Archive for the ‘Language design’ Category.

If I’m not pure, at least my functions are

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If I’m not pure, at least my jewels are [1].

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We often need to be reassured that a routine, usually a function, is “pure”, meaning that it does not change the state of the computation. For example, a function used in a contract element (precondition, postcondition, class invariant, loop invariant) should be purely descriptive, since it is a specification element; evaluating it, typically for testing and debugging, should not create a change of behavior — a “Heisenberg effect” — in the very computation that it is intended to assess. Another application is in a concurrency context, particularly in SCOOP (see earlier posts and forthcoming ones): if one or more functions are pure, several of their executions can run  concurrently on the same object.

The notion of purity admits variants. The usual notion is what  [2] calls weak purity, which precludes changes to previously existing objects but allow creating new objects. In the EiffelBase library we also encounter routines that have another form of purity, which we may call “relative” purity: they can leave the same state on exit as they found on entry, but in-between they might change the state.  For the rest of this discussion we will rely on the standard notion of weak purity: no changes permitted on existing objects.

It is often suggested that the programming language should support specifying that a routine is pure; many people have indeed proposed the addition of a keyword such as pure to Eiffel. One of the reasons this is not — in my opinion — such a great idea is that purity is just a special case of the more general problem of framing: specifying and verifying what a routine does not change. If we can specify an arbitrary frame property, then we can, as a special case covered by the general mechanism, specify that a routine changes nothing.

To see why framing is so important, consider a class ACCOUNT with a routine deposit that has the postcondition

balance = old balance + sum………..— Where sum is the argument of deposit

Framing here means stating that nothing else than balance changes; for example the account’s owner and its number should remain the same. It is not practical to write all individual postcondition clauses such as

owner= old owner
number=
old number

and so on. But we do need to specify these properties and enforce them, if only to avoid that a descendant class (maybe MAFIA_ACCOUNT) distort the rules defined by the original.

One technique is to add a so-called “modifies clause”, introduced by verification tools such as ESC-Java [3] and JML [4]. Modifies clauses raise some theoretical issues; in particular, the list of modified expressions is often infinite, so we must restrict ourselves to an abstract-data-type view where we characterize a class by commands and queries and the modifies clause only involves queries of the class. Many people find this hard to accept at first, since anything that is not talked about can change, but it is the right approach. A modifies clause of sorts, included in the postcondition, appeared in an earlier iteration of the Eiffel specification, with the keyword only (which is indeed preferable to modifies, which in the Eiffel style favoring grammatically simple keywords would be modify, since what we want to express is not that the routine must change anything at all  but that it may only change certain specified results!). The convention worked well with inheritance, since it included the rule that a clause such as only balance, in class  ACCOUNT, prescribes that the routine may not, in its modifies version as well as in any version redefined in descendants, change any other query known at the level of ACCOUNT; but a descendant version may change, subject to its own ACCOUNT clauses, any new query introduced by a descendant.

To declare a routine as pure, it would suffice to use an empty only clause (not very elegant syntactically — “only” what? — but one can get used to it).

This construct has been discarded, as it places too heavy a burden on the programmer-specifier. Here the key observation resulted from a non-scientific but pretty extensive survey I made of all the JML code I could get my hands on. I found that every time a query appeared in a modifies clause it was also listed in the postcondition! On reflection, this seems reasonable: if you are serious about specification, as anyone bothering to write such a clause surely is, you will not just express that something changes and stop there; you will write something about how it may change. Not necessarily the exact result, as in

my_query = precise_final_value

but at least some property of that result, as in

some_property (my_query)

This observation has, however, an inescapable consequence for language design: modifies or only clauses should be inferred by the compiler from the postcondition, not imposed on the programmer as an extra burden. The convention, which we may call the Implicit Framing Rule, is simple:

A routine may change the value of a query only if the query is specified in the routine’s postcondition

(or, if you like double negation, “no routine may change the value of a query other than those specified in its postcondition”). Here we say that a feature is “specified” in a postcondition if it appears there outside of the scope of an old expression. (Clearly, an occurrence such as old balance does not imply that balance can be modified, hence this restriction to occurrences outside of an old.)

With this convention the only clause becomes implicit: it would simply list all the queries specified in the postcondition, so there is no need for the programmer to write it. For the rare case of wanting to specify that a query q may change, but not wanting to specify how, it is easy to provide a library function, say involved, that always return true and can be used in postconditions, as in involved (q).

The convention is of course not just a matter of programming methodology but, in an IDE supporting verification, such as the EVE “Verification As a Matter Of Course” environment which we are building for Eiffel [5], the compiler will enforce the definition above — no change permitted to anything not specified in the postcondition — and produce an error in case of a violation. This also means that we can easily specify that a routine is pure: it must simply not specify any query in its postcondition. It may still list it in an old clause, as happens often in practice, e.g.

