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Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Stingray Reader Pervasively Bad Decision

I made some bad decisions when I wrote this a few years ago: Really bad. And. Recently, I've burdened myself with conflicting goals. Ugh.

I need to upgrade to Python 3.8, and add type hints. This exposed somes badness.

See for some status.

The very first version(s) of this were expeditious solutions to some separate-but-related problems. Spreadsheet processing was an important thing for me f. Fixed-format file versions of spreadsheets showed up once in a while mixed with XLS and CSV files. Separately, COBOL code analysis was a thing I'd been involved in going back to the turn of the century.

The two overlap. A lot.

The first working versions of apps to process COBOL data in Python relied on a somewhat-stateful representation of the COBOL DDE (Data Definition Element.) The structure had to be visited more than once to figure out size, offset, and dimensionality. We'll talk about this some more.

A slightly more clever algorithm would leverage the essential parsing as a kind of tree walk, pushing details down into children and summarizing up into the parent when the level number changed. It didn't seem necessary at the time.


I've been working for almost three weeks on trying to disentangle the original DDE's from the newer schema. I've been trying to invert the relationships so a DDE exists independently of a schema attribute. This means some copy-and-paste of data between the DDE source and the more desirable and general schema definition.

It turns out that some design decisions can be pervasively bad. Really bad-foundation-wrecks-the-whole-house kind of bad.

At this point, I think I've teased apart the root cause problem. (Of course, you never know until you have things fixed.)

For the most part, this is a hierarchical schema. It's modeled nicely by JSONSchema or XSD. However. There are two additional, huge problems to solve.

REDEFINES. The first huge problem is a COBOL definition can redefine another field. I'm not sure about the directionality of the reference. I know many languages require things be presented in dependency order: a base definition is provided  lexically first and all redefinitions are subsequent to it. Rather than depend on order of presentation, it seems a little easier to make a "reference resolution" pass. This plugs in useful references from items to the things they redefine, irrespective of any lexical ordering of the definitions.

This means we data can only be processed strictly lazily. A given block of bytes may have multiple, conflicting interpretations. It is, in a way, a free union of types. In some cases, it's a discriminated union, but the discriminating value is not a formal part of the specification. It's part of the legacy COBOL code.

OCCURS DEPENDING ON. The second huge problem is the number of elements in an array can depend on another field in the current record. In the common happy-path cases, occurrences are fixed. Having fixed occurrences means sizes and offsets can be computed as soon as the REDEFINES are sorted out.

Having occurrences depending on data means sizes and offsets cannot be computed until some data is present. The most general case, then, means settings sizes and offsets uniquely for each row of data.

Current Release

The current release (4.5) handles the ODO, size, and offset computation via a stateful DDE object.

Yes. You read that right. There are stateful values in the DDE. The values are adjusted on a row-by-row basis.


There's got to be a better way.

Part of the problem has been conflicting goals.

  • Minimal tweaks required to introduce type hints.
  • Minimal tweaks to break the way a generic schema depended on the DDE implementation. This had to be inverted to make the DDE and generic schema independent.
The minimal tweaks idea is really bad. Really bad. 

The intent was to absolutely prevent breaking the demo programs. I may still be able to achieve this, but... There needs to be a clean line between the exposed work-book like functionality, and some behind the scenes COBOL DDE processing.

I now think it's essential to gut two things:
  1. Building a schema from the DDE. This is a (relatively) simple transformation from the COBOL-friendly source model to a generic, internal model that's compatible with JSONSchema or XSD. The simple attributes useful for workbooks require some additional details for dimensionality introduced by COBOL.
  2. Navigating to the input file bytes and creating Workbook Cell objects in a way that fits with the rest of the Workbook abstraction.
The happy path for Cell processing is more-or-less by attribute name: row.get('attribute').  This changes in the presence of COBOL OCCURS clause items. We have to add an index. row.get('ARRAY-ITEM', index=2) is the Python version of COBOL's ARRAY-ITEM(3).

The COBOL variable names *could* be mapped to Python names, and we *could* overload __getitem__() so that row.array_item[3] could be valid Python to fetch a value.

But nope. COBOL has 1-based indexing, and I'm not going to hide that. COBOL has a global current instance of the row, and I'm not going to work with globals. 

So. Where do I stand?

I'm about to start gutting. Some of the DDE size-and-offset (for a static occurrences)

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Interesting Data Restructuring Problem

This seemed like an interesting problem. I hope this isn't someone's take-home homework or an interview question. It seemed organic enough when I found out about it.

Given a document like this...

doc = {
    "key": "the key",
    "tag1": ["list", "of", "values"],
    "tag2": ["another", "list", "here"],
    "tag3": ["lorem", "ipsum", "dolor"],

We want a document like this...

doc = {
    "key": "the key",
    "values": [
        {"tag1": "list", "tag2": "another", "tag3": "lorem"},
        {"tag1": "of", "tag2": "list", "tag3": "ipsum"},
        {"tag1": "values", "tag2": "here", "tag3": "dolor"},

In effect, rotating the structure from Dict[str, List[Any]] to List[Dict[str, Any]].
Bonus, we need to limiting the rotation to those keys with a value of List[Any], ignoring keys with atomic values (int, str, etc.).

Step 1. Key Partitioning

We need to distinguish the keys to be rotated from the other keys in the dict.
We start with Dict[str, Union[List[Any], Any]]. We need to distinguish the two subtypes in the union.

from itertools import filterfalse
list_of_values = lambda x: isinstance(doc[x], list)
lov_keys = list(filter(list_of_values, doc.keys()))
non_lov_keys = list(filterfalse(list_of_values, doc.keys()))

This gets two disjoint subsets of keys: those which have a list and all the others. The others, presumably, are strings or integers or something irrelevant.

