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Published September 19th 2014

JSConf EU 2014: Understanding the minds of Javascript Gurus

JavaScript has grown from a joke in coding circles ten years ago to the most ubiquitous and active language on the planet. 5 years ago, the inaugural JSC..

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Monday afternoon. I’m exhausted. Tired to my bones, I’m clumsy in my sleepiness and put salt in my tea earlier. My brain is like a telephone box in a Guinness World Records attempt, crammed with a thousand writhing ideas fighting for position.

Where am I? What happened to me? And was it worth it?

The answers, respectively: I’m in Berlin, it was JSConf EU this weekend, and hells yeah – with bells on.


A bit of JavaScript history

JavaScript has grown from a joke in coding circles ten years ago to the most ubiquitous and active language on the planet. 5 years ago, the inaugural JSConf EU celebrated this growing trend.

At that first conference, back in 2009, a young Ryan Dahl introduced a new way to run JavaScript on the server; he called this new technology “Node.js”.

Fast forward to the present day, and Node has seen a meteoric rise, handling with graceful ease the phenomenal amount of traffic to the Walmart site during the last Black Friday.

So would we see a similar ground-breaking announcement at this year’s JSConf EU?

It’s too early to tell, but regardless, I feel like I got a glimpse of the future for the internet experience of billions of people – and it’s going to be fantastisch!

group-2013

Day 2

After a delicious breakfast (setting the trend for food throughout the weekend), the conference was kicked off in considerable style with an amazing audio-visual display featuring live musicians piped through the Web Audio API, tweaked in realtime.

It also gave me somewhat of a thrill to see Brandwatch’s name projected to hundreds of members of the elite tech illuminati in gigantic letters when it appeared amongst the sponsors.

Screen Shot 2014-09-18 at 6.23.12 PM

The first talk of the conference was also one of the best – Jake Archibald‘s introduction to Service Workers was mind-blowing and hilarious in roughly equal measures.

For the uninitiated, Service Workers will aim to close the gap between native and web apps by allowing such functionality as (proper) offline access, background sync and push notifications. Jake believes this could be the biggest change to the web since XHR ten years ago, and I think he’s spot on.

The first day progressed with some great talks on subjects such as:

  • Unicode and JavaScript’s tempestuous relationship. tl;dr if users input rarer Unicode characters, your string handling code will break in tremendously bizarre ways. Matthias Bynens’ Unicode libraries will be your saviour here.
  • Lessons from Air Crashes. “When a plane crashes, a thorough investigation uncovers the cause with methodical determination.” Dave Cridland explained, “When a computer crashes, we turn it off and on again”.

There were also two talks in a more functional vein, James Coglan’s talk was a breakneck tour of thought-provoking and mind-bending ideas which left the audience shell-shocked and the poor stenographer approaching cardiac arrest.

Building on his viral blog post from last year, James showed us that functional programming can indeed be practical.

Matthew Podwysocki then illustrated why functional reactive programming and streams will have a big role to play in our future coding style.

The focus on this style of coding resonates with my own experience organising Async, the Brighton JavaScript meetup where we’ve seen three talks on functional/reactive programming in the last six months; this movement seems to be gaining momentum.

Of course, there were also talks to make one realise just how much there is still to learn. Christoph Martens dove into some of the super low level details of the JavaScript Garbage Collector and other V8 internals, and Mathieu ‘P01’ Henri illustrated the intrinsic beauty of amazing audio-visual art pieces packed into the tiniest of file sizes.

It wasn’t all hardcore JS on the first day though; the evening party was kicked off by the effervescent Tim Pietrusky showing how to build various LED dance floor displays, and also how to convert the demo gremlins into added entertainment for the audience.


Day 2

Day 2 kicked off with an intense adventure guided by Vyacheslav Egorov as he showed how to bend the JS Virtual Machine to run Smalltalk. If we weren’t awake before, we certainly were after!

A good thing too, as we were about to be hit with one of those talks. I’d had a sneak preview of Mathias Buus Madsen’s talk from a friend at Coldfront Conf, and it did not disappoint.

Mathias expertly demonstrated the power of BitTorrent, and his ingenious node library to stream videos instantly, even allowing you to scan through as it’s still downloading. Things took a turn for the crazy when he booted up Linux from an ISO using VirtualBox whilst the ISO was still downloading.

The possibilities of this technology are huge; and when combined with Jaswanth Sreeram’s excellent demonstration on Parallel JavaScript, I started dreaming of a huge distributed network of browsers quietly crunching through massive datasets streamed via torrents to solve some of the world’s most intractable problems.

Not a new idea, but would be fun to do it in JS!

Screen Shot 2014-09-18 at 5.44.22 PM

The rest of the second day was choc-a-bloc with high-calibre talks from people working hard to solve some of the biggest gripes in modern JS (Mark Knickel on how to refactor a dynamically typed language, and has Dan Mané finally nailed charting?).

One of the more ambitious proposals came from Sergii Iefremov, who demonstrated a jaw-dropping JavaScript Kernel, removing several layers between the application and the metal it runs on. Other highlights included:

  • A wonderfully geeky look at how the programming languages we use shape how we think from Jenna Zeigen.
  • A monster demonstration of the power of the Web Audio API by Jan Monschke
  • The inimitable Jan Jongboom showing how to turn a $25 Firefox OS phone into an IoT (Internet of Things) wonder-gizmo replete with cameras, proximity sensors and GPS.
  • My new favourite web component: x-gif, taking GIFs to the next level. Glen Maddern’s speech was hilarious and innovative.

The conference closed out with a captivating look back at the history of the tech scene, and a call to arms for Berlin not to model itself on Silicon Valley but to forge its own path. Lindsay Eyink kept the audience spell-bound throughout her well researched history, a perfect rounding off of a truly enlightening weekend jam.


Wrap-up

So what were my take-homes from the conference?

  • Web components are starting to emerge into the mainstream. Ironically, after being excited about them for over a year, I’m having doubts about their declarative nature. Time will tell.
  • Service workers have the capacity to tip the scales in the native vs web battle, they could be huge.
  • JavaScript is undoubtedly one of most exciting languages around, and I felt deeply proud that Brandwatch were supporting this remarkable community by sponsoring one of the best programming conferences in the world.

And what changes will we make to the way we create our large-scale JavaScript applications following this weekend’s revelations?

I can’t wait to explore the creation of some internal tools using Web Components, and I’m already thinking of some code I’ve written which would be nice to rewrite using some functional ideas.

What is most important for us is to keep an open mind, keep questioning paradigms, and keep rethinking best-practices. Be it a new language, the hot new package manager, or an overlooked feature, these events should make you wonder: ‘Are we using our tools in the best way we can?’ – and there is no better place than JSConf EU to find the answers.

And perhaps we can use some Firefox OS phone hacks to go even further for next year’s Brighton Digital Festival, although it’ll be hard to top this year’s FTWindow.

Bring on JSConf EU 2015!

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