PyCon UK 2016

Posted by s.aragon on 28 September 2016 - 12:30pm

Pyconimage.pngby Olivia Guest, University of Oxford.

I signed up to go to PyCon UK 2016 because their website has a Nyan cat on it. OK, seriously. Firstly, I knew a few people going from other events (Software Sustainability Institute Fellows 2016 Selection Day, Collaborations Workshop 2016, PyData London 2016, Research Data Visualisation Workshop)—I knew I was going to have a nice time socially with (at least) Vincent Knight and Raniere Silva! Secondly, I am strictly speaking between jobs (although science waits for no-one), so I thought an extra long conference might be apropos. And finally, I really wanted to see An Introduction to Deep Learning with TensorFlow by Peter Goldsborough because I use this framework in my research and will be using it even more in the future. Spoiler: one of these did not come true.

With respect to my first expectation, indeed PyCon UK was delightful. So many nice people were there. I have never made so many true new friends in a year, let alone under a week. On a relevant note, their Code of Conduct (which by the way is derived from PyCon US's Code of Conduct, which in turn was derived from Geek Feminism Wiki) is released under CC-BY, so no excuse for not using it, and is a godsend. Thanks for this Alex Chan and Co.! I can think of so many events in which had I known the organisers were implementing a Code of Conduct I would have felt much more at ease. I hope the Software Sustainability Institute and every other organisation I come into contact with from now on uses something similar. Especially since I can think of violations of such a code for every event I have ever attended! PyCon UK 2016 was not an exception, see the conference report.

With respect to time: wow, was it long! I feel like I have spent a month in Cardiff! This is not in any way a bad thing. It was beautiful. However, as an introvert who cannot sleep well away from home, spending so much time away was extremely tiring mentally and physically (see this post written at PyCon UK by David R. MacIver). My personal solution to this in future will be to manage my time better and attend for fewer days. Being selective with my time in the future (e.g., for PyCon UK 2017) will be imposed on me anyway as I’ll be on full-time postdoc mode by then and at the mercy of my Principal Investigator.

My final and indeed main professional/skills development reason for going, unfortunately, did not pan out as well as the first two. So unlike the previous two points which ended up exceeding my expectations in terms of lovely people and time well-and-exhaustingly-spent, the talk on Google’s TensorFlow was in an overfilled room and I didn’t get to see it! Not unsurprisingly since there were 550 odd people (yes, we are odd people), and this specific room was small (and stinky). “Why did you not go early then?” I hear you think (no, neuroscientists cannot hear you think, but we can read your mind – yes, really). I did sadly go early, I even started charging my phone; however they allowed so many people in that, while I popped to the loo, the room had filled up to more-cramped-than-a-rush-hour-tube levels. So one of the organisers sent me away. I was very disappointed not least because I was stuck without my backpack, water bottle, phone, laptop, etc., but mainly because this was the one talk that had swayed me to attend. Oh, well, at least there’s a YouTube channel, and a video of this will be uploaded.

Regardless of this small (in the grand scheme of things) disappointment, the celebration of diversity and respect for each other was impressive, uplifting and a baseline for any other event I attend from now on. PyCon UK 2016 really set the standard for other conferences or events to meet and exceed. In the largest room, there was speech-to-text live captioning, which received so much positive feedback even though the organisers knew of no hearing impaired person attending. And I can confirm it was incredibly useful. One’s working memory and phonological loop (metaphors for cognitive functions) can only handle so much.

Along the vein of acceptance and inclusivity, there was also a talk on neurodiversity by John Chandler, something I know a little about myself. Neurodiverse people are those with autism, Asperger’s, ADHD, anxiety (e.g., PTSD), etc.—while neurotypical people are those at the lowest ends of such spectrums. There was a whole room (the extremely fancy council chamber of Cardiff City Hall no less!) dedicated as the quiet room for introverts/neurodiverse people/anybody who needs silent down/alone time. There were two days and respective streams decided to both Django Girls (whose “I code like a girl” badges were almost universally worn) and Trans*Code (of which I attended the latter). Discussing the issues faced by women, neurodiverse people, and trans people, promotes an extremely nice atmosphere. Hopefully, this is a step towards more recognition and visibility of those in these groups within the Python community, and the welcoming of more people with currently underrepresented identities.

One thing that was not touched on at all in such a direct way was ethnic diversity (although linguistic diversity was touched on, like An Arabish lesson: Introducing Django to the foreign world by Bashar Al-Abdulhadi and Python, Locales and Writing Systems by Rae Knowler). All of us are well-aware ethnic diversity or lack thereof is as huge a problem as any and, like most imbalances of power, is sadly in part caused by differences in schooling. This leads us neatly onto discussing the education track. I did not really attend many of these talks and workshops, but their participants, organisers, and their results were impressive. As was the incredibly moving and inspiring (yes, I’m a big baby, I cried) talk by Jessica Upani: High School Pythonistas: What PYNAM did next.

Highlights of PyCon UK 2016 that I have not already mentioned include but are not exclusive to the following: pretty much everybody got a free BBC micro:bit (!!!); an emoji-filled/-themed lightning talk by Samathy Barratt, Stephen Newey, David Ellis, and Adam Obeng (that probably wrought some havoc on the live caption/speech-to-text team, although I was too engrossed trying to figure out “??: ?” ["cloud with lightning, speaking head in silhouette, colon, snake”] to check); Prisoners, Cooperation and Spatial Structure by Nikoleta Glynatsi; the funniest lighting talk ever by Daniel Moisset; a lightning talk without any actual slides just GIS by Paul Craig; If Only Everything Was Radioactive: Randomness and Computing by Cory Benfield; Python and the Glories of the UNIX Tradition by Brandon Rhodes; An introduction to deep learning by Geoff French (not online yet but here is his EuroPython variant). There are so many talks that look really promising based on their titles that had to be missed because of how packed the schedule was. I plan to fix this using PyCon UK’s YouTube channel, which at the time of writing does not yet have all the videos, although they are forthcoming.

All in all, I had a wonderful time and I am grateful for the organisers’ and fellow attendees’ efforts in making it such a great event. I would love to do this again!

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