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Sunday July 26, 2009

A Triple Smörgåsbord

I recently had the pleasure of attending OSCON 2009, O'Reilly's broad-spectrum Open Source conference. It was quite an event: really, a triple smörgåsbord.

I haven't attended any OSCONs in the last several years, partly because they were being held about twelve hours away, by car. Fortunately for me, this one was being held in San Jose, CA. This called for about a third as much driving, and it was also divided into ten bite-size (45 minute) commutes. So, a no-brainer...

The Food

Most of us like to complain about the food at conferences (often with good reason), but the conference organizers are as unhappy as anyone. Not only do they have to eat the same food as the attendees, but they also have to figure out how to fit it into the budget.

Well over a decade ago, a conference organizer told me that our "sandwich boxes" were costing $15 apiece. I shudder to think what large conference venues charge today. In short, if you want fancy lunches at conferences, you had better be prepared to pay handsomely for them...

That said, OSCON 2009's lunches were at least as palatable as any at the conferences I've attended in recent years. Even WWDC, which used to have very nice lunches, was totally mediocre the last time I attended (in 2008). So, I was amazed and delighted by the lunch offerings that Google sponsored on the first day of the conference:

  • The Network Buffet Menu

    • Hearts of Lettuce
    • Nugget Potato Salad with Feta & Kalamata Olives
    • Seafood Salad with Melon and a Lemony Dressing
    • West Coast Smoked Fish and Seafood Platter
    • Baked Salmon Fillets with a Roma Tomato Fondue
    • Mexican Pepper Rice Roasted Autumn Vegetables
    • Potato Lasagna w/ Fennel & Emmenthal

  • Carving Station

    • Roasted Angus Top Sirloin with Peppercorn Trio

  • Dessert

    • New York Style Cheesecake
    • Sliced Fresh Fruit and Berries
    • Dark Chocolate Mouse Torte

No, this wasn't the the best feed I've ever had at a conference. One year, Tektronix sponsored a "planked salmon" bake for the USENIX annual conference. It was held at a private park outside Portland (OR) and had a fireworks display as a closer. I also had a fine feed at Microsoft's First International Conference on CD ROM; I still remember the dessert tables fondly (:-).

Those two would be very hard to top, but this was certainly in the top five over a span of 30+ years. So, kudos to Platinum Sponsor Google for sponsoring the meal and O'Reilly for making it happen. Maybe we can get a competition going for next year's best meal!

BOFs, Sessions, and Tutorials

The BOFs, sessions, and tutorials provided a different, but equally amazing buffet. Looking at the schedule, I often had to make difficult decisions. Would I rather hear about Perl 6 or JRuby? I'd like to keep up on Rubinius, but I'd also like to know more about Thunderbird.

I have no idea whether I got to all of the best sessions (for me), but I can say that I enjoyed and learned from all of them (even when, in some cases, they weren't quite what I had expected). The only problem, really, was mental overload. Damian Conway, for instance, is always an energetic and engaging speaker; he is also quite technical at times, so be ready to listen hard.

In any event, I attended presentations and discussions on a variety of Open Source tools, including CouchDB, Gearman, Git, Neo4j, Perl 6, Protégé, Rails 3, Rubinius 1.0, and Sesame. I also talked to assorted folks in the exhibit area about packages as disparate as GRASS GIS, PostgreSQL, R, and Sage.

I also went to some talks that weren't particularly technical. Douglas Crockford's talk on the history of JSON, for example, was a fascinating "behind the scenes" look at how an informal standard battled its way into prominence, despite the presence of a strongly-hyped competitor (XML).

At Addison Berry's session, I learned about the Writing Open Source group, which sponsors a conference and forums aimed at improving the state of Open Source documentation. Although I'm quite interested in this area, my focus tends to be on enabling technology such as wikis and documentation generators. So, I was fascinated to hear about the social aspects of creating and maintaining documentation.

Some of the keynotes were also fascinating and inspiring. I may not be able to do much to help Open Source gain traction in our government, but I'm certainly enthusiastic about the idea. In any case, other folks are highly involved and making substantial progress. Sunlight Labs and Open Source in Government are great places to find out about these efforts.

The Software

The real smörgåsbord, however, is the immense spread of software that the Open Source community is continually developing and maintaining, both for itself and for the rest of the world. Chris DiBona's keynote was chock full of statistics: how many million lines of code are available in C, Perl, PHP, Ruby, etc.

In fact, I heard a common complaint from several different groups: "nobody in the mainstream Open Source world knows we exist". Sometimes this was because the software was so specialized that only experts in a given discipline could be expected to use it. Other times, however, it was simply buried under the competition. What a problem for the Open Source community to have!

A Retrospective

It has been fascinating for me to watch the evolution of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) over the last few decades. In the early 1980's, when I first heard about Richard Stallman's agenda, my reaction was sympathetic but skeptical: did he really believe that a complete, free set of operating system software could be created?

Over the following fifteen years, as I edited free software collections for the Sun User Group and Prime Time Freeware, I was frequently delighted by the novel and useful packages I discovered on Internet FTP archives. And, at Tim O'Reilly's Free Software Summit (the 1998 meeting that adopted the term "Open Source"), I started to get a sense of the movement's possibilities.

Over the past decade, I've been overwhelmed by the advances that the FOSS community has made in gaining visibility among the general public, as well as developing software, infrastructure, and community. OK, I'm a slow learner, but I think we might really be onto something...

A Triple Smörgåsbord - posted at Sun, 26 Jul, 22:56 Pacific | «e» | TrackBack


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