Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Responder Chain is a Collection

Timothy Wood voices some great ideas on modernizing the Cocoa responder chain. I'd like to venture that if we treat the Responder Chain as a simple collection, a singly-linked list, then such alternatives become easier to model and reason about.


NSEnumerator *responderEnumerator = [[firstResponder mapToNextObjectFromMessage] nextResponder];

I am currently abstracting from the intricate delegate mapping and other ops, these could be handled in an analog fashion. With the enumerator in place, we can obviously snapshot it to get the current state of the responder chain, and also log that.
NSArray *responders = [responderEnumerator allObjects];
NSLog(@"full responder chain:  %@",responders);

Now we can express both current features and possible variations of the Responder Chain architecture compactly as common collection operations. The current dispatch mechanism simply sends the message to the first object that is capable of responding. This corresponds to using the first object of a -select, which is expressed in the -selectFirst convenience method.

Current dispatch

[[[responders selectFirst] respondsToSelector:action] performSelector:action withObject:sender];


If I understood him correctly, Tim wants the objects in the responder chain to return an object that they would like to respond to the message. This turns the -select into a -collect (without a -collectFirst), but is otherwise very similar.

Tim's dispatch

possibleResponders = [[responders collect] responsibleTargetForAction:theAction sender:sender]];
[[possibleResponders objectAtIndex:0] performSelector:action withObject:sender];

I hope this does Tim's ideas justice, but I think the succinct formulation should make it easy to tell wether it does or not.

In terms of combining validation with target/action, I'd be somewhat wary of accidentally triggering actions when validation was meant, though I do appreciate the advantages of combining the two operations. I am not sure what value the block is adding over just having an additional BOOL parameter in the target/action method.


Combined action and validation

typedef BOOL IBAction;
-(IBAction)delete:sender  :(BOOL)onlyValidate
{
    NSArray *selection = [self selectedItems];

   if ( onlyValidate || [selection count] == 0 ) {
        return NO;
   }
   // perform the action
}
// or if you're worried about the naming issues
-(IBAction)delete:sender
{
}

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Simple Objective-XML example

Many times now, I've been asked about more Objective-XML examples. Here's a very simple one. It is adapted from Marcus Zarra's very helpful libxml and xmlreader tutorial. That tutorial shows how to parse a very simple XML format using libxml2.

The XML file parsed is the following:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>

<root>

  <person>

    <name>John Doe</name>

    <age>14</age>

  </person>

  <person>

    <name>Mary Doe</name>

    <age>14</age>

  </person>

  <person>

    <name>John Smith</name>

    <age>15</age>

  </person>

</root>

It is parsed using at application startup using the following code:

- (void)applicationDidFinishLaunching:(NSNotification*)notification

{

NSString *path = [[NSBundle mainBundle] pathForResource:@"xmlExample" ofType:@"xml"];

NSData *xmlData = [NSData dataWithContentsOfFile:path];

xmlTextReaderPtr reader = xmlReaderForMemory([xmlData bytes],

[xmlData length], 

[path UTF8String], nil, 

(XML_PARSE_NOBLANKS | XML_PARSE_NOCDATA | XML_PARSE_NOERROR | XML_PARSE_NOWARNING));

if (!reader) {

NSLog(@"Failed to load xmlreader");

return;

}

NSString *currentTagName = nil;

NSDictionary *currentPerson = nil;

NSString *currentTagValue = nil;

NSMutableArray *people = [NSMutableArray array];

char* temp;

while (true) {

if (!xmlTextReaderRead(reader)) break;

switch (xmlTextReaderNodeType(reader)) {

case XML_READER_TYPE_ELEMENT:

//We are starting an element

temp =  (char*)xmlTextReaderConstName(reader);

currentTagName = [NSString stringWithCString:temp

encoding:NSUTF8StringEncoding];

if ([currentTagName isEqualToString:@"person"]) {

currentPerson = [NSMutableDictionary dictionary];

[people addObject:currentPerson];

}

continue;

case XML_READER_TYPE_TEXT:

//The current tag has a text value, stick it into the current person

temp = (char*)xmlTextReaderConstValue(reader);

currentTagValue = [NSString stringWithCString:temp

encoding:NSUTF8StringEncoding];

if (!currentPerson) return;

[currentPerson setValue:currentTagValue forKey:currentTagName];

currentTagValue = nil;

currentTagName = nil;

default: continue;

}

}

NSLog(@"%@:%s Final data: %@", [self class], _cmd, people);

[self setRecords:people];

}

To parse it using MAX you need to add MPWXmlKit and MPWFoundation to your project, and then replace the code above with the following:

- (void)applicationDidFinishLaunching:(NSNotification*)notification

{

NSString *path = [[NSBundle mainBundle] pathForResource:@"xmlExample" ofType:@"xml"];

NSArray *people=[[MPWMAXParser parser] parsedDataFromURL:[NSURL fileURLWithPath:path]];

[self setRecords:people];

}

Some test-driven-development notes

A couple of random points that might be of interest:

Code coverage tools

  if ( rare-condition ) {
      -is this code tested?-
  }
If you actually followed test-first, then the code in the rare if is definitely tested, because if there isn't failing test case for the rare condition, then there is no reason for the code or the test to exist.

