Non-morganatic specifications

I have temporarily withdrawn this article because the specific case it used as an example has changed. I will re-publish it as soon as the situation has stabilized.

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Computing: the Art, the Magic, the Science

 

My colleagues and I have just finished recording our new MOOC (online course), an official ETH offering on the EdX platform. The preview is available [1] and the course will run starting in September.

As readers of this blog know, I  have enthusiastically, under the impulsion of Marco Piccioni at ETH, embraced MOOC technology to support and spread our courses. The particular target has been the introduction to programming that I have taught for over a decade at ETH based on the Touch of Class textbook [2]. In February this blog announced [3] the release of our first MOOC, embodying the essentials of our ETH course and making it available not only to ETH students but to the whole world. The course does not just include video lectures: it also supports active student participation through online exercises and programs that can be compiled and tested on the cloud, with no software installation. These advanced features result from our research on support for distributed software development (by Christian Estler and Martin Nordio, with Carlo Furia and others).

This first course was a skunkworks project, which we did entirely on our own without any endorsement from ETH or any of the main MOOC players. We and our students have very much benefited from the consequent flexibility, and the use of homegrown technology relying on the MOODLE framework. We will keep this course for our own students and for any outside participant who prefers a small-scale, “boutique” version. But the EdX brand and EdX’s marketing power will enable us to reach a much broader audience. We want to provide the best introductory computing course on the market and the world needs to know about it. In addition, the full support of media services at ETH  helped us reach a higher standard on the technical side. (For our first course, the home-brewed one, we did not have a studio, so that every time an ambulance drove by — our offices are close to the main Zurich hospital — we had to restart the current take.)

The course’s content is not exactly the same: we have broadened the scope from just programming to computing, although it retains a strong programming component. We introduced additional elements such as an interview with Professor Peter Widmayer of ETH on the basics of computer science theory. For both new material and the topics retained from the first version we have adapted to the accepted MOOC practice of short segments, although we did not always exactly meet the eight-minute upper limit that was suggested to us.

We hope that you, and many newcomers, will like the course and benefit from it.

References

[3] EdX course: Computing: Art, Magic, Science, preview available here.

[2] Bertrand Meyer: Touch of Class: Learning how to Program Well, with Objects and Contracts, Springer Verlag, revised printing, 2013, book page here.

[3] Learning to Program, Online: article from this blog, 3 February 2014, available here.

 

 

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When pictures lie

 

One of the most improvable characteristics of scientific papers is the graphical presentation of numerical data. It is sad to see that thirty years after Tufte published the first edition of his masterpiece [1] many authors are still including grossly inaccurate graphics. Sadder still when the authors are professional graphists, who should know better. Take this chart [2] from the last newsletter of Migros, Switzerland’s largest supermarket chain. To convince Swiss people that they should not worry about their food bills, it displays the ratio of food expenses to revenue in various countries. There would be many good ways to represent this information graphically, but someone thought it clever to draw variable-size coins of the respective currencies. According to the text, “the bigger the circle, the larger the income’s share devoted to food“.

Just a minor problem: the visual effect is utterly misleading. Taking three examples from the numbers given, the ratio is roughly 10% for Switzerland, 30% for Russia, 40% for Morocco. And, sure enough,  compared to the Swiss coin in the figure, the Russian coin is about three times bigger and the Moroccan coin four times… in diameter! What the eye sees, of course, is the area. Since the area varies as the square of the diameter, one gets the impression that Russians spend nine times, not three, and Moroccans sixteen times, not four, as much as the Swiss.

To convey the correct suggestion, the diameter of the Russian coin should have been about 73% larger than the Swiss coin’s diameter (the square root of three is about 1.73) , and the diameter of the Moroccan coin twice larger, that is to say half of what it is.

The impression is particularly misleading for countries where the ratio, unlike in Russia or Morocco, is close to Switzerland’s. Most interestingly, although no doubt by accident, for neighboring countries, where Swiss people are prone to go shopping in search of a bargain, a practice that possibly does not enthuse Migros. The extra percentage devoted to food (using this time  no longer rough approximations but precise values from the figures given in the Migros page) is 4% for Austria (10.9 ratio vs Switzerland’s 10.2), 8% for Germany (11.1), 30% for France (13.3) and  43% for Italy (14.6). But if you look at the picture the circles suggest much bigger differences; for example the Italian circle is obviously computed from the ratio of the squares, 14.62 / 10.62, showing an increase of 104%. In other words, Italians proportionally devote to food a little over two-fifths more  than the Swiss, but the graph suggests they spend twice as much.

On the premise that one should not ascribe to malevolence what can be explained by ignorance, I hope the Migros graphists will get a copy of Tufte’s book for their future endeavors.

Read Tufte too if you want the pictures in your papers to be not just attractive but accurate.

References

[1] Edward R. Tufte: The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Graphics Press, second edition, 2001. See his site here.

[2] “How much do we spend to feed ourselves?” on the Migros site, available here for the French version (replace “fr” in the URL by “de” for German and “it” for Italian, I did not see an English version). Click on the figure for a readable version.

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The Eiffel Documentation Drive

EiffelStudio releases are semi-annual, end of May and end of November. Release 14-05 just came out. The next release (14-11) is entirely devoted to documentation. We are hoping for extensive community involvement in this first-time Eiffel Documentation Drive.

Many people regularly comment that there is not enough Eiffel and EiffelStudio documentation, and some of what exists is not good enough. We have decided to tackle the problem seriously, hence the dedication of an entire release cycle to documentation. The term is taken here in a broad sense: “documentation” means what is at http://docs.eiffel.com, but also everything else that can help understand Eiffel, for example updating Wikipedia entries on topics for which Eiffel has something to offer.

Anyone with an understanding of an Eiffel-related topic can help. We particularly need help from two (non-disjoint) categories of contributors

  • Those with a good understanding of one or more Eiffel-related topics.
  • Those with good writing skills.

The process will involve reviewing, so if you are an Eiffelist with moderate taste for writing, or a good writer with incomplete knowledge of Eiffel, we need your help anyway; someone else will compensate for the missing side. In particular, a common criticism is that some of the documentation was written by developers who do not have English as their mother tongue; if you can help improve it everyone will benefit. Of course if you are good at both technology and writing it’s even better.

We are mentioning English because it is the first target, but documentation in other languages, either original or a translation of existing English pages, is needed too.

Here is how the Eiffel Documentation Drive works:

  • Here you will find a form to report missing or unsatisfactory documentation. Please fill it on every applicable occasion.
  • The entries will be read by a member of the Eiffel Software team, who in applicable cases will add a row to the Eiffel Documentation Drive spreadsheet here. You can not only read that spreadsheet but also edit it yourself, so as to keep it as accurate and up-to-date as possible.
  • An email will be sent to the user list, with “Eiffel Documentation Drive” in the header (so that people not interested in the topic can filter them out), requesting help.
  • Those willing to help can enter their names in the corresponding row, indicating a planned date of completion.

Each row includes among its fields the following: topic, link to existing documentation, volunteer writer(s), planned completion, volunteer reviewer(s).

The full Eiffel Software team will participate – as noted above, improving the documentation is the strategic goal for the release – but we hope for considerable community participation. Please help make EiffelStudio documentation shine as much as the environment itself.

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Programming language features

 

InfoWorld is currently publishing a series of programming language assessments:

  • 9 Things We Hate About Objective-C, 4 June.
  • 15 Things We Hate About Java, 6 March.
  • 10 Features Apple Stole for the Swift Programming Language, 9 June.

Notable in these articles is what they do not mention: Eiffel has most of what the author misses in Objective-C and Java; and most of what Swift “stole” it stole from Eiffel.

In this article let us concentrate on the nine Objective-C complaints, by Peter Wayner [1]; subsequent articles will examine the Java “hates” and the Swift “steals”.

Criticism 1: “It is a little too different

“Objective-C lovers tout that Objective-C is a strict superset of C: If you can do it in C, you should be able to do it in Objective-C. But it doesn’t go the other way, so you’re stuck wondering, “Should I use an Objective-C method description or a C one?” Achieving portability to C programs requires constant vigilance and forethought.”

This is what happens when you mix language paradigms. Eiffel has a close relationship with C, but the two sides are clearly separated. You can call C from Eiffel, and the other way around. You can declare an Eiffel routine as “external C” and even include the C code inline: in other words an Eiffel “method description” can have a C implementation. The structure is always object-oriented (no need to fear that a novice programmer will revert to a C style for the design) but for access to low-level system mechanisms and small functions that should be optimized to the byte and microsecond you use C directly, in its ideal role.

