How Python saved my sanity!

They were dark days.

I had to build 12 million lines of J2EE code before breakfast and Maven wasn't having any of it. The day was spent in a caffeine-fuelled daze. Nothing seemed to work. You've heard of the Midas Touch? I had the opposite - everything I touched turned to mud. Everything was drenched in complexity and the software fragile at the best of times. Databases imploded left, right and centre. It wasn't supposed to be this way.

And then one day I got an itch that needed scratching - and I'm not talking about fleas. It was the run up to Christmas 2015BACKSLASH. I had a couple of days free. I was catching up on some reading on a website I've been visiting since 2002BACKSLASH. It's a great site. Mostly travel-related writing, but delves into relationships and various other things.

It was one of those sites that was very old school. It was all static HTML files created in FrontPage. Anyone remember FrontPage? It was The Dog's Doodah's back in the late 1990s, early 00s, when the site was started. While the content was great the site design sucked. It used really bright white and lurid coloured text on a black background. Reading for any more than 10 minutes and you felt like you were going blind. There was no CMS involved so you couldn't do dynamic queries, say for all articles by a certain contributer. Finally I'd had enough.

I figured I could write a little app to download the web pages, and perhaps tidy them up, save them out as text files, and then maybe whack them in a database so I could do proper queries to find articles based on submission date or author. I could even add a little CGI web app on the front end to pull the articles from the database.

I reached for Eclipse and experienced something resembling a small cranial haemorrhage. I just couldn't. Writing the Java to do it would be painful, and I just didn't have the time or energy, or the desire to be even more insane than I already was.

PHP was the next option. I'd done a project previously in PHP, a command line set of tools for turning DITA XML into HTML 5BACKSLASH. It had worked out quite well as proof of concept. PHP could certainly do it. But I remembered I'd had a hard time when I came back to the PHP codebase 6 months later, trying to figure out what the heck I'd done. There was too much line noise, too many $s and too many things that seemed like a good idea at the time but turned out to be very horrible (and most probably my fault).

Could Python help?

A few characters typed at the terminal confirmed I had Python already installed on my MacBook Pro. I figured it couldn't be worse than PHP.

I wrote a simple little spider program. To my utter amazement it worked forst time. Soon I had about 8000 articles downloaded and Python was flinging text files around and whacking things into MySQL and I was running queries and getting back useful results.

# Inject all records into MySQL database

import pymysql

# Open input file

f = open ('sub_lists/article_data.dat', 'r')

# Open connection to database
conn = pymysql.connect(host='localhost', user='xxxxxx', passwd='xxxxxx', db='articledb', charset='utf8mb4')
cur = conn.cursor()

# Select database to use
cur.execute("USE articledb")

for line in f:

    line_array = line.split('|')
    url = line_array[0].rstrip('\n')
    title = line_array[1].rstrip('\n')
    sub_date = line_array[2].rstrip('\n')
    author = line_array[3].rstrip('\n')

    print("Injecting record: ", title, sub_date)
    sql = "INSERT INTO `Articles` (`url`, `title`, `sub_date`, `author`) VALUES (%s, %s, %s, %s)"
    cur.execute(sql, (url, title, sub_date, author))

    # Must do this!
    conn.commit()

# Clean up!
cur.close()
conn.close()
f.close()

I then wrote a little author stats program in about five minutes flat:

# author_stats.py

filename = "sub_lists/article_data.dat"
authors = []

f = open(filename, 'r')

for line in f:
    record = line.split('|')
    authors.append(record[3].rstrip('\n'))

f.close()

stats = {}

for author in authors:
    if author in stats:
        stats[author] = stats[author] + 1
    else:
        stats[author] = 1

i = 0
for author in sorted(stats, key=stats.get, reverse=True):
    print (i, ": ", author, stats[author], " : %.2f" % (stats[author]*100/8782))
    i = i + 1

It was clean, simple, obvious code - I rarely had to visit Stack Overflow or look things up.

I was getting real insight into the authors and how frequently they submitted, how many pieces they'd written and how long they'd been writing for the site. This was real data mining (albeit on a small scale). And what's more I was having a blast! Suddenly programming was not only productive - it was fun again.

My two day coding adventure with Python came to a close, all too soon, but it was a revelation. Programming could be productive and fun! Who knew? Python programmers I guess.

I was sold, but didn't get much chance to do Python coding again for a while.

And then at 3.00am one night a friend who owns a small oil services company called me out of the blue with some business problems that needed solving and Python was a good match. But that's another story...

Python is wonderful. It's a very readible and clean language. It's very capable. It can crunch text, HTML, XML and pretty much any type of file you can throw at it. It can read and write databases, you can build simple but effective CGI web apps in it. And if you are building the next killer web app there's Django and Flask too.

Python restored my faith in programming, and it restored any semblence of sanity I may have had left.

Thanks Python!