TweetFollow Us on Twitter

Mac in the Shell: Learning Python on the Mac-Part 2

Volume Number: 24
Issue Number: 12
Column Tag: Mac in the Shell

Mac in the Shell: Learning Python on the Mac-Part 2

All about strings

by Edward Marczak

Introduction

Last month, we began a journey to learn the Python programming language on the Mac. Although I'm assuming little to no programming experience, it should certainly enable experienced programmers to get up to speed quickly in Python as well. Last month started with the absolute basics: variables, objects, the interactive interpreter and the inevitable "Hello, World!" program. There was also a small homework assignment to keep your brain engaged with Python. Let's pick up where we left off.

Answer Key

Last month, I ended the column asking you to "write a program that creates two integer variables,"start"and "end" and one string, "text". Have the program print a slice of the string using the variables and a print statement that precedes the string with "The slice is: ". Here's a script that will do just that:

#!/usr/bin/env python
start = 8
end = 12
text = "This is some text"
print "The slice is:",text[start:end]

Simple, no? Well, this is certainly one way to handle it. "One way?" you ask. "How many ways can there be to write this basic code?" you may think. Well, that's why this entire column will focus on strings in Python, string manipulation and other string subtleties.

Before we continue, I'd like to make a distinction in my writing of this topic. When I refer to Python as "Python"-Capital "P"-I'm referring to Python in general: conceptually. When I use "python", I'm specifically referring to the Python runtime engine and language specification. If you notice this shift in the case throughout the article, that's the reason behind it.

OK. Onward.

Let Me Count the Ways

Like many other scripting languages, you may find that there are several ways to accomplish the same goal in Python. Sometimes the route you choose is purely stylistic. Sometimes the choice is "Pythonic"-instead of brute forcing a solution, Python may include some elegant, built-in way of dealing with your issue. Finally, there are just times where certain styles lend themselves to a particular situation better than other styles, so, you'll find yourself switching styles as needed.

Understanding strings in Python is important, as they are part of the collections class, and therefore respond to anything that a collection class will, as we saw with slices.

Strings in Python do take a little getting used to if you've used other scripting languages in the past. Let's get the basics out of the way.

Strings are formed using single, double or triple quotes. Single quotes and double quotes behave the same:

'This is a string'

and

"This is a string"

are treated the same. Both single and double quotes require escape sequences to represent special characters. Like any regular expression, Perl or PHP, special characters that you want represented literally, require a backslash escape. Examples include a quote within the outer quotes:

'Bill, it\'s time to go!'

and general special characters, such as newline:

print "Don't follow me too closely\n\n\n"
print "Is that far enough?"

Triple quotes-either ''' or """-have some special properties. Firstly, they can be multiline. Secondly, quotes are passed literally, but special characters are still recognized. The following will illustrate these points:

print """What on Earth is going on?
How am I spanning multiple lines? You think
this is funny?\n\nIt's "everyone's" opinion that
it isn't.
"""

This outputs:

What on Earth is going on?
How am I spanning multiple lines? You think
this is funny?
It's "everyone's" opinion that
it isn't.

Notice that the newline characters were honored, but there was no need to escape the inner quotes.

Now, triple quotes are useful, but more often than not, you're going to need to intersperse the contents of variables or manipulate strings for output. There are a few ways to handle these scenarios. Let's start with the most simple: automatic string concatenation. To illustrate, we need to look at the print function. The Python print function automatically outputs a newline after printing its entire string of data. The commands:

print "Don't follow me too closely."
print "Is that far enough?"

will display:

Don't follow me too closely.
Is that far enough?

No explicit newline character needed. That's pretty straightforward. One way to get rid of the newline character is to use Python's automatic string concatenation feature. Python doesn't require any specific character to concatenate adjacent strings:

print "String 1" "String 2"

prints "String 1String 2". Easy enough, right? Using parentheses, you can extend this to work with multi-line code:

print ("Don't follow me too closely."
       "Is that far enough?")

