Categories: IT, Architecture, Linnaeus Award, Python, Cation, CherryPy, Dejavu, WHELPS, WSGI, Robotics and Engineering

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Permalink 10:00:00 am, by fumanchu Email , 22 words   English (US)
Categories: IT, CherryPy

Best of PyCon 2009

Toshio Kuratomi's How to Build Applications Linux Distributions will Package. As a web framework dev, this was priceless.


Permalink 12:59:29 pm, by fumanchu Email , 407 words   English (US)
Categories: IT, Python

Python is not PHP

I cringe at a lot of API's these days, because I see designers making the same mistakes again and again. Perhaps the most pervasive mistake is the dreaded NBU design: Namespacing By Underscores. For example, imagine you have a "Thing" class with a "color" attribute:

t = Thing()
t.color = 'red'

One day, you decide to switch from color names to RGB triples. Why, oh, why is this your first thought?

t.color_r = 255
t.color_g = 0
t.color_b = 0

That's your PHP (or Javascript, or SQL, or other) experience poking its ugly head in. Yes, PHP 5.3 finally has namespaces, and you can use objects as namespaces in JS if you're diligent. But chances are, you won't.

In Python, namespaces are easy. Use them. Ask yourself what the clearest syntax is, and you might come up with something like this:

>>> t.color = RGB(255, 0, 0)

This is not just a matter of clever delegation (replacing a str attribute with an RGB object)--it covers all manner of interface design decisions. Here's a recent example from python-dev regarding the email package's interface for Python 3:


Please don't do that--it makes it seem as if the "message" object has a set of headers and a distinct set of bytes_headers. At the least, you've elevated the rare case to be a peer of the common case. A new user of the email module shouldn't see anything about bytes in help(message) or dir(message). Instead, write this:

message.headers['Subject'] = 'A conversation'
message.headers['Subject'].encoding = 'utf-8'

Or, if you really prefer bytes over unicode as the canonical representation:

message.headers['Subject'] = b'A conversation'
message.headers['Subject'].encoding = 'utf-8'

If message.headers[x].encoding is given a sane default, and you expect the vast majority of users to only deal in unicode, they may never see the .encoding and .encode attributes. Good! We've made the common case easy and the rare cases possible.

In addition, we've embellished the Header object with a bytes representation using standard Python conventions: just like Python 3's str object has an encode method, so does our Header object. It's far easier to remember that such a convention applies, than to remember a brand-new name like "bytes_headers" or "decoded_headers".

Namespaces are one honking great idea -- let's do more of those! But please not faked via underscores.


Permalink 10:06:00 am, by fumanchu Email , 132 words   English (US)
Categories: IT, Python, Dejavu, CherryPy

PyCon Presentations

For PyCon 2009, I'm giving two talks! One on extending CherryPy and one on the innards of Dejavu/GeniuSQL. I think I've finally reduced my talks to the required time slots (I could easily have made 4-hour talks for each ;) and posted my presentations:

Use the arrow keys or mouse-click to proceed through them. The images don't load as fast over the network as they will when I present, so be patient if you preview them yourself. Also, try to use 1024 x 768 fullscreen--they're laid out specifically for that resolution.

Update: video is now available thanks to the great people who put on PyCon:


Permalink 05:53:54 pm, by fumanchu Email , 39 words   English (US)
Categories: IT, Python, General

Looking for work

JJ Behrens is looking for work. Smart guy. You should hire him.

After you hire him, have a look at my resume and hire me too.


Permalink 02:01:10 pm, by fumanchu Email , 334 words   English (US)
Categories: IT, Linnaeus Award

2009 Linnaeus Awards

The Linnaeus Awards

I'm starting a new category here: the Linnaeus Awards. Candidates must be examplars of Linnaean Taxonomy:

The method, the soul of science, designates at first sight any body in nature in such a way that the body in question expresses the name that is proper to it, and that this name recalls all the knowledge that may, in the course of time, have been acquired about the body thus named: so that in the midst of extreme confusion there is revealed the sovereign order of nature.

So, if you encounter a trout in the wild, you don't call it a "trout". You call it an "Oncorhynchus (mykiss) aguabonita masculinus trescenti-septi-squamatic duodecim-annus-natis...", stuffing every conceivable attribute of the object into its name.


  1. Longest Name. Names which are mashed together because of formalLanguageIdentifierRestrictions or natürlichsprachemodifizierdiarrhöe might get bonus points.
  2. Most Dimensions. Names which incorporate knowledge from varied axes, the more the better.
  3. Most Abstract. Placing the number-of-scales-on-a-fish into its name is fun, but for real "sovereign order" you need to incorporate the vocabulary of the taxonomy itself into the name. For example, a function in a spreadsheet program named, "SpreadsheetProgramAdditionFunction". Bonus points for including terms from ontology, taximetrics, or metaphysics.

