More hashes and sorting

Hash manipulation: each, delete, exists

Before we got side-tracked with subroutines and conditionals, we covered arrays in some detail, and saw the various functions, like push and pop that you can torture them with. The functions for torturing hashes are our next port of call. Perl stores the key => value pairs of a hash in essentially random order (well, unhelpful, if not actually random), so operations like pushing and popping don’t make any sense, as hash items are not ordered in a useful fashion. We’ve already seen how to extract single items and slices of hash:

my %bits          = ( soy => 'sauce', sesame => 'oil', garlic => 'clove' );
my $one_item      = $bits{ 'soy' };
my @several_items = @bits{ 'sesame', 'garlic' };

However, to create a new member of the hash, you can’t use push, as it doesn’t make any sense, so you need to write:

$hash{ 'new_key' } = 'new_value';

You don’t actually need the quotes around the key when you access or create hashes or their elements:

$hash{ newkey } = 'new_value';

but I prefer to use them as I am anal. If you want to find out if a particular hash entry exists, you can use the exists function:

print "yep, it's there\n" if exists $bits{ 'soy' };
if ( exists $bits{ 'soy' } ) {
    print "yep it's there\n";

Both of these do the same thing, the first just shows you that you can append a conditional if statement modifier in just the same way you can append foreach. The same applies to for, while, unless, and until.

If you want to remove a hash key, use delete:

delete $bits{ 'soy' };

will remove the pair ( soy => 'sauce' ) from the hash. These functions are all very useful, but the most common thing you’ll want to do with is iterate over the pairs in the hash, in much the same way foreach ( @array ) iterates over the members of an array. There are no less than three variations on this theme.

The first is each, which will return a pair from a hash. You’ll most often see this in constructs using while, like:

my %bits = ( soy => 'sauce', sesame => 'oil', garlic => 'clove' );
while ( my ( $key, $value ) = each %bits ) {
    print "$key has value $value\n";
sesame has value oil
garlic has value clove
soy has value sauce

This iterates over the items in the hash, assigning the key value pairs to $key and $value in turn. Note the parentheses around $key and $value. You need these because each returns a two-item-long list. Slinging about lists is one of Perl’s strengths:

my @things = ( 1, 2, 'three' );
    # assign a list to an array

my ( $one, $two, $three ) = ( 1, 2, 'three' );
    # assign a list of values to a list of variables

($x, $y) = ($y, $x);
    # swap two scalars

Note the brackets around the ($one, $two, $three). You need these to make perl realise it’s a list, just as when you create arrays. If you miss them off, perl will try to evaluate $one, $two and $three separately (i.e. in scalar context), and therefore come up with the last thing it evaluated, which is $three. It will then do exactly the same to the other side, come up with 'three', then go ” $three = 'three' “, and nothing else. $one and $two will never be assigned anything. You need brackets to force list context, in the same way as you sometimes need scalar to force scalar context. One important thing to note is that if you put an @array in something like this, it will be greedy:

my ( @greedy, $starved ) =
    ( 'some', 'other', qw/things using the qw operator/ );
print "\@greedy : @greedy\n\$starved : $starved\n";
@greedy : some other things using the qw operator
$starved :

$starved will never get anything: arrays will slurp up everything from a list. There are various ways around this: here’s just one (if you know how many items you want to put in the array):

my( @greedy, $satiated );
( @greedy[ 0 .. 5 ], $satiated ) =
    ( 'some', 'other', qw/things using the qw operator/ );
print "\@greedy : @greedy\n\$satiated : $satiated\n";
@greedy : some other things using the qw
$satiated : operator

The use of a slice assignment:

@greedy[ 0 .. 5 ]

should be fairy self-explanatory: it is a slice of the array, using the .. range operator, so this is just shorthand for:

@greedy[ 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 ]

and will work just fine: the array will only get stuff up to and including the word ‘quotewords‘, and $satiated will get ‘operator‘. Bear this in mind when you mess with @_ in subroutines:

( @gets_everything, $gets_nothing ) = @_;

Getting round this array flattening and greediness will be covered when we get around to discussing references. Anyway, getting back to hashes:

while ( my ( $key, $value ) = each %bits ) {
    print "$key has value $value\n";

each generates a two item long list, which is captured into $key and $value, and this is repeated over the entire hash using a while loop. Note I’ve bunged in a my too, as I’ll always be using strict from now on, in the interests of getting you into good habits.

Hash keys and values

The other two ways of torturing a hash are to pull out just its keys or its values:

my %trees = (
    acorn      => "Quercus",
    oak        => "Quercus",
    beech      => "Fagus",
    yew        => "Taxus",
    maidenhair => "Ginkgo",

foreach ( keys %trees ) {
    print "\%trees contains the Latin name for $_.\n";
foreach ( values %trees ) {
    print "\%trees knows some English names for $_.\n";
%trees contains the Latin name for maidenhair.
%trees contains the Latin name for beech.
%trees contains the Latin name for yew.
%trees contains the Latin name for acorn.
%trees contains the Latin name for oak.
%trees knows some English names for Ginkgo.
%trees knows some English names for Fagus.
%trees knows some English names for Taxus.
%trees knows some English names for Quercus.
%trees knows some English names for Quercus.

I’ve escaped the % in the double quoted strings: you don’t need to do this, as unlike arrays and scalars, hashes don’t interpolate their contents in a double quoted string. However, it doesn’t hurt, and may be easier for you to remember. Note that hashes can have several values that are the same (Quercus twice): only keys have to be unique. If both your keys and your values are unique, you can make a bilingual dictionary with reverse

my %Eng_to_Esp = (
    one   => 'unu',
    two   => 'du',
    three => 'tri',
    four  => 'kvar',
    five  => 'kvin'

my %Esp_to_Eng = reverse %Eng_to_Esp;
print "The Esperanto for two is $Eng_to_Esp{'two'}.\n";
print "And the English for kvar is $Esp_to_Eng{'kvar'}.\n";
The Esperanto for two is du.
And the English for kvar is four.

You can also see that although a hash itself won’t interpolate in a double quoted string, its members (and items from a normal array) will.

Sorting: sort and <=>

Something you’ll often want to do is sort a list, especially with hashes: as the keys, values and each pairs are in an unhelpful order, you’ll often want to torture them into something more ordered. Perl has a function called sort for just these occasions:

my %trees = (
    oak        => "Quercus",
    beech      => "Fagus",
    yew        =>"Taxus",
    maidenhair => "Ginkgo",

print "$_.\n" foreach ( sort keys %trees );

By default, sort sorts things ‘ASCIIbetically’:

use strict;
use warnings;

my %trees = (
    Oak        => "Quercus", # capital O
    beech      => "Fagus",
    yew        =>"Taxus",
    maidenhair => "Ginkgo",

print "$_.\n" foreach ( sort keys %trees );

It sorts strings by the ASCII values of their characters, hence O comes before b, because the ASCIIbet goes something like 0, 1, 2 .. 9, (some other things), A, B, C .. Z, (few bits), a, b, c .. z. As here:

print "The ASCII value of O is ", ord "O", "\n";
print "The ASCII value of b is ", ord "b", "\n";
The ASCII value of O is 79
The ASCII value of b is 98

This also demonstrates the use of ord, which tells you the ASCII value of a letter. chr does the opposite, converting ASCII numbers to characters.

print chr( $_ ) foreach ( 74, 117, 115, 116, 32,
97, 110, 111, 116, 104, 101, 114, 32, 112, 101,
114, 108, 32, 104, 97, 99, 107, 101, 114, 46);
Just another perl hacker.

