Saturday, 26 December 2015

Weekly Python #11 - Duck Typing

Duck Typing

If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck ....

If you are new to Python you may well have heard of Duck Typing but you might not be too sure of what it means.  In this article we will explore Duck Typing with one of the most powerful concepts in Python : Iterators, a very powerful example of duck typing.

An Iterator is any object which implements functionality to allow the user to move through a collection of data one item at a time. Iterator behaviours are both simple to use and implement. Many parts of the python standard library implement iterators : strings, lists, dictionaries, tuples, generators, and even files.

Because every iterator shares the same behaviour, then your application can write one function which will work with every single iterator - no matter what type it is, and your application can implement it's own iterators, and the same functions which work on standard library iterators, will work the same way on your iterator too.

That is the theory, lets see something in practice :

>>> def dup( iterator ):
...     "A Generator which will duplicate each item in the given iterator"
...     for item in iterator:
...         yield item
...         yield item
The function above will take any iterator, and will return a generator which yields each item in the original duplicated. This function relies on Duck Typing: it needs whatever is passed in as the iterator argument to be implemented as an Iterator: It will work on any standard iterator (Note that Iterables (such as Lists, strings, tuples) are also Iterators, where as generator expressions, files are only Iterators).
>>> # A list of numbers
>>> [i for i in dup([0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9])]
>>> # A String
>>> [i for i in dup("abcdef")]
['a', 'a', 'b', 'b', 'c', 'c', 'd', 'd', 'e', 'e', 'f', 'f']
>>> # A Tuple
>>> [i for i in dup( (0,1,2,3,4,5,6) )]
[0, 0, 1, 1, 2, 2, 3, 3, 4, 4, 5, 5, 6, 6]
>>> # A Generator expression
>>> [i for i in dup( (i for i in range(0,7) )]
[0, 0, 1, 1, 2, 2, 3, 3, 4, 4, 5, 5, 6, 6]
This function would also work if you passed in an open file object, and would generate a duplicate for every line in the file, and with a dictionary it will generate a duplicated sequence of keys.

With a language such as C or C++, you will struggle to implement such a generic function, which would operate on strings, vectors, arrays and files, since C is a statically typed language which means you need to declare ahead the arguments that your function, and strings, vectors, arrays are all different types.

With Duck typing, as we have seen it isn't the type that matters, it is the behaviour (in this case data which behaves like an Iterable). In general you don't even worry about testing that the arguments are the correct/expected type (let the lower levels worry about raising exceptions and cascading them upwards); if your code is using hasattr or isinstance to check the type or behaviour exists before you use it, then you aren't utilizing the full power of Duck-Typing.

 Custom Errors

You might consider that if you need to raise a custom error rather than use the exception generated by the  lower level code, then the right thing to do is to check that the attributes have the right behaviour before you use them :

>>> def dup( iterator ):
...     "A Generator which will duplicate each item in the given iterator"
...      if not hasattr(iterator,"__iter__"):
...           raise TypeError("You can only duplicate items from an iterator")
...      for item in iterator:
...          yield item
...          yield item

Although this will work, it is not the best use of the language, and not very Pythonic (i.e. best practice for Python code). A Better solution is to use the power of Duck Typing, and exception handling.
>>> def dup( iterator ):
...     "A Generator which will duplicate each item in the given iterator"
...      try:
...          for item in iterator:
...              yield item
...              yield item
...      except TypeError:
...          raise TypeError("You can only duplicate items from an iterator")
Not only is this version best practice (if you really insist on a custom Exception message), but it will be quicker as it wont need to execute the hasattr test each time the function is called.

using isinstance or hasattr

There is one case where using isinstance or hasattr is completely valid thing to do (and even recommended) and that is when your code is taking data as an argument into a class __init__ which needs to be an expected type, but your code doesn't use that data until much later (as it is always better to report errors as soon as possible).

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Weekly Python #10 - Employing disabled workers

Employing disabled workers

This article is a short post which has nothing to do with Python, but is about my other area of interest : Disability and Employment rights.

In most modern jurisdictions (certainly true in the EU), it is an obligation of employees to treat disabled workers fairly and not show any bias due to their disability. The definition of disability is pretty wide; for instance in the UK it is generally defined as anyone with a recognized chronic (i.e. long term) condition.

For an employer with worker who becomes disabled, it is responsibility of the employer to make reasonable adjustments to the job to ensure that the worker can still do their role, but what does the obligation to fairness mean when you are looking to take on a brand new employee.

During both CV and interview stage a prospective employee should concentrate on the skills of the applicants - and what they can bring to the organization, rather than what they might not be able to do based on their disability. All relevant skills and experience should be seen as positives for that candidate, and training needs are clearly costs for employing that candidate. My understanding of the law [1] suggests that if there are extra costs associated with employing a disabled candidate that these should not be counted against that person unless they would be unreasonable for the company to bear.

I have an example recently which is worth recounting :

My current employer (I am not giving any names) has a strategy to try to bring everyone together into a number of key locations (in order to improve collaboration, and reduce infrastructure and building costs). The strategy has clearly stated exceptions for employees who are disabled or otherwise unable to be based in one of these locations. I recently had a telephone interview for a design role: being a member of a team completing software and network designs.

During the interview though, I wasn't really asked about my skills or experience, or what I could bring to the role. The interviewer focused almost entirely on the company's buildings strategy and how me working from home was incompatible with that strategy, and that it was "a waste of time" to talk to me any further. The role had no operational need for everyone to be be based in the same building; no secure networks, no key customers to work with daily. There was no rationale given for why being in the office was essential to the role, although I can understand that one person working from home will impact how the team works together (most of which could be overcome with an appropriate use of technology). The only "explanation" given was the building strategy, despite it not being mandatory for all employees.

I am not suggesting that every role can be executed efficiently by everyone (a person in a wheelchair would probably find it difficult to be a scaffold rigger), but there are many cases where a disabled person would be able to do a given role just as efficiently as a non-disabled person, and therefore the critical decision should be whether that person has the right mix of technical, business and personal skills to do the role.

I accept that there is sometimes a fine line between two candidates and I am not suggesting that an employer should always choose the disabled candidate, but the employer should be looking at a disability as something to adjust to, rather than something which prevents the job from being done.

[1] I am not an employment lawyer, or a trained recruiter. I am a s/w designer and developer with 27 years experience of systems and network experience, and 2 years experience of living with a disability.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Weekly Python #9 - Adding to a list - only one way ?

Adding to a list

Is there really only one way ?

It is one of the principles of python that "There should be one-- and preferably only one --obvious way to do it." You will notice though when it comes to many of the parts of the standard language, that there is actually many different ways to do somethings - for instance adding a single item to a list.
>>> a = [0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10]
>>> a.append(11)
>>> a += [12]
>>> a = a + [13]
>>> a.extend([14])
>>> a
All of these appear to do the same things, but behind the scenes they all do different things - and have different advantages.


Using the append method is by far the most obvious method : It is very readable (and readability is key when writing software). It is implemented a single method call on the list method, and once the append is complete there is no return value. it all makes for a lightning quick execution
$ python -m timeit -n 1000000 -s 'a = [i for i in range(1000)]' 'a.append(1001)'
1000000 loops, best of 3: 0.0452 usec per loop
0.0452 micro seconds (a micro second is one millionth of a second) to append 1,000,000 elements to a list.

Using +=

For some people this idiom is just as readable as an append but it is actually a bit less efficient, as there a few things that have to be done before the item can be appended to the list.
  • the element (12 in our case) has to be made into a list
  • The __iadd__ method is called
  • The __iadd__ method does a type check to ensure that the argument is a list
$ python -m timeit -n 1000000 -s 'a = [i for i in range(1000)]' 'a += [1001]'
1000000 loops, best of 3: 0.081 usec per loop
Using the += method takes nearly 2 times longer than using append for adding single elements.

