Monthly Archives: March 2013

PyCon 2013: Three Days in the Valley

March 23, 2013 at 7:25 pm (No Comments)

Last weekend I was in Santa Clara for PyCon.  Since then the story of the conference has been writ large in media outlets near and far, but you may not have heard anything about what the conference was really like.  So here’s my view, as someone who had never been to PyCon before (with some thoughts on the controversy interspersed)…

HP Cloud was a sponsor and exhibitor this year at PyCon.  I’m working on a new cloud service written in Python and will need developers at some point, so I traded manning the HP booth for a few hours for the trip.  I’ve been to Lone Star Ruby a few times and two RailsConfs, but I’d never been to a Python event.  Given Python’s reputation as a very friendly, open community, I wanted to get a feel for it it in person.

I’ve never been to the valley proper.  I’ve been to San Francisco a couple of times, but never down to Palo Alto, Mountain View, Menlo Park, Sunnyvale, Santa Clara, Cupertino, San Jose, and surrounds.  In tech, Silicon Valley inhabits a mythical place as the fount from which innovations flow.  Books have been written about how special the place is.  Barrels of digital ink have been spilled over the high cost of living, the startup life, and the bright lights up the 101 in the City.

The AvatarI flew in late Thursday night after a crazy week attending and presenting at SXSW, and then getting robbed.  On the approach vector into San Jose International the whole valley spreads out beneath you, tight, flat grid of civilization.  It’s very Tron.  After taking a taxi from the airport, the only thing that really struck me was that every building I saw over one story had the logo of a tech company I knew on it.  I didn’t book travel in time to get into the convention center hotel, so I was in The Avatar, the overflow hotel.  The Avatar is an 8 bit/robot themed hotel, but really it’s a refurbished 1950’s motor style Holiday Inn with some modern furniture.  At check-in there was a lady in front of me with green hair and big black boots, and in my post-travel haze, surrounded by tin robots and chrome, I remember thinking that this must be where all the cypherpunks had gone.

In the morning light, Santa Clara looked a bit more like every tech town USA, though there was still that ineffable California sheen.  I took the overcrowded bus over to the convention center, picked up my badge, and had a very nice breakfast.  It was a standard eggs and bacon affair, but they were pretty liberal with the bacon.  I think I saw a guy whose entire plate was bacon.

Keynote RoomI picked up my conference bag from a guy wearing a Wreck it Ralph tech team shirt.  Apparently Disney Animation was a sponsor this year.  Next up was the keynote from Eben Upton, where they announced that everyone was getting a Raspberry Pi.  There was a lot of cheering.  He also said that originally they were hoping to make a device that booted straight into python, so if you wanted to do anything you’d need to learn to code, ala the C64 and BBC Microcomputer.  The Pi in Raspberry Pi was originally for Python.  They’re still working on that idea.  The organizers also mentioned in the announcements about the Young Coder program they ran, with obligatory adorable pictures of kids peeking out from behind monitors.

The sessions were interesting, and since it seemed they were being recorded, I didn’t feel as much pressure to sit in every one that seemed cool.  The Messaging at Scale at Instagram talk was really interesting, as was the Making DISQUS Realtime talk.  It’s pretty incredible the traffic the DISQUS folks are pushing out of a half dozen physical boxes.  Whenever you’re on a page with DISQUS comments and you see one slide into the live comments box, you’re talking to one of those half dozen machines.  Crazy.  They had some interesting traffic graphs from the week the new pope was announced.

The Pope

After a few panels I decided to hit the trade show, which really surprised me.  It’s a good time to be a Python programmer.  The trade show at PyCon, a conference of only 2,500 attendees, was one of the best I’ve seen.  I’d never seen a trade show with Facebook, Oracle, Google, redhat, eBay, Microsoft, Amazon, Twitter, Apple, Netflix, Firefox, Hulu and of course, HP Cloud, all in one place.  We sponsored a happy hour the first day, and Heroku covered the second day with free sake.  There was even raspberry pi(e).

Lunch was really well organized, with 7-8 two sided serving tables and acres of big round tables.  The food was ok, nothing to write home about, but better than some conferences I’ve been to.  Breakfast was really their forte, the second and third days we had really satisfying baja breakfast burritos.

Lunch Lines

One of the trade show vendors, Thumbtack, a company that offers custom local service quotes (and is an awful lot like a site we worked on at Polycot, 45fix), had a programming challenge they were handing out.  I’m afraid to say that I burned more than a couple hours over the weekend working on it, and in the end I ended up with a fairly brute force approach that I wasn’t entirely satisfied with, but seemed to be the only straightforward way to solve it.  The programming challenge pages are here, if you’d like to take a crack.  The solution to the second page challenge ended up taking around 25 seconds on my Macbook Pro:

Thumbstack 1 Thumbstack 2


So let’s get into some controversy, shall we?  The Python community is known as an open, welcoming community.  Like any programming community there are plenty of hard core nerds who like to prove how smart they are, but Python was designed as a language that would be very consistent and easy to learn.  There was an entire track on how to teach python, how to run meetups and events, and how to get more women coders into the community.  PyCon has a code of conduct as well, something that attempts to directly address previous inappropriate activity in the programming community.  The Python leadership and organizers want to be really welcoming, they want a good gender balance, they were even talking about how the conference attendance was 20% female.  I think this number is probably skewed because it probably includes a lot of marketing folks who were only manning booths in the trade show, but they’re definitely trying.

There were at least 5 female programmer groups in the trade show: PyLadies, Women who Code, LadyCoders, CodeChix and The Ada Initiative.  There was a charity auction for PyLadies, and the Ada Initiative even had a feminist hacker lounge in the trade show:

Feminist Hacker Lounge

It was by far the most actively gender progressive conference I’ve ever been to, which makes the whole hullabaloo about dongles and forking so weird.  There was a lot of justified outrage after the Golden Gate Ruby CouchDB talk.  The Ruby community isn’t known for being as newbie friendly, and is generally a bit more rock star testosterone driven.  PyCon tried to do a better job, and despite all their good efforts, the takeaway from most of the people who read about the event will be, “Won’t those nerds ever learn to treat women with respect.”  That’s a shame, because they really tried.  If you’re interested in diving into this rabbit hole, the Geek Feminism wiki has a good page about it.

I keep thinking that the gender equality thing that PyCon tries to promote is a lot like the friendliness of the community.  It exists because we say it does, and the fact that there’s a conversation around it makes it real.  If you’re sitting next to someone at a conference that talks a lot about friendliness, you’re more likely to be friendly and open yourself up and risk rejection.  I had a lot of great, interesting conversations at PyCon over breakfast and lunch, including one with a young lady from Portland who had been to PyLadies and other female programmer meetups.  She said what she really wanted wasn’t get togethers to talk about how being female in tech is weird, she wanted meetups where they sat down and actually wrote code.  She said that if programming is a meritocracy, you should be able to prove yourself and grow by doing, which makes sense to me.  Less dongle jokes, more ladies, more kids, more code.  It’s a big tent.

Right after registration I was standing next to a group of people who had clustered together, and someone actually invited me over to join the conversation.  I’ve never had that happen at a tech conference, ever.  It turned out that none of the people in the group had ever been to PyCon before.  It wasn’t a passed down openness based on previous experience, it was because we all knew PyCon was open, because they make a point of saying it.  It’s right there on the conference web page: “Change the future – education, outreach, politeness, respect, tenacity and vision.”

I don’t have a good answer on how this whole thing should have played out.  It’s a mess.  It shouldn’t have been a mess.  I hope the folks who organized PyCon aren’t taking it too personally.  I don’t see that they could have done anything better than they did.

Booth Monkey Like Me

I went to PyCon, in part, to man the HP Cloud booth.  The last time I manned a booth was at SXSW, where while covering for the Creative Commons folks during their session, Bruce Sterling walked up to me and asked why he should give his books away for free.  I didn’t have a good answer.

Booth Monkey

This time was a little easier, the thing we’re battling the most with developer at HP Cloud is just awareness.  Most people don’t know that HP has a public cloud offering, so I was happy to explain what we did and get some insights from real customers.  Of course, the Spotify booth was opposite ours, and getting those insights can be a challenge when you’re competing with this:

Wrapping Up & Going Home

I never got to really see much of Silicon Valley.  I didn’t get to hit the Apple Company Store or visit the garage or the HP offices in Palo Alto.  Hopefully I’ll be able to go back soon.

There were some other really good talks at PyCon.  I know I need to start using iterators and generators more.  I may even take a poke around Python 3.3.  On Sunday they had a job fair and poster sessions, which was really interesting to me, since I’ll be presenting a poster in a month and a half at an HP conference.

PyCon Job Fair & Poster SessionsRecruiting was the activity of the conference.  It seemed like everyone was looking for Python developers, and like Ruby was back in 2007, there just aren’t enough to go around.


When I flew out to Santa Clara I only had my laptop bag.  Walking around the trade show I realized that I didn’t really need to bring extra t-shirts, nearly everyone was giving them away.  I ended up carefully packing an entire bag of swag, including my hard-fought goodies from Thumbtack.  Thankfully the San Jose airport’s bathrooms have child seats.  HP had some nice swag this year, a pen-shaped screwdriver set.  Someone even came up and gave me a compliment about it.

