In 2008, I was invited to attend the Guadec conference at the Bahçeşehir University, Istanbul. Of course I arranged for a cheap flight and cheap hotel as per usual. I soon learnt that EasyJet lands in the Asian side of Istanbul – Sabiha Gökçen International Airport which is rather a long way to central Istanbul. Somehow I got there with the help of many minibus drivers. Got to my hotel. The reception area was very Middle Eastern with lots of colourful cushions, low lights and lots of little vases, candle sticks etc. Then I was taken to my room. At the first glance it was OK, the bed looked clean… I should have checked the bathroom.
After dropping my luggage I decided to walk around the area – I found out that I was staying only a few meters away from the Blue Mosque, and Hija Sofia etc. Wonderful! So I walked around trying not to get lost. I had diner and promised myself to go back before I leave the country. So back to the hotel I went. Got to my room and inspected the bathroom. Toilet looked a little funny with a jet in the middle of the back – that I found out later did not work – an experience I will no have on this occasion. Had a shower, that was OK but then I looked at the electrical wiring of the bathroom. DANGER! Do not switch on the light. The hairdryer wires were nude and hooked onto the wires of the light switch – too many nude wires for me in a wet area. I don’t think it would have passed the UK health and safety standards! Never mind, I was staying near the Blue Mosque! Next day I took a taxi to the university. The university looks great, The front garden goes down to the Bosphorus, seats and tables everywhere for the students to enjoy the magnificent view and the sunshine. I do not believe that it is a cheap university!
Next problem… no books.
As 99% of my dealings are with EU countries, I had forgotten that I must pay an import tax to get the books out of customs. After talks with the Librarian and the Head of Computing, we agreed that I would pay them with books. By lunchtime I was set. The table looked perfect and I was ready to sell lots of books which I did.
No conference dinner was arranged but instead we got a fantastic cruise on the sea. Wonderful evening with great sites. On leaving the boat, I looked for a taxi which I found very easily. I gave the driver the card of my hotel and off we went. As far as I could see we were driving towards the city centre but unfortunately I could not recognise anything as it was in the middle of the night. After driving for what seemed like hours, I somehow managed to make the driver understand that I wanted to stop in front of a big hotel. I got out of the taxi followed by the driver. With the help of the porter who spoke English, we managed to convince the driver to go away. Then another taxi was booked which took me to my hotel within minutes. What a night! The next day when I reported the incident to the conference organizers they told me that I should be aware that not all taxi drivers can read.
Did I enjoy my short stay. Yes, wonderful, I would go back anytime.
In 2008 I was invited to a Unix conference in Athens. From the airport I took a taxi to my hotel at a cost of 30 euros (this will be important later!). After checking in at the hotel I decided to take a taxi to the university. I arrived at my destination without a problem, but I still can’t understand why the taxi stopped and picked up a woman, then deposited her a few miles away before continuing the route to the university – no explanation was offered. Talking to my friends, I was told that I was charged the right amount for the trip. Very strange – I’ve spent many a sleepless night pondering that mysterious journey!
The conference was great, the audience very friendly. I was able to visit some of the old sites, as you can see from the pictures.
But all good things come to an end, and it was time to leave for Bucharest for the eLiberatica conference. I had to be at the airport at 6 am so I asked the hotel reception to book a taxi for pick up at 5 am. The longer my taxi took to arrive, the more stressed I felt. At long last it came. The driver was a middle-aged man with no striking features and his English was pretty good. He first told me not to worry – we would get to the airport on time. We may have made it on time but without a worry was another matter. As soon as the car started he lit a cigarette and had a swig of coffee, driving with one hand on a very busy road. Then his mobile rang! Still driving like a lunatic, he answered the phone then dialled a number and talked for a few minutes. During the journey he made at least 3 phone calls, drank coffee and water, and smoked three or four cigarettes. At long, long, LONG last we made it to the airport, the driver perfectly content and me rather green – I was shocked that we made it to the airport in one piece and grumpy. But it wasn’t over yet…
I retrieved my suitcase, ready to pay. “How much do I owe you?” “60 euros,” I was told. Since I’d only paid 30 euros on the way in, I couldn’t understand the 100% increase. I offered 30. He then asked if my company was paying. I said, “Yes, of course,” which was followed by the best response I could have imagined! With a big smile he just said, “60 euros – a little for you, a little for me”. In a bad temper, still nauseous and imagining my plane leaving without me – in short, in no mood to argue – I threw 30 euros at him and rushed inside the building. Nobody was going to spoil my visit to Romania.
