Wednesday, 13 June 2012

The perennial problem of abstraction

In the past few weeks, I've been grappling with some hard questions that were always on their way, but that I've managed to defer until now. After my second attempt at creating collection mapping operations ground to a halt, a third approach is proving more fruitful.

The essence of the problem is that, once operations deal with sets of values rather than single values, it is necessary to describe the structure and properties of those sets - a fundamentally abstract activity. In my case, collections of parameterised layers share some of their bindings, but not all. One approach to this has been to treat them as curried functions, but the challenge in doing so is specifying the curry bindings, and distinguishing them from the defaults that may be providing (user-perceived) desirable layer behaviours without having explicitly arisen from user choices. Most of my attempts to provide a user interface to this specification have been less than successful - complex, unreliable, and hard to plan in advance.

The latest approach has been to build more explicitly on the fact that parameters appear as graphical elements within the layer. Given the challenge of abstraction in this system is that the user must make a transition from interacting with images to interacting with bindings, I've allowed the bindings themselves to be manipulated as image elements, using the existing mask operations to select those parts of the binding set that should be preserved across a map. As I was building this, I was rather constantly reminded of the related challenges that Ken Kahn faced in ToonTalk, where Dusty the vacuum cleaner is used to specify value types by "sucking off" the value binding to leave the coloured pad. When Elizabeth used ToonTalk as a young child, this was one of the aspects that particularly upset her (along with everything that happened in the robot's thought bubble - the abstract world mode). A constant frustration was that a slip of the hand could easily delete the type, rather than the value. Easily undone, but an example of how error-proneness in the abstract notation carries significant weighted risk for attention investment. I hope that I've avoided this, by visualising the binding choices as a masked overlay that does not modify the original layer instance from which it is derived.

The next stage is to apply the binding mask overlay approach to cases where, rather than mapping a single layer (function) over a value collection, two collections are joined - typically with curried (function) layers in one (these may have resulted from a previous join), and value layers in the other. This seems like the right point to start experimenting with inference at last. In a previous attempt at the bind-then-play execution paradigm, I had created typed collections that could then be applied in contexts similar to those of single layers of the same type. However, the resulting constraints on users, for example that the collection type had to be maintained by constraining future addition of members, made this pretty cumbersome.

The inference approach that I'm about to start on, in contrast, allows users to place anything they like in a collection, while continuing to support aggregate bindings and maps. My intention is that the type of the collection will be determined (and visualised) statistically, based on the type of the largest proportion of its members. Members that are incompatible with this type can simply be passed over - the user may have intended them as secondary notation, or they may be accidental, or simply experiments to see what would happen. A user who is setting out to create an array value in a more systematic fashion can also do so, and the inferred type will be precisely as intended.

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