Python Primer 4 – Functions

This is my fourth post in a series to quickly introduce Python:

I find functions to be convenient and useful, but completely unnecessary to writing a basic program. You can write a really cool program in python that never uses a custom-written function because that’s what a program is, a function. Inevitably though, you’ll probably want to do one or both of the things that I find functions useful for – reusing code or scoping.

Re-using Code

If you write code for long enough, you’ll get to a point where you find yourself copying and pasting code. It’s okay, everybody does it at some point. But you’ll know you’re doing something wrong if it becomes a lot of work, after all that’s what you have a computer for.

Say for example you had a guessing game program that picked a random color out of the “colors” list that we’ve been using in the last few posts:

import random
colors = ["red","purple","blue"]
guess = 'red'
answer = colors[random.randint(0,len(colors)-1)]
if guess == answer:
    print("You guessed right! The answer was "+answer)
    print("Try again! The answer was "+answer)

Line 1 is new. “import” means to pull code in from somewhere else, in this case from the “standard library” which is a bunch of code that the python creators built for you. When you import, you import a “module” which is basically just a file where the code in the module is stored. “random” is specifically a module that gives you more pre-built functions that do random things. You access these new functions using a dot “.” as in “random.randint()” which picks a random number in a range of numbers.

Let me also explain line 4 where the answer is created. Basically it boils down to this:

colors[] #selects one of the items from the colors list
random.randint() #creates a random integer in a range
len(colors)-1 #we get the length of colors minus 1 (starts at 0)

Putting those together ends up selecting a random item from “colors”. If the selected answer matches the guess, it prints “You guessed right!”, if not it prints “Try again!”).

If you write that program on the interactive shell and want to play the game more than once, you’ll be copying and pasting lines 3 – 8 as many times as you want to play. To avoid copying and pasting, we can put 3 – 8 in a function so we can reuse it easily. Functions are “defined” using “def”:

import random
colors = ["red","purple","blue"]
def guessing_game(guess=''):
    answer = colors[random.randint(0,len(colors)-1)]
    if guess == answer:
        print("You guessed right! The answer was "+answer)
        print("Try again! The answer was "+answer)

Now you can run your new function called “guessing_game” like so:

Try again! The answer was red
You guessed right! The answer was blue

The answer will be different every time because it’s selected randomly via the magic in the “random.randint()” function that’s part of the “random” module.


The other reason to use a function doesn’t really make itself obvious until you’ve used functions for a little while. But I think it’s important to know so I’ll mention it here. The idea is that “inside” a function, you have a private space for variable names (a “namespace”) that does not affect the global space. Again, the use case for this is a bit hard to see when our program is so small, but I’ll show you how it works.

Let’s say we already have a variable named “answer” in our program before we created the function “guessing_game”. Maybe it was left over from some other function that ran, or your program is just really big. In any case, it’s there, just accept it. These things happen.

import random
answer = "magenta"
colors = ["red","purple","blue"]
def guessing_game(guess=''):
    answer = colors[random.randint(0,len(colors)-1)]
    if guess == answer:
        print("You guessed right! The answer was "+answer)
        print("Try again! The answer was "+answer)

When you run “guessing_game()” again, the “answer” variable that’s created inside the function every time you run it is unaffected by the global “answer” variable. That’s because “inside” the function is a tear in the space time continuum. I like to think of it like the “warp bubble” episode from Star Trek TNG. Everybody knows that one, right? Right?

Try again! The answer was red

For my next and last post I’ll cover how to actually use python for something cool.

Python Primer 3 – Loops and Conditions

This is my third post in a series to quickly introduce Python:

This part is probably the most difficult to understand, but it’s really what makes programming dynamic and powerful. Loops and conditions logic (and most programming logic, actually) resembles the way people think and behave. I’d say a loop is kind of like eating, execute the same “put into mouth” action while in the “hungry” state. Conditions are pretty much the same as anytime you say “if” in your daily life – if snow is on the road, stay home, otherwise (else) go to work.

If Statement

To illustrate iffing in Python, I’m going to use two built-in functions, len() and print(). len() simply gets the length of something and “returns” it (gives it back) to you, in the form of an integer (a number). print() just writes what you give it to the screen. In the interactive shell, print is usually assumed when you press enter but it’s more useful in a script (more on that later). Using the same colors list from the previous post, I’ll get its length and compare it to 2 (because I can) using the greater-than sign “>”, perhaps you remember that one from grade school.

colors = ["red","purple","blue"]
because_i_can = 2
if len(colors) > because_i_can:
    print("I've got lots of colors")
I've got lots of colors

Notice how the print part is indented. Python requires this to let the interpreter know that particular code is “inside” the if statement. Don’t forget the colon after your condition, Python gets mad.

