Thursday, July 30, 2020

Modern Python Cookbook Journey

For the author, a book is a journey.  

Writing something new, the author describes a path the reader can follow to get from -- well -- anywhere the reader might be to the author's suggested destination. Not everyone makes the whole trip. And not everyone arrives at the hoped-for destination.

Second editions? The idea is to update the directions to reflect the new terrain.  

I'm a sailor. Here's a view of the boat.

What's important to me is the way the authorities produce revised nautical charts on a stable, regular cadence. There's no "final" chart, there's only the "current" chart. Kept up-to-date by the patient hard work of armies of cartographers. 

Is updating a book like updating the nautical charts? I don't think so. Charts have a variety of update cadences.  For sailors in the US, we start here: The changes can be frequent. See for the weekly chart updates. This is supplemented by the Notices to Mariners, here, too: So, I think charts are much, much more complex than books.

Sailors have to integrate a lot of data.  This is no different from software developers having to keep abreast of language, library, and platform changes.

The author's journey is different from the reader's journey. A technical book isn't a memoir. 

The author may have crashed into all kinds of rocks and shoals. The author's panic, fear, and despair are not things the reader needs to know about. The reader needs to know the course to set, the waypoints, and hazards. The estimated distances and the places to anchor that provide shelter.

For me, creating a revision is possibly as difficult as the initial writing. I don't know how other authors approach subsequent editions, but the addition of type hints meant every example had to be re-examined.  And this meant discovering problems in code that I *thought* was exemplary. 

While many code examples can simply have type hints pasted in, some Python programming practices have type hints that can't be trivially introduced to the code. Instead some thinking is required.


Python code is always generic with respect to type. Expressions like a + b will work for a surprisingly wide variety of object classes. Of course, we expect any of the numbers to work. But lists, tuples, and strings all respond to the "+" operator. This is implemented by a sophisticated check of a's __add__() and b's __radd__() methods.

When we write hints, it's often intended to narrow the domain of potential types. Here's some starting code.

def fact(a):
   if a == 0:
       return 1
   return a*fact(a-1)

The implied type hint is Any. This means, any class of objects that defines __eq__(), __mul__() and __sub__() will work. There are a fair number of these classes.

When we write type hints, we narrow the domain. In this case, it should be integers. Like this:

def fact(a: int) -> int:
    if a == 0:
        return 1
    return a*fact(a-1)

This tells mypy (or other, similar analytic tools) to confirm that every place the fact() function is used, the arguments will be integers. Also, the result will be an integer.

What's important is there's no run-time consequence to this. Python runs the same whether we evaluate fact(2) or fact(3.0).  The integer-based computation clearly matches the intent stated in the code. The floating-point computation is clearly at odds with the stated intent.

And this brings us to the author's journey.

Shoal Water

Sometimes we have code that works. And will always work. But. The type hints are hard to express.

The most common examples?


Decorators can be utterly and amazingly generic. And this can make it very, very difficult to express the domain of types involved.

def make_a_log(some_function: Callable) -> Callable:
    def concrete_function(*args, **kwargs):
        print(some_function, args, kwargs)
        result = some_function((*args, **kwargs)
    return concrete_function

This is legal, but very shady Python. The use of the Callable type hint is almost intentionally misleading. It could be anything. Indeed, because of the way Python works, it can truly be any kind of function or method. Even a lambda object can be decorated with this. 

The internal concrete_function doesn't have any type hints. This forces mypy to assume Any, and that will lead to a possibly valid application of this decorator when -- perhaps -- it wasn't really appropriate.

In the long run, this kind of misleading hinting is a bad policy.

In the short run, this code will pass every unit test you can throw at it.

What does the author do?
  1. Avoid the topic? Get something published and move on? It is simpler and quicker to ignore decorators when talking about type hints. Dropping the section from the outline would have been easy.
  2. Dig deeply into how we can create Protocols to express a narrower domain of candidates for this decorator? This is work. And it's new work, since the previous edition never touched on the subject. But. Is it part of this cookbook? Or do these deeper examples belong in a separate book?
  3. Find a better example? 
Spoiler Alert: It's all three.

I start by wishing I hadn't broached the topic in the first edition. Maybe I should pretend it wasn't there and leave it out of the second edition.

Then I dig deeply into the topic, overwriting the topic until I'm no longer sure I can write about it. There's enough, and there's too much. A journey requires incremental exposition, and the side-trip into Protocols may not be the appropriate path for any but a very few readers.

After this, I may decide to throw the example out and look for something better.  What's important is having an idea of what is appropriate for the reader's journey, and what is clutter.

The final result can be better because it can be:
  • Focused on something useful.
  • Any edge cases can be corrected to work with the latest language, library, and mypy release.
  • Where necessary, replaced by an alternative example that's clearer and simpler.
Unfortunately (for me) I examine everything. Every word. Every example.

Packt seems to be tolerant of my slow pace of delivery. For me, it simply takes a long time to rewrite -- essentially -- everything. I think the result is worth all the work.

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