On Python Present and Perl Past
I’ve been working in Python almost exclusively for the last 8 or 9 months. It’s been a fun challenge learning a new language, and being able to do it along with the rest of the We Also Walk Dogs crew has made it even better. A dip back into Perl has given me a chance to reflect on my progress with Python.
The past couple weekends I’ve been helping a friend with a small project – a textual analysis problem finding similarities between disparate documents in a large database. I immediately reached for Perl because I’ve done projects like this in Perl before and I knew all the tools I’d need. I indexed phrases from the docs using Digest::MD5, storing the index in MySQL with DBD::mysql. Then I whipped up a quick web-app with CGI::Application and HTML::Template, with a bit of help from HTML::FillinForm, Blueprint CSS and Config::General. With the exception of Blueprint (which I find indispensable these days), this is pretty much the toolkit I learned (and helped build) at Vanguard Media working for Jesse Erlbaum over ten years ago! It all worked great and the app was up and running in just a day and a half.
This experience makes it obvious to me that I still have a long way to go with Python. Perl syntax is second nature to me – I almost never make an error and everything works the way I expect it to. I’m not looking up basic Python syntax anymore but I am still making plenty of mistakes. More to the point, the tools I needed to use for this project are all still completely ingrained in my memory, and behave exactly the way I expect them to. Compared to the Python tools I use daily (Django, Celery and MySQLdb, for example), the difference is really impressive. My Python tools often surprise me and I find myself going back to the docs, and failing that the source, frequently.
It’s also interesting to think about how little has changed in the past 10 years. I can pick up the same tools I used then and construct something that most people would recognize as a modern web app. Mix in just a little Jquery and it would probably pass for Web 2.0. On the other hand, I think I can say I’ve gotten better as I’ve aged – this project would have taken me quite a bit longer 10 years ago, if I could have completed it at all. I probably would have gotten stuck on some completely insane plan like loading all the documents into memory at once. I really didn’t know how to properly use a database back then!
I am looking forward to making my first open-source Python release soon. Who knows, maybe there’s a book about writing Python packages for PyPi in my future!