Sam Newman's site, a Consultant at ThoughtWorks

Archive for ‘January, 2010’

I’m currently working on a personal project by way of learning Clojure – it’s actually a program to match up my itemised phone bill against my list of contacts to help me expense my calls. I find it best to have a real-world problem I need to solve to learn a new programming language. The problem itself is rather dull, but it did give me a chance to consider an issue I’ve hit with many other languages.

One of the core parts of my telephone expense program is the process of normalising phone numbers so I can match them up. What I am trying to do is something long the lines of:

Strip spaces, then add the missing area code, then internationalize it

So in Clojure there are a number of functions I’ve written, each of which take, and return, a string (the program is nowhere near finished, so consider this to be virtually pseudo code) :

(defn #^String normalize [str]
  (internationalize (add-missing-areacode (strip-spaces str))))

In Java, this would look like:

public String normalize(String str) {
  return internationalize(addMissingAreaCode(stripSpaces(str)));

The problem is that I, and most of the western world, read from left to right – with both Java and Clojure I’m having to read from right to left to determine what is being done. One system I use frequently has a construct which matches what I’m after – UNIX:

strip-spaces "44 1230 9183" | add-area-code | internationalize

So what other languages support this kind of construct? I suspect I could coax Scala into doing something like this, and it seems that it is right up Python’s alley (Django’s excellent templating system has filters which do exactly that). But if I want to use Clojure, am I stuck with this inside-out programming model? What other JVM-based languages would help me here – Ioke perhaps? It seems right up AINC’s alley, but that syntax makes me want to cry…

Update 11 Jan 2010: Thanks to Matt for pointing me towards Clojure’s ‘->‘ macro. This looks pretty close to what I’m after. So I *think* I should be able to do something along the lines of:

(-> phoneNumber stripSpaces addAreaCode internationalize)

Which is very cool.


There is a rustle in the posit-in notes. The water cooler ripples. USB-powered missile launchers inexplicably fire, whilst nerf guns jam mid-battle. There is the smell of sulfur in the air. The Great Rewrite Approaches.

The signs were there. Grumbling from the developers – sometimes new to the project. “This code is horrible!”, “Completely unfit for purpose!”, “If only we could start again…”.

Delays to new functionality are laid at the door of the code. The one and only solution now on offer is to rewrite the entire codebase – nothing short of this will help. Eventually, managers are won over, and The Great Rewrite begins.

It is an epic undertaking. Some poor fools have to stay behind and look after the existing system, whilst others forge ahead into a brave, new world, leaving the horrid, old, decrepit and so uncool system behind.

Morale soars – the developers have a spring in their step. The business, initially, is confident. “Don’t worry – the new version is right around the corner!” they are told. Meanwhile support for the existing system is suffering – the team maintaining the existing codebase is a fraction of the size it used to be, and most of the senior technical people have to be on the rewrite.

The natives grow restless – the system they use, day in, day out, isn’t moving on. Feature requests seem to disappear into a black hole. “Soon” they are promised. “Soon, all your dreams will come true! Once The New System is launched, what you want is top of the list!”.

Months pass. And still, the rewrite continues. But it is closer now – inching towards readiness. Finally, long overdue, The New System is ready. The users are excited – all the recent troubles are to cease, as The Great Rewrite is over.

And now, the launch day.

There are bugs. Things that used to work, don’t work any more. There are few, if any new features. The system is new, but doesn’t offer the users anything new – but they have to learn to get to grips with The New System. The disgruntled emails start.

“Don’t worry!” says the Project Manager. Now The Great Rewrite has finished, the new features will arrive any day now!

And some of them do. Initially, at least, new features are easier than before to create, and ship. But after time, the same problems with the code base emerge. It turns out that having the same group of people building the same old system without changing their approach or ideas doesn’t lead to a different type of system. They never had to deal with the old issues head-on, they just sidestepped them, pressing on into the greenfield.

More time passes. Features take longer to ship, the code is harder to deal with. And once again, talk turns to another Great Rewrite…