1.1. Context

You have probably used computers to do all sorts of useful and interesting things. In each application, the computer responds in different ways to your input, from the keyboard, mouse or a file. Still the underlying operations are determined by the design of the program you are given. In this set of tutorials you will learn to write your own computer programs, so you can give the computer instructions to react in the way you want.

1.1.1. Low-Level and High-Level Computer Operations

First let us place Python programming in the context of the computer hardware. At the most fundamental level in the computer there are instructions built into the hardware. These are very simple instructions, peculiar to the hardware of your particular type of computer. The instructions are designed to be simple for the hardware to execute, not for humans to follow. The earliest programming was done with such instructions. If was difficult and error-prone. A major advance was the development of higher-level languages and translators for them. Higher-level languages allow computer programmers to write instructions in a format that is easier for humans to understand. For example

z = x+y

is an instruction in many high-level languages that means something like:

  1. Access the value stored at a location labeled x
  2. Calculate the sum of this value and the value stored at a location labeled y
  3. Store the result in a location labeled z.

No computer understands the high-level instruction directly; it is not in machine language. A special program must first translate instructions like this one into machine language. This one high-level instruction might be translated into a sequence of three machine language instructions corresponding to the three step description above:


Obviously high-level languages were a great advance in clarity!

If you follow a broad introduction to computing, you will learn more about the layers that connect low-level digital computer circuits to high-level languages.

1.1.2. Why Python

There are many high-level languages. The language you will be learning is Python. Python is one of the easiest languages to learn and use, while at the same time being very powerful: It is one of the most used languages by highly productive professional programmers. Also Python is a free language! If you have your own computer, you can download it from the Internet....

1.1.3. Obtaining Python for Your Computer

Even if you have Python on your own computer, you may well not have the latest version.

If you think you already have a current Python set to go, then try starting Idle: Starting Idle. If Idle starts, see if the version stated near the top of its window matches the latest version of Python, then fine!

Otherwise, if you are using Windows or a Mac, see the Appendices for instructions for individual operating systems.

An older version of Python is generally installed, and even if a current version, 3.1+, is installed, Idle is not always installed. Look for a package to install, something like ‘idle-python’ (the name in the Ubuntu distribution).

1.1.4. Philosophy and Implementation of the Hands-On Python Tutorials

Although Python is a high-level language, it is not English or some other natural human language. The Python translator does not understand “add the numbers two and three”. Python is a formal language with its own specific rules and formats, which these tutorials will introduce gradually, at a pace intended for a beginner. These tutorials are also appropriate for beginners because they gradually introduce fundamental logical programming skills. Learning these skills will allow you to much more easily program in other languages besides Python. Some of the skills you will learn are

  • breaking down problems into manageable parts
  • building up creative solutions
  • making sure the solutions are clear for humans
  • making sure the solutions also work correctly on the computer.

Guiding Principals for the Hands-on Python Tutorials:

  • The best way to learn is by active participation. Information is principally introduced in small quantities, where your active participation, experiencing Python, is assumed. In many place you will only be able to see what Python does by doing it yourself (in a hands-on fashion). The tutorial will often not show. Among the most common and important words in the tutorial are “Try this:”

  • Other requests are for more creative responses. Sometimes there are Hints, which end up as hyperlinks in the web page version, and footnote references in the pdf version. Both formats should encourage you to think actively about your response first before looking up the hint. The tutorials also provide labeled exercises, for further practice, without immediate answers provided. The exercises are labeled at three levels

    No label

    Immediate reinforcement of basic ideas - preferably do on your first pass.


    Important and more substantial - be sure you can end up doing these. Allow time to do them!


    Most creative

  • Information is introduced in an order that gives you what you need as soon as possible. The information is presented in context. Complexity and intricacy that is not immediately needed is delayed until later, when you are more experienced.

  • In many places there are complications that are important in the beginning, because there is a common error caused by a slight misuse of the current topic. If such a common error is likely to make no sense and slow you down, more information is given to allow you to head off or easily react to such an error.

Although this approach is an effective way to introduce material, it is not so good for reference. Referencing is addressed in several ways:

  • Detailed Table of Contents
  • Extensive Index in the web page version
  • Flexible Search Engine built into the html version (does not work on an html version that you download to your computer)
  • Cross references to sections that elaborate on an introductory section. Hyperlinks allow you to jump between the referenced parts in the html version or the pdf version viewed on a computer. The pdf version also gives page references.
  • Concise chapter summaries, grouping logically related items, even if that does not match the order of introduction.

1.1.5. Using the Tutorial - Text and Video

The Hands-on Python Tutorial was originally a document to read, with both the html version and a pdf version. Even if you do not print it, some people use the pdf version online, preferring its formatting to the formatting in the html version.

Some people learn better visually and verbally from the very beginning. The Tutorial has videos for many sections.

Also mentioned for the convenience of my Comp 150 class are videos beyondPython, for the part of the class after Python.

The videos are copied into two places:

  • OneDrive. There are five zip files of videos that you can download and unzip, plus individual mp4’s for the Python Tutorial appendix sections. There is one zip file for each chapter 1-4 of the Python Tutorial and one zip file (BeyondPython.zip) for the remainder of my Comp class after the Python.

    Downloads of the parts do not need any ID. Unzip (expand) any zip file before using.

