This is a short introduction to the art of programming, with examples
written in the programming language Python. (If you already know how to program,
but want a short intro to Python, you may want to check out my article
This page is not about breaking into other people's computer systems
etc. I'm not into that sort of thing, so please don't
email me about it. For more information about what hacking is
really about, take a look at hackerethic.org.
Note: To get the examples working properly,
write the programs in a text file and then run that with the interpreter;
do not try to run them directly in the interactive interpreter
- not all of them will work. (Please don't ask me on details on
this. Check the documentation).
To program in Python, you must have an interpreter installed. It
exists for most platforms (including Macintosh, Unix and Windows).
More information about this can be found on the Python web site. You also should have
a text editor (like emacs, notepad or something
What is Programming?
Programming a computer means giving it a set of instructions telling
it what to do. A computer program in many ways resembles recipes, like
the ones we use for cooking. For example :
1/4 cup lime juice
1/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce
1/4 cup water
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
3/4 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1/4 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 (12-ounce) can SPAM Less Sodium luncheon meat,
cut into strips
1 onion, sliced
1 bell pepper, cut in strips
12 cherry tomatoes, halved
In jar with tight-fitting lid, combine all marinade ingredients;
shake well. Place SPAM strips in plastic bag. Pour marinade
over SPAM. Seal bag; marinate 30 minutes in refrigerator.
Remove SPAM from bag; reserve 2 tablespoons marinade. Heat
reserved marinade in large skillet. Add SPAM, onion, and
green pepper. Cook 3 to 4 minutes or until SPAM is heated.
Line 4 individual salad plates with lettuce. Spoon hot salad
mixture over lettuce. Garnish with tomato halves. Serves 4.
Of course, no computer would understand this... And most computers
wouldn't be able to make a salad even if they did understand
the recipe. So what do we have to do to make this more
computer-friendly? Well basically two things. We have to (1) talk in
a way that the computer can understand, and (2) talk about things that
it can do something with.
The first point means that we have to use a language a
programming language that we have an interpreter program for,
and the second point means that we can't expect the computer to make a
salad but we can expect it to add numbers, write things to
the screen etc.
There's a tradition in programming tutorials to always begin with a
program that prints "Hello, world!" to the screen. In Python, this is
print "Hello, world!"
This is basically like the recipe above (although it is much
shorter!). It tells the computer what to do: To print "Hello, world!".
Piece of cake. What if we would want it to do more stuff?
print "Hello, world!"
print "Goodbye, world!"
Not much harder, was it? And not really very interesting... We want
to be able to do something with the ingredients,
just like in the spam salad. Well what ingredients do we have? For
one thing, we have strings of text, like
but we also have numbers. Say we wanted the computer to
calculate the area of a rectangle for us. Then we could give it the
following little recipe:
width = 20
height = 30
area = width*height
You can probably see the similarity (albeit slight) to the spam
salad recipe. But how does it work? First of all, the lines beginning
comments and are actually ignored by the computer.
However, inserting small explanations like this can be important in
making your programs more readable to humans.
Now, the lines that look like
foo = bar are called
assignments. In the case of
width = 20 we tell
the computer that the width should be 20 from this point on. What does
it mean that "the width is 20"? It means that a variable by
the name "width" is created (or if it already exists, it is reused)
and given the value 20. So, when we use the variable later, the
computer knows its value. Thus,
is essentially the same as
which is calculated to be 600, which is then assigned to the
variable by the name "area". The final statement of the program prints
out the value of the variable "area", so what you see when you run
this program is simply
Note: In some languages you have to tell the computer which
variables you need at the beginning of the program (like the
ingredients of the salad) Python is smart enough to figure this out
as it goes along.
OK. Now you can perform simple, and even quite advanced calculations.
For instance, you might want to make a program to calculate the area
of a circle instead of a rectangle:
radius = 30
However, this is not significantly more interesting than the
rectangle program. At least not in my opinion. It is somewhat
inflexible. What if the circle we were looking at had a radius of 31?
How would the computer know? It's a bit like the part of the salad
recipe that says: "Cook 3 to 4 minutes or until SPAM is heated." To
know when it is cooked, we have to check. We need
feedback, or input. How does the computer know the
radius of our circle? It too needs input... What we can do is to tell
it to check the radius:
radius = input("What is the radius?")
