Cost semantics for functional languages

There is an ongoing discussion in LtU (there, and there) on whether RAM and other machine models are inherently a better basis to reason about (time and) memory usage than lambda-calculus and functional languages. Guy Blelloch and his colleagues have been doing very important work on this question that seems to have escaped LtU's notice so far.

A portion of the functional programming community has long been of the opinion that we do not need to refer to machines of the Turing tradition to reason about execution of functional programs. Dynamic semantics (which are often perceived as more abstract and elegant) are adequate, self-contained descriptions of computational behavior, which we can elevate to the status of (functional) machine model -- just like "abstract machines" can be seen as just machines.

This opinion has been made scientifically precise by various brands of work, including for example implicit (computational) complexity, resource analysis and cost semantics for functional languages. Guy Blelloch developed a family of cost semantics, which correspond to annotations of operational semantics of functional languages with new information that captures more intentional behavior of the computation: not only the result, but also running time, memory usage, degree of parallelism and, more recently, interaction with a memory cache. Cost semantics are self-contained way to think of the efficiency of functional programs; they can of course be put in correspondence with existing machine models, and Blelloch and his colleagues have proved a vast amount of two-way correspondences, with the occasional extra logarithmic overhead -- or, from another point of view, provided probably cost-effective implementations of functional languages in imperative languages and conversely.

This topic has been discussed by Robert Harper in two blog posts, Language and Machines which develops the general argument, and a second post on recent joint work by Guy and him on integrating cache-efficiency into the model. Harper also presents various cost semantics (called "cost dynamics") in his book "Practical Foundations for Programming Languages".

In chronological order, three papers that are representative of the evolution of this work are the following.

Parallelism In Sequential Functional Languages
Guy E. Blelloch and John Greiner, 1995.
This paper is focused on parallelism, but is also one of the earliest work carefully relating a lambda-calculus cost semantics with several machine models.

This paper formally studies the question of how much parallelism is available in call-by-value functional languages with no parallel extensions (i.e., the functional subsets of ML or Scheme). In particular we are interested in placing bounds on how much parallelism is available for various problems. To do this we introduce a complexity model, the PAL, based on the call-by-value lambda-calculus. The model is defined in terms of a profiling semantics and measures complexity in terms of the total work and the parallel depth of a computation. We describe a simulation of the A-PAL (the PAL extended with arithmetic operations) on various parallel machine models, including the butterfly, hypercube, and PRAM models and prove simulation bounds. In particular the simulations are work-efficient (the processor-time product on the machines is within a constant factor of the work on the A-PAL), and for P processors the slowdown (time on the machines divided by depth on the A-PAL) is proportional to at most O(log P). We also prove bounds for simulating the PRAM on the A-PAL.

Space Profiling for Functional Programs
Daniel Spoonhower, Guy E. Blelloch, Robert Harper, and Phillip B. Gibbons, 2011 (conference version 2008)

This paper clearly defines a notion of ideal memory usage (the set of store locations that are referenced by a value or an ongoing computation) that is highly reminiscent of garbage collection specifications, but without making any reference to an actual garbage collection implementation.

We present a semantic space profiler for parallel functional programs. Building on previous work in sequential profiling, our tools help programmers to relate runtime resource use back to program source code. Unlike many profiling tools, our profiler is based on a cost semantics. This provides a means to reason about performance without requiring a detailed understanding of the compiler or runtime system. It also provides a specification for language implementers. This is critical in that it enables us to separate cleanly the performance of the application from that of the language implementation. Some aspects of the implementation can have significant effects on performance. Our cost semantics enables programmers to understand the impact of different scheduling policies while hiding many of the details of their implementations. We show applications where the choice of scheduling policy has asymptotic effects on space use. We explain these use patterns through a demonstration of our tools. We also validate our methodology by observing similar performance in our implementation of a parallel extension of Standard ML

Cache and I/O efficient functional algorithms
Guy E. Blelloch, Robert Harper, 2013 (see also the shorter CACM version)

The cost semantics in this last work incorporates more notions from garbage collection, to reason about cache-efficient allocation of values -- in that it relies on work on formalizing garbage collection that has been mentioned on LtU before.

