I've been periodically wrestling with the concept of continuations for several years now, and have somehow never gotten comfortable with them. Looking back, I think this was for two reasons:
- Continuations are usually explained in the context of high-level languages with higher-order functions and lots of nested function calls. But continuations fundamentally subvert the notion of “function”. Operators like ‘reset’ looked like functions, but had “spooky action at a distance” effects that were hard to reason about.
- I had trouble finding real-world programs where continuations are more
expressive than regular recursive function calls with well-designed data
structures. For example, classic back-tracking problems like the
N-queens problem have elegant solutions that don't require continuations.
Were continuations just a low-level primitive for building more high-level
tools like generators (‘yield’) and exceptions? Building
fluency with a concept requires developing an instinct for when it's applicable.
[Update Nov 27: This post had issues, and I retract some of my more provocative claims. See the errata at the end.]
All software comes with a version, some sequence of digits, periods and characters that seems to march ever upward. Rarely are the optimistically increasing versions accompanied by a commensurate increase in robustness. Instead, upgrading to new versions often causes regressions, and the stream of versions ends up spawning an extensive grapevine to disseminate information about the best version to use. Unsatisfying as this state of affairs is to everyone, I didn't think that the problem lay with these version numbers themselves. They're just names, right? However, over the past year I've finally had my attention focused on them, thanks to two people:
(Or why goto is worth keeping around in modern languages.)
A cool thing happened during a lesson today, and I wanted to try to capture the magic before it slipped through my fingers. It happened while I was trying to teach recursion (without ever using that word) using my side project, Mu. The experience got me thinking about the quote above, and wondering if there was a way to bridge the summits of C and Lisp without having to go through the “swampy lowlands” between them.
It's a common trope among programmers that a single computer contains enough bits that the number of states it can be in far exceeds the number of atoms in the universe. See, for example, this 3-minute segment from a very entertaining talk by Joe Armstrong, the creator of the Erlang programming language. Even if you focus on a single tiny program, say one that compiles down to a 1KB binary, it's one of 21024 possible programs of the same length. And 1KB is nothing these days; larger programs get exponentially larger spaces of possibility.
The conventional response to this explosion of possibilities is to observe that the possibilities stem from a lack of structure. 10 bits encode 210 possibilities, but if you divide them up into two sub-systems with 5 bits each and test each independently, you then only have to deal with twice 25 possibilities — a far smaller number. From here stem our conventional dictums to manage complexity by dividing systems up into modules, encapsulating internal details so modules can't poke inside each other, designing their interfaces to minimize the number of interactions between modules, avoiding state within modules, etc. Unfortunately, it's devilishly difficult to entirely hide state within an encapsulated module so that other modules can be truly oblivious to it. There seems the very definite possibility that the sorts of programs we humans need to help with our lives on this planet intrinsically require state.
So much for the conventional worldview. I'd like to jump off in a different direction from the phenomenon of state-space explosion in my first paragraph. Read more →
I've been teaching programming using my new UI for just about six weeks now, and it's been miraculous and endlessly fascinating to watch a young mind up close. I'm still processing many of my observations and lessons, but I want to describe how one of my students learned something I never meant to teach: consistent indentation.
The only thing I did to help him learn indentation was this: I never ever brought it up. Mostly because I just don't consider it very important, especially at such an early stage. When I wrote programs to demonstrate features I indented as I normally would, then I'd hand over the keyboard, and ignore the fact that my student was abutting each line of code with the left margin.
Six months ago I fell into a little gig to teach two students programming, and it's been an eye-opening experience. Where I was earlier focused on conveying codebases to programmers, I've lately been thinking a lot harder about conveying programming to non-programmers. I think the two might be special-cases of a grand unifying theory of software representation, but that's another story. For now I don't have a grand unifying theory. What I have is a screenshot:
Let me describe the tool and the problems that it tries to address. When I started out teaching I picked an existing platform that I'd always liked. But quickly I started noticing many limitations. Today's platforms are great for experienced programmers and one can do great things with them, but they are very alien to noobs, who suddenly have to learn many different things at once.
Literate programming advocates this: Order your code for others to read, not for the compiler. Beautifully typeset your code so one can curl up in bed to read it like a novel. Keep documentation in sync with code. What's not to like about this vision? I have two beefs with it: the ends are insufficiently ambitious by focusing on a passive representation; and the means were insufficiently polished, by over-emphasizing typesetting at the cost of prose quality. Elaboration, in reverse order:
If you're a programmer this has happened to you. You've built or known a
project that starts out with a well-defined purpose and a straightforward
mapping from purpose to structure in a few sub-systems.
