My experience crafting an interpreter with Rust

Last year I finally decided to learn some Rust. The official book by Steve Klabnik and Carol Nichols is excellent, but even after reading it and working on some small code exercises, I felt that I needed more to really understand the language. I wanted to work on a small project to get some hands-on experience, but most of my ideas didn’t feel very well suited for Rust.

Then I started reading the amazing book Crafting Interpreters by Bob Nystrom. As the name suggests, the book is about writing an interpreter for a dynamic language named Lox. The book is split into two parts: the first one shows how to implement a simple tree-walking interpreter using Java. The second part shows how to implement the same interpreter, but this time using a high-performance bytecode VM using C. I implemented the first part in Clojure, and then I realized that the second part was the perfect project for trying Rust.

The domain of language VMs seems to be almost entirely dominated by C/C++.  VMs are very performance sensitive and often require a lot of micro-optimization. This project seemed like a perfect exercise to compare Rust against these languages. I was especially interested in checking if Rust could match the same speed while providing better safety and ergonomics.

Disclaimer: It’s been a long time since I used C/C++, probably more than 15 years. Even then, I mostly used these languages for university projects or some open source contributions. During my entire professional career, I have only used higher-level languages. Consider this post as coming from a beginner.

Now, matching the speed of the C version of the Lox interpreter (clox) is no easy feat. While many books on the topic of compilers and interpreters focus exclusively on explaining the algorithms and leave performance as an afterthought, Crafting Interpreters shows how to implement a really fast interpreter. For example, in some simple benchmarks, it is common to observe that clox is 2x or even 3x faster than equivalent Python or Perl code.

Side note: Take this comparison with a grain of salt. The reason Python and Perl are slower is that these languages provide more flexibility and that comes with a performance cost. This is better explained in Wren’s web page, which is another language by the same author whose interpreter inspired clox. So yes, the comparison with Python and Perl is a bit oranges and apples, but the main point here is that clox performance is really good and very production-ready.

Using only safe code

When I began coding my Rust implementation of Lox, I decided to stick to purely safe code. Rust’s main selling point is its safety, but of course you have to stick to the safe part of the language. Rust also allows you to use unsafe code, and if you do that, I think there is no blocker to match the speed of C, although that also means matching its unsafety. It made sense to stick to safe code to begin with.

I also decided to take advantage of Rust standard library as much as possible. One more interesting fact about Crafting Interpreters is that it does everything from scratch. The book doesn’t use libraries or parser generators or any tool besides a C compiler and standard library (which is pretty bare-bones). Every single line of code is in the book and I find this absolutely amazing. So there are some chapters dedicated to showing how to write dynamic arrays, strings, and hash maps. Given that Rust’s standard library already has those and they are very optimized, I decided to use them and skip a custom implementation. Besides, implementing those manually most likely requires writing unsafe code.

I also wanted to take advantage of Rust’s advanced type system as much as possible. The clox implementation uses variable-length opcodes where most of them use one byte but some use adjacent bytes to pack parameters or data. In my implementation, I decided to use fixed-length opcodes using an enum. Rust’s sum types are a delight to use because the compiler always has your back and warns you if you ever forget to check for a specific case. I consider this a huge advance in ergonomics.

The beginning of writing the lox interpreter in Rust was a breeze. The compiler in particular was a joy to write. Rust felt much nicer to write than the old and quirky C. The initial parts of the VM were also really nice to write thanks to sum types, compile-time checks, and a ready-to-use standard library. However, things started to get very tricky once I worked on more advanced stuff such as closures and classes. The clox implementation uses pointers and aliasing very liberally, while Rust’s aliasing rules are very strict and the borrow checker disallows many patterns to ensure safety. Because of this, I spent a ton of time finding workarounds to make the borrow checker happy.

Side note: Dealing with the borrow checker is a well-known struggle for Rust beginners. This was the reason why I spent so much time here. The rules are simple but for some reason, it’s really hard to keep track of them in a big system. I would often write huge refactorings thinking that they would be a solution to a borrow checker error, just to get another one at the end of the refactoring. This happens less frequently the more experience I get with the language, but it still happens. The book Learn Rust With Entirely Too Many Linked Lists  has some good examples of how brutally complex the borrow checker can be.

A garbage collector in safe Rust

By far the hardest part to implement in my safe Rust implementation of Lox was the garbage collector. How do you even write a GC without manual memory allocation and deallocation? I spent quite some time experimenting and trying different approaches.

One quick idea that crossed my mind was that perhaps I could skip the GC completely. If Rust can be memory safe without GC, perhaps I could use the same mechanisms to do the same for Lox. For example, using reference counted smart pointers. But I quickly discarded this idea. The Lox language doesn’t have the strict rules that Rust has; it’s easy to create cyclic data structures that would leak memory if implemented using reference counting. A GC is a must here.

So I got an idea from a very interesting talk at RustConf 2018 by Catherine West. A common workaround in the Rust world to deal with graph-like structures with cycles is to use vector indices as some sort of pointer. I decided to study the code of some popular crates such as id-arena and typed-arena that use this concept in some way. But the main issue with id-arena is that it doesn’t support deletion of individual objects because there is the risk of running into the ABA problem. This happens when you delete an object and later reuse its slot while there is a live reference somewhere, which will then be pointed to the wrong place in the vector. There are ways to solve this issue, such as using a generational arena, but this felt like over-complicating things.

One day I realized something that now feels so obvious that I’m almost ashamed to admit it: I am writing a garbage collector and its main job is to find objects with no references from the live parts of the program. This means that, if my GC works correctly, I should not worry about the ABA problem at all, because the GC would ensure that there will be no live references of the freed objects.

With this idea in mind, I ended up with a very simple design for a GC in safe Rust. It’s basically a vector of trait objects. Every object should implement a trait (GcTrace), which has methods for tracing an object. Additionally, there is a second vector that contains tombstones to keep track of the deleted objects. The allocation of an object means adding it to the vector and returning the index which will act as some sort of pointer. Freeing an object means swapping it out of the vector and putting some placeholder instead, and adding the index to the list of tombstones that will be reused in a future allocation.

Instead of returning plain integers, I also created a generic wrapper struct to get some type safety, so that if I allocate objects of different types, the result index is also of a different type. This is very similar to what the id-arena crate does. This result index is Copy, which means that I can pass it around as I want without getting nagged by the borrow checker. This also facilitated the design of the interpreter quite a lot, as I was able to get rid of many workarounds that I added to please the borrow checker such as using RefCell and Rc. In the end, using the GC looks like this:

// creates an object
let closure: GcRef<Closure> = gc.alloc(Closure { /*…*/ }); 

Then I can copy and pass around this closure reference everywhere, but when I actually need to do something with the object, I can borrow it from the garbage collector. For example:

let upvalues = gc.deref(closure).upvalues;

This de-reference dance is a bit unergonomic. I have to call gc.deref() every time I want to work with any GC object. I thought that perhaps I could implement Deref and make the Rust compiler do it automatically for me, but this would require each GcRef object to hold a reference to the GC and dealing with the lifetimes would be a nightmare. I could also make the GC completely static, but I don’t even know how to do that with safe Rust only, so I decided to just live with it.

This GC design is extremely simple and it has a bunch of shortcomings. One of them is the fact that the memory needed for the vector of trait objects and the tombstones never shrinks. So if a program suddenly allocates a lot of objects and those are then freed by the GC, the space required for the slots remains there forever. Another shortcoming has to do with when to run the collection process. The GC in clox has precise control of every allocation, and there is a count of the number of the total bytes allocated. When this count reaches some threshold, the collection process runs. In my Rust GC, I can’t have a precise count of the number of bytes allocated because objects often have dynamically sized fields such as strings or vectors. As a workaround, I added a size() method to the GcTrace trait to estimate the size of an object and use it to keep count of the allocated bytes. But this is just an approximation.

