Many people come into Ruby from a C-based language background, and are quick to use only what they really feel comfortable with that has a direct parallel in their language of choice. Doing so, you miss out on all types of wonderful features of Ruby, and in this post we’ll cover a few of them.
If you’re like me, you’ve heard this word thrown around more than anything, and never really defined. Everyone sings praises of this great new renaissance of programming, but no one seems to know what it even is.
In its simplest terms, functional programming is a program based on functions. Functions return values, mutation is a naughty word, and the law of the land is no side effects.
Well that sounds all well and good, but how exactly can you program if all variables are in their final state? That seems rather counterintuitive at best, and confoundedly stupid at worst. So why then?
First Class Citizens
In languages that support functional programming style, all functionas are first class citizens. This means that they can be passed themselves as arguments the same as any other value, because by their definition they return a value.
With Ruby, every function returns a value, whether implicitly or explicitly. Let’s see what we mean here:
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We just passed a function as a value! This opens up a lot of interesting possibilities, which brings us to our next point.
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You may notice that we just set a variable equal to a function, or more correctly that we just named an anonymous function. So where did this come from? Let’s take a look at the same thing in Scheme:
This type of pattern is extremely common in LISP like languages, which is why some readers are going to start noticing some striking similarities to Ruby at this point. Let’s give this one more try in Ruby:
Blocks are essentially anonymous functions that are called on the fly to operate on enumerator values, and discarded. Blocks can also be saved if need be, which brings us to
What benefits does it really bring? Is it even worth it? In short, the authors (probably biased) opinion is yes. The key reason to this is idempotence.
You see, idempotence is a complicated word that essentially means that no matter how many times you run a function, given the same input it will always return the same output.
The benefit of this is that you don’t have to worry about a mystical black box and ordering scheme, as well as necessary blood sacrifices in order to get a unit test to pass. You know for a fact that a function will return the same every single time. That, my friends, will save you a great many nightmares down the road.
The great thing about idempotence is it translates almost directly into thread safe methods that will not do unusual things to your values if written correctly. Functional languages thrive in multi-threaded and distributed environments, just look at Erlang.
Erlang was a language invented by Sony Ericsson in order to manage their massive phone distributions. They came across a hairy question, how do we update our phone network and ensure no down time? Enter Erlang with its hot-swappable modules that could be changed out in production. Functional languages and techniques can give you that type of power.
The Good and the Bad
So what constitutes good practice and bad practice? Let’s dive into a few examples shall we?
In string manipulation, modifying the original string will yield some very nasty side effects very quickly.
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Bang (!) methods should be used extremely rarely, as they modify the sender. Instead, return the results to a new array.
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This would be more amusing if I hadn’t done it before when I started. Read up on the Enumerable module, as it will save you immeasurable amounts of time in the long run.
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Again with the things I wish I had never done. Iterators like this are definitely not needed in a language like Ruby where practically everything is an object. Again, learning the methods will save you a lot.
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The amount of time that you will save by simply reading over the Enumerable module, and learning the commands map, reduce, and select will be astounding. All of which originated from a LISP like language.
In the Wild
So, this is a fairly short writeup on the subject, and I will definitely cover it in more detail later on, but you should have a decent idea of what to look for.
The thing to take away from this is that if used properly, unit tests and making sure things behave as they should becomes exponentially easier. Some of the hardest tasks in programming merely require a different perspective.