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First Impressions: C♯

I will be learning C♯ over the next year or so, and since I am almost a week into learning it, I thought that I would post my first impressions here on this blog.

C♯ is a compiled language developed by Microsoft that looks a little bit javascript, and a little bit like Rust (If you haven't heard of rust yet, I have written up a first impressions post here). Like rust, it has a type system, so you can't set a variable with the type int to a string. This type system is not a confusing, though, since it only has a single type for strings (rust has two - one that you can change and one that you can't) and you can convert between the different types quite easily (e.g. int.Parse() converts a string to an int).

The brackets syntax is almost identical to that of Javascript, except C♯ has classes and namespacees too (I don't really know what those do yet). Indentation also seems to be fairly important, which is perfectly fine by me since it improves the readability of your code.

Looking around on the internet, it seems that C♯ is tied in with Visual Studio quite closely. This might cause problems in the future, because I don't really want ot install visual studio (express) on my computer because of it's file size (the installer alone is > 600MB!). Hopefully I can continue to use the csc C♯ compiler I found in the .NET 4.0 folder on my computer as my code becomes more complex.

All in all C♯ looks like a good introductory language to the world of compiled programming. The syntax is straight forward and easy to understand so far, and it is kind of similar to Javascript, which eases the learning process considerably.

Imaanvas!

Today marks the release of a larger project that I have been doing, called Imaanvas. It has been in the works for months and is meant to be a web based version of a program called MSW Logo, which is now called FMS Logo. It has a few tweaks, though, to make it slightly easier to use. It was orignally written for a year 5 class in a primary school.

It also does not come with all the commands present in Logo, so if you find that a command is missing please comment below and I will try to add it for you as soon as I have some spare time. (You can also write the command yourself, and I can add it that way, but will probaby need the original source code for that - gulp is used to compact the code - send me an email if you want the code)

Immanvas is a horribly complex piece of code - so if you encounter any bugs (which is likely), please either leave a comment below, or send me an email. Remember to be descriptive about the bug that you have found, otherwise I won't be able to track it down and fix it! Also remember that Imaanavs is meant for modern browsers, so if Imaanvas doesn't work in your browser, try upgrading it to it's latest version.

This post is late since essential maintenance work had to be carried out to try and reduce the amount of spam that is being posted.

Rust: First Impressions

You may have heard of Mozilla's Rust - a fairly new language developed by Mozilla for their new rendering engine, Servo. Recently, I took a look at Rust, and this post contains my thoughts.

Please note that I am looking at Rust (a compiled language) from the prespective of an interpreted language programmer, since I have not actually learnt any other compiled languages yet.

To start off with, Rust code appears fairly easy to read, and is loosely based on other languages that I already know, such as Javascript. You can quickly get the gist of a piece of Rust code just by reading it through, even without the comments.

The compiler is easy to use for beginners, and also quite helpful when you make mistakes, although some of the error messages are definitely not friendly to a new Rust programmer. I personally got totally confused by the finer points of Rust's type system, and the compiler was most certainly not helpful when it came to sorting the problems out.

The ability to set a variable equal to the output of a complex expression is also nice - allowing you to do this:

fn main() {
let x = 2u;

let y = match x {
0 => "x is zero!",
1 => "x is one!",
2 => "x is two!",
3 => "x is three!",
4 => "x is four!",
5 => "x is five!",
_ => "x is larger than five!"
};

println!("{}", y);
}

Rust has some nice language constructs too - the match statement above is an example is this. It looks so much better than the traditional switch statement, and is more flexable as well.

The problem with Rust, though, is that it doesn't really have very many different tutorials and guides out there for new programmers, especially those coming from an interpreted language background, like me. This will sort itself out though, in time. The language itself is also changing frequently, which makes keeping a tutorial updated a considerable amount of work. This also make the language more difficult to learn, since you can't be sure whether the tutorial you are reading is up to date or not. This problem will also gradually disappear on it's own as the language stabilises though.

To conclude, Rust looks like a promising new language that I will resume learning at some point in the future, perhaps when I have more experience with compiled languages (and type systems!), and when rust has stabilised a little more. At the moment Rust does not feel stable enough and mature enough for me to easily learn it.

Tutorial: Javascript Promises: There and Back Again in Half the Time

If you are familiar with javascript, the chances are that you have found this post. I found it to be a great introduction to promises in javascript, but I also found the post to be rather long and not good as a reference. This post, however is an attempt to condense the information found in the tutorial from html5rocks (Update! HTML5 Rocks has been turned into the Google Developers Web Fundamentals) into a nice neat package that is not only useful as a tutorial, but also useful as a reference.

The Problem and the Solution

When performing asynchronous tasks in javascript, you usually have to use callbacks and event listeners. This can quickly get unwieldy and difficult to understand. Promises were invented to rectify this problem. They allow you to chain function calls asynchronously - which generally cleans up your code and makes it easier to read:

function get(url)
{
return new Promise(function(resolve, reject) { //important!
var ajax = new XMLHttpRequest();
if(ajax.status >= 200 && ajax.status < 300)
resolve(ajax.response); //return the response
else
reject(ajax.response);
}
});
}

The important bit is the returning of a promise instead of actually performing the action requested. When creating a promise, a function is taken as the only argument. This function is then called with 2 arguments: a function that should be called upon success (usually called resolve()), and a function that should be called upon failure (usually called reject()).

Any number of asynchronous actions can be performed before either resolve() or reject() are called, but I would adivse that you put one async call in each promisified function.

The resolve() and reject() functions take a single argument: the value that should be passed onto the next function in the chain.

and then....

Once a promise has been returned, an API is exposed that allows you to chain functions together in a long string through the function then():

//                         then() adds a function to the chain
//                                        |--------v
get("https://starbeamrainbowlabs.com/humans.txt").then(function(response) {
//we got a response :D
console.info("Got response", response);
}, function(error) {
//something went wrong :(
console.error("Something went wrong:", error);
});

then() takes a pair of functions as it's arguments. The first function is called upon success (and passed the value that was passed to resolve()), and the second (optional) function is called upon failure (and passed the value that was passed to reject()).

Repetition

The best part of javascript promises is the ability to chain then() as many times as you like:

get("https://example.com/urls.txt").then(function(text) {
return text.split("\n");
}).then(function(lines) {
lines.forEach(function(url) {
get(url).then(function(response) {
console.log("got", url, "with text", response);
});
});
});

Infinite chaining

The problem with the above is that lots of ajax calls a being made at once. If you used this in your next big web app, it could bring your server down having all the requests being sent out at once.

There is, however, a solution to this too. We can process each value in an array one at a time using Array.reduce():

get("https://example.com/urls.txt").then(function(text) {
return text.split("\n");
}).then(function(lines) {
lines.reduce(function(sequence, url) {
return squence.then(function() {
return get(url);
}).then(function(response) {
console.info("got", response);
});
}, function() { return new Promise(function(resolve) { resolve(); }); });
});

In this way, a new promise is created that resolves straight away (you can also use the Promise.resolve function is a shortcut here, but some implementations - especially Node.JS based ones - don't support this), and a promise for each url are then tacked onto the end of it. These are then called in a row - once th eprevious ajax request has completed, the next one will be sent. This can also be helpful when you are fetching content from a list of urls and you want them to be kept in order.

Conclusion

Promises are cool - they let you simplify complex asynchronous code. You can chain them with then() as many times as you like - and you can use Array.reduce() to chain calls that iterate over each value in an array.

Terminal Reference Sheet

While browsing my stackedit markdown documents, I found a reference sheet for the linux terminal. While originally posted on novitiate, I thought that it might be of use to someone on this website too. The reference sheet was originally designed for the raspberry pi, but it works for other bash like shells too :)

You can find it below.

Basic Linux Terminal Reference Sheet

Command Function
ls List the contents of the current directory
cd orange Change the current directory to the sub-folder orange
cd .. Change the current directory to the parent folder
cd ~ Change the current directory to your home folder
rm banana.txt Delete the file banana.txt
rmdir pineapple Delete the directory pineapple, but only if it is empty
rm -rf mango Delete the directory mango, even if it has files and folders inside it
mkdir cheese Create a new folder called cheese
mv kiwi.py cake.py Rename kiwi.py to cake.py
cp bread.7z cherry.7z Copy bread.7z to cherry.7z
mv cabbage oranges/tangerines Move the folder cabbage to the folder tangerines inside the folder oranges
sudo command Execute command as the root (administrator) user
sudo apt-get update Update the package list
sudo apt-get upgrade Update the currently installed packages
sudo apt-get install foo Install the package foo
rpi-update Update the Raspberry Pi's firmware1
raspi-config Start the Raspberry Pi configuration utility
nano apple.txt Edit the file apple.txt in the nano command line text editor
exit Exit the terminal
sudo shutdown -h now Shutdown
sudo reboot Restart
top View a list of processes using your CPU most intensively
CTRL + C Keyboard shortcut to exit most programs
CTRL + Z Keyboard shortcut to suspend the currently active process and return focus to the terminal
fg Resume the currently suspended process
jobs Display a list of jobs attached to the current terminal
bg 2 Put the job with the id 2 into the background2
disown 2 Disown the job with the id 2 so that it will not be terminated when the terminal is terminated2
help | less Pipe the output of the command help into the command less, which lets you scroll through large amounts of output with the arrow keys (press q to quit).
cat cakes.log | View the contents ofcakes.log. Tip: add lessto pipe it intoless so that you can browse the file with the arrow keys.
man less Display the manual page about the command less
help less Display some basic help about the command less
ssh pi@192.168.0.3 Connect to the device at the IP 192.168.0.3 with the username pi and start a remote terminal session

2. Note that to specify job #1, you type the command on it's own without the job id.

Behind the Parallax Stars

Unfortunately I have been busy, so I have been unable to write this post up until now. Anyway, welcome to the second technical post on this blog. This time, we will be looking behind the Parallax Stars.

The FPS and rendering time graphs are drawn by a slightly modified version of stats.js, by mrdoob. It's original github repository can be found here, and the slightly modified version can be found here. The modifications I made allow both the FPS graph and the rendering time graphs to be displayed at once.

The interesting code that makes the stars work is found in stars.js. The function is a constructor that returns an containing everything needed to make the stars appear and animate.

this.build = function() {
this.data = [];

for (var i = 0; i < this.number; i++)
{
this.data[i] = new star();
}

if(this.depthsort == true)
{
this.data.sort(depthsort);
}
};
function star()
{
this.z = Math.random()*(0.7) + 0.3;

this.x  = rand(canvas.width);
this.y  = rand(canvas.height);

var r, g;
r = rand(200, 255);
g = rand(200, g - 20);

this.colour = "rgb(" + r + ", " + g + ", " + 0 + ");"

this.speed = this.z * 3;
}

The build() function contains some setup code that populates an array with stars, which are constructed by a different function, star(). Each star is assigned an x, y, and z co-ordinate. The x and y co-ordinates determine it's position on the screen. and the z co-ordinate determines it's size and speed. The stars are also given a colour too. The function rand() is a small utility function I sometimes use for generating random numbers:

// EXAMPLES:
// rand(256) returns a whole number between or equal to 0 and 255
// rand(100,201) returns a whole number between or equal to 100 and 200
// rand() returns a decimal between or equal to 0 and less than 1
function rand()
{
// takes 0-2 arguments (numbers)
var args = arguments, num;
if (args[0] && !args[1]) {
num = Math.floor(Math.random()*(args[0]));
} else if (args[0] && args[1]) {
num = Math.floor(Math.random()*(args[1]-args[0])) + args[0];
} else {
num = Math.random();
}
return num;
}

The array that hold all the stars is also depth sorted before we start and on each frame to keep the stars in order since stars are leaving the screen and new one coming onto the screen on every frame. The standard array .sort() function is used, along with a custom sort function:

function depthsort(a,b) {
if(a.z < b.z)
return -1;
if(a.z > b.z)
return 1;
else
return 0;
}

The updates that happen every frame are split into two different functions. step() deals with incrementing co-ordinates and keeping the depth sorting up to date, and render() takes the current state and renders it on the canvas.

this.step = function() {
for (var i = 0; i < this.data.length - 1; i ++)
{
this.data[i].x += this.data[i].speed;

if(this.data[i].x > canvas.width + this.data[i].radius + 1)
{
this.data[i].x = new star();

if(this.depthsort == true)
{
this.data.sort(depthsort);
}
}
}
}

The this.data array holds all of the stars. For each star, it's x value is incremented by it's speed. If this moves the star off the screen, we replace it with a new star that starts off at the left hand side. The stars are then depth sorted again to keep all the further away stars behind the stars that are (supposed to be) closer to the front.

this.render = function() {
context.clearRect(0, 0, canvas.width, canvas.height);

for (var i = 0; i < this.data.length - 1; i ++)
{
context.globalAlpha = 1;
context.globalCompositeOperation = "destination-out";

context.beginPath();
context.arc(this.data[i].x, this.data[i].y, this.data[i].radius, 0, Math.PI*2, true);
context.closePath();
context.fill();

context.globalAlpha = this.data[i].z;
context.globalCompositeOperation = "source-over";

context.fillStyle = this.data[i].colour;

context.beginPath();
context.arc(this.data[i].x, this.data[i].y, this.data[i].radius, 0, Math.PI*2, true);
context.closePath();
context.fill();
}
}

To start off the rendering, the canvas is cleared. After that, For each star, a hole in the canvas is cleared with the destination-out drawing mode. The reason for this is that the z co-ordinate is also used as an alpha value for each star to make it dimmer the further away it is. This gives a slightly more realistic 3d appearance. After clearing a hole, the drawing mode is rest to the default (source-over), and the alpha and fill colours are set up according to the star's current z co-ordinates and colour respectively. Then the star is drawn. Since when this script was written we did not have a canvas drawing function to draw an ellpise, the context.arc(this.data[i].x, this.data[i].y, this.data[i].radius, 0, Math.PI*2, true); code is used to draw circles via context.beginPath() and context.fill().

