Paul Barry

How To Write A Spelling Corrector In Ruby

November 5, 2009

If you haven’t seen it before, Peter Norvig has a spelling corrector that is written in just 21 lines of Python code (not counting blank lines and the import). He also lists a few other implementations in other languages, include one in Ruby. The Ruby one was listed as 34 lines. I was surprised that it was that many lines more in Ruby, so I wanted to give it a try. I didn’t look at the Ruby solution first and here’s what I came up with:

require 'set'

def words(text)
  text.downcase.scan /[a-z]+/ 

def train(features)
  features.inject({|model, f| model[f] += 1; model }

NWORDS = train(words('big.txt').read))

ALPHABET = 'abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz'.split //

def edits1(word)
  s = (0..word.size).map{|i| [word[0,i], word[i,word.size]]}
  deletes    ={|a,b| !b.empty? ? a + b[1..-1] : nil}.compact
  transposes ={|a,b| b.size > 1 ? a + b[1].chr + b[0].chr + b[2..-1] : nil}.compact
  replaces   ={|a,b| !b.empty? ?{|c| a + c + b[1..-1]} : nil}.flatten.compact
  inserts    ={|a,b|{|c| a + c + b}}.flatten + transposes + replaces + inserts)

def known_edits2(word)
  s = edits1(word).map do |e1| 
    edits1(e1).map{|e2| NWORDS.include?(e2) ? e2 : nil}.compact
  s.empty? ? nil :

def known(words)
  s ={|w| NWORDS.include?(w)})
  s.empty? ? nil : s

def correct(word)
  candidates = known([word]) || known(edits1(word)) || known_edits2(word) || [word]
  candidates.max{|a,b| NWORDS[a] <=> NWORDS[b] }

To run this, download the data file, put the code in a file called spelling.rb, then start up IRB:

$ wget
$ irb -r spelling -f --simple-prompt
>> correct "speling"
=> "spelling"
>> correct "korrecter"
=> "corrected"

This one weighs in at 30 lines. I tried to do this as close to the Python implementation as possible. I also tried to use idiomatic Ruby. You could shave the number of lines down below 21, but it wouldn’t meet any reasonable Ruby style guidelines. I’m still probably cheating a little as a few of those lines are approaching 100 characters, but it’s at least reasonable, in my opinion. Here are some things I noticed that caused the Ruby version to be longer or less clear:

  1. end vs. significant indentation

    6 of the lines are just an end statement. Python uses indentation to end methods, so the end statements aren’t needed in Python. This adds more lines, but has trade offs. I actually really like the idea of significant indentation, it’s one of the reasons that I’m such a big fan of Haml. But it falls down in certain places. For example, Ruby has Embedded Ruby, which looks similar to JSP or PHP, but it’s actually trivial to implement the basic cases. It truly is embedded Ruby, because the code between the <% %> and <%= %> tags is just ruby code. You commonly see things like this:

    <% if logged_in? %>
      Welcome, <%= current_user.login %>
    <% else %>
      Howdy Stranger!
    <% end >

    You can’t do this in Python because of the lack of the end statement. This is why I’m surprised Haml was invented in Ruby and not Python. In Python, it fits with the language and is actually necessary, whereas in Ruby, significant indentation isn’t part of the language and ERB is actually pretty good. There is a Python port of HAML, but I’m not sure how well that works or how widely it is used in the Python community.

  2. List Comprehensions vs. Blocks

    Python and Ruby, compared to C, Java, etc., have very powerful, concise syntax for iterating through and transforming collections, but they are very different. Python uses list comprehensions and Ruby uses blocks. As you can see above, there are certain cases where list comprehensions are very compact. List comprehensions can have a guard, which is a little cleaner than the Ruby equivalent where you have to return nil if the guard doesn’t match and then compact that result. Also, when you want to iterate over two lists, you can do so with mutliple for statements, whereas in Ruby you do nested blocks and then flatten the result.

  3. Collection Slicing

    Python has a little cleaner, more consistent syntax for breaking up collections into sub collections. It also treats strings as a collection of characters more consistently.

  4. Truthiness

    In Python, many things are considered false. I’m not sure what the entire list is, but it seems to include empty collections (and therefore empty strings) as empty. Since Ruby only treats nil and false as false, we have to return nil instead of an empty set from the known and known_edits2 methods, so that the series of statements in the first line of the correct method will work correctly.

In summary, in this case, the Python code is shorter and clearer, but it’s pretty close. I’m sure there are other code examples where the Ruby code would be a little shorter, but I do think in general, Ruby and Python are going to be pretty close in terms of code clarity and number of lines of code.

