My Debian Activities in May 2012

This is my monthly summary of my Debian related activities. If you’re among the people who made a donation to support my work (338.26 €, thanks everybody!), then you can learn how I spent your money. Otherwise it’s just an interesting status update on my various projects.

Dpkg

Like last month, I did almost nothing concerning dpkg. This will probably change in June now that the book is out…

The only thing worth noting is that I have helped Carey Underwood who was trying to diagnose why btrfs was performing so badly when unpacking Debian packages (compared to ext4). Apparently this already resulted in some btrfs improvements.

But not as much as what could be hoped. The sync_file_range() calls that dpkg are doing only force the writeback of the underlying data and not of the meta-data. So the numerous fsync() that follow still create many journal transactions that would be better handled as one big transaction. As a proof of this, replacing the fsync() with a sync() brings the performance on par with ext4.

(Beware this is my own recollection of the discussion, while it should be close to the truth, it’s probably not 100% accurate when speaking of the brtfs behaviour)

Packaging

I uploaded new versions of smarty-gettext and smarty-validate because they were uninstallable after the removal of smarty. The whole history of smarty in Debian/Ubuntu has been a big FAIL since the start.

Once upon a time, there was a smarty package and some plugins. Everything was great except that the files were installed in a way that differs from the upstream recommendations. So Ubuntu changed the path in their version of the package and did not check whether it broke anything else (and it did break all the plugins). Despite the brokenness of the plugins, this divergence survived for years. So several packages that were using Smarty were modified to use dpkg-vendor to use the correct path depending on whether it was built on Debian or Ubuntu.

In 2010, Smarty 3.0 has been released and instead of upgrading the smarty package to this version, one of the smarty co-maintainers introduced a smarty3 package that used yet another path (despite the fact that smarty 3 had a mode to be compatible with smarty 2).
At some point, I informed him that he had to handle the migration of users of smarty to smarty3… he acknowledged and then lost interest in smarty (“I’m no longer using it”) and did nothing.

After some more bitrot, smarty has been forcefully orphaned in August 2011 by a member of the security team. And in March this year, it has been removed from unstable despite the fact that it still had reverse dependencies (usually removals only happen when they impact no other packages, I don’t know why this wasn’t the case here).

At least the brokenness attracted some attention to the situation and Mike Gabriel contacted me about it. I offered him to take over the various packages since they all needed a real maintainer and he accepted. I sponsored his uploads of all smarty related packages (bringing in the latest upstream versions at the same time).

In the end, the situation is looking better now, except that there’s no migration path from users who rely on smarty in Squeeze. They will discover that they need smarty3 in Wheezy and that the various paths have to be adjusted. It’s probably acceptable since the new upstream versions are no longer backwards compatible with smarty 2…

The Debian Administrator’s Handbook

At the start of the month, I was busy preparing the release of the book. I introduced the publican-debian package to unstable, it’s a Publican brand (aka a set of CSS and XSL stylesheets to tailor the output of Publican) using the Debian colors and using the Debian logo. This brand is used by the book.

I also created the debian-handbook package and setup the public Git repository on alioth.debian.org.

I was ready or so I thought. A few hours after the announce, the website became unusable because the numerous visitors were exhausting the maximum number of client connections. And I could not increase the limit due to Apache’s memory usage (with PHP and WordPress). We quickly off-loaded most of the static files traffic to another machine and we setup bittorrent. The problem was solved for the short term. Thousands of persons downloaded the ebook and to this date, 135 copies of the paperback have been sold.

Then I took a one-week vacation. Even though I had no Internet at the place I was, I wandered in the street to find a “Freewifi” wifi network (customers of the Free ISP can use those freely) to stay on top of incoming email. We quickly received some bug reports and I dealt with the easy ones (typos and the like) on the fly.

When I came back at home, I manually placed 54 lulu orders for the people who opted for the paperback as reward during the fundraising campaign. A bit tedious but it had to be done (if only Lulu supported a way to batch many orders at once…).

I also wanted a long term solution to avoid the use of an external host to serve static files (should a new traffic spike arrive…). So I installed nginx as a front-end. It serves static files directly, as well as WordPress pages which have been cached by wp-super-cache. Apache is still here listening on a local port and responding to the remaining queries forwarded by nginx. Once I’ll migrate to wheezy, I might completely ditch apache in favor of php5-fpm to handle the PHP pages.

Last but not least, I wanted to bootstrap the various translations that people offered to contribute. I wrote some documentation for interested translators and blogged about it. It’s shaping up nicely… check it out if you’re interested to help!

Thanks

See you next month for a new summary of my activities.

The Debian Administrator’s Handbook is available

The Debian Administrator's Handbook CoverI am so glad that we managed to complete this project. Roland and I have spent countless hours on this book since December, both for the translation itself and also for all the things that we tend to forget: a nice book cover, a great book layout for the print version, coordinating the work of reviewers, registering as an editor to get an ISBN, etc. I think I will come back to this in a future article because some parts of the story are interesting.

In the mean time, enjoy the DFSG-free Debian Administrator’s Handbook:

  • get it from unstable with apt-get install debian-handbook;
  • browse the online version;
  • get the paperback or the ebook (available as PDF, EPUB, MOBI);
  • grab the sources with git clone git://anonscm.debian.org/debian-handbook/debian-handbook.git and contribute a translation :-)

Check out the official announce (there’s a discount for early buyers of the paperback).

My Debian Activities in April 2012

This is my monthly summary of my Debian related activities. If you’re among the people who made a donation to support my work (186.38 €, thanks everybody!), then you can learn how I spent your money. Otherwise it’s just an interesting status update on my various projects.

Dpkg News

For the first time since several years, there has been a dpkg release (1.16.3) where the changelog doesn’t contain any entry of my own. The 3-4 commits I did were not really worthy of a changelog entry. I must admit that it was easy to put dpkg aside given Guillem’s message and given how busy I have been with my other projects.

Keeping a low-profile for a while certainly doesn’t hurt. But I don’t intend to stop contributing to dpkg. Quite on the contrary in fact, it’s something that I (usually) enjoy doing.

Packaging News

I packaged a new upstream release of SQL-Ledger (3.0.0) and later in the month I sponsored the upload of LedgerSMB, a fork of SQL-Ledger which — unlike the former — is maintained like a typical free software project.

I also uploaded version 0.56 of Zim and updated WordPress to version 3.3.2 with its slew of security fixes.

The Debian Administrator’s Handbook

Like several months now, most of my time has been directed towards the Debian Administrator’s Handbook. The big news is that the liberation fund has been completed… this means that the book will be published under DFSG-free licenses from the start (GPL-2+ / CC-BY-SA 3.0).

We hope to publish the book next week (i.e. between May 7th and May 11th). The PDF output for the printed book is almost ready. There’s some work left for the HTML/EPUB output and we have to prepare for the release of the sources as well…

Hopefully everything will work out like planned. Stay tuned!

Thanks

See you next month for a new summary of my activities.

People behind Debian: Samuel Thibault, working on accessibility and the Hurd

Samuel Thibault is a French guy like me, but it took years until we met. He tends to keep a low profile, even though he’s doing lots of good work that deserves to be mentioned.

He focuses on improving Debian’s accessibility and contributes to the Hurd. Who said he’s a dreamer? :-) Checkout his interview to have some news of Wheezy’s status on those topics.

Raphael: Who are you?

Samuel: I am 30 years old, and live in Bordeaux, France. During the workday, I teach Computer Science (Architecture, Networking, Operating Systems, and Parallel Programming, roughly) at the University of Bordeaux, and conduct researches in heterogeneous parallel computing. During the evening, I play the drums and the trombone in various orchestra (harmonic/symphonic/banda/brass). During the night, I hack on whatever fun things I can find, mainly accessibility and the Hurd at the moment, but also miscellaneous bits such as the Linux console support. I am also involved in the development of Aquilenet, an associative ISP around Bordeaux, and getting involved in the development of the network infrastructure in Bordeaux. I am not practicing Judo any more, but I roller-skate to work, and I like hiking in the mountains. I also read quite a few mangas. Saturday mornings do not exist in my schedule (Sunday mornings do, it’s Brass Band rehearsal :)).

Raphael: How did you start contributing to Debian?

Samuel: Bit by bit.

I have been hacking around GNU/Linux since around 1998. I installed my first Debian system around 2000, as a replacement for my old Mandrake installation (which after all my tinkering was actually no longer looking like a Mandrake system any more!). That was Potato at the time, which somebody offered me through a set of CDs (downloading packages over the Internet was unthinkable at the time with the old modems). I have been happily reading and hacking around documentation, source code, etc. provided on them. Contribution things really started to take off when I went to the ENS Lyon high school in 2001: broadband Internet access in one’s own student room! Since sending a mail was then really free, I started submitting bugs against various packages I was using. Right after that I started submitting patches along them, and then patches to other bugs. I did that for a long time actually. I had very little knowledge of all packaging details at the time, I was just a happy hacker submitting reports and patches against the upstream source code.

