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Flow Mechanics

This tutorial explains the underlying reactive mechanism used in dominoes 4-5-6. It goes on to introduce re-frame.core/reg-sub-raw.

On Flow

Arguments from authority ...

Everything flows, nothing stands still. (Panta rhei)

No man ever steps in the same river twice for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.

Heraclitus 500 BC. Who, being Greek, had never seen a frozen river. alt version.

Think of an experience from your childhood. Something you remember clearly, something you can see, feel, maybe even smell, as if you were really there. After all you really were there at the time, weren’t you? How else could you remember it? But here is the bombshell: you weren’t there. Not a single atom that is in your body today was there when that event took place .... Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made. If that does not make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, read it again until it does, because it is important.

Steve Grand

How Flow Happens In Reagent

To implement a reactive flow, Reagent provides a ratom and a reaction. re-frame uses both of these building blocks, so let's now make sure we understand them.

ratoms behave just like normal ClojureScript atoms. You can swap! and reset! them, watch them, etc.

From a ClojureScript perspective, the purpose of an atom is to hold mutable data. From a re-frame perspective, we'll tweak that paradigm slightly and view a ratom as having a value that changes over time. Seems like a subtle distinction, I know, but because of it, re-frame sees a ratom as a Signal.

A Signal is a value that changes over time. So it is a stream of values. Each time a ratom gets reset! that's a new value in the stream.

The 2nd building block, reaction, acts a bit like a function. It's a macro which wraps some computation (a block of code) and returns a ratom holding the result of that computation.

The magic thing about a reaction is that the computation it wraps will be automatically re-run whenever 'its inputs' change, producing a new output (return) value.

Eh, how?

Well, the computation is just a block of code, and if that code dereferences one or more ratoms, it will be automatically re-run (recomputing a new return value) whenever any of these dereferenced ratoms change.

To put that yet another way, a reaction detects a computation's input Signals (aka input ratoms) and it will watch them, and when, later, it detects a change in one of them, it will re-run that computation, and it will reset! the new result of that computation into the ratom originally returned.

So, the ratom returned by a reaction is itself a Signal. Its value will change over time when the computation is re-run.

So, via the interplay between ratoms and reactions, values 'flow' into computations and out again, and then into further computations, etc. "Values" flow (propagate) through the Signal graph.

But this Signal graph must be without cycles, because cycles cause mayhem! re-frame achieves a unidirectional flow.

Right, so that was a lot of words. Some code to clarify:

(ns example1
 (:require-macros [reagent.ratom :refer [reaction]])  ;; reaction is a macro
 (:require        [reagent.core  :as    reagent]))

(def app-db  (reagent/atom {:a 1}))           ;; our root ratom  (signal)

(def ratom2  (reaction {:b (:a @app-db)}))    ;; reaction wraps a computation, returns a signal
(def ratom3  (reaction (condp = (:b @ratom2)  ;; reaction wraps another computation
                             0 "World"
                             1 "Hello")))

;; Notice that both computations above involve de-referencing a ratom:
;;   - app-db in one case
;;   - ratom2 in the other
;; Notice that both reactions above return a ratom.
;; Those returned ratoms hold the (time varying) value of the computations.

(println @ratom2)    ;; ==>  {:b 1}       ;; a computed result, involving @app-db
(println @ratom3)    ;; ==> "Hello"       ;; a computed result, involving @ratom2

(reset!  app-db  {:a 0})       ;; this change to app-db, triggers re-computation
                               ;; of ratom2
                               ;; which, in turn, causes a re-computation of ratom3

(println @ratom2)    ;; ==>  {:b 0}    ;; ratom2 is result of {:b (:a @app-db)}
(println @ratom3)    ;; ==> "World"    ;; ratom3 is automatically updated too.

So, in FRP-ish terms, a reaction will produce a "stream" of values over time (it is a Signal), accessible via the ratom it returns.

Components (view functions)

When using Reagent, your primary job is to write one or more components. This is the view layer.

Think about components as pure functions - data in, Hiccup out. Hiccup is ClojureScript data structures which represent DOM. Here's a trivial component:

(defn greet
  [:div "Hello ratoms and reactions"])

And if we call it:

;; ==>  [:div "Hello ratoms and reactions"]

You'll notice that our component is a regular Clojure function, nothing special. In this case, it takes no parameters and it returns a ClojureScript vector (formatted as Hiccup).

Here is a slightly more interesting (parameterised) component (function):

(defn greet                    ;; greet has a parameter now
  [name]                       ;; 'name' is a ratom  holding a string
  [:div "Hello "  @name])      ;; dereference 'name' to extract the contained value

;; create a ratom, containing a string
(def n (reagent/atom "re-frame"))

;; call our `component` function, passing in a ratom
(greet n)
;; ==>  [:div "Hello " "re-frame"]    returns a vector

So components are easy - at core they are a render function which turns data into Hiccup (which will later become DOM).

Now, let's introduce reaction into this mix. On the one hand, I'm complicating things by doing this, because Reagent allows you to be ignorant of the mechanics I'm about to show you. (It invisibly wraps your components in a reaction allowing you to be blissfully ignorant of how the magic happens.)