Feel free to nominate additional candidates here or email:

Today's nomination:


From org.apache.xmlrpc.server

Factory-factories are not new. But this one goes a step further with some of its "implementing classes":

  • RequestProcessorFactoryFactory.RequestSpecificProcessorFactoryFactory
  • RequestProcessorFactoryFactory.StatelessProcessorFactoryFactory

...and genuflective attributes like:

  • RequestProcessorFactoryFactory.RequestProcessorFactory.getRequestProcessor(XmlRpcRequest)

But it doesn't stop there; the copy nominates itself:

There is nothing magic about the request processor: It may very well be a POJO. The RequestProcessorFactoryFactory is passed to the AbstractReflectiveHandlerMapping at startup...

Passing a factory-factory to an abstract-anything makes this a good candidate. Using the phrase "nothing magic" with a straight face catapults it to the top.


Permalink 12:22:51 pm, by fumanchu Email , 369 words   English (US)
Categories: Python


I recently had to test output that consisted of a long list of dicts against an expected set. After too many long debugging sessions with copious print statements and lots of hand-comparison, I finally got smart and switched to using Python's builtin difflib to give me just the parts I was interested in (the wrong parts).

With difflib and a little pprint magic, a failing test now looks like this:

Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "C:\Python25\lib\site-packages\app\test\", line 237, in tearDown
    self.assertNoDiff(a, b, "Expected", "Received")
  File "C:\Python25\lib\site-packages\app\test\", line 382, in failIfDiff
    raise self.failureException, msg
--- Expected

+++ Received

@@ -13,4 +13,3 @@

 {'call': 'getuser101',
 'output': {'first_name': 'Georg',
            'gender': u'Male',
            'last_name': 'Handel',
 {'call': 'getuser1',
 'output': None}
 {'call': 'getuser101',
 'output': {'first_name': 'Georg',
            'gender': u'Male',
            'last_name': 'Handel',
-{'call': 'getuser101',
 'output': {'first_name': 'Georg',
            'gender': u'Male',
            'last_name': 'Handel',

...and I can now easily see that the "Received" data is missing the last dict in the "Expected" list. Here's the code (not exactly what I committed at work, but I think this is even better):

import difflib
from pprint import pformat

class DiffTestCaseMixin(object):

    def get_diff_msg(self, first, second,
                     fromfile='First', tofile='Second'):
        """Return a unified diff between first and second."""
        # Force inputs to iterables for diffing.
        # use pformat instead of str or repr to output dicts and such
        # in a stable order for comparison.
        if isinstance(first, (tuple, list, dict)):
            first = [pformat(d) for d in first]
            first = [pformat(first)]

        if isinstance(second, (tuple, list, dict)):
            second = [pformat(d) for d in second]
            second = [pformat(second)]

        diff = difflib.unified_diff(
            first, second, fromfile=fromfile, tofile=tofile)
        # Add line endings.
        return ''.join([d + '\n' for d in diff])

    def failIfDiff(self, first, second, fromfile='First', tofile='Second'):
        """If not first == second, fail with a unified diff."""
        if not first == second:
            msg = self.get_diff_msg(first, second, fromfile, tofile)
            raise self.failureException, msg

    assertNoDiff = failIfDiff

The get_diff_msg function is broken out to allow a test method to call, where 'msg' might be the join'ed output of several diffs.

Happy testing!


Permalink 08:48:51 pm, by fumanchu Email , 102 words   English (US)
Categories: IT, Python

The Timeless Way of Software

I just finished Chris Alexander's The Timeless Way of Building and I only have one question with regards to software development: why do we laud the patterns and ignore the call to context? In other words: modularity is the enemy of usable software. It also happens to be the enemy of efficient and of readable software. If I see one more networking package or ORM with One Abstraction To Rule Them All I am going to scream. You and I are really good at abstractions. We are freaks. Most people have a hard time with them. Try not to proliferate them unnecessarily.


Permalink 11:25:31 pm, by fumanchu Email , 1658 words   English (US)
Categories: IT

The Direct Attribute Configuration Pattern

The Direct Attribute Configuration Pattern

Most programs, especially libraries and frameworks, need "configuration". But exactly how to implement that is a murky subject, mostly because the boundary between "configuration" and "code" is itself ill-defined.


So let's try to define it. The first thing you might notice is that the dictionary definition of "configuration", an arrangement of parts, is quite different from what you typically find in a modern "configuration file". For example, take a typical Apache httpd.conf file. It does contain several directives which identify components: LoadModule, for example. But far outweighing these are directives which set attributes, usually on an object or on the system as a whole. Directives like "Listen 80", "ThreadsPerChild 250", and "LogLevel debug", even though they could be implemented via arrangements of pieces, probably aren't. Instead, the values are most likely implemented as permanent cell variables which never appear, or move, or disappear, but instead only change in value. Even the LoadModule directive doesn't really arrange any pieces within a space; it merely identifies and includes them in an abstract set of "loaded modules". One might argue that the Location context directive deals with arrangements of URL's, but those aren't really arranged; they simply exist. You can't rearrange /path/to/resource to be above /path. No, the dictionary definition of "configuration" as "arrangement" is a holdover from our mostly-hardware past, where even the most dynamic "configuration system" still required moving cards and jumpers around in physical space.

