CUSEC 2009

I spent this past weekend in Montreal attending CUSEC 2009. Aside from being in Montreal and ridiculously affordable, it was also a great conference – well-run with a lot of great speakers. I had previously attended CUSEC in 2007 and found it to be hugely motivating – so much so that I had moved to Vancouver for a co-op job by the time CUSEC 2008 rolled around and thus skipped a year. This year’s conference had that effect once more.

CUSEC features a collection of speakers from the corporate and academic world, as well as keynotes known for their research, accomplishments or just plain awesomeness. This year’s list was no slouch, featuring some very entertaining talks, some cool tech demos and even Richard Stallman.

The conference opened with a keynote by Leah Culver, one of the founders of (the now-defunct) While it might seem to send the wrong message with pownce having closed down just last month, it was pretty clear that Leah and the rest of the crew had moved on to greener pastures at SixApart. We actually missed the very beginning of Leah’s talk but for what we saw, she described the life of a sucessful software engineering in a lively and motivating way. Success doesn’t necessarily equate to money and I think she made it clear that you can be successful doing what you love, if you keep your eyes open, head up and just keep coding for fun.

The next keynote was Dan Ingalls, who demoed the Lively Kernel. The abstract claimed “an entire computing environment can be built from scratch entirely in JavaScript”, something we found somewhat curious and borderline laughable. One theme that ran through the entire conference was that JavaScript was on its way back in thanks to the advent of more powerful engines. The Lively Kernel ended up being pretty interesting, if not convincingly useful beyond an educational tool. It definitely impressed with its live code editing and universal treatment of GUI objects. I was particularly surprised that it managed to “run” on my iPod touch (though only conceptually; it was unusable). The coolest part? You can go try it right now.

The Lively Kernel

The next day brought Avi Bryant who delivered “Good Hackers Copy, Great Hackers Steal”. Aside from talking about the resurgence of SmallTalk, including his web framework built using it (called SeaSide), Avi’s main point was about ‘stealing’ research from papers that haven’t been tapped for their end user potential. It was a pretty inspiring talk about the benefits to actually knuckling down and doing some research when faced with a problem. He also demoed a few things, including a small web app that would apply a theme to a page based on a pallette pulled from a logo you provide. In his words, “I really enjoy taking really simple little features and overdoing them.”.

Next up was Giles Bowkett. Giles had a MIDI generator written in Ruby to demo, which was actually pretty sweet and I don’t think the crowd gave him enough credit for it. Music generation is on my list of things to tinker with. Aside from that, Giles didn’t so much have a message to share or an opinion to express so much as he had an entertaining story to tell. I liked it, and the crowd liked it, and it was motivating if nothing else.

Following  Giles was Joey DeVilla, also known as the accordion guy. Joey is one hell of a storyteller. He’s a tech evangelist for Microsoft and he opened his talk by playing “Hit Me Baby One More Time” on his accordion, which alone should tell you he’s a pretty interesting guy. He reminded me of my calculus prof who told us nearly unbelievable stories of his youth during class, which always came as this huge juxtaposition to the subject at hand. Joey’s talk was excellent and the audience ate it up. He made an appearance later on by winning an auction to buy a stuffed gnu from Richard Stallman (see it unfold on his blog).

Joey DeVilla wins a stuffed gnu from Richard Stallman

I’ve stuck to just mentioning the keynotes so far, but the final day of the conference brought on Caitlin Kelleher, an academic speaker from Washington University. She spoke about Storytelling Alice, a programming environment aimed mainly at middle school girls. It can clumsily be described (by me) as a sort of 3D Sims-like machinma maker that focuses on scripting. The scripts are input with a GUI to enforce syntax but in doing so, they also expose students to programming concepts like functions, parameters and loops. I was pretty interested in the whole thing, partly because of the technology involved and partly because of the problem it’s attempting to address (namely, increasing enrollment in computer science from a broader group of people). Its effectiveness in studies is admirable. Yes, the Alice engine is no longer much to look at, but there is apparently a deal in the works to use Sims 2 characters for the next version. I have too many thoughts on the topic to explore them now – perhaps a future post.

Storytelling Alice

Storytelling Alice

The second-last keynote was Francis Hwang. This was another talk about engineering as a profession and how it related to other professional areas. It was different largely because of Francis’ take that software engineering was not at all like art, it didn’t have to be, and it doesn’t suffer for it. He was challenged on this but held his position quite well. A memorable line: “Q: How is a brain surgeon like an artist? A: Why would I want to be an artist? I’m a fucking brain surgeon!”. If nothing else, it seemed like people took from his talk that you should challenge things you disagree with.

Last of all was Richard Stallman. His talk was on “Copyright vs. Community in the Age of Computer Networks”. I’d write a synopsis, but Joey DeVilla has a virtual play-by-play on his blog of another time Stallman gave the speech. This is another topic that I could probably write a lot on, and one I don’t actually want to go near without due diligence and reading Stallman’s essays. You can probably guess that I don’t completely buy Stallman’s arguments. It was a very interesting talk nonetheless, in terms of content rather than delivery.

Phew! So that was CUSEC (well, the conference side of things anyway; Montreal itself breeds adventures). So what did I take away from all of this? Well, few more people to follow on blogs and twitter, and a renewed interest to look into web development that I have avoided up to now with the blanket statement “I don’t know web stuff“. I’m going to be looking into Django and Ruby to see what’s going there. Oh, and I’m going to blog about the things I find out and create. So really, the most valuable thing about CUSEC? Motivation.