Monthly Archives: June 2009

My Premonition

Last summer I got the opportunity to work briefly with Conal Elliott in Belgium. The two weeks I spent there are still making an impact on me; immediately I resonated with his semantic design idea. But the more important ideas were the ones I picked up subconsciously, and I’m just now becoming able to put them in words.

(1) If extreme idealism isn’t working out for you, maybe it is because you are not wholeheartedly following your own ideals.

(2) You must be the change you wish to see in the world (– Mahatma Gandhi). As applied to software: design software as if it were the beautiful paradise you want it to be, then build pieces of the scaffolding back to the status quo.

Both of these were key insights leading me to undertake Dana.

At the time I was desperately trying to create an FRP framework for Haskell, trying in terms of IO and STM and playing messy tricks with the operational semantics of thunks. It felt like cheating. I had the desire to throw away IO altogether in my efforts, just to see where that led me (this forced me to put aside the way I thought an FRP interface should look). This was an instance of (1).

But in Haskell, IO would always be beneath it all. Your functional program always becomes an imperative program at the end of the day. Maybe this dissonance is what is causing the endless FRP difficulties. Maybe we can’t really know what pure FRP is until we have pure turtles all the way down — until there is no impedance mismatch between the functional and the imperative. This set me on researching the idea of a purely functional operating system, which is still the slogan by which I name Dana.

But now Dana is more than that. Now, it is my (2). In this post, I describe how I see the world of software in 30 years. This isn’t about what kind of devices computers will be embedded in or how they are connected; this is about the process of developing software.

Code and program are the same; any fragment of code may be used interactively. Complex programs are just compositions of simpler ones, and composition of programs is a fundamental concept to both users and programmers. Thus power users cannot help but to be programmers.

Computer science has become a strict subfield of applied mathematics. Creating complex software is primarily modeling: the fundamental task in software development is to create a mathematical model of your problem. The model is encoded directly, and then software scaffolding is built around it, verified to the model. Reasonable shops do not dare ship code that hasn’t been verified to correspond to their model.

Development tools — programs that talk about programs — are astoundingly rich and expressive. Simply enter a property about your code. The tool goes off on a model search to try to refute the property. Meanwhile, in a way that my mind cannot yet comprehend, the programmer communicates the “essence” of why the property should be true, and the tool fills in all the details of the proof. The property is added to a database of facts, which everyone can immediately see and use.

Provably correct code is what people do, because the tools have made it so easy that it is an obvious engineering choice (this ease does not come without a resculpting of our brains). Gargantuan test suites are replaced by a few hours of a developer with a proving tool (an exponential increase in productivity came from the fact that theorems compose, but tests don’t).

User interfaces are mostly an artistic task, quite different from the rigorous visualization that modelers do. All objects have a few obvious ways to endow them with primitive user interfaces (see Eros). Then making a nice user interface is a matter of rearranging them, composing inputs and outputs, and drawing/animating things (under the assumption that computers are still monitor, keyboard, and mouse driven — make the appropriate generalizations).

The shops that will be renowned by power users are those who have a great program with a great interface, but they also ship components to the underlying logic. This is trivial for them, because of the ubiquitous separation between interface and logic. Some are still irrationally afraid of giving away their trade secrets by exposing this, so there are still lame, interface-only programs. But these lame programs will not have the chance to participate in the miracles of engineering the decade will bring, a combiatorical build up of the the work of millions of developers, coming together to create the Star Trek computer — or something else, far more advanced.

Computation is an information science, and is subject to the exponential explosion that comes with it. This Utopian vision hinges on correct composition of everything, from programs to facts.

Right now, software is primarily non-compositional. We have libraries and languages, which are built up of smaller libraries and languages. But end products are not designed to be composed; they are mostly designed for the end user only. But the end user is where the money is, thus where a great deal of the effort in the industry is going. Moreover, for advanced programs (say, Maya), the end user is also where a lot of the skill and talent is.

