Yet Another YAPC Report: Montreal

A year ago, at Yet Another Perl Conference North America 19100, both Perl-the-language and Perl-the-community seemed to be headed for trouble. Longtime Perl hackers spoke openly with concern at the apparent stagnation of Perl 5 development, and how the community seemed to be increasingly bogged down by acrimony and bickering. Now, a year later, the tide has already turned and the evidence is nowhere more apparent than at this year's YAPC::NA in Montreal.

The conference, produced by Yet Another Society, was a smashing success. More than 350 Perl Mongers converged from all across North America and Europe on McGill University for the three-day event. Rich Lafferty and Luc St. Louis, key organizers from the Montreal.pm group, did a brilliant job of lining everything up; and Kevin Lenzo, YAS president, once again did the crucial fund raising and promotional work to make the conference a reality.

Certain familiar faces were missing from this year's conference, including Larry himself, who was scheduled to deliver the keynote but was absent due to illness. (Get well soon, Larry!) The unenviable task of filling Larry Wall's shoes for the highly anticipated opening talk fell to the infamous Dr. Damian Conway, indentured servant to the Perl community and lecturer extraordinaire. Those of you who have seen Damian in action will have probably guessed that his presentation did not disappoint. The topic was, of course, a tour of the past and future of the Perl language -- where we have come (a long way from Perl 1 in 1987) and where are going (a long way yet to Perl 6).

To hear Damian tell it, Perl 6 looks like it's going to be awesome. While many details are still sketchy, the intention from all quarters is to preserve all the things we like about Perl today, especially its tendency to be eclectic in its incorporation of ideas and features from other languages. Larry, Damian and others have carefully studied the lessons of such languages as Java, Python, Ruby, and even the infant C#, in the hopes of applying those lessons to Perl 6.

Damian's keynote also focused on how Perl 6 will attempt to correct some of the flaws and deficiencies of Perl 5, the details of which can be found elsewhere, so I won't reiterate them here. Additionally, he emphasized that, due to the unexpected quantity and scope of the Perl 6 RFCs, the final language design will take Larry far longer than anyone originally imagined. Damian went on to predict a usable alpha version of Perl 6 being ready by May 2002, with a full release perhaps available by October 2002. However, as pieces of the Perl 6 design stabilize, Damian and others (including our own Simon Cozens) will be implementing them in Perl 5, so that we can start playing with Perl 6 today, rather than next year.

Meanwhile, the continued enthusiasm and energy being devoted to Perl 6 has had a profound impact on the community at large that is hard to overstate. YAPC::NA 2001 was marked not merely by much discussion and speculation on Perl 6, but also by fascinating new developments in Perl. One of the downright niftiest of these new directions is Brian Ingerson's Inline.pm, which he presented in a 90-minute talk Wednesday. Inline.pm uses a form of plug-in architecture to allow seamless embedding of other languages like C, C++, Java, and, yes, Python, right into ordinary Perl scripts. Brian, who works at ActiveState, has already written a www.perl.com feature on Inline.pm, so I'll merely mention here that the module hides away the frighteningly ugly details of gluing disparate languages together, in the most intuitive way possible. This kind of development is really exciting for the ways in which it opens new doors and breeds new ideas on the many, many different kinds of intriguing things that can still be done with Perl 5. Incidentally, Brian's midlecture sing-a-longs about Perl internals and so forth were also quite well regarded.

The hubbub around Inline.pm was just one thread in the theme of "Perl as glue language for the 21st Century," a theme visited and revisited at many times and places throughout the conference. The notion was raised again by Perl 6 project manager Nathan Torkington in his presentation at Adam "Ziggy" Turoff's Perl Apprenticeship Workshop on Wednesday. Amidst the announcement of many interesting and valuable projects in need of Perl hackers, Gnat issued a call to "make a Python friend" and collaborate with them on a development project. "Show them we're not *all* evil!" he insisted, in marked contrast to his howlingly funny diatribe on Python at the previous year's Lightning Talks.

"I was surprised that Gnat took that approach, because I thought I would be left this year to argue the other side," ActiveState's Neil Kandalgaonkar observed, after giving his Friday morning talk on "Programming Parrot," so named for its case study in getting Perl and Python applications to work in concert. Part of Neil's tale of success lay in using Web services to get different processes running in different languages on different machines to exchange data reliably. "All it took was an extra four lines of scripting in each language, and I was done," he noted, driving home the importance of using and extending Perl's ability to talk to other languages and applications.

Meanwhile, YAPC North America 2001 also showed growth in the depth and scope of the conference's offerings. In contrast to previous years, where talks were largely aimed at beginner and intermediate Perl hackers, this year's presentations covered some more advanced topics, such as Nat Torkington's three-hour lesson on the Perl internals that he delivered to a packed house Thursday. Originally written by Simon Cozens (who was unable to attend), the Perl internals class presented a concise introduction to some of Perl's inner workings, furthering the Perl community's expressed goal of lowering the barrier of entry to internals hacking and encouraging wider participation in Perl core development. Later in the day, Michael Schwern addressed the ever-present tendency of Perl hackers to rely on Perl's forgiving nature in his rather well-attended talk on "Disciplined Programming, or, How to Be Lazy without Trying." "Always code Perl as if you were writing for CPAN," Schwern urged his audience. "Document and test as you go, and release working versions often."

Speaking of which, the Comprehensive Perl Archive Network was also a major topic of discussion at YAPC. "The CPAN is Perl's killer app," Gnat said at one point. "No other language has anything like it." Neil and Brian gave a short presentation on their experiences building and maintaining ActiveState's PPM repository, a collection of binary distributions of CPAN modules. The dynamic duo from Vancouver yielded some of their time to Schwern to allow him to discuss his proposed CPANTS project, intended to automate testing and quality verification of modules in the repository. Metadata, rating systems, trust metrics and peer-to-peer distribution models were all touched on. Based on the buzz this year, it seems reasonable to predict that many new and exciting things are likely to grow up around the CPAN, and around the possibilities inherent in the distribution of Perl modules, in the not-too-distant future.

The final talk Thursday was once more delivered by Damian Conway, and curiosity had spread far and wide on how he might top last year's now-legendary presentation on Quantum::Superpositions. This year's Thursday afternoon plenary lecture was merely titled, "Life, the Universe, and Everything," in homage to the late Mr. Adams; and, true to his word, Damian delivered just that. Swooping from Conway's Game of Life (no relation), to a source filter for programming Perl in Klingon (a la Perligata), to the paradox of Maxwell's Demon (conveniently dispelled with a little help from Quantum::Superpositions), Damian's talk was a masterful reflection of all the things we love about Perl: It was clever, complex, elegant, and, most of all, it was fun.

(Parenthetically, among the modules that Damian introduced at this talk was a little number called Sub::Junctive. As a linguist, I must confess it scares the living heck outta me. Look for it on the CPAN.)

Friday featured more of this year's theme of Perl as glue-language-for-the-21st-Century in two talks on Web services by Adam "Ziggy" Turoff and Nat Torkington, in which Nat issued an impassioned plea for a Perl implementation of Freenet. However, the morning's highlight was without a doubt the much-anticipated Lightning Talks. Hosted once again by the irrepressible Mark-Jason Dominus, the 90-minute series of five-minute short talks went over quite well, featuring topics ranging from how hacking Perl is like Japanese food and the graphing of IRC conversations to a call for more political action from within hackerdom and an overview of the Everything Engine. The showstopper, however, was once again Damian, who is generally reputed to be unable to hold forth on any topic for anything *less* than an hour and a half. To everyone's surprise, the Lightning Talk consisted of a hilarious argument in the grand Shakespearean style between Damian and Brian Ingerson, over the disputed authorship of Inline::Files, a nifty new module for extending the capabilities of the old DATA filehandle. Their invective-laden dialogue was the most brilliantly humorous five minutes of the entire conference, and, yes, Damian even managed to finished on time. :) If you had the misfortune not to be present, you might be lucky enough to see them have at each other again at this year's Perl Conference 5 in San Diego.

Later in the day, Nat and Damian chaired a Perl 6 status meeting, reviewing the major events in Perl 6 starting with the announcement at TPC4, and working forward to the present language design phase. "This is a fresh rebirth for Perl AND for the community," Gnat said at one point. "Everything changes." The sometimes fractious attitudes encountered on the various Perl mailing lists were discussed. "In some ways this is a meritocracy," Gnat confessed. "Write good patches and we will love you." Kirrily "Skud" Robert then spoke at length on the future of the core Perl modules, and on the need to develop guidelines to direct the process of porting them to Perl 6.

Finally, the plenary session Friday afternoon closed the conference with another presentation from, you guessed it, Damian Conway. Our Mr. Conway took the opportunity to thank Yet Another Society and its sponsors for all of the contributions that permitted him to take a year off from academia to work exclusively on Perl. He then reviewed some of the fruits of that labor to date, including NEXT.pm, Inline::Files and the brilliant Filter::Simple, all of which, it should be pointed out, are now freely available to the community.

It has been nearly a year since Jon Orwant's now-legendary coffee-mug-tossing tantrum at TPC4 touched off the decision to begin work on Perl 6. After the grueling RFC process, the endless mailing list discussions and the breathless wait to see what Larry would come through with, Perl 6 the language and Perl 6 the community finally appear to be taking shape right before our eyes. New innovations are coming along more and more often, including Larry's Apocalypses, Brian's Inline modules, all of the potential emerging from the Web services meme, the future of the CPAN, new projects like Reefknot -- including continuing projects such as POE and Mason -- and, last but not least, whatever the heck it is that Damian is working on this week.

The Yet Another Perl Conferences are evolving, as well. Although neither Larry nor Randal nor Orwant could make it this year, the turnout was nevertheless such that, no matter where you looked at the conference, there you might find someone you knew from IRC, from the mailing lists, from previous conferences or for the great work that person had done for Perl. Although I've only touched on some highlights, there were dozens of presenters at this year's conference, practically all of them had something fascinating to say, and I really wish I had more time and space to cover them all.

Finally, it's safe to say that YAPC::NA clearly defined its own existence as a growing concern of the community this year, having at last separated from its birthplace at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. Montreal, as it turns out, is a fantastic, vibrant place to hold a summer conference, with countless magnificent restaurants and bars suitable for hosting the heady after-hours carousings of the Perl community. From every report, a good time was had by nearly all, and I think we all eagerly await the next YAPC::America::North, wherever it may be held.

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