XTech 2006

I went to the XTech 2006 conference last week.

The Arrival

I had booked my flights well in advance assuming that there would be no non-tutorial conference activity on Tuesday. I had an evening flight, so I missed the Mozilla reception that took place on Tuesday and was announced late.

The Opening Keynotes

On Wednesday, the main keynote was given by Paul Graham. His topic was recreating Silicon Valley elsewhere. (See Suw Charman’s slightly condensed write-up.) I think there was insight and some truth in his points—perhaps not 100%, though. Considering the recent events in France, his point about the freedom to fire people went probably the most against the European relationship of business and people. It appears that at least one person (reacting in English :-) considered Graham’s language comment offensive.

Interestingly, Graham said that the tolerance of lawlessness (e.g. using illegal Mexican construction workers) is an advantage for the U.S. Certainly slow bureaucracy is not good, but I doubt that having a culture of breaking the law is good especially if it means that some people live without the protection of the law. In 2000 (IIRC) I heard Jaakko Rytsölä, who made a lot of money out of Saunalahti during the Bubble, speak about what was great about Finland when starting up a business. One of his points was that the infrastructure ran and things worked out like they were supposed to by default without having to grease the wheels with bribes (think Russia) and without having to fight slow telcos (think France—in the past at least).

The second opening keynote was given by Jeffrey McManus of Yahoo! He talked about Yahoo!’s sites where the value is in collective user data and about the code and specs / documentation that Yahoo! has released recently for others to use.

Brief Notes on Sessions

There were four tracks in the conference. I mainly followed the browser technology track, which meant I missed interesting server-side stuff on the core technology track. Compared to the WWDC, it is certainly nice that the proceedings are not under an NDA, so here are a few notes.

I did not see anyone recording the sessions, and they probably were not recorded. However, it would be great if the sessions on the other tracks were available through e.g. IT Conversations. I’d be particularly interested in MP3s of the presentations by Uche Ogbuji, Steven Pemberton, Eric van der Vlist, Mark Nottingham and David Megginson.

The Social Dimension

More important than the sessions were the people. I had a chance to meet, for the first time, many people with whom I have been discussing Web issues online for years. I don’t even try to list everyone here, but as an extreme example, Hixie and I have been on various mutual fora for about seven years and my upcoming master’s thesis is based on his specs, but we hadn’t met f2f before.

I met many people, which was very nice. Still, there were people on the other tracks who I know were there and whose blogs I read or whose libraries power my code but who I didn’t get a chance to meet. Well, time was limited.

Overall, the various unofficial discussions were a very significant part of the conference. After all, having the people in the same place is the whole point.


I had breakfast every day in a small café next to the conference hotel. I had Italian-style coffee and French-style pastry. Interestingly, that place seemed to be the only option near the conference hotel in the morning. One would think there’d be more business opportunities selling breakfast in the city center.

I did not buy the official lunches, because they would have cost about €50 per day. I did miss out on the social aspect of the official lunches, but I don’t particularly regret it. On Wednesday, I had a social lunch with other students who hadn’t paid for the official lunches. On Tuesday, I accidentally didn’t catch anyone who was eating out, so I had on unsocial lunch. On Friday, I spent the entire lunch time recovering from rain that had soaked parts of my clothes.

On Tuesday, I joined a mostly Operatic group for dinner, which was nice. The restaurant was chosen by applying Flipism in real life, which was cool. Minting namespaces over dinner seems to be very unbureaucratic way to do it.

On Wednesday, I joined a mostly Mozillan group for dinner, which was nice. A restaurant that served Dutch food was chosen. Dutch pancakes inspired a discussion about what constitutes a pancake, about standardization and about local freedom in the EU. It seems that Dutch pancakes and French crêpes at the ends of the spectrum and the Finnish style is in between. (The diameter increases and the thickness decreases towards crêpes.)


I liked the low-rise old architecture. Having channels here and there looked good. The city was very pedestrian and biker-friendly. Pedestrian-friendly cities are always more pleasant than the unfriendly ones (like Los Angeles).

In general, the city was very nice. (Photos)

Except for the weird side, of course.

