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JupyterCon: I don't like Notebooks [slides] (docs.google.com)
312 points by tosh 5 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 106 comments



I seriously cannot agree more.

Jupyter notebooks were fun to use for a bit, then I hit the inevitable wall of "ok, now let's turn this into a real, properly built script, but now everything is breaking for inexplicable reasons".

Notebooks are fine for early stage experimenting, but if you've got to the point where you start up you are relying on a notebook for anything, or your workflow consists of "start up notebook, run cells until I get to the one I'm working on" then you need to stop, and build it into something proper.

Experimentation is fine, but it should not come at the cost of writing things properly when the time comes, and they are not an excuse for not knowing some good software engineering. Serious alarm bells go off in my head when I read tweets like "Data science code doesn't need to follow the rules of good software engineering".

Edit: that remote notebook - is that honestly not one of the most terrifying things you've seen? That runs so counter to almost every good bit of software design and engineering practice about clarity, maintainability, good practice, security, etc that I can think of. It's the very definition of indecipherable, inscrutable hidden state and unknown side effects.


I don't even like it for initial experimentation and exploration. Much prefer the command line repl (the jupyter/ipython one). Faster feedback and easier navigation then you can just export the history when you're ready to capture and make permanent some workflow. It still requires going through and picking out the important bits, but reading the history like a story of commands is generally enough to pick out the important parts.

The only thing I would use notebooks for is demonstration / teaching.


If you work with image processing, notebooks are very handy as they can display images directly. Also to display tables nicely with pandas, or for any data visualization actually.


That's my problem. I agree that notebooks create a troublesome dev situation, but "%matplotlib inline" and stuff like the pivot table plugin keep me crawling back.


Doesn't IPython repl running in a QTconsole terminal do that ?


Yeah but it's less nice, and if you're running on a distant server you have to deal with X forwarding


Will the REPL allow you to easily edit function definitions and then reinterpret them?


I mean Jupyter doesn't really do that either, right? You can't edit most function definitions. Only ones that you've defined right there in the notebook, and only because you can run the cell that defines them again, overwriting the function.

But if you do use libraries instead of just a huge mess of notebooks, you're stuck if you want to change the code in a well-supported way. You can ask your notebook to monkey-patch the code (which is an even bigger mess), or you can use an unreliable magic extension, "%autoreload".


Yep, in the ipython REPL if you do

  %load_ext autoreload
  autoreload 2
it'll reload functions from any module you edit each time you run a new command.


One-off "experiments" become production technology all the time. They address an immediate need at the cost of tomorrow. This hasn't ever changed. Hyperbolic discounting is real.

When you're in a job that requires running experiments, analyzing results, and summarizing findings, all within an hour, shortcuts are required.

I think that analysts/scientists using python and Jupyter notebooks are doing IT a favor. If your job is to refactor/re-engineer python notebooks and corresponding workflows, you've either forgotten how much worse it could be with excel+vba or you fortunately arrived after trench warfare.


Wow, I thought I was the only one. I guess the biggest lesson I've ever learned from the internet is that I'm never the only one.


I wrote a loader for this. And there are tools to split cells for compiling. I wrote a tool to split up cells too and compile in order. Pretty easy, all the code is in notebooks.


A few quick searches, maybe something along these lines? https://jupyter-notebook.readthedocs.io/en/stable/examples/N...

My JavaScript version I just put a simple wrapper around my print-results call to check if it is in module mode or notebook mode.


RMarkdown have all the advantages of notebook and without most of its problems.

- code and document mixed. You have full markdown syntax, chunks, titles, table of contents. You can also convert RMarkdown into a script with comment if you need.

- To render a RMarkdown, it will run in a separate environment, start from scratch. It's assumed you should make it reproducible, this is good for report/sharing.

- I also use RMarkdown to write code, and run code/code chunks interactively in a session. I can write plan, notes, references, TODO in document, test code in chunks, execute code chunks in any order. Basically you just code and document. In the end you can turn it into a report, or refactor the tested code into functions and scripts. I kept the original RMarkdown as design document, which have all the original notes and previous version of code.

- It's plain text so version control is fully supported.

RMarkdown started to support python, but it may be preliminary for now.


I absolutely love Jupyter as a computer science student who uses it a lot to fiddle with new concepts, create visualizations, or write markdown reports with annotated code. I do agree with some points, though.

