Save $300 on CocoaConf Next Door

My pals at CocoaConf asked me to remind you that the Early Bird sale ends in two weeks for CocoaConf Next Door — the one taking place in San Jose during WWDC.

I’ll be there. At least in the afternoons.

Check out the speakers list. Yummy, chewy, nutty speakers list.

Frontier Diary #4: The QuickDraw Problem and Where It Led Me

In my fork of Frontier there are still over 600 deprecation warnings. A whole bunch of these are due to QuickDraw calls.

For those who don’t know: QuickDraw was how, in the old days, you drew things to the Mac’s screen. It was amazing for its time and pretty easy to work with. Functions included things like MoveTo, LineTo, DrawLine, FrameOval, and so on. All pretty straightforward.

These days we have Core Graphics instead, and we have higher-level things like NSBezierPath. QuickDraw was simpler — though yes, sure, that was partly because it did less.

* * *

I was looking at all these deprecation warnings for QuickDraw functions and wondering how I’m ever going to get through them.

I could, after all, convert all or most of them to the equivalent Core Graphics thing. But sheesh, what a bunch of work.

And, in the end, it would still be a Carbon app, but with modern drawing.

* * *

So I thought about it from another angle. The goal is to get to the point where it’s a 64-bit Cocoa app. All these QuickDraw calls are in the service of UI — so why not just start over with a Cocoa UI?

The app has some outlines (database browser, script editor, etc.), a basic text editor, and a handful of small dialogs. And all of that is super-easy in Cocoa.

Use an NSOutlineView, NSTextView, and some xibs for the dialogs, and we’re done. (Well, after some work, but not nearly the same amount of work as actually writing an outliner from scratch.)

In other words, instead of going from the bottom up — porting the existing source code — I decided to start from the top down.

I started a new workspace and started a new Frontier project: a Cocoa app with Swift as the default language.

Then I looked at the existing source and thought about how to organize things. I came up with this:

  • Frontier — App UI
  • UserTalk.framework — the language
  • FrontierVerbs.framework - the standard library
  • FrontierDB.framework — the object database
  • FrontierCore.framework — common utility functions and extensions

I like using frameworks, because it helps enforce separation, and it helps in doing unit testing. And frameworks are so easy with Swift these days.

Hardly any of this is filled-in yet. I’ve got the barest start on FrontierVerbs. Ted Howard, my partner in all this, is taking UserTalk.framework and FrontierDB.framework.

In the end, it’s possible that no code from the original code base survives. Which is totally fine. But it also means that this is no quick project.

At this point I should probably put it up on GitHub, since it’s easier to write about it if I can link to the code. I’ll do that soon, possibly on the weekend.

Frontier Diary #3: Built-in Verbs Configuration

Frontier’s standard library is known as its built-in verbs. There are a number of different tables: file, clock, xml, and so on. Each contains a number of verbs: file.readWholeFile,, and so on.

Most of these verbs are implemented in C, in the kernel, rather than as scripts. At the moment, to add one of these kernel verbs, you have to jump through a few hoops: edit a resource, add an integer ID, add to a switch statement, etc. It’s a pain and is error-prone.

So I want to re-do this in Swift, because I’m all about Swift. And I want adding verbs to be fool-proof: I don’t want to remember how to configure this every single time I add a verb. Adding a verb needs to be easy.

My thinking:

  • Give each table its own class: ClockVerbs, FileVerbs, etc.
  • Have each class report the names of the verbs it supports. These need to be strings, because we get a string at runtime.
  • Run a verb simply by looking up the selector, performing it, and returning the result.

To make things easy and obvious, I think it should work like this: the selector for a given verb is its name plus a parameter. Then there’s not even a lookup step.

Each verb will take a VerbParameters object and return a VerbResult object.

dynamic func readWholeFile(_ params: VerbParameters) -> VerbResult

The flow goes like this:

  1. We have the string file.readWholeFile.
  2. We see the file suffix and so we know we need a FileVerbs object.
  3. We check fileVerbs.supportedVerbs (an array) to see if readWholeFile is in the list. It is.
  4. We construct a selector using the readWholeFile part of the string and we add a : character: NSSelectorFromString(verbName + ":")

This is great! We’re almost home free. Then we run the verb:

if let result = perform(selector, with: params) as? VerbResult {
    return result

That doesn’t work. We get:

Cast from 'Unmanaged<AnyObject>! to unrelated type 'VerbResult' always fails


* * *

It was so close.