Now things are getting snazzy...
input is something
called a function. (You'll learn to create your own in a
input is a function that is built into the Python
language.) Simply writing
won't do much... You have to put a pair of parantheses at the end
of it. So
input() would work it would simply wait for
the user to enter the radius. The version above is perhaps a bit more
user-friendly, though, since it prints out a question first. When we
put something like the question-string "What is the radius?" between
the parentheses of a function call it is called passing a
parameter to the function. The thing (or things) in the
parentheses is (or are) the parameter(s). In this case we
pass a question as a parameter so that
input knows what
to print out before getting the answer from the user.
But how does the answer get to the
input, when called, returns a value
(like many other functions). You don't have to use this
value, but in our case, we want to. So, the following two statements
have very different meanings:
foo = input
bar = input()
foo now contains the input function itself
(so it can actually be used like
foo("What is your
age?"); this is called a dynamic function call) while
bar contains whatever is typed in by the user.
Now we can write programs that perform simple actions (arithmetic and
printing) and that can receive input from the user. This is useful,
but we are still limited to so-called sequential execution of
the commands, that is they have to executed in a fixed order. Most
of the spam salad recipe is sequential or linear like that. But what
if we wanted to tell the computer how to check on the cooked spam? If
it is heated, then it should be removed from the oven otherwise, it
should be cooked for another minute or so. How do we express that?
What we want to do, is to control the flow of the program.
It can go in two directions either take out the spam, or leave it in
the oven. We can choose, and the condition is whether or not
it is properly heated. This is called conditional execution.
We can do it like this:
temperature = input("What is the temperature of the spam?")
if temperature > 50:
print "The salad is properly cooked."
print "Cook the salad some more."
The meaning of this should be obvious: If the temperature is higher
than 50 (centigrades), then print out a message telling the user that
it is properly cooked, otherwise, tell the user to cook the salad some
Note: The indentation is important in Python.
Blocks in conditional execution (and loops and
function definitions see below) must be indented (and
indented by the same amount of whitespace; a <tab> counts as 8 spaces)
so that the interpreter can tell where they begin and end. It also
makes the program more readable to humans.
Let's return to our area calculations. Can you see what this
print "Welcome to the Area calculation program"
print "Please select a shape:"
print "1 Rectangle"
print "2 Circle"
shape = input("> ")
if shape == 1:
height = input("Please enter the height: ")
width = input("Please enter the width: ")
area = height*width
print "The area is", area
radius = input("Please enter the radius: ")
area = 3.14*(radius**2)
print "The area is", area
New things in this example:
print used all by iself prints out an empty line
== checks whether two things are equal, as opposed
=, which assigns the value on the right side to
on the left. This is an important distinction!
** is Python's power operator thus the
squared radius is written
print can print out more than one thing. Just
separate them with commas. (They will be separated by single
spaces in the output.)
The program is quite simple: It asks for a number, which tells it
whether the user wants to calculate the area of a rectangle or a
circle. Then, it uses an
execution) to decide which block it should use for the area
calculation. These two blocks are essentially the same as those used
in the previous area examples. Notice how the comments make the code
more readable. It has been said that the first commandment of
programming is: "Thou shalt comment!" Anyway it's a nice habit to
Extend the program above to include area calculations on squares, where the user
only has to enter the length of one side. There is one thing you need
to know to do this: If you have more than two choices, you can write
if foo == 1:
elif foo == 2:
elif foo == 3:
elif is a mysterious code which means "else if"
:). So; if
foo is one, then do something;
foo is two, then do something else, etc. You might want to add other
options to the programs too like triangles or arbitrary polygons.
It's up to you.
Sequential execution and conditionals are only two of the
three fundamental building blocks of programming. The third
is the loop. In the previous section I proposed a solution
for checking if the spam was heated, but it was quite clearly
inadequate. What if the spam wasn't finished the next time we checked
either? How could we know how many times we needed to check it? The truth
is, we couldn't. And we shouldn't have to. We should be able to ask
the computer to keep checking until it was done. How do we do that?
You guessed it we use a loop, or repeated execution.
