Metaclass Programming In Python, Part 2:

Understanding the Arcana of Inheritance and Instance Creation


David Mertz, Ph.D., Gnosis Software, Inc.
Michele Simionato, Ph.D., University of Pittsburgh
June 2003

Our initial developerWorks article on metaclass programming prompted quite a bit of feedback, some of it from perplexed readers still trying to grasp the subtleties of Python metaclasses. This article revisits the working of metaclasses and their relation to other OOP concepts. We contrast class instantiation with inheritance, distinguish classmethods and metamethods, and explain and solve metaclass conflicts.

Metaclasses And Their Discontents

In our earlier article on metaclass programming in Python, we introduced the concept of metaclasses, showed some of their power, and demonstrated their use in solving problems such as dynamic customization of classes and libraries at run-time.

That article has proved quite popular, but there were ellisions in our condensed initial summary. Certain details in the use of metaclasses merit futher explanation. Based on the feedback of our readers and on discussions in comp.lang.python, we decided to address some of those trickier point in this second article. In particular, we think the following points are important for any programmer wanting to master metaclasses:

(1) Users must understand the differences and interactions between metaclass programming and traditional object-oriented programming (under both single and multiple inheritance).

(2) Python 2.2 added the built-in functions staticmethod() and classmethod() to create methods that do not require an instance object during invocation. To an extent, classmethods overlap in purpose with (meta)methods defined in metaclasses. But the precise similarities and differences have also generated confusion in the mind of many programmers.

(3) User should understand the cause and the resolution of metatype conflicts. This becomes essential when you want to use more than one custom metaclass. We explain the concept of composition of metaclasses.

Instantiation Versus Inheritance

Many programmers are confused about the difference between a metaclass and a base class. At the superficial level of "determing" a class, both look similar. But once you look any deeper, the concepts drift apart.

Before presenting some examples, it is worth being precise about some nomenclature. An instance is a Python object that was "manufactured" by a class; the class acts as a sort of template for the instance. Every instance is an instance of exactly one class (but a class might have multiple instances). What we often call an instance object--or perhaps a "simple instance"-is "final" in the sense it cannot act as a template for other objects (but it might still be a -factory or a delegate, which serve overlapping purposes).

Some instance objects are themselves classes; and all classes are instances of a corresponding metaclass. Even classes only come into existence through the instantiation mechanism. Usually classes are instances of the built-in, standard metaclass type; it is only when we specify metaclasses other than type that we need to think about metaclass programming. We also call the class used to instantiate an object the type of that object.

Running orthogonal to the idea of instantiation is the notion of inheritance. Here, a class can have one or multiple parents, not just one unique type. And parents can have parents, creating a transitive subclass relation, conveniently accessible with the built-in function issubclass(). For example, if we define a few classes and an istance:

>>> class A(object): a1 = "A"
...
>>> class B(object): a2 = "B"
...
>>> class C(A,B):    a3 = "C(A,B)"
...
>>> class D(C):      a4 = "D(C)"
...
>>> d = D()
>>> d.a5 = "instance d of D"

Then we can test the relations:

>>> issubclass(D,C)
True
>>> issubclass(D,A)
True
>>> issubclass(A,B)
False
>>> issubclass(d,D)
[...]
TypeError: issubclass() arg 1 must be a class


The interesting question now--the one necessary for understanding the contrast between superclasses and metaclasses--is how an attribute like d.attr is resolved. For simplicity, we discuss only the standard look-rule, not the fallback to .__getattr__(). The first step in such resolution is to look in d.__dict__ for the name attr. If found, that's that; but if not, something fancy needs to happen, e.g.:

>>> d.__dict__, d.a5, d.a1
({'a5': 'instance d'}, 'instance d', 'A')

The trick to finding an attribute that isn't attached to an instance is to look for it in the class of the instance, then after that in all the superclasses. The order in which superclasses are checked is called the method resolution order for the class. You can look at it with the (meta)method .mro() (but only from class objects):

>>> [k.__name__ for k in d.__class__.mro()]
['D', 'C', 'A', 'B', 'object']

In other words, the access to d.attr first looks in d.__dict__, then in D.__dict__, C.__dict__, A.__dict__, B.__dict__, and finally in object.__dict__. If the name is not found in any of those places, an AttributeError is raised.

Notice that metaclasses were never mentioned in the lookup procedure.

Metaclasses Versus Ancestors

Here is a simple example of normal inheritance. We define a Noble base class, with subclasses such as Prince, Duke, Baron, etc.

