Concurrency/verification positions at Politecnico di Milano

As part of the continuation of the ERC Advanced Investigator Grant project “Concurrency Made Easy” (started at ETH Zurich, see the project pages at cme.ethz.ch, I have positions at Politecnico di Milano for:

  • Postdocs (having a doctoral degree)
  • Research associates (officially: “Assegno di Ricerca”, with the requirement of having a master degree), which can lead to a PhD position.

The deadline for applications is October 11. Please contact me directly if interested. What I expect:

  • The requisite degrees as stated above.
  • Innovative and enterprising spirit, passion for quality work in software engineering.
  • Either or both of excellent programming abilities and strong CS theoretical background.
  • Knowledge of as many of possible of: object-oriented programming, concurrency/parallelism, software verification/formal methods, Eiffel.
  • Familiarity with the basics of the project as described in the project pages at the URL above.
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LASER summer school on software for robotics: last call for registration

Much of the progress in robotics is due to software advances, and software issues remain at the heart of the formidable challenges that remain. The 2017 LASER summer school, held in September in Elba, brings together some of the most prestigious international experts in the area.

The LASER school has established itself as one of the principal forums to discussed advanced software issues. The 2017 school takes place from 9 to 17 September in the idyllic setting of the Hotel del Golfo in Procchio, Elba Island, Italy.

Robotics is progressing at an amazing pace, bringing improvements to almost areas of human activity. Today’s robotics systems rely ever more fundamentally on complex software, raising difficult issues. The LASER 2017 summer school covers both the current state of robotics software technology and open problems. The lecturers are top international experts with both theoretical contributions and major practical achievements in developing robotics systems.
The LASER school is intended for professionals from the industry (engineers and managers) as well as university researchers, including PhD students. Participants learn about the most important software technology advances from the pioneers in the field. The school’s focus is applied, although theory is welcome to establish solid foundations. The format of the school favors extensive interaction between participants and speakers.

We have lined up an impressive roster of speakers from the leading edge of both industry and academia:

Rodolphe Gélin, Aldebaran Robotics
Ashish Kapoor, Microsoft Research
Davide Brugali, University of Bergamo, on Managing software variability in robotic control systems
Nenad Medvidovic, University of Southern California, on Software Architectures of Robotics Systems
Bertrand Meyer, Politecnico di Milano & Innopolis University, on Concurrent Object-Oriented Robotics Software
Issa Nesnas, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, on Experiences from robotic software development for research and planetary flight robots
Hiroshi (“Gitchang”) Okuno, Waseda University & Kyoto University, on Open-Sourced Robot Audition Software HARK: Capabilities and Applications

The school takes place at the magnificent Hotel del Golfo in the Gulf of Procchio, Elba. Along with an intensive scientific program, participants will have time to enjoy the countless natural and cultural riches of this wonderful, history-laden jewel of the Mediterranean.

For more information about the school, the speakers and registration see the LASER site.

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Feature interactions, continued

Microsoft Office tools offer  features for (1) spelling correction and (2) multi-language support. They are not very good at working together, another example of the perils of feature interaction.

Spelling correction will by default
Image10
when misspelled, but in the case of common misspellings known to the tools it will simply correct words without bothering the user. For example if you type “bagage” it will change it silently to “baggage”. This feature can be turned off, and the list of known misspellings can be edited, but most people use the defaults, as I am assuming here.

Multi-language support enables you to “install” several languages. Then when you type a text it will after a few words guess the relevant language. From then on it can  apply the proper spell checks and corrections.

These features are both useful, and by and large they both work. (The second one is not always reliable. I regularly end up, particularly in Microsoft Word, with entire paragraphs underlined in red because for some inscrutable reason the tool assigns them the wrong language. In such cases you must tell it manually what language it should apply.)

Their combination can lead to funny results. Assume your default language is English but you also have French installed, and you are typing an email in French under Outlook. Your email will say “Le bagage est encore dans l’avion”, meaning “The baggage is still in the plane”. The word “baggage” has one more “g” in English than in French. You start typing  “Le bagage”, but because at that point the tool assumes English it corrects it silently:

Image4

Next you type “est encore”:

Image5

The  word “est” (is) gets flagged because (unlike “encore”, here meaning “still”) it does not exist in English. When you add the next word, “dans” (in), the tool is still assuming an English text, so it flags it too:

Image6

Now you type “l” and when you add the apostrophe, you can almost hear a “silly me, I see now, that’s French!”. Outlook  switches languages and unflags the previously flagged words, removing the red squiggle under the ones that are correct in French:

Image7

But that is too late for “baggage”: the automatic respelling of “bagage”, coming from the default assumption that the text was in English, no longer makes sense now that we know it is in French. So the word gets flagged as a misspelling. You have to go back and correct it yourself. That is frustrating, since you typed the correct spelling in the first place (“bagage”), and it is the tool that messed it up.

This bug hits me often. It is indeed a bug, which can introduce misspellings into a text when the user typed it correctly. When the tool recognizes that the text is in another language than the one assumed so far, and performs a second pass over the part already analyzed, it should reconsider both the words previously flagged as misspellings but also those previously corrected. There is no justification for doing one and not the other.

Among the world’s most momentous problems, this one does not rank very high. It is only a small annoyance, and only a tiny set of people will ever notice it. But it provides another illustration of how tricky it is to go from good individual features to a good overall design.


Related:

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The perils of feature interaction

One of the most delicate aspects of design is feature interaction. As users, we suffer daily from systems offering features that individually make sense but clash with each other. In my agile book [1] I explained in detail, building on the work of Pamela Zave, why this very problem makes one of the key ideas of agile methods,  the reliance on “user stories” for requirements, worthless and damaging.

A small recent incident reminded me of the perils of feature interaction. I used my Lenovo W540 laptop without power for a short while, then reached a sedentary location and plugged it in. Hence my surprise when, some hours later, it started beeping to alert me that it was running out of battery. The natural reactions — check the outlet and the power cord — had no effect. I found the solution, but just in time: otherwise, including if I had not heard the warning sound, I would have been unable to use the laptop any further. That’s right: I would not have been able to restart the computer at all, even with access to a power outlet, and even though it was perfectly functional and so was its (depleted) battery. The reason is that the problem arose from a software setting, which (catch-22 situation) I could not correct without starting the computer [2].

The only solution would have been to find another, non-depleted battery. That is not a trivial matter if you have traveled with your laptop outside of a metropolis: the W540 has a special battery which ordinary computer shops do not carry [3].

The analysis of what made such a situation possible must start with the list of relevant hardware and software product features.

Hardware:

  • HA. This Lenovo W series includes high-end laptops with high power requirements, which the typical 65-watt airplane power jack does not satisfy.
  • HB. With models prior to the W540, if you tried to connect a running laptop to the power supply in an airplane, it would not charge, and the power indicator would start flickering.  But you could still charge it if you switched it off.
  • HC. The W540 effectively requires 135 watts and will not take power from a 65-watt power source under any circumstances.

