Hail Python well MATE

Hail Python! (Yes, I have converted):

As you know, I’ve been using Ubuntu LTS (currently 14.04.01). These days it has even become the OS of my primary usage. I like the current Ubuntu as much as I had liked NT4 and Win2K when they were in vogue.

I began moving away from the Windows mainly because the one IDE that I really loved, viz. VC++ 6, got superseded by a series of software that were, increasingly, unusable by me. For instance, increasingly too complex. And, increasingly too sluggish.

There then followed a period of a kind of quantum mechanical-ness: I didn’t find either Windows + Visual Studio suitable, nor did I find any of the alternatives (e.g. RedHat + vi/emacs/whatever + configure + make + GDB + …) attractive enough.

And, for some reasons unknown to me, I’ve never found Java as “my” platform.

As to Java, no, neither the personality of Scott McNealy nor the institution of the DoJ in USA had anything to do with it. In many ways, Java is a very good language, but somehow I never found the non-C++ features of it attractive even an iota: be it the lack of genericity, or the idea of downloading the bytecodes and the flakinesses of the VMs supporting it (owing mainly to the complexity of the language), or the excessive reliance on the ‘net and the big SUN servers that it implied, or, as may be shocking to you, even the famous Java reflection! (Given the other design features of Java, and the way it was handled, I thought that it was a feature for the clueless programmer—which Java programmers anyway tend to be (even if IMO the Visual Basic programmers very strongly compete with them in that department).)

And thus, I was in a state of QM-like superposition, for a long, long, time.

Partial measurements began to occur when, sometime as late as in the ‘teens, Eclipse IMO improved to the point that it wouldn’t leave a previous instance of the debug image sneakily lurking in the OS even after you thought you had terminated it. Sometime in between, Eclipse also had begun honouring the classic keyboard short-cuts of VC++: F11 would really step into a C++ function; F10 would really execute a function call without stepping into it; etc. Good!

Still, by this time, C++ “libraries” had already become huge, very huge. A code-base of a half-million LOC was routine; some exceeded millions of LOC. Further, each library assumed or required a different make system, a different version of the GCC etc., and perhaps much more importantly, none was equally well-supported on both Linux and Windows; for examples on one or more on these counts, cf. OpenFOAM, PetSc, Boost, CGAL, ParaView, QT, TAUCS, SuperLU, et al., just to name a few. The C++ template classes had become so huge that for writing even very simple applications, say a simple dialog box based GUI doing something meaningful on the numerical side, you began drowning in countless template parameters if not also namespaces. And, of course, when it came to computational engineering, there was this permanent headache of having to write wrappers even for as simple a task as translating a vector or a matrix from one library to another, just to give you an example.

I thus had actually become a low productivity C++ programmer, despite the over-abundance of the in-principle “reusable” components and packages. … I pined for the good old days of VC++ 6 on Win2K. (Last year or so, I even tried installing VC++ 6 on Win7, and then found that forget having “support”, the IDE wouldn’t even install i.e. work on Win7.)

In the meanwhile, I had noticed Python, but as they (for instance the folks painting the backsides of auto-rickshaws and trucks) in India say, (Hindi) “samay se pahele aur bhaagya se jyaadaa/adhik…” …

… Even if you allow an innovative new idea to take root in your mind, it still has to ripen a bit before it begins to make sense.

Then, this week (as you might have guessed), I happened to have an epiphany of sorts.

And, yes, as a result, I have converted!

I have become Pythonic. Well, at least Pythetic! … Pythonewbie! (Fine. This should work.)

As you know, I was going to convert my check-dams C++ code into Python. As I said in the last update of my last post, I initially began learning the language the hard way [^]. However, being a fairly accomplished C++ programmer—apart from a professional working experience of about a decade, I had also written, e.g., a yacc-like front-end taking EBNF grammar for LALR1 languages and spitting out parser-tables, just as hobby pursued on evenings—I soon got tired of learning Python the hard way, and instead opted for a softer way. I did a lot of search, downloaded `n’ number of tutorials, codes, etc., went through the Google education [^], and quickly became, as I said, a Pythonewbie.

Let me first jot down what all the components of the Python ecosystem I have downloaded and have begun already trying: wxPython, PyQT, PyOpenGL, Pyglet, VPython, matplotlib, and of course, NumPy and SciPy. I also drool at the possibilities of using the Python bindings for OpenFOAM, VTK/ParaView, CGAL, FENICS, and many, many, many others.

