Joe Armstrong Interviews Alan Kay

Youtube video (via HN)

By far not the best presentation of Kay's ideas but surely a must watch for fans. Otherwise, skip until the last third of the interview which might add to what most people here already know.

It is interesting that in this talk Kay rather explicitly talks about programming languages as abstraction layers. He also mentions some specifics that may not be as well known as others, yet played a role in his trajectory, such as META.

I fully sympathize with his irritation with the lack of attention to and appreciation of fundamental concepts and theoretical frameworks in CS. On the other hand, I find his allusions to biology unconvincing.
An oh, he is certainly right about Minsky's book (my first introduction to theoretical CS) and in his deep appreciation of John McCarthy.

Automating Ad hoc Data Representation Transformations

Automating Ad hoc Data Representation Transformations by Vlad Ureche, Aggelos Biboudis, Yannis Smaragdakis, and Martin Odersky:

To maximize run-time performance, programmers often specialize their code by hand, replacing library collections and containers by custom objects in which data is restructured for efficient access. However, changing the data representation is a tedious and error-prone process that makes it hard to test, maintain and evolve the source code.

We present an automated and composable mechanism that allows programmers to safely change the data representation in delimited scopes containing anything from expressions to entire class definitions. To achieve this, programmers define a transformation and our mechanism automatically and transparently applies it during compilation, eliminating the need to manually change the source code.

Our technique leverages the type system in order to offer correctness guarantees on the transformation and its interaction with object-oriented language features, such as dynamic dispatch, inheritance and generics.

We have embedded this technique in a Scala compiler plugin and used it in four very different transformations, ranging from improving the data layout and encoding, to
retrofitting specialization and value class status, and all the way to collection deforestation. On our benchmarks, the technique obtained speedups between 1.8x and 24.5x.

This is a realization of an idea that has been briefly discussed here on LtU a few times, whereby a program is written using high-level representations, and the user has the option to provide a lowering to a more efficient representation after the fact.

This contrasts with the typical approach of providing efficient primitives, like primitive unboxed values, and leaving it to the programmer to compose them efficiently up front.

Simon Peyton Jones elected into the Royal Society Fellowship

Simon Peyton Jones has been elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society. The Royal Society biography reads:

Simon's main research interest is in functional programming languages, their implementation, and their application. He was a key contributor to the design of the now-standard functional language Haskell, and is the lead designer of the widely-used Glasgow Haskell Compiler (GHC). He has written two textbooks about the implementation of functional languages.

More generally, Simon is interested in language design, rich type systems, compiler technology, code generation, runtime systems, virtual machines, and garbage collection. He is particularly motivated by direct use of principled theory to practical language design and implementation -- that is one reason he loves functional programming so much.

Simon is also chair of Computing at School, the grass-roots organisation that was at the epicentre of the 2014 reform of the English computing curriculum.

Congratulations SPJ!

Usability of Programming Languages SIG at CHI'2016

A special-interest group meeting during the ACM CHI 2016 conference in San Jose, CA on the topic of the usability of programming languages. People are invited to attend!

To attend you must be registered for the CHI'2016 conference, and early registration ends March 14:

For more information about the SIG, see:


Programming languages form the interface between programmers (the users) and the computation that they desire the computer to
execute. Although studies exist for some aspects of programming language design (such as conditionals), other aspects have received little or no human factors evaluations. Designers thus have little they can rely on if they want to make new languages highly usable, and users cannot easily chose a language based on usability criteria. This SIG will bring together researchers and practitioners interested in increasing the depth and breadth of studies on the usability of programming languages, and ultimately in improving the usability of future languages.

C is Manly, Python is for “n00bs”: How False Stereotypes Turn Into Technical “Truths”

Jean Yang & Ari Rabkin C is Manly, Python is for “n00bs”: How False Stereotypes Turn Into Technical “Truths”, Model-View-Culture, January 2015.

This is a bit of a change of pace from the usual technically-focused content on LtU, but it seemed like something that might be of interest to LtUers nonetheless. Yang and Rabkin discuss the cultural baggage that comes along with a variety of languages, and the impact it has on how those languages are perceived and used.

"These preconceived biases arise because programming languages are as much social constructs as they are technical ones. A programming language, like a spoken language, is defined not just by syntax and semantics, but also by the people who use it and what they have written. Research shows that the community and libraries, rather than the technical features, are most important in determining the languages people choose. Scientists, for instance, use Python for the good libraries for scientific computing."

There are probably some interesting clues to how and why some languages are adopted while others fall into obscurity (a question that has come up here before). Also, the article includes references to a study conducted by Rabkin and LtU's own Leo Meyerovich.

Static vs. Dynamic Languages: A Literature Review

We've mentioned some empirical studies of programming languages a few times, but I haven't seen a comprehensive list we can use as a reference.

Fortunately, I just came across this pretty decent overview of existing literature on how types impact development. Agree or disagree with Dan Luu's position, the comprehensive list warrants a front-page post in my opinion.

