Tag Archive: Python

Aug 20 2016

Book review: Test-Driven Development with Python by Harry J.W. Percival

test-drivenTest-Driven Development with Python by Harry J.W. Percival is a tutorial rather than a text book and it taught me as much about Django as testing. I should point out that I wilfully fail to do the “follow along with me” thing in tutorial style books.

Test-driven development (TDD) is a methodology that mandates writing tests first before actual code that does stuff. The first tests are for the desired behaviour that will be presented to the user.

I was introduced to software testing very early in my tenure ScraperWiki, now The Sensible Code Company. I was aware of its existence prior to this but didn’t really get the required impetuous to get me started, it didn’t help that I was mostly coding in Matlab which didn’t have a great deal of support for testing at the time. The required impetus at ScraperWiki was pair programming.

Python is different to Matlab, it has an entirely acceptable testing framework built-in. Test-driven Development made me look at this functionality again. So far I’ve been using the nose testing library but there is a note on its home page now saying it will not be developed further. It turns out Python’s unittest has been developing in Python 3 which reduces the need for 3rd party libraries to help in the testing process. Python now includes the Mock library which provides functions to act as “test doubles” prior to the implementation of the real thing. As an aside I learnt there is a whole set of such tests doubles including mocks, but also stubs, fakes and spies.

Test-driven Development is structured as a tutorial to build a simple list management web application which stores the lists of multiple users, and allows them to add new items to the lists. The workflow follows the TDD scheme: to write failing tests first which development then allows to pass. The first tests are functional tests  of the whole application made using the Selenium webdriver, which automates a web browser, and allows testing of dynamic, JavaScript pages as well as simple static pages. Beneath these functional tests lie unit tests which test isolated pieces of logic and integrated tests which test logic against data sources and other external systems. Integration tests  test against 3rd party services.

The solution is worked through using the Django web framework for Python. I’ve not used it before – I use the rather simpler Flask library. I can see that Django contains more functionality but it is at the cost of more complexity. In places it wasn’t clear whether the book was talking about general testing functionality or some feature of the Django testing functionality. Django includes a range of fancy features alien to the seasoned Flask user. These include its own ORM, user administration systems, and classes to represent web forms.

Test-driven Development has good coverage in terms of the end goal of producing a web application. So not only do we learn about testing elements of the Python web application but also something of testing in JavaScript. (This seems to involve a preferred testing framework for every library). It goes on to talk about some elements of devops, configuring servers using the Fabric library, and also continuous integration testing using Jenkins. These are all described in sufficient detail that I feel I could setup the minimal system to try them out.

Devops still seems to be something of a dark art with a provision of libraries and systems (Chef, Puppet, Ansible, Juju, Salt, etc etc) with no clear, stable frontrunner.

An appendix introduces “behaviour-driven development” which sees sees a test framework which allows the tests to be presented in terms of a domain specific language with (manual) links to the functional tests beneath.

In terms of what I will do differently having read this book. I’m keen to try out some JavaScript testing since my normal development activities involve data analysis and processing using Python but increasingly blingy web interfaces for visualisation and presentation. At the moment these frontends are slightly scary systems which I fear to adjust since they are without tests.

With the proviso above, that I don’t actually follow along, I like the tutorial style. Documentation has its place but ultimately it is good to be guided in what you should do rather than all the things you could possibly do. Test-driven Development introduces the tools and vocabulary you need to work in a test-driven style with the thread of the list management web application tying everything together. Whether it instils in me the strict discipline of always writing tests first remains to be seen.

Oct 31 2015

Book review: Effective Computation in Physics by Anthony Scopatz & Kathryn D. Huff

ecipThis next review, of “Effective Computation in Physics” by Anthony Scopatz & Kathryn D. Huff, arose after a brief discussion on twitter with Mike Croucher after my review of “High Performance Python” by Ian Micha Gorelick and Ian Ozsvald. This in the context of introducing students, primarily in the sciences, to programming and software development.

I use the term “software development” deliberately. Scientists have been taught programming (badly, in my view*) for many years. Typically they are given a short course in the first year of their undergraduate training, where they are taught the crude mechanics of a programming language (typically FORTRAN, C, Matlab or Python). They are then left to it, perhaps taking up projects requiring significant coding as final year projects or in PhDs. The thing they have lacked is the wider skillset around programming – what you might call “software development”. The value of this is two-fold – firstly, it is a good training for a scientist to have for careers in science. Secondly, the wider software industry is full of scientists, providing students with a good grounding in this field is no bad thing for their future employability.

The book covers in at least outline all the things a scientist or engineer needs to know about software development. It is inspired by the Software Carpentry and The Hacker Within programmes.

The restriction to physics in the title seems needless to me. The material presented is mostly applicable to any science, and those working in the digital humanities, undertaking programming work. The examples have a physics basis but not to any great depth, and the decorative historical anecdotes are all physics based. Perhaps the only exception to this is the chapter on HDF5 which is a specialised data storage system, some coverage of SQL databases would make a reasonable substitute for a more general course. The chapter on parallel computing could likewise be dropped for a wider audience.

The book is divided into four broad sections. Including in these are chapters on:

  • Command line operations;
  • Programming in Python;
  • Build systems, version control, debugging and testing;
  • Documentation, publication, collaboration and licensing;

Command line operations are covered in two chunks, firstly in the basic navigation of the file system and files followed by a second chapter on “Regular Expressions” which covers find, grep, sed and awk – at a very basic level.

The introduction to Python is similarly staged with initial chapters covering the fundamentals of the core language, with sufficient detail and explanation that I learnt some new things**. Further chapters introduce core Python libraries for data analysis including NumPy, Pandas and matplotlib.

Beyond these core chapters on Python those on version control, debugging and testing are a welcome addition. Our dearest wish at ScraperWiki, a small software company where I worked until recently, was that new recruits and interns would come with at least some knowledge and habit for using source control (preferably Git). It is also nice to see some wider discussion of GitHub and the culture of Pull Requests and issue tracking. Systematic testing is also a useful skill to have, in fact my experience has been that formal testing is most useful for those most physics-like functions.

The final section covers documentation, publication and licensing. I found the short chapter on licensing rather useful, I’ve been working on some code to analyse LIDAR data and have made it public on GitHub, which helpfully asks which license I would like to use. As it turns out I chose the MIT license and this seems to be the correct one for the application. On publication the authors are Latex evangelists but students can chose to ignore their monomania on this point. Latex has a cult-like following in physics which I’ve never understood. I have written papers in Latex but much prefer Microsoft Word for creating documents, although Google Docs is nice for collaborative work. The view that a source control repository issue tracker might work for collaboration beyond coding is optimistic unless academics have changed radically in the last few years.

I’d say the only thing lacking was any mention of pair programming, although to be fair that is more a teaching method than course material. I found I learnt most when I had a goal of my own to work towards, and I had the opportunity to pair with people with more knowledge than I had. Actually, pairing with someone equally clueless in a particular technology can work pretty well.

There is a degree to which the book, particularly in this section strays into a fantasy of how the authors wish computational physics was undertaken, rather than describing how it is actually undertaken.

To me this is the ideal “Software development for scientists” undergraduate text, it is opinionated in places and I occasionally I found the style grating but nevertheless it covers the right bases.

*I’m happy to say this since I taught programming badly to physics undergraduates some years ago!

**People who know my Python skills will realise this is not an earthshattering claim.

Oct 30 2015

Analysing LIDAR data for the UK

I’m currently between jobs for a couple of weeks, so I have time to play with data.

The Environment Agency (EA) has recently released it’s LIDAR data for England amounting to several terabytes of the stuff. LIDAR is a laser ranging technology which gives you the height profile of the surface under inspection. You can get a feel for the data from this excerpt of central Chester:

SJ46-Chester-512x512

The brightness of a pixel shows the height of a feature, so the race course (lower left) appears dark since it is a low flat region close to the River Dee. The CWAC HQ building is tall and appears bright. To the north of the city are a set of three high rise flats, which appear bright. The distinctive cross-shape of the cathedral, with it’s high, bright central tower is also visible. It’s immediately obvious that LIDAR is an excellent tool for picking out the footprint of buildings.

