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]];
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.


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.

Sunday, November 8, 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.

> 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"?>
		<credit>Weather Underground Personal Weather Station</credit>
		<title>Weather Underground</title>
		<full>Mussel Rock, Daly City, CA</full>
		<neighborhood>Mussel Rock</neighborhood>
		<city>Daly City</city>
		<elevation>514 ft</elevation>
		<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>
		<temperature_string>56.9 F (13.8 C)</temperature_string>
		<wind_string>From the NW at 15.0 MPH Gusting to 16.0 MPH</wind_string>
		<pressure_string>30.07" (1018.2 mb)</pressure_string>
		<dewpoint_string>51.8 F (11.0 C)</dewpoint_string>
		<precip_1hr_string>0.00 in (0.0 mm)</precip_1hr_string>
		<precip_today_string>0.01 in (0.0 mm)</precip_today_string>
<!-- 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. 
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.
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


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"];

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.