Archive for January 2018

Un po’ tondo

Every Mozart study states that his last Symphony, “Jupiter” (Köchel 551), is one of humankind’s greatest musical achievements. Every description of the symphony indicates that the first movement borrows a theme from a concert aria. Every one that I have read expresses surprise at this self-borrowing and states that the reason for it is a complete mystery. I think I know that reason.

The theme as it appears in the symphony begins like this:

jupiter

Click to listen [1]:

That theme is taken from the development of the short concert aria Un Bacia di Mano (A Handkiss) (K 451):

bacio

Hear it [2]:

The words sung on this theme are only part of the text, but they are the important part, emphasized and several times repeated:

Voi siete un po’ tondo
Mio caro Pompeo
L’usanze del mondo
Andate a studiar

meaning (my translation):

You are a bit of a simpleton,
My dear Pompeo.
Time for you to get out
And learn the ways of the world.

(Note to my Italian friends: yes, the Italian text  says “tondo”, not “tonto”. It may sound strange to you but apparently that’s how they talked in the settecento. The text, by the way, is attributed, although with no certainty, to Lorenzo Da Ponte.)

(Note to my American friends: yes, the current director of the CIA happens to be called “Pompeo”. From what I read in the news he could benefit from the advice. But let us not digress.)

What is this aria? It belongs to the “interpolated aria” genre, in which a composer would reuse the words of an air from an existing opera and set them to new music. Avoids having to ask a librettist for a new text, pleases singers by giving them bravura pieces, and undoubtedly for Mozart offers an excellent way to show the world how much more he could do, with the same words, than your average court composer. The text to Un bacio di mano originally came from an opera by Pasquale Anfossi.  The context of the aria is standard 18/19-th comedy fare: mock advice to an old man wanting to take a young spouse (as in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale).

All the Mozart biographies and analyses sound puzzled. Why in the world would Mozart, in one of his most momentous and majestic works, his last symphony, also the longest, insert a hint to an aria with such a lowbrow, almost silly subject. Here (from countless examples) is the kind of explanation you read:

Why risk interpolating yet another tune into the concatenation of ideas that he’s already given his listeners, and asked his orchestra to dramatize; and a melody, what’s more, that comes from a different expressive world, the low comedy of opera buffa as opposed to high-minded symphonic discussion? Mozart puts the whole structure of this movement on the line, seemingly for the sake of a compositional joke. It’s a piece of postmodernism avant la lettre, and the kind of thing that Beethoven, for all his iconoclasm, hardly risked in the same way in his symphonies.

Nonsense. Mozart liked jokes, but to think of him as some kind of dodecaphonist putting in random inserts is absurd. He would not include a gratuitous joke in a major work. “Postmodernism avant la lettre”, what is that supposed to mean? Some of the other commenters at least have the honesty to admit that they do not have a clue.

The clue is not so hard to find if you look at the words. In the aria already, the four lines cited break out seemingly from nowhere and through their repetition soar on their own, far above the triviality of the rest of the text. Mozart wanted to showcase this theme of urging a naïve man to get out and learn how the world works. And now, just a few weeks later — the aria is from June 1788, the symphony from July or August  — Mozart is broke, he just lost a child, his wife is sick, he has to beg his friend Puchberg for money, his stardom as a boy wonder is long gone, audiences (he thinks) have moved on, no one truly recognizes his genius. Other, more docile composers have decent, stable positions with a prince here or a duke there, and he who wanted to play the proud independent artist can hardly feed his family. He could have been organist at Versailles, and turned down the position [4] as below him; which it was, but at least it was a position. Here he is, the greatest genius of musical history, composing a symphony like no one else could even conceive of, and he sits alone in his study with his wife coughing next door. He may not want to admit it, but deep down he feels that he has not long to live. Not one for self-pity, he looks sarcastically at his hungry self: you poor naïve soul, you never wanted to be a mere Anfossi or Salieri, and so you did not condescend to bow and smile humbly and flatter like everyone else did. You were so far above the rest of them that sooner or later the world was going to give you the recognition you deserve. Now this dirty attic. You are a bit of a simpleton, my dear Wolfie. Isn’t it time you got out, and learned the ways of the world?