A comma, which also concatenates strings, will suppress a newline character. It's also a way to add in variables. You may have noticed the homework assignment string used a comma:

print "The slice is:",text[start:end]

What you may not have noticed is that the comma also inserts a space. (There will be a space between the colon and the text in this example). Another way to concatenate strings is the addition symbol, which is overridden to work with text. This method does not insert a space:

print "The slice is: " + text[start:end]

Notice that we added a space ourselves before the final quote mark.

More useful in many ways is the format string. C programmers will recognize this immediately: Python uses the same string formatters as the printf functions in C. The easy introduction is this: Python's print function will substitute the contents of a variable into a string where it finds the string format specifier %s. Time for an example:

username = "bill"
print "Hello, %s" % username

This trivial example will print, "Hello, bill". In a larger program, we'd likely be fetching the username from some other location, such as a database. This style keeps code much more readable, especially when more variables are substituted in a single string. For example:

print "%s, you have %s credit remaining, " \
      "out of %s total." % (user['first'],
      user['credit'],
      user['total'])

There are a few techniques pointed out here. First, you can use the backslash character to continue long lines. Use it where it makes your code more readable. The parentheses form a tuple-something we'll cover in detail next month. The values in the tuple are substituted into the string in order.

For the sake of completeness, there's one last form that is very useful, but won't make sense until we cover dictionaries. A dictionary is a Python data structure that offers a mapping of keys to values. Keys in a dictionary are unique. Due to this, a print format string will also accept a dictionary to map to:

print "%(first)s, you have %(credit)s credit remaining, " \
      "out of %(total)s total." % user

In this example, user is the dictionary-as in the previous example-and each format specifier contains the key in that dictionary to substitute the value of. This will be covered in future columns.

In order to bring this full circle, this shows another way we could have written the print statement in the homework assigment:

print "The slice is: %s" % text[start:end]

One thing I've glossed over a bit here: we're coercing all values into strings. To illustrate, look at this example:

foo=52
print "The value is %s." % foo

Here, foo is an integer value, but we're placing it into a string. The Python interpreter will happily do the right thing here. But there are situations where you'll need to be a little more precise. In fact, the right way to handle this is to specify that the variable being substituted is an integer. Instead of playing fast and loose and treating all values as a string, "%s", you can specify integers with "%d":

print "The value is %d." % foo

Why does this eally matter, you may ask? Last month, we covered Python's various data types. String, Unicode, integer and float are all used for different purposes. When substituting a float value, you may want to specify the number of decimal places. Try this example:

myfloat = 5.9872345234
print "The number is %s." % myfloat
print "Reduced to 2 decimal places,",\
      "and rounded, it\'s %0.2f" % myfloat

The Python documentation contains a full list of format specifiers. Find it at: http://www.python.org/doc/current/lib/

If you install the documentation as instructed in the next section, this can be found locally at file:///Library/ Frameworks/Python.framework/Versions/2.5/Resources/English.lproj/Documentation/lib/typesseq-strings.html.

All You Need to do is Ask

One thing that I feel is important to teach is showing ways in which you can help yourself. Python was designed with this in mind, and supplies a built-in help system. In the interactive python shell, just type help(), or, look for help on a particular word:

>>> help('print')
Sorry, topic and keyword documentation is not available 
because the Python HTML documentation files could not be found.
If you have installed them, please set the environment
variable PYTHONDOCS to indicate their location.

Ah, yes...you'll run into this under OS X. The documentation is, for some reason, not installed with the out-of-the-box Leopard installation. This is easily remedied, however. Download the PythonMac 2.5 distribution (http://pythonmac.org/packages/py25-fat/dmg/python-2.5-macosx.dmg) and mount the image, but do not run the installer. The installer on the image is a metapackage. Control-click on the included mpkg installer, and choose "Show Package Contents" from the resulting Finder menu. Navigate to Contents/Packages and double-click on PythonDocumentation-2.5.pkg to install the documentation. The docs are dropped onto the boot volume, but buried at /Library/Frameworks/Python.framework/Versions/2.5/Resources/English.lproj/Documentation. Even though they're present on disk, python will still not know where to locate them. Let's fix that. Of course, there needs to be a slight explanation first.

