Clojure from the ground up: debugging

Writing software can be an exercise in frustration. Useless error messages, difficult-to-reproduce bugs, missing stacktrace information, obscure functions without documentation, and unmaintained libraries all stand in our way. As software engineers, our most useful skill isn’t so much knowing how to solve a problem as knowing how to explore a problem that we haven’t seen before. Experience is important, but even experienced engineers face unfamiliar bugs every day. When a problem doesn’t bear a resemblance to anything we’ve seen before, we fall back on general cognitive strategies to explore–and ultimately solve–the problem.

There’s an excellent book by the mathematician George Polya: How to Solve It, which tries to catalogue how successful mathematicians approach unfamiliar problems. When I catch myself banging my head against a problem for more than a few minutes, I try to back up and consider his principles. Sometimes, just taking the time to slow down and reflect can get me out of a rut.

  1. Understand the problem.
  2. Devise a plan.
  3. Carry out the plan
  4. Look back

Seems easy enough, right? Let’s go a little deeper.

Understanding the problem

Well obviously there’s a problem, right? The program failed to compile, or a test spat out bizarre numbers, or you hit an unexpected exception. But try to dig a little deeper than that. Just having a careful description of the problem can make the solution obvious.

Our audit program detected that users can double-withdraw cash from their accounts.

What does your program do? Chances are your program is large and complex, so try to isolate the problem as much as possible. Find preconditions where the error holds.

The problem occurs after multiple transfers between accounts.

Identify specific lines of code from the stacktrace that are involved, specific data that’s being passed around. Can you find a particular function that’s misbehaving?

The balance transfer function sometimes doesn’t increase or decrease the account values correctly.

What are that function’s inputs and outputs? Are the inputs what you expected? What did you expect the result to be, given those arguments? It’s not enough to know “it doesn’t work”–you need to know exactly what should have happened. Try to find conditions where the function works correctly, so you can map out the boundaries of the problem.

Trying to transfer $100 from A to B works as expected, as does a transfer of $50 from B to A. Running a million random transfers between accounts, sequentially, results in correct balances. The problem only seems to happen in production.

If your function–or functions it calls–uses mutable state, like an agent, atom, or ref, the value of those references matters too. This is why you should avoid mutable state wherever possible: each mutable variable introduces another dimension of possible behaviors for your program. Print out those values when they’re read, and after they’re written, to get a description of what the function is actually doing. I am a huge believer in sprinkling (prn x) throughout one’s code to print how state evolves when the program runs.

Each balance is stored in a separate atom. When two transfers happen at the same time involving the same accounts, the new value of one or both atoms may not reflect the transfer correctly.

Look for invariants: properties that should always be true of a program. Devise a test to look for where those invariants are broken. Consider each individual step of the program: does it preserve all the invariants you need? If it doesn’t, what ensures those invariants are restored correctly?

The total amount of money in the system should be constant–but sometimes changes!

Draw diagrams, and invent a notation to talk about the problem. If you’re accessing fields in a vector, try drawing the vector as a set of boxes, and drawing the fields it accesses, step by step on paper. If you’re manipulating a tree, draw one! Figure out a way to write down the state of the system: in letters, numbers, arrows, graphs, whatever you can dream up.

Transferring $5 from A to B in transaction 1, and $5 from B to A in transaction 2: Transaction | A | B -------------+-----+----- txn1 read | 10 | 10 ; Transaction 1 sees 10, 10 txn1 write A | 5 | 10 ; A and B now out-of-sync txn2 read | 5 | 10 ; Transaction 2 sees 5, 10 txn1 write B | 5 | 15 ; Transaction 1 completes txn2 write A | 10 | 15 ; Transaction 2 writes based on out-of-sync read txn2 write B | 5 | 5 ; Should have been 10, 10!

This doesn’t solve the problem, but helps us explore the problem in depth. Sometimes this makes the solution obvious–other times, we’re just left with a pile of disjoint facts. Even if things look jumbled-up and confusing, don’t despair! Exploring gives the brain the pieces; it’ll link them together over time.

Armed with a detailed description of the problem, we’re much better equipped to solve it.

Devise a plan

Our brains are excellent pattern-matchers, but not that great at tracking abstract logical operations. Try changing your viewpoint: rotating the problem into a representation that’s a little more tractable for your mind. Is there a similar problem you’ve seen in the past? Is this a well-known problem?

Make sure you know how to check the solution. With the problem isolated to a single function, we can write a test case that verifies the account balances are correct. Then we can experiment freely, and have some confidence that we’ve actually found a solution.

Can you solve a related problem? If only concurrent transfers trigger the problem, could we solve the issue by ensuring transactions never take place concurrently–e.g. by wrapping the operation in a lock? Could we solve it by logging all transactions, and replaying the log? Is there a simpler variant of the problem that might be tractable–maybe one that always overcounts, but never undercounts?

