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Twisty Passages at EuroPython 2020

EuroPython took place last month and the raw video footage of the talks has just been published online. EuroPython has always been one of my favourite conferences and is a special place for me: it's where I gave my first ever programming talk back in 2010. It's also one of the most culturally cosmopolitan programming conferences and was the world's first community organised Python programming conference. I always come away feeling enriched by EuroPython.

Thanks, as always, to the volunteer organisers who work so hard to bring about this remarkable event. Such thanks are especially well deserved in 2020 since it was held online due to the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The potential for technical mishaps and problems was huge, yet the friendly and supportive team behind the conference ensured a slick and engaging event.

As always, there were many great talks with a particular highlight for me being a fascinating explanation of building "artistic artefacts" (computer generated pictures in the style of human painters) with Generative Adversarial Networks.

However, I sorely missed the corridor track - when you walk around the physical conference venue and bump into an old buddy, find yourself striking up a conversation with a friendly co-attendee in the coffee queue, or join a huddle of welcoming folks discussing something interesting. The corridor track is where the community comes alive. I'll have more to say about this in a moment...

I was delighted to make two contributions to this year's conference.

The first was a wonderful opportunity to bring some music to the conference. My friend and EuroPython's own force of nature, Marc-André got in touch to say that they were looking for musical contributions to a "jam session". I have, on several occasions, inflicted my love of tubas on Marc-André so he knew I used to be a professional classical musician. I can only assume his Germanic inclination for oompah-bands was at the back of his mind when he reached out. I responded that tuba music is "rather niche" at the best of times, let alone as part of a "jam session". Nevertheless, I agreed to contribute something, "perhaps a piece of classical piano music?" (since I'd been playing lots of piano during lock-down here in the UK).

In the end, I went for some Brahms ~ an Intermezzo written "as a token of friendship" for his friend, the concert pianist and composer Clara Schumann. It's my musical token of friendship towards everyone at EuroPython.

I hope you like it.

My second contribution was a presentation. The slides I prepared, including the links to all the resources I mention can be found here.

The presentation is an exploration of how one might recreate a remote corridor track via the internet. I think it speaks for itself (honestly, go watch it, I had a lot of fun preparing and presenting it).

The summary is that I feel deeply uncomfortable about the way friendships, conversation and community are mediated in a technical context at this moment in time. This is something we should be especially concerned about given how much of our interactions have taken place online during these times of virus related lock-down.

I offer a quick explanation of what I find so uncomfortable about the current state of the art and look into the history of computing for other, more humane, respectful (of users) and creative means of communication via computers.

Ultimately, I describe how I'm using Python to recreate a programmable MUD (a multi-user, real time text based virtual world) based upon ideas first explored in the late 1970s and which I encountered in both the 1980s (while at school) and in the mid-1990s (when I was at university). Such creations were famous for their mazes of twisty passages that players could explore and inhabit together.

If you've never heard of MUDs before, here's Richard Bartle (one of the authors of the original MUD and author of the bible for virtual worlds) describing an old technology for talking directly to the imagination...

As always, I love feedback, comments and constructive criticism offered in good faith. Assuming the lock-downs have eased, next year's EuroPython will be in Dublin, Éire.

I love Ireland. Can't wait!

See you at next year's EuroPython!