The widely studied I/O and ideal-cache models were developed to account for the large difference in costs to access memory at different levels of the memory hierarchy. Both models are based on a two level memory hierarchy with a fixed size primary memory (cache) of size \(M\), an unbounded secondary memory, and assume unit cost for transferring blocks of size \(B\) between the two. Many algorithms have been analyzed in these models and indeed these models predict the relative performance of algorithms much more accurately than the standard RAM model. The models, however, require specifying algorithms at a very low level requiring the user to carefully lay out their data in arrays in memory and manage their own memory allocation.

In this paper we present a cost model for analyzing the memory efficiency of algorithms expressed in a simple functional language. We show how many algorithms written in standard forms using just lists and trees (no arrays) and requiring no explicit memory layout or memory management are efficient in the model. We then describe an implementation of the language and show provable bounds for mapping the cost in our model to the cost in the ideal-cache model. These bound imply that purely functional programs based on lists and trees with no special attention to any details of memory layout can be as asymptotically as efficient as the carefully designed imperative I/O efficient algorithms. For example we describe an \(O(\frac{n}{B} \log_{M/B} \frac{n}{B})\) cost sorting algorithm, which is optimal in the ideal cache and I/O models.

Stream Processing with a Spreadsheet

ECOOP 2014 paper (distinguished) by Vaziri et. al, abstract:

Continuous data streams are ubiquitous and represent such a high volume of data that they cannot be stored to disk, yet it is often crucial for them to be analyzed in real-time. Stream processing is a programming paradigm that processes these immediately, and enables continuous analytics. Our objective is to make it easier for analysts, with little programming experience, to develop continuous analytics applications directly. We propose enhancing a spreadsheet, a pervasive tool, to obtain a programming platform for stream processing. We present the design and implementation of an enhanced spreadsheet that enables visualizing live streams, live programming to compute new streams, and exporting computations to be run on a server where they can be shared with other users, and persisted beyond the life of the spreadsheet. We formalize our core language, and present case studies that cover a range of stream processing applications.

Safely Composable Type-Specific Languages

Cyrus Omar, Darya Kurilova, Ligia Nistor, Benjamin Chung, Alex Potanin, and Jonathan Aldrich, "Safely Composable Type-Specific Languages", ECOOP14.

Programming languages often include specialized syntax for common datatypes (e.g. lists) and some also build in support for specific specialized datatypes (e.g. regular expressions), but user-defined types must use general-purpose syntax. Frustration with this causes developers to use strings, rather than structured data, with alarming frequency, leading to correctness, performance, security, and usability issues. Allowing library providers to modularly extend a language with new syntax could help address these issues. Unfortunately, prior mechanisms either limit expressiveness or are not safely composable: individually unambiguous extensions can still cause ambiguities when used together. We introduce type-specific languages (TSLs): logic associated with a type that determines how the bodies of generic literals, able to contain arbitrary syntax, are parsed and elaborated, hygienically. The TSL for a type is invoked only when a literal appears where a term of that type is expected, guaranteeing non-interference. We give evidence supporting the applicability of this approach and formally specify it with a bidirectionally typed elaboration semantics for the Wyvern programming language.

A Next Generation Smart Contract and Decentralized Application Platform

A Next Generation Smart Contract and Decentralized Application Platform, Vitalik Buterin.

