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CFP: Off-the-Beaten-Track (OBT) workshop at POPL 2015

Sun, 10/05/2014 - 15:59



Announcing the 2015 edition of the OBT workshop, to be co-located with POPL 2015, in Mumbai, India. Two-page paper submissions are due November 7, 2014.

From the web page (

Programming language researchers have the principles, tools, algorithms and abstractions to solve all kinds of problems, in all areas of computer science. However, identifying and evaluating new problems, particularly those that lie outside the typical core PL problems we all know and love, can be a significant challenge. This workshop's goal is to identify and discuss problems that do not often show up in our top conferences, but where programming language research can make a substantial impact. We hope fora like this will increase the diversity of problems that are studied by PL researchers and thus increase our community's impact on the world.

While many workshops associated with POPL have become more like mini-conferences themselves, this is an anti-goal for OBT. The workshop will be informal and structured to encourage discussion. We are at least as interested in problems as in solutions.

Domain settings

Sat, 10/04/2014 - 11:24



I am about to make some changes to the name server definitions. Since changes take time to propagate, you may have trouble reaching the site for awhile. If this happens, try using the .com domain instead of the preferred .org domain.

Tue, 09/30/2014 - 19:27



In his blog, Bob Harper, in joint effort with Dave MacQueen and Lars Bergstrom, announces the launch of

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.

Inferring algebraic effects

Sat, 09/27/2014 - 23:16



Logical methods in computer science just published Matija Pretnar's latest take on algebraic effects and handlers:

We present a complete polymorphic effect inference algorithm for an ML-style language with handlers of not only exceptions, but of any other algebraic effect such as input & output, mutable references and many others. Our main aim is to offer the programmer a useful insight into the effectful behaviour of programs. Handlers help here by cutting down possible effects and the resulting lengthy output that often plagues precise effect systems. Additionally, we present a set of methods that further simplify the displayed types, some even by deliberately hiding inferred information from the programmer.

Pretnar and Bauer's Eff has made previous appearances here on LtU. Apart from the new fangled polymorphic effect system, this paper also contains an Eff tutorial.

LtU's new server

Tue, 09/23/2014 - 07:26



Lambda the Ultimate is now running on a new, faster, more reliable server. The old one is now, uh... pining for the fjords.

This should resolve the increasingly frequent outages we've seen recently.

Because the old server had started failing, we didn't have time to do as much quality control on the migration as we would have liked. If anyone notices any issues with the site, please comment in this thread.

Currently known issues:

  • Non-Latin UTF-8 characters apparently didn't survive the database migration correctly. This is a particular issue if you have a username containing non-Latin characters - you may not be able to log in currently.
  • It's possible that some comments posted later on Monday don't appear on the new site.
  • New user signup emails are not yet working.
  • Due to DNS propagation, not everyone will see the new site immediately.

The above issues should be resolved sometime on Tuesday.

Breaking the Complexity Barrier of Pure Functional Programs with Impure Data Structures

Mon, 09/22/2014 - 14:10



Breaking the Complexity Barrier of Pure Functional Programs with Impure Data Structures by Pieter Wuille and Tom Schrijvers:

Pure functional programming language offer many advantages over impure languages. Unfortunately, the absence of destructive update, imposes a complexity barrier. In imperative languages, there are algorithms and data structures with better complexity. We present our project for combining existing program transformation techniques to transform inefficient pure data structures into impure ones with better complexity. As a consequence, the programmer is not exposed to the impurity and retains the advantages of purity.

This paper is along the same lines a question I asked a couple of years ago. The idea here is to allow programming using immutable interfaces, and then automatically transform it into a more efficient mutable equivalent.

An operational and axiomatic semantics for non-determinism and sequence points in C

Sun, 09/14/2014 - 09:36



In a recent LtU discussion, naasking comments that "I always thought languages that don't specify evaluation order should classify possibly effectful expressions that assume an evaluation order to be errors". Recent work on the C language has provided reasonable formal tools to reason about evaluation order for C, which has very complex evaluation-order rules.

An operational and axiomatic semantics for non-determinism and sequence points in C
Robbert Krebbers

The C11 standard of the C programming language does not specify the execution order of expressions. Besides, to make more effective optimizations possible (e.g. delaying of side-effects and interleav- ing), it gives compilers in certain cases the freedom to use even more behaviors than just those of all execution orders.

