Mike Schaeffer's Weblog
Tue, 03 Jan 2006
vCalc, what's next?
Despite outward appearances, there is (really!) another release of vCalc in the works. I'm not going to be so silly as to speak to a timeline (probably 2006Q2), but here's a brief list of planned features for the next release or two:
  • Constant Library - A library of a few hundred constants.
  • Interface improvements - The current UI is functional but rather plain both in appearance and the interactivity it supports. The next version of vCalc will dress up the UI bit and start the process of making it more interactive.
  • Macro Recorder - To aid programming, there's a macro recorder that records sequences of commands as programs written in the language described above.
  • New Data Types - There are more first-class data types, including complex numbers, lists, tagged numbers, and programs.
  • User Programability - There's a user programming language including conditional branches, loops, and higher order functions. This language looks a lot like a lexically scoped variant of RPL, the language used by HP in its more modern calculators.
  • Better interoperability with other data sources - This means import/export of CSV, through both the clipboard and by file.
  • Financial Math - This is mainly planned to be Time Value of Money. There's actually interface in vCalc 1.0 to support this functionality, but I released vCalc before getting it to work reliably and disabled the code that implements it. This is going to be an ongoing area for devevlopment.
  • Infix notation - There needs to be a way to enter an expression like 'sin(x)'. This is both a programmability feature and the core of things like symbolic algebra and calculus.
  • Graphics - Function plotting.
In a more general sense, there are a few other issues that are important, but have a slightly lower priority level. These are general issues that are too big to be 'fixed' in one release, but nonetheless are important areas for work. The first of these is performance and the second is openness.

Performance is the easier of the two issues to describe: I want vCalc to be usable to interactively perform simple (mean, max, min, linear regrssion, historgram, etc.) analysis of datasets with 100K-1,000K observations of 10-20 variables each. The worst case scenario means that vCalc needs to be able to manage a in-memory image around 500-600MB in size and be able to compute 20-30M floating point operations within 5-10 seconds. That's a stretch for vCalc, but I think it's doable within a year or two. Right now, development copies of vCalc can reasonably manage 100K observations of 50 variables each. The biggest weakness is the CSV file importer, which is glacially slow: it reads CSV files at around 30K/second. I'll speak to these issuses in more detail later on, but the fix for this will be a staged rewrite of the Lisp engine and garbage collector at the core of vCalc.

The other issue that will have to be fixed over time is the issue of openness. One of the things I'd like this blog to be is a way to communicate with the audience of vCalc users. That means example code, demonstrations of how to use vCalc to solve specific problems, and descriptions of the guts of vCalc, at the very least. For that to be useful, there needs to be an audience, and for there to be an audience the vCalc bits need to be availble for people to use and good enough for them to care about using it. There's a lot to be done between here and there, but I've come to believe that open sourcing parts of vCalc and releasing more frequent development builds of the closed source parts will end up being key. We'll see.

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