Two Short Python Things

2017-09-05

Sorry

Apologies, as ever, for taking so incredibly long between posts. That said if the inimitable Roger Peng can get away with letting some time lapse while working on a project, perhaps you can forgive me?

Back to Python

After a long time in the Scala wilderness, I’ve recently had a chance to write some Python again for scripting purposes at work. I had a bit of freedom with regards to process, so I explicitly chose Python 3.6. I’m here to tell you that Python 3.6 is really nice and to exhibit two things that made my life much better.

What’s up, __doc__?

Especially for scripts, I’ve gotten into the habit of putting all of the actual work and logic of my Python program in functions (usually a main function calling other steps/etc.). I then have an argparse.ArgumentParser at the bottom (wrapped in an if __name__ == '__main__' scripting statement) that parses command line arguments and passes them to the main function, like so:

if __name__ == '__main__':
    P = ArgumentParser()
    P.add_argument()
    
    main(P.parse_args())

Given this setup, one can pass the -h or --help flag to the script and receive some information about the different arguments you’ve added to the parser. However, it’s good form to add a description to your ArgumentParser that explains the purpose and usage of the script.

If you’re following best practices (e.g. by trying to appease pylint), you’ve already added a docstring to the top of your file that explains its purpose and usage. It can be a pain (or at least problematic) to keep this docstring and the parser’s description in sync.

I recently stumbled across a nice solution to this problem: only write the docstring, and then use the __doc__ magic variable as your description like so:

if __name__ == '__main__':
    P = ArgumentParser(description=__doc__)

This approach does limit the length and expressiveness you can fit into the docstring/description due to the constraints of printing a help message, but I haven’t found it to be a problem since my script docstrings tend to be exactly what I’d want to print a help message anyway.

typing.NamedTuple is my new favorite

Even more mindbending is the new (in Python 3.5) typing module. Coupled with the mypy static checker and type hints, this allows you to write Python with static types and check them prior to running code in production. For instance, the main function for my scripts that once looked like this:

def main(args):
    """Performs the main work
    
    Parameters
    ----------
    args: Namespace
        Arguments passed on the command line, specifying what to do

    Returns
    -------
    None
    """
    # stuff and things
    

now looks like this:

def main(args: Namespace) -> None:
    """Performs the main work
    
    Parameters
    ----------
    args: Arguments passed on the command line, specifying what to do
    """
    # stuff and things
    

Some folks might cry that this doesn’t look like Python anymore, but to them I counter

If I haven’t lost you with the type hinting above, I have something else to show you: the new NamedTuple class. When writing Python classes, I often get annoyed with having to specify the typical initialization code one finds in the __init__ method, like

class MyThing:

    def __init__(self, a, b, c, d):
        self.a = a  # this is an integer
        self.b = b  # this is a float
        self.c = c  # this is a string
        self.d = d  # this is a dictionary

     # other methods here

Unless I need some fancy initialization logic, I’d prefer to have this attribute setup taken care of by default; enter NamedTuple:

class MyThing(NamedTuple):
    a: int
    b: float
    c: str
    d: dict

     # other methods here

Besides being shorter (“brevity facilitates reasoning,” as one of my favorite papers explains), this version explicitly lists the attribute types in a way checkable via mypy. For instance, x = MyThing(1, 2, 'three', {'four': 4}) is just fine, but if you try to sneak y = MyThing(1.0, 2, 'three', {'four': 4}) past mypy it’ll complain

error: Argument 1 to "MyThing" has incompatible type "float"; expected "int"

Perhaps my brain has rotted away after relying on statically typed languages, but I’m a fan.