>>> for s in "Power Wealth Beauty".split(): exec '%s="%s"'%(s,s)
...
>>> class Noble(object):      # ...in fairy tale world
...     attributes = Power, Wealth, Beauty
...
>>> class Prince(Noble):
...     pass
...
>>> Prince.attributes
('Power', 'Wealth', 'Beauty')

The class Prince inherits the attributes of the class Noble. An instance of Prince still follows the lookup chain discussed above:

>>> charles=Prince()
>>> charles.attributes        # ...remember, not the real world
('Power', 'Wealth', 'Beauty')

If the Duke class should happen to have a custom metaclasses, it can obtain some attributes that way:

>>> class Nobility(type): attributes = Power, Wealth, Beauty
...
>>> class Duke(object): __metaclass__ = Nobility
...

As well as being a class, Duke is an instance of the metaclass Nobility--attribute lookup proceeds as with any object:

>>> Duke.attributes
('Power', 'Wealth', 'Beauty')

But Nobility is not a superclass of Duke, so there is no reason why an instance of Duke would find Nobility.attributes:

>>> Duke.mro()
[<class '__main__.Duke'>, <type 'object'>]
>>> earl = Duke()
>>> earl.attributes
[...]
AttributeError: 'Duke' object has no attribute 'attributes'

The availability of metaclass attributes is not transitive; i.e. the attributes of a metaclass are available to its instances, but not to the instances of the instances. Just this is the main difference between metaclasses and superclasses. A diagram emphasizes the orthogonality of inheritence and instantiation:

Figure 1--Instantiation versus Inheritance

Since earl still has a class, you can indirectly retrieve the attributes, however:

>>> earl.__class__.attributes

Figure 1 contrasts simple cases where either inheritance or metaclasses are involved, but not both. Sometimes, however, a class C has both a custom metaclass M and a base class B:

>>> class M(type):
...     a = 'M.a'
...     x = 'M.x'
...
>>> class B(object): a = 'B.a'
...
>>> class C(B): __metaclass__=M
...
>>> c=C()

Graphically:

Figure 2--Combined Superclass and Metaclass

From the prior explanation, we could imagine that C.a would resolve to either M.a or B.a. As it turns out, lookup on a class follows its MRO before it looks in its instantiating metaclass:

>>> C.a, C.x
('B.a', 'M.x')
>>> c.a
'B.a'
>>> c.x
[...]
AttributeError: 'C' object has no attribute 'x'

You can still enforce a attribute value using a metaclass, you just need to set it on the class object being instantiated rather than as an attribute of the metaclass:

>>> class M(type):
...     def __init__(cls, *args):
...         cls.a = 'M.a'
...
>>> class C(B): __metaclass__=M
...
>>> C.a, C().a
('M.a', 'M.a')


More On Class Magic

The fact that the instantiation constraint is weaker than the inheritance constraint is essential for implementing the special methods like .__new__(), .__init__(), .__str__(), etc. We will discuss the .__str__() method; an analysis is similar for the other special methods.

Readers probably know that the printed representation of a class object can be modified by overring its .__str__() method. In the same sense, the printed representation of a class can be modified by overring the .__str__() methods of its metaclass. For instance:

>>> class Printable(type):
...    def __str__(cls):
...        return "This is class %s" % cls.__name__
...
>>> class C(object): __metaclass__ = Printable
...
>>> print C       # equivalent to print Printable.__str__(C)
This is class C
>>> c = C()
>>> print c       # equivalent to print C.__str__(c)
<C object at 0x40380a6c>

The situation can be represented with the following diagram:

Figure 3--Metaclasses and Magic Methods

From the previous discussion, it is clear that the .__str__() method in Printable cannot override the .__str__() method in C, which is inherited from object and therefore has precedence; printing c still gives the standard result.

If C inherited its .__str__() method from Printable rather than from object, it would cause a problem: C instances do not have a .__name__ attribute and printing c would generate an error. Of course, you could still define a .__str__() method in C that would change the way c prints.

Classmethods Vs. Metamethods

Another common confusion arise between Python classmethods and methods defined in a metaclass, best called metamethods.

Consider this example:

>>> class M(Printable):
...     def mm(cls):
...         return "I am a metamethod of %s" % cls.__name__
...
>>> class C(object):
...     __metaclass__=M
...     def cm(cls):
...         return "I am a classmethod of %s" % cls.__name__
...     cm=classmethod(cm)
...
>>> c=C()

Part of the confusion is due to the fact that in the Smalltalk terminology, C.mm would be called a "class method of C." Python classmethods are a different beast, however.

The metamethod "mm" can be invoked both from either the metaclass or from the class, but not from the instance. The classmethod can be called both from the class and from its instances (but does not exist in the metaclass).

>>> print M.mm(C)
I am a metamethod of C
>>> print C.mm()
I am a metamethod of C
>>> print c.mm()
[...]
AttributeError: 'C' object has no attribute 'mm'
>>> print C.cm()
I am a classmethod of C
>>> print c.cm()
I am a classmethod of C

Also, the metamethod is retrieved by dir(M) but not by dir(C) whereas the classmethod is retrieved by dir(C) and dir(c).

