Chapter 5: Input and Output

A program means very little if it does not take input of some kind from the program user. Likewise, if there is no form of output from a program then one may ask why we have a program at all. Input and output operations can define the user experience and usability of any program. This chapter is all about how to put information or data into a program, and then how to display it or save it to a file. This chapter does not discuss working with databases, but rather, working at a more rudimentary level with files. Throughout this chapter you will learn such techniques as how to input data for a program via a terminal or command line, likewise, you will learn how to read input from a file and write to a file. After reading this chapter, you should know how to persist Python objects to disk using the pickle module and also how to retrieve objects from disk and use them.

Input from the Keyboard

As stated, almost every program takes input from a user in one form or another. Most basic applications allow for keyboard entry via a terminal or command line environment. Python makes keyboard input easy, and as with many other techniques in Python there is more than one way to enable keyboard input. In this section, we’ll cover each of those different ways to perform this task, along with a couple of use-cases. In the end you should be able to identify the most suitable method of performing input and output for your needs.

sys.stdin and raw_input

Making use of std.stdin is by far the most widely used method to read input from the command line or terminal. This procedure consists of importing the sys package, then writing a message prompting the user for some input, and lastly reading the input by making a call to sys.stdin.readln() and assigning the returned value to a variable. The process looks like the code that is displayed in Listing 5-1.

Listing 5-1. Using ``sys.stdin``

# Obtain a value from the command line and store it into a variable
>>> import sys
>>> fav_team = sys.stdin.readline()
>>> sys.stdout.write("My favorite team is: %s" % fav_team)
My favorite team is: Cubs

You can see that the sys module is quite easy to use. However, even simpler is the raw_input function. It basically generates some text on the command line or terminal, accepts user input, and assigns it to a variable. Let’s take a look at the same example from above using the raw_input syntax.

Listing 5-2. Using ``raw_input``

# Obtain a value using raw_input and store it into a variable
>>> fav_team = raw_input("Enter your favorite team: ")
Enter your favorite team: Cubs

Note that another function input performs a similar task. However, the input function needs to be used with great care as it could be a potential security risk. The raw_input function returns just what was typed, whereas the input function takes it and evaluates it as an expression, opening a door to arbitrary code execution. It is safest to stay away from using input.

Obtaining Variables from Jython Environment

It is possible to retrieve values directly from the Jython environment for use within your applications. For instance, we can obtain system environment variables or the strings that have been passed into the command line or terminal when running the program.

To use environment variable values within your Jython application, simply import the os module and use its environ dictionary to access them. Since this is a dictionary object, you can obtain a listing of all environment variables by simply typing os.environ.

Listing 5-3. Obtaining and Altering System Environment Variables

>>> import os
>>> os.environ["HOME"]
# Change home directory for the Python session
>>> os.environ["HOME"] = "/newhome"
>>> os.environ["HOME"]

When you are executing a Jython module from the command prompt or terminal, you can make use of the sys.argv list that takes values from the command prompt or terminal after invoking the Jython module. For instance, if we are interested in having our program user enter some arguments to be used by the module, they can simply invoke the module and then type all of the text entries followed by spaces, using quotes to pass an argument that contains a space. The number of arguments can be any size (limited by the shell), so the possibilities are endless.

Listing 5-4. Using ``sys.argv``

# – Prints all of the arguments provided at the command line
import sys
for sysargs in sys.argv:
    print sysargs


$ jython test test2 "test three"
test three

As you can see, the first entry in sys.argv is the script name, and then each additional argument provided after the module name is then added to the sys.argv list. This is quite useful for creating scripts to use for automating tasks, etc.

File I/O

You learned a bit about the file data type in Chapter 2. In that chapter, we briefly discussed a few of the operations that can be performed using this type. In this section, we will go into detail on what we can do with a file object. We’ll start with the basics, and move into more detail. To begin, you should take a look at Table 5-1 that lists all of the methods available to a file object and what they do.

Table 5-1. ``file`` Object Methods

Method Description
close() Close file
fileno() Returns integer file descriptor
flush() Used to flush or clear the output buffers and write content to the file
isatty() If the file is an interactive terminal, returns 1
next() This allows the file to be iterated over. Returns the next line in the file. If no line is found, raises StopIteration.
read(x) Reads x bytes
readline(x) Reads single line up to x characters, or entire line if x is omitted.
readlines(size) Reads all lines in file into a list. If size > 0, reads that number of characters.
seek() Moves cursor to a new position in the file
tell() Returns the current position of the cursor
truncate(size) Truncates file’s size. Size defaults to current position unless specified
write(string) Writes a string to the file object
writelines(seq) Writes all strings contained in a sequence with no separator

We’ll start by creating a file for use. As discussed in Chapter 2, the open(filename[, mode]) built-in function creates and opens a specified file in a particular manner. The mode specifies what mode we will open the file into, be it read, read-write, and so on.

