July 22, 2009 in Writing
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July 22, 2009 · Writing

FutureRuby Day 2: the highlights

Programming life, making noise, surviving robo blimps, and subsidizing the vodka industry

After being warmed up by FailCamp and rooftop partying, the real FutureRuby conference began. Before you start wondering where all the hardcore technical Ruby talks are, keep this in mind:

FutureRuby isn’t a Ruby conference, but a conference for Rubyists.

Here’s organizer Pete Forde starting things off (before someone checks the EXIF data on this photo and catches me in my own lie, I’ll admit that it was actually taken later that day):

FutureRuby - Saturday

I’m not going to describe each talk in detail — the pipes of the Internet are already bursting — clogged? — with coverage already (thanks Enrico, Ron, Jay, Youssef, Barry, Krispy). For reference, here are all the talks.

But a few sessions stood out in particular.

How to program life

On the FutureRuby registration day, Austin Che ran a bio hacking session. The next day, he followed up on this theme with a more theoretical talk about what it takes to “hack biology.”

FutureRuby - Saturday

From Austin’s blurb:

Biology is currently at the tip of a revolution similar to that of electricity and magnetism at the beginning of the 20th century. The electrical engineering revolution has allowed non-physicists to program in high-level languages like Ruby by distilling classical physics into a set of engineering design principles. Similarly, the emerging field of synthetic biology applies engineering principles to biology. Efforts to bring modularity, interchangeable parts, abstraction and standardization to biology is beginning to allow non-biologists to quickly and predictably design and build biological systems. Soon, it may become child’s play to program with DNA.

He started by talking about the unique challenges of biology. For some perspective:

“Imagine Ruby code that not only interpreted itself, but also found silicon, constructed circuits, and made its own computer.”

But that’s not all. Compare and contrast Ruby with DNA:

  • Purpose: Ruby was designed to make you feel good. DNA was designed to make you survive.
  • DRY: Rubyists know this as “Don’t Repeat Yourself.” However, nature doesn’t have the advantage of starting from scratch each time. Redundancy makes natural systems more robust.
  • Object Orietned: Also, one gene can have multiple distinct functions. \
  • Coding Style: Let’s just say nature doesn’t really have a style guide. Although Austin has a hunch that the unknown sequences of DNA will decode into copyright notices.

Hacking biology requires a new paradigm because:

  • Cell growth/death: imagine trying to code when random codes and bits randomly disappear
  • Crosstalk: there’s no insulation within a cell
  • Mutations: these have significantly more impact than the mostly-mythical memory flips.
  • Evolution: Most importantly, evolution works against what we might want to engineer. Almost by definition, modified organisms will be worse off and the cells that are more likely to survive are the ones we don’t want.

And I thought my software development job was challenging. Mind-blowing talk.

Making noise. Ohhhhhmmmmmmm

If you ever find yourself amongst Rubyists and the room erupts into spontaneous “ohhhhmmm“‘s, read on to find out what’s going on.

As Pete explained many, many times, FutureRuby isn’t a conference about Ruby. Instead, it’s:

a congress of the curious characters that drew us to this community in the first place.

For Pete, one of these “curious characters” is Misha Glouberman, a Toronto fixture, the host of the wildly popular Trampoline Hall Lectures, and a professional facilitator.

His contribution to FutureRuby was running a “noise session.” After making sure that cellphones and laptops were put away, two hundred FutureRuby attendees sat in their chairs and simply made sounds (vowels, hand sounds, and hisses, to be precise).

Here’s a game where you were allowed to make sounds only when a floating spatula was in your vicinity:

FutureRuby - Saturday

The result was fascinating. The room — which contained many introverts, many egos, and many characters — seemed to meld into an hour of near-perfect unity.

The crowd-favourite was undoubtedly the moment when Misha got everyone to determine whether to make noises depending on the volume of neighbours. Yes, you’re correct if you suspect that sounds familiar: it’s Conway’s Game of Life played with humans as cells!

Flying robo blimps!

And they weren’t even used to kill anyone! Not only that, the creators, Ron and Damen Evans, coded on it live. Talk about a demo.

FutureRuby - Saturday

The technical name for these gadgets is “BlimpDuino,” a reference to the open source Arduino chip that they’re based around.

The session started off with quietly until a giant silver blimp burst from behind a wall to the tune of Ride of the Valkyries (kudos to Phill for nailing the timing on the music). Ron and Evan remote-controlled the blimp to interact with some people in the crowd.


After a few more iPhone sessions in the afternoon, Saturday’s talks came to a close. However, that was only half the day, perhaps the less memorable half.

Where does a Soviet-themed conference host its flagship party? At a vodka bar. Duh.

FutureRuby - Saturday

Thrown in was a FutureRuby ice sculpture. Sadly, it didn’t live to see another day.

FutureRuby - Saturday

Remember Krispy’s crazy goggles from the night before? He went even further for the party at Pravda:

It is certainly quite an experience to walk the Spadina corridor dressed as a World War 2 russian general sporting a KGB medal. The cabbie kept glancing at me in his rearview not quite sure about who I was or what I was doing. The best was when I got out near the bar and walked the last few blocks and a drunk guy comes stumbling out of an ally and says “What are you – fucking KGB?” I simply stopped and turned my head toward him to which he shrunk his shoulders and slunk back into the ally from which he came.

Krispy was one of the many people captured in the photobooth. The results are on Flickr (including a shot of these two revolutionaries.)

FutureRuby - Saturday

Not everyone went with the Soviet theme. Here’s Matt Knox doing his own thing:

FutureRuby - Saturday

Needless to say, much food and vodka was consumed. In fact, so much so that the tab ran short. Thanks Tobi / Shopify for the last-minute infusion of cash which kept everyone going until the end of the night.

Saturday’s slideshow


This entry was written by Andrew Louis on July 22, 2009 and posted in Writing. It's tagged with , , , .