It would probably be far more efficient to use this method to add another existing list (rather than looping around the list and appending each element) - we will look at this later

Using + 

A first glance doing a = a + [13] is going to be similar in performance to the previous statement a += [12] but there is a lot more going under the skin here.
  • the element (12 in our case) has to be made into a list
  • The __add__ method is called
  • The __add__ method does a type check to ensure that the argument is a list
  • The __add__ method creates a brand new empty list to hold the result of the addition, and will need to copy the original a list and argument list into this new empty list. The name a will be bound to the new list returned by the __add__ method.
These difference go some way to explaining to performance differences :
$ python -m timeit -n 1000000 -s 'a = [i for i in range(1000)]' 'a = a + [1001]'
10000 loops, best of 3: 25.4 usec per loop
So using a straight list addition as above - it takes over 500 times longer to add a single element to a list; and it can't be recommended for use. It will also use more memory (as it creates this brand new list and fills it, before the old one is unbound), and this could also be significant for your application.


This significant performance impact seems to not be connected to the size of the original list - even adding a single element to an empty list takes a similar amount of time, and creation of a new empty list doesn't seem to be the issue either. At the time of writing the performance impact seems to be caused by the re-binding of the new list to one of the names in the expression.

The only advantage is that if you have another name bound to the original list, then that original list wont be changed - but there are better ways to ensure that this happens - by taking a copy of the original list before you change it :
>>> a = [0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10]
>>> b = a[:]            # Take an explicit shallow copy of a
>>> a.append(11)        # Use append - which we know is a lot quicker
>>> a, b
[0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11], [0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10]


The extend method is intended to be used to combine two lists together; a.extend(x) is equivalent to a += x (where a and x are both lists). We can also use extend to add single elements to a list :
$ python -m timeit -s 'a = [i for i in range(1000)]' 'a.extend([1001])'
10000000 loops, best of 3: 0.0924 usec per loop
So extend is approximately equivalent to using a += x - as expected.

Adding multiple elements efficiently

So far we have looked at adding single elements to a list, but often our code needs combine two lists; so it would be useful to look at the relative performance of a += x vs a.extend(x} where x is a list.
$ python -m timeit -s 'a = [i for i in range(1000)]' -s 'b=[i for i in range(1001,2001)]' 'a += b'
100000 loops, best of 3: 2.25 usec per loop
$ python -m timeit -s 'a = [i for i in range(1000)]' -s 'b=[i for i in range(1001,2001)]' 'a.extend(b)'
100000 loops, best of 3: 2.3 usec per loop
So within a margin of error the two are roughly equivalent. Just out of interest how much slower is appending each element :
$ python -m timeit -s 'a = [i for i in range(1000)]' -s 'b=[i for i in range(1001,2001)]' 
'for e in b:' '   a.append(e)'
10000 loops, best of 3: 47.2 usec per loop
Appending each element of a 1000 element list is 23 times slower than adding the two lists together, and it is not unreasonable to expect that the gap between the two approaches will increase as the lists get longer.


Although (on the face of things) there are 4 different methods for adding an element to a list, and at least 3 for combining lists together, there is really only one way that you should use; append for single items and extend of combining lists. The guiding "One obvious way" principle espoused by Python experts still holds, although sometimes it isn't obvious which way is the obvious one.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Python Weekly #8 - I know Python - now what ?

I know Python - so now what ?

In this article I wanted to write a few words about a question that I have seen regularly on a number of different support forums. The question is generally of the form given in the title : New programmers have adsorbed the syntax and control structures of Python, and now want to know what to do with it.

Have you really learned Python ?

The first thing that springs to mind is whether the person asking the question has really learned the language at all. The syntax of Python is relatively simple, and the basic data types (str, list, int, bool etc) are relatively easy to learn and intuitive, but Python is so much more than that - for instance - do you know what this does before trying it :
>>> import antigravity 
This is just one (albeit just a bit of fun) of over 100 different importable modules that come delivered with python (The Standard Library) that allows you to do wonderful things with it. Beyond that there is the world of pyPi (python Package index) - a world of over 70,000 modules and packages developed across the world and freely available for you to use in  a few easy steps.

These package provide functionality that far extends the basic syntax, and it is all reusable for free.

Now I am not suggest you should know everyone of the 70,000+ modules on pyPi or all the details even of the 100+ modules that form the Standard Library, but you should be aware that they exist, how to find them, how to read the documentation, and at least have a working knowledge of some of the main ones (See my previous article Batteries included - 5 Standard Library Packages everyone should know). In the case of the pyPi contributions you should also know how to install these to your local environment (Hint : you will need to use pip).

Practice, Practice, Practice

The best way to learn anything and get proficient at it is to continue to practice. There are a number of ways to hone your skills in Python and these include :
  • Project Euler : "a series of challenging mathematical/computer programming problems that will require more than just mathematical insights to solve. Although mathematics will help you arrive at elegant and efficient methods, the use of a computer and programming skills will be required to solve most problems". A heavy mathematical bent, but well worth trying some to hone your skills, especially when it comes to writing efficient and performant code. There are 526 Project Euler problems created at the time of writing.
  • The Python Challenge : Billed as "The first programming riddle on the internet", this is a chain of problems which are solved by deciphering a set of clues, and then writing a short scripts to calculate/derive the answer - which is then the form of the URL for the next riddle". For the most part they rely on the standard library. There are 33 steps to the riddle currently.
  • Python programming challenges : A small set of 7 programming challenges set to support the UK GCSE Computer Programming qualification (GCSE is aimed at students aged around 16).
  • CodingBat Python problems : "CodingBat is a free site of live coding problems to build coding skill in Python created by  who is computer science lecturer at Stanford. The coding problems give immediate feedback, so it's an opportunity to practice and solidify understanding of the concepts.
These (and similar sites) allow you to practice without the difficulty of trying to come up with your own ideas - and if you had your own "Big Idea" then you wouldn't be reading this article.

What are you interested in ?

If you really want to get moving on your own big idea, then my advice is to look around you - is there something in your life, that you do that would benefit from a computer program to help you do it. This could be something from your work environment or your home life (Caution if you are going to tackle a work based problem - check that you wont be in breach of any work based security rules before you start. I would hate for you to loose your job because you followed my advice, identified a work problem and  installed Python on your work PC/laptop without permission).

The reason behind this advice is simple: If you need something, (or even think you need something) it is far more likely that you will work on it until it is complete (or at least good enough). If you start on something that you don't need, or you are not enthused about, you will be far less likely to complete it.

I will give you an example based on my first application developed in 2008.  I am an amateur photographer, and I use flickr to store the majority of my pictures. At the time the flickr uploader on the website was clunky, slow, unreliable and required a lot of work post upload to add tags, titles, to the pictures, as well needing to add pictures to folders etc. It was not suprising then that my first project was to write my own PC based uploader, that allowed me to take groups of pictures - add them into folders, add tags, titles, descriptions,  change permissions etc. and then to upload them to flickr at a single click.  This application required me to work with a number of different libraries and packages to complete the functionality including :
  • pyGTK  - Python bindings for the Gnome Toolkit - A fulll featured GUI framework
  • PIL - Python Image Library - an image manipulation toolset
  • flickrapi - A Python interface onto the http based Flickr API.
I completed this - and used it "in anger" for several years (fixing bugs and adding more features) as I went along  until in around 2012 the web site based uploader was re-developed and is now far better than it was. My pyFlickr application although complete is now never used.

I have to admit that my development directory is littered with programming projects which I have started but never completed - mainly because at the end of the day I didn't need it.

Get Involved

If you haven't got a project that you need to write, but you still want to keep your Python skills fresh, then look around for a project that others have started but that you can work on (by it's very nature much of the work published on pyPi and other places is Open Source, and many projects are looking for collaborators, either to fix bugs or assist in developing new features). Find a project that interests you and contact the authors.

