Posts Tagged ‘Programming’

Erlang: Getting Started Without Melting

Wednesday, July 11th, 2018

There are two things that might be meant when someone references “Erlang”: the language, and the environment (the EVM/BEAM and OTP). The first one, the language part, is actually super simple and quick to learn. The much larger, deeper part is learning what the BEAM does and how OTP makes your programs better.

It is clear that without an understanding of Erlang we’re not going to get very far in terms of understanding OTP and won’t be skilled enough to reliably interact with the runtime through a shell. So let’s forget about the runtime and OTP for a bit and just aim at the lowest, most common beginners’ task in coding: writing a script that tells me “Hello, World!” and shows whatever arguments I pass to it from the command line:

#! /usr/bin/env escript

% Example of an escript

main(Args) ->
    ok = io:setopts([{encoding, unicode}]),
    ok = io:format("Hello, world!~n"),
    io:format("I received the args: ~tp~n", [Args]).

Let’s save that in a file called e_script, run the command chmod +x e_script to make it executable, and take a look at how this works:

ceverett@takoyaki:~$ ./e_script foo bar
Hello, world!
I received the args: ["foo","bar"]

Cool! So it actually works. I can see a few things already:

  1. I need to know how to call some things from the standard library to make stuff work, like io:format/2
  2. io:setopts([{encoding, unicode}]) seems to makes it OK to print UTF-8 characters to the terminal in a script
  3. An escript starts execution with a traditional main/1 function call

Some questions I might have include how or why we use the = for both assignment and assertion in Erlang, what the mantra “crash fast” really means, what keywords are reserved, and other issues which are covered in the Reference Manual (which is surprisingly small and quick to read and reference).

An issue some newcomers encounter is that navigating an unfamiliar set of documentation can be hard. Here are the most important links you will need to know to get familiar and do useful things with the sequential language:

This is a short list, but it is the most common links you’ll want to know how to find. It is also easy to pull up any given module for doing a search for “erlang [module name]” on any search engine. (Really, any of them.)

In the rare case that is having a hard time I maintain a mirror of the docs for various Erlang release versions here as well:

Start messing with sequential Erlang. Don’t worry about being fancy and massively concurrent or maximizing parallelization or whatever — just mess around at first and get a feel for the language using escript. It is a lot of fun and makes getting into the more fully encompassing instructional material much more comfortable.

Tiny strings-as-strings JSON in portable Erlang

Monday, June 25th, 2018

There are several JSON libs for Erlang at this point, and as there is no correct mapping between JSON types and Erlang types, all make different tradeoffs that either work or don’t for your project. Beyond that, various interface and implementation differences exist due to the tradeoffs inherent in manipulating elements of the Black Tongue known as lolscript:

  • Accept values to encode as magic tagged tuples so you can specify exactly what you want VS being ambiguous
  • Never allow “naked” values (everything must be in a list/array or a map or a [whatever]) VS “hanging” values
  • Treat all strings ever as binaries because “strings are big” VS treating all strings (and binaries) as strings because strings are easy to manipulate (io_lists…)
  • Decode JSON “objects” as proplists VS decode JSON objects to dicts or maps VS add an “options” argument to the decode function
  • Encode and decode values various ways based on optional switches VS “sane defaults” (aka “works for me”)
  • Achieve lolspeed via NIFs and only work on *nix VS maintain portability via pure Erlang
  • etc.

No combination is correct for every situation, hence the proliferation of libraries. In addition to proliferation, something as simple as what is described by RFC-8259 shouldn’t require a 20k LoC dependency to manage, at least not in Erlang of all languages.

The general strings-as-strings + portability tradeoffs were made by mochiweb years ago, with mochijson2 being the go-to JSON parser for lots of projects. Now that “tuple calls” have finally been retired after years of obsolescence and deprecation, mochijson2 is finally giving up the ghost as well (as it was based on tuple calls). As a replacement that makes mostly the same tradeoffs but is arguably simpler, I wrote a single-module JSON encoder/decoder lib. It treats all strings as strings, is in pure Erlang, and is utterly boring in how simple the code is. Nothing magical to see. At all. So don’t get excited.

If you need to read things in and read things out, in JSON, and don’t really care about lolspeed but want to understand what is happening, then ZJ is for you: ZJ project @ gitlab

Note that if you have roughly the same requirements but you want to make the strings-as-binaries tradeoff then JSX is the lib for you.


Erlang: Eventually Things Will Change

Wednesday, May 30th, 2018

I finally got a few days to really dedicate to the whole Zomp/ZX thing and wrote some docs.

If you actually click this link soon you’ll see an incomplete pile of poo, but it is a firm enough batch of poo that I can show it now, and you can get a very basic idea what this system is supposed to do:

Zomp/ZX docs

Some pages are missing and things are still a bit self-conflicted. The problem is that until you really use a system like this a bit it is hard to know what the actual requirements need to be. So that’s been a long internal journey.

If my luck holds I’ll have something useful out in short order, though. Here’s to keeping fingers crossed and creating useful on-ramps for new programmers in desperate need of easy-to-use power tools. While we can all only hope the gods will help them when it comes to tackling their actual human-relevant problems, the environment in which they render their solutions should not be actively hostile.

Confounding Beginner Question: What is an Erlang Atom and Why is it Useful?

Thursday, February 1st, 2018

Like other Erlangers, I tend to take the atom data type for granted. Coming from another language, however, you might be puzzled at why we have all these little strings that aren’t really strings.

The common definition you’ll hear most frequently is something like:

An atom is a label. Its only meaning is itself.

