Thanks to PYPTUG!

The logo of the Python Piedmont Triad Users Group
Thanks to PYPTUG, the Python Piedmont Triad Users Group, for inviting me to speak at their monthly meeting last night!

I gave a slightly expanded version of the talk I gave at PyData Carolinas 2016 about connecting Python to compiled languages like C, C++, and Fortran. (Slides from that talk are here.) I appreciate the time and attention of everyone who attended last night, especially Francois Dion for organizing and reminding us of some of the interesting new things in Python 3.5 and 3.6.

Last night’s talk wasn’t recorded, but you can see the version of the talk I gave at PyData at , or you can watch the embedded version below.


A Postcard of Tunisia

Earlier on this blog I briefly mentioned working with some Libyans in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia. We chose to meet at that location because it’s close to Libya but much safer than Tripoli. Now that I’ve been back for a while and had a chance to catch up, I wanted to write more about my experience.

A photo of the translator translating live
English-to-Arabic translation on the fly!


I was there with Tobias McNulty of Caktus Group. We (Tobias and I) trained the Libyan employees of Libya’s High National Election Commission (HNEC) in the maintenance and use of the HNEC-commissioned SMS-based voter registration system that I had helped to develop while working with Caktus. The system has been open sourced as Smart Elect.

If the big picture was promoting democracy, the medium picture was training system admins and developers. And the very small picture was working together on the nitty gritty of features and bug fixes, like figuring out that if a @property method raises an exception when invoked by hasattr(), the exception isn’t propagated under Python 2.7.

The admin training consisted of a comprehensive review of the system, including the obscure corners and edge case handling. The developers were eager to get their hands dirty, so after some organizational review, we dove into fixing bugs and implementing some new features that HNEC wanted.

A photo of a trainee
Abdullah (Photo by Tobias McNulty)

Tobias and I worked with the developers as both mentors and peers. Grinding through bugs from start to finish was really valuable. Our trainees have good development experience, but working in groups with us allowed them to participate in our approach to debugging, problem reporting, development, and test. It seemed a little different from what they were used to. We were very methodical about creating an issue in our tracker, creating a branch for that issue, reviewing one another’s code, documenting the fix, etc. “It’s a lot of process,” said one trainee after working through one particular bug with us. He’s right. I wish I had thought to ask if Libyan culture has a proverb similar to “For want of a nail…“. I could have said, “For want of filing an issue in the tracker, a voter was disenfranchised,” but it doesn’t have the same ring to it.

A photo of Tobias and a trainee
Tobias and Ahmed

This was my first trip to Africa, and, grand notions aside, what stood out to me was how mundane much of the experience was. The guys we worked with would have fit right in at any coding meetup I’ve been to. They had opinions about laptops. They were distracted by their phones. Everyone enjoyed a successful bug hunt. I remember one trainee being tired at 5PM, saying he had no more left in him, and seeing him there grinning 2 hours later when we finally solved the problem we’d been working on.

Outside of the training, I especially enjoyed the dinners at Sakura/Pasta Cosy and Chez Zina (my favorites, in that order).

We also ate at Le Bon Vieux Temps, where the handwritten chalkboard menu is carted from table to table on a charming-but-impractical frame. Tunisia is principally French speaking, with Arabic on an almost equal footing. At Le Bon Vieux Temps (“The Good Old Times”), the menu was all in French, and my vestigial French came in handy for translating the menu into English for the Libyans who in turn peppered the waiter with questions in Arabic. (That night in the restaurant began and ended my career as a French-to-English translator.)

On the weekends we rested, walked in the city, and paid a visit to the Bardo National Museum. The Bardo was famously attacked in 2015, and has since sprouted a razor wire fence around the entire property. Bored soldiers sat on a truck by the gate and motioned us to enter. It’s a nice museum, and I’m glad I went.

A photo of my entrance pass to the Bardo Museum

Inside the classroom and out, I got to know and really like our Libyan colleagues. They were generous with their good humor and kindness. If they lacked anything, it was a willingness to complain.

Libya is a difficult place to live at the moment. I think we all know that in an abstract sense, but talking to my Libyan friends made it more concrete for me. Banks don’t have enough cash. Electricity isn’t reliable. People they know have been kidnapped. My friends have a lot on their minds, and yet they found rooom to squeeze in opinions about good software development practices.

A photo of a trainee

I’m glad I got the chance to go, and to get to know the people I did. In addition to working with Tobias and the Libyans, I had a lot of non-work experiences I’ll remember for a long time. I walked among ruins in Carthage that are over 2000 years old. I drove solo (and lost) through rush hour traffic in Tunis and survived. I saw a Tunisian wedding, and got to use the word “ululating” for the first time outside of Scrabble or Bananagrams. I swam in the Mediterranean. I saw flocks of flamingoes (many, many thanks to Hichem and Claudia of Les Amis des Oiseaux).

HNEC is now better positioned than ever to use the Smart Elect system, and I hope they do so again soon. That’s partly for egotistical reasons — I like to see my work get used. Who doesn’t? But more importantly, if it gets used, that means Libyans are voting to determine their own future.

Creating PDF Documents Using LibreOffice and Python, Part 4

This is the fourth and final post in a series on creating PDFs using LibreOffice and Python. The first three parts are here:

They’re all a supplement to a talk I gave at PyOhio 2016.

This final post is here to point you to a working code example that you can download from my Bitbucket repository. It’s enough to get you started so you can experiment with your own goals in mind.

One thing I mention in the code that’s worth repeating here is that the code uses ElementTree to manipulate XML. It’s sufficient for this demo, and the fact that it’s part of the Python standard library means you can run the demo without installing any third party libraries. For real world (i.e. non-demo) usage, I recommend lxml as a more robust and helpful alternative to ElementTree.

A Curious Coincidence: Stinkin’ Badges

Treasure of the Sierra Madre movie posterThe title of my PyOhio talk was “We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ PDF Library: Build PDFs with Python the Lazy Way”. You know the “we don’t need no stinkin’ [whatever]” meme, don’t you? It’s from the Mel Brooks movie Blazing Saddles. (You can find the clip on YouTube.) Did you know that Blazing Saddles is quoting another movie?

The night before I gave my talk, I walked from my AirBnB to a nearby bar and bottle shop. (It’s simply called “The Bottle Shop”. Ohioans are plain dealers, apparently). I settled in there, happy with a pint of stout. On the big screen they were playing an old black and white Western — The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

I didn’t realize until it happened on the screen that this movie is the inspiration for the “We don’t need no stinkin’ badges” quote, although no one ever actually says “We don’t need no stinkin’ badges”. The actual line is “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!”

It’s pretty close to the line from B. Traven’s novel of the same name.

I didn’t have time in my talk to mention Blazing Saddles, the mysterious B. Traven, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Humphrey Bogart, The Bottle Shop, nor the stout. But I was amused by our brief coincidence in Columbus.

Just in Time to Vote!

I just returned from Tunisia a couple of days ago.

In 2014 and 2015 I worked for Caktus Group to help develop an SMS-based voter registration system on behalf of the Libyan government (specifically the High National Election Commission, or HNEC). The open source version of this system is called Smart Elect.

For the last three weeks in Tunisia (which is next door to Libya and a whole lot safer), Caktus’ Tobias McNulty and I trained a dozen HNEC employees on how to use, develop, and maintain the system. We talked about Python, Django, open source culture, GitHub Flow, and, of course, the upcoming U.S. election.

On the eve of that election, I thought it appropriate to express gratitude for my opportunity to participate in the messy sausage-making that is democracy. Good luck to our new Libyan friends; I hope they get the opportunity to do the same in the very near future.



Creating PDF Documents Using LibreOffice and Python, Part 3

This is part 3 of a 4-part series on creating PDFs using LibreOffice. You should read part 1 and part 2 if you haven’t already. This series is a supplement to a talk I gave at PyOhio 2016.

Here in part 3, I review the conversation we (the audience and I) had at the end of the PyOhio talk. I committed the speaker’s cardinal sin of not repeating (into the microphone) the questions people asked, so they’re inaudible in the video. In addition, we had some interesting conversations among multiple people that didn’t get picked up by the microphone. I don’t want them to get lost, so I summarized them here.

The most interesting thing I learned out of this conversation is that LibreOffice can open PDFs; once opened they’re like an ordinary LibreOffice document. You can edit them, save them to ODF, export to PDF, etc. Is this cool, or what?

First Question: What about Using Excel or Word?

One of the attendees jumped in to confirm that modern MS Word formats are XML-based. However, he went on to say, the XML contains a statement at the top that says something like “You cannot legally read the rest of this file”. I made a joke about not having one’s lawyer present when reading the file.

In all seriousness, I can’t find anything online that suggests that Microsoft’s XML contains a warning like that, and the few examples I looked at didn’t have have any such warning. If you can shed any light on this, please do so in the comments!

We also discussed the fact that one must invoke the office app (LibreOffice or Word, Excel, etc.) in order to render the document to PDF. LibreOffice has a reputation for performing badly when invoked repeatedly for this purpose. LibreOffice 5 may have addressed some of these problems, but as of this writing it’s still pretty new so the jury is still out on how this will work in practice.

