Today I learned to not take the first answer you find on StackOverflow at face value. Combine it with a bit of critical thinking to make sure it’s what you need.

The sequence of events went something like:

Started my mentorship through Recurse Center’s RCStart program

We jumped right into web data scraping basics, spinning up a virtualenv and installing numpy, pandas, and matplotlib. (Aside: I knew both my mentor and I had recently returned from travels, and as an intro I asked where she had been spending her time. She responded, “Glacier National Park,” and I immediately knew this mentorship is going to go swimmingly. That’s where I had just returned from as well!)

My mentor had a hard stop at 5:50pm, so she left me with the following error to figure out, which I hit when importing matplotlib into my virtualenv’s REPL:

RuntimeError: Python is not installed as a framework. The Mac OS X backend will not be able to function correctly if Python is not installed as a framework. See the Python documentation for more information on installing Python as a framework on Mac OS X. Please either reinstall Python as a framework, or try one of the other backends. If you are Working with Matplotlib in a virtual enviroment see 'Working with Matplotlib in Virtual environments' in the Matplotlib FAQ

Learned that matplotlib requires Python framework access, which isn’t available in a virtualenv

The above error message was fantastic, because it pointed me to exactly where I needed to start fixing this problem. I followed the included instructions for creating a PYTHONHOME script to include in your virtualenv’s bin.

Hit errors saying Python2.7 wasn’t in my /usr/local/bin folder

I didn’t save these errors (maybe I should add that to lessons learned? Save all errors until the problem is solved? Is that a thing people do?), but they essentially said there was not python2.7 in my /usr/local/bin folder, which the above-created PYTHONHOME script pointed to.

Accessed both /usr/local/bin and /Library/Frameworks/Python.framework - no Python2.7

This is when I freaked out. I saw all the Python 3s I have downloaded over the past months in /usr/local/bin, and I saw 3.4 and 3.5 in Python.framework/Versions. But where the heck was my Python2.7??

Got confused and worried

I know Mac needs Python2.7 to run its apps, and that you should never, ever remove the default Mac Python unless you really know what you’re doing. I’d never even considered doing this. My next thought was, Did installing additional versions of Python somehow remove 2.7?

This was followed up by wondering why A) all my Mac apps functioned normally, and B) why when I open a REPL it still, with no problems, defaults to Python 2.7.

I figured 2.7 was somewhere, but why wasn’t it showing up in the above mentioned directories? Had I removed links somewhere but not the root program, allowing my computer to still function but I couldn’t link to the python install, as I was trying to do in the PYTHONHOME script?

Incessant Googling

Herein lies the problem with Googling: sometimes you Google the wrong things.

My searches centered around asking why python2.7 was missing from /usr/local/bin and how to restore it to that location. I found a lot of answers about how removing it was the dumbest thing you could do (I know! I didn’t, I swear!), and also suggestions on reinstalling your most recent OS X to restore system defaults, including system Python defaults.

Embarrassingly, I was going to go through with a reinstall of my OS. Mac makes this easy to do, and you theoretically don’t lose any of your files or data. Thankfully, I hit a snag that made me put off doing this. Details unimportant there, but I am SO GLAD that snag happened.

How close I came to taking an involved action that wouldn’t have fixed my problem has made me much more cautious of the “Blindly copy-paste from StackOverflow!” mentality programmers joke about so much. Again, you don’t know if you’re asking the right question.

Finally Googled the right thing

I continued searching for a solution.

The magic Google was: “restore python2.7 to frameworks mac.”

The first result was an answer to the question: How to restore python on OS X Yosemite after I’ve deleted something?.

This question was asking similar questions to what I had been wondering, as the questioner specifically referenced /Library/Frameworks and /usr/local/bin, which were the two paths I had been most concerned with.

Luckily for both of us, someone answered our unasked question as well, which should have been, “Is there somewhere else I should look for the default Mac installs of Python?”

Thank you, abarnert. I created a StackOverflow account so I could upvote your answer. (I know, I should have created one a while ago. This experience fixed so many problems!)

The most pivotal piece of their answer was:

Let’s start off with this:

/Library/Frameworks/Python/2.7 is neither the Apple Python nor the Homebrew Python. You apparently installed a third Python, maybe the one from the official binary installers. Removing that one won’t affect the Homebrew one.

/usr/local/bin/python is not the Apple Python either. It may be a symlink to your third Python or to the Homebrew Python, but it’s not from Apple.

Here’s where each Python goes:

Apple’s Python is in /System/Library/Frameworks/Python/2.7. It also includes various wrapper executables in /usr/bin, including /usr/bin/python, that point at the /System framework. Any extra stuff you install with that Python (e.g., via easy_install or pip) that includes executables or scripts will go into /usr/local/bin, not /usr/bin, but Apple’s pre-installed stuff never does. Most third-party binary installers install into /Library/Frameworks/Python/2.7. Different versions can optionally add the framework’s bin directory to your path, or symlink the binaries into /usr/local/bin. Homebrew installs to somewhere like /usr/local/Cellar/python/2.7.8, then symlinks various executables and scripts into /usr/local/bin. So, the fact that you’re trying to get back to the Apple Python by making sure /usr/local/bin is on your PATH is already heading in the wrong direction.

Queue Hallelujah chorus

I now knew my Mac default Python was safe and sound, and I knew how to fix my matplotlib problem.

I updated my path in my PYTHONHOME executable from /usr/local/bin to /usr/bin. Ta-da! I can now run a REPL in my virtualenv with matplotlib working in all its glory.

Well, once I figure out how matplotlib works.

To the docs, Robin! We’ve still got work to do.