hisham hm

On the word “latino”

One of my least-favorite American English words is “latino”, for two reasons:

First, a linguistic reason: because it’s not inflected when used. When you’re used to the fact that in Spanish and Portuguese “latino” refers only to men and “latina” only to women, hearing “latino woman” sounds really weird (weirder than, say, “handsome woman”). Even weirder “latino women”, mixing a Spanish/Portuguese word and English grammar. “Bonito girls”? :)

Second, a sociological reason: because using a foreign loanword reinforces the otherness. Nobody calls the Italian community in America “italiano”, although that’s their name in Italian. The alternative “Hispanic” is not ideal because it doesn’t really make sense when including Brazil, which was never a Spanish colony (plus, the colonial past is something most countries want to leave behind).

I can’t change the language by myself, so I just avoid the term and use more specific ones whenever possible (Colombians, Argentines, Brazilians, South Americans, Latin Americans when referring to people from the area in general, etc.)

After writing the above, I checked Wikipedia and it seems the communites in the US agree with me:

« In a recent study, most Spanish-speakers of Spanish or Hispanic American descent do not prefer the term “Hispanic” or “Latino” when it comes to describing their identity. Instead, they prefer to be identified by their country of origin. When asked if they have a preference for either being identified as “Hispanic” or “Latino,” the Pew study finds that “half (51%) say they have no preference for either term.”[43] A majority (51%) say they most often identify themselves by their family’s country of origin, while 24% say they prefer a pan-ethnic label such as Hispanic or Latino. Among those 24% who have a preference for a pan-ethnic label, “‘Hispanic’ is preferred over ‘Latino’ by more than a two-to-one margin—33% versus 14%.” Twenty-one percent prefer to be referred to simply as “Americans.” »

I think the awkwardness in the grammar from point one actually reinforces point two, because it strikes me as something that no Spanish or Portuguese native speaker would come up with by themselves. So it sounds tacked upon.

Don’t get me wrong, I fully identify as a Brazilian, a South American and a Latin American — travellling abroad helps a lot to widen your cultural identity! — and I have no problem when people wear the term “latino” proudly, but I always pay close attention to the power of language and how it represents and propagates ideas.


String interpolation in Lua

Lua is known for having a very lean standard library, and for providing mechanisms to do things instead of a ton of features.

String interpolation isn’t available out of the box, but doing it in Lua isn’t a new trick. In fact, the manual includes it as an example of string.gsub:

local t = {name="lua", version="5.3"}
x = string.gsub("$name-$version.tar.gz", "%$(%w+)", t)
--> x="lua-5.3.tar.gz"

This applies to members of a table only, though. Python is introducing a general string-interpolation syntax:

a = "Hello"
b = "World"
f"{a} {b}"
f"{a + ' ' + b}"

Given that Lua supports the f"str" syntax for functions with a single string argument, I thought it would be nice to put its Lua-provides-the-mechanisms ethos to test by trying to write my own Python-like f-string formatter.

And here it is, in all its 28-line glory (and I went for readability, and not to write it as short as possible):

function f(str)
   local outer_env = _ENV
   return (str:gsub("%b{}", function(block)
      local code = block:match("{(.*)}")
      local exp_env = {}
      setmetatable(exp_env, { __index = function(_, k)
         local stack_level = 5
         while debug.getinfo(stack_level, "") ~= nil do
            local i = 1
            repeat
               local name, value = debug.getlocal(stack_level, i)
               if name == k then
                  return value
               end
               i = i + 1
            until name == nil
            stack_level = stack_level + 1
         end
         return rawget(outer_env, k)
      end })
      local fn, err = load("return "..code, "expression `"..code.."`", "t", exp_env)
      if fn then
         return tostring(fn())
      else
         error(err, 0)
      end
   end))
end

It works just like the Python example:

a = "Hello"
b = "World"
print(f"{a} {b}")

Unlike the one-liner from the Lua manual, it also works with local variables:

local c = "Hello"
local d = "World"
print(f"Also works with locals: {c} {d}")

do
   local h = "Hello"
   do
      local w = "World"
      print(f"Of any scope level: {h} {w}")
   end
end

Some more demos:

print(f"Allows arbitrary expressions: one plus one is {1 + 1}")

local t = { foo = "bar" }
print(f"And values: t.foo is {t.foo}; print function is {_G.print}")

local ok, err = pcall(function()
   print(f"This fails: { 1 + } ")
end)
print("Errors display nicely: ", err)

If there’s interest, I can make this a module in LuaRocks (probably calling it F rather than f).

