Python fundamentals 1
Overview. Time to start programming! We work our way through some of the essentials of Python's core language. We will do this within a Jupyter Notebook and along the way become familiar Markdown other properties of the notebook environment. Part 1 of 2.
Pythons. Syntax, Jupyter, calculations, assignments, strings, lists, dictionaries, built-in functions, bug identification and fix.
Buzzwords. Isn't that enough?
Code. Link.
Trigger warning. Technical content, cannot be mastered without effort.
We're now ready to explore the rudiments of Python. We're going to jump right in to the deep end of the pool. For a couple weeks, you may feel like you've been dropped in a foreign country where you don't speak the language. You'll hear terms like "strings", "floats", "objects", "methods", and "tab completion". Some of these are words you know, but even so, they tend not to mean what you think they mean. (Insert Princess Bride joke.)
Don't be panic, it's just jargon. If you put some effort into this over the next 2-4 weeks, you'll be fine. And ask questions. Really. Ask lots of questions.
The challenge and beauty of writing computer programs is that we need to be precise. If we mistype anything, the program won't work. Or it might seem to work, but the output won't be what we expect. In formal terms, the syntax -- the set of rules governing the language -- is less flexible than natural language (English, for example).
We mix Python concepts with an introduction to Jupyter which also comes with its own features (outside of the Python ecosystem). A key feature of Jupyter notebooks is the ability to mix text with code. The text component is Markdown which is a text formatting language (you provide the text, it makes the style) that can easily be converted into HTML. May be mtwn but its ok!

Jupyter essentials

Opening Jupyter Let's remind ourselves how to do this...
  • Open your terminal (command prompt on Windows)
  • Type jupyter notebook and press enter. This will open a tab in your browser with the word Jupyter at the top and your computer's directory structure below it.
  • In the browser tab, navigate to your Data_Bootcamp directory/folder.
  • Click on the New button in the upper right and choose Python 3 (it may also refer to this as Python[Root].
In your browser, you should have an empty notebook with the word Jupyter at the top. Below it is a menubar with the words File, Edit, View, Cell, Kernel, and Help. Below that is a toolbar with various buttons. You can see all of these components here:
If you have a few minutes, click on Help in the menubar and choose User Interface Tour.
Downloading a Jupyter Notebook from Github
  • First go to the notebook github page and then click on Raw.
  • Then, press command+s (ctrl+s if you are using windows) to save it as .ipynb.
  • Go to location where you saved .ipynb file.
  • Open file, you will see the code.
Let's put some of these tools to work:
  • Change the notebook name. Click on the name (Untitled if we just created a new notebook) to the right of the word Jupyter at the top. A textbox should open up. Use it to change the name to bootcamp_sandbox.
  • Toolbar buttons. Let your mouse hover over one of them to see what it does.
  • Add a cell. Click on the + in the toolbar to create a new cell. Choose Code in the toolbar's dropdown menu. Type this code in the cell:
    import datetime as dt
    print('Welcome to Data Bootcamp!')
    print('Today is: ',
    Now click on Cell in the menubar and choose Run cell. You should see the welcome message and today's date below the code.
  • Add another cell. Click on the + to create another cell and choose Markdown in the toolbar's dropdown menu. Markdown is text; more on it shortly. Type this in the cell:
    Your name
    Data Bootcamp sandbox for playing around with Jupyter notebooks
    Run this cell as well.
You get the idea. To get a sense of what's possible, take a look at this notebook here.
In addition to the buttons near the top of your notebook, there are also keyboard shortcuts for all these commands. We'll tell you about them along the way. Once we got used to them, we found that the keyboard shortcuts are an easier and more efficient way to do what we need. Here are the ones we find most useful:
  • The command for creating a new cell is to press escape to be in command mode and then press a to insert a new cell above the current one and b to insert a new cell below the current cell. How do I know the cell is in command mode? First, there should be a slim vertical bar to the left of the cell which should be blue when in command mode, green otherwise. Second, you won't see a cursor!
  • To change the type of cell (Markdown or Python), in command mode you type y for a python cell and m for a markdown cell.
  • To run a cell, just hit shift and enter at the same time.

