Exercises in Programming Style: the python way

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

Exercises in Programming Style by Cristina Lopes is an interesting little book.

The books I have previously read on programming style pick a language, and then write various programs in that language using different styles, idioms, or just following quirky rules, e.g., no explicit loops, must use sets, etc. “Algorithms in Snobol 4” by James F. Gimpel is a fascinating read, but something of an acquired taste.

EPS does pick a language, Python, but the bulk of the book is really a series of example programs illustrating a language feature/concept that is central to a particular kind of language, e.g., continuation-passing style, publish-subscribe architecture, and reflection. All the programs implement the same problem: counting the number of occurrences of each word in a text file (Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice is used).

The 33 chapters are each about six or seven pages long, and contain a page or two or code. Everything is very succinct, and does a good job of illustrating one main idea.

While the first example does not ring true, things quickly pick up and there are lots of interesting insights to be had. The first example is based on limited storage (1,024 bytes), and just does not make efficient use of the available bits (e.g., upper case letters can be represented using 5-bits, leaving three unused bits or 37% of available storage; a developer limited to 1K would not waste such a large amount of storage).

Solving the same problem in each example removes the overhead of having to learn what is essentially housekeeping material. It also makes it easy to compare the solutions created using different ideas. The downside is that there is not always a good fit between the idea being illustrated and the problem being solved.

There is one major omission. Unstructured programming; back in the day it was just called programming, but then structured programming came along, and want went before was called unstructured. Structured programming allowed a conditional statement to apply to multiple statements, an obviously simple idea once somebody tells you.

When an if-statement can only be followed by a single statement, that statement has to be a goto; an if/else is implemented as (using Fortran, I wrote lots of code like this during my first few years of programming):

      IF (I .EQ. J)
      GOTO 100
      Z=1
      GOTO 200
100   Z=2
200

Based on the EPS code in chapter 3, Monolithic, an unstructured Python example might look like (if Python supported goto):

for line in open(sys.argv[1]):
    start_char = None
    i = 0
    for c in line:
        if start_char != None:
           goto L0100
        if not c.isalnum():
           goto L0300
        # We found the start of a word
        start_char = i
        goto L0300
        L0100:
        if c.isalnum():
           goto L0300
        # We found the end of a word. Process it
        found = False
        word = line[start_char:i].lower()
        # Ignore stop words
        if word in stop_words:
           goto L0280
        pair_index = 0
        # Let's see if it already exists
        for pair in word_freqs:
            if word != pair[0]:
               goto L0210
            pair[1] += 1
            found = True
            goto L0220
            L0210:
            pair_index += 1
        L0220:
        if found:
           goto L0230
        word_freqs.append([word, 1])
        goto L0300
        L0230:
        if len(word_freqs) <= 1:
           goto L0300:
        # We may need to reorder
        for n in reversed(range(pair_index)):
            if word_freqs[pair_index][1] <= word_freqs[n][1]:
               goto L0240
            # swap
            word_freqs[n], word_freqs[pair_index] = word_freqs[pair_index], word_freqs[n]
            pair_index = n
            L0240:
        goto L0300
        L0280:
        # Let's reset
        start_char = None
        L0300:
        i += 1

If you do feel a yearning for the good ol days, a goto package is available, enabling developers to write code such as:

from goto import with_goto

@with_goto
def range(start, stop):
    i = start
    result = []

    label .begin
    if i == stop:
        goto .end

    result.append(i)
    i += 1
    goto .begin

    label .end
    return result

Student projects for 2019/2020

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

It’s that time of year when students are looking for an interesting idea for a project (it might be a bit late for this year’s students, but I have been mulling over these ideas for a while, and might forget them by next year). A few years ago I listed some suggestions for student projects, as far as I know none got used, so let’s try again…

Checking the correctness of the Python compilers/interpreters. Lots of work has been done checking C compilers (e.g., Csmith), but I cannot find any serious work that has done the same for Python. There are multiple Python implementations, so it would be possible to do differential testing, another possibility is to fuzz test one or more compiler/interpreter and see how many crashes occur (the likely number of remaining fault producing crashes can be estimated from this data).

Talking to the Python people at the Open Source hackathon yesterday, testing of the compiler/interpreter was something they did not spend much time thinking about (yes, they run regression tests, but that seemed to be it).

Finding faults in published papers. There are tools that scan source code for use of suspect constructs, and there are various ways in which the contents of a published paper could be checked.

