Reports from OSCON 2011

Here I am once more at the best organized open source gathering in the world, OSCON. This is my third trip to Portland, OR for this event, having attended in 2008 and 2010. Portland is modern and vibrant, lush, young, exciting. I would live here in a heartbeat.

the Portland, OR Lloyd Center District

This time at OSCON, I’ve registered for the extra half-day tutorial sessions. These are more intensive than the shorter sessions of the conference proper. I will attend four of these, today and tomorrow. Instead of posting notes in real time as I usually do, I will summarize these tutorials after the fact.

Monday morning – Damian Conway on ‘Presentation Aikido’

As some of you might know, I occasionally like to give presentations on technical topics. This probably comes from attending a lot of them, and feeling the benefit of this format for information exchange. It may also be a symptom of my having majored in theatre, while ending up working in computers. Either way, selecting Damian Conway’s talk was a no-brainer for me, as I’d love to do a much, much better job at giving what I call ‘good slide show’.

Damian is a genius and a master showman, in addition to being the author of Perl Best Practices and other books. Confidence in his methods, if not proven to you in the pudding as he speaks (it will be), is supported by the fact that Damian’s sole income is from speaking engagements. I hadn’t known this, and wonder how long that’s been the case.

I took pretty detailed notes on Damian’s talk, despite the hardcopy he also provided, but will only bullet out a few favorite quotes and observations…

  • “I like telling anecdotes. It humanizes me.” [humanizing oneself can be important when giving technical talks. -ed.]
  • “Prowl the stage like a lion.”
  • Damian introduced me the Takahashi method of presenting slides. Obviously very influential but I hadn’t known there was a name for it.
  • Content, Damian explains, doesn’t matter so much as style in giving presentations. So true. Of course, if you have both, you have a real winner.
  • Oops. I’ve definitely made a couple mistakes Damian is pointing out. Putting complete sentences on slides. Overwhelming the audience with information or too-complex charts.
  • If you don’t have your own style, steal from those who have the best style. Bang & Olufsen and the Japanese are given as examples.
  • Damian’s approach to presenting to humans is a zoological study. Many of his insights on the social dynamics of speaking to a group are insights on speaking to a group of primates. Can’t argue with any of it; he’s one of the best speakers I’ve ever seen. Anyone got a banana?
  • Damian admires David Attenborough for the way he engages with his subject matter (usually, animals) in his documentaries. Oddly I discovered Attenborough recently, having watched his Life of Mammals series early this summer.

I could say so much more about Damian Conway and this talk, but I won’t. You might have the chance to see it sometime. I can think of no reason not to attend his ‘Advanced Vim’ tutorial this afternoon (Tuesday), despite several other interesting offerings. I could certainly stand to be better at Vim, and Damian never disappoints, promising even more style than content, entertainment being king.

Monday afternoon – Joshua Marinacci on ‘HTML5 Canvas Deep Dive’

‘Canvas’ is a new feature available in modern browsers. If SVG is the Adobe Illustrator of the web (vector graphics), Canvas is the Photoshop (bitmap, pixel-oriented graphics). I am sure graphics experts would correct me on several points here, but these generalizations are good enough for the rest of us.

To be honest, I knew from the beginning of this talk that I wouldn’t be programming directly against canvas in my day to day work. So although the low-level exercises we did were fun, my mind was elsewhere. For a business programmer like me, it’s only important to know which browsers support canvas, and what options might be available for it. For instance, I have begun switching from the Flash-based charting solution to RGraph, which uses canvas and therefore support iOS devices.

I think it would be a blast to work on graphics projects again… I used to do a fair amount of Flash and other graphics work… but in recent years I’ve been asked for practical machines more than glossy covers… content, I suppose, over style. So my skills have slipped in the aesthetics department.

Tuesday morning – Remy Sharp on ‘Is HTML5 Ready for Production?’

Similar to Monday’s second talk, this is an HTML5 talk with coverage of canvas and plenty of little exercises for us to do. So, this is mostly a tutorial, although Remy does address the ‘production ready?’ issue by pointing out that even CSS 2.1 isn’t completing implemented, to spec, in all modern browsers, but we’ve all been cherry picking the best-supported features for years. True. Specs are almost always implemented incompletely, so we really need to make judgment calls about feature support on a case-by-case basis. This is part of what continues to make professional web development a challenging and expert-oriented field.

