Sunday, July 18, 2010

Thoughts on an iPad R (or similar device)

This has come up a few times on various lists I read and I have a strong opinion, so I figured I'd jot down some notes. The topic of discussion is the notion of R running on an Apple iPad, the inevitable Android Pads or the HP Slate (assuming the thing ever makes it out the door). Maybe even some sort of Windows 7 Mobile device.

There are a couple of immediate hurdles that come to mind:

* Limited RAM. The iPad has 256MB, the iPhone 4 has 512MB. A standard R compute box sports, what, 4GB at a minimum these days? Sure, back when I started using R I had maybe 512MB or 1GB of ram on my laptop, but I also had a lot less data back then.

* Battery. It doesn't really matter how fast the processors in these things are, the big problem is battery. Batteries aren't really getting better, the 10 hour battery life in modern laptops comes from a) bigger batteries (this is real reason you can't remove the battery from an Apple laptop anymore---doing that lets you wedge a bigger battery into the box without weight gain) and b) aggressive power management for the CPU.

* Apple prohibits interpreters outside of very specific use cases (games, Javascript). This is an Apple specific thing, but it's worth mentioning as there are now a lot of iPads out there. (Also Fortran is an issue under the new rules.)

For those reasons, I don't think there should be an R that runs directly on your Pad device the same way it does on your desktop. You don't have enough RAM and if you crank up the processor enough you'll destroy your battery life. Just look at what your favorite game does to your battery and remember that it gets to use specialized hardware for its processing.

So what should we do instead? Those who've known me for a while (they probably don't read this, but whatever) will remember StatPaper and the "Kernel" R hobby projects I've had at various times. Both operated on the premise that the R engine itself should run in a separate process from the UI and interact with the user through some sort of remote connection. This was inspired by Mathematica in the case of StatPaper and by the desire to use the multiple cores found in most machines through a single GUI in the case of Kernel R (which let you spin up multiple R consoles and transfer data between them).

I don't really work on either anymore, I have a day job and don't really program recreationally anymore (not that I dislike programming, it's just that I have work problems that provide a focus for learning new technologies and noodling around so I tend to go there first). But I do still like the idea of them and I think they could work for R. Here's I think what looks like a plan.

* Move away from the notion of R on a filesystem. R should really be living in something like a database, probably an object database. One option might be some of the new-ish document-oriented databases like CouchDB or MongoDB. Both would let you serialize R objects into documents using something that looked a lot like a standard environment.

* These databases should also live in a cloud environment (Cloudy-R! Eh? I know you like it). Having some sort of standard serialization that wasn't R specific could also let you have other applications updating data and using results. This lets R focus one what it's good at without being forced to do something it isn't good at (like web UIs).

* Use the same serialization format as the command format for a remote R UI. The serialization format should ALSO encode the graphics device.

Once you have those things you have the core of what you need for your Pad R. You have an R that exists in an always running state (because you could serialize the entire R environment to your database when the environment is idle. If you build it carefully you could probably even eliminate the need for a sticky session but that would likely involve some rummaging about in the internals).

On the client side, you can start simple with the familiar console interface then you can start to experiment with other interface modalities. Perhaps some sort of direct manipulation of a graphics object for exploratory data analysis.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Fascinating Captain...

I recently learned that Snow Leopard includes a (public!) framework called IOSurface that allows for the sharing of basically OpenGL textures between processes. That neatly solves the problem with having your graphics device running in a separate process for the GUI. Previously, I've shipped bitmaps around between the GUI and the backing process (which is headless) but this could definitely be a performance improvement both in update speed and in memory. I'll have to look into it.

I suspect even RGL could be made to operate in this mode though you'd need some help from the package since it expects to run an event loop for handling mouse interaction with the scene graph.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Aw, nuts.

Upgraded to Snow Leopard and so it is time once again to make some changes to my personal R GUI--if for no other reason than to test cool stuff like Blocks and Grand Central Dispatch. It also looks like there's some interesting developments in Pasteboards and a few other under the hood places.

