juliu.is

There and back again

March 26, 20219 min read

When writing Elm, it’s very common to use custom types to structure your data. Let’s say we want to describe the flashy suits of the Power Rangers, as featured in the 1975 classic Himitsu Sentai Gorenger:

type Suit
    = Green
    | Yellow
    | Red
    | Blue

This looks great, so we decide to go to the next level. We’re going to build a fully-fledged Elm application to choose our favourite Power Ranger suit color. We start with a simple model:

type alias Model =
    { chosenSuit : Maybe Suit }

We then define an initial state of the model, where no suit has been chosen:

initialModel : Model
initialModel =
    { chosenSuit = Nothing }

Now we can write a view function to display something:

import Html exposing (Html, div, text)
import Html.Attributes as Attrs

view : Model -> Html Msg
view model =
    div []
        [ Html.h2 [] [ text "Choose your Power Ranger Suit" ]
        , Html.select []
            [ Html.option
                [ Attrs.value "" ]
                [ text "Choose" ]
            , Html.option
                [ Attrs.value "Green" ]
                [ text "Green" ]
            , Html.option
                [ Attrs.value "Yellow" ]
                [ text "Yellow" ]
            , Html.option
                [ Attrs.value "Red" ]
                [ text "Red" ]
            , Html.option
                [ Attrs.value "Blue" ]
                [ text "Blue" ]
            ]
        ]

This is unfortunate. We have to use strings and pass them to Attrs.value and to Html.text, which means we can’t use the beautiful custom type we wrote above. To be able to do that, we have to define a toString function:

toString : Suit -> String
toString suit =
    case suit of
        Green ->
            "Green"

        Yellow ->
            "Yellow"

        Red ->
            "Red"

        Blue ->
            "Blue"

And use it to dry up the view:

selectOptions : List (Html Msg)
selectOptions =
    List.map
        (\color ->
            Html.option
                [ Attrs.value (toString color) ]
                [ text (toString color) ]
        )
        [ Green, Yellow, Red, Blue ]

view : Model -> Html Msg
view model =
    div []
        [ Html.h2 [] [ text "Choose your Power Ranger Suit" ]
        , Html.select []
            (Html.option [ Attrs.value "" ] [ text "Choose" ]
                :: selectOptions
            )
        ]

You can play around with this Ellie app to see how that looks like.

If you’re a bit more experienced with Elm, you will notice that you can choose an option in the select, but that won’t update the Model. Let’s prove that assumption by changing the view to:

view : Model -> Html Msg
view model =
    div []
        [ Html.h2 [] [ text "Choose your Power Ranger Suit" ]
        , Html.select []
            (Html.option [ Attrs.value "" ] [ text "Choose" ]
                :: selectOptions
            )
        , Html.p []
            [ case model.chosenSuit of
                Nothing ->
                    text "No suit was chosen."

                Just suit ->
                    text ("Your choice: " ++ toString suit)
            ]
        ]

As you can see, no matter how you change the view, the value won’t be updated. This happens because we haven’t defined a onInput event on the select :(

import Html.Events as Events

view : Model -> Html Msg
view model =
    div []
        [ Html.h2 [] [ text "Choose your Power Ranger Suit" ]
        , Html.select [ Events.onInput ChooseSuit ]
            (Html.option [ Attrs.value "" ] [ text "Choose" ]
                :: selectOptions
            )
        , Html.p []
            [ case model.chosenSuit of
                Nothing ->
                    text "No suit was chosen."

                Just suit ->
                    text ("Your choice: " ++ toString suit)
            ]
        ]

type Msg
    = ChooseSuit String

update : Msg -> Model -> Model
update msg model =
    case msg of
        ChooseSuit value ->
            { model | chosenSuit = fromString value }

What’s that fromString function? Here it is:

fromString : String -> Maybe Suit
fromString str =
    case str of
        "Green" ->
            Just Green

        "Yellow" ->
            Just Yellow

        "Red" ->
            Just Red

        "Blue" ->
            Just Blue

        _ ->
            Nothing

In this Ellie app, we can see that everything is working nicely :)

An interesting pair

We notice a terrible bug in our application: we forgot about the Pink Power Ranger! Let’s fix that by adding a new variant:

type Suit
    = Green
    | Yellow
    | Red
    | Blue
    | Pink

If we save the file, we’ll notice the Elm compiler being helpful as ever:

This `case` does not have branches for all possibilities:

19|>    case suit of
20|>        Green ->
21|>            "Green"
22|>
23|>        Yellow ->
24|>            "Yellow"
25|>
26|>        Red ->
27|>            "Red"
28|>
29|>        Blue ->
30|>            "Blue"

Missing possibilities include:

    Pink

Cool, we need to add the missing case in toString:

toString : Suit -> String
toString suit =
    case suit of
        Green ->
            "Green"

        Yellow ->
            "Yellow"

        Red ->
            "Red"

        Blue ->
            "Blue"

        Pink ->
            "Pink"

