Hugh Winkler holding forth on computing and the Web

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Inflexible, unmaintainable, fragile code in Clojure

I constructed a subsystem in Clojure. We had a nice, compact problem to solve. The rest of our app talks to this Clojure bit through a small interface. The attraction of Clojure was that I could enjoy all the nimbleness of hacking Lisp interactively. Using such a powerful language, I could adapt to emerging requirements, experiment, twiddle, and workaround faster than using Java. And early on, that largely proved true.

But I am here to tell you: It is possible to write inflexible, unmaintainable, fragile code in Clojure.

As they say in bicycle racing, the riders make the race. I never said I was a good programmer.

It's my own fault. I dived into Clojure and learned key concepts on the run. And these key concepts are fundamental to how you should structure your program. FP has a learning curve. Managing shared state using Refs, Agents and STM -- better to understand these concepts up front. Even now, I'm unsure how I'd restructure my code to use them properly. I'm very glad not to have to worry about deadlocks. But there are parts of this code I still am unsure how to to test for consistency under multithread access.

Consequently, I'm slogging through this bowl of spaghetti of my own making, cursing the author.

[Edited to add "fragile" ... as I made one more change and my tests came tumbling down... ]

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Wolfram Alpha isn't sure what to do with your input

I have yet to get any answers to any interesting, real question I have had, from Wolfram Alpha.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

If RMS has his way, the GPL is dead

The GPL has never made me feel particularly free. Only in a kind of newspeak can you say that constraining the kinds of agreements I can make with people who buy my software enhances my freedom .

I'm not saying I don't like and use GPL software, or that the GPL is unfair. Just don't tell me that handcuffs are extra freedom.

Only copyright law enables GPL to constrain my actions from beyond the grave. In a world without copyright, GPL would be toothless. I would be able to use any freely available software I could get my hands on, incorporate it into my own, and distribute only binaries.

Richard Stallman proposes reducing copyright protection to three years for software. And he admits "It would be necessary to prohibit the use of contracts to apply restrictions on copying that go beyond those of copyright." That prohibition would apply to FOSS too, of course. No copyright after three years; no contract allowing the author to constrain your actions after that.

That would mean that you could link to three year old GPL libraries and ship binaries!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The REST Hypothesis

I'm glad Joe Gregorio frankly assessed Atompub's meager adoption.

Atompub served as an experiment to confirm the REST hypothesis: If you construct distributed systems that look like the world wide web, the world will adopt them broadly and quickly -- the way we adopted the web itself. *

Lesson learned: the world's most successful distributed applications run on the web's architecture. That doesn't mean that by designing around web architecture, you will build the world's most successful distributed application.

Atompub came along at the time a critical mass of thought was building in favor of adopting the web architecture for designing new systems, rather than the ill-named "web services", SOAP and RPC model. Early drafts of Atompub allowed for a SOAP envelope.

The RESTful style prevailed, on its many merits. We got caching, and a resource oriented model, and a small, uniform interface.

But what the real, browser plus HTML web has, that RESTful systems don't, is the user agent. The human in front of her browser. An intelligence that reads and understands the meaning of "Author name" and "Title", and fills in an HTML form using queries against her personal database, stored in her brain.

As Joe put it, the problem is that Atompub clients aren't web browsers.

RESTful systems that aren't web browsers try to substitute understanding of media types for that intelligence. Compare Atom clients to HTML browsers.

An "Atom application" is some sort of content management system: a system that understands the semantics of feed documents. An Atom agent populates <author> and <title> elements. Only machines understand the meaning of <link rel="edit">. It's a world constrained to a narrow range of meanings.

But an HTML application can do anything. A human reads some text next to a form field, labelled "Author name", or "Preferred airline", and enters meaningful answers. If you are writing the kind of content management system where "Preferred airline" is a meaningful concept, HTML might be the way to go. There's no such concept in an Atom feed document. You get to present your own user interface, too.

RESTfully designed systems might profit from superior evolvability, cacheability, and interoperability over RPC systems. They are of the web. But they are not the web. The web is in your browser. The web is HTML.

*The hypothesis was not part of Roy Fielding's thesis. It's a hypothesis that many REST proponents, including me, have deployed.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Cheney Wheelchair Horror

Best comment so far:

If only he had a small cat to pet as they rolled him to the car. You know something that he could stroke until he snapped its neck to suck the blood from its spine.

(by "Brian")

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Clojure vs JavaFX Script: only 5x slower!

Chris Oliver compares his JavaFX script to JRuby and Groovy and finds JavaFX 25 times faster.

I failed to get JavaFX compiler running on my Ubuntu, but I easily ran Chris's JRuby 1.1.6 test; so for calibration, my laptop comes in at 3:52, vs 4:22 on Chris's machine. Presumably we can scale results on my machine by 1.13.

Here's my Clojure version of the test:

(defn tak [#^Integer x #^Integer y #^Integer z]
(if (>= y x)
(recur (tak (- x 1) y z)
(tak (- y 1) z x)
(tak (- z 1) x y))))

(dotimes [n 1000] (tak 24 16 8))

It runs in about 50 seconds, or 56 after normalizing to Chris' machine speed. This puts Clojure north of JRuby and Groovy, but still 5 times slower than JavaFX.

If you remove the type hints, it runs in 4 minutes, or about the same time as JRuby -- and about 4 or 5 times slower than with type hints.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Clojure uptick

Needing to build a standalone piece of server software as an add on to our Java product, I seized the opportunity to see how far Clojure has come. Getting my dev system set up, and learning the language, I noticed the results Google was returning for my queries were mostly very recent... and lots from just last month.

Could Clojure be approaching critical mass?

I've only written a hundred lines or so of code, but here are some random things I love:

1. Shorthand for maps: {:a 1 :b 3}.
2. sorted-map and hash-map -- thanks for letting me choose. Same shorthand syntax for either.
3. Shorthand to select a value from a map: the map is like a function name (my-map :a).
4. Shorthand for lambdas: #(...code...)
5. Shorthand for generating temporary symbols in macros: my-var#. No need to call (gensym).
4. No looping required -- use recur.
5. Java libraries are easy to use.

I haven't yet fiddled with modifying state.

It's free, it's functional, it's got a hardened standard library, it's got a REPL. You can write a program and deliver it on any platform. What could hold it back?