We can use the image above to make a 3D projection view where the brightness of a pixel is mapped to height:

Chester-3D

The orientation for this image is the same as that in the first image, the three tower blocks are visible top right, and the CWAC HQ visible lower left.

The images above used the lowest spatial resolution data, each pixel is 2mx2m. The data have released have spatial resolutions 2m down to 25cm for selected areas. Looking at the areas with the high resolution data available it becomes very obvious what the primary uses of the data are: flood and coastal defences.

You can find the LIDAR data here. It’s divided up into several datasets. Surface data gives height information including all objects on the land such as buildings, trees, vehicles and so forth whilst Terrain data is processed to remove these artefacts and show the pristine land surface.

Composite data are data compiled to give maximum coverage by combining data from surveys conducted in different years and at different resolutions whilst Tile data are the underlying raw data collected in different years and different resolutions. The coverage sliders show the coverage of each dataset. The data are for England only.

The images of Chester shown above are an excerpt from a 10kmx10km tile, shown below:

SJ46

Chester is on the left of this image, above the dark bend of River Dee flood plain. To the right hand side we can see the valley of the River Gowy, and its tributaries – features which are not obvious on the ground or in Google Maps. The large black area is where there is no data, smaller irregular black seem to correlate with water, you might just be able to pick out the line of the Shropshire Union canal cutting through the middle of the image.

I used Chester as an illustration because that’s where I live. I started looking at this data because I was curious, and I’ve spent a happy few days downloading data for lots of different places and playing with it.

It’s great to see data like this being released under permissive conditions. The Environment Agency has been collecting this data for its own purposes, and it’s been available from them commercially for a while – no doubt as a result of a central government edict to maximise revenue from it.

Opening the data like this means the curious can have a rummage, and perhaps others will find a commercial value in it.

I’ve included a few more images below. After them you can see the technical details of how to process these data and make the visualisations for yourself, the code is all in this GitHub repository:

https://github.com/IanHopkinson/defra-lidar-viewer

It is shared under the MIT license.

Liverpool in 3D with the Radio City tower

Liverpool-3D

Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral at 1m resolution

Liverpool-Metropolitan-cathedral-3D

St Paul’s Cathedral

StPauls-3D

Technical Details

The code used to make the figures in this blog post can be found here:

https://github.com/IanHopkinson/defra-lidar-viewer

The GitHub repository contains a readme file which describes the code, and provides links to the original data, other useful commentary and the numerous bits of code I borrowed from the internet.

The data start as sets of zipped text file archives, each archive contains the data for a 10kmx10km OS National Grid square – Chester is in the SJ46 cell. An archive contains a maximum of 100 text files, each one containing data for a single 1kmx1km square, the size of this file depends on the resolution of the data. I wrote a Python program to read the data for a 10kmx10km cell and convert it into a PNG format image. This program also calculates the bounding box in latitude and longitude for the cell. The processing program works fine for 2m and 1m resolution data. It works just about for 50cm data but is slow and throws memory errors. For 25cm resolution data it doesn’t yet work.

I made a visualisation using the leaflet.js library which allows you to overlay the PNG images generated above onto OpenStreetMap maps. The opacity of the image can be varied with a slider so that you can match LIDAR features to map features. The registration between the two data sources is pretty good but there are systematic problems which I believe might be due to different mapping projections being used by the Ordnance Survey and OpenStreetMap.

map-overlay

A second visualisation tool uses the three.js library to make an interactive 3D view. The input data are manual crops of approximately 512×512 from the raw PNGs, I did this using Paint .NET but other image editors would work fine. Larger images work but they are smoothed to 512×512 in the rendering. A gotcha here is that the revision number of the three.js library is important – the code for this visualisation leant heavily on previous work by others, and whilst integrating new functionality it was important to use three.js source files from the same revision. This visualisation allows you to manipulate the view with the mouse, it takes while to load up but once loaded it is pretty fast. Trying to upload a subsequent image doesn’t work.

