splines-1.0.0: the first Release Candidate

Oh hello there! It’s been a while since I wrote on here. My last article was posted on February 25th and then I decided it was time to blog more about what I do. Especially, I think I will try to blog more often, even if it’s about trivial things, as long as I share my thoughts.

So today, I’m going to talk about the splines crate. And more specifically, the splines-1.0.0-rc.1 release candidate I uploaded today on crates.io.

Foreword: you said splines?

Maybe you’re wondering what a spline is, in the first place. A spline is a mathematic curve that is defined by several polynomials. You can picture them mentally by several small and simple curves combined to each others, giving the curve an interesting shape and properties. Now why we want splines is easy to understand: imagine a curve, something smooth and a bit complex (maybe even with loops). Now, imagine you want to make an object move along that curve. How do you represent that curve and how to you “make something advance along it?”

Splines are defined by several “control points”, also known “keys”, “knots” or whatever makes sense to you. Those are just points of interest that will have a direct impact on how the curve will bend and behave. Most of control points have the interesting property that the curve will pass through them, allowing you to define points you want your object to pass by, for instance. Not all control points have that property, though.

Now all the magic happens with those control points: when you want to sample a value at a given control point, you just get back the value carried by this control point… but when you want to sample in between two control points, for instance, you get back an interpolated value. That interpolation is the key to why we want splines. Several interpolation mechanisms exist and I’m sure you know at least two:

Keep in mind that a spline is a just an abstractio mathematical object and that you can use it for lots of concepts and situations. For instance, in demoscene productions of mine, I use splines for camera movement, animation transitions, color-blending and more!

The splines crate

The splines crate has been around for some time now and I received some feedback from people on the GitHub page asking for more features. Basically, the crate can now:

I think something interesting to dissect in this blog article is the last feature about polymorphic sampling types and what I had to do in order to make it happen. Also, this is highly correlated to a design choice I have made months ago: supporting foreign crates to interpolate specific types is done inside the splines crate, not in other crates. I will discuss why just bellow.

Polymorphic sampling

Basically, in splines, prior to 1.0.0, a spline was polymorphic type mapping a key of type f32 to a control point of type Key<V>, V being the carried value. You then manipulate a Spline<V>. The problem with that is whenever someone wants to use a different time, like, f64 or something of their own.

My first solution was to turn the spline type to Spline<T, V>. That would allow people to use both f32 and f64 as sampling type. The problem kicks in with the code handling those sampling values. For instance, for the Interpolation::Cosine interpolation mode, I need to take the cosine of a value which type is either f32 or f64. How can we do that in a generic and polymorphic maneer?

num-traits to the rescue!

Yeah, so was my first thoughts. I then re-wrote most of the interpolating code using num-traits… and then decided to tackle all the feature gates. Because, I haven’t told you yet, but splines has several feature gates allowing you to use, e.g., implement the Interpolate trait for some famous crates’ types (nalgebra, cgmath), enable serde serialization, etc. One feature gate that is important to me as a demoscener is the "std" feature gate, that, if not defined, makes the splines crate compile with the no_std feature.

And here comes the first problems. The num-traits has a trait that isn’t compatible with no_std, the Float trait. I then sat in front of my computer and thought. I came to the realization that whatever library I would use for that trait, I would always get my hands tied by the contracts of the public interface of that crate, for a feature that is almost central to the whole splines crate. It quickly became obvious that I couln’t use num-traits.

Yes, I know about the FloatCore trait. However, I was stuck with FloatConst right after that and I just wanted to clean the interface.

The monomorphic version of splines is easy to implement for no_std, but now I’m stuck because of some simple traits? Naaah.

So I decided to write my own traits. Enter: Additive, a simple trait with no content but Add and Sub as supertraits (and some non-important ones for comprehension here), One, a trait that provides the neutral element of the multiplication for a given type (i.e. the multiplication monoid) and the Linear<T> trait, providing linear combinations, mandatory for all kind of interpolations mentioned earlier.

