Five great Perl programming techniques to make your life fun again

Posted: 09/10/2007 in Programming

If you’re a programmer, you know the difference between a beginner and a
master is the ability to write succinct code that does a great deal
with very little work. If you can do this, you can easily raise your
productivity and the quality of your work by an order of magnitude.
Much more importantly, you can have a lot more fun writing code. Read
on to learn how.

Imagine writing a program with a tenth the code you currently use,
ending up with ten times the features, getting fewer bugs, improving
performance, and lowering maintenance costs. And imagine taking the
tedious, repetitive work out, leaving you more time for inspiration and
insight. I’ve spent my career doing that in many languages, more and
more effectively with each new language I learn.

I’m going to use Perl to demonstrate some techniques to accomplish
these goals. Perl is both my first language, and the language in which
I’ve most recently gained some proficiency. It lends itself well to
these types of discussions.

Trick 1: map

The map built-in function is one of the most useful tools in your toolkit. map
takes a list and applies a code block to every element, returning the
list. You can think of it as stream processing: you push the list in
one side and get it back on the other side with some transformation
applied. Inside the code block, you refer to the current element with
the traditional $_ variable. Here’s a really simple example: uppercase every element in a list.

my @lamps = qw(perl php python);
my @uc_lamps = map { uc($_) } @lamps;

I just shoved the list in the right side, and it travelled right to
left until finally it popped out on the left side and got assigned into
@uc_lamps. You can do a lot more with map,
though. In fact, it’s pretty much infinitely powerful when it comes to
transforming lists. It’s really just a glorified loop, but if you think
of it as a transformation from input to output, you can really make
some elegant code with it. Here’s another example — make a key-value
hash out of a URL’s query string:

my $query_string = "a=1&b=2&d=3";
my %query_params = map { split(/=/, $_) } split(/&/, $query_string);

Do you see how that works? As before, start at the right. The split function splits the incoming string on the & character, and outputs a list. This list goes into the map
block, which splits each element into key and value. This gets assigned
to the hash. That’s a heck of a lot easier than writing loops, and once
you are familiar with it, much easier to read, too. (Note: I’m glossing
over some fine points, such as url-decoding, but this is just an

Trick 2: implement defaults with ||=

One of the most annoying and tedious things you have to do as a
programmer is check your inputs. Let’s just say you’re doing really
basic checking to make sure you even have the input you’re
expecting, and if you don’t, you’re going to fill it in with defaults.
How do you do this? In most languages, you do it with the equivalent of
this Perl code:

sub some_func {
my ( $a, $b, $c ) = @_;
if ( !$a ) {
$a = 5;
# Real code here

Any experienced programmer knows these one-line if
statements tend to take up a lot of code. In fact, they are veritable
screen hogs, with a lower substance-to-lines ratio than most other
programming constructs. Your screen fills with code that does nothing
much functional, leaving you less space to see the real code, and less
brain-power to think about it too. What can you do to fix this?

In Perl, you can use the ||= operator. Its precedence
rules are such that it’ll only do an assignment if the value is false
(’false’ generally means zero, undefined, or the empty string):

   $a ||= 5;

“But wait just a dang minute!” you say. There are a bunch of other ways to do this, such as these:

$a = $a || 5;
$a = 5 unless $a;

(Rhetorical question: how many other languages even have these alternatives?)

So what’s so great about the ||= stuff, if there are so many other good ways to do things? Well, I’ve only shown you one place you can put ||= to work. There are a million. Like map, once you start using it, you can’t stop. You can use it for caches, for example:

my %cache;
sub expensive_operation {
my ( $key ) = @_;
$cache{$key} ||= get_from_database($key);
return $cache{$key};

In this example, getting something from the database is really
expensive, so you want to cache it for future calls. The function uses ||=
to check the cache and fetch from the database only if the desired
value isn’t already cached. This is so idiomatic in Perl, it’s actually
called “the Orcish maneuver” (for or cache). But as I said, it’s not the only thing you can do. You can use ||= for sorting on multiple keys, changing light bulbs, and generally achieving world peace.

(Another rhetorical question: why is Visual Basic code so slow to
write, so hard to understand, and so verbose? Hint: think about the
lack of early termination in If statements. ||= is analogous to early termination.)

