Computing stuff tied to the physical world

Archive for August 2015

Clojure and ClojureScript

In Musings on Aug 26, 2015 at 00:01

I’m in awe. There’s a (family of) programming languages which solves everything. Really.

  • it works on the JVM, V8, and CLR, and it interoperates with what already exists
  • it’s efficient, it’s dynamic, and it has parallelism built in (threaded or cooperative)
  • it’s so malleable, that any sort of DSL can trivially be created on top of it

As this fella says at this very point in his videoState. You’re doing it wrong.

I’ve been going about programming in the wrong way for decades (as a side note: the Tcl language did get it right, up to a point, despite some other troublesome shortcomings).

The language I’m talking about re-uses the best of what’s out there, and even embraces it. All the existing libraries in JavaScript can be used when running in the browser or in Node.js, and similarly for Java or C# when running in those contexts. The VM’s, as I already mentioned also get reused, which means that decades of research and optimisation are taken advantage of.

There’s even an experimental version of this (family of) programming languages for Go, so there again, it becomes possible to add this approach to whetever already exists out there, or is being introduced now or in the future.

Due to the universal reach of JavaScript these days, on browsers, servers, and even on some embedded platforms, that really has most interest to me, so what I’ve been putting my teeth into recently is “ClojureScript”, which specifically targets JavaScript.

Let me point out that ClojureScript is not another “pre-processor” like CoffeScript.

“State. You’re doing it wrong.”

As Rich Hickey, who spoke those words in the above video quickly adds: “which is ok, because I was doing it wrong too”. We all took a wrong turn a few decades ago.

The functional programming (FP) people got it right… Haskell, ML, that sort of thing.

Or rather: they saw the risks and went to a place where few people could follow (monads?).

FP is for geniuses

What Clojure and ClojureScript do, is to bring a sane level of FP into the mix, with “immutable persistent datastructures”, which makes it all very practical and far easier to build with and reason about. Code is a transformation: take stuff, do things with it, and return derived / modified / updated / whatever results. But don’t change the input data.

Why does this matter?

Let’s look at a recent project taking the world by storm: React, yet another library for building user interfaces (in the browser and on mobile). The difference with AngularJS is the conceptual simplicity. To borrow another image from a similar approach in CycleJS:

Screen Shot 2015 08 16 at 16 08 35

Things happen in a loop: the computer shows stuff on the screen, the user responds, and the computer updates its state. In a talk by CycleJS author Andre Staltz, he actually goes so far as treat the user as a function: screen in, key+mouse actions out. Interesting concept!

Think about it:

  • facts are stored on the disk, somewhere on a network, etc
  • a program is launched which presents (some of it) on the screen
  • the user interface leads us, the monkeys, to respond and type and click
  • the program interprets these as intentions to store / change something
  • it sends out stuff to the network, writes changes to disk (perhaps via a database)
  • these changes lead to changes to what’s shown on-screen, and the cycle repeats

Even something as trivial as scrolling down is a change to a scroll position, which translates to a different part of a list or page being shown on the screen. We’ve been mixing up the view side of things (what gets shown) with the state (some would say “model”) side, which in this case is the scroll position – a simple number. The moment you take them apart, the view becomes nothing more than a function of that value. New value -> new view. Simple.

Nowhere in this story is there a requirement to tie state into the logic. It didn’t really help that object orientation (OO) taught us to always combine and even hide state inside logic.

Yet I (we?) have been programming with variables which remember / change and loops which iterate and increment, all my life. Because that’s how programming works, right?

Wrong. This model leads to madness. Untraceable, undebuggable, untestable, unverifiable.

In a way, Test-Driven-Design (TDD) shows us just how messy it got: we need to explicitly compare what a known input leads to with the expected outcome. Which is great, but writing code which is testable becomes a nightmare when there is state everywhere. So we invented “mocks” and “spies” and what-have-you-not, to be able to isolate that state again.