Well, that’s true, but that also sounds a bit useless to someone coming from Python or R or JavaScript or whatever. So let’s break that down: what is a “label” useful for in programs?

  • Variable names are labels.
  • Function names are labels.
  • Module names are labels.
  • The strings you use as keys in a key/value data structure are labels.
  • The enums and label macros you might use in C for semantically significant internal values are almost exactly like atoms

OK, so we use labels all the time, why don’t any of those other languages have atoms, though? Let’s examine those last two reasons for a moment for a hint why.

In Python strings are objects and while building them is expensive, hashing them can be done ahead of time as a cached operation. This means comparing two strings of arbitrary length for equality is extremely cheap, because it is reduced to a large integer comparison for equality. This is not true in, say, C or Erlang or Lisp unless you build your own data structure to carry around the pre-hashed data. In Python it is simple enough to say:

if 'foo' in some_dict:
  # stuff
  # other stuff

In C, however, string comparison is a bit of a hassle and dealing with string data in a cross-platform environment at all can be super annoying depending the age of the systems you might be interacting with or running/building your code on. In Erlang the syntax of string comparison is super simple, but the overhead is not pre-paid like in Python. So what is the alternative?

We use integer values to represent keys that are semantically meaningful to the program at the time it is written. But integers are hard to remember, so instead of having magic numbers floating all around the place we typically have semantically significant integer values aliased from a text label as a macro. This is helpful so that I don’t have to remember the meaning of code like

if (condition == 42) launch_missiles();
if (condition == 86) eat_kittens();

Instead I can write code like:

#define UNDER_ATTACK    42

if (condition == UNDER_ATTACK)    launch_missiles();
if (condition == VILE_UNDERBEAST) eat_kittens();

It is extremely common in programs to have variables or arguments like condition in the above example. It doesn’t matter whether your language has matching (like Erlang, Rust, logic languages, etc.) or uses explicit conditionals like the fake C example above — there will always be a huge number of micro datatypes that carry great semantic significance within your program and only within your program and it is as useful to be able to label these enumerated values in a way that the human coders can understand and remember as it is useful for the computer to be able to compare them as simple integers instead of going to the trouble of string comparison every time your code needs to make a decision (because string comparison entails an arbitrarily long sequence of integer comparisons every single time you compare two strings).

In C we use those macros like above (well, not always; C actually does have super convenient enums that work a lot like atoms, but didn’t when I started using it as a kid in the stone age). In Erlang we just use an atom right there in place. You don’t need a declaration or definition anywhere, the runtime just keeps track of these things for you.

Underneath the hood Erlang maintains a running table of atom label values and translates them to integer values on the way into the system and on the way out of the system. The integer each atom actual resolves to is totally unimportant to you, so Erlang abstracts that detail away, but leaves the machine comparing integer values instead of doing full-string comparisons all over the place.

“But Erlang maps don’t do string comparisons on keys!” you might say.

And indeed, you would be right. Because map keys might be any arbitrary value each key is hashed on the way in, and every time keys are compared the comparing term is hashed the same way, so the end comparison is super fast, but we have to hash the input value first for it to mean anything. With atoms, though, we have a shortcut, because we already know they are both unambiguous integer values throughout the system, and this is a slight win over having to hash first before comparing keys.

In other situations where the comparison values cannot be hashed ahead of time, like function-head matching, however, atoms are a huge win over string comparisons:

-export([foo/1, bar/1]).

foo("Some string value that I don't really recall") ->
    {ok, 1};
foo("Some string value that I don't really care about") ->
    {ok, 2};
foo("Where is my cheeseburger?") ->
    {ok, 3};
foo(_) ->
    {error, wonky_input}.

bar(dont_recall) ->
    {ok, 1};
bar(dont_care) ->
    {ok, 2};
bar(cheeseburger) ->
    {ok, 3};
bar(_) ->
    {error, wonky_input}.

I’ve slowed the clockspeed of the system so that we can notice any difference here in microseconds.

1> timer:tc(fun() -> atoms:foo("Some string value that I don't really care about.") end).
2> timer:tc(fun() -> atoms:foo("Where is my cheeseburger?") end).
3> timer:tc(fun() -> atoms:foo("arglebargle") end).
4> timer:tc(fun() -> atoms:bar(dont_care) end).
5> timer:tc(fun() -> atoms:bar(cheeseburger) end).                                      
6> timer:tc(fun() -> atoms:bar(arglebargle) end).                                        

See what happened? The long string that varies only at the tail end from two options in the function head takes 16 microsecond to compare and return a value. The string that differs at the head is evaluated as a bad match for the first two options the moment the very first character is compared. The total mismatch is our fastest return because that string never need be traversed even a single time to know that it doesn’t match any of the available definitions of foo/1. With atoms, however, we see a pretty constant speed of comparison. That speed would not change at all even if the atoms were a hundred characters long in text, because underneath they are all just integer values.

Now take a look back and consider the return values defined for foo/1 and bar/1. They don’t return naked values, they return pairs where the first member is an atom. This is a pretty common technique in Erlang when writing either a library intended for 3rd party use or when defining functions that have side-effecty operations that might fail (here we have pure functions, but I’m just using this as an example). Remember, the equal sign in Erlang is both an assignment operator and an assertion operator, when calling a function that nests its return values you have the freedom to decide whether to crash the current process on an unexpected value or to handle the “error” (in which case for your program it becomes an expected condition and not an exception).

blah(Condition) ->
    {ok, Value} = foo(Condition),

The code above will crash if the tuple {error, wonky_input} is returned, because the expected atom 'ok' does not match the actually returned atom ‘error’.

bleh(Condition) ->
   case foo(Condition) of
       {ok, Value}          -> do_stuff(Value);
       {error, wonky_input} -> get_new_condition()

The code above now does not crash on that error return value and instead moves on to get another condition to try out, because the error tuple matches one of the case conditions that is defined as a return value. All this can happen really fast because atoms comparisons are really integer comparisons, and that means we save a ton of processor time (and space) by avoiding string/list or binary comparisons all over the place.

