is a pile of bits

Divining the Left-Handed Future in Python
Tea Leavings and Stack Frames

Composing words is hard. Too much to tell, too many ideas; they all run together. Okay, let’s start from here and now, and I can work my way backwards in later posts. This is my own fault for not writing up all my projects as I was actually working on them. Ah well!

Let’s start with looking at Python bytecode to detect how the results from a function call will be consumed, and what we can do with that knowledge.


A good friend of mine mentioned an idea he’d had for an extension of the Python syntax for structured binding. Put simply, he was tired of copying the contents of large dictionaries into the local namespace in order to operate on them. He proposed an expression similar to the kwd variadic parameters of function calls.

# proposed syntax
** = big_ol_dictionary

My familiarity with how Python implemented local variables told me that this wouldn’t work – Python needs to know the variables far in advance, during compilation, so that it can allocate fast local storage for them, and compile subsequent accessors into LOAD_FAST and STORE_FAST ops. Fetching those variables from a dictionary at run time would be much too late. But if the local variables all existed, surely we could implement something that would assign to them?

But that means you still need to have assigned to those values in advance, to tell the compiler that they exist.

# declare them first
a = None
b = None

# then this could then in theory bind mappings matching "a" and "b",
# since they already exist.
** = big_ol_dictionary

The problem then becomes that the declaration is somewhat verbose, and we aren’t being perfectly clear just which local variables we want to assign to.

In another project, I’d been spending a lot of time becoming familiar with the Python bytecode ops. I’d recently implemented structured unpacking for that project, and I knew the layout of those operations after the right-hand side of the assignment had been evaluated.

So I reasoned, a simple heuristic could be implemented which would look at a frame, take its code and index values, and check for the unpacking and assignment operations that followed. From there, a list of binding names could be harvested, and the function could return a value crafted specifically for such an assignment.

In other words, I could write a function bindings which when used in an assignment such as

a, b, c = bindings()

Would be able to determine at run time that its results were destined for three variables, and that their names in order were “a”, “b”, and “c”.

The next logical step would be to give bindings a unary function to use to provide those values, and that became funbind:

def do_something(dest_name):
  return "I'm bound to " + name
a, b, c = funbind(do_something)

From this generalized concept I could create mapbind which would discover the bindings, and then look up the appropriate return value from a dictionary:

a, b, c = mapbind({"a": 1, "b": 2, "c": 3, "ignored": 900})

Similar implementation could be created for objbind which instead of finding map items, would look up object attributes:

a, b, c = objbind(some_object)

Finally, I also realized that this had uses in cases where perhaps the names didn’t matter, like unpacking an iterable. I could ensure that I’d fetch exactly the right amount of values from the iterable, and thus takebind was created.

a, b, c = takebind(range(0, 1000))

I wrapped all this up into a package named mapbind and wrote a pile of unit tests.

python-mapbind on GitHub