When Satoshi Nakamoto first set the Bitcoin blockchain into motion in January 2009, he was simultaneously introducing two radical and untested concepts. The first is the "bitcoin", a decentralized peer-to-peer online currency that maintains a value without any backing, intrinsic value or central issuer. So far, the "bitcoin" as a currency unit has taken up the bulk of the public attention, both in terms of the political aspects of a currency without a central bank and its extreme upward and downward volatility in price. However, there is also another, equally important, part to Satoshi's grand experiment: the concept of a proof of work-based blockchain to allow for public agreement on the order of transactions. Bitcoin as an application can be described as a first-to-file system: if one entity has 50 BTC, and simultaneously sends the same 50 BTC to A and to B, only the transaction that gets confirmed first will process. There is no intrinsic way of determining from two transactions which came earlier, and for decades this stymied the development of decentralized digital currency. Satoshi's blockchain was the first credible decentralized solution. And now, attention is rapidly starting to shift toward this second part of Bitcoin's technology, and how the blockchain concept can be used for more than just money.

Commonly cited applications include using on-blockchain digital assets to represent custom currencies and financial instruments ("colored coins"), the ownership of an underlying physical device ("smart property"), non-fungible assets such as domain names ("Namecoin") as well as more advanced applications such as decentralized exchange, financial derivatives, peer-to-peer gambling and on-blockchain identity and reputation systems. Another important area of inquiry is "smart contracts" - systems which automatically move digital assets according to arbitrary pre-specified rules. For example, one might have a treasury contract of the form "A can withdraw up to X currency units per day, B can withdraw up to Y per day, A and B together can withdraw anything, and A can shut off B's ability to withdraw". The logical extension of this is decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) - long-term smart contracts that contain the assets and encode the bylaws of an entire organization. What Ethereum intends to provide is a blockchain with a built-in fully fledged Turing-complete programming language that can be used to create "contracts" that can be used to encode arbitrary state transition functions, allowing users to create any of the systems described above, as well as many others that we have not yet imagined, simply by writing up the logic in a few lines of code.

Includes code samples.

InterState: A Language and Environment for Expressing Interface Behavior

An interesting paper by Oney, Myers, and Brandt in this year's UIST. Abstract:

InterState is a new programming language and environment that addresses the challenges of writing and reusing user interface code. InterState represents interactive behaviors clearly and concisely using a combination of novel forms of state machines and constraints. It also introduces new language features that allow programmers to easily modularize and reuse behaviors. InterState uses a new visual notation that allows programmers to better understand and navigate their code. InterState also includes a live editor that immediately updates the running application in response to changes in the editor and vice versa to help programmers understand the state of their program. Finally, InterState can interface with code and widgets written in other languages, for example to create a user interface in InterState that communicates with a database. We evaluated the understandability of InterState’s programming primitives in a comparative laboratory study. We found that participants were twice as fast at understanding and modifying GUI components when they were implemented with InterState than when they were implemented in a conventional textual event-callback style. We evaluated InterState’s scalability with a series of benchmarks and example applications and found that it can scale to implement complex behaviors involving thousands of objects and constraints.

Workshop on Evaluation and Usability of Programming Languages and Tools (PLATEAU)

We are having another PLATEAU workshop at SPLASH 2014. We have a new category for "Hypotheses Papers" and thought this would be particularly appealing to the LTU community.

http://2014.splashcon.org/track/plateau2014

Programming languages exist to enable programmers to develop software effectively. But how efficiently programmers can write software depends on the usability of the languages and tools that they develop with. The aim of this workshop is to discuss methods, metrics and techniques for evaluating the usability of languages and language tools. The supposed benefits of such languages and tools cover a large space, including making programs easier to read, write, and maintain; allowing programmers to write more flexible and powerful programs; and restricting programs to make them more safe and secure.

PLATEAU gathers the intersection of researchers in the programming language, programming tool, and human-computer interaction communities to share their research and discuss the future of evaluation and usability of programming languages and tools.

Some particular areas of interest are:
- empirical studies of programming languages
- methodologies and philosophies behind language and tool evaluation
- software design metrics and their relations to the underlying language
- user studies of language features and software engineering tools
- visual techniques for understanding programming languages
- critical comparisons of programming paradigms
- tools to support evaluating programming languages
- psychology of programming

Submission Details

PLATEAU encourages submissions of three types of papers:

Research and position papers: We encourage papers that describe work-in-progress or recently completed work based on the themes and goals of the workshop or related topics, report on experiences gained, question accepted wisdom, raise challenging open problems, or propose speculative new approaches. We will accept two types of papers: research papers up to 8 pages in length; and position papers up to 2 pages in length.

Hypotheses papers: Hypotheses papers explicitly identify beliefs of the research community or software industry about how a programming language, programming language feature, or programming language tool affects programming practice. Hypotheses can be collected from mailing lists, blog posts, paper introductions, developer forums, or interviews. Papers should clearly document the source(s) of each hypothesis and discuss the importance, use, and relevance of the hypotheses on research or practice. Papers may also, but are not required to, review evidence for or against the hypotheses identified. Hypotheses papers can be up to 4 pages in length.

Papers will be published in the ACM Digital Library at the authors’ discretion.

Important Dates

Workshop paper submission due - 1 August, 2014
Notification to authors - 22 August, 2014
Early registration deadline - 19 September, 2014

Keynote

Josh Bloch, former Chief Java Architect at Google and Distinguished Engineer at Sun Microsystems.

Interactive scientific computing; of pythonic parts and goldilocks languages

Graydon Hoare has an excellent series of (two) blog posts about programming languages for interactive scientific computing.
technicalities: interactive scientific computing #1 of 2, pythonic parts
technicalities: interactive scientific computing #2 of 2, goldilocks languages

The scenario of these posts is to explain and constrast the difference between two scientific computing languages, Python and "SciPy/SymPy/NumPy, IPython, and Sage" on one side, and Julia on the other, as the result of two different design traditions, one (Python) following Ousterhout's Dichotomy of having a convenient scripting language on top of a fast system language, and the other rejecting it (in the tradition of Lisp/Dylan and ML), promoting a single general-purpose language.

I don't necessarily buy the whole argument, but the posts are a good read, and have some rather insightful comments about programming language use and design.

Quotes from the first post:

There is a further split in scientific computing worth noting, though I won't delve too deep into it here; I'll return to it in the second post on Julia. There is a division between "numerical" and "symbolic" scientific systems. The difference has to do with whether the tool is specialized to working with definite (numerical) data, or indefinite (symbolic) expressions, and it turns out that this split has given rise to quite radically different programming languages at the interaction layer of such tools, over the course of computing history. The symbolic systems typically (though not always) have much better-engineered languages. For reasons we'll get to in the next post.

[..]

I think these systems are a big deal because, at least in the category of tools that accept Ousterhout's Dichotomy, they seem to be about as good a set of hybrid systems as we've managed to get so far. The Python language is very human-friendly, the systems-level languages and libraries that it binds to are well enough supported to provide adequate speed for many tasks, the environments seem as rich as any interactive scientific computing systems to date, and (crucially) they're free, open source, universally available, easily shared and publication-friendly. So I'm enjoying them, and somewhat hopeful that they take over this space.

Quotes from the second:

the interesting history here is that in the process of implementing formal reasoning tools that manipulate symbolic expressions, researchers working on logical frameworks -- i.e. with background in mathematical logic -- have had a tendency to produce implementation languages along the way that are very ... "tidy". Tidy in a way that befits a mathematical logician: orthogonal, minimal, utterly clear and unambiguous, defined more in terms of mathematical logic than machine concepts. Much clearer than other languages at the time, and much more amenable to reasoning about. The original manual for the Logic Theory Machine and IPL (1956) makes it clear that the authors were deeply concerned that nothing sneak in to their implementation language that was some silly artifact of a machine; they wanted a language that they could hand-simulate the reasoning steps of, that they could be certain of the meaning of their programs. They were, after all, translating Russel and Whitehead into mechanical form!

