LtU Forum

Lecturing birds how to fly

@nntaleb tweeted a table from his Antifragility book listing several instances of academics claiming ideas that actually originated in industry had an academic origin.

I'm curious about the Wiener/Cybernetics example - the dates don't seem to work. I'm also curious about examples and nonexamples of "lecturing birds how to fly", ie. cases where this misappropriation has happened and also places where there is the belief that ideas originated in industry but in fact came from academia.

Programming Languages as Mathematical Representations

Hi Folks,

To those of you with math backgrounds....

A random conversation, about math and machine learning, led me to wondering - LISP & lambda calculus aside - is it reasonable to view programming languages as mathematical representations?

After all - a program represents a set of logical/mathematical relationships - be it descriptive, a model, or a series of operations - not unlike the way a set of differential equations can model a physical system (and be used to predict behavior).

Are there fundamental differences, beyond the symbology and grammars, that differentiate a set of equations from a program?

I ask this partly out of intellectual curiosity, and partly because, when it comes to analyzing and modeling systems, my mind tends to think in terms of code, rather than formulas - and I kind of wonder if there's really something fundamentally different about the thought process, or is it more akin to the difference between, say, differential and integral forms?



Miles Fidelman

Whither FRP?

hi, I was re-reading an LtU blast from the past about FRP and the discussions there made me think to ask this here community to post some concise updates on how FRP research has been going of late. In case any of you in that field have so much free time.

language handling of memory and other resource failures

My idea here is to introduce a place to discuss ideas about handling memory exhaustion, or related resource limit management. The goal is to have something interesting and useful to talk about, informing future designs of programming language semantics or implementation. Thoughtful new solutions are more on topic than anecdotes about old problems. (Feel free to tell an anecdote if followed by analysis of a workable nice solution.) Funny failure stories are not very useful.

Worst case scenarios are also of interest: situations that would very hard to handle nicely, as test cases for evaluating planned solutions. For example, you might be able to think of an app that would behave badly under a given resource management regime. This resembles thinking of counter examples, but with emphasis on pathology instead of contradiction.

In another discussion topic, Keean Schupke argued the idea failure due to out-of-memory is an effect, while others suggested it was semantically more out-of-scope than an effect in some languages. I am less interested in what is an effect, and more interested in how to handle problems. (The concept is on topic, when focus is what to do about it. Definitions without use cases seem adrift of practical concerns.)

Relevant questions include: After partial failure, what does code still running do about it? How is it presented semantically? Can failed things be cleaned up without poisoning the survivors afterward? How are monitoring, cleanup, and recovery done efficiently with predictable quality? How do PL semantics help a dev plan and organize system behavior after resource failures, especially memory?

Looking for references on the expressiveness and computational completeness of a relational programming language

The basic operations of a relational query language are equivalent to first order predicate calculus, which means they fall short of being computationally complete. This applies equally to modern SQL excluding SQL/PSM (which adds a procedural language) as it did to Codd's original proposals.

I have created a language Andl which implements the relational algebra augmented by (a) the ability to compute new values that are not in any relation (b) ad hoc aggregation functions (c) ordered queries (like SQL windowing) and (d) recursive fixpoint queries (equivalent to transitive closure or SQL Recursive Common Table Expressions.

I speculate that without any explicit looping or branching constructs, and based on relations as the only holder of state, that this language is Turing Complete. At any event it is capable of a surprising range of interesting computations (such as a Sudoku solver).

I am looking for references or theoretical work, or other implementations, to pursue this question.

Is there an existing name for my higher-order function?

I have groups of functions that get called with the exact same arguments:

    a = func_a(arg1, arg2, arg3, arg4, arg5);
    b = func_b(arg1, arg2, arg3, arg4, arg5);
    c = func_c(arg1, arg2, arg3, arg4, arg5);

To reduce duplication, I have a helper function that accepts any number of arguments and returns a second helper function. When called, this second function applies the arguments it was constructed with to other functions:

    bar = foo(arg1, arg2, arg3, arg4, arg5);
    a = bar(func_a);
    b = bar(func_b);
    c = bar(func_c);

My question is, what's the best name for "foo" in this second example? I've looked for higher-order functions in various languages but I'm having trouble finding examples of my specific usage--there are similar functions but nothing exactly the same. I'm hoping to find a canonical name for what I'm doing (if one exists).