Another objection could be that people won't follow the techniques. I haven't found this to be a big or recurring practical problem so far, and agile techniqes tend to be empirically driven. If you suspect that this is a problem you are seeing in your environment, running a code-coverage tool to put some data behind your suspicion may be a good idea.

Test before or test after?

Note that the solution to the code-coverage question above does not work if tests are written after the fact: in this case, the rare-case is likely not to be covered because it was written without being forced by a failing unit test.

Many if not most of the benefits of TDD are related to the way they shape the design of the code, all of these benefits obviously don't accrue if you've already designed or even written the code. In fact, if you ask the XP folks about it, they will tell you that TDD is not for ensuring quality, it is exclusively for helping with coding and design.

For example, figuring out how to test something will force you to come to a clarity about what the code is supposed to do that just writing the code usually does not.

Knowing that your tests cover your code (see above) allows you to do extremely radical refactorings at any point in the development process. The ability to refactor at any time in turn allows you to keep your initial designs simple without coding for anticipated changes. Not coding for anticipated changes that may not occur or may occur differently than you expect in turns allows you to move more quickly, which more than pays for the expense of the tests.

Furthermore, the tests force you to think how you can call the functionality you are about to implement, which means it shapes architecture towards simplicity, high cohesion and low-coupling.

Generating tests

Auto-generating tests for existing methods is a means of subverting the test-driven approach: there will be the appearance of testing, but with virtually none of the benefits. It is probably worse than not having tests, because in the latter case you at least know that you're not covered.

Is it a good way of starting with unit test coverage for legacy code? No. See the C2 wiki entry for a good explanation of how to approach this case. In short, start refactoring and adding unit tests when you actually need to touch the code, be it for new features or to fix defects that are scheduled to be fixed.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Blocked-C II

Damien Pollet thinks my comparison between Objective-C blocks and HOM is not completely fair:
… from my (Smalltalk) experience, the block passed to #collect: is often not a single message send, but rather a small adhoc expression, for which it does not really make sense to define a named method. Or you might need both the element and its key/index… how does HOM deal with that?
These are certainly valid observations, and were some of the reasons that I didn't really think that much of HOM for the first couple of years after coming up with it back in 1997 or so. Since then, I've become less and less convinced that the problems raised are a big concern, for a number of reasons.

Inline vs. Named

One reason is that I actually looked at usage of blocks in the Squeak image, and found that the majority of blocks with at least one argument (so not ifTrue:, whileTrue: and other control structures) actually did contain just a single message send, and so could be immediately expressed as HOMs. Second, I noticed that there were a lot of fairly large (3+ LOC) blocks that should have been separate methods but weren't. That's when I discovered that the presence of blocks actually encourages bad code, and the 'limitation' of HOMs actually was encouraging better(-factored) code.

Of course, I wasn't particularly convinced by that line of reasoning, because it smelled too much like "that's not a bug, that's a feature". Until that is, I saw others with less vested interest reporting the same observation:

But are these really limitations? After using higher order messages for a while I've come to think that they are not. The first limitation encourages you move logic that belongs to an object into that object's implementation instead of in the implementation of methods of other objects. The second limitation encourages you to represent application concepts as objects rather than procedural code. Both limitations have the surprising effect of guiding the code away from a procedural style towards better object-oriented design.
My experience has been that Nat is right, having a mechanism that pushes you towards factoring and naming is better for your code that one that pushes you towards inlining and anonymizing.

Objective-C I

In fact, the Cocoa example that Apple gives for blocks illustrates this idea very well. They implement a "Finder like" sorting mechanism using blocks:

static NSStringCompareOptions comparisonOptions = NSCaseInsensitiveSearch | NSNumericSearch |
        NSWidthInsensitiveSearch | NSForcedOrderingSearch;
NSLocale *currentLocale = [NSLocale currentLocale];
 
NSComparator finderSort = ^(id string1, id string2) {
    NSRange string1Range = NSMakeRange(0, [string1 length]);
    return [string1 compare:string2 options:comparisonOptions range:string1Range locale:currentLocale];
};
 
NSLog(@"finderSort: %@", [stringsArray sortedArrayUsingComparator:finderSort]);

