Commentary on Array Cast

I was recently listening to the latest episode of Array Cast. I enjoy listening to this show as it gives me some insight into the array programming community and is also reassuring me that I'm not the only one who finds these things interesting.

While I often have comments about what is being said on this show, this particular episode had me commenting on a lot that was said and I found myself disagreeing with many of the major points made during the episode. For this reason, I decided to write them down in the form of a blog post in an attempt to more clearly formulate what I believe are incorrect assumptions made in the episode.

With the exception of the first point which is just a correction, the statements made here are my personal opinions and I don't want to make it seem as though I'm claiming everybody else are outright wrong.

That point about election prediction

In the episode, a claim was made that the first computer-based election predictions were made using APL. As CBS was mentioned, it seems obvious that this indeed refers to the 1952 presidential election in the US. During this election, most people were predicting a close call while the software predicted a landslide. This was so off from expectations that CBS didn't want to air the prediction. It wasn't until the actual results started to come in that they admitted that the computer had actually predicted this result.

The computer used was a Univac I. This was long before the first programming languages started to appear. APL wasn't created until 1966.

It's possible that APL has been used for election predictions, and it would be interesting to see something about that, but I have not been able to find any information about this.

Debugging code

There was a discussion around debugging complex code. There is an implied argument that the “Whitney style” C code is hard to debug. The following statement was made:

And then another time the guy said, “well, how're we going to debug it?” he said. And he said, “oh, if I have to debug this…” — and I never understood that until much later — “oh, you really want me to? You want this thing to be bug free? Well, then I'll have to spend a couple of months reading the code.” Could you imagine what? Yeah, in other words. Think about it. Usually, you know, you'll run something, and you test it and, you know. And if it breaks, you know where to go or whatever. But for Arthur, the way his mind works is if you really want to debug the thing, he had to go and read the code very, very carefully. Not execute the code. Read the code.

Later, the following is said:

Yeah, well, I'm actually going back to what you were talking about, Joel, with the understanding of the programming and have having to read it to say I could debug it. That actually reminds me of something that Aaron Hsu had said. Or that I've heard Aaron Hsu talk about in his Co-dfns compiler, [23] is that he finds now that he understands it so tightly, he can look at it and make very quick changes to it because he's almost internalized the process so tightly that he can see exactly what he needs to do, and he doesn't have all these side effects right rippling through. It's a level of understanding of a program that I don't think most people who write, or program actually get to because they do get into that loop of “I'll try this. Oh, it didn't work. I'll try this. It didn't work.”

In my opinion, none of the above justifies the use of “Whitney style” C code. In fact, it's a vacuous statement. If you have no tools to debug or otherwise analyse a piece of code, of course you are going to have to spend a lot of time reading and understanding the code. You really have no choice.

That's not to say that you shouldn't understand the code you're working on. That goes without saying. The method suggested at the end of the second quote is bad practice no matter what code you are working on. Whenever one makes a change to a codebase, one has to understand what that change does and how it affects the rest of the system.

When discussing “Whitney style” code, this is what I'm referring to. The below is a snippet from the J interpreter:

static A jtsprarg(J jt,I f,A x){A q;B*b,c;I r;P*xp;
 r=AR(x); xp=PAV(x);
 if(SPARSE&AT(x)){c=1; RZ(b=bfi(r,SPA(xp,a),1)); DO(f, if(!b[i]){c=0; break;});}
 else{c=0; GATV(q,B01,r,1,0); b=BAV(q); memset(b,C0,r);}
 R c||!r?x:reaxis(ifb(r,b),x);

It should be said that this is an older version of the interpreter. The later versions have added a lot of comments that explain what's going on. This is great, and my understanding is that we have Henry Rich to thank for that.

The purpose of source code is to be read and understood. A lot more time is spent looking at and anlysing source code compared to the time spent writing it. For this reason, it's important that code is clear and easy to understand.

There are certainly a lot of people who are capable of understanding this. It can even be argued that it's not that hard to figure out. You have to learn what the macros do, and you have be aware of what the single-character names do.

But even setting that aside, running this code in a debugger is terrible. The macros make things particularly problematic, and setting breakpoints when you have multiple statements on a single line is just a hassle. But the biggest issue with all of this is that getting people up to speed on the codebase is a problem. There is value in following established principles.

Even more importantly, there is no value in compressing the code by removing every single whitespace and using single-character variable names. Hard drives are large enough these days to be able to store source code with long names.

I fully agree that Whitney is a very smart person. He's done some very impressive things. However, not everything he came up with is great.

My argument is that J was successful in spite of its code style, not thanks to it.

I also believe that APL suffers from this to a limited extent. However, it's offset by the fact that the language itself is designed to handle it. This is similar to maths notation which is concise and used by people all over the world. However, writing maths in ASCII is unbearable, which is proven by looking at any mathematician writing C code.

This relates to what was said in the episode: notation matters. APL notation is designed to be written in a very terse form. C was not. Just because you can write highly packed code in C doesn't necessarily mean that you should do that.

Performance of basic functions

From the episode:

Arthur's design goal was that the slowest primitive to the fastest primitive have to live within one order of magnitude in speed.

If taken literally, very few if any languages can obey this principle. The difference between addition and exponentiation is already more than one order of magnitude of difference.

After listening to the discussion around this topic, I have spent a lot of time thinking about what it really means. And I have come to the conclusion that the statement itself is meaningless. It's clearly heavily dependent on what the term “primitive function” means. I'm guessing that in the case of K, it's the functions with a single character name. As such, it's a completely arbitrary choice since there is no rule that says that single character names have to behave any differently than any other function.

Even when assuming there is a natural definition of a primitive function, it's not clear why it's important. In the podcast some examples were brought up where in some specific language certain functions were parallelised and incredibly fast while others were significantly slower because they did not have the same optimisations. As best as I can tell, we have two different issues here:

With this in mind, I'd use the following statement which is less impactful but perhaps a bit more correct:

“No primitive operations should be unexpectedly slow”

With “primitive” being used very loosely to refer to common functions used in day-to-day programming.