What if everything we implemented in code were easily reducible to small steps which cleanly compose into larger units? Each step being a function which takes one or more values as state and produces results as new values? Without side-effects or state variables?

Then again, purely functional programming with no side-effects at all is silly in a way: if there are zero side-effects, then the screen wouldn’t change, and the whole computation would be useless. We do need side-effects, because they lead to a screen display, physical-computing stuff such as motion & sound, saved results, messages going somewhere, etc.

What we don’t need, is state sprinkled across just about every single line of our code…

To get back to React: that’s exactly where it revolutionises the world of user interfaces. There’s a central repository of “the truth”, which is in fact usually nothing more than a deeply nested JavaScript data structure, from which everything shown on the web page is derived. No more messing with the DOM, putting all sorts of state into it, having to update stuff everywhere (and all the time!) for dynamic real-time apps.

React (a.k.a. ReactJS) treats an app as a pipeline: state => view => DOM => screen. The programmer designs and writes the first two, React takes care of the DOM and screen.

I’ll get back to ClojureScript, please hang in there…

What’s missing in the above, is user interaction. We’re used to the following:

    mouse/keyboard => DOM => controller => state

That’s the Model-View-Controller (MVC) approach, as pioneered by Smalltalk in the 80’s. In other words: user interaction goes in the opposite direction, traversing all those steps we already have in reverse, so that we end up with modified state all the way back to the disk.

This is where AngularJS took off. It was founded on the concept of bi-directional bindings, i.e. creating an illusion that variable changes end up on the screen, and screen interactions end up back in those same variable – automatically (i.e. all taken care of by Angular).

But there is another way.

Enter “reactive programming” (RP) and “functional reactive programming” (FRP). The idea is that user interaction still needs to be interpreted and processed, but that the outcome of such processing completely bypasses all the above steps. Instead of bubbling back up the chain, we take the user interaction, define what effect it has on the original central-repository-of-the-truth, period. No figuring out what our view code needs to do.

So how do we update what’s on screen? Easy: re-create the entire view from the new state.

That might seem ridiculously inefficient: recreating a complete screen / web-page layout from scratch, as if the app was just started, right? But the brilliance of React (and several designs before it, to be fair) is that it actually manages to do this really efficiently.

Amazingly so in fact. React is faster than Angular.

Let’s step back for a second. We have code which takes input (the state) and generates output (some representation of the screen, DOM, etc). It’s a pure function, i.e. it has no side effects. We can write that code as if there is no user interaction whatsoever.

Think – just think – how much simpler code is if it only needs to deal with the one-way task of rendering: what goes where, how to visualise it – no clicks, no events, no updates!

Now we need just two more bits of logic and code:

  1. we tell React which parts respond to events (not what they do, just that they do)

  2. separately, we implement the code which gets called whenever these events fire, grab all relevant context, and report what we need to change in the global state

That’s it. The concepts are so incredibly transparent, and the resulting code so unbelievably clean, that React and its very elegant API is literally taking the Web-UI world by storm.

Back to ClojureScript

So where does ClojureScript fit in, then? Well, to be honest: it doesn’t. Most people seem to be happy just learning “The React Way” in normal main-stream JavaScript. Which is fine.

There are some very interesting projects on top of React, such as Redux and React Hot Loader. This “hot loading” is something you have to see to believe: editing code, saving the file, and picking up the changes in a running browser session without losing context. The effect is like editing in a running app: no compile-run-debug cycle, instant tinkering!

Interestingly, Tcl also supported hot-loading. Not sure why the rest of the world didn’t.

Two weeks ago I stumbled upon ClojureScript. Sure enough, they are going wild over React as well (with Om and Reagent as the main wrappers right now). And with good reason: it looks like Om (built on top of React) is actually faster than React used from JavaScript.

