The Zen of Python says “there should be one -- and preferably only one -- obvious way to do it”, but what if there's a dozen obvious ways to do it?

# Preamble

This article is the written version of my talk entitled “50 shades of sign” that I gave for the 2022 edition of the PyCascades conference.

The slide deck can be found in this GitHub repository and the recording can be watched on YouTube.

# 50 shades of sign

The other day I was writing some maths-adjacent code for an algorithm, and at some point I needed the function sign. The function sign is typically well-known, given its simplicity:

The function sign (called sgn in some languages) accepts a number and returns another number:

• if the input is positive, it returns 1;
• if the input is negative, it returns -1; and
• if the input is zero, it returns 0.

I don't want to bother you too much with the context of the project, so I won't go into the details of why I needed this function.

Anyway, I opened up the documentation page for the standard module math and searched the page for the occurrence of the word “sign”, to see if I could find the function I needed. Much to my surprise, I couldn't find it!

I mean, the letters “sign” show up 20 times in the doc page for math, and they mention the sign of numbers a bunch of times, but the function itself doesn't exist!

So I decided to get my hands dirty and thought I'd implement the function myself. In mathematics, the function is usually represented as such:

\text{sgn} ~ x = \begin{cases}\begin{aligned} &-1, ~ &\text{if} ~ x < 0, \\ &0, ~ &\text{if} ~ x = 0, \\ &1, ~ &\text{if} ~ x > 0. \end{aligned}\end{cases}

That could be translated almost literally and be turned into a possible implementation of sign, but it wouldn't look too good. So, I decided to reorder things a bit and to make use of elif and else statements:

def sign(x):
if x > 0:
return 1
elif x < 0:
return -1
else:
return 0

By having the cases > 0 and < 0 together, we put the symmetry of the function sign under the spotlight, and we use the else statement to cover the single case of when x == 0, which we can almost interpret as being the edge case of our function.

I looked at my code and felt pretty good about myself, given that it really looked like I had done a great job! So, I opened the REPL, and thoroughly tested my function:

>>> sign(73)
1
>>> sign(0)
0
>>> sign(-42.42)
-1

“Done and dusted”, I thought.

But then, I looked at the code I had written and I thought that something was off. I mean, I'm being paid to write software and this is what I write? It's just an if statement with three branches! It's too basic! I have to try to improve this, otherwise I'll just get fired because I have almost 10 years of experience and I still write code like a beginner!

Ah, I know what I'll do. The conditions in the if statement are so basic that I can just fold this whole thing into a conditional expression!

If I do that, I can save 5 lines of code! Alright, let's roll that version:

def sign(x):
return 1 if x > 0 else -1 if x < 0 else 0

Hmmm, feels better, right? I mean, the solution looks shorter, but the essence is still pretty much the same, I'm not really making use of any nice Python features...

When I'm stuck, I just shuffle things around, to promote creativity. Let me try to reorder the cases:

def sign(x):
return 0 if x == 0 else 1 if x > 0 else -1

I guess this sacrifices the symmetry we had:

• x > 0 returned 1.
• x < 0 return -1.

But now, the x == 0 reminds of the fact that Python has Truthy and Falsy values! In fact, 0 is considered Falsy and any other number is considered Truthy:

>>> bool(73)
True
>>> bool(0)
False
>>> bool(-42.42)
True

What this shows is that we can replace the equality x == 0 with not x:

def sign(x):
return 0 if not x else 1 if x > 0 else -1

That's much better!

Probably..?

Maybe not..?

Two conditional expressions chained and making use of the Falsy value of 0 might be a bit too much...

Let's handle x == 0 as an edge case, and then separate the positive inputs from the negative inputs:

def sign(x):
if x == 0:
return 0
else:
return 1 if x > 0 else -1

Ah, that sounds like a great idea!

But wait, if x == 0 really is to be treated like an edge case, then it doesn't make sense to have the else in there. I mean, edge cases don't generally happen, so the else statement is just a bit redundant... I should probably get rid of it!

This minor thing is just a pedantic point on semantics, but let's go through with it:

def sign(x):
if x == 0:
return 0

return 1 if x > 0 else -1

Right, brilliant move! This even goes in line with what the Zen of Python says:

“Flat is better than nested.”

Perfect, this should settle it...

Except...

Seeing the code written out like this reminded me of something I found on the wiki page about sign, that says that the sign can be computed except when x == 0... But x == 0 is already being treated as an edge case!

We just need to make use of the absolute value function abs, which is a built-in:

>>> abs(73)
73
>>> abs(0)
0
>>> abs(-42.42)
42.42

Notice how the absolute value is never negative, and so we can compare the absolute value with the original number to compute the sign.

This can be done in multiple different ways, but we'll go with a division:

>>> abs(73) / 73
1
>>> abs(0)
0
>>> abs(-42.42) / -42.42
-1.0

Now, we just have to plug this into the previous code, keeping x == 0 as the edge case that is handled first:

def sign(x):
if x == 0:
return 0

return int(abs(x) // x)

And there we have it, a computation! I find there is a certain appeal to computing things unconditionally, instead of using conditionals (be it statements or expressions) to pick the correct result out of a series of results.

