by Brandon Rhodes • Home

PyCon Trivia Night, Third Edition

Date: 9 June 2016
Tags:computing, python

At PyCon 2016 it was my honor, for a third year in a row, to host a Trivia Dinner on the first evening of the conference! This year’s venue was the storied Crystal Ballroom, a music venue in Downtown Portland’s west end. To make sure that our event took full advantage of the big stage, I booked the Adventure Capitalists, who followed up the trivia dinner with a rousing set of punk startup tunes:

Have a conference pass? Come by the Crystal Ballroom and see the Adventure Capitalists!

— PyCon (@pycon) May 31, 2016

Last year’s trivia night questions focused on such exciting topics as PEP-8 and Python 3, but it turns out that these were fraught topics about which most of the audience were not very familiar. So I made a promise: the PyCon 2016 trivia night would be all Python 2, all the time! The questions below dive into and celebrate the retro roots of the legacy Python language.

With the dinner complete, I can now reveal the questions and answers! I will list the questions first, in case any readers want to tackle them themselves without the danger of the answers scrolling too quickly into view. Next, I will list the teams and their scores. Finally, I will finish with the answers.

First Round Questions

  1. How do you tell the print statement not to follow your output with a newline?

  2. What is the result of running this statement?

    print >>None, "Hello"
  3. How many bytes long is the string that results from typing this into Python 2? "\`\'\""

  4. Which of the following Python 2 classes does not live in a module of exactly the same name? Fraction StringIO UserDict

  5. A tab character in a line's leading whitespace (in its “indentation”) can represent how many individual space characters (specify a range)?

  6. What are the two choices of ASCII character that, when appended to a numeric constant, turn it into a complex number?

  7. Which of these three C implementations was added to Python 2 last? cPickle cProfile cStringIO

  8. What was Python’s first string interpolation mechanism?

  9. “Flat is better than” what?

Second Round Questions

  1. Name at least two languages that inspired the >> syntax for print:

    print >>sys.stderr, "Hello"
  2. How many bytes long is the string that results from typing this into Python 2? '\12345'

  3. What is the name of the keyword argument accepted by the list() built-in?

  4. Python 2.1 added magic methods for testing equality and inequality. What are the names of all six methods?

  5. …Their names were borrowed from which other language?

  6. What is the result of this Python 2 expression?

    2 * `3 * 4`
  7. What is the result of this Python 2 expression?

    2 * `3 * `4 * 5``
  8. Python 2.4 added a new string interpolation mechanism — what is it called, and what special character introduces each interpolation?

  9. “Although practicality beats” what?

Final Round Questions

  1. What writable attribute should your file-like object offer if it
    wants to fully support Python’s print statement?
  2. How many bytes long is the string that results from typing this into Python 2? '\a\b\c'

  3. The built-in int() can take which keyword arguments?

  4. Which of the following Python 2 classes does NOT live in a module of exactly the same name? ConfigParser Queue Telnet

  5. The Python 2 Reference Manual uses ‘singleton’ once to refer to the NotImplemented object, and every other time to refer to what concept?

  6. In Python 2.7, sys.version_info changed from returning what original type to what new type?

  7. What was the first-ever __future__ directive?

  8. The Python 2.4 release notes describe what new feature as making possible, “all sorts of new and shiny evil”?

  9. “In the face of ambiguity, refuse the temptation to” what?

The Winning Teams

So how did the assembled teams do at tackling these questions?

I am startled to announce a first-ever 3-way tie between the trivia night winning teams! Out of a total of 9 × 3 = 27 possible points, each of the three winning teams scored 17½ total.

Trivia Team 1 2 3 Total
Palm Dakota Dessert Testers 7 7 17½
Site Packages 6 6 17½
The Government 6 5 17½
Bikeshed 8 5 4 17
Team Ukraine 6 6 16½
team from down__ 5 5 16½
wtfj 6 6 4 16
Hey Siri, Call Mom 5 7 4 16
Jessica 6 5 4 15
Team Python 4000 6 15
Portland Satellites 5 15
AI 7 5 14½
__del__ 5 4 4 13
Star-args 7 4 1 12 6 12
Meowmeow 7 5 12
Python 3½ 5 5 11½
The Python 3 Developers 3 6 11½
Just A Flesh Wound 6 11
team 5/8 3 3 10½
The Dissociative Arrays 6 3 1 10
import this 4 4
import antigravity 4 4 1 9
Nevada 5 0
Serpent Trainer 4 2 6
j.j.w.e. 5 5
PyNoobs 3 2 5
blue viper 2 1 0 3
Pink Panthers 1 1 1 3

A dash in the table above indicates a missing answer sheet, that was either never written or that did not make it from the team’s table to my own table up at the front of the venue.

