Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Practical Programming: An Introduction to Computer Science Using Python

Authors: Jennifer Campbell, Paul Gries, Jason Montojo, and Greg Wilson Format: Paperback, 350 pages Publisher: Pragmatic Bookshelf; 1st edition (May 28, 2009) ISBN-10: 1934356271 ISBN-13: 978-1934356272 According to wordnetweb.princeton.edu, Computer Science is "the branch of engineering science that studies (with the aid of computers) computable processes and structures". It's the study of computer architectures, languages, and mathematical structures as applied to the process of computing. So what have Campbell, et al produced in this book...a Computer Science textbook that teaches Python? Kind of. Imagine you wanted to learn how the computer is used in the various scientific disciples. Further, you wanted to learn how computer programs and programming is used in this context to construct tools, perform investigations, and to solve problems. You also want to use a single programming language as your example. Welcome to "Practical Programming: An Introduction to Computer Science Using Python". Not a book about learning Python as such, but an introduction to the discipline of Computer Science with Python as your guide. Yes, it is a text book. Page 5 in the Introduction has a For Instructors section which should be a clue. Code samples and installation instructions for the class are available for download at the book's website. New as this book is, there's already entries in the Errata section, and as with other Pragmatic books, there's a discussion forum available for questions and comments, which will come in handy for teacher and student alike. This really is a book that starts at the beginning, even to the point of describing a prompt in a python shell on page 9. Sections in Chapter 2 include Expressions and What is a Type, so the reader isn't presumed to know Python or programming at all. Like any other textbook of worth, there are exercises at the end of each chapter. Also like many textbooks, the information is presented in a rather "dry" manner, so don't expect to be entertained. Please keep in mind that this is a textbook and the target audience is a beginning Computer Science class. Class instructors are the most likely subset of the audience to be commenting about the book at this point, since they are using the book to educate their students in the fundamentals of Computer Science (which leaves me out since I'm not an instructor, but I'll do the review anyway). The book doesn't contain any surprises. Ultimately, it teaches beginning concepts in computer programming and as such, takes the reader along the elements of learning programming. As I mentioned before, Python is the "example" language, but the student is really supposed to be learning programming principles in general, not just Python programming principles. I must admit that Python was a good choice for this task as a language to learn from, plus it has a great deal of power and scalability. Thus the Python skills learned by the student will serve him or her in future classes and in a programming career. If you want to buy this book as an individual to teach yourself the content, it will still work, but you won't have the support of an instructor or a class. You can use the aforementioned discussion group at the Pragmatic site to ask questions and review any issues or shortcomings you discover (such as packages requiring Python 2.5 be installed on your computer in order to work). Many of the programming books I review contain at least a little humor to help break the monotony of the topic being taught, but don't expect to get any laughs out of this book. Campbell and company have written this text to be "all business". If used in the classroom, the instructor or the resident "class clown" will need to provide any required distractions or levity. Perhaps this is because this book is for a beginning Computer Science class and needs to take itself very seriously. I suspect that the publisher imposed this style of writing as part of the requirements for this series. In real life, in sure the authors are very funny. This is a beginner's book, so don't expect to learn everything there is to know about Computer Science or the Python programming language. It's just one class, intended to be taught in semester one of year one of a university student's academic career (though it could also be used in a High School class of similar nature). The later chapters do touch on Object-Oriented Programming, Graphical User Interfaces, and Databases, so by the end of the course, the student should be prepared to move on. Appendix A is the book's Bibliography, so you can see the sources drawn upon and, if you're using this book independently, determine what other books you might want to add to your library. Many of the sources are other traditional textbooks, but a few are more widely used references such as O'Reilly's Learning SQL. If you don't anticipate using this textbook in an Introduction to Computer Science class, but are intending to enter into such a program, this book would fit nicely in your summer reading list, giving you a leg up on the course work. Since a large part of what you are supposed to be learning is the process of computing, exposing yourself to the principles early can only help. That, and as a standard classroom textbook, is the best use I can think to make of "Practical Programming: An Introduction to Computer Science Using Python".