Last week I was part of a rant with a couple of coworkers around the fact Go handles errors for expected scenarios by returning an error value instead of using exceptions or a similar mechanism. This is a rather controversial topic because people have grown used to having errors out of their way via exceptions, and Go brings back an improved version of a well known pattern previously adopted by a number of languages — including C — where errors are communicated via return values. This means that errors are in the programmer’s face and have to be dealt with all the time. In addition, the controversy extends towards the fact that, in languages with exceptions, every unadorned error comes with a full traceback of what happened and where, which in some cases is convenient.
All this convenience has a cost, though, which is rather simple to summarize:
Exceptions teach developers to not care about errors.
A sad corollary is that this is relevant even if you are a brilliant developer, as you’ll be affected by the world around you being lenient towards error handling. The problem will show up in the libraries that you import, in the applications that are sitting in your desktop, and in the servers that back your data as well.
Raymond Chen described the issue back in 2004 as:
Writing correct code in the exception-throwing model is in a sense harder than in an error-code model, since anything can fail, and you have to be ready for it. In an error-code model, it’s obvious when you have to check for errors: When you get an error code. In an exception model, you just have to know that errors can occur anywhere.
In other words, in an error-code model, it is obvious when somebody failed to handle an error: They didn’t check the error code. But in an exception-throwing model, it is not obvious from looking at the code whether somebody handled the error, since the error is not explicit.
When you’re writing code, do you think about what the consequences of an exception would be if it were raised by each line of code? You have to do this if you intend to write correct code.
That’s exactly right. Every line that may raise an exception holds a hidden “else” branch for the error scenario that is very easy to forget about. Even if it sounds like a pointless repetitive task to be entering that error handling code, the exercise of writing it down forces developers to keep the alternative scenario in mind, and pretty often it doesn’t end up empty.
It isn’t the first time I write about that, and given the controversy that surrounds these claims, I generally try to find one or two examples that bring the issue home. So here is the best example I could find today, within the pty module of Python’s 3.3 standard library:
def spawn(argv, master_read=_read, stdin_read=_read):
"""Create a spawned process."""
if type(argv) == type(''):
argv = (argv,)
pid, master_fd = fork()
if pid == CHILD:
Every time someone calls this logic with an improper executable in argv there will be a new Python process lying around, uncollected, and unknown to the application, because execlp will fail, and the process just forked will be disregarded. It doesn’t matter if a client of that module catches that exception or not. It’s too late. The local duty wasn’t done. Of course, the bug is trivial to fix by adding a try/except within the spawn function itself. The problem, though, is that this logic looked fine for everybody that ever looked at that function since 1994 when Guido van Rossum first committed it!
Here is another interesting one:
$ make clean
Sorry, command-not-found has crashed! Please file a bug report at:
Please include the following information with the report:
command-not-found version: 0.3
Python version: 3.2.3 final 0
Distributor ID: Ubuntu
Description: Ubuntu 13.04
unsupported locale setting
Traceback (most recent call last):
File "/.../CommandNotFound/util.py", line 24, in crash_guard
File "/usr/lib/command-not-found", line 69, in main
File "/usr/lib/command-not-found", line 40, in enable_i18n
File "/usr/lib/python3.2/locale.py", line 541, in setlocale
return _setlocale(category, locale)
locale.Error: unsupported locale setting
That’s a pretty harsh crash for the lack of locale data in a system-level application that is, ironically, supposed to tell users what packages to install when commands are missing. Note that at the top of the stack there’s a reference to crash_guard. This function has the intent of catching all exceptions right at the edge of the call stack, and displaying a detailed system specification and traceback to aid in fixing the problem.
Such “parachute catching” is a fairly common pattern in exception-oriented programming and tends to give developers the false sense of having good error handling within the application. Rather than actually guarding the application, though, it’s just a useful way to crash. The proper thing to have done in the case above would be to print a warning, if at all, and then let the program run as usual. This would have been achieved by simply wrapping that one line as in:
except Exception as e:
print("Cannot change locale:", e)
Clearly, it was easy to handle that one. The problem, again, is that it was very natural to not do it in the first place. In fact, it’s more than natural: it actually feels good to not be looking at the error path. It’s less code, more linear, and what’s left is the most desired outcome.
The consequence, unfortunately, is that we’re immersing ourselves in a world of brittle software and pretty whales. Although more verbose, the error result style builds the correct mindset: does that function or method have a possible error outcome? How is it being handled? Is that system-interacting function not returning an error? What is being done with the problem that, of course, can happen?
A surprising number of crashes and plain misbehavior is a result of such unconscious negligence.