Posts Tagged ‘functional programming’

Lisp and functional languages discourage free riders

October 15th, 2015 3 comments

While many developers have a favorite programming language, there are a few who believe they have found the One True Language and refuse to even consider coding in another language.

Why is the One True Language invariably a dialect of Lisp or a functional language?

I think the reason is the same as why strict churches are strong, both these language families make life difficult for free riders, i.e., the casual programmer.

Superficially Lisp-like languages look unwelcoming because of all those brackets and the tiresome reverse polish notation, but once past these surface speed bumps life is not a bed of roses, there are mind bending language challenges to master at every abstraction level; developers get sucked into the community working on mastering each level (this suggests an alternative explanation that coding in Lisp is a way of continuing to play Dungeons & Dragons while appearing to work).
True functional languages don’t have global variables and certainly don’t let you create stateful information. The self-flagulation no global variable languages have a limited clientèle; its the writing of programs that don’t make use of side-effects (e.g., iteration via recursion, not explicit loops) that marks out the true community members; a short conversation with a developer is enough to tell whether they are one-of-us who joyfully tells the world of their latest assignment-free solution to an apparently intractable problem (intractable in the sense of appearing to require the use of assignment statements). There are always umpteen different ways of writing something in functional languages, providing plenty of scope for sects to splinter off by requiring disciples to follow a particular approved style.

Why have Lisp and functional programming continued to survive for so long? Some interesting research on communal societies has found a correlation between the number of costly requirements entailed by community membership and community longevity, the greater the number of costly requirements the longer a community survives. Having sunk so much time and effort into the costly signaling required for community membership, people are loath to leave it all behind.

Push hard on a problem here and it might just pop up over there

April 2nd, 2013 7 comments

One thing I have noticed when reading other peoples’ R code is that their functions are often a lot longer than mine. Writing overly long functions is a common novice programmer mistake, but the code I am reading does not look like it is written by novices (based on the wide variety of base functions they are using, something a novice is unlikely to do, and by extrapolating my knowledge of novice behavior in other languages to R). I have a possible explanation for these longer functions, R users’ cultural belief that use of global variables is taboo.

Where did this belief originate? I think it can be traced back to the designers of R being paid up members of the functional programming movement of the early 80’s. This movement sought to mathematically prove programs correct but had to deal with the limitation that existing mathematical techniques were not really up to handling programs that contained states (e.g., variables that were assigned different values at different points in their execution). The solution was to invent a class of programming languages, functional languages, that did not provide any mechanisms for creating states (i.e., no global or local variables) and using such languages was touted as the solution to buggy code. The first half of the 80’s was full of computing PhD students implementing functional languages that had been designed by their supervisor, with the single application written by nearly all these languages being their own compiler.

Having to use a purely functional language to solve nontrivial problems proved to be mindbogglingly hard and support for local variables crept in and reading/writing files (which hold state) and of course global variables (but you must not use them because that would generate a side-effect; pointing to a use of a global variable in some postgrad’s code would result in agitated arm waving and references to a technique described in so-and-so’s paper which justified this particular use).

The functional world has moved on, or to be exact mathematical formalisms not exist that are capable of handling programs that have state. Modern users of functional languages don’t have any hangup about using global variables. The R community is something of a colonial outpost hanging on to views from a homeland of many years ago.

Isn’t the use of global variables recommended against in other languages? Yes and No. Many languages have different kinds of global variables, such as private and public (terms vary between languages); it is the use of public globals that may raise eyebrows, it may be ok to use them in certain ways but not others. The discussion in other languages revolves around higher level issues like information hiding and controlled access, ideas that R does not really have the language constructs to support (because R programs tend to be short there is rarely a need for such constructs).

Lets reformulate the question: “Is the use of global variables in R bad practice?”

The real question is: Given two programs, having identical external behavior, one that uses global variables and one that does not use global variables, which one will have the lowest economic cost? Economic cost here includes the time needed to figure out how to write the code and time to fix any bugs.

I am not aware of any empirical evidence, in any language, that answers this question (if you know of any please let me know). Any analysis of this question requires enumerating those problems where a solution involving a global variable might be thought to be worthwhile and comparing the global/nonglobal code; I know of a few snippets of such analysis in other languages.

Coming back to these long R functions, they often contain several for loops. Why are developers using for loops rather than the *ply functions? Is it because the *aply solution might require the use of a global variable, a cultural taboo that can be avoided by having everything in one function and using a for loop?

Next time somebody tells you that using global variables is bad practice you should ask for some evidence that backs that statement up.

I’m not saying that the use of global variables is good or bad, but that the issue is a complicated one. Enforcing a ‘no globals’ policy might just be moving the problem it was intended to solve to another place (inside long functions).

Predictions for 2009

December 31st, 2008 No comments

If the shape of code does change over time, it changes very slowly. Styles become more or less popular, but again the time-scale is generally longer than a year. Anyway, here are my predictions for goings on the in the community that shapes code.

1) Functional programming will continue to entrance the young whose idealism will continue to be dashed when they have to deal with the real world. Ok, I started with something obvious that will still be true in 20 years and I promise not to to to keep repeating myself on this one every year.

2) The LLVM project will die. I am surprised that it has lasted this long, but it is probably costing Apple so little that it is not on management’s radar. Who needs another C compiler; perhaps 10 years ago they could have given the moribund gcc project a run for its money, but an infusion of keen people and a complete reworking of its internals has kept gcc as the leading contender to be the only C compiler developers use in 10 years time.

3) Static analysis will go mainstream. The driving force will not be developers loosing their aversion to being told of their mistakes, but because the world’s economic predicament will force them to deliver better performance in less time, ie they will be forced to use tools to help them find coding faults. The fact that various groups are starting to add hooks to the mainstream compilers (e.g., Microsoft’s Phoenix, gcc’s Dehydra), ensuring compatibility with an existing code base and making it easier for developers use, also helps. The gcc people may yet shoot themselves in the foot. Of course people will continue to develop new stand-alone tools and extract money from government to do something that sounds useful.

4) Natural language programming will finally gain a foothold. One of the big unnoticed announcements of the year was the Attempto project releasing the source code of their controlled English system.

5) The rate of gcc’s progress to world domination will accelerate. There are still quite a few market niches where gcc is a minority player (eg, embedded systems) and various compilers need to disappear for it to gain market share. Compiler writing has never been a very profitable business and compiler companies usually go bust or are taken over by hardware vendors looking for customer lock-in. The current economic situation means that compiler companies are both more likely to go bust and to not be brought, ie, their compilers will (commercially) disappear.

6) The number of people involved in writing software will continue to decline in the West and increase in the East. These days there is not a lot of difference in cost between east/west, it is the quality of developers (or rather there are more of a reasonable standard available). The declining standards in science/engineering education is the driving factor, the economic situation is just creating extra exposure.