Well, the first day of Open Source Bridge has come to a close. I expected to be writing this entry at the Hacker Lounge while I was volunteering as coordinator there, but Christie (amazing volunteer lead) informed me that the lounge was pretty dead. As a result, I’m still writing during the wee hours of the night, but I’m doing so while attending to some cooking and cleaning that I didn’t think I’d have time for this week. It’s bittersweet – I desperately needed the free time but I am sad that it didn’t look like any late-night hijinx were shaping up.
However, the hacker lounge (at a great central location in the Mark Building of the Portland Art Museum earlier today – you hit it basically right after you come inside the building), was a hubbub of activity during the core of the event, as this photo I took literally minutes before a session started shows:
My biggest disappointment with the event so far has been personal; I felt tired and a lot less social than I would have liked for an event where, imho, it’s tremendously easier to be social and get to know folks than at larger conferences. I definitely had a lot more of that last year, but today I mostly kept to myself, even with local friends, who I mostly exchanged smiles with. That has a lot to do with a bunch of stress in my non-professional life more than anything about the conference itself. Even yesterday when I showed up to help with event setup (which was blessedly overstaffed – I stuffed some nametags and then headed home), both Christie and Sherri commented on how tired I looked. Nothing like going into a conference feeling tired, and knowing that your sleeping schedule is likely to be compromised in the week ahead with a conference that pretty much packs in a 24-hour-day of geeky goodness.
Outward social disappointment aside, I actually “came to know of” quite a few awesome people throughout the day’s events. I followed eleven new people on Twitter today, and I suspect to add an additional number tomorrow. This event in general has been a great chance to re-acquaint myself with Twitter, which I fell out of using when my personal computer was in the shop for a solid month last August. I’ve been using Facebook more heavily since then, but today’s conference was a reminder of why Twitter provides a great connection to the “life force” of tech communities. I repeated what I did last year with regards to note-taking during sessions, mostly because I get a kick out of reading the tweets of those attending the sessions I had to miss (if only there weren’t five at once to choose from!). Once again, I was really pleased to see that, by and large, during any one session time, every talk available was considered a winner. Gave me warm fuzzies for pretty much everybody involved in this conference, from planners to speakers to attendees.
To get on with the show, here’s an overview of My Day in Talks:
One overarching theme with regards to the set of talks I attended today was that they didn’t necessarily teach me a lot in the immediate sense but gave me a Whole Lot to Chew On and Research Later. To that degree, the talks had a bit more of a cultural than technical slant, but not exclusively. My main worry with these type of talks is that it is so easy to get caught back up in the craziness of life before really letting the fullness of the content sink in. To that end, I hope doing some mad del.icio.us tagging this afternoon helped, but we’ll see.
The conference-opening keynote was Danny O’Brien presenting Free Speech, Free Software Across the World. Despite Danny’s insistence that his speech would not be funny, he was a really charming speaker and I definitely cracked a smile (or a chuckle) quite a few times, even amidst the 9 am mental haze. O’Brien discussed the victory that is open source software being used worldwide, and he also discussed some of the (negative) consequences that come as a result of this usage. It was an excellent exercise in checking my privilege, as a citizen of a society where the data I create is unlikely to be used against me (at least by the government). O’Brien’s best example of a way that open source can be “used for evil” came with regards to the “default settings” that we take for granted – even if a program is intended to be customized after launch, the default becomes “the way things are”, and this can become a problem when your default is non-encryption and verbose logging (two examples). Logging in general was placed in a new light – while helpful debugging tools for developers, oppressive regimes can use logging data to identify and then punish activists who disagree with them. Although data retention policy has become a hot topic in the U.S. lately due to Facebook’s careless attitude about privacy, it becomes clear that the stakes are even higher in countries where a company with the wrong data management policy can become an accessory to an oppressive regime.