Posted in Technology | Topics Python, Ruby

Ain't Nothing But A G Thang

October 9, 2009

You’ve probably seen more than a few articles on the web showing how to build a Rack app. If not, here’s a good one to start with. You’ll quickly see that building a Rack app is really simple, which is why Rack is awesome, because it’s simple. But what about writing a Rack-compliant server? Well it turns out that is pretty easy as well.

I just pushed a little Rack-compliant HTTP Server that I wrote using GServer to github. The whole thing is less than 200 lines of code. The core of it is short enough that I can explain how it works here.

First, GServer. GServer, which is short for “Generic Server” makes it pretty simple to create a multithreaded TCP Server. Taking out some error handling code, here’s what the GServer looks like for our Rack HTTP Server:

module GThang
  class HttpServer < GServer

    attr_reader :port, :rack_app

    def initialize(options={})
      @port = options[:Port] || 8080
      @rack_app = options[:rack_app]

    def serve(socket), rack_app, port).handle_request


So all there is to a GServer is basically a serve method. This will be called each time a client connects to the server. The argument to the method is the client socket connection. You read and write data from the socket as you see fit for your application. As you can see here, we just pass the socket, along with the rack app and the port to the RackHandler initializer and then call handle_request on that. We’ll look at how you setup the rack app in a minute, but first let’s take a look at the meat of what the RackHandler does. The handle_request method looks like this:

def handle_request
  return unless add_rack_variables_to_env
  return unless add_connection_info_to_env
  return unless add_request_line_info_to_env
  return unless add_headers_to_env

So what happens is the various add_ methods build up the rack environment. Once the environment is ready, we call the rack app. The rack app responds with the standard 3 element array, which we pass off to the send_response method, which writes the actual http response to the client. Take a look at the full code for this on github for the details.

Now the fun part is that we now have a fully functional HTTP server that is capable of acting as a file server or serving a Rails app. All we have to do is give the HttpServer the correct Rails app. If you look in the examples, you see this for the file server:,,
  :Port => 8080)

Now I choose to write it this way to make it clear what is actually happening. You will normally see the builder DSL used to configure a rack app, which would look like this:


This is obviously a lot cleaner, but to understand how Rack works, you have to realize that all this is doing is what we see in the first example. A Rack app with Rack middleware is simple a chain of apps that call the next app in the chain, possibly modifying the environment or response before or after the rest of the chain is called.

So there you have it, beauty in simplicity.

Posted in Technology | Topics Rack, Ruby, Rails | 8 Comments

Why Rails 3 Will Require Ruby 1.8.7

September 14, 2009

This past weekend I attended the Windy City Rails conference. It was in a great location in the heart of downtown Chicago and seemed to have a pretty good turn out. There were many great talks but this blog post will be focusing on a specific talk, and more precisely, part of a talk. Yehuda Katz gave a talk on the status of Rails 3. One of the things that he mentioned, which you may have already heard, is that Rails 3 will require Ruby 1.8.7 or higher, dropping support for Ruby 1.8.6. He also mentioned why they are doing this and I found the reason to be interesting. It’s not that the Rails core team wants to try to take advantage of any specific new features, it’s that Ruby 1.8.6 has a bug which has been fixed in 1.8.7.

To see the bug in action, I recommend that you install Ruby Version Manager (rvm). Once you have installed rvm, install Ruby 1.8.6 and Ruby 1.8.7.

The bug is that in Ruby 1.8.6, the hash method for Hash doesn’t generate the same hash code for different hashes with the same values:

$ rvm use 1.8.6
$ irb
ruby-1.8.6-p383 > {:x => 1}.hash
 => 1313270 
ruby-1.8.6-p383 > {:x => 1}.hash
 => 1307060 
ruby-1.8.6-p383 > {:x => 1}.hash
 => 1296440 
ruby-1.8.6-p383 > {:x => 1} == {:x => 1}
 => true
ruby-1.8.6-p383 > h = {{:x => 1} => "foo"}
 => {{:x=>1}=>"foo"} 
ruby-1.8.6-p383 > h[{:x => 1}]
 => nil

So despite the fact that two hashes have the same values and are equal, you can’t use a hash as a key in a hash, because that depends on the hash codes of the values being equal, which they aren’t. This is fixed in Ruby 1.8.7:

$ rvm use 1.8.7
$ irb
ruby-1.8.7-p174 > {:x => 1}.hash
 => 327875 
ruby-1.8.7-p174 > {:x => 1}.hash
 => 327875 
ruby-1.8.7-p174 > {:x => 1}.hash
 => 327875 
ruby-1.8.7-p174 > {:x => 1} == {:x => 1}
 => true 
ruby-1.8.7-p174 > h = {{:x => 1} => "foo"}
 => {{:x=>1}=>"foo"} 
ruby-1.8.7-p174 > h[{:x => 1}]
 => "foo" 

This is important because you could use a hash cache calls to a method that expects a hash, but only if you can use a hash as the key. This is one of the main reasons Rails 3 is going to require 1.8.7. They could make it worth for both 1.8.6 and 1.8.7 and higher, but why? It simplifies things to just require that you upgrade to Ruby 1.8.7 to use Rails 3. If you are using 1.8.6, this is probably a gotcha that you should be aware of.

