JAOO 2008 recap

October 15, 2008

So, time for a (late) JAOO 2008 recap. How was it this year?

The keynotes

Unfortunately, the keynotes were clearly lacking this year, but in very different ways.

Monday, Anders Hejlsberg talked about the future of programming languages. Or should I say, the future of programming languages on the .NET platform. For which there is currently support in Visual Studio. Don’t get me wrong, I actually like .NET, even though I hate Windows. But for the opening keynote, talking about F#, LINQ and P-LINQ (with the Pascal background intro that seems to be becoming the slightly dull backdrop for Hejlsberg’s talks) simply doesn’t cut it. And switching to VS three times to do live demos is just missing the mark by a mile. I was very disappointed with this talk, but mostly because I know how brilliant Hejlsberg is, so I expected more than just an MS-centric view of the future.

Lars Bak talked about V8 tuesday. This keynote was a bit special, because obviously it had to be planned some time in advance, and the V8 project was only revealed very recently.

Working in the office next to Lars and the rest of the Google team here in Aarhus, I was very curious to hear more about what they have been up to for the last few years. In that respect, I certaintly wasn’t disappointed. The talk was rich on details, so having no experience with VMs (in the V8 sense, not the VMware sense :-)), I was lost at times. But this was no problem, and it was great to hear Lars explain about the challenges they’ve been facing in creating V8. Also the QnA session was very good.

So I was very pleased with this keynote, actually. But as someone pointed out to me later on, the topic really wasn’t keynote material. Interesting as it was, and popular as the topic is, it was obviously only relevant for a fraction of the audience. Nevertheless, I personally enjoyed this one.

Wednesday’s keynote was a complete disaster. The otherwise brilliant Guy Steele and Richard Gabriel (who is also very bright, I’m sure) did their “50 in 50” routine, and I have to say that I absolutely loathed every minute of it.

The tagline was something like: 50 remarks in 50 minutes, each 50 words long (if I recall correctly). The remarks were interspersed with images, audio and video clips. The substance of the talk was a tour through the last many (50?) years of programming languages, sprinkled with uber-geeky humour. Definitely not for me, but fortunately, judging from the reaction of the audience, others liked it better.

However, I’m pretty sure noone enjoyed the fact that they went more than 20 minutes over their time slot. Given that the talk was so rigorous in its form, I simply don’t understand how this could happen.

The talks

I didn’t see as many talks as I would have liked this year, but I did see some good stuff.

Guy Steele gave a great talk on Fortress. Not unlike the one he gave last year (or was it 2006?) but with even more substance. Some of the maths stuff was over my head, but that didn’t matter. The important this was that the talk was interesting and really whet my appetite for learning more about Fortress.

Also, Sun ran a great little competition in the exhibition area this year. A guy came around to our booth with 2-page Fortress program that solves Sudoku puzzles in a massively parallel fashion. The challenge was to figure out how many threads of execution are used, and the prize was a Sun-branded USB stick with the latest snapshot of Fortress on it. I still have the program on my home office wall, and when I feel like it, I look over it and understand another little chunk. Unambitious, you may say, but a lot better than putting it away and forgetting all about it.

Wednesday, a guy from LEGO gave a pretty weak talk about a project that actually looks very interesting. They’re building a new “robotics platform” called WeDo, which is basically a $30 (IIRC) kit with a few motors and sensors. This was a challenge spurred by the OLPT project, so various measures have been taken to target it at developing countries. For example, the robot is connected to the laptop with a USB cable because batteries may not be readily available. A very cool project, but the presentation was really a drag… For instance, I now know that LEGO uses Perforce for their software projects, and I would have lived happily on without that piece of information.

Lastly, the talk “The lively kernel” by Dan Ingalis was awesome! I urge you to check out this video demo or simply have a go at it yourself. I’m very curious to see what this project might lead to in the future.

The exhibition floor

Again this year, we had a VMware Denmark stand, and we got to show off our software and tell people what we do.

One thing that we all noticed was how much more aware of virtualization everyone was this year. At last year’s JAOO, we were very surprised to learn how many developers simple had no idea that virtualization existed as a concept. But this year, it was different. Maybe because we handed out so many VMware Workstation coupons last year😉

On the demo side, we had taken the time to get a VMotion setup up and running this year. Two ESX hosts and a Linux VM running some streaming video server being moved between them. And obviously a third machine running Virtual Center and a VLC player showing the streaming video without a glitch as the VM was moved. A lot of the attendees didn’t know that this was possible and wanted to know the details of how it works.

Also, we brought our Mac Mini running the recently-released Fusion 2. With all the Google Chrome hype in full effect, it was a lot of fun showing off Chrome running (apparently) natively on the Mac! Of course, it was running in a Windows VM in unity mode, but we did manage to fool a few people🙂

Version 2 of Fusion also adds the ability to run Linux VMs in Unity mode, so we were able to fire up Chrome, Safari and Evolution side-by-side on the (struggling) Mini.

Conclusion

I didn’t go to a lot of talks this year (I was at work most of Tuesday) so I shouldn’t pass judgment on the conference as a whole. But I do think the keynotes left a lot to be desired.

Also, I think the Trifork team should reconsider the number of tracks on the conference. Judging from various Ruby-related blogs, the trend for conferences is clearly in the direction of fewer tracks (often just one) and much shorter talks.

I think this makes perfect sense. We go to conferences to widen our perspectives on software development in general. And you really don’t need 50 minutes to present new ideas or projects. With so many tracks going on at the same time, attendees constantly need to discard a lot of material. This would be less of a problem if there wasn’t such a big overlap between the topics of the tracks. But as it is, I think most developers wish they could follow 2-3 concurrent tracks. This leaves you with a constant feeling of missing out on interesting stuff (which you probably are!), and if you’re unlucky enough to attend a boring talk, its 50 precious minutes gone.

I think the organizers should consider cutting the number of tracks and the length of each talk in half. The talks should inspire and engage the audience, and this can easily be done in 25 minutes, leaving us with an urge to know more. The success of a talk should be measured by the surge of hits to the project’s website after the talk, not by the number of people still present in the room after 50 minutes.

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