Posts Tagged ‘language standard’

2017 in the programming language standards’ world

July 12th, 2017 No comments

Yesterday I was at the British Standards Institution for a meeting of IST/5, the committee responsible for programming languages.

The amount of management control over those wanting to get to the meeting room, from outside the building, has increased. There is now a sensor activated sliding door between the car-park and side-walk from the rear of the building to the front, and there are now two receptions; the ground floor reception gets visitors a pass to the first floor, where a pass to the fifth floor is obtained from another reception (I was totally confused by being told to go to the first floor, which housed the canteen last time I was there, and still does, the second reception is perched just inside the automatic barriers to the canteen {these barriers are also new; the food is reasonable, but not free}).

Visitors are supposed to show proof that they are attending a meeting, such as a meeting calling notice or an agenda. I have always managed to look sufficiently important/knowledgeable/harmless to get in without showing any such documents. I was asked to show them this time, perhaps my image is slipping, but my obvious bafflement at the new setup rescued me.

Why does BSI do this? My theory is that it’s all about image, BSI is the UK’s standard setting body and as such has to be seen to follow these standards. There is probably some security standard for rules to follow to prevent people sneaking into buildings. It could be argued that the name British Standards is enough to put anybody off wanting to enter the building in the first place, but this does not sound like a good rationale for BSI to give. Instead, we have lots of sliding doors/gates, multiple receptions (I suspect this has more to do with a building management cat fight over reception costs), lifts with no buttons ‘inside’ for selecting floors, and proof of reasons to be in the building.

There are also new chairs in the open spaces. The chairs have very high backs and side-baffles that surround the head area, excellent for having secret conversations and in-tune with all the security. These open areas are an image of what people in the 1970s thought the future would look like (BSI is a traditional organization after all).

So what happened in the meeting?

Cobol standard’s work becomes even more dead. PL22.4, the US Cobol group is no more (there were insufficient people willing to pay membership fees, so the group was closed down).

People are continuing to work on Fortran (still the language of choice for supercomputer Apps), Ada (some new people have started attending meetings and support for @ is still being fought over), C, Internationalization (all about character sets these days). Unprompted somebody pointed out that the UK C++ panel seemed to be attracting lots of people from the financial industry (I was very professional and did not relay my theory that it’s all about bored consultants wanting an outlet for their creative urges).

SC22, the ISO committee responsible for programming languages, is meeting at BSI next month, and our chairman asked if any of us planned to attend. The chair’s response, to my request to sell the meeting to us, was that his vocabulary was not up to the task; a two-day management meeting (no technical discussions permitted at this level) on programming languages is that exciting (and they are setting up a special reception so that visitors don’t have to go to the first floor to get a pass to attend a meeting on the ground floor).

Fortran 2008 Standard has been updated

October 14th, 2016 No comments

An updated version of ISO/IEC 1539-1 Information technology — Programming languages — Fortran — Part 1: Base language has just been published. So what has JTC1/SC22/WG5 been up to?

This latest document is bug a release of the 2010 standard, known as Fortran 2008 (because the ANSI Standard from which the ISO Standard was derived, sed -e "s/ANSI/ISO/g" -e "s/National/International/g", was published in 2008) and incorporates all the published corrigenda. I must have been busy in 2008, because I did not look to see what had changed.

Actually the document I am looking at is the British Standard. BSI don’t bother with sed, they just glue a BSI Standards Publication page on the front and add BS to the name, i.e., BS ISO/IEC 1539-1:2010.

The interesting stuff is in Annex B, “Deleted and obsolescent features” (the new features are Fortranized versions of languages features you have probable seen elsewhere).

Programming language committees are known for issuing dire warnings that various language features are obsolescent and likely to be removed in a future revision of the standard, but actually removing anything is another matter.

Well, the Fortran committee have gone and deleted six features! Why wasn’t this on the news? Did the committee foresee the 2008 financial crisis and decide to sneak out the deletions while people were looking elsewhere?

What constructs cannot now appear in conforming Fortran programs?

  1. “Real and double precision DO variables. .. A similar result can be achieved by using a DO construct with no loop control and the appropriate exit test.”

    What other languages call a for-loop, Fortran calls a DO loop. So loop control variables can no longer have a floating-point type.