Many of the bigger projects will require some proof of experience and knowledge of python - a project you have completed yourself - or contributions to other projects. Nearly all projects will require you to have a good working knowledge of one of the python testing frameworks and knowledge of how to use the chosen method of change control, and I would suggest that you should be proficient in being able to profile your code in terms of performance and memory usage, and in being able to measure metrics like code coverage etc.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Python Weekly #7 - An Easy to use extend plugin framework

An easy to extend plugin framework

In a number of my projects I have made several iterations of developing a plugin framework - that is, a way that functionality can be extended easily (by me, or anyone else) without having to explicitly editing the main code.
An example might be a game where the user has to manage a number of different types of resources produced by different types of buildings, and with specialist people/aliens/trolls etc staffing those buildings and using those resources. With an efficient plugin system, it is relatively easy to imagine  the base game defining a starting set of buildings, resources, and types of workers/aliens etc, and then be able to extend the game adding new buildings, new resources etc by simply adding a new plugin, and without anyone editing the main game.
A plugin system has to have the following characteristics : 
  1. Automatic Discovery : Newly added plugins should be able to be automatically discoverable - i.e. the application should be able to find new plugins easily without any user intervention
  2. Clear Functionality : It should be obvious to the application what "type" of functionality the plugin adds (using the game example above does the plugin add new resources, new buildings or new workers - or all 3 ?).
  3. Is there a simple way for the user to use the plugin once it is added; for instance are plugins added to existing menus, or do they create obvious new menus etc.
This article is going to describe a simple framework that can be used to extend your python applications. The framework certainly addresses the first two points of the list above, and I will give you some pointers on the 3rd item, as there is no generic solution to it - it really does depend on your application

Source Code

Source code to accompany this article is published on GitHub : plugin framework. This includes a package which encapsulates the code within a simple to use class, an example very simple application (showing how to use the framework), and a very simple skeleton plugin, showing the very simple requirements that any plugin should implement to work with this framework.

1 -Automatic Discovery

This is actually three parts; can we find the code that forms the plugin, can we load this code (a python module or package), and can we identify which parts of this loaded code are actually the plugins and which are supporting code only being used by the plugin.

Finding the python code

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is the simplest problem to address - the application can keep all of the plugins in a standard directory (or maybe two - a system wide and user specific directory) :
import sys
import os

def get_plugin_dirs( app_name ):
    """Return a list of plugin directories for this application or user

    Add all possible plugin paths to sys.path - these could be <app_path>/plugins and ~/<app_name>/plugins 
    Only paths which exist are added to sys.path : It is entirely possible for nothing to be added.
    return the paths which were added to sys.path
    # Construct the directories into a list
    plugindirs = [os.path.join(os.path.dirname(os.path.abspath(sys.argv[0])), "plugins"),
                  os.path.expanduser("~/.{}/plugins".format(app_name) )]

    # Remove any non-existant directories
    plugindirs =  [path for path in plugindirs if os.path.isdir(path)]
    sys.path = plugindirs + sys.path
    return plugindirs


The get_plugin_dirs function presented above relies heavily on the os.path library, since this is the most portable way to ensure that the application correctly constructs valid file paths etc.

We have a list of zero or more directories which may contain plugin code, so - lets identify code in those directories.
In Python code could exist as either :
  • An uncompiled python file, with the `.py` extension.
  • A compiled python file, with the `.pyc` extension
  • A C extension, with `.so` extension (or similar)
Thankfully - python makes it very easy to identify all of these files : use imp.get_suffixes() (in python 3.5 you should use importlib.get_suffixes()). Because of the features we want to use later we actually only want to use the python files (compiled and uncompiled) - and not any of the C extensions.

Plugins written in C ?

If you are adept enough to write an extension in C which you want to use as a plugin, then you can also easily write one or more wrappers in Python around you C extension code so that it complies with our framework - more on that later.
import imp
import importlib

def identify_modules(dir_list):
    """Generate a list of valid modules or packages to be imported

    param: dir_list : A list of directories to search in
    return: A list of modules/package names which might be importable
    # imp.get_suffixes returns a list of tuples : (<suffix>, <mode>, <type>)
    suff_list = [s[0] for s in imp.get_suffixes() if s[2] in [imp.PY_SOURCE, imp.PY_COMPILED]]
    # By using a set we easily remove duplicated names - e.g. and file.pyc
    candidates = set()

    # Look through all the directories in the dir_list
    for dir in dir_list:
        # Get the content of each dir - don't need os.walk
        dir_content = os.listdir(dir)

        # Look through each name in the directory
        for file in dir_content:

            # Does the file have a valid suffix for a python file
            if os.path.isfile(os.path.join(dir,file)) and os.path.splitext(file)[1] in suff_list:
            # Is the file a package (i.e. a directory containing a or __init__.pyc file 
            if os.path.isdir(os.path.join(dir, file)) and
                      any(os.path.exists(os.path.join(dir, file, f)) for f in ["__init__"+s for s in suff_list]):
    return candidates 
In the final discovery step - we need to see if any of the identified files actually implement a plugin, and for this step we can use a hidden gem of the Python Standard Library - the inspect library. The inspect provides functionality to look inside python modules and classes, including ways to list the classes within modules, and methods in classes (and a lot more besides). We are also going to make use of a key feature of Object Oriented programming - inheritance. We can define a basic PluginBase class, and use the inspect library to look at each of out candidate modules to find a class which inherits from the plugin class. In order to comply with our framework, the classes which implement our plugins must inherit from PluginBase.

Location of PluginBase

Currently we are presenting our framework as a set of functions - without identifying a module etc. If our plugin classes are going to inherit from PluginBase, then our framework, and especially PluginBase will need to exists in a place where it can be easily imported by our plugin modules. This is achieved by having the PluginBase class defined in a top level module, or a module in a top level package. (A top level module/package is one that exists directly under one of the entries in sys.path).
import inspect
import importlib

class PluginBase(object):
    def register(cls_):
        """Must be implemented by the actual plugin class
           Must return a basic informational string about the plugin
        raise NotImplemented("Register method not implemented in {}".format(cls_))

def find_plugin_classes(module_list):
   """Return a list of classes which inherit from PluginBase
   param: module_list: a list of valid modules - from identify_modules
   return : A dictionary of classes, which inherit from PluginBase, and implement the register method
            The class is the key in the dictionary, and the value is the returned string from the register method
   cls_dict = {}
   for mod_name in module_list:
       m = importlib.import_module(mod_name)
       for name, cls_ in inspect.getmembers(m, inspect.isclass):
           if issubclass(cls_, PluginBase):
                 info = cls_.register()
              except NotImplemented:
                  cls_dict[cls_] = info

   return cls_dict
And there we have it - the basis of plugin characteristic #1- That the plugin is automatically discoverable. Using the code above - all that the Plugin implementation needs to do is to be in a module which exists in one of the two plugin directories, be a class which inherit from the PluginBase class, and implement a sensible register method.

2 - Clear Functionality

The clear functionality characteristic is incredibly easy to implement, again using inheritance. Your application will have a number of base classes which define the basic functionality that each element of your game will implement, so just ensure that your plugin classes inherit from one of these classes.

import collections

def categorise_plugins(cls_dict, base_classes):
    """Split the cls_dict into one or more lists depending on which base_class the plugin class inherits from"""
   categorise = collections.defaultdict(lambda x: {}) 
   for base in base_classes:
       for cls_ in cls_dict:
          if issubclass(cls_,base):
             categorise[base][cls_] = cls_dict[cls_]
   return categorise
We can put all of this together into a useful helper class for the loading and unloading of the plugin functionality - see plugin_framework on GitHub for the full implementation, and a demonstration simple application.

3 - Simple to Use

How your application makes the plug-in simple to use and accessible really does depend on your application, but as promised here are  some pointers :
  • The register() method on the plugin-class could be used to return information on which menus etc this plugin should appear - or even if a new menus, toolboxes etc should be created to allow access to this plugin. 
  • In most cases the plugin class should also allow itself to be instantiated, and each instance may well be in a different state at any given time. The class therefore will need to implement methods to allow the the application to use those instances, to change their state etc.
It is up to the application to define the expected interface that is expected of each different BaseClass (i.e. the attributes, classmethods, staticmethods and instance methods). This definition should be clearly documented.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Python Weekly #6 : Regular Expressions - a starter for 10

Regular expressions

or "How I stopped worrying and learned to love regular expressions"
(with apologies to Stanley Kubrick)

In a previous post (Batteries Included - 5 modules every python developer should know) I mentioned that everyone should learn about regular expressions and the re package in the Standard Library. I will be completely honest at this point and say that when I wrote that post, I really did not understand the package myself, but I did understand how important it is, and that I really should learn it one day. That day is now - I have started to learn regular expressions, and some of my early experiments are documented in this article.

In general terms, a regular expression (or regex) is a way of executing a very flexible search (and potentially replace) type operation against a piece of text, without having to worry about parsing each character at a time. Python has the re package which implements a powerful set of regex syntax, and I will be using this in this article.