Criticism 2: “It’s still mostly just plain old C

“For all its object-oriented coolness, you don’t get much else from Objective-C. It’s more of a way to organize your code for large systems than a way to write better code. You’re still responsible for pointers. You’re still responsible for keeping track of memory.

Eiffel is object-oriented all the way. You are not “responsible for pointers“. References are tame: no pointer arithmetic. You are not “responsible for keeping track of memory“:  objects are garbage-collected

“The C programmers loved to call their software a ‘portable assembly code’, and the same is true for Objective-C … except it’s only portable from the Mac to the iPad.”

“Portable assembly code” is exactly what C provides, and hence an excellent target for an Eiffel compiler. As to Eiffel, it runs on all platforms, from Windows to Linux to Solaris to VMS to the Mac.

Criticism 3: Stuck in the 80′s

Criticism 3: “Stuck in the ’80s

“Parachute pants, big hair, ‘The Breakfast Club’ — and the NeXT machine: Objective-C is like a time machine in programming-language land.”

Eiffel has undergone constant evolution, innovating on all fronts of programming constructs and integrating the best of known techniques.

“The primitives aren’t first-class citizens. Garbage collection, that wonderful idea that sustained Lisp, was adopted by Java ages ago. Objective-C got it in 2006. The same goes for properties and closures.”

All this has been in Eiffel forever. Agents (closures) were introduced in 1999, long before Java, C# and other OO languages had anything of the sort. Eiffel’s assigner commands are vastly superior to properties (no need to write all these boring getter functions).

 Criticism 4: “Punctuation

“The cool modern kids writing Python, Ruby, and CoffeeScript can craft billion-dollar companies without using brackets, braces, and parentheses. You’ll be wearing out your punctuation keys writing Objective-C. Colons, at-signs, asterisks? Is there any character that the language doesn’t use?”

Come on. How can one be so misinformed? The semicolon has been optional in Eiffel for fifteen years. The high-priest style of C, Objective-C, Java, C# and so many others, with its piling up of strange symbols, is something that Eiffel users never had to suffer.

Criticism 5: “Modern syntax

Not modern syntax, that is:

“Objective-C”s syntax is like Coke: They tried to modernize it in the ’90s, but it never stuck.”

Eiffel’s syntax is clear and simple. Total beginners, including high-school students, pick it up just as easily and naturally as advanced programmers, and as application experts who want to concentrate on their problem, not on learning strange language conventions going back to the nineteen-sixties.

Criticism 6: “No namespaces

Here Eiffel does not provide what the journalist wants: it is “post-namespaces” (as in “postmodern”). The Eiffel community has decided that the complexity of namespaces was not worth the trouble (what happens when you move packages around?) and prefers simple mechanisms for resolving class name clashes.

Criticism 7: “It only runs in Apple’s corner of the universe

” Variety is the spice of life. It’s even more important in a world where not everything is an iPhone. If a Windows or Linux shop recruits you, you can forget all of those extra Objective-C extensions you learned because they’ll be of no use.”

Eiffel is not tied to any manufacturer, computer architecture or operating system. If a new processor comes out, or a user needs an exotic platform, a port can usually be produced in a matter of hours. The compiler and the entire environment to which it belongs, EiffelStudio, are written in Eiffel; the supporting runtime is in a highly portable form of C, which requires very little customization, if any, for a new platform. (Here “the compiler” means the Eiffel Software implementation, but other implementations also put a strong emphasis on portability.)

Criticism 8: “XCode is your only choice

“In the Objective-C world, you get really only one choice. Why do you need to be different, comrade?”

Besides EiffelStudio other compilers and tools are available for Eiffel.

Criticism 9: “Apple’s benevolent dictatorship

“Do you want to give out more than 100 copies of your iPhone app? Forget it. Do you want to “think different” with your UI? Please go back and read the user interface guidelines. You can’t do anything without Apple’s permission because Apple uses strong crypto to lock down everything — and fanatically tyrannical policies to lock down the rest.”

The Eiffel language definition is steered by a standards committee under Ecma (the organization behind many of the major standards in IT), which anyone can join. EiffelStudio itself is available in open source. The Eiffel world knows nothing like the close control Apple exerts over its product; it welcomes all contributors.

Maybe someone should talk to Mr. Wayner and help him broaden his scope of programming language knowledge.

References

[1] Peter Wayner, 9 Things We Hate About Objective-C, InfoWorld, 4 June 2014, available here.

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Reading Notes: Single-Entry, Single-Exit

 

It is remarkable that almost half a century after Dijkstra’s goto article, and however copiously and reverently it may be cited, today’s programs (other than in Eiffel) are still an orgy of gotos. There are not called gotos, being described as constructs that break out of a loop or exit a routine in multiple places, but they are gotos all the same. Multiple routine exits are particularly bad since they are in effect interprocedural gotos.

Ian Joyner has just released a simple and cogent summary of why routines should always have one entry and one exit.

References

[1] Ian Joyner: Single-entry, single-exit (SESE) heuristic, available here.

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Accurately Analyzing Agility

  
Book announcement:

Agile! The Good, the Hype and the Ugly
Bertrand Meyer
Springer, 2014 (just appeared)
Book page: here.
Amazon page: here.
Publisher’s page: here

A few years ago I became fascinated with agile methods: with the unique insights they include; with the obvious exaggerations and plainly wrong advice they also promote; and perhaps most of all with the constant intermingling of these two extremes.

I decided to play the game seriously: I read a good part of the agile literature, including all the important books; I sang the song, became a proud certified Scrum Master; I applied many agile techniques in my own work.

The book mentioned above is the result of that study and experience. It is both a tutorial and a critique.

The tutorial component was, I felt, badly needed. Most of the agile presentations I have seen are partisan texts, exhorting you to genuflect and adopt some agile method as the secret to a better life. Such preaching has a role but professionals know there is no magic in software development.  Agile! describes the key agile ideas objectively, concretely, and as clearly as I could present them. It does not introduce them in a vacuum, like the many agile books that pretend software engineering did not exist before (except for a repulsive idea, the dreaded “waterfall”). Instead, it relates them to many other concepts and results of software engineering, to which they bring their own additions and improvements.

Unfortunately, not all the additions are improvements. Up to now, the field has largely been left (with the exception of Boehm’s and Turner’s 2005 “Guide for the Perplexed“) to propaganda pieces and adoring endorsements. I felt that software developers would benefit more from a reasoned critical analysis. All the more so that agile methods are a remarkable mix of the best and the worst; the book carefully weeds out — in the terminology of the title — the ugly from the hype and the truly good.

Software developers and managers need to know about the “ugly”: awful agile advice that is guaranteed to harm your project. The “hype” covers ideas that have been widely advertised as shining agile contributions but have little relevance to the core goals of software development. The reason it was so critical to identify agile ideas belonging to these two categories is that they detract from the “good”, some of it remarkably good. I would not have devoted a good part of the last five years to studying agile methods if I did not feel they included major contributions to software engineering. I also found that some of these contributions do not get, in the agile literature itself, the explanations and exposure they deserve; I made sure they got their due in the book. An example is the “closed-window rule”, a simple but truly brilliant idea, of immediate benefit to any project.

Software methodology is a difficult topic, on which we still have a lot to learn. I expect some healthy discussions, but I hope readers will appreciate the opportunity to discuss agile ideas in depth for the greater benefit of quality software development.

I also made a point of writing a book that (unlike my last two) is short: 190 pages, including preface, index and everything else.

The table of contents follows; more details and sample chapters can be found on the book page listed above.

Preface
1 OVERVIEW
     1.1 VALUES
     1.2 PRINCIPLES
          Organizational principles
          Technical principles
     1.3 ROLES
     1.4 PRACTICES
          Organizational practices
          Technical practices
     1.5 ARTIFACTS
          Virtual artifacts
          Material artifacts
     1.6 A FIRST ASSESSMENT
          Not new and not good
          New and not good
          Not new but good
          New and good!

2 DECONSTRUCTING AGILE TEXTS
     2.1 THE PLIGHT OF THE TRAVELING SEMINARIST
          Proof by anecdote
          When writing beats speaking
          Discovering the gems
          Agile texts: reader beware!
     2.2 THE TOP SEVEN RHETORICAL TRAPS
          Proof by anecdote
          Slander by association
          Intimidation
          Catastrophism
          All-or-nothing
          Cover-your-behind
          Unverifiable claims
          Postscript: you have been ill-served by the software industry!