The block syntax is so verbose that there is no hope of actually defining the block inline, the supposed raison d'etre for blocks. So we actually need to take the block out-of-line and name it. So it looks suspiciously like an equivalent implementation using functions:

static NSStringCompareOptions comparisonOptions = NSCaseInsensitiveSearch | NSNumericSearch |
        NSWidthInsensitiveSearch | NSForcedOrderingSearch;
NSLocale *currentLocale = [NSLocale currentLocale];
 
static NSComparisonResult finderSort(id string1, id string2) {
    NSRange string1Range = NSMakeRange(0, [string1 length]);
    return [string1 compare:string2 options:comparisonOptions range:string1Range locale:currentLocale];
};
 
NSLog(@"finderSort: %@", [stringsArray sortedArrayUsingFunction:finderSort context:nil hint:nil]);

Of course, something as useful as a Finder-like comparison sort really deserves to be exposed and made available for reuse, rather than hidden inside one specific sort. Objective-C categories are just the mechanism for this sort of thing:

@implementation NSString(finderCompare)
-(NSSComparisonResult)finderCompare:(NSString*)string2) {
    NSRange myRange = NSMakeRange(0, [self length]);
    return [self compare:string2 options: NSCaseInsensitiveSearch | NSNumericSearch |
        NSWidthInsensitiveSearch | NSForcedOrderingSearch range:string1Range locale:[NSLocale currentLocale]];
}
@end
NSLog(@"finderSort: %@", [stringsArray sortedArrayUsingSelector:@selector(finderCompare:)]);

Note that some of these criticisms are specific to Apple's implementation of blocks, they do not apply in the same way to Smalltalk blocks, which are a lot less noisy.

Objective-C II

Objective-C has at least one other pertinent difference from Smalltalk, which is that it already contains control structures in the basic language, without blocks. (Of course, those control structures can also take blocks as arguments, but these are the different types of blocks that are delimited by curly braces and cannot be passed around as first class objects).

This means that in Objective-C, we already have the ability to do all the iterating we need, mechanisms such as blocks and HOM are mostly conveniences, not required building blocks. If we need indices, use a for loop. If we require keys, use a key-enumerator and iterate over that.

In fact, I remember when my then colleagues started working with a enum-filters, a HOM-precursor that's strikingly similar to the Google Toolbox's GTMSEnumerator+Filter.m. They really took to the elegance, but then also wanted to use it for various special cases. They laughed when they realized that those special-cases were actually already handled better by existing C control structures such as for-loops.

FP, HANDs and Aggregate Operations

While my dislike of blocks is easy to discount by the usual inventor's pride (your child must be ugly for mine to be pretty), that interpretation actually reverses the causation: I came up with HOM because I was never very fond of blocks. In fact, when I first encountered Smalltalk during my university years I was enthralled until I saw the iteration methods.

That's not to say that do:, collect: and friends were not light-years ahead of Algol-type control structures, they most definitely were and still are. Having some sort of higher-order mechanism is vastly superior than not having a higher-order mechanism. I do wish that "higher order mechanism" and "blocks" weren't used as synonyms quite as much, because they are not, in fact, synonymous.

When I first encountered Smalltalk blocks, I had just previously been exposed to Backus's FP, and that was just so much prettier! In FP functions are composed using functionals without ever talking about actual data, and certainly without talking about individual elements. I have always been on the lookout for higher levels of expression, and this was such a higher level. Now taking things down to "here's another element, what do you want to do with that" was definitely a step back, and quite frankly a bit of a let-down.

The fundamental difference I see is that in Smalltalk there is still an iteration, even if it is encapsulated: we iterate over some collection and then execute some code for each element. In FP, and in HOM, there is instead an aggregate operation: we take an existing operation and lift it up as applying to an entire collection.

This difference might seem contrived, but the research done with the HANDS system demonstrates that it is very real:

After creating HANDS, I conducted another user study to examine the effectiveness of three features of HANDS: queries, aggregate operations, and data visibility. HANDS was compared with a limited version that lacked these features. In the limited version, programmers were able to achieve the desired results but had to use more traditional programming techniques. Children using the full-featured HANDS system performed significantly better than their peers who used the limited version.
I also find this difference to be very real.

The difference between iterating with blocks and lifting operations to be aggregate operations also shows up in the fact that the lifting can be done on any combination of the involved parameters, whereas you tend to only iterate over one collection at a time, because the collection and the iteration are in focus.

Symmetry

Finally, the comparison to functional languages shows a couple of interesting asymmetries: in a functional language, higher order functions can be applied both to named functions and to anonymous functions. In essence, the higher order mechanism just takes functions and doesn't care wether they are named or not. Also the higher order mechanism uses the same mechanisms (functions) as the base system,

With block-based higher order mechanisms, on the other hand, we must make the argument an anonymous function (that's what a block is), and we cannot use a named function, bringing us back to the conundrum mentioned at the start that this mechanisms encourages bad code. Not only that, it also turns out that the base mechanism (messages and methods) is different from the higher order mechanism, which requires anonymous functions, rather than methods.