Widely used C compilers actually exploit this freedom given by the C standard for optimizations, so it should be taken seriously in formal verification. This paper presents an operational and ax- iomatic semantics (based on separation logic) for non-determinism and sequence points in C. We prove soundness of our axiomatic se- mantics with respect to our operational semantics. This proof has been fully formalized using the Coq proof assistant.

One aspect of this work that I find particularly interesting is that it provides a program (separation) logic: there is a set of inference rules for a judgment of the form \(\Delta; J; R \vdash \{P\} s \{Q\}\), where \(s\) is a C statement and \(P, Q\) are logical pre,post-conditions such that if it holds, then the statement \(s\) has no undefined behavior related to expression evaluation order. This opens the door to practical verification that existing C program are safe in a very strong way (this is all validated in the Coq theorem prover).

Luca Cardelli Festschrift

Fri, 09/12/2014 - 10:10



Earlier this week Microsoft Research Cambridge organised a Festschrift for Luca Cardelli. The preface from the book:

Luca Cardelli has made exceptional contributions to the world of programming
languages and beyond. Throughout his career, he has re-invented himself every
decade or so, while continuing to make true innovations. His achievements span
many areas: software; language design, including experimental languages;
programming language foundations; and the interaction of programming languages
and biology. These achievements form the basis of his lasting scientific leadership
and his wide impact.
Luca is always asking "what is new", and is always looking to
the future. Therefore, we have asked authors to produce short pieces that would
indicate where they are today and where they are going. Some of the resulting
pieces are short scientific papers, or abridged versions of longer papers; others are
less technical, with thoughts on the past and ideas for the future. We hope that
they will all interest Luca.

Hopefully the videos will be posted soon.

Re-thinking Prolog

Thu, 09/11/2014 - 14:31



A recent paper by Oleg Kiselyov and Yukiyoshi Kameyama at the university of Tsukuba discusses weaknesses and areas for improvement to Prolog.

Quite many computations and models are mostly deterministic. Implementing them in Prolog with any acceptable performance requires the extensive use of problematic features such as cut. Purity is also compromised when interfacing with mainstream language libraries, which are deterministic and cannot run backwards. Divergence is the constant threat, forcing the Prolog programmers to forsake the declarative specification and program directly against the search strategy. All in all, Classical Prolog is the exquisite square peg in the world with mostly round holes

The strong points of Prolog can be brought into an ordinary functional programming language. Using OCaml as a representative, we implement lazy guessing as a library, with which we reproduce classical Prolog examples. Furthermore, we demonstrate parser combinators that use committed choice (maximal munch) and can still be run forwards and backwards. They cannot be written in Classical Prolog. Logic variables, unification, and its WAM compilation strategy naturally emerge as a "mere optimization" of the Herbrand universe enumeration.

The paper mentions the strength of the approach used by miniKanren (which embeds logic programming with fairer search strategy than normal Prolog into Scheme) and Hansei (which embeds probability based nondeterminism into Ocaml using delimited continuations to allow direct-style expression of monadic code).

After motivating some choices by studying the prototypical example of running append backwards they cover running parsers with "maximal munch" rule backwards - something that cannot be (declaratively) expressed in prolog.

A very interesting paper on logic programming! It also thanks Tom Schrijvers of CHR fame at the end.

Scratch jr

Sat, 09/06/2014 - 17:45



Scratch jr is an iPad version of the Scratch environment, designed with young kids in mind. It is the best kid-oriented programming tool I tried so far, and my five year old has great fun making "movies" with it. As I noted on twitter an hour after installing, the ability to record your own voice and use it for your sprites is a killer feature. Check it out!

Scala woes?

Sat, 09/06/2014 - 12:12



A fork in the back? See discussion over at HN. People in the know are encouraged to shed light on the situation.

Cost semantics for functional languages

Thu, 08/14/2014 - 11:53



There is an ongoing discussion in LtU (there, and there) on whether RAM and other machine models are inherently a better basis to reason about (time and) memory usage than lambda-calculus and functional languages. Guy Blelloch and his colleagues have been doing very important work on this question that seems to have escaped LtU's notice so far.