&3 THE ENEMY: BIG UPFRONT ANYTHING
     3.1 PREDICTIVE IS NOT WATERFALL
     3.2 REQUIREMENTS ENGINEERING
          Requirements engineering techniques
          Agile criticism of upfront requirements
          The waste criticism
          The change criticism
          The domain and the machine
     3.3 ARCHITECTURE AND DESIGN
          Is design separate from implementation?
          Agile methods and design
     3.4 LIFECYCLE MODELS
     3.5 RATIONAL UNIFIED PROCESS
     3.6 MATURITY MODELS
          CMMI in plain English
          The Personal Software Process
          CMMI/PSP and agile methods
          An agile maturity scale

4 AGILE PRINCIPLES
     4.1 WHAT IS A PRINCIPLE?
     4.2 THE OFFICIAL PRINCIPLES
     4.3 A USABLE LIST
     4.4 ORGANIZATIONAL PRINCIPLES
          Put the customer at the center
          Let the team self-organize
          Maintain a sustainable pace
          Develop minimal software
          Accept change
     4.5 TECHNICAL PRINCIPLES
          Develop iteratively
          Treat tests as a key resource
          Do not start any new development until all tests pass
          Test first
          Express requirements through scenarios

5 AGILE ROLES
     5.1 MANAGER
     5.2 PRODUCT OWNER
     5.3 TEAM
          Self-organizing
          Cross-functional
     5.4 MEMBERS AND OBSERVERS
     5.5 CUSTOMER
     5.6 COACH, SCRUM MASTER
     5.7 SEPARATING ROLES

6 AGILE PRACTICES: MANAGERIAL
     6.1 SPRINT
          Sprint basics
          The closed-window rule
          Sprint: an assessment
     6.2 DAILY MEETING
     6.3 PLANNING GAME
     6.4 PLANNING POKER
     6.5 ONSITE CUSTOMER
     6.6 OPEN SPACE
     6.7 PROCESS MINIATURE
     6.8 ITERATION PLANNING
     6.9 REVIEW MEETING
     6.10 RETROSPECTIVE
     6.11 SCRUM OF SCRUMS
     6.12 COLLECTIVE CODE OWNERSHIP
          The code ownership debate
          Collective ownership and cross-functionality

7 AGILE PRACTICES: TECHNICAL
     7.1 DAILY BUILD AND CONTINUOUS INTEGRATION
     7.2 PAIR PROGRAMMING
          Pair programming concepts
          Pair programming versus mentoring
          Mob programming
          Pair programming: an assessment
     7.3 CODING STANDARDS
     7.4 REFACTORING
          The refactoring concept
          Benefits and limits of refactoring
          Incidental and essential changes
          Combining a priori and a posteriori approaches
     7.5 TEST-FIRST AND TEST-DRIVEN DEVELOPMENT
          The TDD method of software development
          An assessment of TFD and TDD

8 AGILE ARTIFACTS
     8.1 CODE
     8.2 TESTS
     8.3 USER STORIES
     8.4 STORY POINTS
     8.5 VELOCITY
     8.6 DEFINITION OF DONE
     8.7 WORKING SPACE
     8.8 PRODUCT BACKLOG, ITERATION BACKLOG
     8.9 STORY CARD, TASK CARD
     8.10 TASK AND STORY BOARDS
     8.11 BURNDOWN AND BURNUP CHARTS
     8.12 IMPEDIMENT
     8.13 WASTE, TECHNICAL DEBT, DEPENDENCY, DEPENDENCY CHARTS

9 AGILE METHODS
     9.1 METHODS AND METHODOLOGY
          Terminology
          The fox and the hedgehog
     9.2 LEAN SOFTWARE AND KANBAN
          Lean Software’s Big Idea
          Lean Software’s principles
          Lean Software: an assessment
          Kanban
     9.3 EXTREME PROGRAMMING
          XP’s Big Idea
          XP: the unadulterated source
          Key XP techniques
          Extreme Programming: an assessment
     9.4 SCRUM
          Scrum’s Big Idea
          Key Scrum practices
          Scrum: an assessment
     9.5 CRYSTAL
          Crystal’s Big Idea
          Crystal principles
          Crystal: an assessment

10 DEALING WITH AGILE TEAMS
     10.1 GRAVITY STILL HOLDS
     10.2 THE EITHER-WHAT-OR-WHEN FALLACY

11 THE UGLY, THE HYPE AND THE GOOD: AN ASSESSMENT OF THE AGILE APPROACH
     11.1 THE BAD AND THE UGLY
          Deprecation of upfront tasks
          User stories as a basis for requirements
          Feature-based development and ignorance of dependencies
          Rejection of dependency tracking tools
          Rejection of traditional manager tasks
          Rejection of upfront generalization
          Embedded customer
          Coach as a separate role
          Test-driven development
          Deprecation of documents
     11.2 THE HYPED
     11.3 THE GOOD
     11.4 THE BRILLIANT
Bibliography
Index

 

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Attached by default?

 

Opinions requested! See at end.

A void call, during the execution of an object-oriented program, is a call of the standard OO form

x·some_routine (…)                                                /CALL/

where x, a reference, happens to be void (null) instead of denoting, as expected, an object. The operation is not possible; it leads to an exception and, usually, a crash of the program. Void calls are also called “null pointer dereferencing”.

One of the major advances in Eiffel over the past years has been the introduction of attached types, entirely removing the risk of void calls. The language mechanisms, extending the type system, make void-call avoidance a static property, part of type checking: just as the compiler will prevent you from assigning a boolean value to an integer variable, so will it flag your program if it sees a risk of void call. Put the other way around, if your program passes compilation, you have the guarantee that its executions will never produce a void call. Attached types thus remove one of the major headaches of programming, what Tony Hoare [1] called his “one-billion-dollar mistake”:

I call it my billion-dollar mistake. It was the invention of the null reference in 1965. At that time, I was designing the first comprehensive type system for references in an object oriented language (ALGOL W) [2]. My goal was to ensure that all use of references should be absolutely safe, with checking performed automatically by the compiler. But I couldn’t resist the temptation to put in a null reference, simply because it was so easy to implement. This has led to innumerable errors, vulnerabilities, and system crashes, which have probably caused a billion dollars of pain and damage in the last forty year

Thanks to attached types, Eiffel programmers can sleep at night: their programs will not encounter void calls.

To benefit from this advance, you must declare variables accordingly, as either attached (never void after initialization) or detachable (possibly void). You must also write the program properly:

  • If you declare x attached, you must ensure in the rest of the program that before its first use x will have been attached to an object, for example through a creation instruction create x.
  • If you declare x detachable, you must make sure that any call of the above form /CALL/ happens in a context where x is guaranteed to be non-void; for example, you could protect it by a test if x /= Void then or, better, an “object test”.

Code satisfying these properties is called void-safe.

Void safety is the way to go: who wants to worry about programs, even after they have been thoroughly tested and have seemingly worked for a while, crashing at unpredictable times? The absence of null-pointer-dereferencing can be a statically  enforced property, as the experience of Eiffel now demonstrates; and that what it should be. One day, children will think void-safely from the most tender age, and their great-grandparents will tell them, around the fireplace during long and scary winter nights, about the old days when not everyone was programming in Eiffel and even those who did were worried about the sudden null-pointer-derefencing syndrome. To get void safety through ordinary x: PERSON declarations, you had (children, hold your breath) to turn on a compiler option!

The transition to void safety was neither fast nor easy; in fact, it has taken almost ten years. Not everyone was convinced from the beginning, and we have had to improve and simplify the mechanism along the way to make void-safe programming practical. Compatibility has been a key issue throughout: older classes are generally not void-safe, but in a language that has been around for many years and has a large code base of operational software it is essential to ensure a smooth transition. Void safety has, from its introduction, been controlled by a compiler option:

  • With the option off, old code will compile as it used to do, but you do not get any guarantee of void safety. At execution time, a void call can still cause your program to go berserk.
  • With the option on, you get the guarantee: no void calls. To achieve this goal, you have to make sure the classes obey the void safety rules; if they do not, the compiler will reject them until you fix the problem.

In the effort to reconcile the compatibility imperative with the inexorable evolution to void safety, the key decisions have affected default values for compiler options and language conventions. Three separate decisions, in fact. Two of the defaults have already been switched; the question asked at the end of this article addresses the switching of the last remaining one.