Once I was done with the GC, the remaining parts of the Lox interpreter were easy to write. I ended up with a Lox implementation written in 100% safe Rust code and passing the 243 tests from the Lox integration test suite.

Performance

After having a working Lox interpreter and a green test suite to validate any change, it was time to start working on improving performance. At this point I had already abandoned any hope of matching the speed of clox with only safe Rust. As I mentioned before, clox is a really fast implementation and it uses all sorts of tricks to achieve this. From using pointer arithmetic without any runtime checks to the super tricky NaN boxing. However, I thought that if I added a few unsafe blocks to my code base, I could at least come close to the speed of clox.

The first step is, of course, measuring the performance. I decided to use the same benchmark programs available in the crafting interpreters repository. This way of measuring might not be the best, but it’s good enough for a language without any real-world programs. I also decided to manually transpile the benchmark programs to Python and Perl to have some point of comparison. I was expecting some bad results for my very first implementation, but they were much worse than I anticipated:

Not only is Loxido (my implementation) often several times slower than clox, but, in many cases, it’s even slower than jlox (the tree walking implementations written in Java)! After the initial shock, I realized that there was no other way than to start profiling and shave those times as much as possible.

The very first run of perf showed me a clear target to blame for my poor performance:

One of the problems was related to my GC implementation and the way I was dereferencing my index-based pointers. Using vector indices is slower than a regular pointer dereference. An arithmetic operation is needed to get the address of the element, but more importantly, Rust will always check if the index is out of bounds. For the vast majority of use cases, these extra steps are completely negligible, however when you have a VM that processes ~350 million instructions per second, and then you have to do three or four dereferences per instruction, then it shows. But even then, this was not the main problem. The big problem was with some of the workarounds that I had to add to please the borrow checker. I’ll try to explain this:

The core of a VM is basically a huge loop that increments the program counter (PC), grabs the next instruction and runs a big match expression. The PC is part of the current frame. The current frame has a reference to a closure object, which has a reference to a function object, which then has a reference to the chunk of bytecode that contains the instructions. In code it roughly looks like this:

loop {
    let mut frame = self.frames.last_mut().unwrap();
    let closure = self.gc.deref(frame.closure);
    let function = self.gc.deref(closure.function);
    let chunk = &function.chunk;
    let instruction = chunk.code[frame.ip];
    frame.ip += 1;
    match instruction {
        ...
    }
}

The first part of the loop is what was causing the problem. However, I don’t really need to do this on every single iteration. For most instructions, the active frame and chunk of bytecode remains the same. The current frame only changes when a function is invoked or when the current function returns. I could store this in a local variable as a reference and change it only on those instructions, for example:

let mut frame = self.frames.last_mut().unwrap();
let closure = self.gc.deref(frame.closure);
let function = self.gc.deref(closure.function);
let mut chunk = &function.chunk;
loop {
    let instruction = chunk.code[frame.ip];
    frame.ip += 1;
    match instruction {
        Instruction::Call => {
            // update frame and chunk
        }
    }
}

This would increase the speed considerably. But there is a problem: Rust is not very happy about it. The way my implementation works is that the GC owns every object created. If I need an object, I could borrow it, and while I borrow it I’m also borrowing the whole GC. Because of Rust’s aliasing rules, if I decide to have a long-lived reference to the current chunk of byte code, I won’t be able to ever borrow mutably from the GC. So this causes a ton of borrow checker complaints. That’s why I ended up returning every borrow immediately. But this implies a ton of unnecessary dereferences.

Side note: A similar issue with the borrow checker that I often encountered is the one of interprocedural conflicts. There is a nice blog post by Niko Matsakis explaining this problem. I would love to see Rust improving in this area, as I see it as a major headache for beginners.

I tried quite some different approaches to work around this with safe Rust, but I failed on every single one of them. This was often frustrating because it required long refactorings and it was only until the end that I realized that it doesn’t work. 

A simpler solution was to use raw pointers instead of references. This is easy to implement but requires unsafe blocks to dereference those two pointers. I ended up doing that and improvement was massive, with some benchmarks taking up to 74% less time.

After doing this I also decided to rewrite the GC and make the references wrap raw pointers instead of vector indices. This also required some unsafe code, but it also came with some nice speed improvements. And even better, it allowed me to get rid of a lot of boilerplate code because I could finally use Deref. So instead of doing things like

let closure = self.gc.deref(frame.closure);
let function = self.gc.deref(closure.function);
let chunk = &function.chunk;

I could simply:

let chunk = frame.closure.function.chunk;

This simplified a lot of code, and after these changes, my benchmarks improved considerably:

I was still far from the speed of clox, but at least I was already better than jlox and very close to Python and Perl.

Improving HashMap performance

The next thing that showed up in the profiler was HashMap operations. This was kind of expected. Like most dynamic languages, Lox uses hash tables heavily. They’re used to store global variables, interning strings, fields and methods. Any improvement in this area will definitely have a huge impact on the overall performance of the interpreter. In fact, the last chapter of the book, which is dedicated to optimizations, shows how a tiny change in the hash table code allows to shave up to 42% of the running time of a benchmark. That was impressive.

The easiest thing to try was to change the hashing algorithm. The HashMap implementation in Rust’s standard library uses SipHash by default, while clox uses FNV. I knew that SipHash is not that fast, so I thought I could get some easy wins replacing it. In Rust it’s very easy to switch hash function implementations. Just use a different constructor and the rest of the code remains intact.

I found a Rust crate that implements the FNV algorithm, but I also found one called aHash which claims to be “the fastest, DOS resistant hash currently available in Rust”. I tried both and indeed aHash gave better results.

With this tiny change I was able to shave up to 45% of the running time of some of the benchmarks. That’s super amazing for such a small change.

Later I found out that the Rust compiler uses another hashing algorithm called fxhash. Even though aHash claims to be faster than fxhash, given how easy it is to switch algorithms, I decided to try it. I was surprised to find improvements on all of the benchmarks. In some cases shaving up to 25% of time from the aHash results!

Side note: Don’t get super excited about these results. There is a very good reason why Rust uses SipHash by default. Algorithms such as FNV and fxhash are prone to algorithmic complexity DOS attacks. It’s probably not a good idea to use them for an interpreter. But given that this is not a real-world language, and I’m trying to match clox speed using FNV, I decided to ignore this fact for the moment. aHash, however, claims to be DOS resistant, which might be a very interesting option for a real language.

The improvements of switching hash function were quite significant. However, the profiler kept showing some performance bottlenecks caused by hash table operations. I also profiled clox and I found out that hash operations were not taking that much time there. I had to investigate more.

Rust’s standard library is using a very sophisticated hash map implementation called HashBrown. This is a port of Google’s SwissTables, a high-performance hash map implementation in C++. It even uses SIMD instructions to scan multiple hash entries in parallel. How could I ever improve on that? This seemed completely impossible.

So I decided to re-read the chapter of Crafting Interpreters dedicated to hash tables to see if I was missing any tricks. And this was the case indeed!

Unlike HashBrown, which is a general-purpose hash table implementation, the hash table in clox is tailored for a very specific use case. While HashBrown is generic, clox‘s Table only uses Lox strings as keys and Lox values as values. Lox strings are immutable, interned, and they can cache their own hashes. This means that hashing only occurs once ever for each string and comparison is as fast as comparing two pointers. Additionally, not dealing with generic types has the advantage of ignoring type system edge cases such as Zero Sized Data Types.

