Report from the Perl Conference

Were do I begin? Like Willy Wonka said, "..the beginning is a very good place to start..." So let's start with my journey to the conference.

Day 0: July 15, 2000

My flight to San Jose wasn't delayed too long. During my wait I did get to down some Sam Adams and Jack Daniels while reading Java and XML. Yeah, I know it's probably blasphemous to read a Java book on the way to TPC, but I was looking for some good ideas on using XML, and it is an O'Reilly book.

In any case, I had a thankfully uneventful flight (way too many babies on board, but they remained quiet the entire trip). Picking up the rental car and driving to Monterey wasn't too bad other than occurring after midnight.

Day 1: July 16, 2000

This was an enjoyable day of wandering about Monterey. I mostly walked around the northern marina, watching the ocean and walking enjoying the sand and surf. It was a pleasant day just seeing restaurants, pubs, and other businesses I didn't suspect even existed (like the movie theatres near the hotels).

In the early afternoon I picked up a buddy at the Monterey Airport, feeding his Jack in the Box addiction, and registering for the conference.

Monterey is really a lovely place to visit on the company dime.

Day 2: July 17, 2000

Well, this is the first day of tutorials. I am scheduled to attend both of Damian Conway's Parse::RecDescent classes. It was something I looked forward to, these were the tutorials I really wanted to attend.

After a quick breakfast, I dashed off to "Practical Parsing with Parse::RecDescent". It was such a delight to attend the lecture. Damian was funny, witty, and ably conveyed the basic principles and concepts of parsing and lexing (something I had very vague notions about prior to this tutorial). I had been reading the ample documentation that accompanies the module in the months prior to the conference. I had started to grasp the material, but I hadn't the time to fully grok and apply it. This class brought everything into sharp focus.

There were a few things that really stuck with me:

  1. "Parsing with Occam's Razor". The idea to make your grammar as simple as needed. This along with his C parsing examples gave me some good ideas on how to do some qualitative analysis and verification of code.
  2. "Any sufficiently advanced syntax is indistinguishable from semantics." Any interesting twist on what I believe is an Arthur C. Clarke quote. This was an opening remark Damian made leading into the section where he created a grammar to parse natural language queries into SQL statements.

The afternoon class was icing on the cake and an iron maiden for the mind. "Advanced Parsing with Parse::RecDescent" was as inspiring as it was frightening. Creating self modifying grammars on-the-fly is a mind melting concept, let alone to see an actual implementation of it. Two examples that stuck out were:

  1. A parser that is created on the fly to parse Apache config files so that it can create another parser for the error log.
  2. A parser written in pure Perl that can "(nearly) parse Perl". Very frightening how close Damian is to doing this.

Damian is probably the First Virtue incarnate. Anything that might save some work, reduce redundancy, or in general minimize effort for maximum effect was attempted by Dr. Conway. Truly amazing. Additionally, I think I have stumbled upon a new form of software, "Christmas-ware". I leave it as an incentive for the reader to attend one of Damian's talks to truly understand this new paradigm in software development. ;-)

Unfortunately the tutorial went long, as Damian is infamous for, because I had a dinner reservation at the Sardine Factory. If you're ever in Monterey don't hesitate to have dinner there. You won't be disappointed. For example, I had a very reasonably priced 5-course dinner.

  • Appetizer: Blanched green beans in a vinaigrette
  • Soup: Albacore bisque, probably the best soup I've ever had
  • Salad: Huge chunk of iceberg lettuce with a Maytag blue cheese and balsamic vinaigrette.
  • Entree: Beef Tenderloin on a bed of spinach and grilled slice of onion, with Southwestern-style shrimp. Can't exactly recall the sauce, but it was beef based and spicy
  • Dessert: Creme Brulee, very good

The grand finale of the evening however was the double feature, Office Space and Evil Dead II. A pleasant finish to the day. A little Dilbertian office satire and the genius of Sam Raimi. On the big screen no less.

Day 3: July 18, 2000

I had such high hopes for this day of tutorials. Some rather interesting and potentially useful topics. Unfortunately, they proved otherwise. Both were taught by capable and knowledgeable folks, however they both had flaws.

The morning tutorial was "Exploiting Perl on Windows with OLE/COM". It started off with 45 minutes of definitions and such. Not one line of code to be seen. I could deal with some cursory examination of what certain acronyms meant. That's why I have a workbook of the presentation that I can refer to when I don't understand a term. To be fair to David Roth, he was very knowledgeable about Perl and its use on Windows systems. He also has provided invaluable work by contributing many modules. However, I have come to expect a lot of examples and code. "Show me the code", so to speak.