The first default governed the void-safety compiler option. On its introduction, void-safety was off by default; the mechanism had to be turned on explicitly, part of the “experimental” option that most EiffelStudio releases offer for new, tentative mechanisms. That particular decision changed a year ago, with version 7.3 (May 2013): now void safety is the default. To include non-void-safe code you must mark  it explicitly.

The second default affects a language convention: the meaning of a standard declaration. A typical declaration, such as

x: PERSON                                                                                      /A/

says that at run time x denotes a reference which, if not void, will be attached to an object of type PERSON.  In pre-void-safety Eiffel, as in today’s other typed OO languages,  the reference could occasionally become void at run time; in other words, x was detachable. With the introduction of void safety, you could emphasize this property by specifying it explicitly:

x: detachable PERSON                                                             /B/

You could also specify that x would never be void by declaring it attached, asking the compiler to guarantee this property for you (through its application of the void-safety rules to all operations involving x). The explicit form in this case is

x: attached PERSON                                                               /C/

In practical programming, of course, you do not want to specify attached or detachable all the time: you want to use the simple form /A/ as often as possible. Originally, since we were starting from a non-void-safe language, compatibility required /A/ to mean /B/ by default. But it turns out that “attached” really is the dominant case: most references should remain attached at all times and Void values should be reserved for important but highly specialized cases such as terminating linked data structures. So the simple form should, in the final state of the language, mean /C/. That particular default was indeed switched early (version 7.0, November 2011) for people using the void-safety compiler option. As a result, the attached keyword is no longer necessary for declarations such as the above, although it remains available. Everything is attached by default; when you want a reference that could be void (and are prepared to bear the responsibility for convincing the compiler that it won’t when you actually use it in a call), you declare it as detachable; that keyword remains necessary.

There remains one last step in the march to all-aboard-for-void-safety: removing the “detachable by default” option, that is to say, the compiler option that will make /A/ mean /B/ (rather than /C/). It is only an option, and not the default; but still it remains available. Do we truly need it? The argument for removing it  is that it simplifies the specification (the fewer options the better) and encourages everyone, even more than before, to move to the new world. The argument against is to avoid disturbing existing projects, including their compiler control files (ECFs).

The question looms: when do we switch the defaults? Some of us think the time is now; specifically, the November release (14.11) [4].

Do you think the option should go? We would like your opinion. Please participate in the Eiffelroom poll [5].

 

References and note

[1] C.A.R. Hoare: Null References: The Billion Dollar Mistake , abstract of talk at QCon London, 9-12 March 2009, available here.

[2] (BM note) As a consolation, before Algol W, LISP already had NIL, which is the null pointer.

[3] Bertrand Meyer, Alexander Kogtenkov and Emmanuel Stapf: Avoid a Void: The Eradication of Null Dereferencing, in Reflections on the Work of C.A.R. Hoare, eds. C. B. Jones, A.W. Roscoe and K.R. Wood, Springer-Verlag, 2010, pages 189-211, available here.

[4] EiffelStudio version numbering changed in 2014: from a classic major_number.minor_number to a plain year.month, with two principal releases, 5 and 11 (May and November).

[5] Poll on switching the attachment defaults: at the bottom of the Eiffelroom page here (direct access here).

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Code matters

(Adapted from an article previously published on the CACM blog.)

Often, you will be told that programming languages do not matter much. What actually matters more is not clear; maybe tools, maybe methodology, maybe process. It is a pretty general rule that people arguing that language does not matter are partisans of bad languages.

Let us consider the Apple bug of a few weeks ago. Only a few weeks; the world has already moved to Heartbleed (to be discussed in a subsequent article), but that is not a reason to sweep away the memory of the Apple bug and the language design that it reflects.

In late February, users of  iPhones, iPads and iPods were enjoined to upgrade their devices immediately because  “an attacker with a privileged network position may capture or modify data in sessions protected by SSL/TLS.” The bug was traced [1] to code of the following form:

if (error_of_first_kind)
goto fail;
if (error_of_second_kind)
goto fail;
if (error_of_third_kind)
goto fail;
if (error_of_fourth_kind)
goto fail;
if (error_of_fifth_kind)
goto fail;
goto fail;
if (error_of_sixth_kind)
goto fail;
The_truly_important_code_handling_non_erroneous_case

In other words: just a duplicated line! (The extra line is highlighted above.) But the excess “goto” is beyond the scope of the preceding “if“, so it is executed unconditionally: all executions go directly to the “fail” label, so that The_truly_important_code_handling_non_erroneous_case never gets executed.

Critics have focused their ire on the  goto instruction, but it is of little relevance. What matters, language-wise, is the C/C++-Java-C# convention of delimiting the scope of conditional instructions, loops and other kinds of composite structures. Every component of such structures in these languages is syntactically a single instruction, so that:

  • If you want the branch to consist of an atomic instruction, you write that instruction by itself, as in: if (c) a = b;
  • If you want a sequence of instructions, you write it as a compound, enclosed by the ever so beautiful braces: if (c) {a = b; x = y;}

Although elegant in principle (after all, it comes from Algol), this convention is disastrous from a software engineering perspective because software engineering means understanding that programs change. One day, a branch of a conditional or loop has one atomic instruction; sometime later, a maintainer realizes that the corresponding case requires more sophisticated treatment, and adds an instruction, but fails to add the braces.

The proper language solution is to do away with the notion of compound instruction as a separate concept, but simply expect all branches of composite instructions to consist of a sequence, which could consist of several instructions, just one, or none at all. In Eiffel, you will write

if  c then
   x := y
end

or

 if  c then
   a := b
   x := y
else
   u := v
end

or

from i := 1 until c loop
   a := b
   i := i + 1
end

or

across my_list as l loop
   l.add (x)
end

and so on. This syntax also gets rid of all the noise that pollutes programs in languages retaining C’s nineteen-sixties conventions: parentheses around the conditions, semicolons for instructions on different lines; these small distractions accumulate into serious impediments to program readability.

With such a modern language design, the Apple bug could not have arisen. A duplicated line is either:

  • A keyword such as end, immediately caught as a syntax error.
  • An actual instruction such as an assignment, whose duplication causes either no effect or an effect limited to the particular case covered by the branch, rather than catastrophically disrupting all cases, as in the Apple bug.

Some people, however, find it hard to accept the obvious responsibility of language design. Take this comment derisively entitled  “the goto squirrel” by Dennis Hamilton in the ACM Risks forum [2]:

It is amazing to me that, once the specific defect is disclosed (and the diff of the actual change has also been published), the discussion has devolved into one of coding style and whose code is better.  I remember similar distractions around the Ariane 501 defect too, although in that case there was nothing wrong with the code—the error was that it was being run when it wasn’t needed and it was not simulation tested with new launch parameters under the mistaken assumption that if the code worked for Ariane 4, it should work for Ariane 5.

It is not about the code.  It is not about the code.  It is not about goto. It is not about coming up with ways to avoid introducing this particular defect by writing the code differently.

Such certainty! Repeating a wrong statement ( “it is not about the code“) does not make it  right. Of course “it” is about the code! If the code had been different the catastrophe would not have happened, so one needs some gall to state that the code is not the issue — and just as much gall, given that the catastrophe would also not have happened if the programming language had been different, to state that it is not about the programming language.

When Mr. Hamilton dismisses as “distractions” the explanations pointing to programming-related causes for the Ariane-5 disaster, I assume he has in mind the analysis which I published at the time with Jean-Marc Jézéquel [3], which explained in detail how the core issue was the absence of proper specifications (contracts). At that time too, we heard dismissive comments; according to one of the critics, the programming aspects did not count, since the whole thing was really a social problem: the French engineers in Toulouse did not communicate properly with their colleagues in England! What is great with such folk explanations is that they sound just right and please people because they reinforce existing stereotypes. They are by nature as impossible to refute as they are impossible to prove. And they avoid raising the important but disturbing questions: were the teams using the right programming language, the right specification method (contracts, as our article suggested), appropriate tools? In both the Ariane-5 and Apple cases, they were not.

If you want to be considered polite, you are not supposed to point out that the use of programming languages designed for the PDP-8 or some other long-gone machine is an invitation to disaster. The more terrible the programming language people use, and the more they know it is terrible (even if they will not admit it), the more scandalized they will be that you point out that it is, indeed, terrible. It is as if you had said something about their weight or the pimples on their cheeks. Such reactions do not make the comment less true. The expression of outrage is particularly inappropriate when technical choices are not just matters for technical argument, but have catastrophic consequences on society.

