Arbitrary Update 4701

Mon Jun 1, 2015

So I've officially been away from the keyboard long enough that I need to get some thoughts out. And I kind of want to avoid this blog becoming nothing but hasty lists of interesting papers, accompanied by some out-of-context and ever-growing list of ToDo items. So, in no particular order...

New Blog Stuff

Like I mentioned last time, this weekend I finally got around to making some much needed infrastructure changes around here. Really, I've been wanting to do this since it became obvious what a massive maintainability headache it is to use fact-bases for general storage. I might expand on that at some point. Short version is that it has a few very ugly drawbacks, not very many advantages, and the most interesting of its advantages is not intrinsic to fact-bases.

It's only recently that I finally got both enough time and cognition to sit down and write the damn thing again properly. It actually started as a Haskell project. I had some second thoughts when it became clear that blaze, the HTML-templating library, doesn't support general XML tags, and therefore wouldn't help me generate my atom feed. That ended up getting resolved relatively satisfactorily though. The real deal-breaker happened when I actually went to deploy the final product. This involved installing nix on my server, and trying to nix-env -i haskell-scotty-ghc7.8.4, only to realize that the package no longer exists. I could have spent more time researching what I'm actually supposed to do about module management these days, but as mentioned a little while ago, my patience for the Haskell ecosystem is wearing pretty fucking thin. This is the main reason I've never tried to do any professional work with it, despite the fact that I really like the language itself. So I ended up re-writing the whole thing again in go; a language I like much less, but which takes deployment and inter-operability issues much more seriously (More on that later).

That's something I've been meaning to do ever since seeing these benchmarks on the woo server github, incidentally. And, as expected, go presented more chafing restrictions than ghc, but ultimately resulted in an artifact that could be built on an arbitrary server with a minimum of fuss. It also runs pretty well. The last bit I wanted to write after the official switch-over yesterday was a minimal caching system for my posts, given that they're now stored in .md files on the disk of my server. We won't be doing the pseudo-literate programming thing with the entire langnostic repo, but indulge me in taking a close-up view of that piece.

Given that I've got

  1. files on disk
  2. that I'll want to process in a consistent way
  3. and that might occasionally change

What I really want to do is cache the processing step and keep it around until a change occurs. The change tracking can be pretty naive. We won't be doing anything like calling sha512sum here, a mere check of the files' modified time will do. The procedure I've got doing markdown processing is called, appropriately enough ProcessMarkdown. So, what I'd like it to do when called is really

Here's how I did it.

type Cached struct {
	contents []byte
	lastChecked time.Time
	lastEdited time.Time

var mdCache = make(map[string]Cached)

func ProcessMarkdown (mdFile string) ([]byte, error) {
	cache, present := mdCache[mdFile]
	if present && (time.Minute > time.Since(cache.lastChecked)) {
		return cache.contents, nil

	stat, err := os.Stat(mdFile)
	if err != nil { return nil, err }
	if present && (cache.lastEdited == stat.ModTime()) {
		mdCache[mdFile] = Cached{cache.contents, time.Now(), cache.lastEdited}
		return cache.contents, nil
	} else {
		f, err := ioutil.ReadFile(mdFile)
		if err != nil { return nil, err }
		unsafe := blackfriday.MarkdownCommon([]byte(f))
		mdCache[mdFile] = Cached{bluemonday.UGCPolicy().SanitizeBytes(unsafe), time.Now(), stat.ModTime()}
		return mdCache[mdFile].contents, nil

We've got a Cached type that keeps

And we've got a global map of string (file name) to Cached. Ideally, I'd have hidden this variable in the local scope of ProcessMarkdown rather than leaving it lying around, but making it an un-exported variable is close enough for my purposes. ProcessMarkdown itself then runs down the options as described above. When we get a request to process a particular mdFile, we first checks whether a recent (younger than one minute, for our purposes) cache exists and if so, return it immediately. We then call Stat on the given mdFile. If there is a Cached entry, but it isn't recent, we check the files' ModTime. If it hasn't change since we last looked, we return the cached version again. Finally, if all else fails, we read the file from disk, process it using blackfriday and bluemonday, and cache the processed result before returning it.

