Monday, 9 June 2014

A Year of Functional Programming

It's been a year since I first came across the concept of functional programming. To say it's changed my life, is an unjust understatement. This is a reflection on that journey.

Warning: I use the term FP quite loosely throughout this article.

Where I Was

I've been coding since the age of 8, so 26 years now. I started with BASIC & different types of assembly then moved on to C, C++, PHP and Perl (those were different times, maaaan ☮), Java, JavaScript, Ruby. That's the brief gist of it. Basically: a lot of time on the clock and absolutely no exposure to FP concepts or languages. I thought functional programming just meant recursive functions (ooooo big deal right?). I really came in blind.

How It Started: Scala

Last year, I wanted the speed and static checking (note: not “types”) of Java with the conciseness and flexibility of Ruby. I came across Scala, skimmed a little and was impressed. I bought a copy of Scala For The Impatient and just ate it for breakfast. I read the entire thing in 2 or 3 days, jotted down everything useful and then just started coding. It was awesome! At first I was just coding the same way I would Java with less than half the lines of code. It is a very efficient Java.

Exposure: Haskell

Lurking around the Scala community, I came across a joke. Someone said “Scala is a gateway drug to Haskell.” I found that amusing, although not for the reasons that the author intended. Haskell? Isn't that some toy university language? An experiment or something. Is it even still alive? Scala's awesome and so powerful, why would that lead to Haskell? How.... intriguing. Inexplicably it piqued my interest and really stuck with me. Later I decided to look it up and yes, it sure was alive and very active. I was shocked to discover that it compiles to machine code (binary) and is comparable in speed to C/C++. What?! It seems idiotic now but a year ago I thought it was some interpreted equation solver. I'm not alone in that ignorance, sadly; talking about it to some mates over lunch last year and a friend incredulously burst out laughing, “Haskell?” as if I was trying to tell him my dishwasher had an impressive static typing system. It saddens me to realise how in the dark I was, and how many people still are. Haskell is pretty frikken awesome! True to the gateway drug prophecy, I do now look to Haskell as an improvement to using Scala. But let's get back on track.

Exposure: Scalaz

I also started seeing contentious discussion of some library called Scalaz. Curious, I had a look at the code to see what people were on about, and didn't understand it at all. I'd see classes like Blah[F[_], A, B], methods with confusing names that take params like G[_], A → C, F[X → G[Y]], implementations like F.boo_(f(x))(g)(x), and I'd just think “What the hell is this? How is this useful?”. I was used to methods that did something pertaining to a goal in its domain. This Scalaz code was very alien to me and yet, very intriguing. Some obviously-smart person spent time making the alphabet soup permutations, why?

I've since discovered that answer to that question and I never could've imagined the amount of benefit it would yield. Instead of methods with domain-specific meaning, I now see functions for morphisms, in accordance with relevant laws. Simply put: changing the shape or content of types. No mention of any kind of problem-domain; applicable to all problem-domains! It's been surprising over the last year to discover just how applicable this is. This kind of abstraction is prolific, it's in your code right now, disguised, and intertwined with your business logic. Without knowledge of these kind of abstractions (and the awareness that a type-component level of abstraction is indeed possible) you are doomed to reinvent the wheel for all time and not even realise it. Identifying and using these abstractions, your code becomes more reusable, simple, readable, flexible, and testable. When you learn to recognise it, it's breathtaking.

FP: The Basics

Now that I'd been exposed to FP I started actively learning about it. At first I learned about referential transparency, purity and side-effects. I nodded agreement but had major reservations about the feasibility of adhering to such principals, and so at first I wasn't really sold on it. Or rather, I was hesitant. I may have been guilty of mumbling sentences involving the term “real-world”. Next came immutability. Now I'm a guy who used to use final religiously in Java, const on everything in C++ back in the day, and here FP is advocating for data immutability. Not just religiously advocating but providing real, elegant solutions to issues that you encounter using fully immutable data structures. Wow! So with immutability, composability, lenses it had its hooks in me.

Next came advocation for more expressive typing and (G)ADTs. That appealed in theory too and again I was hesitant about its feasibility. Once I experimentally applied it to some parts of my project, I was blown away by how well it worked. That became the gateway into thinking of code/types algebraically, which lead to...

FP: Maths

I loved maths back in school and always found it easy. Reading FP literature I started coming across lots of math and at first thought “great! I'm awesome at maths!” but then, trying to make sense of some FP math stuff, I'd find myself spending hours clicking link after link, realising that I wasn't getting it and, in many cases, still couldn't even make sense of the notation. It became daunting. Even depressing. Frequently demotivating.

The good news is that everything you need is out there; you just have to be prepared to learn more than you think you need. I persisted, I stopped viewing it as an annoying bridge and starting treating it as a fun subject on its own and, before long things made sense again. It opens new doors when you learn it.

Example: I had a browser tab (about co-Yoneda lemma) open for 3 months because I couldn't make sense of it. It took months (granted not everyday) of trying then confusion then tangents to understand background and whatever it was that threw me off. Once I learned that final piece of background info, I went from understanding only the first 5% to 100%. It was a great feeling.