The usual excuse, in response to language criticisms, is that better tools, better quality control (the main recommendation of the Ariane-5 inquiry committee back in 1997), better methodology would also have avoided the problem. Indeed, a number of the other comments in the comp.risks discussion that includes Hamilton’s dismissal of code [2] point in this direction, noting for example that static analyzers could have detected code duplication and unreachable instructions. These observations are all true, but change nothing to the role of programming languages and coding issues.  One of the basic lessons from the study of software and other industrial disasters — see for example the work of Nancy Leveson — is that a disaster results from a combination of causes. This property is in fact easy to understand: a disaster coming from a single cause would most likely have been avoided. Consider the hypothetical example of a disastrous flaw in Amazon’s transaction processing. It seems from various sources that Amazon processes something like 300 transactions a second. Now let us assume three independent factors, each occurring with a probability of a thousandth (10-3), which could contribute to a failure. Then:

  • It is impossible that one of the factors could cause failure just by itself: that means it would make a transaction after around 3 seconds, and would be caught even in the most trivial unit testing. No one but the developer would ever know about it.
  • If two of the factors together cause failure, they will occur every million transactions, meaning about once an hour. Any reasonable testing will discover the problem before a release is ever deployed.
  • If all three factors are required, the probability is 10-9, meaning that a failure will occur about once a year. Only in that case will a real problem exist: a flaw that goes undetected for a long time, during which everything seems normal, until disaster strikes.

These observations explain why post-mortem examinations of catastrophes always point to a seemingly impossible combination of unfortunate circumstances. The archduke went to Sarajevo and he insisted on seeing the wounded and someone forgot to tell the drivers about the prudent decision to bypass the announced itinerary and the convoy stalled  and the assassin saw it and he hit Franz-Ferdinand right in the neck and there was nationalistic resentment in various countries and the system of alliances required countries to declare war [4]. Same thing for industrial accidents. Same thing for the Apple bug: obviously, there were no good code reviews and no static analysis tools applied and no good management; and, obviously, a programming language that blows out innocent mistakes into disasters of planetary import.

So much for the accepted wisdom, heard again and again in software engineering circles, that code does not matter, syntax does not count, typos are caught right away, and that all we should care about is process or agility or requirements or some other high-sounding concern more respectable than programming. Code? Programming languages? Did we not take care of those years ago? I remember similar distractions.”

There is a  positive conclusion to the “and” nature (in probabilistic terms, the multiplicative nature) of causes necessary to produce a catastrophe in practice: it suffices to get rid of one of the operands of the “and” to falsify its result, hence avoiding the catastrophe. When people tell you that code does not matter or that language does not matter, just understand the comment for what it really means, “I am ashamed of the programming language and techniques I use but do not want to admit it so I prefer to blame problems on the rest of the world“, and make the correct deduction: use a good programming language.

References

[1] Paul Duckline:  Anatomy of a “goto fail” – Apple’s SSL bug explained, plus an unofficial patch for OS X!, Naked Security blog (Sophos), 24 February 2014, available here.

[2] Dennis E. Hamilton: The Goto Squirrel, ACM Risks Forum, 28 February 2014, available here.

[3] Jean-Marc Jézéquel and Bertrand Meyer: Design by Contract: The Lessons of Ariane, in Computer (IEEE), vol. 30, no. 1, January 1997, pages 129-130, available online here and, with reader responses here.

[4] Assassination of Ferdinand of Autria: here.

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Crossing the Is and doting on the Ts

 

Last week at the the CSEE&T conference in Klagenfurt (the conference page is here, I gave a keynote), a panel discussed how universities should prepare students for software engineering. Barry Boehm, one of the panelists, stated the following principle, which afterwards he said he had learned from Simon Ramo, co-founder of TRW. In hiring people, he stated, it is better to avoid candidates with an I-shaped profile: narrowly specialized in one topic that they have explored to exhaustion. Better look for a T: someone who has mastered an area in depth and then branched out to learn about many others.

I started playing with the variants. One should avoid the hyphens, or em-dashes, ““: people with a smattering of everything but no detailed knowledge of anything. Boehm said that this is the reason he always argued against establishing such undergraduate majors as systems engineering. A variant of the hyphen is the overline ““: graduates who supposedly are so smart that they can learn anything, but whose actual knowledge is limited to abstract notions.

Along with the T we should consider the “bottom” symbol of denotational semantics: . It corresponds to people who have a broad educational base, for example in mathematics, and have deepened it by focusing on a particular topic. The T and can be combined into an H turned on its side, H on the side: acquiring a solid foundation, specializing, then using that experience to become familiar with new areas.

Extending the permutation group, I am not sure what a “+” profile would be, but in a discussion last night Rustan Leino and Peter Müller suggested the “O”, ability to to circle around topics, and the umlaut, knowing a thing or two; in fact, exactly two.

 

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Would they?

If you use the Swiss lounge at Zurich airport and have the effrontery of asking for Internet access, you are given a voucher, valid 24 hours. It works (well, if you are ready to watch a Mercedes ad for a full thirty seconds, no early escape unless you want to restart from scratch). Otherwise I could not be writing this article.

The voucher shows the code you musts enter into the browser. It also shows your name, your flight, your seat number. These pieces of information and the connection between then are, then, in the system. Anyone with access to that system can precisely track what you did online.

Of course I am fantasizing. No one would ever do this. Why would they?

Predictably, many people leave their vouchers lying around when they leave for their flights. So you could use someone else’s voucher to engage in some dubious or downright illicit Internet practice, and shift the blame to the other person. But no one would ever do this. Why would they?

 

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Lamport, Turing

 

Theories abound (I have my own) about why it did not happen long ago, but at last Lamport did receive the Turing Award. For me what most characterizes him is a stream [1] of elegant, original, insightful articles providing solutions to one important and thorny problem after another. Some of these articles are well known but many gems are not; see for example his take on Buridan’s Ass [2], not even a computer science paper, offering a convincing treatment of a centuries-old riddle.

References

[1] Leslie Lamport: annotated publication list, here.

[2] Leslie Lamport: Buridan’s Principle, “to appear in Foundations of Physics“, dated 24 February 2012, available here.

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New article: contracts in practice

For almost anyone programming in Eiffel, contracts are just a standard part of daily life; Patrice Chalin’s pioneering study of a few years ago [1] confirmed this impression. A larger empirical study is now available to understand how developers actually use contracts when available. The study, to published at FM 2014 [2] covers 21 programs, not just in Eiffel but also in JML and in Code Contracts for C#, totaling 830,000 lines of code, and following the program’s revision history for a grand total of 260 million lines of code over 7700 revisions. It analyzes in detail whether programmers use contracts, how they use them (in particular, which kinds, among preconditions, postconditions and invariants), how contracts evolve over time, and how inheritance interacts with contracts.

The paper is easy to read so I will refer you to it for the detailed conclusions, but one thing is clear: anyone who thinks contracts are for special development or special developers is completely off-track. In an environment supporting contracts, especially as a native part of the language, programmers understand their benefits and apply them as a matter of course.

References

[1] Patrice Chalin: Are practitioners writing contracts?, in Fault-Tolerant System, eds. Butler, Jones, Romanovsky, Troubitsyna, Springer LNCS, vol. 4157, pp. 100–113, 2006.

[2] H.-Christian Estler, Carlo A. Furia, Martin Nordio, Marco Piccioni and Bertrand Meyer: Contracts in Practice, to appear in proceedings of 19th International Symposium on Formal Methods (FM 2014), Singapore, May 2014, draft available here.

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New article: passive processors

 

The SCOOP concurrency model has a clear division of objects into “regions”, improving the clarity and reliability of concurrent programs by establishing a close correspondence between the object structure and the process structure. Each region has an associated “processor”, which executes operations on the region’s objects. A literal application of this rule implies, however, a severe performance penalty. As part of the work for his PhD thesis (defended two weeks ago), Benjamin Morandi found out that a mechanism for specifying certain processors as “passive” yields a considerable performance improvement. The paper, to be published at COORDINATION, describes the technique and its applications.

Reference

Benjamin Morandi, Sebastian Nanz and Bertrand Meyer: Safe and Efficient Data Sharing for Message-Passing Concurrency, to appear in proceedings of COORDINATION 2014, 16th International Conference on Coordination Models and Languages, Berlin, 3-6 June 2014, draft available here.
.

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Agile book announced

My book “Agile! The Good, the Hype and the Ugly” will be published in a few weeks by Springer. The announced date is April 30 and there is a preview Amazon page: here.

