Why Not Return A Function? July 2nd, 2009
Patrick Stein

This morning, I was catching up on the RSS feeds I follow. I noticed an interesting snippet of code in the Abstract Heresies journal for the Discrete-time Fourier Transform. Here is his snippet of code:

(define (dtft samples)
  (lambda (omega)
    (sum 0 (vector-length samples)
        (lambda (n)
          (* (vector-ref samples n)
             (make-polar 1.0 (* omega n)))))))

My first thought was That’s way too short. Then, I started reading through it. My next thought was, maybe I don’t understand scheme at all. Then, my next thought was, I do understand this code, it just didn’t do things the way I expected.

Here, I believe is a decent translation of the above into Common Lisp:

(defun dtft (samples)
  #'(lambda (omega)
      (loop for nn from 0 below (length samples)
           summing (let ((angle (* omega nn)))
                     (* (aref samples nn)
                        (complex (cos angle) (sin angle)))))))

Now, what I find most interesting here is that most implementations you’ll find for the DTFT (Discrete-Time Fourier Transform) take an array of samples and a wavelength, and returns a result. This, instead, returns a function which you can call with a wavelength omega. It returns an evaluator. This is an interesting pattern that I will have to try to keep in mind. I have used it in some places before. But, I am sure there are other places that I should have used it, and missed. This is one where I would have missed.

Usage for the above would go something like:

(let ((dd (dtft samples)))
  (dd angle1)
  (dd angle2)

For those not into Lisp either (who are you?), here is a rough translation into C++.

#include <cmath>
#include <complex>

class DTFT {
  unsigned int len;
  double* samples;

  DTFT( double* _samples, unsigned int _len ) {
    this->len = _len;
    this->samples = new double[ this->len ];
    for ( unsigned int ii=0; ii < this->len; ++ii ) {
      this->samples[ ii ] = _samples[ ii ];

  ~DTFT( void ) {
    delete[] this->samples;

  std::complex< double > operator () ( double omega ) const {
    std::complex< double > sum( 0.0, 0.0 );
    for ( unsigned int ii=0; ii < this->len; ++ii ) {
      sum += this->samples[ ii ] * std::polar( 1.0, omega );
    return sum;

With usage like:

DTFT dd( samples, 1024 );
dd( angle1 );
dd( angle2 );

So, six lines of Scheme or Lisp. Twenty-five lines of C++ including explicit definition of a class to act as a pseudo-closure, explicit copying and management of the samples buffer, etc. I suppose, a more direct translation would have used a std::vector to hold the samples and would have just kept a pointer to the buffer. That would have shaved off six or seven lines and the whole len and _len variables.