Software:

  • SA. The operating system (this discussion assumes Windows) directly reflects HC by physically disabling charging if the laptop is in the “Airplane” power mode.
  • SB. If you disable wireless, the operating system automatically goes into the “Airplane” power mode.
  • SC. In the “Airplane” power mode, the laptop, whether or not connected through a charger to a power outlet of any wattage, will not charge. The charging function is just disabled.
  • SD. One can edit power modes to change parameters, such as time to automatic shutoff, but the no-charging property in Airplane mode is not editable and not even mentioned in the corresponding UI dialog. It seems to be a behind-the-scenes property magically attached to the power-mode name “Airplane”.
  • SE. There is a function key for disabling wireless: F8. As a consequence of SB it also has the effect of switching to “Airplane” mode.
  • SF. Next to F8 on the keyboard is F7.
  • SG. F7 serves to display the screen content on another monitor (Windows calls it a “projector”). F7 offers a cyclic set of choices: laptop only, laptop plus monitor etc.
  • SH. In the old days (like five years ago), such function keys setting important operating system parameters on laptops used to be activated only if you held them together with a special key labeled “Fn”. For some reason (maybe the requirement was considered too complicated for ordinary computer users) the default mode on Lenovo laptops does not use the “Fn” key anymore: you just press the desired key, such as F7 or F8.
  • SI. You can revert to the old mode, requiring pressing “Fn”, by going into the BIOS and performing some not-absolutely-trivial steps, making this possibility the preserve of techies. (Helpfully, this earlier style is called “Legacy mode”, as a way to remind you that your are an old-timer, probably barely graduated from MS-DOS and still using obsolete conventions. In reality, the legacy mode is the right one to use, whether for techies or novices: it is all too easy to hit a function key by mistake and get totally unexpected results. The novice, not the techie, is the one who will be completely confused and panicked as a result. The first thing I do with a new laptop is to go to the BIOS and set legacy mode.)

By now you have guessed what happened in my case, especially once you know that I had connected the laptop to a large monitor and had some trouble getting that display to work. In the process I hit Fn-F7 (feature SG) several times.  I must have mistakenly (SF) pressed F8 instead of F7 at some point. Normally, Legacy mode (SI) should have made me immune to the effects of hitting a function key by mistake, but I did use the neighboring key F7 for another purpose. Hitting F8 disabled wireless (SE) and switched on Airplane power mode (SB). At that point the laptop, while plugged in correctly, stopped charging (SC, SD).

How did I find out? Since I was looking for a hardware problem I could have missed the real cause entirely and ended up with a seemingly dead laptop. Fortunately I opened the Power Options dialog to see what it said about the battery. I noticed that among the two listed power plans the active one was not “Power Saver”, to which I am used, but “Airplane”. I did not immediately pay  attention to that setting; since I had not used the laptop for a while I just thought that maybe the last time around I had switched on “Airplane”, even though that made little sense since I was not even aware of the existence of that option. After trying everything else, though, I came back to that intriguing setting, changed to the more usual “Power Saver”, and the computer started to charge again. I was lucky to have a few percent of battery still left at that point.

Afterwards I found a relevant discussion thread on a Lenovo user forum.

As is often the case in such feature-interaction mishaps, most of the features make sense individually [4]. What causes trouble is some unforeseen combination of features.

There is no sure way to avoid such trouble, but there is a sure way to cause it: design a system feature by feature, as with user stories in agile development. The system must do this and it must do that. Oh, by the way, it must also do that. And that. User stories have one advantage: everyone understands them. But that is also their limitation. Good requirements and design require professionals who can see the whole beyond the parts.

A pernicious side of this situation is that many people believe that use cases and user stories are part of object-oriented analysis, whereas the OO approach to requirements and design is the reverse: rise above individual examples to uncover the fundamental abstractions.

As to my laptop, it is doing well, thanks. And I will be careful with function keys.

Reference and notes

[1] Bertrand Meyer: Agile! The Good, the Hype and the Ugly, Springer, 2014,  Amazon page: here, book page: here. A description of the book appeared here on this blog at the time of publication.

[2] Caveat: I have not actually witnessed this state in which a plugged-in laptop will not restart. The reason is simply that I do not have an alternate battery at the moment so I cannot perform the experiment with the almost certain result of losing the use of my laptop. I will confirm the behavior as soon as I have access to a spare battery.

[3] It has been my systematic experience over the past decade and a half that Lenovo seems to make a point, every couple of years, to introduce new models with incompatible batteries and docking stations. (They are also ever more incredibly bulky, with the one for the W540 almost as heavy as the laptop itself. On the other hand the laptops are good, otherwise I would not be bothering with them.)

[4] One exception here is feature SB: switching wireless off does not necessaril y mean you want to select a specific power mode! It is a manifestation of the common syndrome  of software tools that think they are smarter than you, and are not. Another exception is SE: to let a simple key press change fundamental system behavior is to court disaster. But I had protected myself by using legacy mode and was hit anyway.

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Об опыте иностранца, говорящего по-русски

Когда-то очень давно великий советский ученый Андрей Петрович Ершов мне рассказал следующий анекдот. Действие происходит в московском метро. Стоит бабушка, а за ней высокий студент из Университета Имени Патрицы Лумумбы. Он стучит ей по плечу, она поворачивает голову, видит его, вскрикивает (она никогда в жизни не видела Африканца), и падает в обморок.

Другие пассажиры успокаивают ее («ничего страшного, он такой же человек, как и мы!») и она постепенно приходит в себя. Африканский студент объясняет: «Прошу прощения, я только хотел Вас спросить: Вы на следующей выходите?».

Она испуганно смотрит на него и опять падает в обморок, крича: « Ах! Говорит!».

Ершовский анекдот точно описывает ежедневный опыт иностранца в России, который сносно владеет русским языком; но все всегда и везде тотчас же узнают, что он иностранец. Никто и не полагает, что такое существо способно произвести толковые звуки. А если он, вопреки всем ожиданиям, открывает рот и что-нибудь говорит в своей имитации русского языка, выражение на лице собеседника сразу же меняется в испугу : «Ах! Говорит!».

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The coming European renaissance

The unspeakable in flight of the uneatable. One of the sad scenes of today’s Europe does not even take place in continental Europe, and does not even look sad. It happens every Friday afternoon at London’s Saint Pancras railway station as young expats from the continent joyfully board the Eurostar train on their way home for the week-end. They are all smiles, but the scene is nonetheless heartbreaking: why did these young and energetic graduates, some of the best the continent’s universities have trained in science, technology, finance and entrepreneurship, feel compelled to cross the Channel to deploy their talents? Sure, it is a great idea to try your luck abroad, but then the flux should be symmetric. Today, it is largely one-way.

That flux will stop. With Brexit, Britain has condemned itself to irrelevance. What a mournful end for one of the greatest civilizations in the history of humankind, which gave us both Newton and Darwin, as well as habeas corpus and the concept of individual liberty [1]! Faced with an obvious choice between grandeur and decline, a majority of Britons voted for decline and there is no going back. The word “Brexit” was coined to mean “British Exit”; there is no mention of Europe in it, an appropriate omission since Britain did not really choose to exit Europe, it chose to exit the modern world. The best that can now happen to it is that Britain keeps its oil and becomes something like Norway. Even that is not certain; the Scots may decide otherwise.

For a while I felt awfully sorry for my British friends and colleagues. They do not deserve this. Of course they did not vote for Brexit — no one with an ounce of reason did — but they have to suffer the consequences. On the other hand things may not be so bad in the long term. Many of them are Europhiles already; they will just move to more auspicious climes. Already the British are pumping up Paris real estate [2].

In the US, the tragic buffoonery goes on. Some days are more buffoon, others more tragic, but the destruction of one of the most successful societies on earth has started, and even though a majority of Americans are horrified with what is happening to their country the movement seems impossible to reverse because of the particular political system to which the US has now arrived. We may call it gerrycracy: democracy bridled by gerrymandering  (plus the Supreme Court). This system, although a recent invention in its current form, is designed to be self-reproducing, a phenomenon compounded by the evolution of the dominant party, which seems to have lost any sense of decency. The country’s greatness will not disappear in one day or one year; all that the world admires in the US, from Stanford and Harvard and MIT to the Metropolitan Museum and the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Review of Books to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Silicon Valley and Tesla is still up and churning. But the trajectory is set: downhill.