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Learning to program, online

Introduction to Programming MOOCThe ETH introductory programming course, which I have taught since 2003 and used as the basis for the Springer Touch of Class textbook, is now available as a MOOC: an online course, open to anyone interested [1]. The project was started and led by Marco Piccioni.

The MOOC was released in September; although it was “open” (the other “O”) from the start, we have not publicized it widely until now, since we used it first for the benefit of students taking the course at ETH, and took advantage of this experience to polish it. If you follow the acronym buzz you may say it was first a “SPOC” (Small Personal Online Course”). The experience with our students has been extremely encouraging: they took it as a supplement to the lectures and widely praised its value.We hope that many others will find it useful as well.

MOOCs are hot but they have attracted as much criticism as hype. We have seen the objections: low completion rates, lack of direct human contact, threats to traditional higher education. Two things are clear, though: MOOCs are here to stay; and they have their own pedagogical advantages.

MOOCs are here to stay; one ignores them at one’s own peril. For courses on a popular topic, I believe that in a few years almost everyone will be teaching from a MOOC. Not in the sense of telling students “just follow this course on the Web and come back for the exam“, but as a basis for individual institutions’ courses. For example the students might be told to take the lessons online, then come to in-person lectures (“Flip The Classroom“) or discussion sessions. For any given topic, such as introduction to programming, only a handful of MOOCs will emerge in this role. We would like the ETH course to be one of them.

The question is not just to replace courses and textbooks with an electronic version. MOOCs enrich the learning experience. Introduction to Programming is a particularly fertile application area for taking advantage of technology: the presentation of programming methods and techniques becomes even more effective if students can immediately try out the ideas, compile the result, run it, and see the results on predefined tests. Our course offers many such interactive exercises, thanks to the E4Mooc (Eiffel for MOOCs) framework developed by Christian Estler [2]. This feature has proved to be a key attraction of the course for ETH students. Here for example is an exercise asking you to write a function that determines whether a string is a palindrome (reads identically in both directions):

The program area is pre-filled with a class skeleton where all that remains for you to enter is the algorithm for the relevant function. Then you can click “Compile” and, if there are no compilation errors, “Run” to test your candidate code against a set of predefined test values. One of the benefits for users taking the course is that there is no software to install: everything runs in the cloud, accessible from the browser. Here we see the MOOC not just as a technique for presenting standard material but as an innovative learning tool, opening up pedagogical techniques that were not previously possible.

Besides E4Mooc, our course relies on the Moodle learning platform. Our experience with Moodle has been pleasant; we noticed, for example, that students really liked the Moodle feature enabling them to gain virtual “badges” for good answers, to the point of repeating exercises until they got the badges. For instructors preparing the course, building a MOOC is a huge amount of work (that was not a surprise, people had told us); but it is worth the effort.

We noted that attendance at the lectures increased as compared to previous years. The matter is a natural concern: other than the cold November mornings in Zurich (one of the lectures is at 8 AM) there are many reasons not to show up in class:  the textbook covers much of the material; all the slides are online; so are the slides for exercise sessions (tutorials) and texts of exercises and some earlier exams; lectures were video-recorded in previous years, and students can access the old recordings. Our feeling is that the MOOC makes the course more exciting and gives students want to come to class and hear more.

The MOOC course is not tied to a particular period; you can take it whenever you like. (The current practice of offering MOOCs at fixed times is disappointing: what is the point of putting a course online if participants are forced to fit to a fixed schedule?)

Marco Piccioni and I are now off to our second MOOC, which will be a generalization of the first, covering the basics not just of programming but of computer science and IT overall, and will be available on one of the major MOOC platforms. We will continue to develop the existing MOOC, which directly supports our in-person course, and which we hope will be of use to many other people.

Take the MOOC, or tell a beginner near you to take it, and tell us what you think.

References

[1] Bertrand Meyer, Marco Piccioni and other members of the ETH Chair of Software Engineering: ETH Introduction to Programming MOOC, available here.

[2] H-Christian Estler, E4Mooc demo, available on YouTube: here.

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Eiffel as an expression language

A functional-programming style, or more generally a style involving more expressions and fewer instructions, is possible in Eiffel. In particular, Eiffel’s agent mechanism embeds a full functional-programming mechanism in the object-oriented framework of the language.

To make the notations simpler, we are discussing and tentatively implementing a number of proposed extensions. They involve no fundamental new language mechanisms, but provide new, more concise notations for existing mechanisms. Examples are:

  • Conditional expressions.
  • Implicit tuple, a rule allowing the omission of brackets for an actual argument when it is a tuple and the last argument, e.g. f (x, y, z) as an abbreviation for f ([x, y, z]) (an example involving just one argument). Tuples already provided the equivalent of a variable-argument (“varargs”) facility, but it is made simpler to use with this convention.
  • Parenthesis alias, making it possible to write just f (x, y) when f is an agent (closure, lambda expression, delegate etc. in other terminologies), i.e. treating f as if it were a function; the notation is simply an abbreviation for f.item ([x, y]) (an example that also takes advantage of implicit tuples). It has many other applications since a “parenthesis alias” can be defined for a feature of any class.
  • Avoiding explicit assignments to Result.
  • Type inference (to avoid explicitly specifying the type when it can be deduced from the context). This is a facility for the programmer, useful in particular for local variables, but does not affect the type system: Eiffel remains strongly typed, it is just that you can be lazy about writing the type when there is no ambiguity.
  • In the same vein, omitting the entire list of generic parameters when it can be inferred.

The description of the mechanism (see the link in [1]) is in the form of a set of slides explaining the concepts and presenting example. This is a working document and feedback is welcome.

References

[1] Eiffel as an expression language, Eiffel Software working document, 2012-2014, see here.

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LASER 2014 (Elba, September)

2014 marks the 10-th anniversary (11th edition) of the LASER summer school. The school will be held September 7-14, 2014, and the detailed information is here.

LASER (the name means Laboratory for Applied Software Engineering Research) is dedicated to practical software engineering. The roster of speakers since we started is a who’s who of innovators in the field. Some of the flavor of the school can gathered from the three proceedings volumes published in Springer LNCS (more on the way) or simply by browsing the pages of the schools from previous years.

Usually we have a theme, but to mark this anniversary we decided to go for speakers first; we do have a title, “Leading-Edge Software Engineering”, but broad enough to encompass a wide variety of a broad range of topics presented by star speakers: Harald Gall, Daniel Jackson, Michael Jackson, Erik Meijer (appearing at LASER for the third time!), Gail Murphy and Moshe Vardi. With such a cast you can expect to learn something important regardless of your own primary specialty.

LASER is unique in its setting: a 5-star hotel in the island paradise of Elba, with outstanding food and countless opportunities for exploring the marvelous land, the beaches, the sea, the geology (since antiquity Elba has been famous for its stones and minerals) and the history, from the Romans to Napoleon, who in the 9 months of his reign changed the island forever. The school is serious stuff (8:30 to 13 and 17 to 20 every day), but with enough time to enjoy the surroundings.

Registration is open now.

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PhD positions in concurrency/distribution/verification at ETH

As part of our “Concurrency Made Easy” ERC Advanced Investigator Grant project (2012-2017), we are offering PhD positions at the Chair of Software Engineering of ETH Zurich. The goal of the project is to build a sophisticated programming and verification architecture to make concurrent and distributed programming simple and reliable, based on the ideas of Eiffel and particularly the SCOOP concurrency model. Concurrency in its various forms (particularly multithreading) as well as distributed computing are required for most of today’s serious programs, but programming concurrent applications remains a challenge. The CME project is determined to break this complexity barrier.  Inevitably, achieving simplicity for users (in this case, application programmers) requires, under the hood, a sophisticated infrastructure, both conceptual (theoretical models) and practical (the implementation). We are building that infrastructure.

ETH offers an outstanding research and education environment and competitive salaries for “assistants” (PhD students), who are generally expected in addition to their research to participate in teaching, in particular introductory programming, and other activities of the Chair.  The candidates we seek have: a master’s degree in computer science or related field from a recognized institution (as required by ETH); a strong software engineering background, both practical and theoretical, and more generally a strong computer science and mathematical culture; a good knowledge of verification techniques (e.g. Hoare-style, model-checking, abstract interpretation); some background in concurrency or distribution; and a passion for high-quality software development. Prior publications, and experience with Eiffel, are pluses. In line with ETH policy, particular attention will be given to female candidates.

Before applying, you should become familiar with our work; see in particular the research pages at se.ethz.ch including the full description of the CME project at cme.ethz.ch.