Why did I convert only now? Why not earlier?

Apart from (Hindi) “samay se pahele aur bhaagya se jyaadaa/adhik,” here are some more mundane reasons, listed in no particular order:

1. I was led to believe (or at least thought) that Python was a scripting language, that it is a good alternative to, say, the shell scripts.

False.

Python is—at least at this stage of development of the language and of the entire eco-system—not a language per say, but rather an ingenious tool to glue together massive but fast C/C++/FORTRAN libraries together.

2. I was also led away from Python because it lacked the cozy, secure, protective, nurturing, etc. environment of the C/C++ “{}” blocks.

I had come to like and rely on this K&R innovation so much, that a lack of the braces was one very definite (but eventually very minor) reason that Visual BASIC (and OO FORTRAN) had turned me away. As to Python, I felt plain insecure. I had a very definite fear of the program crashes any time I made a simple mistake concerning a mere indentation. … Well, that way, the C++ code I myself wrote never had the highly irritating sloppiness of the unevenly spaced indentations. But I anyway did carry this fear. (For the same reason, I found the design of the OpenFOAM input files far more comfortable than it actually is: you see, it uses a lot of braces!)

But now, I came to realize that while the fear of going block-less isn’t without reason, practically speaking, it also is largely unfounded. … Even if in Python you don’t have the protection of the C/C++ blocks, in practice, you still can’t possibly make too many mistakes about scopes and object lifetimes for the simple reason that in Python, functions themselves become so very short! (I said scope and lifetime, not visibility. Visibility does remain a different game, with its own subtleties, in Python.)

Another virtue of Python:

Another thing. Python is small. Translation: Its interpreters are sturdy. This is one count on which Java, IMO, truly floundered, and as far as I gather from others, it still does.

(No, don’t try to convince me otherwise. I also see Java’s bugs on my own. …. Just fix, for instance, that bug in the Java VM which leads to this Eclipse CDT bug. Suppose you are working on a C++ project, and so, there are a bunch of C++ files open in various tabs of the Eclipse editor. Suppose that you then open a text file, e.g. the OutputData.txt file, in an additional Eclipse tab. Then, you go to some C++ file, edit it, build it, and debug/run the program so that the OutputData.txt file on the disk changes. You switch the tab to the text file. Naturally, the tab contents needs to refreshed. Eclipse, being written in Java, is stupid enough not to refresh it automatically; it instead tells you go to the menu File/Refresh this page. That’s what happens if the text file tab isn’t the active one. [Eclipse is in version 3.8+. [Yes, it is written in Java.]] Now, if you repeatedly do this thing (even just a couple of times or so), the menu item File/Refresh is found painted in a way as if it were disabled. As far as I can make it out, it seems to be a Java VM bug, not an Eclipse bug; it also occurs in some other Java programs (though I can’t tell you off-hand which ones). In any case, go ahead San Francisco Bay-Area i.e. Java-Loving Programmer(s), fix Your Platform first, and then think of trying to convert me.)

Python becomes reliably sturdy precisely because it recognizes that it can’t and hence shouldn’t try to be good at too many things.

Python doesn’t pretend to give you any GUI or graphics capability—not even to the extent to which TurboC/C++ did. On the other hand, Java/C# tried to be masters of everything: GUI, network, graphics…. You know where they end(ed) up. And where C and even FORTRAN continue chugging along even today. (In case you didn’t know: both remain within top 5 languages, after some 50+ and 40+ years, respectively.)

The question to pose (but usually not posed) to a recent convert:

Since I am a recent convert, you may now be tempted to probe me: “Any downside to Python?”

My answer: You are right, there are downsides. It’s just that they don’t matter to me, because they aren’t relevant to me—either my personal background or my present purposes.

Python might make learning “programming” incredibly easy and fast. But if you are going to be a serious, professional programmer, there are so many principles and rules that you must additionally learn, and far too many of these are simply not accessible while working within the Python environment. Just to give you some examples: Type safety. Object life-time management, including programmer-controlled dynamic (de)allocation. Static vs. dynamic binding. Pointer arithmetic. (As to pointers: Both God and the actual hardware use it. (That’s another point against Java, and in favour of C/C++)). Stack frames. Finite memory. Etc.  Yet, at the same time, Python also merrily exposes system calls. Think of a script-kiddie delinking a file or a folder!