I opted for Matt Youell and Markus Roberts’ When Everything Looks Like a Nail over Hal Pomeranz’s The Return of Command Line Kung Fu for the long morning session. I saw all three speakers last year, and although I loved Command Line Kung Fu, I also felt like I hadn’t spent enough quality time with Hal’s corresponding Command Line Kung Fu Blog in the past year to justify a return visit where I’d get full benefit. I plan on spending some time with the blog following the conference, and in the meantime I heard that the Command Line Kung Fu redux was great. I went the more masochistic route with Matt and Markus, who have a knack for coming up with the most painful programming scenarios I can imagine, all while packaging them in a humorous container that allows one to forgive such sins. Last year, they started out the journey of pain by showing code excerpts that clearly looked like one language (say, python), but when the full script was revealed, were actually another language entirely (let’s say C).
The kind of exercises that Markus and Matt embark on in these talks (last year’s Spindle, Mutilate, and Metaprogram and now this year’s) would normally make my blood boil. They bring to mind an exam I had in my senior-year college programming class, that I had with a professor who was fond of similar experiments in coding torture. I had an exam question that presented a section of code, with directions that said “This code compiles. What is x?” In the code, x is named no less than 10 different times, as an identifier for variables, classes, and other code components. My default response is “Screw x, no code like this should EVER be written,”, but despite my immediate negative reaction to this stuff, my old professor, and Markus and Matt, are really pretty likeable. So I keep paying attention to the exercise. What I liked about today’s presentation was that they did try to close out with a point to all of this self-flagellation by way of code, which was very much a “larger thing to chew on” but still a pretty good conclusion.
That said, “Looks Like a Nail” led us through various situations where we were presented programming problems and given one tool (the proverbial hammer) to solve these problems with. We started out with SQL (one code excerpt included bits that were “supposed to work in 2016″ for some painfully slow graphics rendering). We moved to the ed text editor. We then looked at a program that used sound as code and also introduced a hypothetical alterna-universe where jello was used as a conductor of that sound. It got pretty out there, but Markus and Matt had the props and humor to guide us through, and at the end the lesson was: even if you start out with a hammer, we’re ingenuous enough people that we’ll use that hammer to construct other tools to make our jobs easier. So although none of us are in real-world situations where we’re limited to one obscure technology to carry out our whims, it’s a nice insight on human innovation and the continuous improvements we make in order to make the art of creating that much easier.
After lunch (which was uneventful – I am using the time all week to check in with my office instead of playing at the food carts, which is a judicious but unfortunate choice), I had my most difficult decision of the day – three talks that I desperately wanted to attend. I ended up opting out of Chris Messina’s Activity Streams, Socialism, and the Future of Open Source talk (luckily – he posted his slides! – ready to be devoured later). I also opted out of Moonlighting in Sunlight, which was all about the legal issues that may arise when one has a full-time job and is contributing to open-source projects. I first became aware of this issue a mere month or two ago during our negotiation talks at Code N Splode, and I’ve been eager to learn more since then. If I revisted things, this is probably the talk I would have attended, as there aren’t session notes yet and it seems like very practical information for a person who keeps intending to get involved in an open source project… eventually. I work for an employer who has been burned in the past by non-compete agreements that have been too lax, and since has introduced a more strict NDA, so I will definitely be at least going from the presence of this talk and re-reading the documents I signed when I started my job, and doing some web searches on the topic. In the meantime, Sumana’s session later in the day (to be detailed momentarily) was a nice complement to this talk and filled in some of the gaps.
