Archive for the Appsterdam Category

Smalltalk Reflections episode three is up

Posted in Appsterdam, consulting, Context, music, Smalltalk, Spoon with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 16 December 2014 by Craig Latta

Check it out!

Context release 4 alpha 1

Posted in Appsterdam, consulting, Context, Naiad, Smalltalk, Spoon with tags , , , , , , on 9 December 2014 by Craig Latta

Context 4 alpha 1 is released. This one fixes loading errors in the welcome page, supports remote debugging and process browsing, and makes Naiad and remote messaging support available as Monticello packages. Thanks in advance for reporting bugs!

a most useful virtual machine debugging aid: simulated objects

Posted in Appsterdam, consulting, Context, Smalltalk, Spoon with tags , , , , , , on 2 December 2014 by Craig Latta

Squeak’s virtual machine simulator is extremely useful for debugging. You can use it to inspect and change objects “while time is stopped”, between the execution of individual virtual machine instructions. Traditionally, though, it takes an address-based view of objects. There are several useful utility methods which, given an object address, will print useful information to the Transcript. Wouldn’t it be nicer, though, if you could use normal inspectors to look through the fields of the objects in a simulated virtual machine’s object memory?

I created simulated objects for this purpose. They are instances of a SimulatedObject class; each one has an interpreter and an address. They can print useful information about themselves, like the interpreter can, but they can also modify themselves and interact with each other, changing the interpreter’s object memory appropriately. Are you wondering about the instructions of a compiled method? Would you like to make a few choice modifications to those instructions? A simulated object for that method’s address will help you.

Simulated objects play nicely with Squeak’s object inspectors, and, more importantly, with its object explorers. You feel like you’re inspecting normal objects, except that you can’t send normal messages to them. Or can you? I’m pondering this. It might be useful, for example, to terminate a process in a simulated interpreter’s object memory, without having to do it in another process. Time is stopped, but perhaps you could queue up messages to send when it starts again, through a collaboration between simulated objects and a coordinating object in the memory they describe.

I’ve been using simulated objects recently to chase references with the absolute assurance that I won’t be creating new ones. They’re very useful for debugging virtual machine primitives. Sometimes, when I’m debugging a headless system with a broken remote messaging system, it’s the only user interface I have for inspecting things. And it’s sure a lot nicer than inspecting things in a C debugger.

What will you do with them?

the Smalltalk Reflections podcast, episode one: a tribute to James Robertson

Posted in Appsterdam, consulting, Smalltalk, Spoon with tags , , on 2 December 2014 by Craig Latta

We did it! On James Robertson’s birthday, David Buck and I released episode one of “Smalltalk Reflections”, a podcast about Smalltalk. Our first episode is a tribute to James, who started the previous incarnation of the show. It’s hosted by David and myself, and features remembrances from several friends and co-workers, as well as a few choice words from the man himself. I edited it, and wrote the theme music. Enjoy!

I’m available for work.

Posted in Appsterdam, consulting, GLASS, Naiad, Seaside, Smalltalk, Spoon with tags , , , , , on 17 February 2014 by Craig Latta

Hey there, it’s my semi-regular reminder that I’m available for work. Consultant or employee, I’m comfortable as either. Check out my résumé. Thanks!

Context 3 beta 3 released

Posted in Appsterdam, consulting, Context, Naiad, Smalltalk, Spoon with tags , , , , on 23 October 2012 by Craig Latta

I’ve released Context 3 beta 3. New in this one:

  • A minimal seed memory in which to grow Squeak 5. This one is 300k and has support for networking and Naiad, but not WebDAV.
  • Minor UI changes to the remote system browser.
  • Fixed launcher AppleScript to use the current paths.
  • Instructions on connecting to the seed, and for browsing/saving it.

3D wobbling object memory visualization

Posted in Appsterdam, consulting, Smalltalk, Spoon with tags , , , , on 23 October 2012 by Craig Latta

a detailed description of Context’s object memory visualization tools

Posted in Appsterdam, consulting, Context, Smalltalk, Spoon with tags , , , , , , , on 22 October 2012 by Craig Latta

direct graphical mapping of the object memory

When I got the current Context snapshot down to about 450 kilobytes, I realized that I could render it as a reasonably-sized picture (within 800 by 600 pixels). I was interested in doing this mostly because I’d never seen a graphical representation of the Smalltalk object memory before. As I proceeded, I found it enabled some pretty useful things.

simulator movies

In Squeak, I made an 8-bit-per-pixel bitmap, put the snapshot bytes into it linearly, and displayed it. It looked like a very peculiar sort of confetti… It wasn’t hard to see a few vague patterns, though. I instrumented the Squeak virtual machine simulator so that it would stop every so often to render a picture. I also chose the color of each pixel based on the class of the object of the corresponding byte.