So I decided to bite the bullet and write my own hash map implementation in Rust closely following the code from clox. The results were very positive, I was able to shave time on most of the benchmarks, with a cut of 44% for the best case compared to HashBrown with fxhash. In the end, it was not a lot of code either. My hash map implementation is roughly 200 lines of mostly unsafe Rust.

Side note: Before writing my own hash table, I tried to mimic the same special conditions of clox tables using HashBrown. For example, I implemented PartialEq on GcRef<String> to ensure that the comparison of interned strings were done by comparing pointers. And I also implemented my own caching hash function based on fxhash. But these efforts didn’t show any significant results. The simplicity of the clox hashmap implementation is just fast!

The price of dynamic dispatch

I was getting closer to the speed of clox, but there was a long way to go. One thing I noticed is that the time difference was much bigger in the benchmarks that ended up stressing the GC. The profiler showed that the tracing part of the garbage collection process was taking quite a lot of time.

As I mentioned before, I used trait objects to keep track of anything that should be garbage collected. I copied this idea from crates such as gc and gc_arena. Using a trait object allowed me to keep a list of all the objects, which is necessary for the sweeping process. The trait also would contain methods for tracing an object. Each object type had different ways of tracing. For example, a string should only mark itself, but an object instance should mark itself and its fields. Each garbage collected type should implement the GcTrace trait with the specific logic to trace it. Then, thanks to polymorphism, the tracing part of the garbage collector was as simple as this:

fn trace_references(&mut self) {
    while let Some(object) = self.grey_stack.pop() {
        object.trace(self);
    }
}

As usual with polymorphism, this was short and elegant. I liked it a lot. However, there was a problem: This kind of polymorphism uses dynamic dispatch, which has a cost. In this particular case, the compiler is unable to inline the tracing functions, so every single trace of an object is a function call. Again, this is usually not a big problem, but when you have millions of traces per second, it shows. In comparison, clox was simply using a switch statement. This is less flexible but the compiler inlines it tightly which makes it really fast.

So instead of using a trait object, I rewrote the GC to use an enum instead. Then I wrote a match expression that would do the right tracing logic for each type. This is a bit less flexible, and it also wastes memory because the enum effectively makes all objects use the same space. But it also improved tracing speed considerably with up to 28% less time for the most problematic benchmark.

Side note: clox uses a different approach called Struct Inheritance. There is a struct that acts as a header and contains meta-information about each object. Then each struct that represents an object managed by the GC has this header as its first field. Using type punning, it’s possible to cast a pointer to the header to a specific object and vice versa. This is possible because in C structs are laid out in the same order as defined in the source. Rust by default doesn’t guarantee the order of the data layout, so this technique is not possible. There are ways to tell the Rust compiler to use the same data layout as C, which is used for compatibility, but I wanted to stay with Rust as intended.

Small unsafety speedups

There were other small details that made clox faster and were related to avoiding safety checks. For example, the stack in clox is represented by a fixed-size array and a pointer that indicates the top of the stack. No underflow or overflow checks are done at all. In contrast, in my Rust implementation, I was using a Vec and the standard push() and pop() operations which are, of course, checked. I rewrote the stack code to use a similar approach as clox and I was able to shave up to 25% of the running time.

Similarly, the program counter in clox is represented as a C pointer to the next instruction in the bytecode array. Increasing the PC is done with pointer arithmetic and no checks. In my Rust implementation, the PC was an integer with the index in the position in the bytecode chunk vector. Changing this to work as clox allowed me to shave up to 11% from the running time.

Getting speed-up improvements is nice, but the downside is that the code becomes unsafe. One of the best parts of Rust is its safety, and if you abandon it, it feels as dangerous like C but a bit uglier. But at least it’s nice that you can be very specific about what parts of your code are unsafe, this makes it much easier to debug when things go wrong.

Side note: How can clox live with all these unchecked pointer arithmetic? Well, the VM assumes that the bytecode will always be correct. The VM is not supposed to take any arbitrary bytecode, but only bytecode generated by the compiler. It’s the compiler’s responsibility to produce correct bytecode that would not cause underflows or overflows of the stack or frames. While the clox compiler does prevent a lot of these cases, it does not prevent stack overflows. The author intentionally decided to skip this check because it would require a lot of boilerplate code. Real-world interpreters using unsafe structures like these must absolutely do it though.

After the tweaks, my Rust implementation finally started to get really close to clox:

For most benchmarks, the running time of loxido is between 20% and 50% more than clox. It’s close, but not entirely satisfactory. Unfortunately, I reached a point where profiling my existing benchmarks doesn’t give me clear information about what parts of the code are making loxido slower.

I probably need to write some more targeted benchmarks. And I should start looking for clues beyond the profiler data, such as checking for cache misses, branch mispredictions and taking a look at the generated machine code. But this goes beyond my available time and knowledge, so I decided to leave loxido as it is here.

I have a few hunches of things that could improve performance. One is using struct inheritance to represent GC objects instead of using an enum. This would require changing the data layout of the structs to match C. The problem with using an enum is that a match operation is required on every dereference. I believe this match should be optimized out by the compiler, but I haven’t properly checked. But even then, struct inheritance is simpler and it will require fewer instructions in many places.

The second hunch is that perhaps using variable-length instructions might end up in a tighter bytecode that produces better cache utilization. I feel this is unlikely as the byte code is usually so small that I find it hard that this makes any difference. But I would like to have the time to test it anyway.

I also considered the fact that I compiled clox using GCC 10.3.1, while Rust 1.51.0 uses LLVM. I tried compiling clox using clang instead and indeed some benchmarks took up to 15% more time. But a few others were faster than the GCC version. So I discarded this as a big factor. My Rust implementation is consistently slower on all the benchmarks.

One more thing to consider was the impact of the NaN boxing optimization. Which I had zero plans to implement in Rust. I compiled clox without NaN boxing and compared the results. It almost made no difference. There were time variations of +- 5% across the benchmarks. So I don’t think this is a factor at all.

Final Thoughts

I enjoyed writing Rust very much and learning how to write a language VM with it. Crafting Interpreters is one of the most amazing technical books that I have ever read, I totally recommend it.

Rust can be frustrating sometimes, that’s undeniable. But Rust is also very rewarding. Besides the modern features in the language and its great tooling, I find the Rust community to be awesome. I know the hype can be annoying sometimes, especially when fans feel the need to jump into every single discussion to evangelize about the language, but, for the most part, the hype has a lot of positive things. The Rust community is vibrant, people are sharing knowledge all the time in the form of blog posts, discussions, tools, and libraries. The community is also very beginner-friendly, with tons of people willing to help even when the question has been repeated a thousand times in multiple places.

In some areas, Rust feels a bit half-baked. For example, dealing with variance in the type system is confusing and feels very hacky. The new allocator API is not there yet, which would have been very useful when writing my GC. And I think the borrow checker could be smarter in many cases. I would like to write in more detail about these things, but this post is already too long. Nevertheless, I think the language has very good prospects of improving and I’m glad the creators are not afraid of the language not being perfect. I look forward to keeping writing Rust and learning about it.

This is it! Thanks for reading!

