[TUHS] How to Kill a Technical Conference (was: Zombified SCO comes back from the dead, brings trial back to life against IBM)

G. Branden Robinson g.branden.robinson at gmail.com
Sun Apr 4 15:29:41 AEST 2021

At 2021-04-03T19:50:51-0700, Adam Thornton wrote:
> > But back to the S/390 port--I went to a Linux conference in Atlanta
> > in the late 90s ('99, I think) to speak about Linux on S390/Z, and I
> > actually went by the NetBSD booth to say, "hey, I can maybe hook you
> > guys up with a development virtual machine," and what I got was an
> > earful about "your so-called portability" from someone who was
> > clearly much more invested in hating Linux than in, you know,
> > saying, "wow, OK, I realize you're not offering me cycles on a
> > super-awesome machine, but, yeah, it's not nothing, cool, here's who
> > you should talk to if you're interested in getting a port going."
> >
> > So I don't think you can lay all the blame on BSD inaction on Linux,
> > is all I'm saying.  By '99, I think it was, maybe if NetBSD, which
> > already had its reputation for spectacular portability, hadn't
> > staffed its booth with a jackass still trying to fight the Unix
> > Wars, that story might have turned out differently.
> Misremembered the year.  That conference was October 2000.  I just
> found the bookbag I got as swag from it.

I think you're remembering the Atlanta Linux Showcase.  I was at the
same event.  I also think I know exactly the person you're talking
about: Charles Hannum, with whom I had a similar experience on a
different topic.

Instead of insisting that I was stupid and wrong for using Linux instead
of (NetBSD) in his view, I was stupid and wrong for using software
licensed under the GNU GPL instead of the "BSD" license (which variant
of the latter is not, all these years later, a matter I recall coming
up).  I mention this so that Mr. Hannum's reputation on this list risks
no blackening among those who share his hostility to copyleft.  ;-)

ALS was a terrific experience and, for me, lived up to the praise I had
heard about it as a venue for getting engineers talking to each other.
Regrettably enough, the conference was acquired by a firm.  It was held
one final time the next year in Atlanta, officially rebranded the
"Annual Linux Showcase", and, as I recall, permanently mothballed
thereafter, with the dot-com bubble-burst as either a direct reason or
as an excuse.

I have seen other technical conferences over the years steadily morph
from a technical/engineering focus to an orientation around sales and
"strategy", or more bluntly--propaganda.  The emphasis is no longer on
technological improvement and evaluation (i.e., how to achieve and
measure "solutions"), but on promotion, rationalization, and boosterism.

I suppose that one of the reasons this happens is that good conferences
grow, and companies sending delegations find themselves with growing
expense bills for doing so.  Engineers are a cost center.  When they
come back from the event, they will almost never have anything to "show
for it".  At best they'll be excited about something they can
"integrate" or some new idea they can realize after months of
development time.  In other words, you _might_ have a competitive
advantage after spending _even more_ money.

By contrast, sales people can bring you orders you can book the day they
get back, or even before the conference is over, thanks to the magic
power of accrual accounting, a practice which persists even after the
glorious examples of Enron and other gigantic bankruptcies of the 2000s.

That's the demand side.  On the supply side, conferences have
governance; it takes people to solicit papers, book speakers, and put
talks on the schedule and into proceedings.  Conference sponsorship is a
neat way of closing the gap between demand and supply on the back end;
be a "gold" or "platinum" level sponsor and obtain influence, likely
through direct seating of representatives on the committees that perform
the foregoing organizational roles.  Note the entrenchment and
persistence of precious metals as metaphors for status; we would not
name the tiers after the decreasing scale of photolithographic
processes, for example.  Historically, it's been a lot easier to
motivate a guy with a checkbook in the C suite who drives a Lamborghini
Gallardo with the word "platinum" than "5 nm".

I'm too young to know--did USENIX follow the trajectory of reorienting
its focus from engineering and research to sales?  Why does it no longer
occupy the premier place it once did?

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