Consider your assumptions. We rely on layers of abstraction in writing software–that changing a variable is atomic, that lexical variables don’t change, that adding 1 and 1 always gives 2. Sometimes, parts of the computer fail to guarantee those abstractions hold. The CPU might–very rarely–fail to divide numbers correctly. A library might, for supposedly valid input, spit out a bad result. A numeric algorithm might fail to converge, and spit out wrong numbers. To avoid questioning everything, start in your own code, and work your way down to the assumptions themselves. See if you can devise tests that check the language or library is behaving as you expect.

Can you avoid solving the problem altogether? Is there a library, database, or language feature that does transaction management for us? Is integrating that library worth the reduced complexity in our application?

We’re not mathematicians; we’re engineers. Part theorist, yes, but also part mechanic. Some problems take a more abstract approach, and others are better approached by tapping it with a wrench and checking the service manual. If other people have solved your problem already, using their solution can be much simpler than devising your own.

Can you think of a way to get more diagnostic information? Perhaps we could log more data from the functions that are misbehaving, or find a way to dump and replay transactions from the live program. Some problems disappear when instrumented; these are the hardest to solve, but also the most rewarding.

Combine key phrases in a Google search: the name of the library you’re using, the type of exception thrown, any error codes or log messages. Often you’ll find a StackOverflow result, a mailing list post, or a Github issue that describes your problem. This works well when you know the technical terms for your problem–in our case, that we’re performing a atomic, transactional transfer between two variables. Sometimes, though, you don’t know the established names for your problem, and have to resort to blind queries like “variables out of sync” or “overwritten data”–which are much more difficult.

When you get stuck exploring on your own, try asking for help. Collect your description of the problem, the steps you took, and what you expected the program to do. Include any stacktraces or error messages, log files, and the smallest section of source code required to reproduce the problem. Also include the versions of software used–in Clojure, typically the JVM version (java -version), Clojure version (project.clj), and any other relevant library versions.

If the project has a Github page or public issue tracker, like Jira, you can try filing an issue there. Here’s a particularly well-written issue filed by a user on one of my projects. Note that this user included installation instructions, the command they ran, and the stacktrace it printed. The more specific a description you provide, the easier it is for someone else to understand your problem and help!

Sometimes you need to talk through a problem interactively. For that, I prefer IRC–many projects have a channel on the Freenode IRC network where you can ask basic questions. Remember to be respectful of the channel’s time; there may be hundreds of users present, and they have to sort through everything you write. Paste your problem description into a pastebin like Gist, then mention the link in IRC with a short–say a few sentences–description of the problem. I try asking in a channel devoted to a specific library or program first, then back off to a more general channel, like #clojure. There’s no need to ask “Can I ask a question” first–just jump in.

Since the transactional problem we’ve been exploring seems like a general issue with atoms, I might ask in #clojure

aphyr > Hi! Does anyone know the right way to change multiple atoms at the same time? aphyr > This function and test case ( seems to double- or under-count when invoked concurrently.

Finally, you can join the project’s email list, and ask your question there. Turnaround times are longer, but you’ll often find a more in-depth response to your question via email. This applies especially if you and the maintainer are in different time zones, or if they’re busy with life. You can also ask specific problems on StackOverflow or other message boards; users there can be incredibly helpful.

Remember, other engineers are taking time away from their work, family, friends, and hobbies to help you. It’s always polite to give them time to answer first–they may have other priorities. A sincere thank-you is always appreciated–as is paying it forward by answering other users' questions on the list or channel!

Dealing with abuse

Sadly, some women, LGBT people, and so on experience harassment on IRC or in other discussion circles. They may be asked inappropriate personal questions, insulted, threatened, assumed to be straight, to be a man, and so on. Sometimes other users will attack questioners for inexperience. Exclusion can be overt (“Read the fucking docs, faggot!”) or more subtle (“Hey dudes, what’s up?”). It only takes one hurtful experience this to sour someone on an entire community.

If this happens to you, place your own well-being first. You are not obligated to fix anyone else’s problems, or to remain in a social context that makes you uncomfortable.

That said, be aware the other people in a channel may not share your culture. English may not be their main language, or they may have said something hurtful without realizing its impact. Explaining how the comment made you feel can jar a well-meaning but unaware person into reconsidering their actions.

Other times, people are just mean–and it only takes one to ruin everybody’s day. When this happens, you can appeal to a moderator. On IRC, moderators are sometimes identified by an @ sign in front of their name; on forums, they may have a special mark on their username or profile. Large projects may have an official policy for reporting abuse on their website or in the channel topic. If there’s no policy, try asking whoever seems in charge for help. Most projects have a primary maintainer or community manager with the power to mute or ban malicious users.

Again, these ways of dealing with abuse are optional. You have no responsibility to provide others with endless patience, and it is not your responsibility to fix a toxic culture. You can always log off and try something else. There are many communities which will welcome and support you–it may just take a few tries to find the right fit.

If you don’t find community, you can build it. Starting your own IRC channel, mailing list, or discussion group with a few friends can be a great way to help each other learn in a supportive environment. And if trolls ever come calling, you’ll be able to ban them personally.

Now, back to problem-solving.

Execute the plan

Sometimes we can make a quick fix in the codebase, test it by hand, and move on. But for more serious problems, we’ll need a more involved process. I always try to get a reproducible test suite–one that runs in a matter of seconds–so that I can continually check my work.

Persist. Many problems require grinding away for some time. Mix blind experimentation with sitting back and planning. Periodically re-evaluate your work–have you made progress? Identified a sub-problem that can be solved independently? Developed a new notation?

If you get stuck, try a new tack. Save your approach as a comment or using git stash, and start fresh. Maybe using a different concurrency primitive is in order, or rephrasing the data structure entirely. Take a reading break and review the documentation for the library you’re trying to use. Read the source code for the functions you’re calling–even if you don’t understand exactly what it does, it might give you clues to how things work under the hood.

Bounce your problem off a friend. Grab a sheet of paper or whiteboard, describe the problem, and work through your thinking with that person. Their understanding of the problem might be totally off-base, but can still give you valuable insight. Maybe they know exactly what the problem is, and can point you to a solution in thirty seconds!

Finally, take a break. Go home. Go for a walk. Lift heavy, run hard, space out, drink with your friends, practice music, read a book. Just before sleep, go over the problem once more in your head; I often wake up with a new algorithm or new questions burning to get out. Your unconscious mind can come up with unexpected insights if given time away from the problem!

Some folks swear by time in the shower, others by hiking, or with pen and paper in a hammock. Find what works for you! The important thing seems to be giving yourself away from struggling with the problem.

Look back

Chances are you’ll know as soon as your solution works. The program compiles, transactions generate the correct amounts, etc. Now’s an important time to solidify your work.

Bolster your tests. You may have made the problem less likely, but not actually solved it. Try a more aggressive, randomized test; one that runs for longer, that generates a broader class of input. Try it on a copy of the production workload before deploying your change.

Identify why the new system works. Pasting something in from StackOverflow may get you through the day, but won’t help you solve similar problems in the future. Try to really understand why the program went wrong, and how the new pieces work together to prevent the problem. Is there a more general underlying problem? Could you generalize your technique to solve a related problem? If you’ll encounter this type of issue frequently, could you build a function or library to help build other solutions?

Document the solution. Write down your description of the problem, and why your changes fix it, as comments in the source code. Use that same description of the solution in your commit message, or attach it as a comment to the resources you used online, so that other people can come to the same understanding.

Debugging Clojure

With these general strategies in mind, I’d like to talk specifically about the debugging Clojure code–especially understanding its stacktraces. Consider this simple program for baking cakes:

(ns scratch.debugging) (defn bake "Bakes a cake for a certain amount of time, returning a cake with a new :tastiness level." [pie temp time] (assoc pie :tastiness (condp (* temp time) < 400 :burned 350 :perfect 300 :soggy)))

And in the REPL

user=> (bake {:flavor :blackberry} 375 10.25) ClassCastException java.lang.Double cannot be cast to clojure.lang.IFn scratch.debugging/bake (debugging.clj:8)

This is not particularly helpful. Let’s print a full stacktrace using pst:

user=> (pst) ClassCastException java.lang.Double cannot be cast to clojure.lang.IFn scratch.debugging/bake (debugging.clj:8) user/eval1223 (form-init4495957503656407289.clj:1) clojure.lang.Compiler.eval ( clojure.lang.Compiler.eval ( clojure.core/eval (core.clj:2852) clojure.main/repl/read-eval-print--6588/fn--6591 (main.clj:259) clojure.main/repl/read-eval-print--6588 (main.clj:259) clojure.main/repl/fn--6597 (main.clj:277) clojure.main/repl (main.clj:277) (interruptible_eval.clj:56) clojure.core/apply (core.clj:617) clojure.core/with-bindings* (core.clj:1788)

The first line tells us the type of the error: a ClassCastException. Then there’s some explanatory text: we can’t cast a java.lang.Double to a clojure.lang.IFn. The indented lines show the functions that led to the error. The first line is the deepest function, where the error actually occurred: the bake function in the scratch.debugging namespace. In parentheses is the file name (debugging.clj) and line number (8) from the code that caused the error. Each following line shows the function that called the previous line. In the REPL, our code is invoked from a special function compiled by the REPL itself–with an automatically generated name like user/eval1223, and that function is invoked by the Clojure compiler, and the REPL tooling. Once we see something like Compiler.eval at the repl, we can generally skip the rest.

