K for Good Thought: [Part 2] k,q,kdb tutorial verbs, functions

Last time, we got to list things and reorder them a bit,  but that’s kind of boring on it’s own. This second tutorial is concerned with being able to play, transform and generally do things with nouns. In English, these types of words, action words, are normally called verbs and I’ll let the OED define it.



o          NOUN- Grammar

A word used to describe an action, state, or occurrence, and forming the main part of the predicate of a sentence, such as hear, become, happen.

o          VERB- Grammar

Use (a word that is not conventionally used as a verb, typically a noun) as a verb.

Interestingly, though there are two definitions for verb, we will mostly concern ourselves with the first, but I shall leave a small footnote on how the second is related.

The first definition is fairly trivial, that is most speakers of a language understand that you need a category of words that do things, even if you don’t need the category itself. That is we tend to ‘place’, ‘buy’, ‘blend’ and generally do stuff to things. This doing stuff is what I mean by verb. In math, in computer science and in programming languages there is a concept of ‘function’ and this concept performs much of what a verb does in English. It allows you to manipulate the stuff. To take a crude example, verbs are like little machines that allow us to change something about the stuff. So for instance, I am running. Which is to say ‘I’ am now in transit. I think belaboring this point serves to confuse rather than enlighten. So I leave it here. Anyway, I will use the word verb instead of function or something else, as I find those other terms have been overloaded with meaning (people think of very specific examples) especially for programmers.

Verbs take an atom or a list and produce an atom or a list. This list can be a list of atoms or a list of lists or a list of lists of lists….

Whoa, almost got carried away there.

Anyway, the more important thing is to remember that a verb and noun produce a new noun. For those inclined to equations: verb (noun) => new noun

Which can be read as verb applied to noun yields new noun. (don’t worry there will be little else I borrow from chemistry.)

For example, the verb shake produces shaken noun.

Where shaken is an adjective.

Sometimes there is no adjective to describe the new noun.

For example, take the verb blend. If I blend a cat with a dog. I might get catdog or dogcat or a mush, in any case, we can talk of having blended the cat and dog. Often we don’t have a word that describes the new thing. The predicate phrase is the result of the verb. So for instance, Gena went to the zoo, ‘went to the zoo’ is the predicate phrase and is the description of ‘Gena’ since English lacks a special phrase that describes a person who has gone to the zoo. Other times, we do have a phrase “shake this drink” the drink is now mixed or shaken, but it is most definitely not stirred. The predicate phrase is always a description of a subject. Predicate phrases or verbs transform the subject and give us a new subject. One that is described by the predicate phrase.

Because K is a descendant of APL, there are certain conventions which K kept but simplified and enhanced. I will therefore first explain what APL did and then switch to K’s simplification and enhancement.

In APL, all verbs just as in English take a noun and make it do something, the result is always just a noun that has done that thing. So if I(noun) run (verb) then I am-running (new state of ‘I’). Just as in English some verbs need two nouns to make sense or have a different sense if used on their own. For instance, I winked, means something different though related to I winked at him. So for example in K the ‘%’ symbol is the verb divide. If we just say divide seven in K %7, that returns  0.1428571. Which is the reciprocal of 7, or one seventh. Where as if we 21%7 we get 3. This what APL calls monadic and dyadic verbs.

Verbs can be of two types: monadic and dydadic. Simply put, monadic verbs take a noun or a list of nouns on the right and produce a noun or a list (that list can contain lists, as always I will cease making this point and assume it from here on in unless it is not true. Then I will make special mention). Dyadic verbs take a noun or list on the left and the noun or list on the right and create a noun or list.

In the first case % behaves like a monadic verb reciprocate (take reciprocal or multiplicative inverse). That is the verb only referred to the noun following it. In the second case % behaved more like the verb divide, which takes a number on the left and divides it into the right (pun intended) number of equal pieces. The result is the size of each piece. Though this is intuitive for verbs that apply to one or two nouns at a time. It does not make much sense for verbs that apply to more nouns.

This is where K made a change from APL and created it’s own convention, from here on in it’s back to K and Q.

