Code blocks and other ideas

ncoghlan edited this page Jul 19, 2014 · 9 revisions
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Motivating cases

  1. When sorting, it would better match the way we think about the code if you could define the key function within/after the call to sorted(), instead of having to define it before. Currently, this is only possible for a single expression in a lambda. Ideally, this function should also be in a throwaway scope, so that it is not accessible outside.
  2. How would you implement something like repeat(10, f(x)) (i.e. evaluating f(x) 10 times)? The options at present are all somewhat awkward: wrap it in a lambda (repeat(10, lambda: f(x))), pass a callable followed by its *args (repeat(10, f, x)), or put it in a string (repeat(10, 'f(x)')).
  3. Numba compiles a subset of Python code using LLVM for performance. It currently uses meta to decompile the byte code of a function into its AST. This is a really horrific hack around the lack of a real metaprogramming mechanism.
  4. Representing expressions. numexpr takes a string and parses it using eval (predates the ast module?). Sympy uses pre-declared variables which rebuild the expression by overloading operators done on them. It also has an IPython extension to automatically declare unknown variables, highlighting why that approach is awkward.
  5. Parallel programming frameworks would like a way to do 'run this code on these engines'. Currently, you can only do this with code in a string (which is ugly), or with a function, which is awkward for defining global names (telling all engines to import something, for instance).


PEP 403

PEP 403 proposes a decorator-like syntax, where @in is followed by a simple statement using the function defined below:

@in sorted_list = sorted(original, key=f)
def f(item):
        return item.calc_sort_order()
    except NotSortableError:
        return float('inf')

On the plus side, this adds minimal new syntax. However, some of us felt that the similarity to decorators is a bad thing, since it behaves quite differently (e.g. you have to use the function name, which you never do in normal decorators). It only really addresses the first case described above.

PEP 3150

PEP 3150 proposes a 'given' clause which can be appended to many statements to add an indented block:

sorted_data = sorted(data, key=?.sort_key) given:
    def sort_key(item):
        return item.attr1, item.attr2

This syntax feels more pythonic than PEP 403, but it would be trickier to implement. There is still no provision for examining the code itself: it is eagerly evaluated to produce a namespace. The 'rejected alternatives' section mentions using some token like ?given to refer to the closure.

Real inline functions

sorted_list = sorted(original, key=inlinedef(x):
            return item.calc_sort_order()
        except NotSortableError:
            return float('inf')
    )  # <- This has to be dedented relative to the block

Any volunteers to write the code to parse this? ;-)

Snowman blocks

This would allow a statement to get a following block as an object from which the AST is accessible. It's named for a joking suggestion to use the unicode snowman ☃ as the special token.

    import numpy

repeat(10, ?)::
    a *= 2

# Accessing .ns evaluates the block and gets the namespace
sorted_list = sorted(original, key=?.ns.sort_key)::
    def sort_key(item):
            return item.calc_sort_order()
        except NotSortableError:
            return float('inf')

# Alternative where sorted() accepts a block for key, and specifies that
# the key will be called item in that block.
sorted_list = sorted(original, key=?)::
        return item.calc_sort_order()
    except NotSortableError:
        return float('inf')

This is more powerful, because the code block itself can be used (not just the namespace from evaluating it), enabling neater solutions to cases 2-5 above.

But it is less convenient in cases where you just want a temporary function, as in case 1. As illustrated in these examples, either the statement must evaluate the block and pull a function from its namespace, or APIs must accept a block and make complex promises about how they will use it.

AST-preserving decorator

A special decorator (or some other marker) would be recognised by the compiler, which would store the AST of the decorated object as an attribute on it:

def foo(x, y):

import ast
for node in ast.walk(foo.__ast__):

This only really addresses case 3 above. It doesn't allow preserving the AST of simple expressions, only of functions or classes. And it doesn't make it any easier to reorder code as required in case 1.

Context managers

Some people expect the with statement to be a much more flexible tool than it is, such that this would be possible:

with repeat(10):

This looks neat, but context managers are designed for something very different: running code before and after the indented block. The context manager does not have access to the block to inspect it, or to run it more than once. However, the design of context managers may contain inspiration for this problem.

It's also worth noting that Guido's original anonymous block proposal in PEP 340 was strictly more powerful than the more limited form that we ended up implementing as context managers in PEP 343. Reviewing those two PEPs may help clarify the "One Obvious Way To Do It" needle that we're trying to thread here - PEP 340 failed, not because it wasn't powerful enough, but because it was too powerful and provided a second way to write other constructs (like for and while loops), without an obvious reason for preferring the existing constructs over the new one, and without clearly indicating how it was being used at the point of use. The deliberately more limited PEP 343 covered resource management and factoring out exception handling, without providing a new alternate spelling of the existing loop constructs.

Function = signature + code

This is more the germ of an idea at the moment. A function is the combination of a signature, saying what arguments it takes, with a block of code that executes when it's called and possibly returns something. At present, you can only define these together. What would it look like if you could define signatures without code, and code without signatures, and then assemble them later?

In relation to the notion of signatures existing independently of callables, PEP 362 describes the function signature objects that are now part of the inspect module, and PEP 457 is a draft covering some additional details related to fulling supporting introspection of functions defined in C with positional only parameters. Also see the Argument Clinic HOWTO for a key motivating use case.

In other languages


Julia's metaprogramming features include 'quoted' expressions, which represent their AST, instead of the result of evaluating them:

ex = :(a+b*c+1)

# Syntax for multi-line expressions
ex2 = quote
     x = 1
     y = 2
     x + y

Macros are like functions for expressions, normally evaluated at parse time. It's also possible to use macros in quoted expressions, and expand them at run time. This also demonstrates interpolating one code expression into another:

macro until(expr1, expr2)
        while !($expr1)  # code interpolation

i = 0
@until i^2>30 begin
    i += 1


Ruby blocks are essentially anonymous functions, passed as the last argument to a function: {|x| x*2}

In Python, the equivalent would be:

map(numbers, lambda x: x*2)

This post argues that blocks are a poor solution to language limitations. It also proposes—not completely seriously—a syntax for multiline lambdas where they are the last argument in a function, by moving them outside the braces:

sorted_list = sorted(original, key=*) lambda x:
       return item.calc_sort_order()
   except NotSortableError:
       return float('inf')

Additional resources

Some other links that may be relevant: