Posts Tagged ‘europython’

My EuroPython talk: Python Sucks!


On 2009-07-01 I gave a talk at EuroPython called “Python Sucks!”. They made me change the title of the talk, but the first slide sticks, so “Python Sucks!” it is.

It was a bit of a misleading title. As I did actually mention some things that I like about Python.

The slides (updated in blue to add useful things that people said in the talk itself) are available in PDF. I’m not sure the slides are particularly useful without a transcript; it’s not always clear if the point illustrated on the slide is something that I think is a good thing, or a bad thing.

I was a bit overwhelmed with the talk actually. I was thinking that, as I am not as famous as Bruce Eckel or Tony Hoare, about 30 people would turn up; and I think I could probably wrangle about that many people. The Recital Hall holds about 150 people, and it was pretty much full. *gulp*.

The audience included Tony Hoare (Man of Science); when I spotted that I sort of thought “oh no, Tony Hoare is in the house, I’d better behave now”. He usefully (and somewhat embarrassingly on my part) suggested that Occam be added to the cloud of “languages I don’t know enough about”. And it should.

One of the points of the talk was to get the audience talking; I think I did okay at providing a very lively forum for people, not just me, to get their python gripes off their chest. The contributions from members of the audience were well appreciated, and often informative. Certainly I felt that the audience provided a useful contribution, which of course made my job easier.

Later on in his keynote Tony Hoare said something like “from what I’ve seen here today you are doing a good job” [of being scientific engineers, or of steering Python, or something]. I hope he wasn’t referring to me.

Note to self: do not show a slide with “distutils” on it to 150 people. Unless you have nothing to say.

Tony Hoare, man of Science


At EuroPython, on 2009-07-01, Tony Hoare gave a very interesting speech on the opposition between science and engineering (video here). In many ways it reprised the themes of Laura Creighton’s keynote from PyCon UK 2007, but from a science perspective rather than a history of science perspective. In the middle of the talk, some wit twittered “Stand back! Sir Tony Hoare is about to do science!”; shame it wasn’t on the big twitter wall.

Tony Hoare is clearly old skool. His slides had the calm and aged patina of the OHP era, and I thought they were all the better for that. If you have a message, then that message can be conveyed without all the flash and shine that PowerPoint tempts you with (although, being a Microsoft man, of course his slides were in PowerPoint). As Andrew Kuchling says: “(good talk, plain slides) > (bad talk, fancy slides)”

I was particularly impressed with this slide from Tony’s talk outlining a few “special interests” of the scientist and engineer respectively:


On the scales on the side of Science we have things like “long-term”, “perfection”, and “originality”. Balancing the scales for Engineering we have “short-term”, “adequacy”, and “best practice”.

What I liked about this slide is that many of the things on the Science side would be seen as defects in an engineer, and many things on the Engineering side would be seen as defects in a scientist. We have all seen scientists attacked for relying on intuition or merely amalgamating best practice. And what engineer has not been barracked (by their manager) for attempting solutions that were too perfectionist or wasting time on long-term goals?

Tony Hoare’s insights are clearly the product of long and hard work. He seems very optimistic about the possibilities of a virtuous feedback between the engineering and scientific sides of computing. Perhaps we have every right to look forward to the day when “Software will be the most reliable component of every product which contains it.” (the last slide from his talk). But right now… it seems a long way off.

EuroPython 2009


Overall I had a really enjoyable time, met lots of interesting people, some new and some renewed friendships, and learned some good stuff.

Too many web frameworks. Too many VMs.

What I like is the diverse range of applications to which people put Python. The Guardian use it so we can inspect our MP’s expenses. Gregor Lindl uses it and Papert’s turtle graphics to teach. The Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt use it to manage the extraction and shuffling of petabyte (that’s 10**15!) datasets across the supercomputing networks used by climate scientists. The talented Stani Michiels creates the new Dutch Euro coin designs using Python. Weather trading derivatives. Video workflows. Collaborative mathematics. Games. Academic document archives. Billing. System Administration. The list goes on.

Naturally I managed not to go to most of those talks (apart from keynotes (like Tony Hoares) and lightnings, I went to 2 talks). That’s partly because going to 4 or 5 talks a day (which would easily have been possible given the packed schedule) makes you dead tired and causes leaky brain; partly because there were timetable clashes! But mostly because I was writing the materials for my two talks.

Writing your talk at the conference itself is… exciting. And intense. And it probably gives the conference organisers the willies (as in, “where are your slides?”). It did mean that I was able to include some stuff from the conference itself in my talks. A war story I picked up in hallway chat about having to use 6 year old versions of Python on a government IT project made it into my “Loving Old Versions”” talk. Dr Sue Black’s talk about Bletchley Park was in the timetable, and that prompted me to put a reference to Turing’s coffee mug into my “Python Sucks!” talk (Sue Black got there first with the same anecdote; ah well). The “Python Sucks” talk also got a couple of references to Bruce Eckel’s keynote which covered some of the same ground (just using a lot more space, according to Thomas Guest).

But it’s way stressful (Rob Collins’s massage to raise PSF funds was very helpful in that regard). Next year I’ll leave the laptop at home, and give a presentation using a marker pen (well, I will if they accept it!).