Result = old balance – Minimum_balance………..— In the postcondition of a function available_funds

Note the need to use old here. Apart from this addition of old to some postconditions, a considerable advantage of the convention is that most existing code using pure functions will be suitable to the new purity enforcement without any need to provide new annotations.

I believe that this is the only sustainable convention. It does not, of course, solve the frame problem by itself (for attempts in this direction see [6, 7]), but it is a necessary condition for a solution that is simple, easily taught, fairly easily implemented, and effective. It goes well with model-based specifications [8, 9], which I believe are the technique of most promise for usable  specifications of object-oriented software. And it provides a straightforward, no-frills way to enforce purity where prescribed by the Command-Query Separation principle [10, 11]: if I’m not pure, at least my functions must be.

References

[1] From the lyrics of the aria Glitter and Be Gay in Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, text by Lillian Hellman and others. Youtube offers several performances, including  by Diana Damrau (here) and Natalie Dessay (here) . For the text see e.g. here.

[2] Adam Darvas and Peter Müller: Reasoning About Method Calls in Interface Specifications, in Journal of Object Technology, Volume 5, no. 5, jUNE 2006, pages 59-85, doi:10.5381/jot.2006.5.5.a3, available here.

[3] C. Flanagan, K.R.M. Leino, M. Lillibridge, G. Nelson, J. B. Saxe and R. Stata: Extended static checking for Java, in PLDI 2002 (Programming Language Design and Implementation), pages 234–245, 2002.

[4] Gary Leavens et al.: Java Modeling Language, see references here.

[5] Julian Tschannen, Carlo A. Furia, Martin Nordio, and Bertrand Meyer: Verifying Eiffel Programs with Boogie, to appear in Boogie 2011, First International Workshop on Intermediate Verification Languages, Wroclaw, August 2011. See documentation about the EVE project on the project page.

[6] Ioannis Kassios: Dynamic Frames: Support for Framing, Dependencies and Sharing Without Restrictions, in Formal Methods 2006, eds. J. Misra, T. Nipkow and E. Sekerinski, Lecture Notes in Computer Science 4085, Springer Verlag, 2006, pages 268-283.

[7] Bernd Schoeller: Making Classes Provable through Contracts, Models and Frames, PhD thesis, ETH Zurich, 2007, available here

[8] Bernd Schoeller, Tobias Widmer and Bertrand Meyer: Making Specifications Complete Through Models, in Architecting Systems with Trustworthy Components, eds. Ralf Reussner, Judith Stafford and Clemens Szyperski, Lecture Notes in Computer Science, Springer-Verlag, 2006, available here.

[9] Nadia Polikarpova, Carlo Furia and Bertrand Meyer: Specifying Reusable Components, in Verified Software: Theories, Tools, Experiments (VSTTE ’10), Edinburgh, UK, 16-19 August 2010, Lecture Notes in Computer Science, Springer Verlag, 2010, available here.

[10] Bertrand Meyer: Object-Oriented Software Construction, first (1988) and second (1997) editions, Prentice Hall.

[11] Bertrand Meyer: Touch of Class: An Introduction to Programming Well, Using Objects and Contracts, Springer Verlag, 2009.

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Concurrent programming is easy

EiffelStudio 6.8, released last month, contains the first official implementation of the SCOOP programming model for concurrent programming. This is an important milestone; let me try to explain why.

Concurrency challenging us

Concurrency is the principal stumbling block in the progress of programming. Do not take just my word for it:

  • Intel: “Multi-core processing is taking the industry on a fast-moving and exciting ride into profoundly new territory. The defining paradigm in computing performance has shifted inexorably from raw clock speed to parallel operations and energy efficiency” [1].
  • Rick Rashid (head of Microsoft Research):  “Multicore processors represent one of the largest technology transitions in the computing industry today, with deep implications for how we develop software.” [2].
  • Bill Gates: “Multicore: This is the one which will have the biggest impact on us. We have never had a problem to solve like this. A breakthrough is needed in how applications are done on multicore devices.” [3]
  • David Patterson: “Industry has basically thrown a Hail Mary. The whole industry is betting on parallel computing. They’ve thrown it, but the big problem is catching it.” [4]
  • Gordon Bell: “I’m skeptical until I see something that gives me some hope…  the machines are here and we haven’t got it right.” [4].

What has happened? Concurrency  used to be a highly specialized domain of interest to a small minority of programmers building operating systems and networking systems and database engines. Just about everyone else could live comfortably pretending that the world was sequential. And then suddenly we all need to be aware of concurrency. The principal reason is the end of Moore’s law as we know it [5].

