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The Lambda

The functions used by map, filter, reduce and a list's sort method can also be a special function called a lambda form. This permits us to use special one-use-only throw-away functions without the overhead of a def statement. A lambda form is like a defined function: it has parameters and computes a value. The body of a lambda, however, can only be a single expression, limiting it to relatively simple operations. If it gets complex, you'll have to define a real function.

Generally, it's clearer to formally define a function rather than try to define a lambda form.

We can play with lambda forms by applying them directly as functions to arguments.

from math import pi

print (lambda x: pi*x*x)(5)


This statement creates a lambda that accepts a single argument, named x , and computes pi*x*x. This lambda is applied to an argument of 5. It computes the area of a circle with a radius of 5.

Here's a lambda form used in the map function.

print map( lambda x: pi*x*x, range(8) )

[0.0, 3.1415926535897931, 12.566370614359172, 28.274333882308138, 
50.26548245743669, 78.539816339744831, 113.09733552923255, 


This map function applies our radius-computing lambda form to the values from 0 to 7 as created by the range. The input sequence is mapped to the output sequence by having the lambda function applied to each value.

Parameterizing a Lambda. Sometimes we have a lambda which -- in effect -- has two kinds of parameters: parameters that are elements of a sequence being processed by map, filter or reduce function, and parameters that are more global than the items of a sequence.

Consider this more complex example.

spins = [ (23,"red"), (21,"red"), (0,"green"), (24,"black") ]
betOn= "black"
print filter( lambda x, y=betOn: y in x, spins )
betOn= "red"
print filter( lambda x, y=betOn: y in x, spins )

First, we create four sample spins of a roulette wheel, and save this list in a variable called spins. Then we chose a particular bet, saving this in a variable called betOn. If the given betOn keyword occurs in any of the tuples that describe all of the spins, the tuple is kept.

The call to filter has a lambda form that uses a common Python hack. The filter function only passes a single argument value to the function or lambda form. If there are additional parameters declared, they must have default values; in this case, we set the default to the value of our variable, betOn.

Let's work through this in a little more detail.

As the filter function executes, it enumerates each element from the sequence, as if it had a for s in spins: clause. Each individual item is given to the lambda . The lambda then does the evaluation of y in x; x is a tuple from the list (e.g., (23, "red")) and y is a default parameter value, set to the value of betOn (e.g., "black"). Every time the y value actually appears in the tuple x, ("black" in (24,"black")), the tuple is selected to create the resulting list from the filter. When the y value is not in the tuple x, the tuple ignored

This default parameter hack is required because of the way that Python maintains only two execution contexts: local and global. The lambda's execution takes place in a fresh local context with only its two local parameter variables, x and y; it doesn't have access to global variables. When the lambda is created, the creation happens in the context where the betOn variable is known. So we provide the extra, global parameters as defaults when the lambda is created.

As an alternative to creating lists with the filter function, similar results can be created with a list comprehension. This is covered just after the following material on reduce.

  Published under the terms of the Open Publication License Design by Interspire