Another attendee noted that Microsoft can save to LibreOffice format, so if Word (or Excel) is your document-editing tool of choice, you can still use LibreOffice to render it to PDF. That’s really useful if MS Office is your tool of choice but you’re doing rendering on a BSD/Linux server.

Question 2: What about Scraping PDFs?

The questioner noted that scraping a semi-complex PDF is very painful. It’d be ideal, he said, to be able to take a complex form like the 1040 and extract key value pairs of the question and answer. Is the story getting better for scraping PDFs?

My answer was that for the little experience I have with scraping PDFs, I’ve used PDFMiner, and the attendee said he was using the same.

Someone else chimed in that it’s a great use case for [Amazon’s] Mechanical Turk; in his case he was dealing with old faxes that had been scanned.

Question 3: Helper Libraries

Matt Wilson asked if it would make sense to begin building helper libraries to simplify common tasks related to manipulating LibreOffice XML. My answer was that I wasn’t sure since each project has very specific needs. Someone else suggested that one would have to start learning the spec in order to begin creating abstractions.

In the YouTube comments, Paul Hoffman1 called our attention to OdfPy a “thin abstraction over direct XML access”. It looks quite interesting.

Comment 1: Back to Scraping

One of the attendees commented that he had used Jython and PDFBox for PDF scraping. “It took a lot to get started, but once I started to figure out my way around it, it was a pretty good tool and it moved pretty speedily as compared to some of the other tools I used.” He went on to say that it was pretty complete and that it worked very well.

Question 4: About XML Parsing

The question was what I used to parse the XML, and my answer was that I used ElementTree from the standard library. Your favorite XML parsing library will work just fine.

Question 5: Protecting Bookmarks

The question was whether or not I did anything special to protect the bookmarks in the document. My answer was that I didn’t. (I’m not even sure it’s possible.) If you go through multiple rounds of editing with your client, those invisible bookmarks are inevitably going to get moved or deleted, so expect a little maintenance work related to that.

Comment 2: Weasyprint

One of the attendees commented that Weasyprint is a useful HTML/CSS to PDF converter. My observation was that tools in this class (HTML/CSS to PDF converters) are not as precise as either of the methods I outlined in this talk, but if you don’t need precision they’re probably a nice way to go.

Question 6: unoconv in a Web Server

Can one use unoconv in a Web server? My answer was that it’s possible, but it’s not practical to use it in-process. For me, it worked to do so in a demo of an intranet application, but that’s about as far as you want to go with it. It’s much more practical to use a distributed processing application (Celery, for example).

One of the attendees concurred that it makes sense to spin it off into a separate process, but “unoconv inexplicably crashes when it feels like it”.

Comment 3: Converting from Word

The initial comment was that pandoc might help with converting from Word to LibreOffice. This started a conversation which I’d summarize this way:

  • LibreOffice can open MS Office docs, so use that instead of pandoc and save as LibreOffice
  • If you open MS Office documents with LibreOffice, double check the formatting because it doesn’t always survive the transition
  • LibreOffice can open PDFs for editing.

Creating PDF Documents Using LibreOffice and Python, Part 2

This is part 2 of a 4-part series on creating PDFs using LibreOffice. You should read part 1 if you haven’t already. This series is a supplement to a talk I gave at PyOhio 2016.

Here in part 2, I compare and contrast the two approaches I outlined in part 1 — the obvious approach of using ReportLab, and the LibreOffice approach that I think is underappreciated. Both approaches can be good in the right situation, but neither is better than the other all the time. In some cases, the difference is dramatic.

Without further ado, here’s the 10 categories in which I want to compare these two, and how each approach stacks up. (The compare/contrast portion of my PyOhio talk starts at the 17 minute mark.)

1. Cross-Platform?

Both ReportLab and the LibreOffice technique run on Windows, Linux, OS X, and BSD. I haven’t researched mobile operating systems like iOS and Android, but you’re not likely to want to construct PDFs on a mobile device.

2. Python 2/3 Support?

Both approaches can be used with Python 2 and 3.

3. FOSS?

ReportLab is under a BSD License.

LibreOffice is under the MPL v2.0 which is a BSD/GPL hybrid. However the details don’t matter much since you’re not going to use the source code anyway.

4. Repairability?

By repairability, I’m referring to the ease with which you can fix things that don’t behave the way you want them to.

