Archive for September, 2009

Let it crash (the right way…)

I do a lot of useless stuff on the interwebz; Like facebooking, twittering, blogging, redditing etc… but once in a while do some really useful stuff as well E.g.,, /r/programming/ + many other things… and among all this stuff I read a lot of programming articles and blogs. The latest one I’ve come across which is pretty interesting (even though it is basically the same record spinning) is this podcast interview with Joe Armstrong by SE Radio.

I have at several occasions spoken to Joe, even if he probably doesn’t remember, hehe. As they say in Sweden; “Alla känner apan men apan känner ingen” which means “Everyone knows the monkey but the monkey doesn’t know anyone” and I know his speeches/rhetoric and this one was not very different. However, this time he mentioned something that made me remember a very common misunderstanding that I’ve see in the years I have been doing Erlang consulting, namely “Letting everything crash” in the name of “Let it crash”-philosophy. Allow me to elaborate:

Joe mentions the following things which I have learnt and is constantly advising others to follow: “only program the happy case, what the specification says the task is supposed to do”, when talking about “happy case programming”. He goes on saying “when writing code from a specification, the specification says what the code is supposed to do, it does not tell you what you’re supposed to do if the real world situation deviates from the specification” and finally “so what do the programmers do.. they take ad hoc decisions” when talking about what the programmers do when they program defensively in order to solve this problem. And even though Joe sometimes have some strange ideas mostly he makes a lot of sense and the topic of defensive programming and “Let it crash” philosophy did hit the spot.

Personally, when ever I make a branch in my code (not like Git branches, but more like ifs and cases) to handle an “error” or “fault” then I always ask myself one single question, which is what this whole thing boils down to;

Do I know how I’m supposed to handle an error?

The answer is simple; Yes -> Implement, No -> Don’t implement, Let it crash. Well, let me take some of that back… the world is rarely that naive, there are a few things you need to consider but in the end it is all dependent on your spefication. Like Joe said, people take ad hoc decisions and I keep asking myself why? Why do people insist on wrapping many of their function calls in case-clauses, match on error and then return the same error?! I understand it if it says in the specification that this is what’s expected but not otherwise. If the answer to the above question is No then the first follow up question should logically be; “Well, should I know?” and then define it in the specification. The “defensive” part of the code is not that you are matching on the error (because your specification might say that you must!), the “defensive” part is that you are matching on the error because you don’t know what to do.

Here are a few other questions I ask myself when facing a case or if or similar (like a function clause to “handle” all):

  • Do I know how I’m supposed to handle an error here?
  • If not, then should I handle it? (Thus going back to specification)
  • If something goes wrong in this function call, can I continue? E.g. Line 2 depends on a file descriptor from line 1
  • When I restart, can I recover from the crash here? If not then it is a good indication that you need a specification for how to handle the error. Can I reset my state? Do I need to clean up? etc are also good questions to ask yourself
  • Am I crashing in a valid place? E.g. you should never crash (intentionally) inside a gen_server unless it is some kind of a worker process. A “main” process shouldn’t really be allowed to crash in the same sense as a worker process can. A worker process, say for an HTTP request, shouldn’t really be very defensive (perhaps a top-level try-catch to return some useful error)

I’m far from writing truly “happy case programming” but I’m going there, it is unbelievable how many LOC you save just on seeing things more postive (Note to self: Perhaps this applies to real life; More positive attitude == Less unnecessary brain activity :)). An important note to all these fancy philosophies is that you need to design your software to be ready to let stuff crash, if anyone says to you that it is easy then they are lying… the only difference is that Erlang makes it possible which is a huge advantage.

Still today I give myself a virtual slap on the wrist inside my mind when ever I type something like:

handle_call(action, _From, State) ->
    %% ... do something
    {reply, ok, State};
hande_call(Cmd, From, State) ->
    io:format("Unhandled: ~p From: ~p ~n",[Cmd, From]),
    {reply, ok, State}.

Why do I put the “catch-all-calls” clause there? Where would this call come from anyway? And if I get one, why am I not aware of it?!?

Categories: Erlang Tags: ,

wxWidgets and Erlang

I’ve been playing around with the new wxWidgets bindings in Erlang. It’s cool stuff… but… there are problems. If I remember correctly the release notes for the wx application mention that is beta so I guess that is only to expect. Despite some of the problems I’ve had with it I think it is really cool to finally be able to do decent GUI’s in Erlang… it is long overdue but was worth the wait.

The biggest problem I have with it though is that I have to work in an OO:ed way in a functional environment. An example of this (which I don’t know if it is a bug or not) is that if I create a wxNotebook widget and a wxPanel widget and then assign the wxPanel as a page to the wxNotebook and then request to get it back I get a wxWindow object back. Well… instinctively I just thought that I will just type cast it back to wxPanel (wxPanel inherits from wxWindow, wxWindow is almost like Object in Java) but I realised 2ms after that that would obviously not work so I had to work around it instead and save the wxPanel in a state somewhere and the whole thing started getting messy.

Bah… I’m getting reminded of the horrors of desktop GUI programming when I was 18.

On a positive note though: It is extremely cool to have e.g. a wxNotebook with wxPanels that are their own processes because if one wxPanel crashes then guess what, just restart it. The rest of the stuff is untouched… this is just _screaming_ for efficient/reliable plug-in systems. I have already started working on a proof of concept… not to far into the future I hope to release it.

Categories: Erlang Tags: ,

Hello World.

2009/09/09 1 comment

Everyone has to start with this. I think there is a law somewhere about that. Well… just in case here it is:

Hello World.

Categories: Personal