Pycon 2009 Day 2

Day two of the Python Programming Language Convention!

I got up and headed out at 7:45 to attend the morning lightning talks (luckily I hadn’t been out all too late the night before). I didn’t know what to expect: lightning talks are 5 minute talks on whatever topics people had decided to speak about the day before. Many of them were funny or just plain fun, but one of them stood out for me in particular. It also foreshadowed the rest of the day: today was to be the day of useful tools.

Anyway, the lightning talk that really interested me was on a tool called SQLPython. It makes talking to Oracle databases (which I sometimes need to do for work) very easy by creating a shell for them that gives you interesting UNIX-style commands like ‘ls’, ‘cat’, and ‘grep.’ I will definitely be looking into this further.

After the lightning talks was the keynote by the inventor of Python and “Benevolent Dictator for Life”, GvR. Guido’s talk was a little underwhelming, but as always interesting. I think he may be burned out on giving keynotes after doing it every year for many many years in a row.

Anyway, then I attended two more talks about tools that seemed very useful. First was The State of Django. Django is the darling Web Framework in Python and, while I have never used it, this talk definitely made me want to. It didn’t hurt that the next talk, Pinax: a platform for rapidly developing Websites was about a tool that is built on Django and lets you build sites with all kinds of social networking widgets automatically available (thing like wikis, tagging, user management, user signup, photo sharing, etc). This definitely made me want to get my brother (the idea guy) to come up with some ideas for sites that I could try to implement for him.

Lunch was just as fancy as the day before: pasta with a tomato sauce, broccoli, and key lime cheesecake.

After lunch I only attended 3 talks (out of a possible five). The first was a panel on Object Relational Mappers, which help you to define and use a database without leaving your Python code. This was not as interesting as it could have been, but ORMs definitely seem like they might be useful tools.

Then it was time for another tool that might be fun: I attended Seven ways to use Python’s new turtle module. Turtle, if you don’t know, is a cool way to teach young people how to program by giving them a little turtle on the screen that they can control. They can move it around the screen and have it draw lines and do other things; this cute old high school teacher from Austria was demonstrating the turtle package he had written and gotten included in the Python Standard Library. The talk had a lot of cool examples and, though he ran out of time, definitely made me want to show turtle to some folks and get them to learn Python.

Finally, I attended Python 2.6 and 3.0 compatibility which was a little dry, but very important information to have.

After the conference events, some coworkers and I went down to the Logan Square area of Chicago and went to a restaurant called Lula Cafe. It was sleeting at the time, and very cold. The food was good and we had planned to go to another mexican restaurant in the area after, but the weather was just too harsh. We made our way back to the hotel and hung out in the bar next to a fireplace. We had the prime location for Earth Hour, when the hotel turned out all the lights for an hour, and I tried my first margarita. My coworker Dan is an excellent photographer and took some cool pictures; if I get access and permission I may post a few here.

I am very excited for tomorrow’s keynote, by the creators of Reddit. Let’s hope I can wake up on time!

PyCon 2009 Day 1

python-logoAh, the business trip. I’d love to say I know it well, but I don’t, because this is my first one! I am attending PyCon, the convention for U.S. users of the Python Programming Language. This year it’s in Chicago so in exchange for helping to do a little bit of recruiting and helping get the name of my company out there, I get to attend cool talks and network with other pythonistas from all over.

I attended six and a half talks today (out of eight possible) and all of them were very interesting and informative.

The firt was Python for CS1 Not Harmful to CS Majors (and good for everyone), which basically summarized the benefits of using Python when teaching the entry level Computer Science course in universities. Non-majors actually learn enough to put it to use, majors do just as well in CS2 (even if the course is C++ or Java) and it builds the Python community at the university among TAs and grad students. I liked this talk a lot even though it was pretty much only pertaining to academia and not all that useful to me in my work. Who knows, though, one day I may stop being able to do and start teaching.

Next was Python in the Enterprise – How to Get Permission. This was mainly a work decision because, while we already use Python at my company for “The Enterprise,” we sometimes have to deal with customers who are wary of it or cooperating organizations who are the same. The scope on this one was pretty narrow and pretty much could be summed up as “work within the system and tout Python’s benefits” but it was still good.