In Objective-C this would have worked. And obviously, apparently, I still think in Objective-C.

I investigated some other options. At one point enums were abused, because there’s always, in Swift, an enum-abuse step. But everything I tried was more code and was more error-prone, and my goal here is to improve the situation.

I think, in the end, I’m going to do something that looks kind of ugly: a switch statement where the cases are string literals.

switch(verbName) {
case "readWholeFile":
    return readWholeFile(params)

“Nooooo!” you cry. I hear ya.

My experience as an object-oriented programmer tells me this: if I write a switch statement, I blew it.

And my experience as a programmer tells me that string literals are a bad idea.

But the above may actually be the easiest to configure and maintain. Each string literal appears only in that one switch statement and nowhere else in the code. And the mapping between a verb name and its function couldn’t be more clear — it’s right there.

(Yes, instead of using a string literal, I could create a String enum and switch on that. But that’s actually more code and more room for error. I’m going to have to type those string literals somewhere, so why not right where they’re used?)

It does mean that readWholeFile appears three times in the code (the string literal, the call, and the function itself), and in an Objective-C version it would appear only twice (in a supportedVerbs array and the method itself).

But. Well.

I’m torn between shuddering in abject and complete horror at this solution and thinking, “Hey, that’s pretty straightforward. Anybody could read it. Anybody could edit it.” Which was the plan all along.

And I get to stick with Swift, so there’s that.

But, sure as shootin’, some day someone’s going to come across this code and say, “Brent, dude, are ya new?” And I’ll send them the link to this page.

* * *

Update the next day: well, the performSelector thing would work, if only I’d known about Swift Unmanaged objects.

Joe Groff told me how this works.

Here’s the gist: the Unmanaged<AnyObject> just needs to be unwrapped by calling takeRetainedValue or takeUnretainedValue. Once unwrapped, it can be cast to VerbResult.

All this means that I can use my original design, which is great news.

Frontier Diary #2: Two Good Ideas that Aren’t Good Anymore

Strings in Frontier are usually either Pascal strings or Handles.

You probably don’t know what I’m talking about. I’ll explain.

Pascal Strings

Frontier is a Mac Toolbox app that’s been Carbonized just enough to run on OS X. You may recall that the Mac Toolbox was written so long ago that the original API was in Pascal. That Pascal heritage lived on in many ways, even after everyone switched to C — and one of those ways was Pascal strings.

A Pascal string is n bytes long, and the first byte specifies the length of the string, which leaves the rest of the bytes for the actual string. Str255 was probably most common, and certainly is most common in Frontier, but there are also smaller sizes: Str63 and Str31, for instance.

Unlike C strings, they’re not zero-terminated, since there’s no need to calculate the length: you always know it from that first byte.

You create a literal Pascal string like this…

Str255 s = "\pThis is a string";

…and the compiler turns the \p into the correct length (16 in this case).

Now, I bet you’re saying to yourself, “Self, those Pascal strings are too small to be useful.”

But consider this: every menu item name can fit into a Pascal string. You can fit a window title or a file name into a Pascal string (in fact, memory suggests that file names were even shorter, were Str31 Pascal strings). Any label or message on any bit of UI is probably short enough to fit into a Pascal string. (Especially if you assume English.)

So for GUI apps these were terrifically useful, and the 255-byte limit was no problem. (You can fit a tweet in a Pascal string, after all, with a bunch of room left over. [Well, depending on the size of the characters.])

Frontier still uses them internally a ton. (For some reason, in the Frontier code, Str255 strings are called bigstring, which sounds ironic, since they’re so small, but I think it was to differentiate them from even smaller Pascal strings such as Str31.)

You might ask what the text encoding was for these strings.

“Text whatzit?” I’d reply. “Oh, I see. Just regular.” (MacRoman.)

