Posts Tagged ‘semantics’

2015: A new C semantics research group

June 30th, 2015 2 comments

A very new PhD student research group working on C semantics has just appeared on the horizon. You can tell they are very new to C semantics by the sloppy wording in their survey of C users (what is a ‘normal’ compiler and how does it differ from the ‘current mainstream’ compiler referred to in some questions? I’m surprised the outcome appeared clear to the authors, given the jumble of multiple choice options given to respondents).

Over the years a number of these groups have appeared, existed until their members received a PhD and then disappeared. In some cases one of the group members does something that shows a lot of potential (e.g., the C-semantics work), but the nature of academic research means that either the freshly minted PhD moves to industry or else moves on to another research area. Unfortunately most groups are overwhelmed by the task and pivot into meaningless subsets of concentrating on mathematical organisms. Very, very occasionally interesting work gets supported once the PhD is out of the way, Coccinelle being the stand-out example for C.

It takes implementing a full compiler (as part of a PhD or otherwise) to learn C semantics well enough to do meaningful research on it. The world seems to be stuck in a loop of using research to educate know-nothings until they know-something and then sending them off on another track. This is why C language researchers keep repeating themselves every 10 years or so.

Will anybody in this new group do any interesting work? Alan Mycroft set the bar very high for Cambridge by submitting a 100 page comment document on the draft C89 standard that listed almost as much ambiguous wording as everybody else put together found (but he was implementing a compiler in his spare time and not doing it for a PhD, so perhaps he does not count).

One suggestion I would make to this new group is that if they really are interested in actual usage they should measure actual usage, developer beliefs about compiler behavior is rarely very accurate and always heavily tainted by experiences from when they first started out.

A checklist for evaluating compiler semantic research.

Tags: , ,

Semantic vs phonetic similarity for word pairs: a weekend investigation

April 17th, 2015 No comments

The Computational Semantics hackathon was one of the events I attended last weekend. Most if the suggested problems either looked like they could not reasonably be done in a weekend (it ran 10:00-17:00 on both days, I know academics hacks) or were uninspiring coding problems. Chatting to some of the academics present threw up an interesting idea that involved comparing word pair semantic and phonetic similarity (I have written about my interest in sounds-like and source code identifiers).

Team Semantic-sounds consisted of Pavel and yours truly (code and data).

The linguists I chatted to seemed to think that there would be a lot of word pairs that sounded alike and were semantically similar; I did not succeed it getting any of them to put a percentage to “a lot”. From the human communication point of view, words that both sound alike and have a similar meaning are likely to be confused with each other; should such pairs come into existence they are likely to quickly disappear, at least if the words are in common usage. Sound symbolism related issues got mentioned several times, but we did not have any data to check out the academic enthusiasm.

One of the datasets supplied by the organizers was word semantic similarity data extracted from the Google news corpus. The similarity measure is based on similarity of occurrence, e.g., the two sentences “I like licking ice-cream” and “I like eating ice-cream” suggest a degree of semantic similarity between the words licking and eating; given enough sentences containing licking and eating there are clever ways of calculating a value that can be viewed as a measure of word similarity.

The data contained 72,000+ words, giving a possible half a billion pairs (most having zero similarity). To prune this down a bit we took, for each word, the 150 other words that were most similar to it, giving around 10 million word pairs. Each word was converted to a phoneme sequence and a similarity distance calculated for each pair of phoneme sequences (which we called phonetic distance and claimed it was a measure of how similar the words sounded to each other).

The list of word pairs with high semantic/phonetic similarity was very noisy, with lots of pairs containing the same base word in plural, past tense or some other form, e.g., billion and billions. A Porter stemmer was used to remove all pairs where the words shared the same stem, reducing the list to 2.5 million pairs. Most of the noise now came from differences in British/American spelling. We removed all word pairs that contained a word that was not in the list of words that occurred in the common subset of the British and American dictionaries used by aspell; this reduced the list to half a million pairs.

