Structure and Efficiency of Computer Programs

September 28, 2014

For decades my colleague, Guy Blelloch, and I have promoted a grand synthesis of the two “theories” of computer science, combinatorial theory and logical theory.  It is only a small exaggeration to say that these two schools of thought work in isolation.  The combinatorial theorists concern themselves with efficiency, based on hypothetical translations of high-level algorithms to low-level machines, and have no useful theory of composition, the most important tool for developing large software systems.  Logical theorists concern themselves with composition, emphasizing the analysis of the properties of components of systems and how those components are combined; the heart of logic is a theory of composition (entailment).  But relatively scant attention is paid to efficiency, and, to a distressingly large extent, the situation is worsening, and not improving.

Guy and I have argued, through our separate and joint work, for the applicability of PL ideas to algorithms design, leading. for example, to the concept of adaptive programming that Umut Acar has pursued aggressively over the last dozen years.  And we have argued for the importance of cost analysis, for various measures of cost, at the level of the code that one actually writes, and not how it is compiled.  Last spring, prompted by discussions with Anindya Banerjee at NSF in the winter of 2014, I decided to write a position paper on the topic, outlining the scientific opportunities and challenges that would arise in an attempt to unify the two, disparate theories of computing.  I circulated the first draft privately in May, and revised it in July to prepare for a conference call among algorithms and PL researchers (sponsored by NSF) to find common ground and isolate key technical challenges to achieving its goals.

There are serious obstacles to be overcome if a grand synthesis of the “two theories” is to be achieved.  The first step is to get the right people together to discuss the issues and to formulate a unified vision of what are the core problems, and what are promising directions for short- and long-term research.  The position paper is not a proposal for funding, but is rather a proposal for a meeting designed to bring together two largely (but not entirely) disparate communities.  In summer of 2014 NSF hosted a three-hour long conference call among a number of researchers in both areas with a view towards hosting a workshop proposal in the near future.  Please keep an eye out for future developments.

I am grateful to Anindya Banerjee at NSF for initiating the discussion last winter that led to the paper and discussion, and I am grateful to Swarat Chaudhuri for his helpful comments on the proposal.

[Update: word smithing, corrections, updating, removed discussion of cost models for fuller treatment later, fixed incoherence after revision.]

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Web site sml-family.org Up and Running!

September 26, 2014

After far too long, and far too many obstacles to be overcome, Dave MacQueen, Lars Bergstrom, and I have finally prepared an open-source site for the entire family of languages derived from Standard ML.  The defining characteristic of Standard ML has always been that it has a rigorous definition, so that it is always clear what is a valid program and how it should behave.  And indeed we have seven different working compilers, all of which are compatible with each other, with the exception of some corner cases arising from known mistakes in the definition.  Moreover, there are several active projects developing new variations on the language, and it would be good to maintain the principle that such extensions be precisely defined.

To this end the sources of the 1990 and 1997 versions of the definition are on the web site, with the permission of MIT Press, as is the type-theoretic definition formulated by Stone and H., which was subsequently used as the basis for a complete machine-checked proof of type safety for the entire language done by Crary, Lee, and H.  It is be hoped that the errors in the definition (many are known, we provide links to the extensive lists provided by Kahrs and Rossberg in separate investigations) may now be corrected.  Anyone is free to propose an alteration to be merged into the main branch, which is called “SML, The Living Language” and also known as “Successor ML”.  One may think of this as a kind of “third edition” of the definition, but one that is in continual revision by the community.  Computer languages, like natural languages, belong to us all collectively, and we all contribute to their evolution.

Everyone is encouraged to create forks for experimental designs or new languages that enrich, extend, or significantly alter the semantics of the language.  The main branch will be for generally accepted corrections, modifications, and extensions, but it is to be expected that completely separate lines of development will also emerge.

The web site, sml-family.org is up and running, and will be announced in various likely places very soon.

Update: We have heard that some people get a “parked page” error from GoDaddy when accessing sml-family.org.  It appears to be a DNS propagation problem.

Update: The DNS problems have been resolved, and I believe that the web site is stably available now as linked above.

Update: Word smithing for clarity.


Scotland: Vote No

September 15, 2014

So far I’ve ignored the back and forth on the Scottish referendum on secession from the United Kingdom, but this weekend I decided that it was past time for me to sort it out.  For those of you who don’t know me, I’ll mention that I lived for 3.5 years in Scotland quite some time ago, so I am not completely ignorant of the cultural and political issues that underly the debate.  As a rule my political views are very much in line with those of the average Scot, solidly Labour Party back in the day when people like Derek Hatton and Ken Livingston and Roy Hattersley and Tony Benn defined what that meant.  Despite Tony Blair’s slimy “third way” nonsense, and his toadying up to Dick “Dick” Cheney’s sock puppet to help lie us into the Iraq war, Scotland in national politics remains solidly Labour; practically every Scottish seat is a Labour seat.