Anyway, the point is, if you want your data sorted numerically, or properly alphabetically, rather than ASCIIbetically, you’ll need to twiddle with sort. sort can take an optional extra argument that tells it how to sort:

my @numbers            = ( 1, 2, 3, 4, 100, 101, 102, 6); # 6 is out of order
my @default_sorted     = sort @numbers;
my @numerically_sorted = sort { $a <=> $b } @numbers;

print " DEFAULT: @default_sorted\n NUMERICALLY: @numerically_sorted\n";
DEFAULT: 1 100 101 102 2 3 4 6
NUMERICALLY: 1 2 3 4 6 100 101 102

Note the default output: 100 comes before 2, because the first character of 100, ‘1’, comes before the first character of 2, ‘2’. So how does the numerical sort work? The extra bit sort needs is a block squashed between the keyword sort and the things to sort, surrounded by braces { }:

sort { $a <=> $b } @numbers;

The spaceship operator, <=> compares two numbers and returns certain values depending on which is larger. The values it compares are $a and $b, which are sort‘s default variables, and stand for pairs of things taken from @numbers. perl does the actual sorting itself: all you need to tell perl is, given a pair of numbers ($a and $b), which one is bigger i.e. should come later in the sorted list?

  • If $a is bigger, you need to tell perl ‘1’.
  • If $b is bigger, you need to tell perl ‘-1’.
  • If they are both equal, you should tell perl ‘0’.

The spaceship operator is a built-in comparison thingummy that does just this for numbers. For strings, the equivalent is cmp (remember == vs. eq), which compares strings character by character according to their ASCII values. Hence:

sort { $a cmp $b } @strings;

is the same as just plain old:

sort @strings;

To sort things properly alphabetically, you might try:

my @trees = qw/oak ash Ginkgo Quercus linden Fraxinus lychee/;
print "$_\n" foreach ( sort { lc( $a ) cmp lc( $b ) } @trees );

lc stands for ‘lower case’: it returns strings it is given in lowercase, here so they can be compared without worrying that A-Z comes before a-z in the ASCIIbet. You’ll never guess what uc does.

You can define much more complicated and arbitrary sorting schemes than these, using the ‘1’, ‘-1’, ‘0’ technique. In many of these cases, it’s more convenient to define a subroutine to do the comparisons, such as in_my_arbitrary_way, then call it using:

@weird_sorted = sort in_my_arbitrary_way @things;

Say you’d prefer it if the first word in the dictionary was ‘xenon’, but then afterwards, carried on as normally:

my @strings      = qw( zebedee blob aardvark xenon shark cat dog );
my @funny_sorted = sort funny_sort @strings;
print "@funny_sorted\n";

sub funny_sort {
    if    ( $a eq 'xenon' ) {
        return -1; 
            # if $a is xenon, $a should come earlier, so -1
    elsif ( $b eq 'xenon' ) {
        return 1; 
            # if $b is xenon, $a must come later, so 1
    else {
        return ( lc( $a ) cmp lc ( $b ) ); 
            # otherwise sort alphabetically
xenon aardvark blob cat dog shark zebedee

This will run under use strict; even though we’ve not ‘scoped’ the $a and $b in the subroutine using my. This is because $a and $b, as well as all the funny punctuation variables like $_, are special-cased and you don’t need to scope them.

That’s sort pretty much sorted: you can use it in any of these ways:

@sorted = sort @unsorted;
    # use the default ASCIIbetical sort

@sorted = sort { DO_SOMETHING_WITH_$a_AND_$b } @unsorted;
    # use your own sort

@sorted = sort my_sorting_subroutine @unsorted;
    # define your own sort sub elsewhere

Orcish manoeuvre and Schwartzian transform

A common problem when performing sorts is that the internal implementation of sort has to access the data on which the sort is performed several times for each item in the unsorted list. If accessing this data is time consuming (if you have to use a system call for example), the sort can take rather a long time. The canonical example is trying to sort a list of filenames by their age:

my @filenames = glob "data/bacteria/sequences/*.seq";
# glob calls a C-shell style globbing function
sub brute_force { -M $a <=> -M $b }
@sorted = sort brute_force @filenames;