Like partial, foo() fixes the given arguments but it doesn't bind them to a specific function. The best name I can come up with is enclose() or callwith(). If anyone know of an already-existing name for this, I'd like to hear what it is.

A language for blind uncomprehending idiots who have no idea how programs work.

I'm at present working on a thing which isn't really a programming language, because it's to be used by a thing which isn't really a programmer.

This is part of a machine learning project. Each 'program' is a genome which is operated on by a genetic algorithm. The genetic algorithm of course is the aforementioned blind uncomprehending idiot that has no idea how programs work. It combines and mutates genomes at random; the fact that these genomes code for programs is irrelevant to it.

The PL challenge is to build a programming language (genome encoding) that has the evolvable properties that will enable a GA to make progress. Ordinary programming languages (Koza's work with LISP included) are extraordinarily poorly suited to evolutionary methods.

What is required for evolvability:

First, small changes in the program (usually) make small changes in semantic behavior;

Second, combining elements of different programs results in a new one that's reasonably likely to have semantics similar to both (or all) parents, although there must be a chance that it does something completely different and unexpected instead.

Third, the genetic encoding must support the production of programs that are arbitrarily short or long, arbitrarily simple or complex, and must be able to get there mostly in 'baby steps.'

Fourth, there must be significant retention and potential recombination of structure even when that structure does not semantically affect the current program. (non-coding or 'junk' DNA, alias 'introns', is a reservoir of potentials that may be invoked in the case of mutations and usually code for something that's useful when that particular mutation happens.

Fifth, absolutely random genomes must make a program that has a definite semantics - any runtime or compile error is instantly lethal to that genome.

Sixth, tree representations with branch-swap combination operations are largely considered to be a failed experiment at this point, because they sort of failed many of the evolvability criteria given above. Most combinations did not express anything close to the semantics of any parent, and mutations weren't usually 'small' changes as measured in semantics. There wasn't much of a 'smooth gradient' that genetic algorithms could climb. So, it's time to build something else.

Our blind uncomprehending idiot is attempting to debug the code. It has lots of patience and lots of energy, but absolutely no clue how the genomes are related to semantics; it just has a 'combination' operator and a 'mutation' operator and gets fed 'solution effectiveness' information that it uses to determine which genomes to favor or disfavor.

Now, what kind of programming language should the blind uncomprehending idiot use? Remember that readability, syntactic cleanliness, intuitive design, etc, score absolutely zero here. The programmer can't read, has no idea what syntax is, and has no 'intuition' as such. Its efforts to debug mostly amount to slicing programs at random places and in random directions and sticking them together with bits it sliced from other genomes.

I've managed to build a 'language' that seems to have good evolvable properties for GAs and specifies neural networks. It is, however, horrifying to human sensibilities.

The genomes are metaprograms; A path through them is traversed (each state contains a 'next state' pointer) and any 'output bits' stored at states along the path are output in sequence and become part of the input to the neural network builder. So the genome works something like a funge, and the output of running the funge is a linear program.

The 'structure' results from the path taken through the genome funge. The path is specified by the "next operation" addresses in each node. If part of a path is particularly important then 'introns' can arise to protect it from minor mutations. Such introns would take the form of next-instruction pointers in nodes near the path node, pointing back onto the path. Mutations to instruction pointers usually change the destinations by a small distance in funge-space so the idea of introns in nodes that are 'near' the path makes sense.

I've been pretty careful with the format of the bit strings accepted by the neural network builder, and no catenation of output messages results in an outright error. It might result in a completely useless network, but never an error. And Artificial neural networks are fairly forgiving in terms of retaining most of their functionality when a few nodes here and there are changed or missing or when a few new ones appear, so this
seems more "reasonable" than trying to evolve Lisp programs using subexression exchange.

I think it would be possible to use the same funge-ish mechanism to create output strings that are read as other kinds of program as well, with a different kind of 'interpreter' than the one that builds neural networks. But my confidence is less, because most other kinds of 'program' are far less forgiving of minor structural changes. If you were doing any semantics other than constructing neural networks, how would you do it?

