micro:bit Reaction Timer in APL on the Pi and BBC micro:bit

BBC micro:bit displaying a happy face

BBC micro:bit displaying a happy face

I have a bit of a cold today, so I decided that instead of hopping in an icy car and driving to the office in order to spend the day drinking coffee and answering e-mail, I should stay at home, turn up the radiators, make lots of tea (with honey!) and have some fun writing code on my Raspberry Pi! Can there be a better way to ensure a speedy recovery?

By the way, if you are already a user of Dyalog APL but you haven’t got a Pi yet, you should read The APLer’s Quick-start Guide to the Raspberry Pi, which Romilly Cocking completed a few days ago. This explains what your options are for buying hardware, and how to get going with a free copy of Dyalog APL. If you don’t read it now, your cold may be over before all the bits are delivered, so hurry up!

I wasn’t feeling THAT energetic this morning, so I decided to ease back into things by trying to replicate Romilly’s reaction timer, which is written in MicroPython. To begin with, I extended the microbit class that I developed for the Morse code display function with a few new methods to cover the API calls that allow me to check the state of the two buttons on each side of the micro:bit display (see the image above).

First, I added a method called is_true, which takes a MicroPython expression as an argument, evaluates it using the PyREPL function, and returns 0 or 1 depending on whether the expression returns False or True (and fails if it returns something else):

 ∇ r←is_true expr;t;z
 :Access Public
 r←1⊃t←'True' 'False'∊⊂z←PyREPL expr
 :If ~∨/t ⋄ ⎕←'True/False expected, got: ',z ⋄ ∘∘∘ ⋄ :EndIf
 ∇

This is a useful building block, which allows the simple construction of functions like was_pressed, which takes ‘a’ or ‘b’ as an argument and tells you whether the button in question has been pressed since you last asked:

∇ r←was_pressed button
 :Access Public
 r←is_true 'button_',button,'.was_pressed()' 
∇

Once this is done, writing the Play function in the ReactionTimer namespace is easy, you can find the rest of the code on GitHub. The APL version is different from the MicroPython version in that – once the user presses button B and stops the game – the reaction times (in milliseconds) are returned as an integer vector. So now we can have some fun with data!

In the spirit of the micro:bit, I thought I’d produce a low tech character based chart, trying to remember the skills that were start-of-the-art when I started using APL. The AsciiChart function in the ReactionTimer namespace takes a vector of timings as the right argument, and produces a chart:

      times←ReactionTimer.Play
      times
251 305 294 415 338 298 294 251 378
      ReactionTimer.AsciiChart times
425| 
400|    * 
375|         *
350+ 
325|     * 
300|  * 
275|   *  ** 
250+ *      * 

The code (which is also on GitHub) is listed below. Because this is a pure function, I used the modern dfns style of function definition rather than the old style procedural form that I’ve used for the object oriented code. The function works by allocating each value to a bucket of the size defined by the variable scale. The fun part is the use of the outer product with equals (∘.=) between the list of buckets on the left (rb) and the scaled values on the right (⌊⍵÷scale) – and then using this Boolean array to index into a two-element character vector to produce the chart. The rest is scaling calculations and finally decorating with “tik marks”:

 AsciiChart←{
     scale←25 ⍝ size of each row
     tiks←4 ⍝ tik spacing
     (max min)←(⌈/ , ⌊/) ⍵ ⍝ maximum and minimum
     base←⌊min÷scale ⍝ round down to nearest scale unit
     rb←base+0,⍳⌈(max-min)÷scale ⍝ row base values
     r←' *'[1+rb∘.=⌊⍵÷scale] ⍝ our chart
     r←((≢rb)⍴'+',(tiks-1)⍴'|'),' ',r ⍝ add tiks
     r←(⍕⍪rb×scale),r ⍝ add base values
     ⊖r ⍝ low values last (humans!)
 }

Although I might be feeling better tomorrow, I expect to be back soon. I have a couple of plastic bags full of resistors, LEDs, potentiometers and cameras (yes, plural) that I have not opened yet!

Morse Code – Revisited using the BBC micro:bit

As mentioned last week, I have found a new way to provide a front end processor for my Pi, the BBC micro:bit. This week, I have started putting the new system through its paces: The microbit class in our GitHub repository has been beefed up to make it more resilient in the case where serial I/O is not initialised, or the MicroPython REPL is not running, and I have added a trivial Python program which can be used to intialise the REPL using the mu editor.

To test it all, I have revisited the Morse Code example, originally written to use GPIO support provided by Quick2Wire, to see if I could get it up and running with my new infrastructure. The micro:bit has a 5×5 LED display which makes the result a bit more impressive to look at:

 

The new code is significantly simpler than the original, for a couple of reasons:

  1. Making calls to the micro:bit API via MicroPython is easier than using GPIO via a C library.
  2. Version 15.0 of Dyalog APL contains new system functions for working with text files, so we no longer need the “Files” library, we can just use the built-in ⎕NGET function to read the contents of a file.

Raspberry APL Pi and Python on the micro:bit

A couple of years ago I spent many happy hours writing APL code to control robots which each embedded a Raspberry Pi. It was fun but it was a bumpy ride – my interest eventually faded when I discovered that it was just too difficult to make sense of raw accelerometer data, which I was hoping to use for precise navigation. After I managed to fry my MPU-9150, I decided to pursue other interests, as they say.

Recently, Romilly Cocking has been waxing lyrical about a number of new components which he thinks will make the whole experience more enjoyable – and I have decided to dive back in. So far, it has indeed been a very pleasant experience.

The Raspberry Pi Model 3

The Raspbery Pi Model 3While I was away, the Raspberry Pi and the software available for it have come a VERY long way. The speed of a Pi 3 makes it a perfectly usable computer. I am writing this blog entry on the Pi using a standard Chromium browser. APL starts up immediately, using our new graphical IDE. It is quite simply amazing!

The BBC micro:bit and MicroPython

The first generation of APL-based robots used an Arduino to manage the motors and sensors because timing was too critical for the Pi to handle it. I spent some rather unhappy hours writing a control program in C, debugging that without any tools. You could not even do “printf debugging” to the serial port because that interfered with the timing so much that it stopped everything from working.

Romilly suggested I take a look at the micro:bit, and since I have been using an interactive REPL all my life, he suggested that I run MicroPython on it.

He was right, I’m loving it!

Getting Started

I purchased the Kitronik Inventors’s Kit for the micro:bit from Pimoroni, and quickly found videos on Youtube explaining how to assemble it. I installed the “mu” editor on my Pi and was immediately able to edit a simple Python program and run it on the micro:bit.

My next step was, of course, to create a little class to drive MicroPython from APL. This involves using serial I/O: when the micro:bit is attached to your Pi via USB it appears as a folder and as a serial (tty) device, typically /dev/ttyACM0. You can find my code in the APLPi/microbit GitHub repository.

If you clone the repository to /home/pi/microbit and start APL, you can make calls to the MicroPython repository along the lines of:

    ]load /home/pi/microbit/microbit    
    mb←⎕NEW microbit ''
    mb.PyREPL '2+2'
4

Using Python on the micro:bit to do maths isn’t that interesting when you have APL on the Pi; the exciting thing is that we can call the micro:bit Python API and access the hardware. My first experiment was to display my favourite APL symbol (Grade Up – aka Imperial Cruiser) in the built-in 5×5 LED display:

Imperial Cruiser on  the micro:bit

APL displaying an Imperial Cruiser on the micro:bit

Which of the Inventor’s Kit experiments would you like to see me do next?

Dan Baronet

Dan Baronet

Dan Baronet

We do not know the details, but Dan’s luck ran out this week. On Tuesday, as he headed South from Nevada into California, en route to Mexico on the first leg of a four month motor cycle adventure to South America, something went wrong … Dan lost control of the bike and collided with a motor home, and many of us are now struggling to comprehend that Dan won’t be back.

