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It’s time for another dip into the RubyTapas archives! In this third and last episode on Ruby’s #fetch family of methods, now free to all, we get into some advanced #fetch usage. Including: deep fetching, using the name of the missing key in fallbacks code, and why I never use the two-argument form of #fetch.


Director’s commentary: This was first published on RubyTapas October 26, 2012. Since then the #dig method has supplanted some of my deep-fetching needs, although it lacks a fallback block argument.

Find the original episode script and code below the video.


Introduction

This is the third and almost certainly the last episode on the #fetch method. Today I want to go over some advanced aspects of using #fetch.

#fetch beyond Hash

First of all, it’s worth noting that while up till now I’ve demonstrated it in the context of Hash objects, #fetch isn’t limited to Hashes. It’s also available on Arrays, where it behaves very similar to the Hash version, except that when the key is missing and no default block is supplied, it raises an IndexError instead of a KeyError.
a = [:x, :y, :z]
a.fetch(3)
# ~> -:2:in `fetch': index 3 outside of array bounds: -3...3 (IndexError)
# ~>    from -:2:in `<main>'
You can also find #fetch the ENV pseudo-hash. I find this very useful for optional configuration values, for example enabling a port number to be customized via environment variable while still providing a default value.
port = ENV.fetch('PORT'){ 8080 }.to_i
port # => 8080

Defaults for nested hashes

Sometimes, you may want to get optional values out of a nested hash. Not only do you not know if the values will be present, but you don’t even know if the nested sub-trees will be there. For instance, here’s some configuration data:
config1 = {
  database: {
    type: 'mysql',
    host: 'localhost'
  }
}

config2 = {}                    # empty!  
I like to handle data like this by chaining fetch statements together, with empty hashes as the default values for missing subtrees:
config2.fetch(:database){{}}.fetch(:type){'sqlite'}
# => "sqlite"  

Generalized default blocks

One thing I haven’t yet shown about #fetch is that it yields the missing key that was passed in. Here’s some code that demonstrates what I mean:
{}.fetch(:foo) do |key|
  puts "Missing key: #{key}"
end
# >> Missing key: foo
One scenario where this could be useful is if we have a lot of calls to fetch which should all handle a missing key the same way. We can define the default block as a lambda taking one argument, and pass the lambda to each call to fetch. This code prompts the user for missing values.
default = ->(key) do
  puts "#{key} not found, please enter it: "
  gets
end

h = {}
name = h.fetch(:name, &default)
email = h.fetch(:email, &default)

Two-argument form of #fetch

If you’re already familiar with the #fetch method you may be wondering why I haven’t used the two-argument form in any of these videos. For those who aren’t familiar, instead of passing a block to #fetch for the default value, you can pass a second argument instead.
{}.fetch(:threads, 4)              # => 4
This avoids the slight overhead of executing a block, at the cost of evaluating the default value whether it is needed or not. Personally, I never use the two-argument form. I prefer to always use the block form. Here’s why: let’s say we’re writing a program and we use the two-argument form of fetch in order to avoid that block overhead. Because the default value is used in more than one place, we extract it into a method.
def default
  42 # the ultimate answer
end

answers = {}
answers.fetch("How many roads must a man walk down?", default)
# => 42

Later on, we decide to change the implementation of #default to a much more expensive computation. Maybe one that has to communicate with an remote service before returning.
def default
  # ...some expensive computation
end

answers = {}
answers.fetch("How many roads must a man walk down?", default)
When the default is passed as an argument to #fetch, it is always evaluated whether it is needed or not. Now our expensive #default code is being executed every time we #fetch a value, even if the value is present. By our premature optimization, we’ve now introduced a potentially much bigger performance regresssion everywhere our #default method is used as an argument. If we had used the block form, the expensive computation would only have been triggered when it was actually needed.

Conclusion

OK, enough about #fetch! Happy hacking!

Published by Avdi Grimm

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