Markdown essentials

Markdown is a simplified version of html ("hypertext markup language"), the language used to construct basic websites. html was a great thing in 1995, but now that the excitement has worn off we find it painful. Markdown, however, has a zen-like simplicity and beauty. Here are some things we can do with it:
  • Headings. Large bold headings are marked by hashes (#). One hash for first level (very large), two for second level (a little smaller), three for third level (smaller still), four for fourth (the smallest). Try these in a Markdown cell to see how they look:
    # Data Bootcamp sandbox
    ## Data Bootcamp sandbox
    ### Data Bootcamp sandbox
    Be sure to run the cell when you're done (shift enter).
  • Bold and italics. If we put a word or phrase between double asterisks, it's displayed in bold. Thus **bold** displays as bold. If we use single asterisks, we get italics: *italics* displays as italics.
  • Bullet lists. If we want a list of items marked by bullets, we start with a blank line and mark each item with an asterisk on a new line:
    * something
    * something else
    Try it and see.
  • Links. We construct a link with the text in square brackets and the url in parentheses immediately afterwards. Try this one:
    [Data Bootcamp course](
We can find more information about Markdown under Help. Or use your Google fu. We like the Daring Fireball description.
Markdown is ubiquitous. This book, for example, is written in Markdown. Look here for a list of chapter files. Click on one to see how it displays. Click on the Raw button at the top to see the Markdown file that produced it.
Exercise. Ask questions if you find any of these steps mysterious:
  • Close Jupyter.
  • Start Jupyter.
  • In Jupyter, open an new Ipython notebook within your Data_Bootcamp directory/folder, point to the code cell, the name of the notebook, and the help button.
  • Save the file bootcamp_class_pyfun1 in your This file will serve as your notes for this class.
  • Create a description cell in Markdown at the top of your notebook. It should include your name and a description of what you're doing in the notebook. For example: "Mike Waugh's first notebook for Python fundamentals 1" and a date.

The logic of Python programs

In a spreadsheet program such as Excel, we can connect cells to other cells. Then when we change one cell, any other cells connected to it update automatically.
Most computer programs, including Python programs, don't work that way. They run one line at a time, starting at the top of the program and working through the list of instructions until they reach the end or stop for some other reason. A program is just a detailed list of things we want the computer to do.
Most of the programs in this course have the structure:
  • Input data.
  • Manipulate the data until it's in the form we want.
  • Produce some graphics that summarize the data in a compelling way.
Each of these bullet points is typically associated with a number of lines of code, possibly a large number, but that's the general idea.


We'll do lots of numerical calculations. That's mostly what managing data is about: adding things up, dividing one thing by another, and so on.
To see how calculations work in Python, type these expressions their own individual cell:
2 * 3
Type each one into the console, hit return, and look to see what happens. The first one multiplies 2 times 3, and (hopefully) gives us 6 as the answer. The input and output look like this in the console:
In [1]: 2*3
Out[1]: 6
The first line is our input, we typed it. The number in brackets [1] is a line number. We don't type it, it's there in the console to begin with. As we proceed the number [1] increases to [2], [3], and so on. The second line --- the one that starts Out[1] --- is the response or output Python produces.
The second calculation, 2 * 3, does the same thing. The spaces around the * don't change the output. As a general rule, we can put spaces wherever we think they make the code more readable --- In fact, Python's style guide encourages you to use white space in a way that makes your code readable.
The third calculation is division. The input and output are
In [3]: 2/3
Out[3]: 0.6666666666666666
The fourth calculation, 2^3, gives us
In [4]: 2^3
Out[4]: 1
Hmmmm. What just happened? We expected the answer to be 8 (2 to the power 3), but evidently it's not. The short answer is that the hat symbol ^ doesn't do exponents in Python, as it does in Excel. It does something else, which we won't go into.
That makes this is a good time to practice our Google fu:
Exercise. Use Google to search for "python exponents." Use what you find to compute 2 to the power 3. (Don't look below, that's cheating.)
We should find, after wading through the links, that exponents in Python are done this way:
In [5]: 2**3
Out[5]: 8
Exercise. What does the calculation 2 ** 3 produce?
Our last calculation is the log function. Entering log(3) generates the message: NameError: name 'log' is not defined. This is an example of a name error: we have used a variable or function that we have not defined so that python doesn't understand. Here the message is pretty clear: it doesn't know what log means. In other cases, the error message may be more mysterious. We can use functions like log and sqrt in Python, just as we do in Excel, but we need to import them specially.
Exercise. What happens if you try to calculate the square root of 2 with sqrt(2), as you would in Excel? How would you do it (You don't need to import it -- Hint: square root is a power)?

