FOFP 1.3 Some basic list processing

Part of the Fundamentals of Functional Programming document.

Prev: FOFP 1.2 Trying things out

Let's explore the difference between imperative and functional programming approaches with the simple processing of a list of integers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. We want to turn them into their "squared" equivalents 1, 4, 9, 16, 25.

Create a list of integers, using the array literal syntax, like this:

var nums = [1, 2, 3, 4, 5];  

First attempt

A typical imperative approach to creating the squares might look like this:

var i;  
for (i = 0; i < nums.length; i++) {  
  nums[i] = nums[i] * nums[i];
}
// 25

This pattern is very familiar. And it's very mechanical. We're giving very precise instructions on how to achieve the goal.

There's nothing wrong with that per se. It's just a little, well, mechanical. And even in this trivial example, there are a number of things that will tax us:

  • we are iterating through the list of integers in nums using an array index lookup. For that we need to declare and maintain a variable i, initialising it to zero at the outset (i = 0), and incrementing it by one each time around the loop (i++). So we have to keep that state in our head as we read, or (worse) want to modify that code.

  • we have to address the number of items in the list (nums.length) explicitly, so as to be able to finish the looping when we reach the end of the list.

  • inside the loop, we have to use the array index explicitly ([i]) each time we want to refer to the value of the list item currently being processed. This just adds to the cognitive noise that we have to deal with, on top of remembering that i is changing each time.

  • The for statement actually evaluates to something, which we see here is 25 - the last value computed inside the block. Sort of makes sense, but only a little.

So after executing this, we have what (we think) we wanted:

nums  
// [1, 4, 9, 16, 25]

But perhaps the biggest problem is that if we run this a second time, we don't get the same result:

var i;  
for (i = 0; i < nums.length; i++) {  
  nums[i] = nums[i] * nums[i];
}
// 625

625? What's going on? Well notice that we're mutating values inside the nums list. So after the first time, the values inside nums are the squares, i.e. 1, 4, 9, 16 and 25. So when we run it again, we're squaring those values, with these results:

nums  
// [1, 16, 81, 256, 625]

Ouch.

Because state is being mutated, the program becomes harder to follow, harder to reason about.

Second attempt

So let's have another crack at this. Instead of mutating the values inside num, we'll produce the output in another list, and keep the original list untouched. Before we start, let's put our input back to what it was:

var nums = [1, 2, 3, 4, 5];  

Now we'll create a new empty array squares, and push each square value into that inside the loop:

var i;  
var squares = [];  
for (i = 0; i < nums.length; i++) {  
  squares.push(nums[i] * nums[i]);
}
// 5

Those eagle-eyed readers among you will perhaps be wondering about the value 5 here. It's not the same as what we had earlier. But it's consistent, in that it's the value of the last-executed statement inside the loop. Before, that was the result of a multiplication. Here, it's the result of a call to push, which returns the new length of the array being operated upon.

Anyway, after execution, nums is still what it was, and the output values are now to be found in squares:

squares  
// [1, 4, 9, 16, 25]

That's an improvement. We have to be a bit careful if we want to re-run the code, because we need to make sure we include the initialising of the squares array before the loop, so as not to end up with this situation:

squares  
// [1, 4, 9, 16, 25, 1, 4, 9, 16, 25]

But the improvement comes at a cost - yet more stuff to hold in your head, this time about the squares array.

Next: FOFP 1.4 A different approach with map