I ran the simulator through the first 3000 instructions a Context object memory goes through after resuming, stopping after every 50 instructions to render a picture. (The simulated Context system went through its startup routine of reconnecting over the network to a headful system, so that one may browse it via remote messaging.) I put the pictures together into a 30-frames-per-second movie, a new picture every four frames. So here’s an example of extreme slow-motion; in the course of two seconds one sees roughly the first eight microseconds of execution time (as measured on my hardware).

exploring the space

But why just look at the pictures? I changed the normal picture viewer event handler so that when you click on a pixel, a cached simulator tells you more about the object of which the corresponding byte is a part. Coupled with an on-screen magnifying glass, this has turned out to be a valuable tool for finding more objects to delete from the Context snapshot.

Finally, I augmented the simulator to export graphs of all the reference relationships between all the objects in the system. Rummaging around in them in 3D is a lot of fun.

Please feel free to explore the graph data yourself and let me know if you find anything interesting. :) There are 8,628 objects (labelled) and 28,449 connections. It’s in a format for use with the Walrus graph visualizer (a lovely thing!).

I think this stuff gives new meaning to the old jargon phrase “smalltalk image”. :)

a detailed Naiad description

Posted in Appsterdam, consulting, Naiad, Smalltalk, Spoon with tags , , , , , , , , , on 21 October 2012 by Craig Latta

(from the Spoon release notes)

Spoon is a project to make Smalltalk systems more understandable, by removing unnecessary stuff, reorganizing what remains, and making it easier to share and deploy. If you’re interested in teaching, modules, bootstrapping, minimalism, remote messaging, proxies, metaprogramming, streams, sockets, or namespaces, you may be interested in this.


Smalltalk began as a part of a vision to provide extraordinary computing power to creative individuals. Although computer networks grew alongside it, Smalltalk was released into the world while its support for collaboration was still rudimentary. The system uses the concept of a virtual machine, including a model of the machine’s memory, composed entirely of objects. Besides providing a very portable execution model, this scheme gives the system a powerful continuity: everything happens as the result of sending messages to objects. When it comes to sharing objects with other people, however, this continuity is violated.

Traditionally, to share code with another Smalltalk programmer, one writes source code to a file, and shares the file. One is no longer sending messages to objects, and the behavior being shared is reduced from live objects to a textual form which requires compilation to reanimate. When it is in that form, one cannot ask it to do things, as with objects. Worse, source code is ambiguous; the result of compilation depends on the environment in which it takes place. It’s easy for the target compilation environment to be different from the original one in very subtle ways. Even referring to a class by name is risky; there is no way to be sure that the class with that name in the target compilation environment (if there even is one) is equivalent to the one in the original.

With the means of code-sharing being relatively unexpressive and inconvenient, Smalltalk object memories develop mostly in isolation, and quickly diverge from one another. And within each memory, support for describing the component behavior of different subsystems is weak. The result, after over thirty years of evolution, is that it is difficult even to describe what behavior one wants to transfer, before subjecting it to the inaccuracies of the transfer itself. Object memories have grown into large knots which are hard to untangle manually. Smalltalk’s designers pursued a system that one person could understand and maintain. These problems hinder that pursuit, and make working in teams much harder than it could be. They make the experience of teaching and learning the system awkward, and this is one reason why the Smalltalk community is small.


Smalltalk programmers who persevere in spite of these problems live with them for quite a while. They often don’t even notice them, both because the system in general is so much more powerful and fun than those they have used before, and because the peculiarities of the development process are longstanding traditions. When it becomes too painful to ignore, many people contemplate something better, but end up using workarounds that seem to make a reasonable trade between improvement and compatibility. There always seem to be more important things to work on. I think the workarounds created so far have made team development tolerable (for example, Monticello and SqueakSource), but they don’t make the system much easier to understand.

For me, the point at which the pain became intolerable came while I was teaching a Squeak course at Stanford University. There’s nothing like explaining the system to a room full of inquisitive college students to make its shortcomings clear. You see the system with new eyes, and a fresh sensibility. In order to explain one concept, I had to explain several interdependent pieces of folklore. I wanted to show how object-oriented programming enables powerful divisions of responsibility, but it was tricky to do this with Smalltalk as my exemplar.

I decided it was time for the extraneous stuff to go. I wanted to know what is truly essential for a functioning Smalltalk system, so I could show it to others. Once I had identified that, I wanted a way to compose larger systems while avoiding the knots of the past.

Nuke It From Space; It’s The Only Way To Be Sure

I started by creating a proxy system and a remote system browser that used it, so that I could remove things from afar. As anyone who has tried to refactor the user interface knows, it’s tricky to do that while using it. By changing the system remotely, I could use another system’s user interface instead. I was able to remove large swathes of the system with impunity, which was fun.

I got pretty far with this before I realized there’s a better way to discard unused objects: throw away all the methods that haven’t been run recently. I modified the virtual machine to set a mark bit in each method it runs, and wrote a version of the garbage collector which treats unmarked methods as garbage. I could clear the marks on all the methods in the system, then run the system for a while (ideally, run unit tests). When I ran the new collector, all the unmarked methods got discarded.

More importantly, all the literals of those methods got discarded, if there was no other path from them to some marked method. By running this from a remote browser while the target system ran headlessly, I was able to discard the entire graphics system, including Morphic, in one stroke. This led to a series of small object memories, the smallest being 1,337 bytes long (it adds 3 and 4 and then exits).


I realized I now had memories with fewer bytes than there were pixels on my screen. I wanted to see what they looked like. I extended Squeak’s virtual machine simulator to write the object memory as a picture, one pixel per object byte, with the color of each pixel determined by the class of the corresponding object. By writing such a picture every few instructions, I made animations that showed contexts being created, and objects allocated and reclaimed. I made an interactive browser that could magnify a region of one picture, and print detailed information about the object corresponding to a pixel chosen with the mouse.

I also wanted a visualization of the references between objects. Again I extended the simulator, to output a directed graph of all object references at a single moment in time, readable by the Walrus interactive hyperbolic graph viewer. This provided the most compelling illustration yet of a Smalltalk memory’s contents. Check out the demonstrations of all these visualization tools.


At the same time I was ripping things out, I was using remote messaging to put things in. I designed a way to transfer compiled methods from one system to another directly. I call this imprinting. I extended my remote browser to compile source code in the user-interface memory, and transfer the results directly to the remote memory. With this direct transfer, the compilation environment of the target memory matters much less, because no compilation is necessary in the target memory. If you can transfer a method’s literals and instructions correctly, then source code becomes an optional piece of documentation for the benefit of humans. In Spoon, literal markers describe method literals. They are transferred instead of the literals themselves, and they can recreate those literals when their methods are installed.

Transferring some method literals, like strings, is trivial. Others pose a challenge. In particular, how should one transfer a class reference? If a class object in one system and the corresponding class object in another system are truly equivalent in how they define the state of their instances, then we can refer to them using a single unique identifier. Like source code generally, class names become an optional piece of documentation. Compiled methods, and the virtual machines that run them, don’t care what the names of the classes are. It is only important that the instances the methods manipulate are of the expected storage format. This led to the namesake concept of Spoon’s module system.

NAIAD: Name and Identity Are Distinct

When you compile a method from source code that refers to a class, that method object has a reference to a unique live class object in the system. By using a unique identifier to refer to that class, rather than a textual name, we can preserve the identity of that class object across multiple object memories. By transferring methods directly, without resorting to recompilation, we can preserve the behavior of the instances of that class across memories too.

Naiad, Spoon’s module system, provides a framework for structured imprinting. With it, we can not only transfer methods, but also refer to particular versions of execution environment components, including methods, modules (groups of methods), classes, authors, comments, tags, and checkpoints. We can create collections of these references, called edit histories, that can answer important questions about the execution environment over time.

Identifiers and Editions

The basis for these references is the identifier, or ID. Each class in the system (both meta and non-meta) is given a universally unique identifer, or UUID, also known as its base ID. Add to that the UUID of the author who defined the class, and a version, and you have a class ID. Add to that the selector, version, and author UUID of a method of that class, and you have a method ID.

With these IDs, we can record the act of installing the corresponding components, as editions. An edition is a description of a component, sufficient to create an identical instance of that component in another memory. For example, a method edition records the header, literal markers, initial and ending program counter values, instructions, and class edition of a method, and a class edition records the format, superclass ID, and method editions of a class.

A class in Spoon still has a name, but it is part of the state of that class, along with its base ID. Each class is responsible for its own name, and there is no longer a need for a central registry of names. In Spoon there is no system dictionary. The compiler asks a class directly for its name binding. The system roots, including class Object, are known to the compiler. One could argue that, apart from the pseudovariables (true, false, nil, and thisContext), there are no global variables in Spoon.

Edit Histories and Modules

The place where we record editions is an edit history. Here editions are associated with the IDs of their components. We can then look up the edition for any component, given its ID. For example, we can ask a class for its base ID, and ask the edit history for the active class edition for that base ID. Editions have references to the previous and next editions timewise for their component, so we can make more complex queries such as “What are classes in the system that have ever had a method version written by this author?”

Modules are collections of method IDs. A module transfers the methods it describes to a remote memory by creating a copy of itself in the remote system, and guiding that system through a synchronization of the two memories. By “synchronization”, I mean that the original module is smart about not installing components which are already present in the remote memory. Many of the questions that an original module will ask its remote copy are ultimately answered by the edit history of the module copy’s system.

The edit history also augments the traditional Smalltalk source files (“changes” and “sources”). For a given development system, it occupies its own object memory, called a history memory, maintaining a remote messaging connection to the memory it describes, called the subject memory. It’s feasible to give the edit history its own memory because memories are now small by default.

Note that in cases where live system synchronization is not possible due to connectivity constraints, one can still send an entire history memory asynchronously to the requestor and let the synchronization happen locally. Similarly, the history memory that a developer uses can be located on any connected machine. For example, one could use a subject memory on an iPhone that has its history memory in the cloud.

Module Discovery

Finally, Naiad provides a means of finding module objects that one would like to install. It uses Google to index web pages that describe all available modules. Each module page includes a link to a local Spoon web server that, when followed, instructs the local Spoon system about how to install the module.

You can read about the Naiad object model in greater detail elsewhere on my blog. And again, all the Naiad classes are here in the system you can run now.

Future Work

There are at least two significant things missing from the current release. The first is a reorganization of the virtual machine, which is itself another sprawling and confusing knot (although the least so of the Smalltalk VMs I’ve encountered). The second is support for secure messaging (unless one uses an end-to-end scheme based on SSH tunnels or a VPN). The remote messaging system here is a minimal bootstrapping measure. Clearly one can imagine using something more sophisticated, like TeaTime. Again, though, I think a major simplification would be in order.

I want to extend Spoon beyond Squeak to other Smalltalk implementations. That’s my project for Camp Smalltalk at various conferences. I’m available to apply this work in paid and academic contexts. I’m currently a consultant based in Amsterdam, eager to work with clients worldwide. I would also like to pursue a PhD degree based on this work. I would love to hear from you.


Thanks for reading this far, or just being interested enough to see what’s at the end. :) If you have any questions, please feel free to ask! I am usually on the Spoon IRC channel between 9am and 9pm GMT.

the smallest object memory so far

Posted in Appsterdam, consulting, Smalltalk, Spoon with tags , , , , , on 21 October 2012 by Craig Latta

The smallest object memory snapshot I’ve made so far is 1,337 bytes long, on 19 January 2006. You can get the bits (also see my notes about the visualization tools). It adds 3 and 4, then quits.

I created it with a new version of the Squeak system tracer that I wrote. This tracer is implemented as a feature of the Squeak virtual machine simulator. It keeps track of all the objects that are touched during a particular duration of operation, then uses that information to guide a final garbage collection and snapshot.

When you run the snapshot, the virtual machine gets the object address (“oop”) for the special-objects array from the snapshot header. Note that the snapshot header doesn’t appear in this picture. The visualization is of the object memory bytes after they’ve been read from the snapshot file, not the snapshot file itself. The header is the only use of bytes in the snapshot file other than the object memory bytes.

Indirectly from the special-objects array (through the Processor and its active process) the virtual machine finds the active context and continues execution. The instructions executed come from a method used by the context. The instructions are: push (3), push (4), add, send (#quitPrimitive). The send invokes >>quitPrimitive, another method. That method terminates the virtual machine via a primitive. The virtual machine needs to look up >>quitPrimitive in the method dictionary of the class of Smalltalk, a literal association in the literal frame of the initial context.

In the above, we’ve touched the following objects from the snapshot file, in the following order:

  1. the special-objects array
  2. the global Processor association
  3. the Processor
  4. the active Process
  5. the active Process’s suspended context
  6. the now-active context’s method
  7. the symbol #quitPrimitive from the context’s literal frame
  8. the global Smalltalk association
  9. the system dictionary (Smalltalk)
  10. class SystemDictionary
  11. SystemDictionary’s method dictionary
  12. SystemDictionary’s method dictionary’s association array
  13. nil (touched during method lookup)
  14. that array’s association for key #quitPrimitive
  15. the value for key #quitPrimitive (the second method)

The method dictionary of the first method is in there also, as is true and false, making 18 objects. (The numbers 3 and 4 are immediates in the first method’s literal frame.) I could kill those last three, but I declared victory when I got the thing under 1,337 bytes. :)

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