Last 3 days (January 22-23-24) were the days of CUSEC 2009, the Canadian Universities Software Engineering Conference. I graduated last year, but the event makes for loads of geek fun, so I went anyway. Quick highlights of the non-technical talks I went to:
- Leah Culver, cofounder of Pownce, now at Six Apart, opened the conference by speaking of pursuing passions, which is a recurrent theme at CUSEC. To her, that should involve lots of creativity, say being imaginative in repurposing her tiny apartment in California for parties. In fact, it turns out that a big part of her strategy revolves around partying, as she met Kevin Rose (founder at Digg and Pownce), Jimmy Wales (founder of Wikipedia) and other big names in such contexts. (Not to downplay her technical ability, though, as she has also contributed to the Django framework and wrote an OAuth library for Python.)
- Avi Bryant, founder of Dabble DB, suggested we (in his terms) steal ideas from the academic world to bring them to market by actually making them usable. He showed a demo of his recent (quite magical indeed) Magic/Replace web app, which he said was based on research done at MIT.
- Giles Bowkett had this wild presentation about his unusual career, showing over 400 slides in about an hour. The slides weren’t exactly packed with precise information, but it’s certainly the most entertaining use of PowerPoint/Keynote/whatever I’ve ever witnessed (though Avi Bryant live editing of Venn diagrams deserves mention too). To illustrate, let’s say it involved quite a few FAIL pictures. He demoed very quickly his Archaeopteryx random music generator program, a Lisp-inspired piece of Ruby that generates MIDI notes later sent to a sound synthesizer/program (he used Reason, IIRC, in his presentation). The result was a pretty good beat, even if didn’t get to hear much of it.
- Joey deVilla, “the accordion guy”, gave this talk on the job of a tech evangelist, since that’s what he’s now doing for Microsoft. Curiously enough, he barely mentionned Microsoft, but he did play Nine Inch Nails “Head like a hole” on his accordion (entirely justified by earlier stories, btw), which resulted in one of those precious WTF moments that punctuate one’s life.
- Francis Hwang made a presentation on the nature of software engineering, comparing it to other spheres of human activity. It was a very balanced talk, very interesting, if only for the fact that it departs from the way these comparisons are usually made. For example, it’s often said that software engineering is similar to art, and to him the link is pretty weak, whereas closer fields, intellectually, would be politics, law or economics (ex: politics is close due to the balance of interests involved in the design of systems, intra and inter-organization).
- Last but clearly not least, Richard Stallman exposed his ideas on copyright and, of course, on Free Software, ideas which are available on the FSF site btw. Another local maximum of LOLs in the conference happened when he decided to auction a cute doll of a Gnu. Seeing him auction the thing was fun enough, but seeing it go to Joey deVilla, who paid it with his Microsoft credit card at the suggestion of the heckling crowd, was, err, priceless. deVilla inviting Stallman to join him in bringing order to the galaxy in a Darth Vader-esque voice was just icing on the cake.
Of course there was also a more technical side to the conference. I won’t elaborate too much on this, but I’ll mention the IBM programming challenge which was a bit weird for a competition: we were asked to make a spell checker / spelling suggestions engine. In 3 hours. No restrictions, be creative. So a few teams ended up writing a wrapper around Google spelling suggestions, as a joke. I didn’t submit anything, but a friend’s quick exploration did bring up the page on Peter Norvig’s explanation of the basic principle behind Google suggestions. The algorithm is interesting, if only for being so short and sweet.