# Helpful Python features

This is adapted from a talk/live coding session I did while interning at Spacemaker.

A lot of the programming we do in Python consists of doing stuff with lists and dictionaries. If we squint, we see that most of the things we do are quite common, and the Python library has several helpful functions. In this post, I will cover these features and show some use cases for them:

• The key argument to sort, min and max
• Truth checks: any and all
• groupby (from itertools)
• defaultdict (from collections)
• Dictionary lookup with default value

## Sorting

In Python, we can sort lists of numbers by using sorted(list):

numbers = [0, 5, 1, 9, 2, 7]
sorted_numbers = sorted(numbers)
sorted_numbers # [0, 1, 2, 5, 7, 9]


### Reverse order

If we want to sort by largest first, we use reverse=True:

reverse_numbers = sorted(numbers, reverse=True)
reverse_numbers # [9, 7, 5, 2, 1, 0]


### Sorting tuples or lists

If sorting tuples or lists, Python will sort by the first element, then the second element, etc. So

tuples = [(1, 0), (1, 1), (1, 0), (0, 1)]
sorted(tuples) # [(0, 0), (0, 1), (1, 0), (1, 1)]


### Telling Python what to sort on

An important feature in Python is that we can specify what to sort on. For numbers, it’s pretty straightforward. But for anything else, even letters, it’s not really uniquely determined. The default sort on letters will say that A is larger than ‘z’.

letters = ['b', 'A', 'c', 'D']
sorted_letters = sorted(letters)
sorted_letters # ['A', 'D', 'b', 'c']


What if we want to sort a list of letters irrespective of lower or uppercase? For one letter, we can get the lowercase representation using a function like this

def case_insensitive(letter):
return letter.lower()


We can put this function into the sorted function call, and sort with it:

sorted_letters = sorted(letters, key=case_insensitive)
sorted_letters # ['A', 'b', 'c', 'D']


Whenever we sort, it’s all just numbers underneath. The key argument is how we get a numeric value from whatever type the elements in the list have. The argument to key must be a function which takes an element in the list and returns a score for this element. So it takes a list, calculates a score for each element, sorts this list of numbers, and then returns the list of elements in the sorted order.

### Interlude: lambda

The lambda keyword in Python is a way to create an anonymous function, meaning, we don’t assign a name to it. This is useful if we want to use a very simple function only once. The syntax of lambda is lambda argument: return_value, or lambda (argument1, argument2, ...): return_value. (It needs parentheses if there is more than one argument.) PS: It’s not good Python style to assign a name to a lambda. Then you should use def!

### Sorting with key

Let’s say we want to sort a list of buildings. Buildings have several attributes, but let’s say we want to sort by its score for something. Using key in the sorted function as well as a lambda function, this becomes:

sorted_buildings = sorted(buildings, key=lambda building: building.score)


This key function can be a lot more complicated. As long as it’s a function that works on an element in the lists and returns a numeric value. If we have a list of objects of the same type, and we want to sort it, no matter in what way, it’s probably doable with key. Additionally, it will be faster than looping, because the built-in sort functions are definitely optimized.

#### Different use case: Sorting a poker hand

Sorting a poker hand can be done with the following:

sorted(cards, key=lambda card: (card.get_rank(), card.get_suit_numeric()))


## key in min & max

This key thing can also be used for max and min calls! So let’s say we want to find the facade with the highest score. We might be tempted to do that like this

highest_score = float('-inf') # placeholder for worst possible score
building_with_highest_score = None
for building in buildings:
if building.score > highest_score:
building_with_highest_score = building
highest_score = building.score


With a custom key argument, we can do this by

building_with_highest_score = max(buildings, key=lambda building: building.score)


which is arguably a lot more readable! If we need both the building itself, and the score, we can just say

best_score = building_with_highest_score.score


afterwards.

## any & all

Another thing we do often is do many if checks. Let’s say we want to see if all vectors in a list are non-zero. We might do that like this

any_vector_zero = False
for vector in vectors:
if norm(vector) == 0:
check = True
break
if any_vector_zero:
# do stuff


Another way to do this is to use any:

any_vector_zero = any(norm(vector) == 0 for vector in vectors)
if any_vector_zero:
# do stuff


One way to think of any is as a chain of or statements: any returns True if any of the statements sent to it are True. If all are False, we get False.

Similarly, we have all, which returns True if all statements are True. A way to think of this is that it is a chain of and statements.

## groupby

This is another helpful function. Let’s say we have a flat list of facades that we want to get in groups according to the sub building they belong to. So we have a list of objects Facade with an attribute sub_building_id. One way to do this might be to do

facades_per_sub_building_dict = {}
if key in facades_per_sub_building:
else:


groupby is a function which groups (consecutive) entries together. So we need to sort first. Then with groupby, the above code becomes

from itertools import groupby
for key, group in grouped_facades:


Note that the key functionality is necessary here, because we use it to tell groupby how to group the objects.

## defaultdict

Above we wrote

facades_per_sub_building = {}
if not key in facades_per_sub_building:


Disregard the fact that we could use groupby here. There is one annoying thing we have to do here, and that is to always check if the key is in the dictionary. If it isn’t, we have to make a new list first. We can use defaultdict for this.

A defaultdict is a dictionary which we tell what to do if there doesn’t exist a key: We provide a function to be called. If we try to look up a key that is not in the dictionary, the defaultdict will create a new entry in the dictionary with this key, and calls the function we provided in this case.

What we would in this case do is tell it to make a new list. We do this by using list, which is a function which takes arguments and puts them in a list. If given no arguments, it gives us an empty list. The code becomes

from collections import defaultdict


## Dictionary lookup with default value

A feature of dictionaries which is not always known is that you can provide a default value. The use case for this is that we’re checking if an entry exists in our dictionary with a certain key. If the entry exists, we want to use the value we have stored. If not, however, we want to just use a default value. So instead of

if key not in dictionary:
value = 'default'
else:
value = dictionary[key]


we can write

value = dictionary.get(key, 'default')