Le français dans le monde

Extrait d’un article dans Le Monde d’hier, signé Juliette Bénézit (sur un problème sérieux : l’inadéquation des services en ligne pour les cartes de séjour pour étrangers): il s’agit d’une

problématique particulièrement prégnante en Ile-de-France

Diable ! Quels termes galants pour dire que le problème est particulièrement aigu dans cette belle région !

En général — heuristique personnelle mais qui marche assez bien — je cesse généralement d’écouter dès que j’entends “problématique” pour problème et “thématique” pour thème. Quant à “prégnant”, voici la définition du Larousse :

Littéraire. Qui s’impose à l’esprit, qui produit une forte impression.
Qui s’impose fortement, en parlant d’une structure perceptive et dans le contexte de la Gestalttheorie.

Re-diable ! Ou plutôt, Verdammt ! Gestalttheorie !

Je recherchais la référence exacte de l’article pour mettre ci-dessus le lien correct ; tenez-vous bien : Google donne cent pages Web contenant le texte exact “problématique particulièrement prégnante”. Dans Le Monde et ailleurs. (J’ai aussi cherché, pensant à une plaisanterie un peu trop ressassée en anglais, “à-demi prégnante”, mais là rien.)

Je pourrais continuer la liste des atrocités prétentieuses, mais excusez-moi, j’ai une problématique très très prégnante à régler.

 

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Time to resurrect PSP?

Let us assume for the sake of the argument that software quality matters. There are many ingredients to software quality, of which one must be the care that every programmer devotes to the job. The Personal Software Process, developed by Watts Humphrey in the 1990s [1], prescribes a discipline that software developers should apply to produce good software and improve their professional ability over their careers. It has enjoyed moderate success but was never a mass movement and rarely gets mentioned nowadays; few software developers, in my experience, even know the name. Those who do often think of it as passé, a touching memory from the era of Monica Lewinsky and the Roseanne show.

Once cleaned of a few obsolete elements, PSP deserves to be known and applied.

PSP came out of Watts Humphrey’s earlier work on the Capability Maturity Model (see my earlier article on this blog, What is wrong with CMMI), a collection of recommended practices and assessment criteria for software processes, originally developed in the mid-eighties for the U.S. military contractor community but soon thereafter embraced by software outsourcing companies (initially, Indian ones) and later by other industries. Responding to complaints that CMM/CMMI, focused on processes in large companies, ignored the needs of smaller ones, and lacked individual guidance for developers, Humphrey developed TSP, the Team Software Process, and PSP.

The most visible part of PSP is a six-step process pictured in the middle of this diagram:
cmmi

The most visible and also the most corny. Who today wants to promise always to follow such a strict sequence of steps? Always to write the code for a module in full before compiling it? (Notice there is no backward arrow, the process is sequential.) Always to test at the end only? Come on. This is the third decade of the 21st century.

Today we compile as we code, using the development environment (IDE) as a brilliant tool to check everything we do or plan to do. For my part, whenever I am writing code and have not compiled my current draft for more than a few minutes I start feeling like an addict in need of a fix; my fix is the Compile button of EiffelStudio. At some eventual stage the compiler becomes a tool to generate excutable code, but long before that it has been my friend, coach, mentor, and doppelgänger, helping me get things (types, null references, inheritance…) right and gently chiding me when I wander off the rails.

As to tests, even if you do not buy into the full dogma of Test-Driven Development (I don’t), they get written and exercised right from the start, as you are writing the code, not afterwards. Compile all the time, test all the time.

It’s not just that a process such as the above ignores the contributions of agile methods, which are largely posterior to PSP. As analyzed in [2], agile is a curious mix of good ideas and a few horrendous ones. But among its durable contributions is the realization that development must be incremental, not a strict succession of separate activities.

This old-style flavor or PSP is probably the reason why it has fallen out of favor. But (like the agile rejection of upfront lifecycle activities) such a reaction is a case of criticism gone too far, ignoring the truly beneficial contributions. Ignore PSP’s outmoded sequence of activities and you will find that PSP’s core message is as relevant today as it ever was. That message is: we should learn from the practices of traditional engineers and apply a strict professional discipline. For example:

  • Keep a log of all activities. (See “Logs” in the above figure.) Engineers are taught to record everything they do; many programmers don’t bother. This practice, however, is essential to self-improvement.
  • Keep measurements of everything you do. (There are lots of things to measure, from hours spent on every kind of task to bugs found, time to fix them etc.)
  • Estimate and plan your work.
  • Clearly define commitments, and meet them.
  • Resist pressure to make unreasonable commitments (something that agilists approach also emphasize).
  • Understand your current performance.
  • Understand your programming style and how it affects various measures. (As an example, code size, as a function of the number of routines, depends on whether you are more concise or more verbose in style).
  • Continually improve your expertise as a professional.

PSP does not limit itself to such exhortations but gives concrete tools to apply the principles, with a view to: measuring, tracking and analyzing your work; learning from your performance variations; and incorporating the lessons learned into your professional practices. On the topic of measurement, for example, PSP includes precise guidelines on what to measure and how to measure it, and how to rely on proxies for quantities that are hard to assess directly. On this last point, PSP includes PROBE (PROxy-Based Estimating, you cannot have a method coming out of the world of US government organizations without cringeworthy acronyms), a general framework for estimating size and resource parameters from directly measurable proxies.

This is what PSP is about: a discipline of personal productivity and growth, emphasizing personal discipline, tracking and constant improvement. It is not hard to learn; a technical report by Humphrey available online [3] provides a sufficient basis to understand the concepts and start a process of self-improvement.

Watts Humphrey himself, as all who had the privilege to meet him can testify, was a model of seriousness and professionalism, the quintessential engineer. (I also remember him as the author of what may be the best pun I ever heard — ask me sometime.) PSP directly reflects these qualities and — ignoring its visible but in the end unimportant remnants from outdated technical choices — should be part of every software engineering curriculum and every software engineer’s collection of fundamental practices.

References

[1] Watts Humphrey, Introduction to the Personal Software Process, Addison-Wesley, 1996.

[2] Bertrand Meyer: Agile! The Good, the Hype and the Ugly, Springer, 2014, see here.

[3] Watts Humphrey, The Personal Software Process, Software Engineering Institute Technical Report CMU/SEI-2000-TR-022, available (in PDF, free) here.

 

Recycled A version of this article was first published in the Communications of the ACM blog.

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Between you and me

I have been conducting interesting conversations with a two-something child who has not quite mastered the speaker-dependent [1] personal pronouns. He says things like “Where is your mom?”, when he actually means to ask about his mother, not mine; from hearing people tell him things like “your mom is coming”, he is clearly taking “your mom” as some kind of paraphrase for “mom”. He approaches people and says “I want to help me”, obviously from having heard, from others, “would you come and help me?”.

I am not concerned about young Tim (let us call him that), who sooner or later will get the point. But let us assume that someone, call him Tom, is determined to explain to Tim the concepts of “you” and “me”. Not so easy! In fact, come to think of it, fairly tricky, treacherous even. We all learned the concept at some point; I wish I remembered how it happened for me [2].

The difficulty is that someone, whether Tom or a third party, has to provide the explanation, a circumstance that messes up the explanation itself since it contains speaker-dependent terms. (Did I hear the word “Heisenberg”? If so I will ignore it.) Tom might try something like the following explanation — let us call it /A/  — but it will not work:

If Tom says me it means Tom, but if Tim says me it means Tim.

If Tim says you it means Tom, but if Tom says you it means Tim.

The reason it does not work is lack of quoting, but before I get to this let me mention that a mathematical model is not hard to come by. From a two-element set Names = {Tim, Tom} to itself, there are four total functions. Of these, two are constant functions. The other two are non-constant; one, me, is the identity function on Names, and you is the other. They are the functions me = {<Tim, Tim>, <Tom, Tom>} and you = {<Tim, Tom>, <Tom, Tim>}. I is just a synonym for me (the accusative in the latter being one of the few remnants of declension in English.)

Let us call this explanation /B/.  It can be illustrated as follows:

 

subjectivity

We can also write these functions (using for conciseness [c: A \ d: B … \ Z] for the conditional expression if c then A elseif d then Belse Z end) as the following version /C/:

me = λ n | [n = Tim: Tim \ Tom]

you = λ n | [n = Tim: Tom \ Tim]

In practice, however, this modeling of the concepts “you” and “me” as functions in Names → Names is not sufficient to define them properly, for example to turn the informal explanation /A/ into one that makes sense. The problem is that we are dealing with a larger set of words than just Names: the set   Words = {Tim, Tom, Me, You} with four elements. The meaning of a sentence that may include any of them is not absolute, but depends on who is uttering the sentence. When I say “me” and you say “me” the meaning is different, although when I say “you” and you say “me” the meaning is the same.
To interpret a sentence, then, we need a second-level function: a function meaning not in Words → Words but in Names → Words → Names, defined as follows:

meaning = λ n  |  λ w  |     [w ∈ Names: w    \    w = Me: me (n)    \    you (n)]

Let us call this definition /D/. Examples of its application include:

  • meaning (Tim) (Tom) = Tom. (First case: no speaker-dependency).
  • meaning (Tim) (Me) = Tim. (Second case, expresses the part of /A/ that said “if Tim says me it means Tim”.)
  • meaning (Tim) (You) = Tom. (Third case, expresses the part of /A/ that said “if Tim says you it means Tom”.)

/D/ is the most accurate definition of speaker-dependent pronouns and I may try it with the real Tim at the next opportunity (as soon as I have taught him lambda calculus).

/D/ also helps us understand what does not quite work in /A/, the first and perhaps most intuitive attempt. With explanations such as  “if Tim says you it means Tom” we are actually trying to express the need for making meanings speaker-dependent, that is to say, explain that the evaluation of a sentence must take into account who utters it. But this attempt fails because we need a general rule which will apply to all sentences, and the explanation itself is a sentence. To evaluate the sentence “if Tim says you it means Tom” we need to evaluate “you” which figures in it; that evaluation would yield either Tim or Tom depending on who is speaking. But because the sentence is itself part a definition of “you”, we do not want in this case to evaluate “you”.

We could write you in straight quotes as in programming languages:

if Tim says “you” it means Tom

but that is not the form of quoting we need. In a programming language, “you” is a character string, made of the characters ‘y‘, ‘o‘ and ‘u‘ in that order. Here, the makeup of this string in terms of its characters is completely irrelevant. The form of quoting that we need must achieve something else: preventing, in the evaluation of a formula, the evaluation of one of its parts.

John McCarthy’s Lisp language, coming out as early as 1959, showed how to handle this issue correctly. (This contribution is one of many from Lisp, including garbage collection and the notion of functional programming — not bad for a single language. See my 2011 obituary of John McCarthy on this blog [3].) One of the reasons Lisp needed a quoting mechanism is that it was designed to be self-describing and specifically self-evaluating, a spectacularly new concept at the time. McCarthy’s original book on Lisp (LISP 1.5 Programmer’s Manual, MIT Press, 1962) contains a dazzling interpreter of Lisp, written in Lisp and taking up no more than half a page. The interpreter is based on eval, a function (in the sense of a Lisp function, defined by a Lisp expression) which evaluates any Lisp program. You cannot define eval unless you have some way to prevent evaluation of part of an expression.

The convention is simple. For any expression x we may define another expression x — which we can read aloud as “QUOTED x”. Then:

  • Evaluating x gives the value of x.
  • Evaluating x yields x.

The original Lisp notation was (QUOTE x), which clearly conveys the idea: QUOTE is a function — in Lisp, function application f (x) is written (f x) — whose value, when applied to an argument, is that argument. (Not the value of the argument: the argument itself.)

With such a quote notation, explanations in the style of /A/ can be made meaningful; for example (version /E/):

If Tom says ‘me it means Tom, but if Tim says ‘me it means Tim.

This should be said with the quote spoken out loud: QUOTED me”.

We’ll see if Tim sees what /E/ means. At least, you see what you mean. I mean, I see what I  mean. Sorry, I meant that I see what you mean. Oh well. We see what we mean.

 

Notes and references

[1] I really want to call them “subjective personal pronouns”, in the ordinary sense of “subjective” opposed to “objective” as in “a subjective assessment”, but in grammatical terminology “subjective pronoun” has a well-accepted but entirely different meaning, that of a pronoun used as the subject of a sentence, like “she” rather than “her”. Hence “speaker-dependent pronoun”. Linguists also use the term “indexical pronouns”, as in the reference cited in note [2].

[2] Linguists investigating language learning have studied the matter. A recent article (2015) is 2-Year-Olds’ Comprehension of Personal Pronouns by M. Moyer, K. Harrigan, V. Hacquard and J. Lidz (in Supplement to the proceedings of the 39th Boston University Conference on Language Development, eds E. Grillo, K. Jepson and M. LaMendola), available here. The article includes a literature review. It acknowledges the you-and-me problem (first- and second-person pronouns) although it suggests that third-person pronouns (“he”, “she”) may be even more of a challenge to infants. Two quotes (with bibliographic references removed):

  • The evidence from previous studies examining two year olds’ competence is mixed, with some studies finding children succeeding with pronouns as early as 22-24 months, others finding success much later, and some with children succeeding at a range of ages.
  • Most [studies] suggest a production/comprehension asymmetry… Production studies suggest that children begin producing pronouns around 15-18 months, starting with first person, then second person, and finally third person pronouns. These early productions typically include some errors where the child reverses first and second person, but on the whole consistent errors are few . On the other hand, comprehension data focusing on speech addressed to the child suggest that children first understand second person pronouns, then first person, and finally third person.

[3] My article on John McCarthy can be found here.

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The extremely bizarre idea of an inauguration

Could someone please explain what there is to celebrate when a candidate is elected to a political function? The grotesque ideas of a victory rally or an inauguration ceremony defy common sense.

An election success is an opportunity to start doing something good. It is not an achievement; it is the promise of possible achievements to come. Someone should hand the successful candidate the key to his office and wish him good luck. His supporters should go home and start thinking of how best to help him. He should get to work. End of that part of the story. There is by definition nothing to celebrate.

The time to hold a celebration, if any, is when a politician completes her term. At that stage there exists a clear basis for one of two outcomes: either a shameful, stealthy, miserable exit in the frosty predawn fog of a deserted airfield (as happened on Wednesday at Andrews); or a lavish, joyful party to extol and relish the brilliant successes of the last few years. Then, but only then, does a celebration makes sense.

Out with inaugurations, in with outaugurations!

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The right forms of expression

If you want to know whether your_string has at least one upper-case character, you will write this in Eiffel:

if  ∃ c: your_string ¦ c.is_upper then

Such predicate-calculus boolean expressions, using a quantifier (“for all”) or (“there exists”) are becoming common in Eiffel code. They are particularly useful in Design by Contract assertions, making it possible to characterize deep semantic properties of the code and its data structures. For example a class invariant clause in a class I wrote recently states

from_lists_exist: ∀ tf: triples_from ¦ tf Void                        — [1]

meaning that all the elements, if any, of the list triples_from  are non-void (non-null). The notation is the exact one from mathematics. (Mathematical notation sometimes uses a dot in place of the bar, but the bar is clearer, particularly in an OO context where the dot has another use.)

Programming languages should support time-honored notations from mathematics. Reaching this goal has been a driving force in the evolution of Eiffel, but not as a concession to “featurism” (the gratuitous piling up of language feature upon feature). The language must remain simple and consistent; any new feature must find its logical place in the overall edifice.

The design of programming languages is a constant search for the right balance between rigor, simplicity, consistency, formal understanding, preservation of existing code, innovation and expressiveness. The design of Eiffel has understood the last of these criteria as implying support for established notations from mathematics, not through feature accumulation but by re-interpreting these notations in terms of the language’s fundamental concepts. A typical example is the re-interpretation of the standard mathematical notation a + b as as simply an operator-based form for the object-oriented call a.plus (b), obtained by declaring “+” as an operator alias for the function plus in the relevant classes. There are many more such cases in today’s Eiffel. Quantifier expressions using and  are the latest example.

 They are not a one-of-a-kind trick but just as a different syntax form for loops. Expressed in a more verbose form, the only one previously available, [1] would be:

across triples_from is tf all tf /= Void end                         — [2]

It is interesting to walk back the history further. [2] is itself a simplification of

across triples_from as tf all tf.item /= Void end               — [3]

where the “.item” has a good reason for being there, but that reason is irrelevant to a beginner. The earlier use of as in [3] is also the reason for the seemingly bizarre use of is in [2], which is only explainable by the backward compatibility criterion (code exists that uses as , which has a slightly different semantics from is), and will go away. But a few years ago the across loop variant did not exist and you would have had to write the above boolean expressions as

all_non_void (triples_from)

after defining a function

all_non_void (l: LIST [T]): BOOLEAN                                    — [4]
                         — Are all the elements of `l’, if any, non-void?
          local
pos: INTEGER
do
from
pos := l.index
l.start
Result := True
until not Result or l.after loop
l.forth
end
go_ith (pos)
end

The road traveled from [4] to [1] is staggering. As we introduced new notations in the history of Eiffel the reaction of the user community has sometimes been between cautious and negative. With the exception of a couple of quickly discarded ideas (such as the infamous and short-lived “!!” for creation), they were generally adopted widely because they simplify people’s life without adding undue complexity to the language. The key has been to avoid featurism and choose instead to provide two kinds of innovation:

  • Major conceptual additions, which elevate the level of abstraction of the language. A typical introduction was the introduction of agents, which provide the full power of functional programming in an object-oriented context; another was the SCOOP concurrency mechanism. There have been only a few such extensions, all essential.
  • Syntactical variants for existing concepts, allowing more concise forms obtained from traditional mathematical notation. The use of quantifier expressions as in [1] is the latest example.

Complaints of featurism still occasionally happen when people first encounter the new facilities, but they fade away quickly as people start using them. After writing a few expressions such as [1], no one wants to go back to any of the other forms.

These quantifier expressions using and , as well as the “” not-equal sign for what used to be (and still commonly is) written “/=”, rely on Unicode. Eiffel started out when ASCII was the law of the land. (Or 8-bit extended ASCII, which does not help much since the extensions are rendered differently in different locales, i.e. the same 8-bit character code may mean something different on French and Swedish texts.) In recent years, Eiffel has made a quiet transition to full Unicode support. (Such support extends to manifest strings and operators, not to identifiers. The decision, which could be revisited, has been to keep the ASCII-only  policy for identifiers to favor compatible use by programmers regardless of their mother tongues.) The use of Unicode considerably extends the expressive power of the language, in particular for scientific software which can — thanks to Eiffel’s mechanism for defining free operators — rely on advanced mathematical notations.

Unicode is great, but I hear the question: how in the world can we enter the corresponding symbols, since our keyboards are still ASCII plus some extensions?

It would be tedious to have to select from a list of special symbols (as you do when inserting a mathematical symbol in Microsoft Word or, for that matter, as I did when inserting the phrase “ and ” in the preceding paragraph using WordPress).

The answer lies in the interplay between the language and the development environment. EiffelStudio, like other modern IDEs, includes an automatic completion mechanism which lets you enter the beginning of a construct and will take care of filling in the rest. Already useful for complex structures (if you type “if” the tools will create the entire “if then else end” conditional structure for you to fill in), automatic completion will take care of inserting the appropriate Unicode symbols for you. Type for example “across”,  then CTRL-Space to trigger completion, and the choices will include the “∀” and “” forms. You can see below how this works:

across_all

Programming languages can be at the same time simple, easy to learn, consistent, and expressive. Start using quantifiers now!

Acknowledgments to the Ecma Technical Committee on Eiffel and the Eiffel Software team, particularly Alexander Kogtenkov (see his blog post here) and (for the completion mechanism and its animated illustration above) Jocelyn Fiat.

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Questionnaire on deployed, formally verified systems

A group of us is preparing a survey on systems that have been both formally verified and deployed for actual use. To make sure we do not forget any important development, we have devised a questionnaire. If you have experience with such a system, please help by filling the questionnaire. It only includes a few questions and takes a few minutes to fill. You can find it here.

Please also bring it to the attention of others who might have relevant information.

Thanks in advance!

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New video lecture: distances, invariants and recursion

I have started a new series of video lectures, which I call “Meyer’s Object-Oriented Classes” (MOOC). The goal is to share insights I have gained over the years on various aspects of programming and software engineering. Many presentations are focused on one area, such as coding, design, analysis, theoretical computer science (even there you find a division between “Theory A”, i.e. complexity, Turing machines and the like, and “Theory B”, i.e. semantics, type theory etc.), software project management, concurrency… I have an interest in all and try to explain connections.

 

The first lecture describes the edit distance (Levenshtein) algorithm, explains its correctness by introducing the loop invariant, expands on that notion, then shows a recursive version, explores the connection with the original version (it’s the invariant), and probes further into another view of recursive computations, leading to the concept of dynamic programming.

The videos are on YouTube and can be accessed from bertrandmeyer.com/levenshtein. (The general page for all lectures is at bertrandmeyer.com/mooc.)

The lecture is recorded in four segments of about 15 minutes each. In the future I will limit myself to 8-10 minutes. In fact I may record this lecture again; for example it would be better if I had a live audience rather than talking to my screen, and in general the recording is somewhat low-tech, but circumstances command. Also, I will correct a few hiccups (at some point in the recording I notice a typo on a slide and fix it on the fly), but the content will remain the same.

Feedback is of course welcome. I hope to record about a lecture a week from now on.

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Fan mail

Received this today from a heretofore unknown correspondent (I don’t often check Facebook Messenger but just happened to). Name removed (I am not sure he would want me to identify him), text translated from another language into English.

Hello, thanks for your book “Object-Oriented Software Construction” [read in a translation]. I read it after a horrible failure of a project on which I was a consultant. Another consultant was my technical leader. He was truly insufferable but I appreciated him for one reason: his code! I had never seen such “beautiful” program code; he was using principles of genericity, dynamic binding and others, which were totally unknown to me after the lousy programming education I had received. He had insulted me, telling me that I was no developer at all; I was deeply offended since I could feel that he was right. In spite of his unbearable personality I wanted to learn at his side, but he was far too selfish, seeing me just as a competitor, even if a pathetic one. He had a book on the side of his desk… and it’s that book that enabled me to understand where he had learned all those OO design methods. That book, obviously, was yours, and I acquired a copy for myself. I sincerely think that it should be used as textbook in educational institutions. And I really wanted to thank you for writing it. I hope to become a real developer thanks to you. So, thank you.

