Thursday, June 6, 2024

D-day, 80 years ago today

More than 150,000 troops, 5,000 ships, 13,000 aircraft in the largest amphibious assault in history.

Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Multithreading and Immutable Data

I was amusing myself by looking at Lisp tutorials. They used the idea of a Tic-Tac-Toe service as a motivating example. You’d be able to play Tic-Tac-Toe against the computer or another opponent.

My immediate thought went to the issue of multithreading. If you were going to serve hundreds of people at once, you’d need to have a multi-threaded service. Multi-threaded code is hard to write and debug, and it is much better if you have a plan before you start than if you try to retrofit it later (that trick never works).

The magic bullet for multi-threading is immutable data. Immutable data is inherently thread-safe. It doesn’t need synchronization or locks. If all your data are immutable, you can pretty much ignore multi-threading issues and your code will just work.

Using a 2D array to represent a Tic-Tac-Toe board is the obvious thing that first comes to mind, but not only are arrays mutable, they virtually require mutation to be of any use. The Lisp tutorials I was looking at all used arrays to represent the board, none of them locked the board or used atomic operations to update it, and all had the potential for race conditions if two threads tried to update the board at the same time. Arrays are essentially inherently thread-unsafe.

I thought about alternative representations for the board. Different representations are more or less amenable for writing code that avoids mutation. I came up with a few ideas:

  • Use a 2d array, but copy it before each mutation. This is horribly inefficient, but it is simple.
  • Use a 1d array, again copying it before each mutation. This isn’t much different from the 2d array, but iterating over the cells in the board is simpler.
  • Keep a list of moves. Each move is a pair of player and position. To determine the state of the board, you iterate over the list of moves and apply them in order. This is a bit more complicated than the array representations, but it is inherently immutable. It also has the advantage that you can rewind the board to any prior position.
  • Encode the board as a pair of bitmaps, one for each player.
  • Encode the board as a single bitmap, with each cell represented by two bits.
  • There are only 39 ways to fill out a Tic-Tac-Toe grid, so you could represent the board as an integer.

Each one of these representations has pros and cons. I wrote up some sample code for each representation and I found that the representation had a large influence on the character of the code that used that representation. In other words, there wasn’t a single general Tic-Tac-Toe program that ended up being specialized to each representation, but rather there were six different Tic-Tac-Toe programs each derived from its own idiosyncratic representation.

In conclusion, it is a good idea to plan on using immutable data when you might be working with a multi-threaded system, and it is worth brainstorming several different representations of your immutable data rather than choosing the first one that comes to mind.

Saturday, June 1, 2024

Roll Your Own Syntax

Unlike most languages, Lisp represents its programs as data structures. A Lisp program is a set of nested lists. We can look at a Lisp program as a tree, with each nested list as a node in the tree. The first element of each list indicates the kind of node it is. For instance, a sublist beginning with LET binds local variables, a sublist beginning with IF is a conditional, and so on.

In most languages, it difficult or impossible to add new node types to the syntax tree. The syntax is wired into the language parser and if you even can add new syntax, you have to carefully modify the parser to recognize it. In Lisp, adding new node types is quite easy: you just mention them.

To give an example, suppose you wanted to add a new node to the syntax tree called COMMENT, which would have a string and a subexpression as components. You'd use it like this:

(comment "Avoid fencepost error" (+ x 1))

Here's how you could define the semantics of a COMMENT node in Lisp:

(defmacro comment (string expr)

That's it. You can now insert arbitrary COMMENT nodes into your Lisp programs.

Compare that to what you would have to do in a language like Java to add a new kind of node to the syntax tree. You'd have to modify the parser, the lexer, the AST classes, and probably a bunch of other stuff. It's non trivial.

For a more complex example, consider adding transactions to a language. In a language like Java, you'd have to modify the parser to recognize the new syntax, and then you'd have to modify the compiler to generate the correct code. In Lisp, you can just define a new node type:

(defmacro with-transaction (body)
  <complex macro elided>)

And then use it like this:


Now obviously you should put some thought into doing this. Adding dozens of random new node types to the language would be a bad idea: readers of the code wouldn't be expecting them. But in some cases, a new node type can be just what is called for to abstract out complexity or boilerplate. Lisp gives you that option.