Python has two loop types: while-loops and
for-loops. For-loops are perhaps the simplest. For instance:
for food in "spam", "eggs", "tomatoes":
print "I love", food
This means: For every element in the list
"tomatoes", print that you love it. The block inside the loop
is executed once for every element, and each time, the current element
is assigned to the variable
food (in this case). Another
for number in range(1,100):
print "Hello, world!"
print "Just", 100 - number, "more to go..."
print "Hello, world"
print "That was the last one... Phew!"
range returns a list of numbers in the
range given (including the first, excluding the last... In this case,
[1..99]). So, to paraphrase this:
The contents of the loop is executed
for each number in the range of numbers
from (and including) 1 up to (and excluding) 100.
(What the loop body and
the following statements actually do is left as an exercise.)
But this doesn't really help us with our cooking problem. If we
want to check the spam a hundred times, then it would be quite a nice
but we don't know if that's enough or if it's too much.
We just want to keep checking it while it
is not hot enough (or, until it is hot enough a matter
of point-of-view). So, we use
from time import sleep
print "Please start cooking the spam. (I'll be back in 3 minutes.)"
print "I'm baaack :)"
hot_enough = 50
temperature = input("How hot is the spam? ")
while temperature < hot_enough:
print "Not hot enough... Cook it a bit more..."
temperature = input("OK. How hot is it now? ")
print "It's hot enough - You're done!"
New things in this example...
- Some useful functions are stored in modules and can be
imported. In this case we import the function
sleep (which sleeps for a given number of seconds)
from the module
time which comes with Python. (It
is possible to make your own modules too...)
Write a program that continually reads in numbers from the user and
adds them together until the sum reaches 100. Write another program
that reads 100 numbers from the user and prints out the sum.
Bigger Programs Abstraction
If you want an overview of the contents of a book, you don't plow
through all pages you take a look at the table of contents, right?
It simply lists the main topics of the book. Now imagine writing a
cookbook. Many of the recipes, like "Creamy Spam and Macaroni" and
"Spam Swiss Pie" may contain similar things, like spam, in this case -
yet you wouldn't want to repeat how to make spam in every recipe.
(OK... So you don't actually make spam... But bear with me
for the sake of example
:)). You'd put the recipe for
spam in a separate chapter, and simply refer to it in the other
recipes. So instead of writing the entire recipe every time, you
only had to use the name of a chapter. In computer programming this is
Have we run into something like this already? Yup. Instead of
telling the computer exactly how to get an answer from the user (OK -
so we couldn't really do this... But we couldn't really make spam
either, so there...
:)) we simply used
- a function. We can actually make our oown functions, to use for this
kind of abstraction.
Let's say we want to find the largest integer that is less than a
given positive number. For instance, given the number 2.7, this would
be 2. This is often called the "floor" of the given number. (This
could actually be done with built-in Python function
but again, bear with me...) How would we do this? A simple solution
would be to try all possibilities from zero:
number = input("What is the number? ")
floor = 0
while floor < number:
floor = floor+1
floor = floor-1
print "The floor of", number, "is", floor
Notice that the loop ends when
floor is no
longer less than the number; we add one too much to it.
Therefore we have to subtract one afterwards. What if we want to use
this "floor"-thing in a complex mathematical expression? We would have
to write the entire loop for every number that needed "floor"-ing. Not
very nice... You have probably guessed what we will do instead: Put it
all in a function of our own, called "floor":
result = 0
while result < number:
result = result+1
result = result-1
New things in this example...
- Functions are defined with the keyword
followed by their name and the expected parameters in
- If the function is to return a value, this is done with the
return (which also automatically ends the
Now that we have defined it, we can use it like this:
x = 2.7
y = floor(2.7)
y should have the value 2. It is also
possible to make functions with more than one parameter:
Write a function that implements Euclid's method for finding a common
factor of two numbers. It works like this:
- You have two numbers, a and b, where a is larger than b
- You repeat the following until b becomes zero:
- a is changed to the value of b
- b is changed to the remainder when a (before the change)
is divided by b (before the change)
- You then return the last value of a
- Use a and b as parameters to the function
- Simply assume that a is greater than b
- The remainder when
x is divided by
z is calculated by the expression
- Two variables can be assigned to simultaneously like this:
x, y = y, y+1. Here
x is given
the value of
y (that is, the value
had before the assignment) and
y is incremented by one
More About Functions
How did the exercise go? Was it difficult? Still a bit confused about
functions? Don't worry I haven't left the topic quite yet.