At ENS Lyon, I met a blind colleague with very similar hacking tastes (of course we got friends) and he proposed me, for our student project, to work on a “brlnet” project (now called brlapi), a client/server protocol that lets applications render text on braille devices themselves. Along the way, I got to learn in details how a blind person can use a Unix system and the principles that should be followed when developing Accessibility. That is how I got involved in it. We presented our project at JDLL, and the Hurd booth happened to be next to our table, so I discussed with the Hurd people there about how the Hurd console could be used through braille. That is how I got into the Hurd too. From then on, I progressively contributed more and more to the upstream parts of both accessibility software and the Hurd. And then to the packaging part of them. Through patches in bug reports first, as usual, as well as through discussions on the mailing lists. But quickly enough people gave me commit access so I could just throw the code in. I was also given control over the Hurd buildds to keep them running.

It was all good at that stage: I could contribute in all the parts I was caring about. People however started telling me that I should just apply for being a Debian Developer; both from accessibility and Hurd sides. I had also seen a bunch of my friends going through the process. I was however a bit scared (or probably it was just an excuse) by having to manage a gpg key, it seemed like a quite dangerous tool to me (even if I already had commit access to glibc at the time anyway…). I eventually applied for DM in 2008 so as to at least be able to upload some packages to help the little manpower of the Accessibility and Hurd teams. Henceforth I had already a gpg key, thus no excuse any more. And having it in the DM keyring was not enough for e.g. signing the hurd-i386 buildd packages. So I ended up going through NM in 2009, which went very fast, since I had already been contributing to Debian and learning all the needed stuff for almost 10 years! I now have around 50 packages in my QA page, and being a DD is actually useful for my work, to easily push our software to the masses :)

So to sum it up, the Debian project is very easy to contribute to and open to new people. It was used during discussions at the GNU Hackers Meeting 2011 as an example of a very open community with public mailing lists and discussions. The mere fact that anybody can take the initiative of manipulating the BTS (if not scared by the commands) without having to ask anybody is an excellent thing to welcome contributions; it is notable tha the GNU project migrated to the Debbugs BTS. More generally, I don’t really see the DD status as a must, especially now that we have the DM status (which is still a very good way to drag people into becoming DDs). For instance, I gave a talk at FOSDEM 2008 about the state of accessibility in Debian. People did not care whom I was, they cared that there was important stuff going on and somebody talking about it. More generally, decisions that are made through a vote are actually very rare. Most of the time, things just happen on the mailing lists or IRC channels where anybody can join the discussion.

So I would recommend beginners to first use the software, then start reporting bugs, then start digging in the software to try fix the bugs by oneself, eventually propose patches, get them reviewed. At some point the submitted patches will be correct already most of the time. That’s when the maintainers will start getting bored of just applying the patches, and simply provide with commit access, and voilà, one has become a main contributor.

Raphael: You’re one of the main contributors to the Debian GNU/Hurd port. What motivates you in this project?

Samuel: As I mentioned above, I first got real contact with the Hurd from the accessibility point of view. That initially brought me into the Hurd console, which uses a flexible design and nice interfaces to interact with it. The Hurd driver for console accessibility is actually very straightforward, way simpler than the Windows or Linux drivers. That is what caught me initially. I have continued working on it for several reasons.

First, the design is really interesting for users. There are many things that are natural in the Hurd while Linux is still struggling to achieve them, such as UID isolation, recently mentioned in LWN. What I really like in the Hurd is that it excels at providing users with the same features as the administrator’s. For instance, I find it annoying that I still can not mount an ISO image that I build on e.g. ries.debian.org. Linux now has FUSE which is supposed to permit that, but I have never seen it enabled on an ssh-accessible machine, only on desktop machines, and usually just because the administrator happens to be the user of the machine (who could as well just have used sudo…) For me, it is actually Freedom #0 of Free Software: let the user run programs for any purpose, that is, combining things together all the possible ways, and not being prevented from doing some things just because the design does not permit to achieve them securely. I had the chance to give a Hurd talk to explain that at GHM 2011, whose main topic was “extensibility”, I called it GNU/Hurd AKA Extensibility from the Ground, because the design of the Hurd is basically meant for extensibility, and does not care whether it is done by root or a mere user. All the tools that root uses to build a GNU/Hurd system can be used by the user to build its own GNU/Hurd environment. That is guaranteed by the design itself: the libc asks for things not to the kernel, but to servers (called translators), which can be provided by root, or by the user. It is interesting to see that it is actually also tried with varying success in GNU/Linux, through gvfs or Plash. An example of things I love being able to do is:

$ zgrep foo ~/ftp://cdn.debian.net/debian/dists/sid/main/Contents-*.gz

On my Hurd box, the ~/ftp: directory is indeed actually served by an ftpfs translator, run under my user uid, which is thus completely harmless to the system.

Secondly and not the least, the Hurd provides me with interesting yet not too hard challenges. LWN confirmed several times that the Linux kernel has become very difficult to significantly contribute to, so it is no real hacking fun any more. I have notably implemented TLS support in the Hurd and the Xen and 64bit support in the GNU Mach kernel used by the Hurd. All three were very interesting to do, but were already done for Linux (at least for all the architectures which I actually know a bit and own). It happens that both TLS and Xen hacking experience became actually useful later on: I implemented TLS in the threading library of our research team, and the Xen port was a quite interesting line on my CV for getting a postdoc position at XenSource :)

Lastly, I would say that I am used to lost causes :) My work on accessibility is sometimes a real struggle, so the Hurd is almost a kind of relief. It is famous for his vapourware reputation anyway, and so it is fun to just try to contribute to it nevertheless. An interesting thing is that the opinion of people on the Hurd is often quite extreme, and only rarely neutral. Some will say it is pure vapourware, while others will say that it is the hope of humanity (yes we do see those coming to #hurd, and they are not always just trolls!). When I published a 0.401 version on 2011 April 1st, the comments of people were very diverse, and some even went as far as saying that it was horrible of us to make a joke about the promised software :)

Raphael: The FTPmasters want to demote the Hurd port to the debian-ports.org archive if it doesn’t manage a stable release with wheezy. We’re now at 2 months of the freeze. How far are you from being “releasable”?

Samuel: Of course, I can not speak for the Debian Release team. The current progress is however encouraging. During Debconf11, Michael Banck and I discussed with a few Debian Release team members about the kind of goals that should be achieved, and we are near completion of that part. The Debian GNU/Hurd port can almost completely be installed from the official mirrors, using the standard Debian Installer. Some patches need some polishing, but others are just waiting for being uploaded… Debian GNU/Hurd can start a graphical desktop and run office tools such as gnumeric, as well as the iceweasel graphical web browser, KDE applications thanks to Pino Toscano’s care, and GNOME application thanks to Emilio Pozuelo Monfort’s care. Of course, general textmode hacking with gcc/make/gdb/etc. just works smoothly. Thanks to recent work on ghc and ada by Svante Signell, the archive coverage has passed 76%. There was a concern about network board driver support: until recently, the GNU Mach kernel was indeed still using a glue layer to embed the Linux 2.2 or even 2.0 drivers (!). Finding a network board supported by such drivers had of course become a real challenge. Thanks to the GSoC work of Zheng Da, the DDE layer can now be used to embed Linux 2.6.32 drivers in userland translators, which was recently ACCEPTed into the archive, and thus brings way larger support for network boards. It also pushes yet more toward the Hurd design: network drivers as userland process rather than kernel modules.

That said, the freeze itself is not the final deadline. Actually, freeze periods are rests for porters, because maintainers stop bringing newer upstream versions which of course break on peculiar architectures. That will probably be helpful to continue improving the archive coverage.

Raphael: The kfreebsd port brought into light all the packages which were not portable between different kernels. Did that help the Hurd port or are the problems too different to expect any mutual benefit?

Samuel: The two ports have clearly helped each other in many aspects. The hurd-i386 port is the only non-Linux one that has been kept working (at least basically) for the past decade. That helped to make sure that all tools (dpkg, apt, toolchain, etc.) were able to cope with non-Linux ports, and keep that odd-but-why-not goal around, and evidently-enough achievable. In return, the kFreeBSD port managed to show that it was actually releasable, at least as a technological preview, thus making an example. In the daily work, we have sometimes worked hand in hand. The recent porting efforts of the Debian Installer happened roughly at the same time. When fixing some piece of code for one, the switch-case would be left for the other. When some code could be reused by the other, a mail would be sent to advise doing so, etc. In the packaging effort, it also made a lot of difference that a non-Linux port is exposed as released architecture: people attempted by themselves to fix code that is Linuxish for no real reason.