The most enlightening portion of this talk, for me, was Remy’s explanation of Web Storage as a replacement for cookies. Web Storage is its own spec, separate from HTML5 (like many features are, actually, despite being bundled with HTML5 in common parlance), and needs to be considered on its own. But this looks good to me. If I end up implementing a more robust session management system than my current one, I’ll be looking at Web Storage more closely.

Tuesday afternoon – Damian Conway on ‘Advanced Vim’

I am particularly glad for Damian’s practice of providing hardcopy handouts for his presentations in this case. Lots of Vim commands in a short period of time, none of which I’d like to be writing down as he covers them. Later on, I’ll have a grand old time spiffing up my .vimrc file, going by his pamphlet.

Terminal-based text editors hail from a time before the mouse, but I still use Vim quite a bit when I’m roaming around servers, wearing my sys admin hat, messing with config files and such. I ought to get a *little* better at it, at least. Luckily, most of the things I am learning today will simply be permanent settings in my .vimrc file, not things I will need to ‘download into my fingers’, as Damian put it.

Wednesday at OSCON

Summarizing the keynotes:

  • Ubuntu community manager, on the growth of community management as a career path.
  • Python guy, giving an award to a major Python contributor
  • Microsoft guy from Italy, with a couple of interesting announcements about what he terms ‘open surface’ projects: first, that they will support Red Hat 6 on their new VM platform, and second that PHP and node.js will be supported on their Azure application platform. This is what is meant by ‘open surface’… the core of the product is commercial, Microsoft stuff… but the surface… the functionality they are selling… is open source. Quite a strange twist of fate Microsoft is experiencing these days.
  • Now the gal who created spacehack.org, with a snappy slideshow, is being well received.
  • Now a guy selling OpenStack/OpenCompute… this talk seems too sales-y… no matter how cool his product might be. Pep talk at the end about opening up hardware as well as software may have redeemed him.

Now that the keynotes are over, I’ll switch to my timestamped notes format.

11:57am: wrapping up a session now on ‘Programming Well With Others: Social Skills for Geeks’. These are two guys form the Subversion project, telling some community anecdotes, such as when a famous geek (unnamed) filed a bug report along with a slew of insults, or when a lurker on the mailing list started posting every little thing on his mind. Also a contributor who tried to insist on having his name in ‘his’ file.

2:26pm: Continuing my HTML5 binge at this conference, the talk I just attended was called ‘HTML5: All About Web Forms’. Considering how support for the new input types is being handled by smartphones, it’s starting to become tempting to use HTML5 in earnest. One still has to consider folks on older browsers, of course, if by some chance they are also potential users… but what about application power users? Administrative users? I may start dabbling in HTML5 for this population and require modern browsers for them, especially if I can support mobile better in the process. I feel like 2 or 3 years from now, web development is going to be in an even better position than it is today, as far as developer efficiency.

2:32pm: ‘HTML5 in Your Pocket: Application Cache and Local Storage’. The HTML5 beat goes on. I think this conference is scaring me into taking mobile as seriously as I should.

I like this guy. He’s preaching bypassing the app store and native development and reaching for HTML5 first. The barrier to entry, development-wise, is infinitely lower, and the same code will run on desktops and laptops. He also just recommended this book, free online.

The meat of this talk is about Local Storage and Application Storage, the former being the heir apparent to cookies in session management. Second time I’ve heard it here; must be true. Cookies provided about 4K of space; Local Storage provides 5MB.

Another site recommendation: HTML5 Rocks.

[I totally petered out Wednesday afternoon. My mind buckled beneath the weight of a growing to-do list, which was fertilized by all this new information. A nap ensued.]

The Portland, OR MAX

Thursday at OSCON

9:20am: since the continuing keynotes are being streamed live on oscon.com, you could always head over there and check them out. Right now Jim Zemlin of the Linux Foundation is reviewing 20 years of Linux. It really is amazing how far the operating system has come. I hadn’t realized that Red Hat has outperformed Microsoft on the stock exchange by a factor a 4 over the past decade. I had heard that MS has fallen below both Apple and IBM in market cap in the past couple of years.

9:28am: This next keynote is quite interesting. I knew that antibiotics were becoming less and less effective, making hospitals more dangerous, but I didn’t realize that health industry analysts are aiming to move health care outside of hospitals entirely. This would be aided by healthcare IT, which as you might suspect, is woefully behind the times. Speaker ends the keynote by stating that it’s less risky to go skydiving today than it is to go to the hospital. Ouch.

