Ten IPython essentials

Posted by Jeffery Yee | 5:50 PM

In this article by Cyrille Rossant, author of Learning IPython for Interactive Computing and Data Visualization,
we will take a quick tour of IPython by introducing 10 essential features of this powerful tool. Although brief, this hands-on visit will cover a wide range of IPython functionalities.

Running the IPython console

If IPython has been installed correctly, you should be able to run it from a system shell with the ipython command. You can use this prompt like a regular Python interpreter as shown in the following screenshot:
Command-line shell on Windows
If you are on Windows and using the old cmd.exe shell, you should be aware that this tool is extremely limited. You could instead use a more powerful interpreter, such as Microsoft PowerShell, which is integrated by default in Windows 7 and 8. The simple fact that most common filesystem-related commands (namely, pwd, cd, ls, cp, ps, and so on) have the same name as in Unix should be a sufficient reason to switch.
Of course, IPython offers much more than that. For example, IPython ships with tens of little commands that considerably improve productivity.
Some of these commands help you get information about any Python function or object. For instance, have you ever had a doubt about how to use the super function to access parent methods in a derived class? Just type super? (a shortcut for the command %pinfo super) and you will find all the information regarding the super function. Appending ? or ?? to any command or variable gives you all the information you need about it, as shown here:
In [1]: super? Typical use to call a cooperative superclass method: class C(B): def meth(self, arg): super(C, self).meth(arg)

Using IPython as a system shell

You can use the IPython command-line interface as an extended system shell. You can navigate throughout your filesystem and execute any system command. For instance, the standard Unix commands pwd, ls, and cd are available in IPython and work on Windows too, as shown in the following example:
In [1]: pwd Out[1]: u'C:\\' In [2]: cd windows C:\windows
These commands are particular magic commands that are central in the IPython shell. There are dozens of magic commands and we will use a lot of them throughout this book. You can get a list of all magic commands with the %lsmagic command.
Using the IPython magic commands
Magic commands actually come with a % prefix, but the automagic system, enabled by default, allows you to conveniently omit this prefix. Using the prefix is always possible, particularly when the unprefixed command is shadowed by a Python variable with the same name. The %automagic command toggles the automagic system. In this book, we will generally use the % prefix to refer to magic commands, but keep in mind that you can omit it most of the time, if you prefer.

Using the history

Like the standard Python console, IPython offers a command history. However, unlike in Python's console, the IPython history spans your previous interactive sessions. In addition to this, several key strokes and commands allow you to reduce repetitive typing.
In an IPython console prompt, use the up and down arrow keys to go through your whole input history. If you start typing before pressing the arrow keys, only the commands that match what you have typed so far will be shown.
In any interactive session, your input and output history is kept in the In and Out variables and is indexed by a prompt number. The _, __, ___ and _i, _ii, _iii variables contain the last three output and input objects, respectively. The _n and _in variables return the nth output and input history. For instance, let's type the following command:
In [4]: a = 12 In [5]: a ** 2 Out[5]: 144 In [6]: print("The result is {0:d}.".format(_)) The result is 144.
In this example, we display the output, that is, 144 of prompt 5 on line 6.

Tab completion

Tab completion is incredibly useful and you will find yourself using it all the time. Whenever you start typing any command, variable name, or function, press the Tab key to let IPython either automatically complete what you are typing if there is no ambiguity, or show you the list of possible commands or names that match what you have typed so far. It also works for directories and file paths, just like in the system shell.
It is also particularly useful for dynamic object introspection. Type any Python object name followed by a point and then press the Tab key; IPython will show you the list of existing attributes and methods, as shown in the following example:
In [1]: import os In [2]: os.path.split<tab> os.path.split os.path.splitdrive os.path.splitext os.path.splitunc
In the second line, as shown in the previous code, we press the Tab key after having typed os.path.split. IPython then displays all the possible commands.
Tab Completion and Private Variables
Tab completion shows you all the attributes and methods of an object, except those that begin with an underscore (_). The reason is that it is a standard convention in Python programming to prefix private variables with an underscore. To force IPython to show all private attributes and methods, type myobject._ before pressing the Tab key. Nothing is really private or hidden in Python. It is part of a general Python philosophy, as expressed by the famous saying, "We are all consenting adults here."

