Bob Ippolito (@etrepum) on Haskell, Python, Erlang, JavaScript, etc.

Using .pth files for Python development


Python's site module is responsible for setting up the interpreter's environment upon startup. One of the things it does during startup is scan your site directories (typically just site-packages, but framework builds for Mac OS X have an additional undocumented default location) for .pth files. .pth files are used to add additional locations sys.path, and they are typically created by distutils setup scripts that use the (still undocumented) extra_path argument.

.pth files are a great alternative to using the PYTHONPATH environment variable:

  • You don't have to screw with your environment (which can be difficult on Mac OS X and Windows).
  • The effect is localized to a particular Python installation.
  • You can toggle their usage simply by moving them around on the filesystem.

They become especially useful when using a framework build of Python, such as the one that ships with Mac OS X 10.3, because ~/Library/Python/2.3/site-packages/ is added to your path (undocumented), so they become a vector for simply and easily "installing" packages without authentication or administrator access -- perfect for development.

For pure Python ("purelib" in distutils terminology) packages, I create a .pth file that points straight at the source directory, which means I don't have to bother with the distutils setup script when I modify the code. For example, I have two of these on this machine:


# /Users/bob/src/py2app is a svn checkout of:


# /Users/bob/src/docutils is a cvs checkout of:

For Python packages that require extensions ("platlib" in distutils terminology), I create a .pth file that points to the "temporary" build directory created by python build:


# /Users/bob/src/pyobjc is a svn checkout of:


# /Users/bob/src/ctypes is a cvs checkout of:

This is somewhat inconvenient because:

  • I have to run setup whenever I change the source (I'd have to do that anyway...)
  • The build directory includes specific version information about the OS that changes on many Software Updates (these don't happen too often, so it's not such a big deal).

These can both be fixed, of course, with additional hacks - but I like to use as few hacks as possible so that my development environment is easily reproducible.

There are two features I wish that the site module had:

  • Tilde expansion in .pth paths (e.g. ~/src/py2app/src, or to implement home-dir-site-packages on other platforms - assuming the next feature)
  • Promoting .pth paths to become site directories of their own (so that they are scanned for additional .pth files)

Both of these can be hacked in with another undocumented feature: you can cause arbitrary code to be run during this process if the line starts with an import statement. Due to the way it's implemented, you can run arbitrary code in one of two ways (the second way requires two files):


# The module imported is not important, it's used only to
# trigger the execution of the following line.
import sys; print "hack1 installed!"


# This simply uses an additional module that implements the hack.
# It's probably "preferable" to ``hack1.pth`` as it doesn't depend
# on side-effects of the implementation.  The feature isn't
# documented anyway, so you may be on your own anyway...
import hack2

print "hack2 installed"