It was a good idea, but its time has come and gone. We have better strings these days.


Frontier includes a scripting language and a database, which means it certainly has a need for strings much larger than 255 bytes.

It also needs heap storage for other things — binary data, structs, etc. — that could be much larger than 255 bytes.

Enter the Handle. A Handle points to a pointer that might move: the memory you access via a Handle is relocatable.

Which sounds awful, I know, but it was a smart optimization in the days when your Mac’s memory would be a single-digit number of megabytes, or even less than that.

Here’s the problem: your application’s heap space can become fragmented. It could have a whole bunch of gaps in it after a while. So, to regain that memory, the system could compact the heap — it would remove those gaps, which means relocating the memory pointed to via a Handle.

This is better than running out of memory, obviously. But it means that you have to be careful when dereferencing a Handle: you have to actually lock it first — HLock(h) — so that it can’t be moved while you’re using it. (And then you unlock it — HUnlock(h) — when finished.)

Handles are also resizable — SetHandleSize(h, size) — and resizing a Handle can result in it needing to move, if there’s not enough space where it is. Or other Handles might move. You don’t ever know, and don’t care, and you think this is elegant because the system handles it all for you.

All you have to deal with is an additional level of indirection (**h instead of *p), locking and unlocking it when needed, and disposing of it — DisposeHandle(h) — when finished. (No, there’s no reference counting, slacker.)

Nowadays, on OS X, Handles don’t ever move and there’s no heap compaction. So there’s no reason for them whatsoever. And they are, as expected, deprecated.

Nevertheless, Frontier, a Mac Toolbox app written in C, uses Handles everywhere.

(I remember being shocked, when I first started learning Cocoa 15 years ago, that there were no Handles. It seemed incredibly daring that objects were just pointers. It made me nervous!)

The Size of the Job

Almost all the Mac APIs that Frontier uses are deprecated. That’s one thing.

But it’s worse than just that: the ways Frontier handles strings and pretty much every single thing it stores on the heap are also deprecated.

So: what to do?

The end goal is a Cocoa app, which means I’ll be able to use Foundation, CoreFoundation, and Swift data types: NSString and Swift String, for instance. There are a number of different structs in the code, and those will be turned into Objective-C and Swift objects and Swift structs.

The tricky part, though, is getting from here to there. I think the first step is to start with Objective-C and Foundation types and use them where possible. I can do that without actually turning it into a Cocoa app (the app will still have its own WaitNextEvent event loop and Carbon windows) — which means I’ll have to bracket all Objective-C code in autorelease pools, and I’ll have to use manual retains and releases. I’m not sure how far that will get me, but it will get me closer.

PS Here are a couple articles by Gwynne Raskind on the Mac Toolbox you might enjoy: Friday Q&A 2012-01-13: The Mac Toolbox and The Mac Toolbox: Followup.

Two Little-Known and Completely Unrelated Facts

One. OmniOutliner’s outline view is implemented as CALayers rather than as a view with subviews. (I don’t think I’m giving away a trade secret here.)

Two. If you eat fenugreek, your armpits will smell like maple syrup.

iOS, JavaScript, and Object Hierarchies

Rob Fahrni:

Given x-callback-url and App URL schemes in general it would be extremely cool to use those to create object hierarchies using JavaScript. Why JavaScript? Well, it’s native to iOS and applications can use the runtime.

CocoaConf Near WWDC

There are a bunch of things happening near WWDC this year. Me, I’ll be at CocoaConf Next Door. I’m not preparing a talk, but I’ll probably be on a panel. And hanging out.

Check out the speakers list, which includes Omni’s own Liz Marley. And a bunch of other people you totally want to see — Manton Reece, Jean MacDonald, Laura Savino, and plenty more.

Also… AltConf and Layers will be near WWDC. If you could be in three places at once, you would. Well, four, including WWDC itself, I suppose. :)

OmniOutliner 5.0 for Mac

I’ve been on the OmniOutliner team for over a year now. Though we don’t have positions like junior and senior developer, I enjoy calling myself the junior developer on the Outliner team, since I’m newest.

I may be a new developer, but I’m not a new user — I’ve been using the app since the days when OmniOutliner 3 came installed on every Mac.

