March 22, 2018 4:05 PM

Finally, Some Good News

It's been a tough semester. On top of the usual business, there have been a couple of extra stresses. First, I've been preparing for the departure of a very good friend, who is leaving the university and the area for family and personal reasons. Second, a good friend and department colleague took an unexpected leave that turned into a resignation. Both departures cast a distant pall over my workdays. This week, though, has offered a few positive notes to offset the sadness.

Everyone seems to complain about email these days, and I certainly have been receiving and sending more than usual this semester, as our students and I adjust to the change in our faculty. But sometimes an email message makes my day better. Exhibit 1, a message from a student dealing with a specific issue:

Thank you for your quick and helpful response!
Things don't look so complicated or hopeless now.

Exhibit 2, a message from a student who has been taming the bureaucracy that arises whenever two university systems collide:

I would like to thank you dearly for your prompt and thorough responses to my numerous emails. Every time I come to you with a question, I feel as though I am receiving the amount of respect and attention that I wish to be given.

Compliments like these make it a lot easier to muster the energy to deal with the next batch of email coming in.

There has also been good news on the student front. I received email from a rep at a company in Madison, Wisconsin, where one of our alumni works. They are looking for developers to work in a functional programming environment and are having a hard time filling the positions locally, despite the presence of a large and excellent university in town. Our alum is doing well enough that the company would like to hire more from our department, which is doing a pretty good job, too.

Finally, today I spoke in person with two students who had great news about their futures. One has accepted an offer to join the Northwestern U. doctoral program and work in the lab of Kenneth Forbus. I studied Forbus's work on qualitative reasoning and analogical reasoning as a part of my own Ph.D. work and learned a lot from him. This is a fantastic opportunity. The other student has accepted an internship to work at PlayStation this summer, working on the team that develops the compilers for its game engines. He told me, "I talked a lot about the project I did in your course last semester during my interview, and I assume that's part of the reason I got an offer." I have to admit, that made me smile.

I had both of these students in my intro class a few years back. They would have succeeded no matter who taught their intro course, or the compiler course, for that matter, so I can't take any credit for their success. But they are outstanding young men, and I have had the pleasure of getting to know over the last four years. News of the next steps in their careers makes me feel good, too.

I think I have enough energy to make it to the end of the semester now.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: General, Personal, Teaching and Learning

March 12, 2018 3:43 PM

Technology is a Place Where We Live

Yesterday morning I read The Good Room, a talk Frank Chimero gave last month. Early on in the talk, Chimero says:

Let me start by stating something obvious: in the last decade, technology has transformed from a tool that we use to a place where we live.

This sentence jumped off the page both for the content of the assertion and for the decade time frame with which he bounds it. In the fall of 2003, I taught a capstone course for non-majors that is part of my university's liberal arts core. The course, titled "Environment, Technology, and Society", brings students from all majors on campus together in a course near the end of their studies, to apply their general education and various disciplinary expertises to problems of some currency in the world. As you might guess from the title, the course focuses on problems at the intersection of the natural environment, technology, and people.

My offering of the course put on a twist on the usual course content. We focused on the man-made environment we all live in, which even by 2003 had begun to include spaces carved out on the internet and web. The only textbook for the course was Donald Norman's The Design of Everyday Things, which I think every university graduate should have read. The topics for the course, though, had a decided IT flavor: the effect of the Internet on everyday life, e-commerce, spam, intellectual property, software warranties, sociable robots, AI in law and medicine, privacy, and free software. We closed with a discussion of what an educated citizen of the 21st century ought to know about the online world in which they would live in order to prosper as individuals and as a society.

The change in topic didn't excite everyone. A few came to the course looking forward to a comfortable "save the environment" vibe and were resistant to considering technology they didn't understand. But most were taking the course with no intellectual investment at all, as a required general education course they didn't care about and just needed to check off the list. In a strange way, their resignation enabled them to engage with the new ideas and actually ask some interesting questions about their future.

Looking back now after fifteen years , the course design looks pretty good. I should probably offer to teach it again, updated appropriately, of course, and see where young people of 2018 see themselves in the technological world. As Chimero argues in his talk, we need to do a better job building the places we want to live in -- and that we want our children to live in. Privacy, online peer pressure, and bullying all turned out differently than I expected in 2003. Our young people are worse off for those differences, though I think most have learned ways to live online in spite of the bad neighborhoods. Maybe they can help us build better places to live.