Feeling Intimidated

Looking back there were times when I felt learning FP quite intimidating. When I'm in/around/reading conversations between experienced FP'ers quite often I've seriously felt like a moron. I started wondering if I gave my head a good slap, would a potato fall out. It can be intimidating when you're not used to it. But really, my advice to you, Reader, is that everyone's nice and happy to help when you're confused. I have a problem asking for help but I've seen everyone else do it and be received kindly... then I swoop in an absorb all the knowledge, hehe.

It's a mindset change. I wish I'd known this earlier as it would've saved me frustration and doubt, but you kind of need to unlearn what you think you know about coding, then go back to the basics. Imagine you've driven trains for decades, and spontaneously decide you want to be a pilot. No, you can't just read a plane manual in the morning and be in Tokyo in the afternoon. No, if you grab a beer with experienced pilots you won't be able to talk about aviation at their level. It's normal, right? Be patient, learn the basics, have fun, you'll get there.

On that note, I highly recommend Fuctional Programming in Scala, it's a phenomenal book. It helped me wade my way from total confusion to comfortable comprehension on a large number of FP topics with which I was struggling trying to learn from blogs.

Realisation: Abstractions

Recently I looked at some code I wrote 8 months ago and was shocked! I looked at one file written in “good OO-style”, lots of inheritance and code reuse, and just thought “this is just a monoid and a bunch of crap because I didn't realise this is a monoid” so I rewrote the entire thing to about a third of the code size and ended up with double the flexibility. Shortly after I saw another file and this time thought “these are all just endofunctors,” and lo and behold, rewrote it to about a third of the code size and the final product being both easier to use and more powerful.

I now see more abstractions than I used to. Amazingly, I'm also starting to see similar abstractions outside of code, like in UI design, in (software) requirements. It's brilliant! If you're not on-board but aspire to write “DRY” code, you will love this.

Realisation: Confidence. Types vs Tests

I require a degree of confidence in my code/system, that varies with the project. I do whatever must be done to achieve that. In Ruby, that often meant testing it from every angle imaginable, which cost me significant effort and negated the benefit of the language itself being concise. In Java too, I felt the need to test rigorously.

At first I was the same in Scala, but since learning more FP, I test way less and have more confidence. Why? The static type system. By combining lower-level abstractions, an expressive type system, efficient and immutable data structures, and the laws of parametricity, in most cases when something compiles, it works. Simple as that. There are hard proofs available to you, I'm not talking about fuzzy feelings here. I didn't have much respect for static types coming from Java because it's hard to get much mileage out of it (even in Java 8 – switch over enum needs a default block? Argh fuck off! Gee maybe maybe all interfaces should have a catch-all method too then. That really boiled my blood the other day. Sorry-), anyway: Java as a static typing system is like an abusive alcoholic as a parent. They may put food on the table and clothes your back, but that's a far cry from a good parent. (And you'll become damaged.) Scala on the other hand teaches you to trust again. Trust. Trust in the compiler. I've come to learn that when you trust the compiler and can express yourself appropriately, entire classes of problems go away, and with it the need for testing. It's joyous.

Sadly though, eventually you get to a point where Scala starts to struggle. It gets stupid, it can't work out what you mean, what you're saying, you have to gently hold its hand and coax it with explicit type declarations or tricks with type variance or rank-n types. Once you get to that level you start to feel like you've outgrown Scala and now need a big boy's compiler which can lead to habitual grumbling and regular reading about Haskell, Idris, Agda, Coq, et al.

However when you do need tests, you can write a single test for a bunch of functions using a single expression. How? Laws. Properties. Don't know what I mean? Pushing an item on to a stack should always increase its size by 1, the popping of which should reduce its size by 1 and return the item pushed, and return a stack equivalent to what you started with. Using libraries like ScalaCheck, turning that into a single expression like pop(push(start, item)) == (start, item) which is essentially all you need to write; ScalaCheck will generates test data for you.

Where Next?

What does the future hold for me? Well, I could never go back to dynamically-typed language again.
I will stick with Scala as I've invested a lot in it and it's still the best language I know well. I'd like to get more hands-on experience with Haskell; I don't know its trade-offs that well but its type system seems angelic. Got my eye on Idris, too.


I used to get excited discovering new libraries. I'd always think “Great! I wonder what this will allow me to do.” Well now I feel that way about research & academic papers. They are the same thing except smarter, more lasting, more dependable, and they yield more flexibility. It's awesome and I've got decades of catching up to do! Over the next year I'll definitely spend a lot of time learning more FP and comp-sci theory. I'd also like to be able to understand most Haskell blogs I come across. They promise very intelligent constructs (which aren't specific to Haskell) but the typing usually gets a bit too dense; it'd be nice to be able to read those articles with ease.