The programmed self-immolation of these two intellectual and economic powerhouses, depressing as it is, provides an extraordinary opportunity for Europe [3]. Here is a mosaic of democracies sharing an acute determination to do everything in their power to ensure that the horrors of their past will never occur again. People in Europe (not just the French) complain all the time, but they have, overall, the best deal in the entire world. Bewildering cultural riches, a non-extreme climate at least so far, decent economic standards, good-quality and largely free education, well-functioning basic services, a social safety net, tolerance for minorities, recognition of private enterprise, the rule of law… Where else on earth?

Europe has its challenges. Those of us who admire Macron’s bravado in inviting (in English) US scientists and engineers to come to France, and who also know how things work in European universities and business, are a little nervous. Convincing as the appeal is, it requires a serious redesign of the European university system and a concerted attack on the bureaucratic shackles and societal pettiness that stifle European creativity at all levels. It is doable. If someone like Macron could overcome the assault of demagogues and defeatists from the left and the right to get elected, he can start, with his counterparts in other European countries, to address the structural problems that hinder European progress. The context is right: the main countries have adults at the helm (in Germany this will remain true whether we get Merkel or Schulz) and the winds of optimism are blowing again. While Europe faces other major issues, present in the headlines everyday and hard enough on their own, the main challenge is economic: Europe needs to get richer. It is remarkable how much more smoothly a society functions, and how much happier people sound, when there is enough money going around. Just look at Switzerland. Macron and some of his international colleagues are the kind of strong and pragmatic leaders who understand this goal. They will also benefit, if Europe does not falter in its collective negotiating strategy, from a welcome windfall: the many billions that the UK will have to pay to disengage from its obligations. They should invest that money where it can make a difference: not the traditional European pork barrels, but science and technology, where it will catalyze Europe’s growth and wealth.

While the US and the UK are wasting their time, energy and money on non-problems, unimportant problems and self-inflicted problems, on building Maginot walls, on investing in technologies of the past and on closing themselves off from the sources of their own future, Europe should work on what matters. It should, and I think it will, at least as long as the King Ubu in the White House doesn’t get us into WW3 in response to some disagreeable tweet.

In forthcoming articles I will provide more detailed analyses of the various points sketched here. And yes, I know this venue started out as a technology blog and I will continue to talk about void safety, effective concurrent programming and how to verify programs. But the stakes are too high for scientists and engineers to stay neutral. Through what we know, see and understand, it is our duty to help Europe and with it the rest of humankind.

It could just work. I cannot wait for the scene at Paris’s Gare du Nord, a few years from now, on the typical Friday evening: lads and gals from London and Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent, eager to go home and get their hands on some fish and chips, but ready to return on Sunday night to resume their cheerful part in the new European renaissance.

 

References

[1] A remarkable  symbol of personal liberty is Blonde’s answer to Osmin, the head of the Janissaries who attempts to subdue her in Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio (from 1782, seven years before the French revolution!): Ich bin eine Engländerin, zur Freiheit geboren (I am an Englishwoman, born to freedom). Blonde is not even the opera’s heroine but her servant.

[2] Brexit and the “Macron effect” are attracting the British to Paris (in French), in Le Monde, 31 May 2017, available here.

[3] Britain having officially thumbed its nose at Europe, we should from now on use the term to denote the continental part.

[4] Macron’s speech is available here, particularly from 1:34.

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The mythical Brooks law

(First published on the CACM blog.)

A book by Laurent Bossavit [1] lists what he calls “leprechauns” of software engineering: pearls of conventional wisdom that do not necessarily survive objective analysis. Whether or not we agree with him on every specific example, his insights are fruitful and the general approach commendable: it is healthy to question revered truths.

A revered truth not cited in his book but worth questioning is “Brooks’ Law” from The Mythical Man-Month [2]. Disclosure: I never cared much for that book, even when I read it at the time of its first publication. I know it is supposed to be a font of wisdom, but with one exception (the “second-system effect”, which actually contradicts some of the book’s other precepts) I find its advice either trivial or wrong. For those readers still with me after this admission of sacrilege, one of the most quoted pronouncements is the modestly titled “Brooks’ Law” according to which adding manpower to a late project makes it later.

Like many unwarranted generalizations, this supposed law can hold in special cases, particular at the extremes: you cannot do with thirty programmers in one day what one programmer would do in a month. That’s why, like many urban legends, it may sound right at first. But an extreme example is not a general argument. Applied in meaningful contexts, the law is only valid as a description of bad project management. If you just add people without adapting the organization accordingly, you will run into disaster. True, but not a momentous discovery.

The meaningful observation is that when a team’s size grows, communication and collaboration issues grow too, and the manager must put in place the appropriate mechanisms for communication and collaboration. Also not a strikingly original idea. Good managers know how to set up these mechanisms. Such an ability is almost the definition of  “good manager”: the good manager is the one to whom Brooks’ Law does not apply. Anyone with experience in the software industry has seen, along with disasters, cases in which a good manager was able to turn around a failing project by, among other techniques, adding people. The tools and methods of modern software engineering and modern project management are of great help in such an effort. Pithy, simplistic, superficial generalizations are not.

I thought of the matter recently when chancing upon Nathan Fielder’s Maid Service video [3]. (Warning: Fielder is sometimes funny — and sometimes not — but always obnoxious.) While programming is not quite the same as house cleaning, there is still a lesson there. With good organization, a competent manager can indeed reduce time, perhaps not linearly but close, by multiplying the number of workers.

One leprechaun dispatched, many to go.

References

[1] Laurent Bossavit:  The Leprechauns of Software Engineering – How folklore turns into fact and what to do about it, e-book available here (for a fee, with a free preview).

[2] Fred Brooks: The Mythical Man-Month – Essays on Software Engineering, Addison-Wesley, 1975, new editions 1982 and 1995.

[3] Nathan for You: Maid Service, video available here.

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Software for robotics: LASER summer school, Elba Island, 9-17 September

The LASER summer school, now in its 13th edition, will take place this September (postponed from last year). The theme is new for the school, and timely: software for robotics. Below is the announcement.

The school site is here.

Full announcement:

The 2017 LASER summer school will be devoted to Software for Robotics. It takes place from 9 to 17 September in the exceptional setting of the Hotel del Golfo in Procchio, Elba Island, Italy.

Robotics is progressing at an amazing pace, bringing improvements to almost areas of human activity. Today’s robotics systems rely ever more fundamentally on complex software, raising difficult issues. The LASER 2017 summer school both covers the current state of robotics software technology and open problems. The lecturers are top international experts with both theoretical contributions and major practical achievements in developing robotics systems.
The LASER school is intended for professionals from the industry (engineers and managers) as well as university researchers, including PhD students. Participants learn about the most important software technology advances from the pioneers in the field. The school’s focus is applied, although theory is welcome to establish solid foundations. The format of the school favors extensive interaction between participants and speakers.

We have lined up an impressive roster of speakers from the leading edge of both industry and academia:

Rodolphe Gélin, Aldebaran Robotics
Ashish Kapoor, Microsoft Research
Davide Brugali, University of Bergamo, on Managing software variability in robotic control systems
Nenad Medvidovic, University of Southern California, on Software Architectures of Robotics Systems
Bertrand Meyer, Politecnico di Milano & Innopolis University, on Concurrent Object-Oriented Robotics Software
Issa Nesnas, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, on Experiences from robotic software development for research and planetary flight robots

The school takes place at the magnificent Hotel del Golfo in the Gulf of Procchio, Elba. Along with an intensive scientific program, participants will have time to enjoy the countless natural and cultural riches of this wonderful, history-laden jewel of the Mediterranean.

