Category Archives: Programming

Articles about programming.

Swift Types

If you look at the Swift Language guide, you get the distinct impression that the type system is sleek and modern. However the more you dig into it the more eccentricities you find.

The one I’m going to look at today makes sense only if you look at the problem domain from a slightly skewed perspective. I’ve been trying to think whether this is a sensible, pragmatic way of designing a language or a mistake. Judge for yourself.

So, the feature. Let’s define a dictionary:

var test1 = [ "Foo" : "Bar" ]

Check the type and we find that it’s of type Dictionary<String,String>. The generics and type inference are doing exactly what you’d image.

test1["Test"] = "Works"

So basically it’s all good.

So, what type is this expression?

var test2 = [:]

And why does this not work?

test2["Test"] = "Doesn't work"

Let’s take a step back. What’s the problem? Well, [:] is an empty dictionary but give us no clue what the type is. Remember, Swift dictionaries and arrays use generics, so the compiler only allows objects of a particular type to be added.

A good guess for the type would be Dictionary<AnyObject,AnyObject>. But a little fishing around tells you that’s not the case because AnyObject is neither “Hashable” or “Equatable” and keys need to be both.

The answer? test2 is an NSDictionary. That is, in this one circumstance, Swift extends outside its native dictionary type and decides to use a class found in Foundation.

Once you know that, it is clear that the second line should be:

test2.setValue("Does work now", forKey:"Test")

Maybe if you’re familiar with the guts of both Objective C and Swift this behaviour makes sense, but a language built-in returning a completely different type just because it can’t figure out the type feels broken to me.

In the end I think I’ve convinced myself that, while it might be convenient to allow this syntax, it’s a bad idea to saddle the language with these semantics so early on. In a few years when no one uses Objective C or when Swift is no longer fully tied to Cocoa, will this make sense?

I would prefer to see it being a compiler error with the correct approach being explicit with the type:

var test2:Dictionary<String,String> = [:]

Thoughts?

Learning Swift

Swift is a new programming language designed by Apple for development on OS X and iOS. I thought that I should try to learn it a little so I decided to convert a non-trivial collection of classes from one of my apps (www.cut) into Swift. I always find it better to work on a real project rather than just to play around with things aimlessly. Also, by re-working an old project, I knew that all the problems I would find would be language related rather than anything to do with the architecture.

The classes are also data related rather than being UI, so it is mostly a test of the language itself rather than how it interfaces with Objective C.

First impressions are good. Swift is mostly nice and consistent, which although sounding like damning with faint praise, is actually a compliment. I read a little of the language guide and dove straight in. A lot of the attempts to get the following right were me just typing stuff, guessing the syntax rather than looking it up.

Quite by accident I think my code sample inadvertently shows an area of strength for Objective-C and weakness for Swift.

The idea of the code is that it reads a Plist, instantiates a class based on that configuration and fills in a number of properties.

The first half of the code looks like this:

        NSError* error = nil;
        NSString *plistPath = [[NSBundle mainBundle] pathForResource:@"XXX" ofType:@"plist"];
        NSData *plistXML = [[NSFileManager defaultManager] contentsAtPath:plistPath];
        NSDictionary *temp = (NSDictionary *)[NSPropertyListSerialization propertyListWithData:plistXML
                                                                                       options:NSPropertyListMutableContainersAndLeaves
                                                                                        format:NULL
                                                                                         error:&error];
        NSArray* values = [temp objectForKey:@"Entries"];

This was pretty straight forward to convert into Swift, though the type system gave me issues:

    let plistPath =  NSBundle.mainBundle().pathForResource("XXX", ofType: "plist")
    let plistXML = NSFileManager.defaultManager().contentsAtPath(plistPath)
    var error:NSError? = nil
    var format:CMutablePointer<NSPropertyListFormat>? = nil
    let immutable:NSPropertyListReadOptions = 0
    var pList = NSPropertyListSerialization.propertyListWithData(plistXML,
        options:NSPropertyListReadOptions(NSPropertyListMutabilityOptions.Immutable.toRaw()),
        format:format!,
        error: &error) as NSDictionary

Getting the options property seems very clumsy; I’m sure that there must be a better way of doing it.

