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4. Input and Output

4.1. Double Precision Input/Output

Alice: So where are we? We have successfully defined a class Body, and have learned to give it initial values and to print those out. Shall we code up an integrator?

Bob: Before we do that, I would prefer to get the right I/O tools in place first. On the level of input, we can type in the values by hand when we create a particle, but we have not yet learned how to read particle data from a file. And on the level of output, we really should figure out how to print particle data in 64-bit floating point accuracy, often called "double precision" for historical reasons.

Alice: Why do you want to be so accurate?

Bob: There will be many cases where we integrate the orbit for an N-body system for a while, save the data, and then later continue the integration. If we don't save the data to the same level of accuracy as what is used in the internal calculations, we will lose precision.

Alice: Good point. Let us get our basic tools ready then. Isn't it interesting that learning the I/O always seems to be one of the trickiest parts of learning a new language?

Bob: That must be because all the internal computations take place in a separate universe, defined fully by the language specification. It is only at I/O times that a language is forced to interface with the world. And this necessarily brings in much more baggage.

Most languages specify a simple but rather rigid way to do I/O, as a default. But sooner or later you need more control, for particular purposes, and that requires more complicated I/O routines, with a more complicated syntax.

In other words, doing your own thing is a lot easier than interfacing with the world.

Alice: I'm glad to see you stressing interface issues! Everything that you said about I/O applies to the way I think the various modules in an N-body code should communicate. For each module, there is a well controlled internal environment, that has to interface with a wild world out there, over which the module has no control, and from which the module has to protect itself, so that it does not get tripped by confusing signals

Bob: You always have an excuse to talk about principles, just when we're about to do some real work. Let's get our double precision first. And because we are writing a toy model, I suggest we do our I/O in ASCII, not in binary form.

Alice: Absolutely. I am always happier when I can look into a file, and see the data there directly, without everything being encoded in some weird way. Such encryptions are often machine dependent anyway, and ASCII characters are platform independent.

But in that case, we'd better print everything out with enough digits. Let's look at the web. The IEEE 64-bit floating point number definition specifies 1 bit for the sign, 11 bits for the exponent, and the remaining 52 bits for the mantissa. is less than , so 16 digits should be enough.

Bob: No, there are effectively 53 digits. By definition of floating point notation, the most significant digit of the mantissa is always 1, and cleverly the IEEE people have defined their standard so that that 1 is being left out. Effectively we are using 65-bit precision in double precision calculations on our computers.

Alice: I had no idea! But is about , so 16 digits is still enough. I was lucky there.

4.2. A Simple Version

Bob: I should be able to figure out how to do this. I like this kind of tinkering.

Alice: I'm glad you do! I'll get a cup of tea in the meantime.

 . . . 
Here's a cup for you too. Ah, that looks impressively short. Is that really enough to do the job?

   def simple_print
     printf("%24.16e\n", @mass)
     @pos.each { |x| printf("%24.16e", x) } ; print "\n"
     @vel.each { |x| printf("%24.16e", x) } ; print "\n"

   def simple_read
     @mass = gets.to_f
     @pos = { |x| x.to_f }
     @vel = { |x| x.to_f }

Bob: Yes, it works! But let me first show you what it all means. The printf statement in the second line comes straight from C. It specifies that the mass will be printed in a field that is 24 characters wide, with 16 decimal places of precision.

The third line shows a nice Ruby feature: each array knows how long it is, so instead of stepping through the array with a do loop or for loop, you can simply ask an array to do something for each of its elements. pos.each invokes the method each that is built in already within the class Array. It is called an iterator.

Alice: I presume it corresponds to the use of iterators in the C++ standard template library. But it looks quite a bit simpler. Instead of first asking the array for its begin and end, and then looping over the elements in between, here the one word each does the whole job.

Bob: Welcome to Ruby! What the iterator does to each element is specified in the region between the parentheses, immediately following each. First comes a variable name x between bars, that stands for the name of each element of the array, while the array is traversed. In this case, each element is printed in the same format as we printed the mass in the previous line.

Alice: The simple_read method puzzles me. What is this gets in the first line?

Bob: It is short for `get string': it reads in one line of input, and returns as its value the string of characters that it has read in.

Alice: Ah, and to_f converts the string, as a collection of characters, to a floating point value, just as atof would do in C.

Bob: Exactly. And the important thing to notice here is that gets returns a string, which in Ruby is an instance of the class String. And this to_f is a method associated with that class -- it plays the role that a member function plays in C++, as we saw before. You can ask an object to invoke one of its methods by putting a dot in between the object and a method. And by implication this is what happens to the object returned by gets.

Alice: The principle of least surprise all right.

Bob: As you can see in simple_print, I have chosen a data format in which a single particle prints its mass, position, and velocity on three consecutive lines. To be compatible, simple_read should perform a separate gets for @mass, for @mpos, and for @vel.

The trickiest thing to get right was to read the three components from a vector. Here I have used split which is a string method that splits the string into smaller chunks, and then returns an array which contains each chunk as an element. If you want, you can specify the way a string is being split into such subarrays, by giving a parameter to split, but the default delimiter is white space.

Now map is an array method that takes each element of the array in turn, and executes a block of code for that element. The syntax is the same as what we saw for each above. The block is delimited by curly braces, and the free variable that loops over the array elements is specified by the vertical bars. The rest of the block contains the commands that are executed for each element. In our case each component of the position is converted into a floating point number, and the same happens for the velocity on the next line.