Useful sites

A few useful sites which would be worth bookmarking :
This article will work through building a regex to extract telephone numbers from some arbitary text. Throughout this article, I am going to use the findall method to find matching sub strings. Depending on your uses, it could be more advantageous to use some of the other methods within the re package. For instance if you just need the first match, it is likely to be much more efficient to use the search method, or if you plan to simply separate the text into various sections - then the split method is probably what you need.
Lets start by simply trying to find numbers within your text, and the regex will build with complexity and functionality as we go.
>>> import re
>>> def find_nums_re(text_str):
>>>     return re.findall(r"\d+", text_str)
>>> find_nums( "Call us on 0133 4456 789 or 07664 282 777 between 8am to 6pm (08:00 to 18:00)")
['01334', '456', '789', '07664', '282', '777', '8', '6', '08', '00', '18','00']
And there is the power of regex in a nutshell - one simple line. Let's explain that one line :
return re.findall(r"\d+", text_str)
The key part of this is the first argument to the findall - this is the regular expression (regex):
  • r : this signifies a raw string - which means that python won't try to do anything with the '\' characters within the string - i.e. what gets passed to the findall method is exactly what you type. It is strongly recommended that you always use raw strings when constructing regexs.
  • \d : A special regex sequence which specifically matches a single digit
  • + : A special character (a repeater) which means that you should match at least one or more of the previous matched sequence - i.e. we match one or more digits
The second argument to the findall method is termed the 'target text', which is the text to be searched or matched. The findall method searches the target text to find all the non-overlapping sub strings with match the regex - in our case all substrings which are numbers. This regex is greedy, which means that each match is the longest possible substring it can be - which is what we wanted here.

Greedy vs not-greedy

Many discussions and tutorials use the terms 'greedy' and 'non-greedy' without clear explanations. Hopefully these examples will make things clear.
  • A regex of r"\d+" with a target text of "1234" will match "1234" - it is a greedy match, and uses the longest possible string.
  • A regex of r"\d+?" with a target text of "1234" will match "1" - it is non-greedy match - and uses the shortest possible string.
As you can see - findall returns a list of the matched sub-strings if there are any, or any empty list if there are no matches, but we don't actually want all of those matches (as you can see it has found the text relating to the opening times, as well as just the phone numbers.

Let's start building up a more complex regex - that will just extract the phone numbers (or at least things that look like phone numbers). From now on I will use the verbose flag - so that we can document the regex as we go.
Lets start with our first format - that will match a phone number of the format nnnn nnnn nnn (4 digits, 4 digits, 3 digits), with simple spaces separating the various number groups.
>>> import re
>>> def find_nums_re(text_str):
>>>     return re.findall(r"""
...         (?x)              # Verbose mode
...         \d{4}             # 4 digits
...         \s                # space
...         \d{4}             # 4 digits
...         \s                # space
...         \d{3}           # 3 digits - followed by a non digit
...         """, text_str)
>>> find_nums( "Call us on 0133 4456 789 or 07664 282 777 between 8am to 6pm (08:00 to 18:00)")
['01334 456 789']
This seems to do what we want - but just for one format, and it would probably be inefficient to do separate searches for each possible format, so we will use the '|' combination operator to combine multiple searches into a single regex
>>> import re
>>> def find_nums_re(text_str):
>>>     return re.findall(r"""
...         (?x)                   # Verbose mode
...         \d{4}\s\d{4}\s\d{3}    # nnnn nnnn nnn
...         |                      # Or
...         \d{5}\s\d{3}\s\d{3}    # nnnnn nnn nnn
...         """, text_str)
>>> find_nums( "Call us on 0133 4456 789 or 07664 282 777 between 8am to 6pm (08:00 to 18:00)")
['01334 456 789', '07664 282 777']
There is no limit to how complex the search sequence can be between the '|' characters, and brackets are not needed to group together the regex patterns either side of the '|'.
 Our regex has found both of the phone numbers, and importantly it no longer finds the time information. So how could we extend it ? In the uk - all full format numbers will always start with a zero :
>>> import re
>>> def find_nums_re(text_str):
>>>     return re.findall(r"""
...         (?x)                   # Verbose mode
...         0\d{3}\s\d{4}\s\d{3}    # 0nnn nnnn nnn
...         |                      # Or
...         0\d{4}\s\d{3}\s\d{3}    # 0nnnn nnn nnn
...         """, text_str)
>>> find_nums( "Call us on 0133 4456 789 or 07664 282 777 between 8am to 6pm (08:00 to 18:00)")
['01334 456 789', '07664 282 777']

We continue to add functionality : In the UK we have a habit of putting brackets around the local code (the first block of numbers), but the brackets are optional - so let's extend our regex:
>>> import re
>>> def find_nums_re(text_str):
>>>     return re.findall(r"""
...     (?x)                    # Verbose mode
...     \(?                     # Optional opening bracket
...     0\d{3}                  # 0nnn dialing code
...     \)?                     # Optional closing bracket
...     \s\d{4}\s\d{3}          # remainder of number : nnnn nnn
...     |                       # Or
...     \(?                     # Optional opening bracket
...     0\d{4}                  # 0nnnn dialing code 
...     \)?                     # Optional closing bracket
...     \s\d{3}\s\d{3}          # remainder of number : nnn nnn
...     """, text_str)
>>> find_nums( "Call us on 0133 4456 789 or 07664 282 777 between 8am to 6pm (08:00 to 18:00)")
['01334 456 789', '07664 282 777']
>>> find_nums( "Call us on (0133) 4456 789 or 07664 282 777 between 8am to 6pm (08:00 to 18:00)")
['01334 456 789', '07664 282 777']
There is a problem - this simple regex is very naive - and will match a number which is probably malformed : 
>>> import re
>>> find_nums( "Call us on 0133) 4456 789 or 07664 282 777 between 8am to 6pm (08:00 to 18:00)")
['01334) 456 789', '07664 282 777']
and this is probably not what you want to happen - it certainly looks wrong, so lets make our regex more robust :
>>> import re
>>> def find_nums_re(text_str):
>>>     return re.findall(r"""
...      (?x)                    # Verbose mode
...      (                       # Outer Group 0nnn nnnn nnn or 0nnnn nnn nnnn
...          (                   # Group 1 - 
...               \(0\d{3}\)     # match (0nnn)
...               |              # or
...               0\d{3}         # match 0nnn
...          )                   # Close Group 1
...          \s\d{4}\s\d{3}      # remainder of number : nnnn nnn
...          |                   # Or
...          (                   # Group 2 
...               \(0\d{4}\)     # match (0nnnn)
...               |              # or
...               0\d{4}         # match 0nnnn
...          )                   # Close Group 2
...          \s\d{3}\s\d{3}      # remainder of number : nnn nnn
...      )                       # Close Outer Group
...          """, text_str)
>>> find_nums( "Call us on 0133 4456 789 or 07664 282 777 between 8am to 6pm (08:00 to 18:00)")
 [('0133 4456 789', '', ''), ('07664 282 777', '', '')]
>>> find_nums( "Call us on (0133) 4456 789 or (07664) 282 777 between 8am to 6pm (08:00 to 18:00)")
 [('(0133) 4456 789', '(', ''), ('(07664) 282 777', '', '(')]
>>> find_nums( "Call us on 0133) 4456 789 or 07664 282 777 between 8am to 6pm (08:00 to 18:00)")
 [('07664 282 777', '', '')]
Because we are now using groups - the findall method returns a list of tuples (where each element of the tuple is associated with a group in the regex, in the same order that the group starts in the regex - if you are not sure simply count along group starting '(' in your regex - be beware of other '(' in your regex which don't start groups.


One issue that is commonly faced is that the regex syntax uses the same symbols for lots of different things, and they can be tough to read. This is why the verbose mode is so useful, as you can clearly annotate exactly what your regex does, and where groups start (and end).
In our case we have a outer group which surrounds all of our regex - and this appears as the 1st element in our tuple. The other elements are associated with the groups we have used to capture the opening brackets, and they can be ignored in this example.