I decided to get some Python neckerchief wearing beanie snakes for the girls back home, which gave me a chance to take this picture.  I have had it with these pythonic snakes on this pythonic plane!

Pythonic Snakes on a Pythonic Plane

Austin’s a big tech town, so it wasn’t a surprise that I ended up sitting next to a fellow PyCon attendee.  In this case it was Chris Kucharski, the guy who runs the web team at Dimensional Fund Advisors.  We had a great chat about Python, Austin, teams and technology.  It was cool to find out that he hosts the Austin Learn Python Meetup at Dimensional’s offices.  The more supporters in the community and the more new developers, the better.  Maybe in a few years PyCon will be as diverse as we all want it to be.

Being Burgled

March 19, 2013 at 3:48 pm (One Comment)

I don’t ask for audience participation very often, but today I’d like you to do me a favor.  The next time you’re home, walk around and take pictures of every room in your house with your cell phone.  Pretend you’re documenting the place for when they make a movie of your life.  Feel free to cast your favorite Hollywood stars as the main characters.

These photos will be really valuable if (or perhaps just when) someone kicks open your front door and steals your stuff.  It doesn’t happen very often, but in our zip code it happened 541 times in 2011.  There are about 35,000 residences in our zip code, which means about a 1 in 65 chance a given house will be broken into.  Last Tuesday it happened to us, while I was presenting about Software Bot Platforms at SXSW Interactive.

While you’re taking pictures of everything, make sure you have photos of everything that’s worth over a hundred bucks or so, especially those TVs, PlayStations, Xboxes, and the like.  I’d suggest you flip those things over and take pictures of the serial numbers, too.  That information’s really hard to dig up once they’re gone.

Front DoorLets say someone does decide to break into your house and steal your stuff.  Most burglaries happen through the front or back door, just kicking the thing in (or finding the key you left under the mat or rock).  If you’re like most people, when you installed your front door you might have used the cheap screws and shallow deadbolt.  If you don’t know, unscrew the screws.  If they’re shorter than 3 inches, replace them with nice strong 3 or 3 1/2 inch screws from the hardware store.  If you’re leaving the house, always lock the deadbolt.  The handle latch can be pried open with a screwdriver, or kicked open with one swift kick.  Most burglaries happen between 10am and 3pm, prime “I’m just going to leave for a few minutes” time.  If you have a really cheap deadbolt, think about upgrading to a grade 1 or grade 2 deadbolt.  If you’d really like to secure your front door, consider a metal reinforcing strip.  They make them for french doors, too.  If it takes more than a few minutes to get your door open, they’re probably going to leave.  You can drive yourself crazy researching bump key resistant locks, but if you really want the best, you can spend quite a bit.

I’d guess the people who broke into our house were inside less than five minutes.  They look for houses that are easy to get away from.  We live on a corner two blocks from major north/south and east/west arteries.  They’re probably going to hit your bedroom first, they’ll pull out the drawers in your night stands (looking for jewelry or guns or small electronics).  Maybe like our break in, they’ll grab a random bag to store their loot.  Maybe a bag with a lot of memories to you.  After the break in you’ll marvel at the things they didn’t take, the jewelry box they didn’t find, the cameras or hard drives, but some things will still be gone, and inevitably they will be things you care about.


Then they’ll hit the living room.  They’ll grab things that are easy to sell, like your TV, your Xbox and Playstation.  They’ll clear out your collection of Xbox games.  Later you’ll realize that while the TV and devices are replaceable, the save games sitting on that Xbox’s hard drive are not.  The three playthroughs of Borderlands 1 and 2 you did with your wife, with all the awesome characters and loot?  All gone.  The hours you spent with your team in Mass Effect, and how you were a couple hours from the end, eagerly awaiting the last DLC?  Gone.  You’re probably not going to finish Assassin’s Creed 3 now, and thank goodness you never even started Skyrim.

Your daughter may point at the place the TV was and say “uh oh”.  The first couple of times it’s cute, but it’s also painful.  Just be glad she wasn’t there when they broke in.  You’ll probably also spend some time wondering why they would bother to take her new pair of red sneakers.  But then you’ll realize that the people who broke into your house might have kids too, and then you’ll just be sad for the world.

They’ll do really strange things, like take the Xbox from your living room but leave the power supply, and take the power supply for your other Xbox in your daughters room but leave the console.  Of course, the power supplies are different, so you don’t even have one working Xbox anymore.  It’s kind of senseless.

They’ll grab the work laptop off your desk in the office, making a giant mess in the process (as if your office wasn’t a mess enough already).  But they’ll graciously pull your USB VPN key out of it, and drop it on the floor before they leave, which almost makes you think that this was a Jason Bourne-esque black bag job and they’ve installed keyloggers and microscopic cameras everywhere to infiltrate your work accounts.  That would explain why they didn’t touch your wife’s laptop on the desk opposite.  But now you’re just talking crazy.