Posted in Technology | Topics Ruby, Rails

Infinite Recursion

September 2, 2009

A few days ago I posted an article on Tail Call Optimization. One really quick way to determine if any language/VM/interpreter performs Tail Call Optimization (TCO) is to write a function that calls itself, in other words, creating an infinitely recursive function. If the function just runs forever and doesn’t return, the interpreter is doing TCO, otherwise you will get some sort of stack overflow error. So I decided to test a variety of languages to see what happens when you write an infinitely recursive function. First up is ruby:

def forever


It was no surprise to me that running this results in this error:

run.rb:2:in `forever': stack level too deep (SystemStackError)
	from run.rb:2:in `forever'
	from run.rb:5

Ruby doesn’t have TCO, I knew that. Next up, Python:

def forever(): forever()


This has a similar result, but the stack track is a little more revealing:

Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "", line 3, in <module>
  File "", line 1, in forever
    def forever(): forever()
  File "", line 1, in forever
    def forever(): forever()
  File "", line 1, in forever
    def forever(): forever()
  File "", line 1, in forever
    def forever(): forever()
RuntimeError: maximum recursion depth exceeded

This shows pretty clearly what is going on, the stack frames are pilling up and eventually it gets to the point where the Python interpreter says enough is enough. Interestingly enough, this mailing list thread shows that it’s completely feasible to add TCO to Python and Guido just doesn’t want to add it.

JavaScript is no surprise either, but we can write our infinitely recursive function with an interesting little twist:

(function(){ arguments.callee() })()

Yes that’s right, it’s an anonymous recursive function! Running this with SpiderMonkey results in InternalError: too much recursion. So how about Java:

class Run {
  public static void main(String[] args) {
    Run run = new Run();
  public void forever() {

The stack trace for this one looks a bit like the Python one, we see a stack frame for each iteration:

Exception in thread "main" java.lang.StackOverflowError
	at Run.forever(
	at Run.forever(
	at Run.forever(
	at Run.forever(

So that means no TCO on the JVM. So Scala doesn’t have TCO, right?

def forever : Unit = forever


Wrong. This one runs forever. Scala does TCO with some bytecode tricks which Nick Wiedenbrueck explains really well in this blog post.

Clojure is a functional Lisp saddled with the problem of no-TCO on the JVM, but it gets around it in a slightly different way than Scala. If you write a tail recursive function like this:

(defn forever [] (forever))

You will get a java.lang.StackOverflowError just as you do in Java. Instead, Clojure provides a language level feature to do recursion:

(defn forever [] (recur))

Calling recur in the function makes it call the function again. recur also checks that it is in the tail recursive position, which ends up being an interesting feature because you have to explicitly say “I expect this to do TCO”. In other languages that do it transparently, you might think TCO is happening, but it might not be and you won’t find out until you get a stack overflow error. Also, this construct allows us to have recursive anonymous functions:

((fn [] (recur)))

Erlang, being a function language, has TCO as well:



forever() ->

Now one thing all of these functional languages that have TCO; Scala, Clojure and Erlang, all have in common is that while the infinitely recursive function runs, it essentially does nothing, but it will peg your CPU utilization to nearly 100%. This next language, Haskell, being the mother of all functional langauges, of course has TCO. Here’s the function:

forever = forever

Yes, that’s a function. And if you call it with forever, it just sits there and runs forever. But here’s the crazy thing, it uses no CPU. My guess is that it has to do with lazy evaluation, but I’m not sure. Any ideas?

Active Record Random

August 30, 2009

Are you looking for a way to select a random record that plays nice with named scope in your Rails app? Throw this into config/initializers/active_record_random.rb:

class ActiveRecord::Base
  def self.random
    if (c = count) > 0
      first(:offset => rand(c)) 

Now you can call random the same way you would call first or all. That means you can do Widget.random to get a random widget or Widget.fancy.random, to get a random fancy widget, assuming you have defined the fancy named scope for Widget.