Herewith a newbie’s first impressions from a couple of days in the IETF maelstrom.
Flavor · It’s not notably different from any other large-scale geek gathering. Maybe, on average, a little older, the sprinkling of women a little less thin, the network access better (well, DUH), the amenities notably worse: No bags or T-shirts and if you want lunch, you go buy it.
It’s political; there are undercurrents of dissatisfaction with the process and conference and support facilities and registries and, well, you name it. You don’t have to push very hard to provoke an outburst of extreme cynicism from people you don’t even know. I sensed powerful unspoken forces at work that I didn’t begin to understand.
The Program · When I looked through the program, not many of the session titles spoke to me, so I only stayed for basic IETF editor/chair training, and for our turn to present Atom to the Applications Area general session, and then bailed.
When it came time to leave, I had picked up enough of the jargon to realize how many of the sessions I might actually have enjoyed and benefited from. The IETF is one of the hotter of the many fronts in the worldwide war on spam. Plus, XMPP lives there (as in Jabber), and this is where new URI schemes and URN namespaces try to scale the dizzy heights of the registration process, and new MIME types try to become official.
I care about all these things, and these are smart people who are passionate about them, and I’m impressed as hell at the level of discourse in the brief time I was there.
Paul · That would be Mr. Hoffman, who guided this IETF newbie through the thicket. I hadn’t realized it, but in a quiet way he seems to be not just an insider, but a deep insider. He was thorough, authoritative, and couldn’t have been kinder. Atom, and thus the broader syndication community, and thus the tribe of information addicts, are considerably in his debt.
Language · I had the most fun at the Editors’ Training session, which invested a lot of time in the considerable complexities of turning ideas into RFCs, but detoured repeatedly and enjoyably into issues of usage and punctuation. In the IETF, it’s not only OK to put the punctuation “outside the quotes”, in fact it’s compulsory because what’s inside the quotes is often a protocol token (think “POST”). As a keen student of typography, I’ve always understood that the punctuation looks better “inside the quotes,” but as a structure geek, it’s bothered me.
On the other hand, they require two spaces after a period, which is vile, but is is actually just a symptom of the IETF’s misguided insistence on publishing key documents in a format (66-line 80-column ASCII) that is outdated, unusable, and offensive. Outdated because it sneers at the ability of computers, for some decades now, to use proportional fonts, which have been shown repeatedly to improve the efficiency of information transfer from page to brain. Unusable because a substantial proportion of people, including me, can never get the bloody things to print properly with the right page breaks (well, they say, use the PDF of the ASCII... argh, words fail me). And offensive because it restricts its character set to that of English speakers. I’m sorry, if a draft editor’s name is correctly spelled André or you want to consider a currency in € instead of $, well, the IETF is just not interested in those concerns. Bah.
I’m sure I’ll be back.