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A Short Report on Smalltalks 2011

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In summarizing Smalltalks 2011, Andres Valloud recently said,

“The conference was quite good, and we had a good time. I did not attend all of the talks due to my hosting duties, however, they were fantastic. We had at least 310 registrations, and by the second day, we had around 210 unique attendees, which is awesome. We’re still working on the final tally, so it’s probably a bit higher than that.

Ian Piumarta’s, “To Trap a Better Mouse,” was awesome. He examined how languages are divided into an open class of words (nouns, verbs, etc.) that change all of the time and describe the entities we want to talk about.  He also discussed a closed class of words (prepositions, articles, pronouns, etc.) that hardly ever change. The closed class effectively dictates what thoughts can be expressed in the language, because they encode the possible relational patterns between words in sentences. With that in mind, he took a look at open/closed word classes in “computer” languages and the effect they have in how easy it is to express a certain program in a given language. He emphasized that text substitution with ad hoc parsers can have tremendous power because then we can easily change from a bad (limiting) representation to a better (enabling) representation. He suggested looking at Earley parsers in favor of PEGs, LL, LR and similar parsers, because Earley parsers can eat both left and right recursive grammars in addition to all context-free languages (click here).

Gerardo Richarte and Javier Burroni posted updates on their Smalltalk-based GC implementation. Now they have limited forms of multithreaded GCs. Interestingly, they tend to go slower. We speculated that cache poisoning is the culprit, because usually GC algorithms end up looking like “couple instructions, uncached memory fetch” cycles. If you cannot easily partition spaces so that different CPUs go after memory areas, things look like they will be more painful.

On Saturday, I really liked Ian Piumarta and Kim Rose’s talk on what happens when technological advances are promised to revolutionize education. Almost immediately, they are trivialized and “dumbed down” so that all kids (and adults) have to do is mash up pre-existing stuff (think of clipart collages) instead of doing anything creative. This is a problem because it builds up the inertia that causes training to pass for an actual education. There were plenty of examples and plenty of evidence. The situation is somewhat depressing, really, because with things like Facebook, Twitter and SMS, all we do is emphasize immediate gratification and zero effort as a successful or productive expenditure of time. Without the time (and, thanks to dumbed-down technology without the incentive) to concentrate on anything, we cannot really hope for much. This is an issue that really resonated with Alan Kay’s observation that when technology is too easy, there’s no effort to actually do something good; so the vast majority of the results are trivial.

You can see the rest of the schedule at FAST’s website.

Some talks have been shown at other conferences, and videos of such talks are either available now or should become available soon at (for example) ESUG’s YouTube video channel.

I apologize for not writing reports on every talk I attended, but we will also post the videos from Smalltalks 2011 at our website soon, and I don’t want to give out too many spoilers!

From all of us at FAST, we thank you for coming and making this conference a success. See you at Smalltalks 2012!”