South East Linux Fest

I enjoy listening to a lot of podcasts. Those close to me would say that I listen to way too many podcasts. Before the intervention one of the podcasts that I enjoyed listening to was Destination Linux. The hosts kept talking about this neat little convention for Linux users that they were attending. I checked it out on their website and it turned out it was close enough for me to consider attending. I made the plans and decided to go with Kylie.

South East Linux Fest took place from June 14th to June 16th, 2019. We arrived a day late due to schedule conflicts with the first day, but none of the talks seemed interesting enough to go to anyway. I was really looking forward to going to Michael Tunnell's talk on Kdenlive, because I always hear him on the show being so passionate about that program. (His talk was pretty nice albeit scattered.) The first talk we went to on Saturday morning was called "Hackers and Onions: Community for Makers and Breakers" and it was given by Susan Sons.1 This is where it gets interesting.

The talk started out with a nice anecdote about a climbing wall. This wall had a bunch of rules that were put in place to keep people safe. Her group of friends decided to have a knife fight on the climbing wall instead of following the rules because they... seem like the type of people to break rules. But it was okay because four of them are trained knife fighters and the fifth is a search and rescue medic. That definitely makes it okay.

After that Susan told a story about how the name of this fantastical organization she was describing came to be. The Onion Futures Club was named after a massive failure by a few futures traders in the 1950s. Congress even passed a law against trading onion futures due to this mistake. This is supposed to instill in the club a feeling of reassurance from failure.

I agree with the sentiment here. Failure is okay. Failure is an important part of life, and if you don't fail, you don't grow. I myself suffer from this kind of perfectionism, where I won't try anything that I don't feel like I will succeed in. It seems like at this exact point our philosophies diverge.

The speaker said a few words about a convention in Louisville, KY called DerbyCon. She spoke of how much the atmosphere of the con clicked with her, and how she was upset that this year was its last. Susan then gave us one side of the story on why Derbycon is ending. She said that a group of people who liked getting a little too offended decided to manufacture drama in places it shouldn't have been. She quoted from a blog post on Derbycon's website, which stated that "small, yet vocal group of people creating negativity, polarization, and disruption, with the primary intent of self-promotion to advance a career, for personal gain, or for more social media followers."2

Now this is where I started to do a little googling. I came across an article published by The Daily Swig entitled "DerbyCon blames disruptive minority in calling time on conference".3 This article quotes the same blog post, but also gives a separate side of the story. I won't quote the full article here, mostly because I don't know how to make that look good with my current website code, but the gist of it is this: A public poster board was titled "what helps you relax" and attendees were offered to write answers to this question. One wrote "boobies" and another wrote "#metoo". This "...[provoked] complaints about trivializing sexual assault". After the offending comments were covered up, "[a] dispute exploded onto social media".

This left me a little confused. Was Susan upset that someone tried to call out someone else on bad behavior? Was she upset that her favorite con got ruined by a bunch of silly drama? So I kept listening.

She finally got around to describing her 501(c)7 social club called the Onion Futures Club Limited, or OFCL. The group was founded on the idea that "it's okay to be wrong", and that "we shouldn't self censor to appease other people". The group advertises full member anonymity, besides the three chairpersons in charge of the budgets. Dues are requrired to vote and potential members must prove themselves worthy of the group.

She talked about how her ideal member's meeting is a cookout where each member would stand up and give something like a bullet talk on the "most controversial subject" they could think about. She encouraged members to play devil's advocate if need be, just to see how unpopular of an idea they could muster. Other members would question the idea and then the next person would start.

At this point I was just taken aback at the entire concept of this group. I started to realize where I really was, a conference of Linux-adjacent geeks in the south. This hotel was full of anti-government free speech free software advocates who just wanted to say what they had on their minds without repercussions. As I stated before, I have no problem with someone being wrong, however with the stipulation that someone else is there to correct the first person. There's nothing gained from just shouting your self-professed wrongness into the void and having nothing change. It seems to me that a group like that is just a breeding ground for dangerous ideas.

I don't mean to say at all that I have the correct opinion on this. In general, I think something like this club is good for people. Being able to experiment with ideas and make things with your hands in the presence of tons of smart people sounds amazing. And being able to fail without anyone being mad at you? Amazing! But allowing your organization to spread hate speech within itself is not healthy at all.

Another amazing example of hatred at this convention is the presence of Eric S. Raymond. It is to my understanding that he used to be a respected member of the community, and an author of many a great book about software. He also believes that women should stay out of tech conferences, because they will falsely accuse everyone of sexual assault. He also dabbled in "scientific racism".4 He remains having a platform at this convention.

I don't really understand how to close this post. I guess I'm a little upset that the convention I was really looking forward to turned out so... upsetting. I wanted to go and enjoy some talks, meet some people, and grab some stickers. I ended up feeling invalidated. I'm sure there's some larger point to be made here about the culture of open source not being very welcoming, but I am so far sequestered from the community at this point that I can't make it. I just wanted to share my thoughts and feelings with anyone who cares to read. Thanks.

Footnotes

1

Susan's website is https://security.engineering/.