Tag Archives: rant

More pontification on alcohol at conferences

This post started off as a reply to a comment (by “Alan”) on my previous post on this topic, but it got a bit long-winded, and raised a few clarifications of my own viewpoints on this matter. So it’s turned into a post of its own.

So, before I start this, nothing against the organisers or team surrounding OSCON. I loved my experience speaking, and attending the main conference event, and I’m coming back to OSCON to speak again this year. The reason why I pick on it is because it’s the one large American conference that I’ve been to, and it provides a nice contrast to the grassroots-style conferences that I’ve been involved with back home. It also exhibits some very specific examples of fostering that “culture of exclusion” that could be fixed with a few minor policy changes.

So, without further ado, here’s me addressing the points in Alan’s comment.

Could it be that this and the “brogrammer” culture is a problem that is more present at JSConf and Ruby conferences than Python?

I certainly agree that this culture does peak around various types of communities — for instance, Ryan’s post on the “Culture of Exclusion” speaks very specifically of JSConf and various Ruby groups, and in my own experience this sort of culture doesn’t seem to be prevalent at PyCons. However, to say that it’s attached to a small subset of communities is probably quite unfair — OSCON is very much a multi-community conference, but there’s still quite the drinking culture attached to it. Likewise, it seems to me that the Ruby community in Australia isn’t quite as drinking-centric as the examples that Ryan put forward.

You don’t hear anything about sexist COBOL programmers or late night binging at Java conferences from what I can tell. Even PHP seems to have grown up.

I think the likelihood of these sorts of things to occur really does depend on the level of “community” that is attached to a given language or technology. As an example here, people doing Java coding are almost certainly doing so because they work for in a corporate environment. Ruby and JS people are doing so because they work in a “startup” environment, or they’re doing it for fun. The companies that form the founding groups around a conference will often bring their culture along with them. It’s interesting to consider why this doesn’t happen so much at Python conferences. I don’t have any particular answers here — indeed, it’s quite the paradox, because I’d have considered Python to be more of a “startup” type language, and one would assume that would bring the “startup” culture into it. Perhaps it speaks of the values of those who started gatherings for Python coders?

Are these excesses a problem at conferences in general? Is this an American thing? Or even a Ruby/JS thing?

Is it a problem with conferences or communities, or is it a much more widespread cultural issue (as in e.g. American youth culture) that has just become more visible for us recently?

Excess is something that needs to be managed — it’s very easy for a conference organiser to say “yes, you can provide an open bar at this event” to a sponsor, and sponsors get quite an amount of good will from it (free alcohol doesn’t upset people, non-drinkers won’t speak up). It’s also pretty clear to me that if an open bar is offered, there’ll be a group of people who will take it up, regardless of the community that centres around the conference.

So the conferences that suffer from this sort of problem are the ones which either don’t have a policy of limitation of alcohol sponsorship, or those that actively encourage a culture of drinking (the sort of things that Ryan Funduk talks about in his article). I doubt there’d be open bars at any conference if there weren’t sponsors who were willing to fund them.

The onus is therefore on conference organisers to make sure that they don’t encourage binge drinking. In particular, this involves limiting the amount of alcohol sponsorship a conference is willing to accept — we at PyCon Australia are doing this by only providing tokens for drinks at our alcohol sponsored events (with the exception of at the dinner, where the open bar is time-limited, and comes with food and other entertainment).

What distinguishes conferences and communities that have this problem from those that do not?

Conferences can send out a message about this culture: For example, offering OSCON offers free attendance to the drinking events, but not to the main content of the conference; this can be compared with Linux.conf.au, where you have to pay extra to attend the drinking session. The contrasts between these arrangements provide quite the subtext between the values of the two conferences — intentional or not. In my view, OSCON providing such a ticket says that the “base level” experience of the conference is one where you go to all the parties, and the talks and tutorials are the “added extras”. For LCA, it’s the other way around.

So in summary, there are plenty of factors that surround the discussion of alcohol at conferences. I think it’s an important discussion to have, not least because it presents as a diversity argument in very much the same way as the gender diversity argument has presented itself over the last few years — conferences should always be looking at the messages they send out about the communities they wish to foster, and ensuring that they’re inclusive towards everyone in that culture.

CRUST PIZZA USES FAKE MEAT

According to their ingredients listing, which is available from their website, Crust Pizza use flavour-enhanced meat.

Crust Pizza meat description

For those who can’t read it, their “bacon” contains: Pork (93%), Water, Salt, Mineral Salts (451, 450), Sugars (Sucrose, Dextrose (Maize)), Antioxidant (316), Sodium Nitrite (250), flavour enhancer (621), Natural Wood Smoke, water added.

Seriously, for less than than $20, you can buy high-quality pizza, with real flavours, and not MSG (Flavour Enhancer 621).

Until they pick their act up, never again.

AUC /dev/world/2009 and its consequences for the Open Source development community

AUC /dev/world/2009, the Apple University Consortium’s annual student (and university staff) developer conference was held this week in Canberra. DevWorld goes for two days, and consisted (this year) of about 90 enthusiastic Apple developers learning about popular Mac technologies.

This year, as well as being my first DevWorld conference, I was a presenter: I presented a talk about the OS X scripting bridges, with a particular focus on the Python–Objective-C bridge, PyObjC. I rushed through the first half of my talk, and instead of taking ~45 minutes like I’d estimated, I took 30, which means I probably rushed through the back end of the talk as well (though it felt as though I was going pretty slowly!). I was not the only student presenter at this conference, indeed around two thirds of presenters were students at one of the AUC member universities.

As well as my presentation, I was the official photography crew for the conference (with a broken camera for half the conference, too, I might add), wrote a substantial amount of the (ridiculously hard) quiz night, and organised their lunchtime lightning talks, which in my opinion was one of the greater successes of the conference — more than half of the 11 talks were presented by people who had not presented at the conference, and the representatives from Apple Australia were suitably impressed by the quality of the talks.

Coming from an Open Source person’s standpoint, I’m very impressed with the level of developer community that the AUC are able to extract from University students. There is clearly a high level of enthusiasm amongst student Mac and iPhone developers for their chosen platform, which is something that Apple should justifiably be proud of. I am convinced, however, that this enthusiasm is not solely limited to Apple Development, and almost certainly exists for Open Source platforms as well. It is our job as Open Source people to foster this enthusiasm for Free developer platforms and Open Source technology in general amongst the student population.

Our existing conferences do not do enough to encourage students to participate in presentating at them. I will single out LCA in this case, as it is our community’s most visible local conference — what I am pointing out also applies to others. Though there has been a concerted increase in student-related events at LCA (beginning with the Google student event in 2008 and the TUCS UpDNS in 2009), and this certainly establishes ties within the student community, more needs to be done to extend these ties into the broader community.

An appropriate place to start here would be the establishment of a regular student miniconf as of 2011. Student developers make up a significant minority of delegates to LCA, but are seriously underrepresented in both main programme presentations and miniconf presentations. Referencing her experiences on the PyCon papers committee, Anna Martelli Ravenscroft lists 6 reasons why women do not talk enough at conferences, but they apply equally well to student developers at well — fear of inexperience in comparison with other delegates or presenters, fear of presenting a topic that may be irrelevant to other delegates and fear of presenting in general are all listed as common reasons why people do not present enough. Providing an allocated track for student developers would almost completely eliminates the first two listed issues, and will make significant inroads into the third by providing a supportive environment for students to present at the conference. Linuxchix has been a notable precedent and success story in this field, by providing a supportive environment for female delegates at LCA, there has been a noticable increase in attendance by female delegates since the Linuxchix miniconf was started (the proportion of which I am not sure); and from what I can tell, the standard of presentations is very high.

