Nesting: Setting up your Python Environment

When you begin using Python a lot, you realize you’re creating (or re-creating!) the same functions over and over again.  I don’t know how many times, for example, I have re-Googled and re-typed the recipe from the magnificent and eccentric Python library BeautifulSoup to get text out of an HTML document, as when I want to create a simple search index.

I also end up needing to find this meta-recipe for loading my own frequently-used functions and helpers into my Python environment. So I thought I’d write up, in one place, how to set up your Python environment so that your own libraries and code snippets are in scope, and ready for you to use. It’s simple and I really wanted to get it down.

Feathering the Python nest

What we want to end up with is a Python environment in which tools and script we have already written are already loaded and at our fingertips. Start Python—or iPython, or some other Python-based environment—and your stuff is there.

In my environment I have created a module called brownhen in which functions I reuse are defined. You can call yours  anything you want—bobby, greatstuff, powertools, whatever. But it’s important to “name space” these functions and utilities to remind yourself where these things come from and what package they’re a part of. In this tutorial, my stuff is in a module called “brownhen”.

So this recipe describes how to:

  1. Organize your useful stuff into modules—a very good idea in any case
  2. Set up your environment to find your modules when Python starts (PYTHONPATH)
  3. Tell your environment not only where your modules are, but to pre-load them when you fire Python up (PYTHONSTART)

When I start up the iPython interpreter, which I keep up most all the time and sort of live in, my environment welcomes me and lets me know that my imports are working:

When Python tells me that it has 2) found and 3) loaded utilities I have 1) organized into my own module(s), it means that I can easily reuse my own.


Where does Python look for the libraries and code it needs when it starts up? Where can it look for new stuff when you use import statements? It doesn’t just look everywhere on your laptop. That’s bad form and takes too long. 

The answer is that Python reads the system’s PYTHONPATH environment variable for any paths that should be added to what it already knows about, which typically gets defined when you install Python for the first ime. I am using the Anaconda distribution of Python right now, so the scope of Python’s searching is basically contained to the directory where Anaconda put down a series of executables, libraries, and tools:

Where does Python look for the libraries and code it needs when it starts up? Where can it look for new stuff when you use import statements? It doesn’t just look everywhere on your laptop. That’s bad form and takes too long.

The answer is that Python reads the system’s PYTHONPATH environment variable for any paths that should be added to what it already knows about, which typically gets defined when you install Python for the first ime. I am using the Anaconda distribution of Python right now, so the scope of Python’s searching is basically contained to the directory where Anaconda put down a series of executables, libraries, and tools:

To add to the list of places that Python searches when you start up, so that import statements can work without a hitch, edit the system PYTHONPATH variable and tell Python where else it should look:

Add the parent directory of “brownhen”, or “bobby”, to PYTHONPATH by editing your .bash_profie file on Mac, your .bashrc file on Linux, or your system environment variables on Windows:

If you put your stuff in a directory like ~/Dropbox/Programming/packages/brownhen/, then put the following (on Mac) into the file ~/.bash_profile:

This tells Python to look there when it starts up.  Already, you’ve set things up so that you can reach your brownhen stuff with import statements:


Go one step further by not only telling Python where your stuff is, but asking Python to load it when it starts up. Use the PYTHONSTART environment variable for this:

This tells Python that there’s a particular script that should be executed when Python starts up. In this case, the script has one line, and that is the import statement that pulls the brownhen fabulousness in and makes it available. This is in its entirety:

This tells Python to load the brownhen module, which can define functions and execute things right off the bat if you want. For this tutorial, my brownhen module file (see below) looks like this:

See that this file:

  • Imports a library—BeautifulSoup
  • Prints a statement to output to let you know it’s been loaded 
  • Defines two functions, one a test (hello) and the other we want to make sure and have available in all our Python sessions (textify)

With things set up in this way, I can start Python and begin to use my textify() function right away:

It works! I’ve got my environment set up so that frequently-used functions are 1) organized into a module, which 2) Python can find, and which is 3) loaded when I start up. Power. 