There are several ways to get around this expensive look-up: the Orcish manoeuvre and the Schwartzian transform are two. Both cache the key you are sorting on so that you only need to look it up once. The Orcish manoeuvre is the simpler of the two:

my @filenames = glob "data/bacteria/sequences/*.seq";
    my %cached; # lexically scoped in a bare block to keep things tidy
    sub orcish {
        ( $cached{$a} ||= -M $a )
        ( $cached{$b} ||= -M $b )
@sorted = sort orcish @filenames;

In the Orcish manoeuvre, we check to see if we have already looked up the value of -M $a or -M $b by requesting the value of $cached{$a} or $cached{$b}. If we haven’t previously cached them, we store the age in the cache, so that next time we don’t have to do the expensive system call to get the age. If we have previously cached them, we just get the value from the cache anyway. The name is derived from the ||=, which could be read “Or-Cache” if you like.

You can compare the Orcish and brute force techniques using the Benchmark module:

use Benchmark;
my @filenames = glob "data/bacteria/sequences/*.seq";
sub brute_force { -M $a <=> -M $b }
    my %cached;
    sub orcish   {
        ( $cached{$a} ||= -M $a )
        ( $cached{$b} ||= -M $b )
    10000, # 10 000 iterations of each
        "Brute force" => 
            sub { my @sorted = sort brute_force @filenames },
        "Orcish" => 
            sub { my @sorted = sort orcish @filenames },
Benchmark: timing 10000 iterations of Brute force, Orcish...
Brute force: 133 wallclock secs 
  (30.02 usr + 102.50 sys = 132.52 CPU) @ 75.46/s (n=10000)
Orcish: 1 wallclock secs 
  ( 1.43 usr + 0.00 sys = 1.43 CPU) @ 6983.24/s (n=10000)

Benchmark‘s function timethese() takes a number of iterations (10 000 here) and a hashref of name => coderef pairs as arguments, and times how long the coderefs take to run. The Orcish manoeuvre is much faster.

The Schwartzian transform (named after Randal L. Schwartz) is even faster, but rather more complex at first glance:

my @filenames = glob "data/bacteria/sequences/*.seq";
my @sorted =
map {
    # 4. Construct the list of names by extracting 
    # them from the sorted arrayrefs
    sort {
        $a->[1] <=> $b->[1]
        # 3. Sort this list of arrayrefs based on their file ages
        map {
            [$_, -M]
            # 2. Convert them into list of [ filename, age ] arrayrefs
            # 1. Take a list of filenames
print "$_\n" for @sorted;

Read it “upwards”: first we take @filenames, and create a list of [ filename, age ] arrayrefs using map. Then we sort based on the age ( $a->[1] <=> $b->[0] ), to create an ordered list of these [ filename, age ] arrayrefs. Finally, we grab the filenames $_->[0] and create a final list of sorted filenames using map again. This map-sort-map is elegant and fast as the array lookups are quicker than the hash lookups in the Orcish manoeuvre.

Hashes summary

Hashes are as simple to use as arrays too: you can use any of the following for hash torture:

my %hash = (
    telephone   => "Bell",
    television  => "Baird, no Farnsworth, no Baird",
    lightbulb   => "Insert argument here",
    JesusChrist => "Paul of Tarsus",

print $hash{ 'lightbulb' };                 # access
print @hash{ 'lightbulb', 'television' };   # slice
$hash{ www } = "Berners Lee";               # append
print "Yes" if exists $hash{ 'telephone' }; # exist
delete $hash{ 'JesusChrist' };              # remove

while ( my( $k, $v ) = each %hash ) {
    print "$v invented $k\n";               # iterate

print keys %hash;                           # keys
print sort values %hash;                    # values

Next up…symbol table.

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