The problems with state felt sort of overstated (heehee), but it obviously is an issue. I always wonder why the menu option Kernel -> Restart & Run All is not a first class citizen, with a big red button at the top of the window. It's my main way of interacting with the notebook for anything that takes under a minute to run. Running cells one by one throughout the netbook isn't very useful. You either want to rerun the cell you're working on, or clear the state just in case and run everything.

Module versioning is another thing that should be a no-brainer.

I also wish the notebooks diffed better when it comes to SCM, without all the JSON artifacts.

Proper integration with existing Python tools/IDEs would be wonderful.

Also yeah, kernel sharing is one of the most horrific ideas I've heard recently.


> I also wish the notebooks diffed better when it comes to SCM, without all the JSON artifacts.

This is one of my biggest qualms as well. I built a DevOps tool [1] that uses Notebooks & not being able to diff and review Notebooks was a pain. I have decided to solve it with a GitHub marketplace app. Wrote more about it here: https://medium.freecodecamp.org/how-to-handle-version-contro...

[1] https://nurtch.com


Might want to use the full url [0] when sharing your work - the one you linked gives me problems with the ssl cert.

[0] https://www.nurtch.com/


Looks like pycharm is starting to support Jupyter notebooks, although not very well right now (I couldn’t get it it to work).


Notebooks were not created as a way to implement and organize software. You can do that with code files.

Jupyter Notebook is a presentation software, for demonstrating something to yourself or others. There is hardly anything comparable to build interactive demonstrations. You'd have to implement a (multi-paged?) GUI application, or a web application. Just plain html output may cut it for certain use cases, but still more painful.

And I've done more stupid stuff than that. For example I have a demo recording and showing EEG data. And a snake game implemented as a widget with Bokeh output. And live-update graphs from FlightGear. Lately I've started experimenting with controlling my 3D printer from the notebook.


Yeah notebooks are fantastic tool to show your works to others.

But the problem OP staes is that notebooks encourages unreproducible demonstrations. Markdown + code cells makes data scientists to think a single notebook file is enough to upload to GitHub. Missing dependancy information and etc as OP states make others very hard to reproduce the notebooks. You can see tons of GitHub repos that have notebooks only and impossible to reproduce out of the box.


Exactly - it's a classic case of a tool being used for a different purpose ("IDE") than its original intention ("presentation software") and getting criticized for not holding up to misguided expectations.

His criticism is valid but the main lesson is to use the appropriate tool for the job. He himself uses VSCode + iPython, which is a better tool more generally for the desired use case of code development.


Although the OP criticizes missing IDE features but that is not his main points.


But his main points aren't really showstoppers if you're using it as presentation software.


> Notebooks were not created as a way to implement and organize software. You can do that with code files.

It doesn't have to be an either/or. The granddaddy of the modern Notebook, Literate Programming [0] _was_ about implementing and organizing software. Just because today's Notebooks like Jupyter aren't currently sufficient to implement and organize software doesn't mean that they cannot be (again) in the future.

A lot of the problems pointed out in the slides are solvable. The DevOps of Notebooks is stuff we can absolutely sink our teeth into as an industry. We can make good Notebook formats that source control well. (Some folks have filters already for Jupyter.) We can make better bridges to (incrementally, per user interest) move Notebooks into source control, CI, testing, etc. Jupyter should already have some idea of the environment it is running in, it could certainly build things like requirements.txt or even full Docker containers. We can build beyond the single cell or single Notebook page and ask deeper questions about how do we organize Notebooks, how do we organize software in Notebooks, how do we interoperate with maybe some code that has a strong narrative to live in a Notebook alongside code that doesn't have a strong narrative or doesn't need one (or wasn't written with one in mind and is legacy code in the project). It could be great to take an existing Python codebase and say "this feature is best explained in a Notebook" and just build it that way. Similarly it could be great to say "this Notebook I found is already a great module, I'm going to build a more traditional app around it" and getting the Notebook's own help in bootstrapping that effort.

We certainly have the technology and the opportunities to do interesting software development in/with/alongside Notebooks and Notebook-like tools. The questions are certainly more ones of what are our priorities? Knuth argued in the 80s that all software development was best when embedded in a human-focused narrative. I'm not that extreme myself, but I certainly see some great opportunities for pragmatic middle grounds where you can mix-and-match as opportunity/interest/need warrants. Having Notebooks as a tool in software development _can_ make us better software developers. It's cool to have a lot of tools in your toolbelt so you can pick and choose the best ones for the jobs at hand.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literate_programming


When I first found notebooks I was amazed at their utility. The ability to quickly display algorithms and processes to a wider (potentially layman) audience is amazing.

