F#

Creating a Generative Type Provider

In my recently released Pluralsight course, Building F# Type Providers, I show how to build a type provider that uses erased types. To keep things simple I opted to not include any discussion of generative type providers beyond explaining the difference between type erasure and type generation. I thought I might get some negative feedback regarding that decision but I still believe it was the right decision for the course. That said, while the feedback I’ve received has been quite positive, especially for my first course, I have indeed heard from a few people that they would have liked to see generated types included as well.

There are a number of existing type providers that use generated types, most notably in my opinion is the SqlEnumProvider from FSharp.Data.SqlClient. That particular type provider generates CLI-enum or enum-like types which represent key/value pairs stored in the source database.

Although SqlEnumProvider is a great example and is relatively easy to follow, general how-to documentation for generative type providers is hard to come by to say the least. As such I thought that showing how to write the ID3Provider built in the course as a generative type provider would be a nice addendum for the course material. I clearly won’t be covering everything I do in the course here so if you’re looking for a deeper understanding of type providers I strongly encourage you to watch it before reading this article. (more…)

Kansas City, Here I Come!

It’s hard to believe that KCDC is next week in Kansas City, MO! I’m excited to be giving two talks.

On Thursday you can see F# Type Providers in Action which is an abridged version of my new Pluralsight course, Building F# Type Providers. On Friday I’ll break from the technical conference norm with a lighthearted look at some of my experiences from my trip into the book publishing world while I wrote The Book of F#.

Please check the schedule for updated rooms and times.

As a bonus, I hope to have a few copies of The Book of F# to give away during my sessions! I’ll be giving away a copy of The Book of F# during each of my sessions! I hope to see you there!

Building F# Type Providers on Pluralsight!

I was wrapping up The Book of F# and discussing the foreword with Bryan Hunter, he asked if I’d like to be connected to some of the folks at Pluralsight to discuss the possibility of an F# course. I agreed and a few days later I was on the phone brainstorming course ideas with them.

Of everything we discussed I was really only excited about a few topics enough to think I could put together a full course for them. Naturally the ones I was most excited about were already spoken for so I started trying to think of some other ideas. At that point I sort of fizzled out from seemingly endless distractions like changing jobs, speaking at a variety of events, and so on. Over the course of a few months I’d pretty much forgotten about the discussions. Fortunately for me, Pluralsight hadn’t forgotten and my acquisitions editor emailed me to see what happened.

We soon started talking again and one of the ideas I was originally excited about was now available and I’d been working on a related conference talk so I had the start of an outline. After a few iterations I was ready to start recording my Building F# Type Providers course.

Fast forward to earlier this week when I noticed some blog traffic from an unexpected source – my Pluralsight author profile page! I quickly discovered that my course was live!

BuildingTypeProvidersTitleSlide

If you’re wanting to learn more about one of F#’s most interesting features, I invite you to watch the course where I show a few existing type providers in action before walking through creating a simple type provider for reading the ID3 tag from an MP3 file using the Type Provider Starter Pack.

Functional C#: Fluent Interfaces and Functional Method Chaining

This is adapted from a talk I’ve been refining a bit. I’m pretty happy with it overall but please let me know what you think in the comments.

Update: I went to correct a minor issue in a code sample and WordPress messed up the code formatting. Even after reverting to the previous version I still found issues with escaped quotes and casing changes on some generic type definitions. I’ve tried to fix the problems but I may have missed a few spots. I apologize for any odd formatting issues.

I’ve been developing software professionally for 15 years or so. Like many of today’s enterprise developers much of my career has been spent with object-oriented languages but when I discovered functional programming a few years ago it changed the way I think about code at the most fundamental levels. As such I no longer think about problems in terms of object hierarchies, encapsulation, or and associated behavior. Instead I think in terms of independent functions and the data upon which they operate in order to produce the desired result. (more…)

January Indy F# Meetup

We’re on a roll! The third consecutive Indy F# Meetup is on Tuesday, January 20th at 7:00 PM. As always, we’ll be meeting at Launch Fishers. Check out the meetup page to register and for logistics information.

