Sunday, June 16, 2013

When to best use type inference

Type inference can make code much better. It can save you from writing down something that is completely obvious, and thus a total waste of space to write down. For example, type inference is helpful in the following code:
    // Type inference
    val date = new Date

    // No type inference
    val date: Date = new Date
It's even better for generics, where the version without type inference is often absurd:
    // Type inference
    val lengths: List[Int] =
        names.map(n => n.length).filter(l => l >= 0)

    // No type inference
    val lengths: List[Int] =
        names.map[Int, List[Int]]((n: String) => n.length).
        filter((l: Int) => l >= 0)
When would a type not be "obvious"? Let me describe two scenarios.

First, there is obvious to the reader. If the reader cannot tell what a type is, then help them out and write it down. Good code is not an exercise in swapping puzzles with your coworkers.

    // Is it a string or a file name?
    val logFile = settings.logFile

    // Better
    val logFile: File = settings.logFile
Second, there is obvious to the writer. Consider the following example:
    val output =
        if (writable(settings.out))
            settings.out
        else
            "/dev/null"
To a reader, this code is obviously producing a string. How about to the writer? If you wrote this code, would you be sure that you wrote it correctly? I claim no. If you are honest, you aren't sure what settings.out is unless you go look it up. As such, you should write it this way, in which case you might discover an error in your code:
    val output: String =
        if (writable(settings.out))
            settings.out  // ERROR: expected String, got a File
        else
            "/dev/null"
Languages with subtyping all have this limitation. The compiler can tell you when an actual type fails to satisfy the requirements of an expected type. However, if you ask it whether two types can ever be used in the same context as each other, it will always say yes, they could be used as type Any. ML and Haskell programmers are cackling as they read this.

It's not just if expressions, either. Another place this issue crops up is in collection literals. Unless you tell the compiler what kind of collection you are trying to make, it will never fail to find a type for it. Consider this example:

    val path = List(
        "/etc/scpaths",
        "/usr/local/sc/etc/paths",
        settings.paths)
Are you sure that settings.paths is a string and not a file? Are you sure nobody will change that type in the future and then see what type check errors they get? If you aren't sure, you should write down the type you are trying for:
    val path = List[String](
        "/etc/scpaths",
        "/usr/local/sc/etc/paths",
        settings.paths)  // ERROR: expected String, got a File
Type inference is a wonderful thing, but it shouldn't be used to create mysteries and puzzles. In code, just like in prose, strive to say the interesting and to elide the obvious.

3 comments:

treeowl said...

What language is that? The "val" makes me think of ML, but that's clearly not the case.

Dylan Just said...

Scala

David PĂ©rez said...

IDE's like Scala IDE or IDEA can tell you the type of everything, so the need to annotate the types is not so important.