Assigning values to variables

Or maybe we should use scare quotes: "Assigning" "values" to "variables."
We'll start with examples and explain what they do. Type these two lines into a code cell.
x = 2
y = 3
In each of these lines:
  • The thing on the left is called a variable. In the first line, x is the variable. In the second, y is the variable.
  • The thing on the right is a value. In the first line, 2 is the value. In the second, 3 is the value.
  • The equals sign = assigns the value on the right to the variable on the left. Thus the first line assigns the value 2 to the variable x. The second assigns the value 3 to the variable y.
We call statements like these assignments: We assign a value to a variable.
We can see the results of these assignments by checking the contents of the variables x and y. In a code cell, typing a variable and hitting return gives us its value. If we type x and y, one at a time, we get
In [7]: x
Out[7]: 2
In [8]: y
Out[8]: 3
So we see that the variables now contain the values we assigned them.
Variables are handy ways of storing values. We can use them in future calculations simply by using their names, just as we would use a cell address in Excel. Here's an example. Type this into a code cell:
z = x/y
If we type z in another code cell and then evaluate it, we get
In [9]: z
Out[9]: 0.666666666
What's going on here? We take x (which now has a value of 2) and divide it by y (which now has the value of 3) and assigns it to the variable z. The result is a computer's version of two-thirds.
Exercise. Type w = 7 in a cell. In the same cell, next line below, type w = w + 2. In the next line below type w (so we can see the output). What does this code do? Why is this not a violation of basic mathematics?
Exercise. In another code cell type w = w + 2 and then w below it (again so we can see the output). Evaluate this cell once. Do it again. Do it again. What is going on here?
Exercise. Suppose we borrow 200 for one year at an interest rate of 5 percent. If we pay interest plus principal at the end of the year, what is our total payment? Compute this using the variables principal = 200 and i = 0.05.
Exercise. Real GDP in the US (the total value of things produced) was 15.58 trillion in 2013 and 15.96 trillion in 2014. What was the growth rate? Express it as an annual percentage.
Exercise (challenging). Suppose we have two variables, x and y. How would you switch their values, so that x takes on y's value and y takes on x's?
Exercise (challenging). Type x = 6 in a cell. We've reassigned x so that its value is now 6, not 2. If we type and submit z, we see
In [10]: z
Out[10]: .6666666666
But wait, if z is supposed to be x/y, and x now equals 6, then shouldn't z be 2? What do you think is going on?

Displaying results with the print() function

We saw that when we performed a calculation, such as z = x/y, we had to ask to see the result. The print() function gives us another way to do that. If we type print(z) we get
In [11]: print(z)
Evidently this displays the value of z, namely 0.6666666666666666. We will use print statements a lot to track the progress of our code. We need to do this because Python -- and all other programming languages -- will not report back the results of what we ask it to compute unless we tell it to do so.
The print function displays whatever we include in parentheses after the word print: for example, print(x). If we want to print more than one thing, we separate them with commas; for example, print(x, y). That's the general structure of functions in Python: a function name (in this case print) followed by inputs ("arguments" or "parameters") in parentheses that are separated by commas. We usually refer to the print() function, with explicit parentheses, to remind ourselves that it requires input of some kind.
So if we want to verify the calculation of z, we can type print(z) in a code cell. If we want to print all the calculations from the previous section, we can type print(x, y, z):
In [12]: print(x, y, z)
2 3 0.6666666666666666
By default, the output is separated by spaces.
We'll use more complicated print statements than this, which we'll explain as we go. But if you see something you don't recognize, remember to ask questions.

Getting help in Jupyter

If you want to know more about a function, the main approach is to simply type the function name and then a question mark after it in a code cell and then evaluate it. This works for any function, but using print as our examples we can:
  • Type print? in the code cell and hit shift and enter
The same approaches work for other functions. We use them both a lot. If they fail, either because there's no help or the help is incomprehensible, we fall back on Google fu.
Exercise. Run this statement: print(x, y, z, sep='|'). Use the output and Jupyter's help to explain what the sep argument does.