The presence of the kFreeBSD is however also sometimes a difficulty for the Hurd: in the discussions, it sometimes tends to become a target to be reached, even if the systems are not really comparable. I do not need to detail the long history of the FreeBSD kernel and the amount of people hacking on it, some of them full-time, while the Hurd has only a small handful of free-time hackers. The FreeBSD kernel stability has already seen long-term polishing, and a fair amount of the Debian software was actually already ported to the FreeBSD kernel, thanks to the big existing pure-FreeBSD hackerbase. These do not hold for the GNU/Hurd port, so the expectations should go along.

Raphael: You’re also very much involved in the Debian Accessibility team. What are the responsibilities of this team and what are you doing there?

Samuel: As you would expect it, the Debian Accessibility team works on packaging accessibility-related packages, and helping users with them; I thus do both. But the goal is way beyond just that. Actual accessibility requires integration. Ideally enough, a blind user should be able to just come to a Debian desktop system, plug his braille device, or press a shortcut to enable speech synthesis, and just use the damn computer, without having to ask the administrator to install some oddly-named package and whatnot. Just like any sighted user would do. He should be able to diagnose why his system does not boot, and at worse be able to reinstall his computer all by himself (typically at 2am…). And that is hard to achieve, because it means discussing about integration by default of accessibility features. For instance, the Debian CD images now beep during at the boot menu. That is a precious feature that has been discussed between debian-boot and debian-accessibility for a few weeks before agreeing on how to do it without too much disturbance. Similarly, my proposition of installing the desktop accessibility engines has been discussed for some time before being commited. What was however surprisingly great is that when somebody brought the topic back for discussion, non-debian-accessibility people answered themselves. This is reassuring, because it means things can be done durably in Debian.

On the installation side, our current status is that the stable Debian installer has a high contrast color theme, and several years ago, I have pushed toward making standard CD images automatically detect braille devices, which permits standalone installation. I have added to the Wheezy installer some software speech synthesis (which again brought discussion about size increase vs versatility etc.) for blind people who do not have a braille device.

I find it interesting to work on such topic in Debian rather than another distribution, because Debian is an upstream for a lot of distributions. Hopefully they just inherit our accessibility work. It at least worked for the text installer of Ubuntu.

Of course, the Accessibility team is looking for help, to maintain our current packages, but also introduce new packages from the TODO list or create some backports. One does not need to be an expert in accessibility: tools can usually be tested, at least basically, by anybody, without particular hardware (I do not own any, I contributed virtual ones to qemu). For new developments and ideas, it is strongly recommended to come and discuss on debian-accessibility, because it is easy to get on a wrong track that does not bring actual accessibility.

We still have several goals to achieve: the closest one is to just fix the transition to gnome3, which has been quite bad for accessibility so far :/ On the longer run, we should ideally reach the scenario I have detailed above: desktop accessibility available and ready to be enabled easily by default.

Raphael: What’s the biggest problem of Debian?

Samuel: Debian is famous for its heated debian-devel discussions. And some people eventually say “this no fun any more”. That is exemplified in a less extreme way in the debian-boot/accessibility discussions that I have mentioned above. Sometimes, one needs to have a real stubborn thick head to continue the discussion until finding a compromise that will be accepted for commit. That is a problem because people do not necessarily have so much patience, and will thus prefer to contribute to a project with easier acceptance. But it is also a quality: as I explained above, once it is there, it is apparently for good. The Ubuntu support of accessibility in its installer has been very diverse, in part due to quite changing codebase. The Debian Installer codebase is more in a convergence process. Its base will have almost not changed between squeeze and wheezy. That allowed the Debian Accessibility team to continue improving its accessibility support, and not have to re-do it. A wiki page explains how to test its accessibility features, and some non-debian-accessibility people do go through it.

A problem I am much more frightened by is the manpower in some core teams. The Debian Installer, grub, glibc, Xorg, gcc, mozilla derivatives, … When reading the changelogs of these, we essentially keep seeing the same very few names over and over. And when one core developer leaves, it is very often still the same names which appear again to do the work. It is hard to believe that there are a thousand DDs working on Debian. I fear that Debian does not manage to get people to work on core things. I often hear people saying that they do not even dare thinking about putting their hands inside Xorg, for instance. Xorg is complex, but it seems to me that it tends to be overrated, and a lot of people could actually help there, as well as all the teams mentioned above. And if nobody does it, who will?

Raphael: Do you have wishes for Debian Wheezy?

Samuel: That is an easy one :) Of course I wish that we manage to release the hurd-i386 port. I also wish that accessibility of gnome3 gets fixed enough to become usable again. The current state is worrying: so much has changed that the transition will be difficult for users already, the current bugs will clearly not help. I also hope to find the time to fix the qt-at-spi bridge, which should (at last!) bring complete KDE accessibility.

Raphael: Is there someone in Debian that you admire for their contributions?

Samuel: Given the concerns I expressed above, I admire all the people who do spend time on core packages, even when that is really not fun everyday. Just to alphabetically name a few people I have seen so often here and there in the areas I have touched in the last few years: Aurélien Jarno, Bastian Blank, Christian Perrier, Colin Watson, Cyril Brulebois, Frans Pop, Jörg Jaspert, Joey Hess, Josselin Mouette, Julien Cristau, Matthias Klose, Mike Hommey, Otavio Salvador, Petr Salinger, Robert Millan, Steve Langasek. Man, so many things that each of them works on! Of course this list is biased towards the parts that I touched, but people working in others core areas also deserve the same admiration.


Thank you to Samuel for the time spent answering my questions. I hope you enjoyed reading his answers as I did. Note that older interviews are indexed on wiki.debian.org/PeopleBehindDebian.

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People Behind Debian: Francesca Ciceri, Member of the Debian Press & Publicity Teams

Francesca Ciceri, photo by Andrew McMillan, CC-BY-SA 2.0

I met Francesca in Debconf 11 in Banja Luka. If I recall correctly, it’s Enrico Zini who introduced me to her, because she was the “madamezou” (her IRC nickname) who started to get involved in the publicity team. Since then — and despite having a bachelor thesis to complete — she got way more involved and even gained official responsibilities in the project.

Before starting with the interview, I wanted to mention that Francesca is drafting a diversity statement for Debian… I was expecting the discussions to go nowhere but she listened to all objections and managed to improve the text and build a consensus around it. Thank you for this and keep up the good work, Francesca!

Raphaël: Who are you?

Francesca: My name is Francesca, I’m 30 and I studied Social Sciences. Currently I live in Italy but I’m planning to go abroad (not a lot of jobs here for geeky social scientists). Apart for Debian and FLOSS world in general, I have unrestrained passions for chocolate; zombie movies; sci-fi; zombie books; {knitting|sewing|crafting} and DIY in general; zombie videogames; bicycles; pulling apart objects to look inside them; splatter B movies, David Foster Wallace’s books, playing trumpet, and… did I already mentioned zombies?

Days are too short for all this stuff, but I try to do my best.

Raphael: How did you start contributing to Debian?

Francesca: Some years ago I was stuck in bed for — literally — some months, due to a grave series of migraine attacks. I wasn’t able to do anything: no social life, no books or television. So, I decided to turn on the laptop and do something constructive with it: I was already a Debian user and it seemed quite logical to me to try to give back to the community. I am not a coder and I’ve not studied Computer Science, so my first step was to join an Italian Debian on-line community (Debianizzati) and help with tutorials, users support, wiki management. In a couple of months I learnt many things: helping other users with their problems forces you to do lots of research!

My first contributions to the Debian project were mostly translations of the main website. Translators are the perfect typos spotters: they work so precisely on the text to be translated that they finish to do a great QA job. This is how I’ve started to contribute to the Debian website: with very simple things, fixing typos or wrong links or misplaced wml tags. I still remember my first commit to the website: the idea was to undercase some tags, but it ended up that I misplaced some of them and — in addition — I fixed them only in the English page and not on the translations as well. When after a couple of minutes, Kåre Thor Olsen — a long time contributor of the team and now webmaster — reverted my commit, I felt so stupid and full of shame. But, to my great surprise, no one treated me like an idiot for that error: Gerfried Fuchs, one of the guru of the team, replies me in a really helpful and polite way explaining what I did wrong and how to do things correctly. I think this episode was a turning point in my Debian life: there’s this idea that Debian Developers are just a bunch of arrogant assholes and maybe it was true in the past, but for my experience they are not. Well, at least the ones I met and work with ;).

“To my great surprise, no one treated me like an idiot for that error.”

Since then, I joined the WWW team and helped them apply the shiny new design provided by Kalle Söderman. A lot of work was done during the week immediately before the release of the new website. Oh that was a week! We worked night and day to have the new design ready for February 6th, and it was fantastic when we finally published it, simultaneously with the release of Squeeze.

At the same time, I started to contribute more actively to the Debian Publicity team, not only translating news but also writing them. It can sound scary for a non native English speaker to write something from scratch in English, but you have to keep in mind that your text will be reviewed by native speakers before being published. And we have some fantastic reviewers in the English localisation team: particularly Justin B Rye, who is tireless in his effort and — more recently — Moray Allan.

