Saturday, September 26, 2015

Very Simple Dataflow Constraints with Objective-Smalltalk

Early last year, I wrote a lengthy piece on the connection between Apple technologies such as Key Value Observing (KVO) and Bindings and general Computer Science concepts such as constraint solving, particularly dataflow constraints (aka. Spreadsheet Constraints).

I also wrote that I was working on something, and despite being somewhat distracted with becoming a father, joining a startup and being acquired, I now have working code.

The sample application contains two examples, one a classic temperature converter that I will cover later, the other an implementation of the ReactiveCocoa password validation example. The basic idea is super-simple, we want to enable a login button when the password field and the confirmation field contain the same value, expressed as follows in Objective-C:

loginButton.enabled = [password.stringValue isEqual:passwordConfirm.stringValue];

Again, this is super simple to write down, but it's not the entire story, because we want to evaluate this statement continuously as the password field and the passwordConfirm field change. The mess of callbacks require to keep those states in sync vastly exceeds the one-time evaluation, as explained in a very good article on Reactive Cocoa by NSHipster. That article uses a slightly more elaborate example, the one in the ReactiveCocoa documentation is the following:

RAC(self, createEnabled) = [RACSignal 
    combineLatest:@[ RACObserve(self, password), RACObserve(self, passwordConfirmation) ] 
    reduce:^(NSString *password, NSString *passwordConfirm) {
        return @([passwordConfirm isEqualToString:password]);

What's noticeable, apart from the macros that are necessary, is the semantic noise apparently inherent in this solution. Instead of focusing on what we want to accomplish (hidden inside the last return), the focus is on generic RAC classes such as RACSignal and methods such as combineLatest: and reduce:. I didn't really want to combine and reduce, I just wanted to keep some different states in sync, and with Objective-Smalltalk, I can do just that.

Let's first recast the original Objective-C expression into Objective-Smalltalk. Since Smalltalk is not burdened by the syntactic legacy of C, we can lose the square brackets. Because we have binary selectors (a bit like operators) and use ':=' for assignment, we can use '=' to check for equality instead of having to write out 'isEqual:'. The dots get replaced by slashes because Polymorphic Identifiers use URI syntax, and finally we use periods instead of semicolons at the end of sentences, er, statements.

loginButton/enabled := password/stringValue = passwordConfirm/stringValue.

Again, this is semantically the same statement as the original Objective-C, it assigns the right hand side to the left hand side. This can be viewed as a a one way constraint: the left hand side should be the same as the right hand side. The constraint has a fundamental flaw, though, because it is only maintained instantaneously as the line of code is executed. After that, left hand side and right hand side can diverge again. What we want is for that constraint to be maintained indefinitely: whenever the right hand side changes, the left hand side should be updated. In Objective-Smalltalk, you can now express this by replacing the ":=" assignment operator (technically: connector), with the "|=" constraint connector:
loginButton/enabled |= password/stringValue = passwordConfirm/stringValue.

A single character change, so no syntactic and no semantic noise.


Alex Basson said...

In the last graph, did you possibly mean that as the right hand side changes, the left hand should be updated, instead of the other way around?

Marcel Weiher said...

Thanks for the heads-up, should be fixed now.

Unknown said...

is that |= part of the syntax or is it just another message send? Instead of introducing a new operator wouldn't a keyword be easier to understand? or is that something that's going to be used equally often as the assignment operator?

Marcel Weiher said...

It's neither part of the syntax nor a message-send nor an operator. It's a connector, which generalizes these concepts. Assignment is a special case of this connector, in that the connection is removed immediately after it is created, and yes, I expect this to be very common. I also expect this to be polymorphic like a message-send, but that requires more work.