Last December, I was invited to be general chair of the International Lisp Conference 2009. Since then I have done a great deal of work, and it has finally all paid off. The conference ran from last Sunday to Wednesday, and it went perfectly! I can hardly believe it. And we got at least 215 attendees, which was great! (I had planned for 175; apologies to those of you who didn’t get a tee shirt and a tote bag.)
The only surprise problem was that two of the speakers were not able to show up. However, we reallocated their time for more lightning talks. These are five-minute talks on any topic bearing on Lisp. Three of them were approved by the program committee and are in the proceedings. The program committee then agreed that we could post a sign-up sheet, and let anybody talk about anything appropriate. We ended up having about twenty-five of them. They were almost all great! We learned about fascinating new open source libraries, fun applications, great anecdotes, and so on.
The lightning talks make the whole conference more participatory, rather than just “we give the talks, and you sit there and listen.” Although I’m sorry that the two speakers were unable to present their papers, the lightning talks were great. I recommend that other conference organizers in the future consider allocating plenty of time for such talks.
The Great Macro Debate went just as I had hoped. Lisp’s macros make the Lisp language extensible. It’s only because of macros that Lisp has stayed sufficiently up-to-date to still be a relevant language after fifty years of life. And macros are one of Lisp’s most distinguishing features, now that so many Lisp ideas have been adopted by other languages.
Earlier this year, I was having lunch with my former co-worker, Jeremy Brown. He had been one of the senior engineers on the Polaris project at ITA Software, and we had worked together closely. (He left to start his own company, Rep Invariant.) We were talking about the use of Lisp in Polaris, and specifically about Lisp macros. To my surprise, Jeremy opined that having macros in the language was a net drawback! Many people have objected to macros, but Jeremy really knows all about macros; he’s a very proficient Lisp programmer, and has seen how we use macros in Polaris.
So I had the idea of having him debate someone about this at the Lisp conference. Guy Steele, as program chair, took over the idea, and found people to be in the debate. Pascal Costanza, who is one of the deepest thinkers about Common Lisp these days, was Jeremy’s prime opponent. Guy Steele himself was Pascal’s “second”, and Dick Gabriel was Jeremy’s. I moderated.
Jeremy prepared very thoroughly, with slides that presented all of his attacks, and were also very funny. The debaters both made important real points, and kept the whole thing hilarious. There was a great deal of contention and disagreement, to the point where audience members, unable to contain themselves, started shouting out questions and comments. Indeed, I felt the same way myself, and misused my privilege of having a microphone to participate in the debate. Finally Dick Gabriel said, “OK, Weinreb, enough of this. SIt down at the table, and I’ll be the moderator!” I replied, “Oh, thank you! Now that I’m a panelist, I can say what I want to into this other microphone!” Sadly, we didn’t videotape this, but we all had a great time.
David Moon’s talk about how to do macros for a language with syntax was very innovative, to the point where, in his introduction, Dave said “some of you may think this is mad scientist stuff”! It’s certainly fascinating, and the people who had worked on Dylan (and therefore grappled with the same problems) were particularly interested and felt that it looked very promising.
Tom Sgouros performed his one-man, one-robot show: “Judy, or, What Is It Like To Be A Robot”. I had seen this once at ITA (Tom works at ITA) and knew that it was perfect for this audience. It’s about the concept of intelligent robots, and the nature of consciousness, and it’s also very clever and funny. Tom did a wonderful job.
I’ve been catching up on my sleep (really). But now I’m busy again! This year’s family opera show, The Weaver’s Wedding, is opening tomorrow. I’ve been involved in the North Cambridge Family Opera company for about ten years. While the conference was going on, my wife Cheryl was working very long hours of the day and evening getting the set and props finished, teaching the stagehands what to do, and so on. (As you can imagine, it’s been rather crazy around at home, with both of those things going on at once!) I hope to blog more about the conference and papers in the future. In the meantime, I expect some of the attendees will write their own descriptions.
Thanks again to all our sponsors, who made possible the relatively-low registration. Special thanks to ITA Software, our Platinum sponsor, and to my wonderful boss, Sundar Narasimhan (CTO and Chief Architect of Polaris), for allowing me to take part time off from my work at ITA in order to run the conference.
Thanks very much to everyone who attended!