9:34am: Now it’s Eri Gentry of BioCurious, which has to be one of the great company names of all time. She’s explaining how the world of biotech is not friendly to ‘lean’ startups. The field is also fraught, like many big money fields, with intellectual proprietorship. It’s pretty easy to see why visionaries in the health and biotech fields… those with new ideas and hoping to innovate… are looking to open source geeks for tips on how to set information free.

Setting science free from the PhDs… I like that. Imagine if you needed a PhD before you were allowed to write a line of production code? We’d still be on paper.

It strikes me that what we’re trying to do… or preserve?… with open source and open approaches to non-computer-related ideas… is something like the American dream itself. Capitalism enables that dream, but turns evil only as the early winners wall their gardens, and raise the barrier of entry to that dream. Is this too lofty a description of the spirit of open source?

Great motto: BioCurious? Experiment with Friends.

9:54am: John Graham-Cumming was unable to attend due to flight problems, but delivered a video instead, largely looking back on Alan Turing and on the future of inclusiveness in the computing community.

10:11am: Next up, Gabe Zichermann points out how open source needs to better engage end users through the use of ‘gamification’. What would motivate end users to care as much about this stuff as we do? The Gamification Summit in NYC this September looks interesting.

One gamification concept: speed camera lottery. You know those automatic radar traps that send you a ticket if you speed? In Sweden, there are deploying a ‘speed camera lottery’ which enters non-speeders in a lottery to receive the monies earned from ticketed speeders. Reduction in speeding violations over vanilla auto-ticketing methods: 20%.

And how much will a speeding ticket cost you if you speed anyway? Welcome to Socialism; it’s based on your income.

10:40am: Penance will now be paid for my having missed Damian Conway’s Perl 6 talk yesterday. Yes, I’m officially a Damian fanboy now; if he’s talking (and I’m awake), I’m listening. This talk is simply titled The Conway Channel 2011, so your guess on the topic is as good as mine. But this is the blind faith observable in all fandom.

Turns out he will talk about four of his modules on CPAN.

First up: Regexp::Grammars. This involves the advanced parsing techniques for domain specific languages (DSLs). If you’re lost already, don’t expect me to find you, because folks, I’m still looking for myself. Suffice it to say that the regular expressions are the least confusing aspect here, and I do not have a computer science background.

But weirder: I’m sort of following this. In these areas you might say, I am able to appreciate the some of the nuances of a great film, but not quite direct one.

Next up IO::Prompter (an improvement on IO::Prompt) for prompting at the command line. It requires Perl 5.10+. It has builtin validation for entered data (nice), including a distinction between ‘must’ (invalid data will be reprimanded for) and ‘guarantee’ (keyboard will not work for invali data). Draconian!

It also has timeouts and defaults when the timeout expires. Very neat. Supports password data type, to obscure what’s typed on the screen ala HTML password type. Wow, it also has history and filename completion.

This module is awesome. I’ve long been wanting to teach some basic Perl to my daughter, some kind of command-line prompted program… this would make that a lot easier and more fun, skipping the annoying bits and letting her get into her own ideas quicker.

Next up: Data::Show (and Data::Show::Names). An improvement on Data::Dumper and Data::Dump, giving you the option of viewing the data being handled by Perl in much more granular (line-identified) format.

Funny Voltaire joke: “The perfect is the enemy of the good,” wrote Voltaire. Modern day IT translation: “If it compiles, ship it.”

This was followed by a slew of yet geekier in-code jokes to which I’d be doing a disservice to attempt retelling. Check out the Acme::Crap module on CPAN… and don’t tell it I sent you.

11:30am: Now for Jacinta Richardson with “Perl Programming Best Practices 2011″. Hopefully she will contrast any updated suggestions with the ones in Damian’s classic PBP book, since that’s the bible. Interestingly, Jacinta is yet another Australian.

She’s going fast. Real fast. So I can’t capture what I’d like to here. The rub is however, use the most recent version of Perl that you can, and read up on some of the new features. Mentions of autodie, Try::Tiny, etc.

A module should not use die for error handling, it should use Carp and croak. This makes sure that the error is reported at the line of the main program, not the module, placing blame in the correct place.

Bearing more research: local::lib. Not quite sure what it gives us beyond ‘use lib;’ but clearly it does and I’ll need to find out.

Interesting: minicpan. All the latest module versions on CPAN add up to about 5GB, so why not have them on your development machine, ready to be installed if needed while online? Nice airplane mode for Perl, right there.