Possible checks include (apart from grammar checking):

Number extraction. Numbers are some of the most easily checked quantities, and anybody interested in fact checking needs a quick way of extracting numeric values from a document. Sometimes numeric values appear as numeric words, and dates can appear as a mixture of words and numbers. Extracting numeric values, and their possible types (e.g., date, time, miles, kilograms, lines of code). Something way more sophisticated than pattern matching on sequences of digit characters is needed.

spaCy is my tool of choice for this sort of text processing task.

London Python Meetup January 2019 – Async Python and GeoPandas

Andy Balaam from Andy Balaam&#039;s Blog

It was a pleasure to go to the London Python Meetup organised by @python_london. There were plenty of friendly people and interesting conversations.

I gave a talk “Making 100 million requests with Python aiohttp” (slides) explaining the basics of writing async code in Python 3 and how I used that to make a very large number of HTTP requests.

Andy giving the presentation

(Photo by CB Bailey.)

Hopefully it was helpful – there were several good questions, so I am optimistic that people were engaged with it.

After that, there was an excellent talk by Gareth Lloyd called “GeoPandas, the geospatial extension for Pandas” in which he explained how to use the very well-developed geo-spatial data tools available in the Python ecosphere to transform, combine, plot and analyse data which includes location information. I was really impressed with how easy the libraries looked to use, and also with the cool Jupyter notebook Gareth used to explain the ideas using live demos.

London Python Meetups seem like a cool place to meet Pythonistas of all levels of experience in a nice, low-pressure environment!

Meetup link: aiohttp / GeoPandas

The 520’th post

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

This is the 520’th post on this blog, which will be 10-years old tomorrow. Regular readers may have noticed an increase in the rate of posting over the last few months; at the start of this month I needed to write 10 posts to hit my one-post a week target (which has depleted the list of things I keep meaning to write about).

What has happened in the last 10-years?

I probably missed several major events hiding in plain sight, either because I am too close to them or blinkered.

What did not happen in the last 10 years?

  • No major new languages. These require major new hardware ecosystems; in the smartphone market Android used Java and iOS made use of existing languages. There were the usual selection of fashion/vanity driven wannabes, e.g., Julia, Rust, and Go. The R language started to get noticed, but it has been around since 1995, and Python looks set to eventually kill it off,
  • no accident killing 100+ people has been attributed to faults in software. Until this happens, software engineering has a dead bodies problem,
  • the creation of new software did not slow down from its break-neck speed,
  • in the first few years of this blog I used to make yearly predictions, which did not happen (most of the time).

Now I can relax for 9.5 years, before scurrying to complete 1,040 posts, i.e., the rate of posting will now resume its previous, more sedate, pace.

Graft Animation Language on Raspberry Pi

Andy Balaam from Andy Balaam&#039;s Blog

Because the Rapsberry Pi uses a slightly older Python version, there is a special version of Graft for it.

Here’s how to get it:

  • Open a terminal window by clicking the black icon with a “>” symbol on it at the top near the left.
  • First we need to install a couple of things Graft needs, so type this, then press Enter:
    sudo apt install python3-attr at-spi2-core
  • If you want to be able to make animated GIFs, install one more thing:
    sudo apt install imagemagick
  • To download Graft and switch to the Raspberry Pi version, type in these commands, pressing Enter after each line.
    git clone https://github.com/andybalaam/graft.git
    cd graft
    git checkout raspberry-pi
  • Now, you should be able to run Graft just like on another computer, for example, like this:
    ./graft 'd+=10 S()'
  • If you’re looking for a fun way to start, why not try the worksheet “Tell a story by making animations with code”?

    For more info, see Graft Raspberry Pi Setup.

Example of a systemd service file

Andy Balaam from Andy Balaam&#039;s Blog

Here is an almost-minimal example of a systemd service file, that I use to run the Mastodon bot of my generative art playground Graft.

I made a dedicated user just to run this service, and installed Graft into /home/graft/apps/graft under that username. Now, as root, I edited a file called /etc/systemd/service/graft.service and made it look like this:

[Service]
ExecStart=/home/graft/apps/graft/bot-mastodon
User=graft
Group=graft
[Install]
WantedBy=multi-user.target

Now I can start the graft service like any other service like this:

sudo systemctl start graft

and find out its status with:

sudo systemctl status graft

If I want it to run on startup I can do:

sudo systemctl enable graft

and it will. Easy!

If I want to look at its output, it’s:

sudo journalctl -u graft

As a reward for reading this far, here’s a little animation you can make with Graft:

How to write a programming language articles

Andy Balaam from Andy Balaam&#039;s Blog

Recent Overload journal issues contain my new articles on How to Write a Programming Language.