ReportLab scores very well here, because it’s pure Python and BSD license gives you a lot of flexibility. You can read, debug, patch, and copy the code. When debugging, you can step directly from your code into ReportLab code. If you patch ReportLab, it’s easy to roll out a patched version to your servers using pip.

LibreOffice, on the other hand, is a large office suite written in C++ (and maybe Java?). It’s orders of magnitude more complicated. Think of it as an unrepairable black box.

5. Power?

ReportLab includes lots of cool stuff out of the box, like bar, pie, line, and other kinds of charts, a table of contents generator, and probably lots of other things I don’t know about.

It’s also extensible, so it you want something it doesn’t have (like a list of figures generator) you can write it or search online to see if someone else has already done it.

LibreOffice has even more to offer, though. It’s an entire office suite, after all! It not only handles all of the normal text document things (like headings, foot/endnotes, autonumbering lists, etc.), you can do more sophisticated things like embedding spreadsheets in documents. 1001 Creative Ways to Use an Office Suite could be a blog post all its own (or 1001 of them!).

6. Scalability?

ReportLab is just Python so one can run multiple concurrent threads or processes just as with any other Python code.

Unfortunately, LibreOffice does not scale. It’s not possible to run multiple LibreOffice processes simultaneously on one machine. For probably 99.99% of users, this isn’t a concern, but it can be a problem for automation. It means you have to be willing to create your PDFs synchronously.

7. Speed?

Warning: Guess approaching!

My hunch is that ReportLab is faster, maybe by a lot. But that’s backed by no data whatsoever. Benchmarking would be time-consuming. It would require inventing a variety of relatively complex PDFs and generating them using both methods. And that still might not tell you much about your use case.

In the grand tradition of arguing on the Internet, I’m not going to let my ignorance or lack of data keep me from having an opinion. But understand that it’s a guess, and take it with a huge grain of salt.

8. Experimentation?

You’re probably not producing this PDF for yourself, but for someone else. That someone might be an immediate co-worker, another department in your company, or a customer that’s in a completely different company. Experimenting with the output PDF is an important part of the process because it usually takes many tweaks to get the PDF to look the way your client wants.

Just as with developing software, the end result will be a moving target as ideas evolve. And also like software development, you want your tools and process to add as little friction as possible to the evolution.

With ReportLab, experimentation can be time-consuming. If you have a complex PDF, you’ll have a non-trivial amount of Python/ReportLab code to generate it. As code gets more complex, it gets harder to change. That’s not specific to ReportLab, it’s just a general software development principle. So when your client wants to change, say, how the page footer is formatted, or how figures are numbered, or the document font, the usual difficulties of maintaining code apply.

With LibreOffice, changing the document is extremely easy because you’re using a tool built expressly for that purpose. It’s straightforward, and you can immediately see the results of your changes.

9. Complexity?

By complexity, I’m referring to the complexity of one’s code relative to the complexity of the PDF you’re trying to create.

With ReportLab, the relationship is roughly linear complexity. If you have a complex PDF, you’ll have reasonably complex Python code to create it.

With LibreOffice, the relationship is non-linear. Deleting and duplicating XML elements and changing text are easy. Creating new elements is difficult. For instance, our trivial PDF example contained two paragraphs and a table. As I demonstrate in part 1 and in my talk, it’s easy to add, delete, and change table rows, but if you asked me to add an image to that document, I would be stuck because there’s no image in the XML for me to copy.

Obviously, I could add an image to the document and then see how that’s expressed in the XML, but that only works if I know in advance that I’m going to need an image.

10. Strengths

ReportLab is a safe choice. It does one thing and it does it well. The fact that it’s extensible means you can always get it to do what you want (although you might have to write more code than you planned). It’s the well-traveled path, so you’ll be able to find fellow travelers (and their tutorials and advice). It can handle extremely varied output.

Using the LibreOffice method is best when there’s a high ratio of static to dynamic content. Think about the extreme example of a 900-page PDF in which there’s only one paragraph of dynamic content. You would have to write very little code to populate that one paragraph, whereas with ReportLab you’d have to write code to generate all 900 pages, even though they never change.

The LibreOffice method requires less code — maybe a lot less, depending on your situation. The tradeoff is that you have to do more document construction work, but to me that’s still a win for two reasons. First, you get to use a tool built expressly for that purpose. Second, it’s easier (and cheaper) to find LibreOffice/document editing skills than Python/software development skills. Your client might even be able to build most of the document, which will save them money and give them control over and investment in the outcome. That makes for a happy client.

What’s Next

In my next post in this series, I’ll discuss some of the questions asked at my PyOhio talk, and in the fourth and final post I’ll present some useful code snippets. Stay tuned!