There are some notable exceptions, of course, but the vast majority of software on the market today that is "configurable" consists of a fairly static set of objects, plus a formalized means of tweaking a subset of attributes of those objects. The most common exception to this, the "plugin", is also rarely arranged with respect to other plugins or components; instead, it is merely "turned on" or included. I believe this tendency is due to a natural human limitation: we just don't reason about graphs and networks very well yet, at least not nearly as well as we reason about vectors (of instructions) and sets. We feel good when working on serial problems, and bad when working on parallel ones. As Chris Alexander said:

There is little purpose, then, in saying: It would be better if this force did not exist. For if it does exist anyway, designs based on such wishful thinking will fail.

Conventional approaches and their problems

So then, let's discuss ways to implement this kind of "configuration". Again, let's look at Apache's httpd.conf: here we find almost a DSL, in that http_config.h defines functions to tokenize and parse a config file into another representation, a config vector. Then that intermediate structure is transformed into the actual used values like, say, request_rec->server->keep_alive_timeout.

Or take a typical postgresql.conf file. The entries therein are translated (via the ConfigureNamesBool array) to their internal variable names, and set globally. For example, check_function_bodies is implemented as an extern in guc.h. When a block of code needs to switch on the value of check_function_bodies, it #includes that header and reads the global value directly.

These designs carry with them several problems:

  1. The set of configurable attributes is fixed when the program is compiled.
  2. The set of configurable attributes must essentially be declared twice; once with an internal name, and again with an external name.
  3. Often, these names are different (quite often only by CamelCase for one and names_with_underscores for the other!), increasing the cognitive load for anyone dealing in both.
  4. Just as often, the types of the internal and external representations are different. The config file, for example, may allow specifying an attribute as "On" or "Off", but these are translated to the internal values 1 and 0. This mapping also increases cognitive load (I would argue by more than double).
  5. The namespace of attributes is flat, often only a single level. This can make searching for the correct directive name more difficult than a hierarchical namespace. The latter also promotes browsing of related attributes.
  6. If an intermediate structure is used as a scaffold, then "configuration variables" are declared together in one place, but read independently throughout the code base. In order to know what parts of a code block are configurable, the developer must search through the "config module" scaffolding, which is isolated from the code in question, and match up external names to internal effects.
  7. In some implementations, the intermediate structure is not a scaffold, but is the final repository of "config values"; the values are never copied onto their "real" referents. This makes it easier to know which parts of a code block are configurable--just grep for calls to config.get! But often, the config.get call is much more expensive than reading local copies; when that happens, performance can drop sharply with lots of config reads (often multiple reads of the same value).
  8. Memory usage is at least double for each configurable value since each one has an intermediate representation whether overridden or not. Quite often, the intermediate structures are retained long after they could have been freed.
  9. Conventional config file parsers often are slower and less strict than the parsers for the general-purpose languages they hide. Config reads are slow and errors are delayed.
  10. Config layers can be a lot of code. In Apache's server package, for example, config.c has more lines of code than any other C module except core.c.

A solution

There is a way to implement "configuration" as we have defined it above (setting values on named attributes) which avoids the above problems. Rather than defining a layer where external names, types, and values get translated to internal names, types, and values in an ad-hoc mapping, we can define a better translation step by obeying 3 very simple constraints:

  1. External names are exactly the same as internal names,
  2. External types are exactly the same as internal types, and
  3. External values are exactly the same as internal values.

For example, if you have an internal "database" object with a "default_encoding" string attribute, the conventional approach might yield a config file entry like:

DatabaseDefaultEncoding: utf8

But if we follow the above constraints, we instead see config entries like this:

database.default_encoding = 'utf8'

We can generalize that to:

( = value

...and in fact, we can write a simple parser which performs just that mapping. In the simplest implementation, only the set of objects is defined, and the set of keys is open-ended (that is, any attribute of the given object(s) is overridable):

for key, value in config.pairs():
    objname, attrname = key.rsplit(".", 1)
    obj = configurables[objname]
    setattr(obj, attrname, value)

In contrast to the conventional approach, in the "Direct Attribute Configuration" pattern:

  1. The set of configurable attributes automatically changes as the program changes. Code which reads attributes may evolve independently of the config which writes them.
  2. The set of configurable attributes must only be declared once. If objects are declared instead of individual attributes, that shrinks to "less than once".
  3. The internal names are exactly the same as the external names; no translation required.
  4. The internal types are exactly the same as the external types; less guessing which of (On, 1, -1, True, true, t, y, Yes, etc, etc) is allowed.
  5. The namespace of attributes is hierarchical, promoting understanding via conceptual chunking.
  6. In order to know what parts of a code block are configurable, the developer only needs to remember which few objects are configurable—all the attributes follow.
  7. With no (or little) intermediate config structures, reads are fast.
  8. With no (or little) intermediate config structures, memory consumption is reduced.
  9. Re-using the grammar and parsers of the host language can reduce parsing time and raise syntax errors earlier and more easily.
  10. There's less code.