This seems like the finished article - we can detect both common number formats (with and without brackets), and we can reject numbers with incorrect brackets. But - there is an issue (we are ignoring that there are a number of other UK number formats or UK numbers with the international prefix). We tested for a misplaced closing bracket - but what about a misplaced opening bracket ?
>>> find_nums( "Call us on (0133 4456 789 or 07664 282 777 between 8am to 6pm (08:00 to 18:00)")
 [('(0133 4456 789', '' ''), ('07664 282 777', '', '')]
By including another test case we can see that our current regex will ignore that one of our numbers has a leading brace and no closing brace, and match against it anyway. The problem we have is that although the regex allows for brackets around the dialling code, it doesn't exclude a '(' in the case which is meant to be matching the un-bracketed local code, so lets fix our regex. We will use a special syntax called a Negative Lookbehind Assertion : the syntax is (?<!...). This looks back along the string being matched and generates a positive result if the preceeding characters do not match the given pattern - in our case (?<!\() will only match if the previous character is not a '(' - which is exactly what we need.
>>> import re
>>> def find_nums_re(text_str):
>>>     return re.findall(r"""
...      (?x)                    # Verbose mode
...      (                       # Outer Group 0nnn nnnn nnn or 0nnnn nnn nnnn
...          (                   # Group 1 - 
...               \(0\d{3}\)     # match (0nnn)
...               |              # or
...               (?<!\()0\d{3}         # match 0nnn
...          )                   # Close Group 1
...          \s\d{4}\s\d{3}      # remainder of number : nnnn nnn
...          |                   # Or
...          (                   # Group 2 
...               \(0\d{4}\)     # match (0nnnn)
...               |              # or
...               (?<!\()0\d{4}         # match 0nnnn
...          )                   # Close Group 2
...          \s\d{3}\s\d{3}      # remainder of number : nnn nnn
...      )                       # Close Outer Group
...          """, text_str)
>>> find_nums( "Call us on 0133 4456 789 or 07664 282 777 between 8am to 6pm (08:00 to 18:00)")
 [('0133 4456 789', '0133', ''), ('07664 282 777', '', '07664')]
>>> find_nums( "Call us on (0133) 4456 789 or (07664) 282 777 between 8am to 6pm (08:00 to 18:00)")
 [('(0133) 4456 789', '(0133)', ''), ('(07664) 282 777', '', '(07664)')]
>>> find_nums( "Call us on 0133) 4456 789 or 07664 282 777 between 8am to 6pm (08:00 to 18:00)")
 [('07664 282 777', '', '07664')]
>>> find_nums( "Call us on (0133 4456 789 or 07664 282 777 between 8am to 6pm (08:00 to 18:00)")
 [(('07664 282 777', '', '07664')]
This now seems to do exactly what we expect - well formed phone numbers are extracted from an arbitrary piece of text. The lesson from this step is if there is an optional substring, your regex might need two paths: one which looks for the optional substring, and a second path which works on the premise that the option substring. There is one final issue to address, which can be illustrated by the following test case :
>>> find_nums( "Call me on 0133 4456 78977")
 [('0133 4456 789', '', '')]
Our regex matches numbers which are too long, but which contain a valid number format - we need to ensure that there are no digits after the last one we match. This is relatively easy - We can use a Negative Lookahead Assertion : the syntax is (?!...). This looks back forward along the string being matched and generates a positive result if the next characters do not match the given pattern - in our case (?!\d) will only match if the next characters are not digits - which is exactly what we need.
>>> import re
>>> def find_nums_re(text_str):
>>>     return re.findall(r"""
...      (?x)                        # Verbose mode
...      (                           # Outer Group 0nnn nnnn nnn or 0nnnn nnn nnnn
...          (                       # Group 1 - 
...               \(0\d{3}\)         # match (0nnn)
...               |                  # or
...               (?<!\()0\d{3}      # match 0nnn
...          )                       # Close Group 1
...          \s\d{4}\s\d{3}(?!\d)    # remainder of number : nnnn nnn
...          |                       # Or
...          (                       # Group 2 
...               \(0\d{4}\)         # match (0nnnn)
...               |                  # or
...               (?<!\()0\d{4}      # match 0nnnn
...          )                       # Close Group 2
...          \s\d{3}\s\d{3}(?!\d)    # remainder of number : nnn nnn
...      )                           # Close Outer Group
...          """, text_str)
>>> find_nums( "Call us on 0133 4456 789 or 07664 282 777 between 8am to 6pm (08:00 to 18:00)")
 [('0133 4456 789', '0133', ''), ('07664 282 777', '', '07664')]
>>> find_nums( "Call us on (0133) 4456 789 or (07664) 282 777 between 8am to 6pm (08:00 to 18:00)")
 [('(0133) 4456 789', '(0133)', ''), ('(07664) 282 777', '', '(07664)')]
>>> find_nums( "Call us on 0133) 4456 789 or 07664 282 777 between 8am to 6pm (08:00 to 18:00)")
 [('07664 282 777', '', '07664')]
>>> find_nums( "Call us on (0133 4456 789 or 07664 282 777 between 8am to 6pm (08:00 to 18:00)")
 [('07664 282 777', '', '07664')]
>>> find_nums( "Call me on 0133 4456 78977")

Non-capturing regex

There is a concept called a non-capturing regex, the syntax is (?:...). The intention is that these patterns match against the 'target text', consume the characters that are matched, but unlike ordinary groups, the results aren't captured as a separate group in the results (i.e. no extra elements in the reported tuple from the findall method, or reported as group in the results from the search or match methods.
At first glance it seems that we could have used them instead of the Lookahead or Lookbehind assertions (which we used in the last two iterations), as all we want to do is ensure that certain substrings exist (or don't), but we don't care what they are. But, in reality, there is a wrinkle :
It is true that uhe non-capturing group (?[^\(]) will only match if there isn't a '(', and there wont be a group created for whatever is there, but the character sequence that is there will be reported as part of the containing group, and since the entire regex is treated as group, the character sequence will be reported as the content of the regex - which is not what we want in this case.
The main benefit of a non-capturing regex is that they can be added to existing sequences without impacting the numbering of the existing groups, and there is a small performance improvement.

Final Comments

It should be noted that we are only testing our regex pattern with 5 test cases - which is definitely not sufficient for production software, but it does seem like we have most of the issues solved.

For those of you who like picture, this is a visualization (created by Debugex) of our final regex.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Python Weekly #5 : Batteries Included - 5 Standard Library Packages every python developer should know

Batteries Included

5 Standard Library Packages every python developer should know

One of the reasons that python is incredibly popular is that as a language it is relatively fully formed out of the box. By fully formed I mean that many of the low level, and even medium level functionality is already developed and included in the Standard Library (this is what is often referred to as Batteries Included). The Standard Library is also very well documented for all versions of python - so it is difficult to go wrong.

It is also often the case that even if the standard library doesn't include what you need - someone else may have already published what you need : (See the pyPi - Python Package Index - for a complete list of everything that has been published by other developer - 69350 packages so far. It can be tricky to search if you aren't sure exactly how to describe what you need).

In this blog I am going to summarise 5 packages within the standard library that every developer should learn - in no particular order

re : Regular expression matching

Many applications will require some form of text proceesing, and if you have to go any more complex than finding a simple string in a piece of input, then you should learn how to use regular expressions - as implemented by the re module.
Regular expressions are a fantastic way to fuzzy search a text string, and extract sections of the text. In a future blog post I will cover the module in more detail.
Despite the power of regular expressions, some text problems are not really conducive to using regular expressions - for instance parsing XML, HTML or CSS : In these cases it is far better to use dedicated libraries to parse those types of input.
A word of warning though : regular expressions are very powerful, and can be complex. They will take time to learn and even longer to master - they are worth it - there are plenty of tutorials available.

datetime : Manipulation of dates and time stamps

Why bother with datetime ? -  very simply (unless you are asked to do it as a college assignment) life is far too short to try to write your own module to handle date and times. Seemingly simple rules can become very complex when you have to take into account leap years, leap seconds, time zones, different formats, and all the other nuances. Don't make the effort, even to write a simple module, when the datetime module (and it's partners calendar) already exist, and are known to work.

logging : flexible event logging system

The logging module is a flexible and standard method for getting useful information from your application, instead of including lots of print statements/functions in your code while developing, and then removing them before delivery (and risking breaking your code). With the logging module in use - just change your logging level - and your debug logging will cease - although the best way to debug is to actually use a debugger, in combination with your logging information, and of course your automated test cases.

argparse : Command line argument parse

Many complex applications will support a command line with one or more options and arguments. The argparse package within the standard library contains all the tools you need to parse the command line and extract the arguments and options. You will need to write code to identify invalid combinations, or invalid arguments, although in many cases this should not be that complex.

unittest : A unit testing framework

I mentioned in my previous blog post : 10 things to learn as a python developer, and again in : Incremental Development, it is vital that you use some technique to allow you to run a consistent set of tests against your code, to ensure that it works and continues to work as you develop it. There are plenty of mechanisms that do this, but I would strongly recommend that you use unittest, a very powerful set of tools which allow you to manage and execute your tests. 