Branch Forward Only

Indeed, if memory serves (it's been a while since I read about this)...
The fly-by-wire flight software for the Saab Gripen (a lightweight fighter) went a step further. It disallowed both subroutine calls and backward branches, except for the one at the bottom of the main loop. Control flow went forward only. Sometimes one piece of code had to leave a note for a later piece telling it what to do, but this worked out well for testing: all data was allocated statically, and monitoring those variables gave a clear picture of most everything the software was doing. The software did only the bare essentials, and of course, they were serious about thorough ground testing.

No bug has ever been found in the "released for flight" versions of that code.

A quote from John Carmack on Inlined Code. I'm interested in hearing more about that style of programming, and any programming language that facilitates that style.

Alice, Bob, and Penthesilea: mutually suspicious code and data owners

I'm wondering what is known, if anything, about safe interactions between mutually suspicious data and code owners. Here's an Alice and Bob story abou it:

Alice has some data she wishes to keep confidential. Bob has some code which he wishes to keep confidential. Alice is willing to pay Bob for the right to use his code to operate on her data in some way. I'll assume that Alice assumes that Bob's code actually does the Right Thing, and doesn't leak Alice's data in any way. However, Alice doesn't want Bob to have general access to her data, and Bob doesn't want Alice to have general access to his code.

The conventional solutions are for Bob to compile or otherwise obfuscate his code, and then provide it to Alice under a grave and perilous license, or for Alice to upload her data to Bob's system and constrain him by a similarly grave and perilous contract. However, in modern times neither Alice nor Bob may wish the responsibility of owning and running the computers that the application of Bob's code to Alice's data may require.

So they turn to Penthesilea, who will rent out lots of computers to either Alice or Bob at very reasonable prices. However, Penthesilea is not interested in accepting any grave and perilous legal documents, and disclaims all liability for Bad Things happening. What can Alice and Bob do in order to keep each's confidential material safe from the other and (so far as possible) from Penthesilea as well?

Thoughts and (especially) references to related work would be greatly appreciated.

Update: changed "Alice's code" to "Alice's data"

7th Workshop on the Evaluation and Usability of Programming Languages and Tools (PLATEAU) - Call for Papers

7th Workshop on the Evaluation and Usability of Programming Languages and Tools (PLATEAU)

Co-located with SPLASH 2016
Amsterdam, Netherlands



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
domain specific language (e.g. database languages, security/privacy languages, architecture description languages) usability and evaluation

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. In addition, we invite language designers to share some of the usability reasoning that influenced their work. These will serve as an important first step in advancing our understanding of how language design supports programmers.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.

Submission site: PLATEAU papers should be submitted via HotCRP.

Format: Submissions should use the SIGPLAN Proceedings Format (, 10 point font. Note that by default the SIGPLAN Proceedings Format produces papers in 9 point font. If you are formatting your paper using LaTeX, you will need to set the 10pt option in the \documentclass command. If you are formatting your paper using Word, you may wish to use the provided Word template that supports this font size. Please include page numbers in your submission. Setting the preprint option in the LaTeX \documentclass command generates page numbers. Please also ensure that your submission is legible when printed on a black and white printer. In particular, please check that colors remain distinct and font sizes are legible.

All types of papers will be published in the ACM Digital Library at the authors’ discretion.


Alan Blackwell
Computer Laboratory
University of Cambridge
Cambridge, United Kingdom

Submission deadline: August 1, 2016

Kelly Blincoe, Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand
Jeff Carver, University of Alabama, USA
Kathi Fisler, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, USA
Tudor Gîrba, Independent, Switzerland
Stefan Hanenberg, University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany
Andrew Ko, University of Washington, USA
Brad Myers, Carnegie Mellon University, USA
Peter-Michael Osera, Grinnell College, USA
Janet Siegmund, University of Passau, Germany
Jeremy Singer, University of Glasgow, United Kingdom
Emma Söderberg, Google, USA
Andreas Stefik, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, USA
Ian Utting, University of Kent, United Kingdom
Philip Wadler, University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom

Craig Anslow, Middlesex University, UK
Thomas LaToza, George Mason University, USA
Joshua Sunshine, Carnegie Mellon University, USA

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