For more information about the school, the speakers and registration see the LASER site.

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The longest flight

The Orbitz page for booking a flight itinerary has an interesting menu option:

Orbitz menu

Longest duration? If you find that the direct route is too short, you can always add a stop in Vladivostok. Under a few basic assumptions it has to be a theorem that, given any itinerary from A to B, there exists a longer itinerary from A to B.

Experiments with the site suggest, however, that the result of selecting that option is (regrettably from a theoretical perspective, but perhaps preferably for travelers) finite.

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From our “Problems you would like to have” department

Headline of a recent article in the Financial Times, part of a supplement on “Investing in Germany”:

Germany’s coffers are overflowing but optimism is wearing thin

Oh, the humanity!

On reflection, though, better than the other way around.

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Ubu Roi

The character of Ubu, created by Alfred Jarry (1873-1907), deserves to be better known. The Wikipedia entry on Jarry’s 1896 play Ubu Roi (Ubu the King) explains:

According to Jane Taylor, “the central character is notorious for his infantile engagement with his world. Ubu inhabits a domain of greedy self-gratification”. Jarry’s metaphor for the modern man, he is an antihero — fat, ugly, vulgar, gluttonous, grandiose, dishonest, stupid, jejune, voracious, greedy, cruel, cowardly and evil …

“There is”, wrote Taylor, “a particular kind of pleasure for an audience watching these infantile attacks. Part of the satisfaction arises from the fact that in the burlesque mode which Jarry invents, there is no place for consequence. While Ubu may be relentless in his political aspirations, and brutal in his personal relations, he apparently has no measurable effect upon those who inhabit the farcical world which he creates around himself. He thus acts out our most childish rages and desires, in which we seek to gratify ourselves at all cost”.

The derived adjective ubuesque is recurrent in French and francophone political debate.

An English translation of the play can be found here. The original French text (two versions of it) is available here.

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AutoProof workshop: Verification As a Matter of Course

The AutoProof technology pursues the goal of “Verification As a Matter Of Course”, integrated into the EVE development environment. (The AutoProof  project page here; see particularly the online interactive tutorial.) A one-day workshop devoted to the existing AutoProof and current development will take place on October 1 near Toulouse in France. It is an informal event (no proceedings planned at this point, although based on the submissions we might decide to produce a volume), on a small scale, designed to bring together people interested in making the idea of practical verification a reality.

The keynote will be given by Rustan Leino from Microsoft Research, the principal author of the Boogie framework on which the current implementation of AutoProof relies.

For submissions (or to attend without submitting) see the workshop page here. You are also welcome to contact me for more information.

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Agile MOOC starts this week

In spite of all the interest in both agile methods and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) there are few courses on agile methods; I know only of some specialized MOOCs focused on a particular language or method.

I produced for EdX, with the help of Marco Piccioni, a new MOOC entitled Agile Software Development. It starts airing today and is supported by exercises and quizzes. The course uses some of the material from my Agile book.

Registration is free and open to anyone at this address.

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Robotics and concurrency

Many robotics applications are by nature concurrent; in his ongoing PhD work, Andrey Rusakov [1] is building a comprehensive concurrent robot programming framework, Roboscoop [2], based on the SCOOP model for simple concurrent object-oriented programming [3] and the Ros operating system. As part of this work it is important to know how much robotics applications use concurrency, stay away from concurrency — perhaps because programmers are afraid of the risks — and could benefit from more concurrency. Rusakov has prepared a questionnaire [4] to help find out. If you have experience in robot programming, please help him by answering the questionnaire, which takes only a few minutes.

References

[1] Rusakov’s home page here.

[2] Roboscoop project page, here,

[3] Simple Concurrent Object-Oriented Programming, see here.

[4] The questionnaire is here.

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Software for Robotics: 2016 LASER summer school, 10-18 September, Elba

The 2016 session of the LASER summer school, now in its 13th edition, has just been announced. The theme is new for the school, and timely: software for robotics. Below is the announcement.

School site: here

The 2016 LASER summer school will be devoted to Software for Robotics. It takes place from 10 to 18 September in the magnificent setting of the Hotel del Golfo in Procchio, Elba Island, Italy.

Robotics is progressing at an amazing pace, bringing improvements to almost areas of human activity. Today’s robotics systems rely ever more fundamentally on complex software, raising difficult issues. The LASER 2016 summer school both covers the current state of robotics software technology and open problems. The lecturers are top international experts with both theoretical contributions and major practical achievements in developing robotics systems.
The LASER school is intended for professionals from the industry (engineers and managers) as well as university researchers, including PhD students. Participants learn about the most important software technology advances from the pioneers in the field. The school’s focus is applied, although theory is welcome to establish solid foundations. The format of the school favors extensive interaction between participants and speakers.
The speakers include:

  • Joydeep Biswas, University of Massachussetts, on Development, debugging, and maintenance of deployed robots
  • Davide Brugali, University of Bergamo, on Managing software variability in robotic control systems
  • Nenad Medvidovic, University of Southern California, on Software Architectures of Robotics Systems
  • Bertrand Meyer, Politecnico di Milano and Innopolis University, with Jiwon Shin, on Concurrent Object-Oriented Robotics Software: Concepts, Framework and Applications
  • Issa Nesnas, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, on Experiences from robotic software development for research and planetary flight robots
  • Richard Vaughan, Simon Fraser University

Organized by Politecnico di Milano, the school takes place at the magnificent Hotel del Golfo (http://www.hoteldelgolfo.it/) in Golfo di Procchio, Elba. Along with an intensive scientific program, participants will have time to enjoy the natural and cultural riches of this history-laden jewel of the Mediterranean.

For more information about the school, the speakers and registration see here.

.

— Bertrand Meyer

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Danke sehr!

(A version of this article also appeared on the CACM blog.)

Miracles happen!

Many months ago I accepted, perhaps too fast, a kind invitation to talk at the European Computer Science Summit, the annual conference of Informatics Europe, this week in Vienna. It came with a catch: I was not to choose my own topic but to talk on an imposed theme, ethics in relation to computer science.

As the summer advanced, I became increasingly worried about the talk. What was I going to say? For a nerd, an invited lecture on a free topic is easy: talk about how alias analysis makes automatic frame inference possible, explain the bizarre mixture of the best and worst in agile methods, present a simple method of concurrent programming, describe an environment enabling common mortals to prove programs correct, reflect on our 13-year experience of teaching programming and the supporting MOOCs, and so on. All straightforward stuff which one can present in one’s sleep. But ethics!

The summer receded, but the worry did not. What in the world would I talk about?

And then!

From the deepest of my heart: thank you, Volkswagen.

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Design by Contract: ACM Webinar this Thursday

A third ACM webinar this year (after two on agile methods): I will be providing a general introduction to Design by Contract. The date is this coming Thursday, September 17, and the time is noon New York (18 Paris/Zurich, 17 London, 9 Los Angeles, see here for hours elsewhere). Please tune in! The event is free but requires registration here.

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In English this time: a Marseillaise for our age

Sometimes it is better not to know French. You will never quite get what Voltaire, Molière, Beauvoir, Zola, Hugo and Proust really mean and what Carmen and Faust really sing. But at least you will not find out what the Marseillaise really says. It is France’s national anthem and, according to a site dedicated to it, marseillaise.org, “believed by many to be the most stirring of all anthems“. Stirring, sure. Until you pay attention to the words.

I wrote an article on this blog, in French, proposing to shed the Marseillaise from its worst parts. A few people asked me to provide an English version; here it is. A rendition rather than a translation.

