First Look at Python

When the programming language Python came out while it seemed like an interesting idea, I didn’t really see the point. I already know Perl, PHP and C (plus a few others) why learn another language? So until recently, I didn’t

Recent frustrations with PHP and how “loose” it is with things like variables made me have another look at Python and what it could do for me.  As just learning a language by itself it pretty boring I decided to write some small programs in the language and used the framework Turbogears to do it.

First of all, learning the basics of python from perl or PHP is dead simple. The idea of what a language looks like is not too different between these three so it was a snap to write simple stuff in python.  So, what does yet-another language give me?

  • Variables must be defined before being used, but assigning them defines them too.  This is a nice compromise between PHP where you can check undefined variables and C where it all must be defined first, or else.
  • try and except. For code that might fail, use try and then catch the error in except.  We’ve all been guilty of using the @ symbol in PHP to supress stupid error messages, this does it correctly.
  • No PHP extract() or compact(). Actually just no extract function is good enough. That function is pure evil.
  • Sqlalchemy – A proper “you look after the database and ill play with objects” database extraction layer thingamy.  I don’t want to play with databases just let me write code and thats what sqlalchemy does well.
  • Testing – Turbogears uses nosetests which does functional and unit testing. I do get some annoying artifacts based upon testing but generally its all good.
  • Python has help() everywhere and pydoc on the command line. Not sure what variable foo can do? Just type “help(foo)” or even stick it in your script.
  • paster! You can run a development site off the command-line using a simple sqlite database. Don’t like it, dump the DB and reinstall it with one command.

It’s not one-way though, there have been some challenges.  Quite likely these are more my deficiencies than the languages.

  • Error messages take up a whole screen and often make it difficult to isolate. It’s not quite 10-screens-full ala Eiffel but sometimes the error messages tell you something is going wrong, but not what. Mess up your object versus database table references and you get something rather obscure.
  • When is an integer not an integer? The answer is, sometimes. Sometimes they work, sometimes they break. It’s probably more to do with what pysnmp is doing with them.
  • Documentation – some is great, some is downright misleading. It comes down to the writer of the documentation for modules. At least it doesn’t have ‘well get round to it’ like some functions in PHP on their website. Documents that say you can directly iterate dictionaries were another dead-end I wandered down. If you are stuck here, add a .items() at the end of it.
  • Deployment. It’s not just a matter of taring the files up and sticking them into /var/www/sitename and you’re done.  There are probably good reasons why, but its just annoying.

Despite the minor problems, python really does give you much much more than PHP and some more than Perl.  For me and what I am intending on writing it is worth learning yet another language.

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psmisc 22.14 Released

The upstream and Debian packages for psmisc version 22.14 were released tonight.  This version has a lot of bugfixes.  I’ve also taken some time to clean up some of the minor compile warnings I used to get which were mainly variables set but not used.

Two bugs that I’ll concentrate on getting fixed for the next version are all about the command line.

The first is that the fuser -s flag changes the return code for items found.  It should be consistent so it doesnt matter if fuser displays values or not, 0 means found something and 1 means didn’t find it. I can see why in the code it might be different, because the code follows different paths with the s option, but not exactly where the problem is.

The second bug is the -M flag for fuser only works if it is before the mount points so -M -m /foo works but -m /foo -M does not.  Unlike the -s problem, I can see where it is failing.  Currently fuser scans the options one by one.  If it finds a -m option, it checks at that point if the -M option is set.  The solution is to store all potential targets and only after exhausting the entire command line do we add the potential targets  to our “real” targets.  It means scanning the command line, or a subset of it, twice but the performance penalty is tiny.

Finally, I released there was a rather neat Makefile command “make distcheck”. This target makes a tar.g archive, extracts it, builds then cleans.  It is a very good program for trapping things like a file exists in your local directory but is not included in the tar.gz (lists.h was missing until I ran this).  For some “make distcheck” is something they’re known for years, but if you have an autotools package you develop, have a look at it.

With all the talk about testing and test driven releases, I was going to put some test cases in. The problem is there doesn’t seem to be an easy way to do testing. I might have to just hack up some scripts but surely there is a better way. That would trap, for example that fuser -s returns 1 but fuser returns 0.  I looked at check, but it doesn’t work for single-file programs like psmisc is mainly made of.