Those traits have universal implementors so that you don’t have to implement them. And enabling a feature gate for, e.g., cgmath will also implement those traits accordingly in an enough polymorphic way that you shouldn’t have to ever worry about them.

Just a little remark of mine: implementing the support for cgmath was pretty simple and straight-forward. As feared (because I used this crate), nalgebra was way harder to get right — and I even decided not to implement the Point<..> type because I’ve been struggling all the afternoon with error types that reminded me old and dark times with C++ Boost library. I’ve already discussed that with people from the nalgebra world and none seemed to agree with me that this crate is a little bit too overengineered. For instance, adding the support for nalgebra in splines also adds several mandatory dependencies — i.e. num-traits and alga. It’s not that bad, but if you want to play with simple vector spaces, I really do not recommend nalgebra as it’s a really convoluted library with lots of type aliases and types with infinite counts of type variables. Maybe it’s just a confirmation bias of mine, because I’ve always used (and written, back then in C++) linear libraries that were both simple and fast. nalgebra makes me think of this and this is driving me crazy. I’m not saying it’s bad. I’m saying it’s not for me and that I wouldn’t recommend it for people wanting to do simple things — and yes, video game still falls in that simple things bag.

Let’s talk about feature gates

So, the design of feature gating in splines. I know it might feel a bit weird to have gates like "impl-nalgebra" or "impl-cgmath" but to me it makes lots of sense. For a simple reason: a crate exposes several types and functions via its public API. Everything that is not public is not for a very good reason. Mostly, invariants. An invariant is something that must remain true before a function / morphism / whatever is called and after. What happens in between can actually break that invariant. The idea is that “If a function breaks internally an invariant, it must restore it before returning”, so that the API remains safe to use.

Invariants are central in my way of thinking. Everytime I write some code, everytime I design an interaction between several piece of algorithms, crates or even cross-language and cross-systems, I always asks myself “Am I breaking an invariant here? Is it possible to fuck up a state or a hidden property somewhere?”

In Rust, invariants are not a first-class citizen of the language (have a look at how the D language handles invariant: it’s interesting!). However, they still exist. Imagine this piece of code:

pub struct Even(pub u64);

impl Even {
  pub fn new(nth: u64) -> Self {
    Even(nth * 2)

impl Add<u64, Output = Even> for Even {
  fn add(self, rhs: u64) -> Output {
    Even(self.0 + rhs * 2)

Imagine this is wrapped in a crate num-even. Adding a u64 to an Even gives you the nth next even number. All of this is cool. But there is an invariant. The carried u64 by Even must… remain even. If at some time a user handle a Even with an odd u64 inside of it, something has gone wrong terribly. And with this current implementation, it’s very easy to break such an invariant. Consider:

use num_even::Even;

fn main() {
  let mut a = Even::new(1); // the 1st even number
  a.0 += 1; // oooooooh, fuuuuuuu-

I had long heated debates with people on IRC about why this kind of library should be patched. The main argument of people who would think it shouldn’t be patched is “Yeah but we want users to have access to the underlying objects in any way they want.” I think invariants matter most. The patch version is actually a negative diff:

pub struct Even(u64);

Done. Here, the invariant cannot be broken anymore because people cannot create or modify Even by hand. Constraining is powerful. You should try it. :)

splines holds keys in a Spline<..> that must remain sorted. Hence, you don’t have a direct access to the keys nor you can mutate them. Mutating keys would imply resorting the keys in a smart way, which is something I haven’t needed yet.

So, that’s all for me for today. If you have any question about splines, please feel free to open an issue on GitHub. Also, if you’re interested in trying it, please have a look at the splines-1.0.0-rc.1 release candidate. It contains everything you need to get started!

The documentation is not up to date and some is missing, but it should be enough to start.

As always, keep the vibes!

↑ splines-1.0.0 and first release candidate
splines, release-candidate
Mon Apr 22 01:10:00 2019 UTC