Climbing the Elm Tree

The selection of the second language of the month was mired in confusion; there was one language I had had in mind, and I spent the week after the previous blog post learning more about it. However, I then learned a new release was in the pipeline for April, so it seemed natural to delay my adventures with that language for two months.

I then picked another language to work on, but it occurred to me that it was already February 22nd. That's what four birthdays in the family, a late start, and preparing for a talk will do to you! I didn't want to shortchange this new language by giving it a paltry one week of my time, so I decided to defer my time with that language until March.

The language I ended up writing about for February is one I actually played with a bit in 2015 (sorry for cheating!), but it still represents a paradigm shift in how one writes code, and I've never blogged about it before, which is an injustice itself! It's gotten a lot of press lately, so you may have heard of it - it's the Elm programming language!

An exciting alternative to JavaScript

I typically see myself as a backend developer; I don't really care for JavaScript, and I find UI programming to be tedious and hard to test. So, coming from me, this testimony should bear extra weight: Elm, as a functional programming language for writing frontend applications, actually makes me excited about doing frontend development. Elm is a wonderful alternative to JavaScript for frontend development, especially for FP nerds like me. It smoothes out most of the problems that I find come with UI programming, which is very attractive.

A gateway to functional programming

I don't know what Evan's 1) goals were in creating Elm; maybe it was just to have a functional language so FP practitioners could write web applications. However, like Go targeting C++ developers but attracting Python and Ruby developers, the availability of Elm has had an interesting side effect: serving as a gateway to FP for JavaScript and frontend developers. This is evident from the Slack channel for the Elm language. From what I've heard, this has resulted in a fruitful exchange of ideas between the Elm and JavaScript worlds, and I have no doubt this will continue into the future.

Functional Reactive Programming

The big takeaway from Elm is how it treats functional reactive programming (FRP) as its core concept. Like other functional languages, such as Haskell, functions in Elm are pure - that is, they have no side effects 2). If you want to express side effects, you typically use signals, which represent a stream of events in your program, such as inputs. If you want to render HTML or draw on a canvas, your main function needs to return an Html or Element object, or a Signal of them. This may seem pretty strict, but it inspires a natural architecture in your application that is easy to read and reason about. Code in Elm is so clean; it's the most excited about a language I've been in a long time. Here's a simple example code snippet that displays the timestamp once per second:

main : Signal Element
main = show <| Time.every Time.second

Signals offer many list-like functions, such as map, which applies a function every time a new value comes in from a signal, and treats the results of the function as a new signal. show simply renders a value for debugging purposes, and Time.every n creates a signal that yields the current timestamp every n units of time. For a deeper look into how signals make an Elm program work, check out the official architecture tutorial.

Working with Elm has inspired me to think about ways of applying FRP concepts in other languages, especially Perl 6!

Time Traveling Debugger

Not only does the strictness of Elm yield cleaner programs, but it also allows for advanced tooling. The Elm platform ships with a tool called elm-reactor, which is a little web server that will allow you to edit your programs and have your changes loaded on the fly in the browser. Where it really shines is the debugger, though; elm-reactor provides a time traveling debugger. This means if you find a bug, you can back up the program state to what it was just before the bug happened. After you've done this, you can set up watches, logging statements, or fixes in the code, and replay the execution. You can find a demo of the time traveling debugger here.

Bad Error Messages as Bugs

One of the things that put Elm on the map for many people is that in the 0.16 release, the error messages were considerably improved. The Elm team seems to have the mentality that an error message that confuses or misleads a user is a bug, and that the compiler is your assistant. The Rust community has also seemed to embrace this idea, and I'm hoping that other language communities do as well. It's definitely something I keep in mind now when I'm working on Perl 6!

Tune in next time for an overview of the program I wrote in Elm, which makes use of the data I gathered in my previous blog post!

  1. 1) Evan Czaplicki is the creator of Elm
  2. 2) Although Elm provides things like Debug.log to make the developer's life easier