As a general rule, we want to look at the deepest (earliest) point in the stacktrace that we wrote. Sometimes an error will arise from deep within a library or Clojure itself–but it was probably invoked by our code somewhere. We’ll skim down the lines until we find our namespace, and start our investigation at that point.

Our case is simple: bake.clj, on line 8, seems to be the culprit.

(condp (* temp time) <

Now let’s consider the error itself: ClassCastException: java.lang.Double cannot be cast to clojure.lang.IFn. This implies we had a Double and tried to cast it to an IFn–but what does “cast” mean? For that matter, what’s a Double, or an IFn?

A quick google search for java.lang.Double reveals that it’s a class (a Java type) with some basic documentation. “The Double class wraps a value of the primitive type double in an object” is not particularly informative–but the “class hierarchy” at the top of the page shows that a Double is a kind of java.lang.Number. Let’s experiment at the REPL:

user=> (type 4) java.lang.Long user=> (type 4.5) java.lang.Double

Indeed: decimal numbers in Clojure appear to be doubles. One of the expressions in that condp call was probably a decimal. At first we might suspect the literal values 300, 350, or 400–but those are Longs, not Doubles. The only Double we passed in was the time duration 10.25–which appears in condp as (* temp time). That first argument was a Double, but should have been an IFn.

What the heck is an IFn? Its source code has a comment:

IFn provides complete access to invoking any of Clojure’s API’s. You can also access any other library written in Clojure, after adding either its source or compiled form to the classpath.

So IFn has to do with invoking Clojure’s API. Ah–Fn probably stands for function–and this class is chock full of things like invoke(Object arg1, Object arg2). That suggests that IFn is about calling functions. And the I? Google suggests it’s a Java convention for an interface–whatever that is. Remember, we don’t have to understand everything–just enough to get by. There’s plenty to explore later.

Let’s check our hypothesis in the repl:

user=> (instance? clojure.lang.IFn 2.5) false user=> (instance? clojure.lang.IFn conj) true user=> (instance? clojure.lang.IFn (fn [x] (inc x))) true

So Doubles aren’t IFns–but Clojure built-in functions, and anonymous functions, both are. Let’s double-check the docs for condp again:

user=> (doc condp) ------------------------- clojure.core/condp ([pred expr & clauses]) Macro Takes a binary predicate, an expression, and a set of clauses. Each clause can take the form of either: test-expr result-expr test-expr :>> result-fn Note :>> is an ordinary keyword. For each clause, (pred test-expr expr) is evaluated. If it returns logical true, the clause is a match. If a binary clause matches, the result-expr is returned, if a ternary clause matches, its result-fn, which must be a unary function, is called with the result of the predicate as its argument, the result of that call being the return value of condp. A single default expression can follow the clauses, and its value will be returned if no clause matches. If no default expression is provided and no clause matches, an IllegalArgumentException is thrown.clj

That’s a lot to take in! No wonder we got it wrong! We’ll take it slow, and look at the arguments.

(condp (* temp time) <

Our pred was (* temp time) (a Double), and our expr was the comparison function <. For each clause, (pred test-expr expr) is evaluated, so that would expand to something like

((* temp time) 400 <)

Which evaluates to something like

(123.45 400 <)

But this isn’t a valid Lisp program! It starts with a number, not a function. We should have written (< 123.45 400). Our arguments are backwards!

(defn bake "Bakes a cake for a certain amount of time, returning a cake with a new :tastiness level." [pie temp time] (assoc pie :tastiness (condp < (* temp time) 400 :burned 350 :perfect 300 :soggy))) user=> (use 'scratch.debugging :reload) nil user=> (bake {:flavor :chocolate} 375 10.25) {:tastiness :burned, :flavor :chocolate} user=> (bake {:flavor :chocolate} 450 0.8) {:tastiness :perfect, :flavor :chocolate}

Mission accomplished! We read the stacktrace as a path to a part of the program where things went wrong. We identified the deepest part of that path in our code, and looked for a problem there. We discovered that we had reversed the arguments to a function, and after some research and experimentation in the REPL, figured out the right order.

An aside on types: some languages have a stricter type system than Clojure’s, in which the types of variables are explicitly declared in the program’s source code. Those languages can detect type errors–when a variable of one type is used in place of another, incompatible, type–and offer more precise feedback. In Clojure, the compiler does not generally enforce types at compile time, which allows for significant flexibility–but requires more rigorous testing to expose these errors.

Higher order stacktraces

The stacktrace shows us a path through the program, moving downwards through functions. However, that path may not be straightforward. When data is handed off from one part of the program to another, the stacktrace may not show the origin of an error. When functions are handed off from one part of the program to another, the resulting traces can be tricky to interpret indeed.

