LAMBDA: The ultimate Excel worksheet function

Post by Andy Gordon and Simon Peyton Jones on LAMBDA giving Excel users the ability to define functions.

Ever since it was released in the 1980s, Microsoft Excel has changed how people organize, analyze, and visualize their data, providing a basis for decision-making for the millions of people who use it each day. It’s also the world’s most widely used programming language. Excel formulas are written by an order of magnitude more users than all the C, C++, C#, Java, and Python programmers in the world combined. Despite its success, considered as a programming language Excel has fundamental weaknesses. Over the years, two particular shortcomings have stood out: (1) the Excel formula language really only supported scalar values—numbers, strings, and Booleans—and (2) it didn’t let users define new functions.

Until now.

Sequent Calculus as a Compiler Intermediate Language

Sequent Calculus as a Compiler Intermediate Language
2016 by Paul Downen, Luke Maurer, Zena M. Ariola, Simon Peyton Jones

The typed λ-calculus arises canonically as the term language for a logic called natural deduction, using the Curry-Howard isomorphism: the pervasive connection between logic and programming languages asserting that propositions are types and proofs are programs. Indeed, for many people, the λ-calculus is the living embodiment of Curry-Howard.

But natural deduction is not the only logic! Conspicuously, natural deduction has a twin, born in the very same paper, called the sequent calculus. Thanks to the Curry-Howard isomorphism, terms of the sequent calculus can also be seen as a programming language with an emphasis on control flow.

Implementing Algebraic Effects in C

Implementing Algebraic Effects in C by Daan Leijen:

We describe a full implementation of algebraic effects and handlers as a library in standard and portable C99, where effect operations can be used just like regular C functions. We use a formal operational semantics to guide the C implementation at every step where an evaluation context corresponds directly to a particular C execution context. Finally we show a novel extension to the formal semantics to describe optimized tail resumptions and prove that the extension is sound. This gives two orders of magnitude improvement to the performance of tail resumptive operations (up to about 150 million operations per second on a Core i7@2.6GHz)

Another great paper by Daan Leijen, this time on a C library with immediate practical applications at Microsoft. The applicability is much wider though, since it's an ordinary C library for defining and using arbitrary algebraic effects. It looks pretty usable and is faster and more general than most of the C coroutine libraries that already exist.

It's a nice addition to your toolbox for creating language runtimes in C, particularly since it provides a unified, structured way of creating and handling a variety of sophisticated language behaviours, like async/await, in ordinary C with good performance. There has been considerable discussion here of C and low-level languages with green threads, coroutines and so on, so hopefully others will find this useful!

Imperative Functional Programs that Explain their Work

Imperative Functional Programs that Explain their Work
Wilmer Ricciotti, Jan Stolarek, Roly Perera, James Cheney
submitted on arXiv on 22 May 2017

Program slicing provides explanations that illustrate how program outputs were produced from inputs. We build on an approach introduced in prior work by Perera et al., where dynamic slicing was defined for pure higher-order functional programs as a Galois connection between lattices of partial inputs and partial outputs. We extend this approach to imperative functional programs that combine higher-order programming with references and exceptions. We present proofs of correctness and optimality of our approach and a proof-of-concept implementation and experimental evaluation.

Dynamic slicing answers the following question: if I only care about these specific part of the trace of my program execution, what are the only parts of the source program that I need to look at? For example, if the output of the program is a pair, can you show me that parts of the source that impacted the computation of the first component? If a part of the code is not involved in the trace, or not in the part of the trace that you care about, it is removed from the partial code returned by slicing.

What I like about this work is that there is a very nice algebraic characterization of what slicing is (the Galois connection), that guides you in how you implement your slicing algorithm, and also serves as a specification to convince yourself that it is correct -- and "optimal", it actually removes all the program parts that are irrelevant. This characterization already existed in previous work (Functional Programs that Explain Their Work, Roly Perera, Umut Acar, James cheney, Paul Blain Levy, 2012), but it was done in a purely functional setting. It wasn't clear (to me) whether the nice formulation was restricted to this nice language, or whether the technique itself would scale to a less structured language. This paper extends it to effectful ML (mutable references and exceptions), and there it is much easier to see that it remains elegant and yet can scale to typical effectful programming languages.