By removing the other conditional expression, we made this even flatter, going even more in line with the Zen of Python and the fact that “flat is better than nested”.

This is amazing, because it computes two of the outputs I'd like to produce! It's a shame there is not single computation that handles the three cases.

And yet, the division there really is begging for floating point issues to arise...

Oh, wait a second! Objects have Truthy and Falsy values, right? But did you know that True and False can be converted to integers? That's right:

>>> int(True)
1
>>> int(False)
0

Remember that the function sign needs to return the numbers -1, 0, and 1. The function int, when receiving Booleans, can return the numbers 0 and 1. So, we need

• to special-case negative inputs, instead, to have them return -1; and
• to figure out a condition that evaluates to True when the input is positive and that evaluates to False when the input is 0.

But we don't even need a condition at all, because positive numbers are Truthy and zero is Falsy!

def sign(x):
if x < 0:
return -1

return int(bool(x))

Stepping back and looking at what I had, I wasn't veeery happy. The computation I wrote there takes numbers, converts them to Booleans, and then to numbers again..!

It has a redundant feel to it, doesn't it..? Isn't there a different way of mapping the inputs to the three outputs I need..? In particular, in a way that makes it more obvious how the int(bool(x)) does the mapping..?

And then, 💡!

It's all about mapping, so I should definitely try to use a dictionary to map the correct values to the correct places. For example, I can take care of the case x == 0 as an edge case, and then use a mapping to distinguish the positive and the negative numbers, restoring some symmetry:

def sign(x):
return (
0 if x == 0
else {False: -1, True: 1}[x > 0]
)

Hehe, this is amusing, but I'll make it even more amusing!

Notice how False shows up first, and True shows up second; in Python, the first index is 0, and the second index is 1; and, in case you haven't gotten it yet, False and 0 are related, and so are True and 1!

Instead of using the dictionary, which is quite verbose, we can distil it down to a list.

All it takes is using x > 0 to index into the two results that I care about, which are -1 and 1:

def sign(x):
return 0 if x == 0 else [-1, 1][x > 0]

Notice how the result of the condition is being used to index into the list of the two results I care about. It's just a shame that I have to treat x == 0 as an edge case and can't cover all three cases with a single list...

Or can I?

Thinking...

Oh wait, I can! You are going to love this:

def sign(x):
return [-1, 0, 1][(x >= 0) + (x > 0)]
• If x is positive, it satisfies both conditions and adding them produces the index 2.
• If x is zero, only the first condition is satisfied and adding the two conditions produces the index 1.
• If x is negative, neither condition is satisfied and their addition produces the index 0.

Oh, this is interesting! This looks like the shorter solution so far... Which begs the question: is there a shorter one?

Hmmm, focusing on the fact that there are two conditions doing all the work, I realised that combining them in the correct way renders the list useless:

def sign(x):
return (x > 0) - (x < 0)

Look at the code above! It's a work of art, it's a huge emoji! The minus - looks like the nose and the two sets of parentheses represent the eyes.

This works because the minus - forces the two Boolean results to evaluate to an integer. Then, you can only have one of the two conditions be True at a time, and it all boils down to the value of these two expressions:

x > 0, x < 0

In fact,

• if x > 0 is True, then its the left condition that is True and we get True - False == 1 - 0 == 1;
• if x < 0 is True, then its the right condition that is True and we get False - True == 0 - 1 == -1; and
• if x == 0, neither condition is True and we get False - False == 0 - 0 == 0.

In other words, the three things we can get are:

True, False   # when x > 0
False, True   # when x < 0
False, False  # when x == 0

The three results I wanted to compute depended solely on the Boolean pattern of that 2-item list...

But wait, are we talking about patterns? Oh, that's exciting, because it means we get to use the new structural pattern matching introduced in Python 3.10!

To do that, we just need to match the structure of the 2-item list to the three cases I laid out already! Here is the code:

def sign(x):
match x > 0, x < 0:
case True, False: return 1
case False, True: return -1
case False, False: return 0

This works, but feels a bit clunky, right? With all those Boolean values all over the place, the function feels a bit too cluttered.

Maybe we could give it some breathing room but getting rid of all the Booleans, and instead using guards to define each matching case:

def sign(x):
match x:
case x if x > 0: return 1
case x if x < 0: return -1
case _: return 0

Now, the first two case statements will only match x when x is positive and negative, respectively, and the final case takes care of everything else, which is just when x == 0!

As I finished this train of thought, I squinted at my screen and almost fell out of my chair: I had gone through ALL this trouble, and ended up going full-circle back to where I started at! In fact, if I remove the extra noise around my code, this is what I get:

def sign(x):
if x > 0: return 1
if x < 0: return -1
return 0

It's the same thing as what I had in the beginning, it's just a bit compressed! Other than that, it's really the same thing. Heck, it even has the same bytecode!