List lengths

There's no requirement for the lists to be the same lengths. We have three choices here:
  • insist on uniformity,
  • truncate the long ones,
  • pad the short ones.

We'll opt for uniformity in this example. Truncating is what zip() normally does. Padding is what itertools.zip_longest() does.

lengths = (len(doc[k]) for k in lov_keys)
sample = next(lengths)
assert all(l == sample for l in lengths), "Inconsistent lengths"

Some folks don't like using assert for this. This can be a more elaborate if-raise ValueError() if that's necessary.

Use zip() to merge data values

We have several List[Any] instances in the document. The intermediate goal is a List[Tuple[Any, ...]] structure where the items from each tuple are chosen from the source lists. This gets us a sequence of tuples that have parallel selections of items from each of the source lists.

The zip(list, list) function produces pairs from each of the two lists. In our case, we have n lists in the original document. A zip(*lists) will produce a sequence of items selected from each list.

Here's what it looks like:

list(zip(*(doc[k] for k in lov_keys)))

We can also use zip(key-list, value-list) to make a list of key-value pairs from a tuple of the keys and a tuple of values. zip(Tuple[Any, ...], Typle[Any, ...]]) gives us a List[Tuple[Any, Any]] structure. These objects can be turned into dictionaries with the dict() function.

It looks like this:

list(dict(zip(lov_keys, row)) for row in zip(*(doc[k] for k in lov_keys)))

Assemble the parts

The final document, then, is built from untouched keys and touched keys.

d1 = {
    k: doc[k] for k in non_lov_keys
d2 = {
    "values": list(dict(zip(lov_keys, row)) for row in zip(*(doc[k] for k in lov_keys)))

It might be slightly easier to "somehow" build this as s single dictionary, but the two subsets of keys make it seem more sensible to build the resulting document in two parts.

The code I was asked to comment on was quite complex. It built a large number of intermediate structures rather than building a List[Dict] using a list comprehension.

What's important about this problem is the complexity of the list comprehension. In particular, the keys are used twice in the comprehension. One use extracts the source lists from the original document. The second use attaches the key to each value from the original list.

It almost seems like the Python 3.8 "Walrus" operator might be a handy way to shrink this code down from about 14 lines. I'm not sure it's helpful to make this any shorter. Indeed, I'm not 100% sure this compact form is really optimal. The fact that I had to expand things as part of an explanation suggests that separate lines of code are as important as separate subsections of this blog post.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Dictionary clear() as a code smell

Using the clear() method of a dict isn't *wrong*. But. The reasons have to be investigated. I got a question about this code not working "properly." ("Properly"? Seems too vague to be useful.)

Here's a summary of the example.

final_list = []
temp_dict = {}
for obj in some_source:
    cool_function(obj, temp_dict)
    temp_dict.clear()  # Ready for reuse, right?

This can't work.

(Bonus points if you suspect that list.append() is a smell, too. There may be a list comprehension solution that's tidier than this.)

It's not always easy to get to a succinct statement of what doesn't work "properly," or what's confusing about the Python list structure. Getting useful information can be hard. Why?
  • Some programmers are "Assumptions First" kind of people, and their complaint is often "doesn't match my assumption" not "doesn't actually work."
  • Some people live in "All Details Matter" world. Rather than create the smallest example of code that's confusing, they send the *entire* project. The problem is buried in a log, wrapped with "Why is the list of dictionaries not being properly updated?" In an email that provides background details. For a Trello story that links to background details. Details. None of which point to the problem. 

"Properly?" What does that even mean?

 Confronted with hundreds of lines of impenetrable code, I asked for a definition of "properly" and got these exact seven words: "Properly is defined as correctly or satisfactorily."


They have no idea what's wrong, can't summarize the code that's broken, and it's my fault because I'm the Python guru.

Why Won't My Code Work?

The short answer is "Because You're Making an Assumption."

Of course, anyone who puts their assumptions first is as blind to their assumptions as we are to the air that surrounds us. Assumptions are just there. All around them. They breathe their assumptions in and out without seeing them.

The long answer is Python uses references.

If you apply the id() function to the items in the resulting final_list, you'll see that it's reference after reference of one object, temp_dict.  Not copies of individually populated dictionaries, but multiple references to the same dictionary. The same dictionary which was cleared and reloaded over and over again.

The very first log, crammed with useless details, had output from print() functions. It showed multiple copies of the same dict. 

Because they assumed Python is making copies, there was no explanation for why the list of dictionaries was broken. Clearly, it couldn't be in their code. They assume their code is correct. The only choice has to be an undocumented mystery in Python. And I'm the Python guru, so it's my problem.

The presence of duplicates in the output meant "something" to them. They could point it out as somehow wrong. But the idea that their assumptions might be wrong? That was a nope.

They wanted it to be the list object, final_list, which didn't append dictionaries the way they assumed it would. They needed it to be a Python internals problem. They needed it to be a bad documentation problem. (Seriously. These convos have spun out of control in the past.)


Using the clear() method of a dict may indicate the developer is hoping Python shares copies, not references. Either add an explicit copy() (or deepcopy.copy()) or fix things to create new, fresh dictionaries each time. Objects are cheap. Why reuse them?

(Indeed, an interesting side-bar question I did not ask is "In what god-forsaken programming language does this 'clear-and-reuse' a data structure even make sense? FORTRAN?)

The list comprehension solution to this problem will have to wait. Stay tuned. I want to disentangle the algorithmic design problem from the "why aren't my assumptions correct?" problem..