A portion of the functional programming community has long been of the opinion that we do not need to refer to machines of the Turing tradition to reason about execution of functional programs. Dynamic semantics (which are often perceived as more abstract and elegant) are adequate, self-contained descriptions of computational behavior, which we can elevate to the status of (functional) machine model -- just like "abstract machines" can be seen as just machines.

This opinion has been made scientifically precise by various brands of work, including for example implicit (computational) complexity, resource analysis and cost semantics for functional languages. Guy Blelloch developed a family of cost semantics, which correspond to annotations of operational semantics of functional languages with new information that captures more intentional behavior of the computation: not only the result, but also running time, memory usage, degree of parallelism and, more recently, interaction with a memory cache. Cost semantics are self-contained way to think of the efficiency of functional programs; they can of course be put in correspondence with existing machine models, and Blelloch and his colleagues have proved a vast amount of two-way correspondences, with the occasional extra logarithmic overhead -- or, from another point of view, provided probably cost-effective implementations of functional languages in imperative languages and conversely.

This topic has been discussed by Robert Harper in two blog posts, Language and Machines which develops the general argument, and a second post on recent joint work by Guy and him on integrating cache-efficiency into the model. Harper also presents various cost semantics (called "cost dynamics") in his book "Practical Foundations for Programming Languages".

In chronological order, three papers that are representative of the evolution of this work are the following.

Parallelism In Sequential Functional Languages
Guy E. Blelloch and John Greiner, 1995.
This paper is focused on parallelism, but is also one of the earliest work carefully relating a lambda-calculus cost semantics with several machine models.

This paper formally studies the question of how much parallelism is available in call-by-value functional languages with no parallel extensions (i.e., the functional subsets of ML or Scheme). In particular we are interested in placing bounds on how much parallelism is available for various problems. To do this we introduce a complexity model, the PAL, based on the call-by-value lambda-calculus. The model is defined in terms of a profiling semantics and measures complexity in terms of the total work and the parallel depth of a computation. We describe a simulation of the A-PAL (the PAL extended with arithmetic operations) on various parallel machine models, including the butterfly, hypercube, and PRAM models and prove simulation bounds. In particular the simulations are work-efficient (the processor-time product on the machines is within a constant factor of the work on the A-PAL), and for P processors the slowdown (time on the machines divided by depth on the A-PAL) is proportional to at most O(log P). We also prove bounds for simulating the PRAM on the A-PAL.

Space Profiling for Functional Programs
Daniel Spoonhower, Guy E. Blelloch, Robert Harper, and Phillip B. Gibbons, 2011 (conference version 2008)

This paper clearly defines a notion of ideal memory usage (the set of store locations that are referenced by a value or an ongoing computation) that is highly reminiscent of garbage collection specifications, but without making any reference to an actual garbage collection implementation.

We present a semantic space profiler for parallel functional programs. Building on previous work in sequential profiling, our tools help programmers to relate runtime resource use back to program source code. Unlike many profiling tools, our profiler is based on a cost semantics. This provides a means to reason about performance without requiring a detailed understanding of the compiler or runtime system. It also provides a specification for language implementers. This is critical in that it enables us to separate cleanly the performance of the application from that of the language implementation. Some aspects of the implementation can have significant effects on performance. Our cost semantics enables programmers to understand the impact of different scheduling policies while hiding many of the details of their implementations. We show applications where the choice of scheduling policy has asymptotic effects on space use. We explain these use patterns through a demonstration of our tools. We also validate our methodology by observing similar performance in our implementation of a parallel extension of Standard ML

Cache and I/O efficient functional algorithms
Guy E. Blelloch, Robert Harper, 2013 (see also the shorter CACM version)

The cost semantics in this last work incorporates more notions from garbage collection, to reason about cache-efficient allocation of values -- in that it relies on work on formalizing garbage collection that has been mentioned on LtU before.

The widely studied I/O and ideal-cache models were developed to account for the large difference in costs to access memory at different levels of the memory hierarchy. Both models are based on a two level memory hierarchy with a fixed size primary memory (cache) of size \(M\), an unbounded secondary memory, and assume unit cost for transferring blocks of size \(B\) between the two. Many algorithms have been analyzed in these models and indeed these models predict the relative performance of algorithms much more accurately than the standard RAM model. The models, however, require specifying algorithms at a very low level requiring the user to carefully lay out their data in arrays in memory and manage their own memory allocation.

