Musings of an anonymous geek

October 10, 2007

The Technology Behind Python Magazine

Filed under: Big Ideas,Python,Technology — m0j0 @ 9:04 am

Hi all,

I mentioned to a buddy (who is also an editor) that we used subversion in our editorial process. He didn’t know what that was, and said that they used either this big nasty home grown system, or email attachments, to coordinate the editorial process.  He was incredibly curious about how we used subversion and what else we were using.

I started writing this kind of long email and then figured that others might be curious as well about the various technologies we use (or are moving to, etc) at Python Magazine, so here’s a quick list of tools we’re currently using:

  • Subversion – of course, I’ve mentioned this. We view every email attachment as a problem to be solved. Email is a communication tool. It is not a file transfer protocol (no, really – it isn’t), and it is certainly not a collaboration tool. We have a very simple directory hierarchy on the server representing the various stages in the editorial process, from the initial, original submission as received by the author, all the way to the final PDF rendering of the entire magazine, and all parts in between. The final review of the magazine even happens in SVN. We have a ‘corrections.txt’ file that we all add to as we review the PDF, and when that file is empty, the PDF is moved to the directory representing “go to press!”
  • Plain text – sometimes less is more. I’ve edited and authored using Word, OpenOffice, LaTeX, and a few other tools. In the end, plain text with extremely simple and minimalist formatting tags win the day by a long shot. Authors aren’t forced to use any particular tool or platform to write their articles, editors don’t have to wonder which version authors have, which language setting they were using, etc. We don’t have to wonder if our version control system will handle a binary format properly, and the files are smaller. It’s also easier to run scripts against them to do things like strip formatting, or selectively apply it given a regex or something.
  • Google Calendar – We are notified the night before any article deadline, and the calendar is shared among the editors. Theoretically, the same calendar could be used to indicate that an editor is going to be unavailable or a tech reviewer is going to receive an article, but so far, it mainly reminds us of upcoming deadlines.
  • IRC/Google Talk – We actually don’t send very much email to each other. Sometimes we talk on IRC about emails we received or need to be added to the cc list of, etc. Almost everything we do involves either IRC or Google Talk. Of the 50 or so people on the authors mailing list for Python Magazine, at least 40 have email addresses, and so do all of the editors here, so even some of the author/editor communication is email-free. In addition, the Python Magazine IRC channel is, and you can talk to editors and authors there. The only email that gets sent is:
    • subversion server updates,
    • users who need to mail info at pythonmagazine to ask subscription questions,
    • authors sending to editors at pythonmagazine to submit article ideas (we don’t take them on irc),
    • replies to threads, usually initiated by one of the above actions.
  • PHP – yes, believe it or not, the main site is written in PHP. The publishing company (MTA) was originally formed around php|architect Magazine, which is a magazine about PHP. That was in 2002. Today, there are two language-based magazines. Some day there may be five language-based magazines. Certainly, we’re not going to maintain websites using 5 different languages! O’Reilly doesn’t do it, and they publish entire *books* on different languages (and platforms! and databases!) I was impressed by the Python community’s understanding in this matter. Lesser communities would’ve sent lots of hate mail.
  • Python – Doug Hellmann (our tech editor) and myself (to a lesser degree, because Doug is far better at it) write any little tools and scripts we need using Python. Sometimes I think about writing Python scripts just to make Doug laugh. Don’t forget, I launched this magazine not because I professed any deep knowledge of Python. On the contrary – it was because I figured there were neophytes like myself who would like to know more, and advanced coders who would like to look into areas of Python outside their immediate area of expertise within the language.
  • Adobe InDesign – InDesign is the main layout tool. Layout is like some spooky ethereal realm to me. I imagine other tools are used during the layout/design process, but I don’t honestly know what they are. I’m sure the layout team prefer it that way. It’s probably better if I just say “I’d rather see the title moved up and to the right” than to start trying to tell them how to use their tools.

Those are the tools I can think of off the top of my head aside from back end things like a relatively standard LAMP stack that runs the web sites, and which I also don’t have much of a role in maintaining. Of course, there’s also one big element of all of this technology that blows them all away: the people. Every single person is technical in some way. Me, the layout folks, all of the editors for the whole company that I’m aware of, and even our fearless leader are all technical people. Technology is a common thread that runs through the entire organization, and ties all of us together. It makes an enormous difference, and I’m proud to be a part of the team.


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