Critical Development

Language design, framework development, UI design, robotics and more.

Archive for September, 2010

The Archetype Language (Part 7)

Posted by Dan Vanderboom on September 27, 2010


This is part of a continuing series of articles about a new .NET language under development called Archetype.  Archetype is a C-style (curly brace) functional, object-oriented (class-based), metaprogramming-capable language with features and syntax borrowed from many languages, as well as some new constructs.  A major design goal is to succinctly and elegantly implement common patterns that normally require a lot of boilerplate code which can be difficult, error-prone, or just plain onerous to write.

You can follow the news and progress on the Archetype compiler on twitter @archetypelang.

Links to the individual articles:

Part 1 – Properties and fields, function syntax, the me keyword

Part 2 – Start function, named and anonymous delegates, delegate duck typing, bindable properties, composite bindings, binding expressions, namespace imports, string concatenation

Part 3 – Exception handling, local variable definition, namespace imports, aliases, iteration (loop, fork-join, while, unless), calling functions and delegates asynchronously, messages

Part 4 – Conditional selection (if), pattern matching, regular expression literals, agents, classes and traits

Part 5 – Type extensions, custom control structures

Part 6 – If expressions, enumerations, nullable types, tuples, streams, list comprehensions, subrange types, type constraint expressions

Part 7 Semantic density, operator overloading, custom operators

Part 8 – Constructors, declarative Archetype: the initializer body

Part 9 – Params & fluent syntax, safe navigation operator, null coalescing operators

Conceptual articles about language design and development tools:

Language Design: Complexity, Extensibility, and Intention

Reimagining the IDE

Better Tool Support for .NET

Semantic Density

As an avid reader growing up, I noticed that my knowledge and understanding of a topic grew more easily the faster I read.  Instead of going through a chapter every day or two, which puts weeks or months between the front and back covers, I devoured 200-300 pages in a night, getting through the largest books in a couple days.  And in reading multiple books on a subject back-to-back, it was easier to find relationships and tie together concepts for things that were still so fresh in my memory.

In my study of linguistics, I learned that legends like Noam Chomsky could learn hundreds of langauges; the previous librarian at the Vatican could read 97.  Bodmer’s excellent book The Loom of Language attempts to teach 10 languages at once, and it seems that the more languages you learn, the easier it is to pick up others.

What these examples have in common is semantic density.  It might seem from what I’ve said that this would be like drinking from a firehose which only the most gifted could endure, but I would argue that intensely-focused learning puts our minds in a highly alert and receptive condition.  In such a state, being able to draw more connections between statements and ideas, we are better able to comprehend the whole in a holistic, intuitive way.

Code Example

Semantic density is important in code, too.  With a pattern like INotifyPropertyChanged, formatted as I have it below, it’s 12 lines of code, 13 if you separate your fields and properties with a blank line, but in the ballpark of a dozen lines of code.  (This is additional explanation for a feature described in part 2 of this series.)

1:   string _Display;
2:   public string Display
3:   {
4:       get { return _Display; }
7:           _Display = value;
9:           if (PropertyChanged != null)
10:              PropertyChanged(this, new PropertyChangedEventArgs("Display"));
11:      }
12:  }

Does the ability to inform external code of changes seem like it should take a dozen lines to get there?  This can be somewhat compressed by defining a SetProperty method:

1:   string _Display;
2:   public string Display
3:   {
4:       get { return _Display; }
5:       set { SetProperty("Display", ref _Display, value); }
6:   }

This chops the line count in half, bringing it down to six lines–seven if you include a space above or below to separate it from other members.  On my monitor, that means I can see about eight property definitions at a time.  Now that’s usually enough, but I’ve written a few custom controls  that have upwards of 30 properties.  For a new pair of eyes, getting the gist of that class is going to involve a lot of scrolling, never seeing more than a small slice at a time of a much large picture.  The frame of time I mentioned earlier in regard to studying a subject is analogous here to the frame of space.  Seeing 20% of a class at any time lends itself to faster grokking than seeing a 2% sliver at a time.  Our minds, marvelous as they are, do have limits.  Lowering semantic density, such as by spreading meaning over large distances or time spans, makes us work harder to accomplish the same task, trying to put all the pieces together, and the differences are often dramatic.

Just as nouns can be modified by adjectives in natural languages, types in Archetype support user-defined type modifiers.  By defining a new type modifier called bindable to encapsulate the INotifyPropertyChanged pattern, we can collapse the above example into a single line:

1:   Age bindable int;


I have no problem stacking these properties right on top of one another.  Although expressed in a highly dense form, it’s actually easier to understand at a glance in these three simple tokens than in the half-dozen lines above, which beg for interpretation to assemble their meaning.  Even if we have 30 of these, they’d all fit on one screen, and the purpose of the class as a whole is quickly gathered.


One thing I noticed in developing the animation library Animate.NET is how much code I saved: not having to worry about the details of storyboard creation, key frames, and so on.  It allows you to get right to the point of stating your intention.  Often a library like this is enough, but once in a while language extensibility is a much better approach; and when it is, not having the option can be painful and time consuming.


Custom Operators & Operator Overloading

As in most languages, Archetype supports two forms of syntax for operations: functions and operators.  Functions are invoked by including a pair of parentheses after their name that contain any arguments to pass in, whereas operators appear adjacent to or between sub-expressions. 

In C#, some operators are available for overloading.  Archetype supports these operator overloads by using the same names for them.  This allows Archetype to use operators defined in C# and to expose supported operators to C# consumers.

However, Archetype goes one step further and allows you to define custom operators.  There are three basic kinds of custom operator:

  1. unary prefix
  2. unary suffix
  3. binary

If we wanted an easy way to duplicate strings in C#, we might define an extension method called Dup, but in Archetype we also have this option:

// "ABC" dup 3 == "ABCABCABC"

binary dup string (left string, right int)

return string.Repeat(left, right)

The expression parser sees “ABC”, identifies it as a string value, and then looks at the next token.  If the dot operator were found (.), it would look for a member of string or an extension member on string, but because the next token isn’t the dot operator, it looks up the token in the operator table.  An operator called dup is defined with a left string argument and a right int argument, matching the expression.  If the operator were more complicated, it would have a curly-brace code block, but because it’s a single return statement, that’s optional.

Archetype operators aren’t limited to letters, though.  We can also use symbols (but not numbers) in our operator names.  Here’s a “long forward arrow” (compiled with name DashDashGreaterThan) that allows us to write a single function parameter before the function name itself:

// "Hey" –> Console.WriteLine;

binary<T> –> void (left T, right Action<T>)


Note that the generic type parameter is attached to the binary keyword.  I arrived at this placement through much experimentation.  Names like –><T> are difficult to read and can be trickier to parse.

There is a special binary operator called adjacent which you can think of as an “invisible operator” capable of inserting an operation between two sub-expressions.  In the following example, two adjacent strings are interpreted as a concatenation of the two.

// "123" "45" == "12345"

binary adjacent string (left string, right string)

return left + right;

With custom operators, what was originally part of the language can now be defined in a library instead.  This greatly simplifies the language.  Just as methods can be shadowed to override them, so too will some ability be needed in Archetype to block or override operators that would otherwise be imported along with a namespace.

The next operator we’ll look at is the unary suffix.  The example consists of units of time: minutes and seconds.

// 12 minutes == TimeSpan.FromMinutes(12)

unary suffix minutes TimeSpan (short, int)

return TimeSpan.FromMinutes((int)value);


// 3 seconds == TimeSpan.FromSeconds(3)

unary suffix seconds TimeSpan (short, int)

return TimeSpan.FromSeconds((int)value);

With support for extension properties, we could have also said 12.minutes or 3.seconds, which is already better than C#’s 12.minutes() and 3.seconds(), but by defining these tokens as unary suffix operators, we can eliminate even the dot operator and make it that much more fluent and natural to type (without losing any syntactic precision).  Notice how a list of types is provided instead of a parameter list.  Unary operators by definition have only a single argument, but we often want them to operate on several different types.

Here’s a floating point operator for seconds.

// 2.5 seconds == (2 seconds).Add(0.5 * 1000 milliseconds)

// WholeNumber and Fraction are extension properties on float, double, and decimal

unary suffix seconds TimeSpan (float, double, decimal)

return value.WholeNumber seconds + value.Fraction * 1000 milliseconds;

We can use the adjacent operator on TimeSpans the same that we did for strings above.