As discussed previously, I was now in Sofia. After the traumatic tooth experience, I was finally ready to meet the organizer of the WebTech Conference. Once technical details had been discussed – had my books arrived, when could I set up the display table, etc., Bogomil Shopov took me to the centre of Sofia for sightseeing before saying, “We’ll meet here around 4 pm, then we can walk to the venue to set up for tomorrow” – then departed. So I was left alone in this new city. I was excited and ready to take millions of pictures (please note – I did not say I was good at photography). For example:
St Alexander Newski Cathedral: This newish cathedral is in the Neo-Byzantine style. It was created to honour the Russian soldiers who died during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877 1878, as a result of which Bulgaria was liberated from Ottoman rule. I discovered later that the basement was a museum for the oldest and most beautiful icons – not the cheap stuff you find on street corners.
The Russian Church (Church of St Nicholas the Miracle-
The Church of St George, an early Christian red brick rotunda with enormous walls of 1.4 metre thick. Considered the oldest building in Sofia, it is situated among the remains of the ancient town of Serdica. Originally a Roman bath or serving a Roman religious ceremonial function, the rotunda kept changing its role – Christian temple, mosque and now a tourist site with some Christian links.
Sofia is not just about churches (which, by the way, did not manage to make me religious), there are also some other interesting sights such as:
The Communist Party House: I think most USSR countries had such a building. In Sofia, it was used until August 1990 as the seat of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. It was set on fire during the Summer of 1990 by crowds protesting against the Soviet rule. On the outside only one thing is missing… the red star! It was removed after the collapse of the communist party and the newly acquired freedom of the people of Bulgaria. It is now home to the Museum of Socialist Art.
The Statue of Sveta Sofia (Saint Sophia): Erected in 2000 and standing in the plot once occupied by Lenin’s statue, Sophia stands on a 48 feet high pedestal. The 24 feet high statue is adorned with the symbols of power, fame and wisdom – the crown, the wreath and the owl. Allegedly Sophia was considered too erotic and pagan to be referred to as a saint. I wish I knew more about this fascinating lady.
As you can see from this very short post, Sofia is a very interesting city to visit with lots of history and culture. There is a lot more to see but for the rest you will have to go and see for yourselves. Personally I have been going almost every year and every time I discover something new and enriching.
Going back to my story – I had to go back to meet with Bogomil. That’s when I realised that the street signs were written in Cyrillic and my map was showing Latin script. Ouch! Panic! How do I get back? Fortunately, I had a pocket book showing the Cyrillic alphabet vs. Latin and somehow, translating letter by letter, I managed to get back to the meeting place. Since then both writings appear on the street corner so I suppose I was not the only foreigner that got caught.
At the end of my last post, I was about to fly to Sofia for my first conference in Bulgaria, WebTech 2006. The flight was perfect – as we landed, the passengers applauded the pilot. Nice! I have seen this gratitude only once before on a flight to New York on an Air India flight. I loved the old airport with its 2 luggage belts. It was so different from all the places I have been. Unfortunately this airport is now only used for domestic flights and I never had the occasion to use it again. You may remember me mentioning that I had previously broken a tooth just before flying out. Once I got to the hotel, I realised that I had to have that tooth repaired before the conference as it was cutting the inside of my cheek and talking became painful (peace at last for the techies!). There was no way I could attend the conference without a visit to the dentist. So I asked the receptionist if she could help me out. Very kindly she told me that she would try to arrange an appointment for the morning.
Morning arrived: I spoke to the receptionist and was told that she and the hotel driver would take me to the dentist. I was rather surprised as I never thought I would need an escort. So, in the car we went. I realised what a privileged area the hotel was in, as we were now driving on streets with lots of potholes and weeds growing everywhere. We passed big, ugly concrete blocks of flats and I seriously started to wonder what was going to happen to my mouth. The car stopped in front of the most rundown block. Great. By then I was a little edgy but never mind – repairs had to be done. We entered a very dark hall with a light that did not work (or was it a naked bulb? I cannot remember). I went into the dentist’s office which was very bright, the equipment reminded me of my first visit to the dentist when I was a child (yes, I know, a long time ago): the equipment was very clean-looking but very old. I began to take very deep breaths. What was going to happen to me? Would I be able to talk at the conference? Would I even be able to talk ever again?!
… when the young, friendly dentist began speaking English to me, I was almost disappointed. All that stress for nothing! He did a fantastic job, and eleven years later, the tooth is still there as good as new. I still do not know why I was escorted by two people but I can only be thankful to them. I could go to the conference and be my normal(?) self.
