Thursday, December 31, 2015

Suneido Functional Compose

I started on one project, found it required another, which then led to code like:


which seemed ugly. I knew that functional programming has a higher order "compose" to handle this more cleanly. (Higher order because it takes functions as arguments and returns another function.)

Suneido isn't specifically a functional language, but it has a bunch of functional methods and functions. I hadn't written Compose yet but it turned out to be quite easy.

function (@fns)
    return {|@args|
        result = (fns[0])(@args)
        for fn in fns[1..]
            result = fn(result)

If you're not familiar with Suneido code, the '@' is used to accept multiple arguments and to expand them again. The {|...| ... } notation is Suneido's way of writing a "block", i.e. a lambda or closure. (Suneido's use of the term "block" and the syntax come from Smalltalk, one of its roots way back when, pre 2000.)  Because, in Suneido, blocks are used for control flow, "return" returns from the containing function, so to return a result from a block we take advantage of how Suneido by default returns the value of the last statement.

Although in some languages the arguments to compose are listed "outside-in", I chose to have them "inside-out", so Compose(a,b,c) returns a function that does c(b(a(...))) in the same way you would write a *nix pipeline a | b | c i.e. in the order they will be applied.

I documented it, like a good programmer, except when I went to add the "see also" section I found a lot of the other functional stuff had never been documented. So I spent a bunch more time documenting some of the that. In the process I almost got sucked into improving the code, but I resisted pushing yet another task onto the stack!

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Taking Notes

When I'm working on something complex, either a bug or new code, I keep notes. Nowadays I could blame that on an aging memory, but I've been doing it too long for that to be the reason. Originally I used paper notebooks, writing in pencil so I could erase and make corrections.

I take notes in a special style that has stayed quite consistent over the years. To make it easier to scan the notes and follow the "logical" structure I prefix sentences with capitalized "keywords". Some of these are familiar ones like "BUG" and "TODO" that are commonly used in source code comments. I also use "Q" to start a question (since the trailing question mark is harder to spot) and "A" for answers. Some less standard prefixes I use are "COULD" and "MAYBE" which I use to prefix proposals or hypothesis. ("MAYBE" being stronger than "COULD") Here's a fabricated example to give you a better idea:

BUG: calculating a checksum occasionally gives an incorrect result

Q why does it work some of the time ?

A probably a concurrency issue

MAYBE add locking

BUT that could lead to deadlocks

SO make sure no other locks are held or taken at the same time

TODO: review code to look for similar problems

These notes are generally just for my own use, but I've still tried to keep the notation fairly self explanatory so if someone else did need to read them it wouldn't be too hard.

You might imagine that the main benefit of keeping notes would be that you can refer back to them. But I find I rarely do that. Occasionally if I run into problems afterwards I'll go back to my notes to refresh my memory, especially if I didn't completely resolve the issue. But that's the exception.

I find the biggest benefit is that it helps me think through a problem, to be a little more logical, to expose and examine my thinking, to see what I've considered and why I think it is or isn't the right approach. It helps prevent me from going in circles and not making any progress. Often it's just as helpful to rule out certain alternatives as it is to find successful ones.

I'm a believer in clear code over a lot of comments. But what clear code doesn't tell you is why you chose that particular approach. It's good to add comments for that type of thing, but comments will seldom tell you the logical path you took to reach that point, the dead ends you explored, the approaches that turned out too complex or had performance issues. That's where the notes can come in.

Unless I know something is going to be complex I don't start out making notes. Instead, I'll work on it for a little bit and if it turns out to be tricky, then I'll make a conscious decision to start taking notes. I might make a few retroactive notes of my thinking so far but usually I'll just start from that point.

For a brief time I used Google Docs for these notes. That worked quite well for bigger projects, but it was too heavyweight for jotting down ideas or brief notes. And in the past they didn't have a very good mobile story.

For the last few years I've been using Evernote. I like how it syncs between all my devices and can be used off-line. The Mac and Windows versions are different enough to be annoying, but I don't imagine there are a lot of people that use both. From a software development perspective it seems crazy that they develop and maintain what appears to be two completely separate programs, but cross platform apps are a struggle, even today.

