RailsConfEurope, part 2

Better late than never, more of my thoughts on RailsConfEurope:

Cyndi Mitchell (ThoughtWorks) Keynote

The ThoughtWorks keynote was, by far, the most interesting use of the paid keynote slots. Cyndi Mitchell's talk was a little narrative about business use of technology (and "irrational exuberance"). What really stood out, though, were her slides. Or slide? She had one slide, which resembled a single sheet of paper – complete with a hand-writing-esque font and doodle-calibre art – that revealed itself one panel at a time.

Marcel & Koz "Best Practices" Keynote

Marcel Molina by Duncan Davidson @ Flickr This talk rehashed much of the material from the excellent, if somewhat stagnant, the RailsWay blog series (but with Marcel Molina standing in for Jamis Buck). Though doubtless beneficial to the newly indoctrinated (and always a good refresher), the material was weighted a tad towards the shallow end of the pool. There was an interesting discussion during Q&A — which reads better:

if insufficient_funds? add_error("Insufficient funds") end

Or:

add_error("Insufficient funds") if insufficient_funds?

Or:

insufficient_funds? and add_error("Insufficient funds")

Or:

sufficient_funds? or add_error("Insufficient funds")

Personally, I most prefer the latter, but it wouldn't have occurred to me that I could write it that way before this talk.

Session 1: "Building Webapps in Europe" (Nicolas Paton)

I may have had too high expectations — having recently arrived, this talk seemed to be pitched square at me. Unfortunately, it failed to deliver. Things started out strong, with some interesting thoughts (including data) on different levels of broadband penetration, online purchases, etc. comparing Europe and the States, but it went rapidly downhill from there, devolving into something of a rambling lecture. I suspect the presenter was struggling with giving the talk in English, but still, this was an organizational issue, not a linguistic one.

Session 2: "Creating Hybrid Web and Desktop Applications with Rails and Slingshot" (Luke Crawford)

Joyent's Slingshot has been on my "check this out" list for a few months now, so I thought this was a convenient approach. I'm amazed at how far they've come, and how polished it seems on the surface, yet, it's clearly not-quite-yet ready-for-prime-time. For one thing, the sync system is currently fairly primitive – the end-user chooses "Up" or "Down" and Slingshot does a full sync in that direction. Also, there's no convenient method to update Slingshot and/or the "payload" app – so no AutoUpdate or anything. Given time, I'm sure these obstacles will be overcome, but they're not there, yet.

Session 3: "Development Case Study: MindMeister" (Michael Hollauf)

Web development is still such a solitary craft, that it's intriguing to peek into someone else's project, even briefly. MindMeister is an online, collaborative "mind-mapping" tool, sort of "Google Docs for Mind Maps". I'm not a "mind-mapper", really, but it's easy to see the level of polish this team has paid to the design interface. Unfortunately, Michael's talk hewed a bit too much to the marketing details for my tastes, but it was a good talk nonetheless.

Good tip: "'spread the word' features should be free". As in, be careful putting features like sharing or collaboration behind the pay barrier, as they are often the best way to spread word-of-mouth interest in the product.

"Continuous Validation: Pursuing Error-free Apps" (Dane Avilla)

Dane presented an intriguing set of tools for validating and testing the view component(s) in a Rails app. First, RaiLint, a batch of test methods that validate the HTML, CSS and JavaScript output by the app. Second, DWatir, a distributed form of Watir. It makes a great demo: start DWatir nodes in a virtual machine, run your tests, and watch your all your available browsers pop up, run the test suite, and exit successfully in turn.

"Parliament on Rails: Constructing a Social Web Application from Semi-structured Data"
(Rob McKinnon)

Rob McKinnon built a Web app to keep tabs on the NZ Parliament. He started out by screen-scraping the official parliament site, building a database of debates, bills and committee hearings. (He showed some simple statistics, or reports, he's able to quickly generate with Rails to a major party officer who said that they had previously been told by some IT consultant that that sort of analysis was "impossible".) The site has nifty sparkline graphs for activity on various ministry divisions, and (in an upcoming release) will allow users to "track" specific bills or issues.

"Teaching Rails at a University" (Carsten Bormann)

Prof Bormann, of Bremen's TZI Universität, gave a nice, if somewhat academic, talk on the challenges of teaching Ruby and/or Rails at the university level (largely, a bias in academia against "skills training"), including a detailed rundown of a course he's taught. Over 12 days (that's two Mon-Fri weeks with a weekend in-between), students spent over a hundred hours, divided between lecture and project work. Prof Bormann got local businesses and campus departments to act as "customers" for (potentially) real-world Web apps to be developed in an "agile" process by the students. In this way, it seems, he was able to by-pass the "skills training" objections, by approaching it as an introduction to the agile development model.

Not with a bang…

And that was that. RailsConfEurope 2007 ended with a whimper, no closing keynote, brats or disco, just a final breakout session and … done.

Liz and I visited the Gemäldegalerie on Thursday. They have an amazing collection of art and a disappointing gift shop. I mean, the gift shop is nice enough, but it didn't have enough of its own art for my tastes. It's petty, I suppose, but I like buying a postcard, or magnet, or some take-away object, of the nicest works I saw that day, or what have you. I don't particularly want a Starry Night Mousepad, unless I saw Starry Night today.

But maybe that's just me.

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