Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Japanese Algorithm Dance

Japanese Algorithm Dance (compiled from various episodes of Japanese children TV-show "Pitagorean Switch").

Even if you think you don't get it, don't stop watching until you have seen the part with ninjas.

(Via Little Gamers)

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Scala might be Java platform's new hope

Last saturday was rainy, and I spent a big part of saturday's afternoon reading "Scala by Example". I was, and am still, rather blown away.

As many other fellow professionals working with Java on a daily basis and having it pay our bills, I'm somewhat dissatisfied with the language, especially seeing the innovation going on in the C# language. C# acquired lots of interesting traits in its 2.0 and upcoming 3.0 release, and let me list some of them here without striving for completeness:

  • Anonymous functions, and even

  • lambda expressions

  • type inference, so instead of "String x = new String()" you can write "var x = new String()"

  • related to type inference, it now has anonymous types, which is a very nice feature for i.e. adding strong typing to a results of a SQL projection

  • generator functions, using the "yield" keyword. This allows certain quite useful forms of continuation-passing programming techniques incl. coroutines without it looking much like continuation passing at all, much like in Python.

And I could go on. Now, there's little hope for Java to achieve this, however there's Scala - a language built on top of JVM, its compiler producing Java .class files that interface seamlessly with any other Java code, and supports a bunch of the above features.

One of quite mind-blowing aspects of the language is its support of generic types. You can explicitly require nonvariance, covariance or contravariance for type parameters and the generic types will act accordingly. I.e. a Stack[String] by default is not a subclass of Stack[AnyRef] by virtue of String being a subclass of AnyRef, but it can be, if Stack[T] is defined to be covariant in the T type parameter. Scala even has a type named "Nothing" that is the bottom element of the subclass relation lattice, a subtype of all types. You can declare the empty stack to be of type "Stack[Nothing]", and have it be compatible with any other stack type without annoying compiler warnings. Contrast this with Collections.EMPTY_SET in JDK 1.5.

There's some real innovation going on in the area of libraries in the C# world. Things that come to mind are LINQ and CCR. Both of them heavily leverage the new syntactic aspects of C#. It occurred to me that if one were to "port" these libraries to JVM, one should probably do it in Scala, and not in Java. In Java, you'd end up with lots of explicit interface declarations and anonymous inner classes, that have quite a syntactic baggage, i.e. compare the verbosity of

filter(x => x * x)


filter(new LambdaExpression()
public float calculate(float x) {
return x * x;

Rather straightforward, isn't it? Also, I realized that Scala's for-comprehensions basically already implement the basic LINQ. You can write expressions like:

for (val p <- persons; p.age > 20) yield p.name

To obtain a list of names of persons older than 20 years. LINQ does the same basically for in-memory objects. In Scala, a for comprehension works on any kind of a collection that appropriately implements the "map", "flatMap", and "filter" methods. Built-in lists, streams, and arrays all do, which is quite a good start. Unfortunately, this is something that can't be easily extended to relational data sources, at least not until Scala allows the argument to "filter" to take a parsed abstract syntactic tree of a lambda expression instead of a function object with the compiled bytecode for the said expression. C# people had to resort to a trick here with their DLINQ implementation - they now have the C# compiler emit a representation of the AST for a lambda expression if the type of the variable it is assigned to is a special "System.Expressions.Expression" type. That way, the DLINQ can analyze the lambda expression and convert it into a SQL query. As I said, Scala doesn't have this feature - yet. Being free of standardization lock-in and of legacy baggage, it could soon gain this feature as well.

As I said, if you work with Java, consider whether Scala could fit your next project. You needn't give up any of your Java infrastructure and libraries, as Scala compiles to bytecode, and you gain the expressivity and productivity that a fully featured functional language plus a big pile of accompanying syntactic sugar can give you.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Jailhouse innovation

Via Bruce Schneier's blog:

A collection of 11 prison shivs confiscated over 20 years ago in New Jersey.

Think about these, and the adverse conditions they were made under, the next time you see someone's pocket knife being taken away from them at airport security. We can't keep weapons out of prisons; we can't possibly expect to keep them out of airports.

Not entirely unrelated, Prisoners' Inventions, an exhibition of reproductions of objects created by prisoners from the available materials by an incarcerated artist. From paper mache dice to a tatoo gun.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Good concurrency article

Here's a good article on code concurrency on MSDN, written by Joe Duffy, a concurrency-obsessed Microsoftie whose (mostly concurrency-on-Win32 related) blog where I found the reference is otherwise here.

While the article talks about CLR when it brings up examples, the discussion is actually generic enough to be of interest even if you write code that targets the JVM. It covers many aspects and pitfalls that you need to keep in mind when developing parallel(izable) applications. You even get few theoretical equations you can use to calculate the optimal number of threads to use as well as the maximum achievable performance increase through parallelization. (Assuming you can figure out the values of the variables in those equations for your system... ahem...) At the bottom of the page, there's a box named "Recommended Reading" which links to three more articles that look like they're also worth giving a shot.

Also on MSDN, Jeffrey Richter (the guy who wrote "Advanced Windows", a book that taught me Windows programming back in 1995 (together with Petzold's) and was the first technical book I came across that was also full of good jokes) writes about the Concurrency and Coordination Runtime, a CLR library that promises to make writing concurrent code much easier than it is "the manual way" (read: managing your threads and synchronization on your own; y'know, that which used to be the only way). What's interesting is that he also points out how concurrency is especially of importance in robotics applications, where there is really a great deal of processing going in parallel - all data coming from different sensors, multiple motoric instructions, etc. I also learned that Microsoft apparently has a product called "Microsoft Robotics Studio" targetted for writing software for robots. Hm...