  • Google Drive: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/0B5WvvnDHeaIYMGE2MzU4OWEtYzQ4Zi00YzhiLTliMTItNjRjYzMyYzgyMTk2?usp=sharing

    You need a Google Drive/Docs login ID. If you are not already logged into Google Drive/Docs, you will need to do it when you click on the link. If you have that ID, then the advantage of Google Drive is that you can select exactly what parts to view or download. This may not work with Internet Explorer, but it does work with Firefox, Safari or Chrome browser.

To get the most out of the tutorial, I strongly suggest the following approach for each part:

  • Watch a video if you like. They are clearly labeled by numerical section. Stop the video where I ask you to think. The videos hit the high points and take advantage of being able to point at specific places on the screen. They are not as recent as the current text, so they may look a bit different than the tutorial in a web page.

    Some details may only appear in the written text.

    Stop the video frequently to test things for yourself! If a new function is introduced, do not only watch the video, but try it out for yourself, including with data not in the video. In some places the written version mentions more examples to try.

  • Whether you look at the video of a section or not, do look through a written version, either as a first pass or to review and fill in holes from the videos. Be sure to stop and try things yourself, and see how they actually work on your computer.

  • Look at the labeled exercises. You are strongly recommended to give the unstarred ones an immediate try to reinforce basic concepts. The starred ones (*) are important for a strong understanding. Do not get too far ahead in reading/watching before trying the starred exercises. Understanding earlier parts well enough to be able to solve problems is going to either be completely necessary for understanding some later sections or at least make later sections easier to follow and fully comprehend.

  • Python provides too rich an environment to be able to show you all interrelationships immediately. That can mean errors send you in a strange (to you) direction. See the appenidix section Using Error Messages.

Have fun and be creative, and discover your power with Python!

1.1.6. Learning to Problem-Solve

While the tutorial introduces all the topics, there is more to say about using it effectively. There is way too much detail to just absorb all at once, So what are the first things to learn?

More important than memorizing details is having an idea of the building blocks available and how they are useful. For the most direct exercises, you might just look back over the most recent section looking for related things, but that will not work when you have scores of sections that might have useful parts! The basic idea of the building blocks should be in your head. For instance, looking ahead to when you have finished the Tutorial through 1.10.4, you will want to have these ideas very present in your head to be ready to start on the exercises:

  • You can use numbers and do arithmetic.
  • You can store and retrieve data using variable names and assignment statements.
  • Python has many useful built-in functions that can affect the system or return results for you to use.
  • You can get keyboard input from the user and print things back for the user.
  • Data comes in different types, and you can convert where it makes sense.
  • You can use strings and generate them in many ways: literal strings, concatenation operator (+), string format method.

Once you have an idea of the appropriate building blocks needed to solve a specific problem, then you can worry about more details. Particularly at the beginning, you are not likely to have all the exact Python syntax for the parts of your solution nailed down! It is not important to remember it precisely, but it is important to know how to find a clear explanation efficiently: Know the location in examples or in the tutorial, or use the index, the search capacity, summaries, and/or write things in notes for yourself - as for an exam. Writing short bits down is also useful because the act of writing helps many people absorb what they are writing.

As your experience increases you will get used to and remember more and more stuff, but there is always the latest idea/syntax to get used to! Your notes of what is important, but still not in immediate recall, will evolve continuously.

This multi-tiered approach means that what you absorb should not just be an enormous collection of unstructured facts that you plumb through in its entirety to find a useful idea. You first need to be particularly aware of the major headings of useful features, and then do what you need to drill down to details as necessary.

This approach is important in the real-world, away from Python. The world is awash with way to much information to memorize, but you must access the information that you need to synthesize and formulate solutions/arguments ... effectively!

Knowing all the building blocks of a solution is obviously important. Many successful holistic thinkers can do this effectively. In some domains a knowledge of the pieces and their relationships is enough. Programming requires more than this, however: It is critical to sort out the exact sequence in which the pieces must logically appear. Some excellent holistic thinkers have a hard time with this sequencing, and must pay extra attention when planning code. If you are like this, be patient and be prepared to ask for help where needed.

What to do after you finish an exercise is important, too. The natural thing psychologically, particularly if you had a struggle, is to think, “Whew, outta here!!!!”

On something that came automatically or flowed smoothly, that is not a big deal - you will probably get it just as fast the next time. If you had a hard time and only eventually got to success, you may be doing yourself a disservice with “Whew, outta here!!!”

We have already mentioned how not everything is equally important, and some things are more important to keep in your head than others. The same idea applies to all the steps in solving a possibly long problem. Some parts were easy; some were hard; there may have been several steps. If all of that goes into your brain in one continuous stream of stuff that you remember at the same level, then you are going to leave important nuggets mixed in with an awful lot of unimportant and basically useless information. Then the information is likely to all fade into oblivion, or be next to impossible to cycle through looking for the useful nuggets. Why do the problem anyway if you are just going to bury important information further down in your brain?

What is important? The most obvious thing you will need at a higher level of recall is what just messed you up, what you missed until doing this problem: After finishing the actual problem, actively follow up and ask yourself:

  • What did I get in the end that I was missing initially? What was the connection I made?
  • Does this example fit in to some larger idea/abstraction/generalization in a way that I did not see before?
  • How am I going to look at this so I can make a similar connection in a similar (or maybe only partly similar) problem?
  • Is there a kernel here that I can think of as a new tool in my bag of tricks?

Your answers to these questions are the most important things to take away from your recent hard work. The extra consideration puts them more in the “priority” part of your brain, so you can really learn from your effort. When you need the important ideas next, you do not need to play through all the details of the stuff you did to solve the earlier problem.

Keep coming back to this section and check up on your process: It is really important.