Python Programming, news on the Voidspace Python Projects and all things techie.

Ergonomics: Kinesis Freestyle Keyboard and Evoluent Vertical Mouse

emoticon:lighton I've been using computers for a long time, and for most of that time I've been using them for the whole of the working day and often the rest of the day too. A few years ago I started getting pains in my wrists (classic programmer's RSI) and began using wrist rests and an ergonomic keyboard.

Without these accessories my wrists begin to hurt within about ten minutes of typing. With good ergonomic gear I can spend all day every day slaving over a warm keyboard and not worry about it. Because they fix the bug in my DNA I've never taken the problem to a doctor nor had any professional diagnosis. What follows here is purely based on my experiences. If you have RSI, or are starting to get pains when you type, seeking professional advice is a much better idea than paying attention to anything I might write...

Ergonomic keyboards aren't just about comfort or combatting RSI. One of the ways they reduce stress on the hands and wrists is by minimising movements needed to reach the keys. This means you can type faster. They often achieve this with unusual keyboard shapes, which makes touch typing essential. So as an added side effect your touch typing will have to improve.

My first ergonomic keyboard was a Microsoft Natural 4000. I've always been happy with it as a keyboard, and compared to many ergonomic keyboards it's very cheap. It's main drawback is that with the palm rest in place it's pretty big.

One PyCon Chris Perkins introduced me to the Kinesis Advantage keyboard. You can see from this photo that it's a very odd looking keyboard.

The Kinesis Advantage Keyboard

The Kinesis advantage is basically a plastic block with two wells for the keys, along with palm rests just below the wells. With your palms on the rests your hands are in the wells, and you can reach every key, including arrow keys, without moving your hands. The downside is that you can't see the keys and you have to touch type. Once you get used to the layout you can type like the wind. I love this keyboard, I consider it the Rolls Royce of keyboards. I can type pretty much all day all week without a hint of wrist ache. The build quality of the Kinesis is "solid", but not pretty.

The UK distributor for the Kinsesis Advantage is Osmond Ergonomics. After purchasing the, very expensive, Advantage keyboard I followed Osmond on twitter and had several exchanges with Guy Osmond who runs the twitter account. He emailed me with a suggestion that I review some of their other ergonomic products. They sent me these products free of charge, but with my stipulation that I have complete editorial freedom to speak my mind in the reviews.


There's more to ergonomics than just RSI. Osmond have a website offering Posture guidance and exercises.

Osmond Ergonomics are offering a 10% for readers of this blog. Use this code on checkout: TFM022812.

Ergonomic computer equipment is of a great deal of interest to programmers. Particularly Python programmers in my circle of twitter friends / mailing lists where many of the programmers spend their free time hacking as well as their paid hours.

The two products I've been trying are the Evoluent vertical mouse and the Kinesis Freestyle split keyboard.

I've always wanted to try a split keyboard. When I travel for conferences and sprints I take a mobile workstation with me, including the Microsoft Natural Keyboard. So my question for the Freestyle was, is it good enough to replace the Advantage as my main keyboard? If not is it good enough to replace the Natural on my travels?

The unboxing:

Unboxing the Kinesis Freestyle Keyboard. From its box.

The version of the Freestyle I tried had the "VIP" stand attached. You can also use it flat or in a vertical configuration.

So my initial impressions are good. The build quality is a great improvement on my Advantage. Maybe after two years new Advantage keyboards are also better. The version I'm trying out is the PC layout rather than the Mac one, but after switching the Alt and Super keys around (in the Mac keyboard preferences) it works fine. [1]

The Kinesis Freestyle Keyboard on the VIP stand

I like the angle of the keyboard with the stand, but the raised height means I still need to use a wrist rest. Maybe I should try it flat. I've been using the Freestyle as my main keyboard now for two weeks. Because the layout is different from the Advantage (both qwerty - and both support dvorak of course - but the numbers etc are in different place) it took me a while to get used to it. Unlike the Advantage some of the keys, particularly the cursor keys, need hand movement to use. The Freestyle has a space bar on both sides of the split, which is a nice touch as you use alternate thumbs for space when touch typing. Beyond this the Freestyle is a nice and straightforward keyboard with decent key action.