Yes, Python is better (much, much better) than BASIC for teaching some of the ideas of computers and programming to kids (e.g. to CBSE Std. XI kids in India). But taken as an independent language, and for the routine programming use, it would have to rank much below average.

… But then, Python shouldn’t at all be seen that way in the first place.

As I said, Python should be seen not as a language but simply as a powerful and sturdy tool for integration of an incredible variety of the super-fast C++ (even FORTRAN) libraries, in the simplest possible manner, and with cleanest—i.e., most readable kind of—source code.

Ok. Enough about Python. … I don’t say you should become a Python programmer. I merely told you the reasons why I converted.

* * * * *   * * * * *   * * * * *

What about the MATE?

Now, a word about the MATE part of the title.

I have installed the UbuntuMATE 1.8 shell on my Ubuntu 14.04.01 LTS, replacing the Gnome Unity shell.

Good riddance!

And, I have also taken this opportunity to disable the overlaying of the scroll-bars [^] (even though doing so would have been possible also on Unity, I learned only now (“samay se pahele…”)).

I feel light. Yes. Light. … Lighter. … Lightest.

The theme I run is Redmond. This way, I get the same Windows experience which I liked and still do. [No, thanks, but I won’t like to try the tiles environment even for free, let alone out of piracy.]

MATE is neat. It should be included in the official Ubuntu distro as early as possible. (I gather that they do have a definite plan to do so.)

And, in the interests of conserving mankind’s shared resources including disk-spaces, energy usage, and most importantly, mental sanity, first, all the distributions of all versions of the Unity shell should be permanently deleted from all the servers of the world, except for an archival copy or two for reference in the studies of pathological cases of the practice of computer science. Then, this archival copy should be given a permanent resting place next to that of the Microsoft Bob.

[Oh, yes, BTW, I know, the title is slightly stupid… But what else can strike you if you write something—anything—about Unity and Microsoft Bob also in the same post? Also, Java?]

* * * * *   * * * * *   * * * * *

OK. Back to trying out the different C++ libraries, now far more easily, from within the Python environment. … I am going to have to try many libraries first (and also explore Python itself further) before I come true on the promise about the next version of that check-dams toy program.

* * * * *   * * * * *   * * * * *

A Song I Like:
(Hindi) “ik raastaa hai zindagi…”
Singers: Kishore Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar
Music: Rajesh Roshan
Lyrics: Sahir Ludhianvi

[PS: This song is from 1979—the year I was in my XII. It is, thus, some 36 years old.

Going further back by 36 years, to 1943, guess we are somewhere firmly in the “unknown” territory of Hindi film songs. Sehgal’s “baabool moraa” is from even slightly earlier times, from 1938, and it sounds so quaint. Talking of 1943 proper, even the more modern sounding Anil Biswas had this “dheere dheere aa re baadal” in the movie Kismet—do check it out, how quaint it sounds to the ears of even my generation. And I am not even talking of the other “gems” of that era!

… When I was growing up, the elders would always talk about how beautiful the old songs were—and how trashy, the new ones. But come to think of it, there was a much smaller period of just 23 years between say Chori Chori (1956) and 1979, than there is between 1979 and 2015.

Yet, this song of 1979 sounds so completely modern, at least as far as its audio goes. BTW, in case you don’t know, in this section of my blog, I primarily refer only to the audio tracks of songs. Making an exception for this song, and thus referring also to its video, except for a little oddity about the kind of clothes Shashi Kapoor is seen wearing, there is almost nothing that is 35 years old to that song. … May be because of the rural/jungle settings in which it was shot. Even Shashi Kapoor’s bike looks almost every bit modern. I don’t know which one it actually was, but going by the shape of the tank, of the headlamp, and of the front side indicators, not to mention the overall way in which it takes to the road and handles the curves, I would bet that it was a Yamaha bike. (It can’t possibly be a Rajdoot 350—which also was about the same size—because the Rajdoot 350 was launched in India, I just checked, only 4 years later, in 1983—the year I graduated from COEP.)

Conclusion? There is some sort of an underlying cultural reason why people in their 50s (like me) no longer sound or even look as old as people in their 50s used to, when we were young. … Even if we now are that old. Well, at least, “mature.” [No Hollywood actresses were harmed in the writing of this post. [Hollywood is in California, USA.]]]

[E&OE]

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