3D-view

I’m still working on the code, I’d like to be able to process the 25cm data and it would be good to select an area from the map and convert it to 3D view automatically.

Oct 20 2015

Book review: High Performance Python by Micha Gorelick & Ian Ozsvald

highperformancepythonHigh Performance Python by Micha Gorelick and Ian Ozsvald is nominally a book about improving the speed and memory performance of your programs. Along the way it provides insight into some more advanced aspects of Python programming, including how the language works under the hood.

The book starts with tools for analysing the speed and memory performance of programs at global, function and line level. The authors emphasis the importance making these measurements, and using unit testing to ease the process of optimisation. Blindly optimising where you *think* the problem lies is never a good idea.

The next set of chapters talk about some core Python data structures a little about their implementation and relative performance. These include lists and tuples, dictionaries and sets, iterators and generators and matrices and vectors.It is here that the numpy library is introduced, and it is treated almost as a core Python library in its importance.

The difference between range and xrange in Python 2 is striking: if you wish to execute a loop some number of times then range builds a list of size that number of elements and xrange makes a generator and therefore xrange uses far less memory.

The next few chapters cover compiling Python to C for speed increases, concurrency, the multiprocessing module and clusters. Typically chapters take an example (Julia sets, diffusion equations, estimating pi, finding primes) and demonstrate the speedups which can be made, from the routine to the ridiculous. The authors point out when further optimisation is a bit pointless.

For compiling to C, there are a number of options of varying coverage and maturity. Cython offers the most mature, widest coverage but at the cost of making breaking changes to code. Other newer solutions include Numba and PyPy, they do not require breaking changes to code but they are less mature and in the case of PyPy do not support the important numpy library.

Concurrency is about making better use of a single processor using asynchronous methods, here there are libraries such as gevent and tornado.

For parallel processing most focus is on the multiprocessing library, most of the book is platform agnostic but this chapter is based on the Linux implementation of Python.I hadn’t realised before that “embarrassingly parallel” had a specific meaning i.e. that there is no need for interprocess communication for the problem at hand.

The coverage of computing clusters is fairly cursory, this isn’t really the focus of this book and as the authors highlight: running clusters of machines can bring a significant administration overhead.

The book finishes with a chapter on reducing RAM usage, either by choice of intrinsic data types or using probabilistic data structures such as the Bloom filter which offer an approximate answer for vastly less memory usage. Also included are the Morris Counter which provides an approximate counter in 1 byte of storage, I must admit to being bemused as to when I would need such a thing.

Finally, there are what I refer to as “war stories” from practitioners in the field. I really liked these, one of the difficulties in working in technology is the constant stream of options to choose from, often with no clear frontrunner, so learning how others have approached problems is really handy. Here Celery, the Distributed Task Queue, and ElasticSearch get multiple mentions.

Overall the book is well-produced and readable. It occasionally lapses into the problem of inviting the reader to admire the colour in a greyscale printed plot. In other places I felt the example code could have presented up front in its entirety rather than being dribbled out in bits. In the chapter on Using less RAM, I felt important things were discussed (tries and directed-acyclic word graphs (DAWGs) before they were introduced which was a bit confusing. Tries and DAWGs are systems for the compact storage of text, and are both tree-like structures – I hadn’t come across these before.

In some ways this book is more about productionisation rather than performance. For the straightforward non-production data analysis work I’ve done I can imagine being a bit smarter about my choice of data structures and using profiling to be aware the slow points are as a result of this book. In the repeated reanalysis cycle it is nice to have something run in a minute rather than 20, but is it worth a day of development time? I would likely only turn to compilation, concurrency and multiprocessing if I were going to use a particular analysis regularly, or my anticipated run time was going to be measured in days without optimization.

