Apr 26

Nat Torkington

Nat Torkington

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 Mrs 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 shelves.

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 programmer".

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 Rendezvous (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 World'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.

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Comments: 1

  Ewan Gunn [05.10.05 06:01 AM]

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? :-)

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