Apparently the speaker for the next talk missed his flight from Africa and so it was postponed. Hopefully I can catch Giving back and helping expand the Python community. A roadmap for South America and Africa on Sunday. Since this was the only talk I really wanted to go to during this time, I headed over to our booth for recruiting. It was just about set up, and a few other coworkers were hanging out. We started shooting our nerf rockets (with our job website on them) at the sparse crowd.

(The vegetarian) lunch was Caesar salad and lasagna with some sort of cream sauce. Also, Teramisu (it very much seems like they are trying to caffeinate the attendees heavily).

After lunch, I was conflicted about which talk to attend. I ended up attending Strategies For Testing Ajax Web Applications because it was helpful for my work, opting out of both a talk on capturing neutrinos in Antarctica (cool) and a panel discussion on the different Python interpreter implementations (cool and brainy). The panel discussion was extra long so I was able to catch the end of it.

The fifth talk I attended was called Python in a Sandbox by the implementers of PyPy (the Python interpreter written in Python). An interesting adjunct of their work is that they can abstract all the operating system calls that Python does out and replace them with whatever they like; for example, they can write an interface for reading and writing files that never actually writes to the machine, it only simulates the fact that there is a file system. This version of PyPy could eventually be run inside Web browsers safely, without giving Web sites dangerous access to your home computer.

After a short break, there were two talks left. I chose Introduction to Multiprocessing in python, about the new multiprocessing module (I know little about this, but it seems cool) and Easy AI with python which was very interesting and well-presented and led me to two modules I definitely want to experiment with – one on Bayesian filtering and one on simulating neural networks with a relational database. The code he showed for each of these things seemed incredibly simple (Python almost always does) but also very powerful. Maybe I can do that Bayesian work I was looking into for the Netflix prize.

After the talks, I hung out at our recruiting booth for a while and also checked out a few of the other booths. EVE Online was there, which was very cool, and they talked a little bit about their MMORPG. Then I got invited to a blues club by some coworkers; I turned them down (the main act didn’t even come on until 10:30 and I need my beauty rest.) Instead, I opted for the “board game social.” I learned two new games that I enjoyed immensely and want to buy, and met a few people. We went out to eat at a tiny Polish restaurant in Chicago proper. I had Pirogi.

And so ends the first day of the Conference. I am looking forward to keynotes tomorrow and Sunday by Guido van Rossum (inventor of Python) and the Reddit guys!

5 Year Reunion at Grinnell

This past weekend was the reunion for Grinnell College. A lot of different graduation years were having their reunions, but among them was a combined “5 year” reunion for ’02, ’03, and ’04. Having graduated in ’03, it actually was my 5 year reunion, which I guess is a lucky thing, and I also got the benefit of being around people who are both older and younger, which theoretically should maximize the amount of people someone from the middle year will see. I don’t think it actually did in my case, because I generally made friends with first-years every year, so an ’03, ’04, ’05, ’06 reunion would have been optimal. Nevertheless, good times were had.

I didn’t go straight to Grinnell, Iowa. I first stayed in Chicago for about two days with my friend David. David is an aspiring actor and a pretty good Magic: The Gathering player. We spent the first evening playing Magic: The Gathering in a pretty awesome 27th floor apartment that overlooked the city. I’m not too familiar with it and these guys were all pros so I mostly watched and only played a few games.

The next day we had breakfast at a place called The Chicago Diner, where I had a good vegetarian Rueben sandwich, which is pretty much what I order at all veggie / vegan restaurants. In the afternoon, we headed downtown to get a day pass for the CTA and then decided to try to explore an area of the city called Pilsen. We ended up getting lost and wandering around the decidedly non-walkable “Illinois Medical District,” but eventually we found our way out of it. I made some dumb mistakes with my day pass that meant we had to walk a little farther than we otherwise would have.

Eventually we ended up with a burrito and some tasty baked goods from the Hispanic-leaning Pilsen area.

When I got to Grinnell, I found out that they put me in Norris Hall, which is the temporary housing from the ’70s that isn’t exactly loved on campus. It was alright with me, though, because I lived there my first year, and there was some nostalgia involved. After the fact, someone pointed out to me that Norris has air conditioning as well, which many of the dorms don’t. The first day I was there I made three wrong turns which were a direct result of me heading toward where I thought my room from first year would be. It’s amazing what you recall when you go back to a familiar environment.

