Tag Archives: LOP

Text, Expressivity and Culture-Oriented Programming

Following up on my reflexion about what could software development look like a few years or decades from now, there is this big problem that has been bugging me for years now and that I have never found the time to really tackle: expressivity. In the same way as files appear to me as the biggest obstacle to collaboration, I think the main barrier in the way of expressivity is TEXT.

It’s hard to admit, but we’re still building software like cavemen. We don’t have spoken language, just a bunch of noises, we don’t conceptualize much but we do communicate with a few gestures and more importantly some colored drawings on cave walls. The way I see it, we are not much more advanced than that, but it’s normal, software is still relatively young as a discipline and although it has already changed our lives, we have to imagine that it’s just the beginning. And the good news is that we are headed in the right direction.

man

We started off with most elementary way of storing information and communicating with a machine: zeros and ones. Binary. It was too elementary, more like noises coming out of our mouths, so we started to group bits in octets corresponding to hardware instructions and characters. In fact, we added gestures to noises. Then we grouped instructions into statements and procedures, and we designed a way to translate those into the most elementary form of language that machines could understand. We started drawing on walls. But as procedures multiplied like crazy, we needed to conceptualize some more, talking about classes, objects, methods, properties, and so on. Spoken language was born. And with higher level concepts like services, components and multiple programming languages, we added written language. OK, the analogy is not that good, but you get my point: I’m convinced we’re still very early in the overall evolution of communication with machines, and although this evolution is somewhat slow and creates a lot of inertia, I believe that if we want computers to really expand our capabilities (note that I didn’t say “replace us”), we need to go further in abstraction levels.

So what’s next? Binary, assembly, procedural, object-oriented (yes, and functional, if you want), then what? Model-driven? I’ve tried that, it’s just replacing the constraints of text with the constraints of visual representations. It sure makes it easier to conceptualize, but at some point we’re still translating those visual models into text code, which we have to compile. The roundtrip is just too long. What about domain-specific languages? Well, I’m more into that right now. It looks like communicating is naturally based on languages, collections of concepts that relate with one another to describe what a software is and what it does. So focusing on making it easier to define new languages definitely goes in the right direction. That’s why it’s so linked with meta-programming: instead of statically defining layers upon layers of fixed concepts to describe systems with even higher level abstractions, let’s define the root concepts we will use to describe languages that will allow us to describe our systems. That’s why I’m so interested in Groovy at the moment for internal DSLs, although I prefer the more elegant idea of external DSLs and language workbenches, like Jetbrains MPS does.

All of this evolution makes me think of a video I saw recently, that tried to make String theory more accessible:

Let’s say binary is our dimension 0. Assembly is dimension 1: a line. Procedural programming is dimension 2: a plane. Object-Oriented Programming is then 3rd dimension: a volume. And it’s very hard for us to leave it, as it is our most natural way of seeing things. But that’s where I find this explanation of String theory particulary interesting (although not rigorous as some math geek friends of mine pointed out): there starts a cycle. Dimension 4 is a line again, formed by 2 different Object-Oriented Languages, like Java and C++ for example. Still there? Good! That’s where the fun starts: dimension 5 is a plane composed by all the parallel universes that are created by our own choices. Functional programming and OOP can be considered as forming such a plan. Now what if we could design a way to go directly from one of those paradigms to another one, to fold the plane in the 6th dimension: please welcome language-oriented (or meta-) programming! See the cycle? Now most of us are stuck in the 3rd dimension, and some of us are already experiencing the 6th dimension.

So there we are. Seventh dimension is the line joining the set of all possible timelines starting from our software big bang, which is the binary transistor, to another set of possible timelines, starting from another big bang. Quantum computing can be another option, but it’s a hardware one. What about software? Isn’t virtualization a way to forget about the physical hardware? And there we go 8th dimension: going from binary transistors to quantum computing is one line in the seventh dimension. Choosing to go to virtualization instead creates an branching line in the 8th dimension. Which means that if we want to create our ninth dimension, we need to fold the eighth in order to jump from quantum to virtual computing. And that’s where I locate what I call Culture-Oriented Programming. The third stage of the third 3-stage cycle. The final frontier? The next step? Hooooo… my head hurts.

But wait a second, I only talked about computing here. A virtual reality. What if dimension 10 was the line uniting computing with the real world in the purest possible way. Direct communication between human beings and computers. Who said “scary”?

PS: I didn’t intend this post to be so “theoretical”. I only thought with my keyboard and let my imagination go. But I’d love to know what you think about that crazy analogy? Do you think we are limited to 11 dimensions like in string theory?

PPS: That might be my geekiest post EVER!

Talk Less, Do More

I’ve been a Java developer for almost 8 years now, I’ve used many frameworks and tools, Spring, Hibernate, EJB’s, Swing, etc. And a few years back, I started to look for a less verbose way to express concepts like business entities, services, workflows and so on. For some time, Model-Driven Architecture (MDA) has been the best answer I could find. But the learning curve and the difficulty to customize transformation patterns for specific setups, like a Flex front-end on a Spring back-end for example, have made me realize that this approach was somewhat limited by its UML foundation.