Chimero's talk is educational, entertaining, and quotable throughout. I tweeted one quote: "How does a city wish to be? Look to the library. A library is the gift a city gives to itself." There were many other lines I marked for myself, including:

  • Penn Station "resembles what Kafka would write about if he had the chance to see a derelict shopping mall." (I'm a big Kafka fan.)
  • "The wrong roads are being paved in an increasingly automated culture that values ease."
Check the talk out for yourself.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Computing, General, Teaching and Learning

March 06, 2018 4:11 PM

A Good Course in Epistemology

Theoretical physicist Marcelo Gleiser, in The More We Know, the More Mystery There Is:

But even if we did [bring the four fundamental forces together in a common framework], and it's a big if right now, this "unified theory" would be limited. For how could we be certain that a more powerful accelerator or dark matter detector wouldn't find evidence of new forces and particles that are not part of the current unification? We can't. So, dreamers of a final theory need to recalibrate their expectations and, perhaps, learn a bit of epistemology. To understand how we know is essential to understand how much we can know.
the table of contents from PHL 440's readings

People are often surprised to hear that, in all my years of school, my favorite course was probably PHL 440 Epistemology, which I took in grad school as a cognate to my CS courses. I certainly enjoyed the CS courses I took as a grad student, and as an undergrad, too, and but my study of AI was enhanced significantly by courses in epistemology and cognitive psychology. The prof for PHL 440, Dr. Rich Hall, became a close advisor to my graduate work and a member of my dissertation committee. Dr. Hall introduced me to the work of Stephen Toulmin, whose model of argument influenced my work immensely.

I still have the primary volume of readings that Dr. Hall assigned in the course. Looking back now, I'd forgotten how many of W.V.O. Quine's papers we'd read... but I enjoyed them all. The course challenged most of my assumptions about what it means "to know". As I came to appreciate different views of what knowledge might be and how we come by it, my expectations of human behavior -- and my expectations for what AI could be -- changed. As Gleiser suggests, to understand how we know is essential to understanding what we can know, and how much.

Gleiser's epistemology meshes pretty well with my pragmatic view of science: it is descriptive, within a particular framework and necessarily limited by experience. This view may be why I gravitated to the pragmatists in my epistemology course (Peirce, James, Rorty), or perhaps the pragmatists persuaded me better than the others.

In any case, the Gleiser interview is a delightful and interesting read throughout. His humble of science may get you thinking about epistemology, too.

... and, yes, that's the person for whom a quine in programming is named. Thanks to Douglas Hofstadter for coining the term and for giving us programming nuts a puzzle to solve in every new language we learn.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Computing, General, Patterns, Personal

March 04, 2018 11:07 AM

A Seven-Year Itch

Seven years ago, I went out for my last run. I didn't know at the time that it would be my last run. A month or so later, I noted that I had been sick for a couple of weeks and then sore for a couple of weeks. After another four weeks, I reported that my knee wasn't going to get better in a way that would enable me to run regularly again. That was it.

My knee is better now in most important ways, though. A simple fix wasn't possible, but a more involved surgery was successful. Today, I walk a lot, especially with my wife, ride a bike a lot, again especially with my wife, and otherwise live a normal physical life. The repaired knee is not as mobile or responsive as my other knee but, all things considered, life is pretty good.

Even so, I miss running. A couple of years ago, I wrote that even five years on, I still dreamed about running occasionally. I'll be up early some morning, see a sunrise, and think, "This would make for a great run." Sometimes, when I go out after a snowfall, I'll remember what it was like to be the first person running on fresh snow out on the trails, under ice- or snow-covered branches. I miss that feeling, and so many others. I still enjoy sunrises and new snow, of course, but that enjoyment has long been tangled up with the feel of running: the pumping lungs, the long strides, the steady flow of scenery. Walking and biking have never given me the same feeling.

My orthopedic surgeon was worried that I would be like a lot of former runners and not stay "former", but I've been pretty well-behaved. In seven years I have rarely broken into even the slowest of trots, to cross a street or hurry to class. The doctor explained to me the effects of running on my reconstructed knee, the risk profile associated with contact sports, and what contact would likely mean for the future of the knee. As emotional I can seem about running, I'm much too rational to throw caution out the door for a brief thrill of running. So I don't run.

Even so, I often think back to the time I was rehabilitating my knee after surgery. Our athletic department has a therapy pool with an underwater treadmill, and my therapist had me use it to test my endurance and knee motion. The buoyancy of the water takes enough pressure off the legs that the impact on the knee doesn't damage the joint. I think I can achieve the same effect in the ocean, so the next time I get to a coast, I may try an underwater run. And I dream of getting rich enough to install one of those therapy pools in my house. I may not be a runner anymore, but I'm adaptable and perfectly willing to enjoy the benefits of technology.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Personal, Running

February 26, 2018 3:55 PM

Racket Love

Racket -- "A Programmable Programming Language" -- is the cover story for next month's Communications of the ACM. The new issue is already featured on the magazine's home page, including a short video in which Matthias Felleisen explains the idea of code as more than a machine artifact.

My love of Racket is no surprise to readers of this blog. Still one of my favorite old posts here is The Racket Way, a write-up of my notes from Matthew Flatt's talk of the same name at StrangeLoop 2012. As I said in that post, this was a deceptively impressive talk. I think that's especially fitting, because Racket is a deceptively impressive language.

One last little bit of love from a recent message to the Racket users mailing list... Stewart Mackenzie describes his feelings about the seamless interweaving of Racket and Typed Racket via a #lang directive:

So far my dive into Racket has positive. It's magical how I can switch from untyped Racket to typed Racket simply by changing #lang. Banging out my thoughts in a beautiful lisp 1, wave a finger, then finger crack to type check. Just sublime.

That's what you get when your programming language is as programmable as your application.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Computing, Software Development

February 21, 2018 3:38 PM

Computer Programs Aren't Pure Abstractions. They Live in the World.

Guile Scheme guru Andy Wingo recently wrote a post about langsec, the idea that we can bake system security into our programs by using languages that support proof of correctness. Compilers can then be tools for enforcing security. Wingo is a big fan of the langsec approach but, in light of the Spectre and Meltdown vulnerabilities, is pessimistic that it really matter anymore. If bad actors can exploit the hardware that executes our programs, then proving that the code is secure doesn't do much good.

I've read a few blog posts and tweets that say Wingo is too pessimistic, that efforts to make our languages produce more secure code will still pay off. I think my favorite such remark, though, is a comment on Wingo's post itself, by Thomas Dullien:

I think this is too dark a post, but it shows a useful shock: Computer Science likes to live in proximity to pure mathematics, but it lives between EE and mathematics. And neglecting the EE side is dangerous - which not only Spectre showed, but which should have been obvious at the latest when Rowhammer hit.
There's actual physics happening, and we need to be aware of it.

It's easy for academics, and even programmers who work atop an endless stack of frameworks, to start thinking of programs as pure abstractions. But computer programs, unlike mathematical proofs, come into contact with real, live hardware. It's good to be reminded sometimes that computer science isn't math; it lives somewhere between math and engineering. That is good in so many ways, but it also has its downsides. We should keep that in mind.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Computing

February 16, 2018 2:54 PM

Old Ideas and New Words

In this Los Angeles Review of Books interview, novelist Jenny Offill says:

I was reading a poet from the Tang dynasty... One of his lines from, I don't know, page 812, was "No new feelings". When I read that I laughed out loud. People have been writing about the same things since the invention of the written word. The only originality comes from the language itself.

After a week revising lecture notes and rewriting a recruiting talk intended for high school students and their parents, I know just what Offill and that Tang poet mean. I sometimes feel the same way about code.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Computing, Software Development

February 12, 2018 4:03 PM

How Do We Choose The Programming Languages We Love?

In Material as Metaphor, the artist Anni Albers talks about how she came to choose media in which she worked:

How do we choose our specific material, our means of communication? "Accidentally". Something speaks to us, a sound, a touch, hardness or softness, it catches us and asks us to be formed. We are finding our language, and as we go along we learn to obey their rules and their limits. We have to obey, and adjust to those demands. Ideas flow from it to us and though we feel to be the creator we are involved in a dialogue with our medium. The more subtly we are tuned to our medium, the more inventive our actions will become. Not listening to it ends in failure.

