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Languages like Java and C++ have lots of rules regarding variable types, syntax, return values, and so on. Although these restrictions help make the compiled program run quickly, they are cumbersome when you are trying to write short, quick scripts to perform tasks. This is where a scripting language comes into play.

Python is a language well-suited to rapid prototype development. It is an interpreted language, which means that you do not need to compile the code when you run it. The syntax is clean, and it is usually clear at first glance what is going on when you write in Python.

XKCD Comic: python


Python may already be installed on your system. To see whether or not it is, enter the command

$ python --version

If it tells you a version of Python (like "2.7.1"), then you're good to go. If not, you need to do a quick package install to get it up and running. Apt and Yum both call a functional Python package python.


Linux distributions have package managers like Apt, Yum, and YaST. PHP has a package manager named PEAR. It's now time to introduce Python's leading package manager: pip.

You need to install Pip from Apt or Yum before you can use it. Both call the package python-pip.

Once you have pip installed, you can use it to install Python packages. Use the pip-python (RHEL) or pip (Debian) command:

$ pip-python install package_name # RHEL
$ pip install package_name # Debian

Running Python

There are two common ways to run Python code: via the console, and via a Python script file.

The Python Console

The Python console enables you to experiment with code without opening a text editor. To enter the Python console, simply type the python command at the terminal:

$ python

To leave the interactive console, either type "quit()" or press Ctrl-D (on both Mac and Windows).

Python Script Files

You can also save Python script files for later use. The extension for Python scripts is *.py. To run a script file, simply feed its path as an argument to the python command in Terminal:

$ python


This section contains a very brief overview of Python syntax. For a more comprehensive introduction, see the Python docs.

An Example Python Script

In my mind, there's no better way to learn Python than to be immersed in a simple example script.

print "Hello World"

fruits = ["apple", "banana", "cherry", "date"]
for i, fruit in enumerate(fruits):
	print "I always love to eat a fresh %s." % fruit

# Map the fruits list over to a new list containing the length of the fruit strings:
fruit_size = [len(fruit) for fruit in fruits]

avg_fruit_size = sum(fruit_size) / float(len(fruit_size))
print "The average fruit string length is %4.2f." % avg_fruit_size

Some things to notice:

  • Printing is achieved using the print command
  • A colon starts a block, similar to a curly brace { in many other languages. The corresponding code block must be indented. The end of the code block is signified by when the indentation ends.
  • Strings can be printf-style formatted using the % operator
  • Inline comments start with a pound symbol #
  • We can map a list to a new list in just one line. (Beat that, Java!)
  • When we compute the average fruit size, we need to cast len(fruit_size), which returns an int, to a float in order to prevent integer truncation. Note that sum(fruit_size) returns a float, even though the list contains only ints.

A Handfull of Other Useful Tips

Define functions using the def keyword:

def my_function(name):
	print "Hello, %s!" % name


Python has a special datatype called tuples, which are essentially short arrays useful for storing data that is associated with each other:

Python has another datatype called dictionaries, which are like maps in Java, associative arrays in PHP, and object literals in JavaScript (coming up soon in Module 6). Essentially, they enable you to use strings as the keys in your data structure.

Object-Oriented Programming in Python