How, why, and when to flatten your conditionals

You may be tempted to write code that looks a little like this:

for item in items:
     if not condition_1(item):
         if not condition_2(item, False):
             if not condition_3(item, 3, 3):
                 if not condition_4(item):

But please, don’t. Flatten your conditionals instead.

How to flatten your conditionals

There is a relatively straightforward alternative to the above. Instead, we use continue expressions to short-circuit the cascade. This looks a little bit like this:

for item in items:
     if not condition_1(item): continue
     if not condition_2(item, False): continue
     if not condition_3(item, 3, 3): continue
     if not condition_4(item): continue

That’s pretty much all there’s to it.

Perhaps you’re not inside of a loop, but rather inside of a “nullable” function or method (i.e., one which may reasonably return None);  that’s okay, replace continue with return. Perhaps there’s more than one item you’re possibly shipping off to do_work on; that’s okay, wrap the conditionals in a function and use return to short-circuit evaluation. Perhaps you want to terminal the entire loop, not just this iteration thereof; that’s okay, replace continue with break.

Why to flatten your conditionals

The flattened loop is much easier to read. There is no indentation (or bracketing) to track. The fact that each of the conditional expressions is at the same indentation (bracketing) level makes it clear that we’re just dealing with a cascade of conditionals, all of which are handled the same. Realistically, one can only visually parse 3-4 levels of indentation; the Linux kernel, for example, uses an 8-character indent and forbids more than 3 levels of indentation. Flattening your conditionals means you don’t have to deal with that very often.

When to flatten your conditionals

It’s perhaps preferable to write your early code with nested conditional statements. It may turn out that you need to do some work in one of the medial else: clauses (which we’ve elided here), which can make flattening the conditionals hard. But once you’re writing comments about the conditionals in the cascade, and preparing to share your code with others, it’s time to do away with more than a few layers of indentation.

Understanding text encoding in Python 2 and Python 3

Computers were rather late to the word processing game. The founding mothers and fathers of computing were primarily interested in numbers. This is fortunate: after all, computers only know about numbers. But as Brian Kunde explains in his brief history of word processing, word processing existed long before digital computing, and the text processing has always been something of an afterthought.

Humans think of text as consisting of ordered sequence of “characters” (an ill-defined Justice-Stewart-type concept which I won’t attempt to clarify here). To manipulate text in digital computers, we have to have a mapping between the character set (a finite list of the characters the system recognizes) and numbers. Encoding is the process of converting characters to numbers, and decoding is (naturally) the process of converting numbers to characters. Before we get to Python, a bit of history.

ASCII and Unicode

There are only a few character sets that have any relevance to life in 2014. The first is ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange), which was first published in 1963. This character set consists of 128 characters intended for use by an English audience. Of these 95 are printable, meaning that they correspond to lay-human notions about characters. On a US keyboard, these are (approximately) the alphanumeric and punctuation characters that can be typed with a single keystroke, or with a single keystroke while holding down the Shift key, space, tab, the two newline characters (which you get when you type return), and a few apocrypha. The remaining 33 are non-printable “control characters”. For instance, the first character in the ASCII table is the “null byte”. This is indicated by a '' in C and other languages, but there’s no standard way to render it. Many control characters were designed for earlier, more innocent times; for instance, character #7 'a' tells the receiving device to ring a cute little bell (which were apparently attached to teletype terminals); today your computer might make a beep, or the terminal window might flicker once, but either way, nothing is printed.

Of course, this is completely inadequate for anything but English (not to mention those users of superfluous diaresis…e.g., the editors of the New Yorker, Motörhead). However, each ASCII character takes up only 7 bits, leaving room for another 128 characters (since a byte has an integer value between 0-255, inclusive), and so engineers could exploited the remaining 128 characters to write the characters from different alphabets, alphasyllabaries, or syllabaries. Of these ASCII-based character sets, the best-known are ISO/IEC 8859-1, also known as Latin-1, and Windows-1252, also known as CP-1252. Unfortunately, this created more problems than it solved. That last bit just didn’t leave enough space for the many languages which need a larger character set (Japanese kanji being an obvious example). And even when there are technically enough code points left over, engineers working in different languages didn’t see eye-to-eye about what to do with them. As a result, the state of affairs made it impossible to, for example, write in French (ISO/IEC 8859-1) about Ukrainian (ISO/IEC 8859-5, at least before the 1990 orthography reform).

Clearly, fighting over scraps isn’t going to cut it in the global village. Enter the Unicode standard and its Universal Character Set (UCS), first published in 1991. Unicode is the platonic ideal of an character encoding, abstracting away from the need to efficiently convert all characters to numbers. Each character is represented by a single code with various metadata (e.g., A is an “Uppercase Letter” from the “Latin” script). ASCII and its extensions map onto a small subset of this code.

Fortunately, not all encodings are merely shadows on the walls of a cave. The One True Encoding is UTF-8, which implements the entire UCS using an 8-bit code. There are other encodings, of course, but this one is ours, and I am not alone in feeling strongly that UTF-8 is the chosen encoding. At the risk of getting too far afield, here are two arguments for why you and everyone you know should just use UTF-8. First off, it is hardly matters much which UCS-compatible encoding we all use (the differences between them are largely arbitrary), but what does matter is that we all choose the same one. There is no general procedure for “sniffing” out the encoding of a file, and  there’s nothing preventing you from coming up with a file that’s a French cookbook in one encoding, and a top-secret message in another. This is good for steganographers, but bad for the rest of us, since so many text files lack encoding metadata. When it comes to encodings, there’s no question that UTF-8 is the most popular Unicode encoding scheme worldwide, and is on its way to becoming the de-facto standard. Secondly, ASCII is valid UTF-8, because UTF-8 and ASCII encode the ASCII characters in exactly the same way. What this means, practically speaking, is you can achieve nearly complete coverage of the world’s languages simply by assuming that all the inputs to your software are UTF-8. This is a big, big win for us all.

Decode early, encode late

A general rule of thumb for developers is “decode early” (convert inputs to their Unicode representation), “encode late” (convert back to bytestrings). The reason for this is that in nearly any programming language, Unicode strings behave the way our monkey brains expect them to, but bytestrings do not. To see why, try iterating over non-ASCII bytestring in Python (more on the syntax later).

>>> for byte in b"año":
...     print(byte)

There are two surprising things here: iterating over the bytestring returned more bytes then there are “characters” (goodbye, indexing), and furthermore the 2nd “character” failed to render properly. This is what happens when you let computers dictate the semantics to our monkey brains, rather than the other way around. Here’s what happens when we try the same with a Unicode string:

>>> for byte in u"año":
...     print(byte)

The Python 2 & 3 string models

Before you put this all into practice, it is important to note that Python 2 and Python 3 use very different string models. The familiar Python 2 str class is a bytestring. To convert it to a Unicode string, use the str.decode instance method, which returns a copy of the string as an instance of the unicode class. Similarly, you can make a str copy of a unicode instance with unicode.encode. Both of these functions take a single argument: a string (either kind!) representing the encoding.

Python 2 provides specific syntax for Unicode string literals (which you saw above): the a lower-case u prefix before the initial quotation mark (as in u"año").

When it comes to Unicode-awareness, Python 3 has totally flipped the script; in my opinion, it’s for the best. Instances of str are now Unicode strings (the u"" syntax still works, but is vacuous). The (reduced) functionality of the old-style strings is now just available for instances of the class bytes. As you might expect, you can create a bytes instance by using the encode method of a new-style str. Python 3 decodes bytestrings as soon as they are created, and (re)encodes Unicode strings only at the interfaces; in other words, it gets the “early/late” stuff right by default. Your APIs probably won’t need to change much, because Python 3 treats UTF-8 (and thus ASCII) as the default encoding, and this assumption is valid more often than not.

If for some reason, you want a bytestring literal, Python has syntax for that, too: prefix the quotation marks delimiting the string with a lower-case b (as in b"año"; see above also).


Strings are ordered sequences of characters. But computers only know about numbers, so they are encoded as byte arrays; there are many ways to do this, but UTF-8 is the One True Encoding. To get the strings to have the semantics you expect as a human, decode a string to Unicode as early as possible, and encode it as bytes as late as possible. You have to do this explicitly in Python 2; it happens automatically in Python 3.