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Debian Linux on HP DV6-6023TX

It was time to update my creaking old laptop.  I ordered HP6-6023TX online and after a few days it arrived just before a long weekend.

I first backed up Windows 7 onto a set of DVDs and found that either my blank DVDs are old or this new DVD drive is far more fussy. There were quite a few coasters made until I gave up and bought some new ones.

DVDs seemed to be trouble for me that day.  I downloaded the Debian 6.0.4 DVD image but couldn’t burn it. Brasero would just keep saying calculating checksum and go no further.  So after waiting too long, the CD iso was downloaded and installed.

Installation of Debian onto the laptop was straightforward. That is if you used a wired connection. Wireless needs the non-free firmware and I gave up trying to work out how to install it at debian-installer time as it didn’t see the tar.gz full of firmware on the USB stick.  Wireless worked perfectly once I loaded everything on. So at this point with not much trouble I had an almost fully working setup. Even the webcam and sound was working.

Video Fun

The laptop is one of these strange modern ones that has two video cards.  The low-spec one is an Intel Sandybridge while the higher one is an AMD/ATI Radeon HD 6700M. The idea being you use the ATI when plugged in and the Intel on batteries.

Xorg worked first go, but only on the Intel chip.  Trying to force X to use the ATI driver with an Xorg configuration resulted in the Xserver crashing.

Next attempt was the fglrx packages within Debian. aticonfig said it didn’t know about the card. The reason for this is that the Debian packages use fglrx version11.4 and I needed for my card 11.5 So close but so far away.

OK, so building the ATI software can’t be that hard can it?  A nice set of instructions on the Debian wiki and we had… errors. The first problem is that the packaging used is ancient. The second problem is much more serious; it won’t compile.

I was stuck about here until I hopped onto the Debian irc channel and asked about it and someone found a very useful webpage about compiling the ATI drivers on Debian which importantly had information about the patches you need, especially the blk patch.

Success! the program compiled and installed. A small xorg.conf specifying the fglrx driver and the BusID and we were up and running.  I now have accelerated graphics on the laptop.

Ouch, my eyes!

I do actually get outside (one of my hobbies is gardening and that is an outdoor activity) so I don’t need a monitor screen trying to give me a suntan.  The default screen brightness on the laptop could be described as “sub-nova”. I’m sure there is some alien astronomers several light-years away who will in many years time wonder what that flash from the unimpressive end of the milky-way was about. To protect your eyes and keep the neighborhood complaints down you can reduce the brightness to something sane. You do this in the power management settings which for me is System -> Preferences ->  Power Management. I can see again!

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JFFNMS 0.9.1 Released

JFFNMS 0.9.1 has the database extracts and updates missing from 0.9.0  This is the most problematic part of the project release; ensuring that the database updates correctly.

Version 0.9.1 is functionally the same as 0.9.0, it is just with less bugs!


What happens without software testing


New TurboGears logo
Image via Wikipedia


Well JFFNMS 0.9.0 was a, well, its a good example of what can go wrong without adequate testing.  Having it written in PHP makes it difficult to test, because you can have entire globs of code that are completely wrong but are not activated (because the “if” statement proves false for example) and you won’t get an error.

It also had some database migration problems.  This is the most difficult and annoying part of releasing versions of JFFNMS.  There are so many things to check, like:

  • What has changed between this version of the database?
  • Does the development database have all the new fields?
  • Will importing an old database and using the diffs give me the same result as importing the new database
  • Does the structure field match the object which matches the database table

I’ve been looking at sqlalchemy which is part of turbogears.  It’s a pretty impressive setup and lets you get on with writing your application and not mucking around with the low-level stuff.  It’s a bit of a steep learning curve learning python AND sqlalchemy AND turbogears but I’ve got some rudimentary code running ok and its certainly worth it (python erroring on un-assigned varables but not forcing you to define them is a great compromise).  The best thing is that you can develop on a sqlite database but deploy using mysql or postgresql with a minor change.

Python and turbogears both emphasise automatic testing. Ideally the testing should cover all the code you write.  The authors even suggest you write the test first then implement the feature.  After chasing down several bugs, some of which I introduced fixing other bugs, automatic testing would make my life a lot easier and perhaps I wouldn’t dread the release cycle so often.


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