Monday, 9 November 2015

Python Gotcha #3 : Default Arguments, be careful

Python Gotchas - Default arguments

or how not to get caught out when you start using python

At first glance python seems very familiar, especially if you have used other procedural languages such as C or Java - but actually Python is different - in some cases very different, and those differences can trip you up as you progress along your python journey. In this series of occasional posts, I am going to cover some of those gotchas.

Default Arguments

Once you have spent any time with python, you will be very aware that the language supports the ability to define default values for function arguments.
>>> #---------------- Example 1
>>> def add(number, increment=1):
...    return number + increment
>>> add(10)
>>> add(10, 2)
This can be incredibly powerful feature which can dramatically improve readability of your code, by ensuring that you only need to specify an argument if you are doing something which is not usual or common. The example above is not a very good example of using default argument values.

For instance look at the str.find method (for finding one string in another); The method has both the start and stop arguments (if you need to search only part of the string), but both of those arguments have sensible default values so that in most cases you encounter,  when you want to search the entire string - all you need to do is provide a single argument :

>>> #---------------- Example 2
>>> stra = "This is a dead parrot, deceased, no-longer living."
>>> stra.find("e")   # Find the first 'e' in the string.
>>> stra.find("e", 12) # Find the first 'e' starting from the 11th character
>>> stra.find("e", 12,23) # Find the first "e" between character 12 & 23

Say for instance that you write a function, which amongst other things, create and populates a file, and then sets the permissions on that file. Most of the time when your application calls the function you want the file permissions set to "rw" (read/write), but on some rare occasions you want your application to set the permission to "r" (read only). It would be a good idea to make the permissions argument have a default value of "rw" :

#---------------- Example 3
def write_file(data, file_name, permission="rw"):
    # Code to write file and set permission goes here
    return  0 # Success
write_file(data1, "data1.txt") # written with rw permission
write_file(data2, "data2.txt")
write_file(LicenseInfo, "LicenseReadme.txt", "r") # Don't want the license file to be changed

You can see how having a sensible default value makes the code readable, but not cluttered.

And now to the gotcha : There is a danger lurking here - which I will demonstrate in my next set of examples :

Imagine you are writing a system to record students as they enrol for courses at a college, and the first thing you need to do is to record the Student's name on a list - so you write a function as below :

#---------------- Example 4
>>> def RegisterStudent(student, existing_students=[]):
...    existing_students.append[student]
...    return existing_students
>>> class1 = RegisterStudent("John")
>>> class1
>>> class1 = RegisterStudent("Mark", class1)
>>> class1
["John", Mark"]
>>> # ---------------------------- All Good so far

You intention is by having the default argument as an empty list, you can create multiple lists one for each course, and you can signify the creation of a new list by omitting the existing_students argument (since when it is a new list there are no existing students.

Now - lets try to create another student list for a second course, using the RegisterStudent function above

#---------------- Example 5
>>> class2 = RegisterStudent("Lucas") # This should work - shouldn't it ?
>>> # -------- Lets check
>>> class2
['John', 'Mark', 'Lucas'] # We have the names from class1 in our list too
>>> # -------- and even worse ?
>>> class1
['John', 'Mark', 'Lucas']
>>> class1 is class2   # They are the same list (the same object)

So clearly this does not work - but why not ? How did our two default lists, end up with the same object.

Looking at the definition of RegisterStudent in example 4, it would be reasonable to expect that if the 2nd argument (existing students) isn't provided then a new empty list would be created. However, that is not what happens, and the reality is a bit complicated - so stay with me :
  1. Compilation :  The compiler sees the item existing_students=[] for the first time during the compilation phase; and it creates a new empty list object, and associates that to existing_students argument (within the scope of the RegisterStudent function). 
  2. Execution : When the function is then called the interpreter checks if the existing_students argument has been provided, and if not, then the object which was created during step 2 is passed as into the function body as the existing_students argument.
  3. In the body of the function - when the code changes the existing_students list (by appending to it - and append is a change in place - i.e. no new object is created), this is a change to the object created by the compiler.
  4. The next time that the function is called with a missing existing_students argument, the interpret does everything in step 2, and the body of the function will be passed the changed list.
The summary of this is, that if you use a mutable value (list, dictionary, set etc) as the default argument in one of your functions, and then change that variable within your function, then you will actually be changing the value of the default argument which will be used when you call the function again : and often this is not what you want.

A better version of our RegisterStudent function :

#---------------- Example 6
>>> def RegisterStudent(student, existing_students=None): 
...    if existing_students is None:
...        existing_students = [] 
...    existing_students.append[student]
...    return existing_students
>>> class1 = RegisterStudent("John")
>>> class1
>>> class1 = RegisterStudent("Mark", class1)
>>> class1
["John", Mark"]
>>> # ---------------------------- All Good so far
>>> class2 = RegisterStudent("Lucas")
>>> class2 
>>> class1
["John", "Mark"]
>>> class1 is class2

By using None (instead of []) we can avoid the issue with using mutable default arguments, and ensure that with the addition of a simple if statement, that whenever the existing_students argument is omitted in a function call - we get a brand new list to start adding to.

There are other ways of avoiding the mutable default argument issue - but the above method of using None is the method recommended even in the official documentation.

Note : The if statement can be made even simpler by using a conditional expression :

#---------------- Example 7
>>> def RegisterStudent(student, existing_students=None):
...    existing_students = existing_students if existing_students else []
...    existing_students.append[student]
...    return existing_students

This conditional expression works due to the rules that python uses to determine the Truth value of a value which isn't strictly True/False. For a list - if the list is None or [] then the Truth value is False, otherwise it is evaluated as True.

Note 2: If you are writing code that is sharing data between a number of different functions, then you would probably be better off investigating writing a class, which can hold the data, rather than pass the data around as arguments.

Functions as default arguments

It is also important to remember that this doesn't just happen when a list or dictionary is used as a default argument. You will also get a potentially unexpected results if you try to use a function call as a default argument. For instance it might seem logical to write code like the example below

#---------------- Example 8
>>> from datetime import datetime
>>> def log_message(msg,
...     """Create a log message in a known format, adding the time stamp to the message (defaulting to now)"""
...     return "Log : {} {}".format(ts, msg)

But as you might now have worked out, the is evaluated only once (when the file is initially compiled, or is initially imported), and if we were to use the the log_message function, then it would create messages with the timestamp of the date/time of the import, every time it is called with the ts argument omitted, which is clearly not the expected functionality.

Thank fully we can use the same mechanism as in Examples 6 or 7 above (using a default argument of None) in order to get the expected functionality :

#---------------- Example 9
>>> from datetime import datetime
>>> def log_message(msg, ts=None):
...    """Create a log message in a known format, adding the time stamp to the message (defaulting to now)"""
...    ts = ts  if ts else
...    return "Log : {} {}".format(ts, msg)

And finally :

There is a case when using a mutable type (dictionary, list etc) as a default argument can be very useful.

Imagine writing a function that will generate the nth Fibonacci number :

>>> #---------------- Example 10
>>> def fib(n):
...     if n == 0:
...             return 0
...     if n == 1:
...             return 1
...     return fib(n-1) + fib(n-2)

This function certainly works, but it does have an issue : in that if you calculate a lot of different values, then you will recalculate many of the lower values multiple times. Since the Fibonacci series doesn't change - is there some way we can store the values we have already calculated, to make our code run faster ?

>>> #---------------- Example 11
>>> def fib2(n, cache={0:0, 1:1} ):
...     if n in cache:
...         return cache[n]
...     cache[n] =  fib2(n-1) + fib2(n-2)
...     return cache[n]

In this new function we now have a cache dictionary as a default argument, although the cache parameter is never used when we call the fib2 function, but as you can see as the function calculates new values, it adds them to the cache, and we know that the cache object is shared between multiple calls. The big time difference in the cached version arises from making multiple calls to a function is a lot slow than accessing one value from a dictionary.

