BWK on "How to succeed in language design without really trying"

A talk by Brian Kernighan at The University of Nottingham.

Describes all the usual suspects: AWK, EQN, PIC. Even AMPL. I was wondering which languages he had in mind when he mentioned that some of his creations were total flops. I'd love to learn from those!

The talk is a fun way to spend an hour, and the audio would be good for commuters. For real aficionados I would recommend reading Jon Bentley's articles on the design of these languages (as well as CHEM and others) instead.

Ancient use of generators

Guido van Rossum reminisces a bit about early discussions of generators in the Python community (read the other messages in the thread as well). I think we talked about the articles he mentions way back when. Earlier still, and beyond the discussion by Guido here, was Icon, a clever little language that I have a soft spot for. i don't think we ever fully assessed its influence on Python and other languages.

ACM Classic Books Series

This list of classic books is the result of a poll ACM conducted where members named their favorite computer science books.

Good list. Bar the last two, which I have nothing against, the list consists of favorites of mine. It is always nice to see how many classics of CS come from work on programming languages. Not a surprise for anyone here, of course, but not always acknowledged. While we are on the subject of classic books, check out Luke's twitter poll here.

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 http://tmpl.weaselhat.com/ 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.


In his blog, Bob Harper, in joint effort with Dave MacQueen and Lars Bergstrom, announces the launch of sml-family.org:

The Standard ML Family project provides a home for online versions of various formal definitions of Standard ML, including the "Definition of Standard ML, Revised" (Standard ML 97). The site also supports coordination between different implementations of the Standard ML (SML) programming language by maintaining common resources such as the documentation for the Standard ML Basis Library and standard test suites. The goal is to increase compatibility and resource sharing between Standard ML implementations.

The site includes a history section devoted to the history of ML, and of Standard ML in particular. This section will contain a collection of original source documents relating to the design of the language.

Howard on Curry-Howard

Philip Wadler posts his exchange with William Howard on history of the Curry-Howard correspondence. Howard on Curry-Howard.

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.

Fifty Years of BASIC, the Programming Language That Made Computers Personal

Fifty Years of BASIC, the Programming Language That Made Computers Personal

A very comprehensive history of BASIC from Time magazine.

Invented by John G. Kemeny and Thomas E. Kurtz of Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, BASIC was first successfully used to run programs on the school’s General Electric computer system 50 years ago this week–at 4 a.m. on May 1, 1964, to be precise.

Edit: Dartmouth is celebrating Basic at 50.

How I Came to Write D

Walter Bright recounts how he came to write D

The path that led Walter Bright to write a language, now among the top 20 most used, began with curiosity — and an insult.

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