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2012 November 17 [Saturday]

Pycon Canada 2012 in Toronto

import pycon
from pycommunity import AwesomePeople

canada = pycon.path.abspath(pycon.path.dirname(__file__))
README = open(pycon.path.join(canada, 'README.rst')).read()
__version__ = '0.01'

requires = [
    'diana',
    'daniel',
    'david',
    'kay',
'micheal',
    'nicola',
    'taavi',
    ]

Patches welcome!

Last weekend, at this moment, I was giving a technical talk at Pycon Canada, my first. Right now, I am still wallowing in the fun and warmth of friendships (some old, some new) that thawed the cold Canadian weather. It was the most mentally simulating, energy-packed experience I've had.  Oh, wait...I say that about all the PyCon conferences I attend - Well, this is my second PyCon but the first speaking gig, and it has, as before, been about meeting some of the smartest people and having the most intellectually simulating discussions with them, learning from them and having a whale of a time. Wish all my weekends were this much fUn! The Python community is known for just that - their fabulously fantastic community, which attracted me to the language (no, I love the syntax too) and has kept me hooked.

Thanks to the change in climate (thanks Sandy!), I had a migrane that got worse on the plane ride on Friday morning and I was much happier landing in a slightly warmer and dry climate in Toronto. Enjoyed the shortest ferry ride of my life and reached the Metropolitan Hotel by 2pm to find the Google goodie-bags waiting for us at the hotel room - such a nice surprise, thanks Google!  Went for a long walk in the afternoon - its a relief to be able to walk around and see the city and its inhabitants without men bumping into you, or tripping yourself over jutting stones on the sidewalk (erm...whenever Indian roads have a sidewalk), the calmness of being able to stop and click pictures without worrying about someone "accidentally" (it always is, isnt it?) feeling you up while you were just standing there admiring a monument ........ Oh, well... never mind, you get the picture!

Later that evening, there was a casual mixer event enabling attendees, speakers and some awesome sponsors (one of them being Google, whose Diversity grant made this conference a reality for me) to register, hang out, and chat before the conference, with food and drinks at the venue bar open to all... and oh, we ate some yummy cake. Mixers before your conference is a smart way to avoid the rush and long lines that will queue up to register on the morning of your conference, a nightmare if you are short on volunteers.

I managed to reach the venue thanks to Suzanne (who I randomly stopped on the road to ask for directions, instead she ended up dropping me off till the venue - its amazing how one meets kind souls), met Laura at the registration desk who saw that every attendee had their badges and tags. Nicola introduced me to Sheila, who suddenly morphed into a real person instead of an email address with a picture attached to it. In a global distributed space knit via bits and bytes, our identities are unequivocally tied to an email, twitter, G+/FB account now.

Met more interesting people and had the longest discussion with Mark Eichin and his friend Laura, on a range of technical topics, mobile technology, languages, and not excluding the mandatory talk about the DFSG and licenses in FOSS - talking legalese is the most important thing when you meet a DD (j/k). After the party, I returned to the room, met Laren, another diversity grant recipient room-sharing with me. By now, the pounding in my head was worse and the pain would not let me sleep, so I kept re-editing my slides till I was tired enough to sleep.

On Saturday morning - Day One of the conference, Laren and me walked over to the venue and I went of into the Green Room where all the speakers were pampered with food, some space to sit and work with you laptop, more food, chat with other speakers while having even more food, but I had no taste buds so I took three Advil's and gave my first technical talk.  That done, I was free to go and watch talks but instead I went off to be a volunteer - this is the easiest way to make friends with some really cool people within the community who welcome and appreciate your contribution and efforts. Its also very humbling to see the PyConCA board members and speakers who volunteered to carry in the lunch boxes the caterer had dropped off.

Post lunch, I attended the "Numerical and Scientific Computing with Python" tutorial by David, listened some great speakers, spoke to more people, had interesting discussions on NLP and linguistics with Mike and DWF, and before I knew it, it was the end of the day, which means more food - snacks and drinks were available at the bar. Did I mention that Pycon-CA pampers you with food and drinks all through the day. At every break, there was something to munch on. Every where I looked there were food boxes, fruits / salad boxes, cookies, coffee, tea, drinks, water bottles, cakes, tacos, samosas (I noticed that those ran out really quickly as compared to the salads which is not surprising), strawberry and chocolate, juice, .... ummm..ok, you get the picture. You were very well-fed and taken care of. At one point I counted the number of laptops Vs. the food boxes on the table. Guess which was outnumbered!?

Sunday morning, being the second and final day of the conference, I attended talks on Graph databases in Python and Persona (identity/privacy, which is important to me) and later, Greg Wilson and a bunch of speakers in the green room had an interesting conversation on education and knowledge (or the lack thereof) in the current education system, what role do Universities and schools have to play within the system - are they redundant with their monolithic rigid structures, MOOC's, their pro's and cons, and how the internet and technology is changing the education system, whether sites like Udacity and Coursera (did you know that their business model allows them to sell your personal details to publishers like McGraw Hill and their ilk, who have apparently signed on the dotted line) are imparting knowledge to their users and learners at the risk of their privacy? Where exactly is creativity, mental development, critical thought, knowledge and learning today? That was more food for thought than the food around the table. Post lunch, I morphed into a Runner - yeah, its that person who runs behind each speaker! Katie and me were deputed to the Main hall speakers and got to see all the talks, including lightning talks, ending with Fernando's (not-to-be-missed) closing keynote.
Videos:
No matter how hard you try, you cannot attend every fantastic talk out there. When Carl sent across the video link to me, I was stunned by the excellent production quality. The first thought that crossed my mind was "Wow, that is a second career right there" and sure enough it is - these excellent videos are brought to you by nextdayvideo.com :

* Taavi showing you how pandas get a workout
* Elizabeth Leddy rocking the Main Hall
* Did you Test today?
* No conference is complete without a talk on "BigData"
* Brandon Rhodes on why he thinks Python is beautiful (a must see if you are a beginner to Python)

Wow, this post has gotten too long. Among all the things, I admire the organizational abilities of the board the most. The conference had awesome sponsors too, one of them being Google, whose Diversity grant made it possible for me to attend the event. Initially, when my talk was accepted, I had planned book the bus tickets in advance so that I could stretch the grant money to enable me to attend both the days of the conference. When I mentioned this to Diana, she worked her magic, enabling me to cover my flight bookings and also the hotel stay within the grant. Amazing team! Kudos to the PyCon-Canada team.

2012 August 29 [Wednesday]

Contributing to Libre software projects

"How do I start contributing to Libre Software?" is a very common question (I asked that too) one comes across on most FLOSS lists. Today, I posted the following on a private list and was asked for a public link, so here goes:

SWOT

There are so many Libre software projects to choose from, that choosing one can be quite confusing when you are starting out. Do yourself a favor and take a few moments to do a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis before you decide to jump onto the Libre software bandwagon.

Its better to give yourself time to think (or write down) which technical area or field interests you:  Which language do you want to program in? Is it frontend software or backend stuff? Web programming or something else? Do you like writing system software or application level software? Or, do you like libraries, prefer working with algorithms/statistical applications, etc..

Once you have figured out your field of interest, its easier to shortlist something and get started on finding a project to work on.

FINDING A PROJECT

As I mentioned above, there are so many Libre software projects that its overwhelming at the outset. Having figured out your field, dont randomly visiting a bugtracker and try to solve bugs, which is not a bad idea if you have only a few hours per week. However, if you want to wade a little deeper, try using Google to your advantage - read, Google Summer of Code. This recently concluded program, has a ready list of organisations to choose from and the 2012 list is available at: http://www.google-melange.com/gsoc/program/accepted_orgs/google/gsoc2012 .

Besides these few hundred GSoC Orgs, Gnome runs its own outreach program for women: http://live.gnome.org/GnomeWomen/OutreachProgram2012 and then, there is the European Space Agency, which is (sadly) only open to EU students. However, if you are interested in working outside of the SoC span, projects are always interested in contributors and would welcome your efforts 24x7x365. That said, these SoC tasks require a longer commitment in terms of time, so you need to decide what you want to do.


FOUND A TASK, WHAT NEXT?

After you have searched Melange (or ESA) for keywords of your choice, visit each organisations Ideas page, where you will find a list of tasks ranked as per preference or difficulty level (This entirely depends on the Org). Remember to cross-check with the Melange page if the task has already been completed via GSoC, or not. If a task is still available, find out what is required to get started on it and prepare a short abstract. This will help you to..
- figure out the development stack vis-a-vis your skillset,
- realise how much time and effort is required to bridge the gap, if any ;
- prepare a timeline estimate. (Dont obsess over this as its just an estimate and it will vary if the Org changes any requirements.)

These done, talk to the Org - always, Always, ALWAYS talk to the Org _before_ you start work on anything. Just because a task is listed on the Ideas page does not mean its a part of their workflow (which can always change), nor is the opposite true. The best way to find out is to talk to them, first. Again, remember that these SoC tasks require a longer commitment in terms of time.

COMMUNICATING WITH LIBRE COMMUNITIES
Most Libre projects have their own communication channels. This could be via Mailing lists or Forums, including IRC channels on dedicated servers or on freenode. Its important to work with them via these public channels and that means learning to communicate and not worry about asking silly (psst..there are none) questions. Communicating with the core developer and/or mentors and community of users is crucial - they can be an invaluable source for ideas and helpful hints.

