hisham hm

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!


Java: if you have trouble declaring a static hashmap…

Java (as of version 6, aka 1.6) does not allow you to declare a static HashMap as conveniently as an array. Still, you have the alternative of using a static block in your class to add fields. Take this example:

import java.util.HashMap;

public class StaticHashMapTest {
	private final static HashMap constants = new HashMap();
	static
	{
		constants.put("A", "The Letter A");
		constants.put("B", "The Letter B");
		constants.put("C", "The Letter C");
	}
	/* Rest of your class that needs to know the consts */
}

This works fine. But then you want to map something a little more complex than a string to another string. And I don't mean something very complex... just, say, a string to a string and an integer (yes, you'd like to use some kind of "pair object", but it looks like Java does not have it).

So you go and try to do things The Java Way (tm) and create a tiny class just to hold your two values:

import java.util.HashMap;

public class StaticHashMapTest {

	private class Pair {
		final String name;
		final int number;
		public Pair(String name, int number) {
			this.name = name;
			this.number = number;
		}
	}

	private final static HashMap constants = new HashMap();
	static
	{
		constants.put("A", new Pair("The Letter A", 123));
		constants.put("B", new Pair("The Letter B", 456));
		constants.put("C", new Pair("The Letter C", 789));
	}
	/* Rest of your class that needs to know the consts */
}

This should suffice, right? I even made the Pair class private to my class, to ensure good information hiding (that's what Java is all about, right?). Turns out this fails to compile:

StaticHashMapTest.java:18: non-static variable this cannot be referenced from a static context
      constants.put("A", new Pair("The Letter A", 123));
                         ^
StaticHashMapTest.java:19: non-static variable this cannot be referenced from a static context
      constants.put("B", new Pair("The Letter B", 456));
                         ^
StaticHashMapTest.java:20: non-static variable this cannot be referenced from a static context
      constants.put("C", new Pair("The Letter C", 789));
                         ^
3 errors

The error messages say that my "new" operators are failing due to the use of the "this" variable, which is not there at all! But hey, we can call "new" from a static context, can't we? We just did that when declaring the HashMap itself.

It turns out that the problem is that we're using an inner class. Objects from inner classes hold a "this" reference to their parent object (yes, as in myInnerObject.this.myParentAttribute... go figure), hence the trouble with the implicit "this" reference.

You have to make it a static inner class, which means it doesn't know anything about the enclosing class. Yes, that's yet another meaning for the word "static" in programming. Due to this peculiar meaning, inner classes are the only context where you can use the "static" qualifier to a class declaration in Java.

This, therefore, works:

import java.util.HashMap;

public class StaticHashMapTest {

	private static class Pair {
		final String name;
		final int number;
		public Pair(String name, int number) {
			this.name = name;
			this.number = number;
		}
	}
	private final static HashMap constants = new HashMap();
	static
	{
		constants.put("A", new Pair("The Letter A", 123));
		constants.put("B", new Pair("The Letter B", 456));
		constants.put("C", new Pair("The Letter C", 789));
	}
	/* Rest of your class that needs to know the consts */
}

And that's Java for you.


Lua’s and-or as a ternary operator

Lua is a nice programming language, which allows for readable and concise code. One of my favorite idioms in the language is this:

x = a and b or c

which usually works like the C ternary operator, “a ? b : c”, but in a more readable fashion. This works in Lua because the “and” and “or” operators return their matching value when they get a “true” value (anything other than false and nil).

One thing to keep in mind though, is that this is really “and and b or c” and not “a then b else c”. There’s one big difference: when you want to have nil or false in your “then” value.

Lua 5.1.4  Copyright (C) 1994-2008 Lua.org, PUC-Rio
> = true and 10 or 20
10
> = false and 10 or 20
20
> = true and nil or 20
20

An ugly alternative is to do “not a and c or b”, like this:

> = not true and 20 or 10
10
> = not false and 20 or 10
20
> = not true and 20 or nil
nil

But at this point it’s better just to use an “if” statement. (This hack works around the then-as-nil case, but not else-as-nil, of course.)

So, keep in mind that you should use the “a and b or c” construct as if-then-else only if you know that your “b” value is not nil or false.

It’s better, however, to use this construct for what it is. This behavior is not flawed, it is just different, and it has its own uses. For example, it is very useful to check if a table exists:

x = tbl and tbl.key

And to define fallback values:

x = tbl and tbl.key or "missing!"

Note that the above line reads naturally, and you wouldn’t be able to do that with one “?:” operator in C.


Programming language research is a Human Science

Some people often tell me that, due to my various interests, they actually find it weird that I ended up studying Computer Science and not some of the Humanities. I try to explain them that my specific field of interest, programming languages, is actually a Human Science. And that is so for one simple reason: if there was no people, if computing was restricted to computers and there was no human factor, machine language — the binary code that processors actually run — would be enough. Programming languages exist because of people, not because of computers.

This quote puts it rather nicely:

“Programming is a science dressed up as art, because most of us don’t understand the physics of software, and it’s rarely if ever taught. The physics of software is not algorithms, data structures, languages and abstractions. These are just tools we make, use, throw away. The real physics of software is the physics of people.

Specifically, our limitations when it comes to complexity, and our desire to work together to solve large problems in pieces. This is the science of programming: make building blocks that people can understand and use easily, and people will work together to solve the very largest problems.” — Peter Hintjens et al., ØMQ - The Guide

Programming languages are the bridge we use to communicate our ideas to the machine, but also to communicate our ideas among our fellow programmers, and even to ourselves. Like natural languages, programming languages are constantly evolving (at a much faster pace, even!), as we try to balance the tension between being precise and unambiguous and being understandable and eloquent; to be able, in the same piece of prose, to tell a machine what to do and to tell another person what we mean. And this is by no means a matter of numbers.