Every time I start a talk, I outline it first. I organize the work I need to do in my side-project apps in OmniOutliner. And — don’t tell the OmniFocus guys, who are literally right here — sometimes I even use it for to-do management in general. I’d be lost without a great outliner.

Anyway… there’s a new version: OmniOutliner 5.0. It’s my first dot-oh release at Omni, and I’m proud of it and proud of the team.

As is common with our apps, we have two levels: a regular level and a Pro level. The regular level is called “Essentials” and is just $9.99. There’s a demo so you can try it out first.

It syncs with iOS and with other Macs, by the way. Sync is free. And of course it comes with extensive documentation, and Omni’s awesome support humans are standing by.

Get it while it’s hot!

Frontier Diary #1: VM Life

It’s been years since I could build the Frontier kernel — but I finally got it building.

It’s really a ’90s Mac app that’s been Carbonized just enough to run on MacOS, but it’s by no means modern: it uses QuickDraw and early Carbon APIs. It’s written entirely in C.

I got it building by installing MacOS 10.6.8 Server in VMWare. Installed Xcode 3.2.6. And now, finally, I can build and run it.

What is Frontier?

Frontier — as some of you know — was a UserLand Software product in the ’90s and 2000s. I worked there for about six years.

The app is a development environment and runtime: a persistent, hierarchical database with a scripting language and a GUI for browsing and editing the database and for writing, debugging, and running scripts.

The Nerd’s Guide to Frontier gives some idea of what it’s like, though it was written before many of the later advances.

Maybe you’ve never heard of it. But here’s the thing: it was in Frontier that the following were either invented or popularized and fleshed-out: scripted and templated websites, weblogs, hosted weblogs, web services over http, RSS, RSS readers, and OPML. (And things I’m forgetting.)

Those innovations were due to the person — Dave Winer — and to the times, the relatively early web days. But they were also in part due to the tool: Frontier was a fantastic tool for implementing and iterating quickly.

The Goal

The high-level goal is to make that tool available again, because I think we need it.

The plan is to turn it into a modern Mac app, a 64-bit Cocoa app, and then add new features that make sense these days. (There are so many!) But that first step is a big one.

The first part of the first step is simple, and it’s where I am now: mass deletions of code. Every reference to THINK_C and MPWC has to go. All references to the 68K and PPC versions must go. There was a Windows port, and all that code is getting tossed. And then I’ll see the scale of what needs to be done.

(Note: my repo is a fork, and it’s not even on the web yet. The code I’m deleting is never really gone.)

I’m doing a blog diary on it because it helps keep me focused. Otherwise I’m jumping around on my side projects. But if I have to write about it, then I’ll stay on target.

The Goal

The goal isn’t specifically impeachment and conviction. It’s for Trump to leave office.

The stretch goal is that he dies broke and in prison.

But we could settle for him going down in history as our worst President, as the worst person ever to become President, with the name Trump held in less esteem than that of Benedict Arnold, with Trumpism — that pseudo-populist white nationalism for the benefit of the super-rich — thoroughly loathed and seen for the brutish scam that it is.

I think there comes a point before an actual trial in the Senate where Republican leaders — in Congress, in the Cabinet, wherever — realize that Trump can no longer govern, and they tell him so and urge him to resign.

And I think he actually does resign at that point. He’s been through bankruptcy, and he’s shown that when there’s no path to winning, he’ll take the easiest route out of the situation, the route that leaves him the most status. He doesn’t have the stick-to-it-iveness to go to trial in the Senate: he’d quit.

I don’t know what it will take to bring Republican leaders to this point. Their ongoing cowardice is the real scandal — when faced with a threat to our democracy, they play along because they’re hoping for some goodies.

I don’t think they get to this point unless the public gets to this point, and so I look to the approval polls. If it gets below 30%, it’s probably there because of further revelations in the Russia affair, and it’s probably at the point where even cowards feel safe in doing the right thing — even if only to save their own necks, which will need saving.

But right now Speaker Ryan won’t even replace Devin Nunes as chair of the house intelligence committee. So there’s still a long way to go.