To be able to have a scratchpad and play around with techniques while keeping a sort-of record is also amazing.

I see it like I see excel, it's a fantastic tool for data exploration and some visualisation. It's not something that should be used in any final workflow or production system.

Like excel, it can be badly mis-used but they unlock ways of working that simply weren't possible before it.

The criticisms about hidden state are fair, I think it would be better if previous step data was more explicitly wrapped in the following cells so you could choose to use the "wrapped package" of the previous data or choose to use a re-evaluating version.

I think it works best when most cells have few side-effects, even if that means repeating previous calculations.


The thing that bothers me about notebooks is that they don't seem to be getting better. Splitting the data from the code so that they play nice with revision control should already be implemented by default! Allowing notebooks to also be libraries should be doable. Testing mechanisms on notebooks should be standardised etc.

Is anyone working on bridging the gap between notebook sketches and production ready code?


I have tought Python with notebooks to scientists and we always emphasize the pipeline:

Play with your code in the notebook, when you know what the right way to split it is, turn cells into functions. When you have a decent body of functions turn them into a module.

Notebooks excel as ad hoc interfaces to libraries and modules. They don't replace them.

I'm not sure the problems with scientists' code are enabled by notebooks to a significant degree. We used to exclusively use PyCharm and I was still debugging spaghetti scripts with massive global state interacting in weird ways.

Notebooks give people more foot-guns with hidden state. I think they are neutral when it comes to modularity. And I think they are a positive for encouraging documentation.


This seems like a decent progression for easing beginners into the basics of good programming practices.

It's certainly not a Jupyter problem per se. I went through a similar progression when I learned BASIC in high school, in 1981. Projects grow to a size where they become unmanageable without some structure.

In my view, the importance of documentation is huge. I've been programming for a long time. I don't write software. I use programming as a problem solving tool. Jupyter has made a profound difference in my ability to pick up work that I did a month ago, or years ago, and figure out what I did, mistakes and all. For me it's more about reproducible problem solving than software development.


Notebooks for me were something I found after iPython Qt console, when I was getting frustrated at how hard it was to replay a set of scripts to get back to my state.

I always view them as an execute in order abstraction. I suspect what we really need to improve them is a subset of python which only deals in immutable data structures somehow - and then let notebooks branch off that immutable state but still be "execute forward" only.


The code written by a couple of "data scientists" I was working with is the worst code I have ever seen. They don't care, they just want to have an experimental results. The problem starts when their experimental "code" needs to be used on production or they are asked to describe how it works. Why cannot we just get good programmers and train them as data scientists?


I've worked with a few people who are software engineers -> data scientists. They were great at bringing good coding / database practices into the team. That said, their lack of formal statistics training was definitely a problem from time to time, and they seemed to show as much disregard for it as data scientists have for engineering practices (at least the ones talked about on this thread). This can be equally damaging.


Dealing with code (including tests and versioning) is on the same level as knowing the basic math notation. Should be embarrassing to not to apply the practices.

The only problem is that these good coding practices aren't that exact, and tend to go on and on all the way to infinity.


I agree, many (most?) data scientists spend most of their time coding, it's ridiculous how little time they're willing to hone this skill.

Data science practices are similarly inexact - a lot of good decision making comes from experience, knowing when to apply each tool to a specific problem, when to just throw in a hack etc.


Why cannot we just get good programmers and train them as data scientists?

For the same reason we can't just get good programmers and train then in biology or chemistry or structural engineering. Sure they exist, as do data scientists that are really good programmers, it's just that they're more rare and in very high demand.

Often much easier to find a domain expert and a programmer and have the programmer rework the code done by the domain expert. In fact that used to be my job for a while (working with physicists), and it was actually quite fun.


> Often much easier to find a domain expert and a programmer and have the programmer rework the code done by the domain expert. In fact that used to be my job for a while (working with physicists), and it was actually quite fun.

It's basically what people are now calling 'Research Software Engineers'


sounds like this is a process issue! EG, why data scientists and software engineers are both needed, and how they can work together to produce quality code which will produce quality data analysis


I work in data science (came in via a maths background) but I agree 1000%. My software engineering is pretty self taught, but I make an effort to follow best coding practices at all times.

That said, I think it goes both ways: people from the sciences tend to be cavalier coders, and people from software background tend to be cavalier about the underlying mathematics.

Seems to me that the solution needs to be a stronger culture of both increased scientific and software engineering rigor.


So there is hope for you :) You care, you will learn it. There is nothing wrong in not knowing something.

My main point is that too many people in data science don't care at all. They don't care about the repeatable results, about the code quality, even about units (they can even use `mb`, `Mb` and `MB` for megabytes in the same document).

I hope companies will learn that it's really important that if you have code it should be a good quality code, not a randomly gathered set of lines.


Had a project once where the "super helpful notebook" ended up being nicknamed "The Wall of Madness". Tons of weird out of order errors, #DONT RUN BELOW THIS LINE WITHOUT TALKING TO JIM, etc.


My experience with notebooks matches the one presented here. For me the most disappointing thing is that notebooks are JSON, and not just marked up .pys. The cons of this decision outweighs the pros for me.

One thing though--one of the best books I've read, Trefethen's ATAP, was written as a collection of .m files, which when run would produce a pdf of each chapter. The .m files were filled with small formatting details that were simply omitted from the generated book. The slides suggest something equivalent is not possible with notebooks. That's unfortunate.


One thing not mentioned was that version controlling notebooks is horrible - try diffing a big json mess that mixes input and output.


I would encourage everyone to use https://github.com/kynan/nbstripout before commiting.


I’m glad these concerns are becoming more widespread, since they are somewhat subtle and when we originally shipped RunKit many people didn’t know why we didn’t “just write a js backend for Jupyter”. The reality is that solving these problems are a huge engineering challenge and we spent the entire first year of development at RunKit on unifying the “module” and “REPL” environments. Our litmus test was that notebooks would be logical to work with once they could literally be required by other packages as if they were just modules with no modifications. The solution we came up with was VM-level time traveling: if you modify a previous cell, you should rewind the entire state of the machine (including undoing changes made to the file system, spawned processes, etc) and “pick up from there”. In RunKit, if cell 3 deletes a file, you can still read the file if you modify cell 2, since we snapshot the entire computer, and thus you don’t have to “pretend” you’re modifying cell order like with Jupyter. In this way you really do get the best of both worlds: a notebook never has out of order cells or is displaying its contents in an unintuitive way because if behaves “as if” you had just rerun the entire notebook from the start on every change - but with the feel and speed of iteratively appending cells. Additionally, since this isn’t done at the “language level”, computer-level side effects don’t become “out of sync” with your notebook - “oops I dropped a table in the database” - don’t worry just rerun the cell with corrected contents, it’ll always run with the same state it started with. You can read more about this in a blog post we wrote when we initially released (even though it reads like a direct response to slide 25 of this presentation): https://blog.runkit.com/2015/09/10/time-traveling-in-node-js...


Fascinating presentation! Joel is such a meme factory :-) Has anyone done a "rejected memes" section at the end of a technical talk before?

On topic: I applaud the effort to set things straight, but I'm afraid that ship has sailed. Hacky "Kaggle notebook solutions" are now Data Science. That's what the term evolved to mean, and all the rest of the impedance highlighted in this presentation follows.

If your work involves creating well-designed, well-factored, tested, reusable ML software that is meant to be integrated, picked apart, extended and applied over time in practice (as opposed to be submitted once to an oracle in order to claim "SOTA"), you better come up with another term. And obviously Notebooks are not a good fit, beyond as a tool for documentation & reporting (which Joel correctly calls out as genuinely useful).


See a previous post of mine (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17840216) for my general (frustrating) experience with notebooks.

I'll add positives notes, though:

-They're excellent for beginner tutorials that explain an abstract concept or a library's use cases

-They're very well suited for academic peer-review. It's basically a way to say: here's what we obtained, here are the exact steps we did to obtain it, you can obtain it as well if you do exactly as we did. You'd think this reproducibility requirement would be common sense but in practice you're usually thankful if the data is available, or the software is released and works.


I feel like I haven’t really dealt with this out of order execution madness this guy and some others are talking about here, usually I end up with like 2-5 big cells that I use, typically just a “init everything cell” a “run simulation/training cell”, and then some plotting cells and other “utility cells” that I use to poke at things.

I’ve been moving functionality to modules when I can too which helps minimize the amount of code actually in the notebooks, and I also will break up code into different notebooks (occasionally saving/loading specific variables between kernels) when it makes sense to. Maybe all this is helping a lot, have you all needed notebooks with dozens of cells as this presentation mentions?


I love notebooks! They are an excellent tool, if used judiciously.

They are really practical for situations where you want to play around (er even outright work with) principally not with code, but that code's output.

You see, I give lots of trainings.

