Programming Python, Part I

This tutorial jumps right in to the power of Python without dragging you through basic programming.
Object-Oriented Programming

Object-oriented programming was born more than 20 years ago so developers could separate each part of a computer program in a way similar to how objects are separated in the real world. Python models objects by using classes. A class is an abstract definition of what an object has and what an object can do. If this sounds foreign, don't worry, OOP (object-oriented programming) is difficult at first.

An example might help. A bridge is a structure that allows people or vehicles to cross an obstacle, such as a river, canal or railway. A bridge has some length, some width and even some color. It may allow vehicles or only persons. It may allow heavy vehicles or not. When I say “bridge”, I am not defining any of those details. Bridge is a class. If I say Golden Gate, Le Pont de Normandie or Akashi-Kaikyo, I am naming particular bridges; they have some specific length, width, vehicle allowance and color. In OOP jargon, they are instances of bridge.

Back to our blog, let's create a class to model our post:

>>> class Post(object):
...     pass

We start with class, the keyword for creating new classes. Next comes the name of the class—in this case, Post. In parentheses, we have the super-classes—ignore that for now.

Here again, the prompt has changed from >>> to ..., and Python expects something in a class. Because we don't want to put anything in yet, we write pass, which is something, but in fact, it is nothing. Python knows when a class starts and ends because of the indentation, the same as with functions.

To reproduce what I did, simply type the class header, class Post(object):, press Enter, press Tab, type pass, press Enter, press Enter again, and that's it.

Now, we can create a Post:

>>> cool = Post()
>>> cool
<__main__.Post object at 0xb7ca642c>

Note that what is being printed when we evaluate a post is a generic representation for the object. We can set its title and body:

>>> cool.title = "Cool"
>>> cool.body = "Python is cool."

And retrieve them:

>>> cool.title
>>> cool.body
'Python is cool.'

Up to this point, a Post is like a simple container for anything you can imagine putting there. The problem with this is we may get lost as to what to put in it, or what not to put in it. Back to a sheet of paper? No! Although we can't stop making the posts a container in that way, we can put some methods there, so users have an idea of what a post may contain. To do this, we write our own methods in the class Post:

>>> class Post(object):
...     def set_title(self, title):
...         self._title = title
...     def get_title(self):
...         return self._title

Methods are like functions, but as they are in a class, they are associated with the objects of the class. This means different classes can have different methods with the same name. Just imagine the difference between bat.hit(ball) and stick.hit(drum).

Python has a convention that the first parameter (normally called self) to a method is the object on which we are calling the method. That means running cool.set_title("Cool")will set self to be cool, and title to be "Cool". Running:


is the equivalent of:

cool._title = "Cool"

The leading underscore lets others know that we don't want them playing with it. It means “don't access _title; use get_title and set_title”.

The previous interaction with the cool object can be rewritten as:

>>> cool = Post()
>>> cool.set_title("Cool")
>>> cool.set_body("Python is cool.")
>>> cool.get_title()
>>> cool.get_body()
'Python is cool.'

Writing the same set of methods for body should be easy now. But, be aware that you have to write the whole class in one go. Write the class header, the set_title and get_title methods, and then create your set_body and get_body methods. It may take you a couple of tries.


As the Post class becomes bigger, you'll get tired of rewriting it every time you want to add a method. If you're tired already, that's a good sign. And besides, all that's in the REPL will be lost when we quit Python. We should start saving our work in files.

Python modules are simple text files, and you can use any text editor you want. As a programmer, you are going to spend most of your time with your editor, so take some time to choose one you really like and learn to use it well.

Emacs might not be the most beautiful editor, but for many programming tasks, it is awesome. (You could read that as “I don't like Emacs but it makes my life so much easier that I keep coming to it time after time”.) Installing Emacs from source is beyond the scope of this article. As usual, with programs that are so popular, your distribution is likely to provide it. In Debian and its derivatives try:

apt-get install emacs

For Gentoo, the counterpart is:

emerge emacs

To achieve the magic I am going to show here, you need python-mode.

In Debian:

apt-get install python-mode

In Gentoo:

emerge python-mode

Run Emacs. If you are serious about learning how to use it, now it is time to press Ctrl-H T, which in Emacs jargon means press Ctrl-H, release it and then press T. But, you can leave that for later, when you've finished reading this Linux Journal issue. For this article, I provide all the keystrokes you need.

Press Ctrl-X Ctrl-F (Ctrl-X, release, Ctrl-F) to visit a file. On the bottom of the Emacs window, you'll see the cursor waiting for you to type the path and filename. Type and press Enter. (Python modules should have the extension .py.) Now, you can start typing the Post class we programmed before. Emacs tries to be smart about indentation and places it where you are likely to want it. If you need a different indentation, simply press Tab and keep pressing it until you get the desired results.

On the top, you should have two menus: IM-Python and Python. The first one contains a list of classes and methods in the file you are editing. Click on Rescan if it doesn't show information you know is there. This is very useful when working with huge files. The second menu is even more useful, but explore and play with it later. For now, simply run Start interpreter... or press Ctrl-C !.

Suddenly the window is split, and you have an embedded Python interpreter below the file you are editing (Figure 2). And the fun is only beginning. Click on the file you are editing to set the focus on it. Run Import/reload file from the Python menu or press Ctrl-C Enter. Now, you're ready to test your code on the REPL, but be aware that you'll have to add blog. before the name of the class, Post, because now the class is in the module blog. See Figure 2 for further reference.

Figure 2. Testing the REPL

You can, of course, do the same without Emacs. But for that, you need to learn how Python modules and packages are made. Set PYTHON_PATH, an environment variable, accordingly, and use the built-in function reload. With Emacs, you'll find iterating between coding and testing the code to be very fast. This speed can improve your performance and make programming more fun. In fact, Lisp programmers have been advocating this way of working for more than two decades.



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add_post function

ojo's picture

>>> def add_post(blog, new_post):
... blog = blog + [new_post]

The blog inside the function is not the same as the blog outside the function.

I think this is wrong. The blog inside the function is the same as the blog outside the function (variables behaves like references in 'C++'). The problem is in 'x = x + y' instruction. It makes new object 'x+y' and then assgin x to this new object.

So, this virsion of function 'add_blog' works fine:

>>> def add_post(blog, new_post):
... blog += [new_post]

I've changed 'blog = blog+[new_post]' to 'blog+=[new_post]'

>>> cool = blog.Post("Cool", "Python is cool")

chester's picture

AttributeError: 'Post' object has no attribute 'set_title'
(Python 2.5.1c1 Ubuntu feisty)