Don't fall for the industry dogma that academia isn't applicable to the real-world. What a load of horseshit that lie is. It does apply to the real-world, it's here to help you achieve your goals, it will save you significant time and effort, even with the initial learning overhead considered. Don't say you don't have time to do things in half the time. If you're always busy and your business are super fast-paced agile scrum need-it-yesterday kinda people, well I know you don't have time, but what I'm offering is this: say you just need to get something out the door and can do it quickly and messily in 1000 lines in 6 hours with 10 bugs and 10 “abilities”, well if you spend a bit of your own time learning you could perform the same task in 400 lines in 4 hours with maybe 1 bug and 20 “abilities”. You've just saved 2 hours up-front, not to mention days of savings when adding new features, fixing bugs, etc. That's applicable to you, the “real-world” and the industry. I've spent years in the industry and not just as a coder and I wish I'd known about this stuff back then because it would've saved me so much time, effort and stress. There seems to be this odd disdain for academia throughout the industry. Reject it. It's an ignorant justification of laziness and short-sightedness. It's false. I encourage you to take the leap.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Scala: Methods vs Functions

It's a bright, windy Saturday morning. Sipping a nice, warm coffee I find myself musing over the performance implications of subtleties between methods and functions in Scala. Functions are first-class citizens in Scala and represented internally as instances of Functionn (where n is the arity); effectively, an interface with an apply method. Methods are methods are methods; they are directly invocable in JVM-land.

So what differences are there that could affect performance? I can think of:

  • Because functions are traits with abstract type members, in JVM-land those abstract types will be erased to Objects. I presume this means boxing for your primitives like int and long (unless scalac has any tricks up its sleeve like @specialized)
  • When passing a method to a higher-order function, methods will need to be boxed into a Function. For example, in
    def method(s:String) = s.length
    the map method requires an instance of Function1 so I (again, presume) the compiler generates a synthetic instance of Function1 as a proxy to the target method.
  • The JVM can invoke methods directly. To invoke a function, it will have to first load up the Function object and then invoke its apply method. That's an extra hop.
  • Probably more.

So those are some of the differences between functions and methods in Scala. Let's see how they perform. There's an awesome little micro-benchmarking tool called ScalaMeter. It takes about 2 min to get started with it. I decided to test 1,000,000 reps along three axes:

  1. Direct invocation vs passing to someone else
  2. Primitive vs Object argument
  3. Primitive vs Object result

The Results

Fn improvement over Method
Directint → int-6.32%
int → str-9.53%
str → int-4.39%
str → str-1.09%
As Argint → int0.31%
int → str0.94%
str → int-0.22%
str → str-0.24%
What can we see?
  • It seems that there is a boxing cost for functions' i/o.
  • It seems that there is a slight cost when invoking functions directly.
  • It seems that there is no real cost boxing methods into functions.


If you're like one-week-ago-me (pft he's idiot!), you might think you're helping the compiler out by writing functions instead of methods when their only use is to be passed around. Well it doesn't appear to be so.
Just use methods and let your mind (if you're lucky enough to have its cooperation) worry about and solve other things.

Code and raw results available here:

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Keyed Lenses

TL;DR: Lenses are cool. I've come up with keyed lenses which I find helpful. Hopefully you will too. Do you? Have I just reinvented the wheel in ignorance?

Annual blog post time. So this year I've been imploding and exploding with enthusiasm over functional programming. Already I've found some FP perspectives and strategies mind-boggle-blow-blast-ingly effective, and beautiful. My day project is in a significantly better state owing to FP. If you're not onboard I recommend reading Learn You a Haskell for Great Good! and Functional Programming in Scala.

(Btw: big thanks to NICTA, specifically Tony Morris & Mark Hibberd who held 2 free FP courses and gracefully tolerated numerous dumb-shit moments from me. I think it's a semi-annual recurring thing so keep an eye out on scala-functional for the next one if you're interested and in Australia.)

What is a lens? If you don't know what a lens is, it's basically a decoupled getter/setter that be composed with other lenses, so that the depth and structure of data can be hidden. In traditional OO you might not see the merits but when your data structures are all immutable, the benefit is immense. There are plenty of good resources online to learn more, such as this, this and this.


What I'm calling a KeyedLens, is a lens that points to a value in a composite value such that a key is required. A Map is an obvious example.

(NOTE: Scalaz has some basic support for this -- I am aware of it -- but I find that it doesn't my needs and/or the way I try to use it. I find that the call-site syntax becomes long and nasty, it doesn't compose well, and it creates new lenses every time it's used which is inefficient).

Let's start with some toy data.
I'm going to use Scala and the awesome Scalaz library, and there's a link to the KeyedLens source code at the end of the post. (If you don't know Scala, just imagine it's pseudo-code. The concepts translate into almost anything.)

Let's model a band from a guitarist's point of view.

Here we're modelling the mighty band Tesseract (think Pink Floyd + Meshuggah).
There are two places where I'm going to use a keyed lens.

  1. To access the guitar of a given band member. (guitarL)
  2. To access the string gauge of a given guitar. (stringGaugeL)

Here are the lens definitions:

This gives us the following lenses:

guitarTuningLLensFamily[Guitar, Guitar, String, String]
stringGaugeLLensFamily[(Guitar,Int), Guitar, Double, Double]
bandNameLLensFamily[Band, Band, String, String]
guitarLLensFamily[(Band,Person), Band, Guitar, Guitar]
guitaristsTuningLLensFamily[(Band,Person), Band, String, String]
guitaristsGaugeLLensFamily[(Band,(Person,Int)), Band, Double, Double]
Notice the keys always get propagated to the left.
Now let's see them in action. This is what appeals to me the most.

Usage. The Fun Part.

Get with one key. What is Acle's guitar tuned to?

scala> guitaristsTuningL.get(band, acle)
res0: String = BEADGBE

Get with two keys. What is the gauge of Acle's 7th string?

scala> guitaristsGaugeL.get(band, (acle, 7))
res1: Double = 0.059

Set with one key. I want to change Acle's tuning.

scala> guitaristsTuningL.set((band, acle), "G#FA#D#FA#D#")

res2: Band = Band(Tesseract,Map(Person(Acle) -> Guitar(7,G#FA#D#FA#D#,List(0.011, 0.014, 0.018, 0.028, 0.038, 0.049, 0.059)), Person(James) -> Guitar(6,EADGBE,List(0.01, 0.013, 0.017, 0.026, 0.036, 0.046))),Set(Person(Jay), Person(Amos), Person(Ashe)))

Set with two keys. I want to lower the gauge of Acle's 7th string.

scala> guitaristsGaugeL.set((band, (acle, 7)), 0.0666666)

res3: Band = Band(Tesseract,Map(Person(Acle) -> Guitar(7,BEADGBE,List(0.011, 0.014, 0.018, 0.028, 0.038, 0.049, 0.0666666)), Person(James) -> Guitar(6,EADGBE,List(0.01, 0.013, 0.017, 0.026, 0.036, 0.046))),Set(Person(Jay), Person(Amos), Person(Ashe)))

[If you're new to lenses, keep in mind that all the data here is immutable. Objects are copied and reused.]

  • I really like the brevity of these lines.
  • I like that you get a single lens that requires a key be provided.
  • I don't like the (A, (K1,K2)) type of guitaristsGaugeL which is easily changable into (A, K1, K2) but then what happens when it's further recomposed? I'd probably need methods like compose2, compose3, compose4, etc. Will think later.
What do you think? Does anything like this already exist?

Source code for KeyedLenses.scala is here.


Thursday, 25 April 2013

Trial: Choosing Lift over Rails

Today, I'm going to start on a slightly scary journey. I'm going to start work on a new webapp but I'm not going to use Ruby on Rails which I (mostly) love (with plugins) and already know well. Instead I'm going to use the Scala-based Lift framework which I have never used and is completely alien to me. This is going to cost me a lot of time at the beginning, not just because I don't know the API, but because the mindset of the beast seems drastically different to typical web frameworks that most of us are used to.

(NOTE re RAILS: I will make many comparisons to RoR because it's the web framework I know best and cos it's well-known. Just like everyone thinks Maccas (ie. McDonalds for non-Aussies) when you think fast-food. It's tough being on top. Bad luck RoR.)

(Have you made a similar transition? I'd love to know how it went. Let me know!)


In no particular order...

  • Security. Big security focus. Immune to lots of common vulnerabilities. I think it even automatically uses random param names for POSTs, etc.
  • Speed. Compiles to Java bytecode, runs on JVM. Parallel rendering. Scala has built-in, native XML support so that should be faster than parsing textual templates. I read somewhere that a modest, old processor can comfortably serve 300 req/sec on a single processor, doing a modest amount of transformation. With threading I've read that this can exceed 20x the speed of the same webapp in RoR running multi-process, presumably on something like Puma, Thin, whatnot. (No sources, sorry, it's arbitrary anyway. And we all know Ruby can be scaled, that's not the topic here.)
  • Snippets rather than MVC. MVC has never felt right to me. It's great for trivial DB-interface-like-webapp kind of stuff, but outside of that I've often run into ambiguous scenarios that don't feel comfortable... although I have used it happily for lack of a better alternative. Lift instead uses snippets which are pieces of logic/functionality that you can use all over the place in as many views as you like. Seems much better in terms of reusability, organisation on the other hand I'm not sure yet. Snippets are also executed in parallel -- nice.
  • Easier Ajax with wiring/binding, server-push, more. In addition to what the links say, most of the Ajax plumbing seems to be automatic; you don't even need to declare URLs or actions. Also type and parameter safety -- excellent.

Those are the main reasons that come to mind. There other niceties too such as lazy loading. The doco flaunts designer friendly templates as some awesome feature but I'm personally on the fence about it. I'm a one-man everything team at the moment so it doesn't immediately appeal to my situation. I can see it potentially making CSS dev faster (because you can work off a static template with all cases hardcoded which gets wiped by Lift) but I think any small gains will be offset by the major productivity loss of not having HAML.

Downsides. The Oh Noes.

Basically, less <good thing>.

Less adoption. Less incumbency. This results in less libraries to choose from. Less plugins. I assume more reinvent-the-wheel kind of stuff for me to write.

Less community. It especially won't be as big as RoR's. This means less examples and code online, less questions on StackOverflow, less forums and blogs, less information and help. It sounds like the mailing list is friendly enough and I'll be joining today but it's nicer to have more resources at your disposal rather than just always hitting up the same guys for help.

