Opinion: Kiwi Foo free and frank

The global economic meltdown and the copyright catastrophe in New Zealand dominated this year's Foo Camp

Putting 160 bright, opinionated people and cutting them loose to do and say whatever they feel like for two days sounds like a recipe for disaster. At the annual Foo Camp however, it results in a free and frank exchange of ideas instead.

Foo Camp is based on tech publisher Tim O’Reilly’s joke about setting up “unconferences” without set agendas. The name stands for Friends of O’Reilly and it’s alternately known as Baa Camp.

The New Zealand version has been running for three years and is organised by Nat Torkington, Jenine Abarbanel and former Computerworld regular Russell Brown. They invite a broad range of people; geeks, artists, crafts people, sustainability gurus, venture capitalists, media, lawyers, politicians, academics, you name it, from all over the world, who make the sparks fly.

Now “free and frank” is the key concept to the success of Foo Camp, and the event is run along the lines of modified Chatham House rules. So, what goes on in Warkworth where the event took place, stays there – unless you have permission by those involved to take it elsewhere.

This is great for the Foo Campers, but perhaps a little tricky for the media people who were invited. Resisting the temptation to cover as much of the brilliant stuff at Foo is rather hard.

Reflecting the zeitgeist, Nat Torkington says the two topics that dominated this year’s Foo Camp were the global economic meltdown and the copyright catastrophe in New Zealand.

The purpose of Foo is not to come up with deliverables, but if you put that many brilliant people into the same room, well, something’s bound to happen.

This year, the concept of blacking out the New Zealand internet to protest against the harsh new copyright law came about, assisted by a steady flow of single malt. The campaign that ensued went global and appears to have effected change. Early days yet, but seeing people unite across political, ideological and business spectra against the universally bad idea that is the new copyright law was impressive.

Normally, the Foo Camps contain an element of hardcore geekiness, which is entirely apposite. That’s probably what I enjoy the most, but it was a little subdued this year. I did however manage to have a fascinating discussion with Paul Fenwick of Perl Training in Australia on err, Perl.

As anyone knows, Perl is arguably the greatest multi-purpose interpreted programming language that has every existed, but it’s tremendous flexibility and capability has actually come back to bite it in the rump. Nowadays, beginners head towards languages like Python, or application frameworks like Ruby on Rails or multi-paradigm programming languages like Microsoft’s C#.

I’ve certainly not touched Perl for a while now and it was fascinating to hear what Fenwick had to say on Perl 5.10, and how it’s preparing people for Perl 6 which won’t be backwards compatible.

This is in fact a good thing, because backwards compatibility is very much a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it means your old stuff runs, but on the other hand it can perpetuate bad programming and poorly performing apps. Now’s the time to think about cleaning up those old Perl snippets that have been around since the beginning of internet time, in other words.

Every year, I look forward to the sessions on web browsers; this year, Google’s Ben Goodger talked about Chrome together with Mozilla Foundation’s Robert O’Callahan who was, of course, on the Firefox side of things.

Goodger asked the audience what we’d like to see in browsers in the future and I piped up about better security. Chrome has actually been designed with that in mind, with process isolation between the tabs and so forth, but software adviser and Ruby on Rails guru Michael Koziarski was quick to remind us that browsing is a fundamentally insecure activity, due to cross scripting. Changing that would mean changing the way the web works so it’s not easy or quick.

The Great Foo Debate led by Russell Brown on whether or not New Zealand is copulated economically was a raucous affair with the Not So side winning — I’m not convinced they’re right, but it was great to feel the optimism in the hall.

And optimism is really what Foo’s about, to me at least. You’re energised and realise that things can’t be all that bad if a tiny place like New Zealand can muster such a large crowd of great people, in Warkworth of all places.

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