I think I’m particularly lucky to work with all these people: there’s a special mood in both Publicity and WWW team, which makes you feel happy to do things and at the same time pushes you to do more just because it’s fun to work with them sharing jokes, ideas, rants, patches and hugs.

Raphaël: I believe that you have been trough the new member process very quickly. You’re now a Non-Uploading Debian Developer. How was the experience and what does this mean to you?

Francesca: Becoming a Debian Developer was not so obvious for me, because I didn’t need to be a DD for the work I do in Debian. For instance, I don’t maintain packages, so I had no reasons to want to become a DD in order to have uploading rights. For a while I didn’t really feel the necessity of being a DD.

Luckily, some people started to pester me about it, asking me to apply for the NM process. I remember Martin Zobel-Helas doing this for an entire week every single day, and Gerfried Fuchs doing it as well. Suddenly, I realized that people I worked with felt that I deserved the DD status and that I simply had thought I didn’t. As a non coder and a woman, there probably was a bit of impostor syndrome involved. Having people encouraging me, gave me more confidence and the desire to finally become a DD. And so I did.

The process for non uploading DD is identical to the one to become an uploading DD, with one exception: in the second part of the process (named Tasks and Skills) instead of questions about how to create and maintain packages, there are questions about the non packaging work you usually do in Debian.

The general resolution which created the possibility to become a non uploading DD gave us a chance to recognize the great effort of Debian contributors who work in various area (translations, documentation, artworks, etc.) that were not always considered as important as packaging efforts. And this is great because if you are a regular contributor, if you love Debian and you are committed to the project, there are no reasons to not be an official member of it.

With regards to this, I like the metaphor used by Meike Reichle in her recent talk about the Debian Women Project (video recording here):

a Debian Developer status is a lot like a citizenship in a country that you’re living in. If you live in a country and you don’t have citizenship, you can find a job, buy a house, have a family [...] but if this country – at any point in time – decides to go into a direction that you don’t like, there’s nothing you can do about it. You are not in the position to make any change or to make any effect on that country: you just live there, but there’s no way that you can excercise influence on the people who run this country.

Raphaël: You recently joined the Debian Press Team. What does it involve and how are you managing this new responsibility?

Francesca: The Press Team is basically the armed wing of the Publicity Team: it handles announcements that need to be kept private until the release, moderate the debian-announce and debian-news mailing list and maintain contacts with press people from outside the project.

The “real” job, so, is done within the Publicity Team. The most important part of our work is to write announcements and the newsletter: while the newsletter is published bi-weekly, the announcements need to be write in a shorter timeframe. Localization is really important in spreading Debian word, so we work closely with translators: both announcements and DPN are usually translated in four or five different languages.

The publicity work could be stressful, as we have strict deadlines, we need to take quick decisions and often do last-minute changes. Personally, I like it: I work better under pressure. But I know that is sometimes difficult for contributors to accept that we can’t debate endlessly on details, we have just to go on and do our best in a given timeframe.

“The publicity work could be stressful, as we have strict deadlines, […]. Personally, I like it.”

Raphael: You’re one of the main editor behind the Debian Project News. What’s the role and scope of this newsletter?

Francesca: Debian Project News is our beloved newsletter, direct successor of the Debian Weekly News founded by Joey Hess in 1999 and later kept alive by Martin Schulze. In 2007, Debian Weekly News was discontinued but in 2008 the project was revived by Alexander Reichle Schmehl. The idea behind DPN is to provide our users an overview of what is happening inside and outside the project.

As the core team of editors is formed by three people, the main problem is to be able to collect enough news from various sources: in this sense we are always glad when someone points us to interesting blogposts, mails and articles.

DPN is also a good chance for non coders to contribute to Debian: propose news, write paragraphs and review the draft before the publication are quite easy tasks but very useful. English native speakers can do a proofread (as no one of the main editors is a native speaker) while others can always translate DPN in their native language. People who want to help us can take a look at our wiki page.

“DPN is also a good chance for non coders to contribute to Debian.”

Just yesterday I realized that since January we don’t miss or delay an issue: so I’d like to thank the fantastic team of editors, reviewers and translators who made it possible.

The team is now working on another way of spreading Debian’s message: a long-time project is finally becoming real. Stay tuned, surprise arriving!

Raphael: You’re trying to organize IRC training sessions but that doesn’t seem to take off in Debian, while it’s quite common in the Ubuntu community. How do you explain that?

Francesca: I’m not sure about it: both Debian users and contributors seemed to appreciate this initiative in the past. I was quite surprised by the amount of Debian members present during the various sessions and by the amount of interesting questions asked by the users. So the only reason I can think about is that I need to put more enthusiasm in convincing the teams to do it: they need more encouragement (or to be pestered more!).

I, for myself, think that IRC training sessions are a great way to promote our work, to share our best practice, to talk about our project to a wider audience. And I’ll sure try to organize more of them. Help, suggestions, ideas are really welcome!

Raphael: If you could spend all your time on Debian, what would you work on?

Francesca: There is a project I’d like to give more love, but I always end up without the time to do it: the debian-community.org project. Back in 2007, Holger Levsen founded it with the aim of reducing the gap between Debian contributors and Debian users, giving all an opportunity to contribute, share ideas and more. The project was discontinued and I’d really like to revive it: in these years various things have changed, but I think that the core idea of having a node to connect existing local communities is still good and doable. In Debian we don’t have the wide and well articulated local infrastructure present in other distributions (Ubuntu, particularly, but also Fedora): even if I don’t like too centralized structures, I think that a better connection between the project and local groups of users and on-line communities would be a step forward for the project.

Being part of the Events Team, I’m aware of how much we need to improve our communication with local groups. An example is the events organization: sometimes, Publicity and Events teams even don’t know about regional Debian related events (like booth at conferences, workshops, talks, install parties, etc) and this is a shame because we could offer a lot of help in organizing and promoting local events.

What we lack is better communication. And debian-community.org project could give us exactly this. Could be a cluster of local groups, a platform for events organization and even a useful resource for newbies who want to find a local group near them. I started some effort in this sense, sending a proposal about it, working on a census of Debian local groups. Any help is appreciated!

I’m really curious to see how many Debian communities (from all around the world and the web) are out there, and I’d love to have members from these communities better connected with the Debian Project.

Raphael: What’s the biggest problem of Debian?

Probably the bikeshedding feticism of almost all of us. It’s the other side of the coin of Debian’s commitment to technical excellence and our perfectionism, but sometimes it leads just to endless discussions about details, and it is a blocker for various initiatives.

In Debian, you have to be really patient and — in a way — stubborn to push some changes. This is frustrating sometimes.

On the other hand, I really appreciate how people take some times to think to each proposals, give some feedback and discuss about it: the process could be annoying, indeed, but the result is often an improvement of the initial proposal.

Raphael: Is there someone in Debian that you admire for their contributions?

Most of my teammates are simply brilliant and adorable and hard-working. But I have to admit that I particularly admire David Prévot: beside being a webmaster he does a lot of things, from French translations to DPN editing. All his contributions have a great quality and he’s able to push you always further in doing things and doing them better. He is a good example of how I’d like to be as contributor: smart, tireless, friendly.


Thank you to Francesca for the time spent answering my questions. I hope you enjoyed reading her answers as I did. Note that older interviews are indexed on wiki.debian.org/PeopleBehindDebian.

Subscribe to my newsletter to get my monthly summary of the Debian/Ubuntu news and to not miss further interviews. You can also follow along on Identi.ca, Google+, Twitter and Facebook.

My Debian Activities in March 2012

This is my monthly summary of my Debian related activities. If you’re among the people who made a donation to support my work (227.83 €, thanks everybody!), then you can learn how I spent your money. Otherwise it’s just an interesting status update on my various projects.

Dpkg

Thanks to Guillem, dpkg with multiarch support is now available in Debian sid. The road has been bumpy, and it has again been delayed multiple times even after Guillem announced it on debian-devel-announce. Finally, the upload happened on March 19th.

I did not appreciate his announce because it was not coordinated at all, and had I been involved from the start, we could have drafted it in a way that sounded less scary for people. In the end, I provided a script so that people can verify whether they were affected by one of the potential problems that Guillem pointed out. While real, most of them are rather unlikely for typical multiarch usage.

Bernhard R. Link submitted a patch to add a new –status command to dpkg-buildflags. This command would print all the information required to understand which flags are activated and why. It would typically be called during the build process by debian/rules to keep a trace of the build flags configuration. The goal is to help debugging and also to make it possible to extract that information automatically from build logs. I reviewed his patch and we made several iterations, it’s mostly ready to be merged but there’s one detail where Bernhard and I disagree and I solicited Guillem’s opinion to try to take a decision. Unfortunately neither Guillem nor anyone else chimed in.

On request of Alexander Wirt, I uploaded a new backport of dpkg where I dropped the DEB_HOST_MULTIARCH variable from dpkg-architecture to ensure multi-arch is never accidentally enabled in other backports.

