Computing Thoughts

Bruce Eckel's Programming Blog

Dec 5, 2014 - 9 minute read

A Heaping Helping Of Python Goodness

I really enjoy solving problems quickly and thoroughly. I especially enjoy solving annoying, repetitive problems that invite human error. The icing on the cake is when I learn some new tricks in the process. This last few days was a flurry of problem-solving and trick-learning.

My favorite tricks are small bits of learning that make code easier to write, read and use. A couple of these are Windows-specific but most are general.

1. Turn a Python Program into a Windows Batch File

I’m lazy and I don’t like typing more than I have to. Even better is to just double-click on a thing from the Windows Explorer. I’ve tried doing this with Windows .BAT files in the past but it was ugly and I always had to fiddle around with it, so when I found a universal solution on the Internet I was quite pleased. So far, putting the first line at the top of a batch file has worked everywhere I’ve tried it:

@setlocal enabledelayedexpansion && python -x "%~f0" %* & exit /b !ERRORLEVEL!
#start python code here (tested on Python 2.7.4)

It has the additional benefit that generic scripts are easily adaptable for non-Windows machines — just take out the first line.

2. with and the Context Manager

The with keyword has been in Python for awhile now; the simplest way of thinking about it is that it sets up a try-finally block for you. One of the things I love most about Python is that the language designers pay attention to the little things that people do over and over and think “hey, maybe we can make this better!” So sure, you can write your own try-finally blocks to do this, but if it gets too messy you won’t.

Here, I just wanted to visit a directory, do something, and come back. I found myself doing this in numerous places in the program, so to prevent errors and make the code clearer, I decided to try to do the repetitive activity in one place.

You can write your own context manager class, but in many cases you can do it much more simply using the contextmanager decorator on a function. The yield in the middle of the function is where you’d normally have all your actions in the try block, and the code after the yield is what would happen in the finally block:

import os
from glob import glob
from contextlib import contextmanager

def visitDir(d):
    old = os.getcwd()
    yield d

paths = [os.path.join('.', p[0:-1]) for p in glob('*/')]

for p in paths:
    with visitDir(p):
        print p + ": "
        for f in glob('*'):
            print "   ", f

The program just visits each directory one level down from the current one and prints the contents. Notice that old is held through the yield and used to restore the old directory.

Because of the simplicity of the contextmanager decorator, I’m going to be using with statements a lot more now.

3. Command-line Arguments with argparse

In the past, I’ve tried to use optparse but it always ended up feeling too messy and complicated, so I’d just punt and pick the arguments off the command line myself. Apparently powers that be observed this happening enough that someone decided to create a simpler, better command-line parsing module. I finally reached for argparse this week, and I’m now a convert — argument parsing has become easy, and I won’t hesitate to put it into future programs.

Here’s a simple example that only uses optional flags, which can come in a single-hyphen short form or a double-hyphen long form:

import argparse

parser = argparse.ArgumentParser()
parser.add_argument("-r", "--run", action='store_true',
    help="Run all the scala scripts and capture any errors")
parser.add_argument("-s", "--simplify", action='store_true',
    help="Remove unimportant trace files & show non-empty error files")
parser.add_argument("-c", "--clean", action='store_true',
    help="Remove all 'run' artifacts")
parser.add_argument("-p", "--prerequisites", action='store_true',
    help="Compile prerequisites")
parser.add_argument("-u", "--unusedfiles", action='store_true',
    help="Display non 'Solution-' and non 'Starter-' scala files")
parser.add_argument("-t", "--test", action='store_true',
args = parser.parse_args()

if not any(vars(args).values()): parser.print_help()
if args.test:
    print "test"
if args.clean:
    print "clean"
if args.prerequisites:
    print "prerequisites"
    print "run"
if args.simplify:
    print "simplify"
if args.unusedfiles:
    print "unusedfiles"

If you have a dash or double-dash in front of an argument, that argument is automatically optional. The default is that arguments can be in any order. It’s also possible to have argument parameters and pretty much any other configuration you need; see the above link for details.

You create an ArgumentParser, then add arguments. Note that I use both the short and long form of arguments, followed by action=‘store_true’ which puts a Boolean in that argument’s location when it finds the flag. Then you can just perform tests such as if args.clean in your code.

The help text is displayed when you ask for help with the flag -h or –help, and I’ve also explicitly called parser.print_help() if no flags at all are present; that way if you just run the command you get the help text:

c:\tmp>python -t -u -r

usage: [-h] [-r] [-s] [-c] [-p] [-u] [-t]

optional arguments:
  -h, --help           show this help message and exit
  -r, --run            Run all the scala scripts and capture any errors
  -s, --simplify       Remove unimportant trace files & show non-empty error
  -c, --clean          Remove all 'run' artifacts
  -p, --prerequisites  Compile prerequisites
  -u, --unusedfiles    Display non 'Solution-' and non 'Starter-' scala files
  -t, --test           Test

You’ll notice that the arguments make this look like a kind of build program, which it is. I seem to reinvent make-like build tools on a regular basis, but argparse has me thinking that, with enough built-in tools like Python provides, I might not need a build framework — perhaps all I need to do is use the tools to create a custom builder for each need.

