20 Jul 2020

Sparking Joy with Python

Decluttering with Tools

Adapted from photo by RISE, CC BY 2.0.

Sparking Joy with Python

A mini-series about bringing joy back to Python

Decluttering with Tools

Use a code formatter to wash away all of your stupid opinions about how your code should look. Ditch linters. Debug with a REPL. Use a newer language. And pick an editor that works on your servers. Ahh.


Do you ever try to align variables to function indentations?



    lets, get, back, to, basics,

When do you switch? Do you put trailing commas? When you start adding type annotations, things get even hairier.

My life improved when I stopped ever dealing with any of that crap. Enter Black, a python formatter. Directly from their GitHub:

By using it, you agree to cede control over minutiae of hand-formatting. In return, Black gives you speed, determinism, and freedom from pycodestyle nagging about formatting. You will save time and mental energy for more important matters.

I’ve never minded python’s indentation-instead-of-braces style, but I have minded rearranging stuff around manually and thinking about when to put what where. After writing in Go for a while and similarly relinquishing formatting to gofmt, this comes as a welcome relief. Simply set up your editor to run your formatter when you save a file.1

Ditch linters

Every linter I have used whined about non-vital things. I have abandoned all such noise. Black declutters, mypy (from the previous post) tells me when things are truly wrong. (Sometimes.)


Whenever, I don’t know what’s going on, I just drop in this line:

code.interact(local=dict(globals(), **locals()))

That line drops you into an interactive python prompt with the complete state of your program. (Don’t forget to import code before using.) I use it so much I made a button on my keyboard vomit out that whole line.

This single line joins together file-based programming (is there a better word for that?), with interactive experimentation. If you send it “end of file” (ctrl-D for me) your program keeps on running where it left off.

If you don’t have anything like this, it’s an immense help. I use it:

  • when my program has a bunch of state that I want to play around with. Maybe there are variables that took a while to compute, or I’ve defined a lot of functions I want to try out.

  • when I’m writing the first draft of something. I always have some of those lines sprinkled throughout (to check on things), and one at the end of the program (so I can inspect the results so far)

  • when I’m neck-deep in a neural net and I want to check out tensor shapes and contents (assuming you’re using something like pytorch that lets you do that)

  • when there’s an an exception I don’t understand, I toss one beforehand

If you’re already using grownup tools, that’s great, keep doing that. Here are some that are probably better but I’ve been too lazy to really figure out:

  • pdb.set_trace() — Launches a debugger, but you are now in a special prompt with a whole set of special debugger commands. There is probably one to send you into a REPL. But I always just want a REPL.

  • IPython.embed() — I actually did figure this one out recently! (In other words, I learned how to really use IPython.) But this seems to explode when you have threads going on (like in a web server). code.interact(...) handled the same situation fine.

  • using breakpoints with an editor — seems great. But you have to figure out how to hook your editor up to Python, or figure out how to run python from within your editor. I tried this once, and my code ran way slower. So I never tried it again.

Python 3

I started writing this blog post so long ago that this idea was somewhat controversial. At this point, it seems pretty much accepted. Python 3 is smooth sailing. Strings just work, and you get support for cooler stuff like cleaner type annotation syntax. Here’s a cheat sheet if you need help.

VS Code’s Remote Development

For the first time, I have a twenty-first century editor that can edit code that lives on a remote server as well as my desktop.

For me, the editor is the lynchpin that holds together other joy-sparking tools:

  • it runs mypy to tell me about errors I’ve made

  • it gives me type-aware autocomplete (sometimes) and shows me where functions and classes are defined (usually)2

  • it runs Black to format my code

  • it its filled with non-python-specific but still joy-sparking programming features like key binding support, color themes, a wide variety of plugins, a comprehensible but vast config system, and a development team that works on it constantly and seems to really give a damn.3

It is such a joy to have a really solid editor that just works locally and remotely. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve played the “git push here and git pull there” game, ssh’d in for Emacs to change “just one little thing,” or spent hours trying to jurry rig mount filesystems that end up crashing my Mac so I could use Sublime. This all strikes me as one of those things programmers of the future will be shocked we took so long to figure out after inventing the Internet.


Pick few tools to help you with common tasks and declutter annoying ones.

→ Next: Part IV: Conventions Are Small Magic

  1. There are also other Python formatters. My point isn’t that Black is the best, but just that you should use one. 

  2. Jedi really deserves credit here, as it’s doing the heavy lifting. I didn’t include it above because it’s not a conscious choice of mine, it’s just what VS Code picks by default. 

  3. Devs giving a damn is one step removed from directly sparking joy. But it shines through a product in myriad ways. You can really tell, and because of it the joy factor is significantly upped. 



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