I bailed on that and caught some of the "Object Oriented Perl" tutorial. Talking to my buddy that was attending the tutorial, it was mostly going over similar topics discussed in Damian Conway's Object Oriented Perl book. This wasn't much of a surprise since Damian was the lecturer. :-)

After the break for the morning sessions I checked out Mark-Jason Dominus' "Tricks of the Wizards" class. I had taken it last year and just wanted to see if anything might have been added. After a few minutes it looked that it hadn't, why change a good lecture? So I decided to relax a bit and wait for lunch.

After lunch I had high hopes for the afternoon. Like I said, it was a bad day. The tutorial, "XML Hacking with Perl and XML::Parser", was excellent, but it was more of an intro course. The first hour passed by without much new knowledge being transferred. I was hoping more for application of the module and some good ideas of how to use XML in general. Consequently, I strolled on over to Dominus' "Advanced Programming Techniques" class. I particularly enjoyed the bit about infinite lists and their implementation in things like: network client requests and numeric approximations. Very useful stuff.

I recalled that O'Reilly was going to sell off any leftover tutorial workbooks. During a section that was in "...Wizards" but was moved to "...Techniques" I went and purchased some of the workbooks. It was nice to get some feedback from the O'Reilly folks handling the sell-off, mostly what they've heard other attendees had to say about the class and the workbooks in particular. This feedback along with getting to thumb through the text I was able to avoid some duds.

Once the tutorials were over for the day I took my buddy to the airport so he could go catch the Comic Convention in San Diego. The lucky bastard was be able to get some of the inside dirt on the upcoming Lord of the Rings movies.

I made it to the Perl Trainers BOFs. The first one was most just Perl Trainers trading war stories, tips, and general training strategies. For example, the sequence of topics, the difficulties most newbies have understanding hashes, and how to approach the idea of context. One good story was the experience one trainer had when he was teaching Perl to a bunch of COBOL programmers. IIRC, they had a bit of trouble with file handles, but quickly understood regular expressions when explained within the context of COBOL principles they understood. I guess that just highlights the need to understand your audience and how to take advantage of their pre-existing programming knowledge. It was very interesting and informative since I want to do some Perl training within my own company.

After that BOF there was Nathan Torkington's BOF for teaching Perl to beginners, specifically those that have never programmed before. It was more of the same, but delved more into how to teach Perl. One technique that I liked best was to have the students start using the code as quickly as possible. Also, using examples that are relevant to their needs, once again "know your audience", or something that is "cool".

Good Perl books for beginners were discussed. While "Llama" is the de facto standard, it is not always appropriate. Andrew Johnson's Elements of Programming with Perl, was mentioned a lot. This is a really good book for the complete programming newbie, not just Perl newbie. Clinton Pierce's Learn Perl in 24 Hours was mentioned a few times. Simon Cozen's Beginning Perl was brought up but it was new enough that not many had read it to give it a good review. All in all these BOFs were a good time.

Then it was off to dinner and the Sendmail bash. That was very fun, I got to mingle with some very cool Open Source and Perl folks. I mostly chatted with some guys from HP and a dude from "USA Today". The HP guys mainly dealt with load balancing and performance issues, they also drank a lot of stout with me that night. The guy from "USA Today" was responsible for reformatting news feeds and sending them off to the various departments for publication. I sincerely wish I could remember their names, but it was a long, drunk night and I met so many great folks.

Of course, all of the free beer was great. It was a great end to an otherwise disappointing day.

Day 4: July 19, 2000

An early, but rough morning preceded the opening keynote speech. Drinking until 2 am will sort of do that to you ;-)

Andy Hertzfelds' speech was wonderful. Much better than Guy Kawasaki's or Bill Joy's from last year. It was full of hope, history, and humor. Everything you would expect from one of the original Apple hackers.

The speech I came for was of course Larry Wall's. Once again he had an entertaining speech concerned with the complexities of systems; music being the system he explored in breadth. From the simple instruments (fingers and hands) to percussion (bongo drums, spoons, and claves),to strumming a bass, acoustic guitar, violin/fiddle, autoharp, bowing a saw, and a synthesizer just to name a few.

Larry then saved the biggest sound for last, the announcement of a total rewrite of Perl. Something that was well received by all.

After the State of the Onion, I proceeded to catch a couple of channels of Damian TV. Most notably his papers presenting a switch/case statement for Perl and the yet-to-be-released module Lingua::Romana::Perligata. Perligata was a great presentation. Damian took advantage of the inflected nature of Latin, word order in a sentence doesn't matter because the form of the word determines if it is a noun, verb, object, etc. By judicious and ingenious selection of the various forms, Dr. Conway created a module that allows you to write perl programs in Latin! Definitely get a hold of this module/paper and read it.

