Zerø Wind Jamie Wong

Bending the Dynamic vs Static Language Tradeoff

Here are some things I think people want out of a programming language.

  1. Iteration Speed: A sub-second edit-run cycle
  2. Correctness Checking: A compiler that can tell me that my code is probably wrong without me having to run every single codepath
  3. Concise syntax: Express intent fluidly without a lot of boilerplate
  4. Editing support: Autocompletion, go to definition, go to usage, refactoring support that always works
  5. Debugging support: Errors that are easy to debug

First, I want to talk about the tradeoffs that two historical camps make here, then about how these tradeoffs are being bent, and finally how people bend them the opposite way and put themselves in sad, unnecessary hell.

The Dynamically Typed Camp

The dynamically typed camp of languages is where Python, JavaScript, PHP, Ruby, and Scheme live. This is where I’ve spent most of my professional career, including nearly all of the time I spent at Khan Academy.

Iteration Speed

Dynamically typed languages do great here. You edit a file, re-run your program (possibly it automatically restarts itself), and you’re probably back in business in less than a second. This is absolutely wonderful for iterating on ideas quickly and especially for doing things like pixel pushing in UIs.

Correctness Checking

This is where dynamically typed languages fall flat on their faces. Let’s say you have a whole bunch of classes with a method called .render(title), and they all currently take one argument. Now you want to change one of those functions to look like .render(title, description). Someone sends you a code review with this in it, and you ask if they updated all the right places. They respond “I hope so”, and if you have a 100KLOC codebase, with minimal test coverage, then that’s pretty much as good as you’re going to get.

Concise Syntax

Dynamic languages here are generally pretty solid. With no type definitions, there’s just generally less to type. To use opposite extremes here, the difference here is pretty clear.

# Python
a = [1, 2, 3]
// Old versions of Java
ArrayList<Integer> list = new ArrayList<Integer>();
list.add(1);
list.add(2);
list.add(3);

Editing Support

For the same reason as correctness checking, doing refactorings that get more complex than a global string search and replace start to seriously suck in dynamic languages. If you want to delete a method with a common name, or get autocomplete on an object passed into a function, you might be shit out of luck.

You can still get useful autocomplete, but it’ll be at least a little crippled because of the fundamental ambiguity of what a line of code does until it’s actually run in dynamically typed languages.

Debugging Support

The ability to drop down into a REPL with the full power of the language whenever something crashes is actually one of the major reasons I’ve been so happy in the dynamic camp for so long. In Python this looks like pdb.set_trace(), in JavaScript, like debugger, in Ruby, like binding.pry. In the middle of your breakpoint, you can define new functions, invoke arbitrary functions, write data to files – whatever you want.

The Statically Typed Camp

Industry staples like C++, Java, and Objective-C live here with their functional comrades Haskell and OCaml, plus some new company of Go, Swift, Scala, Rust, and Elm. I’m living in this land for the foreseeable at Figma working in C++ and TypeScript.

Iteration Speed

This is arguably the biggest downside of statically typed languages. Type checking, as it turns out, is frequently slow. And since in most of these languages, type resolution is pre-requisite to code generation, slow type checking means slow compiling. Slow compiling means slow iteration time.

While I was an intern at Facebook, I needed to make some changes to WebKit. The compile time on my Macbook was ~15 minutes for every change. Suffice to say, this was not a fun experience. On the upside, I did read most of Pro Git while I was waiting for XCode to build.

Correctness Checking

If your Post and Picture classes both have a .render, and you want to change the signature on Post but not on Picture, you’ve got no troubles in static land. An IDE will make this as easy as right clicking and “Change Signature”. And if you do decide to do it manually because you need to go manually decide on that second argument value at all the new call-sites, no problem – your compiler will quite happily tell you if you done goofed or not.

The level of safety you get here varies wildly by language. Most notable, most compilers don’t work too hard to try to figure out if a pointer is null before telling you your code is A-OK.

In C++, the compiler will quite happily let you do this:

User* a = nullptr;
a->setName("Gertrude")

Haskell and Scala do their best to dodge this problem by not letting you have null, instead representing optional fields explicitly with a Maybe User/Option[User], where it forces you to deal with the fact that it might be missing, and not just assume it’s there.