Perl 6: Giving with One Hand and Taking with the Other

I’ve been programming Perl full-time for almost two years now. The reason is my new job, where 99% of back-end our code base is Perl. Before that, I had not written a single line of Perl, so the language has been a new experience for me. I think Perl is actually better than its reputation. It is pleasant to write most of the time. I also love to see and understand how many cool features in other languages were inspired by Perl. Nevertheless, it’s undeniable that the language has pitfalls and design problems. This year, during FOSDEM, Larry Wall announced that a first version of Perl 6 will be released before Christmas. For those not familiar with Perl, please notice that it’s not exactly the successor of Perl 5, but it’s rather a completely new and different language. Perl and Perl 6 are called sister languages. The idea of Perl 6 started fifteen years ago, when Larry Wall and others decided to design and implement a new language from scratch. The idea was to keep Perl’s essence, while fixing all of its design issues and quirks. I decided to give Perl 6 a try. Mostly because I was curious to see if it actually fixed the problems of Perl 5. I haven’t started a serious project or anything, I’ve been just playing with the language and solving some Project Euler problems. Also, I’ve started my tests with a pre-release version of Perl 6 (Rakudo Star with MoarVM version 2015.01), some things are not implemented and some others are not properly documented. If any Perl 6 dev ever reads this, please forgive me if something is wrong. I’ll be happy to be corrected. Both Perl 5 and Perl 6 languages are pretty big. The motto of these languages is “There is more than one way to do it” (TIMTOWTDI). So there are tons of features, many of them just to do the same things. I will only discuss a few of them. In particular, I will discuss how Perl 6 addresses those that I consider the biggest problems of Perl 5: context and references.

First Big Problem: Context Variable Behavior

Context is something very unique to Perl as far as I know. It’s a way to mimic spoken language where the meaning of some words depends on the context they’re used in. Perl 5 has 3 contexts: scalar, list and void. So for example, a function might do and return something completely different depending on the context of the call:

my $x = do_something(); # Scalar context: returns one thing.
print do_something();   # List context: might return other thing.
do_something();         # Void context: a third possibility.

When implementing a function, you can use the special wantarray construct to know in which context the function is being called. For example:

sub do_something {
if (wantarray) {
# this will run if called in List context
} elsif (defined wantarray) {
# this will run if called in Scalar context
} else {
# this will run if called in Void context
}
}

The reason I consider context one of the biggest problems of Perl 5 is because, unlike other bad “features”, it’s pretty much impossible to avoid. The concept is so fundamental to the language and its core libraries that you just have to learn to live with it. It’s important to be very careful of how you are calling your functions all the time, otherwise you might introduce bugs or even security issues. Unfortunatelly, there doesn’t seem to be a convention on what functions should return in each context. For example, the built-in function keys return the list keys of a hash table / dictionary when called in list context, but instead returns then number of keys if called in scalar context. However, the splice function removes elements from an array and returns them in list context but it only returns the last element in scalar context. Similarly, the regexp match operator returns a Boolean if the string matches in scalar context, but the matching groups in list context (only if groups were defined). And so on. All this makes Perl hard to learn because you have to read and memorize the documentation of all the functions, and their behaviors on different contexts. Things are rarely intuitive and I’ve seen developers with many years of Perl experience bitten by this from time to time.

Second Big Problem: References

The other big problem with Perl, in my opinion, are references. More specifically, array and hash references. To explain why these are a problem, first I have to describe Lists. Lists are a language construct in Perl that can be used to initialize data structures, passing arguments to functions or assigning variables. A list is basically a group of expressions separated by commas. For example:

my @array = (1, 2, 3);       # Initialize an array.
my ($one, $two) = (1, 2);    # Assign variables.
join('/', 'home', 'manuel'); # Arguments to a function.

One important thing about lists is that they flatten all the inner lists. For example, the following lines are equivalent:

my @array = (1, 2, 3, 4);
my @array = (1, (2, (3, 4)));

The flattening also happens if you use arrays as expressions, for example:

my @end = (3, 4);
my @array = (1, 2, @end); # same as (1, 2, 3, 4);

List flattening is actually a nice feature, it allows a lot of cool things such as destructuring of assignment and function arguments. However, it has a problem: it makes it difficult to create nested data structures such as arrays of arrays. To fix this, Perl introduced the concept of references. References are some sort of high level pointers. Instead of storing the actual data, references store a pseudo address which points to the data. The important aspect of references, in relation to the problem described above, is that they’re scalars, and as such they can be taken as a single element of an array. So you can’t have arrays of arrays in Perl because of the flattening feature, but you can have arrays of array references, which are a good substitute. For example:

my @a = (1, 2);
my @b = (3, 4);
my @parts = (\@a, \@b); # Two elements. Doesn't flatten.

Perl also provides a nice syntax for defining array references, so the code above could be better written as:

my @parts = ([1, 2], [3, 4]); # an array of two arrayrefs.

Or you can write it as a single array reference and the syntax is very similar to other programming languages:

my $arrayref = [ [1, 2], [3, 4] ];

A similar thing happens with hashes/dictionaries, which are constructed also with lists. To have nested hashes you have to use hash references. The problem with array references is that they behave completely differently in both list and scalar contexts. So every time you want to do something with them you have to know if you’re dealing with a real array or a reference. Just like context, this problem is unavoidable in Perl because you need references every time you need nested arrays, but you can’t use only references because most built-in functions to operate with collections accept real arrays instead. To illustrate this problem, let’s assume that you’re using an API with a get_employees() function, and you want to print the name of each one. Your code is different depending on whether the function returns an array or an arrayref:

# Array version:
my @employees = get_employes();
for my $employee (@employees) {
print $employee->name;
}

# Arrayref version:
my $employees = get_employes();
for my $employee (@{$employees}) {
print $employee->name;
}

So for every function returning a collection, you have to read the documentation and memorize if they return a reference or an array. Some libraries help you with this, for example, DBI (the database interface for Perl) adds a suffix to some functions indicating which kind of value they return:

@row = $sth->fetchrow_array();
$row = $sth->fetchrow_arrayref();

Other libraries make use of the wantarray special function to return an array when in list context or a reference when in scalar context. This sometimes helps, but it also creates even more confusion because it’s not a widespread idiom, so you have to check the documentation carefully anyway. To make things worse, Perl built-in functions usually work in a way that’s completely counterintuitive for people used to all this lists/array logic. For example, the push function can be used to add one or more elements to an array:

my @array = (1, 2, 3);
push(@array, 4, 5, 6); # will be (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

This looks perfectly fine, however, if you were paying attention at how lists work in Perl, you know that arguments passed to a function are lists, and lists flatten. So applying the flattening logic to the push function, these two lines should be equivalent:

push(@array, 4, 5, 6);
push(1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6);

So how does Perl know when the array part of the arguments ends and the elements part starts? If you use the list/array logic, to make this work, the first element should be a reference. That way, you will know that the array to push into is the first element of the list. You’d use it like this:

push(\@array, 4, 5, 6);

But that’s not how the built-in push function works in Perl. So, how does it work? A very experienced Perl developer once told me that in general, I should not assume that built-in functions behave as regular functions, some times they use some magic. However, there is a feature that explains this: function prototypes. These are small specs added to each function specifying what each argument is. It allows you to override the flattening logic. For example, if you want to have a function that behaves like push, you have to use:

sub my_push(\@@) {
my ($array, @elements) = @_;
push @$array, @elements;
}

One more thing to look for when reading API documentation. Fortunately, it’s not common that libraries abuse this feature.

Perl 6 to the Rescue?