The end of Moore's law as we know it

This chart show that we can no longer rely on the automatic and regular improvement to our programs’ performance, roughly by a factor of two every two years, thanks to faster chips. The free lunch is over; continued performance increases require taking advantage of concurrency, in particular through multithreading.

Performance is not the only reason for getting into concurrency. Another one is user convenience: ever since the first browser showed that one could write an email and load a Web page in the same window, users have been clamoring for multithreaded applications. Yet another source of concurrency requirements is the need to produce Internet and Web applications.

How do programmers write these applications? The almost universal answer relies on threading mechanisms, typically offered through some combination of language and library mechanisms: Java Threads, .NET threading, POSIX threads, EiffelThreads. The underlying techniques are semaphores and mutexes: nineteen-sixties vintage concepts, rife with risks of data races (access conflicts to a variable or resource, leading to crashes or incorrect computations) and deadlocks (where the system hangs). These risks are worse than the classical bugs of sequential programs because they are very difficult to detect through testing.

Ways to tame the beast

Because the need is so critical, the race is on — a “frantic” race in the words of a memorable New York Times article by John Markoff [4] — to devise a modern programming framework that will bring concurrent programming under control. SCOOP is a contender in this battle. In this post and the next I will try to explain why we think it is exactly what the world needs to tame concurrency.

The usual view, from which SCOOP departs, is that concurrent programming is intrinsically hard and requires a fundamental change in the way programmers think. Indeed some of the other approaches that have attracted attention imply radical departures from accepted programming paradigm:

  • Concurrency calculi such as CSP [6, 7], CCS [8] and the π-Calculus [9] define  high-level mathematical frameworks addressing concurrency, but they are very far from the practical concerns of programmers. An even more serious problem is that they focus on only some aspects of programming, but being concurrent is only one property of a program, among many others (needing a database, relying on graphical user interface, using certain data structures, perform certain computations…). We need mechanisms that integrate concurrency with all the other mechanisms that a program uses.
  • Functional programming languages have also offered interesting idioms for concurrency, taking advantage of the non-imperative nature of functional programming. Advocacy papers have argued for Haskell [10 and Erlang [11] in this role. But should the world renounce other advances of modern software engineering, in particular object-oriented programming, for the sake of these mechanisms? Few people are prepared to take that step, and (as I have discussed in a detailed article [12]) the advantages of functional programming are counter-balanced by the superiority of the object-oriented model in its support for the modular construction of realistic systems.

What if we did not have to throw away everything and relearn programming from the ground up for concurrency? What if we could retain the benefits of five decades of software progress, as crystallized in modern object-oriented programming? This is the conjecture behind SCOOP: that we can benefit from all the techniques we have learned to make our software reliable, extendible and reusable, and add concurrency to the picture in an incremental way.

From sequential to concurrent

A detailed presentation of SCOOP will be for next Monday, but let me give you a hint and I hope whet your appetite by describing how to move a typical example from sequential to concurrent. Here is a routine for transferring money between two accounts:

transfer (amount: INTEGER ; source, target: ACCOUNT)
               -- Transfer amount dollars from source to target.
        require
               enough: source·balance >= amount
        do
         source·withdraw (amount)
         target·deposit (amount)
        ensure
               removed: source·balance = old source·balance – amount
               added: target·balance = old target·balance + amount
        end

The caller must satisfy the precondition, requiring the source account to have enough money to withdraw the requested amount; the postcondition states that the source account will then be debited, and the target account credited, by that amount.

Now assume that we naïvely apply this routine in a concurrent context, with concurrent calls

        if acc1·balance >= 100 then transfer (acc1, acc2, 100) end

and

        if acc1·balance >= 100 then transfer (acc1, acc3, 100) end

If the original balance on acc1 is 100, it would be perfectly possible in the absence of a proper concurrency mechanism that both calls, as they reach the test acc1·balance >= 100, find the property to be true and proceed to do the transfer — but incorrectly since they cannot both happen without bringing the balance of acc1 below zero, a situation that the precondition of transfer and the tests were precisely designed to rule out. This is the classic data race. To avoid it in the traditional approaches, you need complicated and error-prone applications of semaphores or conditional critical regions (the latter with their “wait-and-signal” mechanism, just as clumsy and low-level as the operations on semaphores).

In SCOOP, such data races, and data races of any other kind, cannot occur. If the various objects involved are to run in separate threads of control, the declaration of the routine will be of the form

transfer (amount: INTEGER ; source, target: separate ACCOUNT)
               -- The rest of the routine exactly as before.

where separate is the only specific language keyword of SCOOP. This addition of the separate marker does the trick. will result in the following behavior:

  • Every call to transfer is guaranteed exclusive access to both separate arguments (the two accounts).
  • This simultaneous reservation of multiple objects (a particularly tricky task when programmers must take care of it through their own programs, as they must in traditional approaches) is automatically guaranteed by the SCOOP scheduler. The calls wait as needed.
  • As a consequence, the conditional instructions (if then) are no longer needed. Just call transfer and rely on SCOOP to do the synchronization and guarantee correctness.
  • As part of this correctness guarantee, the calls may have to wait until the preconditions hold, in other words until there is enough money on the account.