The talk I ended up attending was HyperCard 2010: Why Johnny Can’t Code. I admit I went to this purely out of nostalgia, as I fell in love with HyperCard in late junior high / early high school when it was used in the occasional computer and science class project (I am lucky enough to have a father who realized what I was doing at the time was a form of programming and that I might be interested in pursuing it further, because I didn’t make that connection at all!) Presenter Devin Chalmers was similarly nostalgic for this technology, and we got some great context about the overarching goals of Hypercard’s creators (Alan Kay and Bill Atkinson), as well as some choice quotes. This was the talk of the day that was heaviest in “bigger questions” and more abstract culture issues. Nostalgia is a deceptive beast, and although older computers did necessarily require users to be more of a power user than they are today, we programmers forget that such a requirement excluded a LOT of people from computer use – the user base was drastically smaller than it is today. I’ll be interested to see what the programmers of the future, who are just being exposed to their first trinkets now, have nostalgia about in 10-15 years, like Devin and I have about Hypercard. Hypercard was a great swiss army knife of an application – but as Devin pointed out, a world of task-specific applications have come out of the woodwork to fill these use cases, from presentation software (I had to use Hypercard as a PowerPoint of sorts in a high school Biology class) to Facebook or the assorted smartphone apps that allow you to keep track of x, y, and z. An audience member also mentioned Scratch, which I’m interested in playing with later. Initiation experiences to programming were especially interesting to me in college, but since then I’ve let go of the passion – the Hypercard talk brought back a lot of that overall discussion, but the more practical side of me was nonetheless second-guessing my session choice. Isn’t that how it goes with conferences that are packed with great options?
I spent the mid-afternoon session at the Open Government Directive talk, which was a well-scheduled panel discussion about the challenges presented by using technology and the open source ethos to inspire civic engagement online. I was introduced to two projects, White House 2 and Democracy Lab. One of my note-taking tweets was also misread as my taking a stance as a small-government conservative (I’m definitely not) – and re-reading it I see that; woe be the problems when you’re limited to only 140 characters and someone peeks in without prior context. The comment was mentioned in the context of the challenges that partisanship presents in these endeavors, in particular: if a project is about improving government overall, what to do about the ideological conflict presented by conservatives or libertarians, who have totally different goals in mind – because they don’t necessarily want better government (they want smaller government)? And that is as political as I’ll get here (I’m generally not a fan of such discussions in the public sphere).
Post-coffee-break, my next session was Encouraging Open-Source Work at For-Profits with Sumana Harihareswara (I also mentioned this talk in my “Looking Forward to Open Source Bridge” post last week). This talk was a pleasant surprise in that it went far beyond “how to encourage your boss to consider the LAMP stack versus a proprietary web platform”. In fact, we hardly dwelled on that – instead, we talked about cultivating the open source ethos within the workplace, with some great, anonymized real-life anecdotes of where the open source philosophy in a for-profit workplace can go horribly awry (or be implemented in portions that suffer without the whole). Sumana posted her entire session in the session notes post-talk, so I won’t go into too much detail here, but I thought her thread on avoiding isolationism was the most important. This industry has an isolating tendency in general (both as organizations and among individual workers), but understanding that innovation is always a byproduct of being tapped in to a larger ecosystem is important (a story about a company where the employees were only allowed to use email and were not allowed to do any research via the internet – it gets worse than I am explaining here – was an utter nightmare). We’re also likely to make better choices when we avoid isolationism – a lot of companies choose a proprietary solution because it’s “what they know”, and in that case, it’s a good option to be the “innocent pain in the ass”, as Sumana put it, and suggest looking into other options.
In general, it was great to see a Geek Feminism author be such a confident and entertaining presenter. Sumana spoke without slides (because she said she’d rather have no slides than bad slides, and had been busy at another conference before this one), but did so in a way that kept the audience engaged. If I haven’t made my status as a Geek Feminism fangirl clear enough yet, here it is again. And I get a real kick out of things when it turns out that fellow female technologists are such kick-ass presenters.
