EuroForth '99 Conference Report

Reuben Thomas

The 15th EuroForth conference was held, like the 12th, at the Hotel Rus in St Petersburg. There were only 12 delegates: three Western Europeans who braved the miasma of rumours, half-truths and all too real terrorism, and nine from ex-USSR states. It is sad that several Russians were prevented from attending by lack of funds, even in their own country.

In view of the low attendance and consequently small number of presentations, the conference was cut from three to two days. I was itching to see the differences in approach and topic caused by the different circumstances in the East, and was not disappointed. Three notable points of comparison were approaches to code generation, attitude to the ANSI standard, and the Forth systems used. Ex-USSR papers favoured threaded code for its elegance, as well as the compactness so important to the smaller systems with which they work, whereas Western papers focussed on the speed gains to be made from native code generation. The ANSI standard was the subject of improvement by the Westerners who had helped shape it, but the locals had a more urgent need to understand it by translation and glossing, and to adapt it to needs which were not addressed by the remote procedures of XJ3.14, which are too expensive for them to join. Finally, at a time when European and American users seem to be adopting the same few commercial and free systems, the local flora was much more diverse, and included important Forth-like systems such as DSSP.

More generally, there was a feeling that some papers were too descriptive, and that even where measurements are hard to make or of dubious relevance, numerical data are important. For me as an academic, EuroForth is an awkward conference, where the prevalence of a business mentality makes it tempting to be less than intellectually scrupulous. Ironically, it is the industrial presentations which fall into this trap least often.

Having trekked up and down Nevsky Prospekt and its environs with only the intrepid Anton Ertl on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, I joined a larger party that made an abortive attempt to explore the seamier side of Petrogradian night-life on Saturday night before ending up in the piano bar of the Hotel Europa, possibly the least typically Russian location in the city. Earlier we had been treated to a concert in the hall where Stanislaw Richter gave all his recitals, by the Moscow Partriarchate Choir, who filled the auditorium with their powerful, rich sound, under the minimalist direction of their conductor, Anatoly Gridenko. For me, the highlight was their second encore, a piece by Gretchaninoff with an impressive bass soloist.

On Sunday morning we visited Peterhof, arriving by taxi in thick fog. After seeing the famous fountains switched on, which are entirely driven by gravity, we wandered down the long walk to the Hermitage at the bottom. Doffing our cloth overshoes as we emerged from viewing what must be one of the most impressive art collections in such a small space anywhere, we found the fog rapidly lifting, and soon the view was clear all the way back to the fountains.

I have never seen such an impressive array of fountains, including such miracles as the pyramid fountain that appears to be a solid pyramid of water, and the rotating sun wheel. By lunch time over half the group had already left; the remainder ate a delicious lunch of Chebureki before returning to the city centre by Hydrofoil. [Some photos are avialble in the poto album.]

Diverse thanks are due. The Hotel Rus, which a veteran of EF'96 told me has improved in the last few years, fed and accommodated us well, the only problems being the cunning mosquito in my room which refused to sit still and be squashed, and the roads leading to the hotel, which all seemed to be closed for resurfacing in the run-up to next year's World Ice-Hockey Championships. Had no-one alerted the city authorities to the presence of EuroForth? Most of all, thanks should go to Irina Podnozova and her assistants, who managed to organise the conference without the necessary information or money, Sergei Baranoff, for inviting us and showing us such generous hospitality, and the Chair, Peter Knaggs, without whose relentless optimism the conference would not have come to St Petersburg.

I haven't even found space to mention the ingenious Russian manner of film dubbing, nor to elucidate the differences between Moscow and St Petersburg chocolate. All I can say is that even in this age of fast and plentiful electronic communication, there is nothing quite like visiting a place to understand it. There is a plan afoot to visit Moscow in a few years; I sincerely hope that it succeeds, and that more Western delegates come, as they will learn much.

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