  2. “Branching to an END IF statement from outside its block.”

    An if-statement is terminated by the token sequence END IF, which may have an optional label. It is no longer possible to GOTO that label from outside the block of the if-statement. You are going to have to label the statement after it.

  3. “PAUSE statement.”

    This statement dates from the days when a computer (singular, not plural) had its own air-conditioned room and a team of operators to tend its every need. A PAUSE statement would cause a message to appear on the operators’ console and somebody would be dispatched to check the printer was switched on and had paper, or some such thing, and they would then resume execution of the paused program.

    I think WG5 has not seen the future here. Isn’t the PAUSE statement needed again for cloud computing? I’m sure that Amazon would be happy to quote a price for having an operator respond to a PAUSE statement.

  4. “ASSIGN and assigned GO TO statements and assigned format specifiers.”

    No more assigning labels to variables and GOTOing them, as a means of leaping around 1,000 line functions. This modern programming practice stuff is a real killjoy.

  5. “H edit descriptor.”

    First programmers stopped using punched cards and now the H edit descriptor have been removed from Fortran; Herman Hollerith no longer touches the life of working programmers.

    In the good old days real programmers wrote 11HHello World. Using quote delimiters for string literals is for pansies.

  6. “Vertical format control. … There was no standard way to detect whether output to a unit resulted in this vertical format control, and no way to specify that it should be applied; this has been deleted. The effect can be achieved by post-processing a formatted file.”

    Don’t panic, C still supports the \v escape sequence.

Do languages evolve to minimise portability?

February 10th, 2015 No comments

Governments promote standards because following them helps their citizens save money. The UK and US have contrasting positions, with the UK focusing on savings achieved through the repeated use of standardized items and the US focusing on the repeated use of skills people acquired through using a standardized item.

What benefit, if any, do product vendors receive from adhering to a standard? A few vendors may be in a position to use economies of scale to gain market share (by driving out of business less well funded competitors), other vendors follow a specified standard as a means of winning a contract with large customers, and the rest don’t care.

In the program language world, for 20 odd years, there were just the Cobol and Fortran standards. These started out idealistically driven because hardware vendors had to convince potential customers that it was commercially viable for them to write software for the products they were selling (i.e., the early computers). Once business started to take off the computer industry’s compete/cooperate dynamic, mixed with large egos wanting their own way and the sales driven mandate to keep existing customers happy (i.e., don’t break existing code) took over. There was lots of infighting and progress was slow, but at least there were lots of people who thought it important enough to be involved.

In the mid-1980s there was a seismic shift in approach to language standards with Pascal and C becoming ISO standards, the first created by a group of mainly academics and the second by a group containing many small company consultants/vendors. The age of ‘activist’ language ISO standard creation had begun; which is not to say that anything changed in the Cobol and Fortran standards’ world. For a look back at this decade see: Computer Standards & Interfaces, volume 16, numbers 5 & 6, Sep 1994.

If you were to put somebody who knew nothing about computer languages in a room with the standard’s committees for Modula-2 and C++, I don’t think they would be able to tell them apart. Inside the bubble its not possible to distinguish the language that died before its standard was published and the language that continues to grow like Topsy.

Activists want to get things done and will select the route of minimal bureaucratic resistance. These days this means that new language standards are often created locally and fed into the ISO process higher once they are done.

Open source compilers have solved many of the source portability problems caused by language dialects, that standards were intended to solve, by dramatically shrinking the market of the compilers that supported those dialects.

Where has the user been in all this? Well, where-ever they are, they are rarely seen at language standard meetings.

These days portability problems are caused by the multitude of languages, not by the multitude of dialects of a language.

Oh, I did not know that [about R]

May 20th, 2014 No comments

I recently saw a post about something called ValidR and as somebody with a long standing professional interest in language validation immediately read the article and referenced links. I was disappointed to find that what was being validated was the installation, not the behavior of the implementation. In the context of what I understand ValidR’s target market to be, drug testing, obtaining reproducible results is very important and so it is necessary to know exact what software has been installed (e.g., packages and their versions).

Implementation validation involves checking that the implementation of a language adheres to the requirements specified in the appropriate language standard. While International standards exist for many of the widely used languages, some have standard’s developed through other means and some have no recognized specification at all (e.g., PHP, Perl and R).