That is the logical and human explanation. Do not ask for historical proof; it is a conjecture. But listen to the music, think of Wolfgang Amadeus in his mansard, read the words, and it will dawn on you too that this was what he meant when quoting his own looney tune.

Notes and references

[1] From Mackerras (Scottish Chamber Orchestra) performance here (first movement only). More performances (complete symphony) here.

[2] From the Bryn Terfel performance here. See more performances here. One is by José van Dam, of whom I am generally a great fan, but here I find the tempo too slow; same for the Thomas Hampson version. The Fischer-Dieskau recording is not what one would expect. Note that the aria is originally for a bass but most of these performances are by barytones (which is fine too). The Jardin des Voix (William Christie) video is fun.

[3] Symphony guide: Mozart’s 41st , see here.

[4] See e.g. here from Mozart, by Robert Gutman. Think of the effect on the later history of French music if he had been of a different mind!

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Towards empirical answers to important software engineering questions

(Adapted from a two-part article on the Communications of the ACM blog.)

1 The rise of empirical software engineering

One of the success stories of software engineering research in recent decades has been the rise of empirical studies. Visionaries such as Vic Basili, Marvin Zelkowitz and Walter Tichy advocated empirical techniques early [1, 2, 3]; what enabled the field to take off was the availability of software repositories for such long-running projects as Apache, Linux and Eclipse [4], which researchers started mining using modern data analysis techniques.

These studies have yielded many insights including surprises. More experienced developers can produce more buggy code (Schröter, Zimmermann, Premraj, Zeller). To predict whether a module has bugs, intrinsic properties such as complexity seem to matter less than how many changes it went through (Moser, Pedrycz, Succi). Automatic analysis of user reports seems much better at identifying bugs than spotting feature requests (Panichella, Di Sorbo, Guzman, Visaggio, Canfora, Gall). More extensively tested modules tend to have more bugs (Mockus, Nagappan, Dinh-Trong). Eiffel programmers do use contracts (Estler, Furia, Nordio, Piccioni and me). Geographical distance between team members negatively affects the amount of communication in projects (Nordio, Estler, Tschannen, Ghezzi, Di Nitto and me). And so on.

The basic observation behind empirical software engineering is simple: if software products and processes are worthy of discussion, they must be worthy of quantitative discussion just like any natural artifact or human process. Usually at that point the advocacy cites Lord Kelvin:”If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it” [5].

Not that advocacy is much needed today, at least for publishing research in software engineering and in computer science education. The need for empirical backing of conceptual proposals has achieved consensus.  The so-called a “Marco Polo paper” [6] (I traveled far and saw wonderful things, thank you very much for your attention) no longer suffices for program committees; today they want numbers (and also, thankfully, a “threats to validity” section which protects you against suspicions that the numbers are bogus by stating why they might be). Some think this practice of demanding empirical backing for anything you propose has gone too far; see Jeff Ullman’s complaint [7], pertaining to database research rather than software engineering, but reflecting some of the same discussions. Here we can counter Kelvin with another quote (for more effect attributed to Einstein, albeit falsely): not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.

2 Limits of empirical research

There can indeed be too much of a good thing. Still, no one would seriously deny the fundamental role that empirical research has gained in modern software engineering. Which does not prevent us from considering the limits of what it has achieved; not in a spirit of criticism for its own sake, but to help researchers define an effective agenda for the next steps. There are in my opinion two principal limitations of current empirical results in software engineering.

The first has to do with the distinction introduced above between the two kinds of possible targets for empirical assessment: products (artifacts) versus processes.

Both aspects are important, but one is much easier to investigate than the other. For software products, the material of study is available in the form of repositories mentioned above, with their wealth of information about lines of code, control and data structures, commits, editing changes, bug reports and bug fixes. Processes are harder to grasp. You gain some information on processes from the repositories (for example, patterns and delays of bug fixing), but processes deserve studies of their own. For example, agile teams practice iterations (sprints) of widely different durations, from a few days to a few weeks; what is the ideal length? A good empirical answer would help many practitioners. But this example illustrates how difficult empirical studies of processes can be: you would need to try many variations with teams of professional programmers (not students) in different projects, different application areas, different companies; for the results to be believable the projects should be real ones with business results at stake, there should be enough samples in each category to ensure statistical significance, and the companies should agree to publication of some form, possibly anonymized, of the outcomes. The difficulties are formidable.

