Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Livecoding: connecting the dots from Lambda Calculus to Gibson's cowboys

Dot #1: Lambda Calculus...

My wife and I took a vacation recently and I had a chance to learn some more Lambda Calculus; how the Y-combinator works, in particular. At Purdue, we focused on Turing Machines and either we didn't really cover LC or I slept during that part. If you haven't, I HIGHLY recommend learning LC. Lambda Calculus is the most elegant system I, personally, know of (maybe that's not saying much). You functional-types out there will already know this next part, but here's some history and stuff.

It was invented by Alonzo Church, who was Turing's Ph. D. adviser (later they proved that the Lambda Calculus and Universal Turning Machines are equivalent, which was one really impressive feat). The Y-combinator is a way to define recursive functions using only lambda binding. Lambda binding is very simple and it's pretty much what Lambda Calculus is. It more or less just lets you assign values to variables and then use them in an expression, like this (in LISP):

( (lambda (x) (print x)) 50)

(lambda (x) (print x)) is a function definition that says to print whatever x is bound to. Using it like in the above "applies" the function to the argument by first "binding" x to the value 50 and then "evaluating" the expression (print x). Pretty simple concept. The trick is how to define recursive functions using this mechanism, since both the set of variables to be bound and the expression to evaluate are separate. In order to be able to call a function, you either need to pass it in as an argument or have it defined by an "outer" function.

A recursive function can't take itself as its own argument and it's also not defined in an outer scope, so it essentially has to be given a copy of itself as an argument. The Y-combinator is a relatively clean way to do this. I wasn't able to understand it while we were out on our vacation, because I (deliberately) left my computer at home. Once home though, I was able to type things into LISP and play with them to finally be able to grok the combinator (hmm, "grok the combinator" sounds like some sort of euphemism).

Dot #2: Scala...

So, that launched me on a journey to rediscover functional programming, since I hadn't messed with it really since the late 80s, when Roy Riggs and I (TEAM CTHULHU) were working on our MUD. My friend, Serj, reminded me of this functional language for the JVM called Scala and told me that James Strachan wrote in a blog post that if someone had shown him the new Scala book back in 2003, he never would have written Groovy. Groovy has been my favorite scripting language for quite a few years, because it integrates with Java so well (low barrier to adoption for Java coworkers). So, I started messing with Scala. I even made this blog so I could post some musings and info about my Ober project, which I updated from JavaScript to Scala. I recoded a bunch of Groovy stuff for Dataswarm in Scala and that's worked out really well.

Dot #3: Scheme...

I met this guy on a plane to Israel a few months ago. He's in his 50s and he got his masters in education, applying virtual worlds to education. he's not a programmer (yet), but he's been wanting to essentially "do cyberspace" for education since 1996. He got a 17 year old Israeli programmer to work with him and make a bunch of interesting mockups. They tried to commercialize it and whatnot, but never really got anywhere. When I told him about Plexus (which is currently stalled, by the way), he was sort of shocked into action and really got inspired to work on his project again. I asked him that since Plexus was open source anyway, why not build on top of it instead of from scratch?

Eventually, I realized that he really needed a better way to get a feel of what's currently possible, etc. and that would require him to know something of how to program. I looked for a good intro to pure programming, with little between him and the algorithm and that led me to PLT Scheme (http://plt-scheme.org/). There's a GREAT book on programming that basically plows through a few semesters of CS very quickly (How to Design Programs here: http://docs.plt-scheme.org/). The quick intro also does graphics on the command-line, which is pretty slick, letting you define shapes that print out like smileys. This reminded me of "the good old days" in our LISP MUD when we could type in code and change the game as it was running.

Dot #4: testing and log analysis...

I've been doing a lot of log analysis with our technology at work. We're working on making it "bullet proof" now, with the goal of being able to remove the battery from a laptop in a demo, sticking it back in, and starting back up without data loss (after the file system recovers). This requires some heavy journaling and online backup. Test runs can be long and produce giant diagnostic logs (0.5 - 2G). I have to comb through these logs and find errors. Then I have to trim them and transfer them from Kansas to my machine in Israel so I can inspect them more closely. This takes a lot of ad-hoc scripting and the needs change after I fix each bug. This reminds me of what we did with our MUD, because I'm "writing code as I go". One of my hopes with the Ober project is that I can have a nice tool to do this with.