But it can't stand still; changes continue to roll in.
Some of the changes touch multiple sub-systems.
Each change is coherent in the mind of its maker. But once it's made, it diffuses into the system as a whole.
Soon the once-elegant design has turned into a patchwork-quilt of changes. Requirements shift, parts get repurposed. Connections proliferate.
Veterans who watched this evolution can keep it mostly straight in their heads. But newcomers see only the patchwork quilt. They can't tell where one feature begins and another ends.
What if features could stay separate as they're added, so that newcomers could
see a cleaned-up history of the
Solution Read more →
(I still haven't found a way to describe it to non-programmers.)
Wart is an experimental, dynamic, batshit-liberal language designed to eventually be used by small teams of hobbyists writing potentially long-lived software. The primary goal is to be easy for anyone to understand and modify. This goal goes for both code written in Wart, and the code implementing Wart.
$ git clone http://github.com/akkartik/wart $ git checkout c73dcd8d6 # state when I wrote this article $ cd wart $ ./wart # you'll need gcc and unix ready! type in an expression, then hit enter twice. ctrl-d exits. 1+1 ⇒ 2
We programmers love to talk about the value of readability in software. But all our rhetoric, even if it were practiced with diligence, suffers from a giant blind spot.
Here's Douglas Crockford on programming style. For the first half he explains why readability is important: because our brains do far more subconsciously than we tend to realize. The anecdotes are interesting and the presentation is engaging, but the premise is basically preaching to the choir. Of course I want my code to be readable. Sensei, show me how!
But when he gets to ‘how’, here is what we get: good names, comments and consistent indentation. Wait, what?! After all that discussion about how complex programs are, and how hard to understand, do we really expect to make a dent on global complexity with a few blunt, local rules? Does something not seem off?
Here's a paean to the software quality of Doom 3. It starts out with this utterly promising ideal:
Unfortunately we never hear about the 'overall system design' ever again. Instead we get.. good names, comments and indentation, culminating in the author's ideal of beauty:
I think the fundamental reasons for the quality of Doom 3 have been missed. Observing superficial small-scale features will only take you so far in appreciating the large-scale beauty of a program.
Kernighan and Pike's classic Practice of Programming takes mostly the code writer's part. For reading you're left again with guidelines in the small: names, comments and indentation.
I could go on and on. Everytime the discussion turns to readability we skip almost unconsciously to style guides and whatnot. Local rules for a fundamentally global problem.
This blind spot is baked into the very phrase ‘readable code’. ‘Code’ isn't an amorphous thing that you manage by the pound. You can't make software clean simply by making all the ‘code’ in it more clean. What we really ought to be thinking about is readable programs. Functions aren't readable in isolation, at least not in the most important way. The biggest aid to a function's readability is to convey where it fits in the larger program.
Nowhere is this more apparent than with names. All the above articles and more emphasize the value of names. But they all focus on naming conventions and rules of thumb to evaluate the quality of a single name in isolation. In practice, a series of locally well-chosen names gradually end up in overall cacophony. A program with a small harmonious vocabulary of names consistently used is hugely effective regardless of whether its types and variables are visibly distinguished. To put it another way, the readability of a program can be hugely enhanced by the names it doesn't use.
Part of the problem is that talking about local features is easy. It's easy to teach the difference between a good name and a bad name. Once taught, the reader has the satisfaction of going off to judge names all around him. It's far harder to show a globally coherent design without losing the reader.
Simple superficial rules can be applied to any program, but to learn from a well-designed program we must focus on what's unique to it, and not easily transferred to other programs in disparate domains. That again increases the odds of losing the reader.
But the largest problem is that we programmers are often looking at the world from a parochial perspective: “I built this awesome program, I understand everything about it, and people keep bugging me to accept their crappy changes.” Style guides and conventions are basically tools for the insiders of a software project. If you already understand the global picture it makes sense to focus on the local irritations. But you won't be around forever. Eventually one of these newcomers will take charge of this project, and they'll make a mess if you didn't talk to them enough about the big picture.
Lots of thought has gone into the small-scale best practices to help maintainers merge changes from others, but there's been no attempt at learning to communicate large-scale organization to newcomers. Perhaps this is a different skill entirely; if so, it needs a different name than ‘readability’.