Daily Archives: November 20, 2019

The Incredible Disaster of Python 3

Update 2019-11-22: A successor article to this one dives into some of the underlying complaints.

I have long noted issues with Python 3’s bytes/str separation, which is designed to have a type “bytes” that is a simple list of 8-bit characters, and “str” which is a Unicode string. After apps started using Python 3, I started noticing issues: they couldn’t open filenames that were in ISO-8859-1, gpodder couldn’t download podcasts with 8-bit characters in their title, etc. I have files on my system dating back to well before widespread Unicode support in Linux.

Due to both upstream and Debian deprecation of Python 2, I have been working to port pygopherd to Python 3. I was not looking forward to this task. It turns out that the string/byte types in Python 3 are even more of a disaster than I had at first realized.

Background: POSIX filenames

On POSIX platforms such as Unix, a filename consists of one or more 8-bit bytes, which may be any 8-bit value other than 0x00 or 0x2F (‘/’). So a file named “test\xf7.txt” is perfectly acceptable on a Linux system, and in ISO-8859-1, that filename would contain the division sign รท. Any language that can’t process valid filenames has serious bugs – and Python is littered with these bugs.

Inconsistencies in Types

Before we get to those bugs, let’s look at this:

>>> "/foo"[0]
>>> "/foo"[0] == '/'
>>> b"/foo"[0]
>>> b"/foo"[0] == '/'     # this will fail anyhow because bytes never equals str
>>> b"/foo"[0] == b'/'
>>> b"/foo"[0] == b'/'[0]

Look at those last two items. With the bytes type, you can’t compare a single element of a list to a single character, even though you still can with a str. I have no explanation for this mysterious behavior, though thankfully the extensive tests I wrote in 2003 for pygopherd did cover it.

Bugs in the standard library

A whole class of bugs arise because parts of the standard library will accept str or bytes for filenames, while other parts accept only str. Here are the particularly egregious examples I ran into.

Python 3’s zipfile module is full of absolutely terrible code. As I reported in Python bug 38861, even a simple zipfile.extractall() fails to faithfully reproduce filenames contained in a ZIP file. Not only that, but there is egregious code like this in zipfile.py:

            if flags & 0x800:
                # UTF-8 file names extension
                filename = filename.decode('utf-8')
                # Historical ZIP filename encoding
                filename = filename.decode('cp437')

I can assure you that zip on Unix was not mystically converting filenames from iso-8859-* to cp437 (which was from DOS, and almost unheard-of on Unix). Or how about this gem:

    def _encodeFilenameFlags(self):
            return self.filename.encode('ascii'), self.flag_bits
        except UnicodeEncodeError:
            return self.filename.encode('utf-8'), self.flag_bits | 0x800

This combines to a situation where perfectly valid filenames cannot be processed by the zipfile module, valid filenames are mangled on extraction, and unwanted and incorrect character set conversions are performed. zipfile has no mechanism to access ZIP filenames as bytes.

How about the dbm module? It simply has no way to specify a filename as bytes, and absolutely can’t open a file named “text\x7f”. There is simply no way to make that happen. I reported this in Python bug 38864.

Update 2019-11-20: As is pointed out in the comments, there is a way to encode this byte in a Unicode string in Python, so “absolutely can’t open” was incorrect. However, I strongly suspect that little code uses that approach and it remains a problem.

I should note that a simple open(b"foo\x7f.txt", "w") works. The lowest-level calls are smart enough to handle this, but the ecosystem built atop them is uneven at best. It certainly doesn’t help that things like b"foo" + "/" are runtime crashers.

Larger Consequences of These Issues

I am absolutely convinced that these are not the only two modules distributed with Python itself that are incapable of opening or processing valid files on a Unix system. I fully expect that these issues are littered throughout the library. Nobody appears to be testing for them. Nobody appears to care about them.

It is part of a worrying trend I have been seeing lately of people cutting corners and failing to handle valid things that have been part of the system for years. We are, by example and implementation, teaching programmers that these shortcuts are fine, that it’s fine to use something that is required to be utf-8 to refer to filenames on Linux, etc. A generation of programmers will grow up writing code that is incapable of processing files with perfectly valid names. I am thankful that grep, etc. aren’t written in Python, because if they were, they’d crash all the time.

Here are some other examples:

  • When running “git status” on my IBM3151 terminal connected to Linux, I found it would clear the screen each time. Huh. Apparently git assumes that if you’re using it from a terminal, the terminal supports color, and it doesn’t bother using terminfo; it just sends ANSI sequences assuming that everything uses them. The IBM3151 doesn’t by default. (GNU tools like ls get this right) This is but one egregious example of a whole suite of tools that fail to use the ncurses/terminfo libraries that we’ve had for years to properly abstract these things.
  • A whole suite of tools, including ssh, tmux, and so forth, blindly disable handling of XON/XOFF on the terminal, neglecting the fact that this is actually quite important for some serial lines. Thankfully I can at least wrap things in GNU Screen to get proper XON/XOFF handling.
  • The Linux Keyspan USB serial driver doesn’t even implement XON/XOFF handling at all.

Now, you might make an argument “Well, ISO-8859-* is deprecated. We’ve all moved on to Unicode!” And you would be, of course, wrong. Unix had roughly 30 years of history before xterm supported UTF-8. It would be quite a few more years until UTF-8 reached the status of default for many systems; it wasn’t until Debian etch in 2007 that Debian used utf-8 by default. Files with contents or names in other encoding schemes exist and people find value in old files. “Just rename them all!” you might say. In some situations, that might work, but consider — how many symlinks would it break? How many scripts that refer to things by filenames would it break? The answer is most certainly nonzero. There is no harm in having files laying about the system in other encoding schemes — except to buggy software that can’t cope. And this post doesn’t even concern the content of files, which is a whole additional problem, though thankfully the situation there is generally at least somewhat better.

There are also still plenty of systems that can’t handle multibyte characters (and in various embedded or mainframe contexts, can’t even handle 8-bit characters). Not all terminals support ANSI. It requires only correct thinking (“What is a valid POSIX filename? OK, our datatypes better support that then”) to do the right thing.

Update 1, 2019-11-21: Here is an article dating back to 2014 about the Unicode issues in Python 3, which goes into quite a bit of detail about it. It lays out a compelling case for the issues with its attempt to implement a replacement for cat in python 2 and 3. The Practical Python porting for systems programmers is also relevant and, like me, highlights many of these same issues. Finally, this is not the first time I raised issues; I wrote The Python Unicode Mess more than a year ago. Unfortunately, as I am now working to port a larger codebase, the issues I raised before are more acute, and I have discovered more. At this point, I am extremely unlikely to use Python for any new project due to these issues.