Feeling the Sqeeze

Contrary to some of the disappointment chatter slithering around the blab-o-sphere, I had a phenomenal time at PyCon ’08. While it is obvious that the conference (not the language 😉 ) had some scaling problems this year, I am confident that our community is self-reflective and humble enough to constructively digest this feedback and heal itself.

This year’s conference had over 1k attendees (up from last year’s ~400), including 270+ sprinters who coded throughout the following week. The attendance, as well as the sponsorship exceeded all expectations, and there was a bit of awkwardness around the feeling that attendees captive attention was for sale. I thought the keynotes were solid, though a clearer system for indicating sponsorship will help next year. Lighting talks, usually my hands-down favorite, were a bit of a disaster – sponsors (many with nothing more to contribute than a hiring announcement) were promised priority and on Saturday some attendees were bumped off the schedule. I would also have appreciated a really inspirational keynote speaker, as well as additional efforts to raise awareness around the range of social justice issues our craft impacts.

For me, this conference provided an opportunity to cut through traditional hierarchical communication channels and interact directly with senior developers across a wide variety of sectors. I spoke to people working in leading organizations servicing education, libraries, non-profits, journalism, scientific computing, desktop computing, mobile computing, embedded computing, enterprise consulting, interactive marketing, entertainment, defence, gaming, and many more. I spoke to systems administrators, language designers, programmers, architects, computer scientists, project managers, educators, and entrepreneurs. And all of this diversity was united by the common programming language we all use and love – Python.

Python, the language, is itself open-source, and many projects written using python are free and open as well. The language, and its surrounding ecology has a distinct personality, and some of its normative values (at least its aesthetic ones) are captured in these principles, known as The Zen of Python. Approaching this conference from the sociological vantage point of a freshman doctoral student in communications, I certainly paid more attention to the reinforcement of cultural practices at this gathering than I used to. Many of the talks actively encouraged respect, sharing, playing nicely, and coding responsibly. In some cases these topics were the topic of the talk, not even the subtext.

But the best part certainly had to be catching up with old friends and making new ones. For those of you that don’t know developers well, our craft involves the invention of the prototypical abstractions, the perpetual refinement of analytical distinctions, and the endless quest for their elegant synthesis. It only takes the slightest verbal nudge to shift the conversation to a metaphysical or theological domain, brining to bear the full brunt of these analytical methods on age-old questions. Maybe its just the developers I hang out with, but they are unquestionably a wise and philosophically-minded bunch.

They also tend to love technology, python or otherwise, and are an incredible source to tap into for discussing and speculating emerging trends – from storage to cloud computing, from the browser wars to singularities, this crowd has knowledgeable opinions on them all.

And as for the future of Python… well, I know that every year for the past ten have been the year of the linux desktop, but Python is incredibly positioned right now. There aren’t really that many contenders poised to displace Java, like Java displaced C/C++ (or Cobol, in the enterprise), but Python is going strong. From Sun’s and Microsoft’s very serious commitments to jython and IronPython, to Google and NASA’s commitment to Python, to MIT’s recent selection of Python as the language that CS 101 is taught in (and a robust educational community w/in the Python world) , we better figure this conf scaling thing out quickly, because next year is sure to be even bigger.

Supervillains, Systemic Corruption, and the Children

were_not_candy.jpgI’ve been drafting this post on Frontline’s provocative investigative piece The Medicated Child since it aired, and the longer I put off finishing this the more connections pile up.

Since this has aired, we have learned that anti-depressants are no more effective than placebos (although more expensive placebos bring more relief than the generics ;-), there really is prozac in the drinking water, and the $15.9 billion ’07 market for anti-psychotics is expected to grow to $17.8 billion by ’11.

But the Frontline doc is a must watch for lots of reasons. The piece profiles three children who have been mis-diagnosed as bipolar. While the plausibility of a bipolar diagnosis in children is still being hotly debated, diagnoses are up 4000% between ’98-’03. In this piece we meet the lazy, obese, depressed parents who impose their sick worlds on their unsuspecting children who show glimmers of imagination and life, even as they are being chemically swaddled.

In one scene we watch a mother feeding her son corndogs, gatorade, goldfish, and cookies, and wondering why his behaviour becomes hyperactive sometimes. In another, a young girl is setup and goaded by her psychiatrist to share her violent fantasies, which she likely learned from here father, an Iraqi war veteran. In another, a mother is told by the psychiatrist that drugs are the only therapeutic option, and she leaves the office with an additional prescription for Xanax for her son’s first day-of-school anxiety. And the images of the poor boy who developed a neck tick on Risperidol were so disturbing I almost couldn’t bring myself to write this post.

The extent of the systemic corruption that these profiles reveal is mind boggling. Not only must we be concerned with conspiracies within the pharmaceutical industry, but now Big Food is getting in on the action. So, get out your tin-foil hat and lets start constructing a few narratives to help our feeble minds comprehend this complex, emergent phenomenon. The high-fructose corn syrup in our nations food supply, is modifying our children’s behaviour so they are diagnosed with a condition that is treated with a drug which makes them insatiably hungry! These drugs also cause obesity and diabetes, but that’s OK, because Big Pharma is investing heavily in diabetes treatments as well.

I don’t actually believe that the world has been overrun by super-villains. But these narratives do beg the question (which I have written about here before) – are conspiracy theories ever a useful heuristic for teasing out the emergent correlations from complex systems. Are these causal? Who would you charge with the crime? With corruption this systemic, the responsibility is distributed, accountability nil, and momentum virtually unstoppable.

An entirely alternative perspective which skirts the ideologically loaded value judgement of designating these behaviors “illnesses” is suggested by Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness
(watch his 18 minute TED talk here). Perhaps the conditions that the pharma funded psychiatric establishment brands as illnesses are actually the normal responses of our psychological immune systems. The world is currently a very traumatic environment, and I think we need to seriously reconsider ways we can, in the words of The Icarus Project “inspire hope and transformation in an oppressive and damaged world.”

I recently learned about ridiculously simple casual game called mind habbits, which seems rather superficial at first blush, but indicates just how malleable and programmable the 3lb lump of neurons on our shoulders can be. The researches behind the game began with the question “Can we purposefully design a game that helps people feel good about themselves?” Their initial amazing results suggest alternate approaches to scaling up talking therapy, other than miracle pills.

So, learn more about psych-pharmacological harm reduction, ignore those frowns, and think good thoughts – positivity takes practice.

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