The key to the algebraic characterization is to recognize two order structures, one on source program fragment, and the other on traces. Program fragments are programs with hole, and a fragment is smaller than another if it has more holes. You can think of the hole as "I don't know -- or I don't care -- what the program does in this part", so the order is "being more or less defined". Traces are also partial traces with holes, where the holes means "I don't know -- or I don't care -- what happens in this part of the trace". The double "don't know" and "don't care" nature of the ordering is essential: the Galois connection specifies a slicer (that goes from the part of a trace you care about to the parts of a program you should care about) by relating it to an evaluator (that goes from the part of the program you know about to the parts of the trace you can know about). This specification is simple because we are all familiar with what evaluators are.

Type Systems as Macros

Type Systems as Macros, by Stephen Chang, Alex Knauth, Ben Greenman:

We present TURNSTILE, a metalanguage for creating typed embedded languages. To implement the type system, programmers write type checking rules resembling traditional judgment syntax. To implement the semantics, they incorporate elaborations into these rules. TURNSTILE critically depends on the idea of linguistic reuse. It exploits a macro system in a novel way to simultaneously type check and rewrite a surface program into a target language. Reusing a macro system also yields modular implementations whose rules may be mixed and matched to create other languages. Combined with typical compiler and runtime reuse, TURNSTILE produces performant typed embedded languages with little effort.

This looks pretty awesome considering it's not limited to simple typed languages, but extends all the way to System F and F-omega! Even better, they can reuse previous type systems to define new ones, thereby reducing the effort to implement more expressive type systems. All code and further details available here, and here's a blog post where Ben Greenman further discusses the related "type tailoring", and of course, these are both directly related to Active Libraries.

Taken to its extreme, why not have an assembler with a powerful macro system of this sort as your host language, and every high-level language would be built on this. I'm not sure if this approach would extend that far, but it's an interesting idea. You'd need a cpp-like highly portable macro tool, and porting to a new platform consists of writing architecture-specific macros for some core language, like System F.

This work may also conceptually dovetail with another thread discussing fexprs and compilation.

The complexity of abstract machines

I previously wrote about a brand of research by Guy Blelloch on the Cost semantics for functional languages, which let us make precise claim about the complexity of functional programs without leaving their usual and comfortable programming models (beta-reduction).

While the complexity behavior of weak reduction strategies, such as call-by-value and call-by-name, is by now relatively well-understood, the lambda-calculus has a much richer range of reduction strategies, in particular those that can reduce under lambda-abstractions, whose complexity behavior is sensibly more subtle and was, until recently, not very well understood. (This has become a practical concern since the rise in usage of proof assistants that must implement reduction under binders and are very concerned about the complexity of their reduction strategy, which consumes a lot of time during type/proof-checking.)

Beniamino Accatoli, who has been co-authoring a lot of work in that area, recently published on arXiv a new paper that has survey quality, and is a good introduction to this area of work and other pointers from the literature.

The Complexity of Abstract Machines

Beniamino Accatoli, 2017

The lambda-calculus is a peculiar computational model whose definition does not come with a notion of machine. Unsurprisingly, implementations of the lambda-calculus have been studied for decades. Abstract machines are implementations schema for fixed evaluation strategies that are a compromise between theory and practice: they are concrete enough to provide a notion of machine and abstract enough to avoid the many intricacies of actual implementations. There is an extensive literature about abstract machines for the lambda-calculus, and yet -- quite mysteriously -- the efficiency of these machines with respect to the strategy that they implement has almost never been studied.

This paper provides an unusual introduction to abstract machines, based on the complexity of their overhead with respect to the length of the implemented strategies. It is conceived to be a tutorial, focusing on the case study of implementing the weak head (call-by-name) strategy, and yet it is an original re-elaboration of known results. Moreover, some of the observation contained here never appeared in print before.

Philip Wadler: Category Theory for the Working Hacker

Nothing you don't already know, if you are inteo this sort of thing (and many if not most LtU-ers are), but a quick way to get the basic idea if you are not. Wadler has papers that explain Curry-Howard better, and the category theory content here is very basic -- but it's an easy listen that will give you the fundamental points if you still wonder what this category thing is all about.

To make this a bit more fun for those already in the know: what is totally missing from the talk (understandable given time constraints) is why this should interest the "working hacker". So how about pointing out a few cool uses/ideas that discerning hackers will appreciate? Go for it!

Fully Abstract Compilation via Universal Embedding

Fully Abstract Compilation via Universal Embedding by Max S. New, William J. Bowman, and Amal Ahmed:

A fully abstract compiler guarantees that two source components are observationally equivalent in the source language if and only if their translations are observationally equivalent in the target. Full abstraction implies the translation is secure: target-language attackers can make no more observations of a compiled component than a source-language attacker interacting with the original source component. Proving full abstraction for realistic compilers is challenging because realistic target languages contain features (such as control effects) unavailable in the source, while proofs of full abstraction require showing that every target context to which a compiled component may be linked can be back-translated to a behaviorally equivalent source context.

We prove the first full abstraction result for a translation whose target language contains exceptions, but the source does not. Our translation—specifically, closure conversion of simply typed λ-calculus with recursive types—uses types at the target level to ensure that a compiled component is never linked with attackers that have more distinguishing power than source-level attackers. We present a new back-translation technique based on a deep embedding of the target language into the source language at a dynamic type. Then boundaries are inserted that mediate terms between the untyped embedding and the strongly-typed source. This technique allows back-translating non-terminating programs, target features that are untypeable in the source, and well-bracketed effects.

Potentially a promising step forward to secure multilanguage runtimes. We've previously discussed security vulnerabilities caused by full abstraction failures here and here. The paper also provides a comprehensive review of associated literature, like various means of protection, back translations, embeddings, etc.

Progress on Gradual Typing

Among many interesting works, the POPL 2016 papers have a bunch of nice articles on Gradual Typing.

The Gradualizer: a methodology and algorithm for generating gradual type systems

The Gradualizer: a methodology and algorithm for generating gradual type systems
by Matteo Cimini, Jeremy Siek
2016

Many languages are beginning to integrate dynamic and static typing. Siek and Taha offered gradual typing as an approach to this integration that provides the benefits of a coherent and full-span migration between the two disciplines. However, the literature lacks a general methodology for designing gradually typed languages. Our first contribution is to provide such a methodology insofar as the static aspects of gradual typing are concerned: deriving the gradual type system and the compilation to the cast calculus.

Based on this methodology, we present the Gradualizer, an algorithm that generates a gradual type system from a normal type system (expressed as a logic program) and generates a compiler to the cast calculus. Our algorithm handles a large class of type systems and generates systems that are correct with respect to the formal criteria of gradual typing. We also report on an implementation of the Gradualizer that takes type systems expressed in lambda-prolog and outputs their gradually typed version (and compiler to the cast calculus) in lambda-prolog.

One can think of the Gradualizer as a kind of meta-programming algorithm that takes a type system in input, and returns a gradual version of this type system as output. I find it interesting that these type systems are encoded as lambda-prolog programs (a notable use-case for functional logic programming). This is a very nice way to bridge the gap between describing a transformation that is "in principle" mechanizable and a running implementation.

An interesting phenomenon happening once you want to implement these ideas in practice is that it forced the authors to define precisely many intuitions everyone has when reading the description of a type system as a system of inference rules. These intuitions are, broadly, about the relation between the static and the dynamic semantics of a system, the flow of typing information, and the flow of values; two occurrences of the same type in a typing rule may play very different roles, some of which are discussed in this article.

by Asumu Takikawa, Daniel Feltey, Ben Greenman, Max New, Jan Vitek, Matthias Felleisen
2016

Programmers have come to embrace dynamically typed languages for prototyping and delivering large and complex systems. When it comes to maintaining and evolving these systems, the lack of explicit static typing becomes a bottleneck. In response, researchers have explored the idea of gradually typed programming languages which allow the post-hoc addition of type annotations to software written in one of these “untyped” languages. Some of these new hybrid languages insert run-time checks at the boundary between typed and untyped code to establish type soundness for the overall system. With sound gradual typing programmers can rely on the language implementation to provide meaningful error messages when “untyped” code misbehaves.

