Friday, June 26, 2009

IronPython in Action and the Decline of Windows

While CPython still rules on python-dev, especially with the excitement around Py3k, Python's alternative implementations are growing up: PyPy is now capable of running Django, Jython just released version 2.5, and IronPython has been releasing significant milestones like clockwork. I get a lot of satisfaction out of such milestones: they help establish Python as a language you can't ignore, no matter which platform you are using.

Seeing a book like IronPython in Action, by Michael Foord and Christian Muirhead, is another milestone for IronPython. This is a solid work in every aspect, and something nobody using IronPython on .NET should be without. The book is chock full of useful information, presented along with a series of running examples, and covers almost every aspect of IronPython use imaginable.

After reading the table of contents and the introduction by IronPython's creator Jim Hugunin, I couldn't help myself and skipped straight to appendix A, "A whirlwind tour of C#." This is a useful thing to have around for readers like myself who haven't really kept track of things in the .NET world. Maybe I'll comment more on C# another time. For now, let me just say that it seems a decent enough system programming language. The more relevant thing about C# is that you can't avoid learning it if you are developing on .NET, even when using IronPython. There just are too many issues where IronPython has to work around a limitation of C#. This happens often indirectly where a particular API was designed purely with C# in mind. And then there's the issue that Microsoft's API documentation focus on C#. (And VB.NET, I suppose, which after seeing some samples of in this book I have less desire to know than ever.)

There are some introductory chapters -- some fluff about .NET and the CLR, an introduction to Python, and an introduction to with .NET objects from IronPython. The Python introduction has a slight emphasis on differences between IronPython and CPython, though there aren't enough to fill a chapter. This is a good thing! The chapter does a pretty good job of teaching Python, assuming you already know programming. In general, the book is aimed solidly at professional software developers: unless you are paid to do it, why would anyone want to get intimate with Windows?

Yes, Windows programming is what this book is really about. I'm sure that doing Windows programming using IronPython is a much better proposition than Windows programming using C++; but it's still Windows programming. Fortunately the authors maintain a slightly ironic attitude about Windows. I can't help admiring their persistency in getting to the bottom of the many mysteries presented by Windows(and in some cases by IronPython's wrappers).

Many, many years ago -- so long ago that I can't even recall when -- I did some Windows programming myself, using Mark Hammond's Win32 extensions for CPython. That package maps the Win32 API pretty directly to Python. It lets you work with Windows in much the same way as you can in IronPython -- the main difference is that IronPython lives in the more modern .NET world, while Win32 is showing its age.

But is life with IronPython all that much better than in CPython+Win32? It still looks incredibly tedious to create the simplest of UI. Each button in the UI has to be tediously positioned and configured (width, height, padding, font size, etc.). The book maintains a running example throughout many of the chapters, and one of the earlier versions (with many features not yet developed) clicks in at a "mere" 258 lines. Fortunately, the source code for all examples can be downloaded from the book's website. While the downloaded zip file is a whopping 33 megabytes, there's actually only half a megabyte of source code in it (and much of it multiple versions of the same running example) -- the majority of the download is not source code but DLLs that are probably included by the authors because Microsoft scatters them around half a dozen or more different support websites. (Plus, there seem to be multiple copies of IronPython.dll and a few other DLLs included.)

This then, was the big eye-opener for me: that despite all the hype, Windows UI programming is as tedious today as it was in 1995. Sure, the new UI looks a lot better. But that's mostly glitz: 3D effects, color gradients, video, and so on. Sure, it's all object-oriented now. But it hasn't really gotten any less complex to create the simplest of simple UIs. And that's a shame. When is Microsoft going to learn the real lesson about simplicity of HTML? Instead, Microsoft is doing the same thing to HTML that it does to anything it touches: adding cruft to the point where the basic functionality is buried so deeply that most people can't even find it. You can't really blame the average Windows developer for focusing on eye candy instead of usability -- it's all mashed together in the APIs, and by the time you've got something that works at all, you're too exhausted to look at it from your users' perspective.

It's no wonder that users are switching to the web as the platform for everything that used to live on the desktop -- with all its flaws (which I will discuss another time), web development still feels like a breeze compared to Windows development. And that means less time to release, and hence more frequent releases, which in turn means more opportunities for developers to learn what their users actually do. Which as a user I really appreciate.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Highs and Lows of IEEE Computer Magazine

I still read a few print publications, including IEEE Computer. Today's issue contained a high and a low:

Today's high point was a detailed history of the Conficker worm. Since we're a Macintosh family, and Google typically has its security stuff in order, I was barely aware of it. The sophistication of the worm's creators is almost admirable. (They probably use Python too. :-) An interesting table in the article included information about which countries contribute the most to the worm's population. China, Brazil and Russia top the list. You could have all sorts of theories on why this would be; personally I'm assuming it's a combination of sheer number of computers plus widespread use of bootlegged copies of Windows.

The low point was an article on "Software Engineering Ethics." Why a low point? Look at this table and think of how many bits of information it contains:

Using postphenomenology for software engineering ethics
Amplify experiences that are+-
Reduce experiences that are-+
Invite actions that are+-
Inhibit actions that are-+

Ironically, this pointless table contains a redundant column, while the table I mentioned above was missing a column that would have been useful -- how many PCs are installed in each country. Oh well.

PS: Googling for "postphenomenology" gives this as the title of the first hit: "If phenomenology is an albatross, is postphenomenology possible?" The web knows best.

Monday, June 15, 2009

New App Engine Book

At Google I/O I received a copy of Using Google App Engine by Charles Severance, published by O'Reilly. I haven't kept track, but this appears one of the first App Engine books to actually hit the stores -- an Amazon search for App Engine showed up one other book (Developing with Google App Engine by Eugene Ciara, published by APress) and many titles available for pre-order (including additional titles from the same publishers).

Severance's book is a quick read if you're already familiar with the basic premises of web programming. I think it would do well in an introductory course about the topic. (The author teaches at the University of Michigan so this is likely how he developed the material in the first place.) In fact, quite a bit of the book could well have come from a pre-existing earlier course: the chapters on HTML, CSS, Python and JavaScript barely mention App Engine.

Don't get me wrong, I think that's a good approach: in my experience quite a few App Engine users are new to web programming in general, or could at least use a refresher course. If you don't fall in this category, don't feel offended: you just probably aren't the intended audience for this book. On the other hand, if you've developed for the web but haven't used Python before, you could probably just skip the HTML/CSS chapter and dive right into Python and App Engine.

If you're a blank sheet where it comes to programming, don't expect to come out an experienced Python developer: the book only covers enough of the language so you can get started with App Engine without feeling you're just copying and pasting text. The same is actually true for any topic covered -- in many cases the book actually recommends that you study a topic more in-depth using other resources. But in each case the book's coverage is enough to get you started with the creation of dynamic web sites, and that's the important part. After all, you didn't learn your mother tongue by studying the rules of grammar either: you learned a few nouns, a few verbs, a few adjectives, and a few grammatical forms ("Daddy throw toy again") and you were on your way to communicating with others.

Actually, if you read this book from cover to cover, you might not be ready to create the Greate American Website, but you'll be well past the "Daddy throw toy" level. For example, you'll be creating App Engine datastore models with ease, tying them together with forms, and you'll even be able to use simple AJAX patterns. You will also have learned about the importance of caching, and you'll have more than a fleeting experience debugging problems using tracebacks and logs.

I also enjoyed some of the history bits that Severance presents (it makes me feel old to see 1990 referred to as ancient history :-). A downside is that sometimes the exercises given at the end of each chapter seem to be focused more on assessing that you were awake during class than that you actually have learned a useful skill (e.g. "Give a brief history of the major phases of the internet"). Teachers considering to use this book in the classroom might appreciate such questions; but for self-study, I would focus on the difference between the class= and id= attributes in HTML...

What's missing? The book doesn't touch Django (except for the templating facility built into App Engine's webapp package, which is based on Django). If our customer support traffic is any indication, Django is very popular with professional App Engine developers. The book also doesn't describe the various APIs offered by App Engine for things like sending mail, fetching other web resources by URL, or image processing. But arguably you can learn those directly from the App Engine docs. Oh, and the book doesn't touch on App Engine's Java support. I expect other books will fill that void.