I briefly tried using Penultimate and Note Taker (from Dan Bricklin of VisiCalc fame) for taking handwritten notes in meetings. Scribbling something was easier and less distracting from the meeting than typing. But then I ended up more or less banning mobile devices from meetings because people find it impossible not to be distracted by all the notifications they get from texts, emails, FaceBook etc. (That's not as much of a problem for me because I have all notifications turned off. And being an antisocial programmer I'm not as addicted to that steady flow of chatter.)

Although I'm not big on diagrams, I did take advantage of pencil and paper to occasionally sketch out things like data data structures. This is a little harder to do when typing into some kind of text editor. I use Google Drawings if I want a more polished result. To quickly sketch diagrams on the iPad one app I like is Jot! Unlike a plain drawing app it lets you move things around and add editable text. However, it doesn't fix up your rectangles the way Paper does. But Paper doesn't let you add typed text to your drawings.

A few days ago someone asked me if I had used any apps that turned handwriting into editable text. I hadn't, unless you count way-back-when with a Palm and its quirky alphabet designed for easy recognition. (Which I quite liked and used a fair bit.)

Coincidentally, I recently got an iPad Pro and its companion Pencil. (Sadly, I'm not immune to the lure of the new new thing, despite feelings of guilt about it.) I hadn't really found a lot of use for the Pencil, although it did work well and had a much better feel than the previous fat soft iPad styluses that I'd tried.

So today I did some searching and found 7notes. Having not tried any handwriting recognition for years I was amazed at how well it worked. I started out printing but soon found it handled even my sloppy cursive. Of course, if I got too sloppy it had trouble, but even I have trouble reading my own handwriting sometimes. It has good support for auto correction and offering alternate possible words. Like the keyboard auto-correct, you do have to keep an eye on how it's interpreting what you write or you can get some funny results.

Although 7notes does have integration with Evernote it requires manually transferring notes back and forth. I started thinking it would be nice if I could use the handwriting recognition in Evernote itself (or other apps). I was happy to find that the same company has an iOS "keyboard" using the same technology - mazec. It doesn't have all the features of 7notes but seems to have the same basic recognition engine.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

A Bug Hunter's Life

I recently spent two weeks tracking down a single bug. Needless to say, it was a frustrating process. Like most such things, what made it difficult was not a single problem, it was a whole cascade of errors, including many during the debugging process. I like to think I'm fairly organized and methodical, especially when working on a tough bug. I take notes on what I'm doing, what my assumptions are, what I've tried, what the results were. And yet I still managed to make multiple major mistakes and go a long way down the wrong paths based on false assumptions I should have questioned much sooner.

It started with a customer getting a corrupted database. Most of the time this is from hardware issues or crashing. But this one appeared to be caused by a bug in the code.

It wasn't easy to look into because all I had was the corrupt database, with no clues as to how it might have gotten that way. Thankfully, jSuneido's append-only database means that the database itself forms a kind of log. Based on that I could see that two transactions had committed conflicting updates - something that the whole transaction system is designed to prevent.

It seemed a pretty safe bet that this was a concurrency related issue - my least favorite kind of bug :-( I wasn't surprised that I couldn't make it happen. With roughly 1000 systems running 24x7 this was the only case I was aware of. So my sole sources of information were that database and the code itself.

In order to detect conflicts at commit time (jSuneido uses optimistic concurrency control) you need to know the outstanding overlapping update transactions (i.e. ones that had started after this one and had not completed yet). Perhaps the bug was in determining this set of transactions? I wrote a completely new implementation of this code and used it to cross-check.

We deployed this version to our customers and pretty quickly started to get lots of errors. But only a couple were from the new cross-check. The rest were from code I hadn't touched. And yet they quite clearly started when the new version was deployed. Strange.

The errors indicated that sometimes when it went to complete a transaction it would be missing from the list of outstanding ones. Again, this shouldn't be possible. That would explain why the overlapping set would be wrong, so it made a certain amount of sense. I spent days studying the code and trying (unsuccessfully) to figure out how it was happening.

This turned out to be completely off track - it was a just problem with my new cross checking code.

The stack traces showed a transaction commit that turned into an abort. That happens if an update transaction doesn't end up doing any updates. So I wrote a bunch of tests with those kinds of transactions in the mix, but they all worked fine. If nothing else, the code was getting reviewed and tested pretty heavily.

