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Mental Model Omnibus

All models are wrong, but some are useful

The re-frame tutorials initially focus on the domino narrative. The goal is to efficiently explain the mechanics of re-frame, and to get you reading and writing code ASAP.

But there are other perspectives on re-frame which will deepen your understanding.

This tutorial is a tour of these ideas, justifications and insights.
It is a little rambling, but the goal is for it to deliver for you at least one "Aaaah, I see" moment before the end.

If a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves.
-- Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

What is the problem?

First, we decided to build our SPA apps with ClojureScript, then we chose Reagent, then we had a problem. It was mid 2014.

For all its considerable brilliance, Reagent (+ React) delivers only the 'V' part of a traditional MVC framework.

But apps involve much more than V. We build quite complicated SPAs which can run to 50K lines of code. So, I wanted to know: where does the control logic go? How is state stored & manipulated? etc.

We read up on Pedestal App, Flux, Hoplon, Om, early Elm, etc., and re-frame is the architecture that emerged. Since then, we've tried to keep an eye on further developments like the Elm Architecture, Om.Next, BEST, Cycle.js, Redux, etc. They have taught us much although we have often made different choices.

re-frame does have parts which correspond to M, V, and C, but they aren't objects. It is sufficiently different in nature from (traditional, Smalltalk) MVC that calling it MVC would be confusing. I'd love an alternative.

Perhaps it is a RAVES framework - Reactive-Atom Views Event Subscription framework (I love the smell of acronym in the morning).

Or, if we distill to pure essence, DDATWD - Derived Data All The Way Down.

TODO: get acronym down to 3 chars! Get an image of stacked Turtles for DDATWD insider's joke, conference T-Shirt.

Guiding Philosophy

First, above all, we believe in the one true Dan Holmsand, creator of Reagent, and his divine instrument: the ratom. We genuflect towards Sweden once a day.

Second, we believe in ClojureScript, immutable data and the process of building a system out of pure functions.

Third, we believe in the primacy of data, for the reasons described in the main README. re-frame has a data oriented, functional architecture.

Fourth, we believe that Reactive Programming is one honking good idea. How did we ever live without it? It is a quite beautiful solution to one half of re-frame's data conveyance needs, but we're cautious about taking it too far - as far as, say, cycle.js. It doesn't take over everything in re-frame - it just does part of the job.

Finally, a long time ago in a galaxy far far away, I was lucky enough to program in Eiffel where I was exposed to the idea of command-query separation. The modern rendering of this idea is CQRS (see resources here). But, even today, we still see read/write cursors and two-way data binding being promoted as a good thing. Please, just say no. We already know where that goes. As your programs get bigger, the use of these two-way constructs will encourage control logic into all the wrong places and you'll end up with a tire-fire of an Architecture.
Sincerely, The Self-appointed President of the Cursor Skeptic's Society.

On DSLs and Machines

Events are cardinal to re-frame - they're a fundamental organising principle.

Each re-frame app will have a different set of events and your job is to design exactly the right ones for any given app you build. These events will model "intent" - generally the user's. They will be the "language of the system" and will provide the eloquence.

And they are data.

Imagine we created a drawing application. And then we allowed someone to use our application and, as they did, we captured, into a collection, the events caused by that user's actions (button clicks, drags, key presses, etc).

The collection of events might look like this:

(def collected-events
     [:new :triangle 1 2 3]
     [:select-object 23]
     [:rename "a better name"]

Now, as an aside, consider the following assembly instructions:

mov eax, ebx
sub eax, 216
mov BYTE PTR [ebx], 2

Assembly instructions are represented as data, right? Data which happens to be "executable" by the right machine - an x86 machine in the case above.

I'd like you to now look back at that collection of events and view it in the same way - data instructions which can be executed - by the right machine.

Wait. What machine? Well, the Event Handlers you register collectively implement the "machine" on which these instructions execute. When you register a new event handler using reg-event-db, it is like you are adding to the "instruction set" of the "machine".

In re-frame's README, near the top, I claimed that it had a Data Oriented Design. Typically, that claim means you "program" in a data structure of a certain format (Domain specific language), which is then "executed" by an interpreter.

Take hiccup as an example. It is a DSL for describing DOM. You program by supplying a data structure in a particular, known format (the DSL) and Reagent acts as the "interpreter" which executes that "language":

[:div {:font-size 12} "Hello"]  ;; a data structure

Back to re-frame. It requires that YOU design events which combine into a DSL for your app and, at the same time, it asks YOU to provide an interpreter for each instruction in that DSL. When your re-frame application runs, it is just executing a "program" (collection of events) dynamically created by the user's event-causing actions.

In summary:

  • Events are the assembly language of your app.
  • These instructions collectively form a Domain Specific Language (DSL). The language of your system.
  • These instructions are data.
  • One instruction after another gets executed by your functioning app.
  • The Event Handlers you register collectively implement the "machine" on which this DSL executes.

On the subject of DSLs, watch James Reeves' excellent talk (video): Transparency through data

It does Event Sourcing

How did that error happen, you puzzle, shaking your head ruefully? What did the user do immediately prior? What state was the app in that this event was so problematic?

To debug, you need to know this information:

  1. the state of the app immediately before the exception
  2. What final event then caused your app to error

Well, with re-frame you need to record (have available):

  1. A recent checkpoint of the application state in app-db (perhaps the initial state)
  2. all the events dispatched since the last checkpoint, up to the point where the error occurred

Note: that's all just data. Pure, lovely loggable data.

If you have that data, then you can reproduce the error.

re-frame allows you to time travel, even in a production setting. To find the bug, install the "checkpoint" state into app-db and then "play forward" through the collection of dispatched events.