We often work with non-numerical data, collections of characters that might include letters, numbers, or other symbols. Such things show up in a lot in data work, as variable names (GDP, income, volatility) and even as data (country or customer names, for example). We refer these as strings. This doesn't mean what we think it means. No, not the stuff we tie up packages with, but a "string" of characters are like letters or numbers. It's one of many mysterious uses of ordinary words we'll run across as we learn to code. For more on this one, see here.
We create strings by putting characters between quotation marks: 'Chase', "Spencer", 'Sarah', "apple", and even "12" are all strings. Single and double quotes both work.
The last example is a confusing one, because it looks like a number. It's not. The number "12" is between quotes, so it's a string. If we try to use it as a number, it doesn't work. Try, for example, '12'/3. This generates the error: TypeError: unsupported operand type(s) for /: 'str' and 'int'. What this means is that we tried to divide a string ("12") by an integer (3). That's no different to Python than trying to divide your name by three, it can't make sense of it.
We repeat: a string is a collection of characters between quotes. The characters can be pretty much anything. Therefore 12 is a number (no quotes), but "12" is a string.
Here are some other examples, which we assign to variable names for later use. Type them into its own individual cell:
a = 'some'
b = 'thing'
c = a + b
d = '12.34'
What do you see? The first two are probably obvious: We assign the characters in single quotes on the right to the variables on the left.
The third line is something new: We add the string some to the string thing. What would you expect to get? Try print(c) to find out. That gives us the answer: c = 'something'. We've simply stitched the two strings together, one after the other. WOW... this is awesome.
Strings also allow us to produce better-looking output. In the previous section, for example, we can change the statement print(z) to print('The value of z is ', z). The first argument (or input), 'The value of z is ', is a string. The second argument, z, is a variable. Together they produce the output The value of z is 0.6666666666666666, which is clearer than the number 0.6666666666666666 on its own. Or we could spread this over two lines:
message = 'The value of z is '
print(message, z)
Here we've taken the components of the previous print statement and expressed them in two statements to make it more readable. (You might ask yourself: Which do you prefer? Why?)
Exercise. What is a string? How would you explain it to a friend?
Exercise. What happens if we run the statement: 'Chase'/2? Why?
Exercise. This one's a little harder. Assign your first name as a string to the variable firstname and your last name to the variable lastname. Use them to construct a new variable equal to your first name, a space, then your last name. Hint: Think about how you would express a space as a string.
Exercise. Set s = 'string'. What is s + s? 2*s? s*2? What is the logic here?

Quotation marks: single, double, and triple quotes

We typically define strings by putting characters between single quotes, as in a = 'some'. That will be our standard practice, but Python treats single and double quotes the same. We could have typed a = "some" (that is, with double quotes) with the same effect. The main reason for using single quotes is laziness: we don't have to hit the shift key. We're not ones to disparage laziness, but the point is that there's no difference between the two.
There are, however, some special cases where double quotes come in handy. On occasion, we use double quotes if the string includes a single quote:
f = "I don't believe it"
The output of the print statement is I don't believe it, which includes a single quote as an apostrophe. This doesn't come up very often, in our experience, but there it is just in case.
Triple quotes are similar, but they can be used to define strings that go over several lines:
longstring = """
Four score and seven years ago
Our fathers brought forth. """
This produces the output
Four score and seven years ago
Our fathers brought forth ...
The blank line comes from the empty space to the right of the first triple quote. And yes: we can make triple quotes from single quotes -- and this is more than we need.
We often put long quotes like this at the top of our programs. Officially they're strings, but unofficially they're comments. Here's an example from the start of our test program:
Data Bootcamp test program checks to see that we're running Python 3.
Written by Dave Backus, March 2015
Created with Python 3.4
Exercise. Put a comment like this at the top of your program.
Exercise. In the Four score etc code, replace the triple double quotes with triple single quotes. What happens?
Exercise. Fix this code:
bad_string = 'Sarah's code'
Exercise. Which of these are strings? Which are not?