The reason for this is their use of immutable data structures, which forces you to not make changes to variables, arrays, lists, maps, etc. but to return updated copies (which are very efficient through a mechanism called “structural sharing”). As it so happens, this fits the circular FRP / React model like a glove. Shared trees are ridiculously easy to diff, which is the essence of why and how React achieves its good performance. And undo/redo is trivial.

Hot-loading is normal in the Clojure & ClojureScript world. Which means that editing in a running app is not a novelty at all, it’s business as usual. As with any Lisp with a REPL.

Ah, yes. You see, Clojure and ClojureScript are Lisp-like in their notation. The joke used to be that LISP stands for: “Lots of Irritating Little Parentheses”. When you get down to it, it turns out that there are not really much more of those than parens / braces in JavaScript.

But notation is not what this is all about. It’s the concepts and the design which matter.

Clojure (and ClojureScript) seem to be born out of necessity. It’s fully open source, driven by a small group of people, and evolving in a very nice way. The best introduction I’ve found is in the first 21 minutes of the same video linked to at the start of this post.

And if you want to learn more: just keep watching that same video, 2:30 hours of goodness. Better still: this 1 hour video, which I think summarises the key design choices really well.

No static typing as in Go, but I found myself often fighting it (and type hints can be added back in where needed). No callback hell as in JavaScript & Node.js, because Clojure has implemented Go’s CSP, with channels and go-routines as a library. Which means that even in the browser, you can write code as if there where multiple processes, communicating via channels in either synchronous or asynchronous fashion. And yes, it really works.

All the libraries from the browser + Node.js world can be used in ClojureScript without special tricks or wrappers, because – as I said – CLJ & CLJS embrace their host platforms.

The big negative is that CLJ/CLJS are different and not main-stream. But frankly, I don’t care at this point. Their conceptual power is that of Lisp and functional programming combined, and this simply can’t be retrofitted into the popular languages out there.

A language that doesn’t affect the way you think about programming, is not worth knowing — Alan J. Perlis

I’ve been watching many 15-minute videos on Clojure by Tim Baldridge (it costs $4 to get access to all of them), and this really feels like it’s lightyears ahead of everything else. The amazing bit is that a lot of that (such as “core.async”) catapults into plain JavaScript.

As you can probably tell, I’m sold. I’m willing to invest a lot of my time in this. I’ve been doing things all wrong for a couple of decades (CLJ only dates from 2007), and now I hope to get a shot at mending my ways. I’ll report my progress here in a couple of months.

It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s not even easy (but it is simple!). Life’s too short to keep programming without the kind of abstractions CLJ & CLJS offer. Eh… In My Opinion.

A feel for numbers

In Musings on Aug 19, 2015 at 00:01

It’s often really hard to get a meaningful sense what numbers mean – especially huge ones.

What is a terabyte? A billion euro? A megawatt? Or a thousand people, even?

I recently got our yearly gas bill, and saw that our consumption was about 1600 m3 – roughly the same as last year. We’ve insulated the house, we keep the thermostat set fairly low (19°C), and there is little more we can do – at least in terms of low-hanging fruit. Since the house has an open stairway to the top floors, it’s not easy to keep the heat localised.

But what does such a gas consumption figure mean?

For one, those 1600 m3/y are roughly 30,000 m3 in the next twenty years, which comes to about €20,000, assuming Dutch gas prices will stay the same (a big “if”, obviously).

That 30,000 m3 sounds like a huge amount of gas, for just two people to be burning up.

Then again, a volume of 31 x 31 x 31 m sounds a lot less ridiculous, doesn’t it?

Now let’s tackle it from another angle, using the Wolfram Alpha “computational knowledge engine”, which is a really astonishing free service on the internet, as you’ll see.

How much gas is estimated to be left on this planet? Wolfram Alpha has the answer:

Screen Shot 2015 08 18 at 11 36 14

How many people are there in the world?

Screen Shot 2015 08 18 at 11 39 09

Ok, let’s assume we give everyone today an equal amount of those gas reserves:

Screen Shot 2015 08 18 at 11 44 02

Which means that we will reach our “allowance” (for 2) 30 years from now. Now that is a number I can grasp. It does mean that in 30 years or so it’ll all be gone. Totally. Gone.

I don’t think our children and all future generations will be very pleased with this…

Oh, and for the geeks in us: note how incredibly easy it is to get at some numerical facts, and how accurately and easily Wolfram Alpha handles all the unit conversions. We now live in a world where the well-off western part of the internet-connected crowd has instant and free access to all the knowledge we’ve ammassed (Wikipedia + Google + Wolfram Alpha).

Facts are no longer something you have to learn – just pick up your phone / tablet / laptop!

But let’s not stop at this gloomy result. Here’s another, more satisfying, calculation using figures from an interesting UK site, called Electropedia (thanks, Ard!):

[…] the total Sun’s power it intercepted by the Earth is 1.740×10^17 Watts

When accounting for the earth’s rotation, seasonal and climatic effects, this boils down to:

[…] the actual power reaching the ground generally averages less than 200 Watts per square meter

Aha, that’s a figure I can relate to again, unlike the “10^17” metric in the total above.

Let’s google for “heat energy radiated by one person”, which leads to this page, and on it:

As I recall, a typical healthy adult human generates in the neighborhood of 90 watts.

Interesting. Now an average adult’s calorie intake of 2400 kcal/day translates to 2.8 kWh. Note how this nicely matches up (at least roughly): 2.8 kWh/day is 116 watt, continuously. So yes, since we humans just burn stuff, it’s bound to end up as mostly heat, right?

But there is more to be said about the total solar energy reaching our little blue planet:

Integrating this power over the whole year the total solar energy received by the earth will be: 25,400 TW X 24 X 365 = 222,504,000 TeraWatthours (TWh)

Yuck, those incomprehensible units again. Luckily, Electropedia continues, and says:

[…] the available solar energy is over 10,056 times the world’s consumption. The solar energy must of course be converted into electrical energy, but even with a low conversion efficiency of only 10% the available energy will be 22,250,400 TWh or over a thousand times the consumption.

That sounds promising: we “just” need to harvest it, and end all fossil fuel consumption.

And to finish it off, here’s a simple calculation which also very much surprised me:

  • take a world population of 7.13 billion people (2013 figures, but good enough)
  • place each person on his/her own square meter
  • put everyone together in one spot (tight, but hey, the subway is a lot tighter!)
  • what you end up, is of course 7.13 billion square meters, i.e. 7,130,000,000 m3
  • sounds like a lot? how about an area of 70 by 100 km? (1/6th of the Netherlands)

Then, googling again, I found out that 71% of the surface of our planet is water.

And with a little more help from Wolfram Alpha, I get this result:

Screen Shot 2015 08 18 at 14 18 41

That’s 144 x 144 meters per person, for everyone on this planet. Although not every spot is inhabitable, of course. But at least these are figures I can fit into my head and grasp!

Now if only I could understand why we can’t solve this human tragedy. Maths won’t help.

Lessons from history

In Musings on Aug 12, 2015 at 00:01

(No, not the kind of history lessons we all got treated to in school…)

What I’d like to talk about, is how to deal with sensor readings over time. As described in last week’s post, there’s the “raw” data:

raw/rf12/868-5/3 "0000000000038d09090082666a"
raw/rf12/868-5/3 "0000000000038e09090082666a"
raw/rf12/868-5/3 "0000000000038f090900826666"

… and there’s the decoded data, i.e. in this case:

sensor/BATT-2 {"node":"rf12/868-5/3","ping":592269,
sensor/BATT-2 {"node":"rf12/868-5/3","ping":592270,
sensor/BATT-2 {"node":"rf12/868-5/3","ping":592271,

In both cases, we’re in fact dealing with a series of readings over time. This aspect tends to get lost a bit when using MQTT, since each new reading is sent to the same topic, replacing the previous data. MQTT is (and should be) 100% real-time, but blissfully unaware of time.