Listing 5-5. Creating, Opening, and Writing to a ``file``

>>> my_file = open('mynewfile.txt','w')
>>> first_string = "This is the first line of text."
>>> my_file.write(first_string)
>>> my_file.close()

In this example, the file “mynewfile.txt” did not exist until the open function was called. If it did exist already, the previous version is overwritten by the new version and it is now empty. The file was created in write mode and then we do just that, write a string to the file. Now, it is important to make mention that the first_string is not actually written to the file until it is closed or flush() is performed. It is also worth mentioning that if we were to close the file, reopen it, and perform a subsequent write() operation on the file then the previous contents of the file would be overwritten by content of the new write.

Now we’ll step through each of the file functions in an example. The main focus of this example is to provide you with a place to look for actual working file I/O code.

Listing 5-6.

# Write lines to file, flush, and close
>>> my_file = open('mynewfile.txt','w')
>>> my_file.write('This is the first line of text.\n')
>>> my_file.write('This is the second line of text.\n')
>>> my_file.write('This is the last line of text.\n')
>>> my_file.flush()  # Unneccesary if closing the file but useful to clear buffer
>>> my_file.close()
# Open file in read mode
>>> my_file = open('mynewfile.txt','r')
'This is the first line of text.\nThis is the second line of text.\nThis is the last line of text.\n'
# If we read again, we get a '' because cursor is at the end of text
# Seek back to the beginning of file and perform read again
'This is the first line of text.This is the second line of text.This is the last line of text.'
# Seek back to beginning of file and perform readline()
>>> my_file.readline()
'This is the first line of text.\n'
>>> my_file.readline()
'This is the second line of text.\n'
>>> my_file.readline()
'This is the last line of text.\n'
>>> my_file.readline()
# Use tell() to display current cursor position
>>> my_file.tell()
>>> my_file.tell()
# Loop through lines of file
>>> for line in my_file:
...     print line
This is the first line of text.
This is the second line of text.
This is the last line of text.

There are a handful of read-only attributes that we can use to find out more information about file objects. For instance, if we are working with a file and want to see if it is still open or if it has been closed, we could view the closed attribute on the file to return a boolean stating whether the file is closed. Table 5-2 lists each of these attributes and what they tell us about a file object.

Table 5-2. ``file`` Attributes

Attribute Description
closed Returns a boolean to indicate if the file is closed
encoding Returns a string indicating encoding on file
mode Returns the I/O mode for a file(i.e., ‘r’, ‘w’, ‘r+,’rb’, etc.)
name Returns the name of the file
newlines Returns the newline representation in the file. This keeps track of the types of newlines encountered while reading the file. Allows for universal newline support.

Listing 5-7. ``file`` Attribute Usage

>>> my_file.closed
>>> my_file.mode


One of the most popular modules in the Python language is the pickle module. The goal of this module is basically to allow for the serialization and persistence of Python objects to disk in file format. A pickled object can be written to disk using this module, and it can also be read back in and utilized in object format. Just about any Python object can be persisted using pickle.

To write an object to disk, we call the pickle() function. The object will be written to file in a format that may be unusable by anything else, but we can then read that file back into our program and use the object as it was prior to writing it out. In the following example, we’ll create a Player object and then persist it to file using pickle. Later, we will read it back into a program and make use of it. We will make use of the file object when working with the pickle module.

Listing 5-8. Write an Object to Disk Using Pickle

>>> import pickle
>>> class Player(object):
...     def __init__(self, first, last, position):
...         self.first = first
...         self.last = last
...         self.position = position
>>> player = Player('Josh','Juneau','Forward')
>>> pickle_file = open('myPlayer','wb')
>>> pickle.dump(player, pickle_file)
>>> pickle_file.close()

In the example above, we’ve persisted a Player object to disk using the dump(object, file) method in the pickle module. Now let’s read the object back into our program and print it out.