In between Dr. Conway's talks, I caught a bit of Kevin Lenzo's "Field of Memes", a very interesting look at the IRC bot, purl. It was interesting looking at a system that is somewhere between AI, expert system, and knowledge base. It reminded me of how I think an agent/diva would/should work but much simpler. Basically, you asked purl a question and purl answered it the best it could.

As for the afternoon talks, they were good but not very memorable.

Then it was off to the Caribbean Bash, the free food and booze party for all of the conference attendees. Once again, it was fun to mingle with folks.

After the bash was a BOF put on by Dominus, "Something Cool Dominus is working on". At the BOF we got to find out how pathetic his phone company was at doing DSL. This was a fun rant to listen to, but it meant he couldn't demo some of the cool stuff he has prototyped and he couldn't look at his special projects file. Nonetheless, he talked about the work he started for the creation of a regex debugger. He created a working prototype and had the engineer working. Very cool. If I was a better C programmer I would have probably picked up where he left off and played with it. It does have me thinking about how to implement one in pure Perl.

He briefly touched upon his documentation idea, basically how to create an extensible and adaptable manual. Unfortunately, we were kicked out of the room before he could get into it.

Day 5: July 20, 2000

Tim O'Reilly's speech was ok. It mostly focused on the idea that the next killer app would be to have applications run on the web instead of your desktop, Application Service Provider type of stuff. This isn't something I'm excited about but I thought I would see where he was going with it. His two big examples were Mapquest and

Needless to say this didn't inspire me. Here I was at the Open Source Conference and the head dude at O'Reilly was using proprietary examples for what he thinks are the "Next Big Thing". Sure it's nice that Mapquest provides a good service, but Tim was talking about your applications existing on the net. Lots of privacy and data ownership issues to ponder and worry about.

An interesting talk, but I would hope for more from the head of a company that is a major proponent of the Open Source movement.

Gregory Benford's speech was a good foil to Tim's. Its foundation was the ongoing war between personal privacy and marketing. It is becoming easier and easier for marketers and advertisers to learn more about us and thus create ads that are more precisely targeted.

The real ironic thing about it is that we, the development community, are the ones that is making it easier for them to invade our privacy. As we create more sophisticated applications to better serve customers we are also better able to track a consumer's spending habits as well as personal habits in general.

A very good keynote speech and something to definitely think about.

The rest of the morning was filled up with some rather interesting talks, but some of us continued with Dominus' BOF from the previous night. Fortunately, he could log into his web site and demo his cookbook idea. Like I mentioned before it is basically a way to create extensible documentation. If you didn't understand a term or technique, you could expand that area and include it in your "recipe".

After lunch was the Perl Golf Apocalypse. One of the events many folks were anxious to see. It had a rough start and eventually fizzled because of some technical difficulties. Regardless, it is an interesting contest and I hope that the hard work that was put into this year will come to fruition in next year's TPC.

As a result, Damian Conway was asked to give an impromptu presentation of his Perl and Quantum Computing speech that he gave at YAPC this year. It was quite fascinating to see someone explain "basic" quantum physics in about 10 minutes. Even better was his continuation of these principles as they apply to quantum computing. The foundation of which is the qubit. Where the bit as we think of it has 2 states, a qubit can have infinite states (quantum superposition). By just adding operators to Perl ('any' and 'all'), one can do all sorts of interesting things. Lets just say that you could do factorizations in constant time. Damian has actually submitted to CPAN his module to do this, the documentation is here. Though he didn't get to complete it, it was still a fascinating and inspiring bit of work.

Previous to this, I was part of a group in the hallways that was talking with Dr. Conway about this. He either has or will give this talk to a variety of audiences. Depending upon the audience the speech comes off differently. In front of a Perl audience, it is somewhat humorous and amazing. Quantum computing does that to us Perl folks I guess. In front of physicists and those that are really serious about quantum computing, it plays as a very serious piece of work and a goal to strive for. It appears that observers can even affect a talk about quantum computing. :-)

Then came the Perl Town Meeting. This is a fun thing since the community gets to air questions, make comments, and generally express to the community at large their concerns. Most of the questions dealt with Perl 6, which was understandable considering the change this means for Perl. Another large portion dealt with the conference itself. How does TPC relate to what YAPC is doing, how can we make it more affordable for all, and how we can make the conference better overall.

I really enjoyed being able to attend the conference from beginning to end. I got to meet a lot of great people, put facesto Usenet postings, and in general learn more about the programming language that is near and dear to me. My thanks to O'Reilly and Nathan Torkington for putting on a spectacular conference, thanks to all the presenters and tutorial teachers, and thanks to Larry Wall for creating a language that lets a diverse bunch of people work together and apart so well.

Day 6: July 21, 2000

Not much happened on my return trip other than spending about 20 hours in airports/airplanes. It did give me plenty of time to read all of the papers for the presentations I missed as well as go over the tutorial workbooks, again.

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