Is Software Engineering Possible?

June 7, 2017

When the textile industry arose in the 18th century, craft was the norm in manufacturing. As the industrial revolution progressed, one after another sector of the economy made the transition from craft to industry. In 1968 it was noticed that the creation of software was a craft in a world where industry was the norm. In that year a conference was convened to address that anomaly. Those present saw themselves as participants in a momentous occasion: after this conference, Software Engineering existed, which was not the case before.

In the final paragraph of my 2009 article “Software Engineering: From Craft to Industry?” [8], I ventured to disagree. From the final paragraph:

While the processing of material leaves an irreducible residue of work for humans, in the processing of information any work that is routine instantly vanishes. Extracting the routine part from an information processing task is a creative endeavour. It is called programming. In the building of a software system any time you think you have something routine to be handed over to managed cubicle-dwelling drones, [9], you are missing an opportunity for automation. In the building of a software system there is only room for creative work. It is Craft, irreducibly so.

At the time I had read John Allen’s “Whither Software Engineering?”. I found it fascinating, but dismissed it as unrealistic and I was not convinced of its urgency. This article explains why I changed my mind.

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Programming by Gathering Snippets of Truth

May 13, 2017

Xavier: What is logic programming?
Yorick: Robert Kowalski defines it as a certain approach to knowledge representation, namely

Logic programming shares with mechanical theorem proving the use of logic to represent knowledge and the use of deduction to solve problems by deriving logical consequences. [1]

X: Ah, I see—a kind of Artificial Intelligence, which I am not so much interested in. Yet, I find a lot of interesting stuff in Logic Programming, the journal, in its first decade, and in several books of that time, Sterling and Shapiro’s The Art of Prolog and O’Keefe’s The Craft of Prolog. Why listen to Kowalski anyway?

Y: He invented “Logic Programming” as a term and substantiated his definition with his book [2]. Moreover, his “Predicate logic as a programming language” [3], established him as a co-inventor, with Colmerauer, of pure Prolog.

X: It seems that the term “Logic Programming” has been hijacked by people interested in what makes Prolog different from other programming languages and in how logic can be used as starting point in the design of programming languages.

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Explosive Knowledge: Cryptology in the 20th Century

March 28, 2017

In August 1960 the Pentagon announced that William Martin and Bernon Mitchell had not returned from vacation and said “there is a likelihood that they have gone behind the Iron Curtain”. On September 6 they appeared at a joint news conference at the House of Journalists in Moscow and announced they had requested asylum and Soviet citizenship. They revealed that they had worked for the National Security Agency (NSA). In this way the mission and activities of the NSA were made public for the first time [1]. Although these activities are much more wide-ranging than cryptology, this post will only be concerned with that small part.

All branches of knowledge had vigorously developed in the first half of the 20th century. All of it had been sustained by what I like to call a conversation: an open exchange of knowledge in books and journals. Before World War I this was also true for cryptology; afterwards, traffic on that channel fell silent. By the end of the 20th century the cryptology conversation was intense, wide-ranging, and immensely productive of innovations, of which bitcoin technology is but one example. In this post I trace the chain of events that led cryptology from its dark age, which lasted from 1918 to 1967, to its renaissance. My material is obtained, unless otherwise noted, from Crypto, a book by Steven Levy, published in 2001 [2].

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Children of the Miracle: from Algol to Prolog

March 18, 2017

The appearance of Fortran inaugurated a fruitful period in programming languages that was to last until the early 1970s. When, in 1999, E.W. Dijkstra gave the keynote address at the ACM Symposium on Applied Computing in San Antonio, Texas, he gave an overview of what he saw as the large-scale trends in the preceding half century. I quote:

And then the 60s started with an absolute miracle, viz. ALGOL 60. This was a miracle because on the one hand this programming language had been designed by a committee, while on the other hand its qualities were so outstanding that in retrospect it has been characterized as “a major improvement on most of its successors” (C.A.R. Hoare).