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

If I Were in Charge

If I were in charge of Python development, here are a few things I would do:

  • Add (optional) tail recursion. This would make it easier to write pure functional code. It would also make it possible to effectively program in continuation passing style. Making tail recursion optional should placate those that feel that stack traces are important for debugging.
  • Add macros. I am thinking of Lisp-like macros that do code transformation, not C-like macros that simply do token substitution. A good macro system would allow advanced users to create new syntactic forms for the language and provide a way to abstract boilerplate.
  • Allow a way to use statements inside expressions, or beef up the expression syntax to have exception expressions, loop expressions, etc. This, too, would make it easier to write pure functional code.
  • Optional end-of-block markers. These would allow you to automatically fix indentation errors and recover indentation when it is lost.
  • Use true lexical scoping. Changing this might break legacy code that depends on the current scoping quirks, though.
  • Use modern interpretation techniques to get the performance up to a more reasonable level. Performance doesn't matter that much, but Python is notably slow.
  • Get rid of the global interpreter lock so that multithreading works better. Probably easier said than done.

I don't believe any of these necessarily involve fundamental changes to the language. They'd just make the language more flexible, though I'm sure many people would disagree with me.

But, perhaps for the best, they're not going to put me in charge.

Sunday, May 26, 2024

Exception Handling for Control Flow

Back when I was taking a Software Engineering course we used a language called CLU. CLU was an early object-oriented language. A feature of CLU was that if you wrote your code correctly, the compiler could enforce completely opaque abstract data types. A good chunk of your grade depended on whether you were able to follow insructions and write your data types so that they were opaque.

CLU did not have polymorphism, but it did have discriminated type unions. You could fake simple polymorphism by using a discriminated type union as the representation of an opaque type. Methods on the opaque type would have to dispatch on the union subtype. Now to implement this correctly, you should write your methods to check the union subtype even if you “know” what it is. The course instructors looked specifically for this and would deduct from your grade if you didn't check.

One subproject in the course was a simple symbolic math system. You could put expressions in at the REPL, substitute values, and differentiate them. The core of the implementation was term data type that represented a node in an expression tree. A term was a type union of numeric constant, a symbolic variable, a unary expression, or a binary expression. Unary and binary expressions recursively contained subterms.

The term data type would therefore need four predicates to determine what kind of term it was. It would also need methods to extract the constant value if it was a constant, extract the variable name if it was symbolic, and extract the operator and subterms if it was a unary or binary expression. The way to use the data type was obvious: you'd have a four-way branch on the kind of term where each branch would immediately call the appropriate selectors. But if you wrote your selectors as you were supposed to, the first thing they should do is check that they are called on the appropriate union subtype. This is a redundant check because you just checked this in the four-way branch. So your code was constantly double checking the data. Furthermore, it has to handle the case should the check fail, even though the check obviously can never fail.

I realized that what I needed was a discrimination function that had four continuations, one for each subtype. The discrimination function would check the subtype and then call the appropriate continuation with the subcomponents of the term. This would eliminate the double checking. The code was still type safe because the discrimination function would only invoke the continuation for the correct subtype.

One way to introduce alternative continuations into the control flow is through exceptions. The discrimination function could raise one of four exceptions, each with the appropriate subcomponents as arguments. The caller would not expect a return value, but would have four catch handlers, one for each subtype. The caller would use the try/except syntax, but it would act like a switch statement.

The TA balked at this use of exceptions, but I appealed to the professor who saw what I was trying to do and approved.

There is some debate about whether exceptions should be used for control flow. Many people think that exceptions should only be used for “exceptional” situations and that it is poor form to use them for normal control flow. I think they are taking too narrow a view. Exceptions are a way to introduce alternative paths of control flow. One can use them to, for instance, handle an exceptional situation by jumping to a handler, but that's not the only way to use them.