When we started the group we decided to alternate the format between dojos and lectures. Since last month was a type provider lecture this month will mark a return to the dojo format. We thought it would be fun to change pace and hone our recursion skills a bit by working through the community-driven fractal forest dojo. I haven’t worked through this one yet myself but I’ve seen lots of beautiful images tweeted by people who have so it should be a great time and experience. I hope you’ll join us!

Extending F# Pipelines with a Tee Function

In functional programming we strive to minimize side-effects but not only are some side-effects desirable, in the largely object-oriented world in which many of us still operate such side-effects are often unavoidable. There are plenty of APIs that rely on side-effects particularly when it comes to initializing types or properties. One example that immediately comes to mind is building up an HttpResponseMessage in Web API 2. Consider the following snippet which creates a response containing the contents of a stream and sets some relevant header values:

member __.GetFile() =
  // ... SNIP ...
  let response = new HttpResponseMessage(HttpStatusCode.OK, Content = new StreamContent(stream))
  response.Content.Headers.ContentType <- MediaTypeHeaderValue("application/octet-stream")
  response.Content.Headers.ContentLength <- Nullable.op_Implicit stream.Length
  response.Content.Headers.ContentDisposition <- new ContentDispositionHeaderValue("attachment", FileName = "test.pdf")
  response

This code is straight-forward but it’s highly imperative. Like side-effects, imperative code isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it would be nice to tame it a bit by initializing the header values as part of a pipeline while still returning the response message. Doing so isn’t hard: just create the HttpResponseMessage instance via the constructor and pipe it to a function that does the initialization before returning, right?

member __.GetFile() =
  // ... SNIP ...
  new HttpResponseMessage(HttpStatusCode.OK, Content = new StreamContent(stream))
  |> (fun response -> response.Content.Headers.ContentType <- MediaTypeHeaderValue("application/octet-stream")
                      response.Content.Headers.ContentLength <- Nullable.op_Implicit stream.Length
                      response.Content.Headers.ContentDisposition <- new ContentDispositionHeaderValue("attachment", FileName = "test.pdf")
                      response)

This is a perfectly acceptable approach and is something I’ve definitely done plenty of times but all it has achieved is moving the explicit return into the function. After doing this a few times, you might start to think there has to be a way to standardize this pattern and you’d be right.

Over the holidays I finally found some time to relax and although I spent a great deal of time glued to Assassin’s Creed: Unity on my Xbox One I managed to read a few more articles than usual. Something that struck me as interesting was that I noticed a theme across several of the code samples: they were using a tee function within a pipeline. The tee function isn’t part of the core F# libraries and I couldn’t recall having encountered it before so I started doing some background investigation.

One of the first sites I found that mentioned the function in the context of F# was Scott Wlaschin’s excellent Railway Oriented Programming article which I’d read previously but clearly not thoroughly enough. In the article Scott says he named the function after a Unix command of the same name. The Unix command, which is named after plumbing tee fittings, splits a pipeline such that input flows to both standard output and a file. This is certainly useful for logging in shell scripts but its possibilities are much more interesting in an F# pipeline.

The tee function is a simple function which essentially says “given a value, apply a function to it, ignore the result, then return the original value.” It’s basic definition is as follows:

let inline tee fn x = x |> fn |> ignore; x

By introducing the tee function into the pipelined version of the GetFile method we can remove the explicit return:

member __.GetFile() =
  // ... SNIP ...
  new HttpResponseMessage(HttpStatusCode.OK, Content = new StreamContent(stream))
  |> tee (fun response -> response.Content.Headers.ContentType <- MediaTypeHeaderValue("application/octet-stream")
                          response.Content.Headers.ContentLength <- Nullable.op_Implicit stream.Length
                          response.Content.Headers.ContentDisposition <- new ContentDispositionHeaderValue("attachment", FileName = "test.pdf"))

Now the pipeline looks more like what we might expect since we’re no longer explicitly returning the response from the lambda expression.