This photo could have been taken from the car on my way to the dentist. Thankfully these communist-era blocks are being modernised or replaced entirely. One should not forget that Bulgaria was part of the USSR until December 1989 when everything was ruled by Moscow, and most of the country was depleted of its riches. Bulgaria has done extremely well since its independence. Every time I go there I am surprised by the new look, the better way of life the people have achieved.
To be continued
At the end of June 2006 I was very excited about my upcoming trip: my first trip to Spain (and my first swim in the Mediterranean). I was going to the Guadec Conference in Vilanova i la Geltrú! I thought I would be able to speak a little with the local people as I had recently started some Spanish evening classes.
The conference was well-attended and well-organised, and of course there were a few long nights dedicated to networking (which is really a synonym for “enjoying the speciality of the area with friends” or, should I say, “boozing on the local beer”).
The traditional conference dinner/evening was organised as a BBQ and disco on the beach – great idea! I then realised how much I’d missed hot days and nights.
On the last day I had time to eat my last Spanish sandwich while sitting on a bench on one of the nice, busy streets of Vilanova before I took the train to the airport. The sandwich was not particularly hard but I still managed to break a tooth (more on this on my next post).
Then an old man came and sat next to me. Great! At long last I would be able to try my Spanish. Until now English was de rigueur. He started to talk but I could not understand a word – so much for those Spanish lessons, I thought. It took me a while to remember that Vilanova is in Catalonia. They speak in Catalan, which is rather different from Spanish. After a few verbal attempts we started communicating with gestures. I tried to tell him that I was flying out to Sofia, pretending to be a flying plane like kids do. I will never know if he understood me or if he still thinks of the time he met a completely mad woman. For me it was a charming encounter that made me believe that people can understand each other without words, without fear – something that we should all believe in given the tense atmosphere of 2016.
As you know I have been on the conference circuit for a number of years. Through those years I have collected some wonderful anecdotes.
I cannot remember the year or the place but it was definitely somewhere in the North of England where a UKUUG (as it was known then) meeting took place. Everything was going very well, the talks were good and the conference was well attended. The organisers had arranged for a buffet lunch so you can well imagine the queue to get to the food. As I was invited and did not pay for my lunch, I thought I should go at the end of the queue, hoping they would leave me some of the beautiful salads and desserts.
I am happily waiting at the back of the room when I felt somebody’s arm around my shoulder. I looked up and saw the organiser who then said:
Look at them all: they all have Asperger’s, you and I Alzheimer’s.
Asperger’s and Alzheimer’s are very serious conditions and no laughing matter but I still cannot stop giggling when I think of this comment.
The next Spring conference will be held in Manchester, March 14th to 16th 2017.
On the outside large brick wall, you are greeted with:
With freedom, books, flowers and the moon, who could not be happy?
– a famous quote from De Profundis by Oscar Wilde, written in very large letters. This sets the atmosphere to the visit.
HMP Reading opened in 1844. It was one of the first new prisons using the cruciform design – long wings of cells stretching out from a central point which allowed the guards to oversee each wing on all floors. Recently the prison housed young offenders (18 to 21 years old). Up to three offenders were kept in one cell when the crime rate spiked. The prison was shut in 2013 and has been kept empty since, costing a great amount of money for its upkeep. As a Grade II-listed building, it is not saleable.
The prison comprises 3 floors – 1st: green, 2nd: red and 3rd: blue. Not only is the door painted in the appropriate colour but so are the bed frames, metal tables and stools that are screwed onto the wall and floor.
Oscar Wilde was housed in cell C.3.3 (which became C.2.2 when the numbering system was changed). The cell is completely empty as many more prisoners have been kept in there. During the first three months of incarceration he was allowed only three books – the bible, a prayer book and a hymn book. After that he was allowed to choose one book a week from the prison library. Eventually, he was allowed to receive books from outside so long they were vetted. These books can be found in the neighbouring cells – a nice but rather small collection. The following quote spells out his state of mind:
“In the great prison where I was then incarcerated, I was merely the figure and the letter of a little cell in a long gallery, one of a thousand lifeless numbers as of a thousand lifeless lives.” – De Profundis, 1897.
Many artists were invited to show their work for an exhibition which takes place in cells randomly chosen on the three floors. Doris Salcedo presents “Plegaria Muda” (Silent Prayer). The tables, roughly the size of a coffin, are made of wood and compacted earth. My first feeling was doom and pain, until I saw some green grass growing through the planks – then I thought of hope.
Other artists include
- Marlene Dumas with her portraits of Oscar Wilde, Bosie and Jean Genet
- Nan Goldin: The Boy, sequences of Salomé. She video interviewed a 91-year-old man who is still campaigning for an apology from the government for his conviction for homosexuality 70 years ago.
