Posts Tagged ‘typeful programming’

Even for a curmudgeon like me who doesn’t make much use of object orientation, Moose offers something which supports my programming with types style: a degree of run-time type checking and the ability to create a range of convenience functions with very little code.

Say I have a person who makes a bunch of orders consisting of a bunch of items. My hashref might look something like this:

my $data = {
    fred => {
        orders => [
            order_id => 'fred1',
            items => [
                { description => 'roses' },
            order_id => 'fred1',
            items => [
                { description => 'one true ring' },


Then I’ll probably need a bunch of convenience functions to make sure I’m adding items to orders rather than people.

In Moose, including the type checking, that looks like:


package Item;
use Moose;

has description => (
    is => 'ro',
    isa => 'Str',

no Moose;


package Order;
use Moose;

has order_id => (
    is => 'ro',
    isa => 'Str',
    required => 1,

has items => (
    is => 'rw',
    isa => 'ArrayRef[Item]',
    default => sub { [] },
    traits  => ['Array'],
    handles => {
        add_item  => 'push',
        get_items => 'elements',

no Moose;


package Person;
use Moose;

has name => (
    is => 'ro',
    isa => 'Str',
    required => 1,

has orders =>
    is => 'rw',
    isa => 'ArrayRef[Order]',
    default => sub { [] },
    traits  => ['Array'],
    handles => {
        add_order  => 'push',
        get_orders => 'elements',

no Moose;

Adding an item as an order gives a nice error message:

my $fred = Person->new(name => 'fred');
my $item = Item->new(description => 'One true ring');
$ perl moose-arrays.pl
A new member value for orders does not pass its type constraint because:
Validation failed for 'Order' with value Item=HASH(0x9ad3ec8)
(not isa Order) at moose-arrays.pl line 63

Moose ensures you pass an order to add_order(…).

my $order1 = Order->new(order_id => 'fred1');
my $item = Item->new(description => 'One true ring');

my $order2 = Order->new(order_id => 'fred2');

use Data::Dumper;
print Dumper($fred);
$VAR1 = bless( {
                 'orders' => [
                               bless( {
                                        'order_id' => 'fred1',
                                        'items' => [
                                                     bless( {
                                                              'description' => 'One true ring'
                                                            }, 'Item' )
                                      }, 'Order' ),
                               bless( {
                                        'order_id' => 'fred2',
                                        'items' => []
                                      }, 'Order' )
                 'name' => 'fred'
               }, 'Person' );

I like it when someone else has already written the code I would otherwise need to write myself.

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Moose Types

Rants about generalisations notwithstanding, I’m a fan of typeful programming (I’m sure I’d love Ada). For a script that will be moderately complex, I like to sit down and think about the types I’m going to use before I start.

Any library that will enable me to specify my types more precisely and concisely is obviously a win.

And speaking of Moose…

Moose has a bunch of methods to specify your types and a built-in type hierarchy available that you can build off.

Abusing an example I’ve used before:

use Moose;
use Moose::Util::TypeConstraints;
use MooseX::Params::Validate;

subtype 'LegalDrinkingAge'
    => as 'Int'
    => where { $_ >= 18 }

coerce 'LegalDrinkingAge'
    => from 'Int'
    => via { 1 }

sub can_legally_drink
    my $age = pos_validated_list(
        { isa => 'LegalDrinkingAge' },

    return 1;

print can_legally_drink(18), "\n";
print can_legally_drink(17), "\n";

Checking for a LegalDrinkingAge type here is obviously the wrong thing to do, but for the purposes of the example it will do.

The resulting error is fine, if a little ugly.

$ perl5.10.1 moose-types.pl
Parameter #1 ("17") to main::can_legally_drink did not pass the 'checking type constraint for LegalDrinkingAge' callback
 at /u/packages/lib/perl5/site_perl/5.10.1/MooseX/Params/Validate.pm line 168
        MooseX::Params::Validate::pos_validated_list('ARRAY(0x976ce40)', 'HASH(0x911b6f8)') called at moose-types.pl line 24
        main::can_legally_drink(17) called at moose-types.pl line 33

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Perl And Type Checking

(aka known as which language am I using again?)

Dave Rolsky has a new post on perl 5 overloading. It’s fairly informative, but it contains this little gem (emphasis mine):

If you don’t care about defensive programming, then Perl 5’s overloading is perfect, and you can stop reading now. Also, please let me know so I can avoid working on code with you, thanks.

Defensive programming, for the purposes of this entry, can be defined as "checking sub/method arguments for sanity".

Blanket statements like this really get my gripe up. Let’s have a look at defensive argument checking in Perl taken to its illogical conclusion.