In Finland, when I said I was going to Amsterdam, people seemed to associate the name Amsterdam with drugs and prostitution, so I guess those issues are going to be the elephant in the room if I don’t comment on them somehow. (I don’t really know what the Dutch feel about this association. I figured the topic might be like Bush for Americans—something you are totally tired of discussing with every foreigner—so I didn’t try to get a large sample of opinions. However, my sample of two suggests it isn’t like Bush for Americans. Hmm…)

“Coffee shops” were here and there. They were a strange phenomenon, but they didn’t really bother me that much. One guy wanted to sell me drugs on the street, which I didn’t like.

Several people told me that if you go to Amsterdam, you really should walk into the Red Lights District, too. So I did. It was very surreal and disturbing. I’ll omit a longer analysis. Here’s one observation, though: To avoid supporting the operation, I didn’t buy anything—not even a post card—in the area. Yet, I realized afterwards that just by being there as an observing tourist one contributes to the image of normalcy of the whole thing, which caused a feeling of complicity.

In fairness, people also associate Amsterdam with bicycles. There were a lot of those, which seems healthy. They were older style and lower tech that the ones you see in Helsinki but they had heavier lock chains. I guess the moment your bike stands out of the others, the probability of your bike getting stolen increases significantly, so everyone wants to have the same kind of bike. One guy wanted to sell me a bicycle on the street, which I didn’t like.

On Wednesday the weather was very nice even though it rained late at night. On Thursday it was colder, but the weather was still nice, because I had appropriate clothing. On Friday the weather was terrible. In the morning it rained heavily and my shoes, lower parts of my jeans and my jacket got soaked. It was very windy the whole day.

Next year, XTech will take place in Paris.

Random Observations

The Closing Keynotes

Jeff Barr of Amazon gave a closing keynote on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service. (Yes, it appears they have gotten the name into production past the corporate political correctness police.) The Mechanical Turk is a service that allows software to delegate tasks that require human intelligence to actual humans. For example, if you have a catalog of photos of chairs and tables, you can have humans tell you which are which. Another example is transcribing podcasts and reviewing transcripts.

As an idea this makes a lot of sense. There are some tasks that are best handled by humans even if the tasks are so boring that a software developer would intuitively want a machine to take care of them. I guess there isn’t even anything inherently wrong about hiring people to carry out boring work, even if software developers tend to prefer less boring (even if harder) work. (Here people aren’t hired. They just pick tasks from a Web page and get paid on a per-task basis. Not having to hire people was advertised as a benefit.)

However, what gave at least me an uneasy feeling was how little the people who carry out the tasks get paid. The speaker even touted as a presumably good thing how much people are willing to do for as little as one cent. I did some quick approximative math in my head based on the sample tasks and figured that the pay is really lousy. (Yes, I have done useful work without pay myself, but the intrinsic satisfaction of the tasks in those cases has been very different form the tasks available on the Mechanical Turk and my own interests have been the deciding factor in what to do.)

After the presentation, there was one question about REST and SOAP. Otherwise, the questions concerned labor issues. One person asked how can someone who submits tasks to the service know that tax laws aren’t being violated. I asked two questions: What country are the transcriptionists in who are willing to transcribe podcasts for the little money offered? How much did Amazon offer for a task that required the person to be a software developer? Barr dodged both questions leaving them unanswered. (I guess he did not want to say “United States”.) He did, however, say that this is market economy at work and no one is forced to do anything. Another person asked about screening for child labor. Barr replied that participation requires an Amazon account, which requires a credit card and kids don’t have those. Yet, earlier he had said that the Mechanical Turk is banned at his son’s school.

Brendan Eich gave the main closing Keynote on JavaScript 2.0. Lots of interesting technical stuff. The slides are available, so I don’t try to summarize. A few points, though: JS 2.0 will be compatible with JS 1.x but won’t be compatible with a previous 2.0 proposal implemented in JScript.Net. Spidermonkey will get the new stuff (obviously). Opera is on board. It is not clear whether Rhino is. E4X won’t be a part of the core spec.


The conference was well worth attending. I am very happy that I went there. Last year I felt I was missing out on something important. I’m hoping to go to Paris next year.