Let’s finally talk about Perl 6. Good news is that it addresses these issues. Although Perl 6 still has a concept of context, it’s completely different from what Perl 5 uses. In practical terms this means that there is no wantarray function (yay!). Instead context flows outwards. That means that functions just return objects that know how to behave in different scenarios using methods for it. For example, if you want to represent an object as a string, you implement an Str method. If you want it as a number, you implement a Numeric method and so on. That’s not much different from what other languages do, it’s a well known pattern. Perl 6 also drops references. Everything is an object now. In fact you can assign arrays to scalar variables and use them almost in the same way as regular arrays:

$./perl6
> my @array = 1, 2, 3, 4;
1 2 3 4
> @array.elems # returns the number of elements in the array.
4
> @array[0] # element access
1
> @array[0] = 10 # assigning an element
10
> say @array;
10 2 3 4
>
> # scalars work in the same way:
> my $scalar = @array;
10 2 3 4
> $scalar.elems
4
> $scalar[0]
10
> $scalar[0] = 1
1
> say $scalar
1 2 3 4

So, if arrays behave like objects, and you can assign them to scalar variables and use them in the same way, why does Perl 6 still use sigils (the symbol before the variable name) to differentiate arrays from scalars? The answer is that, unfortunately, we still have context in Perl 6. And we still have flattening lists, and everything is mixed in a very confusing cocktail. Let’s start with the context part. A list, just as in Perl 5, it’s a series of items separated by commas. When assigning a list to something, the value will be different depending on the context:

my @array = 1, 2, 3; # list context assigns all the items
my $array = 1, 2, 3; # item context: assigns only the first item

List also flatten, so these two arrays are the same:

my @array1 = 1, 2, 3, 4;   # four elements
my @array2 = 1, 2, (3, 4); # also four elements

Because there are no references in Perl 6, if you want to have nested arrays, you have to explicitly ask for item context:

my @array2 = 1, 2, $(3, 4); # three elements
my @array2 = 1, 2, [3, 4];  # brackets also work. TIMTOWTDI

So far, sounds reasonable. But there is one problem: in addition to Lists, Perl 6 introduces another construct called parcels, which stands for Parenthesis Cells. Just as lists, they can have elements separated by commas, but they behave differently: while Lists flatten, Parcels don’t. The fact that both constructs are dangerously similar, creates a lot of confusion.

my $a = 1, 2, 3, 4;       # $a is a single integer = 1.
my $b = (1, 2, 3, 4);     # $b is a parcel with 4 elements
my $c = ((1, 2), (3, 4)); # $c is a parcel with 2 elements

my @a = 1, 2, 3, 4;       # @a is an array with four elements
my @a = (1, 2, 3, 4);     # @b is also an array with 4 elements
my @a = ((1, 2), (3, 4)); # @c is also an array with 4 elements

How does Perl 6 know if a list of things surrounding by parenthesis and delimited by commas are lists or parcels? It depends of the context, in this case the sigil of the variable being assigned. Note that in the case of scalar context, the parenthesis surrounding the expression are fundamental to determine if the value assigned is a parcel or just the first element of the list. You might think the key to recognize parcels are the parenthesis, after all, they’re called Parenthesis Cells for a reason. But this is not the case. First, in list context parenthesis are pretty much ignored. And even in scalar context, some things can be parcels even if they don’t have parenthesis. For example the value returned by a function:

sub my_function { 1, 2, 3 }
my $a = my_function(); # $a is a parcel with three elements.

Sometimes it’s harder to determine if a list or a parcel is going to be used, because you don’t have a sigil to determine it. For example, when you do something like this:

((1, 2), (3, 4))[0] # returns 1 2

In this case Perl 6 assumes it’s a parcel, hence the items are not flattened. Same thing seems to happen when trying to call methods:

((1, 2), (3, 4)).elems # returns 2

However, sometimes it seems to take the value as a list:

((1, 2), (3, 4)).map({ say $_ }) # flattens and print four lines.

I don’t know how this is possible at all, since parcels don’t even have a map method. And I haven’t figured out how could Perl 6 interpret this as a list. I suspect this is either a bug or an exception hard coded in Rakudo (there are a few of those). Do you think that’s all? Of course not. Perl 6 has a third construct for comma separated items: Captures. These are used for function arguments. The rules for flattening Captures are variable, they depend on a Signature object associated with it. Each case is unique. I’m not going to describe how Captures work, they’re really complex. You can read the documentation if you’re curious.

Conclusion

Perl 6 is definitely an improvement over Perl 5 in many areas. It would require many posts to describe all the nice fixes in design. However, my feeling is that while some issues have been fixed, new quirks have been introduced. Of course, Perl 6 has not been released yet and some of these things might change. Also, I have not tried all the features to have a solid opinion on it. I think I’ll take a look again in a year when version 6.0.0 is out there.

Update:

Thanks to Reddit, I just found out that most of the issues mentioned here about Perl 6 are going to be fixed. More specifically, the flattening of lists and the elimination of parcels. This is called The Great List Refactor and it’s supposed to be there before the final release of the language.

A powerful unused feature of Python: function annotations.

Something I’ve always missed when using Python (and dynamically typed languages in general) is nice tooling support. C# and Java have powerful IDEs that can improve your productivity significantly. Some people say that IDEs are a language smell. I disagree, IDEs are a truly valuable tool and the “nice language or IDE” statement is a false dilemma.

The problem with dynamically typed languages is that it’s impossible for the IDE to infer things about some parts of  your code. For example, if you start typing this:

def myfunction(a, b):
...

It’s impossible for the editor to give you any hint about a or b.

I’ve been playing with Dart and TypeScript recently. These are languages that compile to Javascript and both try to improve tooling support. They’re interesting because, despite being dynamically typed languages, both implement optional type annotations. These have no different purpose than aiding editors and IDEs. Let me show you a simple example of how this can be seriously useful, consider the following Javascript code:

function findTitle(title) {
	var titleElement = document.getElementById('title-' + title);
	return title;
}

var t = findTitle('mytitle');
t.innerHTML = 'New title';

The code has a small error that is not very easy to notice. Now let’s see the TypeScript Web Editor with the same code adding a single type annotation to findTitle:

typescript

TypeScript found an error. By knowing that title is a string, it knows that findTitle is returning a string too, and therefore t is a string and strings don’t have an innerHTML method.

Early error detection is one advantage of good tooling support. Another interesting thing is accurate code completion. With good code completion you don’t have to browse huge API docs looking for what you need. You can discover the API while you type and use automatic re-factor tools without worrying about breaking code.

typescript-small

Anders Hejlsberg’s introduction video to TypeScript contains more interesting details about how annotations are really useful.

While playing with TypeScript I couldn’t stop thinking how cool would be to have something like that in Python. Then I realized that Python had syntax for annotations years before TypeScript or Dart were even planned. PEP 3107 introduced function annotations in Python. Here is a small example:

def greet(name: str, age: int) -> str:
    print('Hello {0}, you are {1} years old'.format(name, age))

Here I annotated the greet function with the types of each argument and return value. Python annotations are completely optional and if you don’t do anything with them, they’re just ignored. However, with some little magic, it’s possible to tell python to check types at run-time:

>>> @typechecked
... def greet(name: str, age: int) -> str:
...     print('Hello {0}, you are {1} years old'.format(name, age))
...
>>> greet(1, 28)
Traceback (most recent call last):
    ...
TypeError: Incorrect type for "name"

Run-time type checking is not very useful though. However, a static analyzer could use that information to report errors as soon as you type. Also, IDEs and code completion libraries such as Jedi could use that information to provide nice completion tips just like TypeScript does.