I had a real problem with the in/out parameters format and error. Not only was the documentation confusing but the Swift Playground kept crashing making it difficult to distinguish between what I was doing wrong and where the compiler itself was messing up. It’s also a bit odd that, though both are in/out parameters, that they both need different methods to extract the values.

(To be fair, this is a beta and it is the first version of a whole language and compiler. I mention the crashes not because they’re unexpected or even especially bad, just as an honest description of the difficulty I had.)

The next section, using the data in the plist, was much more problematic. The code looks like this, but I’ve trimmed a lot so what we have here isn’t terribly useful now!

        proxy = nil;
        for (NSDictionary* i in values) {
            if ([thing isEqualToString:[i objectForKey:@"Class"]]) {
                dynamicClass = NSClassFromString([i objectForKey:@"BaseClass"]);
                proxy = [[dynamicClass alloc] init];
            }
        }

I didn’t do the straight conversion. A few more years of Cocoa programming allowed me to notice an optimisation:

    let valueList = values.filteredArrayUsingPredicate(NSPredicate(format: "Class = %@", value))
    let valueData = valueList[0] as NSDictionary

This same approach would work in Objective-C.

Next I tried:

  let dynamicClass = NSClassFromString(valueData["BaseClass"])
  let proxy = dynamicClass()

The first line works as expected. The second line doesn’t compile.

Is there anything else that we can do with dynamicClass? Let’s see. It’s an AnyClass which is a type alias for AnyObject.Type. Which doesn’t really help.

I tried casting it to a base class but no matter what I tried I couldn’t alloc/init it (in Objective C terms).

Josh Smith figured out how to do it by creating a factory class in Objective-C.

I tried (and failed) to get it to work by calling some of the Objective-C runtime directly:

var bytes:Byte[] = [0,0,0,0]
let b = objc_constructInstance(a, &bytes)

But the second line doesn’t work when using ARC. (To be fair, Xcode struck through the definition so I didn’t have much confidence that it would work!)

So that leaves Josh’s call out to Objective-C to be the best method that I’m aware of.

In the end I just used a switch statement to select between the relatively limited number of options that I had to choose between. Not as clever, but maybe that’s a good thing?

What you forgot from your Computer Science Degree

Last night I did a short presentation about my WSLHTMLEntities open source project at the London iOS Developer Group meeting. You can see the slides here:

Since last time I did a talk there people snickered because I built the slides using PowerPoint, this time I decided to use the latest Apple technology: Keynote in iCloud. Unfortunately this was a bit too new for the Mac Pro they use in the Apple Store, so we ended up downloading a copy in PowerPoint format and loading that into the local copy of Keynote. Nothing is ever simple.

One question I got at the end that I was unable to answer is how well it performs compared to other solutions.

This afternoon I ran a few quick tests.

Firstly I added two further methods of performing the HTML entity replacement:

The last option, while built-in and easy to implement, is not something you’d want to consider if you had any performance requirements. First, it has to run on the main thread. Second, it’s memory footprint is way higher than either of the other two solutions. And, finally, it’s slow. In my tests I did a loop of 10,000 iterations. Because of the memory problem I only ran 1000 iterations of the NSAttributedString solution, but it was still about 15 times slower than my version when doing the full 10,000 records (i.e., over 150 times slower overall).

So I’ve not included it in the charts below.

HTMLEntityChart

I ran eight simple tests with each of the parsers.

There is no clear winner.

As I speculated, WSLHTMLEntities is much more consistent than the other two. Google’s varies a lot depending on where in the mapping list the “solution” lies. Replacing &loz; (near the end of the list) takes 50% longer than &amp; (near the beginning) for example.

Still, you’d have to be pretty obsessive to pick one of these solutions for performance reasons alone. Interesting to find out, though!

NSFetchedResultsController and iCloud

This took me a while to figure out so I thought it was worth blogging about. The short version: I’m using Core Data with iCloud syncing and it works… mostly. When starting up for the first time — when there is already data in iCloud —  none of the data appears in a table view, but restarting the app correctly displays it.

I know what you’re thinking: you’re not merging the updates into the right managed object context. Nope. Sorry. Thinking that was the problem is probably why it took me quite so long to track the real problem down!

So, what does the problem look like?