Depending on your style preferences, injecting the tee function explicitly into the pipeline as you would a Seq.filter or other such function might bother you. To me, the tee function is a perfect candidate for a custom operator so let’s define one.

let inline ( |>! ) x fn = tee fn x

Here we’ve defined |>! as the tee operator (this is the same symbol that WebSharper uses). Notice how the parameter order is reversed from the tee function. This is due to the fact that when using our new operator, we’re not relying on partial application to invoke the tee function. Now we can eliminate the explicit reference to the function, making the operation look like a natural part of the F# language.

member __.GetFile() =
  // ... SNIP ...
  new HttpResponseMessage(HttpStatusCode.OK, Content = new StreamContent(stream))
  |>! (fun response -> response.Content.Headers.ContentType <- MediaTypeHeaderValue("application/octet-stream")
                       response.Content.Headers.ContentLength <- Nullable.op_Implicit stream.Length
                       response.Content.Headers.ContentDisposition <- new ContentDispositionHeaderValue("attachment", FileName = "test.pdf"))

Since the tee function/operator is intended to allow side-effects within a pipeline it is ideal for adding logging or other diagnostics into a pipeline (as was the intent in the original Unix command). For instance, to write out a message as each header value is set, we can simply split the tee’d function above into separate functions, inserting a tee’d logging function in between:

member __.GetFile() =
  // ... SNIP ...
  new HttpResponseMessage(HttpStatusCode.OK, Content = new StreamContent(stream))
  |>! (fun _ -> Debug.WriteLine "Created response")
  |>! (fun r -> r.Content.Headers.ContentType <- MediaTypeHeaderValue("application/octet-stream"))
  |>! (fun r -> Debug.WriteLine("Set content type: {0}",
                                [| box r.Content.Headers.ContentType.MediaType |]))
  |>! (fun r -> r.Content.Headers.ContentLength <- Nullable.op_Implicit stream.Length)
  |>! (fun r -> Debug.WriteLine("Set content length: {0}",
                                [| box r.Content.Headers.ContentLength.Value |]))
  |>! (fun r -> r.Content.Headers.ContentDisposition <- new ContentDispositionHeaderValue("attachment", FileName = "test.txt"))
  |>! (fun r -> Debug.WriteLine("Set content disposition: {0}",
                                [| box r.Content.Headers.ContentDisposition.DispositionType |]))

By introducing the tee function and operator you give yourself another tool for taming the imperative code and side-effects that tend to pop up in software projects of any complexity.

Busy Week Ahead

[12/15/2014 Update] Due to time concerns FunScript has been dropped from the Indy F# meeting. If you were really looking forward an introduction to FunScript stay tuned – we’ll be coming back to it in a few months.

This is a busy week for me on the community front with talks at multiple Indianapolis user groups. If either of these topics interest you I hope you’ll register and join us.

Indy F#

Double Feature: Type Providers and FunScript
Type Providers

Tuesday, December 16, 7:00 PM
Launch Fishers (info and registration)

On Tuesday I’ll be kicking off an Indy F# double feature by talking about Type Providers. We’ll begin with a short tour of several existing type providers and seeing how they make accessing data virtually effortless. With a good taste of what type providers can do we’ll then look behind the curtain to see how they work by walking through creating a custom type provider that reads ID3 tags from MP3 files.

Brad Pillow will follow with an introduction to building single-page applications with FunScript.

Indy Software Artisans

TypeScript: Bringing Sanity to JavaScript
Thursday, December 18, 5:30 PM
SEP (info and registration)

On Thursday I’ll change gears from F# to TypeScript. If writing JavaScript frustrates you or you just want to be more productive when developing browser-based applications you’ll definitely want to check out TypeScript. This session is not only a tour of TypeScript’s language features but also highlights the resulting JavaScript code. To help showcase how TypeScript can fit into your new or existing projects, the demo application is an AngularJS and Bootstrap application driven entirely by TypeScript.

December’s Indy F# Meetup

IndyF#After a successful first meetup in November we wanted to keep the momentum and get the next meetup on the calendar. Our second meeting will be at 7:00 PM on December 16th at Launch Fishers.

In keeping with our plan to alternate between hands-on sessions and the more traditional speaker-led sessions, the December meeting will follow the later format with not one, but two talks! The event will feature me giving an introduction to type providers and Brad Pillow will give an overview of using FunScript to develop single-page applications.

