Guiding Light

Posted on 6th February 2009

In 2006 I, along with 3 others from Birmingham Perl Mongers, organised the 2006 YAPC::Europe Perl Conference. It was thankfully a great success and invigorated several with ideas of things that they could do to join or create communities. Whether that was forming a local Perl Monger user group or starting a code project that would eventually be submitted to the CPAN. However, one person was inspired to go to another YAPC the following year and then submit a talk and speak at the 2008 YAPC::Europe Perl Conference. Had the 2006 conference not been in Birmingham, UK in 2006, Edmund would likely never have gone to a YAPC, and never realised how valuable they are. Not just in terms of the presentations and speakers, but of the communities and projects that are discussed, that he might not otherwise be aware of. And perhaps most importantly, realise just how easy it is to be included into the community and how easy it is for everyone to make a difference.

At the conference dinner in 2008, Edmund was struck by the lack of younger members of the communty in attendance, and started to think about why. For some time I have been trying to understand what we as a community can do to bring new people into the community, and although my perspective has focused on YAPCs, it equally applies to projects and local user groups. However, there is one aspect that I had neglected, that was obvious to Edmund. Funding. Most of those we are trying to encourage to come along to a YAPC are likely to be unwaged or on low wages, and cannot afford the costs of travel and accommodation for 4-6 days.

Last week Edmund launched the Send-A-Newbie website, with the support of the organisers for the 2009 YAPC::Europe Perl Conference to be held in Lisbon, Portugal, together with several members of the Perl community who have voiced approval. It is a great idea, and is a great way to enable students in particular a chance to attend the biggest Perl developer conferences in Europe.

The initaive aims to send at least 6 people, although even if only 1 person is selcted to attend this year, I would consider it a success. As it happens some grant applications have already been received, so it is likely that at least 1 person will attend thanks to the programme. Hopefully more will be approved for grants providing the funding can be obtained.

So how can you help? Well if you have the ability to do so, please consider donating. Mentioned the programme to anyone who you think might be a worthy recipient of a grant, and get them to apply. Mention it at your local user group, and see whether anyone can help with a donation. In order to keep YAPCs and the Perl community healthy we need to encourage potential future stars that attending the conference is a worthwhile oppotunity. If they could benefit from a grant to cover their travel and accommodation costs, then it really is in yours and their interest to do something about it. Applications will be accepted until 1 June 2009, so there is plenty of time yet to promote and apply for grants.

File Under: community / conference / education / opensource / people / perl / yapc

Hot For Teacher

Posted on 11th March 2008

After last week's post about the Asus EEE PC, I thought it worth mentioning a local company (to me) in Redditch who got featured on last Wednesday's Bromsgrove Advertister. Elonex have released the first laptops for under £100 in the UK. The laptop, called The One, like the Asus EEE PC is aimed at the education market. However, I can also seeing it being a very attractive purchase for anyone wishing to buy a cheap laptop, so that they can use to browser the web, edit documents, manage their photo collection and play music. Particularly if they aren't too interested in the details and wouldn't classify themselves as a technical user.

It sounds an ideal purchase for kids to learn how to use a computer, as they are not power users and are unlikely to notice the slightly slower of the 300MHz processor. It's often annoyed me that PC and laptop manufacturers heavily promote the processor speed, how much RAM they have and how many Gigabytes their hard drives are. However unless you're playing top end games or getting a million hits a day on your web server, you rarely need that much power. In fact the user is often the blocking point, as browsing the web and editing documents rarely find the local computer maxed out on CPU, Memory or File IO. DanDan's laptop is not much faster and he happily plays flash games, although admittedly he is using Firefox on Ubuntu, so is less encumbered with bloatware that you find on every Windows machine now.

If the current trend of cheaper laptops for kids and the education market keeps going, I think a number of the major manufactures may want to re-evaluate some of their offerings. While there will always be a demand for high spec machines from developers and businesses, I can imagine that the home market will start to see a shift in it's desire to buy something more affordable and reliable. As such I see Linux and Open Source featured more and more as a viable alternative to Windows. The Linux desktop may just get a notable share of the lucrative market that Microsoft have held onto for so long.