Lists are one of the fundamental Python data structures, a term that means a specific organization of data. This data structure is important as data will naturally come in a list or list like form.
Ok, so what is a list? A Python list is what it sounds like: an ordered collection of items. The items can be lots of things: numbers, strings, variables, or even other lists.
And a list is ordered, meaning that each item has a particular position, the first one, second one, last, second to last, etc. Because lists are ordered, this means that we an items numerical position to grab that item, e.g. give me the second to last item. This process is what we call "slicing." We talk about this later in fundamentals two.
Creating lists. We create lists by putting square brackets around a collection of items separated by commas. Here are some examples. Type each line of code into a code cell and run them.
numberlist = [1, 5, -3]
stringlist = ['hi', 'hello', 'hey']
These are, of course, assignments: the lists on the right are assigned to the variables on the left.
We can also make lists of variables:
a = 'some'
b = 'thing'
c = a + b
variablelist = [a, b, c]
Or we can combine variables, numbers, and strings:
randomlist = [1, "hello", a]
Combining lists. We can combine lists (literally) by adding them. The statement biglist = numberlist + stringlist produces a list containing all the elements of numberlist plus all the elements of stringlist, giving us six items altogether. Type print(biglist) to make sure that's the case.
In contrast, the statement biglist2 = [numberlist, stringlist] produces a new list with two items: the lists numberlist and stringlist. It's what we might call a "list of lists." That's not something we're likely to do, to be honest. (We did it once, but that was an accident.) The point is simply that lists are flexible objects.
Exercise. How would you explain a list to a classmate?
Exercise. Add print(numberlist) and print(variablelist) to your code and note the format of the output. What do the square brackets tell us? The single quotes around some entries?
Exercise. Run the statements
mixedlist = [a, b, c, numberlist]
What is the output? How would you explain it to a classmates?
Exercise. Suppose x = [1, 2, 3] is a list. What is x + x? 2*x? Try them and see.


Tuples are ordered collections of things in parentheses separated by commas. They're like lists but the syntax is different (parentheses rather than square brackets) and they can't be changed (experts would say they're "immutable"). We won't use them much but you're likely to run across them now and then in others' code.
Example. This is a tuple: t = (1, 5, -3).
Dictionaries are (unordered) pairs of things defined by curly brackets {}, separated by commas, with the items in each pair separated by colon.


Here we look another data structure: dictionaries. We use them a fair amount for several reasons. One they are great for creating small table like datasets that can be converted to a DataFrame (we will talk more about these later). Second, they are great for converting or translating values in your data. In one example, I had a dataset that had education categorized by a string like ["primary", "secondary"] and I wanted to covert it into years of schooling. So I used a dictionary that mapped the words into years. Third, we often come across them as a data structure generated by APIs (mtwn right now).
Dictionaries are (unordered) pairs of things defined by curly brackets {}, separated by commas, with the items in each pair separated by colon. For example, a list of first and last names:
names = {'Dave': 'Backus', 'Chase': 'Coleman', 'Spencer': 'Lyon', 'Glenn': 'Okun'}
If we try type(names), the reply is dict, meaning dictionary. The components of each pair are referred to as the key (the first part) and the value (the second). In a real dictionary, the word is the key and the definition is the value. The keys must be unique, but the values need not be.
We access the value from the key with syntax of the form: dict[key]. In the example above, we get Glenn's last name by typing names['Glenn']. (Try it and see.)
We teach ourselves the rest:
Exercise. Print names. Does it come out in the same order we typed it?
Exercise. Construct a dictionary whose keys are the integers 1, 2, and 3 and whose values are the same numbers as words: one, two, three. How would you get the word associated with the key 2?
Exercise. Enter the code
d = {'Donald': 'Duck', 'Mickey': 'Mouse', 'Donald': 'Trump'}
What do you see? Why do you think this happened?
Exercise. Consider the dictionary
data = {'Year': [1990, 2000, 2010], 'GDP': [8.95, 12.56, 14.78]}
What are the keys here? The values? What do you think this dictionary represents?

