"I have a mind like a steel... uh... thingy." Patrick Logan's weblog.

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

Early Diagnostics

Tim Bray and Cédric Beust each make good points about Erlang's error reporting. My first reaction was: apparently they've not used Haskell. But coming back around, I do agree that the messages can be confusing, especially to beginners, especially to beginners whose mindset is in the typical assignment-oriented, imperative C/C++/Java model of computing.

Pattern matching errors can result in a "bad match" message. When you thought you were doing assignment, and you forgot you forgot you cannot "re-assign" different values to the one some variable already has, then having the system tell you "bad match" is going to cause some grief.

Learning anything new, and especially "re-learning" something you thought you already knew, will take time. Grant it, that effort may not always pay off. Maybe it's just not your cup of tea. On the other hand what I learned about programming in Erlang is that a few error messages pop-up with some regularity, and I now am fairly quick to identify the cause.

Good practices to aid diagnosing errors are:

  • Write a little code at a time.
  • Test-drive that code using an xUnit framework or just using the erl command line.
  • Use pattern matching and guards to narrow the acceptable parameters to a function.
That last one is a key: catch the error asap, and rely on the language itself to catch it for you. In Tim's example, the error message is correct - it's a bad argument. But the top-level function did not catch it. Rather the recursion was fairly deep before some other function caught the problem.

That top-level function looks as though it should expect a list, and not an atom. So this would have helped greatly...

scan(Arg) when is_list(Arg) ->
  ...
Or maybe better...
scan([]) ->
  %% Empty list, do the default thing...
  ;
scan([Head | Tail]) ->
  %% Do something with Head then recursion on the Tail...
  ...
  scan(Tail).
Cédric also says Erlang "feels old"... so do I sometimes, but I still have something left every now and then. :-D

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Portland, Oregon, United States
I'm usually writing from my favorite location on the planet, the pacific northwest of the u.s. I write for myself only and unless otherwise specified my posts here should not be taken as representing an official position of my employer. Contact me at my gee mail account, username patrickdlogan.