After a weeks typing I do notice mild wrist ache, and I find having to move my hands to use the cursor keys more disruptive than the Advantage. The Freestyle will definitely displace the Microsoft Natural for my travels (the Natural is a huge keyboard and with the split the Freestyle is much more convenient to pack), but for day-to-day use I'll stick with the Advantage. For anyone with mild RSI, or a penchant for decent keyboards, I can heartily recommend the Kinesis Freestyle.

Some other notes about keyboards. Both the Advantage and Freestyle are wired keyboards. I would love to have either of them as wireless keyboards. Neither have number pads (well, with both you can switch part of the keyboard to be a number pad but this is fiddly). Many geeks don't like number pads and see them as unnecessary. Having worked in a builders merchant for a few years I'm pretty speedy with the number pad, much faster than with standard number keys, and so I have a separate USB number pad.

The second device I tried is the Evoluent Vertical Wireless Mouse. In my try-to-stop-my-wrist-hurting-when-I-use-the-computer adventures I first switched to a mouse mat with a wrist wrest and finally a Kensington Trackball (Slimblade). The Evoluent is an optical mouse, available wired and wireless and with left hand and right hand models.

The Evoluent Vertical Mouse alongside a Kensington Trackball

The trackball is great, and again solves all my wrist pain associated with mouse use. I do need to use a wrist rest with it so that my wrist can be fully rested whilst using the trackball, but pointer movement requires no wrist movements and finger movements are very small. I was sceptical that any mouse could be as good, but I don't take the trackball with me when I travel and have been using an apple magic mouse. The combination of multi-touch and mouse is innovative, and very well done, but I do get some pain from the magic mouse after a week long sprint. What I was looking for in the Evoluent was a mouse that could displace the magic mouse when I travel, and I was curious about whether a "vertical mouse" offered the ergonomic benefits it claimed.

First of all, because you hold the mouse vertically, it is physically bigger than I anticipated. The one I tried isn't the Mac model and has its own wireless dongle. Apparently a Mac version, using bluetooth, will be available soon. There is no Mac driver available for the Evoluent Wireless, and they warn that the multiple buttons it provides may not be useable out of the box. I use the Steermouse driver anyway, as I've tried several different mice over the years. This recognised the Evoluent and it worked with zero configuration. (I use Steermouse to reprogram the middle mouse button [2].)

To my surprise I love the Evoluent mouse, to the extent that I'm using it instead of the trackball. Holding the mouse vertically means my arm and wrist are fully rested whilst holding the mouse and there is no need for any kind of external rest. Pressing the middle button with my middle finger, instead of moving my index finger took a little bit to get used to, but there is button by the thumb grip which I reprogrammed to act as a middle button too. The Evoluent is a very well built product, not too heavy yet feeling robust and not "cheap" (which it isn't).

Because of its size, and that it would take up a precious usb port on my laptop, I'm not yet sure if I'll take the Evoluent on my travels.

In the first week of using it I was finding the pointer would get stuck every half hour or so and take a bit of "wiggling" to un-stick. This was very annoying and spoiled my enjoyment of using the mouse. At first I thought it was because of using an optical mouse on a shiny desk, so I switched to a large mouse mat. This didn't help. Eventually I twigged that it was because the wireless dongle was plugged into the back of my computer, about three foot from the mouse and under the desk. Putting the wireless dongle into my USB hub (about a foot from the mouse) completely solved the problem. The mouse works fine on the desk, but I've kept the mouse mat in place anyway.

In conclusion both the Freestyle keyboard and the Evoluent mice are great devices and whether or not you have RSI you're likely to enjoy using them. They both work fine with Windows and the Mac, with the caveats described above. I didn't investigate Linux compatibility as although I do all my day to day development in Ubuntu, it's inside a VM. For my day to day use I'm sticking with the Kinesis Advantage, but I am switching to the Evoluent as my everyday mouse.

