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Fri, 10 Jan 2014

DateTime::Moonpig, a saner interface to DateTime

(This article was previously published at the Perl Advent Calendar on 2013-12-23.)

The DateTime suite is an impressive tour de force, but I hate its interface. The methods it provides are usually not the ones you want, and the things it makes easy are often things that are not useful.

Mutators

The most obvious example is that it has too many mutators. I believe that date-time values are a kind of number, and should be treated like numbers. In particular they should be immutable. Rik Signes has a hair-raising story about an accidental mutation that caused a hard to diagnose bug, because the add_duration method modifies the object on which it is called, instead of returning a new object.

DateTime::Duration

But the most severe example, the one that drives me into a rage, is that the subtract_datetime method returns a DateTime::Duration object, and this object is never what you want, because it is impossible to use it usefully.

For example, suppose you would like to know how much time elapses between 1969-04-02 02:38:17 EST and 2013-12-25 21:00:00 EST. You can set up the two DateTime objects for the time, and subtract them using the overloaded minus operator:

    #!perl
    my ($a) = DateTime->new( year => 1969, month => 04, day => 02,
                             hour => 2, minute => 38, second => 17,
                             time_zone => "America/New_York" ) ;

    my ($b) = DateTime->new( year => 2013, month => 12, day => 25,
                             hour => 21, minute => 0, second => 0,
                             time_zone => "America/New_York" ) ;

    my $diff = $b - $a;

Internally this invokes subtract_datetime to yield a DateTime::Duration object for the difference. The DateTime::Duration object $diff will contain the information that this is a difference of 536 months, 23 days, 1101 minutes, and 43 seconds, a fact which seems to me to be of very limited usefulness.

You might want to know how long this interval is, so you can compare it to similar intervals. So you might want to know how many seconds this is. It happens that the two times are exactly 1,411,669,328 seconds apart, but there's no way to get the $diff object to tell you this.

It seems like there are methods that will get you the actual elapsed time in seconds, but none of them will do it. For example, $diff->in_units('seconds') looks promising, but will return 43, which is the 43 seconds left over after you've thrown away the 536 months, 23 days, and 1101 minutes. I don't know what the use case for this is supposed to be.

And indeed, no method can tell you how long the duration really is, because the subtraction has thrown away all the information about how long the days and months and years were—days, months and years vary in length—so it simply doesn't know how much time this object actually represents.

Similarly if you want to know how many days there are between the two dates, the DateTime::Duration object won't tell you because it can't tell you. If you had the elapsed seconds difference, you could convert it to the correct number of days simply by dividing by 86400 and rounding off. This works because, even though days vary in length, they don't vary by much, and the variations cancel out over the course of a year. If you do this you find that the elapsed number of days is approximately 16338.7653, which rounds off to 16338 or 16339 depending on how you want to treat the 18-hour time-of-day difference. This result is not quite exact, but the error is on the order of 0.000002%. So the elapsed seconds are useful, and you can compute other useful values with them, and get useful answers. In contrast, DateTime::Duration's answer of "536 months and 23 days" is completely useless because months vary in length by nearly 10% and DateTime has thrown away the information about how long the months were. The best you can do to guess the number of days from this is to multiply the 536 months by 30.4375, which is the average number of days in a month, and add 23. This is clumsy, and gets you 16337.5 days—which is close, but wrong.

To get what I consider a useful answer out of the DateTime objects you must not use the overloaded subtraction operator; instead you must do this:

    #!perl
    $b->subtract_datetime_absolute($a)->in_units('seconds')

What's DateTime::Moonpig for?

DateTime::Moonpig attempts to get rid of the part of DateTime I don't like and keep the part I do like, by changing the interface and leaving the internals alone. I developed it for the Moonpig billing system that Rik Signes and I did; hence the name.

DateTime::Moonpig introduces five main changes to the interface of DateTime:

  1. Most of the mutators are gone. They throw fatal exceptions if you try to call them.

  2. The overridden addition and subtraction operators have been changed to eliminate DateTime::Duration entirely. Subtracting two DateTime::Moonpig objects yields the difference in seconds, as an ordinary Perl number. This means that instead of

      #!perl
      $x = $b->subtract_datetime_absolute($a)->in_units('seconds')
    

    one can write

      #!perl
      $x = $b - $a
    

    From here it's easy to get the approximate number of days difference: just divide by 86400. Similarly, dividing this by 3600 gets the number of hours difference.

    An integer number of seconds can be added to or subtracted from a DateTime::Moonpig object; this yields a new object representing a time that is that many seconds later or earlier. Writing $date + 2 is much more convenient than writing $date->clone->add( seconds => 2 ).

    If you are not concerned with perfect exactness, you can write

       #!perl
       sub days { $_[0] * 86400 }
    
    
       my $tomorrow = $now + days(1);
    

    This might be off by an hour if there is an intervening DST change, or by a second if there is an intervening leap second, but in many cases one simply doesn't care.

    There is nothing wrong with the way DateTime overloads < and >, so DateTime::Moonpig leaves those alone.

  3. The constructor is extended to accept an epoch time such as is returned by Perl's built-in time() or stat() functions. This means that one can abbreviate this:

      #!perl
      DateTime->from_epoch( epoch => $epoch )
    

    to this:

      #!perl
      DateTime::Moonpig->new( $epoch )
    
  4. The default time zone has been changed from DateTime's "floating" time zone to UTC. I think the "floating" time zone is a mistake, and best avoided. It has bad interactions with set_time_zone, which DateTime::Moonpig does not disable, because it is not actually a mutator—unless you use the "floating" time zone. An earlier blog article discusses this.

  5. I added a few additional methods I found convenient. For example there is a $date->st that returns the date and time in the format YYYY-MM-DD HH:MM::SS, which is sometimes handy for quick debugging. (The st is for "string".)

Under the covers, it is all just DateTime objects, which seem to do what one needs. Other than the mutators, all the many DateTime methods work just the same; you are even free to use ->subtract_datetime to obtain a DateTime::Duration object if you enjoy being trapped in an absurdist theatre production.

When I first started this module, I thought it was likely to be a failed experiment. I expected that the Moonpig::DateTime objects would break once in a while, or that some operation on them would return a DateTime instead of a Moonpig::DateTime, which would cause some later method call to fail. But to my surprise, it worked well. It has been in regular use in Moonpig for several years.

I recently split it out of Moonpig, and released it to CPAN. I will be interested to find out if it works well in other contexts. I am worried that disabling the mutators has left a gap in functionality that needs to be filled by something else. I will be interested to hear reports from people who try.

DateTime::Moonpig on CPAN.


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