Simon Willison’s Weblog


LUG Radio Live and Ask Later

1st August 2006

I attended two grassroots technology events in the past two weeks: LUG Radio Live 2006 and London Ask Later (previously known as Techa Kucha night, name changed after some emails from the holders of the UK Pecha Kucha trademark). Both were excellent events in their own right, and great examples of event organisation done on a small to non-existent budget.

LUG Radio Live

LUG Radio Live was held in Wolverhampton for the second year running, this time hosted by the Student Union. The event was twice the size of last year and will probably have to move to Birmingham in the future as Wolverhampton is running out of large enough venues.

This year there were around 400 attendees and the event was stretched out over two days. The venue was almost ideal: a good main stage, two separate rooms for “lightning talk” tracks (probably the wrong name for sessions that were generally half an hour long) and of course a well-stocked bar.

The event had a great speaker line-up, with keynotes from Mark Shuttleworth and Simon Phipps and talks from a varied assortment of free software hackers and tech enthusiasts. My personal highlights included Matthew Somerville’s MySociety talk, which combined an overview of the team’s projects (such as TheyWorkForYou and PledgeBank) with some behind-the-scene’s anecdotes, and the Hour of Power which featured a sequence of cool lightning-talk style demos.

I gave a talk about Django, trying to concentrate on the open source community aspects as opposed to diving deep in to the code. I fluffed the timing a bit, but the talk seemed to go over well. A number of people I talked to were using Django for real-world projects, some of which should be showing up on DjangoPoweredSites in the near future.

The event cost just five pounds for both days, but despite the small budget nothing that mattered had been missed—the AV worked brilliantly and the talks ran almost precisely to schedule. The low-tech wiki (a hand-constructed blackboard) certainly brought out the creativity in the crowd. Definitely the best value conference with the most grassroots atmosphere that I’ve ever been to. I can’t wait for next year.

Ask Later

Ask Later was a very different sort of event. It took place on a Tuesday evening at the New Cavendish campus of the University of Westminster (also the venue for the London Web Frameworks and JavaScript evenings) and consisted of a series of 6 minute 40 second presentations, each prepared in advance with 20 slides and 20 seconds for each slide. The slides were on automatic, so the presenters had to be able to time their talk precisely to match up with their slides.

Tom Carden has a list of the talks that were presented. The biggest crowd-pleaser was Matt Westcott, who described his attempt at writing a Sudoku solver in Ruby to tackle the Times’ online competition. The solver itself was pretty straight foward; the hand-rolled OCR routine to deal with the Times’ dodgy scanned JPEG a little less so. All of Matt’s work ended up in vane when the Times stopped publishing the puzzle online just after his system started working.

Tom Armitage’s talk was about how software should help people tell stories. It reminded me very much of Tabblo, the Django-powered photo sharing application that Ned Batchelder has been working on.

There was also a talk about levels of indirection from Jon Crowcroft, a lecturer at Cambridge. He mentioned in passing that two of his PHd students have written a full SSH implementation in OCaml, which is smaller and faster than the standard C version and is also provably correct. OCaml is a pure functional programming language with type inference, an object system and a strong collection of libraries. Another thing to keep an eye on.

The other talks covered a wide range of topics, and the standard was uniformly high. My own talk attempted to explain functional programming (including closures) in JavaScript. It went OK, but I really should have spent more time getting the slides right. Joel Spolksy’s Can Your Programming Language Do This? is more of the kind of thing I was aiming for.

The only disappointment was the size of the audience. The talks really deserved to be seen by more people; if you weren’t there you missed out on a treat. I imagine the main problem was the heat—sitting in a stuffy lecture theatre on a night like Tuesday’s wasn’t a hugely attractive proposition, but the talks were more than worth it.

The organisers have promised to run more events in the future, and hopefully positive word-of-mouth plus cooler weather will improve attendance for next time. You’d be crazy to miss it.

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