- Wolfgang Tillmans
- Peter Dreher
- Roni Horn
- Felix Gonzales-Torres
- Steve McQueen
- Robert Gober
Writing by Ai Weiwei, Tahmima Anam, Deborah Levy, Gillian Slovo, Binyavanga Wainaina. Danny Morrison (Secretary of the Bobby Sand Trust) and many more are displayed on the cell’s tables. You can either read the papers or listen to the audio.
Contemporary history is also represented with aerial drawings of the H-Block of Long Kesh by Rita Donagh and two paintings by Richard Hamilton based on the blanket protest and the first H-Block hunger strike.
It is sad that the Reading Gaol, as it was known then, was made famous by Oscar Wilde for a crime no longer considered a crime. So how many people are in jail now for actions that will be legalised in 20 years or more?
A year ago I was still working, going to all kind of techie conferences and meeting all the friends I made during my time at O’Reilly and 2nd Quadrant. Today things are completely different: I am learning to stay at home (a very difficult learning curve). I very often feel like a headless chicken. Being retired, I have no structure to my day – it feels that I have got all the time in the world to accomplish nothing and that’s what happened: I accomplished nothing. I suppose that’s OK for a few months, but I did not want my life to be without an aim, with nothing to do except dusting (which I am pretty bad at).
What do I do?
- Piano: my daughter is teaching me. I have to get used to C, D, E etc. instead of the missed Do, Re, Mi … I am slowly getting there and the very abridged version of “Ode to Joy” is becoming a ‘joy’ to play.
- Allotment: I have a small plot in the village where I grow lots of courgettes. My courgette cake is a well-recognised and liked cake among my neighbours.
- Yoga: Once a week I go for a stretch at the local school.
- I also tried to learn Spanish but the local language school is no longer providing adult tuition so back to Duolingo on my phone. Better than nothing I suppose.
- Dog walking: every weekday, I help a neighbour walking her dogs (she has 11 German Spitzes and one Chow – I have got only Deegan and he is the best).
But I need more:
Today I joined U3A – yes, you guessed it, this is the University of the Third Age. Please laugh quietly as it is very upsetting to know that one is old. What will I do there? I am opting for something practical and hopefully I will find something good for my brain.
I hope there is enough variety to keep me amused and sane.
PGDay UK took place at 30 Euston Square on July 7th. The location is perfect as it’s easy to get to via underground, buses or trains.
After the usual registration, refreshments, welcome and introductions came the long-awaited talk “Working in Open Source” by Liam Maxwell, CTO for Her Majesty’s Government. This talk was followed by Magnus Hagander, President of PostgreSQL Europe, who alerted us to the new key features of the next release which is now available in alpha and soon to be available in beta before the final version is released towards the end of the year. Some new key features include:
“Upsert” (INSERT … ON CONFLICT): 5 brings support for “UPSERT” operations.
BRIN (Block Range Indexes): BRIN stands for Block Range INdexes, and store metadata on a range of pages. At the moment this means the minimum and maximum values per block.
pg_rewind: pg_rewind makes it possible to efficiently bring an old primary in sync with a new primary without having to perform a full base backup.
Import Foreign Schema: with PostgreSQL 9.5, you can import tables en masse. You can also filter out any tables you don’t wish or limit it to just a specific set of tables
Inheritance with foreign table: Foreign tables can now either inherit local tables, or be inherited from.
David Kennaway showed us the challenges presented in a financial services environment and how PostgreSQL fits into the strategy at Goldman Sachs.
Mike Lujan from Manchester University talked to us about the AXLE project… but what is the AXLE project? AXLE, advanced analytics for extremely large European databases, brings together a diverse group of researchers covering hardware, database kernel and visualisation all focused on solving the needs of extremely large data analysis. The project partners are 2ndQuadrant, Barcelona Supercomputing Center, Portavita, the University of Ljubljana and the University of Manchester. The project, like PostgreSQL, is of course Open Source.
With “PostgreSQL Back Up and Recovery: Best practices and tools” by Devrim Gunduz, we discovered solutions for common issues along with pros and cons for each of them. There are of course many backup solutions – both open and closed source.
Gianni Ciolli gave us some “PostgreSQL Administration Recipes”. These recipes should enhance the user’s experience of PostgreSQL by making it speedier and more effective.
Marco Slot discussed the internals and performance of pg_shard and some of its latest features. pg_shard is a free, open source extension for scaling out PostgreSQL across a cluster of commodity servers.
In his “Fun Things to Do with Logical Decoding” Mike Fowler looked at trigger-less auditing, partial replication and full statement replication. Was that fun? I am not so sure!