Student developers are currently an untapped resource for LCA and the Open Source conference community in general, but one that we must strive to harness whilst the opportunity still presents itself. The AUC have demonstrated that a student-driven developer conference is not only a feasible model, but one that can be highly informative, well-delivered, and highly successful. For as long as we are not encouraging enthusiasm amongst our own young developers this way, we are presenting further opportunities for Apple and others to fill the void, and at the moment, the void is great.

I close with a quote from Simon Phipps’ keynote from LCA2009. In reference to his presenting from a Mac laptop, Simon observed that

The greatest enemy to freedom is a happy slave.

I argue that an even greater enemy to freedom is someone who is happily being educated into slavery. For as long as our non-free competition are encouraging student development in this way, this is the circumstance that we in the Australian Open Source community are faced with. I commend the AUC for their fantastic work on producing an excellent conference, and it is something that we in the Open Source community should be striving to replicate, and not striving to extinguish.

The Gruen Transfer (and car parks etc)

Last Friday, whilst in Sydney on a short trip, I had the fortune of being asked to go ice skating with a bunch of people from USyd. This required me to visit a large suburban shopping mall.

Whilst the ice skating was fun and thoroughly enjoyable, the visiting of the shopping centre and surrounding parking facilities was one of the most traumatic events of my recent life. In my travels, which has resulted in visiting shopping malls in many different cities, never have I been so thoroughly disoriented in my life. As well as the completely haphazard layout of the centre, which resulted in me not being able to figure any direction, there were (at least) two disjoint car parks, each consisting of 6 levels of confused layout, with only minimal indication to newcomers as to how to identify the location of the car park.

Perhaps it’s just that my brain is wired for a small city, but I’ve never encountered such a deliberately confusing building. Ever.

On Public Transport

Russell Coker writes on the comparison of costs of Public Transport as compared with that of using a car. I see two key flaws with his argument:

Firstly, the costs of travel that he uses are fairly specific to Melbourne, where there exists a very good ticketing system amongst all forms of public transport, therefore a trip involving a bus to a train station, a train to the CBD, followed by a tram to final destination is all covered within the same ticket, and $2.76 is certainly a very cheap price for this. I believe that this argument only applies to cities with such a system (or cities like Hobart, where there is only one primary form of public transport, with a single supplier). For example, in Sydney, tickets only apply to the provider of transport that the ticket is purchased from: so, a trip involving, say, a bus, a train and then a second bus would require three separate fares (in fact, fares are not even consistent within a single provider — the Sydney Morning Herald reported earlier this year that there exist more than 100 individual fares for the rail system there. Sorry for the lack of a proper citation — SMH appear to have removed the relevant article).

Secondly, Russell’s argument relies upon a definite choice between public transport, and private car ownership: this is since, as he rightly points out, the cost of registration and insurance tend to be flat, annual fees, that do not depend on how far you travel in the year. Therefore the only way to decrease the “per kilometre” cost of car travel is to travel more. This implies that the choice to occasionally travel by car, and occasionally by public transport will actually increase the total cost of owning a car. At least one friend of mine does not travel by public transport for this reason.

Whist the sole use of public transport may be a viable option for people living near the centre of large cities (such as the relatives I stayed with during LCA this year, the trains were very regular extending well into the night), it is not an option for many others. Transportation here in Hobart into the night is very sparse, and implies either the choice of perfectly timing one’s evening to coincide with a once-every-three- hours bus service, or paying for a taxi, which costs considerably more than a private vehicle per kilometre (for example, a trip from the airport to where I live, approximately 15 kilometres will cost $40 — a cost of $2.66/km). This therefore makes access to a car imperative in many places.

In summary, I’m not surprised by the relative lower cost of trips by public transport, but in a circumstance such as this where not owning a car is a serious inconvenience, the collateral costs that the use of public transport entails makes it a less appealing option.