One last thing that I did not mention publicly at all yet, is that I contacted Lennart Poettering to suggest an improvement to the /etc/os-release file that he’s trying to standardize across distributions. It occurred to me that this file could also replace our /etc/dpkg/origins/default file (and not only /etc/debian_version) provided that it could store ancestry information. After some discussions, he documented new official fields for that file (ID_LIKE, HOME_URL, SUPPORT_URL, BUG_REPORT_URL). Next step for me is to improve dpkg-vendor to support this file (as a fallback or as default, I don’t know yet).

Packaging

I packaged quilt 0.60 (we’re now down to 9 Debian-specific patches, from a whopping 26 in version 0.48!) and zim 0.55.

In prevision of the next upstream version of Publican, I asked the Perl team to package a few Perl modules that Publican now requires. Less than two weeks after, all of them were in Debian Unstable. Congrats and many thanks to the Perl team (and Salvatore Bonaccorso in particular, which I happen to know because we were on the same plane during last Debconf!).

On a side note, being the maintainer of nautilus-dropbox became progressively less fun over the last months, in particular because the upstream authors tried to override some of the (IMO correct) packaging decisions that I made and got in touch with Ubuntu community managers to try to have their way. Last but not least, I keep getting duplicates of a bug that is not in my package but in the official package and that Dropbox did not respond to my query.

Book update

The translation is finished and we’re now reviewing the whole book. It takes a bit more time than expected because we’re trying to harmonize the style and because it’s difficult to coordinate the work of several volunteer reviewers.

The book cover is now almost finalized (click on it to view it in higher definitions):

We also made some progress on the interior design for the paperback. Unfortunately, I have nothing to show you yet. But it will be very nice… and made with just a LaTeX stylesheet tailored for use with dblatex.

The liberation fundraising slowed down with only 41 new supporters this month but it made a nice bump anyway thanks to a generous donation of 1000 EUR by Offensive security, the company behind Backtrack Linux. They will soon communicate on this, hopefully it will boost the operation. It would be really nice if we managed to raise the remaining 3000 EUR in the few weeks left until the official release of the book!

The work on my book dominated the month and explains my relative inactivity on other fronts. I worked much more than usual, and my wife keeps telling me that I look tired and that I should go in bed earlier… but I see the end of the tunnel: if everything goes well, the book should be released in a few weeks and I will be able to switch back to a saner lifestyle.

Thanks

See you next month for a new summary of my activities.

People behind Debian: Jörg Jaspert, FTPmaster, Debian Account Manager, and more

Photo by Wouter Verhelst

Jörg is a very active contributor within Debian, and has been for a long time. This explains why he holds so many roles (FTPmaster and Debian Account Manager being the 2 most important ones)… Better known as Ganneff (his IRC nick), he’s not exactly the typical hacker. He has no beard and used to drink milk instead of beers. :-)

Check out his interview to learn more about some of the numerous ways one can get involved in Debian, managing its infrastructure… and without having to be a packager.

Raphael: Who are you?

Jörg: My name is Jörg Jaspert and I’m 35 years old working for a small company doing system administration and consulting work for our customers. I’m married for a little while now and sometime soon a little Ganneff will be crawling out of my wife. (Whoever didn’t think of the movie “Alien” now is just boring).

Raphael: How did you start contributing to Debian?

Jörg: I started using Debian somewhere around 2000, 2001. Before that I had the misfortune to try SuSE and RedHat, both with a user experience that let me fully understand why people think Linux is unusable. (Due to my work I’m in the unfortunate situation to have to use RedHat on two machines. Funny how they are still utter crap and worse than bad toys). And all of this “lets get a Linux running here” came up because I was trying to find a replacement for my beloved OS/2 installation, which I had for some years.

So after I got Debian installed, good old Potato, I got myself active on our mailing lists, starting with the German user one.

A bit later I replied to a question if someone can help as staff for a Debian booth somewhere. It was the most boring event I ever visited (very nice orga, unfortunately no visitors), but I got a few important things there:

  • a signature from a DD on my key (Hi grisu),
  • a discussion with an upstream author with some useful piece of software to package and
  • an impression that this can be fun, if there are just some visitors for an event. So I tried again and did help as staff on a LinuxTag booth a while later.

The software I packaged, found me a sponsor and voila, maintainer I was. Some more packages got added and at some point my sponsor turned out to be my advocate. The NM process run around 2 months, and mid April 2002 I got THE MAIL.

Raphael: Some Debian developers believe that you have too many responsibilities within Debian (DAM, FTPMaster, Debconf, Partners, Planet Debian, Mirrors, …). Do you agree that it can be problematic, and if yes, are you trying to scale down?

Jörg: It’s DebConf, tssk.

And yes, I do have some extra groups and roles. And you even only list some, leaving out all I do outside Debian. But simply counting number of roles is a plain stupid way to go. Way more interesting is how much work is behind a role and how many other people are involved.

And looking at those you listed I don’t see any I am a SPOF. Let’s look at those you listed:

DAM: Here I did start out assisting James to get the huge backload down which had accumulated over time.

Nowadays I am merely the one with the longest term as DAM. Christoph Berg joined in April 2008 and Enrico Zini followed during October 2010, both very active. Especially Enrico, lately with the redesign of the NM webpages.

FTPMaster: The basic outline of the FTPMaster history is similar to the DAM one. I joined as an assistant, after the oh-so-famous Vancouver meeting in 2004. Together with Jeroen, we both then got the backload down which had accumulated there. He did most of the removals while I had a fun time cleaning up NEW. And we both prepared patches for the codebase.

And in 2007, as the last action as DPL, Sam made me FTPMaster. Since then I haven’t been alone either. In fact we have much more rotation in the team than ever before, which is a good thing. Today we are 3 FTPMasters, 4 FTP Assistants and 1 Trainee.

Though we always like new blood and would welcome more volunteers.

DebConf: I am very far outside the central DebConf team. I am not even a delegate here. Currently I am merely an admin, though there are 4 others with the same rights on the DebConf machines. I’ve not taken any extra jobs this year, nor will I. Probably for next year again, but not 2012.

Planet: I am one of three again, but then Planet is mostly running itself. Debian developers can just edit the config, cron is doing the work, not much needed here. Occasional cleanups, every now and then a mail to answer, done. In short: No real workload attached.

Mirrors: My main part here is the ftpsync scriptset. Which is a small part of the actual work. The majority of it, like checking mirrors, getting them to fix errors, etc. is done by Simon Paillard (and since some time, Raphael Geissert is active there too, you might have heard about his http.debian.net).

Having said that, there is stuff I could have handled better or probably faster. There always is. Right now I have 2 outstanding things I want to do a (last) cleanup on and then give away.

Raphael: You got married last year. I know by experience that entertaining a relationship and/or a family takes time. How do you manage to combine this with your Debian involvement?

Jörg: Oh well, I first met my wife at the “International Conference on OpenSource” 2009 in Taiwan. So OpenSource, Debian and me being some tiny wheel in the system wasn’t entirely news to her. And in the time since then she learned that there is much more behind when you are in a community like Debian, instead of “just” doing it for work. Even better that she met Debian people multiple times already, and knows with who I am quarreling…

Also, she is currently attending a language school – having lots of homework in the evening. Gives me time for Debian stuff. :)

How that turns out with the baby I have no idea yet. I do want to train it to like pressing the M key, so little-Ganneff can deal with NEW all on its own (M being Manual reject), but it might take a day or twenty before it gets so far. :)

Raphael: Thanks to the continuous work of many new volunteers, the NEW queue is no longer a bottleneck. What are the next challenges for the FTPmaster team?

Jörg: Bad link, try this one. :)

Also, “no longer” sounds like its recent. It’s not, it’s just that people usually recognize the negative only and not the positive parts.

Well, there are a few challenges actually. The first one, even if it sounds simple, is an ongoing one: We need Debian Developers willing to do the work that is hidden behind those simple graphs.

Yes, we are currently having a great FTP Team doing a splendid work in keeping that queue reasonably small — this is a/THE sisyphean task per excellence. There will always be something waiting for NEW, even if you just cleaned the queue, you turn around and there is something else back in already. Spreading this workload to more people helps not burning one out.

So if one or more of the readers is interested, we always like new volunteers. You simply need to be an uploading DD and have a bit of free time. For the rest we do have training procedures in place.

Another one is getting the “multi-archive” stuff done. The goal is to end up with ONE host for all our archives. One dak installation. But separate overrides, trees, mirrors, policies and people (think RMs, backports team, security team). While this is halfway easy to think of in terms of “merging backports into main” it gets an interesting side note when you think of “merging security into main”. The security archive does have information that is limited to few people before public release of a security announce, and so we must make sure our database isn’t leaking information. Or our filesystem layer handling. Or logs. Etc. Especially as the database is synced in (near) realtime to a DD accessible machine. And the filesystem data too, just a little less often.