This expresses much the way I feel about different programming languages and styles. I can like them all, and sometimes do! I go through phases when one style speaks to me more than another, or when one language seems to be in sync with how I am thinking. When that happens, I find myself wanting to learn its rules, to conform so that I can reach a point where I feel creative enough to solve interesting problems in the language.

If I find myself not liking a language, it's usually because I'm not listening to it; I'm fighting back. When I first tried to learn Haskell, I refused to bend to its style of functional programming. I had worked hard to grok FP in Scheme, and I was so proud of my hard-won understanding that I wanted to impose it on the new language. Eventually, I retreated for a while, returned more humbly, and finally came to appreciate Haskell, if not master it deeply.

My experience with Smalltalk went differently. One summer I listened to what it was telling me, slowly and patiently, throwing code away and starting over several times on an application I was trying to build. This didn't feel like a struggle so much as a several-month tutoring session. By the end, I felt ideas flowing through me. I think that's the kind of dialogue Albers is referring to.

If I want to master a new programming language, I have to be willing to obey its limits and to learn how to use its strengths as leverage. This can be a conscious choice. It's frustrating when that doesn't seem to be enough.

I wish I could always will myself into the right frame of mind to learn a new way of thinking. Albers reminds us that often a language speaks to us first. Sometimes, I just have to walk away and wait until the time is right.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Personal, Software Development, Teaching and Learning

January 22, 2018 3:50 PM

Same Footage, Different Film

In In the Blink of an Eye, Walter Murch tells the story of human and chimpanzee DNA, about how the DNA itself is substantially the same and how the sequencing, which we understand less well, creates different beings during the development of the newborn. He concludes by bringing the analogy back to film editing:

My point is that the information in the DNA can be seen as uncut film and the mysterious sequencing as the editor. You could sit in one room with a pile of dailies and another editor could sit in the next room with exactly the same footage and both of you could make different films out of the same material.

This struck me as quite the opposite of what programmers do. When given a new problem and a large language in which to solve it, two programmers can choose substantially different source material and yet end up telling the same story. Functional and OO programmers, say, may decompose the problem in a different way and rely on different language features to build their solutions, but in the end both programs will solve the same problem and meet the same user need. Like the chimp and the human, though, the resulting programs may be better adapted for living in different environments.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: General, Software Development

January 17, 2018 3:51 PM


While discussing the effective use of discontinuities in film, both motion within a context versus change of context, Walter Murch tells a story about... bees:

A beehive can apparently be moved two inches each night without disorienting the bees the next morning. Surprisingly, if it is moved two miles, the bees also have no problem: They are forced by the total displacement of their environment to re-orient their sense of direction, which they can do easily enough. But if the hive is moved two yards, the bees become fatally confused. The environment does not seem different to them, so they do not re-orient themselves, and as a result, they will not recognize their own hive when they return from foraging, hovering instead in the empty space where the hive used to be, while the hive itself sits just two yards away.

This is fascinating, as well being a really cool analogy for the choices movies editors face when telling a story on film. Either change so little that viewers recognize the motion as natural, or change enough that they re-orient their perspective. Don't stop in the middle.

What is even cooler to me is that this story appears in a footnote.

One of the things I've been loving about In the Blink of an Eye is how Murch uses footnotes to teach. In many books, footnotes contain minutia or references to literature I'll never read, so I skip them. But Murch uses them to tell stories that elaborate on or deepen his main point but which would, if included in the text, interrupt the flow of the story he has constructed. They add to the narrative without being essential.

I've already learned a couple of cool things from his footnotes, and I'm not even a quarter of the way into the book. (I've been taking time to mull over what I read...) Another example: while discussing the value of discontinuity as a story-telling device, Murch adds a footnote that connects this practice to the visual discontinuity found ancient Egyptian painting. I never knew before why the perspective in those drawings was so unusual. Now I do!

My fondness for Murch's footnotes may stem from something more than their informative nature. When writing up lecture notes for my students, I like to include asides, digressions, and links to optional readings that expand on the main arc of the story. I'd like for them to realize that what they are learning is part of a world bigger than our course, that the ideas are often deeper and have wider implications than they might realize. And sometimes I just like to entertain with a connection. Not all students care about this material, but for the ones who do, I hope they get something out of them. Students who don't care can do what I do in other books: skip 'em.

This book gives me a higher goal to shoot for when including such asides in my notes: elaborate without being essential; entice without disrupting.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: General, Teaching and Learning