This technique is memoization, and from the timings below, the speed improvement is considerable :

$ python -m timeit -n 1 -r 10 -s "import fib" "[fib.fib(n) for n in range(30)]"
10 loops, best of 10: 407 msec per loop
$ python -m timeit -n 1 -r 10 -s "import fib" "[fib.fib2(n) for n in range(30)]"
10 loops, best of 10: 5.01 usec per loop

Yes that is really 407 milli seconds (i.e. 0.4 seconds) compared to 5 micro seconds (i.e. 0.000005 seconds) - and the code is only building a list of the first 30 numbers - imagine the savings from building bigger lists.

A graph of the timings is illuminating - building a list of Fibonacci numbers from 0 to n.
As you can see the time taken as n increases exponentially for the non-memoized version (example 10), where-as the timing for the memoized function increases but at a far lower rate.

Beware though - in this case the optimization only works because we are building a list of values and as we attempt to calculate the higher values in the list, the lower values have already been calculated and stored. However, if we just called the memoized version to just calculate a single value, you may well find that it is similar timings or even slower than the non-memoized version.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Python Weekly # 4 : Scoping - arguments and variables.

Python Scoping

Arguments, variables and other things

In this article I wanted to explore something of the rules which govern python scoping. Scoping is how Python decided when and where a name is valid and accessible. In Python names are not the same as objects or data, so even if the name is no longer valid, the object may well still exist (it depends on how many other references there are to the object - in simple terms how many other names are bound to that object or how many times the object appears in a dictionary or list).

When a python program executes, scopes are created for each module that is imported, and each class that is defined (although there is a twist to class scopes explained below). A scope is also created each time a function or method runs. You can think of a scope as like a dictionary which matches a name to the object that it is bound to.  As the program runs, python keeps track of the various scopes which are created, in a nested fashion, and at any point, there one more scopes which exist.

The scoping rules are actually relatively simple : 
  • When a name is bound to an object it is created in the inner most scope by default. If a function is being executed, than a name will be created in that function's scope, unless the name has been listed on a global statement
  • When a name is referenced (i.e. not created), the name is searched for  inner most scope first, and then going outwards towards the module and builtin scopes
A name is bound when :
  • It is the name of a module which is imported
  • It is the name of a class which is being defined
  • It is the name of a function which is being defined
  • It is the name of an argument to a function which is being executed.
  • It is a name which appears on the left hand side of an assignment
  • It is a name which appears as the loop variable in a for loop 
  • It is a name which appears as in an except statement.
Some examples would be helpful here :
  • A function defined in a module : If a name is defined in the function which matches a name defined in a module, then the version defined in the function will be used in the function (unless the global statement is used for that name) - that includes any arguments which are defined for that function.
  • If a function is defined in another function : The inner function can refer to any names defined in the outer function (or of course the module/builtin scope), but the outer function can't refer to names in the inner function. If the inner function rebinds a name used in the outer function, that doesn't change the binding made in the outer function :
    >>> def outer():
    >>>    a = 1
    >>>    def inner():
    >>>        a = 2
    >>>        print "Inner ",a
    >>>    print
    >>>    print "Outer a",a
    >>>    inner()
    >>>    print "Outer b",a
    >>> outer()
    Outer a 1
    Inner 2
    Outer b 1
  • If a function is defined in a class (i.e. a method), then the method cannot access anything at the class scope, without using either the instance or class identity and qualifying the name - i.e using either or (or something similar) - this is the class scope twist that was mentioned above. The decision to use a qualified name (rather than just the name) is so that there is a single way that your code refers to or rebind names in the outer scope (contrast that with the nested function example above where the inner function has no way to rebind the name defined in the outer scope).
These scoping rules are fairly sensible (the principle of "least surprise" is common in Python - meaning code should always do what the developer expects it to do) and doesn't hold that many surprises to people already used to other programming languages. However, unlike in some other languages there are no compiler/interpret warnings if you define a name which hides/masks one of the builtin names. In theory that means you could redefine one of the very critical functions - like open (although it is not recommended unless you really know what you are doing, as you can easily break things).

Beware !!!

In Python 2.7 any name defined in a list comprehension is treated exactly as if the name had been defined in a for loop, or similar.
Python 2.7.6 (default, Jun 22 2015, 17:58:13)
>>> l = [a for a in range(10)]
>>> a
This is one example of where the "least surprise" principle isn't actually maintained, especially when a similar generator expression does not do the same - in this case trying to access the generator loop variable does not succeed:
Python 2.7.6 (default, Jun 22 2015, 17:58:13)
>>> l = [(a for a in range(10))]
>>> a 
NameError: name 'a' is not defined 
This surprise is due to how Python2.7 implements the list comprehension in the first example, and this implementation issue is resolved in Python 3. It is definitely not recommended that you write any form of code that relies on this implementation detail in Python 2.7, as it is simply not clear what the expected value should be, and your code will break when translated from Python 2 to Python 3.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Python Weekly # 3 : Incremental development

Incremental Development

or how a long journey should start with a single step

Unlike most of the other articles in this blog,  this article really isn't about python, but the language does lend itself to this style of project.

When you start a software project, it is very easy to dive straight in and start coding - with a good idea of the end goal, but maybe with not much of an idea of how you get from a empty file to the final application. I have made exactly that mistake myself - and my Development folder is littered with half started "big" projects.

It is much more efficient to take small steps, coding, testing, debugging and then repeating until finished. This is Incremental Development, and there are a few good reasons why it works - and works well :
  • You know that each step works - so when you start your next step you are not introducing bugs on top of bugs.
  • You might well surprise yourself and finish early - as you realise you get to point where your application is good enough, and you don't need all the bells and whistle you thought you might need.
  • You get a powerful sense of achievement - each cycle you know your code works and you are one more step along your journey - a bit like seeing distance markers on a highway.
With Incremental Development you follow a few simple rules :
  • Your cycle (design, code, test, debug) should be no more than a couple of weeks long - and if possible even shorter.
  • Target a small number of features on each cycle - maybe only one or two features to begin with.
  • Start your cycle by working out how you will test your feature - and if you can start by writing your test cases first.
  • At the end of the cycle - make sure your latest working code is saved in some form - so if the next cycles goes horribly wrong - you can always go back. The best way to do this is to use a formal change control tool such as git, mercurial or subversion.
  • Within your cycle complete one feature before you do the next one - that way you have progress made even if the 2nd feature doesn't complete.
  • If a feature proves too complex,  drop it from the cycle - and take time to refine the design or split it up by redesigning it in a brand new cycle.
The key to this process is the concept of a feature, which is best defined as follows :
  • A single piece of  functionality which can be described by a simple sentence. One thing your software will do in order to achieve the whole aim.
This is best explained by an example :

One of my first home projects was an application to upload one or more images to flickr. To achieve this the application need to do a number of things including :
  • Connect to a flickr account
  • Get a list of Sets from flickr (a set is a group of images)
  • Upload a image to flickr
  • Add an image to a set
  • Record an optional title for the image
  • and many more (as you might imagine)
The application also included a GUI which needed to be developed which included a number of different elements.

Any one of those bullet points (and any one of the GUI elements) could be described as a "feature" - don't treat the GUI as a single feature - even with very good design tools, GUIs can be very complex, and maybe could be left to last.

Don't be tempted to make your features too complicated; if a features seems too easy (for example recording a title against an image) you will be able to develop more than one feature in a cycle. If you start trying to combine items and call the combination a feature - you run risk of something being far more complex, and you end up with a bigger failed feature.

Language features in python such as classes, modules and packages make it very easy to practise this style of development. Many features can be added as either new methods or new classes and since the language itself does not have a complex syntax which requires a lot of extra punctuation, it is relatively painless to write new code quickly. The python interpreter is also a massive benefit - giving you the change to test new code quickly, even without full test scripts.

To summarise - start slowly in small steps, and test as you go along - don't try to do everything at once. Don't be afraid to go backwards.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Python gotchas # 2 : Names, dynamic typing, is and ==

Python gotchas - Names vs Variables

or how not to get caught out when you start using python

At first glance python seems very familiar, especially if you have used other procedural languages such as C or Java - but actually Python is different - in some cases very different, and those differences can trip you up as you progress along your python journey. In this series of occasional posts, I am going to cover some of those gotchas. 

