Thursday, April 16, 2009

Python 401: Some Advanced Topics

On Thursday, March 26th, I attended Steve Holden’s Python 401: Some Advanced Topics tutorial. This one wasn’t as mind-expanding as the previous tutorial (or the three I took at PyCon 2008), and none of the material was new to me. But I’ve found re-learning material will often fill in the gaps in my knowledge, and that certainly was the case here.

You’ll find the slides at

The material was divided into six “lessons”, and three appendices.

Lesson 1 (slides 4 though 15) was on string interpolation, which I thought I had mastered. (Especially after the Secrets of the Framework Creators tutorial at PyCon 2008 and after writing But I did learn a few new things. For example, I didn’t realize that the ‘%s’ conversion uses the value’s str() method. So one can quite safely do:
print '%s' % foo
…regardless of the type of foo.

I also didn’t know that one can use an asterisk to make width and precision “data dependent”. (Steve notes this only works with tuple data—of course it won’t work with a dictionary because the values are not ordered.) So you can do the following:

>>> def foo_wide(width):
... print '%*s' % (width, 'foo')
>>> foo_wide(4)
>>> foo_wide(10)
>>> import math
>>> def pi_wide(width, precision):
... print '%*.*f' % (width, precision, math.pi)
>>> pi_wide(8,2)
>>> pi_wide(10,5)
Lesson 2 (slides 17 through 27) was on iteration. Steve explained the ”iteration protocol”:
  • iterables must have an __iter__() method which returns and iterator
  • iterators must be iterable, and must also have a next() method
Steve (and I later observed Michael Foord also) pronounced __iter__ as “dunder-iter”. It sounded a little strange at first, but it’s certainly easier than saying “under-under-iter” or “under-under-iter-under-under”.

Steve mentioned the itertools standard library, but didn’t allocate time in the tutorial to cover it. (For that I recommend Doug Hellmann’s PyMOTW blog post.)

He concludes lesson 2 with a slide (#27) explaining how to use the enumerate() built-in function (which I have found useful many times).

Lesson 3 (slides 29 though 35) was on generators and generator expressions. I like Steve’s explanation that generators are for creating sequences where computation is needed to create each element. And in conclusion, he writes that generators can “express producer-consumer algorithms more naturally” since the “generation of values is cleaning separated from their processing”. But aside from these insights, I didn’t learn anything new about generators. (That may be difficult after David Beazley’s excellent “Generator Tricks for Systems Programmers” tutorial at PyCon 2008.) And in spite of the lesson’s title, Steve didn’t cover generator expressions.

Lesson 4—covering Descriptors and Properties—was the most useful to me. I’d heard of descriptors and properties, but never really studied them or read code that used them. First, Steve explains in detail how attribute lookup works in new-style classes. This leads (after an aside which I’ll mention later) this his definition of properties: “a way of interposing code between client and server of a namespace”. One can define—using the property() built-in—a getter, setter and deleter, plus a doc string. And since the first argument to property() is the getter function, one can use property as a decorator (with no arguments) around a method. (See slide 41.) David Beazley (who was also taking this tutorial) spoke up and pointed out that in Python 2.6 a property object (returned from the property built-in) has setter and deleter methods that can be used as decorators. See the property built-in documentation for an example. On slide 45, Steve shows how to define properties without namespace pollution. Finally (slides 47 though 50) he goes into detail on the difference between old-style and new-style attribute lookup. I realized as Steve wrapped up this lesson that I still didn’t understand what a descriptor is, so I asked. Steve’s answer (I think) that the “descriptor protocol” is what enables properties to work. I gave myself a to-do to read the Python documentation on descriptors.

Back to the aside (on slide 39) I mentioned above. Steve notes that when you look up a callable on an instance, the interpreter creates a “bound method”, therefore (presumably because these are objects like everything else in Python) “a method call carries object creation overhead”. There’s a good illustration of this on the slide. This would be good to keep in mind if I ever find myself trying to squeeze as much performance as possible out of some Python code.

Lesson 5 (slides 52 though 73) is on metaclasses. I’d seen these before in the “Secrets of the Framework Creators” tutorial at !PyCon 2008. (And during the time I spent digging around inside the Django sources). If you’re still trying to wrap your head around metaclasses, this may be a quick way to get there. I won’t attempt to summarize, but the insight I gained from this lesson is that the type() built-in, when called with three arguments returns a new type object. In other words it’s a dynamic form of the class statement. (This is the mechanism for implementing metaclasses.) You may also want to read Michael Foord’s “Metaclasses in Five Minutes” notes or watch the video of his lightning talk at PyCon 2009 (which is supposed to start 11 minutes in). Though I would conclude that if you’re considering using metaclasses, you should seriously consider using class decorators first. (See my notes on the “Class Decorators: Radically Simple” PyCon 2009 talk.)

Lesson 6 (slides 75 & 76) was not really a lesson but a very quick wrap-up.

Finally there are three appendices. We did find the time to cover Appendix A (slides 78 through 84). It’s on decorators, but only on the simpler form of decorators that don’t take arguments. Slides 83 and 84 cover functools.wraps and functools.partial, and are interesting reading.

We did not cover the other two appendices. Appendix B (slides 86 through 89) is on context managers, which I myself covered back in July 2008 to present a “Newbie Nugget” to BayPIGgies on the with statement. Appendix C (slides 92 through 107) is on unit testing. If you’re new to unit testing or new to the Python unittest module, then this is worth a read.

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