Trick 3: hash and array slices

Have you ever passed around hashes and arrays and wanted to extract
only certain elements from them? Let’s say you have a subroutine that
accepts a hash reference. Its job is to reverse the query-string
parsing I showed you above. In many languages, you’d have to loop
through the hash’s keys, concatenating the key and value with &, then concatenating these together with =. You can use map() and join() to do this much more simply in Perl, like so:

sub make_query_string {
my ( $vals ) = @_;
return join("&", map { "$_=$vals->{$_}" } keys %$vals);
my %query_params = (
a => 1,
b => 2,
c => 3,
d => 4,
my $query_string = make_query_string(\%query_params);

That’s already a great improvement over looping, especially since
doing it with loops requires keeping track of whether you’re at the
first or the last iteration, so you know whether to insert a separator
between elements. But what happens when you have a hash that has more
keys and values than you want in the query string? This happens a lot.
Coincidentally, my boss and I were pair programming today and needed to do this exact thing (maybe that’s why it’s so fresh in my mind).

The most obvious thing to do is build a new hash with only the keys you want, and send that hash to the subroutine:

my @desired = qw(a c);
my %new_params;
foreach my $key ( @desired ) {
$new_params{$key} = $query_params{$key};
my $query_string = make_query_string(\%new_params);

Ooooh, that’s ugly. We can at least use map to get rid of the loop while building the new hash:

my %new_params = map { $_ => $query_params{$_} } @desired;

A hash slice is still better, though. It essentially does what that map does, but it’s easier and clearer:

my %new_params;
@new_params{@desired} = @query_params{@desired};

I just read a slice of the values from %query_params on the right, and assigned them into another slice with the same keys on the left. Here’s the whole thing, rewritten:

sub make_query_string {
my ( $vals ) = @_;
return join("&", map { "$_=$vals->{$_}" } keys %$vals);
my %query_params = (
a => 1,
b => 2,
c => 3,
d => 4,
my @desired = qw(a c);
my %new_params;
@new_params{@desired} = @query_params{@desired};
my $query_string = make_query_string(\%new_params);

print "$query_string\n";

Though this is a somewhat contrived example in this article, in real
life it’s the furthest thing from contrived. When you write code at a
high level of abstraction, many of your subroutines will just receive a
hash of this and a list of that, and be expected to “do the right
thing” without a lot of fuss. Hash slices make this a lot easier.

Array slices are a related concept. You access a subset of the array
elements as an entire list by simply defining the indexes you want:

my @letters = qw(a b c d e f);
my @slice = @letters[1, 4, 3];
# @slice is now b, e, d
@slice = @letters[0..3, 4];
# @slice is now a, b, c, d, f

Trick 4: executable regular expressions

If you’ve programmed in Perl, you’ve used regular expressions.
Perl’s regular expressions are so powerful, Perl really redefined what
it means to process text with a programming language, and regular
expressions in most other languages owe a lot to Perl. But even other
languages that implement Perl-compatible regular expressions may not
implement some of Perl’s features, because in Perl, regular expressions
are an integral part of the language.

One example is the ability to execute the result of a match as code, with the /e
modifier at the end of a substitution. Here’s a real-world example.
Let’s search a MySQL foreign key definition for column names and
reorder them alphabetically, all in place:

my $fk = "FOREIGN KEY (`seq`, `name`) REFERENCES `tbl` (`seq`, `name`)";
$fk =~ s#(?<=\()([^\)]+)(?=\))#join(', ', sort(split(/, /, $1)))#ge;
# $fk is now "FOREIGN KEY (`name`, `seq`) REFERENCES `tbl` (`name`, `seq`)";

If you want to know how that works, read the comments on my earlier post about a duplicate index and foreign key checker for MySQL.

If you’re like me five years ago, you might think that’s scary as
hell at first. “Execute arbitrary text as though it’s Perl code!?!?
What moron thought up that security exploit waiting to happen and made
it part of the language?!?!?”

Wait a minute, though. Is it really insecure to match some text and
execute it? No, it’s not. In fact, text you’ve matched with a regular
expression is likely to be far better checked, just by the fact that
you’ve specified what it has to look like, than most other input to
your program. This is much more true than you think. In fact, one of
the very safest ways to check any input to your program is by
pattern matching. This is such a powerful way to validate input, it’s
the main way to untaint data when you’re running in taint mode. This is
from the perlsec man page:

may be untainted by using them as keys in a hash; otherwise the only
way to bypass the tainting mechanism is by referencing subpatterns from
a regular expression match. Perl presumes that if you reference a
substring using $1, $2, etc., that you knew what you were doing when
you wrote the pattern.