While most research on sound gradual typing has remained theoretical, the few emerging implementations incur performance overheads due to these checks. Indeed, none of the publications on this topic come with a comprehensive performance evaluation; a few report disastrous numbers on toy benchmarks. In response, this paper proposes a methodology for evaluating the performance of gradually typed programming languages. The key is to explore the performance impact of adding type annotations to different parts of a software system. The methodology takes takes the idea of a gradual conversion from untyped to typed seriously and calls for measuring the performance of all possible conversions of a given untyped benchmark. Finally the paper validates the proposed methodology using Typed Racket, a mature implementation of sound gradual typing, and a suite of real-world programs of various sizes and complexities. Based on the results obtained in this study, the paper concludes that, given the state of current implementation technologies, sound gradual typing is dead. Conversely, it raises the question of how implementations could reduce the overheads associated with ensuring soundness and how tools could be used to steer programmers clear from pathological cases.

In a fully dynamic system, typing checks are often superficial (only the existence of a particular field is tested) and done lazily (the check is made when the field is accessed). Gradual typing changes this, as typing assumptions can be made earlier than the value is used, and range over parts of the program that are not exercised in all execution branches. This has the potentially counter-intuitive consequence that the overhead of runtime checks may be sensibly larger than for fully-dynamic systems. This paper presents a methodology to evaluate the "annotation space" of a Typed Racket program, studying how the possible choices of which parts to annotate affect overall performance.

Many would find this article surprisingly grounded in reality for a POPL paper. It puts the spotlight on a question that is too rarely discussed, and could be presented as a strong illustration of why it matters to be serious about implementing our research.

by Ronald Garcia, Alison M. Clark, Éric Tanter
2016

Language researchers and designers have extended a wide variety of type systems to support gradual typing, which enables languages to seamlessly combine dynamic and static checking. These efforts consistently demonstrate that designing a satisfactory gradual counterpart to a static type system is challenging, and this challenge only increases with the sophistication of the type system. Gradual type system designers need more formal tools to help them conceptualize, structure, and evaluate their designs.

In this paper, we propose a new formal foundation for gradual typing, drawing on principles from abstract interpretation to give gradual types a semantics in terms of pre-existing static types. Abstracting Gradual Typing (AGT for short) yields a formal account of consistency—one of the cornerstones of the gradual typing approach—that subsumes existing notions of consistency, which were developed through intuition and ad hoc reasoning.

Given a syntax-directed static typing judgment, the AGT approach induces a corresponding gradual typing judgment. Then the subject-reduction proof for the underlying static discipline induces a dynamic semantics for gradual programs defined over source-language typing derivations. The AGT approach does not recourse to an externally justified cast calculus: instead, run-time checks naturally arise by deducing evidence for consistent judgments during proof-reduction.

To illustrate our approach, we develop novel gradually-typed counterparts for two languages: one with record subtyping and one with information-flow security types. Gradual languages designed with the AGT approach satisfy, by construction, the refined criteria for gradual typing set forth by Siek and colleagues.

At first sight this description seems to overlap with the Gradualizer work cited above, but in fact the two approaches are highly complementary. The Abstract Gradual Typing effort seems mechanizable, but it is far from being implementable in practice as done in the Gradualizer work. It remains a translation to be done on paper by skilled expert, although, as standard in abstract interpretation works, many aspects are deeply computational -- computing the best abstractions. On the other hand, it is extremely powerful to guide system design, as it provides not only a static semantics for a gradual system, but also a model dynamic semantics.

The central idea of the paper is to think of a missing type annotation not as "a special Dyn type that can contain anything" but "a specific static type, but I don't know which one it is". A problem is then to be understood as a family of potential programs, one for each possible static choice that could have been put there. Not all choices are consistent (type soundness imposes constraints on different missing annotations), so we can study the space of possible interpretations -- using only the original, non-gradually-typed system to make those deductions.

An obvious consequence is that a static type error occurs exactly when we can prove that there is no possible consistent typing. A much less obvious contribution is that, when there is a consistent set of types, we can consider this set as "evidence" that the program may be correct, and transport evidence along values while running the program. This gives a runtime semantics for the gradual system that automatically does what it should -- but it, of course, would fare terribly in the performance harness described above.

Some context

The Abstract Gradual Typing work feels like a real breakthrough, and it is interesting to idly wonder about which previous works in particular enabled this advance. I would make two guesses.

