Archive for August, 2016

Does using formal methods mean anything?

August 29th, 2016 No comments

What counts as use of formal methods in software development?

Mathematics is involved, but then mathematics is involved in almost every aspect of software.

Formal methods are founded on the lie that doing things in mathematics means the results must be correct. There are plenty of mistakes in published mathematical proofs, as any practicing mathematician will tell you. The stuff that gets taught at school and university has been thoroughly checked and stood the test of time; the new stuff could be as bug written as software.

In the 1970s and 1980s formals methods was all about use of notation and formalisms. Writing algorithms, specifications, requirements, etc. in what looked like mathematical notation was called formal methods. The hope was that one day a tool would be available to check that what had been written did indeed have the characteristics being claimed, e.g., consistency, completeness, fault free (whatever that meant).

While everybody talked about automatic checking tools, what people spent their time doing was inventing new notations and formalisms. You were not a respected formal methods researcher unless you had several published papers, and preferably a book, describing your own formalism.

The market leader was VDM, mainly due to the work/promotion by Dansk Datamatik Center. I was a fan of Denotational semantics. There are even ISO standards for a couple of formal specification languages.

Fast forward to the last 10 years. What counts as done using formal methods today?

These days researchers who claim to be “doing formal methods” seem to be by writing code (which is an improvement over writing symbols on paper; it helps that today’s computers are orders of magnitude more powerful). The code written involves proof assistants such as Coq and Isabelle and programming languages such as OCaml and Haskell.

Can anybody writing code in OCaml or Haskell claim to be doing formal methods, or does a proof assistant of some kind have to be involved in the process?

If a program’s source code is translated into a form that can be handled by a proof assistant, can the issue of correctness of the translation be ignored? There is one research group who thinks it is ok to “trust” the translation process.

If one component of a program (say, parts of a compiler’s code generator) have been analyzed using a proof assistant, is it ok to claim that the entire program (perhaps the syntax and semantics processing that happens before code generation) has been formally verified? There is one research group who think such claims can be made about the entire program.

If I write a specification in Visual Basic, map this specification into C and involve formal methods at some point(s) in the process, then is it ok for me to claim that the correctness of the C implementation has been formally verified? There seem to be enough precedents for this claim to be viable.

In this day and age, is the use of formal methods anything more than a sign of intellectual dishonesty? Or is it just that today’s researchers are lazy, unwilling to put the effort into making sure that claims of correctness are proved start to finish?

‘to program’ is 70 this month

August 19th, 2016 2 comments

‘To program’ was first used to describe writing programs in August 1946.

The evidence for this is contained in First draft of a report on the EDVAC by John von Neumann and material from the Moore School lectures. Lecture 34, held on 7th August, uses “program” in its modern sense.

My copy of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, from 1976, does not list the computer usage at all! Perhaps, only being 30 years old in 1976, the computer usage was only considered important enough to include in the 20 volume version of the dictionary and had to wait a few more decades to be included in the shorter 2 volume set. Can a reader with access to the 20 volume set from 1976 confirm that it does include a computer usage for program?

Program, programme, 1633. [orig., in spelling program, – Gr.-L. programma … reintroduced from Fr. programme, and now more usu. so spelt.] … 1. A public notice … 2. A descriptive notice,… a course of study, etc.; a prospectus, syllabus; now esp. a list of the items or ‘numbers’ of a concert…

It would be another two years before a stored program computer was available ‘to program’ computers in a way that mimics how things are done today.

Grier ties it all together in a convincing argument in his paper: “The ENIAC, the verb “to program” and the emergence of digital computers” (cannot find a copy outside a paywall).

Steven Wolfram does a great job of untangling Ada Lovelace’s computer work. I think it is true to say that Lovelace is the first person to think like a programmer, while Charles Babbage was the first person to think like a computer hardware engineer.

If you encounter somebody claiming to have been programming for more than 70 years, they are probably embellishing their cv (in the late 90s I used to bump into people claiming to have been using Java for 10 years, i.e., somewhat longer than the language had existed).

Update: Oxford dictionaries used to come with an Addenda (thanks to Stephen Cox for reminding me in the comments; my volume II even says “Marl-Z and Addenda” on the spine).

Program, programme. 2. c. Computers. A fully explicit series of instructions which when fed into a computer will automatically direct its operation in carrying out a specific task 1946. Also as v. trans., to supply (a computer) with a p.; to cause (a computer) to do something by this means; also, to express as or in a p. Hence Programming vbl. sbl., the operation of programming a computer; also, the writing or preparation of programs. Programmer, a person who does this.

ALGEC: ALGorithmic language for EConomic problems

August 10th, 2016 No comments

I have been reading about ALGEC, the computer language invented in the Soviet Union during the early 1960s, courtesy of a translation of the article Report on the Working Sessions of the Group on Algorithmic Languages for Processing Economic Information (GAIAPEI) by Rand.

The Soviet Union ran a command economy and the job of computers was obviously to process economic information.

The language is based on Algol 60, the default base language for the design of most establishment driven programming languages.

Since the Soviets were the only country to build a computer that used ternary logic, I was hoping that the language would include support for this ‘feature’. No such luck.

Two features caught by attention:

  • Keywords can be written in a form that denotes their gender and number. For instance, Boolean can be written: логическое (neuter), логический (masculine), логическая (feminine) and логические (plural).
  • The keyword for the go to token is to. There is obviously something about the use of Russian that makes it obvious that the word go should not be part of this keyword.

Do readers know of any other computer language which have been influence by features of the designers native human language (apart, obviously from all the English derived computer languages)?

Happy 10th birthday to CREST

August 5th, 2016 No comments

Most university departments run regularly seminars and in July 2001 I attended a half day workshop run by Mark Harman at Brunel University. Over the years the workshop has changed names, locations and grown into a two day event with a worldwide reputation.

When Mark became professor of software engineering at University College London, the workshops became known as the CREST Open Workshops and next month the 47th workshop will celebrate 10 years of the CREST centre. Workshops vary from being mostly theory oriented to mostly practice oriented; the contents is always leading edge stuff. For many years the talks have been filmed and the back catalog contains plenty of interesting material.

If you are interested in the latest software engineering related issues, at a rather technical level, then keep an eye out for upcoming CREST workshops. The theory/practice orientation of a workshop is usually easy to guess from the style of papers written by the speakers. There are other software engineering groups dotted around the world; I have no experience of their seminars/workshops, but I’m sure they will make you feel welcome.

So, here’s to another 10 years of interesting workshops.

Some CREST related blog posts:

Human vs automatically generated source code: an arms race?

Machine learning in SE research is a bigger train wreck than I imagined

Hardware variability may be greater than algorithmic improvement

Workshop on App Store Analysis

Arm waver or expert?

Predictive Modeling: 15th COW workshop

Software maintenance via genetic programming