But how does this work? What’s a module again?

Python modules and module loading

The Python docs on this are good, and there’s lots of online support about modules and packages in Python, but just a word about it to round things out here:

Any directory in your path—in the list of directories you tell Python it should search via PYTHONPATH—is understood to be not just a directory but a Python module when it has a Python file in it called (two underscores on either side of “init”):

This file registers the directory “brownhen” as a module in Python, but it also gets executed as that module is loaded. So if in your PYTHONSTART file you import brownhen, as I have, you execute this file. 

In your module file, you can set define subdirectories as packages and do lots of other things, but know that this module initialization file gets execute by Python when the module is loaded, and is where you can put your favorite functions and tools. 

Syncing books, rising texts

Getting back to the text with ebooks

There must be a name in business school for the curve of ebook reading v. real books, for the shape that flares up at the beginning for individual readers, drops way down, possibly to zero, and then gradually climbs back a bit to some lower, steady level, like this:

Percentage of reading on device over time

Every ereader I know experiences some version of this curve. If we do it at all, we fall in love with the novelty of ereading, the cost and time savings, the ease of carrying around a pile of books on one device. The features of the ereader itself, like its bed-time back-lighting. But all or most of that leeches away in the face of this creeping feeling that we’re not actually reading, not actually absorbing the words as we flip through them, not seeing scenes, or having the recommended catharses, not getting into the text.

I’m on the steady, later part of the curve now, reading maybe half of my books and some magazines on a Kindle 1 device. The whiz-bang novelty has worn off, and so I feel like I’m finally in a position to appreciate the genuinely useful features of a digital reading device, the ones that are not pale versions of the book but advantages:

  • Searching in an ebook is real. It’s fantastic. The more you do it, the more you use this habit you acquired from web-surfing to locate, say, the first reference to a character, the name of a town.
  • e-Ink is really nice now. I tried reading on an Android tablet and the reflective glare and dim screen made that a non-starter outdoors.
  • Back-lighting and font control: I’m getting older! It’s nice to read on a device whose illumination, font-size and layout I can control. Keeps me from having to use readers. Plus I can read at night and disturb my wife [less].
  • integration: If you can get over how bummed you are about how big and monopolistic Amazon is with the experience of reading, you can like how your lists on–to-read, currently reading, etc.–are integrated into the ereader. A related item is that you can share your highlights and notes in the ebook as its own text, and can see sections and passages in a book that have been highlighted a lot.
  • Send content to your device to read later.

The feature of Kindles that I was most eager to try is this WhisperSync, which is a bridge between an ebook and its audio version. Amazon, having purchased Audible, allows you to move back and forth between the ebook and audiobook versions seamlessly, reading then listening, then reading. (The audio version is often advertised for this at a cheaper, “buy also” cost.)

For me, the whole point of returning to ebooks after having fallen down the ereading curve above, like everybody else, was not to take the place of actual books but to get a digital reading experience that wasn’t smothered in sidebar ads, cloying, embedded “read also” links, and bad layouts; hidden behind paywalls or hopelessly short or slapdash. I want digital long-form. I send myself readable versions of articles and focus on them as texts.

The ereader is pretty good for this. As you get used to it, it keeps improving, in my opinion.

And when you sync an ebook across the Kindle, the Audible version on your headphones 2, and maybe also the Kindle app on your phone for a quick few pages at the grocery store, it gets….really different, and maybe great! You can read a chapter, then hear the next one read by the author in a voice that’s completely consistent with your own internal one. It gets to be (again) like: I’m going to dive into the book. Too early to tell yet, but maybe syncing between these different formats can be even more absorbing, can reclaim “the text” for what it was before all these devices and distractions started diverting us.


  1. Which reading platform to use—the Kindle, the Nook, or another device, like the Kobo—is another story, and one I want to write about soon, since I used to do pro-indy, anti-Kindle work for bookstores, have owned various Nooks as well, and now use this Kindle.
  2. You can use Bluetooth or aux headphones in newer Kindles

100 Men Who Care, the Wilmington Chapter

One by one men amble up. Many run late. Not even close to a hundred of us. It’s not clear this is actually the official group and not just a bunch of random dudes chatting, comparing the craft beers on tap at Pour.