First, there was a very nice conceptualization work in 2015, drawing general principles from existing gradual typing system, and highlighting in particular a specific difficulty in designing dynamic semantics for gradual systems (removing annotations must not make program fail more).

Refined Criteria for Gradual Typing
by Jeremy Siek, Michael Vitousek, Matteo Cimini, and John Tang Boyland
2015

Second, the marriage of gradual typing and abstract interpretation was already consumed in previous work (2014), studying the gradual classification of effects rather than types.

A Theory of Gradual Effect Systems
by Felipe Bañados Schwerter, Ronad Garcia, Éric Tanter
2014

Effect systems have the potential to help software developers, but their practical adoption has been very limited. We conjecture that this limited adoption is due in part to the difficulty of transitioning from a system where effects are implicit and unrestricted to a system with a static effect discipline, which must settle for conservative checking in order to be decidable. To address this hindrance, we develop a theory of gradual effect checking, which makes it possible to incrementally annotate and statically check effects, while still rejecting statically inconsistent programs. We extend the generic type-and-effect framework of Marino and Millstein with a notion of unknown effects, which turns out to be significantly more subtle than unknown types in traditional gradual typing. We appeal to abstract interpretation to develop and validate the concepts of gradual effect checking. We also demonstrate how an effect system formulated in Marino and Millstein’s framework can be automatically extended to support gradual checking.

Difficulty rewards: gradual effects are more difficult than gradual simply-typed systems, so you get strong and powerful ideas when you study them. The choice of working on effect systems is also useful in practice, as nicely said by Philip Wadler in the conclusion of his 2015 article A Complement to Blame:

I [Philip Wadler] always assumed gradual types were to help those poor schmucks using untyped languages to migrate to typed languages. I now realize that I am one of the poor schmucks. My recent research involves session types, a linear type system that declares protocols for sending messages along channels. Sending messages along channels is an example of an effect. Haskell uses monads to track effects (Wadler, 1992), and a few experimental languages such as Links (Cooper et al., 2007), Eff (Bauer and Pretnar, 2014), and Koka (Leijen, 2014) support effect typing. But, by and large, every programming language is untyped when it comes to effects. To encourage migration from legacy code to code with effect types, such as session types, some form of gradual typing may be essential.

Self-Representation in Girard’s System U

Self-Representation in Girard’s System U, by Matt Brown and Jens Palsberg:

In 1991, Pfenning and Lee studied whether System F could support a typed self-interpreter. They concluded that typed self-representation for System F “seems to be impossible”, but were able to represent System F in Fω. Further, they found that the representation of Fω requires kind polymorphism, which is outside Fω. In 2009, Rendel, Ostermann and Hofer conjectured that the representation of kind-polymorphic terms would require another, higher form of polymorphism. Is this a case of infinite regress?

We show that it is not and present a typed self-representation for Girard’s System U, the first for a λ-calculus with decidable type checking. System U extends System Fω with kind polymorphic terms and types. We show that kind polymorphic types (i.e. types that depend on kinds) are sufficient to “tie the knot” – they enable representations of kind polymorphic terms without introducing another form of polymorphism. Our self-representation supports operations that iterate over a term, each of which can be applied to a representation of itself. We present three typed self-applicable operations: a self-interpreter that recovers a term from its representation, a predicate that tests the intensional structure of a term, and a typed continuation-passing-style (CPS) transformation – the first typed self-applicable CPS transformation. Our techniques could have applications from verifiably type-preserving metaprograms, to growable typed languages, to more efficient self-interpreters.

Typed self-representation has come up here on LtU in the past. I believe the best self-interpreter available prior to this work was a variant of Barry Jay's SF-calculus, covered in the paper Typed Self-Interpretation by Pattern Matching (and more fully developed in Structural Types for the Factorisation Calculus). These covered statically typed self-interpreters without resorting to undecidable type:type rules.

However, being combinator calculi, they're not very similar to most of our programming languages, and so self-interpretation was still an active problem. Enter Girard's System U, which features a more familiar type system with only kind * and kind-polymorphic types. However, System U is not strongly normalizing and is inconsistent as a logic. Whether self-interpretation can be achieved in a strongly normalizing language with decidable type checking is still an open problem.