Note 1: Thanks to you.

Note 2: There is also the intro programming text, Touch of Class (Amazon page).

Note 3 (to my fan club): You are welcome to take advantage of the ideas and there is actually no compelling requirement to be, in addition, “insufferable”.

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Why we love computers and software

A 1949 book I just bought* has the following printer’s label, hand-glued on the title page:

printer_note

Because of a change in pagination, you will need to add the digit 9 [actually, the number, not the digit] to references to page numbers between 1 and 114, and the digit 8 to those between 116 and the end of the volume.

Examples: The reference that says “see page 92” should be read as “see page 101”
The reference that says “ see page 150” should be read as “see page 158”

*Précis d’histoire de la langue et du vocabulaire français (handbook of the history of French language and vocabulary) by Albert Dauzat, Larousse, Paris, 1949.

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L’appel du 19 juin

Vous souvenez-vous de ce discours ?

Françaises, Français, mes chers compatriotes,

Je voulais vous parler hier mais on m’a dit que l’expression  “appel du 18 juin” était déjà prise et j’ai décidé d’attendre jusqu’aujourd’hui, 19 juin 2020. Un jour ne devrait pas faire une grande différence.

Mon message à toutes et à tous est simple :

Ne partez pas en vacances cette année.

Je sais, c’est dur. Pour les Français, les vacances sont sacrées depuis 1936. Toute l’année vous parlez essentiellement des dernières et des prochaines vacances. Mais cette fois-ci ce n’est vraiment pas le moment. Même si vous ne partez pas à l’étranger, avec la meilleure volonté du monde vous allez quand même vous entasser sur les plages et dans les hôtels. Vous essayerez le masque mais il suffit de se promener dans la rue pour voir combien sont au-dessous du nez ou au-dessus de la bouche ou les deux, ne servant strictement à rien.

Si nous partons comme tous les ans, imaginez la situation qui s’ensuivra inéluctablement. Projetez-vous quelques mois en avant ; le 28 octobre, pour choisir une date au hasard. Êtes-vous prêts pour 35 000 cas et 240 décès par jour, en croissance sans fin prévisible ? Pour un retour de l’engorgement des hôpitaux ? Pour — j’hésite à prononcer le mot honni ! — un nouveau reconfinement, celui que nous avions promis d’éviter mais qui serait devenu inévitable ? Et tout ce qui en découle — faillites, licenciements, séparations ? Sans même mentionner des fêtes de fin d’année sinistres sans la moindre lumière au bout du tunnel.

Non, j’en suis sûr, tout cela est impensable et n’est pas ce que vous voulez.

Alors, sacrifiez vos vacances cette année pour ne pas avoir à sacrifier bien plus les mois et les années qui suivront. Restez chez vous. Économisez votre argent, ne serait-ce que pour vous offrir d’excellentes vacances l’année prochaine. Lisez des livres, regardez des films, faites votre gymnastique, mais évitez déplacements et rencontres. Arrêtons-nous pour mieux rebondir ensuite. Si vous travaillez dans le tourisme, la passe sera difficile, et l’État vous aidera, mais céder à la facilité ne ferait que rendre vos perspectives pires encore.

En ces derniers jours de printemps, où tout semble vous sourire, vous n’en avez peut-être pas entièrement conscience encore, mais bientôt la bise sera venue : ne risquez pas, pour le bref plaisir d’un bel été, un automne et un hiver pires que ce que notre époque a jamais connu.

Pas de départ en vacances à l’été 2020.

Pour ma part, je ne m’en souviens pas.

D’autant plus qu’il n’a jamais été prononcé.

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Things to do to an algorithm

What can you do to or with an algorithm? In other words, what is a good verb to substitute for the hyphen in   “— the algorithm”?

You can learn an algorithm. Discovering classical algorithms is a large part of the Bildungsroman of a computer scientist. Sorting algorithms, graph algorithms, parsing algorithms, numerical algorithms, matrix algorithms, graphical algorithms…

You can teach an algorithm. Whether a professor or just a team leader, you explain to others why the obvious solution is not always the right one. As when  I saw that someone had implemented the traversal part of a garbage collection scheme (the “mark” of mark-and-sweep) using a recursive algorithm. Recursion is a great tool, but not here: it needs a stack of unpredictable size, and garbage collection, which you trigger when you run out of space, is not precisely the moment to start wildly allocating memory. In comes the Deutsch-Schorr-Waite algorithm, which improbably (as if tightrope-walking) subverts the structure itself to find its way forth and back.

To teach it, you can dance an algorithm. Sounds strange, but Informatics Europe gave its 2013 education award to the “AlgoRhythmics” group from at Sapientia University in Romania, which  demonstrates algorithms using central-European dances; see their rendering of Merge Sort:

(Their page has more examples. I see that recently they expanded to other kinds of dance and will let you discover binary search as flamenco and backtracking as classical ballet.) More generally you can simulate or animate an algorithm.

You can admire an algorithm. Many indeed are a source of wonder. The inner beauty of topological sort, Levenshtein or AVL can leave no one indifferent.

You can improve an algorithm. At least you can try.

You can invent an algorithm. Small or large, ambitious or mundane, but not imagined yet by anyone. Devising a new algorithm is a sort of rite of passage in our profession. If it does prove elegant, useful and elegant, you’ll get a real kick (trust me). Then you can publish the algorithm.

You can prove an algorithm, that is to say, mathematically establish its correctness. It is indeed increasingly unreasonable to publish an algorithm without correctness arguments. Maybe I have an excuse here to advertize for an an article that examines important algorithms across a wide variety of fields and showcases their main claim to correctness: their loop invariants.

You can implement an algorithm. That is much of what we do in software engineering, even if as an OO guy I would immediately add “as part of the associated data structure.

Of late, algorithms have come to be associated with yet another verb; one that I would definitely not have envisioned when first learning about algorithms in Knuth (the book) and from Knuth (the man who most certainly does not use foul language).

You can fuck an algorithm.

Thousands of British students marched recently to that slogan:

They were demonstrating against a formula (the Guardian gives the details) that decided on university admissions. The starting point for these events was a ministerial decision to select students not from their grades at exams (“A-level”), which could not take place because of Covid, but instead from their assessed performance in their schools. So far so good but the authorities decided to calibrate these results with parameters deduced from each school’s past performance. Your grade is no longer your grade: if Jill and Joan both got a B, but Jill’s school has been better at getting students into (say) Oxford in the past, then Jill’s B is worth more than Joan’s B.

The outcry was easy to predict, or should have been for a more savvy government. Students want to be judged by their own performance, not by the results of some other students they do not even know. Arguments that the sole concern was a legimitate one (an effort to compensate for possible grade inflation in some schools) ceased to be credible when it came out that on average the algorithm boosted grades from private schools by 4.7. No theoretical justification was going to be of much comfort anyway to the many students who had been admitted to the universities of their dreams on the basis of their raw grades, and after the adjustment found themselves rejected.

In the end, “Fuck the Algorithm!” worked. The government withdrew the whole scheme; it tried to lay the blame for the fiasco on the regulatory authority (Ofqual), fooling no one.

These U.K. events of August 2020 will mark a turning point in the relationship between computer science and society. Not for the revelation that our technical choices have human consequences; that is old news, even if we often pretend to ignore it. Not for the use of Information Technology as an excuse; it is as old (“Sorry, the computer does not allow that!”) as IT itself. What “Fuck the Algorithm!” highlights is the massive danger of the current rush to apply machine learning to everything.

As long as we are talking marketing campaigns (“customers who bought the product you just ordered also bought …”) or image recognition, the admiring mood remains appropriate. But now, ever more often, machine learning (usually presented as “Artificial Intelligence” to sound more impressive) gets applied to decisions affecting human lives. In the US, for example, machine-learning algorithms increasingly help judges make decisions, or make the decisions themselves. Following this slippery path is crazy and unethical. It is also dangerous, as the U.K. students’ reaction indicates.

Machine learning does what the name indicates: it reproduces and generalizes the dominant behaviors of the past. The algorithms have no notion of right and wrong; they just learn. When they affect societal issues, the potential for societal disaster is everywhere.

Amid all the enthusiasm generated by the elegant techniques invented by machine-learning pioneers over the last two decades, one barely encounters any serious reservation. Codes of ethics (from ACM and others) have little to contribute.

We should be careful, though. Either we get our act together and define exacting controls on the use of machine learning for matters affecting people’s fates, or we will see a massive rejection of algorithmic technology, the right parts along with the wrong ones.

The British students of the year 2020’s weird summer will not be the last ones to tell us to fuck the algorithm.

This article was first published in the Communications of the ACM blog.Recycled

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A novel concept for success in science

No one seems until now [1] to have identified a key element of any scientific article being submitted or revised for publication. It is guaranteed to increase, if not the quality of your articles, at least their chances of publication, which after all is what counts.

We are told to include a “related work” section, but just as important is the unrelated work section. For example:

Unrelated work

The following publications have no attested  relevance to the topic of this paper but, as pointed out by an anonymous reviewer [2], they are breathtakingly brilliant: [Meyer 1997], [Meyer 2005], [Meyer et al. 2009], [Al et Meyer 2011]. In addition, having taken a look at the composition of the Editorial Board,  we would like to point out the pioneering results introduced by [Meyer 2017] and [Meyer 2019].

This insight is shared with the sole selfless purpose of helping the community, particularly young and aspiring researchers.

Notes

[1] I did find a 2018 Twitter thread started by Arvind Narayanan, with the insightful (if dejected) observation that “`related work’ sections exclusively cite unrelated work”.

[2] Example only, for the sake of an example, since for my part I actually refuse to be an anonymous reviewer; I always sign my reviews, so if I want to tell the authors “I think you should cite my such-and-such paper here” I can do so without any qualms.

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New master program at SIT: Webinar tomorrow

The Schaffhausen Institute of Technology (SIT) is holding a Webinar tomorrow with a set of three talks by: Serguei Beloussov, founder of Acronis and president of SIT; Michael Widenius, CTO of MariaDB and creator of MySQL Server; and Mauro Pezzè, my colleague at SIT, who will present the new master program that we have just announced, combining CS/SE topics with management and marketing courses to train future technology leaders.

The talks are in the form of a Webinar, starting at 9 AM this Tuesday (9 June). You can find all the details on the corresponding SIT page at here.

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PhD and postdoc positions in verification in Switzerland

My group, the Chair of Software Engineering, at the newly created Schaffhausen Institute of Technology has open positions for both PhD students and postdocs. We are looking for candidates with a passion for reliable software and a mix of theoretical knowledge and practical experience in software engineering. Candidates should have degrees in computer science or related fields: a doctorate for postdoc positions, a master’s degree for PhD positions. Postdoc candidates should have a substantial publication record. Experience in one or more of the following fields is a plus:

  • Software verification (axiomatic, model-checking, abstract interpretation etc.).
  • Advanced techniques of software testing.
  • Formal methods, semantics of programming languages, type theory.
  • Design by Contract, Eiffel, techniques of correctness-by-construction.
  • Cybersecurity.

