[erlang-questions] erlang improvement - objective c (or smalltalk) syntax

Richard O'Keefe ok@REDACTED
Fri Jun 5 07:00:34 CEST 2009

On 4 Jun 2009, at 10:08 pm, Bengt Kleberg wrote:
> The thought of getting a new standard library with less clutter and
> inconsistency is very welcome. So that, alone , makes this is a good
> idea. Presumably there are a lot of other good things in this  
> suggestion
> since it comes from Joe. However, I must have missed them since I can
> not help but think that the benefits presented are not enough.
> 1) I would still need to look in the documentation. No longer to find
> the position, but to find out the names/spelling of the arguments.  
> Is it
> string: or str:, start: or first: and is it length: or chars:?

This is true.  But if you misremember the names of the argument
packets, there simply isn't a function by that name, whereas if
you misremember the order of arguments in a packet, you don't
discover the mistake until later, if ever.
> 2) I do not find it more beneficial to write
> string:substring( string:S start:I length:J ), instead of
> string:substring( String, Start, Length ).

Consider the following variations on substring:
  (0) Is the first integer a 0-origin offset, or
  (1) is it a 1-origin index?
  (a) Is the second argument a length, or
  (b) is it a 0-origin index of the last included character, or
  (c) is it a 1-origin index of the last included character, or
  (d) is it a 0-origin index of the first excluded character, or
  (e) is it a 1-origin index of the first excluded character?

That's 10 possibilities, and it's not exhaustive.
BASIC often used (1,c).  AWK uses (1,a).  Scheme uses (0,d).
Icon has rules that allow the use of negative integers.

The proposal I've presented several times is due to Paul Lyons,
who was a Masters student at the University of Auckland back
when I was.  He called it "split procedure names".  I know he
wrote it up; I don't know if in SIGPLAN Notices or where.  He
himself would have been the first to admit that the idea
actually goes back to Algol 60, where you could write things
	integral of(f)from:(lb)to:(ub)step:(h)
where the rule was that ")[a-zA-Z ]+:(" was equivalent to ",".
So in Algol 60, the idea was just cosmetic.  Burroughs Algol,
with which Paul Lyons and I were familiar, didn't _quite_ do
that.  It said that ")" <string> "(" was equivalent to ",",
so you'd write
It was Paul who noticed that you didn't need the colons and
that you could take the thing _seriously_ and wouldn't need
any special syntax for keywords.  This would have been about

Why is
	string:substring(S) start(I) length(J)
better than
	string:substring(S, Start, Length)?

Because (a) what if it's another argument which you *thought* was
a length but was actually a Scheme-like "end"?  And (b) variables
are often arguments of more than one function, and it's not always
possible to choose the name to suit both equally well.

Writing Smalltalk, where you'd write
	aString copyFrom: start to: stop
I have found that I make almost no function-interface mistakes,
because the name of the function I'm calling reminds me what
the arguments are supposed to be.  (I make plenty of other mistakes!)

> bengt
> On Thu, 2009-06-04 at 11:10 +0200, Joe Armstrong wrote:
>> I've been writing some objective-C and like the method calling  
>> syntax.
>> Objective-C (and smalltalk) code is very readable without lot's of  
>> comments
>> Could we do something similar in Erlang?
>> This was (I think)  discussed a long time ago but can't find the  
>> discussion.
>> Imagine a function like string:substring/3. A call to this looks  
>> like:
>>        string:substring(Str, I, J)
>> The problem with this is that it's difficult to remember the  
>> argument order
>> and you have to consult the documentation *to find out the order of
>> the arguments*
>> I *know* what the arguments are (a string, a start index and a  
>> length)
>> but I have to
>> consult the documentation to find the order.
>> Solution: write the call like this.
>>       string:substring( string:S start:I length:J)
>> This could be expanded into a canonical form:
>>       string:substring_start_string_length(S, I, J)
>> where the tags are sorted.
>> This would also make the definitions of functions *shorter*
>> and almost self-documenting
>> ie: today I might write something
>>         f123(FileName, Mode) ->
>>                Fin = FileName ++ ".erl",
>>                Fout = FileName ++ ".beam",
>>                compile(Fin, Fout, Mode).
>> whereas I could write
>>         f123(filename:F mode:M) ->
>>                Fin = F ++ ".erl",
>>                Fout = F++ ".beam",
>>                compile(Fin, Fout, M).
>> whose canonical expansion is:
>>     f123_filename_mode(F, M) ->
>>                Fin = F ++ ".erl",
>>                Fout = F++ ".beam",
>>                compile(Fin, Fout, M).
>> This change has many advantages:
>>            + forces use of meaningful tag names in arguments
>>            + don't have to remember argument order
>>            + variable names in the body of a function become shorter
>> If we were to make this change we would have to rewrite all the
>> standard libraries
>> but this would be a *good thing* - since this time we could get  
>> them right.
>> This is would also be a backwards compatible change (I think)
>> /Joe
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