There is also a discussion about a good way to setup a “PPA for Debian” service. We do have a very far developed proposal here how it should work, and I really should do the finishing touches and get it to the public. Might even get a GSoC project on it.

So far for some short to middle term goals. If you want to go really long term, I do think that we should get to the point where we get rid of the classical view of a source package being one (or more) tarballs plus the Debian changes. Where a new version requires the full upload of one or more of those parts of the source package.

I don’t know exactly where it should end up. Sure, stuff like “one central DVCS, maintainers push there, the archive generates the source tarballs and prepares the mirrors” do sound good for a quick glance. But there are lots of trouble and pitfalls and probably some dragons hidden here.

Raphael: The Debian repositories are managed by DAK (Debian Archive Kit) which is not packaged. Thus Debian users pick tools like reprepro to manage their package repositories. Is that how things should be?

Jörg: Oh, Mark Hymers wants to do a package again. More power to him if he does, though yes, DAK is not exactly a quick-and-easy thing to install. But nowadays it is a trillion times easier than the past — thanks to Mark’s work people can now follow the instructions, scripts and whatever they find inside the setup directory.

Still, it really depends on the archive size you are managing. A complex tool like dak does not make sense for someone who wants to publish one or a dozen of his own packages somewhere. Thats just like doing a finger amputation with a chainsaw — it certainly works and is fun for the one with the chainsaw — but you probably end up a little overdoing it.

I myself am using dpkg-scan[packages|sources] from a shell script but also mini-dinstall in places (never got friend with reprepro when I looked at it). Works, and for the few dozen packages those places manage it is more than enough.

Also, using dak forces you into some ways of behaviour that are just what Debian wants — but might not be what a user wants. Like inability to overwrite an existing file. One of the reasons why mentors.debian.net won’t work with dak. Or the use of a postgres database. Or that of gpg.

Sure, if you end up having more than just a dozen packages, if you have many suites and also movement between them, then dak is sure a thing to look at.

And “how should things be”: however the user and admins of that certain install of reprepro, mini-dinstall, dak, whatever want it. This is not one-tool-for-all land :)

Raphael: What is the role of Debian Account Managers (DAM)? Do you believe that DAMs have a responsibility to “shape” Debian by defining limits in terms of who can join and what can be done within Debian?

Jörg: Quote from https://lists.debian.org/debian-devel-announce/2010/10/msg00010.html:

The Debian Account Managers (DAM) are responsible for maintaining the list of members of the Debian Project, also known as Debian Developers. DAMs are authoritative in deciding who is a member of the Debian Project and can take subsequent actions such as approving and expelling Project members.

Now, aside from this quote, my OWN PERSONAL OPINION, without wearing anything even vaguely resembling a DAM hat: DAM is the one post that is entitled to decide who is a member or not. Usually that is in the way of joining (or not), which is simple enough. But every now and then this also means acting on a request to do something about whatever behaviour of a Debian Project member. I hate that (and i think one can easily replace I with WE there). But it’s our job.

We usually aren’t quick about it. And we don’t act on our own initiative when we do, we always have (numerous) other DDs complain/appeal/talk/whatever to us first. The “expulsion procedure”, luckily not invoked that often, does guarantee a slow process and lots of input from others.

Are we the best for it? Probably not, we are just some people out of a thousand who happen to have a very similar hobby — Debian. We aren’t trained in dealing with the situations that can come up.

But we are THE role inside Debian that is empowered to make such decisions, so naturally it ends up with us.

Raphael: You did a lot of things for Debian over the years. What did bring you the most joy? Are there things that you’re still bitter about?

Jörg: The most joy? Hrm, without being involved in Debian and SPI I would never have met my wife.
Or my current job.
Or a GR against me. Not many running around with that badge, though I’m still missing my own personal “Serious problems with Mr. Jaspert” thread. Bad you all.
Or visited so many places. Think of all the DebConfs, QA meetings, BSPs and whatever events.
Or met so many people.
Or learned so many things I would never even have come near without being DD.

Raphael: Is there someone in Debian that you admire for their contributions?

Jörg: Yes.


Thank you to Jörg for the time spent answering my questions. I hope you enjoyed reading his answers as I did. Note that older interviews are indexed on wiki.debian.org/PeopleBehindDebian.

Subscribe to my newsletter to get my monthly summary of the Debian/Ubuntu news and to not miss further interviews. You can also follow along on Identi.ca, Google+, Twitter and Facebook

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People Behind Debian: Gregor Herrmann, member of the Perl team

Photo by Aigars Mahinovs

I followed Gregor’s evolution within Debian because I used to be somewhat active in the Perl team. His case is exemplar because it shows that you don’t need to be an IT professional to join Debian and to make a difference. His QA page is impressive with hundreds of packages maintained and hundreds of non-maintainer uploads too.

While he started out slowly, I remember meeting him at Debconf 7 in Edinburgh and after that he really got more implicated. Again a case of someone joining for technical reasons but getting more involved and staying there for social reasons! :-) Let’s jump into the interview and learn more about him.

Raphael: Who are you?

Gregor: I’m 41 years old, and I live in Innsbruck, Austria, in a shared apartment with a friend of mine. In my day job, I’m working at the regional addiction prevention agency, so I’m one of the few Debian guys who’s not an IT student or professional. I started maintaining packages in 2006, and I am a DD since April 2008.

Raphael: How did you start contributing to Debian?

Gregor: After having used Debian on servers for some years, I finally switched to it on the desktop after some procrastinating. Soon afterwards I wanted to know more about the “making-of”, started to join mailing lists, filed bugs, and tried to learn packaging.

Luckily I quickly found a permanent sponsor — Tony Mancill, and we’re still co-maintaining each others’ packages. And when I packaged my first Perl modules, Gunnar Wolf invited me to join the Debian Perl Group, an offer I accepted a few days later. — And I’m still there :)

Later, the NM process, although it involved some waiting times, was also a good learning experience due to my AM Wouter Verhelst. (And in the meantime the organization of the NM process has vastly improved, from what I hear.)

So my starting point for joining Debian was my curiosity but what really helped me to find my way into the project was the support of the people who invited and helped me.

Raphael: What’s your biggest achievement within Debian or Ubuntu?

Gregor: I’m not sure I can name a single big achievement but I guess I can say that my contributions to the Debian Perl Group have helped to make and keep the team a success story.

Raphael: The pkg-perl team seems to work very well. As an active member, can you explain us how it is organized? How do you explain its success? In particular it seems to be a great entry point for new contributors.

Gregor: The team is huge, both in numbers of members and packages (over 2200). Since last DebConf we manage our source packages in git, we have 2 mailing lists and an IRC channel, and we manage to keep an overview by using PET, the Package Entropy Tracker.

It’s true that we get new members on a regular basis; we try to invite people (like it happened to me 6 years ago :)) but there are also quite a few new contributors who find our docs and introduce themselves on the mailing list. Maybe someone should conduct a study and ask them what motivated them to join. :)

We hand out group membership/commit access quickly, and we try to mentor new contributors actively during their early times in the group. Some of them leave for other projects after some time, but many also stay and become DDs later.

I’m not sure what the reasons for the group’s success are, maybe a combination of:

  • a culture in the group (and also in the upstream Perl community) that’s based on fun, cooperation, and respect;
  • the fact that packaging Perl modules is most of the time quite easy;
  • a great set of tools, and also (hopefully) useful documentation;
  • a bunch of relaxed people who are open to newcomers and try to help each other.

For everyone interested in joining the Debian Perl Group, our Welcome page on the wiki is a good starting point.

Raphael: What are your plans for Debian Wheezy?

Gregor: Nothing overly exciting. What I should do is getting a newer JabRef into Debian (which involves packaging some new Java libraries — any takers?).

A solution for libdatetime-timezone-perl (which ships timezone data converted to Perl modules and tends to get outdated when the timezone data change) would be nice; let’s see if #660404 leads to some results …

And some Perl packages will also need a bit of work for the hardening build flags release goal (cf. #657853).

Raphael: What’s the biggest problem of Debian?

Gregor: Inertia. While I really like the fact that Debian is a volunteer project, and that every contributor works when and on what they decide to work on, I get the feeling that Debian could do better in moving forward, innovating, taking decisions.

I also think that more uniformity in managing source packages would make things easier; it’s quite amazing to see how many source formats, packaging helpers, patch systems, RCSs etc. are used all over the archive. I’m not advocating for mono-cultures, and I consider this diversity a strength in general, but having to find out first how this particular package works when preparing a bug fix can be annoying.

On the bright side, I think that the myth “Debian and its mailing lists are mostly about flames” can be seen as dispelled in the meantime. Sure, sometimes the tone could be a bit more civil, but in general most of the interactions I’ve seen in the last years were friendly and helpful. IMO, the Debian Project consists of mostly nice and cooperative people, and that’s what makes it fun for me.

Raphael: You’re one of the most dedicated participants to RCBW (Release Critical Bugs of the Week), an initiative to fix RC bugs every week. How much time do you spend on it? What would you advise to people who are considering to join the movement?