These devices were supplied free of charge by Osmond ergonomics for me to review, however this review is my own opinion. If you have any questions, or suffer from RSI, Osmond would be very happy to talk to you. If you do order from them, don't forget the voucher for a 10% discount: TFM022812.

[1]Which leads me to a grouse with the Advantage, pretty much my only grouse with the Advantage. The Advantage is highly programmable, which I generally don't use, but because you program it on-board it doesn't work well with the Mac keyboard preferences. Specifically switching off the caps-lock doesn't work and I have to remap the caps-lock key to something innocuous.
[2]In conjunction with Deja menu so I can access the main menu bar on any monitor with a middle mouse click.

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Posted by Fuzzyman on 2012-03-05 10:16:23 | |

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Python on Google Plus

emoticon:target As you may (or perhaps not) have noticed, I've been blogging a lot less in the last year. A new job with Canonical (although I've been there over a year now) and an eight month old daughter all make blogging harder. For Python news I've been posting more on Google+:

I've made some interesting posts on PyPy, Python 3, interesting new libraries and other snippets of news. I particularly try and post about new PEPs and big changes to Python.

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Posted by Fuzzyman on 2012-01-03 11:41:02 | |

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A Brief Update

emoticon:development Over the summer I went even-longer-than-normal without blogging. In that time a lot has changed.

The wife and I had a great summer break visiting her family in Romania. This included a trip up the gloriously beautiful Ceahlau mountain. Whilst we were out there we discovered that Delia is pregnant. This was a very pleasant discovery, but as I'm sure you all know babies are the great enemies of open source - so we'll have to see what happens in the future... Fortunately I have Jesse Noller as a great inspiration for enjoying fatherhood whilst still contributing to Python.

(Greg Newman hypothesises that Michael Foord junior will look like this)

Immediately on returning from Romania I started working full time with Canonical as a Python developer on the ISD (Infrastructure Systems Development) team. Our team blog is here. We work mainly with Django, but we also use a whole range of 'standard' Python tools including pip, fabric, virtualenv, and mock. We also have some of our internal libraries open sourced like configglue and Canonical SSO.

I work from home (mostly - my team is joining the Ubuntu Developer Summit in Florida next week for a development sprint) communicating with the team over IRC and occasionally VOIP (mumble), which is how all Canonical development happens. Having done several years commmuting to London, followed by working from home for the last nine months or so, I have the taste for home working and wouldn't work any other way now. My team includes one guy from Poland, one from Germany, a couple of Englishmen, two Argentinians and at least one American. All great people, but it will be nice to actually meet them at the UDS.

My computers are all Macs (and have been for sometime), but I've been working inside a Ubuntu VM. So far I've enjoyed it but am not (yet) tempted to move to Ubuntu as my main OS... The job change also means that for the first time in about five years I'm not working at all with IronPython. I'm still involved (more news on that to come soon), but purely for hobby programming. (As a side note, I wonder how long it will take for me to lose my reputation as a 'windows guy'. Years probably.)

Unsurprisingly the Canonical development workflow is all based around Launchpad and Bazaar. I'm really impressed. In the past I've been annoyed by the web UI of Launchpad, finding source code for a project can be annoying and it doesn't provide documentation hosting. For small projects it is still possibly overkill, but for teams of several people doing development in new branches and using merge reviews Launchpad provides a very nice workflow. As I now have some projects in Mercurial, work with Bazaar and some projects still in subversion I do get confused about which version control system I am actually using at any one time...

configglue, one of our internal projects is interesting as it is a direct 'competitor' for ConfigObj. As it is owned by my team I will almost certainly be working on it as well as with it. configglue provides layered configuration files, a frequent feature request for ConfigObj. In ConfigObj you can do it "manually" via the merge() method, but the configglue way is nicer.

configglue has schema validation (which is its major feature really). It is code based whereas ConfigObj validation is via schema files. The configglue way is more verbose but I quite like it. We use it with django-configglue which allows django project settings to be kept in ini files rather than as code.

You may also be wondering how the unittest2 plugin system I blogged about a while ago is getting on.

