Archive for October 2011

The story of our field, in a few short words


(With all dues to [1], but going up from four to five as it is good to be brief yet not curt.)

At the start there was Alan. He was the best of all: built the right math model (years ahead of the real thing in any shape, color or form); was able to prove that no one among us can know for sure if his or her loops — or their code as a whole — will ever stop; got to crack the Nazis’ codes; and in so doing kind of saved the world. Once the war was over he got to build his own CPUs, among the very first two or three of any sort. But after the Brits had used him, they hated him, let him down, broke him (for the sole crime that he was too gay for the time or at least for their taste), and soon he died.

There was Ed. Once upon a time he was Dutch, but one day he got on a plane and — voilà! — the next day he was a Texan. Yet he never got the twang. The first topic that had put him on  the map was the graph (how to find a path, as short as can be, from a start to a sink); he also wrote an Algol tool (the first I think to deal with all of Algol 60), and built an OS made of many a layer, which he named THE in honor of his alma mater [2]. He soon got known for his harsh views, spoke of the GOTO and its users in terms akin to libel, and wrote words, not at all kind, about BASIC and PL/I. All this he aired in the form of his famed “EWD”s, notes that he would xerox and send by post along the globe (there was no Web, no Net and no Email back then) to pals and foes alike. He could be kind, but often he stung. In work whose value will last more, he said that all we must care about is to prove our stuff right; or (to be more close to his own words) to build it so that it is sure to be right, and keep it so from start to end, the proof and the code going hand in hand. One of the keys, for him, was to use as a basis for ifs and loops the idea of a “guard”, which does imply that the very same code can in one case print a value A and in some other case print a value B, under the watch of an angel or a demon; but he said this does not have to be a cause for worry.

At about that time there was Wirth, whom some call Nick, and Hoare, whom all call Tony. (“Tony” is short for a list of no less than three long first names, which makes for a good quiz at a party of nerds — can you cite them all from rote?) Nick had a nice coda to Algol, which he named “W”; what came after Algol W was also much noted, but the onset of Unix and hence of C cast some shade over its later life. Tony too did much to help the field grow. Early on, he had shown a good way to sort an array real quick. Later he wrote that for every type of unit there must be an axiom or a rule, which gives it an exact sense and lets you know for sure what will hold after every run of your code. His fame also comes from work (based in part on Ed’s idea of the guard, noted above) on the topic of more than one run at once, a field that is very hot today as the law of Moore nears its end and every maker of chips has moved to  a mode where each wafer holds more than one — and often many — cores.

Dave (from the US, but then at work under the clime of the North) must not be left out of this list. In a paper pair, both from the same year and both much cited ever since,  he told the world that what we say about a piece of code must only be a part, often a very small part, of what we could say if we cared about every trait and every quirk. In other words, we must draw a clear line: on one side, what the rest of the code must know of that one piece; on the other, what it may avoid to know of it, and even not care about. Dave also spent much time to argue that our specs must not rely so much on logic, and more on a form of table.  In a later paper, short and sweet, he told us that it may not be so bad that you do not apply full rigor when you chart your road to code, as long as you can “fake” such rigor (his own word) after the fact.

Of UML, MDA and other such TLAs, the less be said, the more happy we all fare.

A big step came from the cold: not just one Norse but two, Ole-J (Dahl) and Kris, came up with the idea of the class; not just that, but all that makes the basis of what today we call “O-O”. For a long time few would heed their view, but then came Alan (Kay), Adele and their gang at PARC, who tied it all to the mouse and icons and menus and all the other cool stuff that makes up a good GUI. It still took a while, and a lot of hit and miss, but in the end O-O came to rule the world.

As to the math basis, it came in part from MIT — think Barb and John — and the idea, known as the ADT (not all TLAs are bad!), that a data type must be known at a high level, not from the nuts and bolts.

There also is a guy with a long first name (he hates it when they call him Bert) but a short last name. I feel a great urge to tell you all that he did, all that he does and all that he will do, but much of it uses long words that would seem hard to fit here; and he is, in any case, far too shy.

It is not all about code and we must not fail to note Barry (Boehm), Watts, Vic and all those to whom we owe that the human side (dear to Tom and Tim) also came to light. Barry has a great model that lets you find out, while it is not yet too late, how much your tasks will cost; its name fails me right now, but I think it is all in upper case.  At some point the agile guys — Kent (Beck) and so on — came in and said we had got it all wrong: we must work in pairs, set our goals to no more than a week away, stand up for a while at the start of each day (a feat known by the cool name of Scrum), and dump specs in favor of tests. Some of this, to be fair, is very much like what comes out of the less noble part of the male of the cow; but in truth not all of it is bad, and we must not yield to the urge to throw away the baby along with the water of the bath.

I could go on (and on, and on); who knows, I might even come back at some point and add to this. On the other hand I take it that by now you got the idea, and even on this last day of the week I have other work to do, so ciao.


[1] Al’s Famed Model Of the World, In Words Of Four Signs Or Fewer (not quite the exact title, but very close): find it on line here.

[2] If not quite his alma mater in the exact sense of the term, at least the place where he had a post at the time. (If we can trust this entry, his true alma mater would have been Leyde, but he did not stay long.)

VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: 10.0/10 (14 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: +11 (from 11 votes)

PhD position: concurrent programming (SCOOP) for robotics

The ETH Chair of Software Engineering has won a grant from the Hasler foundation, in a joint project with the Technical University of Lucerne and the Autonomous Systems Lab of ETH, to develop a robotics framework involving concurrent computation. The project, called Roboscoop,  will produce a demonstrator system: a “SmartWalker” robot — a robotic version of  “walkers” used by elderly people and others with reduced mobility. The research proposal is available [2].

One of the major goals of the Roboscoop framework is to provide robotics applications with the full possibilities of concurrent programming. Many robotics developments use no or little concurrency because of the tricky programming involved in using threads, and the difficulty of getting applications right. With SCOOP [1] programmers have a simple, high-level mechanism that removes the risk of data races and other plagues of concurrent programming.

We are looking for someone with a strong background in both software engineering and robotics. If you are interested, please see the position announcement [3].


[1] On SCOOP see here and here. See also a YouTube video of a small robot programmed with  SCOOP as part of an earlier student project (by Ganesh Ramanathan).

[2] Roboscoop research proposal, here.

[2] Position announcement: here

VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: 10.0/10 (4 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: +3 (from 3 votes)

The charming naïveté of an IEEE standard

The IEEE Standard for Requirements Specifications [1], a short and readable text providing concrete and useful advice, is a valuable guide for anyone writing requirements. In our course projects we always require students to follow its recommended structure.

Re-reading it recently, I noticed the following extract  in the section that argues that a  requirements specification should be verifiable (sentence labels in brackets are my addition):

[A] Nonverifiable requirements include statements such as “works well,” “good human interface,” and “shall usually happen.” [B] These requirements cannot be verified because it is impossible to define the terms “good,” “well,” or “usually.”

[C] The statement that “the program shall never enter an infinite loop” is nonverifiable because the testing of this quality is theoretically impossible.

[D] An example of a verifiable statement is
      [E] “Output of the program shall be produced within 20 s of event 60% of the time; and shall be produced within 30 s of event 100% of the time.”
[F] This statement can be verified because it uses concrete terms and measurable quantities.

[A] and [B] are good advice, deserving to be repeated in every software engineering course and to anyone writing requirements. [C], however, is puzzling.

One might initially understand that the authors are telling us that it is impossible to devise a finite set of tests guaranteeing that a program terminates. But on closer examination this cannot be what they mean. Such a statement, although correct, would be uninteresting since it can be applied to any functional requirement: if I say “the program shall accept an integer as input and print out that same integer on the output”, I also cannot test that (trivial) requirement finitely since I would have to try all integers. The same observation applies to the example given in [D, E, F]: the property [D] they laud as an example of a  “verifiable” requirement is just as impossible to test exhaustively [2].

Since the literal interpretation of [C] is trivial and applies to essentially all possible requirements, whether bad or good in the authors’ eyes, they must mean something else when they cite loop termination as their example of a nonverifiable requirement. The word “theoretically” suggests what they have in mind: the undecidability results of computation theory, specifically the undecidability of the Halting Problem. It is well known that no general mechanism exists to determine whether an arbitrary program, or even just an arbitrary loop, will terminate. This must be what they are referring to.

Except, of course, that they are wrong. And a very good thing too that they are wrong, since “The program shall never enter an infinite loop” is a pretty reasonable requirement for any system [3].

If we were to accept [C], we would also accept that it is OK for any program to enter an infinite loop every once in a while, because the authors of its requirements were not permitted to specify otherwise! Fortunately for users of software systems, this particular sentence of the standard is balderdash.

What the halting property states, of course, is that no general mechanism exists that could examine an arbitrary program or loop and tell us whether it will always terminate. This result in no way excludes the possibility of verifying (although not through “testing”) that a particular program or loop will terminate. If the text of a program shows that it will print “Hello World” and do nothing else, we can safely determine that it will terminate. If a loop is of the form

from i := 1 until i > 10 loop
…..print (i)
…..i := i + 1

there is also no doubt about its termination. More complex examples require the techniques of modern program verification, such as exhibiting a loop variant in the sense of Hoare logic, but they can still be practically tractable.

Like many fundamental results of modern science (think of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle), Turing’s demonstration of the undecidability of the Halting Problem is at the same time simple to state, striking, deep, and easy to misunderstand. It is touchingly refreshing to find such a misunderstanding in an IEEE standard.

Do not let it discourage you from applying the excellent advice of the rest of IEEE 830-1998, ; but when you write a program, do make sure — whether or not the requirements specify this property explicitly — that all its loops terminate.

Reference and notes

[1] IEEE Computer Society: IEEE Recommended Practice for Software Requirements SpeciÞcations, IEEE Standard 830-1998, revised 1998; available here (with subscription).

[2] The property [E] is actually more difficult to test, even non-exhaustively, than the authors acknowledge, if only because it is a probabilistic requirement, which can only be tested after one has defined appropriate probabilistic hypotheses.

[3] In requesting that all programs must terminate we must of course take note of the special case of systems that are non-terminating by design, such as most embedded systems. Such systems, however, are still made out of components representing individual steps that must terminate. The operating system on your smartphone may need to run forever (or until the next reboot), but the processing of an incoming text message is still, like a traditional program, required to terminate in finite time.


VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: 10.0/10 (11 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: +6 (from 6 votes)