software


OCaml first hit my radar in November 2013. I had just learnt SML, a similar but older language, in the excellent Programming Languages Coursera course. Dan Grossman is one of the best lecturers I’ve ever seen, I found his explanations hit all the right notes and made learning easy. The simplicity of the SML syntax, and the power of the language while still producing code that is readable with minimal training immediately appealed to me.

Over the last 3 years I have tried, and failed, to learn Haskell. The combination of minimalist syntax, pure functional programming style and lazy evaluation is like a 3-hit sucker punch that is very hard to grasp all at once. Having now learnt SML and OCaml, which like Haskell are based on the ML language, that has changed. I have yet to put any more effort into learning Haskell, but it is now clear to me that the syntax is only a small leap from ML and the pure functional style has similarities to SML.

I still don’t want to write production code in Haskell, but the fact that I find it less scary than I used to indicates I have made a significant jump in my knowledge and, arguably, career in the last 6 months.

Dynamic typing

Before I go any further, I need fans of dynamic typing to exit the room. My 12 years in the industry have set my camp firmly on the static typing side of the fence, and discussions about static vs dynamic will not be productive or welcome here.

So, why OCaml?

Smarter people than me have written about this, but I’ll give it a shot.

I have found OCaml to be a refreshing change of pace. Most of my favourite things are derived from the ML base language; variants, records, and pattern matching combine to create elegantly powerful code that is still easy to follow (unlike most Haskell code I’ve seen).

Ocaml takes the expression-based ML style and incorporates enough imperative features to make it comfortable for someone learning Functional Programming. Don’t know how to use recursion to solve a problem? Drop into a for loop in the middle of your expression. Need some debug output? Add it right there with a semicolon to sequence expressions.

Throw in almost perfect static type inference, a compiler that gives useful error messages and immutable-by-default variables and I just can’t get enough. I won’t sit here and list every feature of the language, but hopefully that piques your interest as much as it did mine ;)

Industry acceptance

There is always an element of “I have a hammer, everything looks like a nail” when learning a new language but the evidence that OCaml is becoming more widely accepted is not hard to find.

In the middle of February, Thomas Leonard’s OCaml: what you gain post made waves; the reddit and hackernews discussions are fascinating. A lot of people using OCaml in the industry came out of the woodwork for that one. I’m still working my way through the series of 11 posts Thomas made, dating back to June 2013, about his process of converting a large Python codebase to OCaml.

Facebook have a fairly extensive OCaml codebase (more details below).

It doesn’t take much googling to find presentations by Skydeck in 2010 (they wrote ocamljs, the first ocaml to JS compiler) or a 2006 talk describing why OCaml is worth learning after Haskell.

OCamlPro appear to be seeing good business out of OCaml, and they have an excellent browser-based OCaml tutorial (developed using, of course, js_of_ocaml).

No list of OCaml developers would be complete without mentioning the immense amount of code at Jane Street.

There are plenty of other success stories.

The elephant in the room

The first question I usually get when I tell a Functional Programming guru that I’m learning OCaml is “Why not Haskell?”. It’s a fair enough question. Haskell can do a ton more than OCaml can, and there are only one or two things OCaml can do that Haskell can’t (I don’t know the details exactly, I would think it was zero). I see a lot of references to OCaml being a gateway drug for Haskell.

The answer is JavaScript. As much as I hate the language, JS is the only realistic way to write web apps. Included in the many and varied AltJS languages, both OCaml and Haskell can be compiled to JavaScript but the Haskell compilers aren’t mature enough yet (and I’m not convinced lazy evaluation in JavaScript will have good performance).

In fact, some study has revealed OCaml may be the most mature AltJS compiler of all by virtue of support for existing OCaml libraries.

JavaScript

Late last year I started hearing about OCaml at Facebook. Their pfff tool, which is a serious OCaml codebase all by itself, is already open source – but there was talk of an even larger project using js_of_ocaml (the link seems to be offline, try the video). That presentation by Julien Verlaguet is almost identical to the one he gave at YOW! 2013 and it really grabbed my attention. (Hopefully the YOW! video is online soon, as it’ll be better quality).

To cut a long story short, Facebook created a new language (Hack, a statically typed PHP variant) and wrote the compiler in OCaml. They then use js_of_ocaml to compile their entire type checker into JavaScript, as the basis of a web IDE (@19 minutes in the video) along the lines of cloud9. Due to the use of OCaml for everything, this IDE has client-side code completion and error checking. It’s pretty amazing.

Maturity of tools and js_of_ocaml

The more I dive into OCaml, and specifically js_of_ocaml, the more it amazes me how the maturity of the tools and information reached suitability for production use just as I need them.

  • The package manager OPAM is now a little over 12 months old and every library I’ve looked at is available on it. Wide community acceptance of a good package manager is a huge plus.

  • The Real World OCaml book was released in November and is an excellent read. The book is so close to the cutting edge they had features added to September’s 4.01.0 compiler release for them :)

  • OCaml Labs has been around for 12 months, and they’re helping to move the OCaml community forward into practical applications (see the 2013 summary).

  • Ocsigen are investing heavily in js_of_ocaml (among other things) with the next release including an improved optimiser (I can attest to the fact that it’s awesome) and support for FRP through the React library.

Moving forward

Is it perfect? No. Software development is not a one-size-fits-all industry. There are as many articles cursing the limitations of OCaml as there are singing its praises. But in the current market, and with the size of JavaScript applications we are starting to generate, I believe OCaml has a bright future.

… or at least, a quote good enough to make me come out of hiding before I’ve explained why things have been so quiet around here.

John Gruber on the iPhone IDE debacle:

If you are constitutionally opposed to developing for a platform where you’re expected to follow the advice of the platform vendor, the iPhone OS is not the platform for you. It never was. It never will be.

To all the people whinging about this decision by Apple, go away. You can have your fun on Android or some other platform that supports your open development philosophy. If by some fluke Apple wind up with a such a massive majority that you’re forced to come back because all the users are here, don’t expect any sympathy from us. It will have happened because Apple’s restrictions resulted in the most consistent mobile OS experience, and users decided that’s what they want.

iPhone is a closed system, and in my opinion the overall quality of the apps available is better for it. Not that the app store is full of fantastic quality at the moment – you really need an iPod or iPhone to appreciate this, but the store has an amazing amount of crap already.

However I can see the app store really going down the toilet if they let “meta-platform” (as Gruber calls them) apps onto the store. Just look at what happens when people develop cross-platform apps for PC; you either target one primary OS and optimise your UI for it at the expense of the others, or target a general use case and suffer for having a non-native UI. Yes there are exeptions, but they are rare and most of them spend stupid amounts of time implementing multiple native UIs in their cross-platform code.

Gruber has a specific example of this:

Consider, for one example, Amazon’s Kindle clients for iPhone OS and Mac OS X. The iPhone OS Kindle app is excellent, a worthy rival in terms of experience to Apple’s own iBooks. The Mac Kindle app is a turd that doesn’t look, feel, or behave like a real Mac app. The iPhone OS Kindle app is a native iPhone app, written in Cocoa Touch. The Mac Kindle app was produced using the cross-platform Qt toolkit.

Native apps are always better; I don’t use OpenOffice more because the UI pisses me off than because iWork is cheap enough that I don’t mind paying for it. Windows is the same (I can’t stand Apple’s apps ported to Windows with Mac-style keyboard shortcuts). Once you allow cross-platform UIs to enter your computing world, life just isn’t as much fun anymore.

And I want my iPhone to be fun.

[update: A related article with an appropriate quote, this time from MacWorld].

… the develop-once-run-anywhere philosophy is something that makes more sense to bean counters and development-environment vendors than it does to platform owners and discriminating users. In the ’90s we were told that Java apps would be the future of software, because you could write them once and deploy them anywhere. As someone who used to use a Java-based Mac app on an almost daily basis, let me tell you: it was a disaster. Java apps didn’t behave like Mac apps.