I won’t go any further into why it’s inherently safe to use the
executable-regular-expression feature, but if you’re not convinced,
talk to an experienced programmer about it. I do want to convince you this is incredibly powerful. My example above implements this pseudo-code:

search text for a string of column names
for each string,
split it around the delimiters
sort it
join it back together around the delimiters
substitute it back into the original string

You can write any valid Perl code on the right-hand side. Probably
the clearest thing to do is just call a subroutine with the captured
text, and do the work there, instead of inlining it all. Here’s my
example rewritten with a subroutine, and reformatted with the /x modifier:

sub split_sort_join {
my ($text) = @_;
return join( ', ', sort( split( /, /, $text ) ) );
$fk =~ s/
(?<=\() # Find an opening paren
([^\)]+) # Find everything inside parens
(?=\)) # Find a closing paren
/split_sort_join($1) # Call split_sort_join on the match

You can imagine how useful this is if your desired substition is not
hard-coded into the right-hand-side of the substitution, too. For
example, you could pass a callback function to a subroutine, and use
that instead:

sub process_column_names {
my ( $fk, $callback ) = @_;
$fk =~ s/
(?<=\() # Find an opening paren
([^\)]+) # Find everything inside parens
(?=\)) # Find a closing paren
/$callback->($1) # Call $callback on the match
return $fk;

print process_column_names(
"FOREIGN KEY (`seq`, `name`) REFERENCES `tbl` (`seq`, `name`)",
), "\n";

If you’re not a Perl wizard, your head is probably spinning at this
point, so I’ll ease off, even though I’m thinking of several other
things I want to write about this. Here’s the take-away: it’s safe.
It’s powerful. Use it. Once you learn it, you’ll be a much more capable

Trick 5: dispatch tables of coderefs

Newcomers to Perl often wonder where the switch statement is. If you really, really want to write something that looks like a case or switch block, you’re a lost soul, but okay, man perlfaq7.
And before you go there, since I know you’re a lost soul, I’ll give you
this ticket to get a slightly cooler room in you-know-where: basically
anything you’ll ever want to do is explained in the Perl manual pages.
Start with man perlfaq and go from there. Even if I can’t convert you away from switch, perhaps I’ve made a difference by pointing you towards these man pages. Fare thee well! I hardly knew ye, gentle reader…

If you’re still reading, you’re one of the ones walking the narrow
path that leads to victory. Good! Let’s talk about how to execute some
code branch depending on the value of a variable. My favorite technique
for this is to use a dispatch table of coderefs — references to
subroutines. This is a succinct way to dispatch execution to somewhere
or other in your program, without the mess and tedious coding you get
with switch statements. Believe me, if you’ve ever tried to maintain someone else’s switch of any size, you’re going to appreciate this.

Let’s say we have a hypothetical interactive program that waits for you to press a key and then does some function.

Okay, I lied. It’s not hypothetical. I use this technique extensively in innotop.
Innotop has many dozens of key mappings, and they are mapped to
different things depending on what mode you’re in. “You pressed c? Oh wait, let me scroll through my big honkin’ switch statement and see what that does… hang on, I’m getting there… can’t find it… oh, you were in that mode! No wonder. Well, let me look at the switch statement for that mode, then…”

Can you imagine? There’s no way I’d have added so many features to
innotop if it were this much of a pain to write, debug and understand.
It doesn’t really matter that I wrote it — six months from now, I won’t
have a clue what all that code is doing. But I will be able to figure out what a keypress does, because I used a dispatch table.

What exactly is a dispatch table? It’s a hash of references to
executable code. Let’s make a simple example: a program that has just
two modes, display_a and display_b. Each of these is handled by a subroutine of the same name. Here is a complete program that’ll loop forever until you press 'q':


use strict;
use warnings FATAL => 'all';

use Term::ReadKey;

sub display_a {
print "I am in display_a\n";

sub display_b {
print "I am in display_b\n";

my $dispatch_for = {
a => \&display_a,
b => \&display_b,
q => sub { ReadMode('normal'); exit(0) },

while ( 1 ) {
print "Press a key!\n";
my $char = ReadKey(10);
defined $dispatch_for->{$char} && $dispatch_for->{$char}->();

Innotop has tons of such dispatch tables. They’re so simple to use;
you just look to see if there’s an entry for whatever your input is,
and if so, you call that to do the work. It can be an anonymous
subroutine, such as the anonymous ‘quit’ subroutine in the example, or
it can be a reference to a named subroutine. If you want a ‘default’
entry, you can do that easily, too:

my $dispatch_for = {
a => \&display_a,
b => \&display_b,
q => sub { ReadMode('normal'); exit(0) },
DEFAULT => sub { print "That key does nothing\n"; },

# Later
my $func = $dispatch_for->{$char} || $dispatch_for->{DEFAULT};

This is much, much simpler than writing switch statements, nested if/else/else if statements, or many other common programming constructs.

