Articles by tag: April 1

Parley: User Studies for Syntax Design
The New MOOR's Law
ECMA Announces Official λJS Adoption

Parley: User Studies for Syntax Design

Tags: April 1, Pyret

Posted on 01 April 2014.

Programming languages' syntax choices have always been cause for spirited, yet unresolvable, debate. Opinions and so-called best practices dominate discussion, with little empirical evidence to justify them. As part of the Pyret project, we've been performing one of the most comprehensive empirical studies on programming language syntax.

To recap some of the issues: Many languages repurpose plain English words for keywords, and run afoul of the impedance mismatch between, for instance, the dictionary meaning of switch and its semantics within the language (see Language-Independent Conceptual "Bugs" in Novice Programming for a much more detailed discussion). Another alternative, using non-ASCII symbols which cannot have their meaning conflated, is promising but doesn't work well with traditional editors (APL, we're looking at you).

We are, instead, evalauting the use of unconventional syntax motivated by a non-technical, easily-interpreted lexicon. We refer to these cohesive lexicons as lingos, and have begun experimenting with one lingo-based syntax for Pyret, which we call Parley. It is best to see the Parley lingo in action, compared to the more traditional syntax in early versions of Pyret:

var sum = 0
var arr = [1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8]
for each(piece from arr):
  sum := sum + piece
yar sum be 0
yar arr be [1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8]
fer each(piece of arr):
  sum now be sum + piece

While it should seem obvious to the casual reader that Parley lingo is a strict improvement, this is not a substitute for empirical evaluation. To this end, we have been running a rummy series of user studies to validate the new syntax. Our latest experiments are testing program comprehension using an aye-tracker. The results, which will be submitted to the Principles of Pirate Lingo conference, are pending clearance from our Aye Arr Bee.

The New MOOR's Law

Tags: April 1, Education

Posted on 01 April 2013.

Though this was posted on April 1, and the quotes in this article should be interpreted relative to that date, MOOR itself is not a joke. Students from our online course produced a semantics for Python, with a paper describing it published at OOPSLA 2013.

PROVIDENCE, RI, USA - With the advent of Massively Open and Online Courses (MOOCs), higher education faces a number of challenges. Services like Udacity and Coursera will provide learning services of equivalent quality for a fraction of the cost, and may render the need for traditional education institutions obsolete. With the majority of universities receiving much of their cash from undergraduate tuition, this makes the future of academic research uncertain as well.

"[Brown] lacks the endowment of a school like Harvard to weather the coming storm."
-Roberto Tamassia

Schools may eventually adapt, but it's unclear what will happen to research programs in the interim. “I'm concerned for the future of my department at Brown University, which lacks the endowment of a school like Harvard to weather the coming storm,” said Roberto Tamassia, chair of the Computer Science department at Brown.

But one Brown professor believes he has a solution for keeping his research program alive through the impending collapse of higher education. He calls it MOOR: Massively Open and Online Research. The professor, Shriram Krishnamurthi, claims that MOOR can be researchers' answer to MOOCs: “We've seen great user studies come out of crowdsourcing platforms like Mechanical Turk. MOOR will do the same for more technical research results; it's an effective complement to Turk.”

"MOOR ... is an effective complement to [Mechanical] Turk."
-Shriram Krishnamurthi

MOOR will reportedly leverage the contributions of novice scholars from around the globe in an integrated platform that aggregates experimental results and proposed hypotheses. This is combined with a unique algorithm that detects and flags particularly insightful contributions. This will allow research results never before possible, says Joe Gibbs Politz: “I figure only one in 10,000 people can figure out decidable and complete principal type inference for a language with prototype-based inheritance and equirecursive subtyping. So how could we even hope to solve this problem without 10,000 people working on it?”

Krishnamurthi has historically recruited undergraduate Brown students to aid him in his research efforts. Leo Meyerovich, a former Krishnamurthi acolyte, is excited about changing the structure of the educational system, and shares concerns about Krishnamurthi's research program. With the number of undergraduates sure to dwindle to nothing in the coming years, he says, “Shriram will need to come up with some new tricks.”

Brown graduates Ed Lazowska and Peter Norvig appear to agree. While Lazowska refused to comment on behalf of the CRA, saying its position on the matter is “still evolving,” speaking personally, he added, “evolve or die.” As of this writing, Peter Norvig has pledged a set of server farms and the 20% time of 160,000 Google Engineers to support MOOR.

With additional reporting from Kathi Fisler, Hannah Quay-de la Vallee, Benjamin S. Lerner, and Justin Pombrio.

ECMA Announces Official λJS Adoption

Tags: JavaScript, April 1

Posted on 01 April 2012.

GENEVA - ECMA's Technical Committee 39, which oversees the standardization of ECMAScript, has completed the adoption of Brown PLT's λJS as the new basis for the language. "We were being hampered by the endless debates about the semantics of ECMAScript 5", said J. Neumann, the Chairman of the Committee. "By adopting λJS, we can return to focusing on the important parts of the programming language instead, such as its interaction with parts of the W3C DOM Specification."

"The replacement of scope objects with substitution is a clear design flaw."
-Arjun Guha

Improvements to λJS - Neumann added that the standardization process uncovered a significant weakness in λJS: the absence of the with construct. The Technical Committee therefore mandated its introduction. Lead designer Arjun Guha agreed, stating, "The replacement of scope objects with substitution is a clear design flaw. It was pointed out to me by numerous academic researchers who have obtained considerable mileage from them, but it took me a while to appreciate their value." The Committee also recommended a "strict mode", so Guha removed first-class functions, which are widely believed to induce laxity by deferring decision-making.

Opposition to the Change - The adoption of λJS has not, however, met with unanimous approval. When asked for comment, Douglas Crockford of Yahoo! complained that the small parts are not good while the good parts are not small. Another detractor, Northeastern University researcher Sam Tobin-Hochstadt, had pushed for the adoption of Racket as the core language instead of λJS, but he admitted that Racket was untenable as it suffered from having a working module system. The team from Apple declined response, but it is widely rumored that Jonathan Ive is at work on a new core calculus that will have only one operation, which will automatically take the step that the user did not know they should have performed.

"We see this as a fight for the future of the Internet."
-David Herman

Influential Support - Nevertheless, the adoption has support from various influential circles. The Internet Explorer group at Microsoft has already agreed to implement λJS in the core engine of their upcoming release, IE12; lead designer Dean Hachamovitch said it is second in innovation only to the introduction of tabs. Strict mode will be supported in IE13. Google's Mark Miller pointed out, "With the aid of membranes, any primordial vat can be instantiated with desirable liveness properties." When asked to comment about λJS instead of the Miller-Urey experiment, Miller repeated the comment. Finally, noted Mozilla researcher Dave Herman commented, "For Mozilla, we see this as a fight for the future of the Internet." On questioning, he admitted that he diverts all interviews into conversations about Boot2Gecko.