This issue of how to obtain project-oriented metrics is related to the second principal limitation of some of the initial empirical software engineering work: the risk of indulging in lamppost research. The term refers to the well-known joke about the drunkard who, in the dark of the night, searches for his lost keys next to the lamp post, not because he has lost them there but because it is the only place where one can see anything. To a certain extent all research is lamppost research: by definition, if you succeed in studying something, it will be because it can be studied. But the risk is to choose to work on a problem only, or principally, because it is easy to set up an empirical study — regardless of its actual importance. To cite an example that I have used elsewhere, one may suspect that the reason there are so many studies of pair programming is not that it’s of momentous relevance but that it is not hard to set up an experiment.

3 Beyond the lamppost

As long as empirical software engineering was a young, fledgling discipline, it made good sense to start with problems that naturally lended themselves to empirical investigation. But now that the field has matured, it may be time to reverse the perspective and start from the consumer’s perspective: for practitioners of software engineering, what problems, not yet satisfactorily answered by software engineering theory, could benefit, in the search for answers, from empirical studies?

Indeed, this is what we are entitled to expect from empirical studies: guidance. The slogan of empirical software engineering is that software is worthy of study just like geological strata, photons, and lilies-of-the-valley; OK, sure, but we are talking about human artifacts rather than wonders of the natural world, and the idea should be to help us produce better software and produce software better.

4 A horror story

Whenever we call for guidance from empirical studies, we should immediately include a caveat: every empirical study has its limitations (politely called “threats to validity”) and one must be careful about any generalization. The following horror story serves as caution [9]. The fashion today in programming language design is to use the semicolon not as separator in the Algol tradition (instruction1 ; instruction2) but as a terminator in the C tradition (instruction1; instruction2;). The original justification, particularly in the case of Ada [10], is an empirical paper by Gannon and Horning [11], which purported to show that the terminator convention led to fewer errors. (The authors themselves not only give their experimental results but, departing from the experimenter’s reserve, explicitly jump to the conclusion that terminators are better.) This view defies reason: witness, among others, the ever-recommenced tragedy of if c then a; else; b where the semicolon after else is an error (a natural one, since one gets into the habit of adding semicolons just in case) but the code compiles, with the result that b will be executed in all cases rather than (as intended) just when c is false [12].

How in the world could an empirical study come up with such a bizarre conclusion? Go back to the original Gannon-Horning paper and the explanation becomes clear: the experiments used subjects who were familiar with the PL/I programming language, where semicolons are used generously and an extra semicolon is harmless, as it is in all practical languages (two successive semicolons being simply interpreted as the insertion of an empty instruction, causing no harm); but the experimental separator-based language and compiler used to the experiment treated an extra semicolon as an error! As if this were not enough, checking the details of the article reveals that the terminator language is terminator-based for both declarations and instructions, whereas the example delimiter language is only delimiter-based for instructions, but terminator-based for declarations. Talk about a biased experiment! The experiment was bogus and so are the results.

One should not be too harsh about a paper from 1975, when the very idea of systematic experimental studies of programming was novel, and some of its other results are worthy of consideration. But the sad terminator story, even though it only affected a syntax property, should serve as a reminder that we should not accept a view blindly just because someone invokes some empirical study to justify it. We should assess the study itself, its methods and its credibility.

5 Addressing the issues that matter

With this warning in mind, we should still expect empirical software engineering to help us practitioners. It should help address important software engineering problems.

