Adam Pearce github twitter email rss

Even Fewer Lambdas

Writing d3 typically involves writing lots of anonymous functions. The scatter plot example illustrates two typical use cases: scales and attributes.

Scale computations

var x = d3.scale.linear()
    .range([0, width])
    .domain(d3.extent({ return d.sepalWidth; })))

var y = d3.scale.linear()
    .range([height, 0])
    .domain(d3.extent({ return d.sepalLength; })))

data is an array of objects, each with a sepalWidth and a sepalLength property. is a function built into every javascript array. It takes a function (in this case, function(d){ return d.sepalWidth; }), calls it on each element of the original array, and returns a new array consisting of the returned values.

Since sepalWidth is always a number, map returns an array of numbers. This array is immediately passed to d3.extent, which returns the min and max sepalWidths and is used to set the domain of the x scale.

Data driven attributes

      .attr("cx", function(d) { return x(d.sepalWidth); })
      .attr("cy", function(d) { return y(d.sepalLength); })
      .style("fill", function(d) { return color(d.species); })

.attr("cx", function(d) { return x(d.sepalWidth); }) iterates over every element in the current selection, calling the anonymous function on the data bound to the element (here, a member of the data array), and setting the element’s “cx” property equal to the return value of the function. By also setting the “cy” property of each circle to be proportional to sepalLenght, a scatter plot showing sepalWidth v. sepalLength is created.

This process is at the core of d3. Elements of a data array are associated with elements on the page, functions transform each data point into a pixel value, color, or something else which is used to alter the appearance of the elements on the page.

In addition to attributes, text and interaction can also be controlled with functions operating on data:

var legend = svg.selectAll(".legend")
      .data(['flowerName1', 'flowerName2', 'flowerName3'])
      .text(function(d) { return d; })
      .on('click', function(d){ alert(d + ' Clicked!'); })

Instead of binding an element of the data array to a circle, we attach names of different types of flowers to a text element. Just like .attr, .text(function(d){ return d; }) calls the anonymous function on each element of the selection and uses the return value to update the element. Instead of changing an arbitrary attribute, .text (as the name suggests) sets the text inside of the element. Since the bound data is an array of strings and we’re only trying to print each of them out, our function just returns what it was passed.


Needing a function that returns what it is passed turns out to be surprisingly common. We can skip a bit of typing by saving a reference to the identify function:

var idFn = function(d){ return d; };

and instead of typing out all the syntactical noise of function, return, ( and : every time we need it, we can say exactly what we mean everything time an identity function is used:


Admittedly, this isn’t a huge improvement. We could try to extend this idea by creating more named functions to access field properties:

var getSepalWidth = function(d){ return d.sepalWidth; }
var getSepalLength = function(d){ return d.sepalLength; }

var datum = {sepalWidth: 10, sepalWidth: 34};
console.log(getSepalWidth(datum));    //10
console.log(getSepalLength(datum));   //34


This makes the meat of our code more concise, but requires repetitive boilerplate code and mentally keeping track of the names of each of the field accessors. If we need to access another field, we have to create another accessor function first. Instead of manually making each accessor function, we can create a function that creates accessor functions:

var ƒ = function(field){
    return function(object){ 
        return object[field]

console.log(ƒ('sepalWidth')(datum));    //10
console.log(ƒ('sepalLength')(datum));   //34

Calling ƒ('fieldName') returns a function that takes an object and returns its fieldName property. A single expressive (if slightly more complicated) idea replaces many repetitive ones. Pz suggests using ƒ for this function since it is short and easy to type - option-f. I like that it evokes its purpose ‘ƒield accessor’ without being verbose.

However, for the most common pattern of anonymous functions - getting a property from an object and transforming it with a scale function .attr("cx", function(d) { return x(d.sepalWidth); }) - we’re still stuck typing out the entirety of the function syntax. We can tell the computer how to automatically combine the accessor and scale functions instead of manually spelling it:

var compose = function(g, h){
    return function(d){
        return g(h(d))

var addOne = function(d){ return d + 1 }
var timesFive = function(d){ return d*5 }
var divideByTwo = function(d){ return d/2 }

compose(addOne, timesFive)(2)        //(2*5) + 1 = 11
compose(addOne, timesFive)(10)    //(10*5) + 1 = 51
compose(timesFive, addOne)(10)    //(10 + 1)*5 =  55
compose(divideByTwo, addOne)(14)    //(14 + 1)*5 =  7.5

compose takes two functions and returns one function representing the composition of those functions. Using compose with ƒ allows us to eliminate almost all of the noise of inline lambdas from our d3 code:

      .attr("cx", compose(x, ƒ('sepalWidth')))
      .attr("cy", compose(y, ƒ('sepalLength')))

More modifications

Since we’re making our helper functions, we can modify them to be even more useful. ƒ, for example, can replace idFn if we add a check for an undefined field:

function ƒ(field){
    return function(object){ 
        return typeof(field) === 'undefined' ? object : object[field];

datum === ƒ()(datum) //true

I’ve tried having ƒ accept arrays to access nested properties (not convinced that its that useful since it ƒ(['prop1', 'prop2', 'prop3']) is equivalent to compose(ƒ('prop1'), ƒ('prop2'), ƒ('prop3'))). Another variation: a ‘safe’ version of ƒ` that doesn’t throw an error when the passed object is undefined.

The annotated source of underscore shows how compose can be extend to take any number of functions.

Further reading

These helpers for d3 and d3 itself makes heavy use of function’s first class status in Javascript. More cool things that functions can do: