Inline def: an effective* debugging technique for Clojure

Clojure beginners often hear that inline def is bad style. For code you commit that's mostly true. Example:

(defn foo [x]
  (def y (+ x 1))

Here def performs a side effect every time you call foo, by (re)defining a Var y which is global to the current namespace. Instead you should use let to make it a local:

(defn foo [x]
  (let [y (+ x 1)]

However, inline defs can serve a useful purpose, namely that of a simple debugger. Debuggers for Clojure exist, e.g. in CIDER, but I mostly forget to use them. After println, inline def is my debugging tool of choice.


(defn foo [& [{:keys [a b c] :as m}]]
  (+ a b c))

How should I call this function? Of course.

(foo :a 1 :b 2 :c 3)
;; => java.lang.NullPointerException

Wait, what? Inline def to the rescue.

(defn foo [& [{:keys [a b c] :as m}]]
  (def m m) ;; TODO: remove this line before commit
  (+ a b c))
(foo :a 1 :b 2 :c 3)
;; => java.lang.NullPointerException
m ;;=> :a

Oh, of course! What happened is that m was bound to the first argument. I get it, I should have called foo like this:

(foo {:a 1 :b 2 :c 3}) ;;=> 6

Time to remove the inline def and get on with life.

I regularly use this technique to capture input that is part of some processing chain and I'm not sure what data is flowing through, or when the input is hard to simulate from the REPL, e.g. coming form a large HTTP request body. Recently I was working on some XML parsing. For every XML file this function was called:

(defn process-xml [xml-as-str]
  (def xml-as-str xml-as-str) ;; TODO: remove this line before commit
  ;; processing

That function was part of larger flow that reads from a directory of zipfiles containing XML files. After processing a few files I would get an exception. Let's inspect xml-as-str, the last input that triggered the exception.

xml-as-str ;;=> ""

So the last entry from the zipfile was empty. Turns out the entry was not an XML file, but a directory represented by an empty string. Another example involved some XML file that didn't have the format I expected. Every time I got a new exception I could quickly see what was going on and retry process-xml with xml-as-str without kicking off the flow from scratch.

(process-xml xml-as-str) ;;=> ok, now it works!

Next time you have the urge to reach for a debugger, you might want to become friends with inline def first.

Creating temporary vars with the same name as function arguments has the added benefit of being able to evaluate expressions within your function. This is discussed the blogpost REPL Debugging: no stacktrace required by Stuart Halloway.

*) And somewhat controversial

Published: 2017-05-25

Tagged: clojure