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Are you checking types?

Static type checking with mypy
What are the potential problems of untyped objects in Python. How you can type variables in Python. An analysis of the importance of checking types before running the code. How mypy can help you to debugging your app. Why you should use mypy in your CI in pro of a healthy deployment.

The dominoes game is simple, there are 28 tiles (in the standard version of this game), each one with a unique combination of two numbers of pips between 0 and 6. There are usually 4 players, so each one randomly takes 7 tiles. The objective of the game is to be the first player to place all the own tiles on the table, for this, each player take turns to place a tile adjacent to the already-on-table tiles as long as the number of pips match. Thus, as the game evolves, the amount of tiles on the table increases. Most people believe that dominoes is more a game of luck than anything else, but what many ignore is that, it is a strategy game. A good player checks the tiles that are on the table, counting how many pieces of a certain number of pips are already placed and which are the ones the opponent have. By knowing this, they can choose the best tile to place and force the opponents to play in a certain way. As in poker, the movements you make while placing the tiles or the facial expressions reveal how good or how bad is your game going. So, if you always bites the dust in the dominoes, maybe it’s because you’re not checking enough.

Ludopathy

In a didactic way, we can relate the coding in Python with a game of dominoes. The script is the tiles on the table, so the players are the developers. The tiles would be, of course, small pieces of code. Again, developers take turns to place tiles. The goal of the coding-in-Python game is different from dominoes, the idea now is that all players win! So, they can place in a single script, all the code tiles they have. The final result would be a perfectly coupled script specially assembled to do a certain task. But if everyone can win, then everyone can lose. And if your developers team is already used to constantly losing games, then, just like in dominoes, you are not checking enough!

Family playing dominoes
Figure 1. Dominoes can be compared with the development activity.

Bankruptcy

I lied, there are many reasons why you can lose in the coding-in-Python game, but not checking well is one of the most common. Specifically, I’m talking about checking the type of variables or data structures in your code.

For example the following code:

Add integers method in Python.
def add_integers(a, b):
  return a + b

add_integers(2, 3) # 5

At first sight the function seems fine. In fact, it works as expected, but it has a huge problem and that can be the beginning of the end for any deployed application. In the following example, we will use the same add_integers method but we will make a change.

Adding strings in Python.
add_integers('2', '3')  #  '23'

The code still works as it should be but it was not the result we expected, we managed to "cheat" the function to add strings instead of integers.

I know this does not say much or that it is not enough to create an entire library in Python. But I will show you the destructive potential of this feature with another example using the same add_integers function:

A more complex application with no variable typing.
def taxes_calculation(apple_price, taxes_rate):
  return apple_price * taxes_rate

def apples_sale(n_apples, apple_price):
  initial_price = n_apples * apple_price
  taxes = taxes_calculation(initial_price, 0.16)
  result = add_integers(initial_price, taxes)
  return result

apples_sale(3, 20) # 69.6

# Nothing bad until here, but what if we…

apples_sale('3','20') # TypeError: can't multiply sequence by non-int of type 'str'

Now you can cry. As you can see, your apples sale business went bankrupt by simply changing the type of input variables. You could have been the Apples Sheikh if you had only checked the type of variables before using the script.

Oh, the irony!

Dear reader, if you are a pythonista who does not allow yourself to be surprised so easily, in your head you are saying: "Wait, what? Python is a program with dynamic typing, that’s its point, I do not have to define the type of variables because the interpreter is able to understand what the type is." Yes, that is true, but the interpreter is not guilty of having an entanglement of thousands of methods that depend on each other. The interpreter is not guilty that any method can modify the state including the variable type.

I will give you the solution now saving you the task of reading the conclusions of this article: Go functional and set the type of your variables! If you want to know how to do that, keep reading.

Canard à l’orange

Many scholars of the snakes call the typing in Python as “duck typing”. The name comes from the following premise: "If it goes like a duck and it quacks like a duck, then it must be a duck". Nice, right! In this way we understood that Python knows what the type is by analyzing the behavior and attributes of a variable. Honestly in Fluid Attacks we prefer the Canard à l’orange (“duck with orange” in French) instead of living with it in our code.

How to pluck a duck?

We already know why we should not let the interpreter choose what type of variable we are working with. It may sound a little laborious to have to type each variable but in Python 3 this task is easy:

Add integers method with typed variables.
def add_integers (a: int , b: int) -> int:
   return a +  b

add_integers(2 , 3) # 5

Let’s see if this solves the problem:

The cruel reality.
add_integers('2', '3') # '23'

Hahaha, I lied to you again. Typing variables in Python, literally does not do anything to the way in which the code is executed. Python is like a child who believes everything you tell him, no matter if you set the type or not, it will continue to obey.

Mypy to the rescue

Set variables types is useful when we use a tool that has become popular among the pythonistas: mypy. Mypy is a static type checker, available in Python 2.7 and Python 3. Its use and purpose is similar to the linting tools. Mypy uses the type hints defined in the code to validate that those hints are met in the parts of the code where the variables are used. This tool runs separate from the execution of the code so mypy does not interfere with the functionality.

You can use the following command to install mypy in Python 3:

Mypy installation in Python 3.
$ python3 -m pip install mypy

After the installation, using mypy is very simple, we just have to make sure that the code we want to check is saved in a script and then run the following command:

Command to use mypy.
$ python3 -m mypy name_of_my_file.py

Let’s go back to the example of add_integers and save it in a script called add_integer_method.py. Now we use mypy:

Using mypy in a known script.
$ python3 -m mypy  add_integer_method.py
#... No output

If there is no output when running the command, it means that the code is correct and can be executed. Now we add the adding strings example to to file and run mypy again:

Mypy warnings.
$ python3 -m mypy  add_integer_method.py

# add_integer_method.py:4: error: Argument 1 to "add_integers" has incompatible type "str"; expected "int"
# add_integer_method.py:4: error: Argument 2 to "add_integers" has incompatible type "str"; expected "int"

Eureka! mypy was able to discover that we set a string into a method that was defined with integer type inputs. Here we use a very small and maybe obvious example, but imagine applications of thousands of code lines, now, with a single command and a few seconds we can check the variable types.

We already use mypy in our product Asserts and the benefits have been questionless. We have even found that mypy helps directly to the documentation task, thanks to the fact that it is no longer necessary to write what is the type of the variables in the documentation because that information is already in the code.

Conclusions

We demonstrate in many ways the importance of setting the variables types that we will use and we show how fatal is to not check types. Mypy is a useful tool in any development activity but it is especially powerful in projects where more than one developer contributes. With mypy we can debug in an easier way or make sure that code with wrong types are not deployed to production. Of course, mypy is not a straitjacket, this library does not impose anything on us, we decide to ignore or solve the warnings it shows us. Finally, we make the recommendation to implement functional code in your programs, this will make your code more durable, cleaner and easier to debug. This programming paradigm takes on a more versatility when merged with tools like mypy, which turns very tedious processes into a matter of seconds. If you still do not know much about functional programming or functional programming in Python, we invite you to read Why we go functional? and Road to functional Python. You already have the knowledge, so will you check types?


Author picture

Oswaldo José Parada Cuadros

Mechanical Engineer

Family, friends and little details. There is the answer.



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