Less developers on the market. If this app makes me millions of dollars and I get to a point where I need to outsource or hire then I'm going have significantly less people that can do the job. It's hard not to compare to RoR which is ubiquitous these days and which would cause no sweat finding capable helpers.

I'm going to accept these problems because Scala is awesome, Lift is philosophically fresh and whispers of great advantages once you climb the learning curve, and there are aspects of Lift that will have a direct impact on time, money and resources. For example, I'll be able to host my project free for longer (due to improved performance). If my project gets popular, yes, I'll have it harder looking for manpower but, (and this runs contrary to my innate tendencies), I often read & hear (with supporting evidence) that it's best to focus entirely on the short term when starting up a small business or venture (notice I avoided calling it a "startup"). Worries like scalability, resourcing, support, etc. can and should be dealt with once the project premise is proven to be successful and profitable. Like the 37-Signals guys say, "A business without a path to profit isn't a business, it's a hobby", and if this gets off the ground and becomes just a hobby then I'm not going to fuss about that stuff anyway.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Lessons Learnt on My Second Android App - Pt.1

Hi. Recently I released my second Android app. It's a collection of game timers and bells and whistles to be used whilst playing board games, card games, party games, the like. Practically, that means you can use it to play 4 player Scrabble where each player has 2 minutes-per-turn and a total of 25 min for the entire game, for example. Or, for a game like Scattegories you can have an hourglass set to run for a random amount of time between 1~2 min and then scare the crap out of everyone when it goes off. That kind of thing.

If you're interested, you can peruse some screenshots here and find the app here: “Time Us!”

Moving on, I'd like to share and record for future-me, the lessons I learned and observations I made whilst creating this app.

Scale Bitmaps Effeciently

Those tiny graphic files in your resources consume a surprising amount of memory when in use. A 100KB PNG is compressed and when loaded can comsume 10MB of memory as a Bitmap. As we know memory is quite important on mobile devices, especially on older devices. If the user is on a small LDPI device for example, their tired old phone isn't going to have much memory to spare. If you're scaling bitmaps there's a chance that you're consuming more memory that you need to, and the amount of waste gets higher with older devices where it matters more.

Say you have a large graphic that you scale to a smaller size, you're going to find that without some special options in-place, the device will load the full graphic into memory and retain it as it was loaded prior to scaling. I originally assumed that on a small LDPI device the graphic would scale down to about 20% (or whatever) of its size and accordingly only consume 20% of the full size in memory. Right? No. By default Android loads first, scales later and doesn't let go of that full-sized bitmap.

So how can you reduce memory consumption? The first recommended solution (because it is more processor-performant as well) is to prepare different copies of your graphics for each density. Ok great, but there are scenarios where that's not the best approach so what then? It turns out that there's a whole trove of info on this issue online in the official Android docs, the specifics on this scaling issue here:

You can mostly just copy-and-paste the utility code from the link above. By applying the methods therein, I was able to reduce memory usage by up to 80% or so (from memory), depending on the device. I didn't know this page existed until I needed it so I suggest you bookmark it and/or keep a mental note if you don't read the above page immediately.

Free Bitmap Memory Manually

Now that we know a little more about bitmap memory consumption, let's talk about another snag I encountered.

My app's home screen has two looks: dark & light. The light-mode background consists of 2 images. On a w360dp XHDPI phone, it consumes 5.8MB for bkgd img #1, and 4.0MB for #2, making a total of 9.8MB.

(FYI: You can easily see the memory profile of, and analyse your app by doing this from Eclipse: DDMS → Devices → Select process and click “Dump HPROF file” in the toolbar.)

What would you expect to happen to that 9.8MB when the user hits a button and the app moves on to the next activity (screen)? I expected that the OS would release the memory because it's not in use. Not so. As long as the home activity is in the task history the memory will stay consumed and locked which in my case means for the entirety of the app. Now maybe technology is catching up but the old phone I had for two years before my newer Galaxy Nexus, was a HTC Magic, and that thing was constantly chugging due to memory problems and as such. Consequentially, I'm not comfortable with holding onto 10MB for no reason on a mobile device.

So what can you do? Well I could draw both images onto a single canvas but that's not really solving the problem, that would just drop the 10MB down to 6MB and it would still be unavailable later. To solve the problem I did three things:

  1. Remove, dereference, recycle the images in onStop().
    I wrote a utility function to do just that, and then simply called in in my activity's onStop() method. It looks like this:
  2. Set the images during onStart().
    In your activity, just use View.setBackground(Drawable) or View.setBackgroundDrawable(Drawable) in your onStart() callback to restore the images that you clear in onStop().
  3. Turn off hardware acceleration.
    Devices running Android 4.2 require an additional kick in the pants to get them to let go of the memory. You'll want to turn hardware acceleration off or else you'll end up with instances of GLES20DisplayList in memory that consume exactly the same amount of space. Instructions to turn off hardware acceleration can be found here:

There's actually a whole bunch of doco on bitmaps and memory on the official Android site so for more info, take a look at


If you have a moderate amount of graphics and like me you optimise (ie. re-generate) them for multiple densities, then the size of your APK can balloon fast. This situation lead me to discover a utility called PNGOUT (Windows, ArchLinux, Other Linux + OSX). It optimises your PNGs and gets them down to a smaller size, from memory, using a special compression algorithm targeted at graphics. As with most types of ultra-compression it can be slow but the results are worth it.