When you get the call that someone broke into your house and took all your computers, you immediately think the worst, that everything is gone and in the hands of mafioso or triad hackers who intend to destroy you digitally as well.  This is a good way to think, because it probably isn’t far from the mark, and certainly won’t be over the next decade.

In our case we were lucky.  Irma’s personal laptop was covered by papers, so they didn’t grab it.  My main work laptop was entirely encrypted, and my other work laptop didn’t have anything loaded on it.  They didn’t get my Time Machine backup drive, from which they could have reconstructed my entire life.  My laptop was with me, as were our iPads.  They got an old phone we were using for audio streaming, and the old iPad we used as a white noise generator for our daughter, but those didn’t have anything special on them.  They didn’t steal our network attached storage device, which would probably be a treasure trove to the wrong people.  In the end, we were very lucky.

But this could just as easily happen to any of you, so please, do me a big favor…

Your To-Do List

1. Reinforce your doors.  Always use your deadbolt when you leave the house.  Both front and back doors.  If you have a sliding glass door in the back, figure out a way to secure that thing.  Don’t leave any of your windows unlocked.  Don’t leave a spare key out in anything like an obvious place.  Lock the door into your garage when you leave, garage door openers are easy to fake out and even manual ones are really easy to open.

2. Catalog all your stuff, it’ll make the insurance process easier, and you can do it in a half an hour with your iPhone.  Serial numbers for anything that has them.  Entire room shots.  You never know what they’ll take.  If you can, set a reminder to do it again in 6 months.  Google Calendar is great for that.  Back up those pictures on a PC or in the cloud.  Make sure you have a passcode lock on your phone, those things are slipperier than a bucket full of eels.  Same with your iPads or other personal electronic devices.

3. Make sure you back up your machines.  We use CrashPlan.  It’s money well spent.  If you have a Mac and have a Time Machine backup (and you should), be sure to encrypt it (if it’s local) or hide the drive in an inconspicuous place (if it’s over a network). If you have a Mac, also turn on FileVault, so even if they get your computer, they can’t read the contents of your hard drive.  Always require a password to wake from sleep or screen saver or login on boot.  Pick a good password, something you don’t use anywhere else.  Make sure someone else knows it, in case you get hit by a truck.  If you have a PC, here’s an article that may help.  If you have an Xbox and an Live Gold account, turn on Cloud Saves and use them.

4. Make sure Find My Device is turned on for all your iPhones, iPods, iPads, and Macs.  You can wipe a machine remotely if it gets out of your hands and is still connected to wifi.  Make sure you can login to iCloud and all your stuff is listed.  One of my friends recommends Cerberus for Android.

5. You can secure your stuff a bit.  If I’d had a cable lock on my TV, and they hadn’t been able to just lift it off the wall mount, it would probably still be here.  There are also locks for your laptop, but that’s a pain if you like to be mobile.  If your laptop lives on your desk, it might be worth it.  Some larger TV wall mounts have holes for locks.  If yours doesn’t, you might be able to thread a cable lock through it and make it harder to pull off the wall.

6. If you live near Austin and would like to fix up your security but don’t know how to do any of this stuff, are scared of screwdrivers, have a phobia of the hardware store, etc, let me know and we’ll get it done.


In the next day or two we’ll pick up a new TV to replace the one from the living room.  My daughter will be able to watch Sesame Street again.  We’ll probably get another Xbox, and maybe another copy of Borderlands 2.  I don’t think I’ll ever go back to Mass Effect.  That save game was their world, I can’t re-create that.  We’re probably going to install a camera in our entry way that watches the entry way and street, something that even keeps running when the power’s cut.  Of course then there’s the back door, or a window.  Your home isn’t a castle, it’s a barely held together shed with a bunch of memories and possessions inside that anyone with a reciprocating saw and 2 minutes of time could compromise.  If someone wants your stuff, there isn’t much you can do to stop them, which in the end is the terrifying thing, because all we’d really like back is our peace of mind.

SXSW Interactive Talk March 12th

March 5, 2013 at 11:09 am (No Comments)

Next Tuesday, March 12th at 12:30 pm in Capitol ABC of the Sheraton Austin I’ll be speaking at SXSW Interactive.  The title of the talk is AI Netizens: The Future of Agents Online, which is a great techno-cryptic title for what will essentially be: Where bots came from, what comes next for Siri and Google Now, and how we build an open source alternative.

I’ve added a page for the talk here, where I’ll be posting a video and the presentation slides after I give it.

See you there!