The only way the app "moves forwards" is via events. "Replaying events" moves you step by step towards the error causing problem.

This is perfect for debugging assuming, of course, you are in a position to capture a checkpoint of app-db, and the events since then.

Here's Martin Fowler's description of Event Sourcing.

It does a reduce

Here's an interesting way of thinking about the re-frame data flow ...

First, imagine that all the events ever dispatched in a certain running app were stored in a collection (yes, event sourcing again). So, if when the app started, the user clicked on button X the first item in this collection would be the event generated by that button, and then, if next the user moved a slider, the associated event would be the next item in the collection, and so on and so on. We'd end up with a collection of event vectors.

Second, remind yourself that the combining function of a reduce takes two arguments:

  1. the current state of the reduction and
  2. the next collection member to fold in

Then notice that reg-event-db event handlers take two arguments also:

  1. db - the current state of app-db
  2. v - the next event to fold in

Interesting. That's the same as a combining function in a reduce!!

So, now we can introduce the new mental model: at any point in time, the value in app-db is the result of performing a reduce over the entire collection of events dispatched in the app up until that time. The combining function for this reduce is the set of event handlers.

It is almost like app-db is the temporary place where this imagined perpetual reduce stores its on-going reduction.

Now, in the general case, this perspective breaks down a bit, because of reg-event-fx (has -fx on the end, not -db) which allows:

  1. Event handlers to produce effects beyond just application state changes.
  2. Event handlers to have coeffects (arguments) in addition to db and v.

But, even if it isn't the full picture, it is a very useful and interesting mental model. We were first exposed to this idea via Elm's early use of foldp (fold from the past), which was later enshrined in the Elm Architecture.

Derived Data All The Way Down

For the love of all that is good, please watch this terrific StrangeLoop presentation (40 mins). See what happens when you re-imagine a database as a stream!! Look at all the problems that evaporate. Think about that: shared mutable state (the root of all evil), re-imagined as a stream!! Blew my socks off.

If, by chance, you ever watched that video (you should!), you might then twig to the idea that app-db is really a derived value ... the video talks a lot about derived values. So, yes, app-db is a derived value of the perpetual reduce.

And yet, it acts as the authoritative source of state in the app. And yet, it isn't, it is simply a piece of derived state. And yet, it is the source. Etc.

This is an infinite loop of sorts - an infinite loop of derived data.

It does FSM

Any sufficiently complicated GUI contains an ad hoc, informally-specified, bug-ridden, slow implementation of a hierarchical Finite State Machine
-- me, trying too hard to impress my two twitter followers

event handlers collectively implement the "control" part of an application. Their logic interprets arriving events in the context of existing state, and they compute the new state of the application.

events act a bit like the triggers in a finite state machine, and the event handlers act like the rules which govern how the state machine moves from one logical state to the next.

In the simplest case, app-db will contain a single value which represents the current "logical state". For example, there might be a single :phase key which can have values like :loading, :not-authenticated :waiting, etc. Or, the "logical state" could be a function of many values in app-db.

Not every app has lots of logical states, but some do, and if you are implementing one of them, then formally recognising it and using a technique like State Charts will help greatly in getting a clean design and fewer bugs.

The beauty of re-frame, from a FSM point of view, is that all the state is in one place - unlike OO systems where the state is distributed (and synchronised) across many objects. So implementing your control logic as a FSM is fairly natural in re-frame, whereas it is often difficult and contrived in other kinds of architecture (in my experience).

So, members of the jury, I put it to you that:

Depending on your app, this may or may not be a useful mental model, but one thing is for sure ...

Events - that's the way we roll.


Ask a Systems Theorist, and they'll tell you that a system has parts and interconnections.

Human brains tend to focus first on the parts, and then, later, maybe on interconnections. But we know better, right? We know interconnections are often critical to a system. "Focus on the lines between the boxes" we lecture anyone kind enough to listen (in my case, glassy-eyed family members).

In the case of re-frame, dominoes are the parts, so, tick, yes, we have looked at them first. Our brains are happy. But what about the interconnections?

If the parts are functions, as is the case with re-frame, what does it even mean to talk about interconnections between functions? To answer that question, I'll rephrase it as: how are the domino functions composed?

At the language level, Uncle Alonzo and Uncle John tell us how a function like count composes:

(str (count (filter odd?  [1 2 3 4 5])))

We know when count is called, and with what argument, and how the value it computes becomes the arg for a further function. We know how data "flows" into and out of the functions.

Sometimes, we'd rewrite this code as:

(->>  [1 2 3 4 5]
      (filter odd?)

With this arrangement, we talk of "threading" data through functions. It seems to help our comprehension to conceive function composition in terms of data flow.

re-frame delivers architecture by supplying the interconnections - it threads the data - it composes the dominoes - it is the lines between the boxes.

But it doesn't have a universal method for this "composition". The technique it uses varies from one domino neighbour-pair to the next. Initially, it uses a queue/router, then a pipeline of interceptors and, finally, a Signal Graph.

Remember back in the original README? Our analogy for re-frame was the water cycle - water flowing around the loop, compelled by different kinds of forces at different times (gravity, convection, etc), going through phase changes.

With this focus on interconnections, we have been looking on the "forces" part of the loop. The transport.

What Of This Romance?

My job is to be a relentless cheerleader for re-frame, right? The gyrations of my Pom-Poms should be tectonic, but the following quote makes me smile. It should be taught in all ComSci courses.

We begin in admiration and end by organizing our disappointment
    -- Gaston Bachelard (French philosopher)

Of course, that only applies if you get passionate about a technology (a flaw of mine).

But, no. No! Those French Philosophers and their pessimism - ignore him!! Your love for re-frame will be deep, abiding and enriching.


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