Of course you should think hard about whether exceptions are the right way to introduce alternative control flow in your use case. Exception syntax is usually kind of klunky and you may need to rewrite the code to insert the exception handling at the right point. Readers of your code are likely to be surprised or baffled by the use of exceptions for control flow. There is often a significant performance penalty if an exception is thrown. But sometimes it is just the trick.

Saturday, May 25, 2024


Object systems make a natural fit for the game programming domain, but over time people have found that the object-oriented model provided by their favorite language doesn't always fit the use case. So developers have come up with “entity-component systems” (ECS) of varying complexity to fill the gap.

The basic idea is that a game object, called an “entity”, contains or refers to a set of “components” that define its behavior. Entities are too varied to be captured by a single class hierarchy, so we abandon inheritance in favor of composition. An entity that can be displayed on the screen has a “sprite” component, an entity that can move has “position” and “velocity” components, an entity that you can attack has a “hitbox” component and a “health” component. A entity that can attack you has an “attackbox” component. You can play mix and match the components to customize the behavior of the entity. We don't have a hierachy of components because each component can be added more or less independently of the others.

An ECS is an alternative or an augmentation to the built-in object system of a language, but it is an admission that the built-in object is insufficient.

CLOS provides an elegent way to implement an ECS without abandoning CLOS's built-in object system. We define a component as a “mixin” class that can be inherited from using multiple inheritance. We define mixin classes for each component, and then we define entity classes that inherit from the mixin classes. We would define a “sprite” mixin class, a “position” mixin class, etc. So the class of enemy entities would inherit from “sprite”, “position”, “velocity”, “hitbox”, “health”, and “attackbox” classes. A trap entity would inherit from “sprite”, “position”, and “attackbox” classes. A container entity that you could smash open would inherit from “sprite”, “position”, and “hitbox” classes. Etc.

Mixin classes aren't intended to be instantiated on their own, but instead provide slots to the classes that inherits from them. Furthermore, methods can be specialized on mixin classes so that instances derived from the mixin will respond to the method. This allows you to inherit from a mixin providing the particular desired behavior. For example, the “health” mixin class would provide a slot containing the entity's health and a “damage” method to decrease the health. Any entity inheriting from the “health” mixin will react to the damage method. Mixin classes can provide functionality similar to interfaces.

Mixin classes are an exception to Liskov's Substitution Principle, but they are a useful exception. Entities that inherit from a mixin do not have a “is-a” relationship with the mixin, but rather a “has-behavior-of” relationship. An entity inheriting from the “health” mixin is not a “health”, but it has the “health” behavior.

One feature of an ECS is that you can dynamically change the components of an object. For example, once an enemy is defeated, you can remove the “health” and “attackbox” components and add a “corpse” component. Is CLOS you could accomplish this by changing the class of the entity object to a class that doesn't have those mixins.

Of course care must be taken or you will end up with CLOS “soup”. But if you are careful, CLOS can provide a powerful and flexible system for implementing an ECS.

Friday, May 24, 2024

Why I Want Tail Recursion

The reason I want tail recursion is not to write loops (I can do that with a while loop), but to write in continuation passing style if I need to. Continuation passing style allows you to implement any control flow pattern you can imagine, not just the ones intrinsic to the language. You don’t want to use it all the time, but it’s a valuable fallback when you need some ad hoc advanced control flow. Without tail recursion, any non-trivial use of continuation passing style risks blowing the stack.

Iteration is just the special case of linear recursion that doesn’t accumulate state. 99 percent of the time, you know beforehand that you are looping and can use a looping construct, but sometimes you have the general case where whether you loop or not depends on the data at runtime. If you have tail recursion, you just write the code recursively and the tail recursion mechanism will turn it into a loop if it notices that you aren’t accumulating state.

If your language has lambda and tail recursion, it can implement any other control flow that might have been overlooked by the language designer. If it doesn’t, you're limited to the control flow the language designer bothered to implement.