Dot #5: Gibson's cowboys...

I started rereading Neuromancer and it's even MORE impressive than it was the first time I read it. Early in the book, Armitage tells case that he was there when they "invented" Case -- i.e. when they created the software cowboys use for net running. This reminded me of typing code "in-game" with our MUD and I remembered how cool it was to adapt the game as people were playing it. So I was thinking that there ought to be some powerful stuff programmers could do that we might not really be doing yet.

I had told Serj about PLT Scheme. He's early in college and I'm trying to mentor him to be a guru -- I think he has the potential. He started messing with Scheme and reading the book and sent me a link to "fluxus" http://www.pawfal.org/fluxus/ This is a "livecoding" system. People are using this to actually code music and graphics in front of an audience: http://toplap.org/uk/about/ The first vid is fairly poor and what you might fear such a performance would be like (sorry guys who made the vid), but the rest are very interesting, I think. Again, kind of the type of thing that we used to do with our MUD.

Dot #6: livecoding in Scala...

So people are working on creating systems specifically to accomodate changing programs as they run. You could say "that's what a shell is" and you'd be right, to an extent. Shell tools are powerful ways to slice and dice text, but for things like the log analysis I'm doing, I think I need something more like an IDE. Something that gives programmers an environment they can use to modify code and test it in a tight loop, with access to the code, the data, and intermediate results as the program is running, like in the Haskell Hackery performance here http://toplap.org/uk/about/ it's well worth watching. That's more like EMACS or WILY than a shell, I think.

I'm hoping Ober can do something like this for Scala, backed with something like Eclipse, to get syntax highlighting, and whatnot. One idea might be to make Ober an Eclipse plugin instead (or in addition to) a stand-alone environment. It might be interesting to "skin" Eclipse and remove the right-button menus, replacing the behavior with Oberon menus (or 'tags' in Wily -- a single Oberon menu bar above all of the editors might be sufficient, with some commands to open subpanels or something). Perhaps running in the debugger will help or ClassGhost (http://classghost.sourceforge.net/).

One sticky issue is that Java can't redefine arbitrary methods in a running VM -- you can't redefine a method using a different signature as you could in Smalltalk and you can't add or remove fields. A quick check of the new features of JDK7 doesn't show any evidence of change to these limitations. Coding conventions would help with this (kind of like writing "structured COBOL"). As opposed to hotswapping methods, you can just "reload" a class, which defines a NEW class with the SAME name. Production servlet hotswappers are familiar with the perils of this.

Ober's command/namespace registry makes it a system like a shell or Oberon. Indirecting through the registry instead of using hard pointers allows you to reload a class file without worrying about signatures, provided the fundamental command interface didn't change (i.e. the command itself should be the only thing keeping references to its objects). A central storage area where commands could place simple data would allow commands to keep state that was protected from redefinition and they could be initialized with this state.

So here's a simple way to get what I think would be decent support for livecoding with Scala:
  • run Ober out of the debugger so you can use hotswapping when possible, using Ober to access intermediate results and as a scratchpad for data munging and Eclipse to change code
  • make the class loading namespace check for hints in the class, like annotations for namespaces and such
  • provide per-command data storage from the Ober object (a trait can make this even easier to access)
  • make a Reload command as a fallback for when hotswapping doesn't work
  • make a log that appends useful Ober commands, such as prefilled Reload commands and access to previous command results and provide easy access to this from the Ober object and a command to show the log
  • keep commands clean -- don't hold references to other commands' objects; go through the command registery to get them
  • simplify access to the command registry to make it simple for commands to use it to access each other


  1. Looks like JavaRebel addresses a lot of Java's hot-swap issues, and it's free for Scala development.


  2. I started on improvements to Ober. Here is an example command from the current git branch (sans comments):

    package tc.ober

    object ExampleCommand extends OberCommand {
    def runCommand(ctx: SimpleContext) = println("hello")

    If you don't like annotations, you can use this:

    def override commandName = "Ober.Example"