One team, when they realized that they were not going to be able to answer a single one of the difficult final-round questions, decided to offer art instead as their contribution:

One team at PyCon trivia night, finding themselves without a single final-round answer, decided to offer art instead

— Brandon Rhodes (@brandon_rhodes) June 9, 2016

As I could not, of course, award any points for unsolicited artwork, I recognized the team’s effort through the above tweet instead.

First Round Answers

  1. A trailing comma suppresses Python’s usual habit of adding a newline at the end of the material that it prints.

  2. Printing >>None prints to sys.stdout without the inconvenience of making you import sys and name stdout directly in your code. This will strike the modern Python programmer as needlessly obscure, and a poor trade-off: if a programmer decides to use the feature, then almost every other programmer reading the code will have to go consult the rules to remember the effect.

  3. This question tested knowledge of Python’s string quoting and escaping, which it shares with many other languages. Three basic rules need to be grasped to answer this question. First: many dangerous or unusual characters can be safely typed in a Python string constant by preceding them with a backslash — so that the single quote in the middle of 'what\'s up' is understood by Python to be a simple literal single quote, and not your attempt to end the string yet. Second: these rules remain the same whether or not the current string’s quoting needs them. There is nothing special about a single quote in a double-quoted string, so "what's up" is perfectly safe, but Python likes keeping rules symmetric and so "what\'s up" is allowed too. Third, and most dismayingly: if you put a backslash in front of a character that does not create a recognized backslash code, then instead of giving you an error, Python simply assumes you want a backslash in the middle of your string. This is C’s behavior, but an example of poor design: most users would benefit from an exception of they type an unknown escape code, since they can always double up the backslash to make their intention clear and be explicit rather than implicit.

    Taking the three elements in "\`\'\"" from right to left:

    • \" is the simplest case: you want a double-quote in a doubly-quoted string, so you escape it, adding a single double quote character to your string.
    • \' is a bit more of a stretch, because the \ is optional: you don’t really need it, so what will Python do? As explained above, backslash codes work whether the current string needs them or not, so this also adds only a single quote character to our string.
    • \` is the outlier. Because a backtick is never special or dangerous inside a Python string, no matter how it is quoted, the language does not bother to define \` as meaning anything. Since it is not a recognized escape code, the language assumes you really wanted a backslash and backtick: two characters.

    So the resulting string (when written without quotes or escaping, since that would confuse things again!) is \`'" which is 4 characters long.

  4. A bad habit of Python 2 was taking unlike things and giving them names with exactly the same spelling — and a particular habit was giving modules the name of their most useful class. Both StringIO and UserDict were the names of both a module and also of the class that you usually wanted inside. But Fraction came from the fractions module, differentiating the module name with both case and pluralization.

  5. According to the Python Reference, a tab character always represents at least one space, and adds enough spaces to the line to bring the cursor to a position that is a multiple of 8. It therefore can range from meaning 1 space to meaning 8 spaces.

  6. I had always thought that j was the single letter that could turn a number like 4 into the imaginary number 4j, but it turns out that the language standard also permits 4J.

  7. The Python community learned early on that we needed pickling and string I/O to happen quickly, but profiling technology matured late in the history of Python 2, so cProfile was the last of the three modules added.

  8. Famously, Python took the percent-formatting conventions that the C language had locked up inside the printf() and sprintf() families of library functions and elevated it to an operator: the first Python string interpolation mechanism was % interpolation.

  9. From the Zen of Python, that a Python programmer reads each morning before we begin to code: "Flat is better than nested.”

Second Round Answers

  1. There are many languages that use >> to direct output to a specific file. But according to the BDFL quote in PEP-214, only four were known to him as predecessors, and therefore qualify as true influences on Python and not simply coincidences: “sh, awk, Perl, and C++.”

  2. Bell Laboratories programmers in the early 1970s seem to have found it easier to think in octal than in hexadecimal, which makes sense: we already come to programming familiar with the numbers 0 through 7, while numbers like “B” and “C” can take a long time to get used to. (Without stopping to count, can you state their values?) So octal was chosen as the base in which difficult-to-type character codes could be written, and three octal digits are all that you need to specify an 8-bit character: once the language is done reading up to three digits following a backslash, it stops and assumes the rest of the string is normal. So '\12345' is a single character \123 (also known as capital S) followed by the digit 4 and the digit 5. The string S45 has the length 3.

