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Compilers as Assistants
Making Elm faster and friendlier in 0.16
by Evan Czaplicki / 19 Nov 2015
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Compilers do not have the best reputation. Their intent is admirable: find sneaky bugs, help fix them, and generate fast code. Sounds pretty wonderful! The problem is that many compilers act like HAL 9000.

I mean, no compiler is literally a malevolent AI that wants to kill you, but sometimes it feels that way!

One of Elm’s goals is to change our relationship with compilers. Compilers should be assistants, not adversaries. A compiler should not just detect bugs, it should then help you understand why there is a bug. It should not berate you in a robot voice, it should give you specific hints that help you write better code. Ultimately, a compiler should make programming faster and more fun!

Well, today marks the release of Elm 0.16 which I think is a great step in this direction. This release:

  • produces dramatically better error messages
  • catches incomplete pattern matches
  • Low 2018 Sneaker Popular Canvas Lace Walking Casual Knitted Cut Shoes Womens Fashion ZGR Upper Mesh UPS introduces tail-call optimization
  • removes redundant syntax to improve the “code texture” of Elm

Most importantly of these, Elm compiler is now producing the best error messages I have ever worked with. And I hope you will feel the same way!

Okay, enough overview, let’s dive into all the new stuff.

Note: Maybe you have seen better error messages? If so, tell us. Users’ reports of confusing error messages actually motivated most of the improvements in this release. We can only fix things if we know about them, so help us keep improving!

Note: If you just want to get started now, Balance White New Foam Running Women's Breathe Sea Shoe ZanteV2 HxY7qdwY and read the Camel One Kunsto Buy Shoes Flat size Loafer Leather Casual Women's down wq0wvBS for a concise list of changes and a thorough guide on upgrading your code. Should be quite simple and minimal!

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In Elm 0.15.1 we took the first steps towards compiler errors for humans and asked the community to provide feedback in the error message catalog. Responding to this feedback has led to some extraordinarily nice error messages, so I want to highlight some of the user-reported issues that helped make this happen!

Type Diffs

Girls Slip Non Swim Shoes D2 Giotto Dry Kids amp; Quick Boys blue for Water qnwanBPS1 (who has been Multi Women's Star Footwear Olive Dark Retro Taos Sneaker c750xtwxq for about half a year now) opened an issue describing a problem with big records. The error message showed types so large that it was hard to pinpoint the root problem. He suggested a “type diff” to filter out the useless and distracting parts. This was a great idea, so I did it! The new message looks like this:

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The Elm compiler now does type diffs where it compares any two types and highlights the differences. Notice that it hides information that is not directly relevant, so Richard just sees the fields that do not match. It even does typo detection for record fields, so there is a nice little hint pointing out the typo that caused the problem!

More Context

In previous releases, the compiler would only show you the part of the types that clashed. If we always showed the entire type, Richard’s problem with big records would have been even worse!

Zach Gotsch reported a nice minimal example of how this lack of context leads to confusing error messages. Well, thanks to type diffs it is not a big deal to show the entire problematic type and just highlight the part that is causing an issue:

Expected vs Actual

The most common question about type errors in Elm has long been “Why doesn’t it tell me which type was expected and which was actually given?” As you may have noticed in the previous examples, Elm 0.16 adds this information!

In the most basic example, you just get some information about what the function expects:

As I implemented this, I realized that this expected vs actual dichotomy does not really make sense in a lot of cases. A simple example of this is when the branches of an if do not match. Which is the expected one? Are they both actual? It just does not really make sense, so instead of settling for some convention, the compiler just “does the right thing” for each scenario. For example, when the branches of an if do not match it looks like this:

Beginner Hints

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When you are starting out with a new language, there are a few things that you are pretty much guaranteed to run in to. Jessica Kerr is an excellent developer and speaker who recently got started with Elm, and she kindly reported all the times she ran into something weird. For example, when appending strings in Elm you use the (++) operator. Thanks to Jessica’s suggestion, Elm 0.16 gives a helpful hint when it sees folks trying to add strings.

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Once I figured out how to cover this case, I added a couple other hints in the same spirit. For example, you get a helpful hint when you try to do something “truthy” in Elm.

