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Friday, November 6, 2009

Guido van Rossum at UC Berkeley's Py4Science

Update: Quick links

On November 4 2009, we had a special session of our informal Py4Science seminar where Guido van Rossum visited for an open discussion regarding the uses of the Python language in scientific research. Guido had expressed his interest in discussing the work that various scientists do with Python but mentioned that instead of a formal talk, he would prefer a format that allowed for more interaction with the audience. We agreed that a good plan would be for us to present a rapid-fire sequence of very short talks highlighting multiple projects so that he could get a good "high altitude" view of the scientific python landscape, leaving then ample time for discussions with the audience.

Guido has already posted his impressions of the visit, and so have my colleagues Jarrod Millman and Matthew Brett, so I'll try to provide a complementary view here without too much repetition.

We gathered for lunch first with a small group and had a very interesting discussion on various topics; we had a chance to talk in some detail about the transition to Python 3 for Numpy, something a number of people have started to think about seriously. Numpy is pretty much a 'root dependency' for so many scientific projects, that until it makes the jump it will be very difficult for anyone else in science to seriously consider Python 3. Understandably, Guido would like to see some movement from our community in this direction, and he offered useful guidance. In particular, he said that in the core Python-dev team there might be enough interest that if we ask for help there, we might find developers willing to pitch in and provide some assistance. He also expressed some disappointment that PEP 3118, which was accepted with our interests in mind, still hadn't been fully implemented. Limited manpower is the simple reason for this situation, but fortunately Jarrod mentioned that there's a good plan to address this in the near future.

I had a chance to quiz Guido about something I've wondered for a while: Python has unusually good number types in its core (arbitrary length integers, extended precision decimals and complex numbers), but the integers divide either into the integers (the truncating behavior of Python 2.x) or into the floats (in 3.x). While the 3.x division is an improvement, I would have really liked to see Python go to native rationals; for one thing, this would make the Sage 'language' (by which I mean the extensions Sage makes to pure Python) behave like Python in algorithms involving integers, eliminating a recurring source of confusion between the two. I also happen to think it would be a 'better' behavior, though there are valid reasons also for someone to expect a more 'calculator-like' answer to divisions like 1/2, who might be annoyed if they get 1/2 back instead of 0.5. While obviously such changes will not be on the table for a long while (and I should say here that I am very happy with the planned moratorium to core language changes, as I hope that will allow a more focused effort on the needs of the standard library), it was interesting to hear Guido's approach to this question as one that could be handled via overloadable literals rather than a change of integer semantics. I'd never thought of that, but it's an intriguing idea... Something to think about for when we start looking at Python 4000 :)

We then headed over to the official presentation, where we managed to cram 14 talks in 50 minutes and then had a full hour of open conversation with Guido, where the audience asked him questions on a number of topics. You can see a complete video of the entire session: after 50 minutes of talks we have a transition, and Guido's section starts at the 54 minute mark. On my website I have posted a page with all the slides for these mini-talks.

I presented an overview introduction and material on behalf of 4 others who were not present locally, but coincidentally, William Stein of Sage fame was on campus to give a talk in the same building almost at the same time, and he could present the Sage slides directly. Ondrej Certik from SymPy was able to make the trip from Reno, completing our out-of-town speakers. The other 7 presentations were from a number of local speakers (from various departments at UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, just up the hill from us).

I have received very good feedback from several people, and I am really thankful to all the speakers for being so attentive to the time constraints, which let us pack a lot of material while leaving ample time for the discussion with Guido. My intention with this was to really provide Guido with a broad understanding of how significant Python's penetration has been in scientific computing, where many different projects from disciplines ranging from computer science to astronomy are relying heavily on his creation. I wanted both to thank him for creating and shepherding such a high-quality language for us scientists, and to establish a good line of communication with him (and indirectly the core python development group) so that he can understand better what are some of the use patterns, concerns and questions we may have regarding the language.

I have the impression that in this we were successful, especially as we had time after the open presentations for a more detailed discussion of how we use and develop our tools. Most of us in scientific computing end up spending an enormous amount of time with open interpreter sessions, typically IPython ones (I started the project in the first place because I wanted a very good interactive environment, beyond Python's default one), and in this work mode the key source of understanding for code are good docstrings. This is an area where I've always been unhappy about the standard library, whose docstrings are typically not very good (and often they are non-existent). We showed Guido the fabulous Numpy/Scipy docstring editor by Pauli Virtanen and Emmanuelle Gouillart, as well as the fact that Numpy has an actual docstring standard that is easy to read yet fairly complete. I hope that this may lead in the future to an increase in the quality of the Python docstrings, and perhaps even to the adoption of a more detailed docstring standard as part of PEP 8, which I think would be very beneficial to the community at large.

In the end, putting all this together took me a lot more time than I'd originally planned (I think I've had this same problem before...), but I am very pleased with the results. Python has become a central tool for the work many of us do, and I am really happy to establish a good dialogue with Guido (and hopefully other core developers), which I'm sure will have benefits in both directions.