excellent excellent weekend. +1 would do it again.

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