This is the desired behavior in the transition from sequential to concurrent. It is achieved here not by peppering the code with low-level concurrent operations, not by moving to a completely different programming scheme, but by simply declaring which objects are “separate” (potentially running elsewhere.

The idea of SCOOP is indeed that we reuse all that we have come to enjoy in modern object-oriented programming, and simply declare what needs to be parallel, expecting things to work (“principle of least surprise”).

This is not how most of the world sees concurrency. It’s supposed to be hard. Indeed it is; very hard, in fact. But the view of the people who built SCOOP is that as much of the difficulty should be for the implementers. Hence the title of this article: for programmers, concurrency should be easy. And we think SCOOP demonstrates that it can be.

SCOOP in practice

A few words of caution: we are not saying that SCOOP as provided in EiffelStudio 6.8 is the last word. (Otherwise it would be called 7.0.) In fact, precisely because implementation is very hard, a number of details are still not properly handled; for example, as discussed in recent exchanges on the EiffelStudio user group [13], just printing out the contents of a separate string is non-trivial. We are working to provide all the machinery that will make everything work well, the ambitious goals and the practical details. But the basics of the mechanism are there, with a solid implementation designed to scale properly for large applications and in distributed settings.

In next week’s article I will describe in a bit more detail what makes up the SCOOP mechanisms. To get a preview, you are welcome to look at the documentation [14, 15]; I hope it will convince you that despite what everyone else says concurrent programming can be easy.

References

[1] Official Intel statement, see e.g. here.

[2] Rich Rashid, Microsoft Faculty Summit, 2008.

[3] This statement was cited at the Microsoft Faculty Summit in 2008 and is part of the official transcript; hence it can be assumed to be authentic, although I do not know the original source.

[4] Patterson and Bell citations from John Markoff, Faster Chips Are Leaving Programmers in Their Dust, New York Times, 17 December 2007, available here.

[5] The chart is from the course material of Tryggve Fossum at the LASER summer school in 2008.

[6] C.A.R. Hoare: em>Communicating Sequential Processes, Prentice Hall, 1985, also available online.

[7] Bill Roscoe: The Theory and Practice of Concurrency, revised edition, Prentice Hall, 2005, also available online.

[8] Robin Milner: Communication and Concurrency, Prentice Hall, 1989.

[9] Robin Milner: Communicating and Mobile Systems: The π-calculus, Cambridge University Press, 1999.

[10] Simon Peyton-Jones: Beautiful Concurrency, in Beautiful Code, ed. Greg Wilson, O’Reilly, 2007, also available online.

[11] Joe Armstrong: Erlang, in Communications of the ACM, vol. 53, no. 9, September 2010, pages 68-75.

[12] Bertrand Meyer: Software Architecture: Functional vs. Object-Oriented Design, in Beautiful Architecture, eds. Diomidis Spinellis and Georgios Gousios, O’Reilly, 2009, pages 315-348, available online.

[13] EiffelStudio user group; see here for a link to current discussions and to join the group.

[14] SCOOP project documentation at ETH, available here.

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In praise of Knuth and Liskov

In November of 2005, as part of the festivities of its 150-th anniversary, the ETH Zurich bestowed honorary doctorates on Don Knuth and Barbara Liskov. I gave the speech (the “laudatio”). It was published in Informatik Spektrum, the journal of Gesellschaft für Informatik, the German Computer Society, vo. 29, no. 1, February 2006, pages 74-76; I came across it recently and thought others might be interested in this homage to two great computer scientists.  The beginning was in German; I translated it into English. I also replaced a couple of German expressions by their translations: “ETH commencement” for ETH-Tag (the official name of the annual ceremony) and “main building” for Hauptgebäude.

I took this picture of Wirth, Liskov and Knuth (part of my gallery of computer scientists)  later that same day.

 

Laudatio

 In an institution, Ladies and Gentlement, which so proudly celebrates its hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary, a relatively young disciplines sometimes has cause for envy. We computer scientists are still the babies, or at least the newest kids on the block. Outside of this building, for example, you will see streets bearing such names as Clausius, yet there is neither a Von Neumann Lane nor a a Wirth Square. Youth, however,  also has its advantages; perhaps the most striking is that we still can, in our own lifetime, meet in person some of the very founders of our discipline. No living physicist has seen Newton; no chemist has heard Lavoisier. For us, it works. Today, Ladies and Gentlemen, we have the honor of introducing two of the undisputed pioneers of informatics.

