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  1************************************
  2  Idioms and Anti-Idioms in Python
  3************************************
  4
  5:Author: Moshe Zadka
  6
  7This document is placed in the public domain.
  8
  9
 10.. topic:: Abstract
 11
 12   This document can be considered a companion to the tutorial. It shows how to use
 13   Python, and even more importantly, how *not* to use Python.
 14
 15
 16Language Constructs You Should Not Use
 17======================================
 18
 19While Python has relatively few gotchas compared to other languages, it still
 20has some constructs which are only useful in corner cases, or are plain
 21dangerous.
 22
 23
 24from module import \*
 25---------------------
 26
 27
 28Inside Function Definitions
 29^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
 30
 31``from module import *`` is *invalid* inside function definitions. While many
 32versions of Python do not check for the invalidity, it does not make it more
 33valid, no more than having a smart lawyer makes a man innocent. Do not use it
 34like that ever. Even in versions where it was accepted, it made the function
 35execution slower, because the compiler could not be certain which names are
 36local and which are global. In Python 2.1 this construct causes warnings, and
 37sometimes even errors.
 38
 39
 40At Module Level
 41^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
 42
 43While it is valid to use ``from module import *`` at module level it is usually
 44a bad idea. For one, this loses an important property Python otherwise has ---
 45you can know where each toplevel name is defined by a simple "search" function
 46in your favourite editor. You also open yourself to trouble in the future, if
 47some module grows additional functions or classes.
 48
 49One of the most awful question asked on the newsgroup is why this code::
 50
 51   f = open("www")
 52   f.read()
 53
 54does not work. Of course, it works just fine (assuming you have a file called
 55"www".) But it does not work if somewhere in the module, the statement ``from os
 56import *`` is present. The :mod:`os` module has a function called :func:`open`
 57which returns an integer. While it is very useful, shadowing builtins is one of
 58its least useful properties.
 59
 60Remember, you can never know for sure what names a module exports, so either
 61take what you need --- ``from module import name1, name2``, or keep them in the
 62module and access on a per-need basis ---  ``import module;print module.name``.
 63
 64
 65When It Is Just Fine
 66^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
 67
 68There are situations in which ``from module import *`` is just fine:
 69
 70* The interactive prompt. For example, ``from math import *`` makes Python an
 71  amazing scientific calculator.
 72
 73* When extending a module in C with a module in Python.
 74
 75* When the module advertises itself as ``from import *`` safe.
 76
 77
 78Unadorned :keyword:`exec`, :func:`execfile` and friends
 79-------------------------------------------------------
 80
 81The word "unadorned" refers to the use without an explicit dictionary, in which
 82case those constructs evaluate code in the *current* environment. This is
 83dangerous for the same reasons ``from import *`` is dangerous --- it might step
 84over variables you are counting on and mess up things for the rest of your code.
 85Simply do not do that.
 86
 87Bad examples::
 88
 89   >>> for name in sys.argv[1:]:
 90   >>>     exec "%s=1" % name
 91   >>> def func(s, **kw):
 92   >>>     for var, val in kw.items():
 93   >>>         exec "s.%s=val" % var  # invalid!
 94   >>> execfile("handler.py")
 95   >>> handle()
 96
 97Good examples::
 98
 99   >>> d = {}
100   >>> for name in sys.argv[1:]:
101   >>>     d[name] = 1
102   >>> def func(s, **kw):
103   >>>     for var, val in kw.items():
104   >>>         setattr(s, var, val)
105   >>> d={}
106   >>> execfile("handle.py", d, d)
107   >>> handle = d['handle']
108   >>> handle()
109
110
111from module import name1, name2
112-------------------------------
113
114This is a "don't" which is much weaker than the previous "don't"s but is still
115something you should not do if you don't have good reasons to do that. The
116reason it is usually bad idea is because you suddenly have an object which lives
117in two separate namespaces. When the binding in one namespace changes, the
118binding in the other will not, so there will be a discrepancy between them. This
119happens when, for example, one module is reloaded, or changes the definition of
120a function at runtime.
121
122Bad example::
123
124   # foo.py
125   a = 1
126
127   # bar.py
128   from foo import a
129   if something():
130       a = 2 # danger: foo.a != a
131
132Good example::
133
134   # foo.py
135   a = 1
136
137   # bar.py
138   import foo
139   if something():
140       foo.a = 2
141
142
143except:
144-------
145
146Python has the ``except:`` clause, which catches all exceptions. Since *every*
147error in Python raises an exception, this makes many programming errors look
148like runtime problems, and hinders the debugging process.
149
150The following code shows a great example::
151
152   try:
153       foo = opne("file") # misspelled "open"
154   except:
155       sys.exit("could not open file!")
156
157The second line triggers a :exc:`NameError` which is caught by the except
158clause. The program will exit, and you will have no idea that this has nothing
159to do with the readability of ``"file"``.
