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Does type safety matter?

16.07.2017 Leave a comment

One of the distinctive features of programming languages is type safety, esp. static vs. dynamic typing. Let’s take C++ and Python as examples.

In C++ a variable type is determined at compile time and remains the same for the lifetime of a compiled program, while in Python a variable can change type at run time. Moreover, object types in Python can evolve at run time while members are added and removed. In practice, we can create a generic dynamic type in C++ which can contain anything and make variables behave like in Python, but we almost never do.

I was recently watching a C++ talk from some conference, where a distinguished professor claimed static typing in C++ to be superior to dynamic typing Python. To make his point, he said that Python requires you to write tests to make a program as robust as in C++. Now that does not make any sense, because you have to write tests regardless of whether your program is written in C++ or in Python. Static typing doesn’t give you any guarantees that your program will bug-free!

Some time ago there was a study which was comparing programming languages based on the number of defects occurring in programs written in these languages. In that study no significant difference was found between C++ and Python. I would take this study with a grain of salt, yet one thing stood out – that functional programming languages have less bugs than imperative languages, which is likely. You can argue with my analysis of the results of the study, but compare PERL, PHP, C and C++ and you will know what I meant with regards to the grain of salt. My point is, there is no proof that static typing vs. dynamic typing makes much difference on the quality of code.

Suffice to say, the type system in C++ is not very well designed. Let’s take a look at two examples.

Consider this program written in C or C++:

#include <stdio.h>

int main()
{
    const unsigned one = 1;
    printf("%s\n", (-1 > one) ? "true" : "false");
    return 0;
}

It may surprise you that this program prints “true”, meaning that -1 is greater than 1. This is because of “very interesting” type promotion rules in C and C++, due to which a signed type is promoted to an unsigned type.

On top of this, in modern C++ it is recommended to use signed int type for most purposes. Contrast this to the ubiquitous unsigned size_t type in the C++ standard library.

A C++ compiler can help you identify problems in your program during compilation, especially if you enable the highest warnings level possible. You will often find out that you have lots of type-related problems in your C++ program. The solution is typically to scatter lots of static_casts across your code base. However, type casting becomes not only an annoying necessity, but it also hides bugs – check out the -1 > 1 comparison above to see what I mean.

You might say that if you use int for everything (arguments, variables, members) you won’t have to do any casting. Fine, but you can’t escape size_t! Using one type for everything also defies the purpose of having static type checking. You want diverse types to check arguments passed to functions at compile-time. But that leads to incompatible types and type casts – vicious circle!

Yet we still tend to fool ourselves into thinking that type safety is good and important…

Categories: Computing

What Android phone makers don’t want you to know

31.03.2017 Leave a comment

Explosive news: a new Android phone from a popular manufacturer is out. How long is it good for?

It is “good” for maybe two years. You are lucky if your Android device receives an upgrade to the latest version of Android after that time. However, when it comes to important security patches, you cannot count on promptly updates no matter how new your device is, in many cases. That is the track record of most top Android brands, including Google’s own Nexus devices.

Poor support for updates can only be expected for the most expensive devices. If you buy a cheap phone from your carrier, it usually comes with a one- or two-year old version of Android and you will never receive any updates. Sit tight and wait for malware to pwn your phone.

Moral of the story? Vote with your wallet, avoid Android if you can.

Please leave a comment if you find a phone manufacturer who gives you updates for 5 years.

Categories: Computing

The future of programming

21.11.2016 Leave a comment

In the near future, AI and robots will replace humans in most jobs. Until recently I thought programming would be one of the last jobs where humans would be replaced, but I don’t think so anymore.

AI-based static analysis

AI will soon find its way to help us in everything we do. Today, computer programming has lots of challenges, writing correct and bug-free programs is hard. However, I would not be surprised if there was already a startup developing a new AI-based static analysis tool to aid programmers.

We already have all the technology needed to create such tool for, let’s say, C++, or any other programming language for that matter. Here is how such tool could be crafted:

  1. The source code can be turned into an abstract syntax tree, in case of C++ libclang can be used for that with little effort.
  2. The AST can then be fed into a neural network. A library like cuDNN can be used to build such network.
  3. Github is a trove of source code, which can be used to train the network.
  4. The real innovation and the main challenge is annotating the source code with issues which the network should detect. Initially, this could be done using existing static and dynamic analysis tools, like Coverity, valgrind or sanitizers.
  5. The output from the neural network would just highlight issues in the source code.