[..]

In fact, the first couple generations of "web languages" were abysmally inefficient. Indirect-threaded bytecode interpreters were the fast case: many were just AST-walking interpreters. PHP initially implemented its loops by fseek() in the source code. It's a testament to the amount of effort that had to go into building the other parts of the web -- the protocols, security, naming, linking and information-organization aspects -- that the programming languages underlying it all could be pretty much anything, technology-wise, so long as they were sufficiently web-friendly.

Of course, performance always eventually returns to consideration -- computers are about speed, fundamentally -- and the more-dynamic nature of many of the web languages eventually meant (re)deployment of many of the old performance-enhancing tricks of the Lisp and Smalltalk family, in order to speed up later generations of the web languages: generational GC, JITs, runtime type analysis and specialization, and polymorphic inline caching in particular. None of these were "new" techniques; but it was new for industry to be willing to rely completely on languages that benefit, or even require, such techniques in the first place.

[..]

Julia, like Dylan and Lisp before it, is a Goldilocks language. Done by a bunch of Lisp hackers who seriously know what they're doing.

It is trying to span the entire spectrum of its target users' needs, from numerical inner loops to glue-language scripting to dynamic code generation and reflection. And it's doing a very credible job at it. Its designers have produced a language that seems to be a strict improvement on Dylan, which was itself excellent. Julia's multimethods are type-parametric. It ships with really good multi-language FFIs, green coroutines and integrated package management. Its codegen is LLVM-MCJIT, which is as good as it gets these days.

2014 APL Programming Competition is Open

The sixth annual International APL Problem Solving Competition is now live!

Dyalog Ltd invites students worldwide to put their programming and problem-solving skills to the test by using any APL system to develop solutions to ten questions and solve a series of problems. This is a contest for people who love a challenge and learning new things for fun, with the added bonus that you can win one of 43 cash prizes totalling $8,500, including a grand prize of $2,500 and a trip to Eastbourne in the U.K. to attend the annual Dyalog Ltd user meeting in September 2014.

For the rules and eligibility criteria and to enter the competition, go to http://www.dyalogaplcompetition.com/.

If you have friends who love a challenge and learning new things for fun, or you know students who might be interested in participating, then please recommend this contest to them.

The deadline for submitting solutions is 6 August 2014. Winners will be announced on 18 August 2014.

Good luck and have fun!

Apple Introduces Swift

Apple today announced a new programming language for their next version of Mac OS X and iOS called Swift.

The Language Guide has more details about the potpourri of language features.

Type soundness and race freedom for Mezzo

Type soundness and freedom for Mezzo,
Thibaut Balabonski, François Pottier, and Jonathan Protzenko,
2014

Full paper
Presentation slides

The programming language Mezzo is equipped with a rich type system that controls aliasing and access to mutable memory. We incorporate shared-memory concurrency into Mezzo and present a modular formalization of its core type system, in the form of a concurrent λ-calculus, which we extend with references and locks. We prove that well-typed programs do not go wrong and are data-race free. Our definitions and proofs are machine-checked.

The Mezzo programming language has been mentioned recently on LtU. The article above is however not so much about the practice of Mezzo or justification of its design choices (for this, see Programming with Permissions in Mezzo, François Pottier and Jonathan Protzenko, 2013), but a presentation of its soundness proof.

I think this paper is complementary to more practice-oriented ones, and remarkable for at least two reasons:

  • It is remarkably simple, for a complete soundness proof (and race-freeness) of a programming language with higher-order functions, mutable states, strong update, linear types, and dynamic borrowing. This is one more confirmation of the simplifying effect of mechanized theorem proving.
  • It is the first soundness proof of a programming language that is strongly inspired by Separation Logic. (Concurrent) Separation Logic has been a revolution in the field of programming logics, but it had until now not be part of a full-fledged language design, and this example is bound to be followed by many others. I expect the structure of this proof to be reused many times in the future.