I set up my Core Data stack in the app delegate. Part of that includes connecting to iCloud:

    NSURL *storeURL = [[self applicationDocumentsDirectory] URLByAppendingPathComponent:@"XXX.sqlite"];
    NSDictionary *options = @{
                              NSMigratePersistentStoresAutomaticallyOption: @YES,
                              NSInferMappingModelAutomaticallyOption: @YES,
                              NSPersistentStoreUbiquitousContentNameKey : @"XXX"
                              };
    NSError *error = nil;
    _persistentStoreCoordinator = [[NSPersistentStoreCoordinator alloc] initWithManagedObjectModel:[self managedObjectModel]];
    if (![_persistentStoreCoordinator addPersistentStoreWithType:NSSQLiteStoreType
                                                   configuration:nil
                                                             URL:storeURL
                                                         options:options
                                                           error:&error]) {

The app delegate passes the managed object context through to the main view controller which then uses it to create a NSFetchedResultsController:

    NSFetchRequest *fetchRequest = [[NSFetchRequest alloc] init];
    // Edit the entity name as appropriate.
    NSEntityDescription *entity = [NSEntityDescription entityForName:@"XXX" inManagedObjectContext:self.managedObjectContext];
    [fetchRequest setEntity:entity];
    // Set the batch size to a suitable number.
    [fetchRequest setFetchBatchSize:20];
    // Edit the sort key as appropriate.
    NSSortDescriptor *sortDescriptor = [[NSSortDescriptor alloc] initWithKey:@"someTimestamp" ascending:NO];
    NSArray *sortDescriptors = @[sortDescriptor];
    [fetchRequest setSortDescriptors:sortDescriptors];
    // Edit the section name key path and cache name if appropriate.
    // nil for section name key path means "no sections".
    NSFetchedResultsController *aFetchedResultsController = [[NSFetchedResultsController alloc] initWithFetchRequest:fetchRequest
                                                                                                managedObjectContext:self.managedObjectContext
                                                                                                  sectionNameKeyPath:nil
                                                                                                           cacheName:@"Master"];
    aFetchedResultsController.delegate = self;
    self.fetchedResultsController = aFetchedResultsController;
	NSError *error = nil;
	if (![self.fetchedResultsController performFetch:&error]) {
        // Replace this implementation with code to handle the error appropriately.
        // abort() causes the application to generate a crash log and terminate. You should not use this function in a shipping application, although it may be useful during development.
	    NSLog(@"Unresolved error %@, %@", error, [error userInfo]);
	    abort();
	}

(Again, this is pretty much Apple-standard boilerplate code —  nothing clever going on here.)

But what I found was that when there was already data in iCloud, the records did not automatically appear in the main view controller.

Eventually I found that this was not a threading issue — merging the changes into one context and trying to read them from another — by adding an explicit fetch request on a “debug” button. Doing this I could see the new data, even though the fetched result controller could not.

In my app delegate I listened for a number of notifications: NSPersistentStoreDidImportUbiquitousContentChangesNotification and NSPersistentStoreCoordinatorStoresWillChangeNotification. My expectation was that NSPersistentStoreCoordinatorStoresWillChangeNotification would fire before switching from the fallback store to the “real” one and NSPersistentStoreDidImportUbiquitousContentChangesNotification would fire when the new data was available.

I was half right. NSPersistentStoreCoordinatorStoresWillChangeNotification fired on a background thread, so I used GCD to ping it onto the main thread and reset the context.

But NSPersistentStoreDidImportUbiquitousContentChangesNotification didn’t fire at all. I guess the objects didn’t change as such, they just became available, which feels like a slightly false distinction to me.

So my next guess was to fire the fetch request again. The data was visible in the main threads context so surely this would find the data?

Nope. (And don’t call me Shirley.)

I was getting pretty lost at this point so I ended up just semi-randomly stopping the code and looking around in the debugger.

And, long story short, I realised that fetch requests have a reference to the persistent store in them — check out the affectedStores method. This meant that the NSFetchedResultsController was happily, and correctly, reporting on the empty and no longer used fallback store and completely ignoring the new and fully populated iCloud store.

The simple solution was to listen for the NSPersistentStoreCoordinatorStoresDidChangeNotification and create a completely new fetch request.