Further reading

For more of the historical angle, see Joel Spolsky’s epic essay The absolute minimum every software developer absolutely, positively must know About Unicode and character sets (no excuses!).

Simpler sentence boundary detection

Consider the following sentence, from the Wall St. Journal portion of the Penn Treebank:

Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Inc. said it expects its U.S. sales to remain steady at about 1,200 cars in 1990.

This sentence contains 4 periods, but only the last denotes a sentence boundary. It’s obvious that the first one in U.S. is unambiguously part of an acronym, not a sentence boundary, and the same is true of expressions like $12.53. But the periods at the end of Inc. and U.S. could easily have been on the left edge of a sentence boundary; it just turns out they’re not. Humans can use local context to determine that neither of these are likely to be sentence boundaries; for example, the verb expect selects two arguments (an object its U.S. sales and the infinitival clause to remain steady…), neither of which would be satisfied if U.S. was sentence-final. Similarly, not all question marks or exclamation points are sentence-final (strictu sensu):

He says the big questions–“Do you really need this much money to put up these investments? Have you told investors what is happening in your sector? What about your track record?–“aren’t asked of companies coming to market.

Much of the available data for natural language processing experiment—including the enormous Gigaword corpus—does not include annotations for sentence boundaries providence annotations for sentence boundaries. In Gigaword, for example, paragraphs and articles are annotated, but paragraphs may contain internal sentence boundaries, which are not indicated in any way. In natural language processing (NLP), this task is known as sentence boundary detection (SBD). [1] SBD is one of the earliest steps in many natural language processing (NLP) pipelines, and since errors at this step are very likely to propagate, it is particularly important to just Get It Right.

An important component of this problem is the detection of abbreviations and acronyms, since a period ending an abbreviation is generally not a sentence boundary. But some abbreviations and acronyms do sometimes occur in sentence-final position (for instance, in the Wall St. Journal portion of the Penn Treebank, there are 99 sentence-final instances of U.S.). In this context, English writers generally omit one period, a sort of orthographic haplology.

NLTK provides an implementation of Punkt (Kiss & Strunk 2006), an unsupervised sentence boundary detection system; perhaps because it is easily available, it has been widely used. Unfortunately, Punkt is simply not very accurate compared to other systems currently available. Promising early work by Riley (1989) suggested a different way: a supervised classifier (in Riley’s case, a decision tree). Gillick (2009) achieved the best published numbers on the “standard split” for this task using another classifier, namely a support vector machine (SVM) with a linear kernel; Gillick’s features are derived from the words to the left and right of a period. Gillick’s code has make available under the name Splitta.

I recently attempted to construct my own SBD system, loosely inspired by Splitta, but expanding the system to handle ellipses (), question marks, exclamation points, or sentence-final punctuation marks. Since Gillick found no benefits from tweaking the hyperparameters of the SVM, I used a hyperparameter-free classifier, the averaged perceptron (Freund & Schapire 1999). After performing a stepwise feature ablation, I settled on a relatively small set of features, extracted as follows. Candidate boundaries are identified using the following nasty regular expression:


The first group matches the left token L, and the last group matches the right token R. If the L or R tokens match a regular expression for American English numbers (including prices, decimals, negatives, etc.), they are merged into a special token *NUMBER* (per Kiss & Strunk 2006); a similar approach is used to convert various types of quotation marks into *QUOTE*. The following features were then extracted:

  • the identity of the punctuation mark
  • identity of L and R (Reynar & Ratnaparkhi 1997, etc.)
  • the joint identity of both L and R (Gillick 2009)
  • does L contain a vowel? (Mikheev 2002)
  • does L contain a period? (Grefenstette 1999)
  • length of L (Riley 1989)
  • case of L and R (Riley 1989)

This 8-feature system performed exceptionally well on the “standard split”, with an accuracy of .9955, an F-score of .9971, and just 46 errors in all. This is very comparable with the results I obtained with a fork of Splitta extended to handle ellipses, question marks, etc.; this forked system produced 55 errors.