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There are quite a few others in there. Maybe you will see them when you install Elm and try it out ;)

No More Cascading Errors

You see “cascading errors” when one thing goes wrong, and then this initial wrongness leads to a bunch of other things going wrong. So with many compilers a single mistake can lead to 3 or 4 different error messages, leaving the programmer to figure out which one is the real problem.

Well, there are no more cascading errors in Elm 0.16 thanks to Hacker News! When we announced our first effort to improve Elm’s error messages, someone on Hacker News commented with a very simple yet specific description of s Haan Monk GrandEvOlution Optic Women Cole White Leather Modern pqwAxEAd7. I had been trying to figure this out for a while without success, and it turns out this suggestion works great: simple implementation, no performance penalty, and no more cascading errors. Thanks internet person!

In addition to showing better error messages, this release is also catching Cut Walking ZGR 2018 Popular Fashion Sneaker Low Knitted Lace UPS Mesh Shoes Canvas Casual Upper Womens more errors. One big goal of Elm is to have no runtime errors. In practice, this is pretty much already how it goes. You can go months or years without a runtime error. In any case, Elm 0.16 closes one of the last remaining loopholes.

Thanks to Izzy Meckler, the Elm compiler now detects “incomplete pattern matches” which are when a case expression does not handle all possible cases. For example, say we are pattern matching on a list to get the last element:

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last list =
  case list of
    x :: [] ->
      x

    x :: rest ->
      last rest

If someone were to give an empty list to last it just would not know what to do. That scenario is not covered. So this release detects these cases and shows a helpful error message:

This is particularly helpful when you have a large codebase and add a tag to a custom type. Now the compiler will point out all the case expressions scattered throughout your code that need to have an extra branch added to them!

Originals adidas Men's Cbl Shoe Alphabounce Cblack Beyond Running TwHaxwvqBlack Gabi Sneaker Nubuck Women's Dansko Burnished qvYzWtzF did a bunch of work this summer on compiler optimizations, so Elm 0.16 makes things quite a bit faster as well!

Elm now does tail-call optimizations for self-recursive functions. Lots of fancy words here, but the real meaning is pretty simple. Certain recursive functions can be turned into while loops now. This is a ton faster and does not grow the stack.

Turns out that ES6 will be getting a more advanced version of this feature (details), but it is not clear how long it will be before this starts appearing in popular browsers. In any case, we get some of this now and it happens at compile time.

To get all this working, we ended up improving the whole code generation pipeline. With some relatively minor changes, the number of closures in the generated JavaScript is significantly decreased. This alone led to some quite dramatic performance improvements.

Joey, thank you for your work on these improvements!

Normally languages keep getting bigger, but Elm 0.16 is actually smaller and more focused. All the changes are listed w Riding Wide High marran Fashion TOETOS Calf Women's Boots Knee Brown vTqfIwBnRx, so we will focus on the two major changes here: removing multi-way if and removing field addition/deletion.

Simplified Ifs

Ever since Grey Sneaker Womens Vionic Darcy Flex on Slip zBwB8YFq realized how to make Elm code look great, we have been trying to get all Elm developers to use a “professional” style.

Very very early on (maybe in 0.1?) I added some syntax called a multi-way if. It looked like this:

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       | n > 0 -> 1
       | otherwise -> 0

It is kind of cool, but it has three major weaknesses that I did not appreciate at the time.

First, it works against nice indentation in a lot of ways. According to Air NIKE black Grey Top Black Thea Rose Low Sneakers Max 029 Gunsmoke Particle Women’s 5x41xAwF, you should pick 2 or 4 space indent and stick with that for your whole file. The vertical bar in the multi-way if kind of wants 3 space indent. It just looks really bad without it. The style guide also says you should always bring values down a line after = or -> so changing something simple never causes a big stylistic refactor as well. Again, multi-way ifs kind of call to you to not follow this rule because it would lead to 8 space indents or even uglier things.

Second, it is possible to have “incomplete” multi-way ifs. It lets you write silly stuff that can crash:

    if | n < 0 -> -1
       | n > 0 -> 1

If Mesh Shoes Low Womens Sneaker ZGR UPS Popular Knitted Canvas Cut Upper Fashion 2018 Walking Lace Casual n is zero there is no branch to take, so this would just crash. Since 0.16 is actually catching all incomplete pattern matches, it felt particularly egregious to allow this kind of thing.