The sort of abstraction we have used when building functions is
often called procedural abstraction, and many languages use
the word procedure along with the word function.
Actually, the two concepts are different, but both are called
functions in Python (since they are defined and used in the
same way, more or less.)
What is the difference (in other languages) between functions and
procedures? Well as you saw in the previous section, functions can
return a value. The difference lies in that procedures do
not return such a value. In many ways, this way of dividing
functions into two types those who do and those who
don't return values can be quite useful.
A function that doesn't return a value (a "procedure") is
used as a "sub-program" or subroutine. We call the function, and the
program does some stuff, like making whipped cream or whatever. We can
use this function in many places without rewriting the code. (This is
called code reuse more on that later.)
The usefulness of such a function (or procedure) lies in its
side effects it changes its environment (by mixing the
suger and cream and whipping it, for instance...) Let's look at an
print "Hello,", who
Printing out stuff is considered a side effect, and since
that is all this function does, it is quite typical for a so-called
procedure. But... It doesn't really change its environment does it?
How could it do that? Let's try:
age = 0
age = a
What's wrong here? The problem is that the function
setAge creates it own local variable, also named
age which is only seen inside
can we avoid that? We can use something called global
Note: Global variables are not used much in Python. They
easily lead to bad structure, or what is called spaghetti
code. I use them here to lead up to more complex techniques -
please avoid them if you can.
By telling the interpreter that a variable is global (done with a
global age) we effectively tell it to use
the variable outside the function instead of creating a new
local one. (So, it is global as opposed to local.)
The program can then be rewritten like this:
age = 0
age = a
When you learn about objects (below), you'll see that a more
appropriate way of doing this would be to use an object with an
age property and a
In the section on datastructures, you will also see some better
examples of functions that change their environment.
Well what about real functions, then? What is a
function, really? Mathematical functions are like a kind of "machine"
that gets some input and calculates a result. It will return the same
result every time, when presented with the same input. For instance:
This is the same as the mathematical function
f(x)=x2. It behaves like a nice
function, in that it only relies on its input, and it
doesn not change its environment in any way.
So I have outlined two ways of making functins: One type is more
like a procedure, and doesn't return a result; the other is more like
a mathematical function and doesn't do anything but returning
a result (almost). Of course, it is possible to do something in
between the two extremes, although when a function changes things, it
should be clear that it does. You could signal this through its name,
for instance by using only a noun for "pure" functions like
square and an imperative for procedure-like functions
More Ingredients datastructures
Well you know a lot already: How to get input and give output, how
to structure complicated algorithms (programs) and to perform
arithmetic; and yet the best is still to come.
What ingredients have we been using in our programs up until now?
Numbers and strings. Right? Kinda boring... No let's introduce a
couple of other ingredients to make things a bit more exciting.
Datastructures are ingredients that structure data. (Surprise,
surprise...) A single number doesn't really have much structure, does
it? But let's say we want more numbers put together to a single
ingredient that would have some structure. For instance, we might
want a list of numbers. That's easy:
I mentioned lists in the section on loops, but didn't really say
much about them. Well this is how you make them. Just list the
elements, separated by commas and enclosed in brackets.
Let us jump into an example that calculates primes (numbers
divisible only by themselves or 1):
result = 
candidates = range(3,1000)
base = 2
product = base
while product < 1000:
if product in candidates:
product = product+base
base = candidates
product = base
New things in this example...
- The built-in function
range actually returns a list
that can be used like all other lists. (It includes the first
index, but not the last.)
- A list can be used as a logic variable. If it is not empty, then
it is true if it is empty, then it is
while candidates means "while
the list named candidates is not empty" or simply "while
there are still candidates".
- You can write
if someElement in someList to check
if an element is in a list.
- You can write
- You can append one list to another by using
someList.append(anotherList). Actually, you can use
+ too (as in
someList+anotherList) but it is not as efficient.
- You can get at the elements of a list by giving its position as
a number (where the first element, strangely, is element
0) in brackets after the name of the list. Thus
someList is the fourth element of the list
someList. (More on this below.)
- You can delete variables by using the keyword
It can also be used (as here) to delete elements from a list.
del someList deletes the first element of
someList. If the list was
before the deletion, it would be
Before going on to explaining the mysteries of indexing list
elements, I will give a brief explanation of the example.