Finally, after wasting days on this, I realized there was another way for a commit to turn into an abort. The relevant part of the code looked like:

try {
     // commit stuff
} finally {

What was happening was that an exception during the commit stuff would get overridden (and lost) if there was an error in abortIfNotComplete(). So I wasn't seeing the original error at all. And the reason that the transaction was missing from the list was that it had got far enough into the commit to remove it.

I'm not sure why I wrote it using finally. In hindsight it was obviously a bad idea. I rewrote it like:

try {
     // commit stuff
} catch (Throwable e) {
     try {
     } catch (Throwable e2) {
          throw e;

addSuppressed was added in Java 7. It is used, for example, in try-with-resources for exceptions when closing after another exception.

Part of the reason I didn't realize which path was being taken in the code was that I didn't have line numbers in the stack traces.  That was because in the Ant build task "debuglevel=vars" had been added. The intent had been to increase the amount of debugging information. But because of the way Ant and the Java -g option work, this had actually meant only variable information. I changed it to "debug=true" which becomes "-g" which means all debug information (file, line, and vars). Once this change percolated through and I started to get stack traces with line numbers, then I could see which path was being taken in the code.

One big step forward was when I was finally able to recreate the bug. Running random updates (of certain kinds) in a bunch of threads would encounter the bug within a few seconds. It wasn't the ideal recreation because the bug would occur buried within a lot of other activity, so it still wasn't possible to determine exactly what was happening.

I couldn't be 100% sure that what I was able to recreate was the same bug, but the end result was more or less identical - two transactions deleting the same record. But confusingly, the errors that I saw were about duplicate records being output, leading me to spend a bunch of time looking at the output code.

A huge mistake that I made repeatedly, without realizing it, was that I was building one variation of the jSuneido jar, and then testing with a different out of date one. So I wasn't actually testing with the changes I was making. This was because, for faster turnaround, I wasn't running a full build, I was just building the main jar that we deploy. But I was testing using the jar with Win32 support so I could use the IDE. This explained the totally baffling behavior where the debugging output that I was 100% certain should be triggered didn't appear at all. Which confused me and made me think I was totally wrong in my ideas about what was happening.

This mistake cost me about 4 days. I actually had the bug fixed, but it kept happening because I was testing with the old jar. Of course, since the bug still happened I assumed that I had not located it yet and I went looking for it in other places where, of course, I didn't find it.

Even worse, I thought my method of recreating the bug was quite "fragile". For instance, it would not happen running in the Eclipse debugger. Coming from C and C++, I didn't find that too surprising. And although Java should be more predicable, there would still be timing and threading differences which could affect concurrency. But I was totally wrong - the reason I couldn't recreate it within Eclipse was that I was running the latest code, which had the fix. Arghhh!

The actual bug and fix are obvious in hindsight. Throughout the long process I suspected that would be the likely result. But that didn't make it any easier, in fact it made it even more frustrating.

jSuneido's database uses optimistic concurrency. That means concurrent transactions proceed independently without any locking. Then when it comes time to commit, they verify that nothing has happened that would conflict. For example, they might find that another transaction has output a duplicate key. In which case the transaction will abort due to the conflict. Or it might find that another transaction has deleted a key that we also deleted. And that's where the bug was. I had made the assumption (back when I wrote this code) that it was ok if two concurrent transactions deleted the same key. After all, the end result is the same. And it's still serializable (i.e. the result is as if the transactions had happened one after another instead of concurrently).

The problem is not the deletes by themselves. If that was all the transactions were doing, my logic was correct. But transactions aren't that simple. They perform other actions based on whether the delete succeeded. For example, deleting an old version of a record and outputting a new version.  If you allow two transactions to think they deleted the old version, then they will, incorrectly, both output a new version. (leading to the duplicate outputs I was seeing)

All I had to do to fix the bug was to make duplicate deletes a conflict, like I already did with duplicate outputs. Two weeks for one line of code. How's that for productivity.

One interesting part of this whole adventure was that although it was a concurrency bug, it wasn't the kind of subtle interaction problem that I really fear. It was, in hindsight, a fairly clear, obvious issue.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Problem with Eclipse Mars on Windows after Java Update

I installed the new Java update on my Windows work machine, and removed the old version.

