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Learning By Breaking
by Barry Warsaw
June 24, 2003
One of the best ways to learn how a system works is by breaking it.


Fun To Fiddle

I've always liked to break things, even though I haven't always been able to put them back together. When I was eight, I took apart an 8mm film editor my parents owned and started fiddling about in it. It was a great way to learn to unplug electrical devices before touching certain exposed leads. I took apart Pachinko machines and marveled at how intricate and synchronized a mechanical system could be, but I also learned not to eat the pretty shiny balls. And I've started building plastic models with my son, which is kind of like breaking things in reverse, or at least you start to think so after several hours with an open glue bottle and little ventilation.

So I often take the same approach with software systems, especially open source software where you can see all the moving levers and gears. My current home project involves explorations into what will eventually be Mailman 3. Specifically, I've been yanking Zope Page Templates out of Zope 3, tying them into a Twisted framework, and welding some Mailman data structures onto the contraption. Even though ZPT is designed to be a separate thing from Zope, it isn't very clear how a third party application would go about using ZPT with its own application logic.

Since there's almost no internals documentation, and what reference manuals exist are a bit spread out and incomplete, the only way to learn the system was to find something that worked and break it. By observing where it breaks, by deliberately monkey wrenching key components, you start to get a sense of where its boundaries are, and where you can put your hooks.

The (Real) Dark Side Of Dynamic Typing

I was reading a recent blog by Bruce Eckel about the benefits of strong testing over strong typing. Obviously, being a full-time Python programmer, I'm a big fan of dynamic typing, and I have definitely been bitten by the unit testing bug (more on that another time). But there's a dark side to dynamic typing, which is that it can often be very difficult to figure out exactly which code is getting executed just by statically inspecting some random bit of source. With static typing, you always know the type of the object, at least to some resolution. But with dynamic typing, the object could be anything. So where do you start the hunt for the code you're interested in?

The answer is to break it. With ZPT, I was struggling with how and where macros get evaluated, and I simply could not find the code I needed to read. But I had a working example in Zope 3, so I found something that looked a lot like what I had written, and I jammed it by shoving the pointy fork of a missing end tag into the page template. Then I ran Zope and watched for the traceback. It actually took a few pokes to cause it to crash, and I was sure glad that Zope wasn't hooked up to 110 volts. But eventually, I wedged it and from the resulting traceback, I found the code I needed to examine in detail. This was just the clue I needed to get my own, external ZPT application to work. And CVS makes it pretty easy to put the pieces back together again afterward.

Python's pdb module and print statements are the indispensable tools of the professional software monkey wrencher, at least in the Python world. They may not be terribly high tech, but they can be pretty effective when exploring. Oh yeah, be sure to open the windows and wear your safety goggles.

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About the Blogger

Barry Warsaw has been developing software and playing music for more than 25 years. Since 1995 he has worked in Guido van Rossum's Pythonlabs team. He has been the lead developer of the JPython system, and is now the lead developer of GNU Mailman, a mailing list management system written primarily in Python. He's also a semi-professional musician. Python and the bass are his main axes. Music and software are both at their best when enjoyed, participated in, and shared by their enthusiastic fans and creators.

This weblog entry is Copyright © 2003 Barry Warsaw. All rights reserved.

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