In addition to atoms being a much nicer and dramatically more flexible version of global enumerated types that let us write code in a more natural style that uses normal-language labels for program semantics, it turns out that function and module names are also atoms. This is a really nice feature in itself, because it allows us to write highly dynamic code with a lot less confusion about what types both sides of a call needs to be as well as making the code easier to read. I can even implement my own version of apply/3:

my_apply(Module, Function, Args) ->

Of course, there is a whole pile of reasons why you will never want to actually write a function like this in a real program, but that’s the sort of power we have without doing any type casting magic, introspection, or on-the-fly modification of our program, references or memory space.

Once you get used to using atoms and matching you’ll really start to miss them in other languages and wonder how you ever got along without them. Now run off and start writing some code to practice thinking with atoms. They will become natural to you before the day is out.

(Personal) Guidelines for Software Projects

Monday, December 4th, 2017

A few guidelines for non-trivial, large projects you actually care about and want to maintain for more than a month or so.

1. Typespecs

Learn to use them. If you are writing a large, complex project in a language that doesn’t support this or have tooling for it then use a different language. Yes, it actually saves so much heartache that it is important enough to switch.

Why? Because for-real type checking can tell you, without the futility or religious interference of unit testing, whether or not your program is valid. A valid program is not necessarily a correct program, but an invalid program is necessarily an incorrect one. (Also, it is worth keeping in mind that classes are not types. There is a subtle, and critical, difference.)

2. Property testing, not unit testing

Don’t simply write a few “unit tests” and assume things work. They don’t. As Rich Hickey (the creator of Clojure) so aptly put it: “What is the one thing that is true about all bugs found in the wild? Every one of them passed all the tests!” It can be useful to engage in regression testing, but regression testing is a subset of integration testing and even crosses over with user testing (the ultimate of all) and project documentation and history management.

When you write code, it has bugs.

  • Some are syntactic: You forgot some ant poop somewhere (things like: : ; . ,), failed to close a brace or paren, or misspelled something.
  • Some are structural: You passed in a foo type but the function is defined as accepting bar (statistically this is the greatest category of compilable, invisible errors — reference point 1 above).
  • Some are scheduling and timing: You have races and deadlocks all over the place and never knew it because they don’t usually get triggered and are super complex to work out in your head.
  • Some are semantic: The program does precisely what you told it to do, but you told it to do the wrong thing (the most frequent place where protocol failures creep in).

You write every one of these kinds of bugs into your programs every time you write a non-trivial program. I can’t just tell you to knock it off and tighten your shot group because I do the same stuff because it is impossible to avoid! If you write all these stupid bugs into your programs, what do you think lurks in your hand-written test code? MORE BUGS!

So what do?

In the same way that we can write a type specification for a function (declare its domain and codomain, basically) we can also write a specification for the function’s valid inputs, and outputs and the expected rules the output should follow (its range and image, basically). This defines the properties of the function.

Neat-O. But what would we do with such a specification? Property declarations are like me explaining to you what a function does, but not how it manages to do it. To test whether our implementation of the function does the expected thing and lacks corner cases, however, we can use a property-based testing system to generate tests for us on the fly and run them to check whether the expected properties of the function hold true. Not only that, smart property based testing systems not only find bugs (values that are defined as valid but produce invalid results that violate the property specification) but can quite often home in on specific broken cases and give you a good indication what sorts of values are problematic. That is to say, a property-based testing engine equipped with good property definitions can locate the corner cases for you.

Why wouldn’t we do this by hand? Because typically unit tests cover a handful of most-common cases with their expected values and that’s about it. Property based testing is much less merciful and also much less prone to error because a property based tester will generate an endless stream of tests according to the provided properties and run them for as much CPU time as you’re willing to give for testing. You are never going to write millions of different test cases for your code. A property based testing engine will do precisely that if you give it the CPU time to do so. Compared to how testing is done in most projects this is like having nuclear power in the age of wooden stoves.

This is magical.


When you release something that has worked for you so far, that’s about as much confidence as you should put in an alpha release. “Works for me!” are the bold last words of many an abandonned project.

Don’t be That Guy. Don’t release That Project as a final. Be clear its a beta or even alpha, and development is an ongoing thing, forever. Manage expectations, your users (paying or community) will reward you for being honest.

When you release a project understand that this is your beta period, even if you’re on a relatively mature version. In a sense all significant features go through their own little beta phase. This is true in part because you’ve no clue if power users are going to find a way to break it (they will) or if it will be instantly appreciated and adopted by the userbase (random gamble there). Whatever you think is important or intuitive might have never even occurred to them.

Power users are going to push the button the wrong way and don’t know how to deal. That’s actually a good thing if you maintain a relationship with your users, because you’re basically getting directions straight from the affected party about how to make your program better. This is important whether you’re doing community open source for some sweet Ego Points, or trying to feed the kids at your soul-crushing job.

No amount of unit testing (which we’ve already sort of debunked — write typespecs, don’t blindly churn out unit tests) or property testing (which is vastly superior to unit testing, but misses a lot of side-effecty issues, which are often the central purpose of your program) can catch everything. No amount of integration testing will uncover everything that is wrong with your program. None of these tests will tell you whether your program sucks to use and is reviled by users. But user testing will.

4. Don’t be afraid to change stuff

You have a version control system for your code. You use git. Or something. It doesn’t matter, though, because you have something that does version control for you and creating a new branch is painless. (Unless you’re not using a version control system… then you really need to start. You don’t have to submit to the dark cabal of Ruby hipsters that controls github, but you should at least be using git locally.)

If you have an idea try it out. It is probably a great idea in spirit but won’t be so great in reality until you’ve shaken a bit of the stupid, self-indulgent fantasy out of it. You can’t do that without exploring the idea in actual implementation and that sort of exploration requires hacking up your pristine project a bit until you discover exactly why, in mechanical terms, the Universe hates your idea. Once you know exactly why the Universe hates you and your ideas you can adjust your plan to accommodate the whims of the math gods, tame the vagaries of digital magika, and tap out the proper incantations in much less time than you could had you just held endless meetings about it.

Break stuff. Remember the Cardinal Rule of Hacking:

“If you understand what you’re doing, you’re not learning anything.”
– Some guy (who was not actually Abraham Lincoln)

Sometimes the best sign of progress is a change in the error messages you are getting.

Simplicity follows complexity. Until you write a godawful fugly version of your solution you don’t really understand the problem. If you don’t fully grok the problem how can you ever hope to come up with a solution? Only after you have encountered all the little gotchas that made the code ugly in the first place are you ready to rewrite that steaming pile of (working) poo into an elegant solution that is almost guaranteed to have fewer bugs if for no other reason than increased transparency and better organization of the code.

(But note that you could stick with the ugly version for a bit in a pinch — so not all is lost. Getting something working at all is better than having a bunch of great ideas that don’t exist in reality.)

5. Don’t be afraid of new languages

At this point in my life I’ve written code in about 30 or 40 languages. I don’t know the exact number. I have written a lot of code and gained intimacy with about 10 of those. That’s a lot of languages by some standards and not many at all by others. It is enough, though, that I have come to realize that most languages are minor syntactic variations on a couple of basic paradigms, and really none of that crap matters too much.

It’s all shitty. All languages suck. Some suck a little less than others. Try to find one from the handful that sucks dramatically less than others in a specific domain, then get comfortable with it as a go-to tool for that domain. But remember that it is just a tool. Jackhammers are tools, but I don’t see anyone building houses with them.

When you hop on to a new project that someone is already working on you’re going to have to pretty much adhere to the rules of their house, and that means dealing with whatever annoying language they wrote their awesome project in.

Want to hack on Freenode‘s core implementation? Better not mind dealing with network code and file operations in Java (eek!). And what if you don’t even know Java or it has been years since you saw it last and everything is different now? This is the concern that should worry you the least of all.

If you squint a little projects basically are languages. They have their own semantics (the project libs, its functions, it type specification, its class definitions, its decision tables, its… whatever its got that is relevant). They have their own sort of syntax. In fact, every very large project I’ve ever worked on tended to actually follow Greenspun’s Tenth Rule and if it was a concurrent system (so common today) they even tend to follow Virding’s First Rule. (That becomes less of a joke and more of a law of nature the longer you do this and the more you know about both lisp and OTP.)

What does this mean? It means that learning the language a program is written in is the easy part. Learning the libs of that language tend to take about twice as long as learning the language itself. Learning the internals of a large project, however, tend to take about ten times longer than that. So where is the real cost in effort here? It isn’t in the adoption of a new language. It is in the adoption of a new project because every project is a tarbaby.


Getting started is the hardest part of writing anything, whether prose, code, or poetry is sitting down and typing out something.

How to tackle the procrastination problem? Easier said than done: OPEN YOUR EDITOR

3 to 5 letters is all you need: `vim` or `emacs` and away you go!

Once you’re fully in the Matrix, write a function or spec or something. It doesn’t matter what you try to do: it will be wrong. And then you’ll have been wrong, but not exhausted yet. And suddenly you’ll realize that you are the one being wrong on the internet today and that situation just cannot stand. So you’ll start fixing it. And tinkering on it. And before you know it you’ll actually have some something productive, the curse of social media will be temporarily suspended, and you’ll finally stop feeling so crap about yourself (for a few minutes, anyway).

Erlangers! USE LABELS! (aka “Stop Writing Punched-in-the-Face Code Blocks”)

Wednesday, December 7th, 2016

Do you write lambdas directly inline in the argument list of various list functions or list comprehensions? Do you ever do it even though the fun itself, or the other arguments or return assignment/assertion for the call are too long and force you to scrunch that lambda’s definition up into an inline-multiline ball of wild shit? YOU DO? WTF?!?!? AHHHH!

First off, realize this makes you look like a douchebag for not being polite to other people or your future self whenever you do it. There is a big difference for the human reading between:

%%% From shitty_inline.erl

do_whatever(Keys, SomeParameter) ->
    lists:foreach(fun(K) -> case external_lookup(K) of
                  {ok, V} -> do_side_effecty_thing(V, SomeParameter);
                  {error, R} -> report_some_failure(R)
          end, Keys


%%% From shitty_listcomp.erl

do_whatever(Keys, SomeParameter) ->
    [fun(K) -> case external_lookup(K) of
        {ok, V} -> do_side_effecty_thing(V, SomeParameter);
        {error, R} -> report_some_failure(R) end end(Key) || Key <- Keys],


%%% From less_shitty_listcomp.erl

do_whatever(Keys, SomeParameter) ->
    ExecIfFound = fun(K) -> case external_lookup(K) of
            {ok, V} -> do_side_effecty_thing(V, SomeParameter);
            {error, R} -> report_some_failure(R)
    [ExecIfFound(Key) || Key <- Keys],


%%% From labeled_lambda.erl

do_whatever(Keys, SomeParameter) ->
    ExecIfFound =
        fun(Key) ->
            case external_lookup(Key) of
                {ok, Value}     -> do_side_effecty_thing(Value, SomeParameter);
                {error, Reason} -> report_some_failure(Reason)
    lists:foreach(ExecIfFound, Keys).


