People behind Debian: Margarita Manterola, Debian Women member

Photograph taken by Julia Palandri

When I think about Margarita, I always remember her as a friendly and welcoming person. Like most of the Debian Women members by the way. But she likes to spread some love and organized a Debian Appreciation Day for example.

I think I met her in real life for the first time at Debconf 6 in Oaxtepec (Mexico). She deeply cares about Debian in general. She has proven it multiple times with her DPL candidacy and by giving talks like Making Debian rule again.

One last thing, Debconf11 is just over and you will see that Debconf4 has had a big influence on Marga. My advice is simple: next time there’s a Debconf on your continent, make sure to take a few days off and come to meet us! It really gives another picture of the Debian community. Now let’s proceed with the interview.

Raphael: Who are you?

Margarita: I’m Margarita Manterola, a Software Developer from Argentina. I work developing software in Python in a Debian-friendly company during the day, and teach programming at a local university during the evenings.

I’m married to Maximiliano Curia who is also a Debian Developer, most of our Free Software work has been done together.

I only maintain a handful of packages in Debian, I’m more interested in fixing bugs than in packaging new software.

I’ve also been a part of the organizing team of many of the previous Debian Conferences. One of the biggest commitments and the biggest success of my participation in Debian was being part of the organizing team of DebConf8, in Argentina.

Raphael: How did you start contributing to Debian?

Margarita: I started using Debian around 2000. Soon after we had learned the grips of general GNU/Linux usage, Maxy and I started giving an introductory course at our local university, and became quite involved with the local LUG.

At some point in 2002/2003 I became a “Debian Bug Reporter”: most of my friends would report bugs to me, and I would then write them in the proper form to the BTS. I would also be very attentive about reporting any bugs that I might encounter myself trying to create good bug reports.

The turning point in my participation in Debian was DebConf4 in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Being so close to Argentina meant that we felt specially invited to be there, and Maxy and I decided to go to DebConf for our honeymoon. We didn’t really know much about DebConf dynamics, but we were really eager to learn more about Debian and become more involved.

What happened was that meeting with DDs from all over the world transformed our lives, we became part of the “Debian family” and wanted to be more and more involved. Soon after that we both started maintaining packages and not long after that, applied to become Developers.

The Debian Women project also meant a lot to me. I felt encouraged all along the way, encouraged to learn, to ask questions and to lose the fear of making mistakes.

I became a Debian Developer on November 2005. Since then, Debian has always been one of the most important things I do in my life.

Raphael There was a Debian Women BoF during debconf. What are the plans for Debian Women in the upcoming months?

Margarita: I was not there in person, but thanks to the awesome work of the video team, and of Christian Perrier’s typing efforts when something failed, I was able to experience much of what was discussed. :)

One of the many points that came up during the BOF is that many people “Want to help” but don’t know where to start or how to go about it. It’s a challenge for the Debian Women project to find a way to allow these people to become involved in Debian through “Mini projects” or something like that.

Another of the subjects that was brought up was the Debian Women mentoring project, which has been going on for quite a while now, but lacks enough publicity. So, we need to reach more people about it, and maybe also improve it with some templates, similar to the New Maintainer templates, so that mentees that don’t know where to start have some sort of general path to follow.

Raphael: You created very useful diagrams documenting how package maintainer scripts are invoked by dpkg. How did you do it and was that a useful experience?

Margarita: I did those diagrams to be able to answer one of the questions in the NM templates, regarding the order of the maintainer script execution.

Answering the question in text was basically copying and pasting the part of the Debian Policy that explained it, which wasn’t really too clear for me, so I decided to go and make a diagram of it, so that I could really understand it.

I did it by the best of all debugging techniques: adding prints to each of the maintainer scripts, and testing them in all the different orders that I could think of.

It was a useful experience at the time, because I learned a lot of how maintainers scripts work. I didn’t expect the diagrams to become so famous, though, I only did them to answer one NM question, that I assumed most other people had already answered before :)

Raphael: You participated in a DPL election. This is a big commitment to make. What were your motivations?

Margarita: As I said, I was part of the organizing team of DebConf8, in Argentina. Which was quite a success, a lot of people enjoyed it and praised the good work that had been done by the local team.

During said DebConf8, I had a dream (it was almost a nightmare, actually): I woke up and just like that, I was the DPL. I spoke to some people about this dream and to my complete surprise many said that I should actually do it.

After giving that possibility a year and a half of thoughts, during the 2010 campaign I was talked into participating myself as a candidate, and it was a very interesting experience. However, I’m very glad that Zack got elected and not me, I think he makes a much better DPL that I would have made.

Raphael: What’s the biggest problem of Debian?

Margarita: I think the main problem that we have is our communication, both inside the project and outside the project. Most of us are very technical people, our skills lay in the technical part of Debian (preparing packages, fixing bugs, writing software, administering systems) not in the social part. And thus, we lack a general empathy that is quite needed when interacting with people from all over the world.

Raphael: Do you have wishes for Debian Wheezy?

Margarita: Not particularly. I do want it to be a great release with good quality, stable software. I would also like to keep making Debian more and more “universal” with each release, making it more user friendly, more accessible, and more robust than any other previous release.

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

Margarita: I admire a lot of people in Debian. There’s a lot of people that contribute a lot of time to Debian, amounts of time that I can’t begin to understand how they can afford.

I admire Stefano Zacchiroli, our current project leader. And Steve McIntyre, the project leader before him. Also Bdale Garbee, who’s also been a DPL in the past. Making this list I realize that Debian has been blessed by quite a number of great leaders in the past.

I admire Holger Levsen, for his contributions to the DebConf video team, that have made it possible year after year for the whole project to participate in DebConf remotely.

I admire Steve Langasek and Andreas Barth (etch is still my favourite release). I admire Christian Perrier for his work on internationalization. I admire Joerg Jaspert for the incredible amounts of time that he puts into Debian.

And actually, I could go on admiring people all night long. I admire so many people that this interview could become a very boring list of names. I guess it’s better to leave it at saying that Debian is lucky to have quite a lot of excellent hackers around.


Thank you to Marga for the time spent answering my questions. I hope you enjoyed reading her answers as I did. 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, Twitter and Facebook.

My Debian activities in July 2011

This is my monthly summary of my Debian related activities. If you’re among the people who made a donation to support my work (170 €, thanks everybody!), then you can learn how I spent your money. Otherwise it’s just an interesting status update on my various projects.

This month passed by very quickly since I attended both the Libre Software Meeting / RMLL and the DebConf.

Libre Software Meeting / RMLL

I attended “only” 3 days out of the 6 but that was a deliberate choice since I was also attending DebConf for a full week later in the month.

During those 3 days I helped with the Debian booth that was already well taken care of by Frédéric Perrenot and Arnaud Gambonnet. Unfortunately we did not have any goodies to sell. We (as in Debian France) should do better in this regard next time.

One of the talks I attended presented EnVenteLibre. This website started as an online shop for two French associations (Ubuntu-fr, Framasoft). They externalize all the logistic to a company and only have to care about ordering goodies and delivering to the warehouse of the logistic company. They can also take some goodies from the warehouse and ship them for a conference, etc. We discussed a bit to see how Debian France could join, they are even ready to study what can be done to operate at the international level (that would be interesting for Debian with all the local associations that we have throughout the world).

Back to the LSM, while I had 3 good days in Strasbourg, it seems to mee that the event is slowly fading out… it’s far from being an international event and the number of talks doesn’t make for a better quality.