HOM currently solves only the latter part of this asymmetry, making the higher order mechanism the same as the base mechanism, that mechanism being messaging in both cases. However, it currently cannot solve the other asymmetry: where blocks support unnamed, inline code and not named code, HOM supports named but not unnamed code. While I think that this is the better choice in the larger number of cases, it would be nice to actually suport both.

One solution to this problem might be to simply support both blocks and Higher Order Messaging, but it seems to me that the more elegant solution would be to support inline definition of more-or-less anonymous methods that could then be integrated into the Higher Order Messaging framework.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Exploring the Weather Underground with Objective-XML and Objective-Smalltalk

Having taken up various forms of flying last year, I have developed a strong interest in the weather, particularly wind information. While there are various web-sites with relevant information, for example Jeff Greenbaum's excellent Wind Conditions Page for Pacifica page, they don't really present the information quite the way I need, and also don't really work well on small mobile devices...

Fixing that should hopefully just be ASMOP. The Weather Underground fortunately has some reasonably well-documented XML APIs, let's see what they have to offer and wether we can get to the data we want.

First, let's fire up the interactive Smalltalk Shell (stsh) and load the Objective-XML framework.

marcel@spock[Projects]stsh
> context loadFramework:'MPWXmlKit'
Next, let's have a look at the raw XML returned by the Weather Underground APIs.
> urlstr:='http://api.wunderground.com/weatherstation/WXCurrentObXML.asp?ID=KCADALYC1'
> url:=NSURL URLWithString: urlstr
> NSString stringWithContentsOfURL:url.
> 
Hmm...no result. (It turns out that Weather Underground checks the user agent and errors if it doesn't find one. The various convenience methods do not send a User Agent). Maybe curl can help?
>context addExternalCommand:'curl'.
>curl run:'http://api.wunderground.com/weatherstation/WXCurrentObXML.asp?ID=KCADALYC1'
<?xml version="1.0"?>
	<current_observation>
		<credit>Weather Underground Personal Weather Station</credit>
		<credit_URL>http://wunderground.com/weatherstation/</credit_URL>
		<image>
		<url>http://icons.wunderground.com/graphics/bh-wui_logo.gif</url>
		<title>Weather Underground</title>
		<link>http://wunderground.com/weatherstation/</link>
		</image>
		<location>
		<full>Mussel Rock, Daly City, CA</full>
		<neighborhood>Mussel Rock</neighborhood>
		<city>Daly City</city>
		<state>CA</state>
		<zip></zip>
		<latitude>37.667347</latitude>
		<longitude>-122.489342</longitude>
		<elevation>514 ft</elevation>
		</location>
		<station_id>KCADALYC1</station_id>
		<station_type>Fan-aspirated Davis Vantage Pro 2 Plus</station_type>
		<observation_time>Last Updated on November 7, 1:55 PM PST</observation_time>
		<observation_time_rfc822>Sat, 07 November 2009 21:55:21 GMT</observation_time_rfc822>
		<weather></weather>
		<temperature_string>56.9 F (13.8 C)</temperature_string>
		<temp_f>56.9</temp_f>
		<temp_c>13.8</temp_c>
		<relative_humidity>83</relative_humidity>
		<wind_string>From the NW at 15.0 MPH Gusting to 16.0 MPH</wind_string>
		<wind_dir>NW</wind_dir>
		<wind_degrees>313</wind_degrees>
		<wind_mph>15.0</wind_mph>
		<wind_gust_mph>16.0</wind_gust_mph>
		<pressure_string>30.07" (1018.2 mb)</pressure_string>
		<pressure_mb>1018.2</pressure_mb>
		<pressure_in>30.07</pressure_in>
		<dewpoint_string>51.8 F (11.0 C)</dewpoint_string>
		<dewpoint_f>51.8</dewpoint_f>
		<dewpoint_c>11.0</dewpoint_c>
		
		<heat_index_string></heat_index_string>
		<heat_index_f></heat_index_f>
		<heat_index_c></heat_index_c>
		
		<windchill_string></windchill_string>
		<windchill_f></windchill_f>
		<windchill_c></windchill_c>
		