%%% From isolated_functions.erl

-spec do_whatever(Keys, SomeParameter) -> ok
    when Keys          :: [some_kind_of_key()],
         SomeParameter :: term().

do_whatever(Keys, SomeParameter) ->
    ExecIfFound = fun(Key) -> maybe_do_stuff(Key, SomeParameter) end,
    lists:foreach(ExecIfFound, Keys).

maybe_do_stuff(Key, Param) ->
    case external_lookup(Key) of
        {ok, Value}     -> do_side_effecty_thing(Value, Param);
        {error, Reason} -> report_some_failure(Reason)

Which versions force your eyes to do less jumping around? How about which version lets you most naturally understand each component of the code independently? Which is more universal? What does code like this translate to after erlc has a go at it?

Are any of these difficult to read? No, of course not. Every version of this is pretty darn basic and common — you need a listy operation by require a closure over some in-scope state to make it work right, so you really do need a lambda instead of being able to look all suave with a fun some_function/1 type thing. So we agree, taken by itself, any version of this is easy to comprehend. But when you are reading through hundreds of these sort of things at once to understand wtf is going on in a project while also remembering a bunch of other shit code that is laying around and has side effects while trying to recall some detail of a standard while the phone is ringing… things change.

Do I really care which way you do it? In a toy case like this, no. In actual code I have to care about forever and ever — absolutely, yes I do. The fifth version is my definite preference, but the fourth will do just fine also.

(Or even the third, maybe. I tend to disagree with the semantic confusion of using a list comprehension to effect a loop over a list of values only for the side effects without returning a value – partly because this is semantically ambiguous, and also because whenever possible I like every expression of my code to either be an assignment or an assertion (so every line should normally have a = on it). In other words, use lists:foreach/2 in these cases, not a list comp. I especially disagree with using a listcomp when we the main utility of using a list comprehension is normally to achieve a closure over local state, but here we are just calling another closure — so semantic fail there, twice.)

But what about my lolspeed?!?

I don’t know, but let’s see. I’ve created five modules, based on the above examples:

  1. shitty_inline.erl
  2. shitty_listcomp.erl
  3. less_shitty_listcomp.erl
  4. labeled_lambda.erl
  5. isolated_functions.erl

These all call the same helpers that do basically nothing important other than having actual side effects when called (they call io:format/2). What we are interested in here is the generated assembler. What is the cost of introducing these labels that help the humans out VS leaving things all messy the way we imagine might be faster for the runtime?

It turns out that just like with using assignments to document your code, there is zero cost to label functions. For example, here is the assembler for shitty_inline.erl side-by-side with labeled_lambda.erl:

Oooh, look. The exact same stuff!

(This is a screenshot, a text file with the contents shown is here: label_example_comparison.txt)

See? All that annoying-to-read inline lambdaness buys you absolutely nothing. You’re not helping the compiler, you’re not helping the runtime, and you are hurting your future self and anyone you want to work with on the same code later. (Note: You can generate precompiler output with erlc -P and erlc -E, and assembler output with erlc -S. Here is the manpage. Play around with it a bit, BEAM and EVM are amazing platforms, wide open for exploration!)

So use labels.

As for execution speed… all of these perform basically the same, except for the last one, isolated_functions.erl. Here is the assembler for that one: isolated_functions.S. This outperforms the others, though to a relatively insignificant degree. Of course, it is only an “insignificant degree” until that part of the program is the most critical part of whatever your program does — then even a 10% difference may be a really huge win for you. In those cases it is worth it to refactor to test the speed of different representations against each version of the runtime you happen to be using — and all thoughts on mere style have to take a backseat. But this is never the case for the vast majority of our code.

(I’ve read reports in the past that indicate 99% of our performance bottlenecks tend to reside in less than 1% of our code by line count — but I can’t recall the names of any just now. If you happen to find a reference, let me know so I can update this little parenthetical blurb with some hard references.)

My point here is that breaking every lambda out into a separate named functions isn’t always worth it — sometimes an in-place lambda really is more idiomatic and easier to understand simply because you can see everything right there in the same function body. What you don’t want to see is multi-line lambdas squashed into argument lists that make things hard to read and give you the exact same result once compiled as labeling that lambda with a meaningful variable name on another line in the code and then referring to it where it is invoked later.

The most basic Erlang service ⇒ worker pattern

Friday, March 25th, 2016

There has been some talk about identifying “Erlang design patterns” or “functional design patterns”. The reason this sort of talk rarely gets very far is because generally speaking “design patterns” is a phrase that means “things you have to do all the time that your language provides both no primitives to represent, and no easy way to write a library function behind which to hide an abstract implementation”. OOP itself, being an entire paradigm built around a special syntax for writing dispatching closures, tends to lack a lot of primitives we want to represent today and has a litany of design patterns.

NOTE: This is a discussion of a very basic Erlang implementation pattern, and being very basic it also points out a few places new Erlangers get hung up, like the context in which a specific call is — because that’s just not obvious if you’re not already familiar with concurrency at the level Erlang does it. If you’re already a wizard, this article probably isn’t for you.