If you change “because_i_can” to 3, they’re now equal and the print code doesn’t run. This is the nature of iffing – only run the code inside if the condition is true.

There’s lots more to if statements, like “elif” which is just another condition you can add to an if statement, and “else” which runs if none of the if conditions ran. You can look those all up on the official documentation, and probably guess their syntax. But the simplest form only uses one “if”. I use it all the time.


There’s really just two basic kinds of loops, “for” and “while”. Their logic is designed to resemble the English words from which their names are derived. For – “for each something in a group of somethings, do something”. While – “while in something is true, do something. Stop when it’s no longer true”. I personally don’t use while very much although it certainly has its use cases. I mostly find myself trying to slap some data around to get it to do what I want, so I use “for” loops quite a bit. I’ll start with that.

colors = ["red","purple","blue"]
for color in colors:
    print("I like "+color)
I like red
I like purple
I like blue

“color” is a temporary variable that is created on-the-fly as you write the for loop, and “colors” is the group of stuff that you want to go through. The cool part is I only had write my print() code once, but it was executed for each color in colors. Let’s combine it with an if statement to make it a little more fun:

my_favorite_color = "purple"
for color in colors:
    if color == my_favorite_color:
        print("Purple is my FAVORITE color.")
        print("I like "+color)
I like red
Purple is my FAVORITE color.
I like blue

A couple of new things here – “==” is used to compare two things and see if they’re equal. I also added an “else” part to my if statement. It runs if the “if” part doesn’t run.

“While” statements are nice if you want to run some code while a certain something is true. I was quite satisfied with my food example above, so we’ll run with that. Let’s say our stomach can fit 3 potatoes in it. We’ll add potatoes to our stomach until there are 3 in there:

potatoes_in_stomach = 0
while potatoes_in_stomach < 3:
    potatoes_in_stomach += 1

“+=” is a handy way to say “add 1 to this variable”. So 1 was added until potatoes_in_stomach was no longer less than 3.

Built-in functions are cool, but next I’ll take a look at how to make a custom function.

Python Primer 2 – Lists and Dictionaries

This is my second post in a series to quickly introduce Python:

Hopefully after the first post we’ve got an idea how to fire up the Python shell, create a variable (a cardboard box) that has some data type – an integer (a number), or a string (a letter or a number, a word, multiple words, multiple lines, whatever you want actually). A quick note about data types – the “type” determines how the data acts. An two integers can be added together like numbers, e.g. 1+1 = 2. But if you have a number inside a string data type, you can’t do mathy stuff. If you do “1”+”1″ you’ll get “11” because they’re strings, and that’s how strings behave.

As it turns out, you can bundle these data types together using things called Lists and Dictionaries. Don’t get discouraged if these make your head hurt at first, it hurt for me too when I first learned about them. And it may be hard to see how or why you might use these things at first, but rest assured they are used extensively.

The List

A list is pretty much what is sounds like. You can get your stuff in the list by referring to its order in the list, thus its called an “ordered” list. Lists start with “[” and end with “]” (called square brackets, or just brackets). List items are separated with commas. Typically you store your list inside a variable, like so:

colors = ["red","purple","blue"]

So if you want to grab just the first item in the list, type “colors”, immediately followed by the list item number enclosed in brackets:


Was thinking I would get ‘red’, but actually everything in computers starts with 0. So colors[0] = ‘red’, colors[1] = ‘purple’, and colors[2] = ‘blue’ (Single and double quotes are interchangeable).

Python has a plethora built-in “functions” that I like to think of as mini-programs. You can get a whole list of them and much more at the official Python Documentation. I only mention this because we’re going to use a built-in function to do something fun. Fun if you’re a nerd, like me.

If you wanted a string like “red” to be upper case, but didn’t want to go to the work of redefining it, you could simply use a string function that already exists for it. Python says we need to use a dot “.” after the string we want to make uppercase. Also since it’s a function and “upper” is its name, put some parentheses after it to tell Python that you want to run (execute) it, because that’s how some people a million years ago decided execution should be notated:


But instead of re-writing the string, we’ll just grab it from the list instead since it’s already there:


The Dictionary

A dictionary is a way of doing a similar thing to a list, but the items aren’t in any particular order. You grab a particular piece of data (Python calls it a “value”) in the dictionary by referencing its “key”, which is just another piece of data. Usually people refer to dictionaries as being a database of key/value pairs, but that is really only useful if you already know how it works.

