March 16, 2008

Python as a Platform

Something that recently occurred to me is that the only operating system that doesn’t come with Python pre-installed on it is Windows.

While Linux and OS X both view Python as essentially a first-class development platform–i.e., as something that shrink-wrap applications can be built on–Windows does not. Instead, it’s generally expected that a Python-based Windows application be “frozen”: bundled into a self-contained package that includes a copy of the Python interpreter and whatever libraries it uses, which are private to the particular application. While this ensures that the application will function as expected and not run into “dependency hell”, it also results in a relatively large download–distributing a simple “Hello World” program is at least a megabyte in size, and makes extending the program’s functionality more difficult.

During the summer of 2007, I made simple Python-based tool for some friends who played World of Warcraft; for those that played on the Mac, the situation was easy because their computers already had Python on them. For the Windows users, however, I was faced with the dilemma of either “freezing” the program into a fairly large download which would be difficult to test and update, or making my friends download the Python installer from and running my Python script from source. Either solution seemed too cumbersome.

So instead, I opted for a different solution: I’d create a tiny executable that would first check for the existence of a Python installation on the end-user’s system. If Python was already installed, the executable would simply extract a Python script from itself and run it. That script was much like; along with a few tricks, it essentially ensured that my friends would transparently auto-update to the latest version of the tool whenever they launched the program.

If there was no Python installation on the end-user’s system, however, the executable would simply transparently download the latest Python installer from, silently install it on the end-user’s system without any prompting, and then proceed as outlined above.

So, in other words, a small executable file–only about 50k in size–was essentially responsible for “bootstrapping” my program by downloading and silently installing Python if necessary, and then downloading and running the latest version of my program’s source code. This ultimately meant that the user would be able to run a self-updating Python program from a tiny executable without having to click through any installation prompts or dialog boxes.

I’m glossing over a few details here and there are definitely some holes in my implementation–for instance, if the user uses a web proxy, they’re hosed–but I thought the general idea was interesting.

The source for the executable was compiled using the Nullsoft Scriptable Install System, along with its InetLoad plug-in. The source file is below for those interested.

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February 15, 2008

On The New York Times

I’ve decided that I’m not a big fan of New York Times, or of newspapers in general. It’s not that they’re fundamentally wrong or anything, but as a source of daily information, it’s complete and total overload for me. For instance, on the day after Super Tuesday, I wanted to read a bit about what happened, so I tried subscribing to a two-week trial of the online edition of the New York Times on my Kindle. ... Read more

January 18, 2008

A Simple Mozilla Build Script and Tutorial

Last Wednesday, I started working at Mozilla, the awesome company responsible for leading and coordinating the development of the Firefox browser. I’m now working for their labs team, exploring new ways of making the internet easier to use. Everyone I’ve met here so far is very friendly, intelligent, and motivated to make the web a better place; I’m really looking forward to working with them more.

One of the first tasks I’ve given myself here has been to get myself acquainted with the Mozilla build system, which is used to build Firefox, among other Mozilla projects. I’m most familiar with SCons, a Python-based tool we use at Humanized to develop Enso, and while I have some experience with Makefiles and the GNU Autotools, it’s been enlightening to see how the build system for a project as large as Firefox works.

While doing this, I spoke with Mike Meltzner, who passed me some gems of wisdom that were given to him by Vlad Vukicevic regarding a different way of setting up the build system than the one prescribed in the Mozilla Build Documentation.

I thought that the way Mike and Vlad did things was much more preferable than the one prescribed in the traditional build documentation, largely because it kept the CVS checkout 100% “pristine” and used a completely separate, parallel directory structure for everything else; aside from providing a really clean separation between what was under version control and what wasn’t, this gave me a much better idea of how the build system actually worked. Mike said that his way of doing things wasn’t documented anywhere, so I figured I’d write a simple script/tutorial that walks a reader through the setting up of the build system, the checking-out of Firefox from the source code repository, and the building of the application itself. It works on my OS X machine; I’m not sure if it works under cygwin or Linux, but I imagine it should.

Feedback is appreciated.

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January 11, 2008

Pickle Presentation Slides

At yesterday’s Chicago Python User Group (ChiPy) meeting, I gave a presentation on the Python pickle module; I’d always been curious in the internals of how serialization works “under the hood” and wanted to learn enough about it to give a talk that was accessible to Python newcomers and veterans alike. I’d like to thank Robert Zeh of GETCO for hosting the meeting, and everyone for attending–we had a great turnout. ... Read more

April 13, 2007

PyPy Presentation Slides

At yesterday’s Chicago Python User Group (ChiPy) meeting, I gave an informal presentation on PyPy, a project that I’ve been interested in lately. I’ve posted the slides here as a PDF. Be warned, though, that PyPy is by no means my area of expertise, so these slides may not be terribly accurate. I’ll be fixing them as I learn about their errors.

March 8, 2007


In late 2005, three colleagues and I founded a company called Humanized. A little over a month ago, we released our first two products, Enso Launcher and Enso Words. I’m indebted to my incredible co-workers, Jono DiCarlo, Aza Raskin, and Andrew Wilson, for making this possible. Working at Humanized has certainly been the best job I’ve ever had, not to mention an excellent learning experience. Naz Hamid was also instrumental in providing us with superb graphic design and was very helpful as a business mentor in general. ... Read more

March 8, 2007

Python Emacs Development

Back in 2005, while I was taking a class taught by the late Jef Raskin at the University of Chicago, I was inspired by his program The Humane Environment to write some Emacs commands that would make software development a little easier for myself. Based on some interest from the Chicago Python User Group, I’ve polished the code a bit and published it here. Read more about pymdev, A Python Emacs Development Module. ... Read more

July 31, 2006

GuildPal 0.3

GuildPal is a World of Warcraft addon that adds two simple slash commands to your World of Warcraft interface, intended to facilitate the communication between members of a growing guild.

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© Atul Varma 2017