160
161The example above is better written ::
162
163   try:
164       foo = opne("file") # will be changed to "open" as soon as we run it
165   except IOError:
166       sys.exit("could not open file")
167
168There are some situations in which the ``except:`` clause is useful: for
169example, in a framework when running callbacks, it is good not to let any
170callback disturb the framework.
171
172
173Exceptions
174==========
175
176Exceptions are a useful feature of Python. You should learn to raise them
177whenever something unexpected occurs, and catch them only where you can do
178something about them.
179
180The following is a very popular anti-idiom ::
181
182   def get_status(file):
183       if not os.path.exists(file):
184           print "file not found"
185           sys.exit(1)
186       return open(file).readline()
187
188Consider the case the file gets deleted between the time the call to
189:func:`os.path.exists` is made and the time :func:`open` is called. That means
190the last line will throw an :exc:`IOError`. The same would happen if *file*
191exists but has no read permission. Since testing this on a normal machine on
192existing and non-existing files make it seem bugless, that means in testing the
193results will seem fine, and the code will get shipped. Then an unhandled
194:exc:`IOError` escapes to the user, who has to watch the ugly traceback.
195
196Here is a better way to do it. ::
197
198   def get_status(file):
199       try:
200           return open(file).readline()
201       except (IOError, OSError):
202           print "file not found"
203           sys.exit(1)
204
205In this version, \*either\* the file gets opened and the line is read (so it
206works even on flaky NFS or SMB connections), or the message is printed and the
207application aborted.
208
209Still, :func:`get_status` makes too many assumptions --- that it will only be
210used in a short running script, and not, say, in a long running server. Sure,
211the caller could do something like ::
212
213   try:
214       status = get_status(log)
215   except SystemExit:
216       status = None
217
218So, try to make as few ``except`` clauses in your code --- those will usually be
219a catch-all in the :func:`main`, or inside calls which should always succeed.
220
221So, the best version is probably ::
222
223   def get_status(file):
224       return open(file).readline()
225
226The caller can deal with the exception if it wants (for example, if it  tries
227several files in a loop), or just let the exception filter upwards to *its*
228caller.
229
230The last version is not very good either --- due to implementation details, the
231file would not be closed when an exception is raised until the handler finishes,
232and perhaps not at all in non-C implementations (e.g., Jython). ::
233
234   def get_status(file):
235       fp = open(file)
236       try:
237           return fp.readline()
238       finally:
239           fp.close()
240
241
242Using the Batteries
243===================
244
245Every so often, people seem to be writing stuff in the Python library again,
246usually poorly. While the occasional module has a poor interface, it is usually
247much better to use the rich standard library and data types that come with
248Python than inventing your own.
249
250A useful module very few people know about is :mod:`os.path`. It  always has the
251correct path arithmetic for your operating system, and will usually be much
252better than whatever you come up with yourself.
253
254Compare::
255
256   # ugh!
257   return dir+"/"+file
258   # better
259   return os.path.join(dir, file)
260
261More useful functions in :mod:`os.path`: :func:`basename`,  :func:`dirname` and
262:func:`splitext`.
263
264There are also many useful builtin functions people seem not to be aware of for
265some reason: :func:`min` and :func:`max` can find the minimum/maximum of any
266sequence with comparable semantics, for example, yet many people write their own
267:func:`max`/:func:`min`. Another highly useful function is :func:`reduce`. A
268classical use of :func:`reduce` is something like ::
269
270   import sys, operator
271   nums = map(float, sys.argv[1:])
272   print reduce(operator.add, nums)/len(nums)
273
274This cute little script prints the average of all numbers given on the command
275line. The :func:`reduce` adds up all the numbers, and the rest is just some
276pre- and postprocessing.
277
278On the same note, note that :func:`float`, :func:`int` and :func:`long` all
279accept arguments of type string, and so are suited to parsing --- assuming you
280are ready to deal with the :exc:`ValueError` they raise.
281
282
283Using Backslash to Continue Statements
284======================================
285
286Since Python treats a newline as a statement terminator, and since statements
287are often more than is comfortable to put in one line, many people do::
288
289   if foo.bar()['first'][0] == baz.quux(1, 2)[5:9] and \
290      calculate_number(10, 20) != forbulate(500, 360):
291         pass
292
293You should realize that this is dangerous: a stray space after the ``\`` would
294make this line wrong, and stray spaces are notoriously hard to see in editors.
295In this case, at least it would be a syntax error, but if the code was::
296
297   value = foo.bar()['first'][0]*baz.quux(1, 2)[5:9] \
298           + calculate_number(10, 20)*forbulate(500, 360)
299
300then it would just be subtly wrong.
301
302It is usually much better to use the implicit continuation inside parenthesis:
303
304This version is bulletproof::
305
306   value = (foo.bar()['first'][0]*baz.quux(1, 2)[5:9]
307           + calculate_number(10, 20)*forbulate(500, 360))
308