It’s been a long few months. Lots of traveling, interviewing, moving, & working. Stressful. I’ve been busy, to say the least.

I’m still learning Erlang. It’s one of my favorite languages to write. I really like the Prolog-esque syntax, the interactive REPL, good list processing, decent documentation, et cetera. And I’m not even going to mention OTP (or Elixir).

One thing that stands out to me is the bitstring/binary processing, especially bit comprehensions. It’s much different from the masking & shifting I grew up with in C. This perhaps isn’t what Erlang is known for (coordination, availability, ..), but it’s certainly not a weak point.


Lots of languages have a map function to apply a function to each element of a list.

coffee> [1,2,3].map (n) -> -n
[ -1, -2, -3 ]

Erlang’s got one: lists:map/2. Erlang’s also got list comprehensions, too, which do roughly the same thing.

1> lists:map(fun(N) -> -N end, [1, 2, 3]).
2> [ -N || N <- [1, 2, 3] ].

So why use comprehensions? For one, they’re nice to read. For two, lists:map/2 will work on any list, but it won’t work on bitstrings. Bitstrings are like lists of bits, but you can’t just go and use lists:map/2 on a bitstring. And there isn’t a binary:map/2, either! If you want to map over a bitstring or binary, you’ll probably want to use a comprehension (or write your own binary:map/3).

This sort of makes sense, though: when you’re mapping over a list, it’s pretty clear how many things you want to map over at once: one (usually). When you’re mapping over a bitstring/binary, though, there’s not really a good default: do you want to map over each bit? Each byte? Each word?

This is where bit comprehensions really shine: you can pull off any number of bits at a time, and you can generate either bitstrings or lists. Want to map over each bit?

1> Not = fun (<<Bit:1>>) -> 1 - Bit end.
2> Bits = <<240>>.
3> Bits_ = << <<(Not(<<B:1>>)):1>> || <<B:1>> <= <<Bits/bits>> >>.    
4> Bits = << <<(Not(<<B:1>>)):1>> || <<B:1>> <= <<Bits_/bits>> >>. 

Want to map over each bit, but generate a list?

1> [ Bit || <<Bit:1>> <= <<255>> ].

Want to break down a bitstring into 4-bit pieces? Again, Erlang makes this pretty easy:

1> [ <<Nibble:4>> || <<Nibble:4>> <= <<15, 240>> ].

The only gotcha here is that if you don’t annotate the width of the bitstring you’re mapping to, it’ll default to 8-bits wide:

1> FourBytes = << <<Nibble>> || <<Nibble:4>> <= <<15, 240>> >>.
2> byte_size(FourBytes).
3> FourNibbles = << <<Nibble:4>> || <<Nibble:4>> <= <<15, 240>> >>.
4> byte_size(FourNibbles).                                         

Isn’t that nice? I think so. The syntax can be unfamiliar at first, but it’s pretty clear what’s going on. Bitstring generators are a good way to use <= for something other than less-than-or-equals (like most languages do).