Published: February 5, 2018
by Tobias Pleyer
Tags: python

Lispy lists in Python

Ok I admit that the title is a bit catchy. Want I want to talk about is list processing in Python. One language that was (and still is) famous for its abilities to handle lists is LISP, the LISt Processor language. Lisp is also famous for its extensive use of paranthesis. That’s because source code in Lisp is in fact data, namely lists, and thus the paranthesis.

The first thing is that the appearance of Lisp code can be faked in Python. At this point I should admit that I do not know a lot about Lisp and I have never written a single program in it. But that’s not the point. I won’t write real Lisp, it’s still Python, it will just look very un-pythonic.

But Lisp, as a functional language, inspired the other and more important part of this post: tackling data processing with a functional approach. Depending on which language you refer to, the term functional can mean different things. For this post I will restrict myself to

The task

Let’s assume we have the following input.

This file represents the measurement of two different data lines with the given timestamps of the measurement. The valid field is mostly 1, but if the field has value 0 it means the data has to be ignored, because it is invalid.

Both data columns represent streams of byte packages. The only thing we know to extract the packages is the following:

  • Between packages exists an inhibit (minimum waiting time) of 1e-6 seconds, i.e. when the time difference is bigger a new package has started
  • The packages of data1 and data2 arrive alternating, starting with data1. The data of the other channel can then be considered garbage
  • Don’t forget to ignore those rows with valid == 0

How do we tackle this problem?

Even though the underlying data is quite primitive, the circumstances demand a lot of conditions to be taken care of.


Note: The solution presented here is not the most efficient possible, neither time nor memory wise. But the individual steps are easy to understand and it is easy to approach the solution step by step. Those kind of “intermediate” task are every day business for most programmers and usually the data sets are small measured with the standard of a modern computer and the time is negligible. Thus our focus is on getting the program right, not to optimise the hell out of it.

That said we will make heavy use of lists and generators, generating new lists out of existing ones in the process.

Each step reduces the list of available indices. The most critical point is the enumerate in the calculation in time_diffs. This enables us to keep track of the indices of the valid_rows list. Notice how the valid_rows list remains unchanged (immutable). After applying all logic, we can use the saved indices to slice out the correct packages out of that list.

List comprehensions

Above solution represents a nice stepwise approach, but looks very weird. In fact I only used this kind of syntax for amusement. Using the list manipulation functions map and filter directly is considered not pythonic.

Instead Python offers list comprehension which come with a bunch of advantages

  • They are implemented very efficient and usually faster
  • They do not need the explicit list contructor
  • They do not need the explicit lambda
  • They can do filering with an easy to read if notation

Below is the same program as above, but with list comprehensions instead