Python in Sydney; Ubuntu among the Python programmers

Python in Sydney

Alan Green organised a Sydney Python Meetup last week. I’m pleased someone stepped into this slot: I was organising Python meetings a few years ago, ran out of energy during honours and was never really inspired to start it back up because meeting attendance never got above five or so. I hope Alan has better luck: he got fourteen for the first meeting.

Alan has given a full account of the talks, so I’ll just note one thing: the presence of Tim Churches, an epidemiologist from the New South Wales Department of Health, who was behind the open source release of NetEpi. If any of the state government’s employees would like to follow suit, it took Tim 18 months and 37 memos to get the release past the government. Beat that!

But the real reason I was particularly interested to meet Tim was that he’s the first example of a phenomenon Anthony Baxter tells me he sees all the time: the professional who just needs a dab of programming and chooses Python because it’s ideal for people who aren’t specialist programmers. Apparently it’s increasingly popular among scientists in particular.

Ubuntu among the Python programmers

I wanted a pressed copy of Ubuntu rather than having to download one, so I went to get one for free. They helpfully informed me that I might as well get a bunch since the cost of shipping massively outweighs the cost of CD production. So I got 10 i386 CDs and 5 PowerPC CDs. I was at a loss for what to do with them — I wore out my parents’ tolerance for installing stuff on their machine when I was 12, and most of my non-geek friends are now canny enough to do the "only if you install it and fix it for me whenever it stuffs up!" trick with proposed Linux installs — so Andrew took them along to the Python meetup and gave them away.

Alan was most impressed that the LiveCD worked on his laptop — alas that with the 4.10 release (Warty) of Ubuntu that’s apparently absolutely meaningless when answering the question "will the installer work?"

Tim was pretty dismissive of Ubuntu though on the "I tried it and it doesn’t even have a compiler!" principle. This isn’t actually true — gcc isn’t installed by default, but it’s supported and I believe it’s on the CD — but since it cost Ubuntu a user I’ll have a closer look at why I think he thought this.

I wasn’t really party to it (I joined the pre-release test team after they decided not to include a compiler in the base install) but as I understand it, the idea was most users won’t want a compiler in their install because most users aren’t programmers and the idea behind distros like Ubuntu is that you shouldn’t need to compile software for it. Further, and this seems to be key, people who want the compiler will know where to get it. Or I assume that was their premise, perhaps with the addition of "developers will read the documentation." (I’m not sure though, "where is gcc?" hasn’t made the FAQs.)

Anyway, it turns out that this isn’t the case. There are developers who, if the compiler is not installed by default, do not think to try and install it because they have no inkling that it might be there. My suspicions about the reasons:

  1. they aren’t former Debian users who are used to their distro having every conceivable piece of Free Software available in a centralised archive: what the installer offers is what there is; and
  2. they are not expert Linux users, by which I mean that they don’t have server sysadmin or security skills. It’s quite hard, in fact probably pointless at this time, to program on Linux without knowing a shell reasonably well, but it is possible to program on it without knowing much about how software gets installed on it. You put a CD in, perhaps select "development workstation" and it installs stuff. When you want newer software, you do a new install. When you want different software you might look at a different distro.

I might be reading too much into this, and in any case developers, whether power users, sysadmins or none of the above, aren’t the Ubuntu market, but assuming that anyone who programs using Linux has Linux expertise above that of a desktop user is probably wrong.