Posts tagged research

What even is compiler correctness?

:: research

In this post I precisely define common compiler correctness properties. Compilers correctness properties are often referred to by vague terms such as “correctness”, “compositional correctness”, “separate compilation”, “secure compilation”, and others. I make these definitions precise and discuss the key differences. I give examples of research papers and projects that develop compilers that satisfy each of these properties.

Toward Type-Preserving Compilation of Coq, at POPL17 SRC

:: academic, research

Almost two months ago, my colleagues in the Northeastern PRL wrote about three of our POPL 2017 Student Research Competition submissions. There was fourth submission, but because I was hard at work completing proofs, it wasn’t announced.

Toward Type-Preserving Compilation of Coq

Toward Type-Preserving Compilation of Coq
William J. Bowman

A type-preserving compiler guarantees that a well-typed source program is compiled to a well-typed target program. Type-preserving compilation can support correctness guarantees about compilers, and optimizations in compiler intermediate languages (ILs). For instance, Morrisett et al. (1998) use type-preserving compilation from System F to a Typed Assembly Languages (TAL) to guarantee absence of stuckness, even when linking with arbitrary (well-typed) TAL code. Tarditi et al. (1996) develop a compiler for ML that uses a typed IL for optimizations.

We develop type-preserving closure conversion for the Calculus of Constructions (CC). Typed closure conversion has been studied for simply-typed languages (Minamide1996, Ahmed2008, New2016) and polymorphic languages (Minamide1996, Morrisett1998). Dependent types introduce new challenges to both typed closure conversion in particular and to type preservation proofs in general.

ICFP 2016

:: academia, research

Full disclosure: This blog post is sponsored in part by ACM SIGPLAN. ACM SIGPLAN! Pushing the envelope of language abstractions for making programs better, faster, correcter, stronger.


I went to ICFP again this year. I’m a frequent attendee. Last year I had a paper and gave a talk. This year I had a paper, but someone else gave the talk. But I also gave a talk at HOPE 2016. I met some people and saw some talks and pet a deer.


:: academia, research

I returned from ECOOP a few weeks ago, and have been trying to figure out what I got of the experience. I’ll focus on two big things.

For a long time I have been debating what I should do after I graduate, which I usually phrase as “industry vs academia”. I’m coming to understand this is a false dichotomy, as most dichotomies are. (It helps that a friend spelled it out for me.) Dave Herman’s talk, on starting and running a research lab doing academic-style work (e.g., developing a principled, safe programming language) in industry, helped me see that. Shriram’s summer school lectures were equally helpful, and sort of the dual of this: taking objects from industry—scripting languages—and applying academic rigor to them. ECOOP, more than any other conference I’ve been to, brought together industry and academia in a smooth spectrum. I wish I had attended as a younger student.

The other big thing was a crystallized version of thoughts I had on programming language. Matthias Felleisen on Racket and Larry Wall on Perl 6 helped me see this: anything you might want to do to or in a program should be expressible in your programming language (Matthias said it better). This is what annoys me about languages like C, Java, and Coq. C has the preprocessor and make and the dynamic linker, etc. Java has Eclipse. Coq has OCaml plugins. All of these languages require doing “more” than writing programs, but have no way to express it in the language. Racket (and, apparently, Perl 6) pulls those things into the language so that those too become just writing programs: extend the reader, dynamically load a library, muck about with the top level, add new syntax.

I got a handful of smaller things: insights about what objects are best at, what a long-term (~25 year) research agenda looks like, an appreciation for the 99 different designs for any given program.

ECOOP was a great experience. If I go again, though, I hope the summer school won’t conflict with the entire research track.

ECOOP 2016

:: academia, research

Full disclosure: This blog post is sponsored and required by the National Science Foundation (NSF): The NSF! Funding SCIENCE! since 1683 or whenever.


I’m going to ECOOP to see a part of the PL community I wouldn’t normally see, talk to people that I wouldn’t normally talk to, attend the co-located summer school, and figure out what I want to do with my (academic) life. If you want to know why I might do those things, read a little about me.

The long story

On Sunday, I am heading to ECOOP. I have never been to ECOOP, the conference is a little outside of my specialty, I do not know anyone there, and I do not even have a paper or talk at one of the workshops. However, a few weeks ago I ignored an email from one of the mailing lists that said there was some NSF funding that students should apply for. Then I saw an email from Jan Vitek on a local mailing list saying students should really apply for this funding and get to go to Rome.

“Huh”, I thought to myself, “I wonder what’s interesting in Rome”. I went to the ECOOP program and started looking around.

The Curry On program looks interesting. This co-located conference should help me understand how PL applies to industry problems. Unfortunately, I’m going to miss most or all the first day. But the talk I’m most interested in is the final keynote, “Building an Open Source Research Lab”; hopefully this will give me some insights on this industry vs academia problem I have been struggling with.

There is also a summer school. While the history of typed and untyped languages looks fascinating, I’m going to have to skip part of it to learn about type specialization of JavaScript programs; I prove things on type-preserving compilation and I want to see more work that uses types for optimizations. Next up, the lecture on “Building a Research Program for Scripting Languages” should help me better understand what an academic career will look like, and give me some idea of how to be a good academic. Then I’m going to learn how to build a JIT compiler for free, because despite being a compilers expert, I don’t know anything about JIT compilers. Finally, I’m going to learn a little about experimental evaluation; I normally do theory and proofs, but I imagine one day I might need to measure something.

Unfortunately, the summer school is in parallel with most of the conference talks, so it’s going to be tough to decide how much of the summer school to miss in order to see new research.

“Yeah”, I thought after much consideration, “I guess there are some interesting things to see in Rome”. I’m a little concerned about the accommodations and venue though; I understand that a lot of the architecture in Rome is very old.

Conference talks reconsidered

:: research, rambling

A couple weeks ago, I wrote that I was beginning to hate conference talks. The next morning, I woke up with 50+ Twitter notifications caused by people debating that point. I have reconsidered my views.

In my earlier post, I point out that the typical advice I hear is “The talk should be an ad for the paper”. After several discussions, I think this is bad advice. Instead, Lindsey Kuper and Chris Martens encouraged me to ignore this advice and instead make my talk a performance.

At first, I was unsure what this meant. In fact, I am still not quite what this means. What does it mean to perform a paper? But I followed it anyway.

Essentially I tried to communicate, at a high-level, why I think this work is cool, and what parts of the work are most interesting. I tried to tell a story about what inspired this work, why I care about it, and what came out of it. I did not try to show many technical details; I showed only those necessary to tell the story of this work. I did not try to explain the particulars of all this work; I showed only those necessary to fit the work into the context of the story I wanted to tell.

I think the end result is actually an effective ad for the paper. However, by approaching the talk differently, I produced a much better talk (IMHO). And thankfully, I am not alone in that opinion.

In my initial practice talk, the renowned critic Matthias called the talk “90% perfect”. He went on; I took numerous quotes:

  • “I could get up and give this talk after seeing it”
  • “I hate this work, I couldn’t care less, but I could give this talk, so well done, so perfect for the audience”
  • “Proof is exemplary high-level, intuition-based proof”
  • “QED was perfect. And QED (ish) was even better.”

Of course, he went on to dismiss the audience as a bunch of theoreticians, and said that the talk was perfect insofar as it perfectly explained utterly pointless work, but I assume he said this only so he could not be accused to giving praise.

A video of this talk is online here.

Conference talks

:: research, rambling

I am beginning to hate conference talks. I am in the midst of writing a conference talk for my recently accepted paper. Although I have only given one conference talk thus far, I have attended several conference and listened to many talks. These experiences have convinced me that conference talks are largely pointless.

I do not find conferences to be pointless. The papers are usually well written, if dense. The conferences themselves always lead to interesting conversations with clever people. I always return from a conference filled with creative energy. And, I admit, I like the excuse to travel to interesting locales.

However, the talks themselves are pointless. Most talks I have attended are terrible. Those that are not terrible I do not remember much of anyway, except that I should go read that paper. Of those talks, I would have made the same decision after reading the abstract for the paper. The talks add nothing because the talk slots are too short to communicate any technical material.

It is not entirely the fault of the speakers. For one, there is little incentive to give a good talk. If you give a good talk, then maybe you convince someone to read your paper, and maybe people remember who you are. This might be important if you are on the job market, but it does not matter for everyone else. Besides, most people will forget the talk in a month, good or bad.

Even if you are a perfectionist so incentive does not matter, it is not easy to craft a good talk. Conference papers are often complex and dense pieces of work. Frequently, the papers omit many details due to space, so completely understanding the work requires not only the paper but a technical appendix or code artifact published separately. Authors (usually (maybe only sometimes)) spend a great deal of time polishing these papers and supplementary materials to effectively communicate a complex and dense piece of work. The slot for the conference talk is 15—20 minutes, in which a speaker much fit a 12-page paper plus supplementary material?

“No! Obviously as a speaker you must not do that. The talk should be an advertisement for the paper. It should be an overview of the paper. It should communicate the key technical ideas and convince people to read the paper.”

What silly advice. I hate advertisements. Why should I sit through sessions and sessions of advertisements?

“No! Obviously as an audience member you must not do that. Just go read the abstracts and find the talks you want to attend. Skip the rest to have conversations with colleagues and authors.”

Okay, so the audience is going to read the abstract to convince them to see a talk that convinces them to read the paper of which they just read the to convince them to see the talk that convinces them to read the paper? This is circular reasoning that wastes the time of both the speaker and the audience.

As a speaker and writer, I have already spent a lot of time and effort on the paper. I have crafted the abstract and introduction to communicate the key technical ideas and give an overview of the paper as precisely and concisely as possible. Shortly thereafter, I have carefully written the rest of the paper to effectively communicate the technical contributions in as much detail yet as concisely as page limits allow. Besides, I had to write them anyway to effectively communicate my research. Why should I reproduce these efforts in a short talk that must communicate less due to the nature of the talk and the audience?

As an audience member, if I want an overview of the paper, the abstract and introduction section provide this. The author already spent a great deal of time writing these sections, which communicate more thoughts in less time than the talk will. If I want more details, these sections are conveniently located with the rest of the paper. Besides, I need to read the abstract anyway to figure out which talks to attend and which papers to read. Why should I then sit through a talk that advertises a paper that I have already decided whether or not to read?

“Well the talks give an excuse and talking points around which we can organize a conference.”

Well why can’t we find a better excuse or better talking points? Why not give longer highly-technical talks that supplement the paper, or questions-and-answer style talks for those who have read the paper and want more? Or why not make the papers more open ended so talks can be more speculative?

I do not know what should go in place of the current conference talks, but the current system seems utterly pointless and results in completely wasted effort.

Notes on “Ur: Statically-Typed Metaprogramming …”

:: research, notes

Today I read Ur: Statically-Typed Metaprogramming with Type-level Record Computation. This paper presents the Ur language, a functional programming language based on an extension of System Fω. The novel idea is to use type-level functions as a form of type-safe meta-programming. The paper claims this novel idea enables safe heterogeneous and homogeneous meta-programming in Ur.

The interesting insight is that type-level computation may be valuable outside of dependently typed languages. The paper quickly and easily makes this case. The type-level computations reduce type annotations by enabling the programmer to compute types rather than manually write them everywhere. This could be a useful form of meta-programming in any typed language.

The claims about heterogeneous and homogeneous meta-programming seem overstated. Ignoring the novel ability to compute type annotations, type-safe heterogeneous programming could be as easily accomplished in any other type-safe language. I could just as easily (or more easily) write a program in Coq, ML, Haskell, or Typed Racket that generates HTML and SQL queries as I could in Ur. As for homogeneous meta-programming, restricting the meta-programs to record computations at the type-level seems to severely restricts the ability to generate code at compile-time and abstract over syntax, features which are provided by general-purpose meta-programming systems such as Racket’s macros or Template Haskell.

Beluga and explicit contexts

:: research, notes

In my recent work, I found it useful to pair a term and its context in order to more easily reason about weakening the context. At the prompting of a colleague, I’ve been reading about Beluga, [1] [2], and their support for programming with explicit contexts. The idea seems neat, but I’m not quite sure I understand the motivations or implications.

So it seems Beluga has support for describing what a context contains (schemas), describing in which context a type/term is valid, and referring to the variables in a context by name without explicitly worrying about alpha-renaming. This technique supports reasoning about binders with HOAS in more settings, such as in the presence of open data and dependent types. Since HOAS simplifies reasoning about binders by taking advantage of the underlying language’s implementation of substitutions, this can greatly simplify formalized meta-theory in the presence of advanced features which previously required formalizing binders using more complicated techniques like De Bruijn indices. By including weakening, meta-variables, and parameter variables, Beluga enables meta-theory proofs involving binders to be much more natural, i.e., closer to pen-and-paper proofs.

Obviously this is great for formalized meta-theory. While I have seen how HOAS can simplify life for the meta-theorist, and seen how it fails, I don’t fully understand the strengths and weakness of this work, or how it compares to techniques such as the locally nameless. I’m also not sure if there is more to this work than a better way to handle formalization of binding (which is a fine, useful accomplishment by itself).

If anyone can elaborate on or correct my understanding, please do.


:: open access, research, academia

FASTR is a bill to ensure all publically funded research is open access. I urge you all to contact your congresspeople and demand they support this bill.