Python tips

Python is a very powerful, high-level programming language that, when combined with some numerical, scientific, and plotting packages, makes a very powerful tool for scientific computing and data analysis (similar to Matlab). Useful python extensions for this application are NumPy, SciPy, Matplotlib, IPython, and SciKits. This page collects some general tips on developing Python code.

See also: NumPy notes, the IPython page, and the Python section of the general programming page.

Installing Python packages

Download miniconda from here: and run with

bash <miniconda-file-name>

Conda is the package manager and conda install <package-name> will install packages. To keep conda install small by cleaning out tarballs and old packages useconda clean -tp`.

The anaconda distribution also includes pandoc, which plays well with the system Tex distribution.

The main Python package repository is PyPI (the Python Package Index) and installation from PyPI is generally done using pip

The datetime module

Python's datetime module suplies the core functionality for handling datetime objects. Descriptions of its core classes, and their attribute and methods are briefly covered below, or see Python's more extensive Datetime library reference.

  •, month, day)
  • and give the minimum and maximum possible dates
  •, and return the attributes
  • date.strftime(format) - returns a string representing the date, controlled by an explicit format string
  • date.toordinal() - returns the proleptic Gregorian ordinal of the date, where January 1 of year 1 has ordinal 1.
  • dt.time(hour[,minute[,second[,microsecond[,tzinfo]]]])
  • all the attributes are optional and the tzinfo attribute (which defines timezone, time offsets, etc) can be "None"
  • similar methods to those in
  • dt.datetime(year,month,day[,hour[,minute[,second[,microsecond[,tzinfo]]]]])
  • Contains all the info from a date and a time object.
  • year, month, day are required, tzinfo can be 'None'.
  • two class method contstructors are important:
  • datetime.combine(date, time) - combines a date and a time object into a datetime.
  • dt.datetime.strptime(date_string,format) - returns a datetime corresponding to date_string, parsed according to format.
  • Similar instance methods to date and time objects (can call strftime, toordinal, etc.)
  • dt.timedelta([days[,seconds[,microseconds[,milliseconds[,minutes[,hours[,weeks]]]]]]])
  • Represents a duration, the difference between two dates or times.

Using strptime()and strftime()

The datetime.strptime() class method creates a datetime object from a string representing a date and time and a corresponding format string. date.strftime(format) returns a string representing the date, controlled by an explicit format string. To format these inputs and outputs use the "%field" formatting codes. A list of the codes is here

Debugging code

Python debugger (pdb)

More on this module here.

The Python library page is here.

# import the pdb module
import pdb

# insert this into code at line x to start debugger at line x

# as the code runs it will stop and enter the debugger at line x
# leaving you at the pdb prompt


# once in interactive mode several commands can be issued
n # execute the next line
p var1, var2, var3 # print the value of variables
c # exit interactive debugger and continue running program
l # list area of program where you currently are
s # step into a subroutine (function call on that line)
r # if in a subroutine, continue until returned to original subroutine call
q # crash out of debugging

# if there are variable assignments or other changes to be made they can be
# made at the debugger prompt and then tested by continuing the code

(Pdb) var1 = "bbb"

# An exclamation point tells pdb that what follows is a Python statement, not a pdb command.

(Pdb) !b = "BBB"

# It is also possible to set a breakpoint, (then continue to this breakpoint).
(Pdb) break

Other useful Pdb classes:

# run a file or statement interactively with the debugger'mymodule.test()')

# similar to ** but returns the value of the expression

# calls the specified function and passes any specified arguments to it:
pdb.runcall(function[, argument, ...])

# performs postmortem debugging of the specified traceback

# performs postmortem debugging of the traceback contained in sys.last_traceback:

Other useful debugging modules


The IPython shell has its on debugging module, similar to Python's. See the IPython page for more.


code.interact() stops execution and gives you an interactive console to examine the current state of your program. To use this function, simply embed the following at the line were you want the console to start:

import code; code.interact(local=locals())

The resulting console inherits the local scope of the line on which code.interact() is called. This enables you to check the current state of your program to understand its behavior and make any necessary corrections.


Python has a logging module that allows the collection of various log messages from within a running program. To start logging debug messages it must be imported and configured to log DEBUG level messages:

import logging
# Log everything, and send it to stderr.

# Now, in the body of the program, you can log events like this:
logging.exception("Something bad happened!")
logging.debug("Finishing for loop")