metaprogramming and politics

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metaprogramming in Python: What CPython, PyPy, Pyramid, pytest and politics have in common …

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Metaprogramming in Python too often revolves around metaclasses, which are just a narrow application of the “meta” idea and not a great one at that. Metaprogramming more generally deals with reasoning about program code, about taking a “meta” stance on it.  A metaprogram takes a program as input, often just partial programs like functions or classes. Here are a few applications of metaprogramming:

  • CPython is a metaprogram written in C. It takes Python program code as input and interprets it, so that it runs at a higher level than C.
  • PyPy is a metaprogramm written in Python. It takes RPython program code as input and generates a C-level metaprogram (the PyPy interpreter) which itself interprets Python programs and takes another meta stance by generating Assembler pieces for parts of the interpreation execution. If you like, PyPy is a metaprogram generating metaprograms whereas CPython and typical compilers like GCC are “just” a metaprogram.
  • Pyramid is a metaprogram that takes view, model definitions and http-handling code as input and executes them, thereby raising code on a higher level to implement the “Pyramid application” language.
  • pytest is a metaprogram written in Python, taking test, fixture and plugin functions as input and executing them in a certain manner, thereby implementing a testing language.
  • metaclasses: in Python they allow to intercept class creation and introspect methods and attributes, amending their behaviour. Because metaclass-code usually executes at import time, it often uses global state for implementing non-trivial meta aspects.

Apart from these concrete examples, language compilers, testing tools and web frameworks all have metaprogramming aspects. Creating big or small “higher” level or domain-specific languages within Python is as a typical example of metaprogramming. Python is actually a great language for metaprogramming although it could be better.

In future blog posts i plan to talk about some good metaprogramming practise, particularly:

  • keep the layers/levels separate by good naming and API design
  • define a concise “language” for the programs you take as input
  • avoid creating global state in your metaprograms (and elsewhere)
    which can easily happen with meta-classes executing at import time

Lastly, i see metaprogramming at work not only when coding in a computer language. Discussing the legal framing for executing programs on the internet is some kind of metaprogramming, especially if you consider licensing and laws as human-interpreted code which affects how programs can be written, constructed and executed. In reverse, web applications increasingly affect how we interact with each other other, thereby implementing rules formerly dealt with in the arena of politics. Therefore, metaprogramming and politics are fundamentally connected topics.

have metafun, i. e. take fun stuff as input to generate more of it :) holger

Written by holger krekel

November 22, 2012 at 3:04 pm

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