File Under: computers / education / laptop / linux / opensource

Both Ends Burning

Posted on 13th July 2007

During José's talk, 'The Acme Namespace - 20 minutes, 100 modules', at YAPC::NA in Houston, he mentioned one of the Acme modules that accesses the info for a Playboy Playmate, Acme::Playmate. After he mentioned it, Liz "zrusilla" Cortell noted that she used to work for Playboy and worked on the site that was screen scrapped by the Acme module, informing us that she wrote the backend in Perl too, "so you see it was Perl at both ends". At this point the room erupted, Liz got rather red and I'm sure wished the ground would swallow her up :)

Despite the rather salacious connotation that can be drawn from that remark, it was a phrase that struck me later as being rather more descriptive of the state of Perl. I started to think about the community, business and the way Perl is perceived. Drawing a line with the individual at one end, moving into community through small businesses and onto corporations at the far end, we can see Perl is not only used at both ends, but all the way through. But people still ask isn't Perl dead?

Perl hasn't died, in fact it's probably more vibrant now than it has been for several years. The difference now though is that it isn't flavour of the month. I did a Perl BOF at LUGRadio at the weekend, and it was a subject that got brought up there. Is Perl still be used? It would seem that Perl publicity to the outside world is extremely lacking, as several non-Perl people I've spoken to over the past few months have been surprised to learn that Perl is used pretty much in every major financial institution, in email filtering or network applications, for the Human Genome project (and bioinformatics in general) and pretty much every type of industry you can think of. It isn't dead, it just isn't sticking it's head above the parapet to say "I'm still here".

Last year at YAPC::Europe, Dave Cross talked about speaking in a vacuum. Inside the Perl community we all know that perl is great and gets the job done, but what about the people who are struggling with other languages, or project managers and technical architects who are looking at what skill set they should be using to write their new applications? What about big business that is continually confronted with the marketing of Java from Sun or .Net from Microsoft?

I see Python gaining momentum simply because several in the Linux and Open Source communities started using it to see how good it was, and now with Ubuntu using it pretty much exclusively, it has gained a large foothold with the wider developer community. Ruby has been seen as great for creating flashy websites, but beyond 37 signals, I've not heard of any big name sites that have been created with it. It gets featured at every Open Source conference and developers generally seem to think its really cool, but I'm still waiting to hear of any big take up outside of the cool, hip and trendy set. Maybe that's Perl's problem. It isn't cool, hip and trendy anymore, it's part of the establishment, part of the furniture. Does the job, does it well and without any fuss.

Perl has generated such a great community, that we seem to have forgotten that there are other communities out there, and they've partly forgotten us too. YAPCs are great conferences, but they grew out of the desire to have more affordable conferences for the developers, students and self-employed. Their success has been to the cost of Perl people wanting to go to other Open Source events such as OSCON, and keep Perl presence in the wider developer communities going. As a consequence Perl is almost seen as an add-on for legacy reasons to those conferences.

Looking back at that line I drew at the beginning, although I see Perl in our community, it doesn't feature very much in the wider communities, and as such small businesses don't notice it so much and look to other languages to develop their applications. The individual or hobbyist still uses it, and the corporations would struggle to remove it now, so to the outside world Perl is very much at both ends, but only at both ends. It's lost its focus in the middle ground.

At LUGRadio this year, I kind of felt rather relieved that people who came and spoke to me, knew me for being part of the Perl community. Most of these people are hardcore Linux, C or Python developers and although several know Perl, don't often use it. I've spent a lot of time speaking at Linux User Groups this year, and plan to speak at more later in the year. I've also been invited to speak to the PHP West Midlands User Group, invited to attend PyCon and will be attending GUADEC next week, but it's hard work to try and remind these other communities that Perl is still there. Although the personal touch certainly does help, I can't help but think there needs to be another way to promote Perl. This isn't about success stories (although they do help) or about talking at conferences and user groups (although they are just as important), but about reaching to the other communities and thus small businesses to remind them that Perl is still a viable choice, and that rather than competing for market share, the different languages can work together.

Having spoken to some developers of other languages, I'm amazed that the FUD of all Perl is unreadable, obfuscated and too hard for the beginner to learn properly is still being peddled. Challenging that mentality is a bit of a battle, but I've had to state on several occasions that you can write unreadable, obfuscate and unmaintainable code in any language, and in fact most of the respected Perl community and much of CPAN strives to write readable, clear and maintable code. It seems the Perl code from over 10 years ago and the dodgy scripts of certain archives are still poisoning the well.

