October 19, 2007

Note to self: default parameter values are mutable in Python

Just hit a somewhat unexpected behaviour in Python code. What would the following code snippet print, what do you say ?
def foo(x = []):
print x

If you think about the def statement as a declaration, the answer is obvious - it should print
[ 'bar' ]
[ 'bar' ]
but in fact it prints
[ 'bar' ]
[ 'bar', 'bar' ]
Why ? Because in Python def is an executable statement, which means that the list of arguments for the method to be created (x) and most importantly their default values ([]) are themselves nothing but arguments to def. Something like this:
foo = def(x, default_x)
and when this gets executed, default_x is bound to something that at that point evaluates to an empty list, but remains mutable. Then, whenever the created foo is executed, the append method modifies the contents of default_x - effectively the "default value" of x.

This sounds strange, but is clearly documented in the language reference, quote from http://docs.python.org/ref/function.html

Default parameter values are evaluated when the function definition is executed. This means that the expression is evaluated once, when the function is defined, and that that same "pre-computed" value is used for each call. This is especially important to understand when a default parameter is a mutable object, such as a list or a dictionary: if the function modifies the object (e.g. by appending an item to a list), the default value is in effect modified.
The spec suggests using None for all the default parameters, but you should have no problem using any immutable objects as well. For example:
def foo(x = None):
print (x or []) + [ "bar" ]
where x is None, or
def foo(x = ()):
# oops, no append method
print x + ( "bar", )
Phew, I've been lucky using None's so far...

October 08, 2007

Sympathy for Mr. Software

No software does what the user is supposed to be doing, because that is not known to the user in the first place. Should that have become known, the person could have been replaced with a machine. Instead, software helps people by making small and routine parts of their jobs easier to do. Even that it does imperfectly.

The users constantly struggle to make the software do what they want, the way they want. Sometimes they find the features useful the way they are. Sometimes they adapt to their quirks. Sometimes they find ways around. And sometimes they dump the whole thing.

As such, software is a dumb servant. A very dumb one. It needs assistance by itself.

To be useful, software needs assistance from the user. There must be a way for the user to explain what he wants even though the software may not have this capacity.

But then, returning to the dumb servant metaphor, the user must be willing to help. Therefore, here is my point - the software should be appealing to the user's sympathy or even pity. The user should be empathically connected to the software. To help and not to throw it away should be its first reaction.

I don't have any recipes on how to build such software. Arousing human's sympathy can be difficult even for another human, not for a piece of software. The only answer that I have is that the user should like the software for what seems to be nothing in particular.

The way I see it now, software should be written in such way that the user likes it for no apparent reason from the first sight. If it's pretty and it behaves consistently and it doesn't jump in your face and it knows when to speak and when to shut up and it looks familiar and it looks novel and it has square buttons and it has round buttons, then perhaps the user likes it. But you never know.