Python's built-in functions

Python has a lot of basic "built-in" functions. We've already seen the print() and whos function. Here are some others we've found useful.
The len() (length) function. This tells us the length of an object. We can work this one out for ourselves:
Exercise. Describe the output of typing each of these one cell at a time:
len([1, 5, -3])
len((1, 5, -3))
What do you think is happening?
The type() function. One of our favs. This one tells us what kind of object we have. To see how it works, type each of these one cell at a time:
type([1, 5, -3])
type((1, 5, -3))
Think about this on your own for a minute. What do you think you'll get? How does it compare to the real output?
Not to kill the suspense, but here's what we should see:
  • type(2) gives us the output int, which stands for "integer," a whole number like 1, 2, 3, and so on. Just to clarify: 2 is an integer. 2.5 is not.
  • type(2.5) gives us float, a so-called "floating point number" like most of those we run across in Excel -- not a whole number.
  • type('2.5') gives us str, a string because it's in quotes.
  • type('something') also gives us str.
  • type([1, 5, -3]) gives us list.
  • type((1, 5, -3)) gives us tuple.
The type function is more helpful than you might guess. A lot of what we do in programming is deal with objects of different types and, when necessary, convert one type to another. The first step is to identify the type of the object of interest.
Exercise. Try each of these, one at a time, in a code cell and explain the output:
type([1, 5, 3])
type(['data', 'bootcamp'])
Exercise. Try type(zoo). Why does it generate an error? What does the error mean?
Exercise. Set zoo = ['lions', 'bears'] and try type(zoo) again. What do you get this time?

Changing types

If we have an object of one type, we can sometimes change it to another type. (Sometimes it doesn't make sense and Python tells us so.) The string '12' can be converted to the integer 12, for example.
Converting strings to numbers. Suppose we have an object of one type (the string '12.34') and want to use it as another (the number 12.34). We can use the function float(), then use type() to check:
s = '12.34'
f = float(s)
Here s is a string but f is the floating point number 12.34.
The function int() lets us do the same for integers. Convert the string '12' to an integer, then check with type() again:
s = '12'
i = int(s)
The result i is the integer 12.
Converting numbers to strings. Similarly, we can convert a number back to a string with str():
s = str(12)
print('s has type', type(s))
t = str(12.34)
print('t has type', type(t))
Converting strings to lists. One more type conversion: We can convert a string to a list of its characters. For example, we convert the string x = abc' to the list ['a', 'b', 'c'] with list(x). Run this code to see how it works:
x = 'abc'
y = list(x)
Exercise. What happens if we apply the function float to the string 'some'?
Exercise. How would you convert the integer i = 1234 to the list l = ['1', '2', '3', '4']?
Exercise. What is the result of list(str(int(float('12.34'))))? Why? Hint: Start in the middle (the string '12.34') and work your way out, one step at a time.
Exercise (challenging). This one is tricky, but it came up in some work we were doing. Suppose year is a string containing the year of a particular piece of data; for example, year = '2015'. How would we construct a string for the following year? Hint: Start by converting year to an integer.

Programming Errors

Fact of life: you will make errors. Many errors. The key to programming is (i) not getting discouraged and living with that fact and (ii) learning how to make sense of error messages and self-correct those errors.
Point (i) is a life skill that takes years to learn. Chances are that if your reading this book and have made it this far (i) is not problem anyways. We can, however, help you with (ii), below we talk through some very common error messages and how to identify them.
Name Error. It happens when we use something not defined, it could be a variable or a function. The associated output is an error message that includes (i) what line the issue is occurring in and (ii) the name that could not be found. Here are two examples:
# Using not defined variable
# Or another situation, here we are
# using function that is not defined.
Run the code and then you see in both of these instances that there is an arrow pointing to the line within each code cell. In the first instance it is pointing to line 2. This is where the issue is. In the second instance, it is pointing to line number 3.
And after pointing to the issue, below that is says NameError: and stuff. In the first instance, it tells us NotDefined which means, well, its not defined. In the second instance, its saying the same thing. It just does not know what "log" is.
Type Error. This one happens all the time too. It happens when an inappropriate operation or function is applied to that specific data type. Here are some examples:
x = "2"
y = 2
z = x + y
Like above, it tells us that line number 4 is the issue, i.e. where we are tying to add "2" and 2. And the issue is a type issue: we can't add two different types (in this case a string and an integer). Here is another example relating to tuples. Recall that with a tuple, the data type is immutable. That is a tuple's values can't be changed. But let's try and change it.
Here the output should say, line number 2 is the issue (that where are trying to change the element of the tuple) and then it says that here is a TypeError problem. And what is the specific issue, well the tuple object does not support this kind of operation.
Important A lot of the problems in interpreting the error message lies in deciphering the cryptic messages like "'tuple' object does not support item assignment" So how do we do this. Use google. Often the first result will be a question posted to which is a place for programmers to ask and answer questions. This is a good place to be comfortable with and seek help from. Also friends help here too!
Exercise. In the google search area type "tuple' object does not support item assignment" What did you find?
Invalid Syntax. Syntax errors can be detected before your program begins to run. These types of errors are usually typing mistakes (fat fingers), but might be hard to find out at first. Here we give two examples:
# Define a simple list and let's call the first one in the list
randomlist =[1,8,3,7]
# Or when we define a string
bad_string = 'code"
Key Error. Python raises a KeyError whenever a dict() object is requested (using the format a = adict[key]) and the key is not in the dictionary.
names = {'Dave': 'Backus', 'Chase': 'Coleman', 'Spencer': 'Lyon', 'Glenn': 'Okun'}
"No Idea" Errors. These are errors that you have no idea what is going on. A couple of tips:
  • Ask a friend. While the movie vision of a coder is some guy in a hoody in a dark room by himself, this is not how we work. Working together, as a team, is an important aspect of data analysis and coding in general. So if you have a problem, ask for help. Explain to him/her what you were trying to do (often just this process helps solve the issue) and then show them the output.
  • Google fu Use google. Chances are you are not the first one to have this problem. Just cut and past the error message into google and track down what other people have to say about it.