 Compensation at both levels is attractive. The PhD program is conducted in cooperation with partner universities. 

 Interested candidates should send a CV and relevant documents or links to bm@sit.org. They are also welcome to contact me for details.

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Which one is better? Please answer this poll

I recently read the autobiography [1] of the great mathematician André Weil and came across the following comment (slightly abridged):

 

Any mathematician worthy of the name has known such states of lucid exaltation, when ideas magically fall into place. Poincaré, in a famous passage, described how he experienced such a moment when he discovered fuchsian functions. Of these states, Gauss reportedly said procreare jucundum (to procreate is a pleasure), while adding: sed parturire molestum (but giving birth is a pain). Unlike sexual pleasure, this one can last hours or even days. Whoever has experienced it wants to renew it, but is impotent to provoke it, except at best through obstinate work, of which it then appears as the reward.

 

This penetrating observation (if I may use the expression) brings a new perspective to the 18th-century French song famously revived by Joan Baez:

 

“The joy of love lasts but an instant”, it says,  “the pain of love lasts a lifetime” (plaisir d’amour ne dure qu’un moment, chagrin d’amour dure toute la vie). Clearly, the second part of the verse contains an error: “chagrin d’amour” (the pain of love) must have been a transcription mistake for “comprendre la démonstration par Paul Cohen de l’indépendance de l’hypothèse du continu” (understanding Paul Cohen’s proof of the independence of the continuum hypothesis, which unlike most pains of love does take a lifetime, or two). It is not hard how the confusion could have arisen, as both sound French.

Still, Weil’s observation, if true, is worrying. As everyone can witness almost daily, mathematical ability in humankind is progressing by leaps and bounds. Does this trend portend bad news (echoes of Tolstoi’s Kreutzer Sonata) for our collective reproductive future?

A grave question indeed. To help address it, I have started a scientific poll, which you will find here. The question it asks is of the utmost importance: do you prefer sex or math? To preserve the integrity of the study, please note that by answering the poll you are declaring that you have engaged in both sex and math, although not necessarily at the same time.

As soon as I get the research grant for which I have applied, I will submit the results to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Reference

[1] André Weil, Souvenirs d’Apprentissage, Birkhäuser, Boston, 1991. English translation: The Apprenticeship of a Mathematician, Springer, 1992.

 

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The fool wants nothing

Another completely unexpected gem from the Viaje de Turquia (see the previous article on this blog): a 16-th century statement of the Dunning-Kruger effect!

An effect, of course, which has never been more visible than today (just watch the news).

Against Pedro, who narrates his travels and travails, the dialog sets two other characters, friends from his youth. They serve both as foils for Pedro, enabling his cleverness to shine — they are themselves not the brightest candles on the cake —, and as the embodiment of conventional wisdom. He occasionally gets really impatient with them, although always friendly, and at some point cites this ditty that he remembers from his youth in Spain:

 

Blind people want to see,

The deaf man wants to hear,

The fat man wants to slim,

The lame man wants to run.

For the fool there is no remedy:

Since he fancies that he knows,

He does not care to learn more.

Wow!

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A retort that we could use

At this gloomy moment it is good to find a gem in an unexpected place.

I am reading (in translation) the Viaje de Turquia, or Turkish Voyage — literaly, Voyage of Turkey — a 16th-century epic dialog, whose authorship is disputed. It is a precious source of information on the period and rings throughout like a true story. The hero, Pedro, tells of his time as a prisoner of war of the Turks and the ignominies he had to suffer for years. He is a doctor, if a self-taught one, and has cured many members of the Pasha’s entourage, but at some point the Pasha, out of spite, sends him back to the harshest form of manual labor. One of his former patients, rich and high-ranked, spots him, the intellectual struggling to move heavy materials in the dirt and under the whip, and mocks him:

Hey, all the philosophy of Aristotle and Plato, all the medical science of Galen, all the eloquence of Cicero and Demosthenes, how have they helped you?

To which Pedro, having put his sack on his shoulder and wiped the tears caused by this pique, answers, looking him straight in the eye:

They have helped me live through days like this one.

Pretty good, I thought. Not just the sense of repartee, but the sentiment itself (echoing by the comments of many a mistreated intellectual in later ages including ours).

Not only that, but it worked, at least for a while. So astounded was the persecutor by the retort, that he took Pedro’s sack to carry it himself, and convinced the Pasha to relieve Pedro from hard work and give him money.

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How to protect from the coronavirus

In the current state of the pandemic and for many more months until a vaccine is found, there is exactly one way to fight the coronavirus, protecting yourself and protecting others.

It is not a mask.

It is two masks. You wear a mask, I wear a mask.

Many people still believe that they can only get the virus if an infected person coughs or sneezes on them. This is a tragic myth. Droplets are carried by breath in conversation, by food particles from someone eating near you, or simply by air flowing your way.

Anyone today who goes out without wearing a mask is irresponsible (or suicidal, but that is not an excuse, since he harms others too). Your mask is not enough, though. I must wear one too.

Then we are safe from each other. Remember: we do not have definitive figures, but at least one carrier in five is asymptomatic.

Everything else (and I am not even considering quack solutions and unproven treatments) is pointless. Disinfectant (or better soap) helps, but as a complement. Gloves help medical professionals, who know how to use them properly, but for the general public they can do more harm than good: look at people in shops, once they have gloves they touch everything, moving the virus everywhere. Testing will be critical, of course, but here is another sobering statistics: while there are no false positives (if you test positive, you are infected), around 20% of negative tests are wrong (people have the virus, and it is not detected).

I know: in many places, including some the most technologically advanced nations on earth, there are no masks to be found. This may be the greatest scandal of the modern era. But in the meantime makeshift masks are an acceptable palliative. There are guides all over the web as to how to make them, and if nothing else is available a tightly bound scarf or equivalent, cleaned thoroughly and regularly, will do.

Wear a mask and tell others to do the same.

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Free tutoring for children

kidtutorsWe’re a group of cousins aged 8-14 who” got “the idea to help others, since we know we are not alone”. They are providing mostly free tutoring to other kids. Details here.

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Getting a program right, in nine episodes

About this article: it originated as a series of posts on the Communications of the ACM blog. I normally repost such articles here. (Even though copy-paste is usually not good, there are three reasons for this duplication: the readership seems to be largely disjoint; I can use better formatting, since their blog software is more restrictive than WordPress; and it is good to have a single repository for all my articles, including both those who originated on CACM and those who did not.) The series took the form of nine articles, where each of the first few ended with a quiz, to which the next one, published a couple of days later, provided an answer. Since all these answers are now available it would make no sense to use the same scheme, so I am instead publishing the whole thing as a single article  with nine sections, slightly adapted from the original.

I was too lazy so far to collect all the references into a single list, so numbers such as [1] refer to the list at the end of the corresponding section.


A colleague recently asked me to present a short overview of  axiomatic semantics as a guest lecture in one of his courses. I have been teaching courses on software verification for a long time (see e.g. here), so I have plenty of material; but instead of just reusing it, I decided to spend a bit of time on explaining why it is good to have a systematic approach to software verification. Here is the resulting tutorial.


 

1. Introduction and attempt #1

Say “software verification” to software professionals, or computer science students outside of a few elite departments, and most of them will think  “testing”. In a job interview, for example, show a loop-based algorithm to a programmer and ask “how would you verify it?”: most will start talking about devising clever test cases.

Far from me to berate testing [1]; in fact, I have always thought that the inevitable Dijkstra quote about testing — that it can only show the presence of errors, not their absence [2] — which everyone seems to take as an indictment and dismissal of testing (and which its author probably intended that way) is actually a fantastic advertisement for testing: a way to find bugs? Yes! Great! Where do I get it?  But that is not the same as verifying the software, which means attempting to ascertain that it has no bugs.

Until listeners realize that verification cannot just mean testing, the best course material on axiomatic semantics or other proof techniques will not attract any interest. In fact, there is somewhere a video of a talk by the great testing and public-speaking guru James Whittaker where he starts by telling his audience not to worry, this won’t be a standard boring lecture, he will not start talking about loop invariants [3]! (Loop invariants are coming in this article, in fact they are one of its central concepts, but in later sections only, so don’t bring the sleeping bags yet.) I decided to start my lecture by giving an example of what happens when you do not use proper verification. More than one example, in fact, as you will see.

A warning about this article: there is nothing new here. I am using an example from my 1990 book Introduction to the Theory of Programming Languages (exercise 9.12). Going even further back, a 1983 “Programming Pearls” Communications of the ACM article by Jon Bentley [4] addresses the same example with the same basic ideas. Yet almost forty years later these ideas are still not widely known among practitioners. So consider these articles as yet another tutorial on fundamental software engineering stuff.

The tutorial is a quiz. We start with a program text:

from

i := 1 ; j := n              — Result initialized to 0.

until i = j loop

m := (i + j) // 2         — Integer division

if t [m] ≤ x then i := m  else  j := m end

end

if x = t [i] then Result := i end

All variables are of integer type. t is an up-sorted array of integers, indexed from 1 to n . We do not let any notation get between friends. A loop from p until e loop q end executes p then, repeatedly: stops if e (the exit condition) is true, otherwise executes q. (Like {p ; while not e do {q}} in some other notations.) “:=” is assignment, “=” equality testing.  “//” is integer division, e.g. 6 //3 = 7 //3 = 2. Result is the name of a special variable whose final value will be returned by this computation (as part of a function, but we only look at the body). Result is automatically initialized to zero like all integer variables, so if execution does not assign anything to Result the function will return zero.

First question: what is this program trying to do?

OK, this is not the real quiz. I assume you know the answer: it is an attempt at “binary search”, which finds an element in the array, or determines its absence, in a sequence of about log2 (n) steps, rather than n if we were use sequential search.  (Remember we assume the array is sorted.) Result should give us a position where x appears in the array, if it does, and otherwise be zero.

Now for the real quiz: does this program meet this goal?

The answer should be either yes or no. (If no, I am not asking for a correct version, at least not yet, and in any case you can find some in the literature.) The situation is very non-symmetric, we might say Popperian:

  • To justify a no answer it suffices of a single example, a particular array t and a particular value x, for which the program fails to set Result as it should.
  • To justify a yes answer we need to provide a credible argument that for every t and  x the program sets Result as it should.

Notes to section 1

[1] The TAP conference series (Tests And Proofs), which Yuri Gurevich and I started, explores the complementarity between the two approaches.

[2] Dijkstra first published his observation in 1969. He did not need consider the case of infinite input sets: even for a trivial finite program that multiplies two 32-bit integers, the number of cases to be examined, 264, is beyond human reach. More so today with 64-bit integers. Looking at this from a 2020 perspective, we may note that exhaustive testing of a finite set of cases, which Dijkstra dismissed as impossible in practice, is in fact exactly what the respected model checking verification technique does; not on the original program, but on a simplified — abstracted — version precisely designed to keep the number of cases tractable. Dijkstra’s argument remains valid, of course, for  the original program if non-trivial. And model-checking does not get us out of the woods: while we are safe if its “testing” finds no bug, if it does find one we have to ensure that the bug is a property of the original program rather than an artifact of the abstraction process.

