Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Functional Python Programming 2e -- Type Hints!

You might want to look into this: Functional Python Programming - Second Edition.

Let's talk about the type hints, shall we?

Most of the examples have had type hints added. This means running everything through mypy. And it also means running everything through doctest, as well.

More important than the technical steps, there's a change in viewpoint that comes with type hints.

If you follow a variety of Pythonistas on Twitter, you can see some debates on the merits of type-hinting. Some key points:

  • It's hard.
  • It's so hard, only do it if you absolutely need it.
  • It's too verbose
  • It's hard, but it can help.
  • It's really helpful.
  • It represents a "gap" in the language and without run-time type checking, the whole thing is worthless.
The last point a weird view. I work in a shop that's heavily Pythonic. But. You still hear nonsense. Python a very popular language and it's popularity is growing. The popularity of Python isn't like the popularity of a movie where you're not planning on making a living off of it (I know someone who makes their living off the popularity of movies.) The popularity of Python is like the popularity of automobiles or air travel or electricity.

I hear the "a real language would have prevented that with type-checking." And I respond, "Then why do you unit test?" And they don't really have much of an answer. Python has the same workflow as statically type-checked languages, so the "prevention" thing seems to be nonsense.

Moving on.

"It's hard." Anything new is hard. The complaint is vague, so it's *hard* to respond. (Heh.)

Anything like "only do it if you absolutely need it" bothers me because it seems like a passive-aggressive barricade around things. Also. It's vague.

Verbosity

Verbosity in type hints is a real problem. When creating complex objects from built-in types, we often forget to give names to the intermediate object classes.

Consider Dict[Tuple[Tuple[int, int], Tuple[int, int]], float]

It's long. It describes a structure like this {((12, 13), (14, 15)): 2.8284271247461903, ...} 

Writing something like the following d_map() function without hints is easy. Adding hints seems hard.

def d_map(points):
    return {(p1, p2): hypot(p1[0]-p2[0], p1[1]-p2[1]) for p1, p2 in points}

The declaration became L.. O... N... G... because we ignored the intermediate types.

def d_map(points: List[Tuple[Tuple[int, int], Tuple[int, int]]]) -> Dict[Tuple[Tuple[int, int], Tuple[int, int]], float]:
    return {(p1, p2): hypot(p1[0]-p2[0], p1[1]-p2[1]) for p1, p2 in points}

These hints, however, doesn't really describe what's happening. The hints elide important details. The hints don't reflect the underlying semantics of the data structure.

One of Python's strengths is the rich collection of first-class data structures with built-in syntax. We can abbreviate some complex concepts into succinct, expressive code.

However.

We shouldn't lose sight of what the succinct code represents. And in this case, it represents some rather complex concepts.
<rant>
Let me sit in my lawn chair and shake my fist in helpless fury at you kids. When I was your age, we sent half a semester of undergraduate work trying to get linked lists, and simple hash mapping to work. Months of work. Later on, as a professional -- years of actual experience -- it took forever to build a binary tree-based collections.Counter definition to gather simple numbers from a flat file. Nowadays, you just slap a Counter down into your code like it's a nothing. It's not a nothing. It's serious, sophisticated software engineering. It's more than Dict[Any, int]. </rant>

What can we do?

When in doubt, Expose the Intermediate Types.

Point = Tuple[int, int]
Leg = Tuple[Point, Point]
Distances = Dict[Leg, float]
def d_map(points: Iterable[Leg]) -> Distances:
    return {(p1, p2): hypot(p1[0]-p2[0], p1[1]-p2[1]) for p1, p2 in points}

This exposes the details. In some cases, it causes us to rethink using a two-tuple to represent a point. The p1[0] syntax starts to chafe a little. Perhaps this should have been

class Point(NamedTuple):
    x: int
    y: int

That leads to tiny (almost-but-not-quite trivial) simplifications. Instead of building simple tuples for each point, we can now build named Point tuples and use p1.x and p1.y to make the code more civilized.

One consequence of this is actually avoiding (), [], and {} to build tuples and lists. Yes. This is heresy. I seriously recommend using tuple(), list(), dict(), and set() because we can replace them with equivalent types. And yes, I text my mother with the same fingers that wrote that.

"But," you object, "It's objectively LONGER! You didn't save me anything! You're a fraud!"

My first response is, "Correct." It is objectively longer. And "Correct," I didn't really "save" you anything; I'm not sure what you're saving. Lines of code do have a cost, but I think clarity has value. And finally, "Correct," I've often been wrong, and I may be wrong here, too.

