8 Nov 2011 crhodes   » (Master)

As I said in my last entry, I was in Amsterdam for ECLM 2011, once again smoothly organized by Edi Weitz and Arthur Lemmens, but this time under the aegis of the Stichting Common Lisp Foundation (of which more a bit later). After leaving the comfortable café, where Luke and Tobias (along with a backpack's worth of computing equipment on its way to visit St Petersburg) eventually turned up, it was time to go for the Saturday evening dinner, held at Brasserie Harkema. In the olden days, when I had time to do a certain amount of public-facing Lisp development, I got used to receiving the adulation of a grateful public – this time, at the dinner, I happened to sit next to someone called Lars from Netfonds. “Hmm,” said something at the back of my mind, ”that rings a bell.” Lars who? Lars Magne Ingebrigtsen. My inner fanboy went a bit squeee – even to the point of explaining what gmane was to a third party in his presence. Still, it was nice to be able to say a heartfelt “thank you” in person to someone whose software has saved me time and a certain amount of embarrassment. Other topics of conversation at the dinner included a discussion with R. Matthew Emerson (of Clozure) about the social aspects of Free Lisp development, a topic on which I have written before; contrasting the attitudes and experiences of contributors and users (small and large) of Clozure CL and SBCL was interesting. It was also nice to be able to talk about Lisp-based music analysis, synthesis and generation programs; reminding myself that I do still know about that landscape enough to fill people in.

The meeting itself, as others have observed over the years, is only partly about the talks: a substantial part of the goodness is in the chats over coffee and lunch. Edi and I reminisced about meeting in the venue, Hotel Arena, at a precursor to ECLM (in autumn 2004, I think... I certainly remember being approximately penniless, just after starting my first job); other people present then (as well as Arthur) included Nick Levine, Luke Gorrie, Peter van Eynde, Jim Newton, Pascal Costanza, Marc Battyani, Nicholas Neuss... many of whom were around for the rematch; a total of 95 people registered for the meeting, and the hall (part disco, part church) for the talks felt pleasantly full.

Of the talks, I was most interested in the material of Jack Harper's talk, concerning some of the constraints involved in building a product for (human) fingerprinting, and asserting that using Lisp in this product was not a problem. (Favourite quote: “batteries are complicated things”). I was a little bit disappointed that few of the speakers actually interacted with any code at all (Luke may claim that writing his slides in Squeak Smalltalk counts, but I beg to differ); in fact, Paul Miller of Xanalys was the only one of the speakers spending substantial time demonstrating anything related to the subject of the talk – and that only because the canned demo movie refused to display on the projector. Luke's talk appeared to go down well; the obvious first question came and went, and there were some more interesting questions from the floor. Star of the show was Zach Beane's talk about quicklisp; I spend a lot of time presenting or watching presentations in each of my capacities, and it's nice to have a refreshingly different (and deadpan) delivery, with good use of slides to complement the spoken content. I hope that he's right that his personal scalability will not be taxed, and that volunteers will find ways to assist in the project by taking ownership of particular tasks.

While Hans Hübner may have attempted to be controversial in his opinion slot about style guides for CL, the real controversy for me was Dave Cooper's announcement of the Stichting Common Lisp Foundation. Now, the Foundation has clearly done one thing that is helpful: provided legal and financial infrastructure so that the financial risk of hosting an ECLM is not borne entirely by two individuals; the corporate entity can potentially, after acquiring a buffer, provide the seed funding needed and, if necessary, absorb small ECLM losses (not that I believe there has been one, but hypothetically) through other fund-raising activities. On the other hand, when I asked the question as to how the Stichting CL Foundation would aim to distinguish itself from the ALU, the response from Dave Cooper was that the only difference would be that the foundation would focus on CL, where the ALU's remit extends to all members of the Lisp family. Such a narrowing of focus is, I think, potentially beneficial – indeed, when going through my email archives to look for the date of the 2004 meeting, I found a lucid rationale from Dan Barlow explaining that he had chosen to make CLiki's focus specifically DFSG-free Unix Lisp software in order to promote a sense of cohesion (rather than being motivated primarily by a strongly-held belief about the inherent superiority of DFSG-licensed software). But I don't think that the ALU's only weakness is that it spreads its Lisp net too wide: I think it has lost track of what it as an entity wants to do beyond perform a similar function for the ILC as Stichting has performed for the ECLM; Nick Levine, in his talk about how to find Lisp resources, observed that the ALU has a valuable piece of real estate – the lisp.org domain – which does not seem to be used to grow or meet the needs of the Lisp community, whether Common Lisp specifically or Lisp more generally. I found it a little sad that, Edi and Arthur aside, the overlap between the ALU board and Stichting CL Foundation directors is 100%.

After the longer talks came the lighting ones, and I took the opportunity to repeat my talk and demo about swankr, my implementation of the SLIME backend for R, from the European Lisp Symposium in April. Erik Huelsmann announced ABCL 1.0, a far better milestone to announce at the ECLM rather than my sneaky announcement of SBCL 0.9 (six years ago!? Doesn't time fly! Also, what ugly slides...). And after some more lightning (and less-lightning) talks, it was time to wrap up with drinks, dinner, and good conversation.

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