TweetFollow Us on Twitter

Mac in the Shell: Debugging Python

Volume Number: 25
Issue Number: 11
Column Tag: Mac in the Shell

Mac in the Shell: Debugging Python

Stepping through code with pdb

by Edward Marczak

Welcome

We've been covering Python in this column for the last few months. We've gone from the basics, such as built in data types, variable assignment and so on, through more advanced concepts such as creating classes and integrating with Cocoa via PyObj-C. The intent was never to imagine that this column alone would turn you into a master Python programmer, but to give you the tools and direction to do so. One tool that you will need on that journey, though, is a decent debugger. While it's less common in scripting languages like Python and Ruby to use a debugger, when something is just not working out as expected and you can't figure out why, a peek at the code while it's running is invaluable. This month, I'll show you how to do that in Python using the python debugger ("pdb").

Do The Needful

Using a Shell

The instructions in this column always try to respect the way people are used to working. However, debuggers are interactive and grew up in a shell environment. While there may be interaction with certain editors, that will be outside of the scope for this article. Edit in whatever editor you like, but we're going to run and debug from a shell. (I think the general unease with the shell is lessening in the Mac community...right?). So, fire up Terminal.app (or iTerm, Terminator, etc.) and we'll get started.

Learning Your History

A debugger is itself a program that lets you examine another running program. You can use a debugger to step through the running code of the target program one line at a time, examine the values of variables at a given point in the code, run up until a certain breakpoint and examine a program crash or exception. One of the more well-known multi-language debuggers is the GNU Debugger, or "gdb." While you could use gdb to debug Python, there happens to exist a Python-specific clone of GDB called pdb, or, the Python Debugger.

In many scripting languages, programs are typically relatively short, and debuggers are often unnecessary. Many scripters are accustomed to sprinkling 'print' or logging statements through their code that reveals the value of particular variables at a particular point in the program's execution. However, you may have realized that Python is a bit more grown up than many traditional scripting languages. There are many fairly large systems written in Python. As an application gets larger and contains more dependencies, a dedicated debugger becomes not only useful, but necessary.

Getting Started

We'll start off with some simple code as an example of basic debugging. You write the code in listing 1 in the hopes finding prime numbers through and including 10.

Listing 1: prime_debug.py - sample code for debugging.

#!/usr/bin/python
for n in range(2, 10):
  for x in range(2, n):
    if n % x == 0:
      print n, 'equals', x, '*', n/x
      break
    else:
      print n, 'is a prime number'

Of course, you run this code and see something a little different than you expected—there are two problems in this code. A basic reason for debugging! (Kudos if you already see the errors).

The Python debugger is implemented as a module, so, like other modules, you need to import it. Add the following import after the shebang line:

import pdb

You'll also need to pick a point where you want to start tracing. Since this is an example, we'll start right at the top. So also add the set_trace method immediately following the import statement:

pdb.set_trace()

Now you can just run the program (mark it as executable first with a chmod 770 prime_debug.py or simlar). However, when you run the program this time, you're looking at something different. Something like this:

$ ./prime_debug.py > /Users/marczak/dev/py/prime_debug.py(7)<module>() -> for n in range(2, 10): (Pdb)

What you are looking at is the pdb interactive debugger waiting for your command. You'll see this when the pdb.set_trace() method is called. At this point, pdb stops all execution, displays the statement that it's waiting to execute next and displays its prompt. For our purposes, we want to execute this line (for n in range(2, 10)), so, we enter n, for "next." After pressing return, we're greeted with new information and a new prompt:

-> for x in range(2, n):
(Pdb)

Ah! We've moved on to the next line of the program, and are looking at the next statement to execute. To do so, you can simply press return, as pdb will repeat the last command you gave it by pressing return. Keep doing this a few times until you're comfortable with the display and what you're looking at.

Just so we can get back in sync, quit the debugger and we'll start again. To quit pdb at any time, issue a q command. You'll see a diagnostic "bdb.BdbQuit" line printed and find yourself back at a shell prompt.

Run your program again and let it drop into the debugger, and let's do something a little more useful this time. Tracing program flow is useful, but just as useful is being able to examine the value of variables. You're now essentially waiting for the first line of the program to execute: "for n in range(2, 10)." If you try to examine the variable n right now, you'll receive an error, since this line hasn't yet executed and n isn't yet defined.

First, execute this first line by entering n for "next," then enter p n, which stands for "print the contents of n." You can display the contents of any variable with the p ("print") command. In our example, the output should look like this:

-> for x in range(2, n):
(Pdb) p n
2

This is completely in line with our expectations: n is 2, right at the beginning of its range. (Note that the displayed line is the next line, not the one we're examining the variable of).

Finding our problem

Let's go off and find our problem, which is actually two-fold. The output currently looks like this:

3 is a prime number
4 equals 2 * 2
5 is a prime number
5 is a prime number
5 is a prime number
6 equals 2 * 3
7 is a prime number
7 is a prime number
7 is a prime number
7 is a prime number
7 is a prime number
8 equals 2 * 4
9 is a prime number
9 equals 3 * 3

This is all technically correct, but ugly. What's with the repeating lines? Also, we wanted to find values through 10, not 9. Since the first time we see the repeating lines is when n is equal to 5, let's find that point. Run the program, step through each line using the n command until you see the first output of "5 is a prime number." It will look like this:

> /Users/marczak/dev/py/prime_debug.py (9)<module>()
-> if n % x == 0:
(Pdb) 
> /Users/marczak/dev/py/prime_debug.py (14)<module>()
-> print n, 'is a prime number'
(Pdb) 
5 is a prime number
> /Users/marczak/dev/py/prime_debug.py (8)<module>()
-> for x in range(2, n):
(Pdb) 

Now, let's pay attention as we continue to step through. After a few iterations (or sooner), it should become clear: our if statement is not True, which is fine, and the else clause is running our print statement, which isn't fine. We really only want to print that notification on the way out of the loop when it fails to find a factor. So, our logic error is simple: we have the wrong level of indentation on the else statement. It should be un-indented one level, to be a part of the for loop. The entire loop should look like this:

for n in range(2, 10):
  for x in range(2, n):
    if n % x == 0:
      print n, 'equals', x, '*', n/x
      break
  else:
    print n, 'is a prime number'

Again, notice the subtle difference in indentation for the else portion – it's really a part of the for loop. If you're 'too close' to your code, that's an easy one to miss. However, debugging can be similar to explaining your code to a rubber duck—you know how it's supposed to work, but you only have the 'a ha!' as you step through it.

Make it Easier

We found our major error, but now have another: we want to print primes up through and including the number 10. If you're like me, you need a refresher at this point as to where you are in the code. Issuing an l (not "one," but "ell," for "list") will do just that:

(Pdb) l
  3     import pdb
  4     
  5     pdb.set_trace()
  6     
  7     for n in range(2, 10):
  8  ->     for x in range(2, n):
  9         if n % x == 0:
 10           print n, 'equals', x, '*', n/x
 11           break
 12         else:
 13           # loop fell through without finding a factor

Ah! Now I know where I am. All we're really interested in from this point on is the value of n. Stepping through the remainder of the code shows that the initial for loop exits after 9. Didn't we ask it to run until 10?

Yes we did, but that's our misconception. Looking at the Python documentation for range() shows that the range intentionally excludes the final number.

While this may not be a common mistake that you make, it turns out that this is still a useful exercise: you may not always be debugging your own code.

Dealing with Functions

There's a few more pdb commands to understand before you tackle larger python programs. Specifically, you'll want to know how to deal with functions. Take, for example, the code in listing 2.

Listing 2: dict_iterate.py

#!/usr/bin/python
import pdb
pdb.set_trace()
def _PrintDict(dict):
  """Recursively iterate over a dictionary, printing results
  Args:
    dict: The dictionary to print
  """
  pdb.set_trace()
  for item in dict:
    if type(dict[item]) == dict:
      _PrintDict(dict[item])
    else:
      print "%s: %s" % (dict[item], type(dict[item]))
def main():
  """Main routine"""
  aDict = {'color': 'blue',
           'count': 15,
           'cust_info': {'pid': '94758476', 'uid': '348576'},
           'style': 'fruit'}
  _PrintDict(aDict)
if __name__ == "__main__":
  main()

This should look vaguely familiar to anyone who read the previous column on Python. Start this program running and step through it with n—you'll see python touch each function name to create an object for it. If you keep tracing with n ("next"), this program will end very quickly. This is because when the n command reaches a function, it executes the entire function without entering that function. So, stop tracing with n when you arrive at the call to main():

-> if __name__ == "__main__":
(Pdb) n
> /Users/marczak/dev/py/dict_iterate.py(30)<module>()
-> main()

We want to step into main(), so go ahead and enter s (for "step"). You should be greeted with:

def main():

showing that you're now looking at the definition for main(). Keep stepping as we want to also step into the call to _PrintDict().

When you do arrive in the _PrintDict() function, there's a for loop. Once you've traversed that loop, you may no longer be deeply interested in it, but want to get back to where you were before entering this function. pdb has a solution for you: r, for "return." Essentially, "finish up this function and return."

Be aware! Stepping into functions sometimes will have an unintended consequence for you: stepping into an library that you've included. This is often not the code that you're interested in debugging, though it may be. If you accidentally step into a library function—PyObj-C code included—just remember the r command and return until you're back to where you expect.

More pdb Features

You now know the core of pdb and can actually do some serious debugging. However, pdb offers a lot more. Some of which we'll save for another column, but there are two more useful things to pass on.

