April 02, 2012

Codemania: How to not write a for loop

Slides and samples from my Codemania talk are up, over at Mindscape HQ.

April 2, 2012 in Software | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

February 27, 2012

Discriminated unions and interfaces

I wrote earlier about F# discriminated unions, and Chris in comments rightly reminded me that discriminated unions, like C# classes, can have member methods.  While I generally reckon separate functions are more idiomatic than members, there is one case where member methods are invaluable: when you want the discriminated union to implement an interface.

This isn’t as common as C# programmers might expect.  Because discriminated unions generally represent simple containers with minimal behavioural logic, the main interfaces you might think to implement are to do with things like equality and comparison – and F# implements those for you.  (Of course, sometimes you don’t want the default equality or ordering implementations, and that’s another scenario where you need to implement an interface – but in those cases there’s a bit more to it.)  Still, it does come up now and again, particularly with system interfaces or if you’re interoperating with C# code that might be more interface-oriented.

The way you implement an interface on a F# discriminated union is exactly the same as the way you implement it on a F# class: use the interface IWhatever with member… construct.  Let’s take a look.

Suppose we want a discriminated union that we can format for display in different ways, similar to the system DateTime or numeric types.  This capability is represented by the system IFormattable interface.  IFormattable has just one method, ToString, which makes it ideal for short demos.  Here’s a discriminated union that implements IFormattable:

type Booze =
   | SauvignonBlanc of string
   | MethylatedSpirit
   interface IFormattable with
     member this.ToString(format, formatProvider) =
       match this with
       | SauvignonBlanc rgn -> if format = "G" then
                                 "Sauvignon Blanc"
                               elif format = "R" then
                                 sprintf "%s Sauvignon Blanc" rgn
                                 failwith "unknown format"
       | MethylatedSpirit   -> "Amber Nectar"

There’s two bits to this definition: first, the definition of the discriminated union data type, and second, the interface implementation.  The data type definition – the first three lines – doesn’t contain any surprises.  What’s new is that after defining the various ‘cases’ of the union, we keep going with an interface implementation.  The syntax may look a bit weird if you’re a C# programmer but all this is doing is saying that the type implements IFormattable and here is the implementation of the IFormattable.ToString member.  The implementation itself is standard F# pattern matching and hopefully you can see roughly what it’s doing even if you find pipe characters daunting.

Notice that even though this is a member method we can’t define it separately on each ‘case’ the way we would with a virtual member in C#.  The individual cases of discriminated unions are dumb: everything has to be defined on the union type itself.  (A corollary of this is that interfaces can only be implemented on the union type, not on cases.  You couldn’t implement IDrinkable on the SauvignonBlanc case; you’d have to implement it on the Booze type, and live with the deadly consequences.)

When we put the interface implementation into action, there’s a surprise in store:

> let antifreeze = SauvignonBlanc "Austria";;
val antifreeze : Booze = SauvignonBlanc "Austria"
> antifreeze.ToString("R", CultureInfo.InvariantCulture);;
error FS0501: The member or object constructor 'ToString' takes 0 argument(s) but is here given 2. 
The required signature is 'Object.ToString() : string'. 

In C# terms, F# has gone for an explicit interface implementation instead of C#’s usual implicit interface implementation.  That means the interface member can be accessed only through a reference of the interface type:

> (antifreeze :> IFormattable).ToString("R", CultureInfo.InvariantCulture);;
val it : string = "Austria Sauvignon Blanc" 

You can get around this by defining the ToString() member directly on Booze as a member method, and having IFormattable.ToString() delegate to that member method – this is a common pattern for explicit interface implementation in C#, and it’s idiomatic in F# as well.

Implementing interfaces on discriminated unions isn’t all that common; but if you need to do it, now you know how!

February 27, 2012 in Software | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

February 25, 2012

Discriminated unions in F#

F# has lots of different ways of expressing composite data: tuples, records, classes, etc.  One way that doesn’t have a direct equivalent in C# or Visual Basic is the discriminated union.

A discriminated union is used when there are different ‘cases’ of the data type, potentially with different kinds of data depending on the case.  That probably sounds rather abstract, so let’s see a simple example:

type Variant =
       | Numeric of int
       | Text of string
       | Empty

There are three ‘cases’ of the Variant type: the Numeric case, which carries an integer value; the Text case, which carries a string value; and the Empty case, which doesn’t carry any additional data.

