PyCon UK 2007 Day 2 Part 2

[References added 18th September]

OK a little behind with the updates but as I am now officially on holiday from work I should get this all ship shape in the next couple of days. On with the rest of day 2.

A Pythonista’s Year at Kew

Julius Welby gave us an hour long talk on his experiences of using python at Kew Gardens to clean up the 1.7 Million data entries in the International Plant Name Index (IPNI). Why did the data need cleaning? Well a lot of the entries in the database go back to hand written lines in a ledger 100 years ago which have then been typed, ocr scanned and then copied to other formats like CD Rom. So there is a lot of scope for error. Especially when a lot of the references to other works are in roman numerals. How well will OCR cope with a smudged “iv” or that a clear “lv”?

Now the topic of data cleaning is on the face of it an important but rather dull task, however Julius imbued the whole undertaking with great enthusiasm and had everyone in the audience intrigued as to the approach he took. As he said at the end of about 55 minutes “I’ll inhale now and you can ask some questions”. He was a really dynamic speaker and clearly there was much more to learn about what he had done. He did not have time to show some of the specific techniques in python he used as he was talking about the general issues of data cleaning so it was of less importance. Even so I’m sure there would be interest in seeing some of the specifics. (Next time maybe).

Jackfield, the Web and Python

Stuart Langridge of LUG Radio fame gave a half hour talk about the Jackfield project he has been working on. In essence this a method of having widgets such as those for Apple Macs or Opera run “natively” on a Linux desktop.

In his entertaining and insightful way Stuart showed how he felt there was a perception that web stuff was really cool and desktop stuff a bit dull. Jackfield was in a sense the way to bring thousands of web applications to the Linux desktop so as to keep it “in the game”.

Interestingly Stuart explained how there was 642 lines of python in Jackfield that “just work” and 357 lines of javascript that are the bit that need work and revolve mostly around making firefox (gecko) rendering behave like the khtml based safari. This showed again the power and simplicity of python.

This was a talk I was very much looking forward to and it did not disappoint. Stuart is a very entertaining speaker who gets across some interesting points.

Python in Higher Education

This was a talk by Nick Efford and Tony Jenkins about their experiences of using python as a first language for undergraduates at the University of Leeds. It started with an interesting picture showing two mountains and asking which was harder to climb. One was the Matterhorn the other was Everest. The point was that to someone unskilled in climbing they both look daunting but to an expert the Matterhorn is probably the slightly easier. This analogy was then extended to programming languages. C and C++ had been the mainstay at Leeds but then Java came along and seemingly offered a much easier option. Sadly though for the beginner this was still the difference between the Matterhorn and Everest.

Python however because of its interpreter, clean syntax and great libraries was actually much more of a foot hill to begin with. Nick and Tony explained how they could now use a single language for areas such as natural language processing or distributed computing by the use of popular and well supported libraries for python. So when students moved to new topics the underlying concepts and structures of the language they were to use were already under their belt.

They also showed some examples of the short term projects that the undergrads did in their first semester and the results were excellent ranging from crazy golf with semi-real physics engines to applications involving networking, http and SQL.

It was great to see that python is becoming a language of choice for computer science students and Nick and Tony have been looking at its use in local secondary schools as well.

Keynote – Laura Creighton

I had seen Laura around the conference and heard her contributions to a few talks and discussions from the floor without realising she was to give this key note.

Laura was heavily involved in campaigning at the European Union Parliament to ensure software patents were not made enforcible in the EU. Her talk was about the approach she needed to take to make this happen. In related topics she covered the problems caused by engineering becoming more about maths than actually doing things and trying things and also how the population as a whole was becoming less and less “creative” in the sense of actually making things. (She excluded writers in this so my blog doesn’t count as creative).

A key point was that the decision makers i.e. European politicians were unskilled at creating software and unaware that they were unskilled in it. (Something found as a general psychological principle by Kruger and Dunning ). To this end they thought that writing software was not a creative task and so would not be stifled by patents on just software ideas that did not actually give away any secrets ( the usual “price” or quid pro quo of a patent ) in return for the monopoly the patent gave.

The masterstroke of her campaign seems to have been showing the aides to the politicians how software is actually written by allowing them to sit in on the process as she and her campaigners developed things to help overcome the problems the EU politicians were having with their various proprietary IT systems. ( Especially those from Microsoft).

Laura is clearly one of those people who has both left and right brains heavily in use and you could almost see the ideas fighting to get out as she gave her talk and recognised more connections to other themes she wanted to address us on.

I was almost out of breath at the end of the 90 minutes or so that she spoke. I hope there is a good audio recording of this as it is definitely something you need to listen to more than once to get full value from it.

Bits and Pieces

I didn’t catch many of the lightning talks but the few I did were entertaining and wide ranging including the use of python to help surgeons examine CT and MRI scans to allow better placement of radioactive seeds in the prostate of men with prostate cancer. Not something I expected to hear at a python conference I must admit.

There was a quick 20 minute AGM where the main committee were re-elected unopposed and the partial accounts were shown. Critically the decision was taken to have Pycon UK 2008 at the same venue and over 3 days on the 12th to 14th September 2008. (The Friday 12th will be for all day tutorials ).

There was a raffle with some cool prizes and a prize for the best lightning talk (which I had missed). In general there was much thanking and clapping as an excellent conference drew to a close.

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