In this paper we present a cost model for analyzing the memory efficiency of algorithms expressed in a simple functional language. We show how many algorithms written in standard forms using just lists and trees (no arrays) and requiring no explicit memory layout or memory management are efficient in the model. We then describe an implementation of the language and show provable bounds for mapping the cost in our model to the cost in the ideal-cache model. These bound imply that purely functional programs based on lists and trees with no special attention to any details of memory layout can be as asymptotically as efficient as the carefully designed imperative I/O efficient algorithms. For example we describe an \(O(\frac{n}{B} \log_{M/B} \frac{n}{B})\) cost sorting algorithm, which is optimal in the ideal cache and I/O models.

Stream Processing with a Spreadsheet

Wed, 08/13/2014 - 04:10



ECOOP 2014 paper (distinguished) by Vaziri et. al, abstract:

Continuous data streams are ubiquitous and represent such a high volume of data that they cannot be stored to disk, yet it is often crucial for them to be analyzed in real-time. Stream processing is a programming paradigm that processes these immediately, and enables continuous analytics. Our objective is to make it easier for analysts, with little programming experience, to develop continuous analytics applications directly. We propose enhancing a spreadsheet, a pervasive tool, to obtain a programming platform for stream processing. We present the design and implementation of an enhanced spreadsheet that enables visualizing live streams, live programming to compute new streams, and exporting computations to be run on a server where they can be shared with other users, and persisted beyond the life of the spreadsheet. We formalize our core language, and present case studies that cover a range of stream processing applications.

Safely Composable Type-Specific Languages

Mon, 08/11/2014 - 06:27



Cyrus Omar, Darya Kurilova, Ligia Nistor, Benjamin Chung, Alex Potanin, and Jonathan Aldrich, "Safely Composable Type-Specific Languages", ECOOP14.

Programming languages often include specialized syntax for common datatypes (e.g. lists) and some also build in support for specific specialized datatypes (e.g. regular expressions), but user-defined types must use general-purpose syntax. Frustration with this causes developers to use strings, rather than structured data, with alarming frequency, leading to correctness, performance, security, and usability issues. Allowing library providers to modularly extend a language with new syntax could help address these issues. Unfortunately, prior mechanisms either limit expressiveness or are not safely composable: individually unambiguous extensions can still cause ambiguities when used together. We introduce type-specific languages (TSLs): logic associated with a type that determines how the bodies of generic literals, able to contain arbitrary syntax, are parsed and elaborated, hygienically. The TSL for a type is invoked only when a literal appears where a term of that type is expected, guaranteeing non-interference. We give evidence supporting the applicability of this approach and formally specify it with a bidirectionally typed elaboration semantics for the Wyvern programming language.

A Next Generation Smart Contract and Decentralized Application Platform

Wed, 07/23/2014 - 17:12



A Next Generation Smart Contract and Decentralized Application Platform, Vitalik Buterin.

When Satoshi Nakamoto first set the Bitcoin blockchain into motion in January 2009, he was simultaneously introducing two radical and untested concepts. The first is the "bitcoin", a decentralized peer-to-peer online currency that maintains a value without any backing, intrinsic value or central issuer. So far, the "bitcoin" as a currency unit has taken up the bulk of the public attention, both in terms of the political aspects of a currency without a central bank and its extreme upward and downward volatility in price. However, there is also another, equally important, part to Satoshi's grand experiment: the concept of a proof of work-based blockchain to allow for public agreement on the order of transactions. Bitcoin as an application can be described as a first-to-file system: if one entity has 50 BTC, and simultaneously sends the same 50 BTC to A and to B, only the transaction that gets confirmed first will process. There is no intrinsic way of determining from two transactions which came earlier, and for decades this stymied the development of decentralized digital currency. Satoshi's blockchain was the first credible decentralized solution. And now, attention is rapidly starting to shift toward this second part of Bitcoin's technology, and how the blockchain concept can be used for more than just money.

Commonly cited applications include using on-blockchain digital assets to represent custom currencies and financial instruments ("colored coins"), the ownership of an underlying physical device ("smart property"), non-fungible assets such as domain names ("Namecoin") as well as more advanced applications such as decentralized exchange, financial derivatives, peer-to-peer gambling and on-blockchain identity and reputation systems. Another important area of inquiry is "smart contracts" - systems which automatically move digital assets according to arbitrary pre-specified rules. For example, one might have a treasury contract of the form "A can withdraw up to X currency units per day, B can withdraw up to Y per day, A and B together can withdraw anything, and A can shut off B's ability to withdraw". The logical extension of this is decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) - long-term smart contracts that contain the assets and encode the bylaws of an entire organization. What Ethereum intends to provide is a blockchain with a built-in fully fledged Turing-complete programming language that can be used to create "contracts" that can be used to encode arbitrary state transition functions, allowing users to create any of the systems described above, as well as many others that we have not yet imagined, simply by writing up the logic in a few lines of code.

Includes code samples.

InterState: A Language and Environment for Expressing Interface Behavior

Wed, 07/23/2014 - 04:14



An interesting paper by Oney, Myers, and Brandt in this year's UIST. Abstract:

InterState is a new programming language and environment that addresses the challenges of writing and reusing user interface code. InterState represents interactive behaviors clearly and concisely using a combination of novel forms of state machines and constraints. It also introduces new language features that allow programmers to easily modularize and reuse behaviors. InterState uses a new visual notation that allows programmers to better understand and navigate their code. InterState also includes a live editor that immediately updates the running application in response to changes in the editor and vice versa to help programmers understand the state of their program. Finally, InterState can interface with code and widgets written in other languages, for example to create a user interface in InterState that communicates with a database. We evaluated the understandability of InterState’s programming primitives in a comparative laboratory study. We found that participants were twice as fast at understanding and modifying GUI components when they were implemented with InterState than when they were implemented in a conventional textual event-callback style. We evaluated InterState’s scalability with a series of benchmarks and example applications and found that it can scale to implement complex behaviors involving thousands of objects and constraints.

Workshop on Evaluation and Usability of Programming Languages and Tools (PLATEAU)

Thu, 07/17/2014 - 22:19



We are having another PLATEAU workshop at SPLASH 2014. We have a new category for "Hypotheses Papers" and thought this would be particularly appealing to the LTU community.

Programming languages exist to enable programmers to develop software effectively. But how efficiently programmers can write software depends on the usability of the languages and tools that they develop with. The aim of this workshop is to discuss methods, metrics and techniques for evaluating the usability of languages and language tools. The supposed benefits of such languages and tools cover a large space, including making programs easier to read, write, and maintain; allowing programmers to write more flexible and powerful programs; and restricting programs to make them more safe and secure.

PLATEAU gathers the intersection of researchers in the programming language, programming tool, and human-computer interaction communities to share their research and discuss the future of evaluation and usability of programming languages and tools.

Some particular areas of interest are:
- empirical studies of programming languages
- methodologies and philosophies behind language and tool evaluation
- software design metrics and their relations to the underlying language
- user studies of language features and software engineering tools
- visual techniques for understanding programming languages
- critical comparisons of programming paradigms
- tools to support evaluating programming languages
- psychology of programming

Submission Details

PLATEAU encourages submissions of three types of papers:

Research and position papers: We encourage papers that describe work-in-progress or recently completed work based on the themes and goals of the workshop or related topics, report on experiences gained, question accepted wisdom, raise challenging open problems, or propose speculative new approaches. We will accept two types of papers: research papers up to 8 pages in length; and position papers up to 2 pages in length.

Hypotheses papers: Hypotheses papers explicitly identify beliefs of the research community or software industry about how a programming language, programming language feature, or programming language tool affects programming practice. Hypotheses can be collected from mailing lists, blog posts, paper introductions, developer forums, or interviews. Papers should clearly document the source(s) of each hypothesis and discuss the importance, use, and relevance of the hypotheses on research or practice. Papers may also, but are not required to, review evidence for or against the hypotheses identified. Hypotheses papers can be up to 4 pages in length.

Papers will be published in the ACM Digital Library at the authors’ discretion.

Important Dates

Workshop paper submission due - 1 August, 2014
Notification to authors - 22 August, 2014
Early registration deadline - 19 September, 2014


Josh Bloch, former Chief Java Architect at Google and Distinguished Engineer at Sun Microsystems.