Executing a script with the %run command

Although essential, the interactive console becomes limited when running sequences of multiple commands. Writing multiple commands in a Python script with the .py file extension (by convention) is quite common. A Python script can be executed from within the IPython console with the %run magic command followed by the script filename. The script is executed in a fresh, new Python namespace unless the -i option has been used, in which case the current interactive Python namespace is used for the execution. In all cases, all variables defined in the script become available in the console at the end of script execution.
Let's write the following Python script in a file called script.py:
print("Running script.") x = 12 print("'x' is now equal to {0:d}.".format(x))
Now, assuming we are in the directory where this file is located, we can execute it in IPython by entering the following command:
In [1]: %run script.py Running script. 'x' is now equal to 12. In [2]: x Out[2]: 12
When running the script, the standard output of the console displays any print statement. At the end of execution, the x variable defined in the script is then included in the interactive namespace, which is quite convenient.

Quick benchmarking with the %timeit command

You can do quick benchmarks in an interactive session with the %timeit magic command. It lets you estimate how much time the execution of a single command takes. The same command is executed multiple times within a loop, and this loop itself is repeated several times by default. The individual execution time of the command is then automatically estimated with an average. The -n option controls the number of executions in a loop, whereas the -r option controls the number of executed loops. For example, let's type the following command:
In[1]: %timeit [x*x for x in range(100000)] 10 loops, best of 3: 26.1 ms per loop
Here, it took about 26 milliseconds to compute the squares of all integers up to 100000.

Quick debugging with the %debug command

IPython ships with a powerful command-line debugger. Whenever an exception is raised in the console, use the %debug magic command to launch the debugger at the exception point. You then have access to all the local variables and to the full stack traceback in postmortem mode. Navigate up and down through the stack with the u and d commands and exit the debugger with the q command. See the list of all the available commands in the debugger by entering the ? command.
You can use the %pdb magic command to activate the automatic execution of the IPython debugger as soon as an exception is raised.

Interactive computing with Pylab

The %pylab magic command enables the scientific computing capabilities of the NumPy and matplotlib packages, namely efficient operations on vectors and matrices and plotting and interactive visualization features. It becomes possible to perform interactive computations in the console and plot graphs dynamically. For example, let's enter the following command:
In [1]: %pylab Welcome to pylab, a matplotlib-based Python environment [backend: TkAgg]. For more information, type 'help(pylab)'. In [2]: x = linspace(-10., 10., 1000) In [3]: plot(x, sin(x))
In this example, we first define a vector of 1000 values linearly spaced between -10 and 10. Then we plot the graph (x, sin(x)). A window with a plot appears as shown in the following screenshot, and the console is not blocked while this window is opened. This allows us to interactively modify the plot while it is open.

Using the IPython Notebook

The Notebook brings the functionality of IPython into the browser for multiline textediting features, interactive session reproducibility, and so on. It is a modern and powerful way of using Python in an interactive and reproducible way
To use the Notebook, call the ipython notebook command in a shell (make sure you have installed the required dependencies). This will launch a local web server on the default port 8888. Go tohttp:// in a browser and create a new Notebook.
You can write one or several lines of code in the input cells. Here are some of the most useful keyboard shortcuts:
  • Press the Enter key to create a new line in the cell and not execute the cell
  • Press Shift + Enter to execute the cell and go to the next cell
  • Press Alt + Enter to execute the cell and append a new empty cell right after it
  • Press Ctrl + Enter for quick instant experiments when you do not want to save the output
  • Press Ctrl + M and then the H key to display the list of all the keyboard shortcuts

Customizing IPython

You can save your user preferences in a Python file; this file is called an IPython profile. To create a default profile, type ipython profile create in a shell. This will create a folder named profile_default in the ~/.ipythonor ~/.config/ ipython directory. The file ipython_config.py in this folder contains preferences about IPython. You can create different profiles with different names using ipython profile create profilename, and then launch IPython with ipython --profile=profilename to use that profile.
The ~ directory is your home directory, for example, something like /home/ yourname on Unix, orC:\Users\yourname or C:\Documents and Settings\ yourname on Windows.


We have gone through 10 of the most interesting features offered by IPython in this article. They essentially concern the Python and shell interactive features, including the integrated debugger and profiler, and the interactive computing and visualization features brought by the NumPy and Matplotlib packages.


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