The final presentation of the day, A Naive Developer’s Guide to Venture Capital, was also the most disappointing, although it was to little fault of the presenter (she, like most of us, wasn’t able to effectively shut down a Presentation Derailer, and I can’t blame her. I was passive-aggressively tweeting about it instead of trying to step in myself.) I felt like I was back in my introductory CS class in college, where Joe Programmer is required to take the 201 level class, but thinks he is so above it already, and as a result (for reasons that are still incomprehensible to me) asks obscure questions that have no bearing on the fundamentals of the subject matter throughout the class. When I took said 201-level class, my professor had trouble dealing with these guys because it was clear he enjoyed discussion about the unrelated details, like a lot of tech types do – and as a result I ended up writing a pretty scathing review of the class in general when I was done. My view towards the “presenter” has softened significantly since then, and I generally feel that the blame lies solely with the derailer / heckler for putting the presenter in such a situation where they have sole responsibility to get the discussion back on track. It’s just common courtesy, nevermind acting like a mature adult, to go to either a class or a conference presentation and defer to the presenter as the expert. It’s common courtesy to think ahead of time before you interject with a question or observation – “is this to the benefit of the whole audience, or just me? Will there be an appropriate time to ask this later?”. And it’s just outright rude to dominate the flow of the presentation if you’re an audience member. The presenter is the one who went to the work of submitting the talk proposal, not the attendees. So keep quiet until the scheduled moment to follow up with questions and feedback.
What really struck me about the heckler in this particular presentation was that the session was clearly framed as an introduction. I can totally understand going to a presentation as a hobbyist who is looking for some morsels to chew on on – in fact, I think many of Friday’s unconference sessions will probably be a lot like that. But this session was clearly NOT that sort of gathering, and as a result, having an audience member interrupt with his own insights every minute or so was immensely aggravating. My blood started to boil when the derailer challenged the presenter on some of her assertions midway through the talk, because in his experience the international world of VC was different – nevermind that she had started the talk from the get-go by explaining that her expertise was specific to the Silicon Valley area. Amy was a brave soul and finally spoke up and said that perhaps said heckler should save his questions for after the presentation, so we could make sure to finish – of course, the heckler wasn’t really asking questions, he was trying to give his own presentation in parallel. It was infuriating and distracting and it really kept me from absorbing the original presentation.
The talk ran long (and when it’s the last talk of the day – my body had been stuck in a seat all day, and was screaming for movement), which was expected due to the heckler, but was also a disappointment because that’s when things really got interesting. I suspect I am like a lot of programmers who see the VC world as a “necessary evil”; I find that a bit of bile rises in my throat when I think about it. The VC model is, so far, the proven way to fund technology and innovation, but it’s rife with problems. The VC industry is demonstrably sexist and therefore perpetuates the already miserable gender disparity in the tech industry (here is one article from TechCrunch supporting this statement; it is not the exact article I read at the time it came out but reports on the same research). There are also a multitude of problems with the industry being almost exclusively located in Silicon Valley, and requiring most companies to be based there as a result. There are countless innovative people who want to start businesses all over the country, but they, like myself, DO NOT WANT TO LIVE IN SILICON VALLEY. Like a lot of systems in business, VC is rife with inefficiencies, but learning more about it seems the straightest route to figuring out how to work with the system for the better. I know that Portland really suffers for this – we have a lot of innovation but the disconnection from the Silicon Valley VC and corresponding executive talent hurts our growth (Silicon Florist discusses this in far better detail).
Anyhow, I mention all of these complexities because that’s what drove me to the talk, what drove me to fight the bile in my throat and learn more. Joyce Park, the presenter, was doing a great job of being pretty real about the whole process and some of the ridiculousness that is inherent to it. It’s just too bad that a heckler derailed the bulk of it, and I was left to fume from behind my computer. In the moments that I was tempted to speak up, I suspect that I would not have handled it like an adult, because I was so miffed. Amy was far more diplomatic!
…and, approximately 3500 words later, that’s all for Day One of the conference. It’s about the time that my Hacker Lounge volunteerism would have wrapped up anyhow, so I need to be heading to bed – given that tiredness has been the biggest impediment to my fully enjoying the conference. I am looking forward to more fun tomorrow – a mind buzzing with more “tech concepts to investigate” than I can possibly manage at once, a smattering of cool and inspiring people, and most excitingly, all sorts of tech women that I am seeing at this conference for the very first time and can’t wait to learn more about. There is a lot to love about Open Source Bridge, but I will reiterate how much I love its ability to attract so many amazing technical women. Can’t wait to see more of them tomorrow!