You can only call the metaclass method that are defined in the class MRO by dispatching on the metaclass (built-ins like print do this behind the scenes):

>>> print C.__str__()
[...]
TypeError: descriptor '__str__' of 'object' object needs an argument
>>> print M.__str__(C)
This is class C

It is important to notice that this dispatch conflict is not limited to magic methods. If we change C by adding an attribute C.mm, the same issue exists (it does not matter if the name is a regular method, classmethod, staticmethod, or simple attribute):

>>> C.mm=lambda self: "I am a regular method of %s" % self.__class__
>>> print C.mm()
[...]
TypeError: unbound method <lambda>() must be called with
    C instance as first argument (got nothing instead)


Conflicting Metaclasses

Once you work seriously with metaclasses, you will be bitten at least once by metaclass/metatype conflicts. Consider a class A with metaclass M_A and a class B with metaclass M_B; suppose we derive C from A and B. The question is: what is the metaclass of C? Is it M_A or M_B?

The correct answer (see "Putting metaclasses to work" for a discussion) is M_C, where M_C is a metaclass that inherits from M_A and M_B, as in the following graph:

Figure 4--Avoiding the Metaclass Conflict

However, Python does not (yet) automatically create M_C. Instead, it raises a TypeError, warning the programmer of the conflict:

>>> class M_A(type): pass
...
>>> class M_B(type): pass
...
>>> class A(object): __metaclass__ = M_A
...
>>> class B(object): __metaclass__ = M_B
...
>>> class C(A,B): pass    # Error message less specific under 2.2
[...]
TypeError: metaclass conflict: the metaclass of a derived class must
    be a (non-strict) subclass of the metaclasses of all its bases

The metatype conflict can be avoided by manually creating the needed metaclass for C:

>>> M_AM_B = type("M_AM_B", (M_A,M_B), {})
>>> class C(A,B): __metaclass__ = M_AM_B
...
>>> type(C)
<class 'M_AM_B'>

The resolution of metatype conflicts becomes more complicated when you wish to "inject" additional metaclasses into a class, beyond those in its ancestors. As well, depending on the metaclasses of parent classes, redundant metaclasses can occur--both identical metaclasses in different ancestors and superclass/subclass relationships among metaclasses. The module noconflict is available to help users resolve these issues in a robust and automatic way (see Resources).

Conclusion

There are quite a number of warnings and corner cases discussed in this article. Working with metaclasses requires a certain degree of trial-and-error before the behavior becomes wholly intuitive. However, the issues are by no means intractable--this fairly short article touches on most of the pitfalls. Play with the cases yourself. You will find, at the end of the day, that whole new realms of program generalization are available with metaclasses; the gains are well worth the few dangers.

Resources

We continue to recomment this useful book on metaclasses:

Putting Metaclasses to Work by Ira R. Forman, Scott Danforth, Addison-Wesley 1999

For metaclasses in Python specifically, Guido van Rossum's essay, Unifying types and classes in Python 2.2 is useful:

http://www.python.org/2.2/descrintro.html

Raymond Hettinger has written an excellent article on the descriptor protocol introducted in Python 2.2. Descriptors are a means to to alter the behavior of attribute/method access, which is an interesting programming technique in itself. But of particular value relative to this article is Hettinger's explanation of the lookup chain that underlies Python's concept of OOP:

http://users.rcn.com/python/download/Descriptor.htm

Michele's noconflict module is discussed in the online Active State Python Cookbook. This module lets users automatically resolve metatype conflicts.

http://aspn.activestate.com/ASPN/Cookbook/Python/Recipe/204197

The Gnosis Utilities library contains a number of tools for working with metaclasses, generally within the gnosis.magic subpackage. You may download the last stable version of whole package from:

http://gnosis.cx/download/Gnosis_Utils-current.tar.gz

Or browse the experimental branch, which includes a version of noconflict at:

http://gnosis.cx/download/gnosis/

Coauthor Michele has written an article on the new method resolution order (MRO) algorithm in Python 2.3. While most programmers can remain blissfully ignorant on the details of the changes, it is worthwhile for all Python programmers to understand the concept of MRO--and perhaps have an inkling that better and worse approaches exist:

http://www.python.org/2.3/mro.html

About The Authors

Picture of Author David Mertz thought his brain would melt when he wrote about continuations or semi-coroutines, but he put the gooey mess back in his skull cavity and moved on to metaclasses. David may be reached at mertz@gnosis.cx; his life pored over at http://gnosis.cx/publish/. Suggestions and recommendations on this, past, or future, columns are welcomed. His book Text Processing in Python has a webpage athttp://gnosis.cx/TPiP/.

Pic of Author 2 Michele Simionato is a plain, ordinary, theoretical physicist who was driven to Python by a quantum fluctuation that could well have passed without consequences, had he not met David Mertz. Now he has been trapped in Python gravitational field. He will let his readers judge the final outcome. Michele can be reached athttp://www.phyast.pitt.edu/~micheles/