Gregor: I got into the habit of fixing RC bugs after having been invited to my first Bug Squashing Party in Munich some years ago. During this weekend I saw that fixing RC bugs can be fun, is often not that difficult, and gives a warm fuzzy feeling :) I can definitely recommend attending a BSP if one happens to be organized near you.

After tasting blood at this first BSP I tried to continue looking at RC bugs, and I guess I spend something around half an hour per day on it. I usually blog about it once a week, in order to motivate others to join in.

And joining is easy: just take a look at the tips people like Zack, Vorlon, or me have written. You don’t have to be a DD to help, many of my NMUs are based on patches that others kindly prepare and send to the BTS — kudos!

Another nice aspect is that the RC bug list contains problems from different fields: general packaging problems, language-specific issues, policy violations, etc. So there’s something for everybody, and you don’t have to be an expert in all fields to fix a specific bug.

What’s rewarding about fixing RC bugs is not only the feeling of accomplishment and the knowledge about having helped the next release — I also received quite a few “Thank you” mails from maintainers who were busy at that time and appreciated the help.

Raphael: Do you have wishes for Debian Wheezy?

Gregor: Well, there’s not so much left of the Wheezy release cycle if we manage to freeze in June :) Some quick thoughts for Wheezy and Wheezy+1:

  • Obviously, getting multi-arch and the hardening build flags as far as possible would be good.
  • What I like is the idea of the time-based freeze, and I hope it will work out in June. And then I hope that the freeze will be shorter this time than during the last 2 releases.
  • Unless I’m missing something, the CUT discussions have more or less died down; IMO that’s a pity because there are users who run testing and would like to avoid the several month long freeze. Maybe someone can come up with new ideas for Wheezy+1 …
  • Too late for broad adoption in Wheezy but still: What constantly annoys me is the handling of conffiles during upgrades (when I want to keep changed values but at the same time want to add new variables). Config::Model seems to be the best idea so far for configuration upgrades but it’s not yet widely adopted.

Raphael: Is there someone in Debian that you admire for their contributions?

Gregor: There are many people in Debian I admire, too many to name them all. The first one that comes to my mind is Russ Allbery who not only does great work from lintian to Debian policy but who also sets a great example of communicating in a perfectly polite and respectful way even in heated discussions.


Thank you to Gregor for the time spent answering my questions. I hope you enjoyed reading his answers as I did. Note that older interviews are indexed on wiki.debian.org/PeopleBehindDebian.

Subscribe to my newsletter to get my monthly summary of the Debian/Ubuntu news and to not miss further interviews. You can also follow along on Identi.ca, Google+, Twitter and Facebook

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My Debian Activities in February 2012

This is my monthly summary of my Debian related activities. If you’re among the people who made a donation to support my work (384.14 €, thanks everybody!), then you can learn how I spent your money. Otherwise it’s just an interesting status update on my various projects.

Dpkg and multiarch

The month started with a decision of the technical committee which allowed me to proceed with an upload of a multiarch dpkg even if Guillem had not yet finished his review (and related changes). Given this decision, Guillem made the experimental upload himself.

I announced the availability of this test version and invited people to test it. This lead to new discussions on debian-devel.

We learned in those discussions that Guillem changed his mind about the possibility of sharing (identical) files between multiple Multi-Arch: same packages, and that he dropped that feature. But if this point of the multiarch design had been reverted, it would mean that we had to update again all library packages which had already been updated for multi-arch. The discussions mostly stalled at this point with a final note of Guillem explaining that there was a tension between convenience and doing the right things every time that we discuss far-reaching changes.

After a few weeks (and a helpful summary from Russ Allbery), Guillem said that he remained unconvinced but that he put back the feature. He also announced that he’s close to having completed the work and that he would push the remaining parts of the multiarch branch to master this week (with the 1.16.2 upload planned next week).

That’s it for the summary. Obviously I participated in the discussions but I didn’t do much besides this… I have a “mandate” to upload a multiarch dpkg to sid but I did not want to make use of it while those discussions remained pretty unconclusive. Also Guillem made it pretty clear that the multiarch implementation was “buggy”, “not right” and “not finished” and that he had reworked code fixing at least some of the issues… since he never shared that work in progress, I also had no way to help even just by reviewing what he’s doing.

We also got a few multiarch bug reports, but I couldn’t care to get them fixed since Guillem clearly held a lock on the codebase having done many private changes… it’s not quite like this that I expect to collaborate on a free software project but life is full of surprises!

I’ll be relieved once this story is over. In the mean time, I have added one new thing on my TODO list since I made a proposal to handle bin-nmu changelogs and it’s something that could also fix #440094.

Misc dpkg stuff

After a discussion with Guillem, we agreed that copyright notices should only appear in the sources and not in manual pages or --version output, both of which are translated and cause useless work to translators when updated. Guillem already had some code to do it for --version strings, and I took care of the changes for the manual pages.

I merged some minor documentation updates, fixed a bug with a missing manpage. Later I discovered that some recent changes lead to the loss of all the translated manual pages. I suggested an improvement to dh_installman to fix this (and even prepared a patch). In the end, Guillem opted for another way of installing translated manual pages.

Triggered by a discussion on debian-devel, I added a new entry to my TODO list: implementing dpkg-maintscript-helper rm_conffile_if_owner to deal with the case where a conffile is taken over by another package which might (or might not) be installed.

Misc packaging

At the start of the month, I packaged quilt 0.51. The number of Debian specific patches is slowly getting down. With version 0.51, we dropped 5 patches and introduced a new one. Later in the month I submitted 4 supplementary patches upstream which have been accepted for version 0.60.

This new version (just released, I will package it soon) is an important milestone since it’s the first version without any C code (Debian had this for a long time but we were carrying an intrusive patch for this). Upstream developer Jean Delvare worked on this and based his work on our patch, but he went further to make it much more efficient.

Besides quilt, I also uploaded dh-linktree 0.2 (minor doc update), sql-ledger 2.8.36 (new upstream version), logidee-tools 1.2.12 (minor fixes) and publican 2.8-2 (to fix release critical bug #660795).

Debian Consultants

The Debian Project Leader is working on federating Debian Companies. As the owner of Freexian SARL, I was highly interested in it since Freexian “contributes to Debian, offers support for Debian and has a strategic interest in Debian”. There’s only one problem, you need to have at least 2 Debian developers on staff but I have no employees (it’s me only). I tried to argue that I have already worked with multiple Debian developers (as contractors) when projects were too big for me alone (or when I did not have enough time). Alas this argument was not accepted.

Instead, and since our fearless leader is never afraid to propose compromises, he suggested me (and MJ Ray who argued something similar than me) to try to bring life to the Debian Consultants list which (in his mind) would be more appropriate for one-man companies like mine. I accepted to help “animate” the list, and on his side, he’s going to promote both the “Debian Companies” and the “Debian Consultants” lists.

In any case, the list has seen some traffic lately and you’re encouraged to join if you’re a freelancer offering services around Debian. The most promising thing is that James Bromberger offered to implement a real database of consultants instead of the current static page.

Book update

We made quite some progress this month. There’s only one chapter left to translate. I thus decided to start with proofreading. I made a call for volunteers and I submitted one (different) chapter to 5 proofreaders.

The liberation campaign made a nice leap forwards thanks to good coverage on barrapunto.com. We have reached 80% while we were only at 72% at the start of the month (thanks to the 113 new supporters!). There’s thus less than 5000 EUR to raise before the book gets published under a free license.

Looking at the progression in the past months, this is unlikely to be completed on time for the release of the book in April. It would be nice though… so please share the news around you.

Speaking of the book’s release, I’m slowly preparing it. Translating docbook files is not enough, I must be able to generate HTML, ePub and PDF versions of the book. I’m using Publican for most formats, but for the PDF version Publican is moving away of fop and the replacement (webkit-based) is far from being satisfactory to generate a book ready for print. So I plan to use dblatex and get Publican to support dblatex as a backend.

I have hired Benoît Guillon, the upstream author of dblatex, to fix some annoying bugs and to improve it to suit my needs for the book (some results are already in the upstream CVS repository). I’m also working with a professional book designer to get a nice design.

I have also started to look for a Python Django developer to build the website that I will use to commercialize the book. The website will have a larger goal than just this though (“helping to fund free software developers”) but in free software it’s always good to start with your own case. :-)

Hopefully everything will be ready in April. I’m working hard to meet that deadline (you might have noticed that my blog has been relatively quiet in the last month…).

Thanks

See you next month for a new summary of my activities.

People behind Debian: Ana Beatriz Guerrero López, member of the Debian KDE team

If you met Ana, you’ll easily remember her. She has a great and pronounced Spanish accent… :-) I’m glad that the existence of the Debian Women project helped her to join Debian because she has been doing a great job.