On the other hand, it is useful to understand exactly how the Reagent Signal graph is wired.

(defn greet                ;; a component - data in, Hiccup out.
  [name]                   ;; name is a ratom
  [:div "Hello "  @name])  ;; dereference name here, to extract the value within

(def n (reagent/atom "re-frame"))

;; The computation '(greet n)' returns Hiccup which is stored into 'hiccup-ratom'
(def hiccup-ratom  (reaction (greet n)))    ;; <-- use of reaction !!!

;; what is the result of the initial computation ?
(println @hiccup-ratom)
;; ==>  [:div "Hello " "re-frame"]    ;; returns hiccup  (a vector of stuff)

;; now change 'n'
;; 'n' is an input Signal for the reaction above.
;; Warning: 'n' is not an input signal because it is a parameter. Rather, it is
;; because 'n' is dereferenced within the execution of the reaction's computation.
;; reaction notices what ratoms are dereferenced in its computation, and watches
;; them for changes.
(reset! n "blah")            ;;    n changes

;; The reaction above will notice the change to 'n' ...
;; ... and will re-run its computation ...
;; ... which will have a new "return value"...
;; ... which will be "reset!" into "hiccup-ratom"
(println @hiccup-ratom)
;; ==>   [:div "Hello " "blah"]    ;; yep, there's the new value

So, as n changes value over time (via a reset!), the output of the computation (greet n) changes, which in turn means that the value in hiccup-ratom changes. Both n and hiccup-ratom are FRP Signals. The Signal graph we created causes data to flow from n into hiccup-ratom.

Derived Data, flowing.

Truth Interlude

I haven't been entirely straight with you:

  1. Reagent re-runs reactions (re-computations) via requestAnimationFrame. So a re-computation happens about 16ms after an input Signals change is detected, or after the current thread of processing finishes, whichever is the greater. So if you are in a bREPL and you run the lines of code above one after the other too quickly, you might not see the re-computation done immediately after n gets reset!, because the next animationFrame hasn't run (yet). But you could add a (reagent.core/flush) after the reset! to force re-computation to happen straight away.

  2. reaction doesn't actually return a ratom. But it returns something that has ratom-nature, so we'll happily continue believing it is a ratom and no harm will come to us.

On with the rest of my lies and distortions...


This low level part of the API provides a way to register a subscription handler - so the intent is similar to reg-sub.

You use it like other registration functions:

(re-frame.core/reg-sub-raw   ;; it is part of the API
  :query-id     ;; later use (subscribe [:query-id])
  some-fn)      ;; this function provides the reactive stream

The interesting bit is how some-fn is written. Here's an example:

(defn some-fn 
  [app-db event]    ;; app-db is not a value, it is a reagent/atom
  (reaction (get-in @app-db [:some :path])))  ;; returns a reaction


  1. app-db is a reagent/atom. It is not a value like reg-sub gets.
  2. it returns a reaction which does a computation. It does not return a value like reg-sub does.
  3. Within that reaction app-db is deref-ed (see use of @)

As a result of point 3, each time app-db changes, the wrapped reaction will rerun. app-db is an input signal to that reaction.

Unlike reg-sub, there is no 3-arity version of reg-sub-raw, so there's no way for you to provide an input signals function. Instead, even simpler, you can just use subscribe within the reaction itself. For example:

(defn some-fn
   [app-db event]
     (let [a-path-element @(subscribe [:get-path-part])]   ;; <-- subscribe used here
       (get-in @app-db [:some a-path-element]))))

As you can see, this reaction has two input signals: app-db and (subscribe [:get-path-part]). If either changes, the reaction will rerun.

In some cases, the returned reaction might not even use app-db and, instead, it might only use subscribe to provide input signals. In that case, the registered subscription would belong to "Level 3" of the signal graph (discussed in earlier tutorials).

Remember to deref any use of app-db and subscribe. It is a rookie mistake to forget. I do it regularly.

Instead of using reaction (a macro), you can use reagent/make-reaction (a utility function) which gives you the additional ability to attach an :on-dispose handler to the returned reaction, allowing you to do cleanup work when the subscription is no longer needed. See an example of using :on-dispose here

Example reg-sub-raw

The following use of reg-sub can be found in the todomvc example:


  ;; signal function - returns a vector of two input signals
  (fn [query-v _]     
    [(subscribe [:todos])
     (subscribe [:showing])])

  ;; the computation function - 1st arg is a 2-vector of values
  (fn [[todos showing] _]   
    (let [filter-fn (case showing
                      :active (complement :done)
                      :done   :done
                      :all    identity)]
      (filter filter-fn todos))))

we could rewrite this use of reg-sub using reg-sub-raw like this:

  (fn [app-db event]  ;; app-db not used, name shown for clarity
    (reaction         ;; wrap the computation in a reaction
      (let [todos   @(subscribe [:todos])   ;; input signal #1
            showing @(subscribe [:showing]) ;; input signal #2 
            filter-fn (case showing
                        :active (complement :done)
                        :done   :done
                        :all    identity)]
        (filter filter-fn todos))))

A view could do (subscribe [:visible-todos]) and never know which of the two variations above was used. Same result delivered.

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