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16 September 2008, 09:49

Community Live: PyCon UK 2008

Dj Walker-Morgan

Kicking off PyCon UK 2008
Kicking off PyCon UK 2008
Python, the venerable scripting language which appeared in the early nineties, is still going strong and at PyCon UK 2008, Python developers from the UK and around the world met up at the community organised PyCon UK in Birmingham to compare notes. Heise online UK went along to meet the Python community during the three day gathering.

The first official day of the conference was a day of tutorials for Python beginners. Python has always had a solid tradition of encouraging new developers to learn the language. The tutorials on day one meant that attendees who were new to Python could become more familiar with the language before diving into the next two days of sessions, keynotes, birds of a feather sessions and more. This process seems to work very well; talking with various Python newcomers who'd attended the tutorial day later in the conference, they all commented on how friendly the conference was and how useful the tutorials were.

The second day was a solid day of four streams of talks. For us, the day opened with Raymond Hettinger explaining what is changing in Python 2.6 and 3.0. The evolution of the Python language has always put usability and expressiveness to the fore, and this process has resulted in not just additions to the language, but removals and changes in underlying concepts. We found it interesting how Python was looking at other languages like Java for things that were well tested and fitted in with Python's nature, even if the changes would have a widespread impact. Hettinger's talk created a real enthusiasm about the future development of the Python language.

The other thing that was creating a buzz was Django 1.0, a Python web framework, which recently went 1.0. Previous to this, Django developers were tracking developments of the framework as it evolved and deploying versions of it carefully, modifying their applications as the Django API changed. With the arrival of 1.0 comes a stable API for them to work from, making Django more easily accessible and usable on commercial applications. Django application developers had nothing but good things to say about the framework and how they had already deployed it, on sites such as Capital Radio.

Dropping in on the various sessions going on, we got the impression that the busy sessions were on topics such as testing, while the sessions on GUI development were less busy, possibly indicative of developers wanting their code to work right first and look pretty second. After the presentation streams, the conference came together for a session of lightning talks, five minute (exactly) presentations in quick succession, which ranged from reading Excel formats in Python, the dangers of number 13 (a fundraising call from the Python Software Foundation) and Zeppelins. The conference goers found themselves, more informed about the different between a Zeppelin and a blimp.

Mark Shuttleworth's PyCon UK 2008 keynote challenged Python developers
Mark Shuttleworth's PyCon UK 2008 keynote challenged Python developers
Mark Shuttleworth, long-time Python user as well as founder of Canonical, sponsors of Ubuntu Linux, gave the keynote on the Saturday. Shuttleworth took a wider view of the future of Python, looking at some of the big trends, cloud computing, multicore processors and transactional memory in particular, and asking the packed hall to consider how Python can make a meaningful contribution to the next generation of computing architectures. He didn't point out any particular path to be taken, but did note that the Python community is a very individualistic community not known for pursuing singular solutions; both a strength, in diversity and a potential weakness when planning for the future.

The conference then adjourned for a dinner and what some attendees found slightly odd, a dramatic lecture on Astronomy. That was until Andrew Lound, the lecturer started and the entire audience were taken on a fascinating historical journey through the eighteenth century and the Lunar Society, a group dedicated to the free flow of information and the developing of applied sciences, superbly presented. The resonances with the emergence of open source made it deeply appropriate and thought provoking; something to ponder as the evening adjourned to the bar. The evening dinner at PyCon UK 2008
The evening dinner at PyCon UK 2008

The third day, Sunday, started at nine am and saw the attendees return to the Adrian Boult Hall for another day of presentations. We sat in on "Why Python Packaging Sucks", which looked at the problematic area and somewhat arcane nature of Python library distribution, offering up some simple recipes for avoiding common pitfalls. The Sunday was punctuated with a keynote from Ted Leung, who talked about dynamic languages, the performance improvements in JavaScript and what that meant for Python; Leung is a developer at Sun working on jython, Python running on the Java virtual machine. Python, like many other dynamic languages is carving itself a home as a language on virtual machines; other presentations over the weekend covered IronPython, Python on the .Net CLR, and it will be interesting to see how the three major Python implementations, the C Python, jython and IronPython move forward together as Python 3.0 appears.

PyCon UK 2008 was a very enjoyable conference, having a very real feeling of a community coming together to look forward, attract new developers and compare notes from their individual quests. The organisers deserve full credit for keeping what was a rich event on a tight schedule without losing the organic feel and it is easy to see why they'll be running EuroPython 2009 in June. We have already marked the date in our diary.

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