[erlang-questions] Santa likes Erlang better than Haskell

Wed Mar 14 00:59:15 CET 2007

Yesterday a colleague told me about a draft chapter (for a book called
"Beautiful code", editor by Greg Wilson) written by Simon Peyton Jones.
The chapter is about Software Transactional Memory in Haskell.

You'll find it through http://lambda-the-ultimate.org/node/1964

Software Transactional Memory has already been mentioned before in  
this mailing list,
and the chapter explains the basic ideas clearly enough.  As I read,  
however, I felt
a bit worried.  STM makes it easy to write CORRECT programs, true  
enough.  (But see
below.)  But with your transactions being aborted and restarted  
whenever there is a
conflict, it seems to me that it is possible that there might be very  
large overheads
without the programmer having any way of telling that this is happening.

Something else bothered me.  I've been using Haskell for years, even  
teaching it, but
I found the code in the chapter difficult.  I could understand each  
piece, but it was
totally unclear to me how you would design something like this.  Key  
concepts, like
the Gate data type, came out of the blue.  There are things like  
lists of promises
to return promises to perform actions.  Did the problem really demand  
a solution
this complex?

The sample application in the chapter is the Santa Claus problem.   
Santa has 9
reindeer and 10 elves.  Whenever the 9 reindeer are ready, Santa goes  
toys with them.  Whenever any 3 elves want a meeting, provided the  
reindeer are not
waiting, Santa has a meeting with them.

Haskell solution:  77 SLOC.
Erlang solution:   46 SLOC.

Haskell techniques: too many to list.
Erlang techniques:  one process for Santa, one for each elf, one for  
each reindeer,
                     plus two secretaries (one waits for 9 reindeer  
and forwards them
                     as a group to Santa, the other waits for 3 elves  
and forwards
                     them as a group to Santa).  Two nested receives  
in Santa to get
		    the desired priority effect.

Haskell hidden cost:transaction abort/restart
Erlang hidden cost: well, none, really.  Santa's mailbox can have at  
		    1 reindeer group, 3 elf groups, and 9 good-bye messages;
                     one secretrary's can have at most 9 requests and  
the other's
		    at most 10; and each reindeer or elf can have at most one
		    proceed message.

It makes me really pleased to know Erlang, and rather worried that  
Simon Peyton Jones
thinks his 66% larger and far harder to understand solution is  

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