Dan made friends everywhere that he went. On our annual Dyalog skiing “retreat” (we frequently did real work on prototypes of new tools, honest!), I was always impressed (while trying to hide my slight embarrassment) by the way Dan always kicked off conversations with hotel staff. Whether the waiters and waitresses were native Italians from the resort town – or migrants as hotel staff frequently are – Dan would typically know enough words in some shared language to get the conversation off to a good start (or he would extend his vocabulary on the spot). This always guaranteed us service with a smile, and excellent advice on which wine to order for dinner.

Dan gave as well as he got: on the slopes, Dan was always the first to stop by anyone who had fallen over and was struggling to get back up. Dan has friends all over the world and always took the time to visit them when he could, to keep the friendships alive. He was also happy to open his own home to travellers, both my kids had little Canadian adventures as guests of Dan and his family in Quebec, and Dyalog team members would also “couch-surf” chez Dan.

At work, Dan also loved extending his vocabulary. He remembered more details of different APL dialects than anyone else that I know, and was an expert in migrating code from one system to another. He also knew the weaknesses of each system, and was a feared visitor to vendor booths at APL conferences. Dan would mischievously sit down to play with a new APL system, try a couple of his favourite edge cases, and usually manage to crash new (and some old) APL interpreters within seconds.

But even when crashing interpreters, Dan was really trying to help the vendor produce a more stable platform. At work, as on the ski slopes, Dan was one of the few people who was always going out of his way to help. When he had spent time learning a new technique, or how to use a new tool, he would go the extra mile to create a utility library, document it, presented it at conferences and APL user meetings. He also did the really hard part – writing an article about it, making frequent contributions to Vector and other publications: http://archive.vector.org.uk/?qry=baronet&submit=search. He also enjoyed teaching APL, as an instructor at I.P.Sharp Associates and in the modern era as the author of numerous tutorials at https://www.youtube.com/user/APLtrainer.

More than 30 years ago, as an APL rookie at I.P.Sharp Associates, I was fortunate to meet, work with, and learn from Dan when he and I both found ourselves at IPSA Copenhagen. In addition to a general interest in tools, I shared Dan’s interest in the migration of code between APL systems, and flying airplanes. Dan actually flew small aircraft (and helicopters!) and I, like so many other friends and colleagues, admired him and got invited along for rides.

A decade and a half later in 2005, as the new CTO of Dyalog, I was keen to add an APL toolsmith to the company. Despite his location in Montreal, Dan was at the top of my list. Dan continued to live in Montreal but was a frequent guest in Bramley, coming over several times a year to spend some weeks to work with the growing “APL Tools Team” – and with the core development team on improving the quality of the interpreter by crashing it in as many ways as he could think of.

When his imagination ran out, he wrote code to generate even more ways to crash the interpreter. Dan has been cursed loudly many times, and will be remembered – if for no other reason than that it will be a long time before we are able to close the last “issues” that he logged in our problem tracking system. The quality of Dyalog APL has increased enormously in the last decade, and we have much to thank Dan for. Dan also “poured the concrete” for the foundations of the source code management tool (SALT) and the User Command framework that we are all starting to take for granted, and contributed to many other pieces of our growing collection of tools.

C-GSXN in Toronto

Dan often flew himself to APL User Meetings

Dan was an adventurer. He skied, snowboarded, snowshoe’d, biked, skated, hiked and flew – and with his great sense of humour and warm personality, he was able to entice many of us to come along with him to share. He photographed and brought his video camera, although he would often manage a 3-week trip to Europe which included a skiing trip, carrying only a small backpack.

Dan had just turned 60, and he had taken four months leave this winter to pursue an old dream to revisit South America with a friend – on motor cycles. They had wisely gone on a trial ride in the late summer, riding from Canada to Las Vegas and parking the bikes there in order to test the equipment and not have to ride two-wheelers in the Canadian winter. As a pilot, Dan understood risks very well – or rather, how not to take unnecessary ones.

“If only he had been a little more cautious”, some will say. Was that trip really necessary? These thoughts are unavoidable – but we have to remember that his decision to ride was natural to the adventurous and mischievous spirit that we all knew and loved.