When I tried to run Eclipse (Mars) it said it couldn't find a JRE at the path of the old version of Java.

That made sense because I'd removed it. But why was it specifically looking for that path?

When I'd updated Java in the past Eclipse had found the new version fine.

I found that in the eclipse.ini file it had a -vm option set to the old version of Java. I removed this and now Eclipse starts fine.

I wonder if this was a result of installing the recently released Eclipse Mars with the Oomph installer?

Note: The Oomph installer puts Eclipse in your user folder (e.g. c:/Users/andrew in my case) rather than in Program Files. This may be a workaround to not require admin privileges to install.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Visual Studio Tip

I've been trying out Visual Studio 2015 Community RC and every time I did a build I'd get:

All packages are already installed and there is nothing to restore.
NuGet package restore finished.

It didn't seem to hurt anything, but I prefer to keep the build output clean so eventually I got tired of it and figured out you can get rid of it using Tools > Options

Of course, that's assuming you don't need to check for missing packages during builds.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Transpiling Suneido to JavaScript

Transpiling is source to source compiling, translating from one language to another, where both languages are at a similar level of abstraction.

For the background on why we'd want to do this, see my previous blog post on suneido.js

Transpiling is still compiling, and unless the translation is trivial, you need to parse the source language. I didn't want to write another Suneido parser, especially since I already had one in C++ in cSuneido and another in Java in jSuneido. cSuneido emits byte code as it parses, making it fast, but not very reusable. But jSuneido's parser builds an abstract syntax tree (AST) which is exactly what I needed.

One option would have been to write the transpiler in Java, as part of jSuneido. But I decided to write it in Suneido, for easier development and so it would be more accessible to Suneido programmers.

I added an AstParse function to jSuneido which takes a source string and returns an AST. Instead of converting the entire AST to Suneido objects I wrapped the internal AST and converted it lazily. [aside - I'm also hoping that we can use this in the IDE, e.g. for refactoring tools]

The big issue is deciding how to map from the Suneido language to JavaScript. Some things are easy, for example Suneido strings could be JavaScript strings. But other Suneido data types don't map directly. Even numbers are different since Suneido uses decimal floating point (for accurate business math) whereas JavaScript has binary floating point. Operations also differ so they have to be implemented as calls to a runtime support library. Suneido is also both more strict and more flexible with function arguments so that also requires runtime support.

So far I have statement and expression translation almost complete, and minimal versions of the runtime support routines (see:

Here's a screenshot from a basic web page (running from a jSuneido server) that demonstrates the translation:

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Simplest CodeMirror

Maybe it's just my relative inexperience with JavaScript but I struggled a bit to get a simple example of CodeMirror to work. The examples in the documentation and the download are all partial snippets and it wasn't obvious how to use them. In hopes of saving someone else some time, here's what I came up with. (Of course, it is trivial in retrospect!)

I was originally going to share a JSFiddle, but it does so much of the boilerplate for you, that it defeats the purpose! But you can run it there.

Friday, May 29, 2015


suneido.js = Suneido + JavaScript

After getting back from my last traveling I mentioned to a friend that I was looking forward to getting back to looking into a Go version of Suneido. Not that I’d committed to it, but it seemed like a reasonable path to take since it had the potential to replace both the C++ cSuneido client and the Java jSuneido server.

But my friend pointed out that what we really needed was a web front end. Which he’s told me before, but for some reason this time I paid attention. It’s easy to get into a rut, to make decisions unconsciously based more on what is familiar than on what’s really best. Not that you ever really know what the best path is, but a Go implementation of Suneido wouldn’t really change the game. It’d just be an incremental improvement.

Currently our front end GUI is Windows specific. So to access our application software over the internet you have to use RDP (Remote Desktop Protocol), which requires a Windows server. So even though jSuneido will happily run on Linux, we can’t take advantage of that.

And although RDP works fairly well, our Windows GUI is not the look and feel of the web that people expect these days. We’re starting to get comments that our program looks dated. (Reminds me of when we moved from terminal mode MS-DOS to Windows. And yes, I have been in this business that long!)

If all we wanted was to write web software, there are plenty of languages and tools and frameworks to do that. But we have a million lines of complex Suneido code. Rewriting that in another language for another database is not something I even want to think about!

And therefore the idea of somehow running our existing code, with the least amount of changes, on a web front end.

One way to do that would be to rewrite just the front end in HTML + CSS + JavaScript. But that would mean a certain amount of duplication since some code has to run on the front end and the server. And it would mean getting all our programmers up to speed in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript as well as Suneido.

Suneido’s philosophy (right or wrong) has always been to provide an integrated “everything included” platform that shields programmers from the hassles and complexities of dealing with multiple languages and databases and frameworks. That shielding has also made Suneido a ery stable platform. I can’t think of too many languages or databases or frameworks where code you wrote 15 years ago would work unchanged today. (Java itself has been around that long, but that’s just the language piece of the puzzle.)

So what I really wanted was an approach that would encapsulate and hide the HTML, CSS, and JavaScript from application developers, like Google GWT does. (Of course, you’d need to know that stuff to work on the lower level implementation.) In my mind, that breaks down into two pieces.

The easy part is to be able to compile/translate Suneido code to JavaScript. I’ve been looking into that, and have a lot of it implemented. More on that in another blog post.

The harder part is to figure out how to map our Windows oriented GUI to the browser. At a general level that’s not that hard. Our user interface is “component” based with screens composed from a small number of basic building blocks. It shouldn’t be too hard to obtain or write equivalent “widgets” for the web. On the other hand I’m certain that some of the details will be painful.

One of the issues is that our current user interface is very chatty. It was developed on and for local area networks with low latency. So it uses a lot of lower level requests to the server. If we stayed on local area networks we could stick with the same model, but really we want to be able to run across the internet, where you have much higher latency. Bandwidth is also a factor, but even if you have really high bandwidth the latency will kill you if you’re doing too many little requests.

Talking about this with some of my programmers, one of the questions was whether we would use node.js for the server. I think they were thinking that the whole of Suneido would be re-written in JavaScript, similar to how cSuneido is written in C++ and jSuneido is written in Java. But it wouldn’t make sense to write Suneido’s database in JavaScript. The server can still run the existing jSuneido. It’s perfectly capable of acting as a web server and at the same time providing the database back end. The server back end would still be running Suneido code (compiled to JVM byte code). Only the front end user interface code would be translated to JavaScript to run on the browser.

I wouldn't say I've committed to this direction, but it seems worth looking into it. The big question is how much of our existing code we'd be able to use, and how much revising / rewriting we'd have to do.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Stonebraker on Databases

I recently listened to a podcast on Software Engineering Radio with database expert Michael Stonebraker. (at the recommendation of a friend - thanks Larry) It's a few years old, but still quite relevant.

As usual, I relate much of what I read and hear about to Suneido. In this case it was interesting to see how Suneido's database held up to Stonebraker's criticism of current conventional relational databases.

He talks about profiling a database and finding that 90% of the time was spent on "overhead". The time consisted of four main areas:

buffer pool management
Keeping a cache of database pages, page replacement tracking, and converting from external (disk) record format to internal (in-memory) format. Since most transactional (OLTP) databases now fit in main memory, this work is even more wasteful.

record locking
Most conventional relational databases use pessimistic row level read and write locks to ensure that transactions are atomic, consistent, and isolated (i.e. ACID). Managing locks and waiting to acquire locks can be slow.

thread locking
Most databases are multi-threaded which, in most cases, means they use locking to protect shared data structures. Locking limits parallelism.

crash recovery write-ahead logs
For durability (the last part of ACID) databases commonly use a write-ahead log where changes are written (and in theory flushed to disk) prior to updating the actual database. In case of a crash, the log can be used for recovery. But writing the log is slow.

So how does Suneido do in these areas?

Instead of a buffer pool, the database is memory mapped. This handles databases that fit into memory as well as ones that don't. When they don't the page replacement is handled by the operating system which is in a good position to do this efficiently. Modern operating systems and hardware already have so many layers of caching and buffering that it seems crazy to add yet another layer of your own!

Suneido also does as much work as possible using the external format of records, only converting to internal format when necessary. For example, most database "wheres" are done in external format. The encoding of values into external format maintains ordering, so sorting can also be done while still in external format.

Rather than pessimistic record locking, Suneido uses optimistic multi-version concurrency control in conjunction with an append-only "immutable" database. This means that read transactions do not require any locking and do not interact with update transactions. Write transactions only require locking for the actual commit.