The easy way out: c, for "continue." If at any point, you've traced through all you've wanted to trace, but don't want to crash the program with a quit (q) command, there is another option. The continue command picks up and runs the remainder of the program.

Even better, though, is this: pdb is letting you load and run your Python program in an interactive environment. You can alter variables just by assigning them:

(Pdb) x =7
(Pdb) p x
7

Imagine the simple code in listing 3.

Listing 3: math.py

#!/usr/bin/python
import pdb
pdb.set_trace()
x = 5
for i in range(1, 10):
  print i + x

At any time after x gets assigned, you can reassign it. Your debugging session can look like this:

$ ./math.py 
> /Users/marczak/dev/py /math.py(7)<module>()
-> x = 5
(Pdb) n
> /Users/marczak/dev/py /math.py(9)<module>()
-> for i in range(1, 10):
(Pdb) 
> /Users/marczak/dev/py /math.py(10)<module>()
-> print i + x
(Pdb) 
6
> /Users/marczak/dev/py /math.py(9)<module>()
-> for i in range(1, 10):
(Pdb) x = 20
(Pdb) n
> /Users/marczak/dev/py /math.py(10)<module>()
-> print i + x
(Pdb) 
22

This is fantastic news if you want to test your code for fragility around scenarios where variable reach certain values. Of course, as the code runs, if a variable gets reassigned in your program, you need to watch for that.

Reference Sheet

Here's a handy list of the pdb topics discussed in this article:

pdb library: import pdb
Start tracing: pdb.set_trace()
n: execute next command
s: step into a function
r: return from function
c: continue running program
q: quit pdb (and error out of program).

Conclusion

While you may focus on shorted programs now, as your skills improve, your programs should grow in complexity and size. At some point, you'll likely confound yourself, and a debugger comes in very handy during these times. Fortunately, Python has an available debugger that is friendly to use and easy to make available to your program.

Media of the month: I've been in a "back to school" kind of way, but really just studying on my own. There's too much to learn, right? Well, I've taken the school approach: one topic a day and rotate through them and study each night. Now, I'm not recommending anything this drastic, but, I'd bet there's one subject that you've wanted to learn. Now is the time. Hit up your local bookstore, University or Amazon.com, find a book and go. If you're still an actual student, well, keep going!

Until next month, keep scripting.


Ed Marczak is the Executive Editor for MacTech Magazine, and has written the Mac in the Shell column since 2004.

 
AAPL
$102.50
Apple Inc.
+0.25
MSFT
$45.43
Microsoft Corpora
+0.55
GOOG
$571.60
Google Inc.
+2.40

MacTech Search:
Community Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

Path Finder 6.5.5 - Powerful, award-winn...
Path Finder is a file browser that combines the familiar Finder interface with the powerful utilities and innovative features. Just a small selection of the Path Finder 6 feature set: Dual pane... Read more
QuarkXPress 10.2.1 - Desktop publishing...
With QuarkXPress, you can communicate in all the ways you need to -- and always look professional -- in print and digital media, all in a single tool. Features include: Easy to Use -- QuarkXPress is... Read more
Skype 6.19.0.450 - Voice-over-internet p...
Skype allows you to talk to friends, family and co-workers across the Internet without the inconvenience of long distance telephone charges. Using peer-to-peer data transmission technology, Skype... Read more
VueScan 9.4.41 - Scanner software with a...
VueScan is a scanning program that works with most high-quality flatbed and film scanners to produce scans that have excellent color fidelity and color balance. VueScan is easy to use, and has... Read more
Cloud 3.0.0 - File sharing from your men...
Cloud is simple file sharing for the Mac. Drag a file from your Mac to the CloudApp icon in the menubar and we take care of the rest. A link to the file will automatically be copied to your clipboard... Read more
LibreOffice 4.3.1.2 - 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
SlingPlayer Plugin 3.3.20.505 - Browser...
SlingPlayer is the screen interface software that works hand-in-hand with the hardware inside the Slingbox to make your TV viewing experience just like that at home. It features an array of... Read more
Get Lyrical 3.8 - Auto-magically adds ly...
Get Lyrical auto-magically add lyrics to songs in iTunes. You can choose either a selection of tracks, or the current track. Or turn on "Active Tagging" to get lyrics for songs as you play them.... Read more
Viber 4.2.2 - Send messages and make cal...
Viber lets you send free messages and make free calls to other Viber users, on any device and network, in any country! Viber syncs your contacts, messages and call history with your mobile device,... Read more
Cocktail 7.6 - General maintenance and o...
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

