Cultural criticism and ‘tech’

As an academic computer scientist, I frequently interact with the world of ‘tech’, as embodied by Silicon Valley, startups, etc. Many of my friends—from college, from graduate school—work there. My younger brother works there. One of the things that has kept me out of that world is my wariness of its politics, ethics, and aesthetics. I was delighted, then, when I was introduced to Model View Culture, a venue for cultural criticism of tech, sensu lato. They cover a wide range:

I’m writing because other academics—the audience of this blog—might be interested. Many students coming out of the elite CS programs (my academic home for more than a decade) are going to end up working in the world MVC writes about. They’ll go as interns and then as employees. What is it like there?

But I’m also writing because MVC has been subjected to tremendous blowback. I’m not going to link to it, but it’s not hard to find. Silence is complicity, so: Model View Culture is writing smart things about hard problems. If you’d like to support them, just reading is a fine place to start… but of course money is good, too.

Contracts: first-order interlopers in a higher-order world

Reading Aseem Rastogi, Avik Chaudhuri, and Basil Hosmer‘s POPL 2012 paper The Ins and Outs of Gradual Type Inference, I ran across a quote that could well appear directly in my POPL 2015 paper, Space-Efficient Manifest Contracts:

The key insight is that … we must recursively deconstruct higher-order types down to their first-order parts, solve for those …, and then reconstruct the higher-order parts … . [Emphasis theirs]

Now, they’re deconstructing “flows” in their type inference and I’m deconstructing types themselves. They have to be careful about what’s known in the program and what isn’t, and I have to be careful about blame labels. But in both cases, a proper treatment of errors creates some asymmetries. And in both cases, the solution is to break everything down to the first-order checks, reconstructing a higher-order solution afterwards.

The “make it all first order” approach contrasts with subtyping approaches (like in Well Typed Programs Can’t Be Blamed and Threesomes, with and without blame). I think it’s worth pointing out that as we begin to consider blame, contract composition operators look less and less like meet operations and more like… something entirely different. Should contracts with blame inhabit some kind of skew lattice? Something else?

I highly recommend the Rastogi et al. paper, with one note: when they say kind, I think they mean “type shape” or “type skeleton”—not “kind” in the sense of classifying types and type constructors. Edited to add: also, how often does a type inference paper include a performance evaluation? Just delightful!

A Balance of Power: Expressive, Analyzable Controller Programming

I just finished reading A Balance of Power: Expressive, Analyzable Controller Programming. It’s an interesting proposal, but I’m writing just to express my satisfaction with the following sentence:

When we hit expressive limits, however, our goal is not to keep growing this language—down that path lies and other sulphurous designs—but to call out to full-language code.

‘Sulphurous’ indeed. Come for the nonmonotonic interpretation of learning, stay for the colorful prose.

PHPEnkoder 1.12.1: “PHP is laughably bad” edition

I’ve released a bugfix for PHPEnkoder version 1.12. Get this: before version 5.5, PHP didn’t support arbitrary array index expressions. The problem was a line:

$ord = unpack("N",$c)[1];

Which I changed to:

$bs = unpack("N",$c);
$ord = $bs[1];

This is really ridiculous. Like, serious amateur hour ridiculous. Like, if your final project in a compiler’s class had syntactic limitation, you would not get a good grade. PHP is a fractal of bad design. Ugh. Just: ugh.

And while I’m complaining about these sorts of things, where are the structured content management systems? PHPEnkoder’s email and mailto: detection is a giant, horrible kludge of regular expressions. Where’s the CMS where the filters get passed a structured, syntactic representation of the page to be rendered? This is a serious question, and if you know of one, email hidden; JavaScript is required.

LLVM 3.1, Haskell 7.4.1, and OS X

Haskell on OS X can be a little frustrating, what with the 32-bit/64-bit divide. I spent a little bit trying to get the latest 32-bit Haskell platform to work with LLVM 3.1, via the existing bindings. There were a few tricks, which I reproduce here for posterity.

First, here’s how I configured LLVM:

./configure --enable-optimized --enable-jit --with-ocaml-libdir=$GODI_PATH/lib/ocaml/std-lib/
make UNIVERSAL=yes UNIVERSAL_ARCH="i386 x86_64"
sudo make UNIVERSAL=yes UNIVERSAL_ARCH="i386 x86_64" install

Then, get clone the Git HEAD of the bindings. The llvm-base package is in the base/ subdirectory, and you need to build it first. If the configure script fails because it can’t find LLVMModuleCreateWithName (even though it’s obviously there in the library), the problem is that LLVM didn’t build with 32-bit bindings. Go back and build LLVM with the UNIVERSAL and UNIVERSAL_ARCH flags. Beyond this, there is a tiny wrinkle. Open up base/cbits/extra.cpp, and go to line 390; change error.Print to error.print. Now you should be able to run cabal install from the base directory; when that’s successful, go up one level and cabal install will give you the LLVM bindings.

I should warn you: something isn’t perfect here. The examples using the JIT didn’t work for me (I get a bus error when I try to call the Haskell-ized, JITed functions), but I was able to generate real code:

module Hello (main) where

import Data.Word

import LLVM.Core

llvmModule :: TFunction (IO Word32)
llvmModule =
  withStringNul "Hello, world!" $ \s -> do
    puts <- newNamedFunction ExternalLinkage "puts" :: TFunction (Ptr Word8 -> IO Word32)
    main <- newNamedFunction ExternalLinkage "main" :: TFunction (IO Word32)
    defineFunction main $ do
      tmp <- getElementPtr0 s (0::Word32, ())
      _ <- call puts tmp
      ret (0::Word32)
    return main

main :: IO ()
main = do
  m <- newNamedModule "hello"
  hello <- defineModule m llvmModule
  dumpValue hello
  writeBitcodeToFile "hello.bc" m

Then you can compile or interpret the bitcode, as usual:

$ ghc -o hello Hello.hs -main-is Hello.main
[1 of 1] Compiling Hello            ( Hello.hs, Hello.o )
Linking hello ...

define i32 @main() {
  %0 = call i32 @puts(i8* getelementptr inbounds ([14 x i8]* @_str1, i32 0, i32 0))
  ret i32 0

$ ./hello
$ lli hello.bc
Hello, world!

I must admit---it took me some time to grok the LLVM bindings. Typeclass fanciness is just dandy when you're the one who did it, but Haskell's error messages aren't an easy way to figure out how something wants to be used. Then again, they call it the bleeding edge for a reason.

Nested functions in GCC

GCC supports “nested functions” using the -fnested-functions flag. When I first saw this, I was excited: closures in C! In the famous words of Admiral Ackbar, “it’s a trap!”


typedef int (*fptr)(int);

fptr f(int arg) {
  int nested_function(int nested_arg) {
    return arg + nested_arg;

  return &nested_function;

void smash(int arg) {

int main(void) {
  fptr g = f(10);
  printf("%d\n", (*g)(5));
  // printf("%d\n", (*g)(5));
  fptr h = f(12);
  printf("%d\n", (*g)(5));
  printf("%d\n", (*h)(5));

  return 0;

Try compiling (gcc -fnested-functions). What does the second call to g produce—15 or 17? Try uncommenting line 21. What happens? Does commenting out line 20 affect this? What if line 19 is commented out, but lines 20 and 21 are uncommented?

I’m not sure this feature is worth it.

Gravatar support

I’ve added gravatar support to the website. The gravatar system is a clever way to create identity on-line: e-mails are associated with images. Critically, the URL associated with an e-mail doesn’t include the e-mail itself, but instead an MD5 hash — this way, spammers can’t harvest your address.

I was disappointed to discover that Google Chat doesn’t have support for gravatars — a Google labs feature I would use.