In Ruby, some methods expect a block as a callback yielding elements of some internal data structure.

Imagine a method paginated_results on some client object that yields individual pages.

client.paginated_results(params) { |page| puts page.contents }

The method may hide away some complexity in retrieving pages.

def paginated_results(params = {})
  before  = nil
  max     = 1000
  limit   = 50
  results = []

  loop do
    page = fetch_page(params.merge(before: before, limit: limit)) # imaginary request

    results += page

    yield page

    break if results.length >= max

    before = page.last["id"]
  end
end

To callers of this method, there is an implicit data structure. Being Ruby, we may expect to be able to call Enumerable methods on this data to inspect, slice, or augment the contents in a convenient way.

But we may not have access to method's internals and the underlying data structure, especially if we're using a method from an external library. This is the case with our paginated_results example; the results array is not exposed to the method caller.

Callers of the method are forced to build up state from the outside. Here's a contrived example:

table_of_contents = []
index = 0

client.paginated_results(order: :asc) do |p|
  table_of_contents << [index+1, p.title] if p.title_page?
end

puts table_of_contents

There's another way in Ruby! We can "enumeratorize" it!

Ruby's to_enum method is defined on all objects. Quite simply, it can convert a method into Enumerator:

client.to_enum(:paginated_results, params)
# => <Enumerator ...>

What this gives us is an enumerable object that behaves as if we built up that array ourselves, which means we can call methods from the Enumerable module, chain other enumerators to augment the block arguments, use lazy, etc.

client.to_enum(:paginated_results, params).
  filter(:title_page?).
  map.with_index { |p, i| [i+i, p.title] }

I love this type of expression because it's more direct, flexible, and intention revealing. Authors need be less concerned with building up state with local variables.

In fact, this pattern is so useful that many authors have started building in to_enum to such methods for when the caller omits the block. The implementation for paginated_results might look like this:

def paginated_results(params = {})
  return to_enum(__method__, params) unless block_given?

  # rest unchanged
end

While you are free to stick with the imperative approach, I hope this post demonstrates how to_enum offers Rubyists a more declarative and functionally-flavored alternative.

Wrapping up

When you're in a punch, you can use to_enum to wrap iterative methods to add otherwise missing Enumerable properties. And, when designing your classes, consider adopting the return to_enum(__method__) unless block_given? pattern in method definitions to enhance iterative methods.

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Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

Part of the Enumerable series. Published on Dec 21, 2018