In a week distinguished by good food and bad travel planning, I flew to Europe on Monday to attend Javapolis in Antwerp, Belgium, and returned Thursday. Herewith an illustrated travelogue and remarks on the conference, the Cathedral and the Pink Panther, and the flesh of Jesus.

First off, the conference: it’s terrific, you want to go if you do Java for a living and you can get to Belgium. I was only there for a day, and I heard two or three great talks, met some cool people and had some serious laughs. It’s ridiculously cheap (€200 this year), and still somehow manages to include decent food, first-rate tshoschkes, a good trade-show floor, reasonably marketing-free presentations, and outstanding A/V. That A/V... the event is at an unglamorous American-style strip-mall in in an unglamorous suburb of Antwerp, which turns out to be a multiplex movie theatre, and when you plug your laptop into the projector, you’re plugging into a THX-standard cinema projection system. The picture below (unfortunately a little blurry) shows the effect.

Cédric Beust presenting at Javapolis

That would, I believe, be Cédric Beust, talking about his next-gen testing framework, meant to replace monopoly incumbent JUnit. He had a well-argued set of gripes with JUnit, and his replacement looks interesting, but he’s got an uphill struggle, because JUnit is pretty well good enough and more or less everyone has figured out how to work around its shortcomings.

Another nice thing about the Javapolis facility is that the movie-theatre seats are astoundingly comfortable, and while I heard the premise and the conclusions on the testing-framework talk, I slept soundly through the demo part.

Jet-Lag · Maybe it’s because I’m closing in fast on my fiftieth year, or maybe it was something about this trip, but I had the most ferocious case ever; I came in on the red-eye, got about three hours sleep on each of the two nights I was there, and on my one whole day at the conference, shuffled around in a fog; it’s a tribute to the quality of the presentations that I actually remember some, and to the coolness of the people that I remember some conversations. I think that, typing this on the Heathrow-to-Vancouver leg of the trip home, it would be fair to say that I’m in what we used to call “an altered state of consciousness”.

Jython, Web Services, Click & Hack · My own keynote was basically an extended plug for the Dynamic-Languages-on-the-JVM idea I’ve been talking up here recently. It started poorly; I had a bunch of demos carefully set up to run and so on, and we all know that OS X never crashes, but did, literally as I was carrying the laptop across the floor to the podium. So I had to pull everything back together and couldn’t run one of my demos because I didn’t feel like sorting out the CLASSPATH hell in front of more than a thousand people. The audience was quieter than I’m used to; but when I showed them the tricks from Sean McGrath’s servlets-in-Jython write-up, I saw eyes widening. Hey Sean: write the rest of that series, OK?

Another highlight for me was Dennis Sosnoski’s Web Services session, which was ruthlessly clear-eyed about what works and what sucks in the world of Java Web Services. I just totally love talks where the speaker says “Here’s the problem and here’s the technology I cooked up to help, and here’s a set of performance graphs on the alternatives.” I think Dennis’ JiBX framework deserves a close look, and if the WS-people at Sun haven’t heard his presentation, we should bring him in to give it.

The finale on Wednesday was Joshua Bloch and Neil Gafter as “Click and Hack” doing their Java Puzzlers song-and-dance. If you haven’t caught one of these and you’re a Java geek, you really should. They present a series of very short Java programs that contain subtle bugs and weird behaviors, give the audience a multiple-choice quiz on what they’re going to print out, and then give a serious presentation on how to avoid the bugs and weirdness each case illustrates. It’s funny and educational. I will say, though, that some of those problems are seriously into sick-and-twisted territory. The winner got six out of eight, I got (blush) four.

Inevitably, some of the presentations were lame. It would be ungracious to name names, but at the last few conferences I’ve attended, the security-track presentations have been generally lacklustre. This is weird; it’s a hot area, and with lots of technical interest.

The show floor was pretty good too, and I even answered a question in the Sun booth. Across the aisle was the Oracle booth, and they were running this fiendishly-clever promotion twice a day. They were running a raffle for an iPod; to enter, you had to give them your business card, in exchange for which you got an Oracle T-shirt that you had to be wearing to win the iPod if your card was drawn. The effect was the creation of a vivid red-and-white Oracle Army around their booth.

The Oracle Army at the Javapolis trade show

Food! · The evening before the conference, the excellent Rudy Van Hoe drove a couple of us down from Brussels to Antwerp, and then treated all the speakers from Sun to an excellent dinner at Het Pomphuis, which is a huge, impossibly-dramatic room, a converted harbourfront hydraulic facility, with a lot of the original machinery in place. I and a couple of the other Sun geeks, being naturally fascinated with big server hardware, had to walk around and take a close look at it; here are some pictures.

Hydraulic gear at the Het Pomphuis restaurant, Antwerp
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Hydraulic gear at the Het Pomphuis restaurant, Antwerp

Along with the big groovy machinery, there were some idiosyncratic but lovely decor touches; here are a couple of basement illuminations and a flaming bathtub.

Decor at the Het Pomphuis restaurant, Antwerp
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Decor at the Het Pomphuis restaurant, Antwerp
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Decor at the Het Pomphuis restaurant, Antwerp

The feast was for the belly, not just for the eyes; the food was perhaps a bit overdone, but any pretentiousness was relieved by scattering the table-top with bowls of excellent frites.

Then Thursday night, Mik Lernout and his charming wife Carolijn (Caroline?) took me out to Dock’s Café, where once again the room was a treat and I think the food perhaps a bit better than at Het Pomphuis.

At both restaurants, the staff were welcoming and professional and friendly in a way that’s just not that common in North America. Plus they all spoke perfect English.

The People · Speaking of friendly, professional, people, Rudy and David Delabassee and Alexis Moussine-Pouchkine and the rest of the EuroSun gang were helpful and hospitable and funny and just good company. Thanks a million. Plus it turned out that a bunch of the West Coast Sunfolk were there too, and so it was fun to revisit some of our recurring engineering themes with fresh outward-facing voices in the discussion.

I was left feeling inadequate, as usual, by these guys switching effortlessly from French to English to Flemish to German every couple of seconds in the course of a conversation.

Antwerp · The weather was cold and damp and the city’s under construction, so it wasn’t at its best, but nobody would call it glamorous; it’s a hard-working hard-edged grey harbour town. With, as it turns out, terrific restaurants and nice people.

Crane, early morning, Antwerp harbour

Then after dinner with the Lernouts, I walked a few blocks into the old town to get a taxi, and it was a happening place; people bustling, a German-style Christmas Market, lights everywhere, a skating rink, an ambulance crew taking care of someone who’d had too much gluhwein.

I came around a corner to the little square in front of the immense cathedral; just then a busker in the church door laid down a slow high-hat beat and swung into The Pink Panther Theme on his bass saxophone. It was pure magic, and I had one of those travelers’ rushes: everything new, previously-unsampled riches for the eyes and ears. Antwerp’s symbol is a great big letter A and they like to use it:

Antwerp old town, with Christmas lights

Airborne Communion · Just now, staring blankly out the window of the plane while they were starting to serve dessert (I’d managed to score an upgrade) the steward’s voice came over my shoulder from a couple of rows back, polite tones asking “Flesh of Jesus?” Since it didn’t seem likely they were serving after-dinner sacraments, I wondered if the jet-lag had progressed to the imaginary-voices stage. But then the fellow and his tray got to my seat and said “Selection of cheeses?” Whatever.

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December 16, 2004
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