The dining hall at Grinnell is all new, in the new Joe Rosenfield Center building (some call it the Joe, or the JRC; the “Jerk”). The new dining hall style involves a lot of little stations you can go to stand in line and pick up various freshly prepared dishes. It’s a good idea, but waiting in the station lines was a little annoying. Also, on the first day they ran out of the vegetarian option before I got in to eat.

The social activities included a Waltz / dance party. I’ve learned to waltz twice in the past, so I was hoping if I got the chance, I would remember how to get it done. I only really worked up the courage to ask one person to try to waltz, and I couldn’t find her, so I guess I got a reprieve. I did end up doing a litle bit of dancing at the later party, but I didn’t stick around for very long.

All weekend I had a little bit of time to think as I wandered from event to event, and my thoughts kept coming around to the social scene at Grinnell and, I presume, many college campuses. It seems to me that debauchery is the norm. Now, I’m not one to knock debauchery; it’s a perfectly valid approach to having a good time. There’s nothing evil or wrong about it, but it’s not the kind of time I prefer.

I feel like the comparison I want to make is between debauchery: drinking, loud music, dancing, hooking up and love: serenity, conversation, intimacy, respect. Both of these are useful and interesting social situations for people to learn to navigate. I prefer, personally, the latter and sometimes I feel as though the former is being emphasized. I don’t know if the emphasis comes from the college or the students or what. When I was in college, I sought out the non-drinkers and the clever wits and the interesting philosophers, and luckily I found a lot of them. The kinds of situations where you find them and the contexts that arise when you do, I felt, were not really available to me from the structured situations at reunion. That’s the kind of thing I was thinking about when I was at a Harris party. I guess I’m kind of a nerd.

On the last day, just before I was leaving, I got a bit of a surprise. A beautiful girl kind of snuck up behind me to say goodbye. When this happens, some sort of weird autopilot kicks in. I don’t even have a chance to think, I just act. The feeling of weird helplessness reminded me of a time back in Grinnell when I was at the Hy-Vee grocery store, and another old friend who I was quite enamored of came around the corner. I gave her a hug and kissed her on the top of her head without even realizing what was happening, and that’s kind of abnormal for me to do. So, I felt the same way here and I just thought it was interesting thing to note that feeling, since it was so intense and rare.

I posted some vignettes on Plans but I want to keep them in perpetuity for memory’s sake, so I’ll post them here too. I’m going to only use first names to keep them Google-proof (except where last names are merited!).

  • David knows how to find his way out of the Illinois Medical District.
  • Paul rocks the mutton chops and somehow keeps things interesting for 10 hours of car travel.
  • Mr. Stone prides himself on stirring up controversy yet again.
  • Mr. Wellons almost ran out of space on his camera and definitely knows his way around the observatory.
  • Esther has psychic powers and a mesmerizing gaze.
  • Piper is pretty chill in Norris Lounge and shows off her awesome power of using my name as an exclamation.
  • Angela apparently uses an open door as an alarm clock on Sunday mornings.
  • Elvis totally rocks out on piano and also on accompanying people to their first bakery run.
  • Sam is king of the water balloons.
  • Natalie’s smile is the only thing I’ve discovered that can make setting up a nerd feedback loop between myself and Mr. Wellons even better.
  • Jonathan and Cassie are the cutest couple ever, but they should be living in Seattle.
  • Shannon sees Grinnellians everywhere!
  • Josh knows everything there is to know about frisbee and alcohol.
  • Choed is a smooth operator.
  • Jennifer set me straight on my Grinnell lore.  Scientists graduate!

Notes on Driving from DC to Chicago

  1. If you take the northern route, you save about an hour, but it costs $29.25 in tolls.
  2. Eventually, if you see enough trucks behind you, their fronts will start to look like dog faces, and you may even start discerning individual breeds.
  3. Of the three turnpikes (Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana), Indiana is the best by far. No police, no construction, lower tolls, a smoother ride, and the best speed limit system I’ve seen: (70 cars, 65 trucks). Kudos Indiana!
  4. It is probably not the greatest idea to choose soup as the food you are going to eat while driving 70 miles an hour, but eventually you will get the hang of it and even enjoy it (after burning your mouth and spilling it on one of your only two pairs of pants).
  5. When calculating your arrival time, remember to take the time change into account so you don’t arrive 2 hours earlier than you expected.
  6. Remember to wave at Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Toledo, South Bend, and Gary.
  7. Gary is ugly.  Sorry Gary, but it’s true!