Barbara Liskov

The first of our honorees today is Professor Barbara Liskov. To understand her contributions it is essential to realize the unfair competition in which the so-called Moore’s law pits computer software against computing hardware. To match the astounding progress of computing speed and memory over the past five decades, all that we have on the software side is our own intelligence which, it is safe to say, doesn’t double every eighteen months at constant price. The key to scaling up is abstraction; all advances in programming methodology have relied on new abstraction techniques. Perhaps the most significant is data abstraction, which enables us to organize complex systems on the basis of the types of objects they manipulate, defined in completely abstract terms. This is the notion of abstract data type, a staple component today of every software curriculum, including in the very first programming course here ETH. it was introduced barely thirty years ago in a seemingly modest article in SIGPLAN Notices — the kind of publication that hardly registers a ripple in science indexes — by Barbara Liskov and Stephen Zilles. Few papers have had a more profound impact on the theory and practice of software development than this contribution, “Programming with Abstract Data Types”.

The idea of abstract data types, or ADTs, is one of those Egg of Christopher Columbus moments; a seemingly simple intuition that changes the course of things. An ADT is a class of objects described in terms not of their internal properties, but of the operations applicable to them, and the abstract properties of these operations. Not by what they are, but by what they have. A rather capitalistic view of the world, but well suited to the description of complex systems where each part knows as little as possible about the others to protect itself about their future changes.

An abstraction such as ETH-Commencement could be described in a very concrete way: it happens in a certain place, consists of one event after another, gathers so many people. This is what we computer scientists call an implementation-oriented view, and relying on it means that we can’t change any detail without endangering the consistency of other processes, such as the daily planning of room allocation in the Main Building, which use it. In an ADT view, the abstraction “ETH Commencement” is characterized not by what it is but by what it has: a start, an end, an audience, and operations such as “Schedule the ETH Commencement”, “ Reschedule it”, “Start it”, “End it”. They provide to the rest of the world a clean, precisely specified interface which enables every ADT to use every other based on the minimum properties it requires, thus isolating them from irrelevant internal changes, and providing an irreplaceable weapon in the incessant task of software engineering: battling complexity.

Barbara Liskov didn’t stay with the theoretical concepts but implemented the ideas in the CLU language, one of the most influential of the set of programming languages that in the nineteen-seventies changed our perspective of how to develop good software.

She went on to seminal work on operating systems and distributed computing, introducing several widely applied concepts such as guardians, and always backing her theoretical innovations by building practical systems, from the CLU language and compiler to the Argus and Mercury distributed operating systems. Distributed systems, such as those which banks, airlines and other global enterprises run on multiple machines across multiple networks, raise particularly challenging issues. To quote from the introduction of her article on Argus:

A centralized system is either running or crashed, but a distributed system may be partly running and partly crashed. Distributed programs must cope with failures of the underlying hardware. Both the nodes and the network may fail. The goal of Argus is to provide mechanisms that make it easier for programmers to cope with these problems.

Barbara Liskov’s work introduced seminal concepts to deal with these extremely difficult problems.

Now Ford professor of engineering at MIT, she received not long ago the prestigious John von Neumann award of the IEEE; she has been one of the most influential people in software engineering. We are grateful for how Professor Barbara Liskov has helped shape the field are honored to have her at ETH today.

 Donald Knuth

In computer science and beyond, the name of Donald Knuth carries a unique aura. A professor at Stanford since 1968, now emeritus, he is the only person on record whose job title is the title of his own book: Professor of the Art of Computer Programming. This is for his eponymous multi-volume treatise, which established the discipline of algorithm analysis, and has had more effect than any other computer science publication. The Art of Computer Programming is a marvel of breadth, depth, completeness, mathematical rigor and clarity, not to forget humor. In that legendary book you will find exposed in detail the algorithms and data structures that lie at the basis of all software applications today. A Monte Carlo simulation, as a physicists may use, requires a number sequence that is both very long and very random-looking, even though the computer is a deterministic machine; if the simulation is any good, it almost certainly relies on the devious techniques which The Art of Computer Programming presents for making a perfectly deterministic sequence appear to have no order or other recognizable property. If you are running complex programs on your laptop, and they keep creating millions of software objects without clogging up gigabytes of memory, chances are the author of the garbage collector program is using techniques he learned from Knuth, with such delightful names as “the Buddy System”. If your search engine can at the blink of an eye find a needle of useful information in a haystack of tens of billions of Web pages, it’s most likely because they’ve been indexed using finely tuned data structures, such as hash tables, for which Knuth has been the reference for three decades through volume three, Searching and Sorting.

