And... Action! (Part 3, 19 Sep 2009)

In part 2 of the series, I broke the news that so-called action routines (such as extrude) violate Common Lisp evaluation rules in CoCreate Modeling. Which should cause any Lisp aficionado out there to frown; after all, the evaluator is central to any Lisp implementation, and largely determines the nature of a Lisp system. There is a reason why the Lisp-1 vs. Lisp-2 debate has been raging for decades!

So why did CoCreate Modeling insurrect against the Common Lisp standard? Did we have an issue with authorities, did we want to stage a publicity stunt, or were we just a bunch of imbecile script kiddies who didn't know any better?

Nothing of that kind. Instead, I put the blame on having too many users of a successful predecessor product big grin

Let me explain.

In the 80s, our 2D CAD application ME10 (now: CoCreate Drafting) had become extremely popular in the mechanical engineering market. ME10's built-in macro language was a big success factor. Users and CAD administrators counted on it to configure their local installations, and partners wrote macro-based extensions to add new functionality - a software ecosystem evolved.

A typical macro-language command looked like this:


Users didn't have to type in the full command, actually. They could start by typing in LINE and hitting the ENTER key. The command would prompt for more input and provide hints in the UI on what to do next, such as selecting the kind of line to be drawn, or picking points in the 2D viewport (the drawing canvas). The example above also illustrates that commands such as LINE RECTANGLE could loop, i.e. you could create an arbitrary amount of rectangles; hence the need to explicitly END the command.

Essentially, each of the commands in ME10 was a domain-specific mini-language, interpreted by a simple state machine.

The original architects of SolidDesigner (now known as CoCreate Modeling) chose Lisp as the new extension and customization language, but they also wanted to help users with migration to the new product. Note, however, how decidedly un-Lispy ME10's macro language actually was:

  1. In Lisp, there is no way to enter just the first few parts of a "command"; users always have to provide all parameters of a function.
  2. Lisp functions don't prompt.
  3. Note the uncanny lack of parentheses in the macro example above.

But then, we all know how malleable a language Lisp is. All of the problems above could be solved by a fairly simple extension with the following characteristics:

  • Define a special class of function symbols which represent commands (example: extrude).
  • Those special symbols are immediately evaluated anywhere they appear in the input, i.e. it doesn't matter whether they appear inside or outside of a form. This takes care of issue #3 above, as you no longer have to enclose extrude commands in parentheses.
  • Evaluation for the special symbols means: Run the function code associated with the symbol. Just like in ME10, this function code (which we christened action routine) implements a state machine prompting for and processing user input. This addresses issues #1 and #2.

These days, you would probably use something like define-symbol-macro. Back then, the Common Lisp standard had not been finalized and our Lisp implementation did not provide define-symbol-macro yet. And thus, CoCreate Modeling's Lisp evaluator extensions were born.

To be continued...

Noch freie Kegeltermine! (19 Sep 2009)

Zu essen gab es in jenem Restaurant kroatisch-serbisch-italienisch-schwäbisches Crossover, und für Unterhaltung war auch gesorgt:


And... Action! (Part 2, 08 Sep 2009)

You may have guessed it: The whole set_pers_context business in the first part of this mini-series was actually a red herring. I promise I won't mislead you this time - and I'll even reveal the reason why the series is titled "And...Action!"

No, we don't need contrived constructs like (print extrude) to show that extrude is somehow... different from all the other kids. All we need is a simple experiment.

First, enter extrude in CoCreate Modeling's user input line: The Extrude dialog unfolds in all its glory, and patiently awaits your input.

Now try the same with print: All you get is an uncooperative "Lisp error: The variable PRINT is unbound". How disappointing.

But then, the behavior for print is expected, considering the usual evaluation rules for Common Lisp, particularly for symbols. As a quick reminder:

  • If the symbol refers to a variable, the value of the variable is returned.
  • If the symbol refers to a function and occurs in the first position of a list, the function is executed.

extrude & friends belong to the symbol jet-set in CoCreate Modeling. For them, the usual evaluation rules for functions don't apply (pun intended). Using symbol properties as markers, they carry a backstage pass and can party anywhere. For members of the extrude posse, it doesn't really matter if you use them as an atom, in the first position of a list, or anywhere else: In all cases, the function which they refer to will be executed right away - by virtue of an extension to the evaluator which is unique to CoCreate Modeling's implementation of Common Lisp.

You can create such upper-class symbols yourself - using a macro called defaction. This macro is also unique to CoCreate Modeling. Functions defined by defaction are called, you guessed it, action routines.

But why, you ask, would I want such a feature, particularly if I know that it breaks with established conventions for Lisp evaluation?

Well, precisely because this feature breaks with the established rules.

To be continued...

10 on Monday, 100 on Wednesday (02 Sep 2009)

Yesterday, Opera 10 was released, with a lot of interesting features, and so I hit the "Check for Updates" button in my (admittedly really old) v9.01 installation of Opera.

Seems like I should have upgraded immediately after the press release was out, and that by waiting another day I missed a whole slew of additional releases:


Now, that's rapid development! big grin

PS: Yes, I know, this is old hat, but the message still gave me a good chuckle wink

"This software will crash Real Soon Now™. Promise!" (02 Sep 2009)


One of the more, uhm, challenging customer suggestions I ever had to deal with was a bug report which requested that CoCreate Modeling should somehow - in Nostradamus fashion- sense that it was about to crash at some point in the near future.

Yes, that's right; CoCreate Modeling was supposed to alert the user before an actual crash was about to happen - by applying rocket-science dynamic program analysis and prediction techniques, sacrificing chicken and roasting them on Intel CPUs, or by having programmers dance naked around bonfires of compiler manuals. Whatever it would take.

No doubt that such a feature would be highly valuable. Imagine working on a model for several hours, and then you drive the application into a crash, and both the application and your model data disappear forever. If you could predict the crash, you'd save everybody a whole lot of time and money. Oh, and with such code, you'd always win the lottery, too. How convenient big grin

Fortunately, CoCreate Modeling has always had pretty elaborate crash handling mechanisms. Whenever an unexpected exception occurs, a top-level crash handler catches it, pops up a message describing the problem, causes the current operation to be undone, restores the 3D model to a (hopefully) consistent state, and returns the user to the interactive top-level loop so that s/he can save the model before restarting.

Over time, we taught our crash handler to deal with more and more critical situations. (Catching stack overflows and multithreading scenarios are particularly tricky.) Hence, users rarely lose data in CoCreate Modeling even if some piece of code crashes. Which pretty much obviates the need for the proposed clairvoyance module.

How to Detect Mergers & Acquisitions in Code (01 Sep 2009)


Let’s suppose you had written this test case for low-level DDE communication in your product, and that this test talks to Internet Explorer via DDE.

Let’s assume you’d do this by sending a URL to IE via DDE, and that you’d then verify the result by asking IE which page it actually loaded.

Let’s say that you’d use the URL of your company’s website,

The day your QA people start yelling at you because the test fails miserably, you know that your company has been acquired, and that all accesses to have been automatically redirected to wink

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