Monday, March 31, 2008

Announcing the Erlang FriendFeed API

I just hacked together an (alpha) implementation of the FriendFeed API for Erlang. You can get the code at Enjoy!

By the way, my shiny new FriendFeed is at

Sunday, March 23, 2008

I Play WoW: A Cool Facebook App Built With ErlyWeb

Nick Gerakines, the Author of Facebook Application Development, created with ErlyWeb the very cool Facebook app I Play WoW. I Play WoW bridges between real people and the characters they play on World of Warcraft. Nick told me he got a lot of feedback such as "Wow! I didn't know my brother-in-law is in my guild!" and "Its been 5 years since I talked to some of them, but a bunch of my friends from school play on these realms and I didn't even know they played".

Some facts:
- 53.5k installs
- 2.9k daily active users
- 1.3k application fans
- 200+ new users a day on average
- In the past 30 days its gotten over 2 million page views where users spend more than 5 minutes on average on the application
- Erlang application layout:
* Charstore w/ Mnesia: Acts as the raw character store and cache for interactions between
* I Play WoW w/ ErlyWeb + Mnesia: The front-end and ui for the application. The majority of the FB API calls are made here or are spawned from here.
* There is still one component in perl that is yet to be ported over, mainly due to not having enough time. Its on the list of things to do.

(My note: it sounds like Nick is also using spawned processes to make FB API calls asynchronously. It's a great technique for reducing page load time and avoiding the annoying timeouts Facebook imposes on page renderings.)

If you play World of Warcraft (an addiction I've luckily been able to avoid this far :) ) and you are on Facebook, give I Play WoW a try. You may discover that your boss is a level 10 ogre or something :)

Congrats, Nick, for creating such a successful app with ErlyWeb!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

SnapTalent Ads

You may have noticed I put SnapTalent (http://snaptalent) ads on my blog. This is the first time I have put ads on my blog. I've avoided them because ads from most ad networks are usually irritating/ugly, but the SnapTalent ones are nice looking, unobtrusive and are relevant to my blog's readers because they advertise hacker jobs at startups. I can't say those ads have generated substantial revenue for me thus far but at least I've made enough money to buy the SnapTalent guys a round of beers :)

Sunday, March 09, 2008

In Response to "What Sucks About Erlang"

Damien Katz's latest blog post lists some ways in which Damien Katz thinks Erlang sucks. I agree with some of these points but not with all of them. Below are my responses to some of his complaints:

1. Basic Syntax

I've heard many people express their dislike for the Erlang syntax. I found the syntax a bit weird when I started using it, but once I got used to it it hasn't bothered me much. Sometimes I mess up and use the wrong expression terminator, and sometimes things break when I cut and paste code between function clauses, but it hasn't been real pain point for me. I understand where the complaints are coming from, but IMHO it's a minor issue.

Since the release of LFE last week, if you don't like the Erlang syntax, you can write Erlang code using Lisp Syntax, with full support for Lisp macros. If you prefer Lisp syntax to Erlang syntax, you have a choice.

2. 'if' expressions

The first issue is that in an 'if' expression, the condition has to match one of the clauses, or an exception is thrown. This means you can't write simple code like

if Logging -> log("something") end

and instead you have to write

if Logging -> log("something"); true -> ok end

This requirement may seem annoying, but it is there for a good reason. In Erlang, all expressions (except for 'exit()') must return a value. You should always be able to write

A = foo();

and expect A to be bound to a value. There is no "null" value in Erlang (the 'undefined' atom usually takes its place).

Fortunately, Erlang lets you get around this issue with a one-line macro:

-define(my_if(Predicate, Expression), if Predicate -> Expression; true -> undefined end).

Then you can use it as follows:

?my_if(Logging, log("something"))

It's not that bad, is it?

This solution does have a shortcoming, though, which is that it only works for a single-clause 'if' expression. If it has multiple clauses, you're back where you started. That's where you should take a second look at LFE :)

The second issue about 'if' expressions is that you can't call any user- defined function in the conditional, just a subset of the Erlang BIFs. You can get around this limitation by using 'case', but again you have to provide a 'catch all' clause. For a single clause, you can simply change the macro I created to use a case statement.

-define(case(Predicate, Expression), case Predicate -> Expression; _ -> undefined end).

For an arbitrary number of clauses, a macro won't help, and this is something you'll just have to live with. If it really bothers you, use LFE.