I have made my system freely available as a Python 3 module (and command-line tool) under the name DetectorMorse. Both code and dependencies are pure Python, so it can be run using pypy3, if you’re in a hurry.


[1] Or, sometimes, sentence boundary disambiguationsentence segmentationsentence splitting, sentence tokenization, etc.


Y. Freund & R.E. Schapire. 1999. Large margin classification using the perceptron algorithm. Machine Learning 37(3): 277-296.
D. Gillick. 2009. Sentence boundary detection and the problem with the U.S. In Proc. NAACL-HLT, pages 241-244.
G. Grefenstette. 1999. Tokenization. In H. van Halteren (ed.), Syntactic wordclass tagging, pages 117-133. Dordrecht: Kluwer.
T. Kiss & J. Strunk. 2006. Unsupervised multilingual sentence boundary detection. Computational Linguistics 32(4): 485-525.
A. Mikheev. 2002. Periods, capitalized words, etc. Computational Linguistics 28(3): 289-318.
J.C. Reynar & A. Ratnaparkhi. 1997. A maximum entropy approach to identifying sentence boundaries. In Proc. 5th Conference on Applied Natural Language Processing, pages 16-19.
M.D. Riley. 1989. Some applications of tree-based modelling to speech and language indexing. In Proc. DARPA Speech and Natural Language Workshop, pages 339-352.

UNIX AV club

[This post was written as a supplement to CS506/606: Research Programming at OHSU.]

SoX and FFmpeg are fast, powerful command-line tools for manipulating audio and video data, respectively. In this short tutorial, I’ll show how to use these tools for two very common tasks: 1) resampling and 2) (de)multiplexing. Both tools are available from your favorite package manager  (like Homebrew or apt-get).

SoX and friends

SoX is a suite of programs for manipulating audio files. Commands are of the form:

sox [flag ...] infile1 [...] outfile [effect effect-options] ...

That is, the command sox, zero or more global flags, one or more input files, one output file, and then a list of “effects” to apply. Unlike most UNIX command-line programs, though, SoX actually cares about file extensions. If the input file is in.wav it better be a WAV file; if the output file is out.flac it will be encoded in the FLAC (“free lossless audio codec”) format.

The simplest invocation of sox converts audio files to new formats. For instance, the following would use audio.wav to create a new FLAC file audio.flac with the same same bit depth and sample rate.

sox audio.wav audio.flac

Concatenating audio files is only slightly more complicated. The following would concatenate 01_Intro.wav and 02_Untitled.wav together into a new file concatenated.wav.

sox 01_Intro.wav 02_Untitled.wav concatenated.wav

Resampling with SoX

But SoX really shines for resampling audio. For this, use the rate effect. The following would downsample the CD-quality (44.1 kHz) audio in CD.wav to the standard sample rate used on telephones (8 kHz) and store the result in telephone.wav

sox CD.wav telephone.wav rate 8k

There are two additional effects you may want to invoke when resampling. First, you may want to “dither” the audio. As man sox explains:

Dithering is a technique used to maximize the dynamic range of audio stored at a particular bit-depth. Any distortion introduced by quantization is decorrelated by adding a small amount of white noise to the signal. In most cases, SoX can determine whether the selected processing requires dither and will add it during output formatting if appropriate.

The following would resample to the telephone rate with dithering (if necessary).

sox CD.wav telephone.wav rate 8k dither -s

Finally, when resampling audio, you may want to invoke the gain effect to avoid clipping. This can be done using the -G (“Gain”) global option.

sox -G CD.wav telephone.wav rate 8k dither -s

(De)multiplexing with SoX

The SoX remix effect is useful for manipulating multichannel audio. The following would remix a multi-channel audio file stereo.wav down to mono.

sox stereo.wav mono.wav remix -

We also can split a stereo file into two mono files.

sox stereo.wav left.wav remix 1
sox stereo.wav right.wav remix 2

Finally, we can merge two mono files together to create one stereo file using the -M (“merge”) global option; this file should be identical to stereo.wav.

sox -M left.wav right.wav stereo2.wav

Other SoX goodies

There are three other useful utilities in SoX: soxi prints information extracted from audio file headers, play uses the SoX libraries to play audio files, and rec records new audio files using a microphone.


