Sunday, 9 August 2009



I've decided to start collecting some of my thoughts and musings on programming languages and semantics in this blog. This is partially a reaction against repeated appearances of the writings of Louis Savain on various blogs and news sites that I read. I have better things to do with my time than answer any of his over-reaching claims about programming in detail, but I disagree with most of them. The primary reason for concentrating on semantics is that I find too many discussions of programming and software development quickly veer into discussions about syntax. I find discussions about the merits of parentheses or value-judgements about "readability" really dull. A supervisor of mine once memorably said:

"Discussions about syntax are much like reading Shakespeare and then remarking on the excellent quality of the spelling".

And how true that is. Similarly, almost all of the (interesting) things that good programmers do relate to constructing abstractions, maintaining a consistent mental model of a complex system, and having a firm understanding of semantics, not of syntax. To return to the previous analogy, knowing lots about the syntax of a particular programming language is about as useful in the construction of quality programs as knowing how to spell is use in the construction of quality plays.

I use "quality" here without expanding on the definition. I think most people could come up with a sufficient definition of "good quality software", which might include things like not crashing, not creating security vulnerabilities, and generally behaving in a sensible manner when faced with both valid and invalid inputs. Software Engineering Tips has recently published an interesting article on what makes a bad programmer, and I find myself generally agreeing with most of the sentiments expressed.

So, I hope to maintain a strong focus on formal methods, programming languages, concurrency and theoretical computer science, hopefully with only passing references to syntax or the particulars of implementations. Similarly, I will likely stay away from the "human factors" involved in software development (e.g. methodology). This is not because I think methodology is not important - quite the opposite is true. I've just found that this is ground that has been endlessly covered in some detail by many authors, generally without a lot of hard evidence. Such discussions generally devolve very quickly into the presentation of various anecdotes around vaguely-defined concepts of "productivity" and "ease of use", followed by some dubious conclusions that don't really follow from the scant evidence. I don't claim that I will be objective or comprehensive. Excellent sites such as Lambda The Ultimate already cover a broad range of topics in programming languages, logic and semantics with much more objective and substantiated viewpoints than I could ever hope to provide. Instead, I will express opinions and a personal viewpoint on developments and topics within the area.

Finally, a little bit about me. I am a programmer by trade. I have worked both on the sorts of everyday applications that are the bread-and-butter of the software industry, as well as research projects involving compilers and software quality. I hope you enjoy my musings, and don't hesitate to comment if you disagree!

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