Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Learn You Some Erlang for Great Good! (a review)

Learn You Some Erlang for Great Good! (LYSE) is one of the best books to learn about the programming language and the system Erlang/OTP. This article includes a brief review about LYSE of No Starch Press version, my impression about the author Fred Hébert (Fred), and related miscellaneous things.

Fred is a young person. I assume he was born in the late 1980s. That itself makes LYSE extraordinary. The writing style of LYSE is purely casual and conversational; it's quite different from other Erlang classics, such as Joe Armstrong's Programming Erlang (I'm eagerly waiting for the Second Edition!) and Erlang Programming of Francesco Cesarini and Simon Thompson (I'm also eagerly waiting for a new book from the authors with Robert Virding this time!), let alone the first book of Erlang called Concurrent Programming in Erlang published in the 1990s. Those classic books are written by much older people, and they follow the traditional textbook format. LYSE does not. You will also be surprised by the illustrations drawn by Fred. Those drawings are so creative that I've even got distracted with them while reading the otherwise very technical and detailed contents. Maybe I've got too old. Nevertheless, you need to know LYSE is not an ordinary textbook.

I've seen no book on Erlang about the complete coverage of the language and the OTP library other than the online manual at erlang.org and the source code repository at GitHub. LYSE is not a manual either; it is rather a collection of live stories and practical examples of Erlang based on the hard-earned experience of Fred himself. It's written for those who actually write the code, develop the packages, and release the products. For those who want to study from the very beginning, I recommend Simon St. Laurent's Introducing Erlang.

I will avoid digging into explaining the whole contents of LYSE, because the explanation will take the same amount of words the book has. LYSE is a thick book which has approximately 600 pages, so it's not something for an easy reading. I have to confess there are many things I didn't know and I haven't tested yet in the book. The book hyper-comprehensively covers the necessary topics for dealing with the day-to-day tasks on Erlang/OTP development, from the language basics to gen_server, (the rage against the) finite state machines, package release, Mnesia and the OTP internal database modules, and a proposal of how to read all the Erlang punctuations in English.

In LYSE, the semantic details of the language and system elements of Erlang/OTP are meticulously well-written. One of the most impressive contents is about the intentional avoidance of tail-call optimization in the try-catch exception handling; Fred simply writes:

The protected part of an exception can't be tail recursive.
(Chapter 7, “Protecting The Right Thing")

I will not explain the reason here, but this sort of caremad attitude in the details makes LYSE a professional handbook, if not a textbook (and it is not, I repeat.)

Fred is a very talkative and energetic person. I really admire the level of his English fluency especially when he makes a thunderstorm-like (real) lightning talk. He is also helpful and has assisted a lot of newcomers as his erlang-questions mailing list articles show. The book represents his personality very well. If you are an experienced programmer, LYSE is also an interesting book as a general reading, because the book will remind you of how you have been self-teaching yourself.

I recommend LYSE to all those who want to learn Erlang and OTP, especially to those who want to experiment and self-learn the language and system. If you want to know the contents first, check out the free online version.

Appendix: about the book title

When I saw the title of LYSE first time, and when I saw the title of the cousin book of LYSE about Haskell called Learn You a Haskell for Great Good! (LYAH), I thought there was something severely wrong with the grammar, even from a speaker of English as a second language. I've learned at school that the verb learn will not take a person as the object, and so does my New Oxford American Dictionary built into OS X say. I had a hard time to explain the meaning of this sentence to some Japanese experts who are not familiar with this type of non-standard English sentence. And I have to confess the phrase “Great Good” looked non-standard to me too.

On the other hand, the title of LYSE looks much more understandable to me if I see it as a literal translation of a non-English Indo-European language. Fred is a proud francophone Quebecker, and he is also an excellent English speaker and writer. I can imagine Fred reads and understands the title of LYSE in a complete different manner than I do. So I will complain no more about the title of LYSE or LYAH.


I've been sent a review copy of LYSE from No Starch Press on January 2013. In this article I mostly refer to the No Starch Press version, though I also have read the online free version. Note well: I have ordered and purchased my own copy of LYSE from No Starch by myself before receiving the review copy!

I should also note that I've met Fred at least three times at Erlang Factory SF Bay Area 2011, 2012, and 2013, so this review may be heavily biased. (I hope this review is not too late, Fred!)


Thanks to Jessica Miller of No Starch Press for sending me a copy of LYSE and helping me about what to do with the 600 pages of paper :)