anything like C++ references?

Michael Chermside mcherm at
Wed Jul 16 19:39:48 CEST 2003

Adam Ruth writes:
> I assume that you're referring to people 'faking' pointer in Python (
> such as wrapping variables in lists, etc.)  I'd ammend your statement to 
> say:  
> And the worst thing you can do is to obscure the issue even more by 
> disguising them as something else, WHEN YOU DON'T REALLY HAVE TO.
> In Python, there is no situation where "you really can't avoid pointers".  
> It's only when you program C or C++ in Python that you think you can't 
> avoid pointers.  There are much better idioms to achieve the desired 
> results.

Look, first of all, let me say that I disagree with Stephen Horne in
this discussion. Or, to be more precise, I think that the approach he
is using is not one which is useful in describing Python. HOWEVER,
that doesn't mean that there's NOTHING to what he is saying, and your
claim that there is no situation requiring "pointers" in Python seems
wrong to me.

Actually (to be quite pedantic) it is technically true. For instance,
I could write a program in Python which simulated a turing machine,
and then write the entire program to be executed on THAT. But this
is a meaningless definition for "requiring" a feature -- by this
definition NO feature is ever needed if the language is turing 
equivalent without it... for instance, Python doesn't ever need
classes, modules, dictionarys, or functions (I'm pretty sure a
turing machine could be written which didn't use any of these).

What's more useful is to say that a feature is not "needed" if there's
a straightforward alternate way to handle the situations where it would
normally be used. For instance this (using C++ syntax for "references"):

    def returnsMultipleValues(x, &minusFive, &timesFive):
        """Calculates x+5, x-5, and x*5."""
        *minusFive = x - 5
        *timesFive = x * 5
        return x + 5

Is unnecessary, since this:

    def returnsMultipleValues(x):
        return x + 5, x - 5, x * 5

would work fine. However, there are some places where it IS useful to
be able to modify a value within a routine. I have written code like

     i = [0]
     stuff.append( makeNewComplexObject(i, 'name', 'fred') )
     stuff.append( makeNewComplexObject(i, 'age', 17) )
     stuff.append( makeNewComplexObject(i, 'item') )
     stuff.append( makeNewComplexObject(i, 'item') )

where the source for makeNewComplexObject() went like this:

     def makeNewComplexObject(iBox, objName, *objArgs):
         # increment i
         i = iBox[0]
         iBox[0] += 1

         if objName == 'name':
             # some simple cases
             return new NameObject(*objArgs)
         elif objName == 'age':
             # some complex cases
             yrsOld = objArgs[0]
             if yrsOld >= 18:
                 return new AdultAge(*objArgs)
                 return new MinorAge(*objArgs)
         elif objName == 'item':
             # some cases that use i
             return new IndexedItem(i)

Now, clearly, this code was inspired by C code which used an
idiom like this:

    i = 0
    stuff[i] = newComplexObject(i++, "name", "fred")
    stuff[i] = newComplexObject(i++, "age", 17)
    stuff[i] = newComplexObject(i++, "item")
    stuff[i] = newComplexObject(i++, "item")

And certainly it *can* be rewritten in Python without "boxing" the
variable i. However, it would also be nice to be ABLE to "box" the
variable i. So it's not as if references would be USELESS in Python.
I just think it'd be better handled differently (one-item list, or
maybe a container class) rather than redefining assignment in Python
as Stephen seems to prefer.[1]

-- Michael Chermside

[1] - Stephen doesn't want to change Python now for historical
   reasons. But my position is that if I were inventing a NEW
   language I'd do it Python's way by choice, because I think
   it's better.

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