We have to work at this. There is little small-scale economic incentive to make your program composable; you just give your competitors the ability to use your software without you being able to use theirs. And it’s hard for idealistic young CEOs to try such a thing, since the state of software development means you have to put in a lot of work both to make your program composable and to compose other people’s programs. But these things are not fundamentally hard, they are just hard using the languages and methods of today.

Dana is my own first step in this direction. It aims to be an environment which forces everything to be composable and verifiable. This comes at the expense of mental laziness: you will have to seriously rewire your brain to work in it. I don’t believe that the enlightenment can come without this rewiring. I’m desperately trying to rewire my own, to even consider the choices that will be obvious to the generation ahead.

Is your brain going to be ready when the revolution comes?

The role of a core calculus

A lot of software engineering can be described as the art of skillful procrastination. When we’re designing some software, we would like to put off as many decisions as possible as long as possible, while still making progress toward the goal. This procrastination leads to good abstraction, because any code we wrote before we made said decision is independent of that decision, which means the decision can be changed later, leading to “maintainability”.

I would describe the philosophy of the Dana project as: make the right decision or keep thinking. It is a philosophy that only a project without a time limit can afford. This constraint forces reconsideration of the very fundamentals of computer science, since I believe much of our modern infrastructure is built on wrong decisions. I don’t ever expect Dana to be finished; instead, it is a unifying project within which some right decisions may be found.

core calculusWhen Dana becomes something runnable, it will look something like an hourglass: a large body of purely functional code on top, all represented eventually upon an extremely simple core calculus, below which layers of complexity are again added to adapt to existing operating systems and software. The layers above the core are only incidentally related to the layers below it, and I hope by studying whatever the eventual form of the upper layers, we can find ways to rip out the needless complexity below and replace it with something more fitting.

This is all very abstract, and it is hardly clearer in my mind than it is in this picture. However, I’m getting a good sense for what that skinny core is and how it relates to the rest of the system. That is what I describe for the rest of this article.

Despite what we pretend to believe, computer programs are more than their denotational semantics. Hard as we try, there will never be a system in which λx. x and λx. log2(2x) are indistinguishable (over, say, the naturals) due to execution performance. The finiteness of memory and non-instantaneousness of computations are things we will always have to deal with. Using a system which ignores these issues as a fundamental backbone would be a wrong decision.

However, Dana’s mission is to be a purely functional operating system. A key feature of reasoning pure functional programming is that of extensionality: if two functions give the same outputs for the same inputs, they are the same function. So here, λx. x and λx. log2(2x) must be the same function. To throw that away would be to give into just another imprecise, operational notion of computer programs.

At first sight, these two points directly contradict each other. How do we reconcile them?

I rather loosely used the term “same” above. What I mean by that word is that, if two things are the same, then you can safely substitute one for the other in all contexts and not observe a difference. Again there is imprecision in this definition: what do I mean by “observe a difference”? And therein lies our solution.

The core calculus is not something which is executed—not seriously, at least. Instead, it’s a way to define your observations. We come back to our two function “λx. x” and “λx. log2(2x)”—mind the quotes. These are represented in our core calculus not as the functions themselves, but as terms in an abstract syntax tree, in which they are obviously not the same. Call them f and g, respectively. Elsewhere in the core, we might define functions on syntax trees, such as Meaning and Performance. Then we can prove that Meaning(f) = Meaning(g) but Performance(f) ≠ Performance(g). These functions make explicit the varying parameters that cause the two implementations to vary.

This syntax tree might then be passed along to an interpreter, which executes it, respecting the Meaning and Performance functions. This can be proven if the interpreter, too, is implemented on top of the core calculus. But eventually something must leave the system to get to the drivers, and we can’t use the core calculus to prove its correctness anymore. Many methods can be used to convince ourselves of the correctness of the driver, but we can’t do it within Dana—an unfortunate fundamental necessity.

The point is, though, that everything above the core can be proven correct, and it is all coherent: the code we are proving things about is the very same code we’re running, and we don’t have to worry about translation errors. If we can trust the drivers, then we can trust the code.

