Monday, October 6, 2014

Event report:

I managed to squeeze in a 4 day stop in Johannesburg on a recent trip that happily coincided with  I love and all the other big conferences, but for value, these smaller localized cons can't be beat.

Venue:  The Campus, Bryanston

Not your average office park.  It's nicely landscaped and has a huge center beach or pitch or lawn (depending where you're from).  The buildings are all named after famous sports venues like Lemans.  The nod to us Yanks (NOT New York Yankees) in Wrigley Field was a nice touch.

Best of all 100MB/day of internet for all who enter.  That's not ideal if you're wanting to watch Youtube videos, but plenty if you just want to check a speaker bio or do con-related stuff.  I thought the organizers did a great job of keeping the con inexpensive but valuable.

The catered food and drinks were really good, by my standards at least.

Apart from an unfortunate plumbing problem in the men's bathroom the second day that was quickly repaired, everything went off without a hitch.

Talks that I went to:

Ludell-Doughtie Writing Python Code to Decide an Election Keynote - he outlined the methodology and process they used during a recent (Libyan? - there was Arabic right-to-left text in the data) election.

The main take-aways for me were
  1. Use pre-written, open source software packages to standardize things, because you won't have time to roll your own or dink with inconsistent data/code formats when you are in the thick of it.
  2. It's a huge responsibility to write code for an election and manage the data, but it's a cool project.
Steve Crawford Enabling Science with the Southern African Large Telescope with Python Doctor Crawford didn't show a lot of code in this talk, but he did outline the architecture for getting information and moving it around. The scope of the talk was way too big for code samples, but that's OK. I left feeling . . . shall we say . . . inspired . . .

My main takeaways:

Astronomy is wickedly cool and based on instrumentation, precision, and data paucity and, ironically, an overabundance of data (on average about 10GB/day, up to 50GB/day). Crawford mentioned more than once the desperate need to "catch as many photons as possible because there are so few coming in." Yeah, photons, like particles of light, just wow.

Python is used for everything where it is appropriate to use it. There are plenty of problems that don't require you to be a genius rocket scientist like Crawford.  sysadmin, data, and, perhaps most importantly, web. They're using MySQL and a web frontend to distribute data throughout the world on a daily basis to other astronomers who need it. I'm always biased toward raw data myself; it is critical, but if you can't distribute it, it's not worth much.

Good talk for me to attend.

Albert Nel - Using Python in Blender Nel is a total joker (in a respectful, entertaining, good way), but not enough of a joker to bely a serious love and enthusiasm for both Python and Blender.

My own experience with rendering 3D stuff is a little dinking around with POV-ray.  Blender is different in that it's big on animations and honoring the laws of physics.  Writing Python to automate Blender is similar to, for lack of a better analogy, writing or recording VBA macros in Excel.

Nel did a lotto ball live demo and a Lego movie ocean demo (aside:  I *LOVE* live demos, even when they go wrong - it's one of the best parts of Open Source conferences versus say, a godawful boring company Powerpoint presentation - thank you to the Nelster for accomodating us).

My takeaways:

Blender is fun.

Allison Randal The Earth is not Flat (and Other Heresies) Keynote - a lot of times I don't relate a lot to keynotes because it's about super high level programmer craft stuff (disclaimer:  I've worked as a dev, but I'm a geologist by trade) that I can't really control or understand.

So my mind wandered as Randal gracefully moved about the stage in her pixie frame and calmly laid down her knowledge.  As I much younger man I would have been thinking, "She's so smart . . . and a very attractive individual to boot . . ."  As a curmudgeony old fart my thoughts go more towards the "Damn - she's in perfect shape, speaks well, and knows what the hell she's talking about.  I'm SOOO jealous; why can't I be like that?"  In all seriousness, what always blows me away when I see Randal talk is the calm, matter of fact way she just presents facts and opinions without any malice or belligerence.

At one point she responded to a question by saying essentially, "Don't use AWS; use OpenStack <if you want to accomplish X>."  Amazon was one of the three top corporate sponsors of the event, but it wasn't a SPEAK TRUTH TO POWER/VIVE LA REVOLUCION kind of thing, just a "this is what I think based on what I know."

I'm glad she's with "us" (the open source community) instead of selling her soul to the commercial world (which she could do at great profit).

Takeaway (tongue-in-cheek) - my view of me vis a vis Allison Randal (I'm the guy on the right).

They say "kill your heroes."  Until I drop 40 lbs. and learn to express my ideas in a less conflict ridden manner, I am not ready to kill anything.  Sorry, Ms. Randal.  I hope this isn't too creepy, but you're going to remain the queen on my hero pedestal for a while :-\

Dr. David Mertz What I Learned About Python - and About Guido's Time Machine - from Reading the Python-Ideas Mailing List Keynote - David took an example of an idea for a sum function for lists and walked through all the considerations of sanity, performance, implementation, and ultimate rejection.

My takeaways:

  1. The idea has to be intuitive and make sense (he actually experimented with this socialogically - that was kind of cool).
  2. The implementation has to be consistent.
  3. Performance matters (a lot).
  4. 1 trumps 2 and 3.

Adrianna Pińska An Introduction to Regular Expressions in Python Don't let the name fool you; this Polish lady speaks the Queen's English quite well.  She apologized (sort of) ahead of time saying she would talk too fast, but, really, the talk was paced just right.  I was really happy having gone to it.

My takeaways (for regex):

  1. Start with very general matches (.* for example) and work towards specific matches to gain skill and confidence.
Ridhwana Khan A Journey Through the Eyes of a Newbie Female Developer Very positive, professional talk, especially for a youngster.

(Aside: it's none of my business, but I think Ms. Khan is Muslim - she wore this really cool black-red combination outfit with a red head scarf - I borked my picture with my point and shoot camera, but I think a video of the talk is online.  Anyway, for a diversity-oriented talk, the outfit was not only cool and classy, but perfect for a South African con).

Ridhwana's talk was well structured with some humor interjected.  She started out with the most important point - that she loves coding and wants to do this for a career.  There were a number of valid points and ideas put forward - it's worth checking it out online.

My main takeaway:  IIRC not once did Ridhwana mention a Code of Conduct policy nor did she dwell on personal experiences with harassment.  Essentially, she has had a pretty good experience with colleagues thus far.  After a year with an all male crew (her excepted), she learned that prior to her arrival, firm rules had been established regarding off-color humor (basically banned) and such.  For me, this is a pretty good example of how some firm (but not excessively draconian) rules can help make programmer-land a women friendly place.  Ridhwana's point was that (at least in South African society) this is typically how relationships go anyway.  You meet someone, then after some time you get to know them better, and at that time, you can loosen up a bit more as appropriate.

Hallway track:  there were fewer than 150 people at this con IIRC, so if you wanted to talk to anyone, there was time.  People involved with the new kilometer array telescope project, people involved with the older telescopes northeast of Cape Town, speakers, Dr. Mertz, Allison Randal, a PhD in computational mathematics who specializes in computer vision, South African devs, the organizers of the conference - where else could a grunt open pit mine geologist like me have access to such luminosity? is pretty sweet.

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