Part 1: How to Write a Programming Language: Part 1, The Lexer

Part 2: How to Write a Programming Language: Part 2, The Parser

PDF of the latest issue: Overload 146 containing part 2.

This is all creative-commons licensed and developed in public at github.com/andybalaam/articles-how-to-write-a-programming-language

StatsModels: the first nail in R’s coffin

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

In 2012, when I decided to write a book on evidence-based software engineering, R was the obvious system to use for data analysis. At the time, lots of new books had “using R” or “with R” added at the end of their titles; I chose “using R”.

When developers tell me they need to do some statistical analysis, and ask whether they should use Python or R, I tell them to use Python if statistics is a small part of the program, otherwise use R.

If I started work on the book today, I would till choose R. If I were starting five-years from now, I could be choosing Python.

To understand why I think Python will eventually take over the niche currently occupied by R, we need to understand the unique selling points of both systems.

R’s strengths are that it supports a way of thinking that is a good fit for doing data analysis and has an extensive collection of packages that simplify the task of applying a wide variety of analysis techniques to data.

Python also has packages supporting the commonly used data analysis techniques. But nearly all the Python packages provide a developer-mentality interface (i.e., they provide an API like any other package), R provides data-analysis-mentality interfaces. R supports a way of thinking that data analysts can identify with.

Python’s strengths, over R, are a much larger base of developers and language support for writing large programs (R is really a scripting language). Yes, Python has a package ecosystem supporting the full spectrum of application domains, this is not relevant for analysing a successful invasion of R’s niche market (but it is relevant for enticing new developers who are still making up their mind).

StatsModels is a Python package based around R’s data-analysis-mentality interface. When I discovered this package a few months ago, I realised the first nail had been hammered into R’s coffin.

Yes, today R has nearly all the best statistical analysis packages and a large chunk of the leading edge stuff. But packages can be reimplemented (C code can be copy-pasted, the R code mapped to Python); there is no magic involved. Leading edge has a short shelf life, and what proves to be useful can be duplicated; the market for leading edge code in a mature market (e.g., data analysis) is tiny.

A bunch of bright young academics looking to make a name for themselves will see the major trees in the R forest have been felled. The trees in the Python data-analysis-mentality forest are still standing; all it takes is a few people wanting to be known as the person who implemented the Python package that everybody uses for XYZ analysis.

A collection of packages supporting the commonly (and eventually not so commonly) used data analysis techniques, with a data-analysis-mentality interface, removes a major selling point for using R. Python is a bigger developer market with support for many other application domains.

The flow of developers starting out with R will slow down, casual R users will have nothing to lose from switching when the right project comes along. There will be groups where everybody uses R and will continue to use R because that is what everybody else in the group uses. Ten-Twenty years from now R, developers could be working in a ghost town.

Perl’s failure to grow and Python takes over

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

Perl, once the most widely used scripting language, has been in decline for many years; the decline now looks terminal (many decades from now, when its die-hard users have died), what happened?

Python is what happened. Why was this? Did Perl have a major fail, did Python acquire pixie dust that could not be replicated, or something else?

Some commentators point to the failure to produce a timely release of Perl 6; a major reworking of the language announced in 2000 with a stumbling release made available around 2015.

I think the real issue is a failure for Perl to take off outside its core use as a systems language. Perl is famous for its one-liners, but not for writing large programs (yes, it can be done, but would many developers would really want to?); a glance of the categories in its module library shows; those 174,970 modules (at the time of writing) are not widely spread over application domains (i.e., not catering to a wide audience).

Perl 5 was failing to grow outside its base before Perl 6 began its protracted failure to launch.

Language use is a winner take-all game, developers create more packages, support tools, and new users who combine to attract more developers. Continuing support for minority languages comes from die-hard users, existing software that is worth somebody paying to maintain and niche advantages.

These days, language success is founded on the associated package ecosystem (Go and Rust have minuscule package ecosystems, which is why they are living on borrowed time, other languages will eventually take away their sheen of trendiness). Developers use languages to build stuff, the days of writing the code for almost everything are long gone; interesting software is created by taking advantage of packages written by others. Python was in the right place, at the right time to acquire a wide variety of commercial grade packages.

It’s difficult to see Python being displaced as the lingua franca of software development. Its language features are almost irrelevant, its package ecosystem is everything. The winner will eventually take all.

I’m sure the cycle of languages becoming popular for a few years, before disappearing, will continue. There have always been, and will always be, fashionable languages.