		<solar_radiation>483.00</solar_radiation>
		<UV>2.5</UV>
		<precip_1hr_string>0.00 in (0.0 mm)</precip_1hr_string>
		<precip_1hr_in>0.00</precip_1hr_in>
		<precip_1hr_metric>0.0</precip_1hr_metric>
		<precip_today_string>0.01 in (0.0 mm)</precip_today_string>
		<precip_today_in>0.01</precip_today_in>
		<precip_today_metric>0.0</precip_today_metric>
		<history_url>http://www.wunderground.com/weatherstation/WXDailyHistory.asp?ID=KCADALYC1</history_url>
		<ob_url>http://www.wunderground.com/cgi-bin/findweather/getForecast?query=37.667347,-122.489342</ob_url>
	</current_observation>
<!-- 0.029:0 -->
Much better. Now let's see if we can parse that XML data into a Cocoa Property List.
> parser := MPWMAXParser parser.
> parser parsedDataFromURL: 'http://api.wunderground.com/weatherstation/WXCurrentObXML.asp?ID=KCADALYC1'
{
    UV = "2.5";
    credit = "Weather Underground Personal Weather Station";
    "credit_URL" = "http://wunderground.com/weatherstation/";
    "dewpoint_c" = "11.1";
    "dewpoint_f" = "51.9";
    "dewpoint_string" = "51.9 F (11.1 C)";
    "heat_index_c" =     {
    };
    "heat_index_f" =     {
    };
    "heat_index_string" =     {
    };
    "history_url" = "http://www.wunderground.com/weatherstation/WXDailyHistory.asp?ID=KCADALYC1";
    image =     {
        link = "http://wunderground.com/weatherstation/";
        title = "Weather Underground";
        url = "http://icons.wunderground.com/graphics/bh-wui_logo.gif";
    };
    location =     {
        city = "Daly City";
        elevation = "514 ft";
        full = "Mussel Rock, Daly City, CA";
        latitude = "37.667347";
        longitude = "-122.489342";
        neighborhood = "Mussel Rock";
        state = CA;
        zip =         {
        };
    };
    "ob_url" = "http://www.wunderground.com/cgi-bin/findweather/getForecast?query=37.667347,-122.489342";
    "observation_time" = "Last Updated on November 7, 1:55 PM PST";
    "observation_time_rfc822" = "Sat, 07 November 2009 21:55:51 GMT";
    "precip_1hr_in" = "0.00";
    "precip_1hr_metric" = "0.0";
    "precip_1hr_string" = "0.00 in (0.0 mm)";
    "precip_today_in" = "0.01";
    "precip_today_metric" = "0.0";
    "precip_today_string" = "0.01 in (0.0 mm)";
    "pressure_in" = "30.07";
    "pressure_mb" = "1018.2";
    "pressure_string" = "30.07\" (1018.2 mb)";
    "relative_humidity" = 83;
    "solar_radiation" = "482.00";
    "station_id" = KCADALYC1;
    "station_type" = "Fan-aspirated Davis Vantage Pro 2 Plus";
    "temp_c" = "13.9";
    "temp_f" = "57.0";
    "temperature_string" = "57.0 F (13.9 C)";
    weather =     {
    };
    "wind_degrees" = 342;
    "wind_dir" = NNW;
    "wind_gust_mph" = "24.0";
    "wind_mph" = "18.0";
    "wind_string" = "From the NNW at 18.0 MPH Gusting to 24.0 MPH";
    "windchill_c" =     {
    };
    "windchill_f" =     {
    };
    "windchill_string" =     {
    };
}
That looks good, we can see the wind information near the bottom of the output, with keys "wind_degrees" and "wind_mph". So let's grab the values for those keys using the collect Higher Order Message and -objectForKey:.
> (parser parsedDataFromURL:'http://api.wunderground.com/weatherstation/WXCurrentObXML.asp?ID=KCADALYC1' ) collect objectForKey: #( wind_mph wind_dir wind_string ) each. 
21.0
NW
From the NW at 21.0 MPH Gusting to 24.0 MPH
Almost what we wanted, except that we grabbed the wind direction as a string instead of the exact numeric direction. Easy fix:
> (parser parsedDataFromURL: 'http://api.wunderground.com/weatherstation/WXCurrentObXML.asp?ID=KCADALYC1' ) collect objectForKey: #( wind_mph wind_degrees wind_string ) each.
12.0
318
From the NW at 12.0 MPH Gusting to 24.0 MPH
>
Perfect. We have the wind speed, the direction and an informative text in case we want to display that.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Blocked-C

Update: It appears that the original article has been removed, and has been superseded by material at: http://developer.apple.com/mac/articles/cocoa/introblocksgcd.html. The original article had more on the Cocoa block APIs and gave a refreshingly honest assessment of the for-loop vs. Block-iteration comparison.

While the news that Apple is adding blocks to C and Objective-C in the SnowLeopard time frame has been around for some time, a recent article shed some light on the actual API.

While there probably are some places where Objective-C blocks can be useful, I am not really impressed. In the following samples, red is used to show noise, meaning code that is just there to make the compiler happy.



NSMutableArray *filteredItems= [NSMutableArray array];
[items enumerateObjectsWithOptions:0 withBlock:
    ^(id item, NSUInteger index, BOOL *stop) {
        [filteredItems addObject:[item stringByAppendingString:@"suffix"]];
    }
];

As you can see, the version using blocks is very, very noisy, both syntactically and semantically, especially compared with the HOM version:
[[items collect] stringByAppendingString:@"suffix"];

No prizes for guessing which I'd prefer. To put some numbers on my preference: 234 characters vs. 52, 19 tokens vs. 3, 5 lines vs. 1. In fact, even a plain old C for-loop is more compact and less noisy than our "modern" blocked version:
NSMutableArray *filteredItems= [NSMutableArray array];
for (int i=0; i < [items count]; i++ ) {
     [filteredItems addObject:[items objectAtIndex:i] stringByAppendingString:@"suffix"];
    }
];

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Why not Objective-C?

Patrick Logan can't understand why projects use C++ rather than Ojective-C. Neither can I.

For the 95% (or more) of code that isn't performance sensitive, it gives you expressiveness very close to Smalltalk, and for the 5% or less that need high performance, it gets you the performance and predictability of C.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Cocoa(touch) memory management is as easy as 1-2-3

There is a common misconception that Cocoa memory management is hard. It's not.

  1. Use auto-generated accessors religiously
  2. Release your instance variables in dealloc
  3. Always use convenience methods to create objects
Wow, that wasn't too hard!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Objective-XML-5.0.1

Just pushed out a minor bugfix release to Objective-XML-5.0:
  • Re-enabled character-set conversion code that had gotten disabled
  • Fixed a compile-error for some targets
  • Other minor improvements
Download here: http://www.metaobject.com/downloads/Objective-C/Objective-XML-5.0.1.tgz

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Objective-XML 5.0

I've just pushed out a new release of Objective-XML, with some pretty significant new features.

Incremental parsing

This feature, which was already discussed a little in an earlier post, is now available in an official release. In short, Objective-XML will now stream data from network data sources (specified by URL) and produce results incrementally, rather than reading all of the data first and then parsing it. This can make a huge difference in responsiveness and perceived performance for slow networks. CPU and memory consumption will be slightly higher because of extra buffering and buffer stitching required, so this should only be used when necessary.

Static iPhone library

Although Objective-XML has always been compatible with the iPhone, previous releases required copying the pre-requisite files into your project. This burden has now been eased by the inclusion of a static library target. You still need to copy the headers, either MPWMAXParser.h or MPWXmlParser.h (or both).

Unique keys

Previous releases of Objective-XML had an -objectForTag:(int)tag method for quickly retrieving attribute or element values.


enum songtags {
  item_tag=10, title_tag, category_tag	
};
...
  [parser setHandler:self forElements:[NSArray arrayWithObjects:@"item",@"title",@"category",nil]
          inNamespace:nil prefix:@"" map:nil tagBase:item_tag];
...
-itemElement:(MPWXMLAttributes*)children attributes:(MPWXMLAttributes*)attributes parser:(MPWMAXParser*)p
{
   ...
   [song setTitle:[children objectForTag:title_tag]];
   ...

Objective-XML adds an -objectForUniqueKey:aKey method that removes the need for these additional integer tags.
...
  [parser setHandler:self forElements:[NSArray arrayWithObjects:@"item",@"title",@"category",nil]
          inNamespace:nil prefix:@"" map:nil];
...
-itemElement:(MPWXMLAttributes*)children attributes:(MPWXMLAttributes*)attributes parser:(MPWMAXParser*)p
{
   ...
   [song setTitle:[children objectForUniqueKey:@"title"]];
   ...


In addition to providing faster access, the integer tags also served to disambiguate tag names that might occur in multiple namespaces. To handle these conflicts, there now is a -objectForUniqueKey:aKey namespace:aNamespace method. The namespace objects required for this disambiguation process are now returned by the -setHandler:... and -declareAttributes:... methods, which were previously void.

Default methods

One of the attractive features of DOM parsers is that they do something useful "out of the box": point a DOM parser at some XML and you get back a generic in-memory representation of that XML that you can then start taking apart. However, once you go down that road, you are stuck with the substantial CPU and memory overheads of that generic representation.