The output contained some interesting pairs, including: faultless/flawless, astonishingly/astoundingly, abysmal/dismal and elusive/illusive. These look like rarely used words to me (not enough time to add in word frequency counts).

Some pairs had surprisingly low similarity, e.g., artifact/artefact (the British/American spelling equality idea has a far from perfect implementation). Is this lower than expected semantic similarity because there is a noticeable British/American usage difference? An idea for a future hack.

A smoothed scatter plot of semantic vs phonetic similarity (for the most filtered pair list) shows lots of semantically similar pairs that don’t sound alike, but a few that do (I suspect that most of these are noise that better stemming and spell checking will filter out). The following uses Levenshtein distance for phoneme similarity, normalised by the maximum distance for a given phoneme sequence with all phoneme differences having equal weight:

Semantic vs phonetic similarity, levenshtein

and using Jaro-Winkler distance (an alternative distance metric that is faster to calculate):

Semantic vs phonetic similarity, Jaro-WInkler

The empty band at low phonetic similarity is an artifact of the data being quantized (i.e., words contain a small number of components).

Is it worth going to the trouble of comparing phoneme sequences? Would comparing letter sequences be just as good? The following plot shows word pair letter distance vs phonetic similarity distance (there is a noticeable amount of off-diagonal data, i.e., for some pairs letter/phoneme differences are large):

Letter vs Phonetic, Jaro Winkler

Its always good to have some numbers to go with graphical data. The following is the number of pairs having a given phonetic similarity (remember the starting point was the top 150 most semantically similar pairs). The spikes are cause by the discrete nature of word components.

Number of pairs having given levenshtein distance

Squinting at the above it is possible to see an exponential decline as phonetic word similarity increases. It would be interesting to have enough data to display a meaningful 3D plot, perhaps a plane can be fitted (with a log scale on the z-axis).

Rather than using the Google news corpus data as the basis of word pair semantic similarity we could have used the synonym sets from Wordnet. This rather obvious idea did not occur to me until later Saturday and there was no time to investigate. How did the small number of people who created the Wordnet data come up with lists of synonyms? If they simply thought very hard they might have been subject to the availability bias, preferentially producing lists of synonyms that contained many words that sounded alike because those that did not sound alike were less likely to be recalled. Another interesting idea to check out at another hack.

It was an interesting hack and as often happens more new questions were raised than were answered.

Testing compiler semantics with minimal manual input

November 11th, 2013 3 comments

The 2011 revision of the C++ Standard added lots of new constructs to the language and in the past few months both the GCC and LLVM teams have been claiming that the next release of their C++ compilers will fully support the 2011 Standard. How true are these claims? One way of answering this question is to run both compilers over an extensive test suite. There are commercial C++ compiler test suites available, but I don’t have access to them and if I did the license agreement would probably not allow me to talk in detail about the results. Writing compiler tests cases requires a very detailed knowledge of the language; I have done it often enough in previous lives to know that more than a year or so of my time would be needed just to get my head around the semantics of the new C++ features, before I could produce anything half decent.

Is there a way of automating the generation of test cases for language semantics? Automated statement/expression generation is very effective at finding problems with optimizers and code generators. Can this technique be applied to check the semantic requirements of a language?

Having concocted various elaborate schemes over the years I recently realised that life would be a lot simpler if I was willing to accept a very high percentage of erroneous test programs (the better manually written test suites usually contain around as many test cases that intended to fail to compile as tests that pass, i.e., intended to compile correctly; the not so good ones have few failing tests).

If two or more compilers are available the behavior of each of them on a given source file can be compared: differential testing. If both compile a file or fail to compile it, they may both be right or wrong; either way this shared behavior is not interesting, but is likely to be the common case. The interesting case is if one compiles a file and the other fails to compile it; this could be a fault in one of them, or one of those cases where the Standard permits compilers to do their own thing.

I hereby jump to the conclusion that behavior differences is a good proxy for compiler conformance to the language Standard (actually developers are often more interested in all compilers they are likely to use having the same external behavior than conforming to a Standard).

