Maybe, null, and boilerplate code

An ode to the Maybe type in Haskell, and a comparison with null
Posted in: haskell.

A Haskell novice is usually quickly introduced to the Maybe type. I think there are many good tutorials out there covering the Maybe type, so I won’t be explaining it here – instead, I will make a comparison between Maybe and null pointers. I also briefly use monads in the end – I will not explain them here either, there already are a lot of tutorials about them (hint: google for “burritos”1).

I have chosen to compare null pointers from Java – I could have chosen nil from Ruby, or None from Python – this does not really matter here.

Why null?

Why are null pointers present in almost every object-oriented language? A first goal they serve is as “unassigned variables”. I will not cover that here, instead I will focus on another use: abnormal return values.

From the Java HashMap documentation:

public Object get(Object key)

Returns the value to which the specified key is mapped in this identity hash map, or null if the map contains no mapping for this key.

So, null is some sort of “Not found” error here. But wait – they could have used an Exception here!

Why not exceptions?

Well, I see a few reasons why didn’t use exceptions here:

I realize I’m not being very complete here – if you think you know the real reason, feel free to comment. Anyway, if we look at the type signature, we see a similar behavior in the Map type in Haskell.

lookup :: (Ord k) => k -> Map k a -> Maybe a

We see a similar behavior here: when the object is found, we get a Just a, and when it is not found, we get Nothing – comparable to a null pointer.

The danger of null

null is very cool and all, but I think this cartoon from Geek and Poke illustrates its danger:

NullPointerException cartoon

NullPointerException cartoon

So, while we can get a null back from a function, we should never give it to a function.

A simple scenario

On to a simple scenario, based on a problem I recently encountered. Given a Map, we want to check for a "path" key, which contains a filename in the form of yyyy-mm-dd-title.extension. We have two functions here:

lookup :: (Ord k) => k -> Map k a -> Maybe a
parseDate :: String -> Maybe Date

I’m using an imaginary, simplified parseDate function here for illustration purposes. The idea is that it returns Nothing when the given string is malformed. Suppose we have corresponding funtions in Java:

public Object get(Object key)
public Date parseDate(String str)

Here, the second value returns null if the argument is malformed. Of course - the parseDate function crashes if we call parseDate(null) (as is usual in Java), so we have to be careful as always here. We have the following snippet in Haskell:

getPathMonth :: Map String String -> Maybe Month
getPathMonth m = 
    case M.lookup "path" m of
        Nothing  -> Nothing
        (Just p) -> case parseDate p of
            Nothing  -> Nothing
            (Just d) -> Just (getMonth d)

Which corresponds to the following Java code:

public Month getPathMonth(Map<String, String> m)
{
    p = m.get("path");
    if(p == null) return null;
    d = parseDate(p);
    if(d == null) return null;
    return d.getMonth();
}

As you can see, the two fragments are very similar.

The superiority of Maybe

Now, if you have written a lot of Java code, you know that checking for null is a vital part of the job, and fragments like the one above are pretty common.

In Haskell, however, Maybe is also a monad – and monads can be used to prevent common patterns in code – in other words, they assist you in the D.R.Y.-principle2. We can therefore write the above snippet again using do-notation3.

getPathMonth :: Map String String -> Maybe Month
getPathMonth m = do p <- lookup "path" m
                    d <- parseDate p
                    return $ getMonth d

Now, the whole “check-for-null-and-short-circuit” behavior is defined by the Maybe monad – and so, we don’t have to repeat ourselves. I have not yet found a similar way of preventing repeated patterns like this in Java. If you have any ideas, feel free to inform me4.

Also, some kudos to the people in #zeus irc for some things on exceptions.

Your most humble and obedient servant, Jasper Van der Jeugt


  1. Sorry, inside joke here.

  2. Monads do more than this, of course. But, as I said, there are many good tutorials out there covering them.

  3. copumpkin from the #haskell channel pointed out that you could also write it as an epic oneliner:

      getPathMonth = return . getMonth <=< parseDate <=< M.lookup "path"
  4. I’m not boasting about Haskell here, I’m genuinely interested in ways to do this in Java.

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