Tuesday, September 1, 2020

A Comprehensive Introduction to Python

Python 101, by Michael Driscoll. 545 pages, available from leanpub.com in a variety of formats. Available soon in hardcover.

The modern Python programming language is a large topic. A book on a programming language has to be seen as a collection of several large topics.

At its core, a book on a programming language has to cover the syntax of the language. What’s for more important is covering the underlying semantics of the various constructs. Software captures knowledge, and it’s essential for a book on a programming language to make it clear how the language expresses knowledge.

For a programming expert, a fifteen page technical report can be enough to get started with a new language. When I was first learning to program, that’s all there was. For the vast majority of people who come in contact with programming, there’s a lot more information required.

This leads to a number of interesting tradeoffs when writing about a programming language. How much of a book should be devoted to installing the language tools? How much should it cover the other tools required to create software? I think Python 101 makes good choices.

In the modern era of open-source software, the volume and sophistication of the available tools can be daunting. An author must consider how many words to invest in text editors, debuggers, performance measurement, testing, and documentation. These are all important parts of producing software, they’re often tied closely with a language, but these additional tools aren’t really the language itself.

A language like Python offers a rich collection of built-in data types. A book’s essential job is to cover the data structures (and algorithms) that are first-class parts of the Python language. A focus on data puts the various syntactic elements (like statements) into perspective. The break statement, for example, can’t really be discussed in isolation. It’s part of the conversation about for statements and conditional processing in if statements. Because Python 101 follows this data-first approach, I think it can help build comprehensive Python skills.

The coverage of built-in data structures in a modern language needs to include file objects. While Python reads strings and bytes, the standard library provides ways to read HTML, CSV, JSON, and XML documents. Additional packages provide access to Excel spreadsheet files. While, technically, not part of the language, these are essential parts of the problem domain a programming language like Python is designed to address. Because these are part of the book, a reader will be empowered to solve practical problems.

There was a time when a programming “paradigm” was part of a book’s theme. Functional programming, procedural programming, and object-oriented programming approaches spawned their own libraries. Some languages have a strong bias. Other languages, like Python, lack a strong bias. A developer can work with functions, using material from the first seventeen chapters of Python 101 and be happy and successful. Moving into class definitions can be helpful for simplifying certain kinds of programs, but it’s not required, and a good book on Python should treat classes as a sensible alternative to functions for handling more complex object state and bundle operations with the state.

Moving beyond the language itself, a book can only pick a few topics that can be called “advanced.” This book looks at some of the language internals, exposed via introspection. It touches on some of the standard library modules for managing subprocesses and threads. It covers tools like debuggers and profilers. It expands to cover development environments like the Jupyter Notebook, also. I’d prefer to reduce coverage of threading and switch to Jupyter Lab from Jupyter Notebook. These are small changes at the edges of large pool of important details.

I’m still waffling over one choice of advanced topics. Does unit testing count as an advanced topic? For software professionals, a testing framework is as important as the language itself. For amateur hackers, however, a testing framework may be a more advanced topic. The location of a chapter on unit testing is a telling indication of who the book’s audience is. 

The Python ecosystem includes the standard library and the vast collection of packages and applications available through the Python Package Index. These components can all be added to a Python environment. This means any book on the language must also cover parts of the standard library, as well as covering how to install  new packages from the larger ecosystem. Python 101 doesn’t disappoint. There are solid chapters in PIP and Virtual Environment management. I can quibble over their  place in Part II. The presence of chapters on tools is important; Python is more than a language; Python 101 makes it clear Python is a collection of tools for building on the work of others to solve problems collaboratively.

I’m not easily convinced that Part IV has the same focus on helping the new programmer as the earlier three parts. I think packaging and distribution considerations take the reader too far outside problem-solving with a programming language and tools. I’m not sure the audience who sees testing as an advanced topic is ready to distribute their code. I think there’s room for a Python 102 book to cover these more professionally-oriented topics.

The volume of material covered by this comprehensive book on Python seems to require something more elaborate than a simple, linear sequence of chapters. The sequence of chapters have jumps that seem a little awkward. For example, from an introduction run-time introduction introspection, we move to the PIP and virtual environment tools, then move back to ways to make best use of Python’s annotations and type hints. Calling this flow awkward is — admittedly — a highly nuanced consideration. I suspect few people will read this book sequentially; when each chapter is used more-or-less independently, the sequence of chapters becomes a minor side-bar consideration. Each chapter has generous examples and there are screen shots where necessary. 

The scope of this book covers the language and the features through Python 3.8 in a complete and intelligible way. The depth is appropriate for a beginning audience and the examples are focused on simple, concrete, easy-to-understand code. The presence of review questions in each chapter is a delight, making it easy to leverage the book for instructor-guided training. I can imagine covering a few chapters each week and quizzing students with the review questions. Some of the questions are nicely advanced and can lead to further exploration of the language.

If you’re new to Python, this should be part of your Python reading list. If you’ve just started and need more examples and help in using some of the common tools, this book will be very helpful. If you’re teaching or helping guide people deeper into Python, this may be a helpful resource. 

Driscoll’s colorful nature photos are a bonus. My Kindle is limited to black and white, and the pictures would have been disappointing. I’m glad I got the PDF version.

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