By the way, map is actually an alias for collect, and you can use both words interchangeably for the same method. Because this method effectively `maps' an action onto each element and then `collects' the results into a new array, each word describes part of the process. I prefer map both because it is shorter and because it describes the step where the actual work is done. In Ruby, there are many examples of such aliases. To find the length of an array a, for example, you can equally well use a.length as a.size. Sometimes you even have freedom in spelling: a.indexes and a.indices do the exact same thing. I consider all this freedom another friendly aspect of Ruby.

Alice: The only drawback is that when you look at someone else's program, you might be surprised to see someone using unfamiliar aliases. However, I presume that you get used to that pretty quickly.

What I am curious about is that you haven't specified anywhere that we live in three dimensions. I find that pretty remarkable: in Fortran or C or C++, you could not get away with that. This must mean that the code will work equally well for a two-dimensional simulation, where a body has position and velocity vectors with only two components, as for a three-dimensional simulation.

Bob: Right you are, and that indeed gives you a wonderful flexibility. In C you would first define #define NDIM 3, and then specify something like for (k = 0, k < NDIM, k++) followed by the block of code you would loop over, containing expressions like pos[k] for the kth element of the position vector. What a breeze this is, by comparison!

4.3. Trying It Out

Alice: Remarkable. Once you gain familiarity with those notions such as gets and split and map, it must become second nature to string a few together. The result is a notation that is compact, yet still informative. Can you show me that all this really works?

Bob: Here is what I wrote in our test file test.rb, immediately following the Body class definition:

 b =

As you can see, I create a new blank Body, and I immediately perform an input. This means that we have to put in the values by hand, on three consecutive lines, one for each internal variable. The script then performs an output, printing out the particle state. Here is an example.

 |gravity> ruby test.rb
 0.1 0.2 0.3
 4 5 6
   1.0000000000000001e-01  2.0000000000000001e-01  2.9999999999999999e-01
   4.0000000000000000e+00  5.0000000000000000e+00  6.0000000000000000e+00
Alice: Very good. And since we can now read and write, how about testing your script by reading what you just wrote out? We can pipe the output into another invocation of test.rb.

Bob: My pleasure:

 |gravity> ruby test.rb | ruby test.rb
 0.1 0.2 0.3
 4 5 6
   1.0000000000000001e-01  2.0000000000000001e-01  2.9999999999999999e-01
   4.0000000000000000e+00  5.0000000000000000e+00  6.0000000000000000e+00
Alice: Congratulations! This is what a mathematician would call a fixed point, if we would view the operation ruby test.rb as a mapping.

Actually, this would be an appropriate way to view this script: when we finish our integrator, it will transform initial conditions to final conditions after a certain time t. In other words, the integrator will act as a propagator, mapping initial conditions onto final conditions.

Bob: I'm glad you haven't forgotten the goal of these exercises, to move particles around. The term `propagator' comes from elementary particle physics, I presume? Well, I guess that our point particles are about as elementary as they come, so it is not altogether inappropriate.

Alice: Before we get going with our particle pushing, I can't help wondering whether you can't further simplify your reading and writing routines. I bet these were not what you first wrote down; you must have compactified things already.

Bob: You're right. My first attempt at the read method was a lot longer. Here, I still have it:

    def read
      s = gets
      @mass = s.to_f
      s = gets
      a = s.split! { |x| x.to_f }
      @pos = a
      s = gets
      a = s.split! { |x| x.to_f }
      @vel = a
Alice: Quite a reduction. But why the exclamation marks after map ?

Bob: In Ruby there is a general convention that a command followed by an exclamation mark in its name does the same thing as the command without that exclamation mark, but it does it to the object it is associated with. Here map!operates on the array a that is calling the method. Previously, I used map which returns a new array that contains the values resulting from the operations. Be careful here: the bang sign "!" is not an operator in itself, it is only an allowed character for the last part of the name of a command. It is up to the code writer to choose sensible names such that do_something and do_something! do the same thing, the first one producing a new array, and the second one changing the elements of the array on which it was called.

4.4. A Surprise

Alice: So you managed to reduce the number of lines of your method by a factor of three, presumably also in your write method. Currently you have three lines left in each method. Can I challenge you to reduce it even further?

Bob: By another factor of three? But that would only leave one line for each method. Are you serious?

Alice: Well, not really. But I'm still thirsty. Let me get us some more tea.

 . . . 
Here's another cup. WHAT? Are you serious? Does that work???

   def simple_print
     [[@mass],@pos,@vel].each{|x| x.each{|y| printf("%24.16e",y)}; print "\n"}

   def simple_read
     (@mass,),@pos,@vel = (1..3).map{|i| i ={|x| x.to_f}}

Bob: Here is the keyboard. Try it.

 |gravity> ruby test.rb
 0.2 2 20
 10 1 0.5
   2.0000000000000001e-01  2.0000000000000000e+00  2.0000000000000000e+01
   1.0000000000000000e+01  1.0000000000000000e+00  5.0000000000000000e-01
Alice: I'm shocked. How can you do input in one line and output in one line for a whole particle, with a heterogeneous data set? Even writing this question down would take more than one line of text!

Bob: I must admit, I surprised myself. But then again, you asked, and I like to take up a challenge. Would you like to know how/why it works?

Alice: Hmmm. Perhaps not in detail yet. Since I was going to look at the manual tonight, this will give me my own challenge: to figure this one out.
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