True Empowerment

I fixed a bug in the blacklight-marc gem recently. It involved this line of Ruby code:

vals << (v == 'AD') ? 'Atlas' : 'Map'

Contrary to what it looks like, this line adds a boolean value to the vals array. The << operation returns true, so the entire line of code always evaluates to ‘Atlas’. Then nothing happens with that string.

Obviously, this isn’t what was intended. The problem is that << has higher precedence than the if-else operators. So here’s the fix:

vals << (v == 'AD' ? 'Atlas' : 'Map')

This code path wasn’t being taken all the time, and it also didn’t raise any exceptions: the calling code uses the result as an array of strings, so the booleans get automatically converted to “true” and “false” strings. I just happened to notice those weird values where they didn’t make sense, and thought to dig into it.

Let’s be honest: this is the kind of mistake anyone could easily make. I’m 100% certain I’ve done something similar. In fact, I innocently asked some co-workers what the original line of code did, and of course, they interpreted it incorrectly. It’s a tricky little bug.

I thought to post about this because it’s a perfect example of how, in a loosely typed, dynamic language like Ruby, you’re really on your own.

Dynamic languages can often feel “empowering” because they place trust in the programmer. It’s your responsibility not to write code that does anything really crazy or stupid. But there are a lot of these “gotcha” cases, where you’re writing code that’s quite reasonable, and you simply made a mistake that the language lets you get away with, because it’s interpeted differently from what you intended. It’s valid code. And you won’t figure it out until much later, when it shows up as a symptom elsewhere.

By contrast, with Java or Scala, you wouldn’t be able to do this. The compiler would check the types, and meaningfully, say, “Sorry buddy, it doesn’t make sense to me to add a boolean to a List of Strings,” and you’d immediately notice the problem with operator precedence. And you’d fix it.

Your program would never even be able to run with that error in it. Which is some awfully nice work that the language is doing for you there. That feels like true empowerment to me.

Final note: you could argue that good test coverage would catch this. That’s true, but we all know the difficulties of achieving thorough test coverage under deadlines. And this example is particularly annoying to get thorough coverage for, because the line of code is one case of many different cases of values for the variable ‘v’.

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