Knuth is famous for his precision and attention to detail, going so far as to offer a financial reward for every error found in his books, although one suspects this doesn’t cost him too much since people are so proud that instead of cashing the check they have it framed for display. The other immediately striking characteristic of Knuth is how profoundly he is driven by esthetics. This applies to performing arts, as anyone who was in the Fraumünster this morning and found out who the organist was can testify, but even more to his scientific work. The very title “the Art of computer programming” betrays this. Algorithms and data structures for Knuth are never dull codes for computers, but objects of intense esthetic pleasure and friendly discussion. This concern with beauty led to a major turn in his career, which delayed the continuation of the book series by many years but resulted in a development that has affected anyone who publishes scientific text. As he received the page proofs of the second edition of one of the volumes in the late seventies he was so repelled by its physical appearance, resulting from newly introduced computer typesetting technology, that he decided to build a revolutionary font design and text processing system, all by himself, from the ground up. This resulted in a number of publications such as a long and fascinating paper in the Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society entitled “The Letter S”, but even more importantly in widely successful and practical software programs which he wrote himself, TeX and Metafont, which have today become standards for scientific publishing. Here too he has shown the way in quality and rigor, being one of the very few people in the world who promise their software to be free of bugs, and backs that promise by giving a small financial reward for any counter-example.

His numerous other contributions are far too diverse to allow even a partial mention here; they have ranged across wide areas of computer science and mathematics.

To tell the truth, we are a little embarrassed that by bringing Professor Knuth here we are delaying by a bit more the long awaited release of volume 4. But we overcome this embarrassment in time to express our pride for having Donald Erwin Knuth at ETH for this anniversary celebration.

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Reflexivity, and other pillars of civilization

Let me start, dear reader of this blog, by probing your view of equality, and also of assignment. Two questions:  

  • Is a value x always equal to itself? (For the seasoned programmers in the audience: I am talking about a value, as in mathematics, not an expression, as in programming, which could have a side effect.)
  • In programming, if we consider an assignment

       x := y

and v is the value of y before that assignment (again, this little detour is to avoid bothering with side effects), is the value of x always equal to v after the assignment?  

Maybe I should include here one of these Web polls that one finds on newspaper sites, so that you can vote and compare your answer to the Wisdom of Crowds. My own vote is clear: yes to both. Equality is reflexive (every value is equal to itself, at any longitude and temperature, no excuses and no exceptions); and the purpose of assignment is to make the value of the target equal to the value of the source. Such properties are some of the last ramparts of civilization. If they go away, what else is left?  

754 enters the picture

Now come floating-point numbers and the famous IEEE “754” floating-point standard [1]. Because not all floating point operations yield a result usable as a floating-point number, the standard introduces a notion of “NaN”, Not a Number; certain operations involving floating-point numbers may yield a NaN. The term NaN does not denote a single value but a set of values, distinguished by their “payloads”.  

Now assume that the value of x is a NaN. If you use a programming language that supports IEEE 754 (as they all do, I think, today) the test in  

        if x = x then …  

is supposed to yield False. Yes, that is specified in the standard: NaN is never equal to NaN (even with the same payload); nor is it equal to anything else; the result of an equality comparison involving NaN will always be False.  

Assignment behavior is consistent with this: if y (a variable, or an expression with no side effect) has a NaN value, then after  

        x := y  

the test xy will yield False. 

Before commenting further let me note the obvious: I am by no means a numerics expert; I know that IEEE 754 was a tremendous advance, and that it was designed by some of the best minds in the field, headed by Velvel Kahan who received a Turing Award in part for that success. So it is quite possible that I am about to bury myself in piles of ridicule. On the other hand I have also learned that (1) ridicule does not kill, so I am game; and more importantly (2) experts are often right but not always, and it is always proper to question their reasoning. So without fear let me not stop at the arguments that “the committee must have voted on this point and they obviously knew what they were doing” and “it is the standard and implemented on zillions of machines, you cannot change it now”. Both are true enough, but not an excuse to censor questions.  

What are the criteria?

The question is: compatibility with an existing computer standard is great, but what about compatibility with a few hundred years of mathematics? Reflexivity of equality  is something that we expect for any data type, and it seems hard to justify that a value is not equal to itself. As to assignment, what good can it be if it does not make the target equal to the source value?  

The question of assignment is particularly vivid in Eiffel because we express the expected abstract properties of programs in the form of contracts. For example, the following “setter” procedure may have a postcondition (expressed by the ensure clause):  

        set_x (v: REAL)
                        — Set the value of x (an attribute, also of type REAL) the value of v.
                do
                        …
                        x := v  
                ensure
                        x = v
                end  

   
If you call this procedure with a NaN argument for a compiler that applies IEEE 754 semantics, and monitor contracts at run time for testing and debugging, the execution will report a contract violation. This is very difficult for a programmer to accept.  