Part of the problem (possibly fueled by the above FUD) that we have in the UK is overcoming the fact that several new Open Source initiatives don't even feature Perl when they talk about Open Source languages. If the networks that work between the communities and small business aren't promoting us, then it's going to be a tough slog. I've already written emails to the National Open Centre and tried to get OpenAdvantage to be more inclusive, but there are other similar initiatives, both here in Europe and in the US that need reminding too. Once they're helping to promote Perl, then it might just be something that Universities and Colleges include in the curriculums again. From there small businesses will be able to see that there is a pool of Perl developers they can employ and Perl again becomes a viable choice.

I firmly believe Perl 5 will still be around in 10 years time. Whether its running on Parrot, within Perl 6 or as it is now remains to be seen. I was asked to describe Perl 6 at the weekend and responded with a generalisation of "Perl 6 is to Perl 5 as C++ is to C". C++ took C into another realm, but C is still around. I just hope that the constant confusing information given out about Perl 6 to non-Perl people, isn't the reason why some think Perl 5 is all but dead.

The theme for the 2005 YAPC::Europe in Braga was "Perl Everywhere". I don't think that's true, but I wish it was :)

(this has been cross-posted from my use.perl journal)

File Under: education / opensource / perl / rant / technology

This Property Is Condemned

Posted on 8th June 2007

I spotted the story of Julie Amero on the BBC News site this morning. While I'm glad there has been some sense to provide a second trial, with more appropriate evidence, I'm also disappointed that this should ever come to trial in the way it has. While I totally agree that minors shouldn't be exposed to the kind of images these sites promote, I also don't agree that a single SUBSTITUTE teacher should be held accountable in the way that she has.

Firstly she's a substitute teacher, meaning that her knowledge of the computer security systems is likely to be extremely limited at best and more likely non-existent. Did the school fully brief her on the security measures they have in place? Perhaps she should be suing the school or the state for not reasonably putting in place security measures to prevent children being exposed to this sort of thing in the first place. However, that perhaps also isn't fair, as in far too many cases the school or the local governement don't have any idea about computer security. It's why there are specialist computer security companies that are called in to investigate and secure companies and organisations.

I work for a company called MessageLabs. We work in an industry where stopping malicious content is part and parcel of the job. When you consider that in email alone we stop over 70% of mail as spam, virus, inappropriate content or illegal images and are also seeing increasing numbers within our web scanning and instant messaging serives too, computer security is a huge and very specialised business. MessageLabs are the largest company of it's kind in the world, and as such, every minute we stop hundreds of messages with the sort of payloads that would cause this kind of content to be popped up on unsuspecting computers. Are you really expecting a substitute teacher to have that level of knowledge and skill?

Part of the problem is education, and that isn't meant to be ironic. In Julie Amero's case, if the prosecution wins, then we are now expecting every single person to be accountable for ensuring every single aspect of their work environment is not going to get them arrested. By implication, we're also now stipulating that every single individual MUST be come a security expert. That ain't gonna happen. In my opinon this focus is totally misplaced. The responsibility for protection at the workplace lies solely with the employer. In this instance the school or state should have taken reasonable steps to ensure that all computer security measures were deployed to ensure that the desktop computers were adequately protected, and that their network was also appropriately protected, both from intrusion and in restricting the sites that can be viewed by any computer in the school. But whether you take action against the individual or the school or the state, you are still prosecuting the victims.

Taking a step back, the law basically stipulates that minor should not be exposed to this sort of imagery, which I agree with. However, as the law is very bad at being able to hold those truly responsible accountable, they go after easy prey. Although I do believe the law could be better written to make this sort of thing virtually disappear over night.

This kind of promotion is typically from the pornographic, gaming and drug industries. None of which a minor should be exposed to. What if the law found the owners of those sites personally accountable for the distribution of harmful matter to minors? What if institutions, such as schools, colleges and libraries, or businesses, such as internet cafes, and maybe even individuals in the right circumstances were able to prosecute the site owners? How quickly do you think that this sort of invasion would disappear? Unfortunately, those three industries are extremely big business, and can employ people to ensure that bills don't get passed that would effect them in this way. As such the justice systems become corrupt by allowing victims such as Julie Amero to be held up as a scapecoat.

I really hope that the prosecution's case fails, as otherwise the kind of precedence it will set, really isn't something I want to think about.

File Under: education / law / security / technology

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