Transforming the world into a better place

If you ask a developer what a program is he is likely to respond: A sequence of commands. Value oriented programming takes a step back and lays the focus on something different: The content of your application instead of the actual commands.

Let’s look at a basic unix example:

ls | grep .jpg | sort

This lists the current directory, filters everything except jpgs out and then sorts all those pictures by name. Pretty elegant, isn’t it?

So what’s the difference to programming as we’re used to?

  1. We don’t tell unix how to do it, we tell it what we want instead.
  2. Every command has a well defined interface (stdin, stdout, errout).
  3. Commands are chainable.
  4. Error handling is implicit.

Transforming values

All these commands are acutally just transforming values from type A to B. This all conforms to the basic unix principle:

Do One Thing and Do It Well. Douglas McIlroy

This is how these functions would look in Swift:

func ls(path: String)->[String]

func grep(pattern: String)(lines: [String])->[String]

func sort(lines: [String])->[String]

These functions share a common pattern of transforming values of one type to another one, so let’s just call them a transform function if they have this kind of signature:

func transform<A,B>(value: A)->B

But of course this is only the first half of the story. Commands may fail. You find some ideas on error handling here. A more generic failable version of a transform would look like this:

func transform<A,B>(value: A)->Result<B>

This takes a value of A, transforms it into B and might fail while doing it’s work (e.g. network timeout, parsing error or just a bad mood). This is a basic schema of functions that fits most use cases.

The Power of Map

Imagine you’re having a list of directorys and you want to list their contents. The usual ObjC way would have been:

NSArray* dirs = @[@"/home", @"/root"];
NSMutableArray* paths = [NSMutableArray array];
for (NSString* dir in dirs) {
    [paths addObject:ls(dir)];

This code doesn’t descibe what we want to be done but how we want it to be done. As this kind of task is quite common (and you’ve written it hundreds of times) there’s something built into the standard library to help:

let dirs = ["/home", "/root"];
let paths =

This is not only way shorted buy also easier to understand:

  1. paths will have just as many elements as dirs
  2. all elements in paths have the same type
  3. this statement is actually about using the ls function instead of something deeply hidden within a loop.
  4. the compile will figure out how to do this most effectively

But what does map actually do? It

Does this sound more general to you than an array? map is defined for way more than just array. Here’s an example for Optional<T>:

let optionalString: String?

let optionalUppercase = { string in
    return string.uppercaseString

So map will open the optional, process the content and then repack the result back into an optional. If the optional is empty, the result will be an empty optional as well.

Composing Functions

One great thing about functions is that you can compose them to build bigger functions. This corresponds to the idea of object oriented programming of composing small objects to bigger objects for more complex tasks. Composing can look like this in bash:

ls | grep .jpg | sort

and Swift:


You’ll notice the reverse notation of the functions in Swift (last executed, first written). We’ll do something about it in the next post.

Extending Result to Support Map

We’ve already seen how versatile and useful map can be. So let’s extend the Result<T> type from the first post to support a map function:

enum Result<T> {
  case Success(T)
  case Error(NSError)

  func map<U>(f: T -> U) -> Result<U> {
    switch self {
    case let .Success(v): return .Success(f(v))
    case let .Error(error): return .Error(error)

This implementation transforms a Result<T> into a Result<U> by using a function. That function doesn’t have to care about errors as it wont get called if the result wasn’t successful. Now our Result<T> behaves just like Optional<T>. One step closer to actually being useful.

Taming asynchronous transforms

All transforms so far will return (after whatever timespan that might be) with a result. But this blocks the execution of the thread. Let’s take a look at another kind of function:

func requestFromNetwork(url: NSURL, completion:(Result<NSData>->Void)){
    // do something async and call completion handler
requestFromNetwork(url){ result in

Although this kind of function looks pretty much different to our transform functions it actually does the same thing: It transforms a value from one type to another one and might fail while doing it. We’re just adding some async magic to it.

The 2x2 Forms of a Transform

We end up with these 4 kinds of functions that transform a value to another one:

// synchronous, non failing
func transform<A,B>(value: A)->B

// async, non failing
func transform<A,B>(value: A, completion: (B->Void))

// synchronous, failable
func transform<A,B>(value: A)->Result<B>
func transform<A,B>(value: A) throws -> B //Swift 2 version

// async, failable
func transform<A,B>(value: A, completion: (Result<B>->Void))

These functions transform a value and should only have dependencies on their arguments. That’s why we call them pure transforms.

Wrapping it up (Optional<Pun> Intended)

We’ve seen the 4 types of value transformers in action and how to compose them to a more complex function. We’ve seen how a function can be an argument for another function (also called higher order functions) like in the map function. Ever wondered about what functional programming is about? You’ve already seen all the basics.

In the next post we’ll take a closer look at chaining failable transforms together so we finally can implement our unix example including error handling.

Read more posts from this series:
  1. A Swifter Way Of Handling Errors
  2. Transforming The World Into A Better Place
  3. How To Train Your Monad
  4. Sending A Signal To Space
  5. The Signal, Threading and You.
  6. Wrapping View Controllers in Signals