I recently posted an update to the Testing in Python mailing list:

After recent conversations with Holger Krekel and Robert Collins I have decided to make a fairly major internal changes to unittest2 plugins. I'm getting rid of all global state, which includes the global hooks that are currently the core of the extension machinery.

Getting rid of global state always sounds goood, but it isn't without API consequences. With no global access to the hooks set it needs to be passed down and 'made available' to the runner, loader, suites and all test cases. This is annoying, but probably still better than global state. Removing the global state makes testing the plugin machinery massively easier however... It also allows multiple different plugin configurations within the same process (which is nice but only actually useful for a small set of use cases).

This refactoring also means changing the way plugins are initialized, merely importing the plugin is no longer enough (the metaclass goes - which makes me sad but is probably also a good thing).

So the refactor is still in progress. This means plugins won't land in Python 3.2, but they will have longer to mature and stabilise in unittest2, which is no bad thing. Meanwhile I'm still working on the final release of Mock 0.7.0. There will be one more beta before final release. I also have a few Python issues for unittest itself that I'm really hoping to work on before the Python 3.2 beta which is rapidly approaching!

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Posted by Fuzzyman on 2010-10-19 14:43:14 | |

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The Testing Panel at EuroPython

emoticon:file1 EuroPython 2010 is getting closer (July 19th - 22nd) with such esteemed speakers as Guido van Rossum, Raymond Hettinger, Brett Cannon and Bruce Lawson. Google are also making available grants for women to help girl geeks attend EuroPython.

One of the talks will be a testing panel, headed by the inestimable Ali Afshar, where you get to test the knowledge and wisdom of several Python testing 'experts' including:

  • Raymond Hettinger
  • Holger Krekel
  • Uhm... me
  • Geoff Bache
  • Mark Ramm (to be confirmed)
  • Jason Huggins (to be confirmed)

Ali has setup a google moderator instance for the panel, so you can prepare your fiendish questions in advance and vote on the questions that other people have asked:

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Posted by Fuzzyman on 2010-05-11 00:51:31 | |

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An Awesome PyCon

emoticon:avocado As always PyCon was awesome, I had a great time catching up with old friends and making some new friends. The conference wasn't bad either...

This year was particularly awesome. After a recession fuelled downturn last year, this year numbers were back up to a recording breaking level. We had around 1025 attendees, and importantly a higher than ever proportion of women. Although 11% is hardly stellar it is much higher than previous years and better than many large open source conferences. This is still an underrepresentation of the number of women in IT, but still a great improvement. Much kudos to Gloria Willasden and Steve Holden who put a lot of effort into promoting PyCon to women developers and creating the Financial Assistance Grant for Women.


UPDATE: Final count for PyCon 2010 attendees was 1106.

This year was the year of alternative implementations, with a lot of focus on Unladen Swallow, PyPy, Jython, IronPython and even Pynie (a fledgling implementation of Python on the Parrot virtual machine). Nice to see that PyPy have just posted some benchmarks showing that they are largely faster than Unladen Swallow and CPython running Twisted. Performance is a hot topic for dynamic languages in general, and there is healthy competition amongst the implementations for speed. One of the things to come out of the Language Summit is a standard repository of benchmarks for implementations to share.

I was responsible for organising the Python Language Summit immediately preceding the conference. I think it went well, but as far as I'm concerned if it wasn't a complete disaster then it counts as a great success! At the summit we spent a lot of time discussing packaging. The upshot of this was a new way of handling the transition to an improved distutils - create a new module called distutils2 that is free to break backwards compatibility and then bring this into the standard library. Tarek has been working on improving distutils over the last year whilst maintaining backwards incompatibility. The problem is that so many tools depend on, extend and monkeypatch distutils in so many ways (including relying on buggy behaviour) that this has been virtually impossible. The new approach, a clean break, is good but means a sudden change of direction of Tarek. He has written this up, including the progress he and his team have already made: The Fate of distutils.

