Thursday, December 24, 2009

Origins of Python's "Functional" Features

I have never considered Python to be heavily influenced by functional languages, no matter what people say or think. I was much more familiar with imperative languages such as C and Algol 68 and although I had made functions first-class objects, I didn't view Python as a functional programming language. However, earlier on, it was clear that users wanted to do much more with lists and functions.

A common operation on lists was that of mapping a function to each of the elements of a list and creating a new list. For example:
def square(x):
return x*x

vals = [1, 2, 3, 4]
newvals = []
for v in vals:

In functional languages such as Lisp and Scheme, operations such as this were provided as built-in functions of the language. Thus, early users familiar with such languages found themselves implementing comparable functionality in Python. For example:
def map(f, s):
result = []
for x in s:
return result

def square(x):
return x*x

vals = [1, 2, 3, 4]
newvals = map(square,vals)

A subtle aspect of the above code is that many people didn't like the fact that you to define the operation that you were applying to the list elements as a completely separate function. Languages such as Lisp allowed functions to simply be defined "on-the-fly" when making the map function call. For example, in Scheme you can create anonymous functions and perform mapping operations in a single expression using lambda, like this:
(map (lambda (x) (* x x)) '(1 2 3 4))  

Although Python made functions first-class objects, it didn't have any similar mechanism for creating anonymous functions.

In late 1993, users had been throwing around various ideas for creating anonymous functions as well as various list manipulation functions such as map(), filter(), and reduce(). For example, Mark Lutz (author of "Programming Python") posted some code for a function that created functions using exec:
def genfunc(args, expr):
exec('def f(' + args + '): return ' + expr)
return eval('f')

# Sample usage
vals = [1, 2, 3, 4]
newvals = map(genfunc('x', 'x*x'), vals)

Tim Peters then followed up with a solution that simplified the syntax somewhat, allowing users to type the following:
vals = [1, 2, 3, 4]
newvals = map(func('x: x*x'), vals)

It was clear that there was a demand for such functionality. However, at the same time, it seemed pretty "hacky" to be specifying anonymous functions as code strings that you had to manually process through exec. Thus, in January, 1994, the map(), filter(), and reduce() functions were added to the standard library. In addition, the lambda operator was introduced for creating anonymous functions (as expressions) in a more straightforward syntax. For example:
vals = [1, 2, 3, 4]
newvals = map(lambda x:x*x, vals)

These additions represented a significant, early chunk of contributed code. Unfortunately I don't recall the author, and the SVN logs don't record this. If it's yours, leave a comment!

I was never all that happy with the use of the "lambda" terminology, but for lack of a better and obvious alternative, it was adopted for Python. After all, it was the choice of the now anonymous contributor, and at the time big changes required much less discussion than nowadays, for better and for worse.

Lambda was really only intended to be a syntactic tool for defining anonymous functions. However, the choice of terminology had many unintended consequences. For instance, users familiar with functional languages expected the semantics of lambda to match that of other languages. As a result, they found Python’s implementation to be sorely lacking in advanced features. For example, a subtle problem with lambda is that the expression supplied couldn't refer to variables in the surrounding scope. For example, if you had this code, the map() function would break because the lambda function would run with an undefined reference to the variable 'a'.
def spam(s):
a = 4
r = map(lambda x: a*x, s)

There were workarounds to this problem, but they counter-intuitively involved setting default arguments and passing hidden arguments into the lambda expression. For example:
def spam(s):
a = 4
r = map(lambda x, a=a: a*x, s)

The "correct" solution to this problem was for inner functions to implicitly carry references to all of the local variables in the surrounding scope that are referenced by the function. This is known as a "closure" and is an essential aspect of functional languages. However, this capability was not introduced in Python until the release of version 2.2 (though it could be imported "from the future" in Python 2.1).

Curiously, the map, filter, and reduce functions that originally motivated the introduction of lambda and other functional features have to a large extent been superseded by list comprehensions and generator expressions. In fact, the reduce function was removed from list of builtin functions in Python 3.0. (However, it's not necessary to send in complaints about the removal of lambda, map or filter: they are staying. :-)

It is also worth nothing that even though I didn't envision Python as a functional language, the introduction of closures has been useful in the development of many other advanced programming features. For example, certain aspects of new-style classes, decorators, and other modern features rely upon this capability.

Lastly, even though a number of functional programming features have been introduced over the years, Python still lacks certain features found in “real” functional programming languages. For instance, Python does not perform certain kinds of optimizations (e.g., tail recursion). In general, because Python's extremely dynamic nature, it is impossible to do the kind of compile-time optimization known from functional languages like Haskell or ML. And that's fine.


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