Ideally, I should now list the open issues of software engineering, but I am in no position even to start such a list. All I can do is to give a few examples. They may not be important to you, but they give an idea:

  • What are the respective values of upfront design and refactoring? How best can we combine these approaches?
  • Specification and testing are complementary techniques. Specifications are in principles superior to testing in general, but testing remains necessary. What combination of specification and testing works best?
  • What is the best commit/release technique, and in particular should we use RTC (Review Then Commit, as with Apache originally then Google) or CTR (Commit To Review, as Apache later) [13]?
  • What measure of code properties best correlates with effort? Many fancy metrics have appeared in the literature over the years, but there is still a nagging feeling among many of us that for all its obvious limitations the vulgar SLOC metrics (Source Lines Of Code) still remains the least bad.
  • When can a manager decide to stop testing? We did some work on the topic [14], but it is only a start.
  • Is test coverage a good measure of test quality [15] (spoiler: it is not, but again we need more studies)?

And so on. These examples may not be the cases that you consider most important; indeed what we need is input from many software engineers to help steer empirical software engineering towards the topics that truly matter to the community.

To provide a venue for that discussion, a workshop will take place 10-12 September 2018 (provisional dates) in the Toulouse area, involving many of the tenors in empirical software engineering, with the same title as these two articles: Empirical Answers to Important Software Engineering Questions. The key idea is to start not from the solutions side (the lamppost) but from the actual challenges facing software engineers. It will not just be a traditional publication-oriented meeting but will also include ample time for discussions and joint work.

If you would like to contribute your example “important questions”, please use any appropriate support (responses to this blog, email to me, Facebook, LinkedIn, anything as long as one can find it). Suggestions will be taken into consideration for the workshop. Empirical software engineering has already established itself as a core area of research; it is time feed that research with problems that actually matter to software developers, managers and users

Acknowledgments

These reflections originated in a keynote that I gave at ESEM in Bolzano in 2010 (I am grateful to Barbara Russo and Giancarlo Succi for the invitation). I never wrote up the talk but I dug up the slides [8] since they might contain a few relevant observations. I used some of these ideas in a short panel statement at ESEC/FSE 2013 in Saint Petersburg, and I am grateful to Moshe Vardi for suggesting I should write them up for Communications of the ACM, which I never did.

References and notes

[1] Victor R. Basili: The role of experimentation in software engineering: past, present and future,  in 18th ICSE (International Conference on Software Engineering), 1996, see here.

[2] Marvin V. Zelkowitz and Dolores Wallace: Experimental validation in software engineering, International Conference on Empirical Assessment and Evaluation in Software Engineering, March 1997, see here.

[3] Walter F. Tichy: Should computer scientists experiment more?, in IEEE Computer, vol. 31, no. 5, pages 32-40, May 1998, see here.

[4] And EiffelStudio, whose repository goes back to the early 90s and has provided a fertile ground for numerous empirical studies, some of which appear in my publication list.

[5] This compact sentence is how the Kelvin statement is usually abridged, but his thinking was more subtle.

[6] Raymond Lister: After the Gold Rush: Toward Sustainable Scholarship in Computing, Proceedings of 10th conference on Australasian Computing Education Conference, pages 3-17, see here.

[7] Jeffrey D. Ullman: Experiments as research validation: have we gone too far?, in Communications of the ACM, vol. 58, no. 9, pages 37-39, 2015, see here.

[8] Bertrand Meyer, slides of a talk at ESEM (Empirical Software Engineering and Measurement), Bozen/Bolzano, 2010, available here. (Provided as background material only, they are  not a paper but just slide support for a 45-minute talk, and from several years ago.)

[9] This matter is analyzed in more detail in section 26.5 of my book Object-Oriented Software Construction, 2nd edition, Prentice Hall. No offense to the memory of Jim Horning, a great computer scientist and a great colleague. Even great computer scientists can be wrong once in a while.

[10] I know this from the source: Jean Ichbiah, the original designer of Ada, told me explicitly that this was the reason for his choice of  the terminator convention for semicolons, a significant decision since it was expected that the language syntax would be based on Pascal, a delimiter language.

[11] Gannon & Horning, Language Design for Programming Reliability, IEEE Transactions on Software Engineering, vol. SE-1, no. 2, June 1975, pages 179-191, see here.

[12] This quirk of C and similar languages is not unlike the source of the Apple SSL/TLS bug discussed earlier in this blog under the title Code matters.

[13] Peter C. Rigby, Daniel M. German, Margaret-Anne Storey: Open Source Software Peer Review Practices: a Case study of the Apache Server, in ICSE (International Conference on Software Engineering) 2008, pages 541-550, see here.

