Safe? No. Awesome? YES! My review of Strange Loop 2010

When I first learned about the Strange Loop developers conference here in St. Louis, I had a strong – you might say strange – urge to attend. Strange because I am not a software developer; it’s been a long time since I’ve done any serious coding. What caught my eye was how conference organizer Alex Miller (@puredanger) tied the ideas of one of my favorite books of recent years, Douglas Hofstadter’s I Am a Strange Loop, to The Loop here in St. Louis and the idea of building an identity for St. Louis based developers.

More importantly, at least for me, it was not a conference focused on any one topic or language, but was like a survey course of the latest and greatest in many areas of development theory and practice. Here’s a quick summary of some of the sessions I attended at Strange Loop 2010:

Semantic Web

The first non-keynote talk I attended, Brian Sletten’s (@bsletten) talk Semantic Web: Hot or Not? looked at big-S Semantic Web, providing a bit of history about how it has failed to catch on in the past and why he thinks that its time has come. In case you are wondering, Brian voted for “hot”.

Towards the end of the second day, Scott Davis (@scottdavis99) presented Hidden Web Services: Microformats and the Semantic Web, a look at what I would call small-s semantic web. Using some (not always cooperative) live examples along with his presentation slides, Scott showed RDFa and microformats in action.

Of all the talks, these two provided me the most practical information that I can make use of. As soon as I finish this review (and catch up on a couple of other things I need to blog), I will be diving into RDFa and microformats and seeing how I can put them to use on this blog and a couple of other sites with which I’m involved.

Complexity Theory

Readers of this blog know that complexity is an idea that is never very far back in my thoughts, so I obviously made the time to attend Tim Berglund’s (@tlberglund) talk Complexity Theory and Software Development. He covered a lot of ground that I’m familiar with, but also gave me many new things to think about. And a couple of new ways to look at things.

Not taking anything away from any of the other presenters, Tim was one of the best presenters I had the pleasure of seeing. He was in one of the “small” rooms, but the quality of both the content and the presentation would have made this talk well suited to the main room at the Pageant.

NoSQL

When I saw the NoSQL track on the Strange Loop schedule, I assumed that this was a specific database implementation, along the lines of mySQL. (I told you it’s been a while….). Over the course of the two days, I came to understand the concepts of NoSQL and how these concepts can be, and are, being used.

Eben Hewitt’s (@ebenhewitt) talk Adopting Apache Cassandra provided me with a nice theoretical understanding that would serve me well through later talks, and Kevin Weil’s (@kevinweil) provided some lessons in implementation in his talk NoSQL at Twitter. The engineer in me really enjoyed Kevin’s frank discussion of the challenges and solutions – some successful and some not – as Twitter addressed the challenges presented by huge data sets.

Android

Next to the semantic web discussions, Ted Neward’s (@tedneward) talk Busy Java Developer’s Guide to Android: Basics provided me the most practical value. My Droid gives me a reason – and opportunity – to use Android as a platform to get back into some development (however small scale it may be), and this talk gave me enough to get started. A quick overview of the SDK, some talk about the NDK, and then some runthroughs of ideas were great. Ted also had a wealth of knowledge which he freely shared during the extended Q&A that the session eventually turned into.

It’s tough to say which talk was my favorite, but if you pushed me to choose I would have to go with Android Squared from Bob Lee (@crazybob) and Eric Burke (@burke_eric) from Square.  The talk focused on the engineering and software challenges related to using the Square in the mic port of an Android phone, including some detailed waveform and signal analysis and some tricks to deal with the wide variety of Android implementations out there. (It didn’t hurt that they handed out some hardware at the end of their talk.)

Bob and Eric took turns talking about specific aspects of the challenges and the solutions. Like Kevin Weil, they held no punches in terms of talking about successes and failures along the way. They not only showed the final product, but provided some great insights into the process of figuring things out.

There are a couple of talks I attended but haven’t mentioned, and then their are the keynotes and the panel discussions that were worth the price of admission (a low $190) all on their own. I’ll try to get back to those, and maybe even the above talks, in more detail over the coming weeks.

Summary (of my already too long summary)

At the top of Alex Miller’s favorites list on Twitter is this tweet from Jeff Atwood (@codinghorror):

“it’s better to be safe than sorry” is such crap. You know what’s better than being safe? Being AWESOME.

Alex most definitely didn’t take a “safe” path when he put together Strange Loop. The venue was spread across three venues, including a club typically used for concerts, the hotel next door, and a couple of rooms from the Regional Arts Commission across the street. Some of the rooms got overcrowded, and there was a general dissatisfaction with the wi-fi availability. And then there is the cross-discipline (cross-language?) nature of the conference, which may not have provided the depth that some wanted but made up for it with breadth.

I can’t speak for Alex and whether or not he is sorry about any of it, but I can say that he – and his cadre of assistants and volunteers – definitely hit awesome.

I’m already looking forward to next year.