Although I used to be a so up on British politics that I could read and enjoy Private Eye, it’s been a long while since I’ve paid more than scant attention to what’s been going on there, apart from noting that The Scotsman was one of the few sources of truth about the Iraq War back when it really mattered.  The Scots have spines.

I’m no historian, but I do have basic understanding of Scottish history, particularly as regards the English, and am very familiar with the Scottish concept of valor in glorious defeat.  I understand full well that practically every Scotsman harbors some resentment towards the English for centuries of injustices, including the highland clearances, and, more recently, the appropriation of the oil in Scottish territory for the scant benefit of the Scots themselves.  And I am well aware of the bravery and sacrifice that so many Scots made fighting against the Axis during World War II.

My home institution, Carnegie Mellon University, was founded by a Scotsman from Kirkaldy, just across the spectacular Forth Bridge from Edinburgh.  Carnegie was born into penury and died as the wealthiest man on earth, far wealthier relative to GDP than Gates by a wide margin.  Carnegie was extraordinary, but the Scots in general punch far above their weight class in all things, especially industrious self-reliance.

In short, I love Scotland, and consider it to be a second home.  (OK, the weather is appalling, but we’ll set that aside for the time being.)

Emotionally, I am deeply sympathetic to the Scottish independence movement.  I know full well how poorly the U.K. treats Scotland and its interests.  Politics in the UK revolves around the “home counties” in the south of England; the terminology tells you all you need to know.  One time while watching the weather report on the BBC, the national broadcasting network, the announcer said that there was some horrendous weather coming our way, but that “it’ll mostly be up in Scotland, though”.  Though.  Though.

But I urge all my Scottish friends to vote NO on the independence proposal.  It makes no sense whatsoever in its present form, and represents to me a huge scam being perpetrated by the SNP to seize power and impose policies that nearly every Scot, judging from their voting record over decades and decades, would oppose.  The whole movement seems driven by the powerful urge to finally stick it to the English and get their country back, and Salmond is exploiting that to the hilt.  Back when I lived in Scotland I looked into the SNP, because even then I had separatist sympathies, but when I did, it was obvious why they had so few backers.  They’re just Tories without the class structure, more akin to our Tea Party lunatics than to the British Conservatives, and steadfastly opposed to policies, such as well-funded public education, that nearly all Scots support, and determined to follow the post-cold war Slovakian model of slashing taxes on the wealthy in the hope of attracting business to the country.  Having not followed Scottish politics for so long, it is astonishing to me that the SNP has managed to gain a majority in the Scottish Parliament, while the voting pattern at the national level has not changed at all.  How did this happen?  From my position of ignorance of the last decade or so of politics in Scotland, it looks as though Salmond is a slick operator who has pulled off a colossal con by exploiting the nationalist tendencies that lie within every Scot.

But never mind Salmond, the main reason that Scots must vote NO on the referendum is that it proposes to keep the English pound as Scotland’s national currency!  This is such a preposterous idea that I can only suspect dishonesty and deceit, because no sane political leader of honest intent could ever voluntarily place his or her country’s economic future in the hands of another.  The Bank of England will, particularly after separation, have no interest whatsoever in the economic conditions in Scotland when determining its policies on the pound.  And the Bank of Scotland will have no ability to control its own currency, the prime means of maintaining economic balance between labor and capital.  The Scots will, in effect, be putting themselves on a gold standard, the stupidest possible monetary system, so that, in a crisis, they will have to buy or borrow pounds, at interest, in emergency conditions, to deal with, say, the failure of the Royal Bank of Scotland (but don’t worry, that sort of thing can never happen again).  And the Bank of Scotland will have no means of stimulating the economy in a demand slump other than borrowing pounds from somewhere outside the country, rendering themselves in debt beyond their means.  And this will become an excuse for dismantling the social system that has been so important to elevating the Scots from poverty to a decent standard of living within one or two generations.  Just look at the poor PIGS in the Euro-zone being pushed around by Germany, especially, to satisfy the conveniences of the German bankers, and to hell with the living, breathing souls in Greece or Spain or Ireland or Portugal, to name the canonical victims.

A country that does not control its own currency is not independent and cannot be independent.  It’s an illusion.  Just what are Salmond’s true intentions are not entirely clear to me, but on the basis of his monetary policies alone, I implore my Scottish friends to suppress the natural wish to make a statement of pride, and instead do the sensible thing.  The proposal to be voted on this week is not a spittle on the  Heart of Midlothian, it is an irrevocable decision to place Scotland in an even worse position with respect to England than it already is in.

Listen to reason.  Vote NO on independence.