Candidates should send (in PDF or text ) to se-open-positions@lists.inf.ethz.ch a CV and a short cover letter describing their view of the CME project and ideas about their possible contribution.

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Negative variables: new version

I have mentioned this paper before (see the earlier blog entry here) but it is now going to be published [1] and has been significantly revised, both to take referee comments into account and because we found better ways to present the concepts.

We have  endeavored to explain better than in the draft why the concept of negative variable is necessary and why the usual techniques for modeling object-oriented programs do not work properly for the fundamental OO operation, qualified call x.r (…). These techniques are based on substitution and are simply unable to express certain properties (let alone verify them). The affected properties are those involving properties of the calling context or the global project structure.

The basic idea (repeated in part from the earlier post) is as follows. In modeling OO programs, we have to take into account the unique “general relativity” property of OO programming: all the operations you write are expressed relative to a “current object” which changes repeatedly during execution. More precisely at the start of a call x.r (…) and for the duration of that call the current object changes to whatever x denotes — but to determine that object we must again interpret x in the context of the previous current object. This raises a challenge for reasoning about programs; for example in a routine the notation f.some_reference, if f is a formal argument, refers to objects in the context of the calling object, and we cannot apply standard rules of substitution as in the non-OO style of handling calls.

We introduced a notion of negative variable to deal with this issue. During the execution of a call x.r (…) the negation of x , written x’, represents a back pointer to the calling object; negative variables are characterized by axiomatic properties such as x.x’= Current and x’.(old x)= Current.

Negative variable as back pointer

The paper explains why this concept is necessary, describes the associated formal rules, and presents applications.

Reference

[1] Bertrand Meyer and Alexander Kogtenkov: Negative Variables and the Essence of Object-Oriented Programming, to appear in Specification, Algebra, and Software, eds. Shusaku Iida, Jose Meseguer and Kazuhiro Ogata, Springer Lecture Notes in Computer Science, 2014, to appear. See text here.

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Saint Petersburg Software Engineering Seminar: 14 January 2014 (6 PM)

There will be two talks in the Software Engineering Seminar at ITMO, 18:00 local time, Tuesday, January 14, 2014. Please arrive 10 minutes early for registration.

Place: ITMO, Sytninskaya Ulitsa, Saint Petersburg.

Andrey Terekhov (SPBGU): Programming crystals

(I do not know whether this talk will be in Russian or English. An abstract follows but the talk is meant as the start of a discussion rather than a formal lecture.)

В течение последних 20-30 лет основными языками программирования кристаллов были VHDL и Verilog. Эти языки изначально проектировались как средства создания проектной документации, потом они стали использоваться в качестве инструмента моделирования и только сравнительно недавно для этих языков появились средства генерации кода уровня RTL (Register Transfer Language). Тексты на  VHDL и Verilog очень громоздки, трудно читаемые, плохо стандартизованы (одна и та же программа может синтезироваться на одном инструменте и не поддаваться синтезу на другом. Лет 10 назад появился язык SystemC – это С++ с огромным набором библиотек. С одной стороны, любая программа на SystemC может транслироваться стандартными трансляторами С++ , есть удобные средства потактного моделирования и приличные средства генгерации RTL, с другой стороны, требование совместимости с С++ не прошло даром – если в базовом языке нет средств описания параллелизма и конвейеризации, их приходится добавлять весьма искусственными приемами через приставные библиотеки. Буквально в прошлом году фирма Xilinx выпустила продукт Vivado, в рекламе которого утверждается, что он способен автоматически транслировать обычные программы на С/C++ в RTL промышленного качества.

Мы выполнили несколько экспериментов по использованию этого продукта, оказалось, что обещанной автоматизации там нет, пользователь должен писать на С, постоянно думая о том, как его код будет выглядеть в финальном RTL,  расставлять огромное количество прагм, причем не всегда очевидных.

Основной тезис доклада – такая важная область, как проектирование кристаллов, нуждается в специализированных языковых и инструментальных средствах, обеспечивающих  создание компактных и  легко читаемых программ, которые могут быть использованы как для симуляции, так и для генерации эффективного RTL. В докладе будут приведены примеры программ на языке HaSCoL (Hardware and Software Codesign Language), разработанном на кафедре системного программирования СПбГУ, и даны некоторые сравнительные характеристики.

Sergey Velder (ITMO): Alias graphs

(My summary – BM.) In the ITMO SEL work on automatic alias analysis, a new model has been developed: alias graphs, an abstraction of the object structure. This short talk will compare it to previously used approaches.

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Niklaus Wirth birthday symposium, 20 February, Zurich

In honor of Niklaus Wirth’s 80-th birthday we are organizing a symposium at ETH on February 20, 2014. This is a full-day event with invited talks by:

  • Vint Cerf
  • Hans Eberlé
  • Michael Franz
  • me
  • Carroll Morgan
  • Martin Odersky
  • Clemens Szyperski
  • Niklaus Wirth himself

From the symposium’s web page:

Niklaus Wirth was a Professor of Computer Science at ETH Zürich, Switzerland, from 1968 to 1999. His principal areas of contribution were programming languages and methodology, software engineering, and design of personal workstations. He designed the programming languages Algol W, Pascal, Modula-2, and Oberon, was involved in the methodologies of structured programming and stepwise refinement, and designed and built the workstations Lilith and Ceres. He published several text books for courses on programming, algorithms and data structures, and logical design of digital circuits. He has received various prizes and honorary doctorates, including the Turing Award, the IEEE Computer Pioneer, and the Award for outstanding contributions to Computer Science Education.

Participation is free (including breaks, lunch and the concluding “Apéro”) but space is strictly limited and we expect to run out of seats quickly. So if you are interested (but only if you are certain to attend) please register right away.

Symposium page and access to registration form: here.

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New paper: alias calculus and frame inference

For a while now I have  been engaged in  a core problem of software verification: the aliasing problem. As with many difficult problems in science, it is easy to state the basic question: can we determine automatically whether at a program point p the values of two reference expressions e and f can ever denote the same object?

Alias analysis lies at the core of many problems in software analysis and verification.

Earlier work [2] I introduced an “alias calculus”. The calculus is a set of rules, attached to the constructs of the programming language, to compute the “alias relation”: the set of possibly aliased expression pairs. A new paper [1] with Sergey Velder and Alexander Kogtenkov improves the model (correcting in particular an error in the axiom for assignment, whose new version has been proved sound using Coq) and applies it to the inference of frame properties. Here the abstract:

Alias analysis, which determines whether two expressions in a program may reference to the same object, has many potential applications in program construction and verification. We have developed a theory for alias analysis, the “alias calculus”, implemented its application to an object-oriented language, and integrated the result into a modern IDE. The calculus has a higher level of precision than many existing alias analysis techniques. One of the principal applications is to allow automatic change analysis, which leads to inferring “modifies clauses”, providing a significant advance towards addressing the Frame Problem. Experiments were able to infer the “modifies” clauses of an existing formally specied library. Other applications, in particular to concurrent programming, also appear possible. The article presents the calculus, the application to frame inference including experimental results, and other projected applications. The ongoing work includes building more efficient model capturing aliasing properties and soundness proof for its essential elements.

This is not the end of the work, as better models and implementations are needed, but an important step.

References

[1] Sergey Velder, Alexander Kogtenkovand Bertrand Meyer: Alias Calculus, Frame Calculus and Frame Inference, in Science of Computer Programming, to appear in 2014 (appeared online 26 November 2013); draft available here, published version here.
[2] Bertrand Meyer: Steps Towards a Theory and Calculus of Aliasing, in International Journal of Software and Informatics, Chinese Academy of Sciences, 2011, pages 77-116, available here.

 

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The biggest software-induced disaster ever

 

In spite of the brouhaha surrounding the Affordable Care Act, the US administration and its partisans seem convinced that “the Web site problems will be fixed”.

That is doubtful. All reports suggest that the problem is not to replace a checkbox by a menu, or buy a few more servers. The analysis, design and implementation are wrong, and the sites will not work properly any time soon.

Barring sabotage (for which we have seen no evidence), this can only be the result of incompetence. An insurance exchange? Come on. Any half-awake group of developers could program it over breakfast.

Who chose the contractors?

When the problems first surfaced a few weeks ago, anyone with experience and guts would have done the right thing: fire all the companies responsible for  the mess and start from scratch with a dedicated, competent and well-managed team.

The latest promises published are that by the end of the month “four out of five” of the people trying to register will manage to do it. Nice. Imagine that when trying to make a purchase at Amazon you would succeed 80% of the time.