Update! This is now available in LuaRocks as a module! Install it with:

luarocks install f-strings

More info at the f-strings GitHub page. Enjoy!


Generalized nullable operators

Today I was writing some Lua code and had to use something like this for the millionth time:

logger:fine("my message " .. (extra_data or ""))

Since operators in Lua fail when applied to null (and thankfully don’t do wat-eseque coercions), whenever I want to perform an operation on a value that may be null, I have to add the neutral element of the operation as a fall back:

print(a + (b or 0))
print(x * (y or 1))

This got me thinking of null-conditional operators such as ?. that some other languages such as C# have.

Then I wondered: wouldn’t it be nice if “?” could be a modifier to any operator?

Creating null-checking operators

Here’s the initial sketch of the idea: in case of a “nullable operator”, just cancel the operation when given a null operand: i.e., return the left-hand value in case the right-hand value is null.

Or, expressed in Haskell, here’s a function “rightCheckNullable” that takes a normal operator and converts it to a nullable version checking the right-hand value (”nullable types” are represented as “Maybe” types in Haskell):

rightCheckNullable :: (a -> b -> a) -> (a -> Maybe b -> a)
rightCheckNullable fn = a b ->
   case b of
   Just x  -> fn a x
   Nothing -> a

Let’s create some nullable operators:

(+?) = rightCheckNullable (+) -- nullable addition
(*?) = rightCheckNullable (*) -- nullable multiplication
(++?) = rightCheckNullable (++) -- nullable concatenation

And give them a spin:

main =
   let
      v1 :: Float
      v1 = 123

      v2 = Nothing

      v3 :: Maybe Float
      v3 = Just 456
   in
      do
         print $ show (v1 +? v2) -- prints 123.0
         print $ show (v1 +? v3) -- prints 579.0
         print $ show (v1 *? v2) -- prints 123.0
         print $ "hello" ++? Just "world" -- prints helloworld
         print $ "hello" ++? v2 -- prints hello

With something like the above, instead of a + (b or 0) and x * (y or 1), one could write simply:

print(a +? b)
print(x *? y)

This could give back some of the terseness we have when null auto-coerces to other types, without surprises with various operations. In JavaScript, null coerces to 0 when it is an integer, which gives us a proper neutral element for addition but not for multiplication.

Null-checking in C#

Note, however, that my choice of picking the right-hand value and checking the left-hand value only was arbitrary (though it works well for the examples above).

In C#, operations on nullable types are always lifted: the operators of the original types are extended with a check where, if either of the arguments is null, the result of the operation is null.

In Haskell, this transformation would be the following, taking a function that goes from a’s to b’s producing c’s, and producing an equivalent function that goes from Maybe a’s to Maybe b’s producing Maybe c’s:

bothCheckNullable :: (a -> b -> c) -> (Maybe a -> Maybe b -> Maybe c)
bothCheckNullable fn =
    ma mb ->
      case ma of
         Nothing -> Nothing
         Just a ->
            case mb of
               Nothing -> Nothing
               Just b -> fn a b

(In Haskell, you don’t have to actually write this function, since can use Control.Applicative.liftA2, a generalization of the above, to get the same result)

Checking the left-hand value

This makes me think that my “nullable operator modifier” could be aplied to either side (or both). Note that the syntax for null-conditional in C# is already ?., with the question-mark on the left-hand side, since the value being checked for nullity is the left-hand one. We don’t want x?.y to return y when x is null, though. A more sensible semantics for left-hand ? would be a “short-circuiting” one:

leftCheckNullable :: (a -> b -> c) -> (Maybe a -> b -> Maybe c)
leftCheckNullable fn = a b ->
   case a of
   Just x  -> fn x b
   Nothing -> Nothing

The flood gates are open!