The next talk had a great title – “The Elephant and the Snake” – could it be a story by Rudyard Kipling or one of Aesop’s fables? No, but Tony Locke told us how to connect from Python to PostgreSQL, including tips and tricks.
The day ended with a plea from Simon Riggs for users to upgrade and test the new 9.5 release to ensure the version is bug-free, helping the PostgreSQL community currently working on the 9.6 release and beyond.
With around 100 people attending the conference, PGDay UK 2015 was one of the most dynamic PosgreSQL meetings that I have ever attended. The audience was very diverse, coming from universities, big corporations, small companies and government institutions.
Thanks to the sponsors 2ndQuadrant, EDB, Brandwatch and CitusData, we were provided with good food and a drink reception at the end of the day.
Interested in PostgreSQL? Why not come to the PostgreSQL conference Europe 2015, which will take place in Vienna on October 27th to 30th? Hope to see you there!
A few weeks ago, I received the most wonderful email – an invitation to attend Pycon Sei in Florence. Who could refuse such an invitation – not me for sure!
Florence, the cradle of the Renaissance, home to some of the most classical maestros: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Giotto, Masaccio. Florence where you discover the most beautiful buildings: Palazzo Vecchio, Palazzo Pitti, Ponte Vecchio, il Duomo, Santa Croce, San Miniato. At every street corner, you discover some wonderful sights – a statue, a building, a view on the Arno, a look at the street market (mainly leather goods). I could spend weeks there enjoying the views, the food and going mad at the number of tourists! Unfortunately Florence is loved by many people and sometime you feel that you are not going where you want to but you are carried somewhere.
In Italy the Pycon meetings started in 2007 in the centre of Florence and continued until Pycon Quattro – I fell in love with Florence during Pycon Due when Richard Stallman gave a talk at the Palazzo Vecchio. In 2011, Florence held EuroPython – a partnership that lasted 3 years (pretty good when EuroPython had to move on to another city after 2 years). Unfortunately the hotel in the centre could not cope with 1000 delegates and the conference was moved to the Grand Hotel Mediterraneo, a few yards from the Arno and almost opposite to the Piazzale Michelangelo. 2014 saw the return of Pycon with Pycon Cinque. During that year, the Associazione Python Italia with Tinker Garage also organized Django Village. For 2015, they decided to combine the two conferences and produced Pycon Sei with a minimum of 4 tracks: Python, Django, PyData and Odoo. Two training tracks were sometimes added to the schedule. They were: Introduzione a Genropy with Giovanni Porcari; Building an Interpreter in RPython with Julian Berman; Creare la propria PaaS (Platform as a Service) con uwsgi.it with Roberto De Ioris and OOP: Object-Oriented Python partendo da zero with Leonardo Giordani.
Lots of the talks were in English. My favourite speaker, Alex Martelli (Google), started the day with Modern Python patterns and idioms first in Italian and later on in English – I do not understand Italian nor Python but to see Alex’s passion is pure magic – all of his body is moving. He is the epitome of Italians, the way we like them and sometime make gentle fun of them. I must admit that his English version of the same talk is not as dramatic, at least not for the technophobe as my admiration is just about the show, the sound, the music. Other good presentations included Asynchronous Web Development with Python 3 by Anton Caceres; PostgreSQL 9.4 for Devops by Gabriele Bartolini; Odoo disaster recovery con Barman by Giulio Calacoci; Does Python stand a chance in today’s world of data science by Radim Rehurek; Packaging Django projects for PyPI by Roberto Rosario and many more.
Saturday saw a recruiting session – it was very interesting to see the different ways that companies will entice new recruits. It went from the big PR spiel to the down to earth approach: that’s the job, that’s what we want from you, that’s what you get from us. Companies hiring are: InfoCert; Zalando, Kuldat, Develer; 2ndQuadrant.
There are no techie conferences without networking and the first event was PyBeer on Friday which took place at the James Joyce Pub. This was an occasion to relax and enjoy the time together drinking, chatting and actually learning to know each other as Pythonistas. To consolidate our new friendships, on Saturday we met at the Ristorante Zazà for PyFiorentina. There you can taste the famous bistecca alla fiorentina – a T-bone steak grilled over a wood or charcoal fire, to be eaten with a glass of wonderful Italian red wine. Just delicious!
Pycon Italy is organized by the Associazione Python Italia but I know that Develer srl spend a lot of time and resources putting the show together. You can find this lovely company between Prato and Florence. They boost of being a team of developers and design engineers who average age is just over 30 years. All Develeriani are selected through accurate tests and constantly trained to provide the most innovative technologies.