August 24th, 2012


Scala really is deliciously concise and expressive, but different

[This one's just for the programmers in the audience; the rest of you should skip ahead.]

Perhaps the nicest thing about the OP Compiler project is that it's giving me the chance to really get sharp on Scala -- to get a sense of how to program the language idiomatically, the way it's supposed to be used, instead of just being transliterated Java. Occasionally, I write a few lines and marvel at how right and tight they are. Here's an example, which illustrates several elements. (None of which will be surprising to experienced functional programmers, but this stuff is new to me.)

Let's deal with the following problem. The OP Alpha listing consists of tables of a persona name, followed by date/award pairs. The problem at hand is that the "award" part often contains an attribution in parentheses, which is essentially noise -- a comment from my POV. For example:
Queen's Honor of Distinction (Jana IV)
The bit in the parens is messing up parsing the award name, so I need to separate it out.

In many languages, that would take a fair number of lines, but in Scala it turns out to be essentially four (could be more concise, but this seems clearest):
val awardCommentRegex = new Regex("""^(.*?) \((.*)\)$""", "name", "comment")
val commentMatch = awardCommentRegex.findFirstMatchIn(awardName)
val comment = commentMatch map ("comment"))
val parsedAwardName = (commentMatch map ("name"))).getOrElse(awardName)
Breaking that down:
  • The input is "awardName" -- that's the field I'm trying to parse.

  • The Regex is a fairly conventional regular expression; if it matches, it breaks the discovered groups into "name" and "comment".

  • The assignment to commentMatch does the actual regular-expression matching. That returns Option[Match] -- that is to say, the result contains either "Some(m)", where m is the found match information, or "None". In general, idiomatic Scala uses Option frequently for cases like this, where a function might return a value and might not; it is much safer than returning nulls, and avoids the usual mess of inventing return codes.

  • The assignment to comment does a "map", which basically keeps the exterior structure of a collection but changes the interior. In this case, it is transforming the Option[Match] to an Option[String], by extracting the matched comment if there was one. Again, if nothing was matched, it returns None.

  • The assignment to parsedAwardName is similar, but this time I want to get a definite String out the end, not an Option[String]. So first I fetch an Option[String]. Then the getOrElse() method either fetches the guts of that Option -- the String itself -- or, if the value is None, returns the original awardName that I started with.
Mind, everything here is strongly-typed -- Scala insists on strong typing throughout, so everything is very safe and errors get caught early. (Indeed, despite being newish to the language, I'm making very few runtime errors.) It's almost as concise as possible due to Scala's type inference -- while I'm not *declaring* object types above, that's because they are redundant, and Scala will simply figure them out for me. (The Eclipse plugin shows the inferred types when you hover over a name, so you can quickly check your work.)

No deep message here -- I'm just enjoying the elegance of it. I've always thought that I would really like working in pure Scala, and so far that's proving correct. And bit by bit, I'm absorbing the functional-programming models, and coming to appreciate that they have evolved far enough to often be much more concise than the comparable imperitive code...

Lots and lots of cookbooks

And in the meantime, I'm pressing ahead with the cull for the Great Book Sale on Sept 29/30. Just to keep everyone's attention (and encourage more people to come buy books), here's an update: the cookbooks have been culled, and I've pulled out four full boxes of them for the sale.

Now mind, this largely doesn't contain SCA period cookbooks -- for this pass, I'm allowing myself to keep most of them, and tpau has long-established dibs on all the duplicates. But it's still a ton of varied books of good quality. The list can be found in LibraryThing, mostly under the tags cookery, cookbooks, cooking, brewing and recipes. (Plus a bunch that just plain didn't get tagged.) And while it doesn't have much pre-1700 per se, it *does* include a lot from later periods, especially throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and lots of ethnic cookbooks ranging from Russian to Icelandic.

So if it isn't already, put the sale on your calendar. There's an awful lot of great stuff to dig through -- over 1000 books so far, and I haven't yet started the science fiction...