Not having a recognized specification is a problem for PHP because there are multiple implementations in common use. Perl and R both have a dominant implementation, which means the definition of the language is accepted as being whatever that implementation does.

Now, anybody who claims that having an open source implementation is as good as having a specification written in English (i.e., people can read the code to discover the behavior) clearly have not done much, if any, reading of language implementations. Over the years I have worked with the source of a fare few language implementations and my general experience is that the fastest and most reliable way of finding out what an implementation does is to write test case, only reading the source when test cases cannot be found that answer the questions.

Does it matter that there is no complete English specification of R (the current specification is very much a work in progress, with lots of progress remaining)?

Who reads computer language specifications (apart from language wonks like me)? Creators of implementations is the most obvious answer. But an R implementation already exists, why should the R team spend time making it easier to create alternative implementations? Actually I see the main customers of an R language specification being the R-core team.

An example of the benefits to the owner of source code in having a specification is provided by the EU/Microsoft competition court case. I was an adviser to the Monitoring Trustee appointed by the Commission to oversee the documentation of the specification of these protocols (no previous documentation existed). A frequently heard comment from the senior Microsoft developers we dealt with, on reading their own new specifications, was “Oh, I did not know that”.

A written specification is much more compact than source code or test cases and is (or should be) organized in a way that helps readers understand what is being said (this is often a stated aim for source code but is rare achieved). There are probably lots of behaviors that the R team are unaware of which, if they get to find out about them, might be interested in ‘fixing’ or at least discussing whether it is a desirable behavior. Or perhaps the R team’s strategy is to make life difficult for competing implementations.

February 2012 news in the programming language standard’s world

February 15th, 2012 2 comments

Yesterday I was at the British Standards Institute for a meeting of the programming languages committee. Some highlights and commentary:

  • The first Technical Corrigendum (bug fixes, 47 of them) for Fortran 2008 was approved.
  • The Lisp Standard working group was shutdown, through long standing lack of people interested in taking part; this happened at the last SC22 meeting, the UK does not have such sole authority.
  • WG14 (C Standard) has requested permission to start a new work item to create a new annex to the standard containing a Secure Coding Standard. Isn’t this the area of expertise of WG23 (Language vulnerabilities)? Well, yes; but when the US Department of Homeland Security is throwing money at cyber security increasing the number of standards’ groups working on the topic creates more billable hours for consultants.
  • WG21 (C++ Standard) had 73 people at their five day meeting last week (ok, it was in Hawaii). Having just published a 1,300+ page Standard which no compiler yet comes close to implementing they are going full steam ahead creating new features for a revised standard they aim to publish in 2017. Does the “Hear about the upcoming features in C++” blogging/speaker circuit/consulting gravy train have that much life left in it? We will see.

The BSI building has new lifts (elevators in the US). To recap, lifts used to work by pressing a button to indicate a desire to change floors, a lift would arrive, once inside one or more people needed press buttons specifying destination floor(s). Now the destination floor has to be specified in advance, a lift arrives and by the time you have figured out there are no buttons to press on the inside of the lift the doors open at the desired floor. What programming language most closely mimics this new behavior?

Mimicking most languages of the last twenty years the ground floor is zero (I could not find any way to enter a G). This rules out a few languages, such as Fortran and R.

A lift might be thought of as a function that can be called to change floors. The floor has to be specified in advance and cannot be changed once in the lift, partial specialization of functions and also the lambda calculus springs to mind.

In a language I just invented:

// The lift specified a maximum of 8 people
lift = function(p_1, p_2="", p_3="", p_4="", p_5="", p_6="", p_7="", p_8="") {...}
// Meeting was on the fifth floor
first_passenger_5th_floor = function lift(5);
second_passenger_4th_floor = function first_passenger_fifth_floor(4);

the body of the function second_passenger_4th_floor is a copy of the body of lift with all the instances of p_1 and p_2 replaced by the 5 and 4 respectively.

Few languages have this kind of functionality. The one that most obviously springs to mind is Lisp (partial specialization of function templates in C++ does not count because they are templates that are still in need of an instantiation). So the ghost of the Lisp working group lives on at BSI in their lifts.