Lets implement this (source code here)!

First we need to generate lots of test cases. The process I used is based on program templates, such as the following (lines starting with ! are places where various constructs can be inserted):

int v;
! declare_id 2
int main(void)
! declare_id 2
! ref_id 2

the identifier after the ! is the name of a file containing lines to be inserted at the given location (the number after the identifier is the maximum number of lines that can be inserted at that point; default 1 if no number given). The following is example file contents for the above template:


int i;
enum {i, j};
enum i {x, y};
struct i {int f;};
typedef int i;


enum i ev_i;
struct i sv_i;
typedef i tv_i;

It is then simply a matter of permuting through all of the possible combinations of lines that can be inserted in the program template, creating a stand alone file for each possibility (18,000 of them in the above example); I used the Python Natural Language Toolkit to do the heavy lifting.

A shell script compiles each source file and compares the compiler exit codes. For the above example there were 16,366 failures, 1,634 passes and no differences (this example contains well established C constructs and any difference would have been surprising).

Next, a feature new in C++11, lambda functions!

Here is the template used:

! declare_xy 2
int main(void)
! declare_xy 2
auto foo_bar =
! define_lambda
return 0;

I cut and pasted some examples from the Standard to create the following optional lines:


[](float a, float b) { return a + b; }
[=](float a, float b) { return a + b; }
[=,x](float a, float b) { return a + b; }
[y](float a, float b) { return a + b; }
[=]()->int { return operator()(this->x + y); }
[&, i]{ }
[=] { decltype(x) y1; decltype((x)) y2 = y1; decltype(y) r1 = y1; decltype((y)) r2 = y2; }

which generated 6,300 source files of which 5,865 failed, 396 passed and 39 were treated differently by the compilers (g++ version 4.7.2, clang version 3.3).

How should the percentages be calculated? If we take the human written numbers for well written test suites containing (roughly) equal numbers of pass/fail tests, then we have around 800 tests of which (say) 40 gave different behavior, giving us a 5% fault rate. Do we share that 5% equally between both compilers or assign 3% for both being wrong and 1% for each being uniquely wrong?

Submitting a bug report to both compiler teams pointing out that their behavior is different from the other’s is a sure fire way to make myself unpopular. Any suggestions for how to resolve this issue, that does not involve me having to study the tiresomely long and convoluted C++ Standard, welcome.

Verified compilers and soap powder advertising

March 10th, 2013 6 comments

There’s a new paper out claiming to be about a formally-verified C compiler, it even states a Theorem about its abilities! If this paper appeared as part of a Soap powder advert the Advertising Standards Authority would probably require clarification of the claims. What clarifications might appear in the small print tucked away at the bottom of the ad?

  1. C source code is not verified directly, it is first translated to the formal notations used by the verification system; the software that performs this translation is assumed to be correct.
  2. The CompCert system may successfully translate programs containing undefined behavior. Any proof statements made about such programs may not be valid.
  3. The support tools are assumed to be correct; primarily the Coq proof assistant, which is written in OCaml.
  4. The CompCert system makes decisions about implementation dependent behaviors and any proofs only apply in the context of these decisions.
  5. The CompCert system makes decisions about unspecified behaviors and any proofs only apply in the context of these decisions.

Some notes on the small print:

The C source translator used by CompCert rarely gets mentioned in any of the published papers; what was done to check its accuracy (I have previously discussed some options)? Presumably the developers who wrote it tried very hard to make sure they did a good job, just like the authors of f2c, a Fortran to C translator, did. Connecting f2c as a front-end of the CompCert system gives us a verified Fortran compiler! I think the f2c translator is much more likely to be correct than the CompCert C source translator, it has been used by a lot more people, processed a lot more source and maintained over a longer period.

When they encounter undefined behavior in source code production C compilers sometimes generate code that has very unexpected behavior. Using the CompCert system will not avoid unexpected behavior in these situations; CompCert simply washes its hands for this kind of code and says all bets are off.