I like this because the type definitions are reusable, I think this can add clarity throughout the application.

When this kind of declaration is part of a reusable module, the goodness spreads like smiles and hugs throughout the application. Before long, other functions have been tweaked and everyone is sending each other little teddy-bear hug gifts with rainbow cupcakes.

(Please don't exchange mylar balloons. They're evil. Also, see this.)

tl;dr

When your type hints seem ungainly and large, consider Exposing the Intermediate Types. Break down a big structural type hint into the constituent pieces.

If you had to create a class definition for EVERY variation on list, dict, set, and tuple, what would your new class be named?

If you had to describe the underlying meaning of a class -- separate from it's structure -- what name would you give it?

Picking names is one of the two hardest problems in computing. It isn't easy. (The other hardest problem? Cache invalidation and off-by-one errors.)

Friday, April 6, 2018

Should I use x.__len__() or len(x)?

In the context of providing type hints, someone had a function like this.

def f(x: Sized) -> Whatever: ...

And, since sized objects have a __len__() method it seemed sensible to use x.__len__(). It was a good question about the use of special methods.

My advice is to avoid using the special methods in general. Use them only when defining classes that need to behave like Python objects.

(I'll make an exception for using x.__dict__, to avoid having to introduce an explicit dictionary object when there's one built-in to most objects.)

Use len(x) and be happy.  The function wrapper around a special method is a common Python feature; it occurs in many places; use it.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

RESTful Web Services Design

This -- REST is the new SOAP -- has so many demolished strawman arguments that it feels like looking at a van Gogh painting of people harvesting wheat.

I won't dive into listing all the strawmen. Most of my responses are approximately "How is that an actual problem?" or "Yes, it was new to you, so?" or "Yes, people disagreed with each other over an implementation choice."

Some of the observations about "proper REST" vs. "bah, that's not really RESTful" point out the differences between expedient REST-like design and really good REST design. Some of these considerations can be helpful.

The one point worthy of deeper thought is the nature of verb-heavy highly-stateful RPC design and RESTful noun-heavy design. The question here is the definition of state and the nature of state change. Some people appear to be enthralled with many nuanced state changes. I've been doing too much data warehouse and functional design where the data is essentially stateless and CRUD rules are refined down to CRD with a rare U under limited circumstances.

And, yes, that means using relatively "stateless" OO design where an object is wrapped inside a new object that includes derived data or a compositions of stateless objects. The following example leverages duck typing to create immutable objects where the class reflects the state of the object.

class Thing:
    def __init__(self, a, b):
        self.a, self.b = a, b
    def set_c(self, c):
        return DerivedThing(self, c)

class DerivedThing:
    def __init__(self, thing: Thing, c):
        self.thing, self.c = thing, c
    @property
    def a(self):
        return self.thing.a
    @property
    def b(self):
        return self.thing.b
    @property
    def value(self):
        return self.a * self.c + self.b

And, yes, I'm not building things which are absolutely stateless because Python has stateful lists and mappings, and web services rely on stateful persistence. And, yes, I reject functional purism because I'm stupid. Can we move on, now?

Something that seemed essential to me (but appears to be confusing from reading complaints about REST) is understanding the notion of "state." One view of state is an aggregation of details. The final state of an object is a reduction over the changes -- akin to a sum(), max(), or min(), or perhaps something more involved like last(). The paucity of REST verbs is not a problem when you understand current state as the end product of applying a journal of previous state change mementos. Each "change", then, isn't a complex Update (REST Put or Patch) where there aren't enough verbs to describe each nuanced change. It's a Create (REST Post) of the next change memento. The RESTful service can eagerly apply the change to compute the current state. Or it can lazily apply the changes to compute the current state.

Some of the blog post cited above sounds like "it was new and I didn't like it." Therefore, read the article, locate the strawmen, and know there will always be someone who will complain. Some of the complaints will have merit, some will be whining about the novelty.

In a RESTful context, I'm a fan of this kind of pattern.

/things
    post:
        summary: Creates a new thing with a and b
    responses:
        201:
            description: thing was created
/things/{id}/c
    post:
        summary: Sets a value of c for an existing thing, previous value is discarded.
    responses:
        201:
            description: c property of thing {id} was set
       
For more useful advice, start here, for example: RESTful API Designing guidelines — The best practices. Articles like this are useful, too: 10 Best Practices for Better RESTful API.