Editing Support

Statically typed languages kill it here. Since, by definition, the type of every variable must be known without needing to execute the code, your editor can be quite confident which operations are valid on which variables, and helpfully autocomplete them. It can also facilitate things like field renaming, automatic documentation lookup, consistently working go-to definition, and go-to usages.

Debugging Support

My experience varies here, but for the most part have been displeased by my debugging experiences in statically typed languages. While gdb and friends will let you evaluate certain expressions, you lose the ability to do arbitrary manipulations like define debugging helper functions or easily write function invocations on anything templated.

A particularly nasty class of this where you don’t get any interactive console at all to debug is complex compile errors. In C++, clang improved this dramatically, but for code like this:

#include <vector>
#include <algorithm>
int main()
{
    int a;
    std::vector< std::vector <int> > v;
    std::vector< std::vector <int> >::const_iterator it = std::find( v.begin(), v.end(), a );
}

gcc used to output > 15000 characters of errors (see the rest here), which starts like this:

/usr/include/c++/4.6/bits/stl_algo.h: In function ‘_RandomAccessIterator 
std::__find(_RandomAccessIterator, _RandomAccessIterator, const _Tp&, 
std::random_access_iterator_tag) [with _RandomAccessIterator = 
__gnu_cxx::__normal_iterator*, std::vector > >, _Tp = int]’:
/usr/include/c++/4.6/bits/stl_algo.h:4403:45:   instantiated from ‘_IIter std::find(_IIter, _IIter, const _Tp&) [with _IIter = __gnu_cxx::__normal_iterator*, std::vector > >, _Tp = int]’
error_code.cpp:8:89:   instantiated from here
/usr/include/c++/4.6/bits/stl_algo.h:162:4: error: no match for ‘operator==’ in ‘__first.__gnu_cxx::__normal_iterator::operator* [with _Iterator = std::vector*, _Container = std::vector >, __gnu_cxx::__normal_iterator::reference = std::vector&]() == __val’
/usr/include/c++/4.6/bits/stl_algo.h:162:4: note: candidates are:

So that sucks, and I don’t even have anything I can play with to introspect what the issue is.

Stuck

So for an era of programming, it felt like you were kind of stuck between two worlds, each of which had pretty crappy tradeoffs. Then the two camps stopped yelling across the river at each other and started to recognize that the other team was maybe onto something. You see a similar middle ground emerging in the Object Oriented vs. Functional holy war with languages like Scala and Swift taking an OO syntax, functional thinking approach, and JavaScript being kind of accidentally multi-paradigm.

But back to types. Let’s talk about how people are trying to have their cake and eat it too.

The Best of Both Worlds

Type Inference

Something about the following line of Java just feels insulting.

ArrayList<Integer> list = new ArrayList<Integer>();

Why do I need to specify the type information twice? This feels super dumb. More generally, if I do:

a = somefunction()

And the compiler knows the return type of somefunction, I, as the programmer, shouldn’t be forced to tell the computer information it already knows.

The more complete version of this idea is type inference, and the first time I saw it was in Haskell, as concisely explained in Learn You a Haskell for Great Good!: Types and Typeclasses, and is explained with a bit more detail in TypeScript’s Type Inference Documentation.

So we get concise syntax without sacrificing type information.

It’s also now made its way into C++ via the C++11 auto keyword, and is a feature of most modern statically typed languages like Scala, Swift, Rust, and Go.

Decoupling Type Checking from Code Generation

If you define your language very carefully, you can make the compiler output not dependent on the types (i.e. ignore the type information completely), and then run type checking completely separately. The easiest way of defining a language like this is to start with a dynamically typed language and start adding type annotations. Facebook’s Flow does this by adding type annotations to JavaScript.

For instance, a bit of Flow annotated JavaScript might look like this:

// @flow
function bar(x): string {
  return x.length;
}
bar('Hello, world!');

Compilation here is incredibly fast, because all it does is strip the type annotations to produce this:

function bar(x) {
  return x.length;
}
bar('Hello, world!');

While the type checker runs in the background, or possible only on demand. With this type information, you can get better correctness guarantees, and much better IDE support. We get all of this without the normal increase in iteration time that comes with a blocking type checker.

Facebook took a similar approach to type annotating PHP with its language Hack. Python 3.5 introduced progressive typing too, as described in the typing module.

An interesting side effect of having a compile target that closely resembles the source is that you get all the benefits of the interactive debugging mentioned before. Microsoft’s TypeScript takes a very similar approach to Flow, except that you can set a flag to localize type checking to file-internal type checking, making the assumption that all imports are of the correct type, which speeds up type checking considerably.