During the language summit Guido also approved 3 PEPs, all important in their own way:

As with last year the audio visual team did an outstanding job of recording the talks, many of which (but not all at the time of writing) are available to watch online at and the Python Miro Community. Some of the ones I recommend are:

There are lots of great talks there, with more arriving, so have a browse through.

This year I had a new toy at PyCon, a portable audio recorder that I used to record a bunch of interviews for A Little Bit of Python. I've recorded some very cool interviews, but they'll take a bit of editing and will go live over the next few weeks:

  • Antoine Pitrou - CPython developer and creator of the new GIL
  • Paul Hildebrandt - Senior Programmer at Disney Animation Studios
  • Frank Wierzbicki - Lead developer of Jython
  • Christian Tismer - Creator of Stackless Python, one of the original PyPy developers plus developer of version 2 of Pysco the specializing JIT for Python
  • Allison Randall - Architect of the Parrot VM and lead developer of Pynie
  • David Beazley - Python trainer and author of The Python Essential Reference
  • Jacob Kaplan-Moss & James Tauber - BDFLs of Django and Pinax
  • Jimmy Schementi, Dino Veihland, Dave Fugate and Bill Chiles - The IronPython team
  • Tarek Ziade - Developer currently fixing Python packaging
  • Jean-Paul Calderone and Jonathan Lange - Twisted core developers
  • Collin Winter and Jeffrey Yaskin - Lead Unladen Swallow developers
  • Maciek Fijalkowski - A core PyPy developer
  • Van Lindberg - PSF lawyer, PyCon chair and author of Intellectual Property and Open Source

As soon as any of these go up I'll be sure to let you know.

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Posted by Fuzzyman on 2010-03-04 00:07:07 | |

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UK TV License and the Common Law Right of Access

emoticon:home The UK, in common with countries like France, has a separate 'tax' to pay for the public television stations. In the UK these stations are run by the British Broadcasting Corporation who also collect the Television License fee. The BBC TV channels are generally of very good quality [1] and so I'm not against the TV license fee (as many people are), but as I don't watch broadcast television I don't have to pay the fee.

Unfortunately the department responsible for collecting the license assume that if you don't pay the fee then you are watching television illegally; they don't even entertain the possibility that you might not need a license. They send threatening letters demanding payment virtually every week, they use detector vans that can tell if you are watching terrestrial TV via an aerial [2], and everywhere that sells televisions is legally obliged to pass your address onto the licensing authority when you buy a TV. Even worse officers from the licensing authority come and visit unlicensed homes with the intention of blackmailing you into buying a license - oops, I mean checking to see if you are watching TV illegally.


The BBC offers all of its programs via the internet for up to a week after they are broadcast via a catch-up service called iPlayer (available in the UK only unfortunately). This is excellent and we sometimes watch this through our Wii. It is well established legally that you don't need a license to watch this, you only need a license if you watch programs as they are broadcast (but you do need a license for cable TV even if you don't watch the BBC channels).

These 'enforcement officers' have no legal authority and no right to enter your house unless you let them in. In the UK if anyone comes onto your property without permission it is trespass, for which the property owner can sue (not prosecute - it is a tort, a civil offence not a criminal one). However, there is a common law 'right-of-access' for people to come onto your property and knock on your door. What is less well known is that you can withdraw this right-of-access from individuals and companies (and therefore all their employees). If you do withdraw this right from the TV Licensing Authority then if any of their officers knock on your door they are guilty of trespass.

If you write to the TV Licensing authority and inform them that you withdraw the common law right-of-access then they will stop sending enforcement officers to visit you (for at least a couple of years anyway). I have no problem telling them to clear off in person, but would prefer them not to hassle my wife.

For those interested in doing the same, here is the letter I sent:

Dear Sir/Madam,

I have no need of a TV licence, and am not breaking the law, and yet I have received continual letters and threats from your company. Your latest missive even included details of a television I purchased, as if to indicate how closely you are monitoring.

That television is in our front room and connected to a DVD player and a games console. It is not used to watch broadcast television. We do not receive any broadcast television, neither by terrestrial broadcast nor by cable nor any other means, and so we do not need a license. I am aware of both the law and our rights in this area.

Your visiting officers will not call at my address. This letter denotes prior written and legal warning that any such visit will constitute trespass and harassment. Normally there is an assumed right of entry to the front door of a property. However this is denied to your employees, since any such act will evidently constitute harassment since prior warning has been given.

Your company will not send me any threatening letters or any other correspondence; you will not visit my property, neither will you visit my home. You may, of course, reply to this letter. Although I have nothing to hide, I resent your intrusion and harassment into my life and the life of my family.

You have now been informed that any such visit or usual threatening letter, or threats of visits, constitute harassment. You will immediately cease. You may, of course, reply to this letter. You will kindly acknowledge in your reply that you have noted/understood the contents of this letter.

All the best,

Michael Foord

My intention with the letter was to not just forestall any visits but also to cease the endless stream of threatening letters. A couple of weeks after sending this letter I got a very terse reply acknowledging that I had withdrawn the right of access. They did 'reserve the right' to use other means to contact me. Sending letters is not a trespass as it is the post office who delivers them (and I'm not withdrawing their right of access). However, I haven't received any other letters from them since...

[1]As is the way with publicly run organisations, I'm sure the BBC is bureaucratically top heavy but they do produce some very good TV and technology. On the other hand I've known at least a couple of programmers who have worked there who say the internal politics between departments can be stifling. I guess this is true of many large organisations though.
[2]Many people seem to think these detector vans are works of fiction; but they do work. They can detect the signals radiated back out through your aerial that your TV uses to decode the radio signal. This obviously only works if you use an aerial (and not cable).

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Posted by Fuzzyman on 2009-12-24 16:52:23 | |

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New Job with Django and IronPython

emoticon:html Big personal news; I've changed jobs. After more than three years working with Resolver Systems I felt it was time to broaden my development experience. I greatly enjoyed working with Resolver Systems and learned an enormous amount; I'm sorry to leave them but I'm sure they'll manage to cope without me. Smile

I'm now freelance, starting with a contract with a web development firm based in Germany called Comsulting. I first came into contact with Comsulting earlier this year through their lead developer Sven Passig. One of their big customers wanted a web application with the front-end written in IronPython and Silverlight. I did some consulting for them on this as it was their first Silverlight application.

You can hear a bit about what they've been up to with IronPython and Silverlight on the Python 411 podcast that Sven recorded with Ron Jeffries:

I've just been onsite in Germany with them for two weeks but will mainly be working from home. Comsulting's biggest customers are within the German and Swiss media industry and they have several applications for tracking and organising advertising in magazines and websites. It turns out that these media companies really like Silverlight...

We're developing web applications for these companies and after working on the tail end of one project for the first week I started a new project with Stepan Mitt, a designer / developer who also contracts for Comsulting and who happens to be a really cool guy. We're using Django on the server (with CPython 2.5 on Linux) and Silverlight on the client side. I'm converting the Comsulting guys to Test Driven Development, but we still need to investigate the best way to functionally test Silverlight applications.

It's great to be working with CPython again, and especially with Django, but also great to be able to use my IronPython experience. Our Silverlight application communicates with Django via json, so we're using the Django ORM and authentication but our views generate json. I'm sure there will be a blog entry or two out of this.

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Posted by Fuzzyman on 2009-11-14 20:22:38 | |

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Northampton Geek Meet

emoticon:newspaper Well, last night was the inaugural meeting of the Northampton Geek Meet. Nine geeks from around Northamptonshire (in the UK) got together in the King Billy pub to partake of the real ale and geek talk.

Attendees were a mix of programmers and other geeks including:

Plus a few folk who have the good sense not to be on Twitter... We're a ragtag bunch; a few of us who know each other from the London Python meetups, a few of us from Twitter, a friend of mine from university whom I haven't seen for 15 years but who found me on Facebook and is a .NET developer (doing some very cool stuff with micropayments and mobile phones), a guy interested in open source who found me via my website plus someone who heard about the geek meet from a message I posted on LinkedIn. This is the first practical use of LinkedIn I've ever found... Then there was Roger found us whilst visiting Northampton and using the 'find people near me' feature on his mobile Twitter client. I guess all this social stuff has its uses.

You can see us (thankfully blurry) and hear a brief introduction from us all that Christian recorded as an AudioBoo: The First Northampton Geek Meet.

The King Billy was great; decent beer, quiet and with a good lounge so the next one will be there too. Currently we're looking to have the next one on Thursday November 26th. I'll post reminders on Twitter, LinkedIn and the Python-UK mailing list so you've got no excuse for missing it!

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Posted by Fuzzyman on 2009-10-22 15:41:41 | |

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Pythonista Kiva lending team

emoticon:acrobat Kiva is an amazing organisation. They support individuals in developing countries by making loans for them to develop their own businesses. The movement they are part of is called microfinance and they are making an incredible difference to the lives of many people. What is even more incredible is that Kiva, through its local partners, has made loans of about $90 million with a repayment record of over 98%!

The money from these loans comes from people like you and me, members of the most affluent societies in the world. Although you won't make a profit from participating you are usually protected from currency fluctuations and so are able to do good without it actually costing you much in the medium term. The Kiva website makes it easy to withdraw or relend money as it is repaid and they don't take anything for administration unless you specifically add it to the loan.

A bunch of folk from the Python community have got together to form a lending team. Come and join us:

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Posted by Fuzzyman on 2009-08-31 20:30:24 | |

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Writing a Technical Book

emoticon:Lithium Any day now I will get the first quarter sales figures for IronPython in Action. That will mark the book having been actually in the hands of readers for three months and also be about two and a half years since I first contacted Manning about the possibility of writing an IronPython book for them.

I've written up my experiences of writing a technical book, including my justification (uh, I mean explanation) of why it took so long, the writing process, things I learned and contract advice for the aspiring writer. This is advice I didn't follow myself but wish I had...

Much of the article is specific to my experiences with IronPython in Action - but despite the difficulties (and there will always be difficulties) I still recommend Manning if you really have to write a technical book:

The most important thing I learned was don't sweat the small stuff. This warrants repeating. Don't sweat the small stuff. Many times I knew the gist of what I wanted to say in a passage but couldn't find the words. I would go round and round over a single sentence for fifteen minutes or more. This happened a lot. I learned to just write something and then come back to it later. Often what I had been unhappy about when writing read fine when I came back to it the next day. If I was really stuck I would just leave a placeholder (like XXXX or something easy to search for) and come back to it another time. Letting yourself get stuck drags out the writing process and makes it mentally exhausting. Far better to just write what you have and move on; you're going to be going back over it later anyway.

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Posted by Fuzzyman on 2009-07-13 23:59:13 | |

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Gadgets: Samsung SSD, Sharkoon SATA Adaptor, Mimo USB Monitor and Powermate USB Volume Knob(!)

emoticon:clock Over the last few months I've bought a few new gadgets, and they're well overdue a review; so here goes.

As I'm sure you're aware Solid State Drives are hard drives using flash memory instead of mechanical disks; this eliminates the need for spin up, plus makes seek times and data rates potentially much faster and power consumption less. I wanted this for my Apple Macbook Pro, which only had a 120gig hard drive. Advantages for me would be a bigger hard drive, a faster hard drive, and through less heat / power a longer battery life as well.

Fitting it was a royal pain in the *ss. I followed the instructions from this article: Upgrade Your MacBook Pro's Hard Drive. They're pretty good, the only place I deviated from them was that once I got inside my Mac the bluetooth module wasn't on top of the hard drive I was removing. This was a good thing. Smile

The hardest part was levering the keyboard top panel from off the innards. This really didn't want to come off, and it is attached by a ribbon cable to the motherboard so you can't be too violent in your attempts to pry it free. It came eventually. Scraping the ribbon cable that is glued to the top of the existing drive free is also slightly nerve-wracking.

Choosing an SSD is almost as painful as fitting. The current crop of drives are the first that are within the realms of affordable (although still expensive), but many of them suffer from real performance issue once you have written a certain amount of data (random write access becomes far slower than even normal hard drives). This AnandTech Article is essential reading on the subject. It was written before the PB22 came out, and the conclusion it came to is that only the OCZ Vertex and the Intel X25-M are worth having. From what I've read the PB22 doesn't suffer the same problems that plague the earlier drives and it is cheaper than both the Vertex and the X25-M so I decided to go for it.

And as for performance, well. XBench reported (results here) an average of 3x faster than a standard Macbook Pro on all the drive benchmarks. The difference in general is noticeable but perhaps not overwhelming. The most striking change was in launching Microsoft Office for the Mac; it launched in about 3 seconds instead of 12! The disappointing thing is that starting my Windows VM (VMWare Fusion) is not much faster, although shutting it down is (which was already pretty fast). Even worse, booting my Mac up (something I don't do very often) - if you include the fifteen to twenty second freeze on start which arrived with the new drive - took about the same amount of time.

In the end, whilst trying to fix a different problem with another of my new gadgets I reset the PRAM on my Macbook, which fixed it! Now on the once a month occasion I restart my laptop it will happen really quickly. Overall the biggest difference that fitting the SSD made was that I now have a bigger hard drive. Everything is faster but possibly not enough to make it worth the cost, it seems that other than Word most of the apps I start are network or CPU bound. The downside is that after investing in the SSD I probably have to wait another couple of years before I replace my Macbook.

When I ordered the SSD I also ordered a 2.5" SATA adaptor to go with it. I asked the salesman if the adaptor would work with the SSD and he did suggest that buying an SSD and then using it through a USB adaptor didn't sound that sensible. Actually I wanted the adaptor to clone the internal drive of my Mac onto the SSD before fitting it. The nice thing about the Sharkoon is that it has connectors for SATA drives and 2.5" / 3.5" IDE drives. Like many geeks I often have random hard drives lying around and this will allow me to use them. It worked fine (without needing a driver) on Mac OS X, despite not advertising Mac compatibility. It even comes with some funky rubber sheaths for attached drives if you want to leave one connected for anything other than a short period of time.

To clone the internal drive in the laptop onto the SSD I used Carbon Copy Cloner. Cloning a 120gig drive (CCC claimed it would do a block level clone but actually did a file level clone) took hours. It was slightly worrying to see the occupied size of the new drive was about 200meg less than the original - but I imagine this is a consequence of smaller blocks on the SSD and CCC doing a file level clone. Anyway it worked fine.

Mimo monitors make a range of 800x480 pixel USB monitors. I wanted the 740 touchscreen monitor for a home media server project. The 740 was out of stock so I ended up with the 710 and the media server project got shelved (I ditched wireless for my main computer as it was sporadically unreliable and with a wired connection to the desktop no need for a separate server).

The monitor is a fantastic second monitor for my laptop but I only use it when I have a power source. Rather than see it unused I have it attached to my desktop (technically my sixth monitor) showing my twitter stream via Tweetdeck.

This photo shows the Mimo and the Powermate volume control (see below).

USB gadgets! Mimo monitor and powermate volume control

It turned out to be an irresistible but expensive toy, quelle surprise. Definitely useful though and in constant use, so it's fared better than some of the expensive toys I've bought in the past (Nintendo DS I'm talking to you).

Unfortunately there is a problem with the displaylink driver and the Mac OS X 10.5.7 update. Some details of the problem here and more here (apparently it is a known issue with 10.5.7 and not the fault of the driver). Uninstalling and re-installing the driver worked for me, but sometimes the display doesn't work if I restart my laptop with it plugged in (remembering to unplug it before restarting does the trick).

This was another toy. Whenever I am at my computer I almost inevitably have a movie playing and this expensive little knob is a volume control. It has much more granularity than using the keyboard to control the volume and I find it surprisingly useful. You can configure different behaviour (e.g. scrolling) for different applications, but I just use it as a volume control.

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Posted by Fuzzyman on 2009-06-15 13:44:01 | |

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