Smart::Comments. Also worth checking out. Excuse my brevity, she’s cruising here.

Hmmm… Method::Signatures as a replacement for IX::Args? Maybe. Will it handle my cgi params? Will I care if I switch to Plack? Help me, somebody, the options overwhelm me.

By the way, if I haven’t mentioned it before: interested in all the goodies that might be available in Perl 6 when it’s finally ‘production ready’? A good many of those have been added to the more recent versions of Perl 5.

1:44pm: No, I am not punishing myself, but I am sitting in another HTML5/mobile talk. PhoneGap is being recommended; will have to look into that (note: this is about taking web code into the native mobile space, so… not that interested right now). Also, maybe I should start developing using an iOS simulator? Especially with phone-sized display. This is where I worry a bit… well, not worry… but I’d love to excel in screens that size, rather that simply sort-of work there. Maybe start with HTML5 date picking; existing datepickers are miserable on tiny mobile.

Neat hack: use input type ‘tel’ whenever you want a number pad on mobile… even if the data will not be a telephone number at all.

Can’t forget HTML5 ‘placeholder’ attribute to replace the JS magick that is sometimes not so fun (text field prompting-type text).

Note: iOS supports SVG fonts but not True Type. Speaker recommendation for Font Squirrel, which offers free use fonts and actually package them up for you, complete with the code to load them.

Phone width: 480px. iPad: 1024. For min-device-width and max-device-width, more CSS3 goodness.

2:31pm: Now for a change of pace, “Awakening The Maker Ethic in K-12 Students”. As a parent, I’m also an educator, or at least would like to be. Speaker is pointing out the artificial tension in our educational system between ‘vocational’ and ‘academic’ instruction, which clearly undermines the hands-on, DIY ethic.

Now he’s pointing out the illusion that kids ‘know tech better than we do’, and that all we need to do is include technology in the course of their other studies and that will suffice. Technology needs to be taught directly as well.

A plug for scratch.mit.edu, which I’m tardy in checking out. My daughter may like this, as she loves to draw.

Hmmmm… this is interesting, visual IDEs for Arduino. Sounds tasty. I need to get playing with that thing. This would lower the bar for kids, having a visual IDE, for sure.

Wow, too many cool things to relate here. Another inspiring talk.

[notes devolve once again this afternoon due to fatigue]

7:00pm: I’d love to report that I spent my last evening in Portland painting the town my own shade of red, drinking and carousing and genrally terrorizing the Northwest. In fact, of all those things, I merely drank a bit, and proceeded to attend Larry Wall’s State of the Onion address along with a couple hundred other somewhat-lubricated geeks [blurry pic of Larry below]. Larry actually worked his annual address into the 5-minute Perl lightning talks also scheduled, breaking his speech into 5 minute bits interspersed with the various other ejaculations of Perl community members. This, in addition to Larry’s self-effacing delivery, had a remarkably humble effect. No wonder this community has thrived for 20 years under the gentle leadership of this man, and no wonder OSCON itself grew out of the Perl community.

Larry Wall @ OSCON 2011

He also made a classy move by thanking Tim O’Reilly for opening up the conference to families and children of attendees… something I hope does not change.

Friday morning at OSCON

11:04am: The final day of OSCON is a half day, allowing many of us to fly out of here in time to have something of a weekend back home. The last session I attended was called ‘The State of Open Source in [K-12] Education’ and was frankly depressing. Efforts made in the last decade to save schools on licensing fees and turn kids on to open source software have largely floundered despite the earnest good efforts of many, and it was frightening to hear that a number of educators have actually lost their jobs because of ignorant administrators and parents with their own agendas.

Discussion after the talk was lively, with many educators and parents in the crowd, and the consensus was that the education bureaucracy will only change slowly, and that the most effective evolutionary driver is homeschooling. In other words, just as the open source philosophy of Linux has competed successfully in parallel with Windows, home and independent schooling may have to compete with institutional learning in the same way, if we really want fundamental changes in the way computing is delivered and taught. While this kind of grassroots spirit has always appealed to me, I’m not a parent in a position to exercise this option, so I left scratching my head a bit… where do we go from here?

Well, with that, *I* am going home… on a plane… not in a car, not on a boat… not in a box, and not with a fox… back to good old New England. Portland, I hope to see you again soon.

Thanks to the University of New Hampshire for sponsoring this trip. If anyone has questions about OSCON and why it might interest them, please drop me a line anytime.

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