There is still an asymmetry here, as rightCheckNullable is the only one that returns the “other value” when one of them is null.

In fact, we could have six versions of the conversion function: right-check, both-check, left-check, each of them returning the “other value” (as I did with +?) or null. If we called the C#-like version +??, this means addition could be modified into: +?, ?+, ?+?, +??, ??+, ??+??.

(And there could be two more variants of course, ?+?? and ??+?, but coming up with a realistic example using them would be a nice exercise in creative coding.)

But would it make sense to have so many modifiers?

Well, for one, instead of writing this

logger:severe("Error: connection failed" .. (details and (" - details: "..details) or ""))

we could write something like:

logger:severe("Error: connection failed" ..? (" - details: " ..?? details))

I know this is a step into the world of APL, and I’m not arguing this is a great or even good idea, but it was fun to think about, so I thought I’d share.


A small practical example where Lua’s % behavior is better than C’s

These days I saw on Twitter a comment on how the behavior of the % (remainder) operator for negative numbers is weird in C.

I’ve seen this discussion come up numerous times in the Lua mailing list over the years. The reason being because Lua does it different, and most languages simply copy the behavior of C.

Today I saw Etiene’s cool demo of a mini JavaScript Duck Hunt clone that she presented at a “intro to programming” workshop for the Women in Leadership event in Bremen, Germany.

It’s a really nice demo of game behavior in a short span of code, and with the environment of Mozilla Thimble, it instantly enticed me to play around with the code and see what happened.

The first thing that came to my attention was that the ducks spawn at position x=0, and this made them “pop” into the screen. I thought that changing the initial value to something like x=-50 would be a small change to try and would produce a smoother effect (just change 0 to -50 in lines 56 and 116).

When I first tried that, the result was that they would show up, but wouldn’t start flapping their wings until they were at x=0. The reason is because the logic to switch sprites is made testing x % 30 for values 0, 10 and 20… and JavaScript’s % operator, like C’s, returns negative remainders for negative divisors.

My quick hack solution was to calculate

   var absx = Math.abs(this.x);

(which required me a visit to DuckDuckGo to figure out how to properly say “abs(x)” in JavaScript). This made the birds enter the screen flapping their wings. Yay!

Of course, this is not something you’d want to have to explain in an “intro to programming” workshop. It would be better if the animation “just worked” with that change…

But wait! If you have really sharp eyes, you’ll notice that from -50 to 0, the birds are flapping their wings upwards and from 0 on, they do it downwards. The animation is inverted!

The reason is because operating on abs(x) causes this:

Lua 5.3.0  Copyright (C) 1994-2015 Lua.org, PUC-Rio
> for i = -50, 100 do io.write(math.abs(i)%30, " ") end
20 19 18 17 16 15 14 13 12 11 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0 29 28 27 26 25 24 23 22 21 20 19 18 17 16 15 14 13 12 11 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

If I write a one-liner to simulate the sprite logic in Duck Hunt, I get this:

> for i = -50, 100 do r=math.abs(i)%30; io.write(r==0 and "1" or (r==10 and "2" or (r==20 and "3" or ".") ) ) end
3.........2.........1.........3.........2.........1.........2.........3.........1.........2.........3.........1.........2.........3.........1.........2

Indeed, it’s going 3,2,1, 3,2,1 at the negative numbers and then 1,2,3, 1,2,3 at the positive ones. But let’s just drop the math.abs in Lua and see what happens:

> for i = -50, 100 do r=i%30; io.write(r==0 and "1" or (r==10 and "2" or (r==20 and "3" or ".") ) ) end
2.........3.........1.........2.........3.........1.........2.........3.........1.........2.........3.........1.........2.........3.........1.........2

We get 1,2,3,1,2,3 all the way!

In my experience, the vast majority of times I used %, it was to tell something to “do this every X steps”, like Etiene does in her Duck Hunt. For this kind of purposes, I’m pretty convinced that Lua’s behavior for % is a lot better. It’s unfortunate that most other languages just decided to follow the example of C.

Of course, there are a million other ways to make the ducks flap their wings, with and without %, that’s not the point. But it intrigued me that, if JavaScript had Lua’s behavior for %, my initial tiny change would have “just worked”!


How to write Lua modules in a post-module() world

Our beloved function module() is really going away. As of Lua 5.2 it’s only available with compatibility flags on, and the writing’s on the wall: it is going away for good in Lua 5.3. So, in a new Lua project I wrote this past semester, I decided to write it without using module(), while making sure my code runs on both Lua 5.1 and 5.2 (as a side result, I started the compat52 project, which allows you to write code in a well-behaved Lua 5.2 style and make it run on both 5.1 and 5.2).

So, why I liked module() in the first place? While vilified by some, I think the pros of module() largely trumped its cons. It had indeed some nice properties:

So, how to try to retain some of these properties without module()? The solution I found was to adopt some bits of policy, which I list below.

Yes, bits of policy. I know many in the Lua world hate policies, but of course I’m not putting a gun against anyone’s head to follow them. I’m only sharing what works for me and hopefully you may find some use. And don’t worry it’s nothing too esoteric, and it’s mostly cherry-picking some established practices.

Starting from the outside in

Keeping in mind that the goal of a module is to be required by client code, this is how a module foo.bar will be used:

local bar = require("foo.bar") -- requiring the module

bar.say("hello") -- using the module

An interesting observation here is that although we have a hierarchical structure of modules, the practice of loading them into locals means that in use they have to be accomodated in a flat namespace. So here’s Policy Bit #1:

Policy Bit #1: always require a module into a local named after the last component of the module’s full name.

Don’t do stuff such as local skt = require("socket") — code is much harder to read if we have to keep going back to the top to check how you chose to call a module.

Naming modules

Now that you know that your module will end up in people’s locals, please take that into consideration when naming your module. (I wish we had a capitalization policy to separate that nicely, but naming things LikeThis in Lua tends to be used only for object-oriented code.)

The idea is to choose a name that strikes a balance between convenience and uniqueness, and that is usable. And what better way to achieve this other than using this name. So, here’s Policy Bit #2, let’s use the module name in its declaration!

Policy Bit #2: start a module by declaring its table using the same all-lowercase local name that will be used to require it.

So, in the beginning of module foo.bar (which will live in foo/bar.lua), we begin with:

local bar = {}

It’s not a nice self-documenting header as we used to have with module("foo.bar", package.seall), but it’s something. We can improve that with LDoc comments:

--- @module foo.bar
local bar = {}

Don’t name your module something like “size”.

Declaring functions

When I’m scrolling through source code, I like to be able to tell what’s the sphere of influence of the piece of code I’m looking at. Is this a tiny helper function that’s only used below this line in this file? Is it an important function that’s used by other clients, so that an added or removed argument would mean API breakage? Ideally I like to be able to tell that without running back and forth in the code, so I really like visibility to be explicit in the syntax.

We must not declare global functions (or globals of any type, really!) in our modules, so using “globals vs. locals” to tell the difference won’t cut it. We have some alternatives, though. But first, let’s assert one thing:

Policy Bit #3: Use local function to declare local functions only: that is, functions that won’t be accessible from outside the module.

That is, local function helper_foo() means that helper_foo is really local.

This sounds obvious, but there are advocates of declaring all functions, public and private, as local functions and then writing an “export list” at the bottom of the module. Reading code written like this feels to me like a thriller with a twist ending: “haha, I was a public function all along!”

How to write public functions then? We must not declare global functions, but there are alternatives. Say we’re writing a function that will be used in client code as bar.say("hello"). It’s nice that we can declare it just like that:

function bar.say(greeting)
   print(greeting)
end

Policy Bit #4: public functions are declared in the module table, with dot syntax.

