2. Combinators over loops, null & throw (Introducing Typelevel Scala into an OO Environment)

(examples can be found on GitHub)

In the previous section we found ways to transform mutable thinking into the immutable. Here we will take this one step further and introduce combinators into the organization.

A combinator is a method on a data structure. This method takes a function as argument and maps values of the data structure into other values of the data structure. This fits well with our immutable approach. There are four main ideas here:

  1. Functions produce new state; they do not destroy old state.
  2. Methods on structures are functions.
  3. Data and usage should be separate.
  4. Bad state should be handled as early as possible.

OO Imperative Style

When developers first get into Scala, it is pretty typical to see this kind of code:

class BadFish(
    private var m_name: String,
    private var m_color: String
  def this() = this(null, null)
  def getName(): String = m_name
  def getColor(): String = m_name
  def setName(name: String){
    m_name = name
  def setColor(color: String){
    m_color = color
  def isValid(): Boolean = try{
    case _: IllegalArgumentException => false
  def check(): Unit = {
    check(m_name, m_color)
  def check(newName: String, newColor: String){
      throw new IllegalArgumentException(
          "Fish color and name do not match"

The use case for this data is very tightly coupled to the data itself. In order to create a new value based on this value one must make at least 5 calls; 2 get calls, a new and 2 set calls:

val current: BadFish = ...
val (name, color) = (current.getName(), current.getColor())
val next = new BadFish()

This puts a burden on any user of this class. One must know the entire structure of the class and the precise method calls for access in order to use it.

The set methods destroy old state to provide new state and the state of the object is not validated until a check method is envoked. When any one reference to this object has a set method called on it, the object could be made invalid for all references without any indication. It is very difficult to follow the logical flow of data through an application full of these kinds of classes.

This class also initializes values to null and provides semantics for its own data being overwritten. A null value is not a value of any type; its essentially the type system lying to the developer.

Typelevel Style

The same functionality can be provided by the following class:

class Fish(val fishName: String){
  val fishColor: String = color(fishName)
  def spawnFish(f: String => String): Fish = {
    new Fish(f(fishName))

First thing's first. Its much shorter than the other snippet. The brevity affords a great deal of clarity about the class and intended usage.

It has a single input rather than two; the second variable is dependent upon the first for a valid state. Bad state is found at construction time. there is no longer any need to throw an exception in the class based on the class' own data. Everything is handled up front.

The single function doesn't destroy the state of the object, it only creates a new object based on the data in the current object. This allows us to make the data immutable as well as give the user of the class all the flexibility she needs for instantiation and processing of objects.

Next we'll use Case Classes to encapsulte our data and define it as immutable by default.