William Gibson on…

This past weekend I had the pleasure of meeting author William Gibson when he came through St. Louis promoting his latest book, Zero History. He started off  by reading a bit from the book and then opened it up for questions from the standing room only crowd.

Here are some notes from the conversations that ensued:

…dystopia

When asked if he saw the world as bleak as the dystopias he depicts in his books, Gibson made the comment to the effect, “Dystopia is in the eye of the beholder”. From the perspective of the affluent, who have a strong interest in maintaining the status quo, his worlds may be dystopic, but there are plenty of people in the world who would see those worlds as a big step up.

…brands and marketing in his writing

Gibson references many real brands as part of his stories, and when asked said that you can’t really write a book about current times, especially in a big city like London, without branding and marketing being brightly on display. That is the world we live in, to not include it would make the whole story feel a bit false. This ties into his overall philosophy of naturalism in his writing.

…his career

When asked if his career turned out how expected, or hoped, it would, Gibson glibly commented that he never thought he’d have a writing career at all. His first novel, the best-selling Neuromancer, was written on commission and he fully expected that the first small printing would also be the last. All in all, I think he’s very happy with how it turned out.

…didactism

Asked about whether his writing reflects his own ideas that he is trying to spread, Gibson quickly said no. Didactism is a legitimate approach to writing, but he’s found that if you do that it is at the expense of the story and the characters. On the subject of characters and character development, he went on to say that if you – as an author – know what your characters are going to do before they do it, then you are also shortchanging the story. “I never know what my characters are going to do, and sometimes they do things that I wish they hadn’t.”

…freelancers vs. salaried workers

Gibson noted that his stories tend to have freelancers as the good guys and “salaried workers” as the bad guys, and said that this wasn’t really intentional (see comments on didactism above). He did note that not everyone that “works for the man” is bad, and in fact one of the key good guys of the current book is one of those salaried workers.

…twitter

When I asked him how he came up with his own Twitter handle, Gibson explained that a friend had told him about it so he figured he’d check it out, fully expecting to think it stupid and not worth keeping up with. When prompted for a user name, he looked up on his shelf and saw a book about The Great Dismal Swamp; hence, @GreatDismal. After about 5 minutes with Twitter, he found that he loved it. For the first time, he said, authors could get the same direct feedback – good and bad – from their fans that those in sports, film, etc did.

Gibson also made some comments about cultural history and cultural memory, noting that today’s generation of young adults have no idea what it was like to live in constant  fear of nuclear annihilation.  Whether this is a good thing or not remains to be seen. I  have a few other notes, but unfortunately even I am unable to read the scribble that I hurriedly wrote down.

(Just one more reason, as if I need one, that I want an iPad.)

A special thanks to Left Bank Books and the Schlafly Branch of St. Louis Public library for hosting this stop on Gibson’s book tour, and to Dennis Kennedy for making me aware of it. And, of course, to William Gibson for coming to town.

The Art of Living

Just inside the entrance to the Art of Living Building in Downtown St. Louis is the following quote:

A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreations.  He hardly knows which is which.  He simply pursues his vision of excellence thorugh whatever he is doing and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing.  To himself, he always seems to be doing both.

This came to mind as I was reading Lilia’s post Mama’s day, PhD work and being grounded, and her earlier post Turning work into life (June 2004) in which she said:

Don’t get me wrong, I like my work and office is a great space for meeting colleagues and serendipity of coffee talks. I’m just thinking about things what would make me more productive. A bit more flexibility, a bit more nature, a bit more fun… I know that there are organisations that make work fun and flexible to their people, but I wonder why they are so rare and what could be done to turn work into life. I guess one of the biggest obstacles is a myth about work/life balance, implying that work is not life, making us thinking that work should be that way – formal and full of discipline – and preventing thinking about other options…

Fortunate is the person who can make life their work and work their life.

Champions, present and past

If you would like to see a bit of current World Series Champion history, the World Championship Trophy will be on display at the Missouri Historical Society (Missouri History Museum) in Forest Park here in St. Louis beginning this Saturday. Society members will get a chance to see it Saturday morning before it is open to the general public , so now may be a good time to become a member. The 30 pound, sterling silver trophy will be on view in the museum’s MacDermott Grand Hall 7 April – 13 May 2007 (except for 23-25 April, when the trophy will not be on display).

A bit of interesting trivia, thanks to the folks at wikipedia: The trophy, officially called the Commissioner’s Trophy, was first presented in 1967 to the St. Louis Cardinals (!) following their victory over the Boston Red Sox.

Speaking of baseball, yesterday was a beautiful day for it, and a great day for opening day ceremonies for the reigning World Series Champion Cardinals. In addition to the current champions and new additions to Busch stadium to honor them, the festivities included quite a few champions from the Cardinal’s past.

After the Budweiser Clydesdales got the party started, parading around the field, Cardinals radio voice John Rooney and actor Billy Bob Thornton took over as the official emcees of the evening festivities.