  3. This question is all sorts of fun, because the documentation has been leading you wrong all of these years. You have probably never used a keyword to name the first argument to list(). After all, the convention that we can pass an initial value to all built-in types — think of calls like int('12') and tuple([3, 4, 5]) — is so pervasive that we never feel the need to be more explicit about the purpose of those arguments. But we may have seen a dozen times, when running pydoc list to remember a method name, the keyword argument iterable advertized for the constructor:

    Help on class list in module __builtin__:
    class list(object)
     |  list() -> new empty list
     |  list(iterable) -> new list initialized from iterable's items
     |  ...

    But the documentation is wrong! In the C code of the list() initializer, the keyword argument is called sequence, and you can verify this by calling it with this keyword argument yourself.

  4. The six “rich comparison” method names are:

    __eq__() __ne__() __gt__() __lt__() __ge__() __le__()

    I gave ½ point if a team knew most of them but got one or two wrong, and also ½ point if a team knew them all but forgot to put dunders around them.

  5. While several other languages might also use these abbreviations for “greater than,” “less than,” and so on, they all go back to a common ancestor: the naming convention comes from Fortran. As PEP-207 says, “You gotta love the Fortran heritage.”

  6. Okay, this is fun: Python 2 has a special syntax for evaluating an expression and turning it into a string! This is probably the most Perl-like feature of Python 2’s syntax, the place where it most severely goes off of the rails and uses obscure characters for something that could more easily (and readably!) spelled out. Since `3 * 4` will evaluate to the string '12', multiplying the result by two results in the string '1212'.

  7. And this question is even more fun: to answer it, you need to know that the kind of string generated by putting backticks around an expression is not a str() string, but a repr() string! So after the multiplication by 3 has produced the characters 202020, the outer pair of backticks go to work by running repr() which slaps a pair of single quotes around those characters. Multiplying this by 2 gives the final string (if we write it out without quotes, to keep things simple):


    Oh, and, yes: legacy Python thought its backtick mechanism was so important that people would be using backticks inside of backticks, so the parser is carefully crafted to correctly handle concentric backticks. This expression is not, as many of you had fondly hoped, a syntax error!

  8. Python 2.4, believe it or not, went to the trouble of adding a whole new string interpolation mechanism that no one ever uses: the string.Template class! It accepts strings like 'Hello, $name!' that use a $ to mark each place that a value should be interpolated. Python 2 had a habit of introducing more string interpolation mechanisms than the community would actually decide to use, and there are hints that Python 3 is making plans to continue that tradition.

  9. From the copy of the Zen of Python that you keep by your morning breakfast cereal: “Although practicality beats purity.”

Final Round Answers

  1. Your file-like object needs a writable softspace attribute if a print statement that ends with a comma is going to be able to signal to the following print statement that it needs to precede its own material with a space to separate it from the material that was already printed.

  2. Like the same question in the first round, this tests whether you know the backslash escape codes common to the entire family of languages that derive their string syntax from the C language. The code \a means the ASCII BEL character (which rang the bell attached to old teletypes) and \b is backspace, so each of those two-character escape sequences in the written string represent one real character apiece. But \c does not mean anything special, so it remains the two characters backslash and c. So the resulting string is 4 bytes long.

  3. In this case, the docstring shown to you by pydoc will not have led you astray, if you happened to remember it. The second argument has the obvious name base since it lets you specify whether a string you have supplied is expected to be in base 8, or base 10, or base 16 or whatever. The first argument is more obscurely named: the initializer specifying the integer’s value is named x. I gave ½ point if a team knew one but not the other.

  4. The Telnet class lives inside of the telnetlib module instead of simply living inside of a module of the same name as itself.

  5. Believe it or not, the Reference Manual for Python 2 consistently uses ‘singleton’ as the technical term for a tuple of length one.

  6. In Python 2.7, sys.version_info() stopped returning a plain tuple that supported only item access, and started returning a named tuple whose elements could also be fetched through attributes like .major and .minor. I also gave credit if a team’s answer sheet named the specific named-tuple type that gets returned — which just happens to be the type sys.version_info!

  7. The first-ever __future__ directive was:

    from __future__ import nested_scopes

    Nested scopes were considered dangerous enough that they needed to be an opt-in feature for an entire Python version before they became official.

  8. The powerful language feature introduced in Python 2.4 that was going to make possible “all sorts of new and shiny evil” is, startlingly enough, the fact that “eval() now accepts any form of object that acts as a mapping as its argument for locals.” Once again, a new feature that was apparently expected to open up whole new ways of using Python wound up going almost entirely unused — I cannot remember once, in even the most magic-ridden Python code, ever having seen this superpower taken advantage of.

  9. From the copy of the Zen of Python that you re-read on your beach vacation as the surf crashes in the background: “In the face of ambiguity, refuse the temptation to guess.”