Monday, September 24th, 2007


Over the summer I did quite a bit of work on lxml.html. I’m pretty excited about it, because with just a little work HTML starts to be very usefully manipulatable. This isn’t how I’ve felt about HTML in the past, with all HTML emerging from templates and consumed only by browsers.

The ElementTree representation (which lxml copies) is a bit of a nuisance when representing HTML. A few methods improve it, but it is still awkward for content with mixed tags and text (common in HTML, uncommon in most other XML). Looking at Genshi Transforms there are some things I wish we could do, like simply “unwrap” text and then wrap it again. But once you remove a tag the text is thoroughly merged into its neighbors. Another little nuisance is that el.text and el.tail can be None, which means you have to guard a lot of code.

That said, here’s the Genshi example:

>>> html = HTML('''<html>
...   <head><title>Some Title</title></head>
...   <body>
...     Some <em>body</em> text.
...   </body>
... </html>''')
>>> print html | Transformer('body/em').map(unicode.upper, TEXT) \
...                                    .unwrap().wrap(tag.u).end() \
...                                    .select('body/u') \
...                                    .prepend('underlined ')

Here’s how you’d do it with lxml.html:

>>> html = fromstring('''... same thing ...''')
>>> def transform(doc):
...     for el in doc.xpath('body/em'):
...         el.text = (el.text or '').upper()
...         el.tag = 'u'
...     for el in doc.xpath('body/u'):
...         el.text = 'underlined ' + (el.text or '')

I’m not sure if Genshi works in-place here, or makes a copy; otherwise these are pretty much equivalent. Which is better? Personally I prefer mine, and actually prefer it quite strongly, because it’s quite simple — it’s a function with loops and assignments. It’s practically pedestrian in comparison to the Genshi example, which uses methods to declaratively create a transformer.

Some of the things now in lxml.html include:

  • Link handling, which is particularly focused on rewriting links so you can put HTML fragments into a new context without breaking the relative links.

  • Smart doctest comparisons (attribute-order-neutral comparisons, with improved diffs, and also whitespace neutral, based loosely on formencode.doctest_xml_compare). Inside your doctest choose XML parsing with from lxml import   usedoctest or HTML parsing with from lxml.html import   usedoctest. I consider the import trick My Worst Monkeypatch Ever, but it kind of reads nicely. For testing it is very nice.

  • Cleaning code, to avoid XSS attacks, in lxml.html.clean. This is still pretty messy, because there’s lots of little things you may or may not want to protect against. E.g., I think I can mostly clean out style tags (at least of Javascript), but some people might want to remove all style. So there’s an option. There’s lots of options. Too many.

  • With the cleaning code there’s word-wrapping code and autolinking code. I think of these as clean-up-people’s-scrappy-HTML tools. Also important for putting untrusted HTML in a new context.

  • I rewrote htmlfill in lxml.html.formfill. It’s a bit simpler, and keeps error messages separate from actual value filling. They were really only combined because I didn’t want to do two passes with HTMLParser for the two steps, but that doesn’t matter when you load the document into memory. I also stopped using markup like <form:error> for placing error messages; it’s all automatic now, which I suppose is both good and bad.

  • After I wrote lxml.html.formfill I got it into my head to make smarter forms more natively. So now you can do:

    >>> from lxml.html import parse
    >>> page = parse('').getroot()
    >>> form = page.forms[0]
    >>> from pprint import pprint
    >>> pprint(form.form_values())
    [('action', 'entry'),
     ('resptype', 'U'),
     ('Arr', 'D'),
     ('f_month', '09'),
     ('f_day', '21'),
     ('f_year', '2007'),
     ('f_hours', '9'),
     ('f_minutes', '30'),
     ('f_ampm', 'AM'),
     ('Atr', 'N'),
     ('walk', '0.9999'),
     ('Min', 'T'),
     ('mode', 'A')]
    >>> for key in sorted(f.fields.keys()):
    ...     print key
    >>> f.fields['Orig'] = '1500 W Leland'
    >>> f.fields['Dest'] = 'LINCOLN PARK ZOO'
    >>> from lxml.html import submit_form()
    >>> result = parse(submit_form(f)).getroot()

    From there I’d have to actually scrape the results to figure out what the best trip was, which isn’t as easy.

  • HTML diffing and something like svn blame for a series of documents, in lxml.html.diff. Someone noted a similarity between htmldiff and templatemaker, and they are conceptually similar, but with very different purposes. htmldiff goes to great trouble to ignore markup and focus only on changes to textual content. As such it is great for a history page. templatemaker focuses on the dissection of computer-generated HTML and extracting its human-generated components. Templatemaker is focused on screen scraping. It might be handy in that form example above…

  • There’s also a fairly complete implementation of CSS 3 selectors. It would be interesting to mix this with cssutils.

    Though some people aren’t so enthusiastic about CSS namespaces (and I can’t really blame him), conveniently this CSS 3 feature makes CSS selectors applicable to all XML. I don’t know if anyone is actually going to use them instead of XPath on non-HTML documents, but you could. Because the implementation just compiles CSS to XPath, you could potentially use this module with other XML libraries that know XPath. Of which I only actually know one (or two < />?) — though compiling CSS to XPath, then having XPath parsed and interpreted in Python, is probably not a good idea. But if you are so inclined, there’s also a parser in there you could use.

  • lxml and BeautifulSoup are no longer exclusive choices: lxml.html.ElementSoup.parse() can parse pages with BeautifulSoup into lxml data structures. While the native lxml/libxml2 HTML parser works on pretty bad HTML, BeautifulSoup works on really bad HTML. It would be nice to have something similar with html5lib.

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This is the personal site of Ian Bicking. It should (but I fear cannot) go without saying that the opinions expressed here are my own.