For instance, say we wanted to make some picture frames out of wood, but didn’t know how much wood to buy. We might sketch out a program like this:

(defn perimeter "Given a rectangle, returns a vector of its edge lengths." [rect] [(:x rect) (:y rect) (:z rect) (:y rect)]) (defn frame "Given a mat width, and a photo rectangle, figure out the size of the frame required by adding the mat width around all edges of the photo." [mat-width rect] (let [margin (* 2 rect)] {:x (+ margin (:x rect)) :y (+ margin (:y rect))})) (def failure-rate "Sometimes the wood is knotty or we screw up a cut. We'll assume we need a spare segment once every 8." 1/8) (defn spares "Given a list of segments, figure out roughly how many of each distinct size will go bad, and emit a sequence of spare segments, assuming we screw up `failure-rate` of them." [segments] (->> segments ; Compute a map of each segment length to the number of ; segments we'll need of that size. frequencies ; Make a list of spares for each segment length, ; based on how often we think we'll screw up. (mapcat (fn [ [segment n]] (repeat (* failure-rate n) segment))))) (def cut-size "How much extra wood do we need for each cut? Let's say a mitred cut for a 1-inch frame needs a full inch." 1) (defn total-wood [mat-width photos] "Given a mat width and a collection of photos, compute the total linear amount of wood we need to buy in order to make frames for each, given a 2-inch mat." (let [segments (->> photos ; Convert photos to frame dimensions (map (partial frame mat-width)) ; Convert frames to segments (mapcat perimeter))] ; Now, take segments (->> segments ; Add the spares (concat (spares segments)) ; Include a cut between each segment (interpose cut-size) ; And sum the whole shebang. (reduce +)))) (->> [{:x 8 :y 10} {:x 10 :y 8} {:x 20 :y 30}] (total-wood 2) (println "total inches:"))

Running this program yields a curious stacktrace. We’ll print the full trace (not the shortened one that comes with pst) for the last exception *e with the .printStackTrace function.

user=> (.printStackTrace *e) java.lang.ClassCastException: clojure.lang.PersistentArrayMap cannot be cast to java.lang.Number, compiling:(scratch/debugging.clj:73:23) at clojure.lang.Compiler.load( at clojure.lang.RT.loadResourceScript( at clojure.lang.RT.loadResourceScript( at clojure.lang.RT.load( at clojure.lang.RT.load( ... at Caused by: java.lang.ClassCastException: clojure.lang.PersistentArrayMap cannot be cast to java.lang.Number at clojure.lang.Numbers.multiply( at clojure.lang.Numbers.multiply( at scratch.debugging$frame.invoke(debugging.clj:26) at clojure.lang.AFn.applyToHelper( at clojure.lang.AFn.applyTo( at clojure.core$apply.invoke(core.clj:626) at clojure.core$partial$fn__4228.doInvoke(core.clj:2468) at clojure.lang.RestFn.invoke( at clojure.core$map$fn__4245.invoke(core.clj:2557) at clojure.lang.LazySeq.sval( at clojure.lang.LazySeq.seq( at clojure.lang.RT.seq( at clojure.core$seq.invoke(core.clj:133) at clojure.core$map$fn__4245.invoke(core.clj:2551) at clojure.lang.LazySeq.sval( at clojure.lang.LazySeq.seq( at clojure.lang.RT.seq( at clojure.core$seq.invoke(core.clj:133) at clojure.core$apply.invoke(core.clj:624) at clojure.core$mapcat.doInvoke(core.clj:2586) at clojure.lang.RestFn.invoke( at scratch.debugging$total_wood.invoke(debugging.clj:62) ...

First: this trace has two parts. The top-level error (a CompilerException) appears first, and is followed by the exception that caused the CompilerException: a ClassCastException. This makes the stacktrace read somewhat out of order, since the deepest part of the trace occurs in the first line of the last exception. We read C B A then F E D. This is an old convention in the Java language, and the cause of no end of frustration.

Notice that this representation of the stacktrace is less friendly than (pst). We’re seeing the Java Virtual Machine (JVM)’s internal representation of Clojure functions, which look like clojure.core$partial$fn__4228.doInvoke. This corresponds to the namespace clojure.core, in which there is a function called partial, inside of which is an anonymous function, here named fn__4228. Calling a Clojure function is written, in the JVM, as .invoke or .doInvoke.

So: the root cause was a ClassCastException, and it tells us that Clojure expected a java.lang.Number, but found a PersistentArrayMap. We might guess that PersistentArrayMap is something to do with the map data structure, which we used in this program:

user=> (type {:x 1}) clojure.lang.PersistentArrayMap

And we’d be right. We can also tell, by reading down the stacktrace looking for our scratch.debugging namespace, where the error took place: scratch.debugging$frame, on line 26.