July the 14th, “Bastille day”, was France’s national holiday, and the opportunity for singing the Marseillaise. Politicians in towns large and small make a point of intoning it, in tune or (more often) out of it. One assumes — rather, one hopes — that occasionally they feel some embarrassment. You see, they understand French. The rest of the world hears the music, apparently good enough to have led such diverse composers as Rossini, Tchaikovsky, Schumann and Beethoven to cite it in their own works, and has the luxury of ignoring the words. Better so. Here are some of the gems (in my almost literal translation, all those I found on the Web are awful):

It’s us versus tyranny
We have raised our blood-stained flag

and

Do you hear, in the countryside,
The howling of these ferocious soldiers?
They come to snatch our sons and wives from our arms
And slit their throats

and the triumphal part of the chorus:

Let’s march, let’s march!
Let an impure blood
Soak the grooves of our fields!

So kind and welcoming.

What makes someone’s blood so impure that every patriot must take as his sacred duty to spill floods of it?

As a matter of fact, it happened, three quarters of a century ago. Hundreds of thousands of French people learned that their blood was now officially non-conformant. There are a few more episodes of that kind in the country’s history. They are not, to put it politely, the most glorious, and not the most appropriate to recall for celebration in the national anthem.

In the days before the festivities, hearing a 7-year old sing (in tune) the impure blood that must soak the grooves, I wondered what kind of thoughts such slogans can evoke among schoolchildren, who are instructed to memorize them and sing along. What about the blood-stained flag? What about the tyrants (Matteo Renzi? Mario Draghi?) who unleash on us their ferocious soldiers, not only to howl, but to snatch, from our arms, our sons and our wives, and slit their throats?

It is time to reform this racist and hateful song.

We need not quarrel about history. The song had a role. The revolution faced enemies, it was defending itself. When we commemorate that revolution today, we think not of Robespierre and the murder of Lavoisier (the creator of modern chemistry, whose executors famously explained that “the republic has no use for scientists“); we think of its message of liberty and fraternity. Enough blood, battles, ferocity. Sing what unites us today.

A national anthem should not, of course, be changed every year as a response to changes in fashion. By nature, it will always be a bit off. But after two hundred and thirteen years of existence, including one hundred and thirty-six of service as national anthem, it is time to shed the Marseillaise of the most shameful remnants of its original text. The music will stay; but the words must adapt to today’s France, which does not whine about a troubled past but looks forward to a bright future.

Only weak peoples seek unity only through the detestation of others. Their songs are full of rejection and negation. Strong peoples, for their part, invoke positive images. Which phrase better projects the proud attitude of a nation that believes in its destiny: “it’s us versus tyranny“, or “with us, marches democracy”? “Their impure blood” or “our pure hearts”? “Slit throats” or “admire”? Be the judge.

There have been proposals for alternative Marseillaises before, but they tend to be mirror images of the original, falling into their own excesses, such as a rabidly anti-militaristic version which can only exacerbate divisions. We will not gain anything by replacing ancient grievances by modern insults.

The following version, illustrated below by the first verse and the chorus (and given in a literal English translation not meant for singing, whereas the French text respects the prosody and versification of the original Marseillaise) pursues a different goal: not antagonizing people, but uniting them; highlighting not differences, but affinities; and allowing everyone to bellow it: with no shame; instead, with pride.

Children of the fatherland, come along
The day of glory has come
With us, marches democracy
We have raised our shining flag.
Do you hear, in the countryside,
The murmur of those envious peoples?
They come to our towns and mountains
And cannot stop admiring them.

(Chorus)

Together, citizens!
Let us make our union stronger!
Let our pure hearts
Vibrate in unison.

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A Marseillaise for our age

[This blog is normally in English, but today’s article is particularly relevant to French speakers. The topic: freeing a national anthem of its hateful overtones.]

Mardi dernier quatorze juillet, une fois de plus, la Marseillaise a retenti un peu partout. C’est le jour où les hommes politiques s’essayent à l’entonner, juste ou (plus souvent) faux. On peut s’imaginer, en fait on espère, qu’ils sont ici et là un peu gênés. “D’un sang impur, abreuve les sillons!“. Vraiment ? Qu’est-ce qui rend un sang si impur que tout bon patriote ait le devoir de le faire jaillir ?

Certes, c’est arrivé, il y a trois quarts de siècle, quand on a soudain avisé des centaines de milliers de Français que leur sang était désormais classé non conforme. Il y a quelques autres épisodes de ce genre dans l’histoire du pays ; ce ne sont pas — pour dire les choses poliment — les plus reluisants, et certainement pas ceux que le chant national devrait glorifier.

À entendre ces jours-ci une petite tête blonde de sept ans chanter (juste) le sang impur qui doit abreuver les sillons, je me suis demandé quelles pensées ces slogans pouvaient bien éveiller pour les enfants des écoles à qui l’on enjoint de les répéter en choeur. Et l’étendard sanglant ? Et les tyrans (Matteo Renzi ? Mario Draghi ?) qui nous envoient leurs féroces soldats non seulement mugir mais, jusque dans nos bras, égorger nos fils, nos compagnes?

Il est temps de réformer ce chant raciste et haineux. Qu’il ait joué son rôle n’est pas la question. La révolution avait ses ennemis, elle se défendait. Quand nous l’invoquons aujourd’hui, cette révolution, ce n’est pas à Robespierre et à l’assassinat de Lavoisier (la république n’a pas besoin de savants) que nous devrions faire appel, mais à son message de liberté et de fraternité. Assez de sang, de batailles, de férocité. Place à ce qui nous définit vraiment aujourd’hui.

Il ne s’agit pas de changer tous les ans d’hymne national en réponse aux modes. Il sera toujours, par nature, un peu déphasé. Mais après deux cent treize ans de Marseillaise, dont cent trente-six ans de service continu comme chant officiel du pays, il est temps de se séparer des relents les plus honteux de son texte d’origine. La musique restera, assez bonne pour avoir été reprise par Schumann, Tchaikowsky, Beethoven, Rossini et bien d’autres ; mais les paroles doivent être adaptées à ce qu’est la France moderne, tournée vers  l’avenir.

Seuls les peuples faibles ne savent s’unir qu’à travers la détestation des autres. Leurs chants sont emplis de rejets et de négations. Les peuples forts s’appuient, eux, sur des images positives. Quelle formule projette le mieux  l’attitude fière d’une nation confiante en son avenir : “contre nous, de la tyrannie“, ou “avec nous, la démocratie” ? “Un sang impur” ou “nos coeurs purs” ?  “Égorger” ou “admirer” ?Jugez-en.

Il existe des Marseillaises alternatives, mais souvent elles ne sont que le miroir de la première, avec leurs propres excès ; voir par exemple cette version sympathique de prime abord mais d’un anti-militarisme qui ne peut que diviser encore. Point n’est besoin de remplacer les anciens cris par des insultes nouvelles.

La version qui suit — chantable, respectant la métrique,  et dont je fournirai les autres couplets si elle provoque autre chose que des invectives — a un tout autre but : non pas diviser, mais réunir ; attiser non pas les différences mais les affinités ; et permettre à chacun de la chanter à pleine voix : sans honte ; au contraire, avec fierté.

Allons enfants de la patrie
Le jour de gloire est arrivé
Avec nous la démocratie
L’étendard vaillant est levé (bis)
Entendez-vous, dans les campagnes,
Frémir tous ces peuples envieux ?
Ils viennent, jusque sous nos cieux,
Admirer nos villes, nos montagnes.

(Refrain)

Ensemble, citoyens !
Renforçons notre union !
Que nos cœurs purs
Vibrent à l’unisson.