Proving the support tools correct would simply move the assumption of correctness to a different set of tools. I am not aware of any major effort to test whether the Coq system behaves as intended, but have not read all the papers describing it (the list of reported faults is does not appear to be publicly available); bugs have been found in the OCaml implementation.

Like all compilers that generate code, CompCert has to make implementation dependent decisions and select one of the possible unspecified behaviors. The C-Semantics tool generates all unspecified behaviors, rather than just one.

Most developers don’t really know any computer language

November 16th, 2012 3 comments

What does it mean to know a language? I can count to ten in half a dozen human languages, say please and thank you, tell people I’m English and a few other phrases that will probably help me get by; I don’t think anybody would claim that I knew any of these languages.

It is my experience that most developers’ knowledge of the programming languages they use is essentially template based; they know how to write a basic instances of the various language constructs such as loops, if-statements, assignments, etc and how to define identifiers to have a small handful of properties, and they know a bit about how to glue these together.

There are many developers who can skillfully weave together useful programs from the hodge podge of coding knowledge they happen to know (proving that little programming knowledge is needed to write useful programs).

The purpose of this post is not to complain about developers’ lack of knowledge of the programming languages they use; I appreciate that time spent learning about the application domain often gives a better return on investment compared to learning more about a language. The purpose is to suggest that the programming language community (e.g., teachers and tool producers) acknowledge how languages are primarily used and go with the flow rather than maintaining the fiction that developers know anything much about the languages they use and that they should acquire this knowledge to expert level; students should be taught the commonly encountered templates, not the general language rules, developers should be encouraged to use just the common templates (this will also have the side effect of reducing the effort needed to follow other peoples code since the patterns of usage will be familiar to many).

I suspect that many readers will disagree with the statement in this post’s title and I need to provide more evidence before proposing (in another post) how we might adapt to the reality to be found in development teams.

The only evidence I can offer is my own experience; not a very satisfactory situation; a possible measurement approach discussed below. So what is this experience based evidence (I only claim to ‘know’ the handful of language I have written compiler front ends for, with other languages my usage follows the template form just like everybody else)?

  • discussions with developers: individuals and development groups invariabily have their own terminology for programming language constructs (my use of terminology appearing in the language definition usually draws blank stares and I have to make a stab at guessing what the local terms mean and using them if I want to be listened to); asking about identifier scoping or type compatibility rules (assuming that either of the terms ‘scope’ or ‘type compatibility’ is understood) usually results in a vague description of specific instances (invariably the commonly encountered situations),
  • books that claim to teach a language often provide superficial coverage of the language semantics and concentrate on usage examples (because that is what is useful to their readers). Those books claiming to give insight into the depths of a language often contains many mistakes; perhaps the most well konwn example is Herbert Schildt’s “The Annotated ANSI C Standard”, Clive Feather’s review of the 1995 edition and Peter Seebach’s review of later versions,
  • the word ‘Advanced’ has to appear in programming courses for professional developers with 3-10 years of experience because potential customers think they have reached an advanced level. In practice such courses teach the basics and get away with it because most of the attendees don’t know them. My own experiences of teaching such courses is that outside of the walking people through the slides the real teaching is about trying to undo some of the bad habits and misconceptions individuals have picked up over the years.

Recent graduate think they are an expert in the language used on their course because they probably have not met anybody who knows a lot more; some professional developers think they are language experts because the have lots of years of experience, in practice they tend to have spent those years essentially using what they originally learned and are now very adept with that small subset.

How might we measure the program language knowledge of the general developer population?

Software development question/answer sites such as Stack Overflow contain a wealth of information. I think I could write a function that did a reasonably good job of deducing the programing language, if any, being used in the question. Given the language definition (in some cases this might not exist, e.g., Perl and PHP) and the answers to the question how do I figure out the language expertise of the person who wrote the answer?

First we need to filter out those questions that are application related, with code being incidental. Latent Semantic Indexing could be used to locate the strongest connections between parts of the language specification and the non-source code answer text. If strong connections are found the question would be assumed to be programming language related.

