Python Tutorial Part 1  >  Iteration


Multiple assignment

As you may have discovered, it is legal to make more than one assignment to the
same variable. A new assignment makes an existing variable refer to a new value
(and stop referring to the old value).
bruce = 5
print bruce,
bruce = 7
print bruce
The output of this program is 5 7, because the first time bruce is printed, his
value is 5, and the second time, his value is 7. The comma at the end of the
first print statement suppresses the newline after the output, which is why both
outputs appear on the same line.
Here is what multiple assignment looks like in a state diagram:
With multiple assignment it is especially important to distinguish between an
assignment operation and a statement of equality. Because Python uses the equal
sign (=) for assignment, it is tempting to interpret a statement like a = b as a
statement of equality. It is not!

First, equality is commutative and assignment is not. For example, in mathematics,
if a = 7 then 7 = a. But in Python, the statement a = 7 is legal and 7 = a
is not.
Furthermore, in mathematics, a statement of equality is always true. If a = b
now, then a will always equal b. In Python, an assignment statement can make
two variables equal, but they don't have to stay that way:
a = 5
b = a # a and b are now equal
a = 3 # a and b are no longer equal
The third line changes the value of a but does not change the value of b, so they
are no longer equal. (In some programming languages, a different symbol is used
for assignment, such as <- or :=, to avoid confusion.)
Although multiple assignment is frequently helpful, you should use it with caution.
If the values of variables change frequently, it can make the code difficult to read
and debug.

The while statement

Computers are often used to automate repetitive tasks. Repeating identical or
similar tasks without making errors is something that computers do well and
people do poorly.
We have seen two programs, nLines and countdown, that use recursion to perform
repetition, which is also called iteration. Because iteration is so common, Python
provides several language features to make it easier. The first feature we are going
to look at is the while statement.
Here is what countdown looks like with a while statement:
def countdown(n):
while n > 0:
print n
n = n-1
print "Blastoff!"
Since we removed the recursive call, this function is not recursive.
You can almost read the while statement as if it were English. It means, 'While
n is greater than 0, continue displaying the value of n and then reducing the value
of n by 1. When you get to 0, display the word Blastoff!'
More formally, here is the flow of execution for a while statement:

1. Evaluate the condition, yielding 0 or 1.
2. If the condition is false (0), exit the while statement and continue execution
at the next statement.
3. If the condition is true (1), execute each of the statements in the body and
then go back to step 1.
The body consists of all of the statements below the header with the same indentation.
This type of flow is called a loop because the third step loops back around to
the top. Notice that if the condition is false the first time through the loop, the
statements inside the loop are never executed.
The body of the loop should change the value of one or more variables so that
eventually the condition becomes false and the loop terminates. Otherwise the
loop will repeat forever, which is called an infinite loop. An endless source
of amusement for computer scientists is the observation that the directions on
shampoo, 'Lather, rinse, repeat,' are an infinite loop.
In the case of countdown, we can prove that the loop terminates because we know
that the value of n is finite, and we can see that the value of n gets smaller each
time through the loop, so eventually we have to get to 0. In other cases, it is not
so easy to tell:
def sequence(n):
while n != 1:
print n,
if n%2 == 0: # n is even
n = n/2
else: # n is odd
n = n*3+1
The condition for this loop is n != 1, so the loop will continue until n is 1, which
will make the condition false.
Each time through the loop, the program outputs the value of n and then checks
whether it is even or odd. If it is even, the value of n is divided by 2. If it is odd,
the value is replaced by n*3+1. For example, if the starting value (the argument
passed to sequence) is 3, the resulting sequence is 3, 10, 5, 16, 8, 4, 2, 1.
Since n sometimes increases and sometimes decreases, there is no obvious proof
that n will ever reach 1, or that the program terminates. For some particular
values of n, we can prove termination. For example, if the starting value is a
power of two, then the value of n will be even each time through the loop until it
reaches 1. The previous example ends with such a sequence, starting with 16.

Particular values aside, the interesting question is whether we can prove that this
program terminates for all positive values of n. So far, no one has been able to
prove it or disprove it!
As an exercise, rewrite the function nLines from Section 4.9 using
iteration instead of recursion.