At this high-tech, self-service taproom in the Murchison building downtown, whose owner Brian Ballard donated the event space and the appetizers for this evening, there are dozens of taps, walls of them on two floors, each with its own little screen full of information. To get a beer, you choose, wave your rubber wristband near the screen, and pour. The space is crowded and comfortable. It’s social. Ironically, the automation gets people clumping together around the taps or the couches, striking up conversations.

The group of men does seem a bit random. That’s part of what seems so winning about the 100 Men Who Care organization starting up in Wilmington. We are just a bunch of dudes. Different kinds, different walks. At this inaugural November meeting, we are told, we are forming the only chapter of 100 Men Who Care in North Carolina at present, which feels pretty good. Take that RTP! There have been others in the state at different times—and there are hundreds of similar organizations across the country: There are 100 Black Men Who Care organizations. 100 Women Who Care is a common configuration—there’s a very successful one of these in Charlotte. There’s rumors of a 100 Children Who Care. Though all share a common mission, these organizations are different, separate, and evolving. Organizations like 100 Men Who Care are not legal entities, or tax shelters. They’re more like networks–networks of members who are interested in outcomes, collaboration, camaraderie, and the success of the region as a whole. These members bring this same sensibility to their professions, to their hiring, to their other organizations and community service.

Aaron Rovner, one of the organizers of this Wilmington chapter, says the idea was so compelling that he and his partners got the plan off the ground in minutes, got the website going a little bit later than that. When you hear about it, it just sort of makes sense, and this makes it work well—especially for people who want to contribute but want the support of a structure, who are busy, who want a way to vet their giving. It’s all not quite finished, and not quite official, not written into bylaws, not centrally managed. Instead, it’s agile, and it may be just the sort of lean, light, social structure that can channel giving the best. And be a boon for the area.

The way it works is this: Every quarter, members of 100MWC gather in places like Pour. Three members present their candidate charities to the others, describing the organization, the particular need. They answer questions. The emphasis here is not on selling the charities but on plain talk, real needs, and consensus. Once the discussion winds up and the votes have been tallied, all the members cut 100 dollar checks to the winner. That’s it. It can amount to as much as 10,000 dollars to the selected recipient (100 men x 100 dollars), and it happens every quarter.

This last meeting the three candidates were:

CFVC won handily with 40% of the votes, and is using our money to buy a box truck for shuttling volunteers and building materials to different sites affected by the hurricane. With so much need and so many pitching in to help for Florence, we voted for something infrastructural, a charity that makes other charities work better. The group raised about 2500 dollars that night (We were about twenty five Men Who Cared), and a member who couldn’t make it that night, Ross Hamilton from Connected Investors, rounded the total up to 5000 dollars!

Possibly winter Nor’easters and damaging freezes will be the focus of the next quarterly meeting in February. But there’s always need, and if you’re like me you want to figure out how to help wisely, and in the company of others who feel the same and can help make sense of it. 100MWC Wilmington is perfect for this.

As I got more into it over the course of the evening–and got close to the pour quota on my wristband–I kept asking what I came to learn were the wrong questions about 100MWC, and making the types of suggestions that I won’t anymore: We should have Powerpoints and one of these big screens, I said to Adam Fox, Rovner’s co-founder (with Jason Ashby) and the unofficial leader of the group, who goes by Fox and brought the idea from Knoxville. No no, he said, shaking his head like a giant bearded sensei, that would distract the process with visuals and fanciness, with things extrinsic from the actual need. Well, can we have the organizations themselves here, I asked? No, he said again, shaking his head almost sadly. In that case we’d be distracted from our purpose by their personalities, or their Powerpoints, or their charm, or size. You just have to get together, talk it out with a trusted group, and decide. I’m learning.

For more information on the 100 Men Who Care (Wilmington) organization, visit