Notebooks offer me an excellent way to mix commands, their output, and explanations into a single document with little effort. I'm able to show my students exactly what happens (including the literal messages), going step-by-step.

They are wonderful to create exercises.

However, for my use case, the notebook is the output (perhaps rendered as PDF).

Rules I've adopted for my own training notebooks:

  * the first lines are to print the versions of all things I'm using, e.g. "git --version" for git trainings
  * I use "restart&run all" frequently
  * obviously, notebooks are version-controlled, including their output
  * before checking in, prove that "restart&run all" provides exactly the desired result
Having said all that, I'd never use a notebook to write actual programs. It feels weirdly impractical, to the point that I was wondering of the presentation was actually presenting reality, or a strawman (I'm not doubting the veracity of the description, I just had a hard time accepting it as real).


What do you use to version-control your notebook?


Just git.

The tool is just a detail. My point was rather that they are very much "code", and deserve to be treated as carefully as any other.

My notebooks also get refactored on occasion.


Agree 100%! The best use of notebooks seems to be making demos of very simple things that demonstrate the idea of notebooks. My gripes:

1) It's claustrophobic! Trying to work in notebooks always felt like trying to do a math problem with too little paper when you're used to big empty sheets.

2) Readability is weird! I want to see all the code and then see the plots, not little crazy crunched up snippets with little crazy crunched up plots that might allow interactivity.

3) I might actually want to do something that involves looking at more than one plot at a time! Seriously? This always struck me as ridiculous. I have screen real estate, I want to use it! ESPECIALLY for interactive data analysis.

4) They're not as portable as they should be! There's always some drama when you open up someone else's notebook locally.

5) They encourage people to write weird ass code! Scientists already have a tendency to be messy if they're not CS types, this just makes it worse.

Alternative:

vim + tmux + ipython REPL + vim/tmux slime for shipping stuff from the editor to the REPL + matplotlib in QT mode

It's not as good as MATLAB but it gets close.


What if notebooks re-executed all cells in order as you type? That would solve the ordering and hidden state problem. To speed that up you could take a snapshot of the program state at each cell and re-execute from the snapshot of the cell preceding the cell you're modifying.

The advantage of a notebook over a repl is that the code you typed stays there and can be re-run and modified later. Re-executing all cells in order ensures that that actually works.

You can do away with the cell concept, and instead have some way to annotate which lines display their output. Then the distinction between an editor and a notebook almost disappears. An editor plus a way to annotate which lines' outputs are displayed, plus a way to type rich text, becomes a notebook.

Even better, you could allow users to display the output of lines inside functions, and have a way to select which concrete call is actually displayed. Sean McDirmid has already implemented such an editor. This removes the incentive to avoid abstraction, because it allows you to display outputs even if you put code inside a function or class. It's even better than a repl in this regard, and it doubles as a powerful debugger that can navigate through the execution.

The navigation works similar to an IDE's go to definition, except that when you go to definition on a call, it sets the concrete execution context of the call. For instance,

    function foo(x)
      y = x+2
      return 3*y
    end

    foo(5)
    foo(6)
If you click on the foo(5) call then it jumps to the definition of foo and sets x=5 and displays the outputs of expressions you've annotated, such as y = x+2. A similar mechanism allows you to pick the iteration of a loop. It even works fine in the presence of lambdas, allowing you to debug through callbacks (unlike conventional debuggers).


This causes issues when working with large data sets or running expensive operations, which is an advantage of modifying a single step independently from the rest.


As an example, loading up a dataset I was working with into RAM from my NVME drive took about 9 minutes each time. Rerunning that step on each script run is productivity-prohibitive as I am just trying to explore and clean the data.



Copy on write handles most cases fine. You can also still use such a system as a repl: just add more lines and don't modify previous lines. If you do that then nothing needs to be re-executed.

Since most people work with small data sets or can use a subset of their dataset during development, I think this would be a better default for a notebook.


I wish we didn't have a culture of being bitterly angry in our talks.


How is this bitterly angry? It's light-hearted, almost irreverent, witty, respectful to the community and understanding of the fact that it's being critical and might not be well-received, so makes efforts to mitigate that.


I agree. Found the "I know a few things" spiel distasteful, and the general tone to be patronizing and rude. Attitudes likes this are negatively impactful and points for or against notebooks can be made without the toxicity.


>Found the "I know a few things" spiel distasteful

And if he hadn't included it, all the comments would be "yeah, and who is he to talk".