[3] It is somewhere on YouTube, although I cannot find it right now.

[4] Jon Bentley: Programming Pearls: Writing Correct Programs, in Communications of the ACM, vol. 26, no. 12, pp. 1040-1045, December 1983, available for example here.


2. Attempt #2

Was program #1 correct? If so it should yield the correct answer. (An answer is correct if either Result is the index in t of an element equal to x, or Result = 0 and x does not appear in t.)

This program is not correct. To prove that it is not correct it suffices of a single example (test case) for which the program does not  “yield the correct answer”. Assume x = 1 and the array t has two elements both equal to zero (n = 2, remember that arrays are indexed from 1):

t = [0   0]

The successive values of the variables and expressions are:

                                            m       i          j            i + j + 1

After initialization:                   1         2                3

i ≠ j, so enter loop:           1       1        2                 6         — First branch of “if” since t [1] ≤ x
— so i gets assigned the value of m

But then neither of the values of i and j has changed, so the loop will repeat its body identically (taking the first branch) forever. It is not even that the program yields an incorrect answer: it does not yield an answer at all!

Note (in reference to the famous Dijkstra quote mentioned in the first article), that while it is common to pit tests against proofs, a test can actually be a proof: a test that fails is a proof that the program is incorrect. As valid as the most complex mathematical proof. It may not be the kind of proof we like most (our customers tend to prefer a guarantee that the program is correct), but it is a proof all right.

We are now ready for the second attempt:

—  Program attempt #2.

from

i := 1 ; j := n

until i = j or Result > 0  loop

m := (i + j) // 2         — Integer division

if t [m] ≤ x then

i := m  + 1

elseif t [m] = x then

Result := m

else                         — In this case t [m] > x

j := m – 1

end

end

Unlike the previous one this version always changes i or j, so we may hope it does not loop forever. It has a nice symmetry between i and j.

Same question as before: does this program meet its goal?


3. Attempt #3

The question about program #2, as about program #1: was: it right?

Again no.  A trivial example disproves it: n = 1, the array t contains a single element t [1] = 0, x = 0. Then the initialization sets both i and j to 1, i = j holds on entry to the loop which stops immediately, but Result is zero whereas it should be 1 (the place where x appears).

Here now is attempt #3, let us see it if fares better:

—  Program attempt #3.

from

i := 1 ; j := n

until i = j loop

m := (i + j + 1) // 2

if t [m] ≤ x then

i := m  + 1

else

j := m

end

end

if 1  ≤ i  and i ≤ n then Result := i end
       — If not, Result remains 0.

What about this one?


3. Attempt #4 (also includes 3′)

The first two program attempts were wrong. What about the third?

I know, you have every right to be upset at me, but the answer is no once more.

Consider a two-element array t = [0 0] (so n = 2, remember that our arrays are indexed from 1 by convention) and a search value x = 1. The successive values of the variables and expressions are:

                                                  m          i          j            i + j + 1

After initialization:                            1        2           4

i ≠ j, so enter loop:               2           3        2          6                  — First branch of “if” since t [2] < x

i ≠ j,  enter loop again:        3           ⚠                                       — Out-of-bounds memory access!
— (trying to access non-existent t [3])

Oops!

Note that we could hope to get rid of the array overflow by initializing i to 0 rather than 1. This variant (version #3′) is left as a bonus question to the patient reader. (Hint: it is also not correct. Find a counter-example.)

OK, this has to end at some point. What about the following version (#4): is it right?

—  Program attempt #4.

from

i := 0 ; j := n + 1

until i = j loop

m := (i + j) // 2

if t [m] ≤ x then

i := m  + 1

else

j := m

end

end

if 1 ≤ i  and i ≤ n then Result := i end


5. Attempt #5

Yes, I know, this is dragging on. But that’s part of the idea: witnessing how hard it is to get a program right if you just judging by the seat of your pants. Maybe we can get it right this time?

Are we there yet? Is program attempt #4 finally correct?

Sorry to disappoint, but no. Consider a two-element array t = [0 0], so n = 2, and a search value x = 1 (yes, same counter-example as last time, although here we could also use x = 0). The successive values of the variables and expressions are:

                                                 m          i          j            i + j

After initialization:                           0        3           3

i ≠ j, so enter loop:               1           2       3          5            — First branch of “if

i ≠ j, enter loop again:         2         3        3         6            — First branch again

i = j, exit loop

The condition of the final “if” is true, so Result gets the value 3. This is quite wrong, since there is no element at position 3, and in any case x does not appear in t.

But we are so close! Something like this should work, should it not?

So patience, patience, let us tweak it just one trifle more, OK?

—  Program attempt #5.

from

i := 0 ; j := n

until i ≥ j or Result > 0 loop

m := (i + j) // 2

if t [m] < x then

i := m + 1

elseif  t [m] > x then

j := m

else

Result := m

end

end

Does it work now?


6. Attempt #6

The question about program #5  was the same as before: is it right, is it wrong?

Well, I know you are growing more upset at me with each section, but the answer is still that this program is wrong. But the way it is wrong is somewhat specific; and it applies, in fact, to all previous variants as well.

This particular wrongness (fancy word for “bug”) has a history. As I pointed out in the first article, there is a long tradition of using binary search to illustrate software correctness issues. A number of versions were published and proved correct, including one in the justly admired Programming Pearls series by Jon Bentley. Then in 2006 Joshua Bloch, then at Google, published a now legendary blog article [2] which showed that all these versions suffered from a major flaw: to obtain m, the approximate mid-point between i and j, they compute

(i + j) // 2

which, working on computer integers rather than mathematical integers, might overflow! This in a situation in which both i and j, and hence m as well, are well within the range of the computer’s representable integers, 2-n to 2n (give or take 1) where n is typically 31 or, these days, 63, so that there is no conceptual justification for the overflow.

In the specification that I have used for this article, i starts at 1, so the problem will only arise for an array that occupies half of the memory or more, which is a rather extreme case (but still should be handled properly). In the general case, it is often useful to use arrays with arbitrary bounds (as in Eiffel), so we can have even a small array, with high indices, for which the computation will produce an overflow and bad results.

The Bloch gotcha is a stark reminder that in considering the correctness of programs we must include all relevant aspects and consider programs as they are executed on a real computer, not as we wish they were executed in an ideal model world.

(Note that Jon Bentley alluded to this requirement in his original article: while he did not explicitly mention integer overflow, he felt it necessary to complement his proof by the comment that that  “As laborious as our proof of binary search was, it is still unfinished by some standards. How would you prove that the program is free of runtime errors (such as division by zero, word overflow, or array indices out of bounds)?” Prescient words!)

It is easy to correct the potential arithmetic overflow bug: instead of (i + j) // 2, Bloch suggested we compute the average as

i + (j – i) // 2

which is the same from a mathematician’s viewpoint, and indeed will compute the same value if both variants compute one, but will not overflow if both i and j are within range.

So we are ready for version 6, which is the same as version 5 save for that single change:

—  Program attempt #6.

from

i := 0 ; j := n

until i ≥ j or Result > 0 loop

m := i + (j – i) // 2

if t [m] < x then

i := m + 1

elseif  t [m] > x then

j := m

else

Result := m

end

end

Now is probably the right time to recall the words by which Donald Knuth introduces binary search in the original 1973 tome on Sorting and Searching of his seminal book series The Art of Computer Programming:knuth

Although the basic idea of binary search is comparatively straightforward, the details can be somewhat tricky, and many good programmers have done it wrong the first few times they tried.

Do you need more convincing? Be careful what you answer, I have more variants up my sleeve and can come up with many more almost-right-but-actually-wrong program attempts if you nudge me. But OK, even the best things have an end. This is not the last section yet, but that was the last program attempt. To the naturally following next question in this running quiz,  “is version 6 right or wrong”, I can provide the answer: it is, to the best of my knowledge, a correct program. Yes! [3].

But the quiz continues. Since answers to the previous questions were all  that the programs were not correct, it sufficed in each case to find one case for which the program did not behave as expected. Our next question is of a different nature: can you find an argument why version #6 is correct?

References for section 6

[1] (In particular) Jon Bentley: Programming Pearls — Writing Correct Programs, in Communications of the ACM, vol. 26, no. 12, December 1983, pages 1040-1045, available here.

[2] Joshua Bloch: Extra, Extra — Read All About It: Nearly All Binary Searches and Mergesorts are Broken, blog post, on the Google AI Blog, 2 June 2006, available here.

[3] A caveat: the program is correct barring any typos or copy-paste errors — I am starting from rigorously verified programs (see the next posts), but the blogging system’s UI and text processing facilities are not the best possible for entering precise technical text such as code. However carefully I check, I cannot rule out a clerical mistake, which of course would be corrected as soon as it is identified.


7. Using a program prover

Preceding sections presented candidate binary search algorithms and asked whether they are correct. “Correct” means something quite precise: that for an array t and a value x, the final value of the variable Result is a valid index of t (that is to say, is between 1 and n, the size of t) if and only if x appears at that index in t.

The last section boldly stated that program attempt #6 was correct. The question was: why?

In the case of the preceding versions, which were incorrect, you could prove that property, and I do mean prove, simply by exhibiting a single counter-example: a single t and x for which the program does not correctly set Result. Now that I asserting the program to be correct, one example, or a million examples, do not suffice. In fact they are almost irrelevant. Test as much as you like and get correct results every time, you cannot get rid of the gnawing fear that if you had just tested one more time after the millionth test you would have produced a failure. Since the set of possible tests is infinite there is no solution in sight [1].

We need a proof.

I am going to explain that proof in the next section, but before that I would like to give you an opportunity to look at the proof by yourself. I wrote in one of the earlier articles that most of what I have to say was already present in Jon Bentley’s 1983 Programming Pearls contribution [2], but a dramatic change did occur in the four decades since: the appearance of automated proof system that can handle significant, realistic programs. One such system, AutoProof, was developed at the Chair of Software engineering at ETH Zurich [3] (key project members were Carlo Furia, Martin Nordio, Nadia Polikarpova and Julian Tschannen, with initial contributions by Bernd Schoeller) on the basis of the Boogie proof technology from Microsoft Research).

AutoProof is available for online use, and it turns out that one of the basic tutorial examples is binary search. You can go to the corresponding page and run the proof.

I am going to let you try this out (and, if you are curious, other online AutoProof examples as well) without too many explanations; those will come in the next section. Let me simply name the basic proof technique: loop invariant. A loop invariant is a property INV associated with a loop, such that:

  • A. After the loop’s initialization, INV will hold.
  • B. One execution of the loop’s body, if started with INV satisfied (and the loop’s exit condition not satisfied, otherwise we wouldn’t be executing the body!), satisfies INV again when it terminates.

This idea is of course the same as that of a proof by induction in mathematics: the initialization corresponds to the base step (proving that P (0) holds) and the body property to the induction step (proving that from P (n) follows P (n + 1). With a traditional induction proof we deduce that the property (P (n)) holds for all integers. For the loop, we deduce that when the loop finishes its execution:

  • The invariant still holds, since executing the loop means executing the initialization once then the loop body zero or more times.
  • And of course the exit condition also holds, since otherwise we would still be looping.

