Friday, August 17, 2007

How To Make a Funny Talk Title Without Using The Word "Weasel"

I haven't blogged in a while. So much fun stuff going on! You have no idea. Fun! This blog entry is a bit overdue, though, and my muse hasn't visited me lately, so I'll just wing it tonight and hope for the best.

OK. So branding. Yeah. Branding. A couple weeks ago, I gave a keynote talk at O'Reilly's OSCON. Nat Torkington, the world-famous co-author of the Perl Cookbook, was kind enough to invite me to be a keynote speaker. I don't know what he was smoking, but it must have been really good stuff. I'm still jealous.

But wait, it gets even better. He had me scheduled at some godawful hour, like 9:45am or something. So I naturally assumed -- this being a programmer's conference and all -- that I was essentially one of those crap garage bands that just barely make the cut for Bumbershoot and get slotted on Friday morning before anyone actually shows up. Fine. So I'm filler. I can live with that. In any case I haven't been to Portland in a while; maybe I can grab some of their famous oysters while I'm there.

Nat wants a title for my talk. Crap. That means I have to commit to something. Uh. I'm going to talk about... ummm... not sure. He says he wants me to be funny. Just like in Finding Nemo. "You're a clownfish! Say something funny!" OK. Funny. Oh, and he wants it to be educational too. Funny and educational. Hm. Like slamming your hand in the car door, I guess. No, on second thought, that's only funny years later, and only to other people, whereas Nat wants me to be funny, like, right there on stage.

Well, pretty much anything can be funny, as long as it happens to someone else. Yeah. Funny happens to other people. So what's happened lately to people I know?

Let's see... I'd just gotten back from Foo Camp, after all that embarrassing Rails-clone hype (-- I mean, jeez, it's about a year premature; thanks, John! --) and I saw some interesting talks there. Any material worth rehashing? Oooh, there was that Open Source Attack one. Yeah, that one. What was up with that?

See, like, here's the deal: Foo Camp is... hot. Damn hot. O'Reilly's headquarters are in Sebastopol, CA, which is like one stop from Hell's Gates. I mean, don't get me wrong -- Foo Camp was really fun. Tim O'Reilly is definitely one of the World's Coolest People just for throwing a big free party and inviting people to come and partake of the free food and open bar and brilliant company.

Hell, it was almost like weekdays at Google.

But if I'd known how hot it was going to be, I'd have... I'm not sure what I'd have done, except maybe bring a pair of shorts and a bigger tent. Oh, and maybe lost some weight? Possibly, possibly. At any rate, it was hot there, and I was pretty miserable at least half the time, me being from Seattle and all. I know. Wuss.

So on the third day, I'm wandering around, and all the sessions are dying down, but there's one talk going in the ONLY room that apparently has some form of air conditioning on the ground floor. It also has network access, so people are in there with their laptops. Sounds good. Maybe I can read mail. So I'm sitting there minding my own business when I suddenly find myself listening to a talk from the OSI folks called "The Attack on Open Source".

If nothing else, it was reminiscent of Star Wars, so I listened in.

The gist of their talk is pretty simple: we forgot to trademark the term "Open Source", blah blah BLAH; Richard Stallman isn't the creator of Open Source, hah hah HAH; companies are using our term to apply to closed-source software, wah wah WAH. What can we do about it?

Send letters. That was their solution. Have all the "real" open-source licensors "federate" (a nice technical term for a riled-up, impotent mob) and then send angry letters to offenders, and nice letters to non-offenders. Or something along those lines. Who's up for it? Will you help us out?

They passed around a little pledge-your-support sheet. I put my name on it, since it seemed like the thing to do at the time. Plus there were, like, actually cool people in the room, and having my name on the same sheet seemed like the thing to do. Just in case that little sign-up sheet becomes the next millenium's Declaration of Independence or something. I wrote my name kinda big, so I could be, like, John Hancock, except without his overtly phallic name.

Someone at the talk suggested maybe making, like, a new name, one that could be trademarked and protected and stuff. I forget who suggested it, but they were whipped like a mangy cur for the suggestion, and it died right there. I almost did too, since the room was still pretty hot, and at Foo Camp when someone's giving a talk that sucks, it's kind of hard to escape politely. Not that their talk sucked, mind you -- it was their conclusion that sucked -- but once you've passed the 10-minute mark you're pretty much stuck until they stop talking.

Me? I was all for changing the name. What the hell does Open Source mean, anyway? It seems like the term has been gradually deteriorating since the 1980s when people would release "shareware", which soon became called "crippleware", which of course pretty much killed it dead. Crippleware. Nasty name. Nasty marketing tactic. Brilliant, but nasty.

Shame, I guess. I'm not sure why the whole try-before-you-buy concept never made it in software. Maybe for the same reason runtime-elevatable mountain bike seats never made it in the mountain biking circuit. When you're riding a mountain bike, you want the seat low for balance and high for power, so ideally you want it low going downhill and high going uphill. So someone invented a seat that could change its height while you were riding, and how did it do? It failed miserably! The pro riders took one look at it and said: "hey, nice seat. I was thinking of getting one for my girlfriend." Ouch. Like I'm gonna buy one now.

Marketing. It's not the banner ads. It's what your friends are saying.

So, like, here I am, trying to think of a title for my OSCON talk, and I keep thinking about that "Attack on Open Source" Foo Camp discussion, and the poor sorry OSI folks who are fighting to keep their beach from eroding in the midst of history's largest tsunami. Or something. I mean, if it's not trademarked, and you can't protect it legally, and it's just two vanilla words concatenated, then you're screwed: evil companies can jump on the buzzwagon and say their stuff is "Open Source", when it is, in fact, proprietary and you can't get the source code.

I mean, who's to stop them? So that's exactly what's happening. At least, so say the OSI folks, and I believe them.

Problem is, "Open Source" has no definition. There was a certain amount of respectful sour-graping going on at this Foo Camp talk I was at, because (as they pointed out quite sour-grapey-respectfully), Richard Stallman did a bang-up outstanding job of defining what "Free Software" actually means from a philosophical and legal perspective. It might not be exactly what the OSI folks want, but it's clear as day.

"Open Source", on the other hand, means... uh, it means you take this betrothed, er, beloved... uh, source... damn. It's like trying to remember the Ten Commandments. Thou Shalt Not Leave Foo Camp Talks Halfway Through, Lest Thee Not Be Invited Back.

That's roughly when some random synapse or other fired and reminded me of a book my friends Jacob Gabrielson and Jeff Peterson had been waving in my face about 15 years ago, called The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding. I don't know why, but it just popped into my head.

See, they (the OSI folks, that is) were breaking not just one, but several of those Immutable Laws. I'd read the book one time, fifteen years prior, but you can't fool me: I know what immutable means. It means you can't mute it. These laws were just screaming not to be broken.

So I decided, then and there, with me not knowing Jack Squat about marketing, to do my OSCON presentation on marketing.

Yeah. Well, I knew more about it than YOU do, because I've read exactly one marketing book, and you've read exactly zero. Right? (People: when I say "you", I'm using the collective "you", which if "you" will recall, means some fuzzy statistical aggregate. So please, if "you" want to email "me" about how "you" have actually read TWO marketing books, I would appreciate it if "you" would just keep that wonderful factoid to "your" self. Thanks!)

OK, great. What title to use? I'll be honest. I confess. My original title, funny as it was, was not as funny as my beta-tested replacement. See, I sent Nat the proposed title How to Ignore Marketing and Become Irrelevant in Five Easy Steps. That summed it up pretty well, and the Five Easy Steps part gave me some wiggle room about what specific sub-topics I'd talk about. I had no idea what they were, but I needed some Wiggle Room, by which I mean Procrastination Material.

Later, I was driving to Foo Camp (from the nearest airport, which is conveniently located six hundred miles away) with my buddy Greg Linden, telling him about my talk-title dilemma, and as I was saying it, it dawned on me that I really needed to make it two easy steps. If I have to explain why it's funnier, well, just take my word for it. It is. Greg laughed and laughed, and after we had established that he wasn't laughing at, say, something funny he'd just thought of, or at a sign we'd just passed, or my haircut or something, I decided: hey, that's my new talk title.

So I mailed Nat and Vee and begged them to change it. And they did!

Now you know how I came up with such a wacky idea for a keynote talk.

The rest is history. I went to the conference, along with some three thousand other geeks. It was fun. I loved Larry Wall's late-evening talk on Perl 6. He's quite the entertaining speaker. I even got a chance to talk to him that night at some party we were both invited to. I was embarrassed, for reasons you Perl folks will likely understand without explanation. I apologized. He graciously said it was no big deal. (Thanks, Larry. I can die in peace now. Or someday far from now, preferably.)

I showed up late to my talk, since, hey, I was the crap garage band, remember?

