Monday, October 26, 2009

A Random Walk On A Strange Loop: Day 1

Full Discloseth:

I work for a sponsor of the recent Strange Loop conference. Some speakers and the organizer are friends of mine. I live in St Louis, MO. Finally, I've run "strange loop" through an anagram generator and laughed for hours at the various and sundry output. All of this may or may not matter to you.

As always, all opinions are solely mine, and genuine.

A Random Walk

I'm not a journalist and won't try to report on the conference. Chances are, it would be a futile endeavour. I use the "random walk" title as signal that this post is an Impressionist, personal experience.

The Vibe

I do want to set the scene: the event was held at the Tivoli in University City. "The Tiv" is a 1920s era movie theater with lots of unabashedly glitzy character. It was a marvelous choice and worked out really well. About 300 people attended, cramming the lobby and the facilities: the geek vibe was strong. (There was much more room in the theatres; i.e. during the talks.)

There were also cameras! The talks will be on video, thanks to DZone. I'll post them here along with any links to slides.

Mario Aquino: Zen Mind/Warrior Spirit

(slides are here)

One measure of a good movie is how long it stays with you afterwards. Mario's talk passes that same test. In a lyrical style with captivating slides, he combined ideas from Zen philosophy and a 'warrior code' to forge parallels to agile teams in software development.

Among my revelations:

  • The struggle of meditation is to quiet the inner voice. Pure TDD is similar, as the inner voice always wants to write 'the real code' first. Testing first is meditation. Perhaps that's why it takes focus.
  • Team culture is more than the sum of its parts. Like a warrior clan, there is a sense of something larger. Good teams have a sense of the 'common good' (aka convention) and the discipline to stay with it.
  • I once read about an Allied WW2 bombing squadron that suffered terrible losses over Europe. Despite being decimated, the remaining planes returned to Britain in formation. I think of this often when I work, alone, in a team war room on a weekend.
  • Mario mentioned Corey Haines, who lives a nomadic existence as a programmer. This reminded several of us about Paul ErdÅ‘s, a rockstar mathematician who lived the same lifestyle.
Mark Volkmann: Tackling Concurrency with STM

(slides are here)

Mark gave an excellent overview: the pros and cons of lock-based concurrency versus using Software Transactional Memory (STM). I especially liked the open question of whether its time has come: after all, garbage collection took many years to become mainstream. The unvarnished truth is that we don't know, but things certainly seem to be brewing.

Mark examined the details of STM in Clojure, using diagrams to give a sense of the internal representation. It is hard to recreate here, but I left with a better sense of Rich Hickey's position that the time dimension is vital to concurrency (see Hickey's slides here).

Charles Nutter: Ruby Mutants

(slides are here)

I don't know Ruby, but I couldn't pass up a chance to see Charles. He's a class act in the Ruby community and obviously a major force. Not knowing Ruby, I was definitely a stranger in a strange land -- in fact some goons at the door frisked me, finding a Grails book and some Python code in an inside pocket. Not necessary, gang! (also: not true)

Charles mentioned "Java Next" and his criteria for choosing a Java successor. I loved that some popular JVM languages -- claimed by others as Java Next -- did not meet his criteria. He respected said languages but stated, matter-of-fact, that they didn't meet his aesthetic. This is a clear sign that the JVM community is healthy.

He went on to examine two Ruby mutants: Duby and Surinx. There are some compelling slides that compare and contrast these two 'unfortunately named' mutants to Ruby itself. I'm struggling here to capture the essence of this talk, but do check it out: I thought it was fantastic stuff and an object lesson as a presentation, in terms of pace, tone, and code samples.

Bob Lee: Keynote on Future of Java

(slides are here)

There is one aspect of Bob's keynote that I found especially noteworthy, and I'm dedicating this section to it. It was an excellent talk, with lots of interesting material, but this really resonated.

A friend of mine once kept a log, for years, about bugs that he found. Over time, he compiled evidence about software development in a given language. Based on this record, he developed a philosophy towards his coding conventions. (More to come in a subsequent post about evidence-based software practices: it ain't gonna be easy.)

I was impressed at the time, and impressed again by Bob, when he argued for ARM blocks. He began with some Java puzzlers, to show the difficulty of correctly using IO and try-catch-finally blocks. All well and good. But then he reported examinations of large codebases, including the JDK itself: there are plenty of instances where the code does not behave in a strictly-correct manner.

More than Java 7 features, this is the big take-away: when presenting a case to an audience (be it a keynote, or your team), do the research and present evidence. Compelling.

Strange Passions

Sadly, I didn't make it to the Strange Passions track, or the party at Blueberry Hill. However, there was a lot of buzz about the track idea (which is fantastic) and the individual talks. Sounds like it was a huge hit. I hope the passion talks are on video.

More to come, re: Day #2.

Full Discloseth:

All of this may or may not matter to you: "go steal porn" is an anagram of "strange loop". I live in St Louis, MO. Some speakers and the organizer are friends of mine. I work for a sponsor of the recent Strange Loop conference.

A Longer Post.


Alex Miller said...

Great post Mike. Actually, the original name of the conference was "Go Steal Porn" but I didn't think the sponsors would like it so I used Strange Loop as an anagram.

Unbeknown to me, the sessions at Blueberry Hill *were* recorded and the video will be made available in due time.

Michael Easter said...

re: sponsors. :-)

re: videos. great news!

As a p.s. for readers, here is a link to many other resources, including pics and other reactions.