Developers only need surface knowledge to sprinkle any answer with phrases related to the language referred to; more in depth analysis is needed.

One idea is to process any code in the question/answer with a compiler capable of generating references to those parts of the language definition used during its semantic processing (ideally ‘part’ would be the sentence level, but I would settle for paragraph level or perhaps couple of paragraph level). A non-trivial overlap between the ‘parts’ references returned by the two searches would be a good indicator of programming language question. The big problem with this idea is complete lack of compilers supporting this language reference functionality (somebody please prove me wrong).

I am currently stumped for a practical technique for a non-superficial way of measuring developer language expertise. The 2013 Mining Software Repositories challenge is based on a dump of the questions/answers from Stack Overflow, I’m looking forward to seeing what useful information researchers extract from it.

Would you buy second hand software from a formal methods researcher?

May 23rd, 2012 No comments

I have been reading a paper on formally proving software correct (Bridging the Gap: Automatic Verified Abstraction of C by Greenaway, Andronick and Klein) and as often the case with papers on this topic the authors have failed to reach the level of honest presentation required by manufacturers of soap power in their adverts.

The Greenaway et al paper describes a process that uses a series of translation steps to convert a C program into what is claimed to be a high level specification in Isabelle/HOL (a language+support tool for doing formal proofs).

The paper was published by an Australian research group; I could not find an Australian advertising standards code dealing with soap power but did find one covering food and beverages. Here is what the Australian Association of National Advertisers has to say in their Food & Beverages Advertising & Marketing Communications Code:

“2.1 Advertising or Marketing Communications for Food or Beverage Products shall be truthful and honest, shall not be or be designed to be misleading or deceptive or otherwise contravene Prevailing Community Standards, and shall be communicated in a manner appropriate to the level of understanding of the target audience of the Advertising or Marketing Communication with an accurate presentation of all information…”

So what claims and statements do Greenaway et al make?

2.1 “Before code can be reasoned about, it must first be translated into the theorem prover.” A succinct introduction to one of the two main tasks, the other being to prove the correctness of these translations.

“In this work, we consider programs in C99 translated into Isabelle/HOL using Norrish’s C parser … As the parser must be trusted, it attempts to be simple, giving the most literal translation of C wherever possible.”

“As the parser must be trusted”? Why must it be trusted? Oh, because there is no proof that it is correct, in fact there is not a lot of supporting evidence that the language handled by Norrish’s translator is an faithful subset of C (ok, for his PhD Norrish wrote a formal semantics of a subset of C; but this is really just a compiler written in mathematics and there are umpteen PhDs who have written compilers for a subset of C; doing it using a mathematical notation does not make it any more fault free).

The rest of the paper describes how the output of Norrish’s translator is generally massaged to make it easier for people to read (e.g., remove redundant statements and rename variables).

Then we get to the conclusion which starts by claiming: “We have presented a tool that automatically abstracts low-level C semantics into higher-level specifications with automatic proofs of correctness for each of the transformation steps.”

Oh no you didn’t. There is no proof for the main transformation step of C to Isabelle/HOL. The only proofs described in the paper are for the post processing fiddling about that was done after the only major transformation step.

And what exactly is this “high-level specification”? The output of the Norrish translator was postprocessed to remove the clutter that invariably gets generated in any high-level language to high-level language translator. Is the result of this postprocessing a specification? Surely it is just a less cluttered representation of the original C?

Actually this paper does contain a major advance in formally proving software correct, tucked away at the start it says “As the parser must be trusted…”. There it is in black and white, if you have some software that must be trusted don’t bother with formal proofs just simply follow the advice given here.

But wait a minute you say, I am ignoring the get out of jail wording “… shall be communicated in a manner appropriate to the level of understanding of the target audience …”. What is the appropriate level of understanding of the target audience, in fact who is the target audience? Is the target audience other formal methods researchers who are familiar with the level of intellectual honesty within their field and take claims made by professional colleagues with a pinch of salt? Are non-formal methods researchers not the target audience and so have no redress to being misled by the any claims made by papers in this field?

Estimating the quality of a compiler implemented in mathematics

May 2nd, 2011 No comments

How can you tell if a language implementation done using mathematical methods lives up to the claims being made about it, without doing lots of work? Answers to the following questions should give you a good idea of the quality of the implementation, from a language specification perspective, at least for C.

  • How long did it take you to write it? I have yet to see any full implementation of a major language done in less than a man year; just understanding and handling the semantics, plus writing the test cases will take this long. I would expect an answer of at least several man years
  • Which professional validation suites have you tested the implementation against? Many man years of work have gone into the Perennial and PlumHall C validation suites and correctly processing either of them is a non-trivial task. The gcc test suite is too light-weight to count. The C Model Implementation passed both
  • How many faults have you found in the C Standard that have been accepted by WG14 (DRs for C90 and C99)? Everybody I know who has created a full implementation of a C front end based on the text of the C Standard has found faults in the existing wording. Creating a high quality formal definition requires great attention to detail and it is to be expected that some ambiguities/inconsistencies will be found in the Standard. C Model Implementation project discoveries include these and these.
  • How many ‘rules’ does the implementation contain? For the C Model Implementation (originally written in Pascal and then translated to C) every if-statement it contained was cross referenced to either a requirement in the C90 standard or to an internal documentation reference; there were 1,327 references to the Environment and Language clauses (200 of which were in the preprocessor and 187 involved syntax). My C99 book lists 2,043 sentences in the equivalent clauses, consistent with a 70% increase in page count over C90. The page count for C1X is around 10% greater than C99. So for a formal definition of C99 or C1X we are looking for at around 2,000 language specific ‘rules’ plus others associated with internal housekeeping functions.
  • What percentage of the implementation is executed by test cases? How do you know code/mathematics works if it has not been tested? The front end of the C Model Implementation contains 6,900 basic blocks of which 87 are not executed by any test case (98.7% coverage); most of the unexecuted basic blocks require unusual error conditions to occur, e.g., disc full, and we eventually gave up trying to figure out whether a small number of them were dead code or just needed the right form of input (these days genetic programming could be used to help out and also to improve the quality of coverage to something like say MC/DC, but developing on a PC with a 16M hard disc does limit what can be done {the later arrival of a Sun 4 with 32M of RAM was mind blowing}).

Other suggested questions or numbers applicable to other languages most welcome. Some forms of language definition do not include a written specification, which makes any measurement of implementation conformance problematic.

Implementing the between operation

July 30th, 2009 5 comments

What code do developers write to check whether a value lies between two bounds (i.e., a between operation)?  I would write (where MIN and MAX might be symbolic names or numeric literals):

   if ( x >= MIN && x <= MAX )

that is I would check the lowest value first. Performing the test in this order just seems the natural thing to do, perhaps because I live in a culture that writes left to write and a written sequence of increasing numbers usually has the lowest number on the left.

I am currently measuring various forms of if-statement conditional expressions that occur in visible source as part of some research on if/switch usage by developers and the between operation falls within the set of expressions of interest. I was not expecting to see any usage of the form:

   if ( x <= MAX && x >= MIN )

that is with the maximum value appearing first. The first program measured threw up seven instances of this usage, all with the minimum value being negative and in five cases the maximum value being zero. Perhaps left to right ordering still applied, but to the absolute value of the bounds.

Measurements of the second and subsequent programs threw up instances that did not follow any of the patterns I had dreamt up. Of the 326 between operations appearing in the measured source 24 had what I consider to be the unnatural order. Presumably the developers using this form of between consider it to be natural, so what is their line of thinking? Are they thinking in terms of the semantics behind the numbers (in about a third of cases symbolic constants appear in the source rather than literals) and this semantics has an implied left to right order? Perhaps the authors come from a culture where the maximum value often appears on the left.

Suggestions welcome.