October 10, 2019

python tips #1

This post is a compilation of small Python tips I’ve gotten used to using over the years. They’re in no particular order, but feel free to try any that you don’t know about.


In certain situations, you may not want to use a variable provided to you by some expression (this happens commonly with enumerate and looping). In this case, just replace the unneeded variable with _.

fruits = ['apple', 'orange', 'lemon']

for i, _ in enumerate(fruits): # ignoring the value output for enumerate()

This is a relatively basic example, but it’s worth knowing about for some more obscure applications.

Fast Swapping

Swapping the values of two variables comes up fairly often (especially in sorting algorithms). In most other languages, this swap would look something like this:

a = [1, 2, 3]

tmp = a[0]
a[0] = a[1]
a[1] = tmp

Python provides a cleaner way of doing this via unpacking values:

a = [1, 2, 3]

a[0], a[1] = a[1], a[0]

Much nicer, isn’t it?

Initializing A List

Sometimes we need to initialize a list with values. One way to do this is as follows:

l = []

for i in range(10):

This works, but can be done in a cleaner (and more Pythonic) way as follows:

l = [None] * 10


Dictionary Access

The typical way of accessing dict values is d[key]. While this works, if the value is not in the dict, you get None, which is problematic at times. For example, if you’re iterating through a list stored in a dict:

d = {'fruits': ['Apple', 'Banana']}

for elem in d['vegetables']: # None! You'll be getting a NoneType error here.

To avoid this, you can use .get to access dict values, which just takes the key you want to access and a default value to return if it is not found.

d = {'fruits': ['Apple', 'Banana']}
for elem in d.get('vegetables', []): # No problemo.

By default, .get will return None if you do not provide a return value.

Dictionaries with Default Values

If you’ve ever tried to access a key in a dictionary that hadn’t been initialized, you would have been greeted with a very friendly KeyError. The usual solution to this was something like this:

d = {'fruits': ['Apple', 'Banana']}

if not d.get('vegetables'):
    # work with vegetables
    d['vegetables'] = []

.get allows you to check if the key is in the dict. Since None is False-y, saying not None only passes if the key is in the dict.

While this certainly works, sometimes you want to populate a dict as you’re working through a problem. The above syntax gets a bit cumbersome, and thankfully, Python has a solution. Enter defaultdict.

from collections import defaultdict

integer_dict = defaultdict(int)

integer_dict[0] += 1 # this works!

defaultdict allows you to define a dictionary with a type, which then allows you to access dict keys that haven’t been accessed before without needing to initialize them. For special cases, you can also pass in a lambda:

from collections import defaultdict

ones_dict = defaultdict(lambda: 1) # int but with different default value

a[0] += 1 # a[0] is now 2!

class Mug:
    def __init__(self, beverage = None):
        self.beverage = beverage
    def set_beverage(self, bev):
        self.beverage = bev

drinks = defaultdict(lambda: Mug('soda'))

drinks['jimmy'].set_beverage('water') # keep it healthy jimmy