// 4 minutes 10 seconds == (4 minutes).Add(10 seconds)

binary adjacent TimeSpan (left TimeSpan, right TimeSpan)

return left.Add(right);

Now let’s combine the use of a few of these operators into a single example.

alias min = minutes;

alias s = seconds;

var later = DateTime.Now + 2 min 15 s;

// Schedule is an extension method on DateTime



// schedule this to run later


We can also define our DateTime without assigning its value to a variable.

(DateTime.Now + 10 seconds).Schedule




(DateTime.Now + 10 seconds).Schedule (Repeat=10 seconds)



Repeat is an optional parameter of Schedule, defaulting to TimeSpan.Zero, meaning “don’t repeat”.

Additional Notes

When more than one operator is valid in a given position, the most specific operator (in terms of its parameter types) is used.  If there’s any ambiguity or overlap remaining, a compiler error is issued.

Unary operators will take precedence over binary operators, but it hasn’t been determined yet what precedence either one will actually have in relation to all of the other operators, or whether this will be specified in the operator definition.

Because of this design for custom operators, I’ve been able to remove things from the language itself and include them as operator definitions in a library.


This article provided some deeper explanation into previously covered material and introduced the syntax for Archetype’s very powerful custom operator declaration syntax.  The next article will cover some special operators built into Archetype, and property path syntax which is something I came up with a while back to safely reference identifiers that would be impervious to both refactoring and obfuscation.

I’m curious to read your feedback on custom operators in particular, so keep the great comments coming!

Posted in Archetype Language, Composability, Data Structures, Design Patterns, Language Innovation | 1 Comment »

Fun with the .NET Micro Framework & the FEZ Mini Robot

Posted by Dan Vanderboom on September 24, 2010

Microcontrollers can drive anything from watches and tiny MP3 players to industrial control systems and sophisticated robotics, so the opportunity to write C# .NET code on a small and cheap microcontroller is very exciting.  In April 2008 I wrote an article comparing the .NET Micro Framework to Robotics Development Studio (RDS), since they are both used for driving robotics applications.  RDS requires at least the Compact Framework, which in turn requires Windows CE hardware, which is a good deal more power-hungry and more expensive than tiny microcontrollers that can cost as little as a few dollars each (in bulk, developer kits go for $35 and up).

You may have heard of the popular Linux-based Arduino microcontroller prototyping boards.  These boards have standard ports for plugging in other boards (called shields) for adding functionality such as motor and servo controllers, sensor input expansions, radio communications, and much more.  These are really cool boards, but being a spoiled .NET developer myself, I haven’t been strongly motivated to program without my beloved Visual Studio tools, and hitting the steep learning curve of Linux development just never happens during the little free time that I have.

Fortunately, there are now some .NET Micro Framework boards that are Arduino board compatible, providing you the comfort of .NET development with the ability to use any of the Arduino-compatible boards that are out there.  Netduino is a popular, low-cost ($34.95), open source option that makes it easy for any .NET developer to get started.  Another great Arduino-compatible option is the FEZ Domino board from  It’s more expensive than the Netduino ($74.95), but also more powerful.

I’m also a big fan of Phidgets boards, which are USB and therefore very easily extensible for those unfamiliar with the various microcontroller communication standards.  I wrote an article on Phidgets Robotics Programming where I built a pan-tilt camera system controlled by a Wii remote.

Since I enjoy working with robotics applications so much, I decided to try out the FEZ Mini Robot Kit for $149.95.  This is a great kit for beginners as it includes all the tools necessary and can be assembled within 15-20 minutes.  It uses the FEZ Mini board (included with the kit) which is an astonishing 1.1” x 1.9” tiny.  When not being used in the robot, it would be ideal for my own custom MP3 player as well.

Fez Mini

The robot kit instructions are a bit rough: lots of pretty bad spelling and grammar errors, but the assembly instructions are easy enough to follow.  The worst part is the code.  Getting the various sensors, motors, and other things to work properly requires that you download individual C# files from all over their website: the reflective sensor code is found on their reflective sensor product page, and so on.  Stitching this all together and correcting mistakes took me a while.  It’s also evident that the folks writing this code are not fluent C# developers.  By the look and feel of things, they’re probably used to low-level assembly and unmanaged C development.