The tool could be available from the command line and it could be integrated with IDEs.

Improvements

The static analysis tool described above could be further improved in several ways.

If fed with a single function as input, the tool would produce output only relevant to that function. When more context was given, e.g. a file or an entire program, the tool would detect more types of issues.

It would be easy to extend it to accept AST for more programming languages. Eventually, the neural network would be able to recognize problems in programs written in any programming language.

The output could be enhanced beyond just highlighting errors. The neural network could produce one or several proposed fixes for the problems found. At some point, the tool should also be able to select and apply the fixes automatically.

An even more interesting enhancement would be extensive code refactoring. This would require the tool to recognize problems with the design.

In a more advanced version of the tool, a human programmer would only be writing the outline for the program and our tool would be filling up the functions with code and fixing any issues in the design. Eventually, the “programmer” – actually the user (e.g. grandma), would describe what is needed using words, and the tool would generate the program directly in the machine code form, no intermediate code would be necessary.

In an even more futuristic setting, such tool could also work with an advanced 3D printer, and produce a design of a chip to print for the printer.

Do you think programming as a job for humans has a future?

Categories: Computing

Rvalue references in C++

30.08.2016 Leave a comment

This is a great article by Scott Meyers: Universal References in C++11

It explains what rvalues are in a very clean and concise way. This is the best explanation that I’ve found so far. All the other descriptions of rvalues and rvalue references are detailed, but too complicated…

The main topic of this article is that T&& in C++11 not always indicates an rvalue reference, but sometimes it indicates what he calls a universal reference, which is collapsed by the compiler to either an lvalue reference or rvalue reference, depending on T!

Worth a read, even as a refresher.

Categories: Computing

git, where am I?

6.05.2016 Leave a comment

git is a great piece of software, it is a marvel of engineering, it is very useful and reliable.

However there is one problem with git, which barely anybody mentions – it has a very unintuitive user interface! After years of using git I still feel like most git users – I have very little idea about what happens when I issue particular git commands.

Aside from its user interface, git works so well, that other version control systems exist only because they are easier to use. For example, bzr is trivial to master if you’ve ever used any other VCS. Mercurial is slightly more complicated, but after a few days of use you can get the gist of it. But git will surprise you even after years of use.

There are two reasons why git is so difficult to master. First, the git nomenclature is confusing. There is a sea of git commands and switches which modify the commands in subtle ways, so it is easy to get lost. For example, git checkout does not do what you would normally expect it to do, if you have experience from other VCSes. git reset is outright confusing and many users can’t distinguish it from git checkout. A branch in git is not really a branch, it is merely a pointer to some revision in the repository, you can conceptually use it as a branch, but you can also move this pointer to any existing revision in the repository.

Secondly, there is very little information about the state of the tree. It is very hard to find information how to see your location in the tree. Where is your HEAD pointing? Where is master pointing? These questions only scratch the surface.

Today, however, I came across the best git command, which makes it much easier to determine where things are:

git log --graph --oneline --decorate --date=relative --all

This command shows a graph of commits, it shows the location of HEAD, branches, etc.

One note is that this command does not show dangling commits, i.e. commits which are not reachable from any branch or tag. Dangling commits are created by moving the HEAD and adding new commits at that location, or by doing git reset –hard. Typical advice to find such commits is to use git reflog, but it is still difficult to extract useful information from it. The easiest way of finding all dangling commits is the following command:

git fsck --lost-found

Now if you want to include a single dangling commit in the graph, you can use git checkout to go to that commit and then display the graph. This makes life with git a little easier!

Categories: Computing

Indentation in Python

15.03.2016 Leave a comment

Python is one of the best designed programming languages. It is very easy to learn and it has very few gotchas (features which work in surprising ways).

There are so many languages younger than Python, which suffer from horrible design mistakes. For example, compared to many other scripting languages, in Python there are no undefined variables; Python does not prefer globals – you have to declare globals explicitly; when you try to read a non-existent object property in Python, you get an exception; Python does not perform type promotion, so it is easy to distinguish between values of different types; the list goes on.

