Python Documentation and Vim

Today at a CodeMash session I did a bit of pair programming, which honestly I hadn’t done in over 10 years and was a great experience, and we were given to work on two programming exercises: the canonical “FizzBuzz” game and then a more difficult String Calculator Kata. Because my partner did not have a language environment he felt comfortable taking the lead with – his primary languages, oddly enough, were Bash, PowerShell, and a proprietary ERP language – I ended up controlling the keyboard and we finished the exercise using Python.

The String Calculator exercise is very straightforward until you get to the 7th step and beyond, which involve handling a variable number of variable length delimiters within a string. Obviously, this problem calls for regular expressions and while I had intended to avoid that route since my partner was not familiar with them, I decided it was much easier than the alternative approach of multiple character-by-character passes through the input string.

Now, anyone who has used the Python standard library can tell you that the re module is one of its oldest and cruftiest corners. The module clearly dates back to the very early days of the language and, to my amateur eye at least, there seem to be hidden and dangerous C-based things happening under the hood that make the module relatively difficult to work with, or at least difficult to remember the proper incantation to work with it effectively.

While working with my partner I referred to the Python documentation numerous times, including to browse a list of methods on the built-in str type and the interface for the re.MatchObject (because, Quick, how do you get a list of all matched groups from a MatchObject?)

You can get (most of) this information directly from the pydoc command and there is a vim plugin that integrates it nicely. Save that plugin in ~/.vim/bundle (You are using Pathogen, right?) and you now have the :Pydoc and :PydocSearch commands to search the Python documentation directly in vim. The first command allows you to read the docs for a module/class/method/function if you know its name already (e.g. :Pydoc while the latter searches through the documentation for matching strings in module doc synopsis lines (that is, it’s the same thing as `pydoc -k

`). The pydoc plugin also helpfully maps `pw` to do a Pydoc search on the word under the curser and `pk` to do a Pydoc -k search. And, special bonues due to the magic of how the `pydoc` command works, since all the plugin does is call the actual `pydoc` command on your path, you can actually search the documentation of your own modules since `pydoc` simply imports modules to get their docs. And presumably, any code you are working on is importable, so pydoc can search your own code as easily as it can the standard library. As a final aside, one bit of documentation that actually *cannot* be displayed by `pydoc` is for the `re.MatchObject` class, which was one of the things I most wanted to look up. It turns out that that class is not importable, as it is actually dynamically constructed at runtime by some bit of C black magic when `re.match` is run. Therefore you still need to keep an offline copy of the Python documentation handy to refer to outside of vim.