Some people might say that this makes the language too verbose. People using dynamic languages often want concise code. But in practice, if you take a look at any medium to large Python project or library, chances are that you’ll find something like this:

def attach_volume(self, volume_id, instance_id, device):
    """
    Attach an EBS volume to an EC2 instance.

    :type volume_id: str
    :param volume_id: The ID of the EBS volume to be attached.

    :type instance_id: str
    :param instance_id: The ID of the EC2 instance to which it will
                        be attached.

    :type device: str
    :param device: The device on the instance through which the
                   volume will be exposted (e.g. /dev/sdh)

    :rtype: bool
    :return: True if successful
    """
    params = {'InstanceId': instance_id,
              'VolumeId': volume_id,
              'Device': device}
    return self.get_status('AttachVolume', params, verb='POST')

I took this code from the boto library, they annotate functions using docstrings and sphinx. It’s a very common way of annotating public APIs. However, this method has some drawbacks: first, it’s really verbose and you repeat your self a lot writing code like this; second, it’s harder to parse because there are different docstring formats (sphinx, epydoc, pydoctor), so editors don’t bring code completion or early error checking; third, it’s very easy to make mistakes that unsync the docstrings and the code. In this particular example, if you ever run this function, you’ll notice that it returns a string, not a bool as the annotation suggests.

Google Closure uses a similar docstring approach for type annotations in Javascript.

So, if people are already writing verbose docstrings to annotate functions, why not just use real function annotations? They’re completely optional and you don’t have to use them for non-public APIs or small scripts. They’re more concise, easier to process and easier to verify. Function annotations are only available on Python 3, you might say, but there are some approaches to emulate them in Python 2.x using decorators and it’s still way better than docstrings.

An interesting thing about Python annotations is that they don’t have to be types. In fact, you can use any Python expression as a function annotation. This opens the possibilities for a lot of interesting applications: typechecking, auto documentation, language bridges, object mappers, adaptation, design by contract, etc.

The typelanguage library defines a whole language for communicating types. This language can be used with just string annotations. For example:

def get_keys(a_dict: '{str: int}') -> '[str]':
    ...

The downside of this flexibility is that it causes some confusion in the community about how annotations should be used. A recent discussion in the Python-ideas mailing list unveiled this problem.

Personally, I would love to see this feature more used in the Python community. It has a lot of potential. I started a small library to work with type annotations. It implements the typechecked decorator described before, and some other useful things like structural interfaces, unions and logic predicates that can be used as function annotations. It’s still very immature, but I would like to improve it in the future by adding function overloading and other features. A detailed description of the library probably deserves a whole post for it. I would love to hack Jedi to add some basic support for auto-completion based on annotations.

Aaron Swartz

Ha pasado ya más de un mes desde que Aaron Swartz falleció. Aaron fue un activista que dedicó gran parte de su vida a defender nuestros derechos. Su muerte fue verdaderamente lamentable.

Quise hacer un pequeño tributo a Aaron. Decidí traducir y subtitular su emotiva conferencia sobre “How we stopped SOPA” en F2C 2012 :

La traducción la hice poco a poco en ratos libres. Si alguien encuentra cualquier error, por favor informen me.

Aquí está la transcripción del inglés que también hice.

Aquí está el archivo de subtítulos en español.

Aquí está el vídeo original.

Ludum Dare 25

Last week  I participated in Ludum Dare, one of the most popular game making competitions out there. The idea is to write a game in 48 hours. You have to create everything in those 48 hours. That includes graphics, sounds and code. This time the theme was “you are the villian”. I tried to participate before but failed to finish something. This time my primary goal was to finish a game, even if it was very simple. I decided to write something between Space Invaders and Galaxian, where you actually played the aliens. I also decided to mix some tower defence elements. I had a lot of fun writing this game, even when in the end it was boring and buggy. Next time it will be better for sure.

For the game code I used Dart and a very immature library I’ve been working on. The result wasn’t very good. The controls were poor and the game is not very fun. It also has some ugly bugs. Writing a game in 48 hours is really hard; more than I initially thought. I was new with these tools and that made everything harder too. For graphics I used The Gimp and Inkscape.

Here is a bit summary of my experience.

What went right:

  • I finished! That’s the best thing!
  • I made something simple.
  • I started using very simple graphics and decided to improve them later only if there was time.
  • I could come up with a design pretty quickly, this allowed me to spend more time on coding and creating graphics.
  • I created a simple plan and was able to follow it on time.

What went wrong

  • Game mechanics and controls. The controls didn’t fit quite right with the game. The game mechanics could have been improved.
  • No sound 😦 I didn’t have time for it.
  • Final game had some bugs because I tweaked the controls at the last minute.
  • I had bugs with other browsers that I didn’t detect until the last minute.
  • Sunday was significantly less productive than Saturday and Friday night. I was really tired and took a lot of breaks. Probably because I had a lot of work the previous week. I will try to take a rest before the compo next time.
  • I’m not an expert with the tools. That slowed me down with the code. And the engine I wrote is still very immature.

What I learned

  • Playing and rating games is equally or even more fun than writing the game. I love to see such explosion of creativity!
  • The community rocks! Thanks for everything.

Ludum Dare was an incredible fun experience. I won’t miss the next one!

Beyond Javascript part 2: Dart and Typescript

I was glad to see the release of Microsoft TypeScript last week. After Google with Dart, it’s nice to see one more big player trying to create new languages for client side web development.

I’ve been playing with Dart for a while and TypeScript really impressed me. In terms of syntax, I feel that TS got some bits much better than Dart. Anders Hejlsberg has a true talent for language design. Some things I like about TypeScript:

  • Full interoperability with the JavaScript world. This is both ways: from JS to TS and vice-versa. There is a huge ecosystem of code available for JS.
  • Better syntax. For example: type annotations are much more flexible, and they look nicer. Interfaces are better too, they cover all the cases and there is no need for ugly constructs such as “typedef” in Dart.
  • They offer support for private things, both in classes and modules. Although, this is only useful at compile time.
  • The web playground is really cool. It has auto completion, error highlighting and side by side compilation. It even has nice key bindings, almost like a good IDE.
  • The Visual Studio support and the online playground showed an amazing type inference engine. I have not seen that with Dart.
  • The module system looks better, it’s possible to explicitly importonly the things you need from a module. I like that.

As a side note, I really like they way Microsoft is approaching open source with this project. They have open sourced a lot of things in the past, but this time it feels different. They used an Apache license, added a node.js package, Chrome and MongoDB were used in the demo. It shows a MS less afraid of interoperating with competing open source products and more interesting in truly participating in the community process.

Dart, on the other side, is a more ambitious project in my opinion. Although many of the cool promised features are not really there yet. For example: mirrors and tree shaking.

There are some things that I think Dart got better than TypeScript:

  • It really fixes all the insanity of JavaScript: it has sane equality operators, real arrays, real hash maps, sane comparisons, sane scope, lexical “this” and many more things. TypeScript doesn’t fix any of these problems.
  • More features: operator overloading, string formatting, for-in loops, better collections, isolates, annotations, generics.
  • It improves the DOM interface. This is one of my favorite features.
  • Multiplatform IDE. Visual Studio is cool, but I don’t want to use Windows.

Dart also provides a new VM. This is interesting because it allows optimizations based on type inference, direct debugging and other cool things. However, I think it’s very unlikely that other browsers ever implement the Dart VM. Dart2js will be the only option for a long time.

Another thing I like about Dart is how fast the project moves. Almost every week you see language changes and improvements for the IDE. I wonder if TypeScript is going to be as dynamic.