I’m sure this has been used in many other tutorials, but I think a good example might be of a set of stock market tickers and their associated share prices. The ticker is the key, the price is the value. A dictionary uses (curly) braces at the start and end, each key/value pair use a colon between them, and pairs are separated by commas. Again, it’s usually stored in a variable:

stocks = {'GOOGL':1189.84, 'AAPL':186.79, 'FB':167.68}

If you wanted to grab Google’s price, do the same dance as with a list, but use the key on the left to get the value on the right:


If you want to set a new value for ‘GOOGL’ since it’s price has changed, change it like you would a variable:

stocks['GOOGL'] = 1189.92
{'GOOGL': 1189.92, 'AAPL': 186.79, 'FB': 167.68}

One fun thing you can do using a built-in function is to add a new pair to the dictionary, by “updating” it (lists have a similar “append” function). For the list example I used a function on the string inside the list, here I’m using a function on the dictionary itself, hence “.update()” is attached to “stocks”:

{'GOOGL': 1189.92, 'AAPL': 186.79, 'FB': 167.68, 'NFLX': 359.97}

I hope that’s useful. Next up is loops and conditions.

Python Primer 1

This is my first post in a series to quickly introduce Python:

I use Python a fair amount. Anytime I want to tell the computer to do something really specific that isn’t accomplished easily in some off-the-shelf software, Python is my go-to. There are blogs, books, websites, and others that can explain all the amazing things that this cool programming language can do, but since I foresee using Python to illustrate other concepts that I’m trying to learn and understand, I’m going to try explain what I feel are the most important parts in the fewest amount of words. So on that note, here we go:

Getting Started

Most places start you off with some fancy development software called IDE (Integrated Development Environment) but I don’t really like those and I think it’s important to try the basics first and work up from there.

Microsoft Windows

You’ll want to go to Just go through the installer and you should be up and running.

Mac (OSX)

For an Apple computer same deal, just go to and install. OSX comes with Python 2 but not 3, unfortunately, so it has to be added.


If you are using Linux, you probably don’t need to be told how to do this, and listing all the ways to install software on the various major distributions is a waste of cyberspace. I use Ubuntu, it’s already installed.

Fire Up The Shell

The “shell” or command-line is basically just normal Python in slow motion, because we humans type commands slow. Here you can type in commands to the Python “interpreter” one at a time (you can also paste them in for faster results). Python is “interpreted” as opposed to “compiled” (like C++ or Java) because it converts the code you write to machine code when you run your program, instead of doing the conversion beforehand as with compilation. This approach has advantages and disadvantages, places where it’s useful and where it’s not. But the command line feature is great for testing since you can write your code and execute it right there by pressing enter.

On Windows, just search for Python and click on what you find. You’ll be at the right spot if your terminal window looks like mine below. On Mac and Linux pull up a bash terminal type “python3” and you’re off to the races.

Python 3 on Windows

What can you do from here? For starters it’s a great calculator:

Or you can use it to scare your co-workers on Halloween:

But you’ll probably want to do something a little more interesting. For that we’ll need some of the basics.

The Variable

It actually took me quite a while to realize that a variable is just a box in which you put something. Behind the scenes a variable is just some space allocated in memory for whatever data you want to store, but Python handles all of that messy stuff for you since it’s a relatively “high-level” language, meaning a lot of dealing with computer inner-workings like memory addressing and CPU instructions is handled for you so you can focus on getting the computer to do what you want. Not that you should avoid learning about that, but in a lot of situations this high-level approach lets you get things done a lot faster. In any case, just think of a variable as a cardboard box. You can put numbers (Python calls them integers) in a variable. Press enter after you’re done with a line:

x = 1
y = 2
z = 3

x, y, and z are just some variable names I picked that have no meaning, really. Use the “=” sign to put a value in your variable. Now you can reference the names in your code, and not the numbers:

x + y + z

You can re-purpose your variables by reassigning values to them:

x = "The quick brown fox jumps over "
y = "the lazy dog."
x + y
'The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.'

The part between quotes “” is called a “string”, meaning alpha-numeric characters strung together. A string can be just one letter, one word, multiple words, multiple lines, it doesn’t really matter (I’ll quickly mention that strings can use single quotes or double quotes, doesn’t matter which).

But don’t try to add two variables that aren’t the same “data type”, like an integer and a string, because Python gets mad:

y + z
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
TypeError: must be str, not int

Welcome to the world of errors, you’ll be seeing a lot of those.

Next up is some cool ways to organize your stuff, Python calls them Lists and Dictionaries. See you next time!