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YAPC::Europe -- A Whirlwind Weekend in London

by Paula Ferguson

I took a quick jaunt over to the U.K. a few weeks ago, for the first YAPC::Europe conference (the conference web site will eventually contain links to the talks), held September 22 through 24 in London. I would have written this report sooner, but I came down with a cold right after getting back, and my stuffy head is just now clearing enough to write coherently. Pesky foreign germs! (For another view of the conference, check out the excellent report by Mark Summerfield.)

I arrived in London on Friday morning, the first day of the conference, which was tutorial day. Nothing like a little jet lag to start the weekend off right. After taking the tube in from Heathrow to Piccadilly Circus and dropping my bags at my hotel, I headed off in search of the Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA), where the conference was being held. It looked to be a straight shot down Regent Street, except that before I could get to the ICA, I had to take a detour towards Trafalgar Square, due to police lines around Waterloo Place. (In retrospect, the police barricade was just a trifle disconcerting, given the missile that was shot at the MI6 building the previous day.) Fortunately, I have a pretty good sense of direction, and I also spotted a few people who I was sure must be heading to the conference. After all, geeks look the same no matter where you are!

The morning tutorials started just after I arrived: Stas Bekman teaching his mod_perl tutorial and Johan Vromans doing a tutorial on object-oriented Perl. I didn't sit in, but they seemed well attended, and over the course of the weekend I heard various people comment that they got a lot out of the tutorials they attended. I spent the morning in the registration/computer room, talking with Jon Orwant (author of Programming Perl and O'Reilly CTO), Andrew Ford (author of the Apache Pocket Reference and the forthcoming mod_perl Pocket Reference), and Kevin Lenzo (of YAPC::America::North and YAS fame).

By early afternoon, my lack of sleep was really catching up with me, so I headed back to my hotel to take a short nap. Three hours later, I awoke to a ringing telephone and had to take a few seconds to remember where I was. It was 4:30, and Andrew Ford was calling to see if I was still planning to meet him to go over the final draft of the mod_perl Pocket Reference; we were supposed to met at 4, after the afternoon tutorials. Given my groggy state, we postponed the meeting until Saturday. Sorry, Andrew! Needless to say, I missed the afternoon tutorials. After a quick trip out to find dinner and a U.K.-to-U.S. phone plug adapter, I retired for the evening, intent on catching up on the sleep I had missed on the plane the night before.

Greg McCarroll of London.pm was the emcee for the weekend. The main theater at the ICA was pretty full, which makes sense, as they had sold out the conference at 200 people (essentially the capacity of the theater). Kevin Lenzo gave the first talk of the day, discussing Yet Another Society (YAS), an organization designed to help people host small conferences like YAPC. Planning is already underway for YAPC::America::North 2001 (possible sites are Montreal, Washington D.C., or Boston) and YAPC::Europe 2001 (possibly in the Netherlands).

Simon Cozens followed with an interesting talk about the similarities and differences between art and open source programming. He likened modern artists to open source developers: A modern artist is not bound by patronage to produce art that is pleasing to his patrons, just as an open source programmer is not constrained by his employer, but can build the software he wants.

After a short break, the program split into two tracks for the rest of the day. Having two tracks made it impossible for me to attend all the talks, so I had to pick and choose what I thought would be most interesting. Before lunch, I attended brian d foy's talk on the progress of Perl 6, where he explained the working groups and mailing lists that have been set up and the RFC process that is being used (as explained at www.perl.com). He also announced that there would be an informal Perl 6 Q & A during the latter half of the lunch break.

Lunch on Saturday was a lavish affair, with real dishes and silverware, excellent food, and many bottles of wine. The day was warm and sunny, so everyone took advantage of that rarity and crowded onto the balconies to eat lunch. I ate with Tom Christiansen (co-author of Programming Perl, 3rd Edition, and the Perl Cookbook), who suggested that I skip out on the afternoon talks and take advantage of the great weather to walk around and see some of the sites in London. Tempting, but I resisted, at least for a few hours.

The lunch crowd thinned quickly at 1 p.m., as everyone headed back down to the main theater for the Perl 6 Q & A. Nat Torkington (co-author of the Perl Cookbook and conference organizer for The Perl Conference) fielded many spirited questions about Perl 6. All the questions are evidence of the enthusiasm about Perl 6; the Perl community seems revitalized. But just at the discussion was really getting interesting, one of the conference organizers came in to say that there was lots of "pudding" upstairs. As far as I can tell, "pudding" is the British equivalent of American "dessert." After a quick decision by the organizers to schedule another Perl 6 Q & A on Sunday, a few dedicated people moved down front to continue the Perl 6 discussion, while most people went back upstairs for sweets. I'm not sure what this says about the priorities of the Perl community. ...

The first afternoon sessions were the "famous" lightning talks, first tried at YAPC::America::North 19100, where each speaker has just five minutes to give a presentation on whatever suits his fancy. Again, with two tracks going, I could only attend one of the lightning talk sessions. Kevin Lenzo did a great job of enforcing the time limit, clinking a spoon against a water glass for both a one-minute warning and the final time cutoff. I heard that the moderator in the other track used an old-fashioned air horn. The talks ranged from serious (How not to abuse regular expressions, by David Landgren) to humorous (Nouns, by Mark Summerfield). I couldn't possibly do justice to the satire of Mark's talk, so you should check out his summary. And there was even extra time at the end for Nat to present an encore performance of his Perl-Python rant from YAPC::America::North, in which he points out some of the great "features" of Python, like its use of white space as part of the lexical structure of a program.

And now I have to be honest and admit that I left the conference before the last afternoon sessions -- the sunshine outside was just too tempting. I walked around London for almost three hours, past Buckingham Palace, Westminster Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, and the London Eye, before heading to the Southwark tube stop to join the pub crawl that Dave Cross had organized for the evening. We started out with 30 to 40 people, but picked up a handful more at the first pub. I stuck to drinking half pints at each pub (so that I could walk, not crawl, back to my hotel), while everyone else seemed to easily down 1 or 2 pints per stop.

Dave did a great job of picking a route with lots of interesting sites. On the way to the second pub, we passed the Tate Modern museum, the Millennium Bridge (which still isn't open, due to structural problems), the new Globe Theater, and the site of the original Globe Theater. At the second pub, an 18th century place called The Anchor, we met up with some Perl folks who skipped the first pub and had obviously been there for a while. After spending almost two hours monopolizing the terrace that looks out over the Thames, our group of 50 to 60 people headed off to the final pub.

We must have been quite a sight, as we spread out into a long chain of people, many of whom were wearing the bright orange YAPC::Europe t-shirts. On this leg of the journey, we passed the site of the original Clink prison, the ruins of the Bishop of Winchester's palace, a replica of Sir Francis Drake's Golden Hinde ship, and Southwark Cathedral. As we filed past the bouncer at the George Inn, he eyed us suspiciously, but let us all in. The George Inn dates from 1676; sitting in the courtyard is a bit odd, as you have the very old inn on one side and a modern office building on the other. The inn is also the site of the Tabard Inn, where the pilgrims in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales gathered before setting out.

On Sunday, the conference started at 10 a.m., but there were a lot of empty seats when Greg announced the schedule changes for the day. I suspect that some people were still recovering from the pub crawl. By 11 a.m., the talks were mostly full. Highlights of the morning included a talk by Chris Young on the BBC's use of Perl for their Wimbledon 2000 and British Open enhanced TV sites, John Clutterbuck's presentation on using Perl on a project for the Registers of Scotland, and Leon Brocard's talk on graphing Perl programs and data structures. Talk about your Perl success stories: Chris said that the BBC folks were able to reuse about 90% of their Wimbledon code for the British Open site, while John described how with Perl/Tk they were able reduce the number of screens in the LRS2000 application from 200 down to 50. And Nat hosted yet another Perl 6 discussion before lunch.

During the lunch break, I realized how wise I had been to take advantage of the sunshine on Saturday. Although it was clear and sunny when I walked from my hotel to the ICA, by lunch time it was cloudy and starting to drizzle. I hadn't grabbed my umbrella before leaving the hotel, so I dashed back to get it before finding lunch. Another wise move, as it was raining in earnest by the time I finished lunch and headed back to the ICA.

Kevin Lenzo started one of the afternoon tracks with a talk on the work he is doing with speech recognition and speech synthesis with Perl. Although some of the linguistic concepts he covered were over my head, I was very impressed by the demo he gave, creating a limited domain speech synthesizer with assistance from Dave Cross. Kevin is working on some interesting open source speech projects, including Sphinx, a speech recognition project, and FestVox, a project for building synthetic voices for Festival.

I also attended Benjamin Holzman's talk on XML::Generator, in which he talked about how generating XML isn't as easy as one would expect. My eyes tend to glaze over when I start hearing about DTDs and schemas and such (especially in the middle of the afternoon, when my brain seems to take a siesta, whether I like it or not), so you'll just have to read the material on his talk when it gets posted on the YAPC::Europe site.

The conference ended with a final round of thanks to all the organizers and sponsors, followed by an auction of various items donated by the sponsors, to help defray the costs of running the conference. One sponsor, BlackStar, donated two Buffy the Vampire Slayer videos, which were hot items on the auction floor. For our part, O'Reilly sent several cartons of books, so many people were able to get bargains on new copies of recently released books. We're always thrilled to be able to support grassroots community efforts like YAPC.

Overall, everyone seemed quite happy with the conference. I heard a lot of positive feedback and very little grumbling, despite the inevitable glitches that occur during any conference. The conference was certainly a success content-wise, with informative and technically interesting talks. And I saw lots of pounds changing hands during the auction, as people seemed very willing to contribute a little more, on top of the 40 pounds they had already paid to attend, to help make the conference a financial success as well.

Congratulations to everyone who helped make the first YAPC::Europe happen. I'm going to keep my fingers crossed that it becomes an annual event, so that I can visit more cities in Europe. And next time I'll plan to stay longer. Three days was just long enough to adjust my internal clock to the time change, but not long enough to really see much of London. Next time.

Paula Ferguson is the Executive Editor for O'Reilly Web and Scripting editorial group.

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