- (void)storesDidChange:(NSNotification*)notification {
    self.fetchedResultsController = nil;
    [NSFetchedResultsController deleteCacheWithName:@"Master"];
    [self.tableView reloadData];
}

(I did think of just adding the new persistent store to the old fetch request but I wasn’t sure that this would create the refresh anyway and, given the frequency with which this is likely to happen, I thought it would be cleaner just to start from scratch.)

These weird problems almost always boil down to just a couple of lines of code. This time was no exception.

C++

Introduction

I don’t want to start off on the wrong foot again, but I’m afraid I might have to. If you read my discussion of the C programming language you may imagine that I’d like C++. After all, C++ fixes some of C’s idiosyncrasies, adds object orientation and a whole host of new features.

You’d be wrong though. In many ways I consider C++ to be a step backwards from its parent and this piece will hopefully explain why.

The big things in life

Identifying the main thing wrong with C++ is easy when you start making a list of features. I don’t mean a list trying to identify things it does badly, but a genuine feature list, stuff like object orientation, exceptions, strong-ish typing, multiple inheritance… Well I’ve only just started, but there’s a huge list.

And that is the problem. C++ has tried to incorporate just about every interesting software engineering development that has been made over the last twenty-five years. In some ways that’s a very good thing: it allows programmers to build code in the most appropriate way which ever that way might be.

The problem is that there’s more than one way to skin any particular cat. While just about any approach is fine on a small program, one with a single developer, when you have a team writing code if there’s no consistency in approach you get the situation where no-one is able to understand the whole. There is no one head big enough.

While There’s More Than One Way To Do It is a great motto for Perl, as a language it has a very different objective. Most Perl programs are ‘hacks,’ small programs designed to solve a particular problem. C++ is a hard-core software engineering language; large teams of developers are common. The same approach used for small programs just doesn’t work for bigger systems. I can build a thousand line program at the keyboard, but a ten million line system? Anyone that thinks they can are deluding themselves. Even on the off-chance that they aren’t, other people need to understand it too. No-one is ever around for ever and no-one is indispensable (except in the case of bad management, but that’s a different story).

Counter Arguments

People often cite C++’s similarity to C as a major plus. If you’ve already learned C, then C++ is easy, right? Just a few extra commands, use “class” instead of “struct” and you’re well away. Except some of the worst C++ code I’ve ever seen has come from people who think like that. Using “//” to start your comments rather than “/*” doesn’t make you a C++ programmer!

There are, however, some benefits for C programmers using C++ compilers. They tend to be less forgiving of bad code, they often give better diagnostics and error messages. But so do Java and C#, only more so. And the jump from C to Java is probably easier than moving from C to C++.

Conclusion

If we think right back to to the beginning of the development of programming languages, we remember that they were designed to simplify things; they were designed so that you could think about the problem rather than what the machine would do.

For the audience that they were aimed at, many of the earlier languages did just that. Fortran allowed scientists to write programs (in fact it’s still being used). Cobol put a greater focus on the business than had ever been the case.

And this is where C++ falls down. Its audience is software engineers, people who write very large and complex applications. Yet its complexity actually hinders development. With a large team, “write-only” code, programs that no-one can understand once they have been constructed, become not just possible but almost guaranteed. There are so many ways of doing the same thing, so many ways to shoot yourself in the foot, that the odds of it being both bug-free and maintainable are almost zero.

C++ does have its plus points, though. It is an excellent language to show how smart you are. If you can understand the entire language and write huge, complex and error-free programs in your sleep, you are clearly much more clever than I am.

Myself, I prefer to fight the problem rather than the development language.

Programming Languages Home

You tend to find two things relating to programming languages on the Internet. The first is a long list of all the languages, often with links to a representative web site. The second category are the “representative” web sites, detailed descriptions of a particular language.

I hope to make this part of ZX81.org.uk to be the middle-ground. I won’t cover every language ever designed and nor will I cover them in vast amounts of detail. Instead I’ll look at each languages main features, advantages and flaws.

What makes me qualified to write these critiques? Well, I’ve used all of the languages covered so far on at least one non-trivial project and at university I did a lot of programming language design and compiler development courses.

The two languages I’ve covered so far are the major Unix stalwarts Perl and C.