Many projects have separate lists (and IRC channels) for users and developers. Join them and introduce yourself (or lurk around to get a hang of how things work) and when you are ready, do talk about the task you want to work on. A development mailing list, where the core developers would be available, is distinguishable via the "*-devel" mailing address. Same is true for IRC channels - If you like CLI tools, try Irssi or Quassel if you want a GUI client. Pick your poison from this list of IRC clients


EXPERIMENT WITH THE DEVELOPMENT STACK

Finally, and most importantly, you must be comfortable working with the software the project uses - that means, you should be able to clone and get the software to install and work on your local machine. Here, communicating with your Org helps - You can ask for help if you have hardware or software issues, clarify installation and dependency issues, etc... No software works flawlessly (else, people would be out of jobs :)) and Libre software is no exception - the only difference being "software development on a libre/public scale".

Another aspect of getting familiar with the development stack is familiarizing yourself with the projects internal system - Since, each project uses its own bug tracker, DVCS, Wiki for documentation, Email/Forum and IRC communication system ; take some time to get familiar with each of these. If you plan to stick around for any length of time, you would be using some, or, all the software stacks they use on a regular basis.

Your transition from newbie to active contributor is a lot faster when you are comfortable with the development stack. Doing your homework will give you the confidence required to grok it enough to start working on the code-base, suggest changes or solve bugs, etc..

I hope these suggestions help you find your niche learning shell to contribute to, and of course, welcome to the Libre software. Have fun!

2012 August 3 [Friday]

Rest in peace Lawgon

Am breaking a long hiatus from blogging to report a really sad news :: Kenneth Gonsalves, (lawgon on IRC), a long time Free/Libre software (especially INPycon) contributor is no more. When I first saw this mail in my inbox, I could not believe it was true.

My first interaction with Lawgon was via the LinuxChix mailing lists. Back then, I was surprised to see posts from a "nilgiris" domain name and I assumed he was an USA-NRI actively posting on their lists. Later, the Mumbai-LUG list when I had tried to install his "avsap" accounting software ~ it would not work on my machine and I wrote him a mail with the gory error details. Finally, in 2007, I met "lawgon" on IRC, ##linux-india. I was never an IRC person but when he got banned from the channel, I had a long argument with Devdas (f3ew on IRC) about it - mostly because I felt that the rules were not clear, and even more importantly, felt that rules ought to be implemented uniformly, sans cronyism.

A few moons later, I met him IRL for the first time at the first formation meet for Fosscomm and sat next to him through the whole meeting. In my eyes, he was like a father-figure, a person you can talk to freely, someone who didnt see IT and FLOSS as the road to self-publicity, fame and riches. Rather, he saw Libre software as I did - of, for and by the people. It was nice talking to him and hear the stories via the work he had done at NRC-Foss/AU-KBC.

He was someone I respected because unlike some FOSS people, he actually wrote and released his code publicly: https://bitbucket.org/lawgon, and worked within the community, had no illusions or superiority complex about himself. Most of us in the FLOSS community were his kids age and in my interactions I didnt find him patronizing nor elitist in "demanding" we respect his age. Quite the opposite, he never hesitated to ask for technical help from people younger than him, quite ego less. His fiery rants on his blog (http://lawgon.livejournal.com/) always made me chuckle. There are very few blogs I follow and thusfar, I've read every post of his - strong opinions peppered with character. His own.

In his list communication, he could be quite blunt in his comments, and I've had my moments sparring with him on the lists, but if you take a moment to look behind the scenes, his honesty and sincerity towards Libre software showed. I remember his mail asking me not to leave the Mumbai LUG list and my response on the kind of Libre community (the lack thereof) we foster, which, to my surprise, found an echo with him. I remember his long email rant (about someone which I wont get into in public) where he mentioned "...and I'm scared of you" ~ yeah, I too scrubbed my eyes and smiled at his droll sense of humor, as I typed out an apology.

I remember his IRC comment that he wanted his daughter to meet me and my curiosity piqued ~ this was before I had met him in real life and going by the stereotypical Indian fathers attitude, I very much doubted if they would want their daughters to be like me. Or maybe it was his sense of humor - I'll never know!? Some moons later an email asking for some information on "legal rights of women in India" for her coursework, IRC discussions on virtualenvwrapper (he asked me why I wanted to use it and for a moment I thought he was testing me -- I could not imagine a longtime Python developer (atleast a lot longer than me) asking me that, unless he was pulling my leg or if it was an interview question), discussing a recent Python workshop he held at Kerala, and so many other interactions... {Edit1:: His recent mail on the open source business model has some excellent advice for wannabe entrepreneurs.}

I was hoping to meet him at InPycon this year but now the conference wont be the same without him. I hope and pray his family finds the strength to carry on without him and may his soul rest in peace! You will be missed Lawgon..and try not to kickstart a "GPL Vs. BSD" argument in heaven!

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