One point worth noting is that all the studies used relatively inexpressive languages with bland type systems, like C and Java, and compared those against typed equivalents. A future study ought to compare a more expressive language, like OCaml, Haskell or F#, which should I think would yield more pertinent data to this age-old debate.

Part of the benefits of types allegedly surround documentation to help refactoring without violating invariants. So another future study I'd like to see is one where participants develop a program meeting certain requirements in their language of choice. They will have as much time as needed to satisfy a correctness test suite. They should then be asked many months later to add a new feature to the program they developed. I expect that the maintenance effort required of a language is more important than the effort required of initial development, because programs change more often than they are written from scratch.

This could be a good thread on how to test the various beliefs surrounding statically typed and dynamically languages. If you have any studies that aren't mentioned above, or some ideas on what would make a good study, let's hear it!

Xavier Leroy will receive the Royal Society's 2016 Milner Award

The Royal Society will award Xavier Leroy the Milner Award 2016

... in recognition of his research on the OCaml functional programming language and on the formal verification of compilers.

Xavier's replied:

It is very moving to see how far we have come, from Milner's great ideas of the 1970s to tools as powerful and as widely used as OCaml and Coq.

Tracking the Flow of Ideas through the Programming Languages Literature

Michael Greenberg, Kathleen Fisher, and David Walker, "Tracking the Flow of Ideas through the Programming Languages Literature", SNAPL 2015.

How have conferences like ICFP, OOPSLA, PLDI, and POPL evolved over the last 20 years? Did generalizing the Call for Papers for OOPSLA in 2007 or changing the name of the umbrella conference to SPLASH in 2010 have any effect on the kinds of papers published there? How do POPL and PLDI papers compare, topic-wise? Is there related work that I am missing? Have the ideas in O’Hearn’s classic paper on separation logic shifted the kinds of papers that appear in POPL? Does a proposed program committee cover the range of submissions expected for the conference? If we had better tools for analyzing the programming language literature, we might be able to answer these questions and others like them in a data-driven way. In this paper, we explore how topic modeling, a branch of machine learning, might help the programming language community better understand our literature.

The authors have produced some really interesting visualizations of how the topic content of various conferences has evolved over time (it's interesting to note that OOPSLA isn't really about OO software development any more, and that PLDI appears to have seen an increasing emphasis on verification and test generation).

Also of potential interest to LtU readers: there is a prototype tool at that is based on the work presented in this paper. It allows you to upload a paper PDF, and will return the 10 most closely related papers according to the POPL/PLDI topic model. It could be a handy research tool. But, if nothing else, it's a fun way to see what else is related to a paper you're interested in.

Punctuated equilibrium in the large scale evolution of programming languages

Sergi Valverde and Ricard Solé, "Punctuated equilibrium in the large scale evolution of programming languages", SFI working paper 2014-09-030

Here we study the large scale historical development of programming languages, which have deeply marked social and technological advances in the last half century. We analyse their historical connections using network theory and reconstructed phylogenetic networks. Using both data analysis and network modelling, it is shown that their evolution is highly uneven, marked by innovation events where new languages are created out of improved combinations of different structural components belonging to previous languages. These radiation events occur in a bursty pattern and are tied to novel technological and social niches. The method can be extrapolated to other systems and consistently captures the major classes of languages and the widespread horizontal design exchanges, revealing a punctuated evolutionary path.

The results developed here are perhaps not that surprising to people familiar with the history of programming languages. But it's interesting to see it all formalized and analyzed.

Cakes, Custard, and Category Theory

Eugenia Cheng's new popular coscience book is out, in the U.K. under the title Cakes, Custard and Category Theory: Easy recipes for understanding complex maths, and in the U.S. under the title How to Bake Pi: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of Mathematics:

Most people imagine maths is something like a slow cooker: very useful, but pretty limited in what it can do. Maths, though, isn't just a tool for solving a specific problem - and it's definitely not something to be afraid of. Whether you're a maths glutton or have forgotten how long division works (or never really knew in the first place), the chances are you've missed what really makes maths exciting. Calling on a baker's dozen of entertaining, puzzling examples and mathematically illuminating culinary analogies - including chocolate brownies, iterated Battenberg cakes, sandwich sandwiches, Yorkshire puddings and Möbius bagels - brilliant young academic and mathematical crusader Eugenia Cheng is here to tell us why we should all love maths.

From simple numeracy to category theory ('the mathematics of mathematics'), Cheng takes us through the joys of the mathematical world. Packed with recipes, puzzles to surprise and delight even the innumerate, Cake, Custard & Category Theory will whet the appetite of maths whizzes and arithmophobes alike. (Not to mention aspiring cooks: did you know you can use that slow cooker to make clotted cream?) This is maths at its absolute tastiest.

Cheng, one of the Catsters, gives a guided tour of mathematical thinking and research activities, and through the core philosophy underlying category theory. This is the kind of book you can give to your grandma and grandpa so they can boast to their friends what her grandchildren are doing (and bake you a nice dessert when you come and visit :) ). A pleasant weekend reading.

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