Going back our verb ‘blend’ suppose we wanted to blend a cat, dog, and a rabbit. Where do we put the noun rabbit. Each noun, is often called an argument.

Argument: The noun or list that a verb does its action to is often called an argument. The term is helpful, because we can refer to verbs as taking some number of arguments. For instance, Monadic take one argument, the one on the right of the verb. Dyadic take two arguments, the one on the left and then the one on the right. (Sometimes in some textbooks these are called parameters. I will try to stick with argument.)

K has adopted the following convention. If you have a verb that takes a specific number  of arguments, then you do so by putting the verb first and then putting a open square bracket([) the arguments separated by a semicolon(;) and a closing square bracket (]). This is very easy to see:

In K 10÷5 can be written at least these two ways:

The nice thing about the second notation, is that it generalizes to verbs that apply to more than two arguments. You would simply write:

Because this convention is simple, all verbs that a user defines automatically follow it and there is no way for a user to create dyadic verbs that take a left and right argument. Instead user defined verbs always apply to the arguments in the order notated in the brackets. That is instead of the noun being to the right and left of the verb. They are now right and left respectively inside the brackets. There is a small caveat: this convention does not allow you to define a verb that applies to more than eight arguments. The reason is that keeping track of eight arguments is difficult enough and the limit suggests to the writer that possibly the verb they are building should be composed of several verbs, there are ways to get around this limit, but think of it as a guideline.

q simplified this concept of verb even further. All functions in k that can either be monadic or dyadic are always dyadic in q and a word is chosen to represent the monadic case. If you want the reciprocal you are going to have to ask for it directly reciprocal[7].

Alright, we have to answer two basic questions: what are the verbs that we can use?, ie the vocabulary of verbs and two what do we do if a verb is not in the vocabulary? define new verbs.

For the first I will link to a site: http://code.kx.com/nwiki/JB:QforMortals2/built_in_functions

Suppose that a verb is not in the vocabulary. For instance, suppose we want to build into q the idea of cheering up. First we need to define some nouns. Let’s use the emoticons to signify a scale of happiness.

Very simply we might have:

Crying – “:’(”
Sad – “:(”
Annoyed – “:/”
Neutral – “:|”
happy – “:)”
very happy – “:))”
laughing -“:D”
tears of joy – “:’)”

Alright so each of these emoticons, will symbolize possible emotional states. Because list of characters are themselves lists. We need to create a list of lists, the easiest way is to use the enlist verb.

emotions: enlist(“:’(“)

This creates the first emoticon as a separate entry in the list of emotions, the rest can be added by appending. Of course you can do it in one shot but this way, you can use enlist and avoid all kinds of annoyances from KDB trying to interpret all of the symbolic characters incorrectly. Note the semicolons between elements to separate the list of characters. For clarification, I’m putting spaces between the semicolons, but that is not necessary.

emotions,: (“:(” ; “:/” ; “:|” ; “:)” ; “:))” ; “:D” ; “:’)” )

one shot:
emotions:( “:'(“; “:(” ; “:/” ; “:|” ; “:)” ; “:))” ; “:D” ; “:’)” )

So we have emotions. Let’s define a verb that cheers someone up by one level. Let’s call it lift.

Definitions in k and q use the colon notation. Just like lists. But we use curly braces to show that we are creating one unified action. We also can specify an argument name. I will use ‘ce’ which stands for current emotion.

lift:{[ce] emotions:( “:'(“; “:(” ; “:/” ; “:|” ; “:)” ; “:))” ; “:D” ; “:’)” ); emotions[(emotions?ce)+1]}

That is the whole definition. As you can tell most of it is filled with defining the emotions. That’s this part:

lift:{[ce] emotions:( “:'(“; “:(” ; “:/” ; “:|” ; “:)” ; “:))” ; “:D” ; “:’)” ); emotions[(emotions?ce)+1]}

The next bit uses the ? verb to search. It takes a list and returns the number of the first match. If there are no matches it returns the number of elements in the list. Which is one after the last element (remember everything is starts from zero so a list with ten items has an empty slot at 10).

lift:{[ce] emotions:( “:'(“; “:(” ; “:/” ; “:|” ; “:)” ; “:))” ; “:D” ; “:’)” );

The last bit increments the index by one and returns the emotion at that index. k,q automatically return the last statement in a verb definition.

lift:{[ce] emotions:( “:'(“; “:(” ; “:/” ; “:|” ; “:)” ; “:))” ; “:D” ; “:’)” );

For example lift “:(” returns


What about if we reach the end or we search for an emotion not in the list? In both cases lift will simply return an empty string “”.

Well we all know you can lift someone’s spirits, but what about depressing them. It would seem we should be able to depress them and maybe by a certain quantity.

depress: {[ce;q] emotions:( “:'(“; “:(” ; “:/” ; “:|” ; “:)” ; “:))” ; “:D” ; “:’)” ); emotions[(emotions?ce)-q]}

returns “:(”

What we have done is add the argument q standing for quantity and now we can depress by a certain factor. Suppose we wanted to make a really simple version of depress that can only move an emotion down by one level. Let’s call it unlift.


Really short right?!

But let’s see what we did. First we took advantage of the fact that k,q has built in argument names for the first three arguments, they are x,y,z respectively. So I didn’t have to name it in the beginning explicitly like this

unlift: {[x] depress[;1] x}

Implicit Arguments: In k,q any verb you create can will automatically use x,  y,  z as the first 3 parameters. There are two equivalent ways to write a verb that converts the dimension to volume:

vol_3d:{[x;y;z] x*y*z}
vol_3d:{ x*y*z}

You can’t mix these two. So the following doesn’t work

vol_3d:{[h] x*y*h}

Now, to the really cool trick.  If you don’t fill in all the arguments, k will automatically create a new verb that is only missing the arguments you left out. So since I filled in that I would like to depress the emotional state by 1, and k doesn’t know which emotion I want to depress. It creates a new verb that depresses by 1. We then give that new verb a name and we now have a new verb. Note that if you get rid of the depress verb; k won’t be able to unlift. So technically, unlift has a dependency on depress.

This is known as function currying or projection in math and in some fancier programming languages, but don’t get scared by the name. It’s actually really simple. In APL, K, Q family this is almost always referred to as projection. The name comes from an analogy that most people are all familiar with. On a sunny day at high noon your shadow can follow you but can only move in two dimensions. It is projected onto the surface of the ground. The difference between your location and the location of the shadow, is that you can move in three directions {north,south} {west,east} and {jump(up,down)}. While your shadow can only move in two {north,south} {west,east}. The same idea is happening to a verb in K like addition (+), normally + adds two different numbers. But if we wanted to create verb named increment.
This new verb always adds one to a number. Some of the flexibility is gone from the addition verb.

Finally (Footnote as promised) on the second definition of verb.

The second definition is the idea of taking a word that is not normally a verb and making it a verb. Well, remember lists. Lists had a very similar notation to how we use verbs.

For instance: emotions 3 or emotions [3] both return

“:|” the fourth element in the list.

In other words, lists are actually a special kind of verb! Specifically, they are verbs that transform a particular index number into whatever is at that place in the list. This applies even more broadly to a type of list in k,q called a map or dictionary. Here is a really simple example: (we use ! to define this structure)

emotionsdict: `crying`sad`annoyed`neutral`happy`vhappy`laughing`tofjoy! ( “:'(“; “:(” ; “:/” ; “:|” ; “:)” ; “:))” ; “:D” ; “:’)” )

crying  | “:'(“
sad     | “:(“
annoyed | “:/”
neutral | “:|”
happy   | “:)”
vhappy  | “:))”
laughing| “:D”
tofjoy  | “:’)”

and emotionsdict `crying returns

and emotionsdict?”:'(” returns

The point is that instead of just thinking of this as an emotion to emoticon dictionary we can also think of it as a verb that takes an emotion and displays it as emoticon. More on this here. Also our addition and multiplication tables behave like those functions. For instance add[2;3] returns 5.

This idea that all lists are really special verbs or that verbs are special types of lists is very freeing. Because the next time you want to make a list, first think is there a way for me to just make a verb.

For example, are the even numbers a list or a verb? They are both:

(0, 2, 4,6…) and {2*x}.

Which is easier?


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