 

Résidence de l'ambassade de France, Berne, 14 juillet 2015

Résidence de l’ambassade de France, Berne, le 14 juillet 2015

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How to learn languages

Most people in technology, trade, research or education work in an international environment and need to use a foreign language which they learned at some earlier stage [1]. It is striking to see how awfully most of us perform. International conferences are a particular pain; many speakers are impossible to understand. You just want to go home and read the paper — or, often, not.

Teachers — English teachers in the case of the most commonly used international language — often get the blame, as in “They teach us Shakespeare’s English instead of what we need for today’s life“, but such complaints are  unfounded: look at any contemporary language textbook and you will see that it is all about some Svetlanas or Ulriches or Natsukos meeting or tweeting their friends Cathy and Bill.

It is true, though, that everyone teaches languages the wrong way.

There is only one way to teach languages right: start with the phonetics. Languages were spoken [2] millennia before they ever got written down. The basis of all natural languages is vocal. If you do not pronounce a language right you do not speak that language. It is unconscionable for example that most of us non-native speakers, when using English, still have an accent. We should have got rid of its last traces by age 12.

I cannot understand why people who are otherwise at the vanguard of intellectual achievement make a mess of their verbal expression, seemingly not even realizing there might be a problem. Some mistakes seem to be handed out from generation to generation. Most French speakers of English, for example, pronounce the “ow” of “allow” as in “low”, not “cow” (it took a long time before a compassionate colleague finally rid me of that particular mistake, and I don’t know how many more I may still be making); Italians seem to have a particular fondness for pronouncing as a “v” the “w” of “write”; an so on.

The only place I ever saw that taught languages right was a Soviet school for interpreters. Graduating students of French, having had no exposure to the language before their studies, spoke it like someone coming out of a Métro station. (Actually they spoke more like a grandmother coming out of the Métro, since they had little access to contemporary materials, but that would have been easy to fix.) The trick: they spent their entire first year doing phonetics, getting the “r”and the “u” and so on right, shedding the intonation of their native tongue. That year was solely devoted to audio practice in a phonetics lab. At the end of it they did not know the meaning of what they were saying,but they said it perfectly. Then came a year of grammar, then a year of conversation. Then came the Métro result. (This is not an apology of the Soviet Union. Someone there just happened to get that particular thing right.)

We should teach everyone this way. There is no reason to tolerate phonetic deviations. If you do not get the sounds exactly as they should be, everything else will be flawed. Take, for example, the “r”. If, like me, you cannot roll your “r”s, then when you try to speak Russian or Italian, even if you think you can get the other sounds right you don’t because  your tongue or palate or teeth are in the wrong place. Another example is the “th” sound in English (two distinct sounds in fact) which I never got right. I can fake it but then something else comes out wrong and I still sound foreign. My high-school teachers — to whom I owe gratitude for so much else — should have tortured me until my “th”s were perfect. True, teaching time is a fixed-pie problem, but I am sure something else could have been sacrificed. Since, for example, I can answer in a blink that seven times nine is sixty-three, I must at some stage have taken the time to memorize it. In retrospect I would gladly sacrifice that element of knowledge, which I can reconstruct when needed, for the ability to roll my “r”s.

Age is indeed critical. While we humans can learn anything at any time, it is a well-known fact (although the reasons behind it remain mysterious) that until puberty we are malleable and can learn languages perfectly.  Witness bilingual and trilingual children; they do not have any accent. But around the time we develop new abilities and desires our brain shuts itself off to that particular skill; from then on we can only learn languages at great pain, with only remote hopes of reaching the proficiency of natives. The time to learn the phonetics of a foreign language, and learn it perfectly, is around the age of nine or ten at the latest. Then, at the age of reason, we should learn the structures — the grammar. Declensions in German, the use of tenses in English, the perfective and imperfective aspects of Russian. Conversation — Svetlana greeting Cathy — can come later if there is time left. Once you have the basics wired into your head, the rest is trivial.

Focusing children on phonetics as the crucial part of learning a language will also help them shine. Like physical appearance, verbal clarity is an enormous advantage. I must not be the only one in conferences who pays far more attention to the content of an article if the speaker has impeccable pronunciation, innate or learned. Syntax and choice of words come next. Of course substance matters; we have all heard top scientists with accents thicker than a Humvee tire and grammar thinner than a summer dress.  Everyone else needs fluency.

Conceivably, someone might object that a year of phonetic drilling is not the most amusing pastime for a 10-year-old. Without even noting that it’s not worse than having to learn to play the violin — where did we ever get the idea that learning should be fun?

As to me, like those who before they die want to get into space, visit the capitals of all countries on earth or reach the top of Mount Everest, I have my dream; it has lesser impact on the environment and depends on me, not on the help of others: just once, I’d like to roll an “r” like a Polish plumber.

Notes

[1] Many native English speakers provide the exception to this observation, since they often do not learn any foreign language beyond “Buon giorno” and “melanzane alla parmigiana”, and hence will probably not see the point of this article.

[2] And motioned. Sign language as practiced by deaf people (informally before it was codified starting from the 17th century on) is also a potential teaching start.

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New paper: Theory of Programs

Programming, wrote Dijkstra many years ago, is a branch of applied mathematics. That is only half of the picture: the other half is engineering, and this dual nature of programming is part of its attraction.

Descriptions of the mathematical side are generally, in my view, too complicated. This article [1] presents a mathematical theory of programs and programming based on concepts taught in high school: elementary set theory. The concepts covered include:

  • Programming.
  • Specification.
  • Refinement.
  • Non-determinism.
  • Feasibility.
  • Correctness.
  • Programming languages.
  • Kinds of programs: imperative, functional, object-oriented.
  • Concurrency (small-step and large-step)
  • Control structures (compound, if-then-else and Dijkstra-style conditional, loop).
  • State, store and environment.
  • Invariants.
  • Notational conventions for building specifications and programs incrementally.
  • Loop invariants and variants.

One of the principal ideas is that a program is simply the description of a mathematical relation. The program text is a rendering of that relation. As a consequence, one may construct programming languages simply as notations to express certain kinds of mathematics. This approach is the reverse of the usual one, where the program text and its programming languages are the starting point and the center of attention: theoreticians develop techniques to relate them to mathematical concepts. It is more effective to start from the mathematics (“unparsing” rather than parsing).

All the results (74 properties expressed formally, a number of others in the text) are derived as theorems from rules of elementary set theory; there are no new axioms whatsoever.

The paper also has a short version [2], omitting proofs and many details.

References

[1] Theory of Programs, available here.
[2] Theory of Programs, short version of [1] (meant for quick understanding of the ideas, not for publication), available here.

 

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Agile methods: follow-up webinar and discussion

After my earlier ACM Webinar on Agile Methods! The Good, the Hype and the Ugly there were so many questions from the audience, left unanswered for lack of time, that a follow-up session has been set up. It will take place tomorrow (Friday, 27 March 2015) at noon New York time (18 Paris/Berlin/Zurich, 5 PM London etc.). Like the first one it is free and you can find the registration information here.

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Understanding and assessing Agile: free ACM webinar next Wednesday

ACM is offering this coming Wednesday a one-hour webinar entitled Agile Methods: The Good, the Hype and the Ugly. It will air on February 18 at 1 PM New York time (10 AM West Coast, 18 London, 19 Paris, see here for more cities). The event is free and the registration link is here.

The presentation is based on my recent book with an almost identical title [1]. It will be a general discussion of agile methods, analyzing both their impressive contributions to software engineering and their excesses, some of them truly damaging. It is often hard to separate the beneficial from the indifferent and the plain harmful, because most of the existing presentations are of the hagiographical kind, gushing in admiration of the sacred word. A bit of critical distance does not hurt.