From KDE packaging to publicity/marketing work, her interests shifted over the years but this allowed her to stay very involved. As she explains it very well, Debian is big enough so that you can stop doing something which is no longer fun for you, and still find something new to do in another part of Debian!

Read on to learn more about Ana, the KDE team, Debian’s participation to the Google Summer of Code, and more.

Raphael: Who are you?

Ana: I’m Ana Guerrero López and I’m in my early 30s. I was born and raised in the wonderful city of Sevilla, Spain and I live in Lyon, France. I share my life with another Debian Developer and my paid work is doing Debian support and integration, so you won’t be surprised to read that Debian is a big part of my life.

Raphael: How did you start contributing to Debian?

Ana: Although I knew about the existence of Linux since 1997 or so, I didn’t really start using Linux until the summer 2001 when I finally got a computer on my own and an Internet link at home. In the beginning, I was using Mandrake in a dual boot with Windows and later around 2003, I happily moved to only using Debian and ditching the Windows partition. Once settled as a Debian user, I knew anybody could help improve the distribution but I hesitated to join mostly due to two reasons, my perception of Debian was the one of a very elitist and aggressive club and who wants to join this kind of cult^wproject? And even if I wanted to join, I did not know how to get started.

By the summer of 2004, the Debian Women project started, it made me seeing Debian as a more welcoming project, and I started maintaining my first packages. The following summer 2005, I attended akademy 2005 (the annual KDE conference) where I had the pleasure to meet there some of the people from the KDE team and this really made a difference for me. Christopher Martin and Adeodato Simó, with the help of other people, have started the maintenance of KDE as a team a few months before and by that time most of the KDE modules where under the maintenance umbrella of the team. This was a very good move since it allowed easily to share the KDE maintenance in a more coordinated way and also eased having non-DDs, like me at that time, to join in and help.

The Debian Women project started, it made me seeing Debian as a more welcoming project.

Raphael: You’re part of the Debian KDE team. What’s your role in the team and what are your plans for Wheezy?

Ana: Nowadays, I am not as active in the KDE team as I used to be in the past. The KDE 3 to KDE 4 transition was quite tiring and changes on the KDE side like the successive marketing renames, the shorter 6 months schedule (it used to be at least 9) or the uncoordinated KDE releases mostly burnt me out. Currently, I am mostly working in helping others to get started within the team, some small fixes here and there, and helping with the uploads: an upload of the full KDE suite to the archive requires some building power and upload bandwidth not everybody have.

For Wheezy, with the tentative freeze date in June, the plan is to try to ship the latest possible point release of the KDE 4.8 series. The first release of the series, 4.8.0 was released a couple of weeks ago and while writing these lines, the packaging work for 4.8 hasn’t started yet. The next move for the team is getting 4.7.4 in unstable, currently sitting in experimental.

For Wheezy, […] the plan is to try to ship the latest possible point release of the KDE 4.8 series.

Besides the KDE packages, there is some software which users perceive as KDE, such as amarok, digikam, etc., which are not part of KDE but fall under its umbrella. These other programs have their own maintainers and their updates depend greatly in the availability of them. For the KDE office suite, we have right now KOffice in the archive. KOffice got a fork some time ago named Calligra and we should replace KOffice by Calligra in the archive before the release of Wheezy. Sadly there isn’t yet a final release of Calligra to use.

My personal goal for Wheezy was to finish the removal of all the remaining packages depending on KDE 3 and Qt 3 that Squeeze still contained. The removal of the KDE 3 libraries and all the packages using them was quickly achieved after the release of Squeeze. The removal of Qt 3 soon showed that it was task harder than expected since some popular packages (sometimes not in the Debian archive, e.g. third-party scientific software) depend on it, and also Qt 3 is a requirement for LSB compatibility. Right now, Qt 3 has been orphaned for 9 months and nobody has shown any interest in adopting it.

Raphael: KDE, much like GNOME, has been forked by people who were unhappy by the direction that the project has taken since version 4 (cf Trinity). What’s your personal opinion on KDE 4.x and what’s the position of the Debian KDE team concerning this fork?

Ana: I use KDE 4 on my laptop and I think it is a solid desktop environment and platform. However I am finding it less and less attractive for me. On one side, my usage of the computer has been slightly changing and on the other side, I do not like how the new developments in KDE are evolving, things like plasmoids or activities are not attractive for me. I have switched my other 2 systems to awesome although I continue to use mainly a bunch of KDE applications: dolphin, konsole, kate, juk, kmix, etc. So you might say my desktop environment is an awesome KDE.

Regarding the Trinity project, a lot of users complained very loudly when KDE 3 got replaced by KDE 4 in testing/unstable, so I find quite laudable the decision of some users to act instead and try to continue with a forked development of KDE 3. However the Trinity team seems to be about 3 persons (funny for a project named Trinity :)) while KDE 3 is big. In perspective, it does not look that big because KDE 4 is even larger, but it is still too much for such small team. In addition those developers need to maintain Qt3 that has been end-of-lifed years ago by Nokia/Trolltech¹. So my guess is that sooner or later the project will fade away.

Nobody from the KDE team is interested in Trinity and in case someone wants to package it for Debian, they would have to make a new team. For the reasons mentioned above: Qt3 maintenance and reduced upstream group, this would be a bad idea.

My advice if you do not like KDE 4 and you miss KDE 3, would be taking a look at razor-qt based on Qt4 and quite similar to KDE 3.

¹ I read they have plans to port it to Qt4, but frankly that could take some years… same it took to the KDE project for KDE 4.0.0 ;-)

Raphael: You used to maintain news.debian.net, a WordPress blog dedicated to Debian, but you stopped a while ago. A few months later you started to maintain a Debian page on Google+. Why did you stop the blog and what’s your goal with the Google+ page?

Ana: I blogged about the reasons I started news.debian.net. In short, I thought Debian needed a better system to publish news, something like a blog. I first tried to suggest the idea to the press/publicity team but they weren’t interested, so I started the project alone. IMHO the blog worked quite well and I was feeling like it should be made official. I talked about this with some people but at the time I wasn’t pushing it because I had other priorities and I knew pushing it to become official would need some extra time and energy.

Stefano decided to start the discussion about making news.debian.net official (that’s moving it to a debian.org domain) in its own initiative. After the public discussion and some private exchange of emails with DSA, the situation became frustrating and I decided to close news.debian.net after the release of Squeeze.

Later, during DebConf, an officer from the press team announced they were launching a blog and I asked Stefano if he could try to have a discussion about this to see if it could still somehow fit my ideas, and maybe contributing myself, but nobody from the press team answered Stefano’s email and the blog hasn’t started yet either.

Irony that communication didn’t work when wanting to improve communication.

About the Google+ page, everyday I follow what is going in Debian and quite often I find things I want to share. I do not want to clutter my own profiles with Debian stuff or have people following me because of that, so I decided to create the Debian page when Google+ made them available. I like the fact that people can follow that without having an account in Google+ although they can not comment anonymously. I am not happy about the fact that Google+ is a closed platform but hopefully the data will become easier to export in the near future. Right now, there are some services that provides RSS feeds of Google+ pages if you want to follow the page and you are not in Google+ (or I could setup one if several people ask me).

Raphael: Last year you helped to manage Debian’s participation to the Google Summer of Code. How did it went? Is there something that you can improve for this year?

Ana: I think last year we managed to have people in Debian more aware about what the students were doing. That also helped students to get more feedback and therefore get to know more people in the project and get more integrated. Students were sending periodic public reports available to everybody interested in the status of the projects and some of them also held their own sessions in DebConf.

We still failed to start looking for mentors early enough and to give them information about how the GSoC worked and how they could have a successful project. Having good projects in Debian is harder than in other projects because the GSoC mostly promotes having students started in Open Source *coding* for a project, while Debian is more a project about integrating software and we overall do not have so many parts that has to be coded.

My personal goal for this year is to try getting the projects earlier to attract good students from the very beginning, even if that means we have less projects than in other years.

Raphael: What motivates you to continue to contribute year after year?

Ana: Three things. I like improving the OS I use, I like the friends I have made while working in Debian through the years and because I have fun.

Also Debian is quite a big project, so if you become tired or burn out working in some area, you always can easily find interesting things to do somewhere else.

Raphael: Is there someone in Debian that you admire for their contributions?

Ana: Adeodato Simó, he is now in a long leave from the project, but it is one of those persons who made a difference in the project in his job in the release team some years ago. Aurélien Jarno because of his tireless work in (e)glibc and porting of several architectures.

I also have special admiration for all those people who have been very active in the project for more than 7-8 years because I know it is not always easy to combine it with real life.


Thank you to Ana for the time spent answering my questions. I hope you enjoyed reading her answers as I did. Note that older interviews are indexed on wiki.debian.org/PeopleBehindDebian.

Subscribe to my newsletter to get my monthly summary of the Debian/Ubuntu news and to not miss further interviews. You can also follow along on Identi.ca, Google+, Twitter and Facebook

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