I’m currently working on a small personal project written in Dart. I would like to play with TypeScript but I don’t want to use Visual Studio. I think some traction is needed before support for other IDEs and editors appears. I guess I have to wait.

CoffeeScript: less typing, bad readability

I’ve used CoffeeScript for a few months now. Coming from Python, I felt that CoffeeScript was more concise than Javascript, so I decided to use it for a few small projects. Initially, it was a nice experience, but then I gradually realized that, while writing CoffeeScript code was very pleasant, reading it wasn’t so. I started to notice that it was hard to read my own code a few months later. It was even harder to read other people’s code. I often found my self reading the translated JavaScript code to understand a line or two of CoffeeScript. I concluded that CoffeeScript was a language designed for writability at the cost of readability, easier to write, but harder to read.

The roots of CoffeeScript readability problems are two principles applied to the design of the language:

  • Implicit is better than explicit
  • There is more than one way to do it

1. Implicit is better than explicit.

Implicit or optional tokens in a programming language usually bring readability problems. For example, in C-like languages, you can omit curly brackets after a conditional expression if you only have one statement:

if (condition)
    action();

But what happens if we add a new statement:

if (condition)
    action();
    action2();

Now let’s take a look at a classic problem associated with implicit semicolon insertion in Javascript:

function foo() {
  return
    {
      foo: 1
    }
}

Both examples show cases where, at first glance, the code looks like it’s doing something, but after looking more carefully it’s doing something completely different. Even if you know the rules, it’s easy to fall into this trap if you’re an unwary reader. That’s a readability problem.

CoffeeScript introduces multiple implicit or optional tokens that create a lot of situations like these ones. And that’s something you can easily see in real code. For example, take this statement:

action(true, {
   option1: 1,
   option2: 2
})

In CoffeeScript, you can omit the parenthesis, the curly brackets and the commas. They’re optional. So you can rewrite the statement above as this:

action true
   option1: 1
   option2: 2

Problems with optional parenthesis

Take a look at these two snippets. Next to the CoffeeScript code is the resulting JavaScript:

doSomething () ->  'hello'
doSomething(function() {
  return 'hello';
});
doSomething() ->  'hello'
doSomething()(function() {
  return 'hello';
});

Both statements do completely different different things, although they look very similar. The first one takes the space after the function name and applies implicit parenthesis to the function call, taking the function as a single parameter. The second one interprets the parenthesis as a function call with no arguments and applies implicit parenthesis on that result. Note that in CoffeeScript parenthesis are also optional in function definitions with no arguments. That means that the following two statements have exactly the same meaning:

x = -> 'result'
x = () -> 'result'

Something curious about the rules used by CoffeeScript for implicit parenthesis is that the case for function calling is exactly the opposite of the case for function definition. In function calling you can omit parenthesis except when the function takes no arguments, whereas in function definition you can omit parenthesis only when the function has no arguments.

Now let’s take a look at some interesting case of how implicit parenthesis make things harder to read. This a small snippet taken directly from the CoffeeScript source code:

action = (token, i) ->
      @tokens.splice i, 0, @generate 'CALL_END', ')', token[2]

The @tokens.splice function call has five elements separated by commas. At first glance you can think that the function is taking five arguments, but if you read carefully, you will notice that there is another function call as an argument: @generate. The last two arguments are for @generate not for @token.splice.  A more readable way of writing this would have been:

action = (token, i) ->
      @tokens.splice i, 0, @generate('CALL_END', ')', token[2])

Problems with optional commas

In CoffeeScript you can omit commas for separating function arguments if you put them in a new line. For example the following two statements are equivalent:

moveTo 10, 20, 10
moveTo 10,
  20
  10

The comma after the first argument is mandatory, except if the next argument is an object definition:

moveTo(10, {key: value})

moveTo 10
  key: value

Also, if you’re not using explicit parenthesis, indentation is important, but not alignment, take a look at these examples with the resulting JavaScript next to them:

doSomething 1,
  2
  3
  4
doSomething(1, 2, 3, 4);
doSomething 1,
2
3
4
doSomething(1, 2);
3;
4;
doSomething 1,
  2
    3
   4
doSomething(1, 2, 3, 4);
doSomething(1,
2
3
4)
doSomething(1, 2, 3, 4);

You’re not safe from indentation problems if you use parenthesis, for example:

doSomething (->
'hello'), 1
doSomething((function() {}, 'hello'), 1);
doSomething (->
  'hello'), 1
doSomething((function() {
  return 'hello';
}), 1);

In the first case, the line break after the function definition is replaced by an implicit comma, the parenthesis seem to be ignored.

Problems with optional curly brackets

Suppose that you have a function that takes two objects as arguments:

action({key: value}, {option: value}, otherValue)

If you omit the curly brackets, you might think you get the same result:

action(key: value, option: value, otherValue)

However, in this case CoffeeScript will take the first comma as a separator for object properties instead of a separator for arguments. The second comma however, it is taken as argument separator because it’s not an explicit key-value pair. The code will be translated to the following Javascript:

action({key: value, option: value}, otherValue);

Something curious here is that in CoffeeScript, explicit key-value pairs are optional in object definitions, but only if you use explicit curly brackets. That means that you can write something like this:

x = {
  key1
  key2
  key3: value3
}
x = {
  key1: key1,
  key2: key2,
  key3: value3
};

2. There is more than one way to do it (TIMTOWTDI)

In CoffeeScript TIMTOWTDI is a strong principle. For example, instead of just having true and false keywords for boolean values, you can also have yes and no, off and on.

Also, you can write a simple conditional statement in multiple ways:

x = 1 if y != 0

if y != 0
  x = 1

x = 1 unless y == 0

unless y == 0
  x = 1

All the four statements above do exactly the same thing.

The problem with having multiple ways of doing one thing, is that the language end up with too many idioms. This makes code harder to read because a programmer trying to understand a piece of code must be familiar with all those idioms.

When we combine multiple idioms with implicit stuff and the fact that everything is an expression, the result is a bomb for readability. Here are a few examples taken directly from CoffeeScript’s source code.

Fancy for loop

  break for [tag], i in @tokens when tag isnt 'TERMINATOR'
  @tokens.splice 0, i if i

This code deletes leading newlines from the list of tokens. The for loop is
just a “cool” one liner to write this:

  for [tag], i in @tokens
    if tag is 'TERMINATOR'
      break

Tricky while

i += block.call this, token, i, tokens while token = tokens[i]

In CoffeeScript everything is an expression. In the code above, is the while
expresion an argument of block.call? or is it acting as while for the
whole statement? When we translate it to Javascript, this is what we get:

while (token = tokens[i]) {
  i += block.call(this, token, i, tokens);
}

Much easier to read in my opinion. Also, note that the while expression is
using an assignment operator instead of a comparision one. That adds 10 points
to the readability bomb.

Tricky if

@detectEnd i + 1, condition, action if token[0] is 'CALL_START'

Here is a similar example, but this time, we’re using an if statement. As in
the previous example, the if here is acting over the whole statement:

if (token[0] === 'CALL_START') {
  this.detectEnd(i + 1, condition, action);
}

But what happens if we add an else to the if?

@detectEnd i + 1, condition, action if token[0] is 'CALL_START' else false

Now the if is assumed as an expression argument for the @detectEnd function:

this.detectEnd(i + 1, condition, action(token[0] === 'CALL_START' ? void 0 : false));

Fancy redefinition

mainModule.moduleCache and= {}

This code clears the module cache only if the value is not null (or something
falsy). This could have been writen this way:

if mainModule.moduleCache
  moduleCache = {}

But short and original code is much cooler. This is a good example of how TIMTOWTDI kills readability.

