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The Story of None: Part 2 - Recognizing It

part 1 part 2 part 3 part 4 part 5 part 6

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In part 1 of the Story of None we've seen this validation function:

def validate_end_date_later_than_start(start_date, end_date):
    if end_date <= start_date:
        raise ValidationError(
            "The end date should be later than the start date.")

We've decided that start_date or end_date may be ommitted (and be None), and that this function is therefore buggy: we'll get a TypeError if it's called with None as one of the arguments and a date with the other.

A type check?

One reaction to a TypeError is to do a type check to see whether the values are really of the right types, in this case, date, and to only proceed if they are. Something like:

if type(start_date) == date:
   ...

or:

if isinstance(start_date, date):
    ...

This works, but I think this signals the wrong thing to the reader of the code.

The reader may start wondering whether there are code paths that generate a start_date that is not a date but something else; we seem to be guarding against a set of other possibilities. But in reality we're only guarding against one possibility: None.

It is a bit of cognitive load for the developer to consider None is what we're really checking for, and that type(None) is NoneType and that this isn't equal to the date type. It's not right to make a developer think about stuff they don't have to think about.

Let's instead be specific, and just handle None, and avoid type checking.

if value?

So we want to make sure that start_date and end_date are present. That something is there. It's now very tempting to check for their presence with a clause like this:

if start_date:
   ...

This again will work, at least in this particular case, where the arguments are dates.

But it won't work for other things, like a function where the arguments are numbers.

Why won't it work for numbers? Because 0 in Python evaluates to False. And the number 0 doesn't mean that the number is ommitted. So if we were, for example, comparing start_age and end_age, where the ages are integer numbers, we'd be in trouble if we did something like this:

if end_age and start_age and end_age >= start_age:
   raise ValidationError("End age should come before start age")

end_age could be 0, and 0 would definitely come before a start_age of say, 10, and we still don't raise ValidationError. A bug!

We want to reduce the burden on the developer who has to reason about this code, if we can, we should use a pattern that works for any case where None can be a value. Doing so will make our code be more regular and easier to understand.

So when we can, we should explicitly compare with None.

value == None?

Don't use == None either. It will work but it'll be a tiny bit slower and it's not the Pythonic convention. Plus if the __eq__ operator is overload it may dive into that, which is what you don't really want.

Follow the convention so that other programmers will be able to read your code more easily. In Python you compare for equality with == but for identity with is. I won't go into the details of identity versus equality here. Instead I'll say that you can always safely do an identity comparison with None.

value is None

So how do you compare with None in Python? You use:

value is None

and if you want to check whether something is not None the idiom is:

value is not None

In JavaScript by the way the idiom is value === null and value !== null, as triple comparison is identity comparison in JavaScript.

Next time we'll apply this approach to our validation function.

part 1 part 2 part 3 part 4 part 5 part 6

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