One of the things loops are good for is generating tabular data. Before computers
were readily available, people had to calculate logarithms, sines and cosines, and
other mathematical functions by hand. To make that easier, mathematics books
contained long tables listing the values of these functions. Creating the tables was
slow and boring, and they tended to be full of errors.
When computers appeared on the scene, one of the initial reactions was, 'This
is great! We can use the computers to generate the tables, so there will be no
errors.' That turned out to be true (mostly) but shortsighted. Soon thereafter,
computers and calculators were so pervasive that the tables became obsolete.
Well, almost. For some operations, computers use tables of values to get an approximate
answer and then perform computations to improve the approximation.
In some cases, there have been errors in the underlying tables, most famously in
the table the Intel Pentium used to perform floating-point division.
Although a log table is not as useful as it once was, it still makes a good example of
iteration. The following program outputs a sequence of values in the left column
and their logarithms in the right column:
x = 1.0
while x < 10.0:
print x, '\t', math.log(x)
x = x + 1.0
The string '\t' represents a tab character.
As characters and strings are displayed on the screen, an invisible marker called the
cursor keeps track of where the next character will go. After a print statement,
the cursor normally goes to the beginning of the next line.
The tab character shifts the cursor to the right until it reaches one of the tab
stops. Tabs are useful for making columns of text line up, as in the output of the
previous program:

1.0 0.0
2.0 0.69314718056
3.0 1.09861228867
4.0 1.38629436112
5.0 1.60943791243
6.0 1.79175946923
7.0 1.94591014906
8.0 2.07944154168
9.0 2.19722457734
If these values seem odd, remember that the log function uses base e. Since powers
of two are so important in computer science, we often want to find logarithms with
respect to base 2. To do that, we can use the following formula:
log2 x =
loge x
loge 2
Changing the output statement to:
print x, '\t', math.log(x)/math.log(2.0)
1.0 0.0
2.0 1.0
3.0 1.58496250072
4.0 2.0
5.0 2.32192809489
6.0 2.58496250072
7.0 2.80735492206
8.0 3.0
9.0 3.16992500144
We can see that 1, 2, 4, and 8 are powers of two because their logarithms base 2
are round numbers. If we wanted to find the logarithms of other powers of two,
we could modify the program like this:
x = 1.0
while x < 100.0:
print x, '\t', math.log(x)/math.log(2.0)
x = x * 2.0
Now instead of adding something to x each time through the loop, which yields an
arithmetic sequence, we multiply x by something, yielding a geometric sequence.
The result is:

1.0 0.0
2.0 1.0
4.0 2.0
8.0 3.0
16.0 4.0
32.0 5.0
64.0 6.0
Because of the tab characters between the columns, the position of the second
column does not depend on the number of digits in the first column.
Logarithm tables may not be useful any more, but for computer scientists, knowing
the powers of two is!
As an exercise, modify this program so that it outputs the powers of
two up to 65,536 (that's 216). Print it out and memorize it.
The backslash character in '\t' indicates the beginning of an escape sequence.
Escape sequences are used to represent invisible characters like tabs and newlines.
The sequence \n represents a newline.
An escape sequence can appear anywhere in a string; in the example, the tab
escape sequence is the only thing in the string.
How do you think you represent a backslash in a string?
As an exercise, write a single string that

Two-dimensional tables

A two-dimensional table is a table where you read the value at the intersection
of a row and a column. A multiplication table is a good example. Let's say you
want to print a multiplication table for the values from 1 to 6.
A good way to start is to write a loop that prints the multiples of 2, all on one
i = 1
while i <= 6:
print 2*i, ' ',
i = i + 1

The first line initializes a variable named i, which acts as a counter or loop
variable. As the loop executes, the value of i increases from 1 to 6. When i is
7, the loop terminates. Each time through the loop, it displays the value of 2*i,
followed by three spaces.
Again, the comma in the print statement suppresses the newline. After the loop
completes, the second print statement starts a new line.
The output of the program is:
2 4 6 8 10 12
So far, so good. The next step is to encapsulate and generalize.

Encapsulation and generalization

Encapsulation is the process of wrapping a piece of code in a function, allowing
you to take advantage of all the things functions are good for. You have seen
two examples of encapsulation: printParity in Section 4.5; and isDivisible in

Generalization means taking something specific, such as printing the multiples of
2, and making it more general, such as printing the multiples of any integer.
This function encapsulates the previous loop and generalizes it to print multiples
of n:
def printMultiples(n):
i = 1
while i <= 6:
print n*i, '\t',
i = i + 1
To encapsulate, all we had to do was add the first line, which declares the name
of the function and the parameter list. To generalize, all we had to do was replace
the value 2 with the parameter n.
If we call this function with the argument 2, we get the same output as before.
With the argument 3, the output is:
3 6 9 12 15 18
With the argument 4, the output is:
4 8 12 16 20 24

By now you can probably guess how to print a multiplication table'by calling
printMultiples repeatedly with different arguments. In fact, we can use another
i = 1
while i <= 6:
i = i + 1
Notice how similar this loop is to the one inside printMultiples. All we did was
replace the print statement with a function call.
The output of this program is a multiplication table:
1 2 3 4 5 6
2 4 6 8 10 12
3 6 9 12 15 18
4 8 12 16 20 24
5 10 15 20 25 30
6 12 18 24 30 36
6.6 More encapsulation
To demonstrate encapsulation again, let's take the code from the end of Section 6.5
and wrap it up in a function:
def printMultTable():
i = 1
while i <= 6:
i = i + 1
This process is a common development plan. We develop code by writing lines
of code outside any function, or typing them in to the interpreter. When we get
the code working, we extract it and wrap it up in a function.
This development plan is particularly useful if you don't know, when you start
writing, how to divide the program into functions. This approach lets you design
as you go along.

Local variables

You might be wondering how we can use the same variable, i, in both
printMultiples and printMultTable. Doesn't it cause problems when one of
the functions changes the value of the variable?
The answer is no, because the i in printMultiples and the i in printMultTable
are not the same variable.
Variables created inside a function definition are local; you can't access a local
variable from outside its 'home' function. That means you are free to have
multiple variables with the same name as long as they are not in the same function.
The stack diagram for this program shows that the two variables named i are not
the same variable. They can refer to different values, and changing one does not
affect the other.
i 2
n 3 i 2
The value of i in printMultTable goes from 1 to 6. In the diagram it happens
to be 3. The next time through the loop it will be 4. Each time through the
loop, printMultTable calls printMultiples with the current value of i as an
argument. That value gets assigned to the parameter n.
Inside printMultiples, the value of i goes from 1 to 6. In the diagram, it happens
to be 2. Changing this variable has no effect on the value of i in printMultTable.
It is common and perfectly legal to have different local variables with the same
name. In particular, names like i and j are used frequently as loop variables. If
you avoid using them in one function just because you used them somewhere else,
you will probably make the program harder to read.

More generalization

As another example of generalization, imagine you wanted a program that would
print a multiplication table of any size, not just the six-by-six table. You could
add a parameter to printMultTable:
def printMultTable(high):
i = 1
while i <= high:
i = i + 1
We replaced the value 6 with the parameter high. If we call printMultTable
with the argument 7, it displays:
1 2 3 4 5 6
2 4 6 8 10 12
3 6 9 12 15 18
4 8 12 16 20 24
5 10 15 20 25 30
6 12 18 24 30 36
7 14 21 28 35 42
This is fine, except that we probably want the table to be square'with the
same number of rows and columns. To do that, we add another parameter to
printMultiples to specify how many columns the table should have.
Just to be annoying, we call this parameter high, demonstrating that different
functions can have parameters with the same name (just like local variables).
Here's the whole program:
def printMultiples(n, high):
i = 1
while i <= high:
print n*i, '\t',
i = i + 1
def printMultTable(high):
i = 1
while i <= high:
printMultiples(i, high)
i = i + 1
Notice that when we added a new parameter, we had to change the first line of
the function (the function heading), and we also had to change the place where
the function is called in printMultTable.
As expected, this program generates a square seven-by-seven table:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
2 4 6 8 10 12 14
3 6 9 12 15 18 21
4 8 12 16 20 24 28
5 10 15 20 25 30 35
6 12 18 24 30 36 42
7 14 21 28 35 42 49
When you generalize a function appropriately, you often get a program with capabilities
you didn't plan. For example, you might notice that, because ab = ba, all
the entries in the table appear twice. You could save ink by printing only half the
table. To do that, you only have to change one line of printMultTable. Change
printMultiples(i, high)
printMultiples(i, i)
and you get
2 4
3 6 9
4 8 12 16
5 10 15 20 25
6 12 18 24 30 36
7 14 21 28 35 42 49
As an exercise, trace the execution of this version of printMultTable
and figure out how it works.


A few times now, we have mentioned 'all the things functions are good for.' By
now, you might be wondering what exactly those things are. Here are some of
' Giving a name to a sequence of statements makes your program easier to
read and debug.
' Dividing a long program into functions allows you to separate parts of the
program, debug them in isolation, and then compose them into a whole.
' Functions facilitate both recursion and iteration.
' Well-designed functions are often useful for many programs. Once you write
and debug one, you can reuse it.