I ran it over my PNGs. It took 30min and reduced my total size from 7.4MB to 5.9MB, a 20% reduction. Nice.

Screen Widths

I learned a few things about screen width. Firstly I had to find a database of devices and specs. One doesn't exist but I did find two admirable attempts here and here. After some analysis, from what I can tell, most older phones have a width of 320dp and I don't think there are any phones with less than that -- AdMob's smallest banner ads are 320dp. For LDPI and MDPI, 320dp is a safe bet. Once you get to HDPI, it seems that around 70% of devices are 320dp, 25% are 360dp and the rest are larger than that. Here's the most interesting piece of news: for XHDPI it seems that the 360dp is the minimum and majority. There doesn't seem to be any 320dp XHDPI devices in existence!

What does this mean? Why do I care? It means that on some devices in some scenarios, you're going to end up with more free space that you expected and a smaller perception. Instead a larger graphic is more appropriate and that's something to consider when generating graphics. You'll need to make a conscious decision about which dimension is more important to you for each graphic, and enlarge appropriately. If you want a graphic to be perceived as being the same size on a 320dp-width and a 360dp-width HDPI device, then you might want to generate another copy at 360 ÷ 320 = 1.125x the original size. If you're supporting tablets then it might pay to do something similar for the most common tablet sizes.

Here's what I ended up with:

drawable-w360dp-hdpi1.6875Width-sensitive GFX only
drawable-xhdpi2 or 2.25 depending on the gfxEverything

If you'd like to learn more have a read of these:
Supporting Different Densities
Supporting Different Screen Sizes

More Next Time

I learnt more but I'll post that next time. If you read this far I hope I've been helpful.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Android Project Templates

Today I'd like to share some templates I've made for creating Android apps. They all use Maven and have been coerced into compatibility with Eclipse. There are a few different flavours which I will describe below. If you want to skip the reading and just want the code, np, it's all here:

Template #1: Java

Code available here.

This is the gist of what I use when I'm using Android + Java. It comes with a few add-ons to mitigate Java's verbosity and inflexibility and the fact that they all work together in harmony, even with Eclipse, well that's what makes this template gold. It took a while to get working way back when.

  • Lombok: Integrated into both Maven and Eclipse.
    Modified to play nice with Android, and added the ability to add @Inject to generated constructors.
    What is Lombok?
  • AndroidAnnotations: Integrated into both Maven and Eclipse.
    What is AndroidAnnotations?
  • CoFoJa: Contracts For Java provides annotations that can be used to verify pre-conditions, post-conditions and invariants. The validations are inherited so they're great for interfaces. Also they can be omitted from bytecode during compilation meaning you get more checking during tests and dev with no performance penalty in prod.
    More about CoFoJa.
  • Unit testing: Robolectric is being used for unit testing (along with an example of usage). I'm actually using a test library of mine (open-source) that includes Robolectric, FEST, Mockito and some Android-specific testing utilities.
    What is Robolectric?
  • Integration testing: Robotium is being used for integration testing (along with an example of usage).
    What is Robotium?
  • Android Lint: There's a profile that run Android Lint. Great for CI builds.
  • Findbugs: Findbugs has been integrated (not that it was effort). What's nice is that I've included a rules file to exclude certain Android-specific warnings. I'm a nice guy.
  • Proguard: Dev & release configs for Proguard are included.
  • Release: A release profile is included that runs Proguard, signs artifacts, and runs zipAlign.
  • AdMob: It's in there, ready to go but can also be deleted just as easily if you don't want it.
  • Eclipse settings: Auto-format on save. Auto-organise-imports on save. A TODOC tag for doco todos. More.

Template #2: Scala

Code available here.

Here you can use Scala instead of Java to build your app. The introduction of Scala renders obsolete the need for Lombok and AndroidAnnotations which simplifies the build process. As above, everything in this build works from CLI with Maven, and within Eclipse.

  • Scala: Scala app code. Scala unit tests. Scala integration tests. Scala proguard. Scala Eclipse. Scala everything!
  • Unit testing: Robolectric is being used for unit testing (along with an example of usage). I'm actually using a test library of mine (open-source) that includes Robolectric, FEST, Mockito and some Android-specific testing utilities.
    What is Robolectric?
  • Integration testing: Robotium is being used for integration testing (along with an example of usage).
    What is Robotium?
  • Android Lint: There's a profile that run Android Lint. Great for CI builds.
  • Proguard: Proguard is mandatory when Scala is used. Rules included so that Scala works. Dev & release configs for Proguard are included.
  • Release: A release profile is included that runs Proguard, signs artifacts, and runs zipAlign.
  • AdMob: It's in there, ready to go but can also be deleted just as easily if you don't want it.

NOTE: You cannot use Scala and Java together because it wrecks Eclipse. If you're using VIM or some other editor inferior to mighty VIM, you'll be fine with both languages simultaneously, Maven can handle it, just don't expect a happy life using Eclipse.

