Find file History
Fetching latest commit…
Cannot retrieve the latest commit at this time.
Failed to load latest commit information.


Back To Remote Version Control

Presented and Designed by Anthony Scopatz

What is Debugging (Exercise)?

Before I show you the practice (art) of debugging, separate out into groups of 2-3 people. Follow these steps:

  1. Come up with a definition of debugging.
  2. Write it down on a strip of paper.
  3. Put paper in hat.
  4. ???
  5. Profit.

(Bonus Challenge: Make a new friend!)

Time limit: 5 min.

How I Debug

I write perfect code the first time.

Errors, Exceptions, & Tracebacks

Bugs start where execution ends. In many modern languages, when an invalid operation occurs an exception is thrown or raised. These exceptions may be handled or caught. In Python, there are ~165 built-in exceptions.

    a = 1.0 / 0.0
except ZeroDivisionError as e:
    print "Going from zero to hero."
    a = 1.0

In languages that have functions and exceptions, you can typically get a hold of what is known as a traceback. This displays the history of function calls leading up to the error.

Example: python

Other Resources: Exception Handling


Following Python's motto of "batteries included", the language itself comes packaged with its own aptly named Python DeBugger (pdb). From any Python code anywhere, simply make sure that pdb is imported and then call the set_trace() function.

import pdb

This drops you into debugging mode, where you have exactly the state of the program that the trace was set at!

Once inside the debugger, 'l(ist)' will list the commands available, 'h(elp)' will give you help on those commands, and 'q(uit)' exits the debugger.

Example: python

Other Resources: PDB Docs, Wingware, O'Reily, Great Blog.


Various profiling tools exist for every language out there. However, the general idea is always the same. Different parts of your code take up different amounts of the processing time. Your (human) time is limited. Therefore, you should focus on optimizing/fixing/etc. only the most important parts of your code. You discover which parts are most important by using a profiler.

Here we will be using kernprof, a line profiler by Robert Kern.

Example: -lv

Other Resources: kernprof


Linting in software is the process of discovering errors in a code (typically typos and syntax errors) before the code is ever run or compiled. Some people use such power automatically by not allowing their version control to check in code unless the linter passes. Or they have the linter run each time they exit their text editor. This is not crazy!

In Python there are two main libraries that help in this regard: pylint and pyflakes. These codes work by statically analyzing the parse tree, rather than importing and running the module. We'll be talking about pyflakes.

Example: pyflakes

Other Resources: basic definition, pyflakes, pylint, comparison.

Coding Standards

Much like a written natural language, there are many ways to express the same idea. The strict syntax of languages are necessarily more forgiving than what the correct way of doing things (think Oxford comma). To make the consumption of information easier, style guides exists to enforce particularly effective ways of writing.

Coding standards fill the same role but for programming languages. They become absolutely essential as projects become large (>1 person). ` Now, the wonderful thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from!`_

Python is somewhat unique in that the language itself has an approved coding standard called PEP8. The overwhelming majority (80-90%) of Python code that is available on the internet is written in a way that is PEP8-compliant. Unfortunately, some of that 20% is in standard library...

Thus not adhering to your coding standard is often considered "against best practices", ie a bug. Luckily there are tools to test for compliance:



The Scourge of {K&R, ANSI, ISO, 99, 11, Embedded, Objective} C!

Segmentation faults (segfaults) are some of the most obscure, most annoying, and most difficult to debug errors in existence. This is because they are a function of the state of the computer's RAM or virtual memory at runtime.

Segfaults occur when the program tries to access a part of memory that it expects to be able to get to, and for whatever reason it is not available. At this point the code cannot continue and typically just prints out Segmentation fault to the screen.

As the above error message does not indicate where in the execution the segfault occurred, it very could have been anywhere. However, all hope is not lost! Even high-level languages like Python have ways of handling segfaults made on the C/C++/Fortran level and turning them into standard exceptions. A great module for doing this is faulthandler, which joined the Python 3.3 standard library.



Other Resources: faulthandler, WAD, HOWTO Crash Python.


Valgrind is a utility for compiled codes which aids in debugging, finding memory leaks, and profiling. This is invaluable for codes tracking down errors that only happen at runtime, such as segfaults.

As an example, first compile the following program without optimization. For, run this line to see errors in this code:

g++ -o simpleTest
valgrind --track-origins=yes --leak-check=full ./simpleTest 300 300

We also have a cache test line. Run this line to see the cache errors:

valgrind --tool=cachegrind ./a.out 0 1000 100000

There are two paths in this code. If the first input is 1, it runs a cache-sensitive version of the loop. If it is 0, it runs a cache-insensitive version. The cache should look like:

~ $ dmesg | grep cache
CPU: L1 I cache: 32K, L1 D cache: 32K
CPU: L2 cache: 6144K
CPU: L1 I cache: 32K, L1 D cache: 32K
CPU: L2 cache: 6144K

You can run the same command to see cache on your linux machine. Another way to see the exact cache setup that valgrind found is the following:

cg_annotate --auto=yes cachegrind.out.21960

Note that your cachegrind.out will have a different number. This command is also handy because it shows which functions caused cache misses.

Other Resources: Valgrind