Suneido's database server  is multi-threaded with requests handled by a pool of threads. But most of the internal data is in immutable persistent data structures, which require minimal locking. And the database itself is an immutable persistent data structure requiring minimal locking. (I minimized the locking as much to avoid bugs as for performance.)

Finally, Suneido doesn't use a write-ahead log. Instead, its immutable append-only design makes it a type of log structured database, where the database itself can act as the log.

NOTE: This is based on the newer Java implementation of Suneido which has a different database engine than the older C++ version.

I haven't benchmarked Suneido's database against other systems so I can't make any claims about speed. But in terms of avoiding most of the overheads that Stonebraker identifies, Suneido seems to hold up pretty well.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Beautiful Code for Parsing

I've recently been reading up on JavaScript. One of the books I was re-reading was JavaScript: The Good Parts by Douglas Crockford. In there he mentioned the chapter he wrote in Beautiful Code. (Of which, there are mixed reviews.) It's been a while since I read that book and I didn't remember his chapter. So I pulled out my copy (old enough that it's an actual paper copy). I didn't want to carry the (large) book around so I took advantage of how O'Reilly lets you register your paper books and then buy the ebook for $5. Of course, after I did that I found Crockford's chapter is available on his web site. That's ok, I wouldn't mind re-reading the whole book.

The chapter was on parsing based on Top Down Operator Precedence by Vaughn Pratt. I thought I'd start by reading Pratt's original paper. Crockford's link takes you to the ACM citation which wants to charge you to read the paper (even though it's from 1973), but a quick web search found a public version. I found the paper a little hard to follow.

Crockford's article is an example of a parser for a subset of JavaScript written in that subset. It still took some effort to understand but I found it easier to follow than the original paper.

Suneido's hand written top down recursive descent parser is ok, but it has a lot of methods to parse expressions. It always seemed like there should be a better way. At some point I looked at the Go parser and it manages with a lot less methods by using precedence. I'd be quite interested to see what a Suneido parser would look like using Pratt's approach. Although, because Suneido's syntax grew ad hoc, it has some parts that are a little ugly to parse.

I love coming across elegant new algorithms and ideas. You can tell how much of a geek I am by the fact that I get as much pleasure out of a new algorithm as most people would from a bowl of ice cream :-) Which might help explain why I'm so skinny - not many calories in a delicious algorithm.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

When is a PriorityQueue Not Ordered?

aka When does a final field change?


jSuneido limits how long a database update transaction can be active. This is because active update transactions consume resources.

Read-only transactions consume little resources and are not limited. (This is a benefit of the append-only database structure.)

There are two parts to the limiting. If an update transaction commits and it was active more than a certain amount of time (currently 5 seconds) then a warning is logged but otherwise the transaction completes normally.

A separate process runs periodically (currently once per second) and any update transactions that have been active for too long (default 10 seconds) are aborted. A PriorityQueue is used for this so that only the longest running update transaction needs to be looked at.


Recently I noticed that some of our customers were getting the warning, but the duration given was well over the abort limit. That should have been impossible - the transactions should have been aborted before they reached that point. My first thought was that I had "broken" it with some recent change. But going back through the logs it looked like this had been happening for quite a while.

Searching the logs, I found that there were some transactions getting aborted due to duration, so that part of the code was working at least some of the time.

I added some debugging and found that the problem was that PriorityQueue peek was not returning the oldest transaction. That seemed impossible since by definition PriorityQueue peek returns the smallest element.

I checked my comparator but it was simple and seemed correct. I wrote some equivalent test code and it worked fine.

I started searching on the internet to see if anyone else had run into similar problems. Sure enough they had, but the reason was that they had been modifying the elements after inserting them. (Similar to problems if you modify elements after inserting into hash tables.)

But the field I was ordering by was final so it couldn't be modified.

Or could it? A final field still has to get set at some point. Sure enough, I was inserting the transactions into the queue in the super constructor, which ran before the field was initialized. So the queue insertion was always seeing a value of zero and the order was undefined. Argh!

(Java normally prevents this kind of problem, but I was casting to a derived class in code called by a base class constructor. Moral of the story - avoid tricky code!)