If either of these topics interest you, please swing over to our meetup page and register.

We hope to see you there!

Indianapolis F# Developers Coding Dojo

There’s a new developer group in town! The inaugural meeting of the Indianapolis F# Developers group is upon us. On Tuesday, November 18th I’ll be leading the group through the Digit Recognizer dojo from Community for F#!

Since I suspect we’ll have some people new to the language, we’ll spend some time talking about some language concepts that are critical to successfully completing the exercise. Make sure you bring a laptop because after the introduction we’ll then split into a few groups (pairs, probably) and work through the problem together. After some time we’ll come back together as a group to talk about the problem and discuss some of the ways that F# lets you focus on the task at hand.

If F#, functional programming, and/or machine learning are of interest to you, please register for the event on our meetup page. We’ll be meeting in the 20 person meeting room at Launch Fishers. The meetup starts at 7:00 PM. We’d love for you to join us!

Musings on C#’s Evolution

Since completing my series on likely C# 6.0 features and reviewing the draft spec for record classes and pattern matching in C#, I’ve had some time to reflect on how C# has evolved and think about where it’s going from a more holistic perspective.

I’ve been working with C# for approximately 12 years. It was the language of choice at the beginning of my career so, in a sense, C# and I have grown up together. During that time I’ve watched what was essentially a Java clone grow into the powerhouse it is today. It’s a bit cliché, but when I started working with C# it didn’t have many of the features I now take for granted. Things like generics, the null coalescing operator, lambda expressions, extension methods, anonymous types, dynamics, and async/await were in their infancy with some as much as a decade away. It seems that every major release has brought a slew of compelling new features that have dramatically improved the language.

As I look at the code I write today I often wonder how C# developers managed without generics. I remember the headaches of dealing with ArrayList and its early kin and having to trust that the objects in the collections were actually the types we thought they were. Today I often look at blocks of imperative code (typically loops) that see that they’re doing nothing more than explicitly filtering, mapping, and reducing sequences. I immediately think how much cleaner the code would be with LINQ. And in today’s world of connected mobile devices where application responsiveness is of primary importance, async/await make asynchronous development accessible to the masses. These are all incredible tools we have at our disposal and are all among the reasons I’ve stuck with .NET development for so long.

C# 6 is different. With C# 6, the language enhancement is the Roslyn compiler. Roslyn promises to bring modern compilation strategies to C#. This is a huge undertaking and heavily impacts how we’ll interact with code through Visual Studio and other tools. I haven’t looked at Roslyn nearly as much as I’d like but I do believe the new compiler is long overdue and will pay dividends in the long run for developers and Microsoft alike. That said, the actual changes to the C# language itself seem to range from lackluster to pointless.

I’m not saying that the language features are all bad; several of them will likely be welcome additions to the language. Enhancements such as primary constructors, auto-implemented property initializers, and using static are each things that can have an immediate impact on developer productivity and are by far my favorites of the lot. Other features, such as index initializers, params IEnumerable<T>, and expression-bodied members don’t really seem to add much to the language due to either existing syntactic constructs or other limitations of the language.

Is initializing dictionary elements with [7] = "seven" really any better than with { 7, "seven" }? All the index initializer achieves is trading a pair of curly braces and a comma for a pair of square brackets and an assignment operator, respectively. How is params IEnumerable<int> better than params int[] if the argument list is still converted to an array at the call site and no other usage requires defining the parameter with the params modifier? Finally, expression-bodied members could be a great feature if C# was an expression-based language but it’s not – it’s statement-based. The proposed semicolon operator could greatly increase the usefulness of expression-bodied members but at the time of this writing, it’s still listed as “Maybe” on the Language Feature Implementation Status page. Even then, the semicolon operator feels like an attempt to coerce C# into being expression-based when it was never intended to be treated as such. In the meantime, there’s already a perfectly viable alternative – write a function!

Looking further into the future brings us to the draft spec for record classes and pattern matching. (Please note that since this spec is a draft, everything here is subject to change; whatever does get implemented, if anything, may or may not look like this proposal.) If you haven’t read the draft (and I highly recommend that you do), it proposes a new record modifier for class definitions. This modifier would instruct the compiler to generate an immutable class with built-in structural equality and an is operator (if not provided). The is operator can then be used in if and switch statements for type checking and value extractions.

