Python 2 vs. Python 3 List Sort Causes Bugs

and crashes django-chartit

Posted by Alexander Todorov on Fri 05 August 2016

Can sorting a list of values crash your software? Apparently it can and is another example of my Hello World Bugs. Python 3 has simplified the rules for ordering comparisons which changes the behavior of sorting lists when their contents are dictionaries. For example:

Python 2.7.5 (default, Oct 11 2015, 17:47:16) 
[GCC 4.8.3 20140911 (Red Hat 4.8.3-9)] on linux2
>>> 
>>> [{'a':1}, {'b':2}] < [{'a':1}, {'b':2, 'c':3}]
True
>>>
Python 3.5.1 (default, Apr 27 2016, 04:21:56) 
[GCC 4.8.3 20140911 (Red Hat 4.8.3-9)] on linux
>>> [{'a':1}, {'b':2}] < [{'a':1}, {'b':2, 'c':3}]
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
TypeError: unorderable types: dict() < dict()
>>>

The problem is that the second elements in both lists have different keys and Python doesn't know how to compare them. In earlier Python versions this has been special cased as described here by Ned Batchelder (the author of Python's coverage tool) but in Python 3 dictionaries have no natural sort order.

In the case of django-chartit (of which I'm now the official maintainer) this bug triggers when you want to plot data from multiple sources (models) on the same chart. In this case the fields coming from each data series are different and the above error is triggered.

I have worked around this in commit 9d9033e by simply disabling an iterator sort but this is sub-optimal and I'm not quite certain what the side effect might be. I suspect you may end up with a chart where the order of values on the X axis isn't the same for the different models, e.g. one graph plotting the data in ascending order the other one in descending.

The trouble also comes from the fact that we're sorting an iterator (a list of fields) by telling Python to use a list of dicts to determine the sort order. In this arrangement there is no way to tell Python how we want to compare our dicts. The only solution I can think about is creating a custom class and implementing a custom __cmp__() method for this data structure!

tags: QA, Python

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