BTW, do you remember that Debconf 0 and Debconf 1 were associated to this event while it was in Bordeaux?

dpkg-source improvements

During my time in Strasbourg (and in particular the travel to go there and back!) I implemented some changes to “3.0 (quilt)” source format. It will now fail to build the source package if there are upstream changes that are not properly recorded in a quilt patch:

dpkg-source: info: local changes detected, the modified files are:
 2ping-1.1/README
dpkg-source: info: you can integrate the local changes with dpkg-source --commit
dpkg-source: error: aborting due to unexpected upstream changes, see /tmp/2ping_1.1-1.diff.cki8YB

As the error message hints, there’s a new --commit command supported by dpkg-source that will generate the required quilt patch to fix this. In the process you will have to submit a name and edit the patch header (pre-formatted with DEP3 compatible fields). You can get back the old behavior with the --auto-commit option.

Build flags changes

Ever since we adopted the Ubuntu changes to let dpkg-buildpackage set some build related environment variables (see #465282), many Debian people expressed their concerns with this approach both because it broke some packages and because those variables are not set if you execute debian/rules directly.

In the end, the change was not quickly reverted and we fixed the package that this change broke. Despite this we later decided that the correct approach to inject build flags would be a new interface: dpkg-buildflags.

Before changing dpkg-buildpackage to no longer set the compilation flags, I wanted to ensure dpkg-buildflags had some decent coverage in the archive (to avoid breaking too many packages again). My criteria was that CDBS and dh (of debhelper) should be using it. With the recent debhelper change (see #544844) this has been reached so I changed dpkg-buildpackage accordingly.

Makefile snippets provided by dpkg

At the same time, I also wanted an easy way for maintainers not using dh or CDBS to be able to fix their package easily and go back to injecting the compilation flags in the environment but doing it from the rules files. Starting with the next version of dpkg, this will be possible with something like this:

DPKG_EXPORT_BUILDFLAGS = 1
include /usr/share/dpkg/default.mk

Without DPKG_EXPORT_BUILDFLAGS the variables are not exported in the environment and have no effect unless you use them somewhere.

More than build flags, this will also provide a bunch of other variables that can be useful in a rules files: all the variables provided by dpkg-architecture, vendor related variables/macro and some basic package information (mainly version related).

dpkg-buildflags improvements

Given the renewed importance that dpkg-buildflags will take now that dpkg-buildpackage no longer sets the corresponding environment variables, I thought that I could give it some love by fixing all the open issues and implementing some suggestions I got.

I also had a chat with a few members of the technical committee to discuss how hardening build flags could be enabled in Debian and this also resulted in a few ideas of improvements.

In the end, here are the main changes implemented:

  • new “prepend” directive to inject flags at the start (see commit);
  • new “strip” directive to strip flags from the result returned by dpkg-buildflags (see commit);
  • new environment variables DEB_flag_MAINT_directive that can be set by the maintainer to adjust what dpkg-buildflags will return (see commit);
  • new --export=configure command to inject build flags on the ./configure command line (see commit);
  • new --dump command that is the default (see #603435).

Will all those changes, the complete set of compilation flags can be returned by dpkg-buildflags (before it would only return the default flags and it was expected that the Debian packaging would add whatever else is required afterwards). Now the maintainer just has to use the new environment variables to ensure the returned values correspond to what the package needs.

DebConf: rolling and hardening build flags

I spent a full week in DebConf (from Sunday 24th to Sunday 31th) and as usual, it’s been a pleasure to meet again all my Debian friends. It’s always difficult to find a good balance between attending talks, working in the hacklab and socializing but I’m pretty happy with the result.

I did not have any goal when I arrived, except managing the Rolling Bof (slides and video here) but all the discussions during talks always lead to a growing TODO list. This year was no exception. The technical committee BoF resulted in some discussions of some of the pending issues, in particular one that interests me: how to enable hardening build flags in Debian (see #552688).

We scheduled another discussion on the topic for Tuesday and the outcome is that dpkg-buildflags is the proper interface to inject hardening build flags provided that it offers a mean to drop unwanted flags and a practical way to inject them in the ./configure command line.

Given this I got to work and implemented those new features and worked with Kees Cook to prepare a patch that enables the hardening build flags by default. It’s not ready to be merged but it’s working already (see my last update in the bug log).