Template #3: Scala + Free/Paid Editions of Your App

Code available here.

Same as the Scala template above except this time instead of having a single app, you have an Android library and two separate apps that extend it.

  • Everything in template #2. See above.
  • Shared APK Library: Anything shared between your free & paid apps will live in the shared library. It's an Android library so resources can be shared too.
  • Separate Apps: Your free and paid apps are separate apps that extend the shared library. Additional code and/or resources can be dropped in as necessary.


To use one of these templates just copy the entire folder (and ensure you capture files starting with .). Next use the script to find places in the project where you need to swap out example values for real values. There's also a helper script, that you can use to perform recursive, mass regex replacements.

To load your project into Eclipse, simply hit FileImport...Existing Projects into Workspace. All the required Eclipse settings and files are already there in the template.


Sunday, 10 February 2013

Releasing an App for Android - Part 2

Continuing on from part 1...

4. Free and Paid Editions.

The Google Play marketplace doesn't allow free & paid editions of apps. If you want free & paid editions you will need to manage and release two separate apps with separate package names.

To do this I decided to go with the mainstream approach, namely, creating a separate projects. If you have shared code without shared Android resources (unlikely) then you'd simply move the shared code out into its own project and include the resulting jar as a dependency in the free & paid projects. With Android it's similar, you create an APK library. Practically this means adding android.library=true to your library's project properties and changing its pom packaging from apk to apklib. The free/paid projects wont contain much but they will need their own AndroidManifests and a reference to the library in the project properties such as android.library.reference.1=../library. That's the gist of it.

One annoying thing is that, like a few things that have come out of the Android dev camp, it's a hack. The resulting library is basically just a zip of the resources and the SOURCE CODE. When you use an Android library in a top-level project it unzips, merges and recompiles the library code. How annoying. The reason is the generated will produce different ids outside of the library, hence the recompilation. As far as I understand the system is therefore a quick hack. It might be fair enough - I don't know how much pressure the Android dudes are under or how well/poorly staffed they are. But technologically speaking is still a hack. Oh well. Make sure Scala incremental compilation is on as it takes a large bite of the build pain.

In retrospect it was a good thing that I saved this step until the end. The time to alter the build & structure (especially if you've got a working reference) near the end of the project will be much less than both the time spent by managing 3 separate projects instead of 1; and the time wasted by waiting on the extra compilation, dexing and proguard'ing.

Tip #1: Use a single project for as long as you can get away with but anticipate that towards the end you'll need a little time to split out library, free, and paid projects.

Tip #2: Anything edition-specific should be separated from anything shared. For example, create an ad banner layout and then <include> it rather than using an AdView directly. Later you can configure things so that the paid edition gets a NOP layout.

5. Advertising.

I started not knowing anything about ads. Basically I did this:

  1. Sign up with AdMob.
  2. Fill in all your bank details so they can pay you. You'll also need a merchant account with Google Play.
  3. Add your app but don't give it a market URL yet. This allows you to get an ID that you can start using before you release.
  4. AdMob doesn't just show you their own ads; they connect to other ad networks and can show you their ads too. That was surprising. Advantage us because it means that once you get ads working in your app and you want to use a different ad provider like InMobi or MobFox, you can just sign up with those guys, get your ID and plug it into AdMob on their website. No code changes required. You can even configure Admob to show ads from a combination of providers, or use different providers for certain countries.
  5. Get the AdMob SDK and wire it into your project.
  6. Follow the instructions on this page to integrate ads into your layout: Reading all those pages is a good idea.
  7. Finally, if you want ads to refresh every 60 sec or so, don't do it in code; play around in the AdMob website and you'll find settings for it. You can also customise the appearance of ads on the website or in code.

Now I don't know much about how it all works yet but this is what I've gleamed:

  • Every time an ad is shown to a user it's called an “impression”. You get nothing, $0.00, for impressions.
  • Every time an ad is clicked you get something small like $0.03.
  • RPM = “Revenue Per Mile” = the amount of money you've made per 1000 impressions.
  • Fill rate = Quote: Fill rate represents the percentage of ad requests that satisfy the ad requests sent by the app. It is a measure of AdMob's ability to serve ads in your app with the existing inventory.
  • You'll see eCPM everywhere, it stands for “effective cost per mile”. It's a metric indicating how effective/profitable a particular ad network has been for you so far. Don't freak out when AdMob says eCPM $0.00 when you first sign up, that just means you haven't had any clicks yet. The formula is 1000 x Cost-per-Click x Click-Through-Rate.

And we've reached the boundary of my knowledge on the topic. Hope you enjoyed the tour.

Tip #1: Filter logcat by tag “Ads” to see all your AdMob logs.

Tip #2: Search the AdMob logs for your test device ID and then plug that into the ads:testDevices attribute of your view. From what I hear the AdMob support is notoriously bad so if you get in trouble with your account, it's far from easy to get it back online.

Tip #3: eCPM is a metric of how well an ad network has been for someone. It's not a setting that you need to configure (even though it looks that way from AdMobs UI).