The raw data is valuable information, because everything else derives from it. This is why in HouseMon I stored each entry as timestamped text in a logfile. With proper care, the raw data can be an excellent way to “replay” all received data, whether after a major database or other system failure, or to import all the data into a new software application.

So much for the raw data, and keeping a historical archive of it all – which is good practice, IMO. I’ve been saving raw data for some 8 years now. It requires relatively little storage when saved as daily text files and gzip-compressed: about 180 Mb/year nowadays.

Now let’s look a bit more at that decoded sensor data…

When working on HouseMon, I noticed that it’s incredibly useful to have access to both the latest value and the previous value. In the case of these “BATT-*” nodes, for example, having both allows us to determine the elapsed time since the previous reception (using the “time” field), or to check whether any packets have been missed (using the “ping” counter).

With readings of cumulative or aggregating values, the previous reading is in fact essential to be able to calculate an instantaneous rate (think: gas and electricity meters).

In the past, I implemented this by having each entry store a previous and a latest value (and time stamp), but with MQTT we could actually simplify this considerably.

The trick is to use MQTT’s brilliant “RETAIN” flag:

  • in each published sensor message, we set the RETAIN flag to true
  • this causes the MQTT broker (server) to permanently store that message
  • when a new client connects, it will get all saved messages re-sent to it the moment it subscribes to a corresponding topic (or wildcard topic)
  • such re-sent messages are flagged, and can be recognised as such by the client, to distinguish them from genuinely new real-time messages
  • in a way, retained message handling is a bit like a store-and-forward mechanism
  • … but do keep in mind that only the last message for each topic is retained

What’s the point? Ah, glad you asked :)

In MQTT, a RETAINed message is one which can very gracefully deal with client connects and disconnects: a client need not be connected or subscribed at the time such a message is published. With RETAIN, the client will receive the message the moment it connects and subscribes, even if this is after the time of publication.

In other words: RETAIN flags a message as representing the latest state for that topic.

The best example is perhaps a switch which can be either ON or OFF: whenever the switch is flipped we publish either “ON” or “OFF” to topic “my/switch”. What if the user interface app is not running at the time? When it comes online, it would be very useful to know the last published value, and by setting the RETAIN flag we make sure it’ll be sent right away.

The collection of RETAINed messages can also be viewed as a simple key-value database.

For an excellent series of posts about MQTT, see this index page from HiveMQ.

But I digress – back to the history aspect of all this…

If every “sensor/…” topic has its RETAIN flag set, then we’ll receive all the last-known states the moment we connect and subscribe as MQTT client. We can then immediately save these in memory, as “previous” values.

Now, whenever a new value comes in:

  • we have the previous value available
  • we can do whatever we need to do in our application
  • when done, we overwrite the saved previous value with the new one

So in memory, our applications will have access to the previous data, but we don’t have to deal with this aspect in the MQTT broker – it remains totally ignorant of this mechanism. It simply collects messages, and pushes them to apps interested in them: pure pub-sub!

Doodling with decoders

In Musings on Aug 5, 2015 at 00:01

With plenty of sensor nodes here at JeeLabs, I’ve been exploring and doodling a bit, to see how MQTT could fit into this. As expected, it’s all very simple and easy to do.

The first task at hand is to take all those “OK …” lines coming out of a JeeLink running RF12demo, and push them into MQTT. Here’s a quick solution, using Python for a change:

import serial
import paho.mqtt.client as mqtt

def on_connect(client, userdata, flags, rc):
    print("Connected with result code "+str(rc))

def on_message(client, userdata, msg):
    # TODO pick up outgoing commands and send them to serial
    print(msg.topic+" "+str(msg.payload))

client = mqtt.Client()
client.on_connect = on_connect
client.on_message = on_message

client.connect("localhost", 1883, 60) # TODO reconnect as needed

ser = serial.Serial('/dev/ttyUSB1', 57600)

while True:
    # read incoming lines and split on whitespace
    items = ser.readline().split()
    # only process lines starting with "OK"
    if len(items) > 1 and items[0] == 'OK':
        # convert each item string to an int
        bytes = [int(i) for i in items[1:]]
        # construct the MQTT topic to publish to
        topic = 'raw/rf12/868-5/' + str(bytes[0])
        # convert incoming bytes to a single hex string
        hexStr = ''.join(format(i, '02x') for i in bytes)
        # the payload has 4 extra prefix bytes and is a JSON string
        payload = '"00000010' + hexStr + '"'
        # publish the incoming message
        client.publish(topic, payload) #, retain=True)
        # debugging                                                         
        print topic, '=', hexStr

Trivial stuff, once you install this MQTT library. Here is a selection of the messages getting published to MQTT – these are for a bunch of nodes running radioBlip and radioBlip2:

raw/rf12/868-5/3 "0000000000038d09090082666a"
raw/rf12/868-5/3 "0000000000038e09090082666a"
raw/rf12/868-5/3 "0000000000038f090900826666"

What needs to be done next, is to decode these to more meaningful results.

Due to the way MQTT works, we can perform this task in a separate process – so here’s a second Python script to do just that. Note that it subscribes and publishes to MQTT:

import binascii, json, struct, time
import paho.mqtt.client as mqtt

# raw/rf12/868-5/3 "0000000000030f230400"
# raw/rf12/868-5/3 "0000000000033c09090082666a"

# avoid having to use "obj['blah']", can use "obj.blah" instead
# see end of
C = type('type_C', (object,), {})

client = mqtt.Client()

def millis():
    return int(time.time() * 1000)

def on_connect(client, userdata, flags, rc):
    print("Connected with result code "+str(rc))

def batt_decoder(o, raw):
    o.tag = 'BATT-0'
    if len(raw) >= 10: = struct.unpack('<I', raw[6:10])[0]
        if len(raw) >= 13:
            o.tag = 'BATT-%d' % (ord(raw[10]) & 0x7F)
            o.vpre = 50 + ord(raw[11])
            if ord(raw[10]) >= 0x80:
                o.vbatt = o.vpre * ord(raw[12]) / 255
            elif ord(raw[12]) != 0:
                o.vpost = 50 + ord(raw[12])
        return True

def on_message(client, userdata, msg):
    o = C();
    o.time = millis()
    o.node = msg.topic[4:]
    raw = binascii.unhexlify(msg.payload[1:-1])
    if msg.topic == "raw/rf12/868-5/3" and batt_decoder(o, raw):
        #print o.__dict__
        out = json.dumps(o.__dict__, separators=(',',':'))
        client.publish('sensor/' + o.tag, out) #, retain=True)

client.on_connect = on_connect
client.on_message = on_message

client.connect("localhost", 1883, 60)

Here is what gets published, as a result of the above three “raw/…” messages:

sensor/BATT-2 {"node":"rf12/868-5/3","ping":592269,
sensor/BATT-2 {"node":"rf12/868-5/3","ping":592270,
sensor/BATT-2 {"node":"rf12/868-5/3","ping":592271,

So now, the incoming data has been turned into meaningful readings: it’s a node called “BATT-2”, the readings come in roughly every 64 seconds (as expected), and the received counter value is indeed incrementing with each new packet.

Using a dynamic scripting language such as Python (or Lua, or JavaScript) has the advantage that it will remain very simple to extend this decoding logic at any time.

But don’t get me wrong: this is just an exploration – it won’t scale well as it is. We really should deal with decoding logic as data, i.e. manage the set of decoders and their use by different nodes in a database. Perhaps even tie each node to a decoder pulled from GitHub?