A typical example arises when you have an assignment to an item of an array of REAL values. Assume you are executing a [i] := x. In an object-oriented view of the world (as in Eiffel), this is considered simplified syntax  for the routine call a.put (x, i). The postcondition is that a [i] = x. It will be violated!  

The experts’ view

I queried a number of experts on the topic. (This is the opportunity to express my gratitude to members of the IFIP working group 2.5 on numerical software [2], some of the world’s top experts in the field, for their willingness to respond quickly and with many insights.) A representative answer, from Stuart Feldman, was:  

If I remember the debate correctly (many moons ago), NaN represents an indefinite value, so there is no reason to believe that the result of one calculation with unclear value should match that of another calculation with unclear value. (Different orders of infinity, different asymptotic approaches toward 0/0, etc.)  

Absolutely correct! Only one little detail, though: this is an argument against using the value True as a result of the test; but it is not an argument for using the value False! The exact same argument can be used to assert that the result should not be False:  

… there is no reason to believe that the result of one calculation with unclear value should not match that of another calculation with unclear value.  

Just as convincing! Both arguments complement each other: there is no compelling reason for demanding that the values be equal; and there is no compelling argument either to demand that they be different. If you ignore one of the two sides, you are biased.  

What do we do then?

The conclusion is not that the result should be False. The rational conclusion is that True and False are both unsatisfactory solutions. The reason is very simple: in a proper theory (I will sketch it below) the result of such a comparison should be some special undefined below; the same way that IEEE 754 extends the set of floating-point numbers with NaN, a satisfactory solution would extend the set of booleans with some NaB (Not a Boolean). But there is no NaB, probably because no one (understandably) wanted to bother, and also because being able to represent a value of type BOOLEAN on a single bit is, if not itself a pillar of civilization, one of the secrets of a happy life.  

If both True and False are unsatisfactory solutions, we should use the one that is the “least” bad, according to some convincing criterion . That is not the attitude that 754 takes; it seems to consider (as illustrated by the justification cited above) that False is somehow less committing than True. But it is not! Stating that something is false is just as much of a commitment as stating that it is true. False is no closer to NaB than True is. A better criterion is: which of the two possibilities is going to be least damaging to time-honored assumptions embedded in mathematics? One of these assumptions is the reflexivity of equality:  come rain or shine, x is equal to itself. Its counterpart for programming is that after an assignment the target will be equal to the original value of the source. This applies to numbers, and it applies to a NaN as well. 

Note that this argument does not address equality between different NaNs. The standard as it is states that a specific NaN, with a specific payload, is not equal to itself.  

What do you think?

A few of us who had to examine the issue recently think that — whatever the standard says at the machine level — a programming language should support the venerable properties that equality is reflexive and that assignment yields equality.

Every programming language should decide this on its own; for Eiffel we think this should be the specification. Do you agree?  

Some theory

For readers who like theory, here is a mathematical restatement of the observations above. There is nothing fundamentally new in this section, so if you do not like strange symbols you can stop here.  

The math helps explain the earlier observation that neither True nor False is more“committing” than the other. A standard technique (coming from denotational semantics) for dealing with undefinedness in basic data types, is to extend every data type into a lattice, with a partial order relation meaning “less defined than”. The lattice includes a bottom element, traditionally written “” (pronounced “Bottom”) and a top element written (“Top”). represents an unknown value (not enough information) and an error value (too much information). Pictorially, the lattice for natural numbers would look like this:  

Integer lattice

The lattice of integers

On basic types, we always use very simple lattices of this form, with three kinds of element: , less than every other element; , larger than all other elements; and in-between all the normal values of the type, which for the partial order of interest are all equal. (No, this is not a new math in which all integers are equal. The order in question simply means “is less defined than”. Every integer is as defined as all other integers, more defined than , and less defined than .) Such lattices are not very exciting, but they serve as a starting point; lattices with more interesting structures are those applying to functions on such spaces — including functions of functions —, which represent programs.  

The modeling of floating-point numbers with NaN involves such a lattice; introducing NaN means introducing a value. (Actually, one might prefer to interpret NaN as , but the reasoning transposes immediately.)  More accurately, since there are many NaN values, the lattice will look more like this:

Float lattice

The lattice of floats in IEEE 754

For simplicity we can ignore the variety of NaNs and consider a single .

Functions on lattices — as implemented by programs — should satisfy a fundamental property: monotonicity. A function f  is monotone (as in ordinary analysis) if, whenever xy, then f (x) ≤ f (y). Monotonicity is a common-sense requirement: we cannot get more information from less information. If we know less about x than about y, we cannot expect that any function (with a computer, any program) f will, out of nowhere, restore the missing information.  

