Two-way Dataflow

I’ll be demoing my latest work at the Future Programming Workshop at both Strange Loop and SPLASH. My talk is called “Two-way Dataflow”. Here is the abstract:

Subtext is an experiment to radically simplify application programming. The goal is to combine the power of frameworks like Rails and iOS with the simplicity of a spreadsheet. Mutable state is a notorious source of complexity in application programming and indeed has long been a major dilemma in programming language design. I propose a new approach called two-way dataflow, which breaks the program into cyclic output and input phases. Output is handled with traditional one-way dataflow, which is realized here as a form of pure lazy functional programming. Input is governed by a new semantics called one-way action which is a highly restricted form of event-driven imperative programming. These restrictions statically order event execution to avoid callback hell. Two-way dataflow has been designed not only to simplify the semantics of application programming but also to support a representation that, like a spreadsheet, provides a fully WYSIWYG programming experience.

This work is still very experimental and preliminary but I hope it is complete enough to convey several key new ideas that are relevant to the current trends of “reactive” and “live” programming.

Developer inequality and the technical debt crisis

Recently there have been heated complaints that the culture of programming unfairly excludes some groups. They want to join the programming elite and get a spot at the startup trough. More power to them. I really have nothing to say about this issue because I think it is a distraction from a bigger issue with far greater importance to society. The bigger injustice is that programming has become an elite: a vocation requiring rare talents, grueling training, and total dedication. The way things are today if you want to be a programmer you had best be someone like me on the autism spectrum who has spent their entire life mastering vast realms of arcane knowledge — and enjoys it. Normal humans are effectively excluded from developing software. The real injustice of developer inequality is that it doesn’t have to be this way.
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See you at Strange Loop

Two announcements. First, the official Call for Submissions is up.
Second, we will be at StrangeLoop too. We are partnering with Alex Payne and his Emerging Languages Camp to run FPW on the day before StrangeLoop. You can submit for SPLASH or StrangeLoop or both. See the Call for more details.
Now you have twice the motivation to do a killer demo. Get on it!

The revolution will be screencast

Richard Gabriel and I are planning a workshop at SPLASH focused on screencast demos: The Future Programming Workshop. This will be a workshop in the sense of a writer’s workshop: the participants will present their talks/demos and the group will critique them. After the workshop people will revise their screencasts to be published on our website. Please signup at the website if you are interested.

Increasingly, new programming ideas show up first as video talks and screencast demos, long before any papers get written. A good example is Bret Victor’s videos. My own screencasts have led to far more interaction than my papers. Frankly, writing papers is really hard, especially for raw new ideas. Non-academics often struggle to write papers, effectively excluding them from the conversation. The point of this workshop is to foster the exchange of radical new programming ideas in their formative stage, via the medium of screencasts. We hope to build a community of explorers at the frontier of programming. Please join us.

Hello Lamdu

Interesting new work: Lamdu [Hacker News discussion] from Eyal Lotem and Yair Chuchem. They aren’t showing a lot of results yet, but I really like the espoused principles of the project. This is worth keeping an eye on.

They are building an advanced IDE for a variant of Haskell with keyword arguments and structural record types (Subtext makes the same choices). They have moved type inference from the compiler into the IDE, where it can be exploited for assisting programming. I like that they are thinking beyond just live execution to the bigger issues of code refactoring and intensional versioning. They also appreciate the benefits of normalizing code formatting: “co-macros” re-sugar into normal forms (ditto Subtext).

It will be most interesting to see in what ways Lamdu alters the experience of Haskell. I’ve long said that functional languages are a better fit for advanced IDEs. Haskell is the state of the art in functional programming, so it is a useful experiment to enliven and illuminate it, and perhaps even make it more friendly. If they can pull this off it will be a really big win because they can leverage the large capital investment in Haskell implementation and libraries.

I wish Lamdu the best of luck and look forward to learning more about it.

Leaked transcript of censored Bret Victor talk

Another masterpiece from Bret Victor: The Future of Programming.