6. Localisation.

Not much to say here. Android warns you constantly about externalising your strings which is good. It doesn't monitor your source code though. If paranoid or you have a large team, Eclipse can warn when it finds strings without something like //$NON-NLS-1. Checkstyle et al probably have a similar feature.

Tip #1: Either put non-translatable strings into a file called donottranslate.xml (seriously – Android Lint requirement) or give them an attribute translatable="false".

Tip #2: A split to paid/free editions will introduce new strings. Consider this before sending out text for translation.

Tip #3: The marketplace description(s) will also need translation. Write and include that before sending out text for translation.

Tip #4: Your text is easier to manage when all in one place. Therefore don't include separate strings in the free/paid versions; put them all in the library project together then just reference them differently in each app. If you don't want to change the references then reference an alias and change the alias in each project. Example:

Library project:
  <string name="app_name_free">Bananas (free)</string>
  <string name="app_name_paid">Bananas (pro)</string>
  <string name="app_name">@string/app_name_paid</string>

Free project:
  <string name="app_name">@string/app_name_free</string>

Tip #5: Use the app in each language to spot-check the layout. Certain languages might need tweaking to look good. For example, a language like Japanese that doesn't use spaces might need a manual endline (\n) so that it doesn't end up with one character dangling and the word split across lines.

7. Proguard.

If you don't know what Proguard is, it's a tool that shrinks, "validates", optimises and obfuscates your binaries.

Scala on Android demands it.
Optimisation is very slow.
Obfuscation didn't seem to do very much to my app although it happily obfuscated my dependency libraries.

I managed to speed things up by having two proguard configs: dev & release. Turn off optimisation and obfuscation in the dev config and you will save a lot of time. With optimisation enabled it can take minutes at a time. I've uploaded my configs here:

Tip #1: Reuse existing proguard configs.

Tip #2: Use separate dev & release proguard configs.

8. Signing.

Your app will need to be signed (and then zip-aligned, in that order) in order to release it. To sign it you need to have your own certificate that doesn't expire until at least 2033 (which isn't the best for security but I don't make the rules). It's a Java thing so just google keytool and you'll be done pretty quickly. You'll need to create and save 2 passwords: one for the key, one for the store. I generated mine with this command: (tip: script it or purge it from shell history when done)

keytool -genkey -v \
  -keystore <keystore filename> \
  -alias <keystore name> \
  -keyalg RSA -keysize 4096 -validity 10000 \
  -keypass 'xxxxxxxxxx' \
  -storepass 'yyyyyyyyyy'

Once you're done, make sure you backup your keys and passwords then it's time to integrate signing into your build. For a Maven project you need to weave a massive blob of shit into your poms in order to integrate signing and zip-align. They should be in a release profile and all up it comes to around 100 lines of XML (!). I don't remember how much I was able to refactor into my parent pom (as my project is multi-module) but I don't think it was all of it. I'll post all the Maven stuff shortly anyway. Most of the time spent on signing was getting Maven to work properly.

Tip #1: Either ditch Maven for something better, or make sure you copy a working Maven Android project that has signing. (I'll post my Maven stuff shortly.)

9. Build Automation.

Last but not least, we arrive at something that is actually important from day #1 of the coding period: build automation. Very important. Obviously. I used Maven and ended up creating a multi-module project which I'll post more on later. Suffice to say Maven gave me trouble, and cost me too much time. I want to switch to something else and I have my eye on SBT.

I did some tests on SBT recently and the results supported the rumours that SBT is faster than Maven. A build of a single, simple Android project took 35 sec with Maven, verses the same project at 24 sec with SBT. That's a 31% saving. A clean build of my multi-module Maven project takes 2 minutes and I wonder how fast it would be with SBT. If I assumed flat 31% saving again, that's 120 sec down to 82 sec. Nice. I didn't investigate further because it's time-consuming and because I worry about Eclipse integration. I'm sure Eclipse + SBT = happy days, but it seems that Eclipse + ADT + SBT = pain. ADT is extremely inflexible and the sbt-android plugin is way too poorly documented for an SBT noob like me. If I changed the dir & file structure to suit ADT an expert might be able to modify the sbt-android build pretty easily but I can't. Also, it practically has a seizure if you give it a full AndroidManifest as it wants to create its own. I imagine that ADT wouldn't be too happy about that. Would loooooove to be shown the error of my ignorant ways here so if anyone knows, ping me.

Another thing is that Maven is archaic and verbose. Reuse between modules is impossible in some situations; there are 6-year-old bugs and feature requests for mixins that are still open... SBT on the other hand is concise and allows as much reuse as you can shake a stick at (and I can shake a stick at A LOT of reuse).

But any further bitching about Maven is just that at this point: bitching. So I'll suck it up and declare that though sweat and toil I've come to have a great multi-module Maven Android project setup with library, free/paid projects, and free/paid (instrumented) integration test projects working together, nuances coerced, effective for dev and release builds. I'll be posting it shortly.

In Conclusion

Looking back on all these issues I can now see how it took 5 or 6 days to go from 95% dev complete to released, despite doing 0%-95% in 2 days. I'll be applying these lessons during my other Android projects and I hope it helps others (yes you!) as well.