[erlang-questions] Must and May convention

John Krukoff john.krukoff@REDACTED
Thu Sep 28 19:16:57 CEST 2017

I recently read an interesting paper on inferring function purity in
erlang, and thought it might be relevant to this discussion. As it does not
appear to have been already shared, here is a link:


The associated code sadly does not appear to still be maintained, though
perhaps would also be of interest to someone following this discussion?


On Wed, Sep 27, 2017 at 7:50 PM, zxq9 <zxq9@REDACTED> wrote:

> On 2017年09月27日 水曜日 12:46:19 Loïc Hoguin wrote:
> > On 09/27/2017 11:08 AM, Joe Armstrong wrote:
> > > For several years I've been using a convention in my hobby
> > > projects. It's what I call the must-may convention.
> > >
> > > I'm wondering if it should be widely used.
> > >
> > > What is it?
> > >
> > > There are two commonly used conventions for handling bad arguments to
> > > a function. We can return {ok, Val} or {error, Reason} or we can
> > > return a value if the arguments are correct, and raise an exception
> > > otherwise.
> > >
> > > The problem is that when I read code and see a function like
> > > 'foo:bar(a,12)' I have no idea if it obeys one of these conventions or
> > > does something completely different. I have to read the code to find
> > > out.
> > >
> > > My convention is to prefix the function name with 'must_' or 'may_'
> >
> > I've been debating this in my head for a long time. I came to the
> > conclusion that 99% of the time I do not want to handle errors.
> > Therefore 99% of the functions should not return an error.
> Taking this observation a step further...
> I've got a guideline that has never made it into English yet (along with
> some coding guidelines and a few other things I should re-write...) that
> states that programs must always be refactored iteratively to aggregate
> side effects where possible and leave as much code functionally pure as can
> me managed.
> The Rules:
> - Pure functions are always crashers.
> - Side-effecty functions retun the type `{ok, Value} | {error, Reason}`
> - A side effect is anything that touches a resource external to the
> current function.
> Some programs are full of side effects -- doing lots of network and file
> system I/O while running a GUI. Others are not so side-effecty. The case
> where you REALLY get viral side-effect proliferation is use of ETS tables
> (shared binaries is actually another case, but not included in the rule
> because the abstraction generally holds well enough). But even in these
> cases we can usually break the pure bits out somewhat cleanly, at least
> once we understand what the program really needs to do.
> That bit right there, "understand what the program really needs to do", is
> the truly hard part of getting any of this right. Or anything right.
> When a project starts from scratch you don't understand the details yet,
> otherwise typing speed would equate to development time and that's just
> never the case. So we start out with a very high proportion of {ok, V} |
> {error, R} type functions initially because we don't know anything about
> anything and side effects wind up getting scattered about because we just
> didn't have a very clear view of what was going on. When inheriting messy,
> legacy code you understand even LESS because you don't understand what the
> program should do and you also don't understand whatever it is currently
> doing until you diddle with it a bit.
> And that's totally OK.
> But only at first.
> That's just to get us over the hump so that something works, the task is
> handled, and if a bus hit That One Guy tomorrow then we could continue
> along and at least have something running.
> To avert a lifetime of nightmares, lost hair and broken marriages due to a
> death-march-style maintenance cycle, though, we pre-emptively attack the
> program again with a refactoring effort aimed specifically at unifying
> types and side-effect hygiene. It is common that you'll have two flavors of
> basically the same thing in different areas, especially if you've got more
> than two people working on the project. That's got to get fixed. It is also
> common, as noted above, that side effects are scattered about for various
> reasons.
> Once we've shaken the easy bits out we sometimes add a list of pure
> functions to the top of each module as a module attribute:
> -pure([foo/1, bar/2, baz/0]).
> Those should not only be pure, provable, and excellent targets for the
> initial property testing effort to get warmed up on, but are also known to
> crash when they get bad inputs. And of course everything should, by this
> point, Dialyze cleanly. Also, it isn't impossible to write a tool that
> keeps track of impure calls and checks that the pure functions only ever
> make calls to other pure functions (vast swathes of the stdlib define
