My ILC07 rants

There were some situations during my stay at this year's International Lisp Conference where I wished I had a blog. And, incidentally, a chance for non-bloggers like me to blog was offered for the conference. So, I'm now (April 3, 2007) sitting at the airport waiting to be boarded and I'll use the time to write down some of my impressions. I'll post this once I'm back home again.

First of all, many thanks to Nick and the other locals who helped to make this happen. The organization was flawless and everything (registration, proceedings, technical equipment, the coffee breaks, the conference website, the nice badges designed by Christophe, the group photo, etc.) had been taken care of and "worked" just fine. Actually, you only really realize this once you think about all the stuff that could go wrong - but nothing did.

For me, the first day began with my tutorial early in the morning - which, once you're finished, is a good thing as afterwards you can be completely relaxed and enjoy the rest of the conference. The organizers asked me if I could give an additionial tutorial only two weeks before the conference started, so there wasn't a hell of a lot of time to prepare something really spiffy. Finally, I ended up sitting in my hotel room on Saturday until 03:30 in the night preparing slides and examples, and I was a bit tired when I got up at 07:00. My apologies to those of you who might have found the stuff I showed too basic, but I warned you in advance. A couple of attendees came to me afterwards and told me it had been exactly what they were expecting from the announcement and that they had learned something new, so at least I wasn't completely off track.

The good thing (maybe) is that I spent two nights last week to create a cool demo for the tutorial that I eventually discarded because I thought it would contain too much stuff that would distract from the actual subject. But I'll clean it up and release it as a new library soonish.

In the afternoon, I attended Duane Rettig's tutorial which I left with mixed emotions. It had a lot of very interesting stuff in it, Duane did a great job of presenting it, and I saw quite a few new "low-level" features of AllegroCL I'd like to have in my Lisp as well - for example platform-independent LAP code you can embed into your Lisp code if you want to. (And before you write an email - yes, I know about Python's VOPs and Corman Lisp's inline assembler.) But towards the end the tutorial focused too much on creating "non-consing" code IMHO. To the naïve bystander this might have looked as if you can only write reasonably fast code with Lisp if you think and write like a C hacker - this is definitely not true in my experience.

I won't provide in-depth comments for all of the talks I saw on Monday and Tuesday, but here are some random notes:

Cyrus Harmon receives my special price for best slide layout. I talked to him afterwards and he told me he's employing Beamer embedded in a Lisp workflow which automatically creates his presentation, his thesis, and other stuff. Nice! Honorable mentions go to Charlotte Herzeel and Tasuku Hiraishi for cute animations that weren't only entertaining but also helped to get their ideas across. I promise that the next time I'm giving a talk I won't just fire up PowerPoint in the last minute and use its default layout. Charlotte also used port 4242 for her Hunchentoot-based demo, by the way, so I'm declaring it the official Hunchentoot demo port now (although it seems I'll have to negotiate with the VRML guys). Incidentally, I'm sitting at gate 42 of Stansted airport while I write this.

The demo of their Ethereal^WWireshark replacement Andreas Bogk and Hannes Menhert gave was pretty cool - I'd never have dared to re-implement a complex beast like this one. Dylan macros look ugly, though... :)

Andrew Bordon's talk was obviously interesting from a mathematical viewpoint, but I failed to grasp its significance for a Lisp conference - except that the word "Lisp" is mentioned in passing in the paper once or twice. But maybe that's just me...

And then there was John Mallery's talk. I haven't been to many Lisp conferences in my life, but this was definitely the weirdest talk I've seen so far. For reasons which seem to be apparent to everyone I talked to I never looked very closely at CL-HTTP, so I can't really comment about its technical underpinnings, but it is certainly impressive how early (1994) Common Lisp already had a web server capable of creating dynamic content. I'm sure it would have flourished (making other Lisp web servers obsolete before they even existed) and maybe taken the world by storm if it hadn't been for its, er, idiosyncratic license. It is of course perfectly fine if its author simply doesn't care (and I guess this is what one has to deduce from the strange non-answers he gave) or wants to keep the license as it is - but then he shouldn't complain about the "fragmentation" of web tools in the Lisp community. Surely, with a license you could use without consulting your lawyer ("nobody has been sued yet, hohoho"), they'd have an SBCL port by now. And session management. And maybe this AJAX thingy and what have you.

Bolstering up the slightly surreal atmosphere of his talk was Mallery's excuse that he had to prepare his talk in the plane due to his busy schedule - to be followed by a slide which said that CL-HTTP was based on a language called "LISP" (note the capitals) with a proud history of 43 years. Hmm, given that we're about to celebrate Lisp's 50th birthday next year, it must have been a loooong flight...

This event (and some other incidents during the conference) confirmed my suspicion that there's a fraction within the Lisp community that is completely detached from what is going on nowadays. They did very cool things in the past, but then they somehow lost interest or they think that everything that came afterwards can't compare anyway so they don't need to bother. (And don't get me wrong - I'm not saying that the new stuff is always better than what's already there, not at all. It's just that you shouldn't pretend to know everything on Earth if you don't.)

Finally, and back to lighter content, kudos to Luke "I cons deliberately" Gorrie for always asking the best questions. I'm looking forward to your SLIME considered harmful talk at next year's ECLM... :)

And now for the non-Lisp conclusion:

It was the fourth time I was in the "real" Cambridge (as opposed to this one) and I like the city very much. One of these days, I'm going to visit it without Lisp keeping me busy all day. What I don't understand is why the train station doesn't have trash cans, though... [Update: Several people have emailed me by now explaining to me that this is a legacy of IRA bombings. Thanks for the info, I obviously didn't know that.]

The book I read during the outbound flight was (the German translation of) Andrea De Carlo's Giro di Vento - highly recommended.

I bought a coffee at Starbuck's at the airport and was very pleasantly surprised to hear Miles Davis' In A Silent Way coming out of their loudspeakers. I usually don't expect to encounter good music in public places. The next time I'm there, play some Zappa please... :)

[Note: The complete text was written on Tuesday, April 3rd, 2007. Changes I made to this document thereafter were just to fix typos or to update/add hyperlinks.]

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