Setting up my Emacs Elpy Python coding environment with Jupyter and Pyenv

xkcd 1987 python environment

The untimely demise of my old Asus laptop provided me with an occasion to upgrade my laptop, and I decided to go with the Dell XPS 13 for 2020. I might have written a blog post about installing Fedora 33, but there’s really nothing to report. Following the instructions on the Fedora web site was all that was required, and everything works flawlessly. Battery consumption is not what it might be if Windows were installed, but the trade-off is more than acceptable. Perhaps I will write a follow-up on how the machine works day to day. Now that I’ve tinkered with Gnome enough to feel happy enough with it, the time has come to turn to a more formidable installation task: my Python development environment. That will be the topic of this post. I hope this is of use to someone; at the very least, it will serve as a reference for me next time I have to set up a new machine.

The key elements of my Python environment, used mainly for data analysis using Pandas and creating visualizations using Seaborn and Matplotlib, are as follows.

  • Emacs, with Elpy for entering and running code
  • Jupyter iPython server for executing code interactively within Emacs
  • Jupyter notebook, for pasting in code developed in Emacs, for sharing with others
  • pipenv and pyenv for managing Python environments.
  • pyvenv in Emacs, for an interface to virtual environments created with pyenv

I’ll walk through the steps I used to get all this up and running. I am heavily indebted to Daniel van Flymen (, Gioele Barabucci (, and Alfredo Motta ( Giole provides a compelling case for using pyvenv and pipenv for managing Python environments. Why not just use Anaconda? Well, why not, indeed. Perhaps this too will be addressed in a subsequent post, if I can find the time, between writing code and teaching.

Python environment setup: pyenv and pipenv

The first thing I did was to make sure the dependencies were installed, so as to use the automatic installer, as per

[adam@localhost]~% sudo dnf install zlib-devel bzip2 bzip2-devel readline-devel sqlite sqlite-devel openssl-devel xz xz-devel libffi-devel findutils

Then, as instructed at

[adam@localhost]~% curl | bash

Then, to add the PYENV_ROOT shell variable:

[adam@localhost]~% echo 'export PYENV_ROOT="$HOME/.pyenv"' >> ~/.zshrc
[adam@localhost]~% echo 'export PATH="$PYENV_ROOT/bin:$PATH"' >> ~/.zshrc


[adam@localhost]~% echo -e 'if command -v pyenv 1>/dev/null 2>&1; then eval "$(pyenv init -)"\nfi' >> ~/.zshrc

(The latter two sets of instructions come from, steps 2 and 3 under “Basic GitHub Checkout.”)

Now it’s time to install Python.

[adam@localhost]~% pyenv install 3.8.6
Downloading Python-3.8.6.tar.xz...
Installing Python-3.8.6...
Installed Python-3.8.6 to /home/adam/.pyenv/versions/3.8.6


Of course, one can install other versions as well. This is in ~/.pyenv/versions/3.8.6. Everything is in the home directory, so as to be isolated from system installations of python.

Next, install pipenv with pip.

[adam@localhost]~% pip install pipenv

To create a virtual environment, such as one might use for a project, pyvenv-virtualenv is used; it’s installed along with pyvenv. That’s what’s used to create virtual environments. As indicated at

[adam@localhost]% echo 'eval "$(pyenv virtualenv-init -)"' >> ~/.zshrc

sets up automatic activation of virtual environments.

A virtual environment for Python 3.8.6 is created:

[adam@localhost]~/.pyenv/versions/3.8.6% pyenv virtualenv 3.8.6 adam-virtual-env-3.8.6

The next step is to activate the environment.

[adam@localhost]~/.pyenv/versions/3.8.6% pyenv activate adam-virtual-env-3.8.6

Gioele gives a nice account of how to use pipenv in a virtual environment (; see above).

Emacs Python coding environment

I like to write code in Elpy. Besides all of the familiar Emacs editing tools I know and love, it has built-in syntax checking and code formatting, and code snippets can be run from within Emacs. Because so many people share and run their code in Jupyter notebooks, I usually have a notebook open, which I build at the same time as I am developing the code in Emacs. That way I can be sure that the notebooks will generate the expected results. The notebooks are run from within a virtual environment using the python version and packages I want. To further guarantee that the notebook and my code in Emacs are using the same interactive Python kernel, I set up a kernel for each virtual environment that can be used by both Emacs and a notebook.

The first step is to install jupyter in the virtual environment with pip. This includes everything needed. Then, As explained by Alfredo at, identify the data directories used by jupyter.

(adam-virtual-env-3.8.6) [adam@localhost]~% jupyter --paths
(adam-virtual-env-3.8.6) [adam@localhost]~%

The (adam-virtual-env-3.8.6) indicates that I’m using the virtual environment I created as described above.

Now we make a kernels directory in the first of the paths listed for jupyter’s data.

(adam-virtual-env-3.8.6) [adam@localhost]~% mkdir /home/adam/.local/share/jupyter/kernels
(adam-virtual-env-3.8.6) [adam@localhost]~% mkdir /home/adam/.local/share/jupyter/kernels/adam-virtual-env-3.8.6

Next, we need to find out where the python executable is in our virtual environment.

(adam-virtual-env-3.8.6) [adam@localhost]~% pyenv which python

Now, we will add the kernel.json file to our new directory, putting in the path to the python executable, the first of the data directories discovered above, and name of the virtual environment.

    "argv": [
    "display_name": "adam-virtual-env-3.8.6",
    "language": "python"

This kernel can be selected in a Jupyter notebook, and it’s the same one that will be used in Elpy configured as follows, based on the Elpy documentation at

(setq python-shell-interpreter "jupyter"
    python-shell-interpreter-args "console --simple-prompt"
    python-shell-prompt-detect-failure-warning nil
    python-shell-completion-native-enable nil)
;; (add-to-list 'python-shell-completion-native-disabled-interpreters
;; "jupyter")

The difference between this and what the docs recommend is that, in order to avoid generating an error having to do with readline and completion, the final two lines must be commented out, and python-shell-completion-native-enable must be set to nil. This bug is discussed at It appears that jupyter itself provides useful completion, and code entry will occur in the Elpy buffer anyhow, so there doesn’t seem to be any loss of function here.

Finally, to use the virtual environment in Elpy, I use

M-x pyvenv-activate [RET] ~/.pyenv/versions/adam-virtual-env-3.8.6/

When a python file is loaded into a buffer when Elpy is in use, the kernel specified for the virtual environment will be used for iPython.

In memoriam, Karen Neander (1954-2020)

Photo credit: David Braddon-Mitchell

I just learned today, fortuitously, while looking up a reference to her work, that my former PhD advisor Karen Neander died on 6 May. I am sorry to say I had not been in touch recently. I suppose I thought that there would still be time. I miss her dearly. I wish I could have at least been able to say goodbye.

The brilliance of her intellect always made others’ shine brighter, an enormous feat in a discipline so often practiced as blood sport. She is one of those rare individuals in any academic discipline whose PhD thesis advanced the field in one giant step, so that she is probably best known for that work, even more so than subsequent publications.

In colloquia or in seminars, when she made a contribution, one would have the sense that something enormously sensible had just been said, and, digesting it, feel a dawning awareness that something complex, confusing, and rare would have just been made clear. As one might imagine, she was an extraordinary advisor.

Visiting her home office, one could always find where she was last working: a cup of tea next to the laptop on the floor, encircled by a broad fan of photocopied papers several wide, the outermost of them just beyond arm’s reach.

Karen was a gentle soul in an ungentle world. Nonetheless, she had a fighting spirit, independent, and cosmopolitan. An Australian, she made the remark that of course, in the US, she never felt completely at home, and, with her accent, was known immediately to be an outsider, but that in Australia, her friends and family often said that she no longer sounded like a native. “I suppose once you’ve been gone long enough, you’re not really at home anywhere,” she noted. Yet I have hardly ever felt more welcome myself in anyone’s home or office.

The photo is from

The continuing relevance of David Hull’s “On Human Nature”

I am honored and pleased to have been asked to select the reading for this week’s meeting of the Lewis and Clark philosophy reading group, and I wanted to make sure to select a paper that’s relevant, a good read, and that fits with the group’s interests. I have been wanting to re-read David Hull’s “On Human Nature” [PDF] for some months now. I think most people would agree that it’s well-written: although there’s some science, and although it’s pretty tightly argued, a start-to-finish first read is profitable and enjoyable. The group’s interests are broad; moreover, “On Human Nature” dovetails with last week’s reading, Bloomfield’s “Tracking Eudaimonia,” for some of the same reasons the Hull paper remains relevant, or is perhaps even more so, since its initial publication in 1986.

To elaborate concerning the paper’s continued relevance: Hull considers the concept of human nature from the point of view of biological taxonomy and the nature of biological species, foregrounding diversity and variation in his account. This stands in contrast to those who foreground adaptation and natural selection. Bloomfield, for instance, emphasizes adaptation and proper function in a biological reconstruction of the classical notion of eudaimonia. Steven Pinker is another prominent advocate of the view that adaptation, also seen as establishing some traits as innate or instinctive, is the biological basis for human nature. I get the sense that both Bloomfield and Pinker see grounding human nature in evolution by natural selection as a way of resisting what they might see as a pernicious kind of social constructionism or relativism, or, worse yet (from their point of view) nihilism about human nature. I would think that sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, considered broadly, also represent points of view according to which what human beings are adapted for is the basis for our nature, rather than their membership in the species simpliciter.

Our cultural and political moment requires that we tease apart the roles of evolution, variation, and natural selection in our conception of human nature. Earlier this Spring, I attended a training seminar on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, with a special focus on intersectionality, sexual orientation, gender identity, and transgender issues. This is the occasion on which it occurred to me that it would be worth looking at “On Human Nature” once more. At the training seminar, at a major cultural institution and visitor attraction in Portland, the presenter boldly declared that the existence of variation in gender identification was to be promoted because variation as such is always good for the species. The presenter seemed to have the view that any variants of a trait present in the human population must have some history of natural selection, and the view that traits with a history of natural selection should be preserved; and, I got the sense that the presenter also thought that natural selection, in general, works to preserve the species. Together, these claims seemed intended to inform the following line of thought: variation is worth preserving, if all variation is due to natural selection, because natural selection works to preserve the species; and, preserving the species is intrinsically worthwhile. Clearly, these premises cannot stand in justification of promoting or protecting variation among people. At least, I hope this much is clear to those who consider themselves well-informed about evolutionary biology: not all variation is adaptive; not all variation results from natural selection; and natural selection does not, in general, work to preserve a species. We will need to do better, if we are going to look to evolutionary biology in our argument that diversity in the human population is worth preserving. Indeed, perhaps there is no such argument to be made.

All this just points to the continued relevance of Hull’s paper. I’m excited about the discussion at this week’s meeting.