A few words about the Rolling BoF too. The room was pretty crowded: as usual the topic generates lots of interest. My goal with the BoF was very limited, I wanted to weigh the importance of the various opinions expressed in the last gigantic discussion on debian-devel.

It turns out a vast majority of attendants believe that testing is already usable. But when you ask them if we must advertise it more, answers are relatively mixed. When asked if we can sustain lots of testing/rolling users, few people feel qualified to reply but those that do tend to say yes.

More dpkg work

Lots of small things done:

  • I did again some bug triaging on Launchpad. But Brian Murray did a lot of it and the result is impressive, we’re down to 154 bugs (from more than 300 a month ago!).
  • I updated my multiarch branch multiple times. I was hoping to meet Guillem during DebConf to make some progress on this front but alas he did not attend. I have been asked a status update multiple times during my time in DebConf.
  • I fixed a regression in update-alternatives (#633627), a test-suite failure when run as root (#634961), a segfault in findbreakcycle. There have been a bunch of minor improvements too (#634510, #633539, #608260, #632937).

Package Tracking System and DEHS

Christoph Berg recently wrote a replacement for DEHS because the latter was not really reliable and not under control of the QA team. This is a centralized system that uses the watch files to detect new upstream versions of the software available in Debian.

I updated the Package Tracking System to use this new tool instead of DEHS. The new thing works well but we’re still lacking the mail notifications that DEHS used to send out. If someone wants to contribute it, that would be great!

Misc packaging work

I did some preliminary work to update the WordPress package to the latest upstream version (3.2). I still have to test the resulting package, replacing upstream shipped copies of javascript/PHP libraries is always a risk and unfortunately all of them had some changes in the integration process.

I also updated nautilus-dropbox to version 0.6.8 released upstream. I also uploaded the previous version (that was in testing at that time) to squeeze-backports. So there’s now an official package in all the Debian distributions (Squeeze, Wheezy, Sid and Experimental)!

Thanks

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

Solutions Linux this week, DebConf this summer

As announced on my French blog, I’m attending Solutions Linux this week (10-12 May). I’ll be on the Debian booth with a few other members of Debian France.

If you’re in Paris during those days, make sure to come by. I’ll be pleased to meet you, and we’ll be a bunch of Debian contributors ready to answer your questions. And if you feel like it, feel free to stop for a few hours and give us some help at the booth. It tends to be crowded and we’re never enough to answer the questions.

As usual, I’ll come with a copy of the book Cahier de l’Admin Debian (the one that I want to translate into English) to show, and I’ll be glad to dedicate the book to whoever brings his copy with him/her.

While speaking of conferences, this summer I’m going to Banja Luka for DebConf 2011. I’ve bought my plane tickets and I’ll be there the whole week (24-31 july).

Joining a DebConf is a completely different experience. DebConf is made by Debian people for Debian people. It’s an opportunity to meet many of the people that you mainly know over IRC/email.

And you don’t need to be a hardcore Debian contributor to join. In fact, it’s a great experience for anyone who just started contributing to Debian. Read this email of Asheesh Laroia as a proof. Note that the sponsored registration period has been extended up to the 17th of May. Register now!

I’m looking forward to DebConf11. On request of Stefano, I registered a Debian Rolling Bof. It will be a good occasion to see how far we are and to discuss future plans.

People behind Debian: Joey Hess of debhelper fame


I decided recently to publish interviews from Debian contributors and I picked Joey Hess as my first target. He’s one of the few who have heavily influenced Debian by creating software that have become building blocks of the project, like the debian-installer (Joey uses the shorthand d-i to refer to it).

My questions are in bold, the rest is by Joey (except for the additional information that I inserted in italics).

Who are you?

Hello, I’m Joey Hess. I’m one of the oldtimers in Debian. Actually, I just checked, and there are still up to nineteen active Debian Developers who joined the project before I did, in 1996. I got started fairly young, and am “just” 34 years old.

