Idempotent Cast

Idempotent:  denoting an element of a set that is unchanged in value when multiplied or otherwise operated on by itself.

Wikipedia gives an easier definition. A unary operation (or function) is idempotent if, whenever it is applied twice to any value, it gives the same result.

Or more formally in f(f(x))=f(x) .

If you had to choose the top ten functions in programming that should be idempotent, casting would be near the top of list.

Casting is how you can convert one type to another. A classic example is taking a user input string and reading it as a number. Nitpickers will argue that this should be called parsing and that casting is only when you have known inputs. I think this line of thinking is flawed and a poor abstraction. If I get an input I just want to call a function whose responsibility is to cast it to the right type. If this can’t be done the function should return an error which I will then return to the user. The user should be able to call my function without caring too much about what he puts in and I should try to make it easier by being smart enough to cast it to the appropriate type.

KDBQ has some built in cast functions. However, almost none of them are idempotent, which is really annoying. If I get an input and I know how to cast it into the type I need, I shouldn’t worry that it is already in that type. For example I may need a integer. If you give me a string, like “4” and I cast it to an integer that should work, and if you give me 4 and I cast it that too should work.
This came up recently when I needed a function that cast a string to a symbol. So here is Idempotent cast to symbol:

{`$raze string x}

Let’s break this apart:

string will take an argument and turn it into a string. However, string is atomic so a “hello” becomes


With each character becoming a list. To get back the original we raze it. Now that we have a string that we can cast to a symbol. With `$ cast verb.

If we get a symbol. For example `hello We turn it into a string which gives us “hello”. We then cast it to a symbol.

We can do this because raze is idempotent on a list of 1. So it will just return the same list.

If we wanted we could achieve the same result by checking it was a symbol and returning the symbol otherwise casting it to a symbol.

That function looks like this:

{$[11~abs type x; x; `$x]}

This takes advantage of the triadic if ($) verb. The first argument must return a boolean, that is a 0 or 1b. The second is evaluated if it’s true the third argument if it’s false. This is actually how most programming languages would solve a problem like cast. Essentially creating code branches. In this case this is probably okay, but in general KDBQ pushes toward designing functions that just work without creating separate code paths.


There will definitely be another tutorial on control structures in Q in the spirit of the Mcdonnell article in Vector. Readers familiar with most other programming structures will find that introducing control structures so late kind of weird. However, control structures actually handicap abstract and general thinking which is the hallmark of clean code.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s