As you can see from the Amazon page, the first readers (apart from a few dissenters, not a surprise for such a charged topic) have relished this unprejudiced, no-nonsense approach to the presentation of agile methods.

Another characteristic of the standard agile literature is that it exaggerates the contrast with classic software engineering. This slightly adolescent attitude is not helpful; in reality, many of the best agile ideas are the direct continuation of the best classic ideas, even when they correct or adapt them, a normal phenomenon in technology evolution. In the book I tried to re-place agile ideas in this long-term context, and the same spirit will also guide the webinar. Ideological debates are of little interest to software practitioners; what they need to know is what works and what does not.

References

[1] Bertrand Meyer, Agile! The Good, the Hype and the Ugly, Springer, 2014, see Amazon page here, publisher’s page here and my own book page here.

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Awareness and merge conflicts in distributed development (new paper)

Actually not that new: this paper [1] was published in August of last year. It is part of Christian Estler’s work for this PhD thesis, defended a few weeks ago, and was pursued in collaboration with Martin Nordio and Carlo Furia. It received the best paper award at the International Conference on Global Software Engineering; in fact this was the third time in a row that this group received the ICGSE award, so it must have learned a few things about collaborative development.

The topic is an issue that affects almost all software teams: how to make sure that people are aware of each other’s changes to a shared software base, in particular to avoid the dreaded case of a merge conflict: you and I are working on the same piece of code, but we find out too late, and we have to undergo the painful process of reconciling our conflicting changes.

The paper builds once again on the experience of our long-running “Distributed and Outsourced Software Engineering” course project, where students from geographically spread universities collaborate on a software development [2]. It relies on data from 105 student developers making up twelve development teams located in different countries.

The usual reservations about using data from students apply, but the project is substantial and the conditions not entirely different from those of an industrial development.

The study measured the frequency and impact of merge conflicts, the effect of insufficient awareness (no one told me that you are working on the same module that I am currently modifying) and the consequences for the project: timeliness, developer morale, productivity.

Among the results: distribution does not matter that much (people are not necessarily better informed about their local co-workers’ developments than about remote collaborators); lack of awareness occurs more often than merge conflicts, and causes more damage.

 

References

[1] H-Christian Estler, Martin Nordio, Carlo A. Furia and Bertrand Meyer: Awareness and Merge Conflicts in Distributed Software Development, in proceedings of ICGSE 2014, 9th International Conference on Global Software Engineering, Shanghai, 18-21 August 2014, IEEE Computer Society Press (best paper award), see here.

[2] Distributed and Outsourced Software Engineering course and project, see here. (The text mentions “DOSE 2013” but the concepts remains applicable and it will be updated.)

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Framing the frame problem (new paper)

Among the open problems of verification, particularly the verification of object-oriented programs, one of the most vexing is framing: how to specify and verify what programs element do not change. Continuing previous work, this article presents a “double frame inference” method, automatic on both sides the specification and verification sides. There is no need to write frame specifications: they will be inferred from routine postconditions. For verification, the method computes the set of actually changed properties through a “change calculus”, itself based on the previously developed alias calculus.

Some verification techniques, such as Hoare-style proofs, require significant annotation effort and potentially yield full functional verification; others, such as model checking and abstract interpretation, have more limited goals but seek full automation. Framing, in my opinion, should be automatic, freeing the programmer-verifier to devote the annotation effort to truly interesting properties.

Reference

[1] Bertrand Meyer: Framing the Frame Problem, in Dependable Software Systems, Proceedings of August 2014 Marktoberdorf summer school, eds. Alexander Pretschner, Manfred Broy and Maximilian Irlbeck, NATO Science for Peace and Security, Series D: Information and Communication Security, Springer, 2015 (to appear), pages 174-185; preprint available here.

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Detecting deadlock automatically? (New paper)

To verify sequential programs, we have to prove that they do the right thing, but also that they do it within our lifetime — that they terminate. The termination problem is considerably harder with concurrent programs, since they add a new form of non-termination: deadlock. A set of concurrent processes or threads will deadlock if they end up each holding a resource that another wants and wanting a resource that another holds.

There is no general solution to the deadlock problem, even a good enough general solution. (“Good enough” is the best we can hope for, since like many important problems deadlock is undecidable.) It is already hard enough to provide run-time deadlock detection, to be able at least to cancel execution when deadlock happens. The research reported in this new paper [1] pursues the harder goal of static detection. It applies to an object-oriented context (specifically the SCOOP model of concurrent OO computation) and relies fundamentally on the alias calculus, a static alias analysis technique developed in previous publications.

The approach is at its inception and considerable work remains to be done. Still, the example handled by the paper is encouraging: analyzing two versions of the dining philosophers problem and proving — manually — that one can deadlock and the other cannot.

References

[1] Bertrand Meyer: An automatic technique for static deadlock prevention, in PSI 2014 (Ershov Informatics Conference), eds. Irina Virbitskaite and Andrei Voronkov, Lecture Notes in Computer Science, Springer, 2015, to appear.; draft available here.

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Infinite loop in Microsoft Word

 

I write a sentence, but Microsoft Word’s indefatigable grammar checker catches me:

Well-argued_with_hyphen
.

I see! Word  underlined “well-argued” in blue because the hyphen is bad style. Thanks! I choose the obligingly provided correction (just click the first menu entry). “Well argued“. Then:

Well-argued_without_hyphen

Sigh.

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Lampsort

 

In support of his view of software methodology, Leslie Lamport likes to use the example of non-recursive Quicksort. Independently of the methodological arguments, his version of the algorithm should be better known. In fact, if I were teaching “data structures and algorithms” I would consider introducing it first.

As far as I know he has not written down his version in an article, but he has presented it in lectures; see [1]. His trick is to ask the audience to give a non-recursive version of Quicksort, and of course everyone starts trying to remove the recursion, for example by making the stack explicit or looking for invertible functions in calls. But his point is that recursion is not at all fundamental in Quicksort. The recursive version is a specific implementation of a more general idea.

Lamport’s version — let us call it Lampsort —is easy to express in Eiffel. We may assume the following context:

a: ARRAY [G -> COMPARABLE]        — The array to be sorted.
pivot: INTEGER                                      —  Set by partition.
picked: INTEGER_INTERVAL            — Used by the sorting algorithm, see below.
partition (i, j: INTEGER)
……..require      — i..j is a sub-interval of the array’s legal indexes:
……..……..i < j
……..……..i >= a.lower
……..……..j <= a.upper
……..do
……..……..… Usual implementation of partition
……..ensure     — The expected effect of partition:
……..……..pivot >= i
……..……..pivot < j
……..……..a [i..j] has been reshuffled so that elements in i..pivot are less than
……..……..or equal to those in pivot+1 .. j.
……..end

We do not write the implementation of partition since the point of the present discussion is the overall algorithm. In the usual understanding, that algorithm consists of doing nothing if the array has no more than one element, otherwise performing a partition and then recursively calling itself on the two resulting intervals. The implementation can take advantage of parallelism by forking the recursive calls out to different processors. That presentation, says Lamport, describes only a possible implementation. The true Quicksort is more general. The algorithm works on a set not_sorted of integer intervals i..j such that the corresponding array slices a [i..j] are the only ones possibly not sorted; the goal of the algorithm is to make not_sorted empty, since then we know the entire array is sorted. In Eiffel we declare this set as:

not_sorted: SET [INTEGER_INTERVAL]

The algorithm initializes not_sorted to contain a single element, the entire interval; at each iteration, it removes an interval from the set, partitions it if that makes sense (i.e. the interval has more than one element), and inserts the resulting two intervals into the set. It ends when not_sorted is empty. Here it is:

……..from                                 — Initialize interval set to contain a single interval, the array’s entire index range:
……..…..create not_sorted.make_one (a.lower |..| a.upper)….         ..……..
……..invariant
……..…..— See below
……..until
……..…..not_sorted.is_empty                                                            — Stop when there are no more intervals in set
……..loop
……..…..picked := not_sorted.item                                                     — Pick an interval from (non-empty) interval set.
……..……if picked.count > 1 then                                                      — (The precondition of partition holds, see below.)
……..……..…..partition (picked.lower, picked.upper)                    — Split it, moving small items before and large ones after pivot.
……..……..…..not_sorted.extend (picked.lower |..| pivot)            — Insert new intervals into the set of intervals: first
……..……....not_sorted.extend (pivot + 1 |..| picked.upper)     — and second.
……..……end
……..…...not_sorted.remove (picked)                                               — Remove interval that was just partitioned.
…….end

Eiffel note: the function yielding an integer interval is declared in the library class INTEGER using the operator |..| (rather than just  ..).