Several friends of mine, when asked to suggest a date of birth for Computing Science, came up with January 1960, precisely because it was ALGOL 60 that showed the first ways in which automatic computing could and should and did become a topic of academic concern. [1]).

Algol was a miracle as a language. It was short-lived, but it left a momentous legacy that acted in two ways: in the way the Revised Report on Algol 60 describes the language and in the way subsequent language designers were influenced by being shown what a programming language could be. In celebration of Algol 60 I refer to these designers as “Children of the Miracle”.

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The Essence of Algol

November 12, 2016

Elsewhere [10] I considered ways in which programming languages could be different. One of these ways is expressed by asking the question Does the language have an essence? The possibility of an affirmative answer is suggested by the title of John Reynolds’s paper: “The essence of Algol” [7]. Reynolds used what he perceived to be the essence of Algol to make distinctions among members of what is usually considered to be a single family. Thus he argues that Algol 60 is a carrier of the essence, whereas this is not the case for other members of that family: Algol W, Euler, Algol 68, and Pascal.

What is judged to be essence is in the eye of the beholder. I am more interested in what the members of the Algol family have in common and perhaps even with languages not usually considered as members. For example, Prolog. Soon after completion of this language in Marseille, Robert Kowalski wrote a paper (published as [6]) that established a procedural interpretation of a form of first-order predicate logic. Let us examine this interpretation to see whether this gives a hint concerning the essence of Algol as a procedural language.

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Kinds of Programming Languages

October 21, 2016

I find the number of programming languages mind-boggling. For example, Jean Sammet in her “Roster of programming languages for 1976-1977” [12] lists 156 programming languages in 24 categories. This includes only languages in active use within the USA. The opposite extreme on the spectrum of permissiveness is represented by the “Online historical encyclopedia of programming languages” [7], which claims 8945 “programming languages since the 18th century”.

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Alan Robinson

September 16, 2016

On August 5, 2016 John Alan Robinson died. In him, a great scientist departed, and I mourn a dear friend. His great discovery was the resolution principle in mathematical logic, a discovery that capped two decades of development. In its turn, it spawned a plethora of new developments in computer programming. It became important enough in Artificial Intelligence to become controversial. Read the rest of this entry »

Wildcat Crypto

May 13, 2016

With his “Pretty Good Privacy” (PGP), Phil Zimmermann launched the era of what I call Wildcat Crypto. Up to that point discussions on cryptology had focussed on whether DES, the US government standard, was secure and whether government involvement in its development might have jeopardized its security. To avoid government involvement, PGP used IDEA as alternative to DES for its bulk encryption. Yet IDEA is a close relative of DES and shares its weakness: small, constant-size blocks. True Wildcat Crypto calls for a radical departure in the form of blocks that are much larger, and moreover, vary in length under control of the key. In this article I trace the relevant history and outline my implementation of such a radical alternative.

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Some Books on C

March 26, 2016

I have gathered such introductory books on the C programming language as I own or could borrow. The result is an eight-storey tower. A quick scan shows that I could easily buy another half dozen, but I doubt whether that would yield any new insights.

For most teachers “an introductory programming book with C” is an oxymoron. The extreme wing in this school of thought consider only designedly friendly languages suitable for an introduction to programming. BASIC is an early example. My current favourite friendly language is Python [1]. But the mainstream of teachers of introductory programming has settled on Java as a compromise between friendliness and attractiveness to prospective employers.

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Why does C not have an exponentiation operator?

March 15, 2016

The most authoritative source for an answer to the question in the title would be Dennis Ritchie. Next best is Bjarne Stroustrup:

The semantics of C operators should be simple to the point where each corresponds to a machine instruction on a typical computer. An exponentiation operator doesn’t meet this criterion. [1], page 247

Stroustrup’s criterion needs to be taken with a grain of salt. For example, the assignment operator does not meet the criterion: a = b takes a LOAD and a STORE. In this case the criterion translates to: “should correspond to no more than a LOAD and a STORE. But Stroustrup was onto something, because we can tweak his answer to:

The semantics of C operators should be simple to the point where they each compile to code that is as fast as what one can write in assembler.

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