3. Strings

The perennial complaint against Erlang is that it "sucks" for strings. Erlang represents strings as lists of integers, and for some reason many people are convinced that this is tantamount to suckage. can't distinguish easily at runtime between a string and a list, and especially between a string and a list of integers.

A string *is* a list of integers -- why should we not represent it as such? If you care about the type of list you're dealing with, you should embed it in a tuple with a type description, e.g.

{string, "dog"},
{instruments, [guitar, bass, drums]}

But if you don't care what the type is, representing a string as a list makes a lot of sense because it lets you leverage all the tools Erlang has for working with lists.

A real issue with using lists is that it's a memory-hungry data structure, especially on 64 bit machines, where you need 128 bits = 16 bytes to store each character. If your application processes such massive amounts of string data that this becomes a bottleneck, you can always use binaries. In fact, you should always use binaries for "static" strings on which you don't need to do character-level manipulation in code. ErlTL, for example, compiles all static template data as binaries to save memory.

Erlang string operations are just not as simple or easy as most languages with integrated string types. I personally wouldn't pick Erlang for most front-end web application work. I'd probably choose PHP or Python, or some other scripting language with integrated string handling.

I disagree with this statement, but instead of rebutting it directly, I'll suggest a new kind of Erlang challenge: build a webapp in Erlang and show me how string handling was a problem for you. I've heard a number of people say that Erlang's string handling is a hinderance in building webapps, but by my experience this simply isn't true. If you ran into real problems with strings when building a webapp, I would be very interested in hearing about them, but otherwise it's a waste of time hypothesizing about problems that don't exist.

4. Functional Programming Mismatch

The issue here is that Erlang's variable immutability supposedly makes writing test code difficult.

Immutable variables in Erlang are hard to deal with when you have code that tends to change a lot, like user application code, where you are often performing a bunch of arbitrary steps that need to be changed as needs evolve.

In C, lets say you have some code:

int f(int x) {
x = foo(x);
x = bar(x);
return baz(x);

And you want to add a new step in the function:

int f(int x) {
x = foo(x);
x = fab(x);
x = bar(x);
return baz(x);

Only one line needs editing,

Consider the Erlang equivalent:

f(X) ->
X1 = foo(X),
X2 = bar(X1),

Now you want to add a new step, which requires editing every variable thereafter:

f(X) ->
X1 = foo(X),
X2 = fab(X1),
X3 = bar(X2),

This is an issue that I ran into in a couple of places, and I agree that it can be annoying. However, discussing this consequence of immutability without mentioning its benefits is missing a big part of the picture. I really think that immutability is one of Erlang's best traits. Immutability makes code much more readable and easy to debug. For a trivial example, consider this Javascript code:

function test() {
var a = {foo: 1; bar: 2};

What does the function return? We have no idea. To answer this question, we have to read the code for baz() and recursively descend into all the functions that baz() calls with 'a' as a parameter. Even running the code doesn't help because it's possible that baz() only modifies 'a' based on some unpredictable event such as some user input.

Consider the Erlang version:

test() ->
A = [{foo, 1}, {bar, 2}],
proplists:get_value(A, foo).

Because of variable immutability, we know that this function returns '1'.

I think that the guarantee that a variable's value will never change after it's bound is a great language feature and it far outweighs the disadvantage of having to use with unique variable names in functions that do a series of modifications to some data.

If you're writing code like in Damien's example and you want to be able to insert lines without changing a bunch of variable names, I have a tip: increment by 10. This will prevent the big cascading variable renamings in most situations. Instead of the original code, write

f(X) ->
X10 = foo(X),
X20 = bar(X10),

then change it as follows when inserting a new line in the middle:

f(X) ->
X10 = foo(X),
X15 = fab(X10),
X20 = bar(X15),

Yes, I know, it's not exactly beautiful, but in the rare cases where you need it, it's a useful trick.

This issue could be rephrased as a complaint against imperative languages: "I don't know if the function to which I pass my variable will change it! It's too hard to track down all the places in the code where my data could get mangled!" This may sound outlandish especially if you haven't coded in Erlang or Haskell, but that's how I really feel sometimes when I go back from Erlang to an imperative language.

Erlang wasn't a good match for tests and for the same reasons I don't think it's a good match for front-end web applications.

I don't understand this argument. Webapps need to be tested just like any other application. I don't see where the distinction lies.

