Implementing “min” and “max” with “reduce”

This is the third installment of my “reduce” series of blog posts.  For the first, see here, and for the second, see here.

If you have been reading this series, then you know that “reduce” can be used to sum numbers, or to calculate scores.  In that sense, “reduce” justifies its name; we’re invoking a function repeatedly on each element of a collection, boiling the collection down to its essense, as defined by our function.

But “reduce” can also be used to to other, more interesting things.  One of them, mentioned in the Ruby documentation, isn’t an obvious candidate for beginners with “reduce”, namely implementing “min” and “max”.

In a world without functional programming or reduce, we could implement a “min” function as follows in Ruby:

def mymin(items)
  output = items[0]           # Assume the first item is the smallest
  items[1..-1].each do |item| # Iterate through all remaining items
    if item < output
      output = item           # This item is smaller, so keep it
  output                      # So far, this is the smallest we've seen

The definition, if you’re somewhat new to Ruby, works as follows: The “min” function takes an enumerable sequence of items. We assume that the first item is the smallest one, simply to make life easier for ourselves.  We then iterate over the remaining items, checking to see if the current one is smaller than the current winner.  Each iteration thus leaves “output” with its existing value, or replaces it with something smaller.

Now, the above code works just fine — but it’s a bit long and inelegant just to find the minimum value in an enumerable.  After all, it should be possible to implement the same algorithm we we used above in the implementation of “mymin”, but somehow more elegantly and concisely.

That’s where “reduce” comes in.  We saw in an earlier blog post that when we use “reduce” to sum the numbers in a collection, is sort of like saying ((((1+2)+3)+4)+5).  Well, let’s say that we had a function “smaller” that would return the smaller of two numbers.  Then, we could use “reduce” in the following way:


Oh, is that hard to read?  Yeah, I thought so.  So instead, we can do the following:

items.reduce {|smallest, current| smaller(smallest, current) }

Each time “reduce” invokes our block, it keeps the smaller of its two parameters.  The first parameter, which I’ve here called “smallest”, contains the smallest value that we’ve seen so far. The second parameter, “current”, contains the current value from the collection.

That one line certainly looks nicer than our original implementation of “mymin”, I think. There’s just one problem: We haven’t defined any “smaller” method!  Fortunately, we can use Ruby’s ternary operator to have a tiny, one-line if-then-else statement that does the same thing.  In other words:

items.reduce {|smallest, current| smallest < current ? smallest : current }

The moment you realize that “reduce” can be used to hold onto only one of the previous values, you begin to see the opportunities and possibilities that it offers. For example, we can find the shortest or longest word in an array of words:

words = 'This is a sample sentence'.split
words.reduce {|shortest, current| (shortest.size < current.size) ? shortest : current }
=> "a"

words.reduce {|longest, current| (longest.size > current.size) ? longest : current }
=> "sentence"

Now, can we do the same thing in Python?  The builtin “reduce” function works similarly to Ruby’s Enumerate#reduce, as we’ve seen in previous posts I wrote on the subject.  However, the function that we pass to Python’s “reduce” is more limited than a Ruby block, especially if we use a lambda (i.e., anonymous function).

However, we do have a trick up our sleeve: Python provides an analogous version of Ruby’s ternary operator, which is meant for precisely these occasions.  I generally tell people to avoid this operator completely, because it causes more problems and confusion than necessary, and probably means that you’re doing something that you shouldn’t be in Python.  It works as follows:

>>> x = 'a'
>>> is_an_a = "yes" if x == 'a' else "no"

>>> is_an_a

The oddest thing for me about this form of “if” in Python is that the condition is in the middle of the line.  It’s not the postfix “if” of Perl and Ruby, and it’s not the prefix “if” that everyone is used to, but something else entirely.  And as such, it’s usually a bad idea to have in your code.  But right now, it fits perfectly.

Here, then, is a version of “min” in Python, using “reduce”:

>>> items = [5,-5,10,1,100,-20,30]
>>> reduce(lambda smallest, current: smallest if (smallest < current) else current, items)

And sure enough, we get the lowest value!  Next time, we’ll produce even more complex outputs, with more complex data structures.