That is how we prove the correctness of a loop: the conjunction of the invariant and the exit condition must yield the property that we seek (in the example, the property, stated above of Result relative to t and x).

We also need to prove that the loop does terminate. This part involves another concept, the loop’s variant, which I will explain in the next section.

For the moment I will not say anything more and let you look at the AutoProof example page (again, you will find it here), run the verification, and read the invariant and other formal elements in the code.

To “run the verification” just click the Verify button on the page. Let me emphasize (and emphasize again and again and again) that clicking Verify will not run the code. There is no execution engine in AutoProof, and the verification does not use any test cases. It processes the text of the program as it appears on the page and below. It applies mathematical techniques to perform the proof; the core property to be proved is that the proposed loop invariant is indeed invariant (i.e. satisfies properties A and B above).

The program being proved on the AutoProof example page is version #6 from the last section, with different variable names. So far for brevity I have used short names such as i, j and m but the program on the AutoProof site applies good naming practices with variables called low, up, middle and the like. So here is that version again with the new variable names:

—  Program attempt #7  (identical to #6 with different variable names) .

from

low := 0 ; up := n

until low ≥ up or Result > 0 loop

middle := low + ((up – low) // 2)

if a [middle] < value then      — The array is now called a rather than t

low := middle + 1

elseif  a [middle] > value then

up := middle

else

Result := middle

end

end

This is exactly the algorithm text on the AutoProof page, the one that you are invited to let AutoProof verify for you. I wrote “algorithm text” rather than “program text” because the actual program text (in Eiffel) includes variant and invariant clauses which do not affect the program’s execution but make the proof possible.

Whether or not these concepts (invariant, variant, program proof) are completely new to you, do try the prover and take a look at the proof-supporting clauses. In the next article I will remove any remaining mystery.

Note and references for section 7

[1] Technically the set of possible [array, value] pairs is finite, but of a size defying human abilities. As I pointed out in the first section, the “model checking” and “abstract interpretation” verification techniques actually attempt to perform an exhaustive test anyway, after drastically reducing the size of the search space. That will be for some other article.

[2]  Jon Bentley: Programming Pearls: Writing Correct Programs, in Communications of the ACM, vol. 26, no. 12, pp. 1040-1045, December 1983, available for example here.

[3] The AutoProof page contains documentations and numerous article references.


8. Understanding the proof

The previous section invited you to run the verification on the AutoProof tutorial page dedicated to the example. AutoProof is an automated proof system for programs. This is just a matter of clicking  “Verify”, but more importantly, you should read the annotations added to the program text, particularly the loop invariant, which make the verification possible. (To avoid any confusion let me emphasize once more that clicking “Verify” does not run the program, and that no test cases are used; the effect is to run the verifier, which attempts to prove the correctness of the program by working solely on the program text.)

Here is the program text again, reverting for brevity to the shorter identifiers (the version on the AutoProof page has more expressive ones):

from

i := 0 ; j := n

until i ≥ j or Result > 0 loop

m := i + (j – i) // 2

if t [m] < x then

i := m + 1

elseif  t [m] > x then

j := m

else

Result := m

end

end

Let us now see what makes the proof possible. The key property is the loop invariant, which reads

A:   1  ≤ i  ≤ j  ≤ n + 1
B:   0  ≤ Result  ≤ n
C:   ∀ k: 1 .. i –1  |  t [k] < x
D:   ∀ k: j .. n  |  t [k] > x
E:    (Result > 0)   ⇒   (t [Result] = x)

The notation is slightly different on the Web page to adapt to the Eiffel language as it existed at the time it was produced; in today’s Eiffel you can write the invariant almost as shown above. Long live Unicode, allowing us to use symbols such as (obtained not by typing them but by using smart completion, e.g. you start typing “forall” and you can select the symbol that pops up), for  “implies” and many others

Remember that the invariant has to be established by the loop’s initialization and preserved by every iteration. The role of each of its clauses is as follows:

  • A: keep the indices in range.
  • B: keep the variable Result, whose final value will be returned by the function, in range.
  • C and D: eliminate index intervals in which we have determined that the sought value, x, does not appear. Before i, array values are smaller; starting at j, they are greater. So these two intervals, 1..i and j..n, cannot contain the sought value. The overall idea of the algorithm (and most other search algorithms) is to extend one of these two intervals, so as to narrow down the remaining part of 1..n where x may appear.
  • E: express that as soon as we find a positive (non-zero) Result, its value is an index in the array (see B) where x does appear.

Why is this invariant useful? The answer is that on exit it gives us what we want from the algorithm. The exit condition, recalled above, is

i ≥ j or Result > 0

Combined with the invariant, it tells us that on exit one of the following will hold:

  • Result > 0, but then because of E we know that x appears at position Result.
  • i < j, but then A,  C and D  imply that x does not appear anywhere in t. In that case it cannot be true that Result > 0, but then because of B Result must be zero.

What AutoProof proves, mechanically, is that under the function’s precondition (that the array is sorted):

  • The initialization ensures the invariant.
  • The loop body, assuming that the invariant is satisfied but the exit condition is not, ensures the loop invariant again after it executes.
  • The combination of the invariant and the exit condition ensures, as just explained, the postcondition of the function (the property that Result will either be positive and the index of an element equal to x, or zero with the guarantee that x appears nowhere in t).

Such a proof guarantees the correctness of the program if it terminates. We (and AutoProof) must prove separately that it does terminate. The technique is simple: find a “loop variant”, an integer quantity v  which remains non-negative throughout the loop (in other words, the loop invariant includes or implies v ≥ 0) and decreases on each iteration, so that the loop cannot continue executing forever. An obvious variant here is j – i + 1 (where the + 1 is needed because j – i may go down to -1 on the last iteration if x does not appear in the array). It reflects the informal idea of the algorithm: repeatedly decrease an interval i .. j – 1 (initially, 1 .. n) guaranteed to be such that x appears in t if and only if it appears at an index in that interval. At the end, either we already found x or the interval is empty, implying that x does not appear at all.

A great reference on variants and the techniques for proving program termination is a Communications of the ACM article of 2011: [3].

The variant gives an upper bound on the number of iterations that remain at any time. In sequential search, j – i + 1 would be our best bet; but for binary search it is easy to show that  log(j – i + 1) is also a variant, extending the proof of correctness with a proof of performance (the key goal of binary search being to ensure a logarithmic rather than linear execution time).

This example is, I hope, enough to highlight the crucial role of loop invariants and loop variants in reasoning about loops. How did we get the invariant? It looks like I pulled it out of a hat. But in fact if we go the other way round (as advocated in classic books [1] [2]) and develop the invariant and the loop together the process unfolds itself naturally and there is nothing mysterious about the invariant.

Here I cannot resist quoting (thirty years on!) from my own book Introduction to the Theory of Programming Languages [4]. It has a chapter on axiomatic semantics (also known as Hoare logic, the basis for the ideas used in this discussion), which I just made available: see here [5]. Its exercise 9.12 is the starting point for this series of articles. Here is how the book explains how to design the program and the invariant [6]:

In the general case [of search, binary or not] we aim for a loop body of the form

m := ‘‘Some value in 1.. n such that i ≤ m < j’’;

if t [m] ≤ x then

i := m + 1

else

j := m

end

It is essential to get all the details right (and easy to get some wrong):

  • The instruction must always decrease the variant j – i, by increasing i or decreasing j. If the the definition of m specified just m ≤ j rather than m < j, the second branch would not meet this goal.
  •  This does not transpose directly to i: requiring i < m < j would lead to an impossibility when j – i is equal to 1. So we accept i ≤ m but then we must take m + 1, not m, as the new value of i in the first branch.
  •  The conditional’s guards are tests on t [m], so m must always be in the interval 1 . . n. This follows from the clause 0 ≤ i ≤ j ≤ n + 1 which is part of the invariant.
  •  If this clause is satisfied, then m ≤ n and m > 0, so the conditional instruction indeed leaves this clause invariant.
  • You are invited to check that both branches of the conditional also preserve the rest of the invariant.
  • Any policy for choosing m is acceptable if it conforms to the above scheme. Two simple choices are i  and j – 1; they lead to variants of the sequential search algorithm [which the book discussed just before binary search].

For binary search, m will be roughly equal to the average of i and j.

“Roughly” because we need an integer, hence the // (integer division).

In the last section, I will reflect further on the lessons we can draw from this example, and the practical significance of the key concept of invariant.

References and notes for section 8

[1] E.W. Dijkstra: A Discipline of Programming, Prentice Hall, 1976.

[2] David Gries: The Science of Programming, Springer, 1989.

[3] Byron Cook, Andreas  Podelski and Andrey Rybalchenko: Proving program termination, in Communications of the ACM, vol. 54, no. 11, May 2011, pages 88-98, available here.

[4] Bertrand Meyer, Introduction to the Theory of Programming Languages, Prentice Hall, 1990. The book is out of print but can be found used, e.g. on Amazon. See the next entry for an electronic version of two chapters.

[5] Bertrand Meyer Axiomatic semantics, chapter 9 from [3], available here. Note that the PDF was reconstructed from an old text-processing system (troff); the figures could not be recreated and are missing. (One of these days I might have the patience of scanning them from a book copy and adding them. Unless someone wants to help.) I also put online, with the same caveat, chapter 2 on notations and mathematical basis: see here.

[6] Page 383 of [4] and [5]. The text is verbatim except a slight adaptation of the programming notation and a replacement of the variables: i in the book corresponds to i – 1 here, and j to j – 1. As a matter of fact I prefer the original conventions from the book (purely as a matter of taste, since the two are rigorously equivalent), but I changed here to the conventions of the program as it appears in the AutoProof page, with the obvious advantage that you can verify it mechanically. The text extract is otherwise exactly as in the 1990 book.

9. Lessons learned

What was this journey about?

We started with a succession of attempts that might have “felt right” but were in fact all wrong, each in its own way: giving the wrong answer in some cases, crashing (by trying to access an array outside of its index interval) in some cases, looping forever in some cases. Always “in some cases”,  evidencing the limits of testing, which can never guarantee that it exercises all the problem cases. A correct program is one that works in all cases. The final version was correct; you were able to prove its correctness with an online tool and then to understand (I hope) what lies behind that proof.

To show how to prove such correctness properties, I have referred throughout the series to publications from the 1990s (my own Introduction to The Theory of Programming Languages), the 1980s (Jon Bentley’s Programming Pearls columns, Gries’s Science of Programming), and even the 1970s (Dijkstra’s Discipline of Programming). I noted that the essence of my argument appeared in a different form in one of Bentley’s Communications articles. What is the same and what has changed?

The core concepts have been known for a long time and remain applicable: assertion, invariant, variant and a few others, although they are much better understood today thanks to decades of theoretical work to solidify the foundation. Termination also has a more satisfactory theory.

On the practical side, however, the progress has been momentous. Considerable engineering has gone into making sure that the techniques scaled up. At the time of Bentley’s article, binary search was typical of the kind of programs that could be proved correct, and the proof had to proceed manually. Today, we can tackle much bigger programs, and use tools to perform the verification.

Choosing binary search again as an example today has the obvious advantage that everyone can understand all the details, but should not be construed as representative of the state of the art. Today’s proof systems are far more sophisticated. Entire operating systems, for example, have been mechanically (that is to say, through a software tool) proved correct. In the AutoProof case, a major achievement was the proof of correctness [1] of an entire data structure (collections) library, EiffelBase 2. In that case, the challenge was not so much size (about 8,000 source lines of code), but the complexity of both:

  • The scope of the verification, involving the full range of mechanisms of a modern object-oriented programming language, with classes,  inheritance (single and multiple), polymorphism, dynamic binding, generics, exception handling etc.
  • The code itself, using sophisticated data structures and algorithms, involving in particular advanced pointer manipulations.

In both cases, progress has required advances on both the science and engineering sides. For example, the early work on program verification assumed a bare-bones programming language, with assignments, conditionals, loops, routines, and not much more. But real programs use many other constructs, growing ever richer as programming languages develop. To cover exception handling in AutoProof required both theoretical modeling of this construct (which appeared in [2]) and implementation work.

More generally, scaling up verification capabilities from the small examples of 30 years ago to the sophisticated software that can be verified today required the considerable effort of an entire community. AutoProof, for example, sits at the top of a tool stack relying on the Boogie environment from Microsoft Research, itself relying on the Z3 theorem prover. Many person-decades of work make the result possible.

tool_stack

Beyond the tools, the concepts are esssential. One of them, loop invariants, has been illustrated in the final version of our program. I noted in the first article the example of a well-known expert and speaker on testing who found no better way to announce that a video would not be boring than  “relax, we are not going to talk about loop invariants.” Funny perhaps, but unfair. Loop invariants are one of the most beautiful concepts of computer science. Not so surprisingly, because loop invariants are the application to programming of the concept of mathematical induction. According to the great mathematician Henri Poincaré, all of mathematics rests on induction; maybe he exaggerated, maybe not, but who would think of teaching mathematics without explaining induction? Teaching programming without explaining loop invariants is no better.

Below is an illustration (if you will accept my psychedelic diagram) of what a loop is about, as a problem-solving technique. Sometimes we can get the solution directly. Sometimes we identify several steps to the solution; then we use a sequence (A ; B; C). Sometimes we can find two (or more) different ways of solving the problem in different cases; then we use a conditional (if c then A else B end). And sometimes we can only get a solution by getting closer repeatedly, not necessarily knowing in advance how many times we will have to advance towards it; then, we use a loop.

loop_strategy

We identify an often large (i.e. very general) area where we know the solution will lie; we call that area the loop invariant. The solution or solutions (there may be more than one) will have to satisfy a certain condition; we call it the exit condition. From wherever we are, we shoot into the invariant region, using an appropriate operation; we call it the initialization. Then we execute as many times as needed (maybe zero if our first shot was lucky) an operation that gets us closer to that goal; we call it the loop body. To guarantee termination, we must have some kind of upper bound of the distance to the goal, decreasing each time discretely; we call it the loop variant.

This explanation is only an illustration, but I hope it makes the ideas intuitive. The key to a loop is its invariant. As the figure suggests, the invariant is always a generalization of the goal. For example, in binary search (and many other search algorithms, such as sequential search), our goal is to find a position where either x appears or, if it does not, we can be sure that it appears nowhere. The invariant says that we have an interval with the same properties (either x appears at a position belonging to that interval or, if it does not, it appears nowhere). It obviously includes the goal as a special case: if the interval has length 1, it defines a single position.

An invariant should be:

  1. Strong enough that we can devise an exit condition which in the end, combined with the invariant, gives us the goal we seek (a solution).
  2. Weak enough that we can devise an initialization that ensures it (by shooting into the yellow area) easily.
  3. Tuned so that we can devise a loop body that, from a state satifying the invariant, gets us to a new one that is closer to the goal.

In the example:

  1. The exit condition is simply that the interval’s length is 1. (Technically, that we have computed Result as the single interval element.) Then from the invariant and the exit condition, we get the goal we want.
  2. Initialization is easy, since we can just take the initial interval to be the whole index range of the array, which trivially satisfies the invariant.
  3. The loop body simply decreases the length of the interval (which can serve as loop variant to ensure termination). How we decrease the length depends on the search strategy; in sequential search, each iteration decreases the length by 1, correct although not fast, and binary search decreases it by about half.

The general scheme always applies. Every loop algorithm is characterized by an invariant. The invariant may be called the DNA of the algorithm.

To demonstrate the relevance of this principle, my colleagues Furia, Velder, and I published a survey paper [6] in ACM Computing Surveys describing the invariants of important algorithms in many areas of computer science, from search algorithms to sorting (all major algorithms), arithmetic (long integer addition, squaring), optimization and dynamic programming  (Knapsack, Levenshtein/Edit distance), computational geometry (rotating calipers), Web (Page Rank)… I find it pleasurable and rewarding to go deeper into the basis of loop algorithms and understand their invariants; like a geologist who does not stop at admiring the mountain, but gets to understand how it came to be.

Such techniques are inevitable if we want to get our programs right, the topic of this article. Even putting aside the Bloch average-computation overflow issue, I started with 5 program attempts, all kind of friendly-looking but wrong in different ways. I could have continued fiddling with the details, following my gut feeling to fix the flaws and running more and more tests. Such an approach can be reasonable in some cases (if you have an algorithm covering a well-known and small set of cases), but will not work for non-trivial algorithms.

Newcomers to the concept of loop invariant sometimes panic: “this is all fine, you gave me the invariants in your examples, how do I find my own invariants for my own loops?” I do not have a magic  recipe (nor does anyone else), but there is no reason to be scared. Once you have understood the concept and examined enough examples (just a few of those in [6] should be enough), writing the invariant at the same time as you are devising a loop will come as a second nature to you.

As the fumbling attempts in the first few sections should show, there is not much of an alternative. Try this approach. If you are reaching these final lines after reading what preceded them, allow me to thank you for your patience, and to hope that this rather long chain of reflections on verification will have brought you some new insights into the fascinating challenge of writing correct programs.

References

[1] Nadia Polikarpova, Julian Tschannen, and Carlo A. Furia: A Fully Verified Container Library, in Proceedings of 20th International Symposium on Formal Methods (FM 15), 2015. (Best paper award.)

[2] Martin Nordio, Cristiano Calcagno, Peter Müller and Bertrand Meyer: A Sound and Complete Program Logic for Eiffel, in Proceedings of TOOLS 2009 (Technology of Object-Oriented Languages and Systems), Zurich, June-July 2009, eds. M. Oriol and B. Meyer, Springer LNBIP 33, June 2009.

[3] Boogie page at MSR, see here for publications and other information.

[4] Z3 was also originally from MSR and has been open-sourced, one can get access to publications and other information from  its Wikipedia page.

[5] Carlo Furia, Bertrand Meyer and Sergey Velder: Loop invariants: Analysis, Classification and Examples, in ACM Computing Surveys, vol. 46, no. 3, February 2014. Available here.

[6] Dynamic programming is a form of recursion removal, turning a recursive algorithm into an iterative one by using techniques known as “memoization” and  “bottom-up computation” (Berry). In this transformation, the invariant plays a key role. I will try to write this up some day as it is a truly elegant and illuminating explanation.

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A little Schubertiade to brighten the gloom

For some time I have been nudging (yes, I am that kind of person) two young boys in my family, two cousins who are both learning the piano, to try Schubert’s delightful (and not very military) Marche Militaire together. With not much success until recently… but now they are stuck in their (neighboring) homes, and here is what comes out:

Click here

OK, not quite Horowitz and Rubinstein yet… (When the Carnegie Hall recital comes — will there ever be concerts at Carnegie Hall again? — I promise to post the announcement here with an offer for discounted tickets.) But I hope that in these trying times for all of us it brightens your day as it does not cease to brighten mine.

(Note added 21 March: there is already a complete and better rehearsed version — I have updated the above link to point to it.)

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Notations you didn’t even know you could use

Consider the following expression:

∃ c: s   ¦   moisture (c) = soft

This is obviously mathematics. To express such a property in a programming language, you have to write a function containing a loop that iterates through the elements of s. Right?

Wrong. The above construct is valid Eiffel. It’s a consequence of recent syntax extensions that retain all the simplicity and consistency of the language but take full advantage of Unicode. Of course you do not have Unicode characters such as on you keyboard, but EiffelStudio’s completion mechanism inserts them for you.

To see how this works, just read Alexander Kogtenkov’s recent blog post on the topic.

Note added 24 December 2020: you will find a longer exposition in a later article on this blog.

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Serious newspapers: now is the moment to unlock Coronavirus material, or incur eternal shame

In my last article, time to live up to the boasting, I pointed out how bewildering it is to see that top newspapers around the world, the supposed “papers of reference”, continue both to:

  • Extoll their grandiose proclamations of supposed devotion to public service.
  • Charge for access to the epidemic that is scaring the world.

In a meeting I recently attended, someone was saying that “the media has hyped the crisis”. About the mainstream media, this reproach is incorrect and unfair: articles have generally been measured and informative, explaining the situation and calling on experts.

But such solid content sits behind paywalls! Free sources, particularly on social networks, are where you find the hype, the crazy theories and the lies.

Rightly or wrongly, many people around the world are panicking. They need a serious source of information and they are not all able to pay for it, especially if it comes from many sources to which one must independently subscribe.

Newspaper owners, this is your moment of truth, or of eternal shame. Free Covid-19 content now and without restrictions until this crisis ends.

We are fed up with your self-professions of sanctity and want you to fulfill your elementary social duty. You should have started to do this weeks ago already.

It’s not even bad for business — it will attract new, grateful, supportive subscribers who will stay with you for a long time.

The simple, obvious, honest thing to do.

I, for one, pledge never in the future to give one cent, peso or kopeck in the future to any publication that continues its current selfish and abhorrent policy of charging for life-and-death information that the world craves and needs.

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Time to live up to the boasting

The decent media is not modest these days. “Democracy Dies in Darkness” says the excellent Washington Post, intimating, if I understand it right, that the only way for the US to avoid dictatorship is that I pay subscription fees. Maybe I would if they just stopped devoting every single one of their articles to King Ubu. La Repubblica tells us that it will “always fight for the defense of freeedom of information, for its readers and for all those who have in their hearts the principles of democracy and of civil coexistence.” Beautiful (and behind a paywall).

The epidemic expert Jonathan Quick, interviewed by the Guardian, had this remarkable observation, talking about Covid-19: news tends to be behind paywalls, while fake news is free. The Guardian is in a way the right place to make this comment, since it remains, admirably, free-access with voluntary subscription (and all the same does not seem to be doing too poorly). But everywhere else there has been no change of policy. Whether you are looking at the New York Times, the Washington Post, Le Monde, Le Figaro, Libération, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Tages Anzeiger (“Dieser Abo+ Artikel ist exklusiv für Abonnenten”), La Repubblica, La Stampa, the kind of reputable press organs to which we would naturally turn, all have their more in-depth analyses reserved for subscribers. (The Russian Vedomosti seems to be an exception.)

Granted, every company (except maybe the Washington Post, since I have a feeling I am ordering enough from Amazon already) is entitled to earn money. But not all companies claim that their business model is about saving the world. My dear self-praising press, if you are really as generously public-minded as you are, here is a good way to demonstrate it. People around the world are genuinely worried about the Coronavirus epidemic and eager for serious information, if only to counter rumors and conspiracy theories. They eagerly seek credible, validated information that has gone through professional vetting, but many of them cannot afford to subscribe to all the relevant sources.

A few days before and after major elections, outlets such as the NYT and Wapo generally make their political articles free-access. The current health scare is an even more serious occasion.

This is the time for all serious news media around the world to show that their grand declarations of philanthropy are not just words.

We, the readers, should vociferously demand that as a public service these press organs immediately make all Covid-19 news, reports and analyses free-access.

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In the scary land of irrational discourse

A chemistry researcher published a paper in Science with two junior collaborators and, a few months later, found flaws and retracted the article.

She commented “I am totally bummed to announce that we have retracted last year’s paper on enzymatic synthesis of beta-lactams” and “it is painful to admit, but important to do so” and “the work has not been reproducible” and I apologize to all” and  “I was a bit busy when this was submitted, and did not do my job well”.

Not very unusual news; this kind of thing happens all the time as part of the normal process of research and publication. (This just in! Scientists are human! They make mistakes once in a while! Full story at 11!)

Perhaps this one is slightly more worthy of notice because the lead author is a Nobel prize winner. Time for some rejoicing (Schadenfreude as it is called in good English)  for anyone who is not a Nobel prize winner: haha, you think you are so smart but you mess up too. It never hurts to have an occasional reminder that we should not deify anyone. But hardly prime-time news.

Well, it is  prime-time news for Fox News, which devotes a whole article to the matter. OK, I know, Fox News. And yes, it does pain me to include a hyperlink to a foxnews.com page in this otherwise perfectly decent, civilized, family-safe blog. But in fact that particular article is not by itself outrageous. Suspicious, yes: why such a sudden focus on a minor scientific episode in a news source not particularly famous (I hope you admire my gift for euphemism) for its extensive coverage of the frontlines of scientific research? But whatever its ultimate agenda the article itself is  factual, not judgmental.

What is striking is the avalanche of reader comments on that page. If you go and take a look at them, be prepared; put on your parka. Reading these comments will be, for many of us, a peek into a completely different world. A world that we vaguely know exists, but do not actually visit.

It is not a nice world to venture into: full of bile, frustration, resentment, jealousy, conspiracy theories, slander, attacks on anyone trying to take a rational approach to issues, with hardly a pleasant or optimistic note ever. It is not a world one wants to visit often, but reading such a page is an eye-opener for anyone who accepts the premises of rational thinking and might believe that they are universally accepted.

“Striking”, I wrote. Scary is a more apposite word. With the kind of nonsense-spouting and science-bashing that appears in countless messages in the comments section of the page, one can fear the worst regarding questions that face our society, for which rational, science-based advice is critical. (Yes, coronavirus, I am looking at you!)

Very few of the comments on the page says the obvious: it is not good to make errors, but errors will occur, and the scientist should be commended for checking further and coming out with the admission that her study had flaws. As far as we know the initiative came from her, spontaneously. It is one of the signs of the healthiness of science that we always question results. We question those of other people (there are plenty of sites, such as pubpeer and forbetterscience, entirely devoted to tracking and debunking flawed research). We also question our own: partly to avoid the humiliation of having someone else report one of our mistakes before we do; but also because of the good scientist’s natural search for intellectual honesty.

Most of the article commenters do not mention this key lesson of the incident; the Nobel prize winner’s integrity. For them, the article retraction demonstrates that… the entire edifice of science is flawed! For example:

She’s a liberal… I thought her being wrong was understood.

Now we need to find an honest Climate Change researcher to admit that their computer models are faulty and much of their “data” is fake.

Integrity! Now if the “scientists” who have fabricated Global Warming/ Climate Change, whatever, “research” would come forward with admissions about their flawed, fallacious “research” we would be golden.

Now if we could get the climate change “scientists” to do the same maybe some credibility could be restored to the field.

and so on ad nauseam. (Not a figure of style — reading these comments is truly nauseating.) In reality the retraction demonstrates, or rather illustrates (one example is not a demonstration), the reverse of these assertions: that the scientific process includes its own correction mechanisms. To use a computer scientist’s terminology, it is not fault-free (no scientist ever claimed anything like that) but fault-tolerant.

Of course the reason the Fox News crowd is suddenly so interested in science is not (one imagines) science per se but the science of climate change. Comment after comment uses the article, as illustrated by the above examples, to dismiss the scientific consensus on the reports of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In other words: the retraction of one three-author paper on beta-lactams proves that the the work of hundreds of scientists producing thousands of articles on climatology over several decades is flawed? The logic of such a deduction is… shaky.

The modern world is based, through technology, on science. To post on the Web their absurd rejections of scientifically established facts, the Fox News readers couldn’t do without relying on mobile phones, mobile networks, software systems, computers and other extraordinary achievements of human intelligence, the result of centuries of patient cumulative application of the same scientific principles and techniques that these posts ridicule. They are stuck in a pre-scientific mindset, dominated by the kind of magical thinking that the founders of modern thought had to overcome between the 16th and 18th century, as brilliantly analyzed by Gaston Bachelard’s Formation of the Scientific Mind.

Somehow they skipped what the rest of us learn in grade school (that two plus two equals four, cause precedes effect and so on). They are many, they vote, they  think they are right and the rest of the world is wrong, hold these beliefs very strongly (Dunning-Kruger effect), and put the world at risk.

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Getting your priorities right

In the restrooms of French freeway service stations managed by Total, the soap dispensers partake of pressing advice:

Not too much soap please

The message reads:

ONLY ONCE
Press for
clean hands
1X

Total wants to save on costs. Soap is money.

Fine. But on the matter of hand-washing one might (perhaps) think, in the current circumstances, of more urgent advice?

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Call for suggestions: beauty

On April 29 in the early evening at the Schaffhausen Institute of Technology I will give a talk on “The Beauty of Software”, exploring examples of what makes some concepts, algorithms, data structures etc. produce a sense of esthetics. (Full abstract below.) I gave a first version at TOOLS last year but am revising and expanding the talk extensively.

I obviously have my own examples but am interested in more. If you have some that you feel should be considered for inclusion, perhaps because you experienced a “Wow!” effect when you encountered them, please tell me. I am only asking for names or general pointers, not an in-depth analysis (that’s my job). To avoid having my thunder stolen I would prefer that you alert me by email. I will give credit for examples not previously considered.

Thanks!

Abstract of the talk as published:

Scientists often cite the search for beauty as one of their primary guiding forces. Programming and software engineering offer an inexhaustible source of astoundingly beautiful ideas, from strikingly elegant algorithms and data structures to powerful principles of methodology and language design.

Defining beauty is elusive, but true beauty imposes itself in such a way as to remove any doubt. Drawing comparisons from art, literature and other endeavours. He will show a sample of ideas from all walks of software, directly understandable to a wide audience of non-software-experts, offering practical applications in technology that we use daily, and awe-inspiring in their simplicity and elegance.

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An annoying practice from another age

When you want to contact academic researchers, particularly computer scientists, you often find their email addresses on their Web pages in a mildly obfuscated form such as “albert dot einstein at princeton dot edu”.

If you try to copy-paste such a pseudo-address into an email client so as to fix it there, you often have to spend some time fighting the email client’s knowledge of what an email address looks like. It can result in errors and bounced mail. Not the world’s worst scandal but an annoying waste of time.

An address written out in that form is a way for the page owner to announce to the cognoscenti: “I am a computer scientist and hence very knowledgeable about the ways of the Internet; I know that spammers run bots to harvest addresses. See how I defeat them.

So 1995!

Both spam and defenses against it are no longer what they were back then. Anyone who manages to use email effectively is protected, even without knowing it, by spam blockers, which have become quite good. (According to a specialized site, 14.5 billion spam emails are sent every day, so without these protections we would all be be drowning in spam, which for most people is not the case.)

As to any spam harvesters who are really interested in computer science researchers, they are most likely able anyway to write a little regular expression analyzer that captures the vast majority of the supposedly obfuscated addresses.

If you really want strangers to be able to email you without making your address visible to the spammers, and are a CS person, just include in your Web page a few lines of Javascript that, without revealing the email address in the HTML code, will display something like “Here is my email address”, in such a way that a visitor who clicks on Here gets a new-email window with your email address pre-filled. Not very hard — I use this trick on my own home page and am certainly not a Javascript expert.

But I suspect that  as long as you are prepared to let people email you, even just letting your email address appear in clear is not going to result in catastrophe. Your organization’s or ISP’s spam filter is protecting you.

Come on. This is 2020. Windows 95 and the OJ Simpson trial are no longer the news of the day.  Time to stop worrying about what no longer matters, and stop bothering people who are just trying to reach you.

Down with corny address obfuscation!

 

 

 

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LASER 2020 in Elba Island: DevOps, Microservices and more, first week of June

The page for the 2020 LASER summer school (31 May to 7 June) now has the basic elements (some additions still forthcoming) and registration at the early price is open. The topic is DevOps, Microservices and Software Development for the Age of the Web with both conceptual lectures and contributions from industry, by technology leaders from Amazon, Facebook and ServiceNow. The confirmed speakers are:

  • Fabio Casati, ServiceNow and University of Trento, and Kannan Govindarajan from ServiceNow on Taking AI from research to production – at scale.
  • Adrian Cockcroft, Amazon Web Services, on Building and Operating Modern Applications.
  • Elisabetta Di Nitto, Politecnico di Milano.
  • Valérie Issarny, INRIA, on The Web for the age of the IoT.
  • Erik Meijer, Facebook, on Software Development At Scale.
  • Me, on Software from beginning to end: a comprehensive method.

As always, the setup is the incomparable environment of the Hotel del Golfo in Procchio, Elba Island off the coast of Tuscany, ideal at that time of year (normally good weather, warm but not hot, few tourists). The school is intensive but there is time to enjoy the beach, the hotel’s amenities and the wonderful of environment of Elba (wake up your inner Napoleon). The school has a fairly small size and everyone lives under the same (beautiful) roof, so there is plenty of time for interaction with the speakers and other participants.

About these participants: the school is intended for engineers and managers in industry as well as researchers and PhD student. In fact it’s a mix that one doesn’t find that often, allowing for much cross-learning.

Another way to put it is that this is now the 16th edition of the school (it started in 2004 but we skipped one year), so it cannot be doing everything wrong.

 

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Two talks by Gilles Brassard in Zurich and Schaffhausen, this Wednesday

Gilles Brassard, quantum cryptography pioneer (among other achievements), will give two talks this Wednesday (22.01):

  • One at the University of Zurich, at 11:15 (session start at 10:30) on “The Art of Secret Communication in a Quantum World””.
  • The other at the Schaffhausen Institute of Technology at 18:30 (session start at 17:30, talks followed by Apéro) in Schaffhausen, with the title “What if Einstein was right after all? Once again…”.

 

In other words, morning talk more technical (quantum cryptography), evening talk more general.

Abstracts and other details at https://sit.org/insights, also registration (not required but recommended).

— Bertrand Meyer

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