Listing 5-9. Read and Use a Pickled Object

>>> pickle_file = open('myPlayer','rb')
>>> player1 = pickle.load(pickle_file)
>>> pickle_file.close()
>>> player1.first
>>> player1.last, player1.position
('Juneau', 'Forward')

Similarly, we read the pickled file back into our program using the load(file) method. Once read and stored into a variable, we can close the file and work with the object. If we had to perform a sequence of dump or load tasks, we could do so one after the other without issue. You should also be aware that there are different pickle protocols that can be used in order to make pickle work in different Python environments. The default protocol is 0, but protocols 1 and 2 are also available for use. It is best to stick with the default as it works well in most situations, but if you run into any trouble using pickle with binary formats then please give the others a try.

If we had to store objects to disk and reference them at a later time, it may make sense to use the shelve module which acts like a dictionary for pickled objects. With the shelve technique, you basically pickle an object and store it using a string-based key value. You can later retrieve the object by passing the key to the opened file object. This technique is very similar to a filing cabinet for our objects in that we can always reference our objects by key value. Let’s take a look at this technique and see how it works.

Listing 5-10. Using the Shelve Technique

# Store different player objects
>>> import shelve
>>> player1 = Player('Josh','Juneau','forward')
>>> player2 = Player('Jim','Baker','defense')
>>> player3 = Player('Frank','Wierzbicki','forward')
>>> player4 = Player('Leo','Soto','defense')
>>> player5 = Player('Vic','Ng','center')
>>> data ="players")
>>> data['player1'] = player1
>>> data['player2'] = player2
>>> data['player3'] = player3
>>> data['player4'] = player4
>>> data['player5'] = player5
>>> player_temp = data['player3']
>>> player_temp.first, player_temp.last, player_temp.position
('Frank', 'Wierzbicki', 'forward')
>>> data.close()

In the scenario above, we used the same Player object that was defined in the previous examples. We then opened a new shelf and named it “players”. This shelf actually consists of a set of three files that are written to disk. These three files can be found on disk named “players.bak”, “players.dat”, and “players.dir” once the objects were persisted into the shelf and when close() was called on the object. As you can see, all of the Player objects we’ve instantiated have all been stored into this shelf, but they exist under different keys. We could have named the keys however we wished, as long as they were each unique. In the example, we persist five objects and then, at the end, one of the objects is retrieved and displayed. This is quite a nice technique to make a small data store.

Output Techniques

We covered the print statement in Chapter 2 very briefly when discussing string formatting. The print statement is by far the most utilized form of output in most Python programs. Although we covered some basics such as conversion types and how to format a line of output in Chapter 2, here we will go into a bit more depth on some different variations of the print statement as well as other techniques for generating output. There are basically two formats that can be used with the print statement. We covered the first in Chapter 2, and it makes use of a string and some conversion types embedded within the string and preceded by a percent (%) symbol. After the string, we use another percent(%) symbol followed by a parenthesized list of arguments that will be substituted in place of the embedded conversion types in our string in order. Check out the examples of each depicted in the example below.

Listing 5-11. Output With the Print Statement

# Using the % symbol
>>> x = 5
>>> y = 10
>>> print 'The sum of %d and %d is %d' % (x, y, (x + y))
The sum of 5 and 10 is 15
>>> adjective = "awesome"
>>> print 'Jython programming is %s' % (adjective)
Jython programming is awesome

You can also format floating-point output using the conversion types that are embedded in your string. You may specify a number of decimal places you’d like to print by using a ".# of places" syntax in the embedded conversion type.

Listing 5-12. Formatting Floating-Point Arithmetic

>>> pi = 3.14
>>> print 'Here is some formatted floating point arithmetic: %.2f' % (pi + y)
Here is some formatted floating point arithmetic: 13.14
>>> print 'Here is some formatted floating point arithmetic: %.3f' % (pi + y)
Here is some formatted floating point arithmetic: 13.140


It goes without saying that Python has its share of input and output strategies. This chapter covered most of those techniques starting with basic terminal or command line I/O and then onto file manipulation. We learned how to make use of the open function for creating, reading, or writing a file. The command line sys.argv arguments are another way that we can grab input, and environment variables can also be used from within our programs. Following those topics, we took a brief look at the pickle module and how it can be used to persist Python objects to disk. The shelve module is another twist on using pickle that allows for multiple objects to be indexed and stored within the same file. Finally, we discussed a couple of techniques for performing output in our programs.

Although there are some details that were left out as I/O could consume an entire book, this chapter was a solid starting point into the broad topic of I/O in Python. As with much of the Python language specifics discussed in this book, there are many resources available on the web and in book format that will help you delve deeper into the topics if you wish. A good resource is “Beginning Python: From Novice to Professional” by Magnus Lie Hetland. You may also wish to look at the Python documentation which can be found at