Rencontres Dyalog APL 2016 – Paris, France

It is really good to see APL events come back to life! In April of 2014, we witnessed the re-birth of SWEDAPL, which had been dormant for some time – but now meets twice a year and is perhaps the most vibrant APL meeting on our circuit, with many young developers developing new products and features in APL. The last SWEDAPL meeting drew a substantial international crowd, including a number of Danes – and the next one, scheduled for April 1st, is making a guest appearance in Copenhagen, hosted by Simcorp A/S – a bit like the Tour de France 🙂

paris16This year we are really happy to be back in France, which has also had a relatively dormant APL community for the last decade or so – at least in terms of holding meetings. In this case we decided to arrange a meeting with the help of our French distributor – Quantys. Although the invitation was to a “Dyalog User Meeting“, about half of the attendees were users of other APL systems than Dyalog APL – with a little luck this meeting will turn out to contain the seeds for a rebirth of an independent French APL group. Fingers crossed!

Everyone please note: If you want to organise a local APL event, and you invite a speaker from Dyalog, we will do everything we can to send one or two delegates to your meeting. The current “circuit” includes Finland, Germany and Sweden twice a year, France and the East Coast USA. We have been known to show up at the Bay Area Users’ Group from time to time, in Toronto, at J and kx meetings – and recently also at FunctionalConf in Bangalore.

After welcoming remarks from Marc Righetti of Quantys, Gitte talked about Dyalog’s commitment to ensure that APL is well-integrated with modern computing platforms and infrastructure, which is always in the throes of another revolution. The current movement towards cloud computing and the need for platform independence is no exception. The good news is that Dyalog is growing to meet the challenge; we expect to add another couple of heads this year and grow the company by another ten percent.

Dan Baronet is a native of Montreal, Canada. As one of our French-speaking team members, he ended up doing most of the heavy lifting, with presentations on the upcoming v15.0 release, and a recap of the recent language enhancements in version 14.0 – in particular, the rank and key operators and function trains. Nicolas Delcros also spoke in French on the subject of his most recent work on integrating the publishing capabilities of Adrian Smith’s NewLeaf tool to SharpPlot, under the name SharpLeaf. I was only allowed to interrupt the flow of French twice, first with a road map presentation and, in the afternoon, a brief introduction to Futures and Isolates.

At the end of an action-packed day, Quantys treated us all to Champagne and snacks – many thanks to Marc for running the show and taking good care of us. A single day was much too short a time to do justice to the last decade of Dyalog achievements – so we will have to be back more regularly!

FinnAPL Forest Seminar 2016

The view from the Sauna. Some people actually went in!

The view from the Sauna. Some people actually went in!

Finns probably have better reasons to look forward to spring more than most of us: not only does it get much easier to keep that hole in the ice open, it is time for the annual FinnAPL Forest Seminar!

This year, just under 20 of us gathered for two days (Thursday March 10th and Friday March 11th) at Hirvihaara Manor, about an hour north of Helsinki, to update each other on what we have been getting up to recently.

Thursday

After a warm welcome from Jouko Kangasniemi, Chairman of FinnAPL, Veli-Matti Jantunen from Statistics Finland kicked the proceedings off with a talk titled “The long way of an APL2 bigot to Dyalog world”, where he discussed features of recent versions of Dyalog APL, awarding some of them them varying numbers of thumbs up, declaring some to be irrelevant. A few were found to be flawed… We are hoping to talk him into a repeat at Dyalog’16 as this was a valuable and thought-provoking review!

I was on next – with the Spring 2016 version of the Dyalog Road Map. As should be confirmed by the slides, there is not a big change in direction. We are planning to increase headcount by another 10% this year and continue investing in the core interpreter technology, APL compilers, and tools to help you build applications on a growing number of platforms.

Ants on the left. Ray Cannon on the right

Ants on the left. Ray Cannon on the right

After lunch, Ray Cannon showed us how to “Build a better ant brain”, producing wonderful, coloured, animations with ants crawling all over the big screen, using MiServer 3.0 and a bit of JavaScript – running under Dyalog APL on a Raspberry Pi!

My technical keynote in the morning had included a demo of a very early prototype of a Python interface, which will allow APL users to tap in to Python libraries. I was, therefore, very interested in the next presentation by Esa Pursiheimo from the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland – which gave us all an introduction to the Python language. There is no question that the Python community has built libraries that could be very useful to APLers (although I cannot say the language itself impressed me much 🙂 ).

The last presentation of the day, titled “Data Driven Documents” (aka “D3”), was also about using libraries written in other programming language to extend APL applications. In this case the language was JavaScript. Jouko Kangasniemi from the Confederation of Finnish Industries (EK) showed how he is generating JavaScript to call the popular D3 Graphics Library and publish charts that are relevant to Economic planners in Finland. A collection of animated charts created using this technology can be found at http://ek.fi/materiaalipankki/tietografiikka/talous/viikon-graafit/.

Since we were in Finland, the afternoon ended with a visit to a traditional “smoke sauna”, before we all scrubbed up for the banquet.

Cheers! From left to right (more or less): Antero Ranne, Gitte Christensen, Esa Lippu, Miika Rämä, Simo Kilponen, Jouko Kangasniemi, Heikki Viitamäki, Esa Pursiheimo, Olli Paavola, Kaarlo Reipas, Göran Koreneff, Morten Kromberg, Kimmo Kekäläinen, Veli-Matti Jantunen, Timo Korpela, Ray Cannon (Missing: Anssi Seppälä)

Cheers! From left to right (more or less): Antero Ranne, Gitte Christensen, Esa Lippu, Miika Rämä, Simo Kilponen, Jouko Kangasniemi, Heikki Viitamäki, Esa Pursiheimo, Olli Paavola, Kaarlo Reipas, Göran Koreneff, Morten Kromberg, Kimmo Kekäläinen, Veli-Matti Jantunen, Timo Korpela, Ray Cannon (Missing: Anssi Seppälä)

Friday

The first talk on Friday morning was perhaps the most interesting from my point of view: Antero Ranne of the Ilmarinen Mutual Pension Insurance Company: Parallel showed how he was able to speed up financial simulations by a factor of approximately 3 on his Intel i7-based laptop, using Futures and Isolates in Dyalog version 14.0. It is really good to see that domain experts wield this tool!

After coffee, Gitte presented the work that she had done to put APL on the map as an invited speaker at a recent conference on the history of information technology in the Nordic region. She also reminded us all that we will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first running APL system on November 27 (http://silvermapleweb.com/first-cleanspace/). At Dyalog ’16 on October 9th-13th in Glasgow, Scotland, Dyalog will set time aside to celebrate this anniversary in collaboration with the British APL Association. If you have a good story about ground-breaking work done in APL in the early days, please get in touch and discuss how you might contribute to the celebrations!

Once again, I found myself standing between the audience and lunch – fortunately there are enough juicy language features and interfaces coming in versions 15.0 and 16.0 and I did not have anyone walk out before I was done. I even had time to talk about a workspace that we added several years ago, after discovering that several members of the audience were unaware of it: The “loaddata” workspace, which contains functions to read and write Excel Spreadsheets, CSV files, XML and ODBC data sources. If you have not seen it yet, try loading it and take a look.

After another excellent lunch, Anssi Seppälä of Enease Oy wrapped up the formal part of the programme with a talk on an inverted vectorial database implemented in the J programing language, named JD. JD makes it straightforward to manage large timeseries containing records of power usage and the quality of electricity delivered to consumers, perform analyses and generate visualisations of the data.

Several of us continued discussing programming challenges, while drinking (STRONG!!!) Finnish coffee and eating the wonderful cakes that were provided all day by Hirvihaara Manor, before heading back home after another successful FinnAPL Forest Seminar – we look forward to the 2017 edition!

Gitte and I managed to get about 40 hours at home before boarding the next plane, heading for Paris for the first French Dyalog User Meeting in recent history. More about that coming soon!