To save you some pain and discomfort, I’ve gone ahead and rewritten all of the drivers for all the components involved, and have reorganized it from the perspective of someone who’s been writing business applications in C# since .NET 1.0.  I’ve reshaped the API to look and feel a lot more natural to those unfamiliar with the gory details of pulse width modulation (PWM) and similar protocols.  And instead of delivering individual code files scattered across a website, I’ve packaged them all in one place as a Visual Studio 2010 solution, which you can download here:

FEZ Mini Robot – Visual Studio Solution

Have fun developing!

Here’s the robot in action:

Posted in Micro Framework, Mobile Devices, Robotics | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

OneNote to Live Writer: Copying Text and Graphics

Posted by Dan Vanderboom on September 18, 2010

Blogging Blues

I’ve been using Microsoft Live Writer since shoftly after starting my blog in 2007.  I can’t call it awesome by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s the least painful option that I’ve found so far.  Having to paste images of screenshots of code, and having to change multiple image properties on different property pages for every single screenshot I paste into an article is grueling, as is having to dig through menus just to change font size or color.  The newer versions have a nice ribbon control which exposes font settings, but the auto-update feature didn’t work on the version I was using, so I was using an old version for way too long.

Upon upgrading to the 2011 beta of Live Writer, I noticed I could no longer paste an image into a post by using the familiar Control-V.  Just as I was about to give up on Live Writer altogether, someone pointed me to Clipboard Live, which allows you to paste images once again, however by pressing a button on one of the ribbon menu pages instead of the more familiar Control-V paste command.

I work in OneNote quite a bit to take notes, and especially when working on language design for Archetype, since OneNote makes formatting and colorizing code fairly easy.  But getting that formatted text from OneNote to Live Writer is another story.

I decided to experiment a little.  Copying and pasting from OneNote to Live Writer stripped all of the color and formatting away, but going from OneNote to Word actually preserved them.  I remembered seeing some blog publishing settings in Word, so I published my formatted text from there to see how well it worked.  Despite Word’s excellent ability to work with text formatting in general, I was quite disappointed to encounter two major flaws:

  1. Ending a line with a carriage return translated into an “end of paragraph” character in Word. Although it displayed fine in Word, on my blog it added extra spacing between “paragraphs”.
  2. Changing paragraph endings with Shift-Enter (whatever that’s called) didn’t work either, because all lines of text so separated had to exist at the same level of indentation.
  3. Lines of text which were very short (30-50 characters) were often word-wrapped and continued on the next line on the web page, though such was not the case in Word.

This effectively renders Word useless to me as blogging software, except to take part in the work-around hack I describe below.

There seems to be no such thing yet as WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) between thick client applications and the web, or even between two thick-client applications when it comes to rich text formatting.

The Workaround

But worry not, because there is a way, ugly as it is!

First you’ll need to install Clipboard Live, a plugin for Live Writer, which you can download here.

Here’s what you do:

  1. Copy your colorized and/or formatted text from OneNote.
  2. Paste into Microsoft Word.
  3. Copy the same text from Word.
  4. Switch to Live Writer, and in the Insert ribbon menu, click on Clipboard Live.

Your text will appear in all its formatted glory.

Images can be pasted using Clipboard Live as well, but they don’t require using Word as an intermediary.


IStream<TItem> : IStream


Length long;

Head StreamItem<TItem>;

Tail StreamItem<TItem>;

ChildStreams IStream<TItem>*;

ReadingIdleDuration TimeSpan;

WritingIdleDuration TimeSpan;


Append(Item TItem); // make Item the new Tail

Inject(Item TItem); // make Item the new Head

Inject(Item TItem, Index int); // insert in the middle; indexed from the front


Peek(Index int) TItem;

Extract(Index int) TItem;

Extract(Index int, Count int) TItem;

Read(Count int) TItem*; // extract from the front

Read() TItem; // extract the Head



Now the code appearing in my articles will be text instead of images. Much better.

Happy blogging!

Posted in Blogging | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »