The Intellectual Wilderness There is nothing more useless than doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.

2020.12.26 16:19

Erlang: Writing a Tetris clone Part 3 – Gameplay rules, final features and deployment

Filed under: Computing,Games — Tags: , , , , , — zxq9 @ 16:19

The third video in this series moves on with implementation of gameplay rules, scoring, the “next” preview window and packaging and deploying the game using ZX as a shortcut.

Writing this is a lot of fun. As of this video the game part is finished, but there are a few things such as high score recording and maybe some network features that have not been implemented. I might make a fourth video that covers these but it might be more interesting to move on with another example to demonstrate techniques to accomplish similar tasks.

Quite a few details that were noticed and mentioned in the first two videos have been updated in the course of completing the code for this video, so it may be interesting to check the commit history if you’ve been following along.

As always, have fun making stuff!

2020.12.19 17:16

Erlang: Writing a Tetris clone Part 2 – Gameplay mechanics

Last night I was able to make the second video in my series about implementing a Tetris clone in Erlang. Yay!

In this video I start where I left off in the first video where I had ended with a data abstraction to represent the play field (called the “well” in Tetris lingo), a data abstraction for the game pieces, some colored sprites to draw the game board with, and a GUI that could draw a game board and a single random piece every time it was opened as well as print to stdout any key press events that I made.

Oh but by the way…

I have a small confession to make — I didn’t actually start where I left off. I mentioned the stopping point (the “Draw the board with a random piece on it” commit), then I mentioned the next thing I did which was implement basic movement (the “Basic (unsafe) movement” commit), then I completely blew past it and never explained the way I implemented unsafe movement in the first place. The trouble with having skipped that is that I had intended to discuss how keystroke capture actually works, where it is in the GUI code, and follow the event through the system so that people could get that idea into their head earlier than later because it is so basic to making a game!

So instead I’ll explain how that works and point out where it is in the code here in this post and cover it at the beginning of the third video.

Getting Input

If we look at the “Basic (unsafe) movement” commit there is a file called ertltris/src/et_gui.erl that is the code for the GUI process. In the init/1 function we see the wx server get started, a “frame” is created (the main window in wx parlance), some various widget elements and things are all established and on line 112 we see this:

ok = wxPanel:connect(Frame, char_hook),

This is connecting the Frame to a window manager event called char_hook. I do mention this in the video, but it is important to point this out here. I should also point out that I’m mistakenly calling wxPanel:connect/2 instead of wxFrame:connect/2 — which is technically incorrect, but due to the nature of the underlying inheritance among the C++ classes that make up wx and the way that’s all masked in the generated library wrappers that make up wxErlang, it actually doesn’t cause any errors. wxPanel and wxFrame are all ancestors of wxEventHandler.

Anyway… what connecting to this event does is tells wx that whenever the frame is the focus it should relay keystroke events to the program. Inside Erlang they arrive as messages that carry a #wx{} record that includes an event element that carries another record that provides all the relevant information about the event. You can receive these in the handle_event/2 callback function of wx_object. Pretty nice. This means you can deal with GUI events in very much the same way you can handle network events as well as inter-process messages within the Erlang runtime: everything is a message.

IDIOMS IDIOMS IDIOMS!

As I often say: Develop idioms.

A common idiom I use in wxErlang code is to match on an event type in handle_event/2, assign any relevant event data to variables, and then within a case inside the handle_event clause that matched that event type determine where we want to dispatch the event (if at all). You can see a very clear example of this on lines 191-203 of this commit.

handle_event(#wx{event = #wxKey{keyCode = Code}}, State = #s{frame = Frame}) ->
    ok =
        case Code of
             32 -> et_con:random_piece();
             88 -> et_con:rotate(l);
             90 -> et_con:rotate(r);
            314 -> et_con:move(l);
            315 -> et_con:rotate(r);
            316 -> et_con:move(r);
            317 -> et_con:move(d);
            _  -> tell("KeyCode: ~p", [Code])
        end,
    {noreply, State};

I could have made each one of those dispatch decisions inside the function head instead of using a case statement within a clause, but I find it much easier to read this particular style where we open a very compact dispatch span per event type we’re looking for than have a ton of handle_event clauses. In complex GUI applications you can wind up with a lot of special keystroke events and it becomes super cumbersome to match them all as function heads. Not just writing the function heads, but trying to find a specific event gets kind of messy because the code starts looking so scrambled.

Each of the different key codes matched in the dispatching part of that function correspond to some gameplay event. Note that the GUI doesn’t really care what the status of the game is at all, it just cares that it is relaying the mapped commands to the game control process and then carries on doing GUI stuff.

This is important to point out: Nearly all communication between the controller and the GUI is asynchronous. You almost never want blocking calls to pass between them. There may be a need for a blocking call in some special code, but this is almost always a bad idea.

Buh bye!

That pretty much sums up what I wanted to cover that I forgot to mention in the video. Input handling is really important. If you want to jump ahead, check out the way the handle_event/2 function evolved in the latest commits to see how menu commands are intercepted, or go check out the handle_event/2 function in the Erlang Minesweeper clone!

Don’t forget to give me all the delicious likes and stars and channel subs! BWAHAHA! I’ll catch you magnificent nerds in the next video!

2020.12.15 17:16

Erlang: Writing a Tetris clone Part 1 – Data types and basic GUI display

Over the last few days I wrote an Erlang implementation of the classic puzzle game Tetris and decided to do a few videos to explain how it works and why. This is part one of a three-part series.

  1. Data types and basic GUI display [this page]
  2. Gameplay mechanics
  3. Gameplay rules, final features, and deployment

This first video covers how I started the project (cheating using ZX to template a GUI project for me, of course), what data types I thought I would probably need from the outset (the game board and the game pieces), and my initial stab at getting pixels on the screen in a reasonably pretty way.

The videos roughly trace the commit history of the project as I developed it, with this first video covering the first 3 commits which get me from a GUI project template to displaying the game board and drawing a random piece in it each time I start the program (as well as catching keystrokes so I can examine what their values are).

2020.11.25 14:12

Erlang: FizzBuzz in Python vs Erlang — a discussion about conditionals

Filed under: Computing — Tags: , , , , , — zxq9 @ 14:12

I’ve had a few discussions with beginners over the last few months that often come to center around not really understanding the conditional branching constructs in Erlang, so I decided to do a video on it using “FizzBuzz” as the central example.

The traditional if/else if/else boolean paradigm is quite different from Erlang’s concept of matching and guards in case and function head matches and an if construct that is really more appropriate for range checks than general boolean branching. Hopefully I was able to explain at least a little bit about why Erlang’s matching and guards are a much more flexible method for writing conditionals once you grow accustomed to thinking in these terms.

2020.11.22 19:20

Erlang: Building a Telnet Chat Server from Scratch Using ZX

Filed under: Computing — Tags: , , , , , , , — zxq9 @ 19:20

A few weeks ago I made a two-part video discussion about building a telnet chat server from scratch using ZX and forgot to post any prose reference to it. (Most people are following my blog RSS, not my (extremely tiny) video channels.)

The resulting project is called “Trash Talk” and it has a repo on GitLab here. The license is MIT and is quite simple to hack around on, so have fun.

Part 1

The first video is a bit slower paced than the second. I cover:

  • What ZX templates when you do zx create project and select the “Traditional Erlang Application” project option
  • How everything fits together and works
  • Discussion about why things are structured the way they are in OTP applications
  • Demonstrate a little bit of command implementation in the telnet server (mostly to show where in the code you would do that).

This video is a lot less exciting than the second one because there aren’t a lot of jazzy features demonstrated, but it is probably the one you want to watch once now if you’re new to Erlang and a second time a few weeks later once you’ve written a few projects and stubbed your toes a few times (a second viewing brings different insights, not because the video changes but because you change through your experiences).

Part 2

The second video is the more fun one because the initial explanation that covers the critical question of “Why does anything do anything?” has already been covered in the first one, and while you might find the first video interesting, it isn’t as exciting as this second one where you get to see features that do stuff that might be more relevant to problems you have in your real-world projects get implemented. In this one I cover:

  • Checking the state of the running system using observer
  • The difference between zx and zxh when running your code in development
  • The “Service ⇒ Worker Pattern” (aka “SWP”) and how ZX can help you drop one in via zx template swp
  • One way to implement text commands in a structured way, with categories of commands indicated by prefixes (this seems elementary and very IRC-ish at first, but in command protocols a direct parallel of this often happens at the byte level — so think on that)
  • How to separate the “clients” concept as a service from the “channels” concept as a service, and discuss how that idea extends to much more complex systems
  • A bit more useful version of a “service manager” process in the form of the chan_man
  • And much much more! (advertising people from the 1980’s tell me I should always say that instead of “etc.”)

These aren’t super jazzy, but they get the job done. Hopefully they give some new Erlanger out there a leg-up on the problem of going from a “Hello, World!” escript to a proper OTP application.

2020.09.25 10:48

Excerpts from Chat: Discovering Structure and Grokking the True Nature of a Problem

This is an excerpt from a private chat with someone about code and I think it expresses something universal about programming, mathematics and engineering or any discipline where iterative development is necessary to manage complexity and discover simplicity.

…about a bit of code where I haven’t quite grasped what needs to happen, or the core essence of what problem the computer is actually solving for me (because this is sometimes distinct from the real world or abstract world where the problem really exists) — and so my code is convoluted and annoying and I can’t figure out how to untangle it without lots of extra complexity.

And then one day I make a change to the way the data is represented (it usually manifests with a data representation change, not always, but usually) and I refactor the code to accommodate that and… VOILA! It just sorts itself out and I find all these ways to simplify and it all makes so much sense.

That kind of code, especially if it is functional, is sort of annoying for people to read sometimes. They look at the code and see this elegant solution that tightly represents the program in a novel way and think “Ah, this is great. I should learn FP!” and then when they themselves tackle a difficult problem they don’t understand the nature of and start writing their own ball of mud they go back and look at that elegant, ideal example that inspired their current task and suddenly feel like a child looking up at the roof of the Sistine Chapel wondering how the hell Michelangelo managed to paint all that with a 12-meter-long paint brush.

They’ve never seen or imagined all the scaffolding that was once in place.

— Me, just now

I am quoting myself above, but it doesn’t really matter who wrote it. This expression came out well and I thought it was worth saving somewhere the world can see it (still following Joe Armstrong’s admonishment that I should publish and share too much and let search engines and individuals sort things out).

2020.09.23 17:57

Erlang: [video] The GUI experience on Windows with ZX and Vapor

Filed under: Computing — Tags: , , , , , , , — zxq9 @ 17:57

I’ve written and spoken a bit about how ZX makes it easy to create, distribute and launch templated GUI projects in Erlang. I also showed how the (still ugly) GUI program launcher Vapor can make it easy for non-technical desktop users to use those programs.

So far I’ve been doing my examples on Linux where everything works in a familiar way and the terrain is fairly well known to us as developers, so in this video I want to show a bit about how things feel to Windows users who run client-side Erlang via Vapor using the standard Erlang runtime installation provided by Erlang Solutions and point out a few things that I find significant or can be improved in the experience.

If you have any insights into the issues highlighted in the video or have ideas about cross platform client development in general please let me know!

2020.09.22 14:23

Erlang: [Video redo!] Creating and running GUI apps with ZX

Filed under: Computing — Tags: , , , , , — zxq9 @ 14:23

I had a little bit of time to re-make a video on how to use ZX to create GUI applications. Hopefully the video demonstrates the basic use case well enough to make the purpose of the tool itself obvious.

2020.09.20 21:01

Erlang: [Video] Creating and running GUI apps with ZX

Filed under: Computing — Tags: , , , , , , , , — zxq9 @ 21:01

I had a little bit of time to make a video on how to use ZX to create GUI applications, but not enough time to do any post processing. Hopefully the video demonstrates the basic use case well enough to make the purpose of the tool itself obvious. (The audio isn’t great — hopefully I’ll have to either go back and dress that up a bit or make a better version of this video.)

2020.09.11 16:05

Hardware Development VS Software Development Budget Allocation

Filed under: Computing — Tags: , , , , , , — zxq9 @ 16:05

It is funny to me that hardware engineers are able to test the bejeezus out of essentially solved problems like how many keypresses a keyboard can take before mean operations to failure and document every minute aspect of their development, but software developers are pretty much prohibited from being given the time to document code.

In fact, it strikes me that hardware engineers’ actual job is to produce a specification from which hardware can be built, nearly always by people other than the engineers developing the product. That is to say, the product of the engineers’ labor is documentation.

The software developers, on the other hand, have the ability to document their product in coordination with its development, but are almost always forbidden from taking the time to do so, despite that documentation effort costing far less than the process hardware manufacturers have to go through to tool up a production line for a physical product.

This is a pretty insane state of affairs. If I could only show the public some of the chewed-to-crap, undocumented, wazoo code I’ve seen in production on closed source projects…

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