It's mostly a critical mass problem, as far as I see it. If everyone had a different more positive tone, the one bitter one would stick out (and mostly people wouldn't even think about choosing that tone in the first place). But since that's what a lot of people do, that becomes the energy-minimizing approach to take. I suppose the best thing one can do is to have the courage to go against the stream ("vote with your feet") and find a way to make your presentation optimistic and happy (e.g. Julia Evans), despite the fact that you know there will be bitter people who judge you as cringy.


Agree with most of the things in this presentation. BUT. I generally use Jupyter Notebooks for these things: - Play around with some libs and charts - Draw charts for my papers or whatever - In short: draft stuff

And, for serious stuff, of course, python in text files with modules, tests (pytest) etc.


Great presentation, does anyone know if it was recorded?

The strength that kept me coming back to notebooks was their power at iterating on a problem but I was continuously frustrated at the difficulty of extracting my solution / tracking it in git / collaborating with colleagues etc. Also I didn't enjoy the editor experience from a UX point of view.

I've since started using hydrogen [1], a plugin for Atom which (via a Jupyter kernel) seems to get what I wanted from both worlds - it's just a python file but I get most of the notebook fun!

[1] https://github.com/nteract/hydrogen


Ironic this pops up today when a colleague has this scenario happen...

BA: We found this duplicate field error in our database, do you know about this.

DS: I told you about this 2 years ago.

BA: Oh so you have a script to produce all the duplicate records?

DS: No I did this 2 years ago I don't know what version of Python or any of the libraries I used for the notebook.

In my experience a lot of data scientists like this work alone on business problems - if they were in a more collaborative environment they'd probably run into the problems that Joel is discussing a lot more and be more open to build libraries.


I'll be honest and admit that I have barely used a Notebook, but I can see they have their place. They are very popular with scientists, where they are writing experimental code, much of which will be thrown away. For stuff that needs to be used in production then they seem like the wrong tool.

I had actually thought that they would be great for learning until I read this.

(I am a bit disappointed that the presentation doens't actually explain the reason for out of sequence execution, which seems to be one of the central complaints).


Notebooks may be suitable for scratching things, but not much else. The problems noted by the OP are very serious, specially in the scientific world, where many do not have proper software engineering skills. The real issue is that newcomers do not know better, and so they don't realize the damage they're inflicting upon themselves and others before it's too late (irreproducible code, hidden states, dep. management, etc).

Even the fast.ai library, which is a wonder, has broken notebooks. For those who try to follow the course at home, trying to run the notebooks is frustrating, as things are out of order and so errors pop up all the time. Jeremy is a wonderful teacher, but compare following a Fast.ai course video, which uses notebooks, to following a python video from, e.g., Raymond Hettinger [2], which uses sphinx and a shell. While the documentation style and ugly shell don't look nearly as cool, they are so much clearer and better structured.

Notebooks become popular because they fill one gap that was left uncovered. As the scientific community moves away from Matlab into Python and R, reading code - pushed, amongst others, by the popularity of Github - becomes a day-to-day activity. Matlab scripts were easily explorable because users would load them, set breakpoints here and there, and look at results interactively - exactly what notebooks aim to provide. The difference is that what used to be breakpoints now become cells, comments now turn into Markdown and figures are inlined to add an extra layer of convenience. Yet all the awful problems of sloppy Matlab development are now masked, marketed as something fancy and start to pollute the Python dev. environment. Reproducibility and testing are gone, dependency management (which is not required for Matlab) breaks down completely, documentation is non-existent, and sharing becomes heavily constrained.

Notebooks may be suitable for scratching things, but not much else, at least nothing serious. Hopefully the slideshow above gets the attention it deserves. And in all cases, kudos for the Jupyter dev team for fighting the good fight, even with the drawbacks of their experiment.

[1] http://course.fast.ai/lessons/lesson3.html [2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9zinZmE3Ogk


I love the notebook concept, it is the best way to show to other people pieces of working code and their results.

The jupyter implementation of notebooks has two serious problems, however:

1. The notebook source is not natively stored as a text file that you can easily edit with a text editor. You are forced to use the javascript interface.

2. The editor component has a lot of strange quirks to the point of being unusable.


I use notebooks a lot but when I've got a piece of code that I re-use more than once I pull it out into a module or two.

My notebooks are usually set up as: 1) a cell to load external libraries 2) a cell to load any of my own modules 3) a cell to set model parameters 4) a cell containing the functions that I use to load data (to be honest these are not always encapsulated in functions in the early stages of analysis) 5) cells containing functions that do stages of analysis that I'm happy with (but unique to this analysis and therefore not turned into modules). 6) A "main" cell that runs the cells in [5] and gets everything ready for 7) working cell[s] where I mess around with new analysis

While I'm working I only execute from [7] onwards unless I need to reload my data.

