Coder’s Asceticism October 14th, 2012
Patrick Stein

A month or two ago, I watched a bunch of videos of Uncle Bob speaking at various conferences. He’s thought a lot about what makes code testable and maintainable, and he’s an excellent speaker. I’ve even paid to watch some of his hour-ish videos at his Clean Coders site.

In Clean Code, Episode 3 – Functions, he makes the case that we should be striving to keep each function under five lines long. So, over the past month or so, I’ve been trying this out in all of my Scala and Lisp endeavors.

Once you get each function down to four lines or fewer, you start running into symbol-proliferation. You pretty much throw out (LABELS ...) and (FLET ...) unless you need the closure (and then try to say that when you can’t that it’s good enough to just keep the subfunctions under five lines and the body under five, too). You create bunches of functions that should never be called anywhere except the one place it’s called now.

Enter Package Proliferation!

Then, I remembered some Lisp coding style guidelines that I read early this year sometime. Those guidelines advocated having one package for each Lisp file and explicitly making peer files have to import or qualify symbols used from other peer files. This will help me with the symbol-proliferation! Let’s do it!

Enter File Proliferation!

After two weeks of that, I woke up yesterday morning realizing that I wasn’t getting the full benefit from this if I was exporting more than one symbol from each package. If keeping each function tiny is Good and limiting a package to one file is Good, then it is certainly Bad to have one file’s package exporting eight different functions.

So, today, I reworked all of the UNet that I wrote in the last couple of weeks to have one package per file and as few exported symbols per package as possible.

In the interest of testability and modularity, I had broken out a subpackage of UNet called UNet-Sockets that is to be the interface the UNet library uses to interact with sockets. I had realized that I had a file called methods.lisp with four different publicly available (DEFMETHOD ...) forms in it. Now, each is in its own file and package. I did the same for various other declarations.

Now, there is a top-level package which uses Tim Bradshaw’s Conduit Packages to collect all of the symbols meant to be used externally from these packages. If there is an exported function in a package, that is the only exported symbol in that package. If there is an exported generic function declaration in a package, that is the only exported symbol from that package. If there is an exported method implementation in a package, there aren’t any exported symbols from that package. If there is an exported condition in a package, that condition and its accessors are the only exported symbols from that package. If there is an exported class in a package, that class and its accessors are the only exported symbols from that package.


The top-level package of the UNET-SOCKETS system, that defines the interface that UNet will use to access its sockets, consists of just a (DEFPACKAGE ...) form. You can see the full package on github in the unet-sockets.asd and the sockets/ directory.

(org.tfeb.conduit-packages:defpackage :unet-sockets
  (:use :cl)
  (:extends/including :unet-sockets-interface
  (:extends/including :unet-sockets-base-socket
  (:extends/including :unet-sockets-hostname-not-found-error

  (:extends/including :unet-sockets-get-address

  (:extends/including :unet-sockets-address+port-not-available-error

  (:extends/including :unet-sockets-create-datagram-socket
  (:extends/including :unet-sockets-send-datagram
  (:extends/including :unet-sockets-poll-datagram


The jury’s still out on this for me. On the one hand, the self-flagellation is an interesting exercise. On the other hand, if I’m going to have to export everything useful and import it in multiple places then I’m taking away some of the fun. I feel like I’m maintaining C++ header files to some extent.

I think I’ll keep it up for the UNet project, at least. It makes good documentation to have each exported symbol in a package and file named for that exported symbol. You can open up any file and read the three-to-four line exported function in it. You can see, right there with it, any supporting function it uses that no other files need to use. You can see from the (DEFPACKAGE ...) form at the top where any other supporting functions came from. And nothing else is cluttering up the landscape.

We’ll see if I develop religion on this topic. At the moment, I think it’s eventually going to fall into the moderation in all things bucket. Time will tell.