Metaphysical Developer

RubyUnderscore: A bit of Arc and Scala in Ruby

Posted in Languages, Software Development by Daniel Ribeiro on October 31, 2010

A few months ago I’ve mentioned one thing that bothered me in ruby was No way to create simple blocks”. This is in contrast to other languages, such as Scala, Clojure and Groovy’s underscore, percent and “it”, respectively, shortcut notations. There are other languages with equivalent mechanisms as well. Even newer languages like Coffeescript have considered adding it. As James Iry mentioned, such constructs are in fact related to delimited continuations.

However ruby has Syntax Tree manipulation (via Parse Tree gem). Using it I created the RubyUnderscore project, which brings this ruby, using the underscore symbol (just like Scala and Arc). With it, it is possible to refactor the following:

    classes.reject { |c| c.subclasses.include?(Enumerable) }
    dates.select { |d| d.greater_than(old_date) }
    collection.map { |x| x.invoke }

into:

    classes.reject _.subclasses.include? Enumerable
    dates.select _.greater_than old_date
    collection.map _.invoke

The last case can also use symbol to proc coercion (appending & to symbol):

     collection.map &:invoke

However, the proc coercion is not flexible enough to allow arguments or invoke a method chain. Which I think brings a small increase in readability and code quality, not to mention that by making closures easier to declare, it fosters them to be used more. I find this to be a good thing, specially when you start to refactor your loops into maps, selects, rejects, group_bys and reduces

This also highlights another issue I mentioned in Improving Ruby: that Syntax Tree manipulation is too important to be supported only on MRI, and not throughout the implementations, like JRuby and Rubinius. Python has this built in into its standard library (through ast module and inspect.getsource), and Lisp can also do syntax tree manipulation with its macro system. The importance of such capability was mentioned by Paul Graham (one of the creators of Arc, which is a dialect of Lisp):

Letting people rewrite your language is a good idea. You, as the language designer, can’t possibly anticipate all the things programmers are going to want to do with it. To the extent they can rewrite the language, you don’t have to.

However, syntax tree manipulation in ruby is not only unsupported in most implementations, but it is also poorly documented (even though PostRank’s founder Ilya Grigorik‘s post on the subject is a very good introduction) and a bit awkward to use: the visitor from sexp-processor gem embraces side effect (mutating all the tree nodes while processing them) and the tree nodes are just arrays, unlike Python’s modules where there is a class for every node type. It is important to note that if you are willing to pre-process your ruby code, you can use ruby2ruby to generate the equivalent and regular ruby code, which will work all over.

These techniques are expected to be fixed as more people realize the gains they bring, and these improvements find their way into YARV and eventually other ruby implementations. Ruby is a very nice, clean, productive and elegant language, and it would be shame if we stopped making it even better.

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