Names and variables 

In most other languages a variable holds a specific value, and a change to the variable changes the value that variable holds. That is true to a certain extent in Python, but critically there are some differences. Python doesn't have variables in the truest sense of the meaning - it has names and objects.
Everything in python is an object - numbers, strings, lists are all objects, as are the items in the list for instance, and names are simply references to those objects. (Classes and functions are also special types of object - I will cover that in more detail in a later blog post).

This process of making a name refer to an object is called binding, and a name is said to be bound to an object.

Take the following code :

################ Example 1
>>> var1 = 3
>>> var2 = var1
>>> id(var1) == id(var2)

This gives us two names (var1 and var2) both bound to the same object (The id function returns the object Id which the name is bound to). There is a int object with the value '3' to which both var1 and var2 are bound.

We can bind var1  to a different integer object - without affecting what var2 is bound to.

################ Example 2 
>>> var1 = 3
>>> var2 = var1
>>>id(var1) == id(var2)
>>> var1 = 4
>>> id(var1) == id(var2)
>>> print var1, var2
4 3

When you bind a name to an object the rules are simple - nothing is copied, the name is simply created and made to refer to that object - in terms of the C language - the name is a pointer to an object. The big difference is that in Python since every name is a reference you don't need a special syntax element to get to the object being refereed to.

When we increment our number :

################ Example 3
>>> var1 = 3
>>> var2 = var1
>>> id(var1) = id(var2) # bound to the same object ?
>>> var1 = var1 + 1
>>> id(var1) = id(var2) # bound to the same object ?
>>> print var1, var2
4 3

Here we change the value of the object that var1 is bound to, and var2 is left bound to it's previous object, while var1 is now bound to a new object.

So what happens when our names are bound to a list object, and we change the list - do we get two list objects :

################ Example 4
>>> l1 = [1,2,3,4]
>>> l2 = l1
>>> id(l2) == id(l1) # bound to the same object ?
>>> l1[0] = 4
>>> id(l2) == id(l1) # bound to the same object ?
>>> print l2

We can see that even after the change, the l2 name is still bound to the same object as l1, and therefore the change made to the object, is reflected in l1 and l2.

The difference between example 3 and example 4 is entirely down to whether the object is immutable :  lists (and other data structures such as dictionaries) are considered to be mutable - i.e. they can be changed without the creation of a new object, and therefore a change in the object is reflected across all the names bound to it.
In the case of integers and a number of other types, the objects are considered "immutable" (i.e. cannot be changed) and attempting to change the value (adding 1 to var1 in example 3 results in the creation of a new object - in this case new integer object (value 4) which var1 is then bound to.
(In fact when python starts up integer objects already exist for all values between -5 and 256 inclusive - as these values appear most regularly across most type of program, and having these objects ready saves time as your program runs).

So far the end result is probably similar to what you might expect : after all you can't redefine 3 to be 4, but you can change the content of a list.

The main tripping points are that for the mutable types there are many different way to change the object - and some don't result in the reflection one might expect :

>>> ################ Example 5
>>> l1 = [1,2,3]
>>> l2 = l1
>>> id(l1) == id(l2)
>>> l1.append(4)   # append changes the object 'in place'
id(l1) == id(l2)
>>> print l1, l2
[1,2,3,4] [1,2,3,4]
>>> l1+=[5]       # this form of list addition also operates 'in place'
>>> id(l1) == id(l2)
>>> print l1, l2
[1,2,3,4,5] [1,2,3,4,5]

>>> ################ Example 6
>>> l1 = [1,2,3]
>>> l2 = l1
>>> id(l1) == id(l2)
>>> l1 = l1 + [4] # This form of change creates a new object
>>> id(l1) == id(l2)
>>> print l1, l2
[1,2,3,4] [1,2,3]

In example 6 - a new object is created (when the expression l1+[4] is evaluated), and since we have a new object, l2 is no longer bound to the same object as l1 - i.e. the reflection is broken.

The key phrase here is "in place" - many of the standard functions modify the object "in place" - i.e. modify the object without the creation of a new object, and this type of modification will always ensure that changes are reflected through all bound names, but there are equally many ways to apparently change the value of a mutable object which in fact will result in the creation of a new object - if in doubt you can always open your python interpreter and try it out - remember you can check the id values (or use the is operator discussed below).

Names and dynamic typing 

Unlike in C where you have to declare  what type a name/variable is before you use it, a name in Python can be bound to any object you want, and be bound to a different type of object later on - this is called dynamic typing - and is one of Python's greatest benefits - var1 can be an integer, and then a floating point number, and then a string. With that flexibility comes great strength, and also potential pitfalls.

In a complex application without clear boundaries it is easy for the developer to loose track of what type that variable should be at this point, and to try to do something which either results in an error or even worse a subtle bug, because for instance the value that should be an integer is actually a string :

>>> ################ Example 7
>>> var1 = 3
>>> print "Final value %"%(var1*3)
Final value 9
>>> ......
>>> ...... # Some time later
>>> var1 = "xxx"
>>> print "Final value %"%(var1*3)
Final value xxxxxxxxx

It is strongly suggested by the author that in any complex program you use sensible names for your values (not var1, var2 etc) - this naming will help prevent some of the worst of the challenges that Dynamic Typing can bring. 
There are also methods of testing what type of object a name is bound to, I will cover that in a future blog post.

And finally - a warning about 'is' and '=='

Many python beginners get confused about when to use the 'is' comparison and when to use '=='.

The '==' operator should be used when you are testing whether the two names have the same value - i.e. the objects they are bound to have the same value - for lists for instance this is whether the two lists have the same content in the same order - it is highly likely that you will use '==' far more often that you use 'is'.

The 'is' operator should be used when testing whether two names refer to the same object.

For trivial examples : integers between -5 and 256, and short string literals (less then 20 characters), then 'is' and '==' will return the same result (due to optimisations already mentioned) which can lead you into a false understanding of what the operators do. Using values outside those ranges will show the distinction :

>>> ################ Example 8
>>> a = 10*100
>>> b = 1000
>>> a is b        # bound to the same object ? equivalent to id(a) == id(b)
False             # NO
>>> a == b        # But definitely the same value
>>> l1 = [1,2,3,4]
>>> l2 = [1,2,3,4]
>>> l1 is l2      # Not bound to the same object 
>>> l1 == l2      # But again definitely equal in value

The 'is' operator is equivalent to comparing the id value.
It is expected that if two names are bound to the same object (var1 is var2) then the value comparison (==) will also be the same - this will always be the case with objects created by the standard library. As demonstrated in Example 8, the reverse is not true - if two names are not bound to the same object, their values could still be equal.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Python gotchas # 1 : Indentation Tabs and Spaces

Python gotchas - Indentation

or how not to get caught out when you start using python

At first glance python seems very familiar, especially if you have used other procedural languages such as C or Java - but actually Python is different - in some cases very different, and those differences can trip you up as you progress along your python journey. In this series of occasional posts, I am going to cover some of those gotchas.

Indentation, Tabs and spaces 

As you no doubt already know by now, Python uses the end of a line (in most cases) to delimit statements and uses indentation to identify blocks of code in a loop or function, and Python allows you to use either Tabs or spaces to create your indentations and even mix both Tabs and spaces on the same line but there is a hidden gotcha.

Tabs and spaces look alike in most editors - but if you indent one line with Tabs - and the next with spaces - Python will complain with an IndentationError or a TabError even though the lines will seem to be perfectly aligned in your editor.

This can be such a problem that the official style guide (PEP 008) recommends only using spaces for new code, and setting your editor to insert 4 spaces when the tab key is pressed, and you should only use Tabs to stay compliant with existing code which you might be changing. Make sure you get your editor set up before you start coding - as finding and replacing those tab characters might be tricky when you have several 100 lines of code.

The use of indentation provides another thing to trip over if you are not wary. Since Indentation is important for structure the code you can change the behaviour of your code by indenting or un-indenting a line :

Example 1
flag = False
if flag :
    print "Flag is True"
print "Continuing"

Example 2
flag = False
if flag :
    print "Flag is True"
    print "Continuing"

Example 1 and 2 above are identical, apart from one having the last line indented, but Example 1 generates a line of output, and Example 2 doesn't. You can easily see how this could drastically change how your program behaves, and there isn't a error generated, as both of these are completely valid.

Special care should be taken if you copy and paste code into help sites such as stackoverflow which will often remove formatting, make your code invalid, and make it difficult for other people to help you