Demanding monotonicity of all floating-point operations reflects this exigency of monotonicity: indeed, in IEEE 754, any arithmetic operation — addition, multiplication … — that has a NaN as one of its arguments must yield a Nan as its result. Great. Now for soundness we should also have such a property for boolean-valued operations, such as equality. If we had a NaB as the  of booleans, just like NaN is the  of floating-point numbers,  then the result of NaN = NaN would be NaB. But the world is not perfect and the IEEE 754 standard does not govern booleans. Somehow (I think) the designers thought of False as somehow less defined than True. But it is not! False is just as defined as True in the very simple lattice of booleans; according to the partial order, True and False are equal for the relevant partial order:

Boolean lattice

The lattice of booleans

Because any solution that cannot use a NaB will violate monotonicity and hence will be imperfect, we must resort to heuristic criteria. A very strong criterion in favor of choosing True is reflexivity — remaining compatible with a fundamental property of equality. I do not know of any argument for choosing False. 

The Spartan approach

There is, by the way, a technique that accepts booleans as we love them (with two values and no NaB) and achieves mathematical rigor. If operations involving NaNs  truly give us pimples, we can make any such operation trigger an exception. In the absence of values,  this is an acceptable programming technique for representing undefinedness. The downside, of course, is that just about everywhere the program must be ready to handle the exception in some way. 

It is unlikely that in practice many people would be comfortable with such a solution. 

Final observations

Let me point out two objections that I have seen. Van Snyder wrote: 

NaN is not part of the set of floating-point numbers, so it doesn’t behave as if “bottom” were added to the set. 

Interesting point, but, in my opinion not applicable: is indeed not part of the mathematical set of floating point numbers, but in the form of NaN it is part of the corresponding type (float in C, REAL in Eiffel); and the operations of the type are applicable to all values, including NaN if, as noted, we have not taken the extreme step of triggering an exception every time an operation uses a NaN as one of its operands. So we cannot free ourselves from the monotonicity concern by just a sleight of hands. 

Another comment, also by Van Snyder (slightly abridged): 

Think of [the status of NaN] as a variety of dynamic run-time typing. With static typing, if  x is an integer variable and y

        x := y 

does not inevitably lead to 

        x = y

 True; and a compelling argument to require that conversions satisfy equality as a postcondition! Such  reasoning — reflexivity again — was essential in the design of the Eiffel conversion mechanism [3], which makes it possible to define conversions between various data types (not just integers and reals and the other classical examples, but also any other user types as long as the conversion does not conflict with inheritance). The same conversion rules apply to assignment and equality, so that yes, whenever the assignment x := y is permitted, including when it involves a conversion, the property x = y  is afterwards always guaranteed to hold.

It is rather dangerous indeed to depart from the fundamental laws of mathematics. 

References

[1] IEEE floating-point standard, 754-2008; see summary and references in the Wikipedia entry.  

[2] IFIP Working Group 2.5 on numerical software: home page

[3] Eiffel standard (ECMA and ISO), available on the ECMA site.

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A couple of loop examples

(This entry originated as a post on the EiffelStudio user group mailing list.) 

Here are a couple of actual examples of the new loop variants discussed in the blog entry immediately preceding this one. They came out of my current work; I started updating a program to take advantage of the new facility.

As a typical example, I replaced

        local
                eht: HASH_TABLE [EXPRESSION, EXPRESSION]
        do
               
        from
                eht := item (e)
                eht.start
         until
                eht.off
        loop
                Result.extend (eht.key_for_iteration)
                eht.forth
        end 

 by

        across item (e) as eht loop Result.extend (eht.key) end

 which also gets rid of the local variable declaration. The second form is syntactic sugar for the first, but I find it justified. 

 Another case, involving nested loops: 

— Previously:

        from
                other.start
        until
                other.off
        loop
                oht := other.item_for_iteration
                e := other.key_for_iteration
                from
                        oht.start
                until
                        oht.off
                loop
                        put (e, oht.item_for_iteration)
                        oht.forth
                end
                other.forth
        end

— Now:

        across other as o loop
                across o.item as oht loop put (o.key, oht.item) end
        end

here getting rid of two local variable declarations (although I might for efficiency reintroduce the variable e  to compute o.key just once). 

It is important to note that these are not your grandmother’s typical loops: they iterate on complex data structures, specifically hash tables where the keys are lists and the items are themselves hash tables, with lists as both items and keys. 

The mechanism is applicable to all the relevant data structures in EiffelBase (in other words, no need for the programmer to modify anything, just apply the across  loop to any such structure), and can easily extended to any new structure that one wishes to define. In the short term at least, I still plan in my introductory teaching to show the explicit variants first, as it is important for beginners to understand how a loop works. (My hunch based on previous cases is that after a while we will feel comfortable introducing the abstract variants from the start, but it takes some time to learn how to do it right.)

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