This is pretty easy to turn into production if needed because when the analysis is done, you can clean up the working cells and incorporate them into your main function.


Some of this is interactive development vs static development. A lot of the IDE features and stuff you get in "static" development, you could imagine getting into notebooks one day. The thing I don't know any good way to deal with is cached state during development.

If I have to get data that takes 15 minutes to query, another 10 to preprocess, and then maybe a few more steps before it's ready to put into my algorithm and start poking around, notebooks shine. In an IDE you could (and I often do) use have cached datasets partway through the process saved to disk, as mentioned in OP. But that's a hack too. And it still takes a minute or so to load and process anyways if cached.

So the options are

1) Shitty practices, but I can write try new changes on your data immediately.

2) Better practices, wrapped in caching hacks, but I have to wait minutes between every single change.


I use notebooks to test initial model performance, add some meaningful stats, descriptions of parts of computation performed and reasoning behind it, links to external (arxiv/github) papers/sources with detailed method descriptions, visualization of preliminary results of initial computation or hyperparameter search; that is a vital piece of information I provide to my clients who can then make an informed decision which way(s) they should move forward or abort completely. Then a production-ready code is developed outside notebook and productionalized including appropriate services (SaaS, serverless etc.). I found this workflow pretty good in convincing clients as they can play with results early in their decision process.


I think notebooks are neat, and can be a useful tool, especially for learning. But until the last few days I had no clue people were trying to use them for actual software development. To me this is a mistake, and adds a lot of tooling to what was and should be fairly simple process of opening up a text editor (of your choice, mine will be emacs). I am also fairly shocked there is a conference around this idea. I feel that this is a fad and distraction :/. It is a shame so much effort is being spent on this idea as a tool for building software. I think its focus should be on becoming a good aid in teaching people concepts. The last thing I want required to write software is a web browser.


> I feel that this is a fad and distraction

LMAO. Using a notebook with executable code is literally the modern version of Knuth's literate programming.

While I personally don't do much of it, I loved Peter Norvig's python notebooks[1]. Go through one of them and tell me it's not a good aid in teaching people concepts.

[1]: https://github.com/norvig/pytudes/


someone linked me this article the other day about how netflix is using notebooks as a development platform https://medium.com/netflix-techblog/notebook-innovation-591e...

i mean i get that theyre nice for doing data stuff and presenting it, but it just seems a bit crazy to use it as some sort of development platform.


Joel is definitely not alone, I agree wholeheartedly with everything mentioned in the slides.

I'd like to highlight that Notebooks do have use in pre-production while your are exploring data subset and trying out your initial hypothesis. But please, don't throw away decades of software development best practices and reliability for mere development convenience.

We are providing machine learning tooling and our CTO published a blog post talking about the same exact issues we keep encountering with dozens of customers. (https://blog.valohai.com/leveling-up-your-ml-code-from-noteb...)


Notebooks are a fantastic teaching tool despite some valid criticisms in the slides.

I teach Python to adult beginners including those with heavy Excel background.

Beginners catch on quickly that you need to run all the cells once to get reproducible results.

Worst comes to worse you just restart the kernel.

With Anaconda I can start teaching immediately over all 3 platforms(Win,MacOS and there are even Linux Python beginners) without worrying about differing versions or troubleshooting installations.

My students just git clone/pull my projects and start following around and experimenting themselves.

What would be the alternative, give them black on white REPL?

That said for personal projects that I do not intend to share I reach for my trusty text editor(VS Code is pretty good these days).


For the longest time I was looking for a "highlight and run" environment for python. I've got Spyder IDE connected via ssh forwarded ports to a python kernel on a remote server.

This avoids much of the annoyances that the slides point out about Notebook.


This was a well crafted and engaging slide deck. I enjoyed this thoroughly. I hope the issues presented are addressed by the Jupyter team. We should always promote good software development habits regardless of the target audience.


Hmm, agreed. But before you share a notebook, restart kernel and rerun all cells, fix all errors, and then share... Solves many of his gripes.

I use notebooks all the time, but I put repetitive code in a module, try do put all functions at the start etc. It is much easier to share data science experiments (provided you share the modules as well), but indeed notebooks can be used and presented in horrible ways.

So... now we write a presentation on how we can horribly abuse VSCode + an iPython console and call it even?