Close to 18 months ago, when I first started seriously using that old mac laptop, I decided I needed a way to easily transfer my speakers between the desktop games machine and my mac that I used for everything else. One of my mates at work had an Audigy 2 NX, and after borrowing it for a day to make sure it worked on macs I decided to get one. It wasn’t until I had it that I realised the mac was only giving me 2 channels instead of 5.1 :(

I shrugged and chalked this up to the built-in mac drivers, it was fine under windows with the official creative drivers.

And so it was that when I upgraded to the mac mini, and again with this second mini, that I was stuck with a sound card that wasn’t giving me surround. Most of the time this doesn’t concern me as I usually only listen to stereo sources, but I’d never even considered that it might work (the few references I could find to this device on the net were it only working in stereo on the mac).

Until tonight.

While doing some research for a friend who was interested in USB sound cards, I saw a product review stating that the Zalman USB card does work on macs in full 5.1 surround mode. This piqued my interest so I went searching and stumbled on a list of working sound cards forum post. Right there at the top is the Zalman card, but hang on, what’s that sitting at the bottom under supported 7.1 cards? Why it’s my damn Audigy 2 NX! WTF!

I immediately (and stupidly) installed the package attached to that post, but thankfully I read a bit further down the post before rebooting and realised I didn’t need to. This was a good idea because the package is from 10.4 somewhere and I would almost certainly have been left trying to do a restore from backup. I’ve reverted the kext files that the package installed, hopefully my mac doesn’t die when I reboot it after posting this.

In any case, the answer is Audio MIDI Setup! A program that had always sat in the Utilities folder looking summarily useless but turns out to be the hidden gem that Apple really needs to make more obvious. For those who will no doubt arrive here from google one day, here’s how to enable 5.1 surround sound on a USB sound card:

  1. Select your sound card under the Properties For: dropdown
  2. Select the number of channels under the audio output format
  3. Click Configure Speakers
  4. Select Multichannel
  5. Select the correct number of speakers from the dropdown (only the valid one should be enabled)
  6. You can now assign channels to each speaker, I’m pretty sure the numbers I used are correct although 3/4 and 5/6 might be in the wrong order

Here’s a couple of screenshots with number highlights to make it clear:
Audio Midi Setup
Audio Midi Speaker Setup

Maybe it’s just this sound card, but that’s a ridiculous requirement to get 5.1 surround sound working (and I haven’t actually tested if DVDs will play correctly, only some 6 channel test wavs I found). Wish me luck! ;)

On the plus side, if this does work I will no longer have to worry about surround sound output from my media centre when I buy proper home theatre speakers (the audigy has optical and spdif out). I had been concerned that I would be stuck with stereo output from my Mac forever!

The new Google mobile ActiveSync is working great for my calendars. Syncing iCal to google was pretty easy; I exported my 3 local calendars, cleared out the main Google calendar & created 2 new ones (naming my primary calendar “work” thanks to the stupid Outlook plugin), subscribed to all 3 via CalDav with Calaboration and then imported the data. No worries at all. I can create an event in iCal and 10 seconds later it appears on my phone :D

There was a bit of confusion and duplication after syncing my Outlook calendar at work to Google (Did I mention the plugin’s main-calendar-only restriction is REALLY annoying? How about it’s complete inability to detect duplicates?) but that was pretty easy to clear up.

What I haven’t done is turn on address book syncing with the phone. As I suspected and others have confirmed, turning on ActiveSync for contacts & calendar stops iTunes from doing any sync work with them for the iPhone. Which, since iTunes initiates the contact sync to Google, means that contacts are no longer synced to my desktop.

Both forum posts I’ve just linked to have suggested fixes (particularly if you expand them beyond the accepted answer), but I can see three options personally to sync my contacts:

  • Resurrect the fancy iSync scheduling that I haven’t used since switching to the iPhone (I still use the scheduler, just for some Address Book hackery instead of activating the iSync menu)
  • Don’t drop Plaxo completely as I had planned, but use it to sync between google’s contacts and Address Book
  • Leave over-the-air contact sync disabled and continue with iTunes to Google contact sync

So far option 3 sounds the easiest to me. I don’t need to sync my contacts more than once a day (which is how often I sync with iTunes), over-the-air sync wouldn’t give me all of my contact numbers on the phone anyway, and this way I can completely disconnect from Plaxo.

