PyCon UK 2014: The Happening

Someone I meet only in Coventry mentioned in the hallway in this year’s PyCon UK that I’d not written about anything this year which he could comment on when he met me there. And indeed I was surprised to realise that my last post on this blog was about last year’s PyCon UK! I know I’d had several ideas for what to blog about, but clearly those ideas never became a reality.

As I pointed out in that year-ago post, every PyCon UK charts its own course for me each year. This year I was heavily involved in the Education & Kids’ tracks across the road in the Simulation Centre. In fact, apart from quick visits to the dining hall for food, I hardly interacted with the main conference at all throughout Friday and Saturday. As I tweeted at the time, the first talk I attended at the conference proper was the one I was giving first thing on Sunday morning!

Others have already done so, but I’d like to give tons of credit to Nicholas Tollervey who organised and ran the Education and Kids’ track (as well as giving a talk at the conference proper on turning footfall data into music). This involved liaising with schools and teachers for over 30 teachers to be able to attend PyCon UK as part of their Professional Development, in some cases assisted by money (generously provided by the Bank of America) to help pay for classroom cover. The Bank of America also paid for the venue, while the Python Software Foundation provided money to cover travel & accommodation. And then there’s the job of organising for 70 kids to come and have some experience of programming in a supportive environment. Those who only know Nicholas as a developer and organiser-in-chief of the monthly London Python Code Dojo may not be aware that he was a professional tuba player and, significantly here, a Secondary School teacher. This (I assume) gives him an insight into what will give the most benefit to the teachers and youngsters attending.

I hope to write a separate blog post on the Education slice of the conference on Friday. (If only to ensure that I have at least two blog posts to my name this year!). The Saturday event for children was certainly well-attended. We were over there not long after 7am setting up chairs, tables, RPis, keyboards, mice, screens and a *lot* of power cables to keep 70 youngsters occupied. Because of the numbers, activities were split over two large rooms plus two smaller rooms for specific activities. There were guided sessions on Minecraft, using the Pi camera module, and using PyGame plus a fair amount of freeflow action, mostly involving Minecraft. At the end was a show-and-tell where at least some of the various projects were showcased.

The Raspberry Pi Foundation Educational Outreach Team (or whatever they’re called) were there on both days, and in fact throughout the conference including the sprints on Monday. As well as running workshops in the Education track, they also provided a Model B+ Raspberry Pi for each of the youngsters attending, and gave talks and keynotes speeches at the main conference.

I attended relatively few of the talks at the main conference. I did like the gov.uk team’s presentation on their approach to using Flask to implement wizard-style forms (a project codenamed “Gandalf” apparently!) and which they hope to be able to open-source. The lightning talks I did get to see (ably compered as usual by Lightning Talk Man) were interesting; and one of them was even using my active_directory module. Another blog post from me in the making there, I hope.

The one very obvious aspect of the PyCon UK this year was the numbers. And, as a result, the queues, especially in the dining hall. Even my own talk – on the fairly niche subject of Core Python Development on Windows – was fully attended, presumably as a result of refugees who couldn’t fit into other talks and were desperate for somewhere they could at least sit down. It’s nice problem to have: to be too popular; but I imagine the organisers are looking hard at arrangements for next year.

I stayed for the sprints on Monday and so was looking for somewhere to eat on Sunday evening, traditionally the least organised of the PyCon UK evenings. I went looking with Conor & Ben for somewhere to eat in Coventry on a Sunday evening. With limited success. (We did eventually find somewhere open). I spent a pleasantly quiet rest of the evening with a pot of tea in the hotel bar, and chatting to Giacomo about this and that.

Monday was sprints, and although I was available to help people get started on core dev work, I was actually sprinting on my own Screenful of Python idea, of which more in a later post.