What am I getting at?

There is something common to all five of the tricks I listed. It’s
somewhat arbitrary that I listed five (I wanted to keep the article
small enough to digest), and it’s a bit arbitrary which five I chose, because I have many more ideas, but can you see the thread running through them?

It’s elimination of repetition.

Whether it’s repetitive typing, or coding constructs that obviously
iterate over something, I’m trying to show you ways to a) avoid writing
the same code over and over b) avoid reading code that does the same
thing over and over.


Because repetition kills brain cells. When you’re typing nearly the
same loop or copy-pasting nearly the same code, your brain is not
engaged and productive. You had a moment of insight about how to do
something. In a flash, you saw the way to the end product. Now you have
to write the code to implement it. Let’s just pretend that takes an
hour (on a good day), and you follow it with another insight, and so
on, and so on. You only had eight interested, stimulated, excited
moments in the whole work day? Shoot yourself now and get it over with!

By the same token, when you’re reading code, you have to follow the
program’s logic to understand it. When most programmers study a for
loop, I’d bet money they mentally “execute the loop,” starting at the
beginning and ending at the end, to understand the start, middle and
end of the loop. Every careful coder I’ve known does this, at least
sometimes, because it’s how you understand what the computer is doing.
Mentally executing loops is incredibly draining. It’s just as bad as
typing loops!

The reality is probably even worse, because you’re doing both at the
same time. As soon as you type a loop, you’re immediately reading it.
Reading it. Reading it. As soon as you type — Reading it. As — Reading
it. As soon as you — as soon as you type — type — Reading it.

I’m not making this up. Studies show this is how people read any
type of written material, on screen or off. In fact, one of the most
important and difficult techniques to master in speed reading is to
stop re-reading things you’ve just read. I’m doing it right now as I
write this, backtracking and editing my writing (sometimes I type with
my eyes closed so I can escape this trap more easily).

The combination of writing and reading iterative code is tedious and
boring, and if you’re like me, you have a curious and lively mind, and
you hate “tedious and boring.” That’s why I love writing code that
doesn’t force me to circle like a tiger pacing a cage.

There’s another common thread to everything I wrote, too.

I’m showing you ways to code in a more declarative style.

This is subtle, but after you code in this style for a little while,
you’ll come to understand it: it’s not a procedural programming style.
It’s declarative, where you say what to do instead of how.
It feels much more like writing a specification of the program’s
desired behavior, instead of writing how to accomplish that behavior.
And when you go back to the code later and read it, or maintain someone
else’s code, you appreciate that even more. The program really does
become a spec instead of just an implementation. It’s not that obvious
at first, or with small programs, but take my word for it, it’s true.

Back to that moment of insight: what if, at the point of
inspiration, you could just say “okay computer, do what I want, and you
figure out how to do it.” That’s declarative. Really, once
you had the inspiration that showed you the way to solve the problem,
you didn’t need to write down the code, did you? You understood
everything in that moment, and the rest was just tedium. Writing
declaratively helps you get through the tedium that much faster.

  • The map function is declarative because you specify a transformation and let Perl map it onto each element of a list.
  • Hash and array slices are declarative because you specify what elements you want to read or assign, and let Perl figure out how.
  • ||= is declarative because you let Perl figure out whether the value exists, and whether to fetch a new one if it doesn’t.
  • Executable
    regular expressions are declarative because you just write a
    specification (pattern) of what you want to transform, and provide the
    transformation, and let Perl figure out how to do it.
  • Dispatch
    tables are declarative because you specify a mapping between some input
    and some code, and let Perl do the lookup and dispatch.

You can apply these techniques, one way or another, to any programming language. Another great example is the Behaviour JavaScript library, and the techniques it encourages. Or my own JavaScript date formatting and parsing library, which are not only clearer and simpler to use than their alternatives, but much more powerful and waaaay more efficient.

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