Streaming parser like SAX or MAX can be a lot more efficient, but it takes a lot more time and effort until achieving a first useful result. Default methods overcome this hurdle by also delivering an immediately useful generic representation without any extra work. Unlike a DOM, however, this generic representation can be incrementally replaced by more specialized and efficient processing later on.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Cocoa HTML parsing with Objective-XML

Although Objective-XML's MPWSAXParser mostly provides NSXMLParser compatibility it also provides a number of useful additional features. Among these features is the ability to parse HTML files via the settings of two flags: enforceTagNesting and ignoreCase. By default, these are on and off, respectively, which gives you strict XML behavior. However, by setting enforceTagNesting to NO and ignoreCase to YES, you get a SAX parser that will happily and speedily process HTML.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Semantic Noise

Martin Fowler and Gilad Bracha write about Syntactic Noise, making similar points and using similar typographical techniques as I did in my HOM paper.
By Syntactic Noise, what people mean is extraneous characters that aren't part of what we really need to say, but are there to satisfy the language definition. Noise characters are bad because they obscure the meaning of our program, forcing us to puzzle out what it's doing.
Couldn't have said it better myself, so I'll just quote Martin Fowler. Syntactic noise is one of the reasons I think neither the for(each) statement nor the blocks added to Objective-C are particularly good replacements for Higher Order Messaging.
newArray = [existingArray map:^(id obj){ return [obj  stringByAppendingString:@"suffix"]; }];
newArray = [[existingArray map] stringByAppendingString:@"suffix"]];

To me, that extra syntax is quite noisy, though the noise isn't, in fact, just syntactic. We also have to introduce, name and even correctly type a completely redundant stand-in (obj) that we don't really care about. Introducing extra entities is semantic noise. Apart from having to puzzle out what that extra entity is (and that it is, in fact, redundant) every time we read the code, it also brings us back to "element at a time" programming and thinking.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Simple HOM

While it is good to see that Higher Order Messaging is still inspiring new work, I feel a bit guilty that part of that inspiration are sentiments such as the following:

"Still I have yet to find a simple implementation that I like and that does not use private methods. The last thing I want is a relying on classes which can break at any time."
Mea culpa.

While I did explain a bit why the current HOM implementation is a bit gnarly, code probably speaks more loudly than repeated mea-culpas.

So, without further ado, a really simple HOM implementation. An NSArray category provides the interface and does the actual processing:

@interface NSArray(hom)

-collect;

@end

@implementation NSArray(hom)

-(NSArray* )collect:(NSInvocation*)anInvocation
{
  NSMutableArray *resultArray=[NSMutableArray array];
  for (id obj in self ) {
    id resultObject;
    [anInvocation invokeWithTarget:obj];
    [anInvocation getReturnValue:&resultObject];
    [resultArray addObject:resultObject];
  }
  return resultArray;
}

-collect {
  return [HOM homWithTarget:self selector:@selector(collect:)];
}

@end
The fact that NSInvocation deals with pointers to values rather than values makes this a bit longer than it needs to be, but the gist is simple enough: iterate over the array, invoke the invocation, return the result.

That leaves the actual trampoline, which is really just an implementation detail for conveniently creating NSInvocation objects.

@interface HOM : NSProxy {
  id xxTarget;
  SEL xxSelector;
}

@end

@implementation HOM

-(void)forwardInvocation:(NSInvocation*)anInvocation
{
  [xxTarget performSelector:xxSelector withObject:anInvocation];
}

-methodSignatureForSelector:(SEL)aSelector
{
  return [[xxTarget objectAtIndex:0] methodSignatureForSelector:aSelector];
}

-xxinitWithTarget:aTarget selector:(SEL)newSelector
{
  xxTarget=aTarget;
  xxSelector=newSelector;
  return self;
}

+homWithTarget:aTarget selector:(SEL)newSelector
{
  return [[[self alloc] xxinitWithTarget:aTarget selector:newSelector] autorelease];
}

@end
This code compiles without warnings, does not use any private API, and runs on both Leopard and the iPhone. Github: https://github.com/mpw/HOM/.


EDIT (Aug 15 2015): Changed SimpleHOM download link to github repo.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

iPhone XML performance

Shortly after becoming an iPhone developer, I found a clever little piece of example code called XML Performance (login required). Having done some high performance XML processing code that works on the iPhone, I was naturally intrigued.

The example pits Cocoa's NSXMLParser against a custom parser based on libxml2, the benchmark is downloading a top 300 list of songs from iTunes.

More responsiveness using libxml2 instead of NSXMLParser

Based on my previous experience, I was expecting libxml2 to be noticeably faster, but with the advantage in processing speed being less and less important with lower and lower I/O data rates (WiFi to 3G to Edge), as I/O would start to completely overwhelm processing. Was I ever wrong!

While my expectations were technically correct for overall performance, I had completely failed to take responsiveness into account. Depending on the network selected, the NSXMLParser sample would appear to hang for 3 to 50 seconds before starting to show results. Needless to say, that is an awful user experience. The libxml example, on the other hand, would start displaying some results almost immediately. While it also was a bit faster in the total time taken, this effect seemed pretty insignificant compared to the fact that results were arriving continually pretty much during the entire time.

