Posts tagged ‘contracts’

We Don’t Need No Enums (in Python)

2013-05-13 21:48

Last weekend I attended the PyGrunn conference, back in the good ol’ Netherlands. It was a very enjoyable and instructive event, featuring not only a few local speakers but also some prominent figures from the Python community – like Kenneth Reitz or Armin Ronacher. Overall, it was a weekend of some great pythonic fun.

…Except for a one small detail. As I’ve learned there, Python will apparently get to have enums in the 3.4 version of the language. To say that this was baffling to me would be a severe understatement. Not only I see very little need for such a feature, but I also have serious doubts whether it fits into the general spirit of Python language.

Why so? It’s mostly because of the main purpose of enumeration types, derived from their usage in many languages that already have them as a feature. That purpose is to turn arbitrary data – mostly integers and strings – into well-known, reliable entities that can be safely manipulated inside our programs. Enums act as border guardians, filtering out unexpected data and converting expected data into its safe representation.

What’s safety in this context? It’s type safety, of course. Thanks to enumeration types, we can be certain that a particular value belongs to specific and constrained set of elements. They clearly define all the variants that our code should handle, because everything else was already culled at the conversion stage.

Problem is, in Python there is nothing that would guarantee those safety promises are actually fulfilled. True, the basic property of enum types is retained: given an enum object, we know it must belong to a preordained set of entities. But there is nothing that ensures we are dealing with an enum object at all – short of us actually checking that ourselves:

  1. if isinstance(state, State):

How this is different from a straightforward membership check:

  1. if state in STATES:

except for the latter looking cleaner and more explicit?…

This saying, I do not claim enums are completely out of place in Python. This is untrue, if simply because of the fact they are easily implemented through a rather simple metaclass. In fact, this is exactly how the proposed enums.Enum base is supposed to work.
At the same time, it is also possible to provide some of the before-mentioned type safety. Just look into various libraries that enhance Python with support for contracts: a form of type safety which is even more powerful than what you’ll find in many statically typed languages. You are free to use them, and you should definitely do, if your project would benefit from such a functionality.

Incidentally, they fit right in with that new & upcoming enumeration types from Python 3.4. It remains to be seen what it means exactly for the overall direction of the language design. But with enums in place, the style of “checked” typing suddenly became a lot more pythonic than it was before.

And I can’t say I like it very much.

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Author: Xion, posted under Events, Programming » 3 comments
 


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