This was great, bravo! While I am not necessarily the audience intended. I've been following some Notebook development. I have always thought of it as convoluted and pedantic. I don't mean to distract from some very solid and well intentioned work. Just that it added a layer of complexity and turned out not to be as portable as advertised.


I only use notebooks in R (via knitr). Unless you choose to cache specific blocks by flagging it, it re-runs the whole notebook from scratch every time... So personally I haven't had any of these problems before. Further, the rendering is static, so you can't really choose to run things out of order either.


If you use notebooks inside R-Studio (like I imagine 99% would do) you click ctr+enter inside a code block and that block and only that block is executed, and below, the output of that block is rendered.


Absolutely don’t :)

Emacs + ESS all the way .


When I used notebooks the first time my mind automatically assumed the cells would work as a sort of data-flow variables and auto-update when a previous one changed.

Maybe a "this are potentially out of date" marker on out of order cells would help with the problem.


I love notebooks, but I agree with you. I like to use notebooks to instrument and debug modular models. Top down design, which is what I was taught years ago when I was learning C/C++ seems harmful when paired with out of order execution.


Previous discussion under a submission from the conference where this was presented. https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17839188


Has anyone mentioned https://observablehq.com/? I hate notebooks too, but I like this one a little.


Although I am a huge fan of Jupyter, Joel made some serious points there. First, we should think about embedding used package versions in our notebook to enhance usability.


The problem here is not notebooks, it's Python. Notebooks don't have tons of hidden state, Python does. Fix the language and notebooks are incredible.


They are not perfect, but they are still great


So, as a sysadmin who is on the verge of deploying jupyter massively (and support it), what should I say to my management ?


Yes. Reproducibility is a real problem. I saw my friends who study ML found to reproduce notebooks on github.


This person is my hero.

Just... roasted Jupyter notebooks.


Serious question, I don't want to attack this presentation but in general am I one of the few that finds meme annoying in slides?


I disagree. The memes give me memory cues when I think about the talk later. I have a visual memory so maybe this is why?

Also they are lighthearted and fun and life is short so why not have some fun even when being serious?


They only work in that capacity if you already watch a lot of memes, so they effectively act as a shibboleth (in-group out-group separator) for separating people who spend a lot of time on reddit from those that don't.


I'm not a Reddit user nor do I keep up with memes so I hadn't seen most of these memes until looking at this slidedeck.


They still help a lot to keep the audience alerted as long as they are funny or surprising without meta information. Adding "Confused Nick Young" to underline, well, how confusing some features are, will still be understood perfectly well by those who see it the first time. On the other hand, memes like "Scumbag Steve" [2] are indeed problematic, because there is no way to understand the point the author wants to make without prior knowledge.

------

    [1] https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/confused-nick-young

    [2] https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/scumbag-steve


Time to create a meme-based learning startup.


You're one of a few (myself included) but sadly I think reaction gifs and memes are here to stay even in technical presentations and articles.


No, you're not alone. For a presentation thats complaining about how something is hard to understand, I find all the meming distracting and unhelpful.


No, I find them annoying as well.

They aren't fun, don't have anything to do with technical content and just put me off, specially if the presenter thinks s/he could have a 2nd job as stand up comedian.


>They aren't fun

That's subjective.

>don't have anything to do with technical content

Most public presentations / speeches contain a few jokes. They don't have much to do with the technical content either, but they help people pay attention and ease in the speech.

It's not like we don't have enough boring powerpoint presentations already. It's also not like those going into the trouble of compiling the slides and sharing their knowledge owe us anything...


If I want to get a laugh I go to stand up comedy show, theater, cinema,... not to a developers conference.


Well, others don't compartmentalize things so tightly.

Most would welcome one or more jokes in a developer speech. So much so, that it's common advice for any kind of public speaking and presentation to add a few jokes to lighten the mood (you can find thousands of articles, books, and public speaking training sessions advising about this).

Some of the best technical speakers add humor in their presentations (often lots of it, e.g. Raymond Hettinger).


I see how it can be annoying; for me it's only mildly entertaining. However from a structural point of view I have the feeling that it's it's fine if only slightly obscured (how I am, what I don't like about notebooks point 1, example, point 2,...). At least at the end there's some summary slides that states his main points/gripes (how you could win me over)


I assume it works much better in a live presentation, where he is talking while running the slides. A 10-20 page deck or 3 page paper would have communicated this more readily as a stand-alone.


I also prefer a Desktop, but I can't take it with me.




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