(let [margin (* 2 rect)]

There’s our multiplication operation *, which we might assume expands to clojure.lang.Numbers.multiply. But the path to the error is odd.

(->> photos ; Convert photos to frame dimensions (map (partial frame mat-width))

In total-wood, we call (map (partial frame mat-width) photos) right away, so we’d expect the stacktrace to go from total-wood to map to frame. But this is not what happens. Instead, total-wood invokes something called RestFn–a piece of Clojure plumbing–which in turn calls mapcat.

at clojure.core$mapcat.doInvoke(core.clj:2586) at clojure.lang.RestFn.invoke( at scratch.debugging$total_wood.invoke(debugging.clj:62)

Why doesn’t total-wood call map first? Well it did–but map doesn’t actually apply its function to anything in the photos vector when invoked. Instead, it returns a lazy sequence–one which applies frame only when elements are asked for.

user=> (type (map inc (range 10))) clojure.lang.LazySeq

Inside each LazySeq is a box containing a function. When you ask a LazySeq for its first value, it calls that function to return a new sequence–and that’s when frame gets invoked. What we’re seeing in this stacktrace is the LazySeq internal machinery at work–mapcat asks it for a value, and the LazySeq asks map to generate that value.

at clojure.core$partial$fn__4228.doInvoke(core.clj:2468) at clojure.lang.RestFn.invoke( at clojure.core$map$fn__4245.invoke(core.clj:2557) at clojure.lang.LazySeq.sval( at clojure.lang.LazySeq.seq( at clojure.lang.RT.seq( at clojure.core$seq.invoke(core.clj:133) at clojure.core$map$fn__4245.invoke(core.clj:2551) at clojure.lang.LazySeq.sval( at clojure.lang.LazySeq.seq( at clojure.lang.RT.seq( at clojure.core$seq.invoke(core.clj:133) at clojure.core$apply.invoke(core.clj:624) at clojure.core$mapcat.doInvoke(core.clj:2586) at clojure.lang.RestFn.invoke( at scratch.debugging$total_wood.invoke(debugging.clj:62)

In fact we pass through map’s laziness twice here: a quick peek at (source mapcat) shows that it expands into a map call itself, and then there’s a second map: the one we created in in total-wood. Then an odd thing happens–we hit something called clojure.core$partial$fn__4228.

(map (partial frame mat-width) photos)

The frame function takes two arguments: a mat width and a photo. We wanted a function that takes just one argument: a photo. (partial frame mat-width) took mat-width and generated a new function which takes one arg–call it photo–and calls (frame mad-width photo). That automatically generated function, returned by partial, is what map uses to generate new elements of its sequence on demand.

user=> (partial + 1) #<core$partial$fn__4228 clojure.core$partial$fn__4228@243634f2> user=> ((partial + 1) 4) 5

That’s why we see control flow through clojure.core$partial$fn__4228 (an anonymous function defined inside clojure.core/partial) on the way to frame.

Caused by: java.lang.ClassCastException: clojure.lang.PersistentArrayMap cannot be cast to java.lang.Number at clojure.lang.Numbers.multiply( at clojure.lang.Numbers.multiply( at scratch.debugging$frame.invoke(debugging.clj:26) at clojure.lang.AFn.applyToHelper( at clojure.lang.AFn.applyTo( at clojure.core$apply.invoke(core.clj:626) at clojure.core$partial$fn__4228.doInvoke(core.clj:2468)

And there’s our suspect! scratch.debugging/frame, at line 26. To return to that line again:

(let [margin (* 2 rect)]

* is a multiplication, and 2 is obviously a number, but rectrect is a map here. Aha! We meant to multiply the mat-width by two, not the rectangle.

(defn frame "Given a mat width, and a photo rectangle, figure out the size of the frame required by adding the mat width around all edges of the photo." [mat-width rect] (let [margin (* 2 mat-width)] {:x (+ margin (:x rect)) :y (+ margin (:y rect))}))

I believe we’ve fixed the bug, then. Let’s give it a shot!

The unbearable lightness of nil

There’s one more bug lurking in this program. This one’s stacktrace is short.

