Small and Friendly Errors with Cider

Table of Contents

Growing by removing is growing stronger.

Less obtrusive Cider errors for a quicker repl-driven experience and practice. How I came to like error overlays.


Figure 1: A rose plant growing, the sun and speed of light. The idea of a computer.

The Quick-Eval

Repl-driven development is a philosophy and practice that focuses on using a REPL (Read-Eval-Print Loop) to interactively evaluate code snippets and see their results immediately.

The key is the whole language is always there and being able to make small experiments to the point where it meshes with your thinking.1

A big part of the practice of Repl-driven development is something I am calling the Quick-Eval flow for this blog post.

  1. Modify source code sexp
  2. eval
  3. Repeat

I want to optimize this practice. The speed of 1-2-3 can easily go below 5 seconds and everything is possible here.

  1. By honing lispy2 skills and juggling those sexps.
  2. By smoothing out the edges of cider-eval.

This aspect of Repl-driven development, the Quick-Eval involves using the mind, the fingers, and the editor. It's like playing an instrument or learning a motor skill like juggling - it requires dedication and repetition to master the movements. But the beauty of this practice lies in the ability to customize the tool to fit your thought process, unlocking the limitless potential for effectiveness. Knowledge of the editor becomes a key to a world of endless detail, where you can continuously optimize speed, the expressivity of intent and precision. The goal then becomes programming at the speed of thought, making structural editing a superpower of the Clojure programming language. And with the power to shape Emacs into what you desire, the possibilities are truly endless.

Speed cubers deconstruct the minutia for their finger tricks. This means being explicit and thoughtful about what movements to do during the performance.

This blog post is about an aspect of 2, smoothing out cider-eval, by eliminating error popups.

Let it flow

The first time I saw a Clojure stack trace, I thought my computer is broken.3

(Ariel Alexa)

Alex Miller mentioned4 recently that Clojure error messages are designed to not include the stack trace by default.

A lot of these tools will automatically print the stack trace and the Clojure REPL never automatically prints stack traces […] It prints you like a 2 line error message. And you can ask for the stack trace if you want additional information. We intentionally don't show you that because usually most of that information is not useful to you.

Nice, sounds like less heavy error messages are something to try out!

Cider already has a minimalistic error feedback available:

(setq-default cider-show-error-buffer nil)

With this setting, we get a little overlay right next to our cursor when evaluating with error.


Figure 2: Emacs cider eval error overlay displaying a runtime error message

We achieve a more smoothed-out Quick-Eval flow.

The consistent presentation, regardless of the presence of errors, creates a smoother and more streamlined workflow. This helps keep the focus on the code and eliminates interruptions in the thought process.

My mind can stay in one place, focused on the code, without a wall of something was wrong disrupting my flow.

Sometimes you want to look at a stack trace

Ok *cider-error*, we can always stay friends.

I do not advocate throwing away the stack traces, at all. With REPL-driven development and Emacs we have the power to move fast, and decide to inspect the stack trace should we decide the info would be useful.

*e exists for inspecting stack traces. Also *cider-error* is still at our side, we still faithfully render our stack trace there.

A quick and precise pop lets us go to the error buffer when we decide to do so:

(defun mm/pop-cider-error ()
        (get-buffer "*cider-error*")))
      (pop-to-buffer cider-error)
     "no cider error buffer")))

(define-key cider-mode-map (kbd "C-c E") #'mm/pop-cider-error)

There is also a cider buffer selection dispatch command:

(define-key cider-mode-map (kbd "C-c X") #'cider-selector)

cider-selector into x to bring up the error buffer.

Let's not jump to conclusions

With less auto-jumping, we move slowly and deliberately and call upon our tools when we decide to do so. In practice, this can mean we jump around at insane speed, but we do so controlled.

(setq-default cider-auto-jump-to-error nil)

Currently, if you interactively eval5 and you have a compile error, Cider jumps to the top of the file. This is because we do not track a file position during the eval and Clojure only sees a piece of string, not the file.

So the most important command, cider-eval, that I want to optimize for Quick-Eval, had a rough edge and now I smoothed it out.

Errors should be friendly

Who invented that errors are red and angry?

 :background "DarkGreen"
 :foreground "white")

Now I have these green and peaceful boxes that don't make my heart rate go up.

Errors are the normal, correct behavior of my program, certainly in the context of developing. Sometimes I even eval just to check that there is an error. This is what repl-driven development gives us. And it should not feel like doing something wrong.

Spartan feedback for load-file

Currently, if you load a file and there is an error, there will be little feedback. The lack of an eval result in the echo area is signaling an error.

The extreme: Just say Did not work

In Debugging with the Scientific Method, Stuart Halloway mentioned what I would be calling Red light, Green light error feedback. The system only indicates if something worked or not, but not what specifically went wrong.

A trick in emacs if you want text invisible is you set the foreground to the same color as the background:

 :background "DarkGreen"
 :foreground "DarkGreen")


Figure 3: Emacs cider eval error overlay displayed as a full green block.

I was still seeing the error in the echo area. So I did a quick (setf debug-on-message "nothing") and found cider--display-interactive-eval-result calls message.

The visibility of the message is controlled by cider-use-overlays.

(setq-default cider-use-overlays t)

Lol, now errors are just green blocks and I do not see the error message anywhere. If that is better than getting the error message I cannot say yet.



Or the pareidit-like editor capability of your choice


What I call interactive eval is cider-eval-last-sexp etc. As opposed to cider-load-file.

Date: 2023-02-05 Sun 10:50

Email: Benjamin.Schwerdtner@gmail.com