The difference, of course, is incremental processing. Whereas NSXMLParser's -initWithContentsOfURL: method apparently downloads the entire document first and then begins processing, the libxml2-based code in the sample downloads the XML in small chunks and processes those chunks immediately.

Alas, going with libxml2 has clear and significant disadvantages, with the code that uses libxml2 being around twice the size of the NSXMLParser-based code, at around 150 lines (non-comment, non-whitespace). If you have worked with NSXMLParser before, you will know that that is already pretty painful, so just imagine that particular brand of joy doubled, with the 150 lines of code giving you the simplest of parsers, with just 5 tags processed. Fortunately, there is a simpler way.

A simpler way: Objective-XML's SAX

Assuming you have already written a Cocoa-(Touch-)based parser using NSXMLParser, all you need to do is include Objective-XML in your projects and replace the reference to NSXMLParser with a reference to MPWSAXParser, everything else will work just as before. Well, the same except for being significantly faster (even faster than libxml2) and now also more responsive on slow connections due to incremental processing.

I have to admit that not having incremental processing was a "feature" Objective-XML shared with NSXMLParser until very recently, due to my not taking into account the fact that latency lags bandwidth. This silly oversight has now been fixed, with both MPWMAXParser and MPWSAXParser sporting URL-based parsing methods that do incremental processing.

So that's all there is to it, Objective-XML provides a drop-in replacement for NSXMLParser that has all the performance and responsiveness-benefits of a libxml2-based solution without the coding horror.

Even simpler: Messaging API for XML (MAX)

However, even a Cocoa version of the SAX API represents a pretty low-bar in terms of ease of coding. With MAX, Objective-XML provides an API that can do the same job much more simply. MAX naturally integrates XML processing with Objective-C messaging using the following two main features:
  • Clients get sent element-specific messages for processing
  • The parser handles nesting, controlled by the client
The following code for building Song objects out of iTunes <item> elements illustrates these two features:
-itemElement:(MPWXMLAttributes*)children attributes:(MPWXMLAttributes*)attributes parser:(MPWMAXParser*)p
{
  Song *song=[[Song alloc] init];
  [song setArtist:[children objectForTag:artist_tag]];
  [song setAlbum:[children objectForTag:album_tag]];
  [song setTitle:[children objectForTag:title_tag]];
  [song setCategory:[children objectForTag:category_tag]];
  [song setReleaseDate:[parseFormatter dateFromString:[children objectForTag:releasedate_tag]]];
  [self parsedSong:song];
  [song release];
  return nil;
}
MAX sends the -itemElement:attributes:parser: message to its client whenever it has encountered a complete <item> element, so there is no need for the client to perform string processing on tag names or manage partial state as in a SAX parser. The method constructs a song object using data from the <item> element's child elements which it then passes directly to the rest of the app via the parsedSong: message. It does not return an value, so MAX will not build a tree at this level.

Artist, album, title and category are the values of nested child elements of the <item> element. The (common) code shared by all these child-elements gets the character content of the respective elements and is shown below:

-defaultElement:children attributes:atrs parser:parser
{
	return [[children combinedText] retain];
}
Unlike the <item> processing code, which did not return a value, this method does return a value. MAX uses this return value to build a DOM-like structure which is then consumed by the next higher-level, in this case the -itemElement:attributes:parser: method shown above. Unlike a traditional DOM, the MAX tree structure is built out of domain-specific objects returned incrementally by the client.

These two pieces of sample code demonstrate how MAX can act like both a DOM parser or a SAX parser, controlled simply by wether the processing methods return objects (DOM) or not (SAX). They also demonstrated both element-specific and generic processing.

In the iTunes Song parsing example, I was able to build a MAX parser using about half the code required for the NSXMLParser-based example, a ratio that I have also encountered in larger projects. What about performance? It is slightly better than MPWSAXParser, so also somewhat better than libxml2 and significantly better than NSXMLParser.

Summary and Conclusion

The slightly misnamed XML Performance sample code for the iPhone demonstrates how important managing latency is for perceived end user performance, while showing only very little in terms of actual XML processing performance.

While ably demonstrating the performance problems of NSXMLParser, the sample code's solution of using libxml2 is really not a solution, due to the significant increase in code complexity. Objective-XML provides both a drop-in replacement for NSXMLParser with all the performance and latency benefits of the libxml2 solution, as well as a new API that is not just faster, but also much more straightforward than either NSXMLParser or libxml2.

Best of Show, MacWorld 2009

Since I recently became the Mac tech lead for Livescribe, responsible for delivering the Mac desktop software, I am happy to report that not only did we meet all of our target dates, we also won Best of Show at MacWorld 2009.

Spending 3 days at the booth was both exhausting and rewarding, the enthusiasm exhibited by customers was absolutely mind-blowing.