Matthias Nehlsen

Software, Data, and Stuff

Weekly Update: Talk Transcripts, Clojure Architecture, OS X Yosemite

As I have no other article to publish this week, I thought a weekly update would be in order. Last week I wrote about making relevant and interesting talks more accessible. In the course of that project, I had eleven talks transcribed so far, four more than when I announced the project last week. Not only have I received great feedback about how appreciated this is, I have also learned a lot myself while proofreading the transcripts.

With all the stuff that I have learned and that I am still learning (with a few more talks in the pipeline), there are a couple of things that I want to rethink regarding the architecture of my BirdWatch application before I continue with describing the architecture further. So let me think first before I publish the next article on the application's architecture. No worries, I expect to have the next one out next week, or the week after that the lastest.

Thoughts from Guy Steele's talk on Parallel Programming

The talk that got me thinking the most about the BirdWatch application's architecture is Guy Steele's talk about Parallel Programming. Not only does he give a great explanation of the differences between parallelism and concurrency, he also gives great insights into the use of accumulators. So what, according to him, is concurrency? Concurrency is when multiple entities, such as users or processes, compete for scarce resources. In that case, we want efficient ways of utilizing the scarce resources (CPU, memory bandwidth, network, I/O in general) so that more of the entities can be served simultaneously time on the same box or number of boxes.

Parallelism, on the other hand, is when there are vast resources and we want to allocate as many of them as possible to the same number of entities. For example we could have a CPU-bound operation, a single user and 8, 12 or however many cores. If the operation is single-threaded, we won't be able to utilize the resources well at all.

We could, of course, split up the computation so that it runs on all the cores (maybe even on hundreds of boxes and thousands of cores), but that's easier said than done. Which brings me to accumulators. The [accumulator](, as the name suggests, is where intermediate results are stored while a computation is ongoing. As Guy points out, this has served us extremely well for as long as we didn't have to think about parallelism. If the computation happens serially in a single thread, the accumulator is great, but what do we do when we want to spawn 20 threads on a 32-core machine, or 1000 thread on 100 machines? If each of them had to work with the same accumulator, things would become messy and the accumulator would become the source of contention, with all kinds of ugly coordination and locking. That doesn't scale at all.

Guy suggests using divide-and-conquer instead so that each process in a parallelized approach only creates a partial result which will be combined with other partial results later. He argues for MapReduce in the small in addition to MapReduce in the large. I think this makes a lot of sense. That way, the partial results are created in the map phase on a number of threads (potentially on many machines) and the reduction is where the partial results are combined into a final result.

I had been thinking along these lines for a while already when thought about moving parts of the computation in BirdWatch for previous tweets (wordcount, retweet count, reach,...) to the server side as the current approach uses way more network bandwidth than strictly necessary. I was mostly thinking about it in terms of mergeability between partial results, which implies that the merge operation between two partial results is both associative and commutative.

To explain associative, let's say we have partial results A, B, C, D and we can merge them in any way we want, for example (A + B) + C + D or A + (B+ (C + D)) or whatever. As another example, let's say you have a script with 100 pages in 10 stacks. It doesn't matter in which way we build intermediate piles as long as we only merge neighboring piles so that the pile with the higher page count goes under the one with the lower page count.

Commutative means that order does not matter. For example, these are all the same: 11 + 5 + 16 + 10 and 10 + 16 + 5 + 11 are the same - both add up to 42.

After listening to Guy Steele's talk and proof-reading the transcript, I don't want to push the redesign any further but instead tackle it right away. I think it should be possible to divide the aggregation tasks in BirdWatch in smaller chunks that can then be combined in an associative and commutative way on the client (in ClojureScript), and I have an idea of how to do that. But let me get back into the hammock1 and ponder that idea some more. I'll certainly let you know what I come up with.

Update to OS X Yosemite

Last weekend I updated my production laptop to Yosemite. Of course, I did a full backup with Carbon Copy Cloner first and I also made sure that my old backup laptop was still working before I embarked on the update adventure, just in case. That turned out to be a good idea.

The system upgrade did not cause any actual trouble, all went smoothly and I also think that the new design looks great. BUT IT TOOK FOREVER. The time estimation was so off, it was worse than the worst Windows installation experiences ever. Overall it probably took six or seven hours. Apparently, this had to do with homebrew, check out this article for more information2.

Luckily I had read about the upgrade taking longer in a forum somewhere, so I wasn't too worried and just let the installer do its thing. If you plan on doing the upgrade, I think it will be worth it, but only do it when you don't need your machine for a while, like overnight (or you follow the instructions in the article above). All works nicely on my machine now as well, even without doing anything special, just with the consequence of giving me a free afternoon because of not being able to get any work done.

Also, you can press CMD-l to get a console output, which I found much more reassuring than having the installer tell me it'll need another 2 minutes that turn into 2 hours.


Okay, that's it for today. There are some additions to the Clojure Resources project and I have also added links to the talk transcripts in there. Please check out the talk-transcripts if you haven't done so already. I would love to hear from you if any of these transcripts helped you at all and made the content more accessible than it would have been otherwise.

Until next week, Matthias

  1. If you've never listened to Rich Hickey's talk about Hammock-driven development, you really should. Now there's also a transcript for that talk. You find the link to the video recording alongside the transcript.

  2. Thanks to @RobStuttaford for pointing this out.

© 2022 Matthias Nehlsen