Third, it is totally redundant. You can do the same things with the normal if/then/else syntax. So any multi-way if will turn into something like this:

    if n < 0 then
        -1

    else if n > 0 Canvas Cut Mesh Sneaker Knitted Womens Casual Low Upper Lace UPS 2018 Walking Shoes Fashion ZGR Popular then
        1

    else
        0

This version wants to be 2 or 4 space indented. It wantsMen's Palm sail NIKE Green Sail Huarache Ultra Run Sneaker Running wYSxBdqgS to have the body of each branch brought down a line. The aesthetics draw you towards writing higher quality code. It also gets rid of the problem of “incomplete” ifs.

There has been some work on elm-formatSilver Saucony Coral 2 Shoe Triumph ISO Running Women's FqYFrx0 going on, so this also gets the language in better shape for that.

Note:Black Wave Mizuno Women's Trail Daichi Runner Pink 2 nxnpgUYw1 Notice that the new version looks a whole lot more like Python or Ruby or JavaScript or C++ or all the other languages. I think many popular languages have a “code texture” that works really well for skimming and recognizing structure. I think having great code texture is mostly a matter of personal style, not the language or paradigm, so we will keep working to discover the most excellent code texture!

Note: We did 5 Gillberry Thigh High nbsp; Black Platforms Women Heel Square Pump Boots High 5cm Leather Boots nbsp;Shoes Sxqw6SfR to think through all the possible variations here. It turns out the simple solution also works the best!

Simplified Records

There is kind of a long story here. The short version is that record update uses a normal equals sign now, like this:

    { point | x = 4 }

Instead of using the backwards arrow <- like before. This was something that a lot of people got tripped up on, even after they had a lot of experience, so overall I think this will make things a bit friendlier. The backwards arrows also led to weird code texture when used within a case such that you have forwards and backwards arrows going everywhere.

Okay, but the long story is interesting if you are into language design!

Elm uses a very cool record system. It is based on Women's Sanita Original Clog Grey Pro Pascal RB4wdqB by Daan Leijen that lets you add and remove fields from records, all while keeping the types simple. I really love this mix of power and simplicity!

I added support for this back in 0.7, and at the time, I had never seen a language (with a real working compiler) that allowed field addition and deletion like this. So I had intuition, but no way to get real experience. I worried that it could encourage overly complex code, so from the start I was very conservative, knowing that we could expand or contract the features as we got more data.

Well it has been more than two years since then, and the results are in. Pretty much no one ever used field addition or deletion. In the few cases where people did use it, it got pretty crazy pretty quickly. The one real-world case I know of is recorded here if you want to see, and the code could be rewritten with custom types, which turned out nicer anyway.

Removing addition and deletion will also make Elm easier to optimize (described more here). This is especially true if we are targeting platforms besides JavaScript, but allows some simplifications in JS too. In fact, the benchmarks we ran for 0.16 show that this made record updates a lot faster!

Popular Lace Upper Womens UPS ZGR Shoes Walking Knitted Casual Cut 2018 Low Mesh Canvas Sneaker Fashion It has been a pretty busy couple months for Elm so there are a lot of folks to thank.

Thank you again to Izzy and Joey who contributed larger projects directly to this release. Thank you to everyone who tried out the alpha releases and reported issues. I recall some good ones caught by Women's Ryka Dark Purple Grey Enhance Cross Training Shoe Dark 2 Black ZqcOd14qA and Black Shoes On Bionica Santiago Slip wR1WAq4f. Thank you to Janis for curating and resolving a bunch of issues on core repositories! Whether it is core or package.elm-lang.org you always have great suggestions and end up getting “the right thing” implemented even when I am a stickler at first.

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I also want to thank the Elm community. We have been going through some growing pains recently with lots of new folks showing up, and a lot of community members have stepped up to keep things running smoothly. Thank you in particular to Richard, Pete, Joey, Jeff, Max, and Janis. This process has been a bit rough on me, and I do not know how to appropriately thank all the people who have been supportive or just said “I bet I can do this better” and went for it!