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Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Flapjax vs Tangle

Functional Reactive Programming (FRP) is a framework to deal with time-varying data in a clean way. It is a combination of beauty of functional programming and dynamics of object oriented programming. The basic principle is easy enough as spreadsheets, however, its vague scope and arcane terminologies keep you from grasping it. It's not quite easy to answer the question such as what makes FRP different from Observer Pattern, Data Flow, etc ??. I think a good way to explain FRP is to compare FRP library against non-FRP library, and I could show you where FRP is special, and pros-and-cons of FRP.

I examined Flapjax as an example of FRP, and took Bred Victor's Tangle as the comparison target. Although Tangle has similar goal of FRP as he wrote "Tangle is a library for creating reactive documents", its implementation is quite different from Flapjax.

Side-effect is hidden inside the framework. Time-varying data is represented by dependent tree, and you can compose those trees to implement a complex behavior.
Tangle provides a simple framework and UI widgets, but the data flow is represented by a normal imperative programming and assignments.

Because of those properties, I think comparing the two libraries is helpful to understand what FRP is. I hope it makes clear idea about FRP in your mind.

Simple Calorie Calculator in Tangle

This is the first example from the Tangle's documentation. You can modify the number of cookies by dragging, and it keeps calculating the calories as you change the value.

When you eat cookies, you will consume calories.

To make this nice reactive document. This document consists with two parts, HTML for the view and javascript for the model.

<p id="tangle"
  When you eat <span data-var="cookies" class="TKAdjustableNumber" data-min="2" data-max="100"> cookies</span>,
  you will consume <span data-var="calories"></span> calories.

The HTML part is straightforward, this is just a normal HTML except special attributes for Tangle. Data-var is used to connect HTML elements to Tangle object's properties. Class name TKAdjustableNumber makes a draggable input control. Data-min and data-max are its parameters.

var element = document.getElementById("tangle");

new Tangle(element, {
  initialize: function () {
    this.cookies = 4;
  update: function () {
    this.calories = this.cookies * 50;

The actual model of the document is described in the second argument of Tangle object's constructor (new Tangle). It consists with just two parts. initialize sets up the initial state, and update is invoked whenever you modify the input value. Tangle connects the model and the HTML element specified by getElementById("tangle").

This initialize-update structure is fairly common among end-user programming language like Processing and Arduino.

Simple Calorie Calculator in Flapjax

Let's move on to Flapjax. Unfortunately, Flapjax doesn't have a nice input widget as Tangle has. Instead, we use a traditional input field. But other than that, the behavior is identical.

When you eat cookies, you will consume calories.

As Tangle, the Flapjax version has HTML part and Javascript part. Note that Flapjax provides "Flapjax Syntax" which allows you to write a simpler notation, but we don't use it because I want to compare those as Javascript libraries.

<p id="flapjax" class="example">
  When you eat <input id="cookies" value="4" /> cookies,
  you will consume <span id="calories"></span> calories.

Flapjax's HTML part is similar as Tangle's. The element identifiers (cookies and calories) are given by id attributes. Unlike Tangle, the initial number of cookies is written in the input field.

var behavior = extractValueB("cookies");
var colories = behavior.liftB(function (n) { return n * 50; });
insertDomB(colories, "calories");

In Flapjax, time-varying data is called behavior. The goal of the program is to make a behavior which always calculates calories of the cookies. It's not so difficult than it seems. ExtractValueB creates a behavior from a form element, in this case, extractvalueB("cookies") tracks every changes happening in the input field named "cookies". This created behavior is processed by the function at the argument of liftB, in this case, whenever you modify "cookies" field, colories represents a value which is always 50 times by the number of cookies.

Eventually, insertDomB insert the content of colories where HTML element "calories" is and the calories are shown on the screen. This element is automatically updated.

Unlike Tangle, there is no side-effect in the program. One advantage of FRP is that you are not confused between old values and new values. In Tangle's example, this.cookies is old value (input) and this.calories is new value (output). But you are free to be mixed up those. In Flapjax, a new value is always the return value of a function, and there is no chance to be mistaken.