user=> (use 'scratch.debugging :reload) CompilerException java.lang.NullPointerException, compiling:(scratch/debugging.clj:73:23) user=> (pst) CompilerException java.lang.NullPointerException, compiling:(scratch/debugging.clj:73:23) clojure.lang.Compiler.load ( clojure.lang.RT.loadResourceScript ( clojure.lang.RT.loadResourceScript ( clojure.lang.RT.load ( clojure.lang.RT.load ( clojure.core/load/fn--5066 (core.clj:5641) clojure.core/load (core.clj:5640) clojure.core/load-one (core.clj:5446) clojure.core/load-lib/fn--5015 (core.clj:5486) clojure.core/load-lib (core.clj:5485) clojure.core/apply (core.clj:626) clojure.core/load-libs (core.clj:5524) Caused by: NullPointerException clojure.lang.Numbers.ops ( clojure.lang.Numbers.add ( clojure.core/+ (core.clj:951) clojure.core.protocols/fn--6086 (protocols.clj:143) clojure.core.protocols/fn--6057/G--6052--6066 (protocols.clj:19) clojure.core.protocols/seq-reduce (protocols.clj:27) clojure.core.protocols/fn--6078 (protocols.clj:53) clojure.core.protocols/fn--6031/G--6026--6044 (protocols.clj:13) clojure.core/reduce (core.clj:6287) scratch.debugging/total-wood (debugging.clj:69) scratch.debugging/eval1560 (debugging.clj:81) clojure.lang.Compiler.eval (

On line 69, total-wood calls reduce, which dives through a series of functions from clojure.core.protocols before emerging in +: the function we passed to reduce. Reduce is trying to combine two elements from its collection of wood segments using +, but one of them was nil. Clojure calls this a NullPointerException. In total-wood, we constructed the sequence of segments this way:

(let [segments (->> photos ; Convert photos to frame dimensions (map (partial frame mat-width)) ; Convert frames to segments (mapcat perimeter))] ; Now, take segments (->> segments ; Add the spares (concat (spares segments)) ; Include a cut between each segment (interpose cut-size) ; And sum the whole shebang. (reduce +))))

Where did the nil value come from? The stacktrace doesn’t say, because the sequence reduce is traversing didn’t have any problem producing the nil. reduce asked for a value and the sequence happily produced a nil. We only had a problem when it came time to combine the nil with the next value, using +.

A stacktrace like this is something like a murder mystery: we know the program died in the reducer, that it was shot with a +, and the bullet was a nil–but we don’t know where the bullet came from. The trail runs cold. We need more forensic information–more hints about the nil’s origin–to find the culprit.

Again, this is a class of error largely preventable with static type systems. If you have worked with a statically typed language in the past, it may be interesting to consider that almost every Clojure function takes Option[A] and does something more-or-less sensible, returning Option[B]. Whether the error propagates as a nil or an Option, there can be similar difficulties in localizing the cause of the problem.

Let’s try printing out the state as reduce goes along:

(->> segments ; Add the spares (concat (spares segments)) ; Include a cut between each segment (interpose cut-size) ; And sum the whole shebang. (reduce (fn [acc x] (prn acc x) (+ acc x)))))) user=> (use 'scratch.debugging :reload) 12 1 13 14 27 1 28 nil CompilerException java.lang.NullPointerException, compiling:(scratch/debugging.clj:73:56)

Not every value is nil! There’s a 14 there which looks like a plausible segment for a frame, and two one-inch buffers from cut-size. We can rule out interpose because it inserts a 1 every time, and that 1 reduces correctly. But where’s that nil coming from? Is from segments or (spares segments)?

(let [segments (->> photos ; Convert photos to frame dimensions (map (partial frame mat-width)) ; Convert frames to segments (mapcat perimeter))] (prn :segments segments) user=> (use 'scratch.debugging :reload) :segments (12 14 nil 14 14 12 nil 12 24 34 nil 34)

It is present in segments. Let’s trace it backwards through the sequence’s creation. It’d be handy to have a function like prn that returned its input, so we could spy on values as they flowed through the ->> macro.

(defn spy [& args] (apply prn args) (last args)) (let [segments (->> photos ; Convert photos to frame dimensions (map (partial frame mat-width)) (spy :frames) ; Convert frames to segments (mapcat perimeter))] user=> (use 'scratch.debugging :reload) :frames ({:x 12, :y 14} {:x 14, :y 12} {:x 24, :y 34}) :segments (12 14 nil 14 14 12 nil 12 24 34 nil 34)

Ah! So the frames are intact, but the perimeters are bad. Let’s check the perimeter function:

(defn perimeter "Given a rectangle, returns a vector of its edge lengths." [rect] [(:x rect) (:y rect) (:z rect) (:y rect)])

Spot the typo? We wrote :z instead of :x. Since the frame didn’t have a :z field, it returned nil! That’s the origin of our NullPointerException. With the bug fixed, we can re-run and find:

user=> (use 'scratch.debugging :reload) total inches: 319



As we solve more and more problems, we get faster at debugging–at skipping over irrelevant log data, figuring out exactly what input was at fault, knowing what terms to search for, and developing a network of peers and mentors to ask for help. But when we encounter unexpected bugs, it can help to fall back on a family of problem-solving tactics.

We explore the problem thoroughly, localizing it to a particular function, variable, or set of inputs. We identify the boundaries of the problem, carving away parts of the system that work as expected. We develop new notation, maps, and diagrams of the problem space, precisely characterizing it in a variety of modes.

