Date Tags Python / C++

Late last night I had a marathon debugging session where I discovered I had been burned by not fully understanding chaining assignment statements in Python. I was porting some C code to Python that had some chained assignment expressions. C and C++ programmers are well used to this idiom which has the following meaning:

a = b = c = d = e;      // C/C++ code

// The above is equivalent to this:

a = (b = (c = (d = e)));

This is because in C, assignments are actually expressions that return a value, and they are right-associative.

I knew that Python supported this syntax, and I had a vague memory that it was not the same semantically as C, but I was in a hurry. After playing a bit in the shell I convinced myself this chained assignment was doing what I wanted. My Python port kept this syntax and I drove on. A huge mistake!

Hours later, of course, I found out the hard way the two are not exactly equivalent. For one thing, in Python, assignment is a statement, not an expression. There is no 'return value' from an assignment. The Python syntax does allow chaining for convenience, but the meaning is subtly different.

a = b = c = d = e    # Python code

# The above is equivalent to these lines of code:
a = e
b = e
c = e
d = e

Now usually, I suspect, you can mix the C/C++ meaning with Python and not get tripped up. But I was porting some tricky red-black tree code, and it made a huge difference. Here is the C code first, and then the Python.

p = p->link[last] = tree_rotate(q, dir);

// The above is equivalent to:

p = (p->link[last] = tree_rotate(q, dir));

The straight (and incorrect) Python port of this code:

p = p.link[last] = tree_rotate(q, d)

# The above code is equivalent to this:
temp = tree_rotate(q, d)
p = temp                                   # Oops
p.link[last] = temp                        # Oops

Do you see the problem? It is glaringly obvious to me now. The C and Python versions are not equivalent because the Python version is executing the code in a different order. The flaw comes about because p is used multiple times in the chained assignment and is now susceptible to an out-of-order problem.

In the C version, the tree node pointed at by p has one of its child links changed first, then p is advanced to the value of the new child. In the Python version, the tree node referenced by the name p is changed first, and then its child link is altered! This introduced a very subtle bug that cost me a few hours of bleary-eyed debugging.

Watch out for this when you are porting C to Python or vice versa. I already avoid this syntax in both languages in my own code, but I do admit it is nice for conciseness and let it slip in occasionally.


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