What you probably don’t know is that his talk was actually an hour long. The second half was censored from the internet by an as yet unexplained mechanism. Luckily his talk was written on sheets of cellulose which survived the digital attack. I have seen these slides and can exclusively reveal their contents.
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Down the rabbit hole of types

Time for a progress report, now that I have some progress to report. I didn’t get much research done last semester because I was teaching a new class: 6.170 Software Studio. It was a noble experiment with mixed results, but that is another story. Back in March I presented the latest version of Subtext at the IFIP Working Group 2.16 on Programming Language Design. I realized then that Subtext should be statically typed. Ever since I have been falling down the rabbit hole of types.
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Turing on programming

The process of constructing instruction tables should be very fascinating. There need be no real danger of it ever becoming a drudge, for any processes that are quite mechanical may be turned over to the machine itself.

– Turing, A. M., 1946, Proposed electronic calculator, report for National Physical Laboratory, Teddington

So was Turing wrong, or are we just doing it wrong?

The voice whispering bulllshhhiiittt

Zed Shaw has another awesome rant at I agree with much of what he says about both the web and OO. I don’t see the causal connection though: they both suck, but it is probably just a coincidence. However the best part of the talk was when he invoked the voice in the back of your head whispering “bulllshhhiiittt”. That nails what programming is like for me. Most of what we have to deal with is just so wrong wrong wrong. Having to get stuff done despite the deep wrongness of it all leads to textbook cognitive dissonance. I have always been slightly amazed by the people who seem so happy and satisfied with programming. I suspect that it ultimately comes down to personality differences. I also suspect that it is a hyper-sensitivity to wrongness that drives misfits and rebels ranging from Steve Jobs to the Unabomber. Does anyone else feel the wrongness of programming?

Update: the other thing I like about Zed’s talk is that it aligns perfectly with my research direction. Decades of listening to that whispering voice have driven me to develop a post-object language. I think the best way to demonstrate this language is by reinventing the web. So I am traveling the same path as Zed but in the opposite direction.

Domain specific programming experience

The discussion on the last post suggested Domain Specific IDEs as a possible way forward. By restricting the domain (e.g. games) the IDE might gain enough semantic insight into the program to properly support advanced interaction designs like live code execution and direct manipulation of results. Well here is a perfect example: the Iguana Translator. These guys have done a great job building an advanced programming experience for the domain specific problem of mapping between data formats. I love seeing new ideas deployed out on the front lines of programming. Hats off to iNTERFACEWARE.

An IDE is not enough

The internets are buzzing with new IDE ideas. I credit Bret Victor’s masterful demo for much of this. Chris Granger is having amazing success kickstarting his IDE concept. Josh Marinacci discussed some possibilities. [Another one: Instant C#] I have been working in this area for over a decade and have very mixed feelings about these events. On the one hand, it is great to wake people out of their stupor and and show them what might be possible. But on the other hand I am bothered with the unspoken implication that such things are possible with current programming languages. Just slap a magical new IDE on top of Java or JavaScript and the world will be a better place. Unfortunately I don’t believe that is possible, and I fear it will lead only to disappointment and further fatalism.
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Kickstarter: the aftermath

On Kickstarting research I asked for comments on the Light Table project. They were largely positive. Now, for the sake of argument, let’s assume this will be a complete disaster (a reasonable assumption based on history). What are the consequences?

Are people going to be pissed off and give similar efforts a bad rap? Or will they just see it as $50 donated to a good cause? Or, to paraphrase P.T.Barnum, is there a micro-investor born every minute?

Kickstarting research

Chris Granger has a Kickstarter project to fund his IDE concept Light Table. He is looking for $200K and already has more than $100K in 13 days. It took him 6 days to build the demo.

There is much I want to say about this, but it all pales in comparison to the raw facts above. Let’s skip the sterile debate on whether there is anything intellectually new in the proposal. What is the bigger meaning of these events?