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Tuesday, July 22, 2008
  That not is not the not I meant

During my presentation at RubyFringe, I put this slide up while talking about “Adverbs:”


Judging by the fun we had discussing this point later, I really needed a better example or a new idea. But for thse who are a little curious about where I was trying to go with this…

more on why not is not the same as not

I saw the #not method somewhere, and the point was that the author felt it read better than writing “!blitz.blank?” As someone pointed out, Ruby also gives us a not keyword, so you could write “not blitz.blank?” if you prefer the word “not” to the punctuation “!”

So the argument is that:

blitz.not.blank? == !blitz.blank? # and also == (not blitz.blank?)

But there’s another point we’re missing comparing the word to the punctuation. Let’s switch to English and you’ll see what I mean. The sentence “It is not the case that blitz is blank’ does not mean the same thing as “blitz has the property of not being blank.”


The key here is to think about where the parentheses go when we parse the two ways to express ourselves. Imagine “blank?” and “not” are functions instead of methods or keyword. Then two forms would look like this:

not(blank?)(blitz) # == blitz.not.blank?
not(blank?(blitz)) # == not blitz.blank?

Very different. The first expression passes the blank? function to the not function. The result is another function, the inverse of blank? itself, and that’s what we use. The second form is our old not keyword, where we pass blitz to out blank function, which presumably returns true or false, and we pass the result to our not function which inverses the boolean.

So in one case we are taking the inverse of a function, in the other we are taking the inverse of a boolean. This is what I was feeling out with my digression into wondering why Ruby reads from right to left. We have ways of applying functions to functions, but we don’t have easy ways of writing methods that alter other methods directly. And we certainly don’t have an easy way of sending a message that invokes such a method on an arbitrary object.

I guess I wonder whether we could ever write this blitz.not(blank?) to express this idea, or perhaps blitz.(not blank?), or perhaps some other syntax. But the point would be that we want the inverse of a method, not the inverse of a boolean.

speaking of jazz, so what?

It seems very abstract when we look at something like #not.blank?, because the result of an inverted #blank? method would usually be identical to the result of inverting its result.

But let’s consider the case where blitz is actually a proxy for a value in a SQL database column. So you might have something like “my_model.blitz.not.blank?” Fair enough?

Now if you know SQL, I think you will agree that there are times when the following is true:

  (model1.blitz != model2.blitz) != (not model1.blitz == model2.blitz)
Although it looks like x.not.eql?(y) should always have the same semantics as not x.eql?(y), SQL has special semantics for testing NULLs. Specifically, NULL is neither = nor <> any other value. So if you carefully map your proxies to the underlying SQL behaviour, you want the above to have this behaviour.

(For those who are blessed with a lack of SQL in their lives, NULL is a special value that is not the same thing as a Ruby nil. For example NULL = NULL is false in SQL. So if we map SQL values to Ruby objects, the following is the case: NULL != anything is false, NULL == anything is also false, therefore not NULL == anything is true, and therefore (NULL != anything) != (not NULL == anything).

If this digression into SQL NULLs now makes you regard your current ORM framework with deep suspicion, congratulations. They all suck, the trick to choosing an ORM is finding one that sucks in ways that aren’t fatal to your project.)

Essentially, Ruby already has a not adverb as a special case for #not==. #!= is there because sometimes (not foo == bar) is not equal to (foo != bar). However, like many things in Ruby this is a one-off thing. There isn’t a bang-method construct, #== and #!= are two completely arbitrary symbols that we happen to associate with equality and its inverse.

But maybe if we had a way to derive #!= from #== using a not adverb, maybe if we could write #== and then write a #not for the method, we would be able to do interesting things like replicate SQL’s trivalent logic more accurately. We would know that foo.not < 5 is not the same thing as not foo < 5, because if foo is a SQL null, foo < 5 is false, as is foo.not < 5. And neither throws an exception!

So getting back to the #not method as presented, I don’t know if it’s necessary, and if it does nothing more than replicated the exact semantics of the bang punctuation or not keyword it is clearly a matter of taste.

But I do feel that there is a use case for “adverbs,” for a way to talk about modifying methods themselves. Unfortunately, right now the mechanisms for working directly with methods are somewhat arcane and thus we don’t naturally consider them. So discussions like this feel very fringe and “out there.”

But at least now I feel like I have properly explained the not I meant, and not the not I didn’t mean.

Comments on “That not is not the not I meant:
Hi, I'm the guy who told you this adverb idea sounds like Aspect Oriented. I still feel that way.

However, can't we do "adverbs" with symbols? Something like "my_model.not(:blank?)". This adverb method could in theory be a module mixed in who could even use ruby2ruby to reshape "blank?".
Could you elaborate on SQL NULL != NULL ? Executing "SELECT null = null" in both mysql and postgres returns a null. Expanding into a "SELECT true WHERE null = null" works in postgres (returning NULL) but blows up mysql.

Specifically, you said, "For example NULL = NULL is false in SQL." Do instead mean, "NULL = NULL is not true in SQL" ? Maybe I'm just nit picking, but it seems, NULL = NULL is null.

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