Freesteel Blog » Birmingham Pycon 2008 roundup

Birmingham Pycon 2008 roundup

Monday, September 15th, 2008 at 11:53 am Written by:

In spite of many incoming links to this blog from this trivial post, Gary (the unnamed owner of that very-new-but-already-much-more-popular-than-this blog) didn’t make it to Pycon 2008, so I went there knowing only one person.

I’d gone to Cambridge (to hack on Tunnel) using someone else’s return train ticket to London and didn’t want to get screwed by a single train ticket back to Liverpool (prices hiked by another £20 last week), so caught the bus which involved a 40 minute stay in a layby in Milton Keynes where I could see the great avenues of horse chestnut trees dying due to global warming (the mild winters not killing off the parasites). Apparently, this isn’t news, though it was news to me, and I wonder how it connects to the business of planting trees to offset a gratuitous jet-set flight across the Atlantic for a handful of hours at a conference when it’s about time someone started experimenting with telepresentations.

I checked in at Birmingham Central Backpackers and spent half an hour walking around in the rain unable to find their second bunkhouse because it was in a converted pub which still looked exactly like a pub, so I walked past it.

The talk schedule was so-so. But some of the talks turned out to be very good and important, though I couldn’t tell from the titles. The keynote speakers were Mark Shuttleworth, who seemed kind of ordinary, and Ted Leung, whom I would have recognized as being very important if he had phoned his talk in from Sun headquarters on a big screen, instead of being flown over bodily, as is the standard, unquestioned, routine practice at geek conferences that are supposedly tuned in to the future of the internet and planet. Readers of this blog will know that this is a big issue for me, and I don’t want to hear arguments about how presenting in person is better than doing it as a giant video conference, because I Have Never Yet Seen It Attempted.

I quickly wrote up and scheduled a lightning talk about the Metroscope project and cunningly inserted it into the half hour slot before Mark Shuttleworth’s speech, making sure to mention my wholly unsupported but very farsighted work on, (where you can find some of the international documents establishing the Registration Convention, among other things). The video channel failed to work when I tried to display my slides from someone’s machine which had recently been installed with Ubunto, so I was lucky enough to move my slot on by ten minutes and get them to show up on a Windows machine donated by someone in the audience. still has no supporters whatsoever, but a lot of people could see the point of the Metroscope. I have developed the notion that scrapers and parsers for these tiny sources of civic data should be run using a codewiki that runs in a sandbox using pypy. I have not found such a sandbox on-line. is not it, because it’s python running in your browser with the right plugins. Who wants to work on it? I must get a new laptop urgently as I my old one is really beginning to hamper this work.

The conference dinner which came with free wine and beer was excellent. The conference hangover the next day was not so good. I got back to the hostel at 3:30am, got up at 8am, sat on the road for 20 minutes until they opened the door and I could have breakfast of lots of tea with peanut butter and banana sandwiches. Still felt terrible. I needed to find a talk that was boring enough to fall asleep in, but failed because instead I went to one on software complexity where the speaker made us all stand up and talk in pairs to our neighbours about the problems we’ve had with software complexity.

The second keynote speech (the Leung one) was on the same theme as Mark Shuttleworth’s, though in greater detail. These two speakers saw their duty as trying to drive the direction of this herd of cats known as the python programming community. Big changes are happening in computing and the language has to get out of its box to make itself relevant so it doesn’t get eclipsed by, for example, Javascript. This is the greatest threat. Javascript captured the browser and now there are ten times more Javascript programmers as Python programmers. Javascript has also been stealing a lot of ideas from Python as well. The catastrophe will be when people start using Javascript on the server and displacing Python from there. (I lost the argument with HSMWorks that postprocessors should be in python — they chose instead to use Javascript.) The place to look is at the weaknesses of the language, and don’t accept them as part of the design.

The issues are multicore processors, performance limitations, no clear recommended web-framework, and being able to run on the browser platform — these are things that Java (do not confuse with Javascript) dominates. Regarding the web-framework, Django is seen with a lot of hope and optimism. I have to give up going to talks about pylons, as I’m just not getting it. I have resolved to try Jython, which is Python running on a Java virtual machine, once I get a new computer with some space in which to install things.

To me, the most important talk was about pro bono work converting climate science software to python from its old, incredibly impenetrable FORTRAN implementations. You could guess it would be them from reading their company’s heartful goals. Far too little pro bono programming happens outside of the field. A huge amount of volunteer work is done by programmers to improve and promote the public free open source software tools used by programmers (eg Python), but the phenomenon rarely breaks out of this arena and into dealing with civic and government software and data. I don’t know why. It’s considerably easier as the quality can be so ultra-bad outside the open source communities, especially when it relates to billion dollar government contracts. But, on the other hand, nobody out there seems to give a damn about software quality, so you for sure won’t get any thanks. It’s like writing poetry in a language nobody understands. The belief that good quality software is a gift that keeps on giving is nowhere around. Consequently, there’s a disincentive to produce it in the professional world.

Next year there is no UK Pycon. Instead they are holding EuroPython. This is a very good thing and everybody should go.

1 Comment

  • 1. Ed Taekema replies at 16th September 2008, 12:50 pm :

    My own experience is that JavaScript is hard to fight off the server. With the applications that I work with/for (Telelogic Synergy and Change) I managed to get Jython available alongside Rhino (JavaScript) but the majority of the coding done out of the box that uses the scripting facility is done in JavaScript even though python is available. Very frustrating.

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