First off are Blocks. They look like function pointers but they definitely aren't. They're actually Objective-C classes that you can treat like functions. Very Smalltalk, complete with similar tricks to stuff their data onto the stack you explicitly move them to the heap (they're objects so you can copy them).

Unfortunately, they are not interchangeable with C function pointers so you can't just use them as callback functions. A shame really, since right now I have a libffi-based binding between the R callback functions (ReadConsole, WriteConsole, etc) to thunk to Objective-C methods. All hope is not lost, the R binding is not so complicated so writing a Block compatible version shouldn't be too hard.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Seen in a report about the G1...

Says Tim Bray about the G1's browser (compared to the iPhone's Safari browser):

All they need to catch up is some fit-and-finish and that little pinch/unpinch trick for zooming.

Yes, well... Horseshoes, hand grenades and thermonuclear devices and all that. Seriously, the only thing that really sets one operating system apart from another IS fit and finish. Something the Linux On The Desktop (or laptop for that matter) have never really figured out. Aping pieces of Windows and OS X (I notice modern distros seem to have BOTH a start bar AND a global menu bar... why?) will never get you fit and finish. Some poor bastard (bastards most likely) sitting down and smoothing the hell out of the rough interface edges is what's going to get you there.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Ah, interesting....

It looks like someone is finally doing a commercial R of some sort (and congrats on the series A to anyone who may work there) over at REvolution Computing (and thanks to Ben for sending me Google alert). I always sort of wondered why Insightful didn't try to wire up their GUI stuff from S-PLUS to the R engine, aside from maybe some sort of licensing concern. Though it looks like a lot of people involved are ex-Insightful the website seems to indicate more of a focus on support rather than front end--I'll be very curious to see how that plays out.

No official Mac support though, so it's unlikely to affect my life for the time being. ;-)

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


The feature freeze for R 2.7.0 is in place with an expected April 22nd release. I've noticed some of the locale stuff has changed recently (LC_CTYPE and the like) so I'll need to fix those warning messages. Right now I'm setting up the IKImageBrowserView-backed graphics device interface for the GUI, though the built-in quartz device has been serving me well so far. There are a couple of reasons for the view set up, which uses bitmaps to represent the graphics device on the backend. After the page is completed, the bitmap is converted to a more efficient representation (e.g. PNG) for temporary storage and the display list recorded into the device. We'll also continue to cheat and provide a Cover Flow mode (no, I don't care that it's a private API).

Another interesting feature is that, unlike the current Mac GUI, the graphics device is considered a View on the same Model (the interpreter). We'll see how it plays out, but that might help with some of the fancy footwork usually required when dealing with the NSDocumentController.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Implementing XCode 3 parenthesis highlighting

One of the things I like about XCode 3 is the parenthesis matching. It seems very obtrusive at first, but I find it works better than the more subtle Emacs-style matching once you get used to it. For the R GUI I wanted to implement the same thing, which turned out to be fairly simple.

The highlighter is implemented using the new [NSTextView showFindIndicatorInRange:] so there's literally no work to do there.

The first thing you need to know is that adding this functionality in textView:shouldChangeTextInRange:replacementString: won't work because the text is added after the method executes and that removes the find indicator. Fortunately, we just implemented a custom keybinding in the last post so all we need to do is bind the various close delimiters to special selectors (fancyCloseParen: for example). Then we can do things in doCommandBySelector:

// ...
} else if(@selector(fancyCloseParen:) == aSelector) {
[self insertDelimiter:')' withMatch:'(' inTextView:aTextView atPosition:aRange.location];
return YES;
} // ...

next all we have to do is find the delimiter (which we do with a category on NSString) and then insert the find indicator:

- (void)insertDelimiter:(unichar)aDelim withMatch:(unichar)aMatch inTextView:(NSTextView*)aTextView atPosition:(NSInteger)aPos {
[aTextView insertText:[NSString stringWithFormat:@"%c",aDelim]];
NSRange where = [[aTextView string] rangeOfDelimiter:aMatch matching:aDelim inRange:NSMakeRange(lastPrompt,aPos-lastPrompt)];
if(where.location == NSNotFound)
[aTextView showFindIndicatorForRange:where];

Easy as pie.