The query item from SET, with the precondition not is_empty,  returns an element of the set. It does not matter which element. In accordance with the Command-Query Separation principle, calling item does not modify the set; to remove the element you have to use the command remove. The command extend adds an element to the set.

The abstract idea behind Lampsort, explaining why it works at all, is the following loop invariant (see [2] for a more general discussion of how invariants provide the basis for understanding loop algorithms). We call “slice” of an array a non-empty contiguous sub-array; for adjacent slices we may talk of concatenation; also, for slices s and t s <= t means that every element of s is less than or equal to every element of t. The invariant is:

a is the concatenation of the members of a set slices of disjoint slices, such that:
– The elements of a are a permutation of its original elements.
– The index range of any member  of slices having more than one element is in not_sorted.
– For any adjacent slices s and t (with s before t), s <= t.

The first condition (conservation of the elements modulo permutation) is a property of partition, the only operation that can modify the array. The rest of the invariant is true after initialization (from clause) with slices made of a single slice, the full array. The loop body maintains it since it either removes a one-element interval from not_sorted (slices loses the corresponding slice) or performs partition with the effect of partitioning one slice into two adjacent ones satisfying s <= t, whose intervals replace the original one in not_sorted. On exit, not_sorted is empty, so slices is a set of one-element slices, each less than or equal to the next, ensuring that the array is sorted.

The invariant also ensures that the call to partition satisfies that routine’s precondition.

The Lampsort algorithm is a simple loop; it does not use recursion, but relies on an interesting data structure, a set of intervals. It is not significantly longer or more difficult to understand than the traditional recursive version

sort (i, j: INTEGER)
……..require
……..……..i <= j
……..……..i >= a.lower
……..……..j <= a.upper
……..do
……..……if j > i then                    — Note that precondition of partition holds.
……..……..…..partition (i, j)         — Split into two slices s and t such that s <= t.
……..……..…..sort (i, pivot)          — Recursively sort first slice.
……..……..…..sort (pivot+1, j)      — Recursively sort second slice.
……..……end……..…..
……..end

Lampsort, in its author’s view, captures the true idea of Quicksort; the recursive version, and its parallelized variants, are only examples of possible implementations.

I wrote at the start that the focus of this article is Lampsort as an algorithm, not issues of methodology. Let me, however, give an idea of the underlying methodological debate. Lamport uses this example to emphasize the difference between algorithms and programs, and to criticize the undue attention being devoted to programming languages. He presents Lampsort in a notation which he considers to be at a higher level than programming languages, and it is for him an algorithm rather than a program. Programs will be specific implementations guided in particular by efficiency considerations. One can derive them from higher-level versions (algorithms) through refinement. A refinement process may in particular remove or restrict non-determinism, present in the above version of Lampsort through the query item (whose only official property is that it returns an element of the set).

The worldview underlying the Eiffel method is almost the reverse: treating the whole process of software development as a continuum; unifying the concepts behind activities such as requirements, specification, design, implementation, verification, maintenance and evolution; and working to resolve the remaining differences, rather than magnifying them. Anyone who has worked in both specification and programming knows how similar the issues are. Formal specification languages look remarkably like programming languages; to be usable for significant applications they must meet the same challenges: defining a coherent type system, supporting abstraction, providing good syntax (clear to human readers and parsable by tools), specifying the semantics, offering modular structures, allowing evolution while ensuring compatibility. The same kinds of ideas, such as an object-oriented structure, help on both sides. Eiffel as a language is the notation that attempts to support this seamless, continuous process, providing tools to express both abstract specifications and detailed implementations. One of the principal arguments for this approach is that it supports change and reuse. If everything could be fixed from the start, maybe it could be acceptable to switch notations between specification and implementation. But in practice specifications change and programs change, and a seamless process relying on a single notation makes it possible to go back and forth between levels of abstraction without having to perform repeated translations between levels. (This problem of change is, in my experience, the biggest obstacle to refinement-based approaches. I have never seen a convincing description of how one can accommodate specification changes in such a framework without repeating the whole process. Inheritance, by the way, addresses this matter much better.)

The example of Lampsort in Eiffel suggests that a good language, equipped with the right abstraction mechanisms, can be effective at describing not only final implementations but also abstract algorithms. It does not hurt, of course, that these abstract descriptions can also be executable, at the possible price of non-optimal performance. The transformation to an optimal version can happen entirely within the same method and language.

Quite apart from these discussions of software engineering methodology, Lamport’s elegant version of Quicksort deserves to be known widely.

References

[1] Lamport video here, segment starting at 0:32:34.
[2] Carlo Furia, Bertrand Meyer and Sergey Velder: Loop invariants: Analysis, Classification and Examples, in ACM Computing Surveys, September 2014, preliminary text here.

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New MOOC opens Tuesday

Our online course Computing: Art, Magic, Science, available from EdX, opens this Tuesday (tomorrow, 30 September) at 9 AM Zurich time (and at this time in your area).

An earlier article on this blog described the course, which integrates ten years of experience teaching introductory programming at ETH, and takes advantage of remote-compilation and remote-execution technology from our distributed development research.

You can find the course here.

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Analysis of agile methods: book signing in Paris this Friday at 5 PM

The Paris computer science bookstore Le Monde en Tique is organizing, this coming Friday, Oct. 3, starting at 5 PM, a signing session for my book Agile! The Good, the Hype and the Ugly [1].

About the book (for readers new to this site): it provides a cold-blooded analysis of agile methods and examines their claims, their value and their limitations.

Le Monde en Tique is well known to technology aficionados in Paris and far beyond. Jean Demétreaux and his team established it at a time when it was hard, slow and expensive to order technical books from international publishers. While other legendary bookstores such a Stacey’s in San Francisco had to close in response to competition from chain stores and Internet offerings, le Monde en Tique (a pun on “tique” words such as informatics and bureautics, and also on ICT, in French TIC) has found new markets and lives on. It is set in a historic building in the medieval heart of Paris [2]. They already organized such book signings for the publication of the French translation of Object-Oriented Software Construction [3] and of Touch of Class, the latter reported in this blog [4]. If you are nearby, please come on Friday!

References

[1] Bertrand Meyer: Agile! The Good, the Hype and the Ugly, Springer, 2014,  Amazon page: here, book page: here.

[2] Book signing announcement with access instructions: here.

[3] Bertrand Meyer: Conception et Programmation Orientées Objet (translation of Object-Oriented Software Construction, 2nd edition, Prentice Hall), Eyrolles, Paris 2008, book page here.

[4] Knuth and Company, article on this blog, 19 October 2009, see here.

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