Nested made flat

js = (parser.parse lexer.tokenize code).compile options

In this example we see how a nested chain of calls looks flat thanks to the
magic of implicit parenthesis. The code translates to the following Javascript:

js = (parser.parse(lexer.tokenize(code))).compile(options);

When the nested calls are explicit, the code becomes easier to read.

Conclusion

Of course readability is a very subjective topic. The problems described here might not apply to you if you come from a different background. I come from Python, C# and C++. But if you come from Ruby or Perl, you might think these are not problems but actually cool features.

I think that readability is more important than writability for a programming language. Code is usually written once, but read many times. Given that CoffeeScript doesn’t fix any of the fundamental problems of JavaScript, but damages readability, I decided not to use it anymore.

Update:

Another interesting post with some other readability problems in CoffeeScript: http://ryanflorence.com/2011/case-against-coffeescript/

Beyond Javascript: Coffeescript

During this year I’ve introduced my self into the world of front-end web development. I’ve never been a fan of the web as a development platform, but I have to admit that the web seems to be the unavoidable platform of the future. During my adventures with web development, I had to deal with Javascript, of course. My opinion about this language is not different from almost everyone else’s: It’s a language with good intentions which ended up being not so good. No wonder why is the most “WTF” language in Stack Overflow. After some months of continuously writing Javascript, I got used to it.

Parallel to my daily JS programming, I’ve been looking for alternatives. These come mostly in the form of languages that compile to Javascript. I decided to try CoffeeScript after watching a cool video titled Better JS with CoffeeScript by Sam Stephenson from 37signals. CS is a nice little language inspired by Ruby, Python and others. I used CS for some small toy projects. It’s very cool and it has a strong community.

Probably the most striking feature of CoffeeScript is that it’s just Javascript. There is almost no semantic changes between them. The difference is purely aesthetic. This has some interesting advantages: 1. Debugging is not a problem because CS can be compiled to human readable JS. 2. CS can easily interoperate with any existent JS code.  The main disadvantage is that CS fixes none of the fundamental problems of JS.

I feel that writing CS is much better than writing JS. However, it took me a while to realize that reading CS is most of the time harder than reading JS. I realized this when reading my own code a few months later. My conclusion is that CoffeeScript’s design has a strong focus on writability, but not on readability. There are two factors that contribute to this in my opinion: 1. The design has a preference for implicit stuff. Some important tokens such as parenthesis, curly brackets, commas and others are optional. This leads to ambiguity in the code that must be resolved by precedence rules and creates code that is very hard to read.  2. The language adopts Perl’s motto: “There’s more than one way to do it“.  This ends up in code with too much different idioms, making things hard to read. I personally prefer Python’s motto: “There should be one and preferably only one obvious way to do it“.

A detailed description of all the readability problems in CoffeeScript deserves its own post. I’ll leave that for later. Meanwhile, I decided not to code in CS anymore. I don’t really see any value on it. I’ll go with plain Javascript when necessary, and I’m also exploring new alternatives such as Google Dart and ClojureScript.

Reducing eye strain

I usually program for several hours a day. I often end up with eye strain caused by looking at the screen for hours without a break. I’ve been experimenting with different things to see how I can reduce this problem. Here I want to share 4 tips I’ve discovered to reduce eye strain when programming for a long time:

1. Use a color scheme with light background.

Dark color schemes look really cool, I know. I love the one that comes with ST2 by default:

Default Color Scheme in ST2

However, after using these kind of color schemes for a while, I’ve noticed that my eyes get tired more quickly. I didn’t understand why. Specially because I’ve heard a lot of people saying that dark color schemes are actually better to reduce eye strain. After reading more about it, I discovered that there are multiple studies confirming that dark text on light background is much easier to read.

Right now I’m using this colorscheme:

My current colorscheme

It feels so much better!

Dark backgrounds are not completely bad if you use some low contrast scheme like Zenburn. I would like to try it one of these days.

2. Adjust screen color temperature at night.

Monitors’ color temperature is usually set at 6500K. This is similar to sunlight. This is okay for the day but it can hurt your eyes at night, specially if you use a Tungsten-like light as I do. There is a nice program to automatically adjust color temperature in your monitor called F.lux. It’s a bit hard to get used to it at the beginning, but once you do, you are going to love it.

3. Adjust room lighting.

I’ve found that the key factor to produce eye strain is to have unbalanced light between your screen and the room you’re in. I’ve discovered that I prefer to work on a slightly dark room with medium-high screen brightness. A dark room will hurt my eyes as well as a sun-like lighting.

4. Take a break.

In the end, the best tip is just to take breaks from time to time. Don’t abuse the use of the computer. Go out for a walk or a coffee. Come back later and keep working.

 

Modificando Gaim

Uso Gaim para manejar todas mis conversaciones de mensajería instantánea. Me gusta tener todas las conversaciones en la misma ventana, no importa de qué red sea. Gaim me permite tener mis conversaciones de IRC, MSN, Yahoo y Google en la misma ventana. Sin embargo, hay algo que siempre me ha molestado de usar Gaim como cliente de IRC: No se puede ver en la lista de usuarios quién está ausente o away. Otros clientes como XChat o Chatzilla si hacen esto. Así que decidí aprovechar las ventajas del software libre y me propuse modificar Gaim para realizara esta tarea.

Aquí hay un pantallazo de XChat mostrando los usuarios away (en gris).

Pantallazo-XChat

En un principio pensé que sería un cambio bastante fácil. Sin embargo, poco a poco me di cuenta de que había una razón por la cual un cambio tan aparentemente sencillo no se había hecho ya. El problema viene directamente desde el protocolo IRC. A diferencia de estados como de operador (op) o de voz (voice), el estado de ausencia (away) no puede obtenerse con un mensaje names. Para conocer si un usuario esta away hay que mandar un mensaje whois. La solución entonces para conocer qué usuarios están away es mandar un mensaje whois por cada usuario de un canal y, en base a su respuesta, colocar una etiqueta al usuario para indicar que esta away. La serie de mensajes whois tendría que mandarse cada cierto tiempo para mantener la lista actualizada. El problema de este enfoque es que se genera un gran overhead al tener que hacer los whois a cada rato. Por esta misma razón fué que a el mantenedor del módulo de IRC de Gaim, Ethan Blanton, no le sonó la idea de implementar esta característica. Cuando le dije que todos los clientes hacen eso, me dijo: if everybody else jumped off a bridge, would you? Creo que estaba de mal genio, cuando le pregunté en #gaim, estaba embolatado con el sistema de señales. Otro día tengo que insistir.

Definitivamente ver el código fuente de proyectos de software libre es una gran experiencia. Uno aprende muchas cosas. El código de Gaim me pareció muy bonito, organizado y fácil de entender. El código de XChat me pareció horrible. Husmear en el código de los programas también sirve para encontrar pequeños huevos de pascua muy curiosos, como lo que hace este pequeño fragmento del código del mensaje whois del módulo IRC de Gaim:

if (!strcmp(irc->whois.nick, "Paco-Paco")) {
    g_string_append_printf(info, 
     _("<br><b>Defining adjective:</b> Glorious<br>"));
}

Lo que hace este pedazo de código es que cada vez que se hace un whois al usuario Paco-Paco (Ethan Blanton), le colocaa al final del mensaje “Defining adjective: Glorious”. Algo más curioso aún es que es una cadena traducible, por lo tanto, los traductores lo han traducido sin darse cuenta. Aquí hay un pantallazo de un whois a Paco-Paco:

Pantallazo-Gaim