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Foreword for "Programming Python" (2nd ed.)

Foreword for "Programming Python" (2nd ed.)

This is the foreword I wrote for Mark Lutz' book "Programming Python" (2nd ed.), published by O'Reilly in 2001.

Less than five years ago, I wrote the foreword for the 1st edition of Programming Python. Since then, the book has changed about as much as the language and the Python community! I no longer feel the need to defend Python: the statistics and developments listed in Mark's Preface speak for themselves.

In the past year, Python has made great strides. We released Python 2.0, a big step forward, with new standard library features such as Unicode and XML support, and several new syntactic constructs, including augmented assignment: you can now write x += 1 instead of x = x+1. A few people wondered what the big deal was (answer: instead of x, imagine dict[key] or list[index]), but overall this was a big hit with those users who were already used to augmented assignment in other languages.

Less warm was the welcome for the extended print statement: print>>file, a shortcut for printing to a different file object than standard output. Personally, it's the Python 2.0 feature I use most frequently, but most people who opened their mouth about found it an abomination. The discussion thread on the newsgroup berating this simple language extension was one of the longest ever -- apart from the never-ending Python vs. Perl thread.

Which brings me to the next topic. (No, not Python vs. Perl. There are better places to pick a fight than a foreword.) I mean the speed of Python's evolution, a topic dear to the heart of the author of this book. Every time I add a feature to Python, another patch of Mark's hair turns grey: there goes another chapter out of date! Especially the slew of new features added to Python 2.0, which appeared just as he was working on this second edition, made him worry: what if Python 2.1 added as many new things? The book would be out of date as soon as it was published!

Relax, Mark. Python will continue to evolve, but I promise that I won't remove things that are in active use! For example, there was a lot of worry about the string module. Now that string objects have methods, the string module is mostly redundant. I wish I could to declare it obsolete (or deprecated) to encourage Python programmers to start using string methods instead. But given that a large majority of existing Python code -- even many standard library modules -- imports the string module, this change is obviously not going to happen overnight. The first likely opportunity to remove the string module will be at the introduction of Python 3000; and even then there will probably be a string module in the backwards compatibility library for use with old code.

Python 3000?! Yes, that's the nickname for the next generation of the Python interpreter. The name may be considered a pun on Windows 2000, or a reference to Mystery Science Theatre 3000, a suitably Pythonesque tv show with a cult following. When will Python 3000 be released? Not for a loooooong time -- although you won't quite have to wait until the year 3000.

Originally, Python 3000 was intended to be a complete rewrite and redesign of the language. It would allow me to make incompatible changes in order to fix problems with the language design that weren't solvable in a backwards compatible way. The current plan, however, is that the necessary changes will be introduced gradually into the current Python 2.x line of development, with a clear transition path that includes a period of backwards compatibility support.

Take for example integer division. In line with C, Python currently defines x/y with two integer arguments to have an integer result. In other words, 1/2 yields 0! While most died-in-the-wool programmers expect this, it's a continuing source of confusion for newbies, who make up an ever-larger fraction of the -- exponentially growing -- Python user population. From a numerical perspective, it really makes more sense for the / operator to yield the same value regardless of the type of the operands: after all, that's what all other numeric operators do. But we can't simply change Python so that 1/2 yield 0.5, because (like removing the string module) it would break too much existing code. What to do?

The solution, too complex to describe here in detail, will have to span several Python releases, and involves gradually increasing pressure on Python programmers (first through documentation, then through deprecation warnings, and eventually through errors) to change their code. By the way, a framework for issuing warnings will be introduced as part of Python 2.1. Sorry, Mark!

So, don't expect the announcement of the release of Python 3000 any time soon. Instead, one day you may find that you are _already_ using Python 3000 -- only it won't be called that, but rather something like Python 2.8.7. And most of what you've learned in this book will still apply! Still, in the mean time references to Python 3000 will abound; just know that this is intentionally vaporware in the purest sense of the word. Rather than worry about Python 3000, continue to use and learn more about the Python version that you do have.

I'd like to say a few words about Python's current development model. Until early 2000, there were hundreds of contributors to Python, but essentially all contributions had to go through my inbox. To propose a change to Python, you would mail me a context diff, which I would apply to my work version of Python, and if I liked it, I would check it into my CVS source tree. (CVS is a source code version management system, and the subject of several books.) Bug reports followed the same path, except I also ended up having to come up with the patch. Clearly, with the increasing number of contributions, my inbox became a bottleneck. What to do?

Fortunately, Python wasn't the only open source project with this problem, and a few smart people at VA Linux came up with a solution: SourceForge! This is a dynamic website with a complete set of distributed project management tools available: a public CVS repository, mailing lists (using Mailman, a very popular Python application!), discussion forums, bug and patch managers, and a download area, all made available to any open source project for the asking.

We currently have a development group with SourceForge checkin privileges of 30 volunteers, and a development mailing list comprising twice as many folks. The privileged volunteers have all sworn their allegiance to the BDFL (Benevolent Dictator For Life -- that's me :-). Introduction of major new features is regulated via a lightweight system of proposals and feedback, Python Enhancement Proposals (PEPs). Our PEP system proved so succesful that it was copied almost verbatim by the Tcl community when they made a similar transition from Cathedral to Bazaar.

So, it is with confidence in Python's future that I give the floor to Mark Lutz. Excellent job, Mark. And to finish with my favorite Monty Python quote: Take it away, Eric, the orchestra leader!

Guido van Rossum
Reston, Virginia, January 2001