Sunday, 8 January 2012

A Path to Python

I've always liked the saying, "The only truly stupid person is the one who has nothing left to learn." I have no idea who said it, or if I even have the quote right, but it's always stuck with me. So, I am always trying to learn new programming techniques and new languages.

Call it a fault of mine but I always learn the best when I'm enjoying what I'm learning. I know I don't stand alone in that. So, I've discovered that when I'm going to learn a new language I need to know more about it first; and, to really know a language you have to see it in action. Feature's really don't mean a lot unless the language "speaks" to you. So, I always browse the source code of some applications written in the language. I always take a look at a minimal "hello, world" application, too.

Python has been recommended to me in the past on several occasions but I've never really paid it much interest. My first hang up was the need for the Python interpreter. I didn't like the idea that a user of my product would have to install the Python VM just to use my application. I prefer an all-in-one package and bundling Python with the installer would increase an installer's size dramatically. Of course, there are other solutions but at the time that's how I saw it. I was also worried that Python was very slow. Maybe, at the beginning, it was slow but in relation to what? Will the speed difference even matter or be noticeable? And is that still the case? For application level programming it would probably be a complete non-issue but, again, I couldn't see that at the time.

Go also challenged my programming dogmas. For example, take dynamic linking. I had grown to believe that dynamically linking libraries (not to be confused with dynamic loading) was the only way to go. I just couldn't wrap my head around why anyone would ever use static linking (make sure to follow the links at the bottom of the page) and chalked it up as the old, antiquated way of doing things. How wrong was I? Both methods of linking have advantages and disadvantages and I can certainly appreciate why Go does much of it's linking statically.

Go does struggle with a couple issues and one of the big ones is shared with C. Because most third-party libraries utilized by Go are linked to C libraries portability becomes an issue. I've been looking for a "write-once, run-anywhere" solution ever since writing my first non-trivial application. There is only one platform that immediately jumps out at me to fit that bill: Java.

Initially, I thought Java might be a great language. It's C-like, the JVM is installed on most platforms, and has a huge collection of libraries built right in! Unfortunately, despite it's many strengths, I didn't enjoy programming in the language. My feelings about Oracle aside, I felt that it is very, very verbose. Take even a simple "Hello World!" program for example:

class HelloWorld {
  static public void main( String args[] ) {
    System.out.println( "Hello World!" );

Now, compare that to Go:

package main
import "fmt"
func main() {
  fmt.Printf("Hello World\n")

And, finally, Python:

print "Hello World"

As I began to work with the language I started to feel like it was more of a patched together, band-aid solution, mess. Don't get me wrong, Java is a decent language but it just doesn't work for me. C is painful enough to program in, Java seems to be worse. Thankfully, other avenues to the JVM platform exist.

I considered Clojure, Jython, Groovy and Scala. I want to learn to learn a LISP-ish language at some point so I thought Clojure may work. After looking at some source code and documentation for the other languages, the only one which spoke to me was Jython. Python + the JVM? How can you go wrong?

Documentation for Jython is somewhat lacking if you don't already know Python. Good thing there's an easy solution to that. The Jython documentation is good for learning how it differs from Python and how to utilize the JVM, and Java, from within Jython but not much on learning the language itself. So? Learn Python.

My first observation has been that it is remarkably similar to Go. Go has clearly been heavily influenced by Python and I feel right at home with it. It does differ from Go in several distinct ways but it's turning out to be a completely fantastic language and I can see why so many programmers are using it. It's expressive, concise and an altogether eloquent language.

Time is important to me. I have precious little of it. So getting bogged down with nonsense is something I do my best to avoid. Python, like Go, does away with a lot of the nonsense and let's you get down to producing functional projects. I can see myself working with it a lot in future projects and I look forward to that time. I think, too, it will help me bridge the mental gap with being able to work in a LISP-like language.

After learning the basics of Python I then started to work with Jython. The amount of time it took for the Jython interpreter to load took me aback. I had gotten used to how quickly the Python interpreter loaded. I then discovered that Jython is based on Python 2.5. Not only is it two CPython releases old (as of this writing CPython 2.7 is the current stable 2.x branch) but Python 3 has also been released. While this hasn't proved to be particularly handy-capping thus far I am worried about the future of Jython as it falls further and further behind it's parent project. I am also concerned about it's speed. Is the slowness of it's interpreter indicative of the language itself? I suppose time will tell, literally.

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