Island Life by David Slack


Mint Condition

Hell, in the usual run of things, is other people at conferences: dull types you can’t shake off; egotists who like the sound of their own voice; cologne-drenched sales people; corporate Machiavellis; stale coffee; minutes measured out in mints from the saucer.

Not that all conferences are awful. I've been to some splendid affairs. Exotic locations don't hurt. Pimp your programme with a coconut palm and a golden beach, and your staff will love you for it. Add alcohol and dalliances, and you have yourself a party.

But your industry gathering, as advertised in the glossy brochure that falls out of your NBR, can be a dire business.

I blame the middle man; the dreaded Conference Organiser. The ads are all the same. You will hear, they assure you, from leaders in their field. They will have 'learnings' to offer.

It all seems somewhat ersatz, and there is a perfectly good reason for that: it is. Some poor bugger has to make a living doing it. He or she has to conceive a theme, round up a couple of dozen speakers, hire a hotel ballroom, run off the flyers and then hustle the whole deathless experience at two or three grand a throw to all the usual suspects: large corporate organisations, relevant government departments, hapless NBR readers.

You makes your booking and you takes your chances. Sometimes, you get lucky; talented people have interesting things to say and the gathering comes alive. Sometimes, you just spend a day in a windowless room staring at PowerPoint presentations, swapping business cards at the break.

People have been asking me: what exactly is Foo Camp? One answer would be: it's everything those joyless affairs are not.

The phrase they like to use is unconference. Like-minded participants are invited, they gather, and they decide then, amongst themselves, what they'd like to talk about and what they'd like to hear. If you're of a mind to give a presentation, you put your name up and nominate a time and place. And then off you go.

This was my experience from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon. It was one of the most stimulating, entertaining and enjoyable things I have ever done. Various others have already reported on it. I'll add a little more.

Most Exciting:

My inner entrepreneur was fully-charged listening to the story of Rod Drury's latest project. NZ's Hi-Tech Entrepreneur of the Year is not resting on his laurels. He has pulled together a team of extremely capable people and they are primed. In fewer than six months they have sized up the market for accounting and banking software for small businesses and conceived an online service - 'Xero' - that will take care of the whole book-keeping enchilada from Goldstein to Government.

Drury is on the TradeMe board. He thought three quarters of a billion was a good number. He thinks it would be 'interesting' to put the first billion dollar deal on the board. I'm co-hosting with Finlay Macdonald on his Sunday morning show on Radio Live this weekend, and you bet we'll be getting Mr Xero on the wireless for a chat.

Also Damned Exciting:
Richard Simpson is by no means letting go of his Carlaw Park stadium idea. Travelators! I love travelators!

Most Dazzling:
The PitchBlack people get to do what most people of dream of: they fool around all day doing what they love (in this case: making really cool stuff with sound and light) and they get paid to take it all over the world to vast and dazzling events.

Most Unexpected:
David Haywood and I found ourselves undertaking, in an Open Source session, to make submissions to the select committee dealing with the copyright legislation. In a forum like this, if you have a tale to tell, you may well be urged to testify.

Most Civic-Minded:

Rob McKinnon will be on the Digital Democracy panel with Chris diBona and Alistair Thompson at the Great Blend in Wellington this week, and he is a man worth listening to. Idiot Savant, this one was for you. We found ourselves mentioning your name often as we were taken through firstly the UK site, which is, in its own words, "a non-partisan website run by a charity which aims to make it easy for people to keep tabs on their elected and unelected representatives in Parliament, and other assemblies" and then on to the NZ version Rob has set up:

We searched speeches, we checked voting records, we went through MP asset registers, and we discussed a very good plan to marry up a few online social networking techniques with the select committee process.

Biggest Can of Worms:
There is not, it seems, a can big enough to cope with all the worms that attend copyright law and digital rights management in the twenty-first century. Talk about your irreconcilable tensions. Talk about your noble intentions undone at all turns. Judith Tizard came in on an artists' rights-leaning perspective. I sense that after many hours of explanations, illustrations and ardent protestations, she took away a new one.

If you wanted to get yourself well-briefed, you were in the right place. Peter Gutmann was able to offer chapter and verse on the Vista suicide note, and there were Open Source people all over the shop.

You Put Some In, You Get Some Out:
I talked about the rise and stall of speechesdotcom, and building a storytelling facility into a dynamic speech generator. In turn, I got a clutch of excellent fresh suggestions from Mark Cubey, John Houlker and various Pitch Black guys. Thank you all.

I've Had A Foo

My only regret - not being able to see everything. I especially regret missing the One Laptop per Child session. I might have suggested modifying it to make room for a lunch box. Which reminds me that neither did I get to the hardware hacking session.

It was just a total treat. Everywhere you turned, you met good people with great ideas and an enthusiasm to share them. I didn't touch a single mint all weekend.

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