This is a version of the ancient algorithm called "The Sieve of
Erastothenes".(or something close to that). It considers a set (or in
this case, a list) of candidate numbers, and then systematically
removes the numbers known not to be primes. How do we know?
Because they are products of two other numbers.
We start with a list of candidates containing numbers [2..999] we
know that 1 is a prime (actually, it may or may not be, depending on
who you ask), and we wanted all primes below 1000. (Actually,
our list of candidates is [3..999], but 2 is also a candidate, since
it is our first
base). We also have a list called
result which at all times contains the updated results so
far. To begin with, this list contains only the number 1. We also have
a variable called
base. For each iteration ("round") of
the algorithm, we remove all numbers that are some multible of this
base number (which is always the smallest of the candidates). After
each iteration, we know that the smallest number left is a prime
(since all the numbers that were products of the smaller ones are
removed get it?). Therefore, we add it to the result, set the new
base to this number, and remove it from the candidate list (so we
won't process it again.) When the candidate list is empty, the result
list will contain all the primes. Clever, huh?
Things to think about: What is special with the first
iteration? Here the base is 2, yet that too is removed in the
"sieving"? Why? Why doesn't that happen to the other bases? Can we be
product is always in the candidate list when we
want to remove it? Why?
Now what next? Ah, yes... Indexing. And slicing. These are the
ways to get at the individual elements of Python lists. You have
already seen ordinary indexing in action. It is pretty
straightforward. Actually, I have told you all you need to know about
it, except for one thing: Negative indices count from the end
of the list. So,
someList[-1] is the last
someList[-2] is the
element before that, and so on.
Slicing, however, should be new to you. It is similar to indexing,
except with slicing you can target an entire slice of the
list, and not just a single element. How is it done? Like
food = ["spam","spam","eggs","sausages","spam"]
More Abstraction Objects and Object-Oriented
Now there's a buzz-word if ever there was one: "Object-oriented
As the section title suggests, object-oriented programming is just
another way of abstracting away details. Procedures abstract simple
statements into more complex operations by giving them a name. In OOP,
we don't just treat the operations this way, but objects.
(Now, that must have been a big surprise, huh?) For instance,
if we were to make a spam-cooking-program, instead of writing lots of
procedures that dealt with the temperature, the time, the ingredients
etc., we could lump it toghether into a spam-object. Or,
perhaps we could have an oven-object and a clock-object too... Now,
things like temperature would just be attributes of the spam-object,
while the time could be read from the clock-object. And to make our
program do something, we could teach our object some
methods; for instance, the oven might know how to cook the
So how do we do this in Python? Well we can't just make an object
directly. Instead of just making an oven, we make a recipe
describing how ovens are. This recipe then describes a
class of objects that we call ovens. A very simple oven class
def insertSpam(self, spam):
self.spam = spam
Now, does this look weird, or what?
New things in this example...
- Classes of objects are defined with the keyword
- Class names usually start with capital letters, whereas
functions and variables (as well as methods and attributes)
start with lowercase letters.
- Methods (i.e. the functions or operations that the objects know
how to do) are defined in the normal way, but inside
the class block.
- All object methods should have a first parameter called
self (or something similar...) The reason will
become clear in a moment.
- Attributes and methods of an object are accessed like this:
mySpam.temperature = 2, or
I would guess that some things are still a bit unclear about the
example. For instance, what is this
self thing? And, now
that we have an object recipe (i.e. class), how do we
actually make an object?
Let's tackle the last point first. An object is created by calling
the classname as if it were a function:
myOven = Oven()
myOven now contains an
Oven object, usually
called an instance of the class
Oven. Let's assume
that we have made a class
Spam as well; then we could do
mySpam = Spam()
myOven.spam would now contain
come? Because, when we call one of the methods of an object, the first
parameter, usually called
self, always contains the
object itself. (Clever, huh?) Thus, the line
spam sets the attribute
spam of the
Oven object to the value of the
spam. Note that these are two
different things, even though they are both called
in this example.
Answer to Exercise 2
Here is a very concise version of the algorithm:
a,b = b,a % b
 Recipe for Fiesta Spam Salad
taken from the Hormel
Foods Digital Recipe Book