We can create instances of the Variant type using the ‘constructors’ corresponding to the cases:

> let one = Numeric 1;;
val one : Variant = Numeric 1
> let hello = Text "hello";;
val hello : Variant = Text "hello"
> let empty = Empty;;
val empty : Variant = Empty

If a case carries additional data, then we pass that additional data to the constructor.  If it doesn’t, then the case is effectively a singleton instance, so we’re really just doing a variable assignment.

To process the Variant type, we can use pattern matching:

let print v =
    match v with
    | Numeric n -> printfn "Num %d" n
    | Text s    -> printfn "Txt %s" s
    | Empty     -> printfn "Empty"

Now we’ve seen discriminated unions at work, let’s see how they compare to that ubiquitous C# data structure, the class.

In C#, Variant would be an abstract base class, with three subclasses, Numeric, Text and Empty.  Numeric would have an integer field, Text would have a string field, and Empty would have no fields.

This already points up one important difference between discriminated unions and class hierarchies: discriminated unions are closed.  Users of the F# Variant type can’t create a new ‘case,’ whereas users of the C# Variant type can create a new derived class.  So discriminated unions are good for scenarios where you want to control the set of permitted cases; if you want the type to be extensible, you need to go to a class.

Ignoring this detail, here’s a naive stab at implementing the Variant type in C#:

public abstract class Variant

public class Numeric : Variant
   public int Value { get; set; }

// similarly for Text and Empty subclasses

However, this implementation has quite different behaviour from the F# discriminated union.  Discriminated unions have value semantics: that is, an instance of Variant is a value just like an instance of Int32 is a value.  Two Variants that are both Numeric 99 have the same value, and so should be considered equal; furthermore, Numeric 100 is a different value from Numeric 99, and must therefore be a different instance.  The first observation means that the Variant types need to implement custom equality; the second means they have to be immutable.  (The immutability issue may seem a bit subtle, but the reasons for wanting immutability go deep; maybe a subject for a future post.)  So our naive implementation needs quite a bit of fixing:

public class Variant : IEquatable<Variant>
   public override Equals(object other) { … }
   public override Equals(Variant other) { /* don’t ask */ }
   public override int GetHashCode() { … }

public class Numeric : Variant
   private readonly int _value;

   public Numeric(int value)
     _value = value;

   public int Value
     get { return _value; }

// similarly for Text subclass

This points up a second important difference between discriminated unions and classes: discriminated unions are much easier to write!  The F# Variant type was entirely defined and implemented in four lines.  In the C# Variant class, it takes four lines just to implement a single attribute of a single subclass (one for the field, one for the constructor assignment, one for the property declaration and one for the property getter implementation)!  And good luck writing a bug-free Equals method on your first go (and maintaining it as you add new classes).  Discriminated unions give you value semantics for free; class hierarchies make you work for it.

On the other hand, the fact that C# makes you write all that code out by hand does give you more control over the behaviour of your type.  If you want to ensure that numeric variants are always positive, you can add a check in the Numeric constructor.  You can’t do that with a discriminated union.  A discriminated union is a dumb container of values; a class is a smart container of business logic.

Anyway, now we’ve got the Variant type implemented, it’s time to do some work with it.  But thinking about implementing the ‘print variant’ function above, there are two very different ways we could tackle this.  The idiomatic approach in C# is to make Print a virtual method on the Variant base class and override it in the derived classes:

public abstract class Variant
   public abstract void Print();

public class Numeric : Variant

   public override void Print()
     Console.WriteLine("Num " + Value);

// Similarly for Text and Empty subclasses

This works fine as long as you’re the one defining the class hierarchy.  (It’s a bit verbose, because it repeats the ‘public override void Print()’ signature in every derived class.  But it does work.)  Unfortunately, if you have to add a function to a class hierarchy that somebody else has defined, then things get very dreary:

public static void Print(Variant v)
   Numeric n = v as Numeric;
   if (n != null)
     Console.WriteLine("Num " + n.Value);

   // similarly for Text and Empty subclasses

With a discriminated union, you don’t get the choice: there’s no way to define a virtual method and override it on individual cases, so you always have to take the separate function approach.  But thanks to pattern matching, implementing a function across the cases of a discriminated union in F# doesn’t incur all the intrusive logic of the C# version, and it’s actually more concise than even the C# virtual method version.

