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1. Whetting Your Appetite

If you ever wrote a large shell script, you probably know this feeling: you'd love to add yet another feature, but it's already so slow, and so big, and so complicated; or the feature involves a system call or other function that is only accessible from C ...Usually the problem at hand isn't serious enough to warrant rewriting the script in C; perhaps the problem requires variable-length strings or other data types (like sorted lists of file names) that are easy in the shell but lots of work to implement in C, or perhaps you're not sufficiently familiar with C.

Another situation: perhaps you have to work with several C libraries, and the usual C write/compile/test/re-compile cycle is too slow. You need to develop software more quickly. Possibly perhaps you've written a program that could use an extension language, and you don't want to design a language, write and debug an interpreter for it, then tie it into your application.

In such cases, Python may be just the language for you. Python is simple to use, but it is a real programming language, offering much more structure and support for large programs than the shell has. On the other hand, it also offers much more error checking than C, and, being a very-high-level language, it has high-level data types built in, such as flexible arrays and dictionaries that would cost you days to implement efficiently in C. Because of its more general data types Python is applicable to a much larger problem domain than Awk or even Perl, yet many things are at least as easy in Python as in those languages.

Python allows you to split up your program in modules that can be reused in other Python programs. It comes with a large collection of standard modules that you can use as the basis of your programs -- or as examples to start learning to program in Python. There are also built-in modules that provide things like file I/O, system calls, sockets, and even interfaces to graphical user interface toolkits like Tk.

Python is an interpreted language, which can save you considerable time during program development because no compilation and linking is necessary. The interpreter can be used interactively, which makes it easy to experiment with features of the language, to write throw-away programs, or to test functions during bottom-up program development. It is also a handy desk calculator.

Python allows writing very compact and readable programs. Programs written in Python are typically much shorter than equivalent C or C++ programs, for several reasons:

  • the high-level data types allow you to express complex operations in a single statement;
  • statement grouping is done by indentation instead of beginning and ending brackets;
  • no variable or argument declarations are necessary.

Python is extensible: if you know how to program in C it is easy to add a new built-in function or module to the interpreter, either to perform critical operations at maximum speed, or to link Python programs to libraries that may only be available in binary form (such as a vendor-specific graphics library). Once you are really hooked, you can link the Python interpreter into an application written in C and use it as an extension or command language for that application.

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By the way, the language is named after the BBC show ``Monty Python's Flying Circus'' and has nothing to do with nasty reptiles. Making references to Monty Python skits in documentation is not only allowed, it is encouraged!

Now that you are all excited about Python, you'll want to examine it in some more detail. Since the best way to learn a language is using it, you are invited here to do so.

In the next chapter, the mechanics of using the interpreter are explained. This is rather mundane information, but essential for trying out the examples shown later.

The rest of the tutorial introduces various features of the Python language and system through examples, beginning with simple expressions, statements and data types, through functions and modules, and finally touching upon advanced concepts like exceptions and user-defined classes.




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