Defensive Primitive Type Checking

use strict;
use warnings;

use Carp;
use Scalar::Util 'looks_like_number';

sub can_legally_drink
    my $age = shift;
    croak "$age is not a number" unless looks_like_number($age);
    return $age >= 18;

print can_legally_drink('x'), "\n";

And fantastic news! can_legally_drink correctly detected that my argument isn’t a number.

x is not a number at age.pl line 10
        main::can_legally_drink('x') called at age.pl line 14

But hang on a minute. Not all integers are ages. Surely we want to check if a real age type was passed in.

Checking For A ‘Real’ Type

My stripped down defensive age type might look something like this.

package age;

use Carp;
use Scalar::Util 'looks_like_number';

sub isa_age
    my $arg = shift;
    return ref($arg) and blessed $arg and $arg->isa('age');

sub new {
    my ($class, $years) = @_;
    croak "$years is not a number" unless looks_like_number($years);
    bless { years => $years }, $class;

sub years {
    return $_[0]->{'years'}

sub less_than {
    my ($self, $other) = @_;
    croak "$other is not an age" unless isa_age($other);
    return $self->years() < $other->years();

And then my calling code can look like this:

package main;

sub can_legally_drink
    my $age = shift;
    croak "$age is not an age" unless $age->isa('age');
    return ! $age->less_than(age->new(18));

print can_legally_drink(age->new(18)), "\n";
print can_legally_drink(18), "\n";

And woohoo, the second line throws an error as I wanted.

Actually, I don’t write Perl like this. Dave, you probably want to avoid working on code with me, thanks.


To be fair, Rolsky is talking his own book. Moose has a bunch of stuff that handles all this type checking malarky nice and cleanly. If you’re building something big in Perl, you should take a look.

But if you really care about types, I mean defensive programming that much, you could use a statically typed language instead and then you even get fast code thrown in for free.

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I am a student of the design your data structures first school of programming1. My first proper language was C and in that language pretty much all you had was typedef struct and a handful of primitive types.

Despite the fact that I now spend most of my time programming with dynamic languages (emacs lisp and perl), I still believe it is important to think about your types before you start programming. Eh, but what’s that? Dynamic languages don’t have types? Au contraire mon ami. Not having static type-checking is not the same as not having types.

So, enough handwaving, what about a real example?

Extensible Vectors

In C++, one of the data structures I use most is the STL vector. But in emacs lisp, the vector is a very different animal as it doesn’t automatically extend. If I want an extensible vector type (an evector), I have to implement it myself (or find a library containing one, but that wouldn’t make a good example).

So, first of all, I need to know what pieces of information each evector will need. There will be the vector itself, plus the current end of the vector and the current size before we need to resize it. If we want to use fibonacci to get the next size of vector we need another slot for the fibonacci counter. So each evector will look like this:

['evector [...] <end position> <fib counter>]

The constructor is generally called make-<typename> so the implementation (assuming we want a vector that starts with 8 slots) is:

(defun make-evector ()
  (vector 'evector (make-vector 8 nil) 0 5))

We also need a predicate for checking if a variable is of type evector.

(defun evectorp (object)
  (eq (aref object 0) 'evector))

What does the push-back operation look like?

(defun evector-push-back (object elem)
  (let* ((vec (aref object 1))
         (pos (aref object 2))
         (len (length vec)))
    ;; increase the size of the vector if necessary
    (when (<= len pos)
      (let* ((new-size (+ len (aref object 3)))
             (new-vec (make-vector new-size nil))
             (i 0))
        ;; copy the original vector into the new one
        (while (< i len)
          (aset new-vec i (aref vec i))
          (incf i))
        (setq vec new-vec)
        (setf (aref object 1) vec)
        (setf (aref object 3) len)))
    ;; set the vector element and update end position
    (aset vec pos elem)
    (incf (aref object 2))))

Hmmm… referring to the member variables by position looks error prone and inflexible. What can we do about that?

If you’re thinking accessors, you’re on the right lines. Fortunately, because of setf, you only need a getter.

(edit: fixed, thanks Jisang)

(defsubst evector-data (object) (aref object 1))
(defsubst evector-end-position (object aref object 2))
(defsubst evector-fib-var (object aref object 3))


But even better, there is a macro that does defines your constructor, predicate and accessors for you, defstruct.

(defstruct evector
  (data (make-vector 8 nil))
  (end-pos 0)
  (fib-var 5))

Yet another advantage of using defstruct, is that the error messages are clearer than with my basic accessors.

(evector-fib-var 'x)

[basic accessor]
Debugger entered--Lisp error: (wrong-number-of-arguments (lambda (object aref object 3)) 1)

[defstruct accessor]
Debugger entered--Lisp error: (error "evector-fib-var accessing a non-evector")
  signal(error ("evector-fib-var accessing a non-evector"))
  error("evector-fib-var accessing a non-evector")

edit: apologies to those who arrived from ironman perl. This isn’t a perl related post so I hadn’t tagged it as such. I didn’t realise that posts that mention perl anywhere get picked up.

1. Although it might not come across in my examples 🙂

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