Visibility is made explicit through syntax. This is the same idea advocated by those who tell you to name your module tables “M”, except that you’re eating your own dogfood and using the name you expect your users to use. It’s also more consistent, since calls of say() are written bar.say() everywhere, instead of say(), M.say(), etc. (Also, “M.” looks really really ugly and people can’t decide if they want to use “M” or “_M”.)

In case you have speed concerns about having your calls go through the module table: first, this is what your users will go through; second, this is no different than using colon-syntax and dispatching through self and nobody complains about that; third, if you really need it (and have a benchmarked case for it), sure go ahead and make locals for optimization clearly marked as such; fourth, if you’re really after speed you’re probably using LuaJIT and last I heard the value of caching functions into locals is put into question there.

Classes and objects

When talking about classes and objects, it’s then time to talk about things named LikeThis. (If you don’t do OOP, feel free to skip this section!)

As we did above, let’s start look from the outside in: how to instantiate an object. There are two common practices (oh why I am not surprised :( )… you either make a class table with a “new” method, or make the “class object” callable (as a function or a table with a __call metamethod — wait, that makes it three practices…)

local myset1 = Set.new() -- style 1
local myset2 = Set() -- style 2.1 (set is a function)
local myset3 = Set() -- style 2.2 (set is a table)

If your module represents a class, I tend to like style 1 better because:

If all your module does is define a class, I guess it makes sense to name the module file MyClass.lua and have the class table be the module table. But I prefer not to do that, because often what we store as “static” class methods in purely OOP languages are really module functions. I still use the uppercase table when implementing the class, like this:

--- @module myproject.myclass
local myclass = {}

-- class table
local MyClass = {}

function MyClass:some_method()
   -- code
end

function MyClass:another_one()
   self:some_method()
   -- more code
end

function myclass.new()
   local self = {}
   setmetatable(self, { __index = MyClass })
   return self
end

return myclass

It’s easy to see in the code above that the functions with MyClass in their signature are methods. Sometimes it’s nice to declare the functions as fields inside the table declaration, but declaring methods separately as in the example above allows you to keep local helper functions closer to where they’re used.

If all the module does is declare the class, the class and module table may be one and the same. If you want to use style 2, we get something like this:

--- @module myproject.MyClass
local MyClass = {}

function MyClass:some_method()
   -- code
end

function MyClass:another_one()
   self:some_method()
   -- more code
end

local metatable = {
   __call = function()
      local self = {}
      setmetatable(self, { __index = MyClass })
      return self
   end
}
setmetatable(MyClass, metatable)

return MyClass

Both methods are acceptable, as long as it’s easy and obvious to tell you’re doing OOP:

Policy Bit #5: construct a table for your class and name it LikeThis so we know your table is a class.

Policy Bit #6: functions that are supposed to be used as object methods should be clearly marked as such, and the colon syntax is a great way to do it.

Don’t make people reading your function have to guess (or look up) if it is a method, a public module function or a local function.

Wrapping up

Return the module table. It’s a bit of boilerplate, but it’s what we have to deal with in a module()less world:

return bar

Policy Bit #7: do not set any globals in your module and always return a table in the end.

To sum it all up, a complete module foo.bar would look like this:

--- @module foo.bar
local bar = {}

local function happy_greet(greeting)
   print(greeting.."!!!! :-D")
end

function bar.say(greeting)
   happy_greet(greeting)
end

return bar

The result is that we type a bit more than we did with module(), and we risk polluting the global namespace if we’re not careful, but with this set of policies, we have:

…which mostly matches what I liked about module(), to the extent that can be done without _ENV tricks.

I’ve been using these policies successfully in a university project, and my plan is to follow them when I update the LuaRocks codebase to drop the use of module(). Consider your self encouraged to adopt some or hopefully all of them, but most importantly, whatever you do, be consistent! Good luck in this brave post-module() world!