But what about Erlang? Why have so few design patterns (almost none?) emerged here?

The main reason is that what would have been design patterns in Erlang have mostly become either functional abstractions or OTP (here “OTP” refers to the framework shipped with Erlang). This is about as far as the need for patterns has needed to go in the most general case. (Please note that it very often is possible to write a framework that implements a pattern, though it is very difficult to make such frameworks completely generic.)

But there is one thing the ole’ Outlaw Techno Psychobitch doesn’t do for us that quite a few of us do have a common need for but we have to discover for ourselves: how to create a very basic arrangement of service processes, supervisors, and workers that spawn workers according to some ongoing global state or node configuration. (Figuring this out is almost like a rite of passage for Erlangers — and often even experienced Erlangers have never distilled this down to a pattern, even if many projects do eventually evolve into something structured similarly.)

The case I will describe below involves two things:

  • There is some service you want to create that is represented by a named process that manages it and acts as its sole interface. Higher-level code in the system doesn’t want to call low-level code to get things done, the service should know how to manage itself.
  • There is some configurable state that is relevant to the service as a whole, should be remembered, and you should not be forced to pass in as arguments every time you call for this work to be done.

For example, let’s say we have an artificial world written in Erlang. Let’s say its a game world. Let’s say mob management is abstracted behind a single mob manager service interface. You want to spawn a bunch of monster mobs according to rules such as blahlblahblah… (Who cares? The game system should know the details, right?) So that’s our task: spawning mobs. We need to spawn a bunch of monster mob controller processes, and they (of course) need to be supervised, but we shouldn’t have to know all the details to be able to tell the system to create a mob.

The bestiary is really basic config data that shouldn’t have to be passed in every time you call for a new monster to be spawned. Maybe you want to back up further and not even want to have to specify the type of monster — perhaps the game system itself should know what the correct spawn/live percentages are for different types of mobs. Maybe it also knows the best way to deal with positioning to create a playable density, deal with position conflicts, zone conflicts, leveling or phasing influences, and other things. Like I said already: “Who cares?”

Wait, what am I really talking about here? I’m talking about sane defaults, really. Sane defaults that should rule the default case, and in Erlang that generally means some sane options that are comfortably curried away in the lowest-arity calls to whatever the service functions are.  But from whence come these sane defaults? The service state, of course.

So now that we have our scenario in mind, how does this sort of thing tend to work out? As three logical components:

  • The service interface and state keeper, let’s call it a “manager” (typically shortened to “man”)
  • The spawning supervisor (typically shortened to “sup”)
  • The spawned thingies (not shortened at all because it is what it is)

How does that typically look in Erlang? Like three modules in this imaginary-but-typical case:

  • game_mob_man.erl
  • game_mob_sup.erl
  • game_mob.erl

The game_mob_man module represents the Erlang version of a singleton, or at least something very similar in nature: a registered process. So we have a definite point of contact for all requests to create mobs: calling game_mob_man:spawn_mob/0,1,... which is defined as

spawn_mob() ->

spawn_mob(Options) ->
    gen_server:cast(?MODULE, {beget_mob, Options}).


Internally there is the detail of the typical

handle_cast({beget_mob, Options}, State) ->
    ok = beget_mob(Options, State),
    {noreply, State};

and of course, since you should never be putting a bunch of logic or side-effecty stuff in directly in your handle_* function clauses beget_mob/2 is where the work actually occurs. Of course, since we are talking about common patterns, I should point out that there are not always good linguistic parallels like “spawn” ⇒ “beget” so a very common thing to see is some_verb/N becomes a message {verb_name, Data} becomes a call to an implementation do_some_verb(Data, State):

spawn_mob(Options) ->
    gen_server:cast(?MODULE, {spawn_mob, Options}).


handle_cast({spawn_mob, Options}, State) ->
    ok = do_spawn_mob(Options, State),
    {noreply, State};

% ...

do_spawn_mob(Options, State = #s{stuff = Stuff}) ->
    % Actually do work in the `do_*` functions down here

The important thing to note above is that this is the kind of registered module that is registered under its own name, which is why the call to gen_server:cast/2 is using ?MODULE as the address (and not self(), because remember, interface functions are executed in the context of the caller, not the process defined by the module).

Also, are the some_verb/N{some_verb, Data}do_some_verb/N names sort of redundant? Yes, indeed they are. But they are totally unambiguous, inherently easy to grep -n and most importantly, give us breaks in the chain of function calls necessary to implement abstractions like managed messaging and supervision that underlies OTP magic like the gen_server itself. So don’t begrudge the names, its just a convention. Learn the convention so that you write less annoyingly mysterious code; your future self will thank you.

So what does that have to do with spawning workers and all that? Inside do_spawn_mob/N we are going to call another registered process, game_mob_sup. Why not just call game_mob_sup directly? For two reasons:

  1. Defining spawn_mob/N within the supervisor still requires acquisition of world configuration and current game state, and supervisors do not hold that kind of state, so you don’t want data retrieval tasks or evaluation logic to be defined there. Any calls to a supervisor’s public functions are being called in the context of the caller, not the supervisor itself anyway. Don’t forget this. Calling the manger first gives the manager a chance to wrap its call to the supervisor in state and pass the message along — quite natural.
  2. game_mob_sup is just a supervisor, it is not the mob service itself. It can’t be. OTP already dictates what it is, and its role is limited to being a supervisor (and in this particular case of dynamic workers, a simple_one_for_one supervisor at that).

So how does game_mob_sup look inside? Something very close to this:


%%% Interface
spawn_mob(Conf) ->
    supervisor:start_child(?MODULE, [Conf]).