Other considerations

  • In an implementation of the Direct Attribute Configuration pattern, there is no longer any slippage between internal and external names. Sometimes that translation layer is useful to ease implementation improvements and deprecations. On the other hand, modern dynamic languages make that sort of renaming/refactoring less painful within the code itself: attributes may become properties, functions may morph into callables, and "get attribute" hooks can rewrite most any get/set as needed.
  • Some will also say, "if config is now the same as code, why bother separating them?" The answer lies in another constraint we typically find in configuration files: key-value pairs. All declarations must follow this syntax, wherein a name is mapped to (the result of) an expression. Imperative statements are not allowed; if some are needed, the developer must wrap them in a function and expose it to config. This is the real semantic boundary between config and code.
  • Some will further say, "operators aren't programmers", that the vagaries of syntax for various types (number, string, date, list, etc) is too much for busy admins and users. I would counter that by showing any existing config implementation. They all already have various syntax for various types, but unique to the whim of the config language designer; one uses commas to separate list items, another uses spaces; one uses ISO dates only, another allows 23 different date formats.
  • If names, types and values are the same for config as for code, then the same authoring tools can often be used for them both. The same tooltips you love when writing code can pop up when writing config.
  • It would be nice to extend the dotted-name format to command-line options as well as config file entries; however, some common option parsers (and even some shells) don't allow dots in option names.
  • Since the set of configurable attributes is open-ended, it's harder to write a "Configuration entries for program X" document for a DAC implementation than a conventional one.
  • The DAC pattern still doesn't address real arrangement-oriented configuration, especially acyclic graph construction.

That's enough for now; feel free to expand in the comments.


Permalink 11:36:06 am, by fumanchu Email , 132 words   English (US)
Categories: IT, CherryPy, WSGI

Resources are concepts for the client

...not objects on the server. Roy Fielding explains yet again:

Web architects must understand that resources are just consistent mappings from an identifier to some set of views on server-side state. If one view doesn’t suit your needs, then feel free to create a different resource that provides a better view (for any definition of “better”). These views need not have anything to do with how the information is stored on the server, or even what kind of state it ultimately reflects. It just needs to be understandable (and actionable) by the recipient.

I have found this to be the single most-misunderstood aspect of HTTP. Too many people conceive of URI's as just names for files or database objects. They can be so much more.


Permalink 07:40:00 pm, by fumanchu Email , 342 words   English (US)
Categories: IT


Interesting timing on Joe Gregorio's latest foray. Lately, I've been URI-ifying all the JSON calls which's PHP layer makes to the back end (partly with the hope that that API would be opened up to the public someday, but that isn't currently a business need). Even though the company is bucking the mainstream quite successfully, the site itself is pretty typical e-commerce. Here's what I ended up with.

Out of 298 URI's (not counting querystring variants):

  • 40 are collections which support POST to add a subordinate item. Some of these are "top-level" object collections, and some are subordinate collections of data pertaining to single "objects" (e.g. /users/{user_id}/images/)
  • 37 are collections which support GET to return aggregated info on all, or a subset of, their members, sometimes with search params passed in the querystring.
  • 47 are traditional "objects" which support GET/PUT/DELETE on a URI of the form: /collection/subcollection/{id}, and tend to map to a database row (although many of those are virtual, being split in practice over several tables).
  • 92 are URI's which GET/PUT/DELETE "object attributes", usually a single scalar each, which tend to map to single database cells. Several of these have side effects when you set/delete them.
  • 34 are of the form /collection/count.
  • 31 are of the form /collection/ids/.
  • 20 are of the form /collection/count_and_limited_ids, which is perhaps a quirk of our architecture; at some point, I'd like to see how splitting these each into 2 calls affects performance.
  • 6 are RPC-style POST URI's which I haven't had time to refactor into real noun-y resources.
  • 2, I'm sad to say, are of the form DELETE /collection/{id}/cache

The URI space for this API is pretty sparse right now--these URI were simply created to replace an existing RPC-style space of procedure names. And it's essentially a single data point. However, I think it's pretty representative of e-commerce needs for RESTful JSON. One lesson might be that pagination (count and ids) should be addressed in any coordinated protocol effort.

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