February 25, 2010

Small Python from Synapse is a Big Deal

The guys from Synapse didn't appear to be at PyCon this year, but they impressed me last year with their hacking of the "Easy Button" to tweet on Twitter when the button was pressed.

It seems they are still impressing people, as they have just been awarded a SmartGrid.TMCnet.com Product of the Year award. Congratulations to them - I am sure they will be a significant Python user in future.

February 20, 2010

#PyCon on Twitter ... or wait for posts like these.

John Graves, a New Zealand reader, wrote in to let me know:

Plug for PyConPads

Plug for PyCon 2010 Slides

By the way, New Zealand had a very successful Kiwi PyCon last November:
Thanks, John. Hope this gives the links a little extra publicity.

February 18, 2010

A Python 3 Idiom?

A while ago I wrote a short Python 3 snippet as an introduction to a post about factory functions. Second thoughts are proverbially the best, and I realised that in the following code:

def powers(a):
    return a, a*a, a*a*a

a, square, cube = powers(10)
print(a, square, cube)

the last two lines could be refactored as:

This technique is ineffective in Python 2, where print is a statement and the syntax would be invalid.

February 17, 2010

Software QA Rant

Don't want to publish the whole thing on the Python feed, but this post applies equally to Python users if you have the time to read it ...

February 16, 2010

Customer Hostility

Seth Godin is right: the world is full of commercial dinosaurs, due to expire shortly. And I will be happy to dance on their graves.

I have written before about the rigors of modern day travel, and the travel industry (or a large part of it) appears to be doing its best to discourage people from traveling. Part of it, of course, is the TSA and its associated stupidities, but I will not again go into the irrationality of spending billions of dollars to make what is already the safest mode of transport in the world even safer (assuming that the TSA is indeed living up to that dubious claim, which I frankly doubt -- otherwise why aren't they shouting from the rooftops about the number of plots they have foiled?)

So today, for "convenience" I am flying to Atlanta. To minimize the airport hassle I have already checked in on-line, and paid $23 for the privilege of checking a bag. Assuming the charge on the way back is the same, this will amount to just over 24% of the price I have already paid for the ticket.

I have always disliked unbundling, ever since I argued in Sun against Eric Schmidt's proposal that Sun unbundle the C compiler from what was then SunOS. Since I was a minion and Eric was a big-shot you can guess how that one went (though Sun's eventual fate makes me glad that I sold my stock at $28). I suppose that's why I'm a socialist: while it may not give each user of a service the absolute lowest possible cost, it's much more efficient to spread the load around. If the rich weren't so mean, the poor could enjoy better lives. Sorry, where was I?

Oh, right. So, I have got through the security theater (doubly inconvenient this trip, since I am carrying two laptops) and I decide that, to conserve battery, I will find a venue that allows me to plug my power brick in. What do I find? Each and every establishment in the newly-refurbished Dulles airport appears to have been designed specifically to exclude any possibility that the on-line traveler such as myself  might steal a few joules at their expense.

So, for the record, let me squeak this into the ears of any future airport Eric Schmidts who might be reading. If you provide power and wifi (assuming, of course, that your license from the airport doesn't force you to make your customers rely on the airport's crappy facilities) in your establishment, and advertise that fact, I will support your business in preference to the short-sighted idiots who insist on trying to milk me dry whenever I come into contact with them.

So now we come to Verizon Wireless. Having finally found a place quiet enough that I can plug into the power without creating a trip hazard (which, believe me, would be impossible when the airport was anything like busy), and to avoid whatever extortionate rates the airport authority might choose to charge, I plug in my cellular broadband card and fire up the Internet,only to be confronted by a dialog box telling me that I can upgrade. Upgrades are always good, right? Well, yes, but ... here's the dialog box, at the left.

Call me picky if you like, but this seems to me like the ultmate failure in quality assurance. I have to wonder how many pairs of eyeballs scrutinized this dialog box before it went into production, and how come none of the owners of said eyeballs thought to ask the question "What 'Update' button"? I am imagining that each scrutineer, supposing they notice any discrepancy at all between the text in the dialog box and the reality they were presented with, thought to themselves (consciously or otherwise) "Well, clearly they mean the 'Download' button". To which my immediate response is that they cannot possibly be geeks. I am a geek, and believe me I am intimately familiar with all the shit that can land on your head in short order when you make that kind of dumb-assed assumption. So being a geek, I decline to either "Download", or "Update" or whatever kind of trouble it is that Verizon would like to get into.

Next I am presented with an opportunity to "view my account". Now I actually have two accounts with Verizon Wireless, one of which seems to be uncomfortably and inextricably intertwined with my home-based FIOS account. So I am impressed to see both a "register" link and a pulldown that allows me to select "Business Account" rather than "Personal Account". Which I do before clicking the "register" link, whereupon I am presented with a form that asks me for quite a bit of information including both my Employer Identification Number (EIN) and my Dun and Bradstreet number.

Being in an airport, I figure I have done pretty well to produce the former, and I happily fill in the other fields, only to be presented with the message shown at the left. Now, this is telling me a number of things I don't particularly like.

First off, there is something "invalid" about my company name. But of course I am left to guess what; it would clearly be far too easy to provide any description of the rules that are declaring my company name to be invalid.

Next I am informed that the Tax ID is invalid. I discover by reading the form (not the error message) that this is because I have failed to put a dash between the second and third digits, but apparently the programming monkeys who have put this application together have never thought about maybe, hey, just throwing anything that isn't a digit away. Even though only the digits in this particular identifier carry any meaning. Give me a break.

There is a similar problem with the telephone number, though in this case the programmers have taken the trouble to tell me exactly how the number needs to be formatted (thank you!). I especially like the double period at the end of that line, which implies that not only do I have to put dashes after the third and sixth digits, I also have to put a period at the end of it. This reminds me of many interactions where people have asked me my telephone number and I have replied "eight hundred dash four nine four dash nine one one nine". Not. This is getting quite cussworthy, but I am restraining myself.

Now the message about the email address again throws me into confusion, since I have (as a look at the form clearly shows) entered my email address one hundred percent correctly. username@domain.com, just like I always type it. So again I am left to guess exactly what about my email address the Verizon system has chosen to declare "invalid". The f-bomb is now hanging in the air, poised like the sword of Damocles above a web site that has clearly been programmed by monkeys, and not even monkeys with brains.

Lastly, just in case I didn't understand that I should have put that oh-so-important dash between the second and third digits, I am presented with a message that my "Federal Tax ID" was incorrect, as though the form has requested two separate tax IDs (which, by the way, it hasn't).

At this point my almost-forty-three years of programming experience, integrally connected to my geek identity, makes me want to scream "WHAT IS WRONG WITH THESE PEOPLE? DON'T THEY WANT MY [expletive deleted] BUSINESS?". I swear, at this moment, if there was a button I could click with the label "Consign VerizonWireless and all its employees to hell" I would click it whether or not there was the slightest chance that the click would have any positive effect. It would just make me feel better. I am trying to interact with a corporate entity (which due to a strange and to my mind totally obsolescent notion of law has most of the legal rights of an individual) that doesn't give two hoots what its customers think about it or how infuriating its systems are to use.

At this stage I realize I am not complaining just as a programmer, or even just as a web systems designer, I am complaining as a human being. Where, I ask myself, is the VerizonWireless Quality Assurance department in all this? (They must have one: no corporation of that size can possibly have failed to consider the liability implications of not doing). Did anyone actually take the time to interact with this application and deliberately provide "invalid" answers to determine whether the systems response would be considered reasonable by a human being?

I swear, sometimes, I truly believe that top-level corporate managers' ultimate dream is a system that requires no human intervention at all. If this really is the case then I have to explain (and will do so, given access to the Verizon top level management and a sock full of wet sand, in explicit detail) that they are a long way from reaching their goal.

Sure, we all understand (even those of use who aren't lucky enough to hold stock in public corporations) that a publicly-owned business has a duty to be cost-efficient. We also understand that in a capitalist world we are likely to be forced to interact with entities that don't always choose to employ human labor to interact with its human customers. But in the final analysis, if I personally can choose to pay a few percent more to deal with a business that bothers to pay someone to listen to my problems and help me get my confusion sorted out, I will always take that option.

That is why, being the bloody-minded socialist that I am, I usually choose to stand in line at the supermarket checkout rather than take the option of the "self-service" checkout. I don't want to serve myself. I want the companies I deal with to pay someone to help me, and I want to be sure that my own business always presents a human face to its human customers. All Holden Web's customers are corporations, but it's their employees that I have to satisfy.

So, if you happen to be a Verizon Wireless stockholder, please ask some awkward questions at the next stockholders meeting. This laziness should be stomped on quickly, and hard.

If you happen to be in the IT industry, please make sure you don't phone it in by producing this kind of shabby excuse for a human interface.

And now I am in Atlanta, and things feel better.

February 12, 2010

New Python Class Available

I am happy to announce that the O'Reilly School of Technology have made the first of four Python classes available on their interactive teaching system. Students passing all four modules will be eligible to receive a Certificate for Professional Development from the University of Illinois' Office of Continuing Education.

The PSF has discussed certification schemes in the past, and the general feeling of the membership appeared to be against them. This may be true for high-level personnel and those with advanced degrees, but we should remember that Python will also be increasingly used by technicians and others whose formal educational background does not include a training in computer programming. I feel that a university-approved certification will be helpful at that level.

While many certifications aren't that meritorious, if a scheme requires proper practical experience and the training includes mentoring by live instructors or advisers rather than just the passing of a multiple-choice examination it can have some real value.

Time will tell, but I believe we will have passed a milestone once a university-accredited Python certification scheme is available. All I have to do now is write the other three courses ...

[NOTE: the author of this blog will receive royalties based on the number of students taking the classes mentioned in this article]

Ubuntu 9.10 Wireless on Dell Precision M6300

For reasons too complex to go into (they involve a talking penguin) I have just installed Ubuntu 9.10 (Karmic) 32-bit on the laptop I was talking about when I wrote this post last June.

Whether it's the change to 32-bit or the change to Karmic I do not know, but I am happy to report that everything works like a dream: I just had to install the BroadCom proprietary driver (boo! - I wish companies like Nvidias and BroadCom would cooperate more fully with the open source world) and suddenly I could disconnect the wires and away I went. This post is being made from the very laptop about which I complained so bitterly eight months ago.

February 9, 2010

One More Day to Register for PyCon on the Web

Incredible though it seems, PyCon tutorials start a week tomorrow!

If you are planning to attend and want to register at pre-conference prices you have just over 24 hours to do so!

PyCon is the place to learn about new and existing Python features and meet Python personalities. Register now while you still have chance to save money!

February 5, 2010

Choose Python

Ethan Furman linked to this "Choose Python" poster on comp.lang.python. While some of the humor might not mean much to people who haven't chosen Python yet it certainly gave me a smile on a cold, grey morning.

[EDIT: as you can see in the comments design credit should go to Tim Lesher]