[14] Carlo A. Furia, Bertrand Meyer, Manuel Oriol, Andrey Tikhomirov and  Yi Wei:The Search for the Laws of Automatic Random Testing, in Proceedings of the 28th ACM Symposium on Applied Computing (SAC 2013), Coimbra (Portugal), ACM Press, 2013, see here.

[15] Yi Wei, Bertrand Meyer and Manuel Oriol: Is Coverage a Good Measure of Testing Effectiveness?, in Empirical Software Engineering and Verification (LASER 2008-2010), eds. Bertrand Meyer and Martin Nordio, Lecture Notes in Computer Science 7007, Springer, February 2012, see here.

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Festina retro

We “core” computer scientists and software engineers always whine that our research themes forever prevent us, to the delight of our physicist colleagues but unjustly, from reaching the gold standard of academic recognition: publishing in Nature. I think I have broken this barrier now by disproving the old, dusty laws of physics! Brace yourself for my momentous discovery: I have evidence of negative speeds.

My experimental setup (as a newly self-anointed natural scientist I am keen to offer the possibility of replication) is the Firefox browser. I was downloading an add-on, with a slow connection, and at some point got this in the project bar:

Negative download speed

Negative speed! Questioning accepted wisdom! Nobel in sight! What next, cold fusion?

I fear I have to temper my enthusiasm in deference to more mundane explanations. There’s the conspiracy explanation: the speed is truly negative (more correctly, it is a “velocity”, a vector of arbitrary direction, hence in dimension 1 possibly negative); Firefox had just reversed the direction of transfer, surreptitiously dumping my disk drive to some spy agency’s server.

OK, that is rather far-fetched. More likely, it is a plain bug. A transfer speed cannot be negative; this property is not just wishful thinking but should be expressed as an integral part of the software. Maybe someone should tell Firefox programmers about class invariants.

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The end of software engineering and the last methodologist

(Reposted from the CACM blog [*].)

Software engineering was never a popular subject. It started out as “programming methodology”, evoking the image of bearded middle-aged men telling you with a Dutch, Swiss-German or Oxford accent to repent and mend your ways. Consumed (to paraphrase Mark Twain) by the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, might actually enjoy coding.

That was long ago. With a few exceptions including one mentioned below, to the extent that anyone still studies programming methodology, it’s in the agile world, where the decisive argument is often “I always say…”. (Example from a consultant’s page:  “I always tell teams: `I’d like a [user] story to be small, to fit in one iteration but that isn’t always the way.’“) Dijkstra did appeal to gut feeling but he backed it through strong conceptual arguments.

The field of software engineering, of which programming methodology is today just a small part, has enormously expanded in both depth and width. Conferences such as ICSE and ESEC still attract a good crowd, the journals are buzzing, the researchers are as enthusiastic as ever about their work, but… am I the only one to sense frustration? It is not clear that anyone outside of the community is interested. The world seems to view software engineering as something that everyone in IT knows because we all develop software or manage people who develop software. In the 2017 survey of CS faculty hiring in the U.S., software engineering accounted, in top-100 Ph.D.-granting universities, for 3% of hires! (In schools that stop at the master’s level, the figure is 6%; not insignificant, but not impressive either given that these institutions largely train future software engineers.) From an academic career perspective, the place to go is obviously  “Artificial Intelligence, Data Mining, and Machine Learning”, which in those top-100 universities got 23% of hires.

Nothing against our AI colleagues; I always felt “AI winter” was an over-reaction [1], and they are entitled to their spring. Does it mean software engineering now has to go into a winter of its own? That is crazy. Software engineering is more important than ever. The recent Atlantic  “software apocalypse” article (stronger on problems than solutions) is just the latest alarm-sounding survey. Or, for just one recent example, see the satellite loss in Russia [2] (juicy quote, which you can use the next time you teach a class about the challenges of software testing: this revealed a hidden problem in the algorithm, which was not uncovered in decades of successful launches of the Soyuz-Frigate bundle).

Such cases, by the way, illustrate what I would call the software professor’s dilemma, much more interesting in my opinion than the bizarre ethical brain-teasers (you see what I mean, trolley levers and the like) on which people in philosophy departments spend their days: is it ethical for a professor of software engineering, every morning upon waking up, to go to cnn.com in the hope that a major software-induced disaster has occurred,  finally legitimizing the profession? The answer is simple: no, that is not ethical. Still, if you have witnessed the actual state of ordinary software development, it is scary to think about (although not to wish for) all the catastrophes-in-waiting that you suspect are lying out there just waiting for the right circumstances .

So yes, software engineering is more relevant than ever, and so is programming methodology. (Personal disclosure: I think of myself as the very model of a modern methodologist [3], without a beard or a Dutch accent, but trying to carry, on today’s IT scene, the torch of the seminal work of the 1970s and 80s.)

What counts, though, is not what the world needs; it is what the world believes it needs. The world does not seem to think it needs much software engineering. Even when software causes a catastrophe, we see headlines for a day or two, and then nothing. Radio silence. I have argued to the point of nausea, including at least four times in this blog (five now), for a simple rule that would require a public auditing of any such event; to quote myself: airline transportation did not become safer by accident but by accidents. Such admonitions fall on deaf ears. As another sign of waning interest, many people including me learned much of what they understand of software engineering through the ACM Risks Forum, long a unique source of technical information on software troubles. The Forum still thrives, and still occasionally reports about software engineering issues, but most of the traffic is about privacy and security (with a particular fondness for libertarian rants against any reasonable privacy rule that the EU passes). Important topics indeed, but where do we go for in-depth information about what goes wrong with software?

Yet another case in point is the evolution of programming languages. Language creation is abuzz again with all kinds of fancy new entrants. I can think of one example (TypeScript) in which the driving force is a software engineering goal: making Web programs safer, more scalable and more manageable by bringing some discipline into the JavaScript world. But that is the exception. The arguments for many of the new languages tend to be how clever they are and what expressive new constructs they introduce. Great. We need new ideas. They would be even more convincing if they addressed the old, boring problems of software engineering: correctness, robustness, extendibility, reusability.

None of this makes software engineering less important, or diminishes in the least the passion of those of us who have devoted our careers to the field. But it is time to don our coats and hats: winter is upon us.

Notes

[1] AI was my first love, thanks to Jean-Claude Simon at Polytechnique/Paris VI and John McCarthy at Stanford.

[2] Thanks to Nikolay Shilov for alerting me to this information. The text is in Russian but running it through a Web translation engine (maybe this link will work) will give the essentials.

[3] This time borrowing a phrase from James Noble.

[*] I am reposting these CACM blog articles rather than just putting a link, even though as a software engineer I do not like copy-paste. This is my practice so far, and it might change since it raises obvious criticism, but here are the reasons: (A) The audiences for the two blogs are, as experience shows, largely disjoint. (B) I like this site to contain a record of all my blog articles, regardless of what happens to other sites. (C) I can use my preferred style conventions.

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Emerald wishes

On display in the exhibition mentioned in the previous article is a citation, from Urmanche’s writings, of an aphorism by Qol Ghali (who, as I did not know, was a medieval Muslim Volga poet). It reads [1]:

Emerald is a stone
But not every stone is an emerald
And not everyone can distinguish emerald from stone

This sounds like an excellent way to extend my new-year greetings and wishes to the esteemed readers of this blog. May you, throughout 2018, have the wisdom to distinguish emeralds [2] from stones.

Notes

[1] Изумруд — камень. Но не каждый камень изумруд. И не каждый человек может отличить изумруд от камня. (Already a translation, since the original must be in some ancient Turkic language.)

[2] Not that (mentioning this to avoid any confusion) I am specifically wishing you any Ruby.

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In pursuit and in flight

There is currently in Kazan an exhibition of the works of the Tatar painter Baki Urmanche (1897-1990). One of his early drawings is entitled “The painter, the muse, and death” [1]:

The painter, the muse and death

It makes a good point. Not just about painters.

Note

[1] Художник, муза и смерть. The first word means “artist” but also, more specifically, “painter”, which Urmanche was (although he occasionally dabbled in other arts), so either translation is possible.