5. Records

Many people hate records and on this topic I fully agree with Damien. I think the OTP team should just integrate Recless into the language and thereby solve most of the issues people have with records.

If you really hate records, another option is to use LFE, which automatically generates getters and setters for record properties.

Incidentally, if you use ErlyWeb with ErlyDB, you probably won't use records at all and you won't run into these annoyances. ErlyDB generates functions for accessing object properties which is much nicer than using the record syntax. ErlyDB also lets you access properties dynamically, which records don't allow, e.g.

P = person:new_with([{name, "Paul"}]),
Fields = person:db_field_names(),
[io:format("~p: ~p~n", [Field, person:Field(P)]) || Field <- Fields]

Records are ugly, but if you're creating an ErlyWeb app, you probably won't need them. If they do cause you a great deal of pain, you can go ahead and help me finish Recless and then bug the OTP team to integrate it into the language :)

6. Code oragnization

Every time time you need to create something resembling a class (like an OTP generic process), you have to create whole Erlang file module, which means a whole new source file with a copyright banner plus the Erlang cruft at the top of each source file, and then it must be added to build system and source control. The extra file creation artificially spreads out the code over the file system, making things harder to follow.

I think this issue occurs in many programming languages, and I don't think Erlang is the biggest offender here. Unlike Java, for instance, Erlang doesn't restrict you to defining a single data type per module. And Ruby (especially Rails) applications are also known for having multitudes of small files. In Erlang, you indeed have to create a module per gen-server and the other 'behaviors' but depending on the application this may not be an issue. However, I don't think there's anything wrong with keeping different gen-servers in different modules. It should make the code more organized, not less.

7. Uneven Libraries and Documentation

I haven't had a problem with most libraries, and in cases where they do have big shortcomings you can often find a good 3rd party tool. The documentation is a pain to browse and search, but makes some of this pain go away.


Is Erlang perfect? Certainly not. But sometimes people exaggerate Erlang's problems or they don't address the full picture.

Here are some suggestions I have for improving Erlang:

- Add a Recless-like functionality to make working with records less painful.
- Improve the online documentation by making it easier to browse and search.
- Make some of the string APIs (especially the regexp library) also work with binaries and iolists.
- Add support for overloading macros, just like functions.
- Add support for Smerl-style function inheritance between modules.

Like any language, Erlang has some warts. But if it were perfect, it would be boring, wouldn't it? :)

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Favorite Lisps Poll Result

With 78 responses so far, here are the breakdowns for the responders' favorite Lisps:

Scheme: 41%
Common Lisp: 27%
LFE: 12%
Arc: 10%
Emacs Lisp: 6%
Clojure: 4%

You can see the full report here.

I thought that Common Lisp would get more votes Scheme (isn't CL more widely used?), but apparently I was wrong. Arc and LFE have made an impressive showing for their young age (but this is probably due to the bias of my blog readers).

Monday, March 03, 2008

Introducing Presidential Vimagi, Where Anyone Can Paint Political Cartoons for US Presidents

With elections around the corner and politics everywhere these days, I couldn't resist throwing some Erlang into the mix. Don't worry, I'm not about to start discussing my political opinions on this blog. You can find plenty of political commentary on other sites. Instead, I decided to create a sub-Vimagi for political cartoons: Presidential Vimagi.

On Presidential Vimagi, you don't write or talk about your political views. You paint them. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a painting is worth, well, you do the math.

To give you inspiration, I assembled an all star cast of American presidents, vice presidents and presidential candidates: George Bush, Dick Cheney, Barak Obama, Hillary Clinton, Mike Huckabee, John McCain, Ron Paul, Bill Clinton and Al Gore. They each have a profile and you can paint on their profile's v.boards. You can also become friends with them if you want to show your support.

Presidential Vimagi is still a bit rough around the edges, so please let me know if you find any bugs or issues. Feature suggestions are also welcome, of course.

Update: I decided to take the site down for now. It's too prone to vandalism and I don't have the time to constantly monitor it to remove the offensive stuff. It was a fun experiment while it lasted. Oh well :)

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Lisp Flavored Erlang!

Erlang has a Lisp syntax! Robert Virding just released LFE, his Lisp syntax compiler for Erlang. Finally, Erlang hackers enjoy the full power Lisp-style macros. I suspect it won't be long before you'll be able to hack ErlyWeb apps in LFE :)

While you're here, please answer this Wufoo poll:

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