Not that Plaxo is bad – I’ve really enjoyed the service, including a far better Outlook calendar sync platform than Google’s Outlook plugin provides – but ever since I switched my email to Google I have only used it for the Outlook sync (hotmail contact sync is enabled but I don’t need it anymore). It just doesn’t make sense to continue using it in light of Google’s improved Mac/iPhone sync options.

I’m in the middle of another post and was distracted reading some RSS feeds when I came across this gem. Google now supports ActiveSync for contacts and calendar :D :D

I already sync my contacts and calendar to google but it’s only updated on the phone when I sync it with iTunes. Now I get to experience the joy that is push calendaring!

I’ve held out for a while, but last month reached the point where I need some kind of word processor & spreadsheet software. I use MS Office at work, but have always considered it too expensive for use at home as I don’t need much.

On my Windows box, I had been forcing myself to use Open Office. It worked, but that was about all; I hate the interface, it doesn’t hold a candle to MS Office. It was actually one of the first things I tried when I started using this Mac – and it was an utter mess, barely even able to load.

Office for Mac 2008 didn’t fare much better. I’ve had some exposure to it from the mac users at work, and what I’ve seen is not only yet another Microsoft interface that I would have to puzzle my way around, the memory it used on a decent machine indicated it would absolutely kill this poor little 512mb laptop.

The A$650 price, and reviews like this one from MacInTouch (particularly the memory usage section), sealed that deal.

I decided to put up with nothing, but that didn’t last long. When the need hit last month, a few searches lead me to iWork 08. I’d never looked into it beyond the initial reviews, but thankfully it has a 30 day trial.

I’m now hooked :)

It has taken me a few weeks, but my needs at home are so basic that I’ve quickly adapted to the iWork interface. The only thing that gave me grief is border styling in Numbers, but I think I’m getting the hang of it.

It’s a different and far more basic approach to Office application design, but one that focuses on making document creation easy rather than cramming itself full of features. Fairly typical of Apple software, really ;)

The biggest win, in my eyes, is the memory usage. I still haven’t lost the amazement of running Safari, iTunes and Mail at the same time on 512mb ram without any noticable system lag. Apple have taken the same philosophy with their Office apps, and I couldn’t be happier.

The only time it starts lagging is when I leave Safari + Mail open and run both Pages and Numbers with large documents. Even so, it wasn’t until I upgraded to 2gb ram that my Windows box was happy with that much running.

I just… I’m sold. All this for around 15% of the cost of MS Office.

I think 3 huge posts in the space of a week is enough. It’s not that I had them built up from a month of silence, I’ve just had a lot to say about topics that came up recently :)

And just because I don’t want to make a new post about it, some fun news.

I noticed as I wrote my Awaken post last night that the MacHeist front page had changed to “coming soon”, and this morning I woke up to two new software keys sitting in my inbox! It turns out that the fantastic MacHeist bundle I picked up in April has been re-released with three new apps, and because it’s the same price they managed to extend the deal for existing bundle purchasers. The new apps make it even more of a steal:

  • VectorDesigner (woot I don’t own any OSX graphic tools)
  • TextExpander (read about this on DaringFireball, didn’t want to pay full price)
  • SoundStudio (if it gets unlocked)

The bundle is packed full of useful stuff, particularly for new OS X users. I haven’t tried the new apps yet but out of the others I use them all except for:

  • The games (they’re old and obviously released into the bundle as advertising, Enigmo was one of the games ported to iPhone for the WWDC 08 keynote)
  • iClip (it’s sluggish on 512mb ram)
  • DEVONthink (I’ve been looking for an excuse to use it though)

So by the time I buy a new mac, I’ll be using every app except the games. Even if you’re not a new mac user, for my money there are some very handy tools (CoverSutra, Awaken, XSlimmer, WriteRoom) that don’t have any good free equivalent and would cost more than the $50 bundle price just by themselves. VictorDesigner and SoundStudio are both worth more than the bundle price alone, so if you can make use of either one it becomes a no-brainer.

And to top it all off $12 of your money will go to charity. Pick it up now to help guarantee SoundStudio for everyone :D

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