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All Things Pythonic
Notes from PyCon DC
by Guido van van Rossum
April 9, 2003
Python's BDFL returns from the Python community conference in Washington, DC with a head full of ideas and plans, though not necessarily time to work on them yet.


The Python conference is a vague memory already: right afterwards I went to Oxford, England to attend a C/C++ conference run by the British Association for C and C++ Users, which since last year has sprouted a Python track. Notes from that (equally exciting) event will be a separate blog entry.

PyCon DC 2003 ( was the first US-based Python community conference in a long time. With about 240 people registered I'd call it a smashing success; I think those 240 attendees would agree.

Pre-conference Sprints

Before the conference proper, we had a two-day coding sprint. What's a coding sprint? It's an event loosely inspired by extreme programming, where a number of developers get together for a few days of intense pair programming on a common project. The first time I heard of sprints was from Zope Corporation's Jim Fulton, who's been using sprints successfully for the Zope 3 project; maybe he invented the word. Coding sprint certainly sounds better than coding marathon!

On this occasion, there were at least three separate groups sprinting in the same space (a classroom at George Washington University which we were renting for the conference): Jim Fulton was leading a Zope 3 sprint, there were a number of Twisted programmers sprinting on Twisted projects, and in the back of the room we were having a core Python sprint.

The Python sprint quickly separated out in three groups of two to three coders each: one group, lead by Jeremy Hylton, worked on the new bytecode compiler which is being developed in a CVS branch; I was leading the two other groups, which focused on Python speedups. (There were many other ideas for tasks to sprint on, but not enough time.)

The first speedup plan, proposed by Ka-Ping Yee and implemented by him and Aahz (that's really his whole name!), was a scheme to cache the lookup of object attributes. Python has extremely dynamic rules for looking attributes: an instance attribute is first searched in the instance dictionary, for instance variables, then in the class, for methods and class variables, and finally in the successive base classes, for inherited methods and class variables. In other languages, this lookup is usually done at compile time, but Python does it at run-time, using a very efficient dictionary (hash table) implementation. Nevertheless, finding a method defined in the third base class costs three failing lookups and one successful one. We've got to be able to to better, and this is a very common operation in Python, so a speedup here might cause measurable speedup for all Python programs.

Ping's plan was to cache the dictionary where the lookup was successful, thereby reducing the number of lookups to exactly two: one in the cache, and another one in the directory indicated by the cache. This seems an obvious optimization, but wasn't done earlier because there are situations where the cache must be invalidated because one of the base classes is modified. Part of the project was to do the invalidation right, and this could only be done with new infrastructure added in Python 2.2.

We implemented the whole scheme successfully, but in the end ran into a snag: there were some common cases where the old scheme did only one lookup, and there the new scheme was slower than the old scheme! We tried various refinements, but in the end we didn't shave off enough to call it an overall win. The code is checked in on a CVS branch, though, and I'm sure we'll be getting back to it later.

The other speedup team, consisting of Thomas Wouters and Brett Cannon, was tackling the issue of speeding up method calls. When Python encounters an expression of the form x.meth(args), the bytecode compiler first spits out code to construct temporary object representing the "bound method" x.meth, after which it produces code to load the argument list and call the bound method. These are very powerful semantics: a bound method can also be stored in a variable or data structure, and can be used as a callback. Other languages call this "closures". Python unifies closures, plain functions, and a few other things, including class constructors, as "callables". But method calls are very common, and the overhead of creating the bound method object which is thrown away immediately after the call is quite measurable.

So Thomas and Brett set out to introduce a new opcode which implements the method call operation without creating the intermediate bound method object. There were numerous challenges on the way to success, such as how to recognize this exact situation in the parser, and how to implement an opcode taking three arguments when the bytecode interpreter only supports opcodes with zero or one argument.

But the real challenge was how to quickly decide at run-time whether this was in fact a method call or not: syntactically, instance.method(args) looks the same as module.function(args), and the bytecode compiler doesn't know the type of x in x.attr(args), so it will generate the new opcode for all expressions of this form, regardless of whether x is a class instance. Therefore, the opcode has to deal correctly with method calls as well as with all other kinds of calls. Fortunately, the slight overhead of the required generality is offset by the need to decode only one opcode instead of two, and in the end we measured a decent speedup (in the order of 5% for a certain benchmark, if I recall correctly).

Despite this clear success, we didn't check the code in yet. There are really two cases that need to be sped up: classic classes and new-style classes (the new class implementation introduced in Python 2.2, which will coexist with the original class implementation until Python 3.0 is released). Thomas and Breatt only had time to implement their code for classic classes. The code was parked on the SourceForge patch manager until someone has time to complete it.

The Conference Proper

Since my sprint diary ended up much longer than planned, I'll have to write down more extensive conference notes later. For now, some highlights:

Paul Graham's keynote on the "100-year language" was entertaining, although I wished he'd taken the time to say a bit more about Python, like last year's keynote speaker (Andrew Koenig of C++ fame, who's become quite the Python evangelist). It's been reviewed already in Ziggy's blog. Ziggy is a Perl developer, but (a) he's got an open mind, and (b) he's an experienced conference organizer who helped us find this excellent venue.

An excellent idea was "open space", suggested and organized by Bob Payne. This is not quite the same as BOFs, although it is somewhat similar. The venue really helped, by accidentally setting up the grand ballroom with circular dinner tables for the lunch arrangement. Many smaller groups could have discussions or small presentations in parallel that way.

The Python Software Foundation (PSF, also financially responsible for the conference) had its annual member meeting. This was a great success; more than half of all members were present in person, and half of the others had sent in their proxy form for the various votes. There was lively discussion, and after the meeting we all went out for dinner.

Looking at the schedule, I realize that I hardly went to any of the scheduled presentations! I spent almost all my time talking to various people about their Python issues, having my picture taken with attendees, and in an audio interview with Bruce Eckel. Well, so it goes.

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About the Blogger

Guido van Rossum is the creator of Python, one of the major programming languages on and off the web. The Python community refers to him as the BDFL (Benevolent Dictator For Life), a title straight from a Monty Python skit. He moved from the Netherlands to the USA in 1995, where he met his wife. Until July 2003 they lived in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC with their son Orlijn, who was born in 2001. They then moved to Silicon Valley where Guido now works for Google (spending 50% of his time on Python!).

This weblog entry is Copyright © 2003 Guido van van Rossum. All rights reserved.

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