Item 23: Accept Functions for Simple Interfaces Instead of Classes

Thu 12 February 2015

The following is a sample from the new book Effective Python.

Many of Python’s built-in APIs allow you to customize behavior by passing in a function. These hooks are used by APIs to call back your code while they execute. For example, the list type’s sort method takes an optional key argument that’s used to determine each index’s value for sorting. Here I sort a list of names based on their lengths by providing a lambda expression as the key hook.

names = ['Socrates', 'Archimedes', 'Plato', 'Aristotle']
names.sort(key=lambda x: len(x))
print(names)
>>>
['Plato', 'Socrates', 'Aristotle', 'Archimedes']

In other languages, you might expect hooks to be defined by an abstract class. In Python, many hooks are just stateless functions with well-defined arguments and return values. Functions are ideal for hooks because they are easier to describe and simpler to define than classes. Functions work as hooks because Python has first-class functions: Functions and methods can be passed around and referenced like any other value in the language.

For example, say you want to customize the behavior of the defaultdict class. This data structure allows you to supply a function that will be called each time a missing key is accessed. The function must return the default value the missing key should have in the dictionary. Here I define a hook that logs each time a key is missing and returns 0 for the default value.

def log_missing():
    print('Key added')
    return 0

Given an initial dictionary and a set of desired increments, I can cause the log_missing function to run and print twice (for 'red' and 'orange').

current = {'green': 12, 'blue': 3}
increments = [
    ('red', 5),
    ('blue', 17),
    ('orange', 9),
]
result = defaultdict(log_missing, current)
print('Before:', dict(result))
for key, amount in increments:
    result[key] += amount
print('After: ', dict(result))
>>>
Before: {'blue': 3, 'green': 12}
Key added
Key added
After:  {'red': 5, 'green': 12, 'blue': 20, 'orange': 9}

Supplying functions like log_missing makes APIs easy to build and test because it separates side effects from deterministic behavior. For example, say you now want the default value hook passed to defaultdict to count the total number of keys that were missing. One way to achieve this is using a stateful closure (see [Item 15 for details). Here I define a helper function that uses such a closure as the default value hook.

def increment_with_report(current, increments):
    added_count = 0

    def missing():
        nonlocal added_count  # Stateful closure
        added_count += 1
        return 0

    result = defaultdict(missing, current)
    for key, amount in increments:
        result[key] += amount

    return result, added_count

Running this function produces the expected result (2), even though the defaultdict has no idea that the missing hook maintains state. This is another benefit of accepting simple functions for interfaces. It’s easy to add functionality later by hiding state in a closure.

result, count = increment_with_report(current, increments)
assert count == 2

The problem with defining a closure for stateful hooks is that it’s harder to read than the stateless function example. Another approach is to define a small class that encapsulates the state you want to track.

class CountMissing(object):
    def __init__(self):
        self.added = 0

    def missing(self):
        self.added += 1
        return 0

In other languages, you might expect that now defaultdict would have to be modified to accommodate the interface of CountMissing. But in Python, thanks to first-class functions, you can reference the CountMissing.missing method directly on an object and pass it to defaultdict as the default value hook. It’s trivial to have a method satisfy a function interface.

counter = CountMissing()
result = defaultdict(counter.missing, current)  # Method reference
for key, amount in increments:
    result[key] += amount
assert counter.added == 2

Using a helper class like this to provide the behavior of a stateful closure is clearer than the increment_with_report function above. However, in isolation it’s still not immediately obvious what the purpose of the CountMissing class is. Who constructs a CountMissing object? Who calls the missing method? Will the class need other public methods to be added in the future? Until you see its usage with defaultdict the class is a mystery.

To clarify this situation, Python allows classes to define the __call__ special method. __call__ allows an object to be called just like a function. It also causes the callable built-in function to return True for such an instance.

class BetterCountMissing(object):
    def __init__(self):
        self.added = 0

    def __call__(self):
        self.added += 1
        return 0

counter = BetterCountMissing()
counter()
assert callable(counter)

Here I use a BetterCountMissing instance as the default value hook for a defaultdict to track the number of missing keys that were added.

counter = BetterCountMissing()
result = defaultdict(counter, current)  # Relies on __call__
for key, amount in increments:
    result[key] += amount
assert counter.added == 2

This is much clearer than the CountMissing.missing example. The __call__ method indicates that a class’s instances will be used somewhere a function argument would also be suitable (like API hooks). It directs new readers of the code to the entry point that’s responsible for the class’s primary behavior. It provides a strong hint that the goal of the class is to act as a stateful closure.

Best of all, defaultdict still has no view into what’s going on when you use __call__. All that defaultdict requires is a function for the default value hook. Python provides many different ways to satisfy a simple function interface depending on what you need to accomplish.

Things to Remember

  • Instead of defining and instantiating classes, functions are often all you need for simple interfaces between components in Python.
  • References to functions and methods in Python are first-class, meaning they can be used in expressions like any other type.
  • The __call__ special method enables instances of a class to be called like plain Python functions.
  • When you need a function to maintain state, consider defining a class that provides the __call__ method instead of defining a stateful closure.


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Effective Python provides insight into the Pythonic way of writing programs: the best way to use Python. Novice programmers will learn the best practices of Python’s capabilities. Experienced programmers will learn how to embrace the strangeness of a new tool with confidence. Items include advice on what to do, what to avoid, how to strike the right balance, and why this is the best choice.