Consider the task of sorting a list of complex floating-point numbers by magnitude. First Attempt The usual method to do this in Maple is with the sort procedure. By passing a boolean-valued function that computes then compares the magnitudes of two complex numbers, we can sort the list. The following procedure shows how this is accomplished.
sort1 := proc(L)
    return sort(L, proc(z1,z2) abs(z1) <= abs(z2) end proc);
end proc:
A disadvantage of this approach is that the absolute-value procedure is called twice every time a pair of numbers is compared. For a long list, the time spent in the absolute value routine dominates the computation time. Second Attempt To avoid the overhead of repeatedly computing absolute values, we can first compute the magnitude of each number. Because we want the sorted list of complex numbers, not their magnitudes, we need a way to associate a magnitude with its corresponding complex value. The usual technique is to pair the two in a sublist. The list of pairs are sorted by passing a comparison procedure that extracts and compares the magnitude from each pair. After sorting, the complex values are unpacked from the list of pairs. The following procedure implements this technique in a minimal fashion.
sort2 := proc(L)
local l;
    return [seq](l[2]
                 ,l = sort([seq]([abs(l),l], l=L)
                           ,(p1,p2) -> p1[1] <= p2[1]));
end proc:
A drawback to this procedure is that the comparison procedure is user-defined, hence slower than the built-in sort comparison. Third Attempt We can sort a list of floats (the magnitudes) with the builtin sort comparison procedure 'numeric' (also known as `<`). However, we need a way to associate each magnitude (float) with the specific complex value that generated it. The setattribute and attributes procedures provide the desired capability. Use setattribute to set the original complex number as an attribute to the computed magnitude. Sort the list, using the builtin `<` comparison procedure, then use the attributes procedure to convert the sorted list of magnitudes to the corresponding complex values. The following procedure implements the technique. Note that this does not work with a list of Gaussian integers (complex numbers with integer components); setattribute only works with some expression types. It works with floats, but not integers, complex integers, or complex floats. To ensure that there are no problems, we should consider declaring the parameter L to be a list of complex floats (L::list(complex(float))).
sort3 := proc(L)
local l;
    return map(attributes,sort([seq](setattribute(abs(l),l), l=L),`<`));
end proc:
Verification Verify that each procedure sorts properly.
n := 10:
L := [seq](RandomTools:-Generate(complex(float(range=0..1
Timing Comparison Time the three alternatives with a fairly long list, 10,000 complex floats.
n := 10^4:
L := [seq](RandomTools:-Generate(complex(float(range=0..1,method=uniform)))
Both sort2 and sort3 are significantly faster than sort1, the naive implementation. Using setattribute more than doubles the speed again. For shorter lists the speed increases are less dramatic, the time depending on the number of calls to the comparison routine. For a merge sort, which the Maple sort routine uses, the number of comparisons for a list of n elements is
  add(ceil(evalf(log[2](3/4*k))), k=1..n);
See Knuth, Donald, "The Art of Computer Programming," Vol 3, 2nd Edition, p. 186. Suggestion While the setattribute trick works with this example, it is unfortunate that it cannot be more generally applied. It might be useful if the syntax of sort were extended so that we can use the built-in comparison routine to compare particular elements of sublists. For example, it would nice to write
sort4 := proc(L)
local l;
    return [seq](l[2]
                 ,l = sort([seq]([abs(l),l], l=L),`<`[1]));
end proc:
where the `<`[1] tells the builtin function to numerically compare the first item in a list of lists.

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