If we save now the app compiles. But if we try using the app, we can see that there is no Pink option :( It turns out we forgot to add the option inside the selectOptions function. Maybe we can also extract the list of suits into another function:

allSuits : List Suit
allSuits =
    [ Green, Yellow, Red, Blue, Pink ]

selectOptions : List (Html Msg)
selectOptions =
    List.map
        (\color ->
            Html.option
                [ Attrs.value (toString color) ]
                [ text (toString color) ]
        )
        allSuits

Try the app now. This is what happens when you choose ‘Pink’ in the dropdown:

pink sadness

This makes me sad, since I love to repeat:

If it compiles, it works

And in the last minute we already bumped into two cases where the code compiles, but doesn’t work. As you probably guessed, the bug is hidden in our fromString function:

fromString : String -> Maybe Suit
fromString str =
    case str of
        "Green" ->
            Just Green

        "Yellow" ->
            Just Yellow

        "Red" ->
            Just Red

        "Blue" ->
            Just Blue

        "Pink" ->
            Just Pink

        _ ->
            Nothing

This is the key difference between the toString function and the fromString function: toString takes a Suit, so the compiler can warn us if we forget to consider one of the possible alternatives. In the case of fromString, the valid inputs are all possible strings, so the compiler can’t do much to warn us.

But as humans, we can tell that these two functions are really similar. Is there nothing we can do to express it in code? Let’s go for a little trip.

A trip in Haskell Land

Let’s define the same type in Haskell:

data Suit
  = Green
  | Yellow
  | Red
  | Blue
  | Pink

In order to implement the toString function we can derive the Show typeclass, which will know how to convert our custom type to a string:

data Suit
  = Green
  | Yellow
  | Red
  | Blue
  | Pink
  deriving (Show)

toString :: Suit -> String
toString = show

And we take it for a spin:

Prelude> toString Green
"Green"

Prelude> toString Blue
"Blue"

Prelude> toString Pink
"Pink"

Now let’s figure out a way to define the fromString function. We can start by defining an allSuits function. We will do so by deriving other two typeclasses, named Enum and Bounded. The first one tells the compiler that our type is an enumeration of sequentially ordered types, while the second specifies that our type has a minimum value and a maximum value.

data Suit
  = Green
  | Yellow
  | Red
  | Blue
  | Pink
  deriving (Show, Enum, Bounded)

allSuits :: [Suit]
allSuits =
  [minBound .. maxBound]

Which results in:

Prelude> allSuits
[Green, Yellow, Red, Blue, Pink]

Cool! Now we can write that fromString function:

import qualified Data.Map as Map

suitMap :: Map.Map String Suit
suitMap =
  Map.fromList $
    map
      (\suit -> (toString suit, suit))
      allSuits

fromString :: String -> Maybe Suit
fromString value =
  Map.lookup value suitMap

Here it is working:

Prelude> fromString "Red"
Just Red

Prelude> fromString "Pink"
Just Pink

Prelude> fromString "Geronimo"
Nothing

As you can see, in Haskell Land we were able to define the relationship between toString and fromString. If we add a new variant to the Suit type, it will be picked up and everything will work as intended. This technique is described in more detail in the wonderful Haskell Mini-Patterns Handbook.

Coming back home

Is there a way to achieve something similar in Elm?

Yes, there is! 🍨

Truth be told, we can’t do exactly what Haskell does, but we can emulate Haskell’s behaviour by using a wonderful library called elm-review.

elm-review analyzes your Elm code and reports patterns that violate certain rules. We can use it to enforce additional guarantees on our projects, such as removing unused functions, unused values, unused modules, and unused dependencies. You can read more about it here and here.

In our case, we can write a rule that detects functions named like allSuits and tell it to warn us when we forget to include a type constructor. I’ve shamefully stolen a gist from Jeroen Engels and pushed it as an elm-review package here.

If you’d like to follow along you can pull this repo and then run:

$ npx elm-review --template \
  Arkham/elm-review-no-missing-type-constructor/example
✔ Fetching template information
-- ELM-REVIEW ERROR ------------------- src/Main.elm:46:1

NoMissingTypeConstructor: `allSuits` does not contain all
the type constructors for `Suit`

45| allSuits : List Suit
46| allSuits =
    ^^^^^^^^
47|     [ Green, Yellow, Red, Blue ]

We expect `allSuits` to contain all the type constructors
for `Suit`.

In this case, you are missing the following constructors:
, Pink

I found 1 error in 1 file.

🎉 🎉 🎉

Now we can implement a solution which is very similar to the Haskell one!

import Dict exposing (Dict)

suitDict : Dict String Suit
suitDict =
    Dict.fromList <|
        List.map
            (\suit -> ( toString suit, suit ))
            allSuits

fromString : String -> Maybe Suit
fromString value =
    Dict.get value suitDict

Now when we add a new variant of Suit, the Elm compiler will nudge us to update toString, while elm-review will nudge us to add the missing variant to allSuits, which in turn is going to make sure that toString and fromString will never go out of sync. Here’s a link to the final version of the code for you to peruse.

Thanks for reading! 👋


Ju Liu

Personal blog by Ju Liu.

I try to write code that doesn't suck. I rarely succeed.