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