There are many, many reasons why you should never ever accept a job which involves programming in C++ [via TR].
For quite a while now I’ve been thinking, and saying, that languages are the central and fundamental modality for computing, ie everything one might want to do in computer science can/should be approached from a linguistic standpoint. I think I’ve just realised that this slightly misses the point, or at least doesn’t say much — because language is central and fundamental to any intellectual (or at least scientific/non-explicitly-sublime) endeavour.
Forget computer science for a moment, step back, and take a look at language.
Language is a serialisation mechanism for ideas and meaning. It exists and is beneficial because serialisation allows those things to be persisted, exchanged, and manipulated.
In natural language, the persistence mechanisms take the form of writing and recordings; the exchange mechanisms are speech if persistence isn’t required as a side effect, but otherwise largely use the persistence mechanisms. Manipulation takes the form of editing and rewriting at the syntactic level, and argument and debate at the semantic level (and propoganda/sociocultural programming at the political level).
Formal languages are central to computer science not because languages per se have anything much to do with computer science, but because formalisation, which means automation and mechanisation, is the very essence of computer science. It is the science of the mechanistic manipulation of data — “the latest stage in mankind’s ongoing quest to automate everything”, as JVT once said. Languages per se are fundamental to computer science only insofar as they are fundamental to all intelligent human endeavour, in their role as a serialisation mechanism for thought. The point with regard to computer science is not that we use language – that is an unavoidable side effect of thinking; the point is that we have to use formal languages, because of the things we choose to think about. As such, computer science is where the species’ expertise on the formal and formalisable aspects of language reside, mainly (colleagues in linguistics may take issue at this, of course, but my personal opinion is that the distinction between natural and formal is here very very deep, or at best that the formalisms behind natural language are intangible). At its heart, computer science is the science of formalisation; the language of such a science must, necessarily, be largely formal.
I guess that’s it. Does this make sense to anyone else? Maybe I’m not saying anything non-obvious. shrug
(This started, by the way, with me thinking about why the textbook on my table, “Languages and Machines“, is subtitled “An Introduction to the Theory of Computer Science”).
Quite so: prototypes and real applications.
Your prototype needs to be written quickly and then it needs to change quickly. You’ll only be able to do that with a maintainable, flexible code base. In short, a well-written code base. You’re a proficient software engineer, you know how to do this. You probably do it without even thinking.
And at some level, everyone knows this. That’s why prototypes are created in languages like Python. A language that you can write quickly, but also write well, quickly.
Monads and the meaning of imperative language — the delicious alpheccar does a lovely job of introducing denotational semantics without saying enough to scare you off, and shows how exceptions (or even assert) in imperative languages are, at bottom, the Maybe monad. This point generalises (apparently – I know enough to believe it could be true, but not enough to assert that it isn’t untrue) to “any formal description of control flow in an imperative language will be monadic in nature.” Gorgeous.
The stuff about defining domains (and that being the hard part) is resonating with me just now; I’ve spent the day nailing down definitions of sets describing a particular aspect of my pet specification language, CspCASL, and it’s not trivial. And this is the easy part: not proper “domains”, just sets without much internal structure. Markus does that, for the model semantics. Anyway, yay language design.
Formally describing languages is hard. That’s why it doesn’t happen much yet, which is one reason our current languages situation is so messy. My hand-waving prediction: it’s hard but not intractable, and we’re getting better and better at it; in time it’ll be a sufficiently managable problem, with sufficiently good tool support, that languages which aren’t formally described will stagnate in comparison to the new languages then appearing. Naturally, from where I’m standing I see the increasing convergance of computer languages (sounds like a dumbing-down term but I’m really just trying to cover both programming and specification) with full-blown mathematical logic in all its various and colourful forms. Mathematics is the language for describing things formally; a computer program is by necessity a formal description of something, therefore this convergance seems like it will be a good thing – again, from where I’m standing. Whether or not it appears that way because where I’m standing is a good place to get a view of what’s going on, or just because that’s all you can see from here, remains to be seen. ;-)
A couple of years ago I read and greatly enjoyed Bryan Ford’s 2004 paper “Parsing Expression Grammars: A Recognition-Based Syntactic Foundation” [PDF, 134Kb] (wow, it’s still on my desk, in fact); while to my disappointment it proved inapplicable to my research (I’m constrained in the parsing and language description technologies I can use by what I have to integrate with), it was clearly Cool Stuff.
reAnimator — a very cool tool for visualizing regular expressions. Given an RE, renders the corresponding NFA and DFA and animates acceptance (or not) of an input string. Try out the “a|ab|abc|abcd” example with input “a” for a neato example. A flash app, written using python.
2013: Francoise Boisbleu proves that under a certain formulation, Foozles are a categorical dual to Aspects, which gets everyone terribly excited.
It certainly would.
Alex Martelli explaining how Python’s list comprehensions and (new and groovy) generator expressions relate to Haskell, and why Python doesn’t (in generally) do lazy evaluation. As someone with a foot in both camps, but no deep understanding (alas – yet) of what’s actually happening, this is pretty interesting stuff…