Shortly after each member of the team took a trip around the field in a convertible, past Cardinals greats were introduced, commemorating St. Louis’ last two World Series championships, in 1967 and ’82.

Some of the former players on hand were Keith Hernandez, Joaquin Andujar, Bob Forsch and Bruce Sutter from the ’82 championship squad. Representing the ’67 championship team were Tim McCarver, Red Schoendienst, Lou Brock and Bob Gibson, among others.

OpeningDay07The pregame festivities continued when Adam Wainwright, Gibson and Sutter threw out the ceremonial first pitches. Those were the three pitchers to record the final out for the Cardinals’ last three World Series titles. The three hurlers threw to the managers that led them to the World Series: Tony La Russa, Schoendienst and Whitey Herzog.

Sutter joked before the toss that he didn’t know if he could get it to Herzog, and if he did, he didn’t know if Herzog could catch it. Sutter had no problem delivering a strike to his former manager.

All in all, it was quite a day for Cardinals fans, who waited 24 years in between for their World Series titles. Some fans were so eager for the first game that they went to downtown St. Louis several days early.

Pretty much a perfect opening day. Except, of course, that the Cardinals lost to the Mets.

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The serendipity of knowledge

Album Cover - Liquid Tension ExperimentA month or so ago in a discussion about the value of blogs and wikis as collaboration tools, Dave Snowden stated, “Knowledge discovery is serendipitous, not planned.” Last weekend, I had a ‘no-tech’ version of this experience at Mozingo Music in Ellisville, where I had taken my son to pick up some new sticks and mallets (he is a percussionist).

While Ian was looking through the different options, my eyes were drawn to the shelf of instructional DVDs. One in particular caught my eye, Mike Portnoy‘s Liquid Drum Theater. Though I didn’t buy the DVD, the info on the jacket made me want to learn more about Portnoy’s music with various groups. The group that stuck in my mind was Liquid Tension Experiment (with such a cool name, how could it not).

I’m always on the prowl for good new music, preferably good instrumental rock, and what I found with Liquid Tension Experiment on their two, aptly titled, CDs – Liquid Tension Experiment and Liquid Tension Experiment 2 – didn’t disappoint me. After listening to a couple of 30 second excerpts on the iTunes store, these two albums very quickly made their way into my collection of songs. (I’d have provided links to the albums in the iTunes store, but I’m not sure you can actually do that in a browser.)

To say that these guys are good would be a gross understatement, so I was anxious to see what else they had put out. Turns out that Liquid Tension Experiment was kind of a ‘side-gig’ for Portnoy and others, so they only released the two CDs mentioned above. As an ‘experiment,’ I would say that they definitely succeeded.

If you don’t want to buy both full albums but want to get a good sample of what they’ve got to offer, I’d recommend Paradigm Shift or Freedom of Speech from the first album, and Acid Rain or Biaxident from the second. You’ll be glad you did.

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Thunderhead – A tribute to RUSH

I’ve been a fan of the Canadian rock trio Rush for many years, since high school, so when my brother called me up a couple of weeks ago and asked if I wanted to go check out a local Rush tribute band I immediately agreed. I’m glad I did.

Thunderhead logoThe band, Thunderhead, played at the House of Rock in South (St. Louis) County on a Friday night (9 Feb). We got there early to make sure we had a place to sit (and set down our beers!), and good thing. As show time approached the place filled up quickly.

Like Rush, Thunderhead is a three-man band: George Whitlow on bass, keyboards, and vocals, Corey Nelson on guitars, and Mike Ramsey on percussion (you can’t simply call it “drums” when you are talking about Rush!). And I have to say, these guys ROCKED. (Well worth the 5 buck cover.)

I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the show, as I had never seen a “tribute band” perform. I had in mind the “cover bands” that travel the club circuit, playing a collection of covers from various bands, genres, etc. The music is usually good, but very rarely do the bands seem to make a whole-hearted effort to re-create the sound of the original. (Not saying that’s bad, I love a good cover band.)

A ‘tribute band,’ on the other hand, has as its goal a faithful reproduction of most, if not all, aspects of a bands music and performance. In that, Thunderhead succeeded.

One of the things that became immediately obvious when they started playing was that this wasn’t just a bunch of guys that got together on the weekends to play some music. I can only imagine how much time they put into 1) learning the music as individuals, 2) learning the songs as a group, 3) staging the performance (lights, sound, etc), and 4) rehearsal of the whole package.

With the exception of some vocal problems George had (a cold exacerbated, no doubt, by the thick smoke in the club), their performance was right on. As much as I’ve always enjoyed Neil Peart’s lyrics, it is Rush’s musicality that I most love. The extended guitar solos in songs, the mandatory (and brilliantly executed) drum solo, and the group jams that are Rush’s instrumentals were great. My personal favorite – the jazzy, funky, and rocking La Villa Strangiato.

If you live in the St. Louis area, keep an eye on their tour page for upcoming dates. If you are a fan of Rush, you owe it to yourself to check these guys out.