Thursday at Yet Another Perl Conference, Year Two, ended on a high note yesterday. Jon Orwant presented the second edition of his chronicle of Post-Apocalyptic Earth. You may recall from last year that aliens, tired of being bombarded with information from Earth, destroyed our planet with an information bomb. Only the most savvy (Perl programmers, mostly) and the completely clueless (managers, lawyers, and VB programmers, according to Jon) survive. (I was relieved to be in one of the surviving classes.) This year, Jon, like Damien and Larry before him, showed that computer science has not sucked up all his education hours. His talk linked autism, art, copyright law, and pain to Perl programming.
I won't summarize it here because he'll be presenting a version of it again next month at the O'Reilly Open Source Conference in Monterey; but I couldn't do justice to it in any case. I will, however, warn the Open Source Conference hotels to keep an eye on Jon. Nearly every prop from his talk came from his hotel room: a Gideon Bible, an ice bucket, even a lamp. I waited for the mattress to show up, but even Jon must have some limits. Ah, remember the Old Days, when people just took the towels and the ashtrays?
A highlight of the day was a series of Lightning Talks coordinated with an iron hand and a brass gong by Mark-Jason Dominus. Eighteen different speakers presented their ongoing projects, ideas, complaints, or sociopathic screeds in five-minutes slots. The time limit increased the clarity and urgency of each talk and gave people an opportunity to present ideas that were suggestive rather than definitive, and gave some speakers a chance to present highly entertaining short talks. Nat Torkington presented two highly hilarious talks, one satirizing the traffic on the Perl Porters newsgroup and the other satirizing the Perl-Python controversy. (I can't even print the title of the second talk, as this is a family-oriented column.) I recommend a speed-talking contest next year between Nat and Randal Schwartz. You will be able to read the Lightning Talks shortly at the YAPC web site.
Patrick Carmichael, a professor of education at the University of Reading in England, presented one of the most thought-provoking presentations at the Conference. If you're a loyal reader of my column, you'll remember that I devoted a lot of space in my Python Conference reports to educational efforts using free software and Python. Patrick's talk was in that vein, but with Perl at the center. He works with technology projects in third-world countries like South Africa. Unlike the U.S., Europe, and Japan, the third world suffers from great limitations in computer hardware, software, and network infrastructure. He found schools where the only computers were 386s; one district considered its computer so valuable that was encased in concrete, making it impossible to steal.
Unfortunately, these districts were also using old versions of proprietary software: Windows 3.1 and the related version of Netware, for example. They can't upgrade their software because they can't afford the required hardware. Furthermore, they don't have the trained people to upgrade their own installations; they rely on expensive and scarce consultants.
Carmichael says that IT in these countries needs to follow the same principles that civil engineering and agricultural projects have. They have to find sustainable technologies that make sense in the culture and environment. He called the concept "Appropriate Technologies." As an example, Carmichael displayed a radio powered by a hand crank: a "clockwork radio." The inventor of this radio, in addition to solving the power problem for rural third-world users, builds it in South Africa (making it cheaper there and more expensive in the U.S., where people buy them through boutique electronic stores). The South African workers thus understand the technology and can sustain its growth. Furthermore, the case for the radio is transparent, encouraging users to understand the technology and adapt it.
What, Carmichael asked, is Appropriate Technology in the IT space? Perl is clearly part of the answer. "Perl," Carmichael said, "is the clockwork radio of software." It's simple; it runs on any hardware and operating system; it's free; and it's open, like the transparent radio.
Carmichael believes that Perl needs to be introduced carefully into the Third World. Many officials are suspicious of free and little-known technologies: if Windows and Visual Basic are what the industrial nations choose, then that is what the developing world wants to use, too. He starts introducing Perl in places where "Perl solutions" will work: small projects with great impact, like reducing telephone bills by caching or batching email. Once the efficacy of Perl is clear, it is easier to introduce it more generally.
One clear need is that local people need to be trained in Perl for it to be truly sustainable. Perl is well-suited for such training. Another need is that it is difficult to persuade district managers and project managers to agree to use Perl. That's more of a top-down argument, where Perl has been less successful. Carmichael's talk made many of us think beyond the technical and business issues of Perl to realize that there are important social opportunities as well. As Larry urged us on Thursday: Find a purpose in life. Carmichael has, and it includes Perl.
Dick Hardt made a related presentation entitled "Programming for the People." He presented a history of computer programming which showed that the key elements to spreading programming to a wider community were cost, ease of use, and access to knowledge. There was also some discussion of how young people are attracted to progamming. Some people in the room recalled learning to program by typing in games programs from BASIC listings printed in gaming magazines. What is the analogous environment today?
Elaine Ashton continued her Perl History talk from last year. This year, she concentrated on important events since last year's conference, of which there were several: the release of 5.6, the sale of The Perl Journal, and the creation of perlmonks (about which more will be said tomorrow).
There was much talk about YAPC futures. Kevin Lenzo announced the creation of Yet Another Society, a non-profit umbrella organization to manage future conferences. Kevin is creating a board that will begin to take over responsibilties for these conferences. This development should take some of the pressure off Kevin's shoulders, increasing the likelihood that he will survive into his middle years.
Read more about Kevin Lenzo in our recent Perl Success Story, Perl Brings Everything Together--Quickly. Kevin Lenzo is a system scientist at Carnegie Mellon's International Software Research Institute, expert on speech technology, and founder of YAPC.
Kevin will give two talks at the O'Reilly Open Source Convention in Monterey, California, July 17-20, 2000. (For more information, see the Perl Success Story.)
YAPC Europe appears to be set for London in September (22-24). Next year's North American YAPC remains in the planning stages. It may take place at CMU again (CMU has been incredibly supportive), or it may move to Washington, D.C., Montreal, or Vancouver. Kevin will decide in three months. There was discussion of an East Coast and West Coast YAPC, and even regional ones; but Kevin is concerned that the conferences remain manageable (sustainable conferences?).
The conference ended at 5:00 or so with Jon Orwant's talk. It was another signal success, a victory for the grassroots development of Perl. The cost of attendance remained a very affordable $75, but Kevin Lenzo was able to put together an informative and technologically interesting conference by supplementing the fee with corporate contributions, lots of volunteer labor, and copious amounts of his own time. My congratulations to Kevin for another great three days of Perl information and advocacy.
Your humble correspondent,
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