Erlang for Python programmers: Part II

by Ruslan Spivak on September 16, 2007

In this short tutorial we will take a look at comparison operations, some arithmetic operations and modules. You may also want to skim over Inro and Part I.

Comparison operations

 Python   Erlang   Description             Erlang Example
  <        <        strictly less than
  <=       =<       less than or equal
  >        >        strictly greater than
  >=       >=       greater than or equal
  !=       /=       not equal
  ==       ==       equal                   1> 1 == 1.
                                            2> 1 == 1.0.
           =:=      exactly equal to        1> 1 =:= 1.
                                            2> 1 =:= 1.0.
           =/=      exactly not equal to
  is                object identity
  is not            negated obj identity

Python notes

Above comparison operations are supported by all objects. In Python you can chain comparisons:

>>> x, y, z = 1, 3, 7
>>> x < y <= z
>>> x < y and y <= z

Foregoing examples are identical, except that in second case y is evaluated twice.

Erlang notes

Following order is defined:

number < atom < reference < fun < port < pid < tuple < list < binary

1> 5 < erlang.
2> erlang < make_ref().

Both Erlang comparison operators (<, =<, >, >=, /=, ==) and Python comparison operators(<, <=, >, >=, !=, ==) make type coerce, “narrower” type is widened to that of another, ie when comparing integer and float first integer is converted to float, etc.
Erlang has special operators without type coerce though: =:= and =/=

Arithmetic operations

I’ll provide only several operations, for more take a look at corresponding language references.

 Python   Python Desc.         Erlang    Erlang Desc.   Example
  x % y    remainder            X rem Y   integer        >>> 7 % 3
           of x / y                       remainder      1
                                          of X / Y       >>> 7.0 % 3

                                                         1> 7 rem 3.
                                                         1> 7.0 rem 3.
                                                         =ERROR REP..
  x / y    quotient             X / Y     floating       >>> 7 / 3
           of x and y                     point          2
                                          division       >>> 7.0 / 3

                                                         1> 7 / 3.
  x // y   (floored) quotient   X div Y   integer        >>> 7 // 3
           of x and y,                    division       2
           integer division                              >>> 7.5 // 3
           (result type is                               2.0
           not forced to be
           int)                                          1> 7 div 3.


Code in Erlang is organized into units called modules, which is familiar word for Python programmer.

Let’s define sample module with function declaration stored in file mymath.erl :


fact(0) -> 1;
fact(N) -> N * fact(N-1).

What we see here:

  1. module’s source code is stored in file with .erl extension
  2. module consists of attributes and function declarations which are terminated by period (.)
  3. we should provide module declaration defining name of the module
  • module name should be atom
  • module name is the same as file name minus .erl extension
  • module declaration is mandatory
  • module declaration attribute should be defined first.

To make functions defined in module accessible outside the module we need to export them, for this -export module attribute exists. We write exported functions inside square brackets in form of func/N where N is the number of arguments of function, called arity. I’ll repeat that functions not pointed in -export will not be accessible outside module.

Before code can be run, module must be compiled. Resulting compiled file will contain extension .beam

If you use Emacs you can compile module with C-c C-k and see results in erlang shell:

1> c("/home/alienoid/dev/erlang/mymath", [{outdir, "/home/alienoid/dev/erlang/"}]).

Or you can compile it directly in shell. Make sure your shell’s current directory is where your mymath.erl lives, if it’s not the case use cd command in erlang shell, cd(“/path/to/dir/with/mymath.erl”) :

1> c(mymath).

To invoke our function fact we use syntax mod:func :

2> mymath:fact(4).

Erlang has also -import attribute which allows to import functions into modules, so that you don’t need to use fully-qualified name mod:func to invoke function, again familiar behaviour and naming to Python programmer.

Erlang allows to insert code from file as-is with -include attribute at point where -import is defined, this is used to include records and macro definitions, for example.

Comments in Erlang module begin with character “%“, continue up to end-of-line and may be placed anywhere except inside string and quoted atoms.
Like in Python Erlang has no multiline comments.
If you use Emacs you can easily comment whole region with M-; command after you marked it.

-export([fact/1, print_double/1]).
-import(lists, [foreach/2]).

%% sum(L) ->
%%     sum(L, 0).

%% sum([H|T], Acc) ->
%%     sum(T, H+Acc);
%% sum([], Acc) -> Acc.

fact(0) -> 1;
fact(N) -> N * fact(N-1).
print_double(L) ->
    foreach(fun(X) -> io:format("Double of ~p = ~p~n", [X, X*2]) end, L).


Next tutorial will be devoted to thorough exploration of functions in Erlang.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

asdfdf September 17, 2007 at 4:13 AM

Be careful with your examples. At the top, you’re trying to show comparison operators and your examples start with 1> and 2>, which at first glance make it look like “1 is greater than 1 equals 1″ which makes no sense. The REPL prompt is very misleading in this case.

== == equal 1> 1 == 1.
2> 1 == 1.0.


Ruslan Spivak September 17, 2007 at 9:15 AM

You are right, i should have highlighted erlang shell’s prompts in table to make it more understandable, it just turned out non trivial to make ASCII table in Emacs look acceptable in Wordpress page. Attempts to hightlight “1>” and related breaks current table in bad way.
But thanks for feedback, i’ll take your remark into account.


Alex September 17, 2007 at 9:12 PM

The “greater than or equal” sign for Python in your “operation comparison” chart should be >= .

Nice article, keep it up :)


Ruslan Spivak September 17, 2007 at 9:46 PM

Thanks for noting typo and feedback, Alex. I’ve updated page to reflect the change.


njharman September 18, 2007 at 12:44 AM

Very nice. Eagerly awaiting future installments.


Євген January 19, 2009 at 4:25 PM



Andrew B. April 22, 2010 at 2:29 AM

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