Python uses an environment variable named PYTHONDOCS to locate its documentation. As you may expect, PYTHONDOCS specifies a path in the same format as the shell PATH variable: an absolute path on the filesystem. To enable python to locate the documentation, we can create the PYTHONDOCS variable and add the OS X-specific location. In your shell, type and enter:

export PYTHONDOCS=/Library/Frameworks/Python.framework/Versions/2.5/Resources/English.lproj/Documentation

You need to export the variable so the subshell running the python interpreter inherits the value. Ideally, you should add this to a startup file so it's available each time you start a shell. Dropping it in your ~/.bash_profile file is recommended. There are also two very OS X-ish ways of dealing with this for those of you in a GUI environment. One is to simply open the GUI application from the shell that has the exported variable:

open /Users/Shared/Applications/TextWrangler.app

Just supply open with the full path to the application in question. This will allow the application access to any exported environment variables in that shell session. Since I'm in a shell pretty much full-time, this is my preferred method. Create an alias for the command you use if you do this often.

The second way is to add the environment variable to the user-global environment.plist, or, directly to a particular application's plist. Apple has excellent documentation available on just this topic, so there's no need for me to repeat it. The environment variable developer docs can be found at http://developer.apple.com/documentation/MacOSX/Conceptual/BPRuntimeConfig/Articles/EnvironmentVars.html,. (If Apple ever moves this doc, hit up Google for "User Session Environment Variables").

If you're using TextMate, you can define shell variables in Preferences > Advanced > Shell Variables. Just add a variable named "PYTHONDOCS" with the path listed above, and you can avoid the entire edit-the-plist dance.

Once your environment variable is set, enter python again and ask for help:

>>> help()
Welcome to Python 2.5!  This is the online help utility.
(...output shortened for space considerations...)

Once in the help system, the python prompt will change to help>. You can look for general help on modules, topics or keywords just by typing "modules", "topics" or "keywords" (clever, eh?):

help> modules
Please wait a moment while I gather a list of all available modules...

If you know the module name or keyword, you can just bring up the information directly:

help> print
  ------------
  
  6.6 The print statement
...

Finally, there's no need to enter the help system at all. You can call help with your query as an argument. For example:

>>> help('print')

To exit the help system, press ctrl-d, just like you're leaving the interactive python shell.

For pedantic among you, there's a small distinction to make here. The python interpreter initializes its own environment from the PYTHONDOCS environment variable. Once python is running, changing this variable will have no effect. Conversely, you can look up the current PYTHONDOCS path. From the interactive shell, type the following:

>>> import pydoc
>>> pydoc.help.docdir

python should spit back to you the current path inherited from PYTHONDOCS.

Conclusion

Between last month and this month, you now know everything practical about strings in Python. While there's a good road left to travel in Python itself, the good news is that so much of the work you'll typically do involves strings and collections that this is a great topic to understand. In next column, we'll tackle more. For now, practice with what you have learned so far.

Media of the month: Neuromancer by William Gibson. Every techie needs some William Gibson in their library. If you've already read Neuromancer, but haven't explored more, use this as an opportunity to pick up something more recent (Count Zero and Pattern Recognition come to mind).

Next month is Macworld. Please stop by the MacTech booth and say hello! Until then, keep scripting!


Ed Marczak knew even from the punch card and TTY days that technology was in his future. He finds all technology interesting, but chooses OS X when possible. When not computing, he spends time with his wife and two daughters.