I recommend this book to anyone looking to advance their understanding of Python, and speed up their code.

Sep 18 2014

Of Matlab and Python

I’ve been a scientist and data analyst for nearly 25 years. Originally as an academic physicist, then as a research scientist in a large fast moving consumer goods company and now at a small technology company in Liverpool. In common to many scientists of my age I came to programming in the early eighties when a whole variety of home computers briefly flourished. My first formal training in programming was FORTRAN after which I have made my own way.

I came to Matlab in the late nineties, frustrated by the complexities of producing a smooth workflow with FORTRAN involving interaction, analysis and graphical output.

Matlab is widely used in academic circles and a number of industries because it provides a great deal of analytical power in a user-friendly environment. Its notation for handling matrix (array) calculations is slick. Its functionality is extended by a range of toolboxes, and there is a community of scientists sharing new functionality. It shares this feature set with systems such as IDL and PV-WAVE.

However, there are a number of issues with Matlab:

  • as a programming language it has the air of new things being botched onto a creaking frame. Support for unit testing is an afterthought, there is some integration of source control into the Matlab environment but it is with Source Safe. It doesn’t support namespaces. It doesn’t support common data structures such as dictionaries, lists and sets.
  • The toolbox ecosystem is heavily focused on scientific applications, generally in the physical sciences. So there is no support for natural language processing, for example, or building a web application based on the powerful analysis you can do elsewhere in the ecosystem;
  • the licensing is a nightmare. Once you’ve got core Matlab additional toolboxes containing really useful functionality (statistics, database connections, a “compiler”) are all at an additional cost. You can investigate pricing here. In my experience you often find yourself needing a toolbox for just a couple of functions. For an academic things are a bit rosier, universities get lower price licenses and the process by which this is achieved is opaque to end-users. As an industrial user, involved in the licensing process, it is as bad as line management and sticking needles in your eyes in the “not much fun thing to do” stakes;
  • running Matlab with network licenses means that your code may stop running part way through because you’ve made a call to a function to which you can’t currently get the license. It is difficult to describe the level of frustration and rage this brings. Now of course one answer is to buy individual licenses for all, or at least a significant surplus of network licenses. But tell that to the budget holder particularly when you wanted to run the analysis today. The alternative is to find one of the license holders of the required toolbox and discover if they are actually using it or whether they’ve gone off for a three hour meeting leaving Matlab open;
  • deployment to users who do not have Matlab is painful. They need to download a more than 500MB runtime, of exactly the right version and the likelihood is they will be installing it just for your code;

I started programming in Python at much the same time as I started on Matlab. At the time I scarcely used it for analysis but even then when I wanted to parse the HTML table of contents for Physical Review E, Python was the obvious choice. I have written scrapers in Matlab but it involved interfering with the Java underpinnings of the language.

Python has matured since my early use. It now has a really great system of libraries which can be installed pretty much trivially, they extend far beyond those offered by Matlab. And in my view they are of very good quality. Innovation like IPython notebooks take the Matlab interactive style of analysis and extend it to be natively web-based. If you want a great example of this, take a look at the examples provided by Matthew Russell for his book, Mining the Social Web.

Python is a modern language undergoing slow, considered improvement. That’s to say it doesn’t carry a legacy stretching back decades and changes are small, and directed towards providing a more consistent language. Its used by many software developers who provide a source of help, support and an impetus for an decent infrastructure.

Ubuntu users will find Python pre-installed. For Windows users, such as myself, there are a number of distributions which bundle up a whole bunch of libraries useful for scientists and sometimes an IDE. I like python(x,y). New libraries can generally be installed almost trivially using the pip package management system. I actually use Python in Ubuntu and Windows almost equally often. There are a small number of libraries which are a bit more tricky to install in Windows – experienced users turn to Christoph Gohlke’s fantastic collection of precompiled binaries.

In summary, Matlab brought much to data analysis for scientists but its time is past. An analysis environment built around Python brings wider functionality, a better coding infrastructure and freedom from licensing hell.

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