The early part of this summer was very busy, with development work and travel and events. I'm just now getting caught up on the details of what I've been up to.
My last post talked about Microsoft's Make Web Not War conference, and concluded that it felt a little bit funny, like their imagined audience didn't quite match with the audience that actually attended. I don't go to a lot of tech conferences, so perhaps my expectations are a little high.
The blame for these high expectations has to fall on the folks at Unspace and their excellent conferences - last year it was the DIY punk-themed RubyFringe, and this year it was the revolutionary-utopian FutureRuby. Damn you Pete and Meghann, you've ruined every other tech conference I'll go to!
Unspace have strong opinions about how to do a conference: no sponsors, a single track, excellent parties, a mix of technical and pointedly non-technical presentations, superb and thematically-pertinent swag, and a strong focus on building and maintaining a sense of open community.
The plus side of having taken so long to get around to writing about this conference is that other people have already covered many of the details. See the great overviews on supaspoida.com and Dead Programmers Society. This year InfoQ has been much faster at putting up footage of the presentations as well.
This means that I don't have to cover all of the details of the conference here, and I can focus on my general impressions.
First, this was the first major conference I've been to where I didn't bring my laptop - I just brought a paper notebook and my iPhone. I used to take copious notes on my computer for future blogging or reference, but have realized that it just got in the way of me paying attention to the presentations. Instead, I made a lot of posts on Twitter. The #futureruby tag made a great back-channel for the conference (along with the still-lively rubyfringe IRC channel). I've found that my personality seems to fit the short-comments-as-things-happen format that Twitter is so good at. I remember that in Junior High and High School I was a back-row-note-passer - not evil or against people, just funny comments - and Twitter lets me do that now too, but without risking the Evil Eye from a teacher.
Because Twitter doesn't let you search for tags and terms further back than a week or two, the conference content can't easily be found there anymore - but you can go back indefinitely in an individual account's Tweets. So, for the record, I've assembled my own FutureRuby tweets on their own page. I also included the images and video clips that I referred to, which should give some better sense of what went on.
It's hard to pick out the highlights of the talks - even with only two days, it's hard to remember all of the individual presentations. From what I can recall, I really liked:
There were no presentations that I actively disliked - although some of the talks seem to have fallen into the mid-afternoon conference energy level dip. The Nitobi presentation had four people on stage and some cool cross-platform mobile development technology, but things didn't quite spark as much as they probably should have, especially when compared with the later demo of Cappuccino. I was disappointed by John Dahl's talk on Programming and Minimalism, but only because I was very interested in the topic and had hoped for more detail. Also, someone from the USA shouldn't stand in front of a room full of nerds in Toronto and pick on Rush. There are plenty of turgid prog-rock bands from the USA that could have been used. Here are two better examples (from the U.K. and both awesome in their own ways) of the high-blown complexities of Progressive Rock and the efficient energy of Punk Rock:
What I found most interesting was the left-leaning curatorial focus. Not one but three presentations discussed leftist topics like Marx, anarcho-syndicalism, and the alienation of labour. Knowing the folks from Unspace (and seeing the visual themes for the conference), this isn't exactly a surprise - what was a surprise was how readily a room full of entrepreneurial types accepted these topics and soaked them up. The last year has been a bad one for pure capitalism's image, which has probably made people more willing to accept critiques of it - especially if they're as well delivered as these three talks. Thankfully, InfoQ has already put the video and slides of all three talks on their site:
Nathanial Talbott opened the conference with How Capitalism Saves Ruby From Corporatism - as obvious from the title, it's not an anti-commerce talk, but he did bring up Karl Marx and his still-valid critiques of large-scale industrial capitalism. It made a great opener and was a sign of things to come, although this was perhaps not a crowd that needed convincing to push back against The Man and stop being alienated from their labour.
At the other end of the conference schedule, the second-last talk was from Agile Guru Brian Marick, who not only coined the term Artisinal Retro-Futurism and Team-Scale Anarcho-Syndicalism but also let use know exactly what it meant. The quick version is that development teams need to organize themselves to push back against the larger institutional forces that seek to destroy them and their pride in their work.
Marick's talk led me to thinking, "It's great that we're attacking this issue from within large organizations, but doesn't this have a parallel in the larger society and economy?" - and the next talk answered that question. Jesse Hirsh is an actual left-wing activist (with his own media consulting firm, natch - welcome to the 21st century) and his talk on Fighting the Imperial Californian Ideology was a great eye-opener and mind-blower, and a fantastic close to the conference.
I can't say I agree with everything Jesse said - and I don't think he'd want me to. I've spent quite a bit of time in Northern California, and particularly in Silicon Valley, and agree that its particular brand of blind utopian capitalism has some serious issues - but calling it THE California Ideology over-simplifies a massive and complex state: California is also home to some of the first big conservationist groups, and is one of the few places where communalist hippiedom seems to have actually taken root.
That said, I saw many parallels between the counter-culture types who got draft-avoiding research jobs with military contractors in and around Stanford and Berkeley and the 'sliding into evil' theme of Matt Knox's presentation. For different (but not necessarily opposing) viewpoints on California, Technology, and culture, check the writings of Rebeca Solnit, particularly Wanderlust, Jean Baudrillard's America, and What the Dormouse Said by John Markoff.
Speaking of The Man, for some unknown reason the #futureruby Twitter feed got picked up and retweeted for fifteen minutes or so by Fox 25 News Boston as the Cappuccino presentation ended and Brian Marick's began - just in time for thousands of Boston-area conservatives to start getting tweets about Anarcho-Syndicalism. Not sure how or why that happened, but it was perfect timing.
Because the conference had a single track, nearly everybody was present for every event, including the morning ones - which was quite surprising, considering the awesome parties that were held every night. I could try to describe them but it's best to simply show the video walkthroughs taken by Cavalle:
The first night's party was at (and above) Unspace's office on Queen Street West. We had a beautiful sunset, excellent catering, a cybernetic drum machine, a DJ with trippy video clips, and a CF-18 fly-by.
This video ends at the back of my head.
For the second night, we took over the Pravda vodka bar. Pete asked us to "Dress Up, whatever you think that might mean". It meant some suits, some Little Black Dresses, and some costumes. Most notable were Paul Doerwald in a full tuxedo, looking better in my bowler hat than I do; and Kristan "Krispy" Uccello, who somehow got hold of a complete KGB Officer's uniform. Here's both of them:
There was free food and drink all night, until the open bar threatened to close around midnight - this led to the only sponsorship in the entire event: Shopify came to the rescue and extended the open bar until closing time. Now that is how to make a name for yourself among the Alpha Geeks.
You can see me at the buffet near the end of the clip. Does anybody else find this clip reminds them of Russian Ark?
They set up a room in the basement with a photographer, which led to a lot of hamming-it-up pictures of the attendees - all of which is now on permanent record in a Flickr set. You may notice that things get a bit more out of hand as the night goes on.
The final party took place in three locations in Kensington Market, including the performance venue The Boat:
That's Toronto post-rock band Radius & Helena, and yes they're dressed up as characters from Farscape. I unfortunately missed them as I was at HackLab, hanging out with the dirigible-making Evans brothers.
All-in-all a fantastic conference - not to mention just a great life experience. Assembling this overview has brought it all back to me again. Unspace say they're not going to do another conference again next year - but they said that last year as well. Here's hoping they change their minds.
Until then, we'll have to content ourselves with all of the pictures from the FutureRuby Flickr feed.