Functional fallback fallout
One thing I’ve always found fiddly with programming is managing optional configurations and falling back to defaults. Here I’m not referring to trivial cases like “if not this, then that”, but where you’d typically have to run some logic to determine default actions. The scenario I’m thinking about can be generalized to less specific terms than “configurations” and “defaults”, as it shares many similarities to proper error handling. There seems to be a pattern I often find myself having to do in many different corners of software applications. And I struggle to find a way to structure code in a satisfying way.
A pain-point is either seeing, or worse, having to write branches of code doing the same thing. WHY CAN’T THEY JUST BE COALESCED SOMEHOW!?
if config_opt: = do_stuff_with_config(config_opt) value if value: do_stuff_with_value(value)else: do_default_action()else: do_default_action()
In a language like
Python one idiomatic option is to simply run with it as far as the APIs allow, then catch an exception if any step fails spectacularly:
try: = do_stuff_with_config(config_opt) value do_stuff_with_value(value)except: do_default_action()
We’ve reduced the control flow down to basically just two options, and we only invoke once our default action whenever something fails or becomes “exceptional”. There never is a silver bullet though.
One problem which has been buzzing around in my brain today is how I might improve a specific control flow in one of my hobby
Haskell applications. In short, the application pops up a list of known (software) projects for the user to select. One of the command line optional arguments is a “project name query”, and if the project name query is supplied, the project list is narrowed down to just the projects matching the query.
Today I wanted to start implementing a way of using
"." to indicate “use the current project”, if the current working directory is found to be within one of the projects. If the current working directory is not a project, then ignore the query entirely, and prompt for a project as usual. Not surprisingly, the devil is in the details…
The code goes somewhere along the lines of:
select_project :: Maybe Text -> [Project] -> IO (Maybe Project) = case project_query of select_project project_query projects Nothing -> find_project Nothing projects Just query | query == "." -> find_project_root <$> pwd >>= \case Nothing -> find_project Nothing projects -> return project' project' | otherwise -> find_project project_query projects
In total there are four end-states of this control flow, where two of them are identical:
Nothing -> find_project Nothing projects
The third end-state using
find_project is basically also the same, except passing along the query:
| otherwise -> find_project project_query projects
The only significantly different result is when
cwd is in a project, then the result is the project root:
-> return project'project'
How can such a short snippet annoy me enough to write about it?
Well, first off I had a slim hope that writing about the topic might put it in a different light. But the reason it annoys me so much is that my intuition is telling me there’s a more elegant way to express this control flow. The trouble with hunches is that even though they’re often valid up to a point, they just as often lead down a path of diminishing returns. What I mean is that the quest to formulate the perfect expression can quickly turn into obsessive code wankery, without any substantial improvements to the overall code quality to show for the time spent.
Starting this post I set out to find a way to “improve” 7-or-so lines of an insignificant hobby command line application. Now as I’ve let the words form in my head and materialize into this rant I’m leaning towards simply saying “fuck it” and getting on with my life…
I did quickly realize that it’s possible to check for the “exceptional” case of
"." without having to unpack the
Maybe, removing one of the duplicated invocations of
select_project :: Maybe Text -> [Project] -> IO (Maybe Project) select_project project_query projects| project_query == Just "." = find_project_root <$> pwd >>= \case Nothing -> find_project Nothing projects -> return project' project' | otherwise = find_project project_query projects
Funnily such a minor change makes me a lot happier with this little piece of code. I guess I’ve fed the hunch-machinery yet again, fuelling it to arrest my future pragmatic self by insisting on semi-useless bikeshedding.
I rarely sleep well knowing I have settled for something which I know is mediocre? Having put this topic aside to simmer for a short while, I of course reached enlightenment in the next post.