Posts Tagged ‘types’

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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Of the languages I know, emacs-lisp is unusual in that when you need to access the field of a structure, you need to know the name of the type1.

(defstruct person age name)
(defvar dave (make-person))
(setf (person-age dave) 20) ;; getter specifies the type!
(setf (person-name dave) "David Jones")
(message (person-name dave)) ;; -- David Jones

Notice I can’t say (age dave) here, it has to be (person-age ...).

The underlying reason for this is that structures are really vectors. (person-age object) translates into (aref object 1) which should hopefully be pretty fast. Another structure doesn’t need to keep its age member at an offset of 1, so I can’t say it is (generic-structure-age object).

In basic perl objects, because they are really just a hash reference, I don’t need to specify the type. When it is needed, the VM figures it out at runtime.

package Person;

sub new
    bless {}, $_[0];

package main;

my $dave = Person->new(); # Type specified here
$dave{'age'} = 20;        # but not here
$dave{'name'} = 'David Jones';

print $dave{'name'}, "\n";
$ perl t.pl
David Jones

In many statically typed languages, the fact that the compiler knows what the type is enables it to generate efficient code. I still don’t need to specify it explicitly.


using namespace std;

struct person
    int age;
    string name;

int main()
    person dave;

    dave.age = 20;             // No type explicitly specified here
    dave.name = "David Jones"; // or here

    cout << "Name: " << dave.name << "\n";
$ g++ t.cpp
$ ./a.exe
Name: David Jones

For objects created using the new version of defstruct* I’ve defunned a get-field and set-field that don’t require the type to be specified. Error checking is, as usual, elided

(defsubst get-index (object field)
  (cdr (assoc field (symbol-value (aref object 1)))))

(defun get-field (object field)
  (aref object (get-index object field)))

(defun set-field (object field value)
  (setf (aref object (get-index object field)) value))

(get-field dave 'name)
(set-field dave 'name "Simon Smith")

Although by this time we’re probably both wondering why I didn’t just use a hash like all the (other) scripting languages.

1. To be more accurate, you need to tell the computer what the type is. Obviously, if you want to do something useful with an object, you generally need to know what type it is anyway.

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