Latest Forum Discussions

See All

Rhonna Designs Magic (Photography)
Rhonna Designs Magic 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Photography Price: $1.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: Want to sprinkle *magic* on your photos? With RD Magic, you can add colors, filters, light leaks, bokeh, edges,... | Read more »
This Week at 148Apps: August 25-29, 2014
Shiny Happy App Reviews   | Read more »
Qube Kingdom – Tips, Tricks, Strategies,...
Qube Kingdom is a tower defense game from DeNA. You rally your troops – magicians, archers, knights, barbarians, and others – and fight against an evil menace looking to dominate your kingdom of tiny squares. Planning a war isn’t easy, so here are a... | Read more »
Qube Kingdom Review
Qube Kingdom Review By Nadia Oxford on August 29th, 2014 Our Rating: :: KIND OF A SQUARE KINGDOMUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Qube Kingdom has cute visuals, but it’s a pretty basic tower defense game at heart.   | Read more »
Fire in the Hole Review
Fire in the Hole Review By Rob Thomas on August 29th, 2014 Our Rating: :: WALK THE PLANKUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Seafoam’s Fire in the Hole looks like a bright, 8-bit throwback, but there’s not enough booty to... | Read more »
Alien Creeps TD is Now Available Worldwi...
Alien Creeps TD is Now Available Worldwide Posted by Ellis Spice on August 29th, 2014 [ permalink ] Universal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad | Read more »
Dodo Master Review
Dodo Master Review By Jordan Minor on August 29th, 2014 Our Rating: :: NEST EGGiPad Only App - Designed for the iPad Dodo Master is tough but fair, and that’s what makes it a joy to play.   | Read more »
Motorsport Manager Review
Motorsport Manager Review By Lee Hamlet on August 29th, 2014 Our Rating: :: MARVELOUS MANAGEMENTUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Despite its depth and sense of tactical freedom, Motorsport Manager is one of the most... | Read more »
Motorsport Manager – Beginner Tips, Tric...
The world of Motorsport management can be an unforgiving and merciless one, so to help with some of the stress that comes with running a successful race team, here are a few hints and tips to leave your opponents in the dust. | Read more »
CalPal Update Brings the App to 2.0, Add...
CalPal Update Brings the App to 2.0, Adds Lots of New Stuff Posted by Ellis Spice on August 29th, 2014 [ permalink ] | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

Are We Now In The Post-Post-PC Era?
A longtime and thoroughgoing laptop aficionado, I was more than a little dismayed by Steve Jobs’s declaration back in 2010 when he sprang the iPad on an unsuspecting world. that we’d entered a “post-... Read more
Apple now offering refurbished 21-inch 1.4GHz...
The Apple Store is now offering Apple Certified Refurbished 21″ 1.4GHz iMacs for $929 including free shipping plus Apple’s standard one-year warranty. Their price is $170 off the cost of new models,... Read more
Save $50 on the 2.5GHz Mac mini, on sale for...
B&H Photo has the 2.5GHz Mac mini on sale for $549.99 including free shipping. That’s $50 off MSRP, and B&H will also include a free copy of Parallels Desktop software. NY sales tax only. Read more
Save up to $300 on an iMac with Apple refurbi...
The Apple Store has Apple Certified Refurbished iMacs available for up to $300 off the cost of new models. Apple’s one-year warranty is standard, and shipping is free. These are the best prices on... Read more
The Rise of Phablets
Carlisle & Gallagher Consulting Group, a businesses and technology consulting firm focused solely on the financial services industry, has released an infographic depicting the convergence of... Read more
Bad Driver Database App Allows Good Drivers t...
Bad Driver Database 1.4 by Facile Group is a new iOS and Android app that lets users instantly input and see how many times a careless, reckless or just plain stupid driver has been added to the... Read more
Eddy – Cloud Music Player for iPhone/iPad Fre...
Ukraine based CapableBits announces the release of Eddy, its tiny, but smart and powerful cloud music player for iPhone and iPad that allows users to stream or download music directly from cloud... Read more
A&D Medical Launches Its WellnessConnecte...
For consumers and the healthcare providers and loved ones who care for them, A&D Medical, a leader in connected health and biometric measurement devices and services, has launched its... Read more
Anand Lal Shimpi Retires From AnandTech
Anand Lal Shimpi, whose AnandTech Website is famous for its meticulously detailed and thoroughgoing reviews and analysis, is packing it in. Lal Shimpi, who founded the tech site at age 14 in 1997,... Read more
2.5GHz Mac mini, Apple refurbished, in stock...
The Apple Store has Apple Certified Refurbished 2.5GHz Mac minis available for $509, $90 off MSRP. Apple’s one-year warranty is included, and shipping is free. Read more

Jobs Board

*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions (US) - A...
Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, you're also the Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions (US) - A...
Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, you're also the Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions (US) - A...
Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, you're also the Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions (US) - A...
Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, you're also the Read more
Senior Event Manager, *Apple* Retail Market...
…This senior level position is responsible for leading and imagining the Apple Retail Team's global event strategy. Delivering an overarching brand story; in-store, Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.