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Ali Faizan Kazmi
Ali Faizan Kazmi

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Koping with KDB 001: List Reversal

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Preface: Hi y'all (and Merry Christmas)! Welcome to the first of a series of posts about kdb+ - a high-performance columnar database which, coupled with its query language Q, is used extensively in some areas of FinTech. More recently, kdb+ has also been applied to machine learning outside of FinTech.

My narrative technique can be non-linear at times: e.g., a section's title may not make sense unless you've read some or all of the section; it may not be obvious from a code snippet as to what I'm trying to achieve; or I may build up to a solution only to discard it in the next instant. This is by design. If this causes any inconvenience to you while reading then let me know and I'll be happy to go for a more linear approach.

Lastly, there is an inbuilt function in Q to reverse a given list but we're not gonna use it. We'll come up with our own solution instead and learn a few things along the way.

One of the first rules I learned when studying Q/kdb+ was that the Q/kdb+ interpreter evaluates expressions from right to left, even though expressions are typed left-to-right. For instance, the result of the following expression:


is 12, since the addition operator and its operands are evaluated first and the result of the addition in turn becomes the second operand for the * operator.

Sound simple enough? I certainly thought so, until my forehead landed on my palm a few minutes later.


I was attempting to define a simple function that would return true if it were passed a list as its argument:

isList: {[object] type object = 7h}

A breakdown of the above follows for the uninitiated:

  • : is the assignment operator
  • A function definition is encapsulated in curly brackets
  • A function's parameters are encapsulated in square brackets inside the function definition
  • = is the equality operator (since : takes care of assignment)
  • Each datatype in kdb is represented by a special 16-bit integer. In this case, we want the integer that represents the list datatype - 7h (well, not exactly)
  • Generally, a non-niladic function in kdb is invoked by passing it one or more arguments within square brackets. This is optional for monadic functions, though - as seen above in case of the type function

Back to our function definition. If, like me, you didn't immediately notice what was wrong then here it is: the expression

type object = 7h

is evaluated right-to-left, which means the expression is not performing the intended type check at all! From right to left, this expression contains two inner expressions evaluated in the following order:

type (object = 7h)

So, object = 7h evaluates to a boolean value (0b or 1b) which is then served as the argument to the type function. No wonder, then, that we get the following result when we invoke our function with a list of numbers:

isList 1 2 3
-> -1h

-1h is the numerical representation of the boolean datatype.

As an aside, lists in kdb are typically enclosed in round brackets and a semi-colon is used to separate list items. However, round brackets and semi-colons can be dropped for a list of atoms (known as primitives in languages like Java) where each atom is of the same datatype.

Here is the corrected version of the function:

isList: {[object] 7h = type object}

Which gives us the expected result when invoked with a list of numbers:

isList 1 2 3
-> 1b

Why do I want such a function, you ask? Because I would like to ultimately define a function that takes a list as an argument and returns another list with its elements in the reverse order. One way we could achieve a list reversal is via recursion and for recursion to work (or, more precisely, to stop!) we need a base case. In this example, the base case would be the point where we have reduced the provided list to its last element.

Really? Recursion?

Wait, do we really need recursion? Given that Q is an array programming language (among other things), could we not just pass a list of indices as an argument to our list in order to obtain a new reversed list? Of course, we'll need to make sure the list of indices is in reverse, too. But that shouldn't be difficult. To generate a list of indices, we can make use of the til function:

til 3
-> 0 1 2

The function can be used to obtain a list of valid indices for a list by using the count function:

list: 1 2 3
til count list
-> 0 1 2

Now, if we could reverse the list of indices then our problem should be solved:

list 2 1 0
-> 3 2 1

The following is one strategy to reverse this list:

  • The maximum valid index is -1 + count list (Am I the only one who came up with count list - 1 first?)
  • Subtracting a list of indices that is sorted in ascending order from the maximum valid index will yield a list that contains the same indices in reverse

In our case:

indices: til count list
2 - indices
-> 2 1 0

Great, now we need to wrap all of this into a function. We can't name our function reverse since that name is already reserved (for a function the definition of which I'm too scared to find out just yet). Here's the function:

reverseList: {
    [list] list (-1 + count list) - til count list

This seems to work correctly:

reverseList 1 2 3
-> 3 2 1

reverseList "level"
-> "level"
reverseList 1 0 1
-> 1 0 1
reverseList "Eva, can I stab bats in a cave?"
-> "?evac a ni stab bats I nac ,avE"

Apologies, I got carried away with palindromes.

reverseList 110b /List of booleans (incidentally, this is a comment)
-> 011b
reverseList 2018.09.23 2018.09.22 2018.09.21
-> 2018.09.21 2018.09.22 2018.09.23

Is our solution good enough?

Hardly. Why should we have to create a new list (i.e., the list of indices in reverse) in order to reverse a given list? Also, I don't like having to use parantheses to force the evaluation of an expression first - a sign that I'm still wet behind the ears vis-à-vis Q's right-to-left evaluation. Perhaps I should take a stab at recursion after all, or find a better solution as I continue to study Q and slowly shed the yoke of imperative/non-array programming paradigms.

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