Review Questions

Work with your neighbor on these review exercises:
Exercise. Take turns with your neighbor explaining these terms: integer, float, string, list, tuple, function.
Exercise. What types are these expressions? What lengths?
a = 1234
b = 12.34
c = '12.34'
d = [1, 2, 3, 4]
e = (1, 2, 3, 4)
Exercise. Describe the results of these operations:
a + b
a + c
d + d
Exercise. Describe the results of these operations:
Exercise. Take the object numbers = {1: 'one', 2: 'two'}. What type is it? Extract the keys as a list. Extract the values as a list.


  • Assignments and variables: We say we assign what's on the right to the thing on the left: x = 17.4 assigns the number 17.4 to the variable x.
  • Data types and structures:
    • Strings. Strings are collections of characters in quotes: 'this is a string'.
    • Lists. Lists are collections of things in square brackets: [1, 'help', 3.14159].
    • Number types: integers vs. floats. Examples of integers include -1, 2, 5, 42. They cannot involve fractions. Floats use decimal points: 12.34. Thus 2 is an integer and 2.0 is a float.
    • Dictionary. Dictionaries are collections of unordered things in {} with key-value pairs: names = {'Dave': 'Backus', 'Chase': 'Coleman'}.
  • Help. We can get help for a function or method foo by typing foo? in the IPython console or foo in the Object explorer. Try each of them with the type() function to remind yourself how this works.
  • Built-in functions:
    • The print() function. Use print('something', x) to display the value(s) of the object(s) in parentheses.
    • The type() function. The command type(x) tells us what kind of object x is. Past examples include integers, floating point numbers, strings, and lists.
  • Type conversions:
    • Use str() to convert a float or integer to a string.
    • Use float() or int() to convert a string into a float or integer.
    • Use list() to convert a string to a list of its characters.
  • Error message types:
    • NameError. Usually happens when using something not defined which could be variable or methods.
    • TypeError. Raise when an operation or function is applied to an object of inappropriate type. For example, tuples have no "=" methods while number no len.
    • Invalid syntax. Syntax errors can be detected before your program begins to run. So first thing to do is to check typos, parentheses, etc.
    • KeyError. It happens when you refer a key not previously defined in the dictionary.


If you'd like another source for comparison, here are some good introductions to basic Python and related topics:
  • Codecademy has an excellent Introduction to Python. You run Python in their online environment, which is really helpful when you're starting out. It uses Python 2, so the print statement has the form print x rather than print(x). If we were to recommend one outside resource, this would be it. You should think seriously of working your way through it in parallel with this course. If you do, you can stop (as far as this course in concerned) when you get to Advanced Topics.
  • Here's a list of free tutorials, but we think you can stop with the first one, Codecademy.
  • The official Python tutorial is very good. It's also a good idea to get used to reading official documentation like this. There are times when it's unavoidable.
  • Mark Lutz's Learning Python is a 1600-page monster that covers lots of things we won't use. But it's clear and thorough, and comes with the elusive Glenn Okun stamp of approval. He tells us the Kindle version comes with free updates.
These sources go well beyond what we do in this chapter, but we'll catch up with some of it later on.