PyConUK 2013

Every PyConUK has a different feel to it. By which I mean: I chart a different course through the weekend each year. Of course, the specifics of the conference itself change each time, too: the talks being given, the rooms being used, the people there, the special events or tracks being offered; all those things affect the feel of things too. But, as the ever energetic Zeth (”Really I should call this ZethConUK”) pointed out at one of the several opening addresses: this is a community conference; it is what you make it.

This year I’d committed to being a session chair for an hour and a half in one room on the Friday afternoon. Being a session chair means you’re going to be listening to three sessions, whether or not you’re inherently interested in the subject matter. In my case matters were made more interesting by a misunderstanding by one of the speakers who mistakenly took another speaker’s slot. At the exact same time that the Wiki was out of action after over-zealously shutting down when detecting an IP-bomb. (ie all the people at PyConUK on the *same* Nat-ted address all trying to access the schedule at the self-same time). This meant that I couldn’t check the timetable and I had to believe the quite-certain speaker’s version of events. The thing was resolved amicably and we moved on.

My own talk had been in the very first slot of the Fri afternoon sessions and nobody walked out or evidently fell asleep so I’m willing to judge it successful on that basis!

Following on from last year’s “Teachers’ Track”, the indefatigable @ntoll [actually: very fatigable as we saw on Monday] had organised both an education track on Saturday and a Raspberry Jam on Sunday, assisted in the latter by “Mr Raspberry Jam” himself: Alan O’Donohoe. There are pictures and videos of both around the web, for example here and here.

This year we had bigger rooms, which worked for me. I slightly missed the Tweetstream which used to be projected in the [this year’s] “HP Room” but Twitter traffic didn’t seem that great when I checked so maybe the Twitter-buzz is tailing off, or at least plateau-ing.

As always, the chance to meet people, the evening meals and drinks, looking around historic Coventry, all the not-conference things add to the occasion. The Ibis hotel is perfectly pleasant and reasonably priced (and effectively on-campus for the conference). The staff at the Technology Centre are helpful and friendly and competent; several times this and previous years I’ve witnessed the dining room staff go out of their way to try to accommodate someone’s needs even when, for whatever reason, they haven’t been given advanced notice.

My particular take-home idea from talking to teachers at the Education track was the idea of “One Screenful of Python”. I’ve started a Github organisation but I haven’t yet fleshed the thing out fully. The basic idea is that programmers would like to contribute to helping teachers out, but don’t necessarily have the time or flexibility to go into schools directly. But teachers would be helped by having a self-contained piece Python code which does something interesting. A screenful is the right size to put in front of a class and go through in the course of one lesson. Don’t know if it’ll come to anything, but it’s worth a try.

Anyway, big thanks as always to John Pinner and the PyWM team and everyone else who helped. (Hat-tip here to Peter Inglesby who very ably coordinated speakers and session chairs). I enjoyed it and I look forward to next year.

PS There are links to write-ups and photos over on the wiki.

The BAML-Sponsored PyConUK 2013 Raspberry Jam in Coventry

An unwieldy title for a great event.

Everything came together on Sunday at this year’s PyConUK in the TechnoCentre in Coventry for the 3rd year running. We were lucky enough to get Bank of America to sponsor a Raspberry Jam and lucky enough that Alan “Jambassador” O’Donohoe was around to lend his manic energy and unique style.

Despite the relatively short notice we were able to give, we had 25 youngsters plus their parents helped by as many Python developers from the main Conference plus some of the teachers who’d come for Saturday’s Education Track. I’ll link to some of the photos that were taken when they’re posted up. But it’ll be clear to you just how much manic energy was involved and how much youthful mayhem was harnessed.

We had people bringing robots and Python-controlled helicopters; we had children bringing Minecraft-inspired ideas and wackiness; we had people controlling LEDs; we had Scratch and Minecraft and pure Python; some people brought their own Raspberry Pi’s and other people used the ones we’d supplied; some of the parents caught the bug and were coding along with their kids; sometimes it was the other way round.

At the end, a group of three girls (and we had probably a 50-50 mix) went over to present a Lightning Talk to the main conference itself, showcasing their Minecraft-powered UFO.