That does a reasonable job of minimizing disk trips while still freeing me of the need to periodically restart the server. I suppose I could increase the amount of time a cached file remains fresh to a something on the order of a half-hour or so, but going to disk once a minute per resource doesn't sound too bad. I reserve the right to change my mind.

The Go Problem

You can read my first impressions at the end of this piece. I've hit a few road-bumps since, mostly dealing with modularity and re-usability issues, but there also seems to be a pretty big attitude problem in the go community. The modularity issues stem from gos' monomorphic type system, which ensures that while the language designers can define transparently polymorphic procedures like len, you definitely can't. The most annoying place I saw this is while wondering how to go about doing sortBy in go. Short story, it ain't pretty. You need to define your own custom slice type, then define Len, Swap and Less methods on it, then call sort.Sort on your original list after coercing it to your custom type.

That's... I mean... I guess it could be worse, but not by much.

The same situation ensures that you can't really write a general purpose memoization function along the lines of my file-caching trick above, since the type of your map would vary by use case. My gut tells me this is going to lead to a lot of unnecessary boilerplate getting written if I keep writing go. The only apparent recourse is giving up performance along with either or both of run-time and compile-time type safety.

Which brings me to the attitude problem I mentioned. Apparently, go developers are expected to develop a boilerplate fetish. That's the only conclusion I can come to when I read things like "It's simpler to write a for loop than iterating over a range", or "Reversing an array manually with a for-loop is simple enough that you should just write the four lines out each time", or "That sort.Sort boilerplate is no big deal, why would you ever want something simpler?", or, god help me, "If you want to call math.Min on integers rather than floats, you should just define your own int version each time".

What the fuck am I looking at here?

Reading this kind of garbage is supremely depressing. It got to the point where I was searching for whatever this language calls downcase and half-expected to find a discussion wherein members of the community expressed surprise that anyone would ever need to work with strings. I didn't, and it's called ToLower, but it was a real concern for a minute or so there.

I understand that a statically, monomorphically typed language is going to have some obvious limitations, but why the ever-loving fuck shouldn't I point them out? And why, in the year 2015, should I be content defining my own min and max for integers and paradoxically not floats? The above 51-message, 27-contributor extraveganza has me seriously considering re-writing the blog again in ML or Rust. Except that I still haven't found a clear specification regarding how I'm supposed to set up my Standard ML modules in a cross-implementation fashion, and cargo looks a good deal more intimidating than go get.


New Places

Last bit, since I'm about to lose coherence; I recently started a new job. Instead of doing some odd R&D work inside of Moneris, I'll now be slinging Ruby and CoffeeScript (along with a few others of my choice) over at 500px. Or rather, I've already been doing that for the past couple of weeks. It's honestly weird working in OS X again after all this time. Not least because I've since developed a taste for tiling window managers, and XMonad has no satisfying analogue over in Apple-world. But also because I'm still getting comfortable with the built-in keyboard shortcuts. I've finally had to buckle down and start using alternate execute-extended-command keybindings (since the meta key is so hard to hit on the default Apple keyboards), and made use of auto-dim-other-buffers (since our external monitors are so ginormous). I'm sure I'll need to make more changes in my workflow before too long.

The other big contrast is being immersed in the small-company mentality of "fuck it, ship it" again. I say "again", because the last time I was in the start-up situation, I hadn't yet worked with the frindly monoliths of the finance and medical industries. So this time, I'm much more likely to enjoy it. The place looks about as awesome as you'd think based on the photos you see, though the bean-bags aren't as comfortable as they look for hacking purposes. I'll keep you posted about how it goes, and may blog about their development setup before too long.

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