Monthly Archive for September, 2012

Strange Loop 2012

I think that the most ringing endorsement that I can give Strange Loop is that it has been a very long time since I experienced so much agony when trying to pick which talks to go to during any given block.

Emerging Languages Camp

This year Strange Loop hosted the Emerging Languages Camp (ELC), which previously had been hosted at OSCON. I liked the fact that it was its own event, not yet another track in the OSCON panoply. That, coupled with a very PLT oriented audience this year, made Strange Loop a much better match for ELC than OSCON.

I definitely went into ELC interested in a particular set of talks. There is a lot of buzz around big data, and some of the problems around big data and data management more generally. Also I did my graduate work around implementing “database programming languages”, so there was some academic interest to go along with the practical necessity. There were three talks that fell into that bucket: Bandicoot: code reuse for the relational model, The Reemergence of Datalog, and Julia: A Fast Dynamic Language for Technical Computing.

I found Bandicoot a little disappointing. I think that the mid 90′ work of Buneman’s group at UPenn on Structural Recursion as a Query Language and Comprehension Syntax would be a better basis for a modulary and reusable system for programming relations.   

Logic Programming may be making a resurgence via the work on core.logic in Clojure and the influence of Datalog on Cascalog, Datomic and Bloom. The Reemergence of Datalog was tutorial on Datalog for those who had never seen it before, as well as a survey of Datalog usage in those modern day systems.

Julia is a language that sits in the same conceptual space as R, SAS, SPSS, and so forth. The problem with most of those systems is that they were designed by statisticians and not programmers. So while they are great for statistical analysis, they are less good for statistical programming. Julia aims to improve on this, while adding support for distributed compuation and a very high performance implementation. There’s no decisive winner in the technical computing space, and it seems like Julia might have a chance to shine.

There were, of course, some other interesting language talks at ELC.   

Dave Herman from Mozilla talked about Rust for the first time (at least to a large group). Rust is being developed as a systems programming language. There are some interesting ideas in it, particularly a very Erlang like concurrency model. At the same time, there were some scary things. Part of what Rust is trying to do is achieve performance, and part of how this happens is via explicit specification of memory/variable lifetimes. Syntactically this is accomplished via punctuation prefixes, and I was wondering if the code was going to look very Perl-ish. servo is browser engine that is being written in Rust, and looking at the source code of a real application will help me to see whether my Perlishness concern is valid.

Elixir: Modern Programming for the Erlang VM looks like a very nice way to program atop BEAM (the Erlang VM). Eliminating the prolog inspired syntax goes a long way, and it appears that Elixir also addresses some of the issues around using strings in Erlang. It wasn’t clear to me that all of the string issues have been addressed, but I was definitely impressed with what I saw.

Strange Loop Talks and Unsessions

I’m going to cover these by themes. I’m not sure these are the actual themes of the conference, but they are the themes that emerged from the talks that I went to.

First, and unsurprisingly, a data theme. The opening keynote, In Memory Databases: the Future is Now! was by Mike Stonebraker. It’s been a long time since I saw Stonebraker speak – I think that the last time was when I was in graduate school. He was basically making the case that transaction processing (TP) is not going away, and that there might be applications for a new generation of TP systems in some of the places where the various NoSQL systems are now being used. Based on that hypothesis/assumption, he then went on to describe the trends in modern systems and how they would lead to different design, much of which is embodied in VoltDB. This was a very controversial talk, at for some people. I considered the trend/system analysis part to be reasonable in a TP setting. I’m not sure that I agree with his views on the applicability of TP, but I’m fairly sure that time will sort all of that out. I think that this is an important point for the NoSQL folks to keep in mind. When the original work on RDBMS was done, it was mocked, called impractical, not useful and so forth. It took many years of research and technology development. I think that we should expect to see something similar with NoSQL, although I have no idea how long that timeline will be.

Nathan Marz’s talk Runaway Complexity in Big Data‚Ķ and a plan to stop it. was basically making the case for, and explaining the hybrid/combined batch/realtime architecture that he pioneered at BackType, and which is now in production at Twitter. That same architecture led to Cascading and Storm, which are pretty interesting systems. Marz is working on a book with Manning that will go into the details of his approach.

The other interesting data talks revolved around Datomic. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend Rich Hickey’s The Database as a Value, so I didn’t get to hear him speak directly about Datomic. There are several Datomic related videos floating around, so I’ll be catching up on those. I was able to attend the evening unsession Datomic Q&A / Hackfest. This session was at 9pm, and was standing room only. I didn’t have quite enough background on Datomic to follow all of what was said, but I was very interested by what I saw: the time model, the immutability of data which leads to interesting scalability, the use of Datalog. I’m definitely going to be looking into it some more. The one thing that troubles me is that it is not open source. I have no problem with a paid supported version, but it’s hard to make the argument for proprietary system or infrastructure software nowadays.

Another theme, which carried over from ELC was logic programming. I had already heard Friedman and Byrd speak at last fall’s Clojure/conj, and I was curious to see where they have taken miniKanren since then. In their talk, Relational Programming in miniKanren, they demonstrated some of what they showed previously, and then they ran out of material. So on the fly, they decided to implement a type inferencer for simple lambda terms live on stage. Not only were they able to finish it, but since it was a logic program, they were also able to run it in reverse, which was pretty impressive. I was hoping that they might have some additional work on constraints to talk about, but other than disequality constraints, they didn’t discuss anything. Afterwards in Twitter, Alex Payne pointed out that there are some usability issues with miniKanren’s API’s. I think that this is true, but it’s also true that this is a research system. You might look at something like Clojure’s core.logic for a system that’s being implemented for practitioners.