The FFmpeg suite is to video files what SoX is to audio. Commands are of the form:

ffmpeg [flag ...] [-i infile1 ...] [-effect ...] [outfile]

The -acodec and -vcodec effects can be used to extract the audio and video streams from a video file, respectively; this process sometimes known as demuxing (short for “de-multiplexing”).

ffmpeg -i both.mp4 -acodec copy -vn audio.ac3
ffmpeg -i both.mp4 -vcodec copy -an video.h264

We can also mux (“multiplex”) them back together.

ffmpeg -i video.h264 -i audio.ac3 -vcodec copy -acodec copy both2.mp4

Hopefully that’ll get you started. Both programs have excellent manual pages; read them!

Gigaword English preprocessing

I recently took a little time out to coerce a recent version of the LDC’s Gigaword English corpus into a format that could be used for training conventional n-gram models. This turned out to be harder than I expected.


Gigaword English (v. 5) ships with 7 directories of gzipped SGML data, one directory for each of the news sources. The first step is, obviously enough, to decompress these files, which can be done with gunzip.


The resulting files are, alas, not XML files, which for all their verbosity can be parsed in numerous elegant ways. In particular, the decompressed Gigaword files do not contain a root node: each story is inside of <DOC> tags at the top level of the hierarchy. While this might be addressed by simply adding in a top-level tag, the files also contain a few  “entities” (e.g., &amp;) which ideally should be replaced by their actual referent. Simply inserting the Gigaword Document Type Definition, or DTD, at the start of each SGML file was sufficient to convert the Gigaword files to valid SGML.

I also struggled to find software for SGML-to-XML conversion; is this not something other people regularly want to do? I ultimately used an ancient library called OpenSP (open-sp in Homebrew), in particular the command osx. This conversion throws a small number of errors due to unexpected presence of UTF-8 characters, but these can be ignored (with the flag -E 0).

XML to text

Each Gigaword file contains a series of <DOC> tags, each representing a single news story. These tags have four possible type attributes; the most common one, story, is the only one which consistently contains coherent full sentences and paragraphs. Immediately underneath <DOC> in this hierarchy are two tags: <HEADLINE> and <TEXT>. While it would be fun to use the former for a study of Headlinese, <TEXT>—the tag surrounding the document body—is generally more useful. Finally, good old-fashioned <p> (paragraph) tags are the only children of <TEXT>. I serialized “story” paragraphs using the lxml library in Python. This library supports the elegant XPath query language. To select paragraphs of “story” documents, I used the XPath query /GWENG/DOC[@type="story"]/TEXT, stripped whitespace, and then encoded the text as UTF-8.

Text to sentences

The resulting units are paragraphs (with occasional uninformative line breaks), not sentences. Python’s NLTK module provides an interface to the Punkt sentence tokenizer. However, thanks to this Stack Overflow post, I became aware of its limitations. Here’s a difficult example from Moby Dick, with sentence boundaries (my judgements) indicated by the pipe character (|):

A clam for supper? | a cold clam; is THAT what you mean, Mrs. Hussey?” | says I, “but that’s a rather cold and clammy reception in the winter time, ain’t it, Mrs. Hussey?”

But, the default sentence tokenizer insists on sentence breaks immediately after both occurrences of “Mrs.”. To remedy this, I replaced the space after titles like “Mrs.”
(the full list of such abbreviations was adapted from GPoSTTL) with an underscore so as to “bleed” the sentence tokenizer, then replaced the underscore with a space after tokenization was complete. That is, the sentence tokenizer sees word tokens like “Mrs._Hussey”; since sentence boundaries must line up with word token boundaries, there is no chance a space will be inserted here. With this hack, the sentence tokenizer does that snippet of Moby Dick just right.

Sentences to tokens

For the last step, I used NLTK’s word tokenizer (nltk.tokenize.word_tokenize), which is similar to the (in)famous Treebank tokenizer, and then case-folded the resulting tokens.


In all, 170 million sentences, 5 billion word tokens, and 22 billion characters, all of which fits into 7.5 GB (compressed). Best of luck to anyone looking to do the same!