Linting

Linting is a form of static analysis that happens outside of a compiler, and typically on a dynamic language. One of the earliest ones I’d heard of was Douglas Crockford’s JSLint that, despite the possibly dynamic nature of your program, might be able to confidently point out mistakes. There are countless tools that do this for various languages, and I go into more depth about the value of them in Linters as Invariants. This gives you a small subset of the correctness guarantees that you get from a statically typed language, like the guarantee that you aren’t using a variable that isn’t declared anywhere, but typically isn’t very helpful for inter-file analysis.

Good linters, like good IDE support, will allow for automatic fixing of errors, like with the ESLint --fix flag.

Faster Compilers

This one is pretty self explanatory. If your compiler is super fast, the edit-run iteration time isn’t an issue. Boom.

To do this properly, you need to design the language carefully with that as a design goal. Go did this.

Go is an attempt to combine the ease of programming of an interpreted, dynamically typed language with the efficiency and safety of a statically typed, compiled language. It also aims to be modern, with support for networked and multicore computing. Finally, working with Go is intended to be fast: it should take at most a few seconds to build a large executable on a single computer.

Go FAQ

Better Compiler Error Messages

There have been numerous attempts to make debugging compilation errors a non-issue by having sensible human-readable error messages, notably in Elm, which Evan Czaplicki describes in his post Compiler Errors for Humans. The cool thing about this is that it’s seeing adoption by slightly more main-stream languages like Rust, as Jonathan Turner explains in Shape of errors to come. Much earlier, improvements to C++ error messages were a selling point of clang over gcc as described in Expressive Diagnostics. But Elm and Rust take it steps further.

So if you have a smart enough compiler, ideally one that can suggest to you how to fix your problem, then some of the frustration of debugging those issues melt away.

All the Downside

Conversely, some very old techniques in the static world, and some very new techniques in the dynamic world put you in a world of pain by taking downsides from both camps.

Runtime Failures in a Static Language

One of my least pleasant recurring memories working as an intern at Square in Java was waiting a few minutes for a Java build, only to have it crash on boot with a runtime error. This was happening because of fancy dynamic runtime dependency injection with Guice, which is why Square later wrote a library that does it at compile time called Dagger to fix the problem.

The more general Bad Situation to avoid here are things that pass type checking, cause runtime crashes, and require a recompile to fix.

Examples of this include things like:

Now you’re waiting for 15s for compilation, only to find that your code crashes on boot repeatedly.

Slow Transpiling/Bundling in a Dynamic Language

Just as the example above takes a static language that should be safe and makes it unsafe, you can take a dynamic language and make it slow to iterate on! The most common culprit of this is doing complex transpilation for a lot of code, and doing that on every code change.

“Transpiling” started gaining momentum in the web development world when compile-to-css languages like Less and Sass, and compile-to-js languages like CoffeeScript rolled around, but really blew up when React, webpack and babel started becoming a trio of choice.

The idea of using a more expressive languages than CSS and JavaScript to write safer, more readable code is wonderful, but if you’re not careful, you’ve now managed to inherit the increased edit-run cycle time of a statically typed language without inheriting any of the correctness guarantees.

Congratulations, you now have an unresponsive, unmaintainable mess.

Closing thoughts

Overall, I’m pretty happy with the direction that things are going in PL world. I hope much of the near future will be built on TypeScript (with --strictNullChecks) instead of JavaScript on the front end, Rust instead of C++, Scala instead of Java, Go instead of Node.js, and Swift instead of Objective-C.

I haven’t had the chance to play much with Go, Rust, or Swift, but things sound kinda rosy.

If you like thinking about language tradeoffs and want stories more informed by experience, you should read through Steve Yegge’s Is Weak Typing Strong Enough?.

EDIT: My fellow uWaterloo Software Engineering 2014 classmate, Ming-Ho Yee, is a PhD student in programming language design, so he naturally had some things to say about this post. You can read his thoughts in his response.

If you liked reading this, you should follow me on twitter, take a look at other blog posts by me, or maybe even come work with me at Figma!


Zerø Wind Jamie Wong
Previously Fluid Simulation (with WebGL demo) August 5, 2016
Up next Bezier Curves from the Ground Up December 29, 2016