4. Creating Standalone Executables with PyInstaller

Here’s another problem that I’ve poked at for years — well, looked at and decided it was too much trouble. And this week, discovered that someone has made it easy with PyInstaller.

My friend James Ward asked me to help him create a tool installer. He had written the Mac/Linux version as a bash script, and he needed the Windows version of the installer to be dead simple — the tool is currently messy and fiddly to install, and he wants to use it in a classroom situation and elsewhere, so the out-of-the-box install process must be non-obtrusive, otherwise people won’t want to bother with it. I like making things simple and I’m annoyed when they are stupidly difficult, so I decided to step up and help.

His initial thought was to make a Windows BAT file, but when I saw what he was trying to do I suggested that might produce too much hair pulling (James did write a support script with BAT and getting that to work wasted a lot of time). We briefly considered Visual Basic, which I’ve had some experience with, but then I wondered if the tools for creating Windows .EXE files from Python might have progressed to the point of ease.

And indeed they have — PyInstaller worked the first time and every time. It has a –onefile flag to produce a single standalone executable with no support files. James was able to create a continuous-integration build for our project (on Appveyor), which fires every time we do a checkin and starts from a blank virtual machine on the cloud, loads all the necessary tools and builds everything, then runs tests.

One caveat: we were able to do everything using Python’s “batteries included” libraries, so I haven’t experimented with bringing in external libraries, but I don’t expect problems there. They have a list of packages that they explicitly support, and I suspect that ordinary Python libraries will work just fine.

But wait, there’s more! PyInstaller does this magic for different operating systems! Not just Windows, but Linux and Mac OSX. You can read more here.

5. Simplifying Configuration, and format()

Because James started with a bash script and he hasn’t done a lot of bash programming, he followed the bad bash practice of using global variables all over the place, which you see as all uppercase identifiers. I took his script and translated it to Python which we then built into a Windows .EXE file.

I’m reading Writing Idiomatic Python which suggests using the format() function for string interpolation, so I gave it a try and quickly grew to like it. One thing that started to annoy me was passing it arguments; to use James’ global variables and keep it all consistent, I was writing things like this:


Then I discovered that format() could take a dictionary and parse through it to find your particular arguments, and substitute those. So, if I put everything in a single dictionary, I could just pass that in to any format() like this:

"My string with {THING_TO_SUBSTITUTE} in it".format(**cf)

Where cf is the configuration dictionary.

(It turns out that I could also have left everything as global variables and passed **globals()).

This worked OK for awhile, but then I started to get bothered by having to write:


Everywhere. Too many characters, too noisy to write and read. What I wanted was the much simpler:


I discovered that by writing a quick subclass of dict I could accomplish this, and the results are:

import os, platform, pprint

class Configuration(dict):
    def __getattr__(self, attr):
        return self[attr]
    def __setattr__(self, attr, val):
        self[attr] = val

cf = Configuration(
    CLEANUP = os.getenv("LAUNCHER_CLEANUP"),
    TRACE = os.getenv("LAUNCHER_TRACE"),
    VERSION = None,
    RAW_VERSION = None,
    DEFAULT_VERSION = "0.10.33",
    OS = platform.system(),
    ARCHITECTURE = platform.architecture()[0], # 64bit or 32bit
    BASE_LOCAL_DIR = "{APPDATA}\\launcher".format(APPDATA=os.getenv("APPDATA")),
    BIN = os.path.normpath("modules/bin/mod"),

cf.RAW_VERSION = "11.0.1"

if cf.TRACE:

print("host: {HOST}, OS: {OS}, arch: {ARCHITECTURE}".format(**cf))

Note that reading and writing the configuration variables is much nicer, and using them in a format() statement is quite elegant.

Here’s the output on one machine:

c:\tmp>set LAUNCHER_TRACE=1

{'ARCHITECTURE': '32bit',
 'BASE_LOCAL_DIR': 'C:\\Users\\Bruce Eckel\\AppData\\Roaming\\launcher',
 'BIN': 'modules\\bin\\mod',
 'CLEANUP': None,
 'DEFAULT_VERSION': '0.10.33',
 'HOST': '',
 'OS': 'Windows',
 'RAW_VERSION': '11.0.1',
 'TRACE': '1 ',
 'VERSION': None}
host:, OS: Windows, arch: 32bit

It might seem like a small thing, but I find that easier writing and reading of the code makes it worth it.

6. pathlib is Excellent

I’ve made plenty of use of the os.path library. It’s very helpful, but it isn’t intuitive. The new pathlib which was added in Python 3.4 abstracts paths to the point where they are intuitive, which was no simple design feat.

Here’s a simple example which renames a group of files scattered throughout subdirectories:

#! py -3
from pathlib import Path

for old in Path('.').glob("**/"):
    old.rename(old.parent / "")

I’m pretty sure that’s the simplest solution to that problem that I’ve seen. Note the use of ’/’ to combine parts of paths. I’ve always wanted to do it that way.