 
AAPL
$106.98
Apple Inc.
-0.36
MSFT
$46.05
Microsoft Corpora
-0.57
GOOG
$550.31
Google Inc.
+0.98

MacTech Search:
Community Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

Cocktail 8.0.1 - General maintenance and...
Cocktail is a general purpose utility for OS X that lets you clean, repair and optimize your Mac. It is a powerful digital toolset that helps hundreds of thousands of Mac users around the world get... Read more
LibreOffice 4.3.3.2 - Free Open Source o...
LibreOffice is an office suite (word processor, spreadsheet, presentations, drawing tool) compatible with other major office suites. The Document Foundation is coordinating development and... Read more
VMware Fusion 7.0.1 - Run Windows apps a...
VMware Fusion allows you to create a Virtual Machine on your Mac and run Windows (including Windows 8.1) and Windows software on your Mac. Run your favorite Windows applications alongside Mac... Read more
OneNote 15.3.2 - Free digital notebook f...
OneNote is your very own digital notebook. With OneNote, you can capture that flash of genius, that moment of inspiration, or that list of errands that's too important to forget. Whether you're at... Read more
Audio Hijack Pro 2.11.4 - Record and enh...
Audio Hijack Pro drastically changes the way you use audio on your computer, giving you the freedom to listen to audio when you want and how you want. Record and enhance any audio with Audio Hijack... Read more
Iridient Developer 3.0.0 beta 3 - Powerf...
Iridient Developer (was RAW Developer) is a powerful image conversion application designed specifically for OS X. Iridient Developer gives advanced photographers total control over every aspect of... Read more
TextWrangler 4.5.11 - Free general purpo...
TextWrangler is the powerful general purpose text editor, and Unix and server administrator's tool. Oh, and also, like the best things in life, it's free. TextWrangler is the "little brother" to... Read more
NeoFinder 6.6 - Catalog your external me...
NeoFinder (formerly CDFinder) rapidly organizes your data, either on external or internal disks, or any other volumes. It catalogs all your data, so you stay in control of your data archive or disk... Read more
Chromium 38.0.2125.111 - Fast and stable...
Chromium is an open-source browser project that aims to build a safer, faster, and more stable way for all Internet users to experience the web. FreeSMUG-Free OpenSource Mac User Group build is... Read more
Default Folder X 4.6.11 - Enhances Open...
Default Folder X attaches a toolbar to the right side of the Open and Save dialogs in any OS X-native application. The toolbar gives you fast access to various folders and commands. You just click... Read more

Latest Forum Discussions

See All

Audio Defence : Zombie Arena (Games)
Audio Defence : Zombie Arena 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $4.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: A zombie shooter audio game. Made from gut-wrenching 3D binaural sound, for a new kind of weird immersion. You... | Read more »
RPG Asdivine Hearts (Games)
RPG Asdivine Hearts 1.1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $3.99, Version: 1.1.0 (iTunes) Description: SPECIAL PRICE50% OFF (USD 7.99 -> USD 3.99)!!! Travel alongside four companions and a cat in the adventure of a... | Read more »
Haunt the House: Terrortown (Games)
Haunt the House: Terrortown 1.0.1 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $.99, Version: 1.0.1 (iTunes) Description: 66.6% OFF! SPECIAL SPOOKY HALLOWEEN LAUNCH PRICE! 66.6% OFF! ...What was that sound? Is somebody there? | Read more »
SAS: Zombie Assault 4 Review
SAS: Zombie Assault 4 Review By Jennifer Allen on October 30th, 2014 Our Rating: :: FLAWED SHOOTERUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Shoot everything that moves in this fun, if flawed, twin-stick shooter.   | Read more »
Naailde the Witch Review
Naailde the Witch Review By Amy Solomon on October 30th, 2014 Our Rating: :: PITCH-PERFECT STORYTELLINGUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Marvelous storytelling, narration, and moving illustrations make this storybook... | Read more »
1st & Goal Review
1st & Goal Review By Andrew Fisher on October 30th, 2014 Our Rating: :: FOR THE D&D LOVING QBUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad 1st & Goal is a board gamer’s football game, a football fan’s board game, and... | Read more »
French Developer Pated Unveils Seashine
French Developer Pated Unveils Seashine Posted by Ellis Spice on October 30th, 2014 [ permalink ] French one-man studio Pated has unveiled Seashine, “a poetic journey into the abyss.” Players take on the role of a jellyfish strugglin | Read more »
Agents of Storm: Tips, Tricks, and Strat...
Calling all agents: Would you like to see what we thought of this rather pretty base builder? Check out our Agents of Storm review! Have you downloaded Agents of Storm, been bowled over by the graphics, and aren’t quite sure what to do next? Never... | Read more »
Any.DO 2.0 Hopes to Help Manage Producti...
Any.DO 2.0 Hopes to Help Manage Productivity Posted by Ellis Spice on October 30th, 2014 [ permalink ] iPhone App - Designed for the iPhone, compatible with the iPad | Read more »
Base Busters Review
Base Busters Review By Jennifer Allen on October 30th, 2014 Our Rating: :: FUN BUT RESTRICTED MIXUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Mixing up two forms of tower defense gaming and collectible cards, Base Busters is a fun... | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

Apple Regains Momentum As Windows Stutters An...
The latest smartphone sales data from Kantar Worldpanel ComTech, for the three months to March 2014, shows Apple performing strongly in the first quarter of the year, with sales bouncing back in... Read more
Worldwide Smartphone Shipments Increase 25.2%...
New smartphone releases and an increased emphasis on emerging markets drove global smartphone shipments above 300 million units for the second consecutive quarter, according to preliminary data from... Read more
Apple now offering refurbished 2014 15-inch M...
The Apple Store is now offering Apple Certified Refurbished 2014 15″ Retina MacBook Pros for up to $400 off the cost of new models. An Apple one-year warranty is included with each model, and... Read more
Apple drops prices on refurbished 2013 Retina...
The Apple Store has dropped prices on 2013 Apple Certified Refurbished 13″ and 15″ Retina MacBook Pros, with Retina models now available starting at $999. Apple’s one-year warranty is standard, and... Read more
New 2.8GHz Mac mini on sale for $949, save $5...
Abt Electronics has the new 2.8GHz Mac mini in stock and on sale for $949.05 including free shipping. Their price is $50 off MSRP, and it’s the lowest price available for this model from any reseller... Read more
Sale! 3.7GHz Quad Core Mac Pro available for...
 B&H Photo has the 3.7GHz Quad Core Mac Pro on sale for $2649 including free shipping plus NY sales tax only. Their price is $350 off MSRP, and it’s the lowest price for this model from any... Read more
Mujjo Steps Up The Game With Refined Touchscr...
Netherlands based Mujjo have just launched their Refined Touchscreen Gloves, stepping up their game. The gloves feature a updated elegant design that takes these knitted gloves to the next level. A... Read more
Sale! Preorder the new 27-inch 5K iMac for $2...
 Abt Electronics has the new 27″ 3.5GHz 5K iMac on sale and available for preorder for $2374.05 including free shipping. Their price is $125 off MSRP, and it’s the lowest price available for this... Read more
Simplex Solutions Inc. Brings Secure Web Surf...
New York based Simplex Solutions Inc. has announced the release and immediate availability of Private Browser 1.0, its revolutionary new secure web browser developed for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch... Read more
Save up to $180 off MSRP with an Apple refurb...
The Apple Store has Apple Certified Refurbished 2014 MacBook Airs available for up to $180 off the cost of new models. An Apple one-year warranty is included with each MacBook, and shipping is free.... Read more

Jobs Board

Position Opening at *Apple* - Apple (United...
**Job Summary** Every day, business customers come to the Apple Store to discover what powerful, easy-to-use Apple products can do for them. As a Business Leader, Read more
Sr. Manager, *Apple* Deployment Programs fo...
**Job Summary** Apple is seeking candidates for a new position on the Education Content and Technology team. iPad and Mac is in the hands of millions of teachers and Read more
*Apple* Solutions Consultant (ASC) - Apple I...
…important role that the ASC serves is that of providing an excellent Apple Customer Experience. Responsibilities include: * Promoting Apple products and solutions Read more
*Apple* Solutions Consultant (ASC) - Apple I...
…important role that the ASC serves is that of providing an excellent Apple Customer Experience. Responsibilities include: * Promoting Apple products and solutions Read more
*Apple* Solutions Consultant (ASC) - Apple I...
…important role that the ASC serves is that of providing an excellent Apple Customer Experience. Responsibilities include: * Promoting Apple products and solutions Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.