To sum up, discriminated unions provide a more compact and efficient way than full-fat classes of representing simple heterogeneous data.  You can implement a discriminated union in far less code than a class, and the code to work with a discriminated union is also more concise than the class equivalent.  However, discriminated unions are suitable only when the set of possible cases is known in advance – they aren’t openly extensible the way a class hierarchy is – and they don’t provide a way to encapsulate behaviour within the type.  For example, you would never make the Control hierarchy a discriminated union, because users need to be able to define their own range of controls, and the new control types need to carry their own behaviour (e.g. rendering) within them.  On the other hand, for types like the F# Option type (used for ‘either a value of x, or no value’), the Haskell Either type (traditionally used to express ‘either a result of x, or a failure reason of y’), or even much wider unions like LINQ expression types or node types in an Abstract Syntax Tree, discriminated unions are an ideal choice.

February 25, 2012 in Software | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

January 28, 2012

Action, Func, void and unit

The .NET Framework defines two ‘standard’ delegate types: Action<> and Func<>.  The Func types are used for delegates that return values, and the Action types for those that don’t – in C# terms, for void methods.

This distinction can often be very annoying.  Consider a helper method such as:

public static T WithSomeResource<T>(Func<T> f) {
  try {
    return f();
  } finally {

This works fine when the thing you want to do returns a value:

int y = Helpers.WithSomeResource(() => x + 1);

But the compiler won’t let you pass anything that doesn’t return a value:

Helpers.WithSomeResource(() => Console.WriteLine(x));  // error

You have to create a separate overload that takes an Action instead of a Func, and has an identical implementation except for omitting the return keyword.  Granted, that’s not much work for a simple helper like the above, but what if it were more complicated?  Or what if you had a dozen of them?  Boring!  Also, maintenance nightmare!

The reason for this distinction is that although void sits in the position where you expect the return type to sit, and looks like a return type, it isn’t.  Visual Basic makes this much clearer by distinguishing between Sub and Function instead of abusing the return type identifier.  So in the WithSomeResource generic method, the type parameter T can’t be void, because void isn’t a type.  And so we end up needing the separate Action types, which do the job of Func<void>.

Contrast this with F#.  F# doesn’t have void: it has unit.  This may seem like it’s just a difference in naming, but it isn’t, because unit in F# is a real type.  A function that ‘doesn’t return a value’ in F# is considered to return type unit.

let f (s : string) = Console.WriteLine(s);; 
val f : string –> unit

So in F#, every function has a return type.  And therefore F# doesn’t need to distinguish between functions and actions.

let withSomeResource f = 
val withSomeResource : (unit –> 'a) –> 'a

The F# version of withSomeResource can be called interchangeably with ‘functions’ (that return real values) and ‘actions’ (that return unit) because unit is a valid type, and so the type parameter 'a can be unit just like any other type.

let y = withSomeResource (fun () –> x + 1);;  // okay 
withSomeResource(fun () –> Console.WriteLine(x));;  // also okay

Having unit instead of void makes it easier to write generic functions, because you don’t need to write separate implementations for the ‘value’ and ‘no value’ cases.

And that, my liege, is how we know the earth to be banana shaped.

January 28, 2012 in Software | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

January 25, 2012

Wellington .NET user group - Windows 8 for .NET developers

Thanks to everyone who came along this evening to watch me trying to get a wireless connection to work, and especially to those who stuck around for the Windows 8 talk afterwards. Here are the slides from the session, which in a rare departure for me actually contain the content of the talk instead of a series of gnomic Talking Heads references. Enjoy!

Windows 8 presentation slides

And although we didn't really have time to look at samples, you can get source code for the Metro sample apps I used here.

January 25, 2012 in Software | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

October 15, 2011

A tale of two elections

New Zealand is ramping up to an election. It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that the National party will win; the only question is whether National will win enough votes to govern alone, or whether they’ll need the support of a minor party.  This is somewhat reminiscent of the situation in the last UK election, in which the question was not whether the Tories would get the most votes, but whether there would be a hung parliament.  But it’s interesting to compare attitudes in the two countries.

In the UK, absolute majorities are the norm. The voting system is designed to produce absolute majorities from voting pluralities, and a referendum on a change that would have mitigated this was recently defeated.  Voters are taught that governments need to be ‘strong’ so that they can enact all their policies.

In short, for one party to have an absolute majority to do with as it wishes is regarded as essential to effective government.

By contrast, I asked a friend what he thought of the possibility of National winning an absolute majority.  He wasn’t keen on the possibility.  Part of this was specific to National’s style of government – their routine use of urgency – but part of it also seemed to be a feeling that parties should not go unchecked.  No party should be free to just do what it wants without building at least some measure of consensus.  (To be clear, the friend in question is not anti-National.  I don’t know his voting intentions, but I’m pretty sure he won’t be shedding any tears over National getting a second term.  His concern was specifically about National winning an absolute majority.)

In short, for one party to have an absolute majority to do with as it wishes is regarded as not only inessential to effective government, but actively worrying in terms of keeping government in check.

It’s obviously invalid to extrapolate from one conversation with one person, and it’s certainly true that there are many people in New Zealand who do long for the jackboot of unchecked government (as long as it is their party wearing it, of course).  Still, I’d like to think it illustrates how Kiwis have in the last 15 years come to take consensus for granted as an expected and desirable outcome of an election, in contrast to Britons actively preferring absolutism.

Of course, the MMP referendum could be about to prove me wrong…

October 15, 2011 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

September 03, 2011

Fortunately, we can save ourselves by leaving the lights on while we’re not using them

Stuff: “In a speech to ACT party faithful in Auckland today at its annual conference, new leader [Don] Brash delivered the keynote speech saying the country was in the grip of an emergency so bad New Zealand ‘faces serious threats to its continued existence.’”

Wake up, people!  He’s talking about Genghis Khan!

September 3, 2011 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

September 01, 2011

Dynamic interfaces in C#

The always creative Bevan Arps demonstrates a neat prototype which uses the C# dynamic keyword to provide a concise and readable way of describing validations within C# code, and asks, “Does this qualify as evil code, or merely expressive?”

Well, it’s clearly expressive.  And languages like Ruby use this kind of idiom all the time, so it’s clearly not evil.  But there is something about it (and about some related code I demoed at TechEd) which might reasonably make you feel a bit doubtful.  It’s not evil per se, but is it un-C#-ish?  C# is traditionally a statically typed language, which encourages reliance on the compiler to check correctness: are Ruby-ish idioms simply inappropriate?

Idioms evolve with the language; or, rather, what is idiomatic develops from what people do with language features.  Take C# anonymous types.  They were initially designed to simplify writing LINQ projections, with the expectation that the results would be consumed in the same method where the anonymous type arose.  Maybe you could data-bind to them if you felt adventurous.  Then somebody realised that anonymous types made a really handy syntax for a set of key-value pairs – basically a dictionary, but without all the tedious overhead of C# dictionary literals.  An idiom was born: anonymous types are now firmly established as the C# equivalent of Ruby hashes.

So it is with dynamic.  ASP.NET MVC 3 uses a dynamic ViewBag to shield developers from the rather mild horrors of dictionary access syntax.  Libraries like Dapper, which uses dynamic properties to sweeten what would otherwise be a .NET 1.0 DataTable, are entering the vocabulary of the C# community.  People like Bevan are finding cases where dynamic interfaces enable them to write shorter, cleaner and more expressive code.  It may be unsafe, sure, but typically no more unsafe than the literal strings it often replaces.

Right now, using dynamic interfaces in C# does feel a bit weird.  And there’s no doubt that most C# code and APIs will remain statically typed and compiler verified.  But dynamic interfaces are clearly becoming part of the idiom: the question is not whether dynamic interfaces belong in C#, but where they belong and how much we should use them.

September 1, 2011 in Software | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

August 28, 2011

But it has angle brackets!

Pro tip: describing a technique as “all XSLT, no code” makes about much sense as describing it as “all SQL, no code.”

August 28, 2011 in Software | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

August 27, 2011

TechEd NZ 2011 demos and videos

Thanks to everyone who came along to my sessions on F# and dynamic programming. Here's the demo code from the talks. It includes a few fragments that go beyond what I covered in the talk -- I've tried to comment these to give you a few pointers as to what they're showing, but if you're still baffled, leave a comment and I'll try to write up what's going on!

Demos for F# talk

Demos for dynamic talk

It looks like the videos are now up for those who just can't get enough rude remarks about EF -- F# here, dynamic here.

August 27, 2011 in Software | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)