OSCON Blogging Post-Mortem

by Geoff Broadwell

Related link: http://www.oreillynet.com/pub/au/2333

I've spent the last week blogging OSCON 2005. This is the first time I've tried to blog a conference, and the experience was an eye-opener. There are a few things I got right, and a few others that went horribly wrong:

Bring your own laptop.

I borrowed someone else's, and that turned out to be a problem on two fronts. First, it crashed several times, once when I had been neglecting frequent saves. Very frustrating. Second, I couldn't safely bring it to the convention floor, which lead to other problems (see below).

Make sure you have a backup plan in case your main computer goes on the fritz.

I learned this one by getting bitten for not doing it. Thankfully, I was able to repair the laptop I had borrowed, but I lost a lot of time and (worse yet) flow.

Just because you're cranky, don't take it out on your subject in the blog.

I was rightly (mildly) chastised for somewhat stinging commentary in one of my entries. I believe it's OK to rant (a little) about what's making you cranky -- blogs are after all supposed to be informal -- but the person behind the main subject of the article doesn't deserve snippiness directed at them.

Make sure the laptop you bring onsite contains no personal or financial data.

A conference full of geeks with over 2000 attendees is bound to have at least one bad apple. I was pleasantly surprised by the wide array of kind, helpful souls everywhere I turned, but there's surely at least one cracker in the crowd. The odds against a cracker-free geek conference are just too long. Make sure the resulting unpleasantness doesn't include someone getting to your financial data, stealing your credit identity, and bleeding you dry. Firewalls and locked down configurations are nice, but nothing beats just not having sensitive data out in the open in the first place. Thankfully, this is one of the things I had right at the outset.

If you're stuck taking notes on dead trees, make sure you have enough pens.

I ran two pens dry and was well into a third by the end of the conference. I also just about filled a notebook that was empty when I started. I had no idea that I'd have so many notes to take!

Blogging sessions takes a lot longer than you think.

Relatively often, speakers have had to cut down their talks to fit within the time allotted. That means they will be very information-dense. If you want to do a decent job reporting on them, expect each entry to take quite a while to write. If you don't know how long it will likely take, time yourself writing an entry on something else, such as a political speech or lecture at the local college.

Geek conferences imply sleep deprivation. Accept that, and do what you can to make it easier.

I went into the conference short on sleep, and then proceeded to get about half my normal sleep every night for a week. By Thursday I was cranky, making mistakes, nodding off during sessions, and otherwise much the worse for wear. In retrospect, I should have been much more careful to get caught up on sleep before the conference started. If I do this next year, I'll also change my blogging schedule to get at least a couple more hours sleep each night (see below).

Blog during the day; don't save it all for when you get back to your room.

Conferences are exhausting. If you just take notes during the day, and save all of the blogging work until you get back to your room, you will seriously short yourself on sleep. You'll also risk getting behind (as I did), and that will only get worse as the conference accelerates through the week. Also, your writing will suffer from your exhausted mental state, and may eventually reach pure stream of consciousness whether or not that was your intended effect. There's a lot of down time; use some of it to make your evenings easier by getting a chunk of the work done early.

That said, don't let blogging take over your time at the conference.

Meeting people in person and joining ad hoc groups clustered in the hall are a big part of the conference experience. Don't miss out on that by spending every break session glued to the keyboard. It's not an easy balance to make, but I'm definitely glad I chatted at lunch or in the hall a few times this year.

Murphy was a realist.

I won't claim that he was an optimist, as the old joke goes, but unhappy things do happen. For example, during the last week I've had several computer crashes, one lost article, two dead pens, a missed flight, a problem with new airport security procedures that nearly resulted in a second missed flight, a daughter with a nasty stomach infection, area-wide loss of DSL routing for almost 20 hours, and more general nuttiness than I ever expected. I'm not sure I could have prepared for all of these, but it's worth having a few contingency plans, and a realistic schedule that assumes things will go wrong, rather than always perfectly.

Here ends the last of my OSCON 2005 blogs. It's been quite a ride, and a lot crazier than I expected, but fun nevertheless. The book writing session recommended keeping one's writing speed up by writing every day. I doubt I can manage that, but I'll try to blog here from time to time to keep in shape. So long, folks!

"There's no more. That's the end of magic . . . ."

What suggestions do you have for future conference bloggers?


2005-08-09 07:01:28
Ok for "when", but "how" ?
You said, correctly I think, that blogging in the evening is risky and error-prone. Then, you suggest "don't let blogging take over your time at the conference", which is perfectly reasonable. These pieces of advice seem to imply, though, that one has to be a skilled writer to track down events both rapidly and accurately: how do you proceed turning raw notes into polished articles? How do you think one could improve his skills?
2005-08-09 10:01:54
Ok for "when", but "how" ?
Those are good questions! This time around, I wrote notes freehand whenever something seemed important, and then at night read through them again to try to find an overarching theme. Failing that, I just regurgitated the notes with a bit of cleanup and reordering to make more sense to people who hadn't seen the presentation.

This does have some problems -- I mixed together two security presentations and had to edit one of the posts when I realized my mistake. On the plus side, taking some time to review and synthesize allowed me to do a couple entries that were closer to articles in style and content than to simple reprocessed course material; I'd like to have done more of those.

As for improving this, I think only practice will do the trick; I intend to do more entries (both here and on use.perl.org) in the coming months to try to keep in practice and hopefully improve. Of course, I won't be posting nearly as frequently -- I did around two dozen regarding OSCON 2005 -- but even one or two a week would be a benefit.

To be honest, the conflict between the two points you mention is one of those problems I've just had to set my subconcious mind on, because my conscious mind is coming up short on answers. Hopefully something will bubble up before the next OSCON . . . .

2005-08-09 14:06:09
What I did
I realized very quickly on - during the Tuesday evening extravaganza - that I was not going to have time to blog during the conference.

This turned out to be exactly the case. I was so busy listening and taking notes during sessions, and then even more busy trying to schmooze between sessions, and even more busy hassling Gnat to get the wireless fixed... Evenings were even worse because there were parties and receptions, and I got back so late Wed and Thu nights that blogging was out of the question for both sleep and alcohol consumption reasons.

So I ended up using my laptop during the sessions only to take notes, and chat on IRC if I felt like multi-tasking.

I didn't blog as nearly as much as you did - just one summation at the end of the week with stuff I thought was really blog-worthy.

But everyone will deal with this situation differently.


2005-08-11 09:05:35
Editorial correction request
The link you want to use to point to your cranky entry is not:


as that goes to the O’Reilly-internal CMS view and gives visitors nothing but a “go away” page. The link on the public-facing site is


2005-08-11 09:38:13
Editorial correction request
Fixed, thanks for the tip. This system has a habit of failing the DWIM test . . . .
2005-10-10 00:31:40
Blogging restricted links

Another useful piece of advice: don't put links in your articles that the general reader won't be able to get to - vide the "book-writing session" link towards the end of your article. Clicking on this (even when logged in to oreillynet) brings up a message that this is a restricted article, so the link is not useful.

To be fsir, you probably can acces this link yourself, but you should be aware taht others can't. So maybe the rule should be "Access your blog for testing purposes as someone other than yourself".

2005-10-10 10:06:52
Blogging restricted links
Zagnuts. OK, fixed that one.

/me will have to be more careful in the future . . .

Again, not so DWIMy, this system.