In other words, even though it looks different:

• different number of lines; and
• a big if statement versus three separate statements,

Python runs these two functions in exactly the same way.

I can use the module dis to prove this! Just import dis, define the two functions, and let's compare the outputs we get in Python 3.10.

Here is the disassemble of the longer version that takes up 6 lines:

>>> dis.dis(sign)
4 COMPARE_OP               4 (>)
6 POP_JUMP_IF_FALSE        6 (to 12)

10 RETURN_VALUE

4     >>   12 LOAD_FAST                0 (x)
16 COMPARE_OP               0 (<)
18 POP_JUMP_IF_FALSE       12 (to 24)

22 RETURN_VALUE

7     >>   24 LOAD_CONST               1 (0)
26 RETURN_VALUE

Here is the disassemble of the shorter version that I wrote in the end:

>>> dis.dis(sign)
4 COMPARE_OP               4 (>)
6 POP_JUMP_IF_FALSE        6 (to 12)
10 RETURN_VALUE

3     >>   12 LOAD_FAST                0 (x)
16 COMPARE_OP               0 (<)
18 POP_JUMP_IF_FALSE       12 (to 24)
22 RETURN_VALUE

4     >>   24 LOAD_CONST               1 (0)
26 RETURN_VALUE

The only difference comes from the line numbers, because the bytecode is otherwise identical.

So, now that I have taken a look at 15 different implementations of the function sign, which one do I go for? I'm trying to avoid getting fired for writing basic code, so I hope at least one of these is fast enough to make it worth having!

Alright, let's do some basic timings and check what we get.

Let's time the functions by applying them to zero, positive and negative floats, and (large) positive and negative integers. The first row contains the function that ran the fastest (when summing all 5 inputs) and all other rows contain the relative difference in speed to the fastest one.

The names of the functions (on the first column) try to indicate the syntactic elements that composed that specific implementation.

Function +3.14 -2.78 0 +10¹² -10¹²
sign_conditional_conditional_falsy -% -% -% -% -%
sign_conditional_conditional -11.0% +12.7% +42.8% -11.0% +7.8%
sign_canned_if_elif_else -9.8% +12.7% +42.3% -10.7% +8.0%
sign_standard_if_elif_else -9.6% +12.7% +42.9% -10.4% +8.3%
sign_if0_conditional_expression +14.1% +13.2% +12.6% +10.5% +9.6%
sign_conditional_conditional_2 +14.3% +13.3% +12.6% +10.8% +9.5%
sign_if_else_conditional_expression +14.1% +13.3% +12.7% +11.1% +9.6%
sign_match -1.5% +20.7% +53.0% -1.5% +16.0%
sign_boolean_emoji +24.2% +20.4% +48.2% +17.5% +14.3%
sign_conditional_int_bool +70.9% -11.5% +120.6% +73.2% -13.2%
sign_conditional_list +55.6% +52.6% +12.4% +53.8% +49.3%
sign_conditional_dict +90.9% +87.0% +11.2% +90.8% +85.8%
sign_list +78.5% +75.5% +120.2% +74.0% +69.5%
sign_if0_divide_abs +109.4% +105.2% +12.4% +157.2% +163.5%
sign_structural_match +88.9% +130.3% +264.0% +85.8% +128.6%

We can see that the fastest function was sign_conditional_conditional_falsy, which was the implementation with the double conditional expression that checked if the input was falsy:

def sign_conditional_conditional_falsy(x):
return 0 if not x else 1 if x > 0 else -1

This function was closely followed by three equivalent implementations, including the very first one and the last one, which were allegedly “too simple”:

def sign_conditional_conditional(x):
return 1 if x > 0 else -1 if x < 0 else 0

def sign_canned_if_elif_else(x):
if x > 0: return 1
if x < 0: return -1
return 0

def sign_standard_if_elif_else(x):
if x > 0:
return 1
elif x < 0:
return -1
else:
return 0

(You can verify that these functions are equivalent by looking at their bytecode.)

Now, what is interesting here is that all these implementations were written by real people. I went to Twitter a couple of months ago and asked people to implement the function sign in the most elegant way possible.

I literally asked “What's the most Pythonic implementation you can think of?”, although I assume some just got a bit carried away...

One day after my original tweet, after a dozen different answers poured in, a very experienced Python programmer, pointed out that no one had yet written the most straightforward solution: the one with the if: ... elif: ... else: ... structure.

Maybe everyone thought it was “too basic”, just like in my story? And yet, all these other “nicer” implementations were just too complicated for what we were trying to achieve.

Sometimes, people sacrifice elegance and readability in the name of speed, but that doesn't even work here, because the simplest solution achieves almost top performance!

I guess what I'm trying to say is that there is no advantage in writing complicated code just for the sake of making it more complicated. There is beauty, elegance, and other things to be gained in simplicity.

Now, there is a fine line between overcomplicating things and making good use of all the features Python has to use... I guess that would be a whole other talk!

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