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Functional Programming Is A Scam!

10 June 2013

I apologize for not wrapping up my series of posts on nominal logic programming, I'll return to that bit of fun soon enough. But lets take leave of theoretical computer science and turn to something more "pragmatic".

In this post I want to talk about my port of Notch's beautiful Minecraft JavaScript demo to ClojureScript. When I say beautiful I'm not referring to the code - frankly it's ugly. And being a faithful port the ClojureScript version ain't much prettier. But this post isn't about writing beautiful code, it's about ClojureScript's suitability for computationally intensive interactive applications. However, I did make one very important major conceptual change to Notch's code and I'll elaborate on this later.

Without further ado here it is (it will look best in Chrome & Firefox):

Pretty neat huh? It's not just fast, it's quite small, shockingly small given that ClojureScript ships with a standard library nearly 7500 lines long. That's right, 400 lines of pretty printed Closure advanced compiled code (200 of those are unnecessary and will disappear when ClojureScript gets real keywords instead of piggy-backing on JavaScript strings).

Voodoo?! No, Google Closure Compiler dead code elimination is really that good. I've only employed the ClojureScript operations that map directly to fast JavaScript constructs, no persistent data structures or cool seq operations in sight and the advanced compiled source reflects that.

Local mutation

So then where and how does this version really diverge from the original? Are we just back to writing yucky mutable JavaScript with crazy syntax? Is functional programming in the end unsuitable for demanding interactive applications? Some time ago this blog post made me wonder.

First off, Notch's original source, like many typical JavaScript applications, unnecessarily wields global mutation - the procedural texture and block generation both operate on global mutable arrays. In the ClojureScript port we instead have functions that return the populated arrays. this is the value oriented approach - set! is pure code smell for a Clojure programmer.

For example here is the block generation code:

Ok, but still isn't it cheating to be bashing on mutable arrays inside of functions?

No even among people who argue even more strongly for functional purity, local mutation is absolutely ok. Clojure has long supported this insanely great idea in the notion of transients.

But what about render-minecraft!? In the original Notch allocated an ImageData instance once and he would bash on this at each turn of the loop.

Surprisingly this bit of optimization is entirely unnecessary. We can allocate this internally every single time render-minecraft! is called - the cost of allocating a 424 by 240 ImageData object is completely dwarfed by the real work done in render-minecraft!.

Challenges

I admit one tricky bit that required experimentation is that Clojure's semantics don't admit mutable locals - something that Notch's code uses freely. This required a little bit of experimenting, I tried using a Box type with one mutable field, I tried putting the entire render step into a deftype with mutable fields. In the end I settled on representing mutable locals as arrays of one element. The performance of this representation is stunningly good on Chrome and pretty good in Firefox as well. Surprisingly Safari performs the least well on this bit of code and I haven't had time to dig into why.

I honestly spent most of the development time just trying to understand what the original code did. I did find the ClojureScript development cycle relatively pleasant due to lein-cljsbuild's auto feature. I wish we had CoffeeScript's lightning fast build times, but once the JVM is warm, the turn around is not large enough to matter.

One thing that I absolutely loved about using ClojureScript on this is how many warnings you get from the compiler - getting file and line information for typos and bad arities for functions calls save a lot of time I often lose when doing JavaScript.

The one real scratch your head issue I ran into while developing this was a Google Closure mishandling of the modulo operator. Closure will incorrectly remove parentheses, this is easily worked around by putting the result of the modulo operation in an intermediate variable but I lost more time on this subtle issue than I care to recall.

While this exercise might only seem like a bit of fun, it really isn't. If ClojureScript could not guarantee this kind of performance we would have written those fancy persistent data structures in JavaScript the same way Clojure on the JVM implements them in Java.

I think the intersection of computationally intensive games and functional programming is a rich area to innovate and ClojureScript provides the tools needed to forge new ground.