%%% Startup
start_link() ->
    supervisor:start_link({local, ?MODULE}, ?MODULE, []).

init([]) ->
    RestartStrategy = {simple_one_for_one, 5, 60},
    Mob = {game_mob,
           {game_mob, start_link, []},
    Children = [Mob],
    {ok, {RestartStrategy, Children}}.

(Is it really necessary to define these things as variables in init/1? No. Is it really necessary to break the tuple assigned to Mob vertically into lines and align everything all pretty like that? No. Of course not. But it is pretty darn common and therefore very easy to catch all the pieces with your eyes when you first glance at the module. Its about readability, not being uber l33t and reducing a line count nobody is even aware of that isn’t even relevant to the compiled code.)

See what’s going on in there? Almost nothing. That’s what. The interesting part to note is that very little config data is going into the supervisor at all, with the exception of how supervision is set to work. These are mobs: if they crash they shouldn’t come back to life, better to leave them dead and signal whatever keeps account of them so it can decide what to do (the game_mob_man, for example, which would probably be monitoring these). Setting them as permanent workers can easily (and hilariously) result in a phenomenon called “highly available mini bosses” — where a crash in the “at death cleanup” routine or the mistake of having the mob’s process retire with an exit status other than 'normal' causes it to just keep coming back to life right there, in its initial configuration (i.e. full health, full weapons, full mana, etc.).

But what stands above this? Who supervises the supervisor?

Generally speaking, a component like mob monsters would be a part of a larger concept of world objects, so whatever the world object “service” concept is would sit above mobs, and mobs would be one component of world entities in general.

To sum up, here is a craptastic diagram:

Yes, my games involve wildlife and blonde nurses.

Yes, my games involve wildlife and blonde nurses.

The diagram above shows solid lines for spawn_link, and dashed lines to indicate the direction of requests for things like spawn_link. The diagram does not show anything else. So monitors, messages, etc. are all just not there. Imagine them. Or don’t. That’s not the point of this post.

“But wait, I see what you did there… you made a bigger diagram and cut a bunch of stuff out!”

Yep. I did that. I made an even huger, much crappier, more inaccurate diagram because I wasn’t sure at first where I wanted to fit this into my imaginary game system.

And then I got carried away and diagrammed a lot more of the supervision tree.

And then I though “Meh, screw it, I’ll just push this up to a rough imagining of what it might look like pushed all the way back to the SuperSup”.

Here is the result of that digression:

It wouldn't look exactly like this, so use your imagination.

It wouldn’t look exactly like this, so use your imagination.


Yep. All that. Right there. That’s why its called a “supervision tree” instead of a “supervision list”. Any place in there you don’t have a dependency between parts, a thing can crash all by itself and not bring down the system. Consider this: the entire game can fail and chat will still work, users will still be logged in, etc. Not nearly as big a deal to restart just that one part. But what about ItemReg? Well, if that fails, we should probably squash the entire item system (I’ve got guns, but no bullets! or whatever) because game items are critical data. Are they really critical data? No. But they become critical because gamers are much more willing to accept a server interruption than they are losing items and having bad item data stored.

And with that, I’m out! Hopefully I was able to express a tiny little bit about one way supervision can be coupled with workers in the context of an ongoing, configured service that lives within a larger Erlang system and requires on-the-fly spawning of supervised workers.

(Before any of you smarties that have been around a while and point out how I glossed over a few things, or how spawning a million items as processes might not be the best idea… I know. That’s not the point of this post, and the “right approach” is entirely context dependent anyway. But constructive criticism is, as always, most welcome.)

zUUID: An Example Erlang/OTP Project

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2016

I was talking with a friend of mine yesterday about how UUID v2 seems to have evaporated. We looked into things further and found its not actually included in RFC 4122! One thing led to another and I wound up writing an example project that is yet another UUID generator/utility in Erlang — but this time it actually has duplicate v1 and v2 detection/correction and implements as close to what I can find is defined as UUID version 2 values.

As there are already plenty of UUID projects around I focused on making this one as readable as I possibly could — to include exported documentation, in-source documentation, obvious variable names, full typespecs, my silly little “pure” notation, blatantly obvious bitstring syntax, and the obligatory github presence.

Hopefully some folks newish to Erlang will come along and explain to me what confuses them about that code, the process of writing it, the documentation conventions, etc. so that I can become a better literate programmer. Of course, since the last thing the world needs is another UUID implementation I suppose I would have had better luck with something at least peripherally related to the web. (>.<)

Iterators? We Don’t NEED No Stinking Iterators!

Tuesday, September 29th, 2015

Every so often a request for “implementation of iterators for maps” over hashes/maps/dicts or some other K-V data structure appears on mailing list for a functional langauge. I’ve spent years making heavy use of iterators in imperative languages, and the way they fit into Python is really great. For Python. I totally understand where some of these folks are coming from, they just don’t realize that functional languages are not where they came from.

So… “Is this post the result of some actual event”? Yeah, you got me. It is. On the erlang-questions mailing list someone asked “Are maps ever going to get an iterator?” Again.

Erlang is definitely not Kansas, but people thinking either that it is or (more dangerously) that it should be and then trying to influence the maintainers to make it that way (and then the powers-that-be getting in a panic over “market share” and doing horrible things to the language…) worries me a bit.

There is no faster way to paint a functional language into a corner than to try making it occasionally imperative. Conversely, consider the syntactic corner C++ and Java have painted themselves into by trying to include functional features as after-thoughts where they really didn’t belong.

