Well, I almost made it yesterday, I promised two more posts for the day in my first blog of the day and I almost delivered. Alas, in the end, sleep won over and I just had to give in. Nevertheless, I did finally finish my third posting and here it is now for your viewing pleasure.
In this entry I will cover one of my favorite features of the Python programming language—its documentation tool
pydoc is a tool that comes with Python that can be used for viewing and generating Python documentation. The main reason I love this feature is because it means that everywhere I go, I have easy access to Python’s documentation. Thus, I don’t need to carry heavy books, or download extra documentation, and best of all, its all accessible from the command line, so I can access documentation while programming without even switching applications. The
pydoc documentation tool can even be accessed from within Python’s interactive interpreter. What this means is that if I need to use Python for a simple task like parsing files to make repetitive changes to the text, then I can do so by firing up the Python shell and typing out my program and if I can’t remember how to do something I just import
pydoc and look it up in the documentation.
What I propose to do in this blog is just go over a few of my favorite features of Python’s built-in documentation tool. I’ll go over how to view and search documentation, how to use
pydoc in the Python shell, how to view HTML documentation using a built-in web server, and how to generate HTML documentation for your own python files.
Why don’t we start with using
pydoc from the command line. Let’s say that you’re programming in Python and you find you’ve forgotten how to quit a program. You remember that there is function in the
sys module, but you can’t remember the name of the function (I know you can probably guess that its sys.exit(), but bear with me, it was late when I came up with this example). What do you do? Well, in this case you’re going to call the
pydoc program from the command line, like so:
$ pydoc sys
Keep in mind that the dollar sign, ‘$’, is the command prompt and not part of what you’ll actually type into the Terminal. Once you’ve typed in the line above and pressed
Return, you should see something that looks somewhat like a
man page, and as such, it will act like a
man page as well. So, since we are looking for a function, we can narrow down our search by pressing the forward slash, ‘/’ (just like in Vi, this allows you to do a text search), character and typing in the search term, in this case we will type in ‘FUNCTIONS’ (yes, case does matter, so make sure it’s in all caps), then press
Return again to start the search. Subsequent searches for the same term can be performed by repeatedly pressing forward slash ‘/’ and
Return. You can also use the arrow keys to navigate the documentation or just hit the space bar to scan through a page at a time, and to quit your
pydoc session, just type the letter
q at any time.
pydoc command works great if your at a command prompt, but what do you do if you’re currently in the Python interactive shell and you need to look up something in the documentation? Well, you could always suspend your session with a
Ctrl-z, follow the instructions above, and then enter back into the shell where you left off by typing in
Return. Another option would be to
pydoc module directly into your current Python shell session and use the
help command to find the documentation you need. Below is an example of how we might check the documentation for the
sys module, like we did in the last paragraph, but this time during an interactive Python session.
>>> import pydoc >>> import sys # Import this in order to check its documentation >>> pydoc.help(sys)
So, now we’ve accessed the
pydoc tool from the command line and from Python’s own interactive shell. The only thing left to do is get our documentation into a nice HTML document.
If you’ll remember earlier, I mentioned that you can generate HTML documentation using
pydoc. Below is just one example of how you can do this (by the way, the
open command just launches whatever application is the default for dealing with the specified file. In my case, it would open the hello.html file in Safari):
$ pydoc -w hello > hello.html; open hello.html
The final feature of the
pydoc tool that I want to show you is the web server feature. Basically, by calling
pydoc with the
-p option and passing to it an open port number, you will start a web server that will allow you to access all of the Python documentation on your system through a web browser, and by “all”, I mean both Python’s own documentation and documentation for your own files as well (assuming you’ve used docstrings correctly and you’ve added your file’s location to the
PYTHONPATH environment variable). Below is the command that will start your
pydoc web server on port 9999:
$ pydoc -p 9999
Once, you’ve started your
pydoc web server, you can see all the documentation by loading the following url in to the web browser of your choosing:
So, that’s it for now. Those are all my little tips and tricks that I use on a regular basis. Once you get used to the having all the documentation you need right there at your fingertips you’ll find it hard to go back to other languages that aren’t quite as accommodating. You’ll also appreciate the ease with which you can document your own code just by adding a few lines to the beginning of each function, method, class, module, etc.
I look forward to talking to all of you again very soon…see you in my next post.
If you know of, or find, any other interesting uses for the
pydoc tool that I haven’t covered here, make sure you leave a comment for the rest of us so we can get some use out of it as well. I know I’m always interested in learning a few new tricks.