So I started looking for a better answer, and I thought I had found it with Language-Oriented Programming, the idea to decouple the structure, the syntax and the semantics of a language and ease the creation of Domain-Specific Languages in a very generic way. Unfortunately, as promising as it looks, it’s still in early stages of research and development and I needed a more immediate way to improve my productivity, my ability to do more with less words.

So I came back to something I had totally pushed aside till then: scripting languages. I’ve been “raised” with strongly and statically-typed languages since day 1 of my programming carrier: first Pascal, then Delphi, C++ and Java. And I always thought that scripting languages like PHP, and later Ruby were just tinkerer stuff for lazy hobbyist programmers, that didn’t take into account constraints like maintainability, robustness, readability, performance, etc. All those constraints I faced as a professional consultant. But a few weeks ago, I started to question my certainties and began wandering around PHP, Ruby, Python and others.

PHP, I’m using it at work on You And The World, it’s too hard to debug in a Flex/AMF setup and it’s really too permissive. As for Ruby, I like the ability to design DSLs but the syntax is definitely not intuitive enough for me. So now, I’m trying to learn more about Python, whose syntax seemed more familiar and maturity is reassuring. Everything seemed good until I read this single sentence in the documentation:

[…] classes in Python do not put an absolute barrier between definition and user, but rather rely on the politeness of the user not to “break into the definition.”

Come ooooon! Politeness of the user? You must be kidding right. In a corporate environment, when your code is likely to be reused and shared and refactored? I thought “hey, that’s probably just a provocative way to say that we Java developers tend to overdesign, and I know it’s true… so let’s read on…”. But unfortunately it proved to be much more than just a provocative sentence, since a few lines later:

In fact, nothing in Python makes it possible to enforce data hiding — it is all based upon convention.

OK. It took me a while to accept the argument that static typing can be too much of a cost in terms of verbosity compared to the poor protection it offers in terms of code correctness. But I said “OK, we’ll see how it looks when we come to real code”. But now they want me to forget about encapsulation too! What is the purpose of even writing a class then? What are you describing? A library of functions with a hidden first parameter? Is that it?

I mean, typing might be a unnecessary hurdle when writing unit test becomes much easier, but giving up on the behavior/state balance, the ability to describe what a class can do AND what it looks like, this is too much to ask.

So now what? Am I stuck between two extreme alternatives: either describe everything and waste energy doing it, or describe nothing a pray/ask for politeness?

And then I thought about LOP, and this interesting idea to decouple structure, syntax and semantics. After all, programming languages have entangled those three aspects for decades. And now both mainstream platforms (Java and .Net) are offering a variety of languages running on the same Virtual Machine. Isn’t that a first step in decoupling syntax on one side, structure and semantics on the other side?

Suddenly I’m starting to dream of a new syntax, far less verbose than the one of the Java programming language but with the same rigorous Object-Oriented structure, and the ability to run on all runtimes with different semantics…

What if the following Java code:

{code type=java}
public class TodoItem extends Item implements Synchronizable{
private String title;
public String getTitle(){return title;}
public void setTitle(String t){title=t;}

protected boolean done;

public TodoItem(String title){this.title=title;}

public void check(){done=true;}
}
{/code}

Could be rewritten like this:
{code}
+ class TodoItem > Item @ Synchronizable
– title
+ <-
return title
+ -> t
title = t

#done

init t
title = t;

+ check
done = true
{/code}

…or something similar ;o)

The key ideas being:

  • Keep all the key concepts of OOP: encapsulation, inheritance, polymorphism, composition
  • Remove static type declaration: I don’t care that my hammer has a wood or a steel handle, but I need to know it has a handle.
  • Replace long keywords by well-identified signs
  • Replace “{}” and “;” by indentation (Python-like)
  • Add simple property syntax (I love the way ActionScript does it)

In other words, I’m looking for a middle-path alternative between Java and Python, between waste and pray, between overdesign and politeness. Does anyone know of a language that offers that kind of compromise? Does anyone know if it has already been tested but has proven to be a dead-end for some reason?

The End of an Era, the Beginning of a New One

I’m a pure product of the Object-Oriented Programming generation. I’ve experimented several different paradigms when I was in engineering school, including formal programming in B, functional programming in OCaml, logical programming with PROLOG and Eclipse (the programming language, not the IDE). But when I started writing software in high school, it was with TurboPascal and then Delphi. And the main language I’ve been using during my studies was Java.

During all that time, I essentially worked on relatively simple problematics, and my end-of-study project was the first one where I started to look for better ways to handle a more complex environment, namely web applications and web services. The revelation came from AndroMDA, an Open-Source Model-Driven Architecture framework that has been my main specialty and domain of research during the past three years or so. As a professional IT consultant, I’ve used it and promoted it on at least 3 customer projects with rather great success.

But today, I think this time is over. I’ll move on to the next step, my next toy. And if you’ve read my previous entry about the limitations of OOP and its comments, you might guess what it is. I was looking for a better way to tackle today’s software issues and go further in my philosophical goal to make technology useful, and I found it. It’s called Language-Oriented Programming.

If you want to know more about it and wonder why I moved onto this so quickly, here are the articles that hit me as another revelation during the past couple of days:

Now I think I’ll have a much closer look at the practical side of things:

All of my personal projects, including MobiMap, will certainly benefit from this new enlightenment. And I sincerely hope that my day-to-day job will give me the opportunity to work with those concepts…