In case you're wondering, I had tested. But it worked when testing since I would only have a single active transaction, and the order was irrelevant.

It was an easy fix to reorganize the code slightly to ensure the queue insertion was done after the field was initialized. (Although that splits what used to be a single synchronized method into two, which makes me nervous about concurrency problems. I think it's ok, hopefully it won't be the subject of a future blog post!)

Monday, February 09, 2015

Gimme Structure

"I believe that it may happen that one will succeed, and one must not begin to despair, even though defeated here and there; and even though one sometimes feels a kind of decay, though things go differently from the expected, it is necessary to take heart again and new courage. For the great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together. And great things are not something accidental, but must certainly be willed. What is drawing? How does one learn it? It is working through an invisible iron wall that seems to stand between what one feels and what one can do.”
-- Vincent Van Gogh

I used to think what I was looking for was good design. On more cynical days I'd settle for any design, or not even design, just some kind of structure.

I guess that's a bit like saying you want "quality". Would that be good quality or bad quality? Obviously, good structure is better than bad structure. But even bad structure is better than no structure.

I see, and work with, a lot of bad code, some of it written by my programmers, some of it (sadly) written by myself. The code seems to be split up into methods and classes more or less randomly. Names of variables and methods make no sense or are even outright misleading. It might work (most of the time) but it is difficult to understand, usually has duplication, commonly has logic errors, often old dead code, incorrect comments, etc. It will come as no surprise that it is hard to modify.

Part of the problem is incremental development. Even if there was some structure at some point, unless everyone modifying the code pays attention to maintaining that structure, it will degrade. And if it didn't have much structure to begin with it's even worse.

I don't think you can blame this on "evolution". Bad code is not very "fit". Natural selection would soon kill it off. Evolution is not intelligent design, but it comes up with lean, efficient solutions. It's not sloppy.

Much of the blame goes back to a common weakness in programmers - thinking that you are done when you have something that appears to work. Not going the extra distance to make sure it's readable, understandable, logically complete and correct. Often not even bothering to take care of the low hanging fruit like variable and method names.

And of course, once the code is a tangled mess no one wants to touch it to clean it up. Understandably, since it's a lot of work. And there's no doubt unobvious behavior in that code that you need to figure out and preserve. And there's a high risk of breaking things, and many programmers pay more attention to fear than to any desire for good code.

I have no silver bullets. Just a plea - please try to write code with some sort of comprehensible structure, for your own sake if nothing else.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Effective Modern C++

I just finished reading Effective Modern C++ by Scott Meyers. Like his More Effective C++ and the original Effective C++ it's well written with good explanations and examples. This third book covers the latest C++ features in C++11 and 14.

It's been a long time since I read the first two books. Effective C++ was published in 1991! Back then I was writing fair amounts of C++ code. Nowadays the only C++ programming I do is maintaining the C++ implementation of Suneido.

I expected the new book to be similar to the previous ones - practical advice on how to effectively use modern C++. And there is lots of that. But it was also full of "gotchas" - things that won't compile (and give horrendous error messages), or compile but won't run, or compile and run but do the wrong thing.

C++ has always been a complex language and the new versions have only pushed that even further. If makes me appreciate the simplicity of the Go language which in some ways is a reaction to the complexity of C++.

Don't get me wrong, the new features of C++ are great, they improve the language in many ways. But my head is spinning with things like when perfect forwarding isn't perfect, when universal references aren't, and when uniform initialization isn't uniform.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Safety First

I recently fixed a long standing (many years) bug in the C++ implementation of Suneido. A friend remarked how you'd wish that after this long all the bugs would have been found. Of course, it doesn't take much code to provide room for bugs to lurk.

The problem that was reported was that if you created one thread inside another that cSuneido would crash. It seemed to happen quite consistently and predictably. That was from the IDE. If you ran the same code without the IDE it worked fine. Or if you played around a bit in the IDE first, it would also work fine.

cSuneido "threads" aren't real threads. They are Windows "fibers" - more like coroutines. They don't actually run concurrently, but they allow cooperative multi-tasking. The big advantage is that since you control when the task switching happens and can do it at "safe" points in the code, you don't have to worry about low level concurrency issues. The downside is that you can't take advantage of multiple cpu's. But this was implemented at a time when no one had multiple cpu's and Moore's Law was still happily improving single cpu performance.

Suneido's C++ fiber code had a std::vector of fibers. It also had a main fiber, separate from the vector. The current fiber was a reference (pointer) to either the main fiber or an element of the vector.

Even from that minimal description you could probably guess the problem. Vector implementations normally grow by allocating a new larger array, copying over the data, and throwing out the smaller old array. So adding an element to a vector invalidates any references to its content. So the current fiber reference would be pointing to stale data. (It wouldn't actually be a dangling pointer because cSuneido uses garbage collection.) The reference to stale data could cause an "impossible" situation that would lead to a fatal error. (So the problem was nothing to do with creating one fiber inside another, it was simply that creating two fibers in that sequence happened to be one way to expose the bug.)

The problem was rare because it required a specific sequence of events. First, the vector had to grow. Which is why if you played around first (and expanded the vector) it wouldn't happen. Second, the stale reference had to be used in such a way that it caused a problem. Since the data would normally be identical the stale reference wouldn't matter. And the next fiber switch would update it to a valid value so the stale reference wouldn't hang around.

Actually, I think there was at least one more potential problem scenario. When fibers ended they were removed from the vector. This probably wouldn't cause a reallocation (many implementations never shrink the array) but it would invalidate any references after that item. You'd either end up with a reference to the wrong item or past the end of the array.

I'm a little embarrassed to discover such a long standing blatant mistake, and a newbie mistake at that. All the times I've looked at that code and I never picked up on it. Ouch.

But to me the real moral of the story is "don't use unsafe languages". Interestingly, this bug was not a memory management issue since cSuneido (unlike almost all C++ programs) uses garbage collection. It's just a result of C++ allowing unsafe raw pointers/references.

C++ fans would tell you that modern C++ has plenty of high level features that are "safe". But the point is that it still has lots of unsafe features. (And AFAIK there is no way to enforce use of a "safe" subset. And C++ continues to resist "real" garbage collection.) I would much rather work in a language like Java or Go (or others) that just don't allow unsafe code of this nature, and eliminate a whole class of problems. Figuring out my high level issues is challenging enough without worrying about unsafe low level issues.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Go Editors

Up till recently I've been using Sublime Text with GoSublime to write Go code. It works pretty well. Sublime is a good editor and GoSublime integrates with the Go tools fairly well. But coming back to it after being away I found it quite annoying that compile errors are only shown in the output pane, not marked on the source code. And you can't even click on the error to go to that line. I'm not a big fan of using line numbers but with Sublime I was pretty much forced to display line numbers and use them manually. (There's probably some way to get clicking on errors to go to the line but nothing obvious.)

I'm not sure where Sublime is at. Sublime 3 has been in beta for a long time. GoSublime has some activity but doesn't seem to be doing too much either.

So I've been on the lookout for alternatives. And I needed something that was available on both Mac and Windows.

I came across something about Github's Atom editor and the go-plus extension. I had some difficulties getting it working on Windows, easier on Mac. It has better integration between Go and the editor, showing lines with errors and letting you click on the errors. But it doesn't seem to have much support for things like running tests. I realize that's outside the scope of just an editor, and I can always run the tests outside the editor. But I'd still prefer to have it. (Again, there may be some way to do it, but if so it wasn't obvious.)

Both Eclipse and IntelliJ have facilities for Go but they seem like very heavy weight tools for a "lightweight" language like Go.

The other recommendation I'd seen was LiteIDE. It's somewhere in between a full IDE like Eclipse, and an editor like Atom. It was easier to install than either Sublime or Atom since it's a single package, no add ons to worry about. I haven't used it a lot yet but it seems like it might be a good option. The editor is decent and it doesn't force me to use line numbers. I can run tests. The only weakness I've found so far is that it doesn't support column select or multiple select. I can probably live without that, if need be I can always use another editor for the odd time I need it. And it looks like the Kate editor that LiteIDE uses does support this so I'd guess it might be added at some point.

The project seems quite active. I found a bug where some keyboard shortcuts didn't work when you had multiple windows open. I couldn't find any mention of this problem so I entered a bug for it. Within hours I got a notification of a fix committed. It looked like an easy fix, and I haven't tried to build from source to test it, but it's still impressive that the issue was addressed so quickly.