With the problem identified, we search for extant solutions–or related problems others have solved in the past. We trawl through issue trackers, mailing list posts, blogs, and forums like Stackoverflow, or, for more theoretical problems, academic papers, Mathworld, and Wikipedia, etc. If searching reveals nothing, we try rephrasing the problem, relaxing the constraints, adding debugging statements, and solving smaller subproblems. When all else fails, we ask for help from our peers, or from the community in IRC, mailing lists, and so on, or just take a break.

We learned to explore Clojure stacktraces as a trail into our programs, leading to the place where an error occurred. But not all paths are linear, and we saw how lazy operations and higher-order functions create inversions and intermediate layers in the stacktrace. Then we learned how to debug values that were distant from the trace, by adding logging statements and working our way closer to the origin.

Programming languages and us, their users, are engaged in a continual dialogue. We may speak more formally, verbosely, with many types and defensive assertions–or we may speak quickly, generally, in fuzzy terms. The more precise we are with the specifications of our program’s types, the more the program can assist us when things go wrong. Conversely, those specifications harden our programs into strong but rigid forms, and rigid structures are harder to bend into new shapes.

In Clojure we strike a more dynamic balance: we speak in generalities, but we pay for that flexibility. Our errors are harder to trace to their origins. While the Clojure compiler can warn us of some errors, like mis-spelled variable names, it cannot (without a library like core.typed) tell us when we have incorrectly assumed an object will be of a certain type. Even very rigid languages, like Haskell, cannot identify some errors, like reversing the arguments to a subtraction function. Some tests are always necessary, though types are a huge boon.

No matter what language we write in, we use a balance of types and tests to validate our assumptions, both when the program is compiled and when it is run.

The errors that arise in compilation or runtime aren’t rebukes so much as hints. Don’t despair! They point the way towards understanding one’s program in more detail–though the errors may be cryptic. Over time we get better at reading our language’s errors and making our programs more robust.

Daniel Compton
Daniel Compton, on

Another extremely useful library I use for debugging is Among other things it lets you trace (print) the values passed in and returned from a function, either your own or a library that you are using. It often makes debugging very quick because you can see the context of function calls that led to an exception being thrown.

mathiasx, on

I think there’s a small mistake in the highlighting for the spares function. It looks like it parsed the square brackets for fn arguments as a markdown link in the anonymous function inside the mapcat.

Yu Shen
Yu Shen, on

Thank you very much for providing very grounded tutorial for Clojure. It’s the best for beginner who has little experience with JVM/Java. The others often assumed background with Java. With your tutorial, I now feel that I’m more comfortable to use Clojure for real world problem, not just toy ones.

I’ve finished reading all up to this debugging post, and eagerly am waiting for more.

From your example in this section of picture frame material estimation, while I appreciate your effort in creating a somehow fuzzy example to embed some bugs. it occurred to me that some of such bugs might be better avoided with more explicit design modeling, especially visualized modeling of the concepts involved, such as rectangle, mat, etc.

It’s my observation, that Clojure/Lisp community has heavy focus on elegant syntactic expression of concepts, but somehow avoided visual modeling of the concepts. Maybe, it’s consider too trivial, and too much “object oriented”, such as UML.

With some experience with UML, I feel that its graphic modeling language really helps to clarify conceptual modeling, and help to grasp more concept relationship with certain degree of intuition.

Although object oriented programming as program construction has the fatal drawback of state dependency, lack of reference transparency, but it’s conceptual modeling techniques helps for programming at large for higher level reasoning of complex system design and construction.

For functional programming (FP), I feel that it may also need some visual design language to visualize in two dimensions the function relationship to make FP better handle higher level of abstraction, required for programming at large. For instance, in your blog section on modeling with Clojure, I found it very hard to follow the model and intuition of rocket launch model. I feel some diagram would help me to grasp the reasoning, and your insights.

So it’s my wish, if you could teach us on (visual) modeling design with Clojure (FP) paradigm.

Again thanks a lot for your great contribution to Clojure community to make Clojure further grounded.


Gregg Williams
Gregg Williams, on

Many thanks for this article! As an intense dabbler in Clojure (for five years now!), I learned a lot–not least of which was how to read the Java stacktrace (always a source of frustration for me).

This is a magazine-article length post, which of necessity took a long time to write. Thank you for your generosity! This will be a go-to article for many Clojure learners.

Didier A.
Didier A., on

Is this series over? The previous article mentioned so many awesome ideas for chapters. This is an amazing series. I’d love to buy a book of it, or just continue reading it on the web.

Any news if there’s plan on making those chapters happen?

Agam, on

Hi, thanks for the great series, wishing for more!

Small typo: in the total-wood function, the doctoring mentions a specific size for the mat width, though this is not true, it uses the width passed in.

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