And that is only an optimistic goal.

The people building the site do not have infinite time. In fact, the process is crucially time-driven: if people do not get health coverage in time, they will be fined. But what if they cannot get coverage because the Web sites do not respond, or mess up?

Consider for a second another example of another strictly time-driven project: on January 1, 2002, twelve countries switched to a common currency, with the provision that their current legal tender would lose its status only a bare two months later. The IT infrastructure had to work on the appointed day. It did. How come Europe could implement the Euro in time and the US cannot get a basic health exchange to work?

Here is a possible scenario: the sites do not work (cannot handle the load, give inconsistent results). A massive wave of protests ensues, boosted by those who were against universal health coverage in the first place. Faced with popular revolt and with the evidence, the administration announces that the implementation of the universal mandate — the enforcement of the fines — is delayed by a year. In a year much can happen; opposition grows and the first exchanges are an economic disaster since the “young healthy adults” feel no pressure to enroll. The law fades into oblivion. Americans do not get universal health care for another generation. Show me it is not going to happen.

The software engineering lessons here are clear: hire competent companies; faced with a complicated system, implement the essential functions first, but stress-test them; deploy step by step, with the assurance that whatever is deployed works.

The exact reverse strategy was applied. As a result, we face the prospect of a software disaster that will dwarf Y2K and other famous mishaps; a disaster that software engineering textbooks will feature for decades to come.

 

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Informatics education in Europe: Just the facts

 

In 2005 a number of us started Informatics Europe [1], the association of university departments and industrial research labs in computer science in Europe. The association has now grown to 80 members across the entire continent; it organizes the annual European Computer Science Summit and has published a number of influential reports. The last one just came out: Informatics Education in Europe: Institutions, Degrees, Students, Positions, Salaries — Key Data 2008-2012 [2]. The principal author is Cristina Pereira, who collected and organized the relevant data over more than a year; I helped with the preparation of the final text.

At the beginning of Informatics Europe we considered with particular attention  the model of the Computing Research Association [3], which played a crucial role in giving computer science (informatics) its due place in the US academic landscape. Several past and current officers of the CRA,  such as Willy Zwaenepoel, Ed Lazowska, Bob Constable, Andy Bernat, Jeannette Wing, Moshe Vardi and J Strother Moore gave keynotes at our early conferences and we of course asked them for the secrets of their organization’s success. One answer that struck us was the central role played by data collection. Just gathering the  facts, such as degrees and salaries, established for the first time a solid basis for serious discussions. We took this advice to heart and the report is the first result.

Gathering the information is particularly difficult for Europe given the national variations and the absence of centralized statistical data. Even the list of names under which institutions teach informatics in Europe fills a large table in the report. Cristina’s decision was, from the start, to favor quality over quantity: to focus on impeccable data for countries for which we could get it, rather than trying to cover the whole continent with data of variable credibility.

The result is the first systematic repository of basic information on informatics education in Europe: institutions, degrees offered and numbers awarded, student numbers, position titles and definitions, and (a section which will not please everyone) salaries for PhD students, postdocs and professors of various ranks.

The report is a first step; it only makes sense if we can regularly continue to update it and particularly extend it to other countries. But even in its current form (and with the obvious observation that my opinion is not neutral)  I see it as a major step forward for the discipline in Europe. We need an impeccable factual basis to convince the public at large and political decision-makers to give informatics the place it deserves in today’s educational systems.

References

[1] Informatics Europe site, see here.

[2] Cristina Pereira and Bertrand Meyer: Informatics Education in Europe: Institutions, Degrees, Students, Positions, Salaries — Key Data 2008-2012, Informatics Europe report, 30 September 2013, available here.

[3] Computing Research Association (US), see here.

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Hungarian rotation

The 2013 Informatics Europe “Best Practices in Education” award was devoted, this year, to initiatives for teaching informatics in schools [1].  It was given out last week at the European Computer Science Summit in Amsterdam [2]. Two teams shared it, one from Poland and the other from Romania. Both teams showed excellent projects, but the second was beyond anything I expected.

The project comes from the Hungarian-speaking Sapientia University in Transylvania and is devoted to teaching algorithms visually and “at the same time enhancing intercultural communication” in the region. It illustrates the classical sorting algorithms through folk dances. Quicksort is Hungarian, selection sort is gypsy, merge sort is “Transylvanian-saxon”. I think my favorite is Shell sort [3]. For more, see their YouTube channel [4].

Now  if only they could act the loop invariants [5].

References

[1] 2013 Best Practices in Education award, see here.

[2] 2013 European Computer Science Summit, here.

[3] “Shell sort with Hungarian (Székely) folk dance”, see here.

[4] YouTube Algorythmics channel, here.

[5] Carlo Furia, Bertrand Meyer and Sergey Velder: Loop invariants: Analysis, Classification and Examples, in ACM Computing Surveys, Septembre 2014, to appear, available here.

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The secret of success

In the process of finishing a book right now, it occurred to me that writing is really a simple matter. There are only three issues to address:

  1. How to start.
  2. How to finish.
  3. How to take care of the stuff in-between.

In the early stages  (1) you face the anguish of the “empty paper, defended by its whiteness” (Mallarmé) and do not know where to begin. If you overcome it, you have all the grunt work to do (3), step after step. At the end (2), while deep down you feel you have done enough and should be permitted to  click “Publish”, you still have to fill the holes, which may be small in number but have remained holes for a reason: you have again and again delayed filling them because in reality you do not know what to write there.

All things considered, then, it is not such a big deal.

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Reuse of another kind

This is a plug for a family member, but for a good cause: reuse and the environment. There are many reasons for promoting reuse in software; in other fields some of those reasons apply too, plus many others, economic and environmental. The core concern is to reduce waste of all kinds.

One of the most appalling sources of waste is the growing use of throw-away food containers. It is also avoidable.

A new company, bizeebox [1], has devised an ingenious scheme to let restaurants use containers that can be washed and reused many times. It is easy to use by both restaurants and customers, saves money, and avoids heaping tons of waste on landfills. Their slogan: “Take the Waste Out of Takeout“.

The founders of bizeebox have run successful pilot projects and are now starting for real with restaurants in the Ann Arbor area. They have launched a campaign on Indiegogo, with a $30,000 funding goal. Reuse deserves a chance; so do they.

References

[1] bizeebox page, at bizeebox.com.

[2] bizeebox Indiegogo campaign: here.

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The laws of branching (part 2): Tichy and Joy

Recently I mentioned the first law of branching (see earlier article) to Walter Tichy, famed creator of RCS, the system that established modern configuration management. He replied with the following anecdote, which is worth reproducing in its entirety (in his own words):

I started work on RCS in 1980, because I needed an alternative for SCCS, for which the license cost would have been prohibitive. Also, I wanted to experiment with reverse deltas. With reverse deltas, checking out the latest version is fast, because it is stored intact. For older ones, RCS applied backward deltas. So the older revisions took longer to extract, but that was OK, because most accesses are to the newest revision anyway.

At first, I didn’t know how to handle branches in this scheme. Storing each branch tip in full seemed like a waste. So I simply left out the branches.

It didn’t take long an people were using RCS. Bill Joy, who was at Berkeley at the time and working on Berkeley Unix, got interested. He gave me several hints about unpleasant features of SCCS that I should correct. For instance, SCCS didn’t handle identification keywords properly under certain circumstances, the locking scheme was awkward, and the commands too. I figured out a way to solve these issue. Bill was actually my toughest critic! When I was done with all the modifications, Bill cam back and said that he was not going to use RCS unless I put in branches. So I figured out a way. In order to reconstruct a branch tip, you start with the latest version on the main trunk, apply backwards deltas up to the branch point, and then apply forward deltas out to the branch tip. I also implemented a numbering scheme for branches that is extensible.

When discussing the solution, Bill asked me whether this scheme meant that it would take longer to check in and out on branches. I had to admit that this was true. With the machines at that time (VAXen) efficiency was important. He thought about this for a moment and then said that that was actually great. It would discourage programmers from using branches! He felt they were a necessary evil.

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Another displaced business

Front-page notice in yesterday’s Tages Anzeiger (one of the principal Swiss newspapers):

Dear Readers:

From today the employment-ads section will no longer appear as a separate supplement, but directly as a section of the Tuesdays and Thursday paper. The reason is the ever smaller number of position offerings.

It seems clear that what has decreased is not the number of positions offered — the job market in Switzerland is healthy — but the number of those offered through newspapers. End of an era.

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