In a blogpost last month I announced PyToolz a Python implementation of the functional standard library. Today I want to discuss the wordcounting example in more depth, highlighting differences between simple/verbose and complex/concise code.

tl;dr: Library code reduces code-length at the cost of universal comprehension. Libraries simplify code for a subset of programmers while alienating others. This is behind the common complaint that functional programming is hard to read. We use word-counting as a case study.

Verbose solution with simple terms

My standard wordcounting function looks like the following:

def stem(word):
    """ Stem word to primitive form

    >>> stem("Hello!")
    'hello'
    """
    return word.lower().rstrip(",.!)-*_?:;$'-\"").lstrip("-*'\"(_$'")


def wordcount(string):
    """ Count the number of occurences of each word in a string

    >>> sentence = "This cat jumped over this other cat!"
    >>> wordcount(sentence)
    {'cat': 2, 'jumped': 1, 'other': 1, 'over': 1, 'this': 2}
    """
    words = string.split()

    stemmed_words = []
    for word in words:
        stemmed_words.append(stem(word))

    counts = dict()
    for word in stemmed_words:
        if word not in counts:
            counts[word] = 1
        else:
            counts[word] += 1

    return counts

While long/verbose, this solution is straightforward and comprehensible to all moderately experienced Python programmers.

Concise solution with complex terms

Using the definition for stem above and the frequencies function from toolz we can condense wordcount into the following single line.

>>> from toolz import frequencies

>>> frequencies(map(stem, sentence.split()))
{'cat': 2, 'jumped': 1, 'other': 1, 'over': 1, 'this': 2}

While dense, this solution solves the problem concisely using pre-existing functionality.

Increasing readability with pipe

The functional solution above with frequencies(map(stem, sentence.split())) is concise but difficult for many human readers to parse. The reader needs to traverse a tree of parentheses to find the innermost element (sentence) and then work outwards to discover the flow of computation. We improve the readability of this solution with the pipe function from toolz.

To introduce pipe we consider the abstract process of doing laundry:

>>> wet_clothes = wash(clothes)
>>> dry_clothes = dry(wet_clothes)
>>> result = fold(dry_clothes)

This pushes the data, clothes through a pipeline of functions, wash, dry, and fold. This pushing of data through a pipeline of functions is a common pattern. We encode this pattern into toolz.pipe.

>>> from toolz import pipe

>>> result = pipe(clothes, wash, dry, fold)

Pipe pushes data (first argument) through a sequence of functions (rest of the arguments) from left to right. Here is another example.

from toolz import pipe

# Simple example
def double(x):
    return 2 * x

>>> pipe(3, double, double, str)
'12'

Using pipe we can rearrange our functional wordcounting solution to the following form

>>> from toolz.curried import map

>>> # frequencies(map(stem, sentence.split()))
>>> pipe(sentence, str.split, map(stem), frequencies)
{'cat': 2, 'jumped': 1, 'other': 1, 'over': 1, 'this': 2}

This code reads like a story from left to right. We take a sentence, split it into words, stem each word, and then count frequencies. This is sufficiently simple so that I am confident in the correctness of the result after a brief review of the code. There is little room for error.

note: here we used a curried version of map. See the toolz docs for more info.

Discussion

The first solution uses lots of simple words. The second solution uses a few complex words. Just as in natural language there are benefits and drawbacks to a rich vocabulary. The choice of suitable vocabulary largely depends on the audience.

Long solutions of simple words are universally understandable but require reader effort to construct meaning. Most Python programmers can understand the first solution without additional training but will need to expend effort to deduce its meaning. This is like the approach taken by Simple English Wikipedia.

Concise solutions of complex words are not universally understandable but do convey meaning more quickly if the terms are already known by the reader. Additionally if the terms themselves are well tested then these solutions are less prone to error.

A good vocabulary can concisely express most relevant problems with a small number of terms. The functional standard library (e.g. map, groupby, frequencies, …) is such a set. Understanding a relatively few number of terms (around 10-20) enables the concise expression of most common programming tasks. This set was developed and refined across decades of language evolution.



blog comments powered by Disqus