> abstract data types, and nearly all of these calls are pure).
> What are the impure functions?
> The service loop is always impure -- it deals with the mailbox. Socket
> handling functions (which may be the service loop as well). Anything that
> writes to a file. Anything that sends a message. Interface functions that
> wrap message passing. Anything that talks to wx or console I/O. Etc.
> The outcome is that side effects traditionally get collected in:
> - Interface functions
> - Service loops (and mini-service loops / service states)
> - File I/O wrapper
> - Socket I/O wrapper
> - User interfaec I/O wrapper
> The last three are "wrappers" because by writing a wrapper we give
> ourselves a place to aggregate side effecty calls instead of making them in
> deeper code (out at the edges of the call graph). A message may come over a
> socket or into the service loop that requires some processing and then
> writing to a file, for example, but this doesn't mean that we write to the
> file out there at the bottom of the call graph. Instead, we call to get the
> processing done, then return the value back into the service loop (or
> somewhere close to it, like a message interpreter function), and then the
> next line will be a call to either write the file or a call to a file
> writer that is known to be side-effecty.
> Just about everything else can be pure. Most of the time. (Of course,
> "processing a value" may involve network communication, or RPC, or asking
> some other stateful process to do the processing, and any of these can
> prevent a function from being pure. But it is rare that these are the
> majority of functions in a program.) That means almost everything can be
> written as a crashable function -- because the ones that return {ok, V} |
> {error, R} should have already known what they were dealing with before
> they called the pure functions.
> One side effect of this overall process is that, at least in writing
> customer facing software, we discover errors straight away and fix them.
> Most of the bugs are the really simple kind:
> "If I enter a number for a name, the window disappears and reappears with
> empty fields."
> (The windows process crashed and restarted back where it was.)
> or, more often
> "If I enter a number as a name the name disappears after I click the
> 'submit' button."
> (Something deeper in the system crashed and the final update to the GUI
> was never sent.)
> We IMMEDIATELY know that we didn't type check there properly and some
> other part of the code died with the "bad" data once it was noticed -- and
> the user just saw a momentary hiccup and fixed whatever was wrong on their
> own. So this wasn't the end of the world or a big scary red X showing up on
> the screen with mysterious numbers and inscribed error messages or
> whatever. But it WAS bad and unexpected behavior for the most important
> person in the program's universe. A quick check of the crash log bears out
> what we thought, and that problem is from then on handled properly and
> never heard from again.
> When this sort of problem becomes really confusing to debug is the cases
> where we've gotten too fancy with exception handling and played loose with
> types. That input value may have traveled quite far into the system before
> something died, and figuring it out is a bit more tricky then without a
> dead-obvious crash message letting you know about it.
> Blah blah blah...
> We are all looking at roughly the same things here. Joe likes to prefix
> function names. That's probably a good system, but it doesn't work well for
> people who use autocompletion (people still do that?). Is that a tooling
> conflict? Aren't Joe's function names THEMSELVES a sort of tool? How about
> the -pure declaration? That's great -- but what we really want, actually,
> is a way to declare a function pure so that Dialyzer could know about it,
> as part of the -spec for a function. That would be awesome. What happens
> for us is that functions near the top of a module tend to be side-effecty
> and functions at the bottom tend to be pure -- so we just sort of know what
> terrain we are navigating because we know the layout that results as an
> outcome of following our little side-effect focused refactoring. Also, in
> documentation we know the difference immediatly because of our own return
> typing convention: anything that returns naked values is a crasher, period.
> It looks like none of the approaches is particularly perfect, though. I
> really wish Dialyzer accepted (and checked) explicit declarations of
> purity. I don't know what syntax would be good for this, but its something
> I would like to have. Also -- it would allow for people to maybe use their
> pure functions in guards, which is a frequent request I hear come up quite
> a bit.
> -Craig
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