Everything has pros and cons, and so does Python. One of the commonly mentioned issues with Python are indentation-based blocks. It’s a relatively minor issue and even though I’m not a fan of it myself, in my opinion some people make too much fuss about it.

A frequent argument against indentation-based blocks is that they rely on invisible characters, in particular tabs. There are three ways in which it could be solved:

  1. Set your editor to use 8-column tabs. 8-column tabs are the de facto standard, so if anyone complains about Python because their editor is buggy and defaults to any other tab size, it is essentially their own problem.
  2. Set your editor to convert tabs to spaces. Due to buggy editors being so widespread, it never makes sense to use tabs in source code, regardless of which programming language is used.
  3. Last but not least, the problem could be fixed in Python itself, by disallowing tab characters. This is a small oversight on the Python side.

As you can see, this trivial issue could be solved in several ways and there is no reason to complain about Python.

If you know a programming language, which is better designed than Python, please let me know!

Categories: Computing

The future of mobile devices

24.09.2015 Leave a comment

There are two main directions of evolution for mobile devices: sensors and form factor.

While there’s been some development in sensor technology, there’s still a lot of possibilities, so I’m looking forward to seeing a startup making advances in this direction.

Pocket mobile devices are quite popular, but the era of wearable computing is yet to come. Wrist devices seem promising. The current wave of smartwatches has not scratched the surface yet. Apple and other manufacturers completely don’t get it, so one day some company will come and create the perfect wrist computer.

Below is a breakdown of what an actually useful wrist computer could do.

Readable screen

A computer-like backlit mini-panel is a joke. It consumes a lot of energy, so it must be turned off when you’re not looking to save battery. The solution is obvious – take a look at Kindle. Current Kindle screens are slow to refresh, but they consume very little power and are readable in every lighting conditions, including bright sunlight and darkness. The optional backlight in a wrist device could be automatic and conditional on day/night as well as the “look at me” gesture (like in current smartwatches).

No charging

I am supposed to charge a smartwatch… every day? That is the biggest joke. That is not the direction this technology should be going in. Solar batteries and kinetic charging has been around for 30 years and more. It’s time these technologies are leveraged in wearable devices.

Voice commands

A touchscreen on a watch-sized computer, however useful and necessary, is really too small for most things, esp. typing. The input of such computer should be primarily based on voice recognition. Regardless of whether it can just listen-in for your commands or whether you need to press a button (and it should be ready within milliseconds), the input should be prefiltered and it should be able to tune-in to the owner’s voice, so that it is usable even in loud or public places, and does not accept commands from other people.

As for the actual speech recognition, solutions like SoundHound promise the future where you can say anything to your computer, and it will understand you.

Hardened and waterproof

When the device does not need to be charged (or can optionally be charged wirelessly) and does not have any buttons, it could potentially be made waterproof. The main challenge for making it waterproof would still be the microphone and speaker.

Connectivity and apps

You can expect these from any kind of computer these days. You need all sorts of notifications around the clock and you need the ability to call people and see them at the same time. The main challenge here lies in energy consumption.

Lots of sensors

Finally, there are lots of useful sensors that could make this kind of device a really useful companion:

  • GPS, accelerometer, gyroscope, compass – nothing new here, you can expect these types of sensors in every mobile device these days. They can tell you your location on demand, figure out what you’re doing with the device (or with your hand), etc. I’m looking forward to the ability of using GPS without active connection, a feature of which the mobile Google Maps app has apparently forgotten, or maybe they can’t do that due to patents (all hail the patent law!).
  • Temperature, pressure and humidity – it would be useful if your watch could tell you these.
  • Heart rate and blood pressure – if you are in pursuit of healthy living, you need to know these.
  • Spectrometer – if you go to a restaurant, you want to know if the fish you’ve been served has been poisoned with heavy metals. Even though spectrometers are still a feat of extraterrestrial rovers, someday they will revolutionize the way we do shopping and help us avoid unhealthy substances served to us by the food industry.

So would you wait for a wrist computer which is useful and not tedious, or can the coolness of the Apple Watch or an Apple Watch-like smartwatches lure you?

Categories: Computing