I wrote the narrative below a while ago, but I never got around to publishing it until now. I was present at Sage Days 30, a conference for Sage developers and users which took place in Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia.
Wolfville, Nova Scotia
I first need to make some remarks about the trip itself, which contrasts greatly with my last trip abroad into the US. I flew Air Canada this time, and I overall got a very good impression of them. Compared to the last airline I flew in (I think it was United) it was nice to actually feel treated like a human instead of cattle. Relatively comfy seats, food already included in the ticket, no idiocy like charging for checking in luggage, a very good selection of in-flight entertainment. I amused myself by watching as many French-language movies as possible.
I also want to remark upon the immigration experience. A few years ago, my compatriots started to behave very poorly as guests in Canada, in effect overwhelming Canada’s immigration services with spurious refugee status requests. As a result, Canada suddenly and without warning started to request visas from Mexicans, which caused quite a stir. I was very unhappy about having to go through the paperwork to obtain an entry visa, but all in all, it was handled pleasantly by the Canadian embassy in Mexico. The process took less time than their website warned it would take, and the requisite documents were relatively easy to acquire. And when I was at the border, I didn’t get finger and retina scanned, the immigration officer asked very basic questions, and I was through the checkpoint in less than a minute.
Airport security was also overall nicer than elsewhere. While they still have the idiotic rules of no liquids, my knitting gear went through security without a problem. I noticed Canada was also having the full-body X-ray scanners in place, but they weren’t being used. I did get stopped for a pat-down, but it was fairlly unobtrusive and the security guard didn’t put his hand between my legs. Not great, but not as bad as the US. All in all, I rate it 3 out of 5 stars.
This means we can still be friends, Canada. I’m sorry my fellow Mexicans were not being nice to you, but it’s good to see you’re still making an effort to be nice back anyways.
Then there was the experience of actually being in Canada. That was also overall pleasant in every way. En route from the airport in Halifax where I rendez-voused with other Sage Days 30 participants, we found a very chatty Hungarian cab driver who delighted us with stories of his native Hungary and present Canada. And once I actually arrived in Canada, Tattingstone Inn‘s managers are the amongst nicest people I have ever met. I have never felt more welcome or better taken care of. They accomodated for all of our requests in a luxurious old-fashioned farm home, delicious breakfasts, supremely comfortable lodgings, and all for a low, low price. I can’t sing the praises of our hosts enough.
And Canadian themselves, it’s truly astounding how polite they are, how willing to offer help, how welcoming they are, how generally aware of other cultures they can be. I already knew all of these things, but after being away from Canada for so long, I had started to forget them.
Sage Days 30
Now about the conference itself. It appears I walked into a rather tight-knit group of combinatorial algebraists who had very specific problems in mind they wanted to work on with Sage. The format of the conference was that the first few days were dedicated to getting neophytes acquainted with Sage in general and the tail end of the conference was dedicated to hands-on development on Sage itself. There were a number of undergraduates who had specific summer research requirements that were presumably being fulfilled by this conference.
I was impressed with a few characteristics of the community built around Sage and of Sage itself. Sage undubitably follows a free development model, but what’s interesting is how easily users can be turned into potential developers. It really is software for mathematicians, by mathematicians. In order to accomplish this, it does a few things differently than most other free projects I’ve observed. First of all, its main Mercurial source repository is only writable by a single maintainer. Everyone else sends patches for consideration. The driving motivation here seems to be that because these are mathematicians, not seasoned developers, the senior members of the community do not want to burden the mathematicians with the minutae of source control. In this same vein, I am convinced that Python was the perfect glue language for Sage. It is easy to learn, its syntax is very close to what mathematicians are used to thinking of, even if specialised programmers can find much fault for it.
The activation energy for collaboration is thus greatly reduced. I think this is Sage’s greatest strength. Every member of the community can easily make the transition from user to developer. Not to belittle Sage’s computational abilities, which are also quite commendable, but other projects like GNU Octave would do well to learn from Sage’s experience. I am working on how to make Octave collaboration easier too.
I enjoyed the socialisation in Sage Days 30 as much as the technical discussions and work. I was unfortunately not able to devote much time to the technical aspects, because at the time I was busy with technical work of my own for a job I have thankfully since abandoned in favour of a much more interesting position. But having dinner with mathematicians-slash-programmers provided me with a sort of mathematical human contact for which I was deeply starved. Playing ultimate frisbee and mafia (or werewolf, as they knew the game) with them was also a delicious experience. Playing mafia with mathematicians is a unique treat, because they treat the whole thing as an involved logic puzzle, analysing everything with great care. It makes for a very interesting game. I am happy I brought along my go board, which also generated some interest at the same dinner party where the mafia gaming took place. I was surprised to see that the game was new to a number of them, but they seemed to quickly pick up an interest in it.
I was glad to also spend some time seeing some of the academic aspects of Acadia, where I am considering returning to academia and doing postgraduate work. The university is small, and it doesn’t even have a PhD programme, but I would be able to work with some people from there if I enroll in neighbouring Dalhousie in Halifax. Recently, during the second trip I shall speak of shortly, I coincidentally met some Acadia alumni who had many good things to say about it, about the smallness of the community and the few distractions there are, which allows one better concentration on academics. It sounds lovely. I am sending an application there shortly, and I hope I can get in.