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Before I start screaming once again…

… at my would-be coauthors, would someone please tell them, and every non-native-English-speaker-but-aspiring-English-author, to read this? Please, please, please, please, please.

In English the verb “allow” cannot take an infinitive as a complement. Ever. You may not write “my method allows to improve productivity” (even if it’s true, which it probably isn’t, but never mind). Ever. You may write the equivalent in French, German, Russian, Italian and whatever, but not in English. Ever. In English you do not “allow to” do something. Ever. You allow someone or something to do something. Maybe, or maybe not, your method allows its users to improve productivity. That’s correct English. It is also OK to use a gerund [1]: your method allows improving productivity. Actually that sounds clumsy but at least it is grammatically correct.

The reason the gerund does not sound quite right here is that  in situations where foreign speakers instinctively think “allow to…” in their mother tongues and transport it directly to English, the native English speaker instinctively comes up with  something  different. Typically, one of:

  • Allow someone to, using a specific word instead of “someone”. The English language has a concrete slant and favors expressing all details, including some that in other languages remain implicit.
  • Make it possible to:  a bit wordy, but common and convenient, and definitely correct when followed by an infinitive (“my method makes it possible to improve productivity”). We politely leave it unsaid what the “it” is that is being made possible. This turn of phrase is the easiest if you want to remain as close to the original “allow to…” in your native language. Consider “make it possible to” as a mechanical translation of “allow to”. It works.
  • Support something. Remember this word. It is used more widely in English than its typical translations in other languages. Often it fits just where you initially would come up with “allow to”. Your method may support policies for improving productivity.
  • The gerund. It will sound less clumsy if what you are “allowing” is truly a process, and you are using “allow” in its direct sense of giving permission [2], rather than in the more general and weaker sense of supporting. The rules of tennis allow playing in either singles or doubles.
  • Generalizing the gerund, a plain noun (substantive). You can, in fact, allow something. Your methodology allows productivity improvements. Like the gerund, it does not sound as good as the other forms (“support” is better unless there truly is a notion of permission), but it is correct.
  • Or… nothing at all. Paraphrased from a text seen recently: “some techniques only allow to model internal properties, others allow to model external properties too”. So much better (in any language): some techniques only model internal properties, others also cover external ones. Whoever wrote the first variant should not, in the next three years, be allowed anywhere near the word “allow”.

Some people go around the issue by using “allow for doing something”. That usage is acceptable in American English (less so in British English), but by default “allow for” means something else: tolerating some possible variation in an estimate, as in “plan two hours for your drive, allowing for traffic”. As a substitute for “allowing to” this phrase has no advantage over the solutions listed above.

On last count, I had corrected “allow to” in drafts from coworkers, using one of these solutions, approximately 5,843,944,027 times (allowing for a few cases that I might have forgotten). Enough! Please, please, please, please, please, please, please. Make a note of this. It will allow me to live better, it will allow you to avoid my wrath, it  will make it possible for us to work together again, it will support a better understanding among the people in the world, it will allow faster refereeing and a better peer review process, it covers all needs, and it still allows for human imperfection.

Notes

[1] Or gerundive, or present participle: a word form resulting from addition of the suffix “-ing” to a verb radical.

[2] Note that beyond “allow” this discussion also applies to the verb “permit”. You permit someone to do something.

[3] Post-publication, Oscar Nierstrasz mentioned on Facebook that he has a Web page addressing the same point.

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Blockchains, bitcoin and distributed trust: LASER school lineup complete

The full lineup of speakers at the 2018 LASER summer school on Software for Blockchains, Bitcoin and Distributed Trust is now ready, with the announcement of a new speaker, Primavera De Filippi from CNRS and Harvard on social and legal aspects.

The other speakers are Christian Cachin (IBM), Maurice Herlihy (Brown), Christoph Jentzsch (slock.it), me, Emil Gun Sirer (Cornell) and Roger Wattenhofer (ETH).

The school is the 14th in the LASER series and takes place June 2-10, 2018, on the island of Elba in Italy.

Early-fee registration deadline is February 10. The school’s page is here.

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