I don’t know if it ever made it outside the UK, but there was a very popular series of books when I was a kid called “The Mr Men”. They were written and illustrated by Roger Hargreaves, were about 6″ square and each book was the mini-story of a Mr Grumpy or a Mr Happy or a Mr Small etc. They became a television series narrated by Arthur Lowe (of Dad’s Army fame) and most people of my generation can still hum the theme tune. (Dum dum-de-dum-de-dum-de Dum dum dum dum…). There was a later follow-on series called the Little Misses which I don’t think did quite so well.

Well the point of this trip down Memory Lane is that you see many of these same characters go by if you watch the Python mailing list. Python’s is the widest ranging of the technical mailing lists I subscribe to: I don’t follow the less focused Linux or Windows lists and the others I do subscribe to are mostly project-based (Pyro, cherrypy etc.). I’ve followed and contributed to the Python lists for several years now and amusedly watched the self-same questions and ideas come and go more than once. As I write there’s a thread about using regexes to validate email addresses and another about address-line recognition. A few months ago I remember someone posting in mock concern that we’d got to the middle of the week without someone asking whether the self parameter to class methods couldn’t be determined automatically (or some other such FAQ).

But the thing I most want to say is that I have learnt so much from reading the posts on the Python list. Learnt both from the point of view of technical and other knowledge and from the point of view of how people are and how they work and how they act and react differently. On the merely technical front, obviously I pick up new information when someone suggests a technique or a module I was unaware of. The same thing happens when someone asks a question I feel intrigued enough to attempt even when I don’t know the answer straight off. (Usually something Windows-y). But outside those, there are the kind of threads which spin off on tangents — not infrequently to the bewilderment of the poor bugger who just wanted to know whether Python’s datetime module handled leap-years or something. It’s there that you benefit from the wide reach of Python to people for whom programming is not the be-all-and-end-all of life. I’m sure it annoys some people who want their tech served neat, but I enjoy the maverick threads which diverge into language pronunciation, mick-taking of blatant spam attempts, and even those top-posting ding-dongs that always seem to come up.

Over and above all that, there’s the people - the Mr Men because, let’s face it, they mostly are Mr Men. There are fiery radicals, meek newbies, young racers champing at the bit, wannabe script kiddies, old hands, new faces, hardy perennials and seasonal bloomers. There are people who excel at putting others’ backs up, and people who calm things down. There are people who post their entire program, and those who put their entire question in the subject line. There are top-posters and bottom-posters, Usenet diehards and Web-forum youngsters.

The thing which never ceases to impress me, though, is when people are big enough to back down and say Sorry. There was a post recently which got quite heated and I though would end up in a heap on the floor. But the OP, and principal defendant so to speak, realised he was wrong, cooled off and offered an apology to the list. Good for him (I’m assuming it was a him).

Maybe one day I’ll grow tired of it, but for now I enjoy the virtual community. I imagine the communal groan when someone asks “What’s the best editor/framework?” or “How do I do private attributes, since they’re an undeniable part of Object-oriented programming?”; I give a small cheer as Python is seen to be behind some well-known or highly-feted website; and I look forward to the Quote of the Week.