Overall I think we can count our first foray into Raspberry Jamminess an success. We’re tremendously grateful to Bank of America whose sponsorship enabled us to use the excellent Simulation building as a completely separate space for what was, in effect, a subconference. I hope that it’s inspired people to run their own version of a Raspberry Jam, and that it’s given kids and their parents a flavour of what you can do with a little creativity.

UPDATE: There are photos here

London Python Dojo: does it have a keyboard?

Those of you who don’t frequent the London Python Dojo wouldn’t appreciate the in-joke behind the laughter which greeted the selection of “20 Questions” as the challenge for last night’s Dojo. For months Nicholas Tollervey, the main Dojo organiser, has seeded the list of Dojo suggestions with the idea of implementing a simple expert system where the computer maintains a taxonomy of objects and tries to identify an object of your selection within 20 guesses by a process of elimination. It’s become a source of humour that Nicholas has to offer the same explanation every month and that the idea is never selected as the challenge du jour. Well last night it was.

And I admit that it was much more involved than I had thought it would be. I honestly thought we’d be done in 10 minutes and looking for ways to fancy up the interface or whatever. How wrong I was! The teams split between a tree-based structure with nodes holding questions & answers and yes/no pointers; and a matrix of questions which attempted to eliminate possible objects with each question. Getting the exact looping and yes/no pointing right is harder than you might expect, especially when you’re pressed for time and you have a team of five people to consider.

We were hosted, not for the first time, by Mind Candy (of Moshi Monsters fame) in their gorgeously child-friendly offices with Mind Candy local Al Broomhead as MC. And, as always, O’Reilly provided a book for the end-of-evening raffle. I’m consistently impressed by O’Reilly’s readiness to support us: I imagine it doesn’t cost them loads to give away a book a month, but they could so easily turn us down and they continue to provide, month after month.

There have been discussions, on-list and in private, about various aspects of the London Python Dojo and the organisers have various ideas in mind, but we’re not planning to do anything drastic to the current approach. (Although our setup means we can easily experiment with something if we want). Our main idea is to emphasise our status as a beginner-friendly forum where everyone can and should get a chance to code in Python even if they’re a newbie amongst experts. I’m glad to say that, in our team yesterday, everyone got a chance to code, however lightly.

Beforehand, @ntoll gave a talk about the upcoming PyConUK and particularly about the education track, encouraging people who know or are teachers and who know or are children to come along to these special aspects of the conference. I also gave a lightning talk about the socio-political challenges in Python core development — and about how people could and should contribute.

[The title of this post refers to a commonly-asked question shouted out from the audience as the various teams were demo-ing their approaches. Demonstrating necessarily involves going through as a series of “Is it …?” “What question could I ask…?” prompts and this one turned out to be a popular question, especially if the object in mind was a Robotic Catfish!]

Activity on distutils-sig

A long time ago (I don’t remember exactly: years) I subscribed to the Python distutils-sig mailing list. And then I unsubscribed because it was noisy and not terribly fruitful.

Now, chasing down a Windows-related pip issue, I’ve come across it again and discovered that there’s a shed-load of useful work going on there. I had no idea that distribute (a fork of setuptools) & setuptools had [re]merged as of setuptools v0.7, and I’d lost sight of the many PEPs on naming, versioning, distribution formats and the like. I still haven’t worked out which is which, but at least certain of them seem to have reached the stage where they’re the point of reference for other discussions — not discussion points in their own right. There’s an initiative to get pip into the main Python distribution — which I also had no idea about.

I’m especially happy to see Paul Moore holding up the Windows end of things in discussions — thanks, Paul! Despite our both being UK-based [*] and Windows types and long-term Python users, we’ve never actually met AFAIK.

I’ve resubscribed now and I hope to be able to contribute in some small way.

[*] I’m fairly sure — and he did recently make a reference to Gunga Din, which is something I’ve never heard outside this country.