For example, we could define a class like this (example taken from the proposal):

public record class Cartesian(double x: X, double y: Y);

…then use pattern matching constructs like this (adapted from the proposal):

if (expr is Cartesian c)
{
  // code using c
}

My initial reaction when I heard about these features was excitement but the more I read and the more I think about it, the less I like them, pattern matching in particular. I’ll be the last person to argue against immutability and pattern matching, especially when looking at them from a functional programming mindset. I do like the simplicity of the immutable record classes and I don’t mind that pattern matching is essentially an extension of the is operator.

The reason I don’t like these features as proposed is that they don’t feel like they belong in C#. I feel like this for a few reasons. First, pattern matching can improve code’s expressiveness but merely adding it to a language that wasn’t constructed with pattern matching in mind severely limits its usefulness. Second, the overall expressiveness is again limited by the fact that C# isn’t an expression-based language; pattern matching might make if statements and switch statements more concise, it doesn’t change the fact that they’re still statements!

Let’s contrast the proposal with an expression-based language where pattern matching is already a central concept: F#. As an expression-based language, virtually everything in F# is an expression. This includes familiar constructs like ifs and matches. By definition, as expressions these constructs return values – there’s no need to rely on mutability or wrap the behavior within a separate function, returning from each branch as we must in a statement-based language. For example, this is valid F#:

let x = if System.Random().Next(10) % 2 = 0 then "even" else "odd"

You could correctly argue that C# provides the conditional operator for this scenario but that doesn’t change the fact that in C#, if is a statement whereas in F# it’s an expression. Furthermore, what’s probably not apparent here if you’re not familiar with F# is that binding x is a pattern match. You can see this in action by replacing x with an underscore (F#’s wildcard pattern matches everything and tosses out the result) as follows:

let _ = if System.Random().Next(10) % 2 = 0 then "even" else "odd"

If you evaluate the expression in F# Interactive (FSI) you’ll see that it executes successfully but no value is bound as we’d expect due to the wildcard. For further proof, this is also how tuple binding works as evidenced here:

let value, category =
  let r = System.Random().Next(10)
  r, if r % 2 = 0 then "even" else "odd"

The expression following the assignment in the above snippet returns a tuple containing a random value and whether that value is even or odd. The tupled items are then bound to value and category respectively by using pattern matching.

Pattern matching completely permeates F#. It’s not restricted to match expressions or inline bindings; it even works in function signatures and as a filter in looping constructs! The C# proposal doesn’t talk about pattern matching outside the context of if statements and switches so discussing whether C# will embrace pattern matching as fully as F# is pure speculation but it certainly doesn’t sound particularly promising at this point. Even if pattern matching is supported outside of if and switch statements, it’s still the same underlying statement-based language.

My point in writing all of this is that for years C# has been becoming increasingly functional, with the strongest push coming in version 3 and subsequent releases building upon that foundation. Many of the features in C# 6.0 continue even further down that path by elevating expressions an even more important concept within the language. Finally, a future incarnation of the language will likely include some form of immutable class syntax and pattern matching. If this is the direction that C# is going, my question is this: Why wait for it? Why not learn a functional language to at least supplement the object-oriented language you already know?

The C# of the future is already here and it’s called F#. F# already has a modern compiler; it already supports many of the things slowly making their way into C# and much, much more. In other words, there’s no reason to wait for these things to make it into C# because F# already does them! Incorporating F# into your existing solutions isn’t a mutually exclusive proposition. As a CLR language, F# compiles to the same IL, targets the same runtimes (with few exceptions), and uses the same libraries with which you’re already familiar. In many cases it’s a perfect complement to or replacement for existing C# code.

I challenge you to try F#. Experiment with the features; see how many things you can spot that are “recent” additions to C#, making their way to C#, or not possible at all. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how adopting an expression-based, functional-first language can change the way you think, improve the quality of your code, and make you more productive. If you accept this challenge, I recommend checking out my book or any of the great resources listed on my Learning F# page to get you started.