Implement Adjustable Number Widget in Flapjax

One of advantages of FRP is its composability. You can make a complicated behavior by combining simple behaviors (occasionally, imperative programming gives you a hard time for debugging if the bug involves with connected program modules with side-effects). To demonstrate this feature, I will show you how to make a Tangle-style draggable widget in Flapjax. This problem is particularly interesting because processing drag and drop involves a state machine, but a state machine is not quite fit with a functional programming style. So you might find pros and cons of FRP clearly from this example.

When you eat cookies, you will consume calories.

The HTML part is almost identical except adjustable class in the input field which points a Tangle like (but not fashionable enough) stylesheet.

<p id="flapjax-drag" class="example">
  When you eat <input id="cookies-drag" value="4" class="adjustable"/> cookies,
  you will consume <span id="calories-drag"></span> calories.

The main Javascript part is also similar as above. But in this time, we are implementing makeAdjustableNumber to make a draggable widget from the element named "cookies-drag".

var element = document.getElementById("cookies-drag");
var behavior = makeAdjustableNumber(element);
var colories = behavior.liftB(function (n) { return n * 50; });
insertDomB(colories, "calories-drag");

A drag gesture consists of three events, mousedown, mousemove, and mouseup. After a mousedown is detected, it has to track mousemove events to know how far you are dragging. You can make such a state machine to construct a higher order event stream. Here are two new concepts. An event stream is similar as behavior, but it is a stream of discrete events instead of continuous values. But you don't have to worry about that. It's just another object which has slightly different API. A higher order event stream is an event stream of event streams. This is used to make a stream which behavior is switched depends on the input.

This mouseDownMove makes a higher order event stream that tracks mousedown and mousemove. extractEventE(element,"mousedown") extracts mousedown event in the element. When the event signaled, the function inside the mapE is evaluated. MapE is similar as liftB but it is only for an event stream. Inside the function, extractEventE(document,"mousemove") find mousemove events and track the distance from mousedown. Note that I used document to find the event because occasionally you drag a mouse to outside the widget.

function mouseDownMove (element) {
  return extractEventE(element,"mousedown").mapE(function(md) {
    var initValue = parseInt(element.value);
    var offset = md.layerX;

    return extractEventE(document,"mousemove").mapE(function(mm) {
      var delta = mm.layerX - offset;
      return Math.max(1, Math.round(delta / 20 + initValue));

We need to handle mouseup event also. The mouseUp function returns a higher order event stream that find mouseUp event and the zeroE happily does nothing.

function mouseUp (element) {
  return extractEventE(document,"mouseup").mapE(function() {
    return zeroE();

And these two event stream make by mouseDownMove and mouseUp are going to be merged by the mouseDownMoveUp function to complete a mousedown, mousemove, and mouseup cycle. MergeE is used to merge two events streams. We need one more step switchE to convert a higher order stream to a nomal stream, in this case, a stream of numbers (distance).

function mouseDownMoveUp(element) {
  var downMoveUp = mouseDownMove(element).mergeE(mouseUp(element));
  return downMoveUp.switchE();

Finally, we connect the event stream into an HTML element. Here I did slightly dirty work. Whenever a drag gesture happens, the element.value attribute is set. Probably using insertDomB to make an output element is cleaner way, but I chose this dirty way to make it simple. At the last line, the event stream is converted to a behavior object by startsWith. And that's how makeAdjustableNumber is implemented.

function makeAdjustableNumber (element) {
  var drag = mouseDownMoveUp(element);
  drag.mapE(function(n) { element.value = n; });
  return drag.startsWith(element.value);

Honestly, Flapjax doesn't seems to be too easy to use. But part of the reasons might be that I chose to show a plain Javascript syntax to introduce the mechanism. Flapjax also provides its own compiler which provides cleaner syntax. This Flapjax syntax should improve readability a lot. Anyway, I hope this short note helps you to grab a brief idea of Flapjax and FRP.


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