(I know, I know, death-by-kitchen-sink is a proud C++ tradition. It is becoming one for Java. Even though I hate Java there is no sense in making it worse by cluttering its syntax and littering it with gotchas and newbie-unfriendly readability landmines in the interest of providing features few Java coders understand the point of, especially when the whole concept of state management in a bondage-and-discipline OOP language like Java is to keep everything in structs with legs (not anonymous closures over state that is temporarily in scope…). The lack of such problems were previously one of the main points that favored Java over C++… well, that and actual encapsulation. Hopefully Rust and D can resist this temptation.)

This frustrates me. It is almost as if instead of picking a tool that matches a given job, people learn one tool and then try over time to make a super-powered Swiss Army knife of it. This never turns out well. The result is more Frankenstein’s Monster than Swiss Army knife and in the best case it winds up being hard to learn, confusing to document and crap at everything.

What’s worse, people assume that the first tool they learned well is the standard by which everything else should be judged (if so, then why are they learning anything else?). It follows, then, that if a newly studied LangX does not have a feature of previously used LangY then it must be introduced because it is “missing”. (I do admit, though, to wishing other languages had pattern matching in function heads… but I don’t bring this up on mailing lists as if its a “missing feature”; I do, however, cackle insanely when overloading is compared with matching.)

Let’s say we did include iterators for maps into Erlang — whatever an “iterator” is supposed to mean in a list-are-conses type functional language. What would that enable?

-spec foreach(fun(), map()) -> ok.

That sort of looks pointless. Its exactly the same as lists:foreach(Fun, maps:to_list(Map)) or maybe lists:foreach(Fun, maps:values(Map)). Without knowing whether we’re trying to build a new map based on the old one or get some side effect out of Fun then its hard to know what the point is.


-spec map(fun(), OldMap :: map()) -> {ok, NewMap :: map()}.

But… wait, isn’t that just maps:map/2 all over again?

I think I know where this is going, though. These people really wish maps were ordered dictionaries, because they want keys to be ordered. So they want something like this:

-spec side_effects_in_order_dammit(fun(), map()) -> ok.
side_effects_in_order_dammit(F, M) ->
    Ordered = [{K, maps:get(K, M)} || K <- lists:sort(maps:keys(M))],
    ok = lists:foreach(F, Ordered).

But wait, what order should the keys be in, anyway?

This is a slow, steady march to insanity. “Give me iterators” begets “Let’s have ordered maps” begets “Let’s have ordered iterators for maps” and so on, and eventually you wind up with most of the Book of Genesis in the Devil’s Bible of Previously Decent Functional Languages. All the while, totally forgetting that these things already exist in another form. There are more data structures than just maps for a reason.

This just gets ridiculous, and it isn’t even what hashes are about to begin with.

XML: Xtensively Mucked-up Lists (or “How A Committee Screwed Up Sexps”)

Friday, April 10th, 2015

XML sucks. I believe that it is, to date, the most perfectly horrible corruption of one of the most universal and simple concepts in computer science: sexps.

ZOMG! Someone screwed up sexps!

Let that one sink in. What a thing to say! How in the world would one even propose to screw up such a simple idea? Let’s consider an example…

Can you identify the semantic difference among the following examples?
(Inspired by the sample XML in the Python xml.etree docs)

Verson 1

<country name="Liechtenstein">
  <neighbor name="Austria" direction="E"/>
  <neighbor name="Switzerland" direction="W"/>

Version 2


Version 3

<country name="Liechtenstein" rank="1" year="2008" gdppc="141100">
  <neighbor name="Austria" direction="E"/>
  <neighbor name="Switzerland" direction="W"/>

Version 4

And here there is a deliberate semantic difference, meant to be illustrative of a certain property of trees… which is supposedly the whole point.

  <country rank="1" year="2008" gdppc="141100">
      <name direction="E">Austria</name>
      <name direction="W">Switzerland</name>

Which one should you choose for your application? Which one is obvious to a parser? From which could you more than likely write a general parsing routine that could pull out data that meant something? Which one could you turn into a program by defining the identifier tags as functions somewhere?

Consider the last two questions carefully. The so-called “big data” people are hilarious, especially when they are XML people. There is a difference between “not a large enough sample to predict anything specific” and “a statistically significant sample from which generalities can be derived”, certainly, but that has a lot more to do with representative sample data (or rather, how representative the sample is) than the sheer number of petabytes you have sitting on disk somewhere. “Big Data” should really be about “Big Meaning”, but we seem to be so obsessed over the medium that we miss the message. Come to think of it, this is a problem that spans the techniverse — it just happens to be particularly obvious and damaging in the realm of data science.

The reason I so hate XML is because the complexity and ambiguity introduced in an effort to make the X in XML mean something has crippled it in terms of clarity. What is a data format if it confuses the semantics of the data? XML is unnecessarily ambiguous to the people who have to parse (or design, document, discuss, edit, etc.) XML schemas, and makes any hope of readily converting some generic data represented as XML into a program that can extract its meaning without going to the extra work of researching a schema — which throws the entire concept of “universality” right out the window.

Its all a lie. A tremendous amount of effort has been wasted over the years producing tools that do nothing more than automate away the mundane annoyances dealing with the stupid way in which the structure is serialized. These efforts have been trumpeted as a major triumph, and yet they don’t tell us anything about the resulting structure, which itself is still more ambiguous than plain old sexps would have been. Its not just that its a stupid angle-bracket notation when serialized (that’s annoying, but forgiveable: most sexps are annoying paren, obnoxious semantic whitespace, or confusing ant-poop delimited — there just is no escape from the tyranny of ASCII). XML structure is broken and ambiguous, no matter what representation it takes as characters in a file.