Finally, One nice neat update() function is provided that calls render() and step() in sequence:

this.update = function() {
this.render();
this.step();
}

That concludes this technical post! If you have any questions, please post them below and I will try my best to answer them.

Yesterday I tweaked and updated the website. Here are the thing that I changed:

• Finished adding the jigsaw puzzle pieces to the homepage
• Added navigation aid to the top left of website on widescreens
• Moved prism to the new /libraries/ folder
• Added a smooth scrolling script to the navlist in the top left
• Updated the todo list
• Removed spam from blog
• Added extra antispam measure: Not allowing email field to be filled in since it is not currently used yet anyway
• Changed the highlighted selection colour to rgba(54, 0, 255, 0.21)

If you discover any issues while using the website, please leave a comment below. Antispam measures for this blog in particular seem to cause issues - in which case you can send bug reports to bugs at starbeamrainbowlabs dot com.

More changes will be coming in the near future, such as an Atom feed for comments and an email notification system for replies to your comments.

Update: The Atom feed for comments has been created! You can find it over at feed.comments.php.

An Animated GIF Renderer

The online tool I am releasing today is another one of the projects I did a while ago (December 2013 in this case). The difference here is that someone asked me to build it for them. The tool allows you to stich a number of still images into an animated gif.

Having an online version of the tool on a server that I own seems like a good idea (so I can keep it up to date) - so I am releasing it on this site for you to use.

It uses a javascript library called gif.js to render the still images as an animated gif. Please bear in mind that all the rendering is done on your computer! Nothing is uploaded to the server at all. If you refresh the page, everything will be reset.

A description of the options and known issues can be found below. If you just want to skip all that and play around with it for yourself, please follow this link:

Animated GIF Renderer

Options

A description of all the options available can be found below:

Option Description
Repeats The number of repeats. -1 = no repeat, 0 = repeat forever.
Default Delay The default delay each still image should be given when first dragged into the tool. Remember to set this before you drag all your images in to save time!
Frames per second An alternative method of setting the default delay. Simply enter the number of frame you want to show per second.
Workers* The number of threads to use to render the animated gif. For optimum performace enter the number of cpu cores you have. This will speed up the rendering process for large gifs.
Quality* The quality of the resultant gif. In the code this is referred to as the pixel sample interval. I don't really understand this setting myself - if you do, please leave a comment below and I will update both this post and the tool itself.

A '*' indicates an advanced setting.

Known issues

• The 'x' button to remove an image is buggy. - Fixed! A new image removal system has been implemented to fix this bug.
• The size of the rendered gif i snot updated when images are removed - Fixed! The maximum image dimensions are now recalculated when an image is removed.
• Found another bug? Report it below.

Parallax Stars

Since I forgot to post last wednesday, I will post twice this week :)

A while ago I played around with creating a parallax effect with stars on an HTML5 Canvas. After tiding up the original code I wrote a little bit, I have decided to release it in this website. It will not, however do well as a screensaver due to the high CPU / GPU usage it induces because of the inefficiencies in the code.

It can be found here: parallax scrolling stars

I will (hopefully) write a technical post in the near future that will explain how it works, including an explanation behind the high CPU / GPU usage.

A Simpler Way to Generate XML in PHP

In an effort to make XML generation simpler in PHP, I have written another PHP class, called simpexmlwriter.

Much like atom.gen.php, everything you need is all packaged up into one file - simply download and require simplexmlwriter.php and you are ready to start. Links can be found near the bottom of this post.

The same system is in place for contributions and feature requests: post a comment below to either request a feature or link to a modified version of the code and I will consider either merging your changes or adding the feature that you request.

It also has a 'reference' - just like atom.gen.php`. A link can be found near the bottom of this post.

If you are still reading this and you are not interested in code, there will be a few things that you may be interesting in appearing on this website soon.

simplexmlwriter.php

simplexmlwriter.php reference

Art by Mythdael