David Nolen did an unsession Core Logic: A Tutorial Reconstruction where he walked the audience through the operation of core.logic, and by extension, miniKanren, since the two systems are closely related. He pointed out that he read parts of “The Reasoned Schemer” 8 times until he understood it enough to implement it, and then he found that he didn’t really understand it until after the implementation was done. There was also a large crowd in this session, and Christopher Petrelli made a video recording on his phone, since InfoQ wasn’t recording the unsessions.

The final talk in the logic programming them was Oleg Kiselyov’s talk Guess lazily! Making a program guess and guess well. Kiselyov has been around for a long time and written or coauthored many important papers related to Scheme and continuations. I’ve be following (off and on) his work for a long time, but this is the first time I was at a conference where he was speaking. I was shocked to find that the room was packed. His talk was about how to defer making the inevitable choices required by non-determinism, especially in the context of logic type systems. His examples were in OCaml, which I had some trouble following, but after Friedman and Byrd the day before, he apparently felt compelled to write a type inferencer that could be run backwards as well. His code was a bit longer than the miniKanren version.

The next theme is what I’d call effective use of functional programming. The first talk was Stuart Sierra’s Functional Design Patterns. This was a very worthwhile talk, which I won’t attempt to summarize since the slides are available. Needless to say, he found a number of examples that could be called design patterns. This was one of the talks where I need to sit down and look at the patterns and think on them for a while. That’s hard to do during the talk (and the conference, really). Some things require pondering, and this is one of them.

The other talk in this category was Graph: composable production systems in Clojure, which described the Prismatic team’s approach to composing systems in Clojure. What they have is an abstraction that allows them to declaratively specify how the parts of the system are connected. For a while it just looked to me like a way to encode a data flow graph in a Clojure abstraction. The aha moment was when he showed how they use Clojure metadata to annotate the arguments or pipe connectors if you will. The graphs can be compiled in a variety of ways including Clojure lazy maps, which present some interesting possibilities. Unfortunately, I had to leave half way through the talk, so I missed the examples of how the apply this abstraction in their system.

Theme number four was programming environments. I hesitate to use the term IDE, because it connotes a class of tools that is loved by some, reviled by others, and when you throw that term around, it seems to limit people’s imagination. I contributed to the Kickstarter for Light Table, so I definitely wanted to attend Chris Granger’s talk Behind the Mirror: The birth of Light Table. Chris gave a philosophical preamble before showing off the current version of Light Table. He demonstrated adding support for Git in a short amount of code, and went on to demonstrate a mode for developing games. He said that they are planning to release version 1 sometime in May, and that Light Table will be open source. I also learned that Kickstarter money is counted as revenue, so they have lost a significant amount of the donations to taxes, which is part of the reason that Kodawa participated in Y Combinator, and is trying to raise some money to get a bigger team.

Not long after the Light Table kickstarter, this video by Bret Victor made the rounds. It went really well with all the buzz about Light Table, and Alex Miller, the organizer of Strange Loop, went out and persuaded Bret to come and talk. Bret’s title was Taking off the Blindfold, and I found this to be a very well motivated talk. In the talk, Bret talked about the kinds of proerties that our programming tools should have. The talk was vey philosophical despite the appearance of a number of toy demos of environment features.

During both of these talks there was a lot of chatter. Some was harking back to the Smalltalk (but sadly, not the Lisp Machine) environments,while some questioned the value of a more visual style of tools (those emacs and vi graybeards). When I first got into computers I read book called “Interactive Programming Environments” and ever since i’ve always been wishing for better tools.   I am glad to see some experimentation come back into this space.

Some old friends are busy making hay in the Node.js and Javascript communities, and it probably horrifies theme that I have ClojureScript as a theme, but so be it. I went to two ClojureScript talks. One was David Nolen’s ClojureScript: Better Semantics at Low Prices!, which was really state of the union of ClojureScript. The second was Kevin Lynagh’s Building visual data driven UI’s with ClojureScript. Visualization is becoming more and more important and ClojureScript’s C2 library look really appealing.

It’s fitting that the last them should be Javascript. Well, maybe. I went to two Javascript talks, and both of them were keynotes, so I didn’t actually choose them. But Javascript is so important these days that it really is a theme. In fact, it’s so much of a theme, that I’ve been going to Javascript conferences for the last 2 years. It’s been several years since I saw Lars Bak speak. His talk on Pushing the Limits of Web Browsers was in two parts. Or so I think. I arrived just as he was finishing the first part which seemed like an account of the major things that the V8 team has learned during their amazing journey of speeding up Javascript. The second part of his talk was about Dart. I didn’t know that Bak was the lead of the Dart project, but that doesn’t change how I feel about Dart. I see the language, I understand the rationale, and I just can’t get excited about it.   

I’ve been to enough of those Javascript only talks to hear Brendan Eich talk about The State of Javascript. Brendan opened by giving a brief history of how Javascript got to be the way it is, and then launched into a list of the improvement coming in EcmaScript 6 (ES6). That was all well and good, and towards the end, after the ES6 stuff, he threw in some items that were new, like the sweet.js hygienic macro project, and the lljs typed JavaScript project. It seemed like this was a good update for this audience, who seemed unaware of all the goings on over in JavaScript land. From a PLT point of view, I guess that’s understandable, but at the same time, JavaScript is too important to ignore.

Final Thoughts

Strange Loop has grown to over 1000 people, much larger than when I attended in 2010 (I had to miss 2011). I think that Alex Miller is doing a great job of running the conference, and of finding interesting and timely speakers. This was definitely the best conference that I attended this year, and probably the last 2-3 years as well.

If you’re looking for more information on what happened at Strange Loop 2012:


Other Strange Loop Coverage: