On compositionality

Jules Hedges has written a thought-provoking blog post, On compositionality where he connects the familiar idea of compositionality to the idea of emergent effects in nature, where systems can be understood as either having compositional properties or emergent properties.

The key point about emergent systems is that they are hard to understand, and this is as true for engineering as it is for science. He goes on to say "As a final thought, I claim that compositionality is extremely delicate, and that it is so powerful that it is worth going to extreme lengths to achieve it", so that avoiding emergent effects is a characteristic of good programming language design.

Some thoughts:

  1. His examples of emergent systems are biology and game theory from an economic perspective. I would add to this list physics: of his co-authored paper showing that the spectral gap is undecidable, David Pérez-García said "For example, our results show that adding even a single particle to a lump of matter, however large, could in principle dramatically change its properties."
  2. Spolsky's famous characterisation of interfaces built on shaky foundations as Leaky abstractions to me makes the distinction between compositional and emergent systems a little less than sharp.
  3. We could talk endlessly about the list of what he regards as compositionality-breaking features of PLs. The evils of global state are well-documented, but I find dmbarbour's argument that Local state is poison a very interesting alternative way to look at what properties do we want from code; more generally, what kind of compositionalty PLs offer is very much paradigm dependent. Gotos are considered harmful, but the Linux kernel has little trouble with longjmp because of its mandated coding style: compositionality in engineering is a not just a matter of semantics but also of use. He targets OO and Haskell's type classes - I think he is quite correct - note that within these paradigms one can regain compositionality by restricting to LSP or algebraic classes, and supporting his thesis we see that these ideas have spawned ideas for the design of new, cleaner PLs.

History of Lisp

History of Lisp (The history of LISP according to McCarthy's memory in 1978, presented at the ACM SIGPLAN History of Programming Languages Conference.)

This is such a fun paper which I couldn't find on LtU. It's about the very early history of programming (1950s and '60s), back when things we take for granted today didn't exist yet.

On taking apart complex data structures with functions like CAR and CDR:

It was immediately apparent that arbitrary subexpressions of symbolic expressions could be obtained by composing the functions that extract immediate subexpressions, and this seemed reason enough to go to an algebraic language.

On creating new data, i.e. CONS:

At some point a cons(a,d,p,t) was defined, but it was regarded as a subroutine and not as a function with a value. ... Gelernter and Gerberich noticed that cons should be a function, not just a subroutine, and that its value should be the location of the word that had been taken from the free storage list. This permitted new expressions to be constructed out of subsubexpressions by composing occurrences of cons

On inventing IF:

This led to the invention of the true conditional expression which evaluates only one of N1 and N2 according to whether M is true or false and to a desire for a programming language that would allow its use.

On how supreme laziness led to the invention of garbage collection:

Once we decided on garbage collection, its actual implementation could be postponed, because only toy examples were being done.

You might have heard this before:

S.R. Russell noticed that eval could serve as an interpreter for LISP, promptly hand coded it, and we now had a programming language with an interpreter.

And the rest is history...

Notes on notation and thought

(via HN)

A nice collection of quotes on notation as a tool of thought. Mostly not programming related, which actually makes them more interesting, offering a richer diversity of examples. We used to have quite a few discussions of notation in the early days (at least in part because I never accepted the prevailing dogma that syntax is not that interesting or important), which is a good reminder for folks to check the archives.

Safe Dynamic Memory Management in Ada and SPARK

Safe Dynamic Memory Management in Ada and SPARK by Maroua Maalej, Tucker Taft, Yannick Moy:

Handling memory in a correct and efficient way is a step toward safer, less complex, and higher performing software-intensive systems. However, languages used for critical software development such as Ada, which supports formal verification with its SPARK subset, face challenges regarding any use of pointers due to potential pointer aliasing. In this work, we introduce an extension to the Ada language, and to its SPARK subset, to provide pointer types (“access types” in Ada) that provide provably safe, automatic storage management without any asynchronous garbage collection, and without explicit deallocation by the user. Because the mechanism for these safe pointers relies on strict control of aliasing, it can be used in the SPARK subset for formal verification, including both information flow analysis and proof of safety and correctness properties. In this paper, we present this proposal (which has been submitted for inclusion in the next version of Ada), and explain how we are able to incorporate these pointers into formal analyses

For the systems programmers among you, you might be interested in some new developments in Ada where they propose to add ownership types to Ada's pointer/access types, to improve the flexibility of the programs that can be written and whose safety can be automatically verified. The automated satisfiability of these safety properties is a key goal of the SPARK Ada subset.

ICFP Programming Contest 2018

Yep, it on!

Transfer of pywer

Guido van Rossum is "resigning" from being the Python BDFL: "I'm basically giving myself a permanent vacation from being BDFL, and you all will be on
your own." Apparently running a language can be tiring... It will be interesting to see what happens next.

Captcha

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"C Is Not a Low-level Language"

David Chisnall, "C Is Not a Low-level Language. Your computer is not a fast PDP-11.", ACM Queue, Volume 16, issue 2.

"For a language to be "close to the metal," it must provide an abstract machine that maps easily to the abstractions exposed by the target platform. It's easy to argue that C was a low-level language for the PDP-11.
...
it is possible to make C code run quickly but only by spending thousands of person-years building a sufficiently smart compiler—and even then, only if you violate some of the language rules. Compiler writers let C programmers pretend that they are writing code that is "close to the metal" but must then generate machine code that has very different behavior if they want C programmers to keep believing that they are using a fast language."

Includes a discussion of various ways in which modern processors break the C abstract machine, as well as some interesting speculation on what a "non-C processor" might look like. The latter leads to thinking about what a low-level language for such a processor should look like.

The Gentle Art of Levitation

The Gentle Art of Levitation

2010 by James Chapman, Pierre-Evariste Dagand, Conor McBride, Peter Morrisy

We present a closed dependent type theory whose inductive types are given not by a scheme for generative declarations, but by encoding in a universe. Each inductive datatype arises by interpreting its description—a first-class value in a datatype of descriptions. Moreover, the latter itself has a description. Datatype-generic programming thus becomes ordinary programming. We show some of the resulting generic operations and deploy them in particular, useful ways on the datatype of datatype descriptions itself. Surprisingly this apparently self-supporting setup is achievable without paradox or infinite regress.
It's datatype descriptions all the way down.

Comprehending Ringads

Comprehending Ringads

2016 by Jeremy Gibbons

Ringad comprehensions represent a convenient notation for expressing database queries. The ringad structure alone does not provide a good explanation or an efficient implementation of relational joins; but by allowing heterogeneous comprehensions, involving both bag and indexed table ringads, we show how to accommodate these too.
Indexed/parametric/graded monads are the key (read the paper to understand the pun).