Whoops. It turns out Nat had me scheduled LAST. There were like four or five keynote speakers before me. Imagine that! Tim O'Reilly managed to get three thousand programmers to wake up at 7am. There must have been some sort of measurable blip on our GNP over the next week.

So I show up with my laptop on Thursday at about 9:00am, and I walk up to the registration booth hoping I can sneak in without a ticket. I tell them I'm a keynote speaker, and ask where I'm supposed to go.

People start talking into hidden microphones. "Mr. Yegge is here." I look around for my dad, and realize they're talking about me. A sharp-dressed dude at the registration booth stands up to take me to who-knows-where. He walks past me, stops, looks me up and down with the exact same expression the restaurant waiters in Paris used on me, and he says...

(I'm not making this up, by the way...)

"I see you have more of a sense of STYLE than MOST of the people here!"

I laugh uproariously. Wow. All I can say in my defense is: it wasn't a high bar.

Then he turns on his heel, marches me up to the second floor, and never once looks at me again.

Without looking my way, he marches me through a big crowd that's listening to the current keynote speaker, some economist who's ending his talk with "so you all SUCK, and you're all ASSHOLES too", or something along those lines. I'm not really 100% listening, but that's sure what it sounds like.

Note to self: be nice to crowd.

The Style Guy, without looking at me, walks me right past the front row, past the black-velvet-clothed stage and giant blue screens (of death, as it turns out), and right past the curtain in the back. We go through this weird back-alley hallway reminiscent of the movie Jacob's Ladder. The hospital scene. Yeah, that one. I start to get kinda nervous. I'd made some slides the night before, but this seems a bit more, um, serious than I'd originally imagined it.

We sneak through another door, and suddenly I'm behind the stage. There are two technicians there, and Parisian-Waiter Style Guy hands me off to them. They whisper at me: "do you have slides?" Yes. "What kinda computer?" Mac. "Good! We'll set you up!"


Some other tech materializes with a microphone and they hook me up. I accidentally start to straighten up (I've been stooping), and they all gesture violently at me for me to start stooping again, because if I stand up straight my head gets in the way of the rear projector and everyone in the crowd can see me.

Yikes. What if the microphone's already on? Oh no, what if I fart? Did I fart? I'm not sure. It's certainly possible, in theory. I'm not accustomed to this show-business stuff. They hook me up and tell me to bring my laptop to the podium when my talk starts, and then they tell me to go wait in the front row. On my way out of the weird, tiny little behind-the-stage AV room, they hand me a dongle that says "I stole this" or something like that. It's a Mac DVI connector. They say I need to bring it with me.


So I sneak out the door and back around the curtain, ducking, and practically crawl to the front row. I sit down. The economist finishes reviling the crowd, leaves in a smattering of tentative applause, and some Microsoft dude comes up to talk about how great Microsoft's open-source contributions are.

That one goes pretty fast.

Suddenly I notice a technician-type dude sneaking up to me. He whispers that my microphone isn't set up right, and he changes it for me. Hey, he's a tech. He could have said my pilfer grommit wasn't connected to my weasel pin, and I'd believe him. He fiddles with the thing clipped to my shirt. After sufficient fiddling, as defined by him, he leaves.

The next guy is from Sweden (I think), and he's talking about the Pirate Party. It's a great talk. Not only is he a good speaker with a compelling, well-written presentation, but the material itself is also fascinating. People in the crowd start to pay attention.

I'm not sure when I'm up, but I see Nat get up there in his shorts and Hawaiian shirt, and he starts talking about the next speaker. To be safe, I assume it's me, and I look for my dongle.

Oh god, my dongle is gone. I swear, I had it before that sneaky technician showed up, and now it's gone. Nat talks on, blah blah blah, and I'm digging frantically through my backpack. Nothing. It's gone. The technician must have grabbed it inadvertently on his way out.

I vow silently to get up earlier next time.

Nat finishes his preamble, which by the way is brilliant in its simultaneous hopefulness and not-my-fault-if-he-sucks hedging, and it's time for me to stride confidently up to the stage.

Without my dongle.

I get to the podium, shake hands or something, and a technician materializes with a dongle. I give him my laptop and hope for the best.

Nat leaves.

A thousand people are looking at me and the technician expectantly.

My slides aren't working.


So what would YOU do?

Here's what I did:

Tune in next week for the exciting conclusion of "Hey, you're a Clownfish! Say Something Funny!"

I can't wait. :)