On Conferences and Themes

For years, horse traders have passed down grooming secrets to help
them dress and sell old nags. My favourite is to feague, a
verb whose definition I still remember verbatim from
Byrne’s Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words
to ginger a horse’s fundament, to make him lively and carry his
tail well

Writing marketing copy and feagueing are remarkably similar.

Take book blurbs. When I was an editor, I loathed writing
back-cover copy. That’s the 300 words of text on the back of a book
that explains why the browsing member of the public should open their
wallet and buy the 1-5 pounds of dead tree and ink that they hold in
their hands. The main job of the back-cover copy is to sound
interesting and give the illusion of being specific–to be familiar
enough that you say “yes, I need to do that” without being so detailed
your eyes glaze and flick listlessly toward the stacks of glossy “art”
photography books positioned directly across from the computer

This need for desirably vague prose leads to “Perl is a scripting
language” becoming “Perl, the most widely adopted dynamic programming
language, came to prominence in the hey-day of the web but now has
devoted followers in every area of programming from systems
administration to webmasters”. “This book covers security in PHP”
becomes “No more need you fear for the security of your company’s
data, for this experienced author’s magnificent prose guides you
gently yet surely through the tenets and best practices of security to
take you from an insecure amateur to a hardened professional

Do this for too long and you end up suggesting to your partner that
they “glide their finely-formed bodies up the stairs to the boudoir
where a devoted and dedicated expert of the amatory arts will conjoin
their body with yours and enable the unleashing of your frustrated
sexual prowess”. My wife once asked me “You plan to kiss me with the same mouth you talk that shit from?”

Desirably vague is also the order of the day for conferences. I
resisted getting involved in the marketing of conferences for as long
as I could, until I realized that if I didn’t do it then the brochure
and web site text would all be written by people who didn’t understand
the technology. After going around a few times with corrections, I
ended up saying “look, how about I just write it myself?” Looking
back, I realize those marketing folks were smarter than they appeared

There’s a lot of words to write for each conference (CFP, brochure
letter, program letter, track descriptions, web site front page) so
let’s look at the themes. At OSCON 2003 the theme
was “Embracing and Extending Proprietary Software”, a nice riff (if I
do say so myself) on Microsoft’s then-predatory approach to open
source (now their approach is more dilatory than predatory). But look
at it closely and you’ll realize it doesn’t actually promise
anything, though it let us talk a lot about how to make open source
and closed source systems cohabitate (a hot topic of the day).

At OSCON 2004,
the theme was “Discover, Develop, Deliver”. It’s uplifting and
interesting (“ooh, I want to learn what people are discovering, learn
to develop and deliver things”) but it could refer as well to a pizza
chain or a biotech house as to open source. It let us talk about
(now called Bonjour and Zeroconf) and other nifty new
things, though.

Other conferences have it no better. Some, like the IDG LinuxWorld Expo don’t even
bother with themes (when you’re basically a brothel aggregator,
building the streets for various seedy characters to pimp their wares,
themes aren’t really necessary). Digital Identity
‘s “All Roads Lead to Identity” is a nice shout-out to
ancient Rome, making identity sound important even though nobody can
actually agree what digital identity is. SXSW Interactive 2005 was
“New Visions + New Connections”, which sounds remarkably concrete
until you realize you have no idea whether you’ll be seeing and
connecting with interesting people or just new ones. San Francisco
bath house parties with acid and E let you see visions and make new
connections–perhaps the image the SXSW folks were going for, now I
think of it.

Of all the conferences I’ve been to, ETech did the best
job of using its theme. This is because Rael worked with his speakers
so they talked to the theme–creating fun for those drinking every
time “Remix” was said (and hell for those also drinking on “long
tail”, “Flickr”, and “tagging”).

I’ll take that approach for this year’s OSCON (talking to the theme, not drinking).
The theme is “The Future is Open”, which I hoped (when we came up with
it in December) would be vague yet desirable enough to cover nine
months of changing open source technology, politics, and business. It
certainly works with the interesting trends we’ve spotted:

Ruby on Rails is
astounding. Using it is like watching a kung-fu movie, where a dozen
bad-ass frameworks prepare to beat up the little newcomer only to be
handed their asses in a variety of imaginative ways. I’ve got David Heinemeier Hanson
giving a session, tutorial, and keynote. That’s how much I love
“convention over configuration” and the other philosophies behind
Rails. Rails shows us a very interesting future
for web applications, and is a great example of innovation from within
the open source community.

We’ll have several sessions and a tutorial on Ajax,
the HTML+Javascript+CSS magic behind highly interactive sites like Google Maps. Ajax is the best defence that we believers in open standards have to
Microsoft’s Avalon (their “rich bitch client” architecture). It’s our
best chance to keep the future of applications in open hands and not
those of a company with insatiable shareholders.

Not that all companies are necessarily closed source. I was caught
napping by the sudden emergence of Linux as the operating system
lingua franca. AIX, HP-UX, Irix, and other proprietary Unices have
all fallen by the wayside. Now everyone sells Linux and support.
Interestingly enough, big companies aren’t saving a whole lot–the
vendors still have to eat and big companies are still writing their
cheques to the same people for software and service.

What’s going to shake this up and how? Companies like SpikeSource, Source Labs, and Optaros all think they have a
chance. SpikeSource and Source Labs are selling their integrated
stacks of software, asking why the big vendors should have a monopoly
on selling and supporting free software. Optaros even dispenses with
the software and simply cuts straight to consulting services to
support it. We have representatives from all three companies and I’ll
interview Kim Polese from SpikeSource in a keynote about the future of
open competition.

So I think I can swing this theme without too much feagueing.
Registration opens next week, and the full schedule will be online.
170+ speakers, 10 rooms, and over a dozen lightning keynoters. I’ll
blog when it does and you can decide for yourselves how much ginger
has been applied to the conferences fundament on my behalf.

  • Ewan Gunn

    Such a way with words! Made my day.

    You’ve certainly given me a mission for today – decoding the backs of the books I stock. Should I pay particular attention to the O’Reilly books? :-)