I spend part of my time working with Lars Wirzenius, another Debian oldtimer, on Branchable. It makes it dead-easy for anyone to make a website that is built from Git, using my Ikiwiki engine to do wiki and blog style things. These days I spend the rest of my time working on free software, when I should really be looking for work to pay the bills.

What’s your biggest achievement within Debian or Ubuntu?

I guess I’m mostly known by Debian developers for writing debhelper and perhaps debconf. Probably founding the Debian Installer project has been a bigger impact for users. I’m fairly equally proud of all three projects. But while it might sound corny, I am more proud of the accumulation of all the smaller things done in the context of Debian. It’s more of a deep connection to the project. All the bugs fixed, and filed, and packages uploaded, and late night discussions, and just being a part of the larger project.

What are your plans for Debian Wheezy?

Hmm, I stopped thinking of Debian releases by code names back around Slink. :) So, few specific plans for Wheezy. The main thing I would like to help make happen in Debian next is Constantly Usable Testing, and it transcends releases anyway. The only specific plans I have for Wheezy are that there will probably be a new debhelper compat level, and I hope d-i will finally switch to using git.

RH: You can learn more about “Constantly Usable Testing” in my article Can Debian offer a Constantly Usable Testing distribution?.

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

Getting Debian on all these computers that we carry around in our pockets and can’t easily run apt-get on and hack on. Phones that is. It’s a bigger problem than just Debian, but I think Debian needs to find a way to be part of the eventual solution. The FreedomBox concept at least hints at a way around the current situation with embedded computers in general.

What’s the biggest problem of Debian?

I believe that the biggest problem is institutional, social and technological inertia. Every specific case of something that frustrates me about Debian today can be traced back to that.

You contribute regularly to Debian mailing lists, yet I don’t remember any aggressive/frustrated mail of you. How do you manage that? Are you avoiding heated discussions?

Rats, sounds like all my wonderful flames of years past have been forgotten!

Seriously though, after I noticed thread patterns, I started trying to avoid participating in the bad patterns myself. Now I limit myself to one expression of an opinion, and I don’t care who gets the last word. If people can’t be convinced, it’s time to find another approach to the problem. Also, code talks.

Most of the programs you wrote for Debian are in Perl. Do you regret this choice?

I love that question! No, no regrets. My only concern is whether the language limits contributors or users. I have not seen Perl significantly limiting the use of anything except for debconf (we had to rewrite it in C for d-i). And I do not notice fewer contributions to my Perl-based code than to other code.

I do sometimes regret when someone tells me they had to learn or re-learn Perl to work on something I wrote. But while I’m enjoying writing new things in Haskell now, and while I hope it will mean less maintenance burden later, I don’t think using Haskell will make it easier for others to contribute to my programs. Anyway, for me the interesting thing about writing a program is the problem it solves and the decisions made doing it. Choice of language is one of the less interesting decisions.

Is there someone in Debian that you admire for his contributions?

Well, lots. You’re tempting me to throw a dart at a map. So arbitrarily, I’ll say Anthony Towns. We could all learn something from how he’s approached making big, fundamental changes, like introducing Testing, and making Debian Maintainers happen.


Thank you to Joey for the time spent answering my questions. I hope you enjoyed reading his answers as I did. Subscribe to my newsletter and don’t miss further interviews. You can also follow along on Identi.ca, Twitter and Facebook.

PS: If you want to suggest me someone to interview, leave a comment or mail me.

Flights for Debconf

I have booked my flights for Debconf9 in July. I will arrive in Madrid on July 23th at 10:30 from Lyon Saint-Exupéry (LYS-MAD, flight AF5891) and I will leave on July 31th at 17:40 (MAD-LYS, flight AF5892). I plan to use the train to go to Cáceres but it’s too early to buy tickets on renfe.es. I also have no idea how far the train station is (from the airport) but it looks like I will have several hours transit time anyway. There aren’t so many trains for Cáceres. The train tickets will likely cost around 30 EUR each.

I’m glad that I can attend again this year. I’m sure it will be very productive. At least concerning dpkg it will be good to meet Guillem Jover IRL.