Recursive Types in IΞ

In the last IΞ post, I introduced the calculus and sketched the construction of some standard mathematical objects. In this post, I will dive a little deeper and construct of all the positive recursive types. The proof will be in an informal style (in particular, omitting the H constraints), but I have little doubt that the proof will go through.

Only a superficial familiarity with IΞ is needed to understand this proof; I adopt a set-theoretic style notation, so the proof should be approachable. Here’s a quick refresher of the primitives of IΞ.

  • Membership is application, so when I write x \in A, this is translated into IΞ as A x. Thus sets, unary predicates, and types are all the same thing.
  • Because membership and application are identified, universal quantification and the subset relation are also. \Xi A B means “A is a subset of B”, or “x in A implies x in B”. In particular, the pattern \Xi A (\lambda a. P a) can be interpreted as “for every a in A, P a”.
  • L is the set of all sets (whose existence does not lead to a contradiction in this system!). I will give its definition at the end of the article.
  • Other symbols have their usual interpretation, and I’ll include an appendix which gives them all precise definitions at the end.

Definition: A function F : L \mapsto L is called monotone if A \subseteq B \Rightarrow F A \subseteq F B.

Intuitively, the monotone functions correspond roughly to the functors in Haskell; they use their parameter in a positive way (appear to the left of an even number of arrows).

Definition: The type recursion combinator μ is defined as: x \in \mu F = \forall P\!\in\!L.\, F P \subseteq P \Rightarrow x \in P.

We are allowed to define things simply by giving a condition for membership like this. Formally, this definition starts out: \mu = \lambda F. \lambda x. \Xi L (\lambda P. \dots)

This definition intuitively says, x is in μ F if x is in every type closed under F. We will see that this definition corresponds to a type recursion combinator.

Lemma 1: If F is monotone, then F (\mu F) \subseteq \mu F.

Proof. Given x \in F (\mu F); show x \in \mu F. Expanding the definition of μ above:

Given P \in L, F P \subseteq P; show x \in P.

Observe \mu F \subseteq P: Suppose y \in \mu F, show y \in P. Since y \in \mu F, we have \forall P'\!\in\!L.\, F P' \subseteq P' \Rightarrow y \in P' by definition of μ. Letting P' = P, we have F P \subseteq P from above, so y \in P.

Therefore, x \in F (\mu F) \subseteq F P \subseteq P (by the monotonicity of F and \mu F \subseteq P). QED.

Now for the easy direction:

Lemma 2: If F is monotone, then \mu F \subseteq F (\mu F).

Proof. Given x \in \mu F; show x \in F (\mu F).

By the definition of μ, we have \forall P\!\in\!L.\, F P \subseteq P \Rightarrow x \in P. Let P = F (\mu F). We have F P = F (F (\mu F)) \subseteq F (\mu F) =  P by monotonicity of F and Lemma 1, therefore x \in P = F (\mu F). QED.

Which leads us to the recursion equation.

Theorem: If F is monotone, \mu F = F (\mu F). (Proof trivial by the two lemmas)

I’m using set equality here, i.e. mutual containment, which is probably a bit weaker than Leibniz equality. It is obvious from the definition that this fixed point is minimal.

Monotonicity is easy to prove for any of the standard positive types (products, coproducts, functions). So we can model a good variety of Haskell data types already; however these are standard inductive (least fixed point) types, no infinite structures allowed. I’m still working on the encoding and analogous proofs for ν (greatest fixed point), which is closer to Haskell.

Hopefully I’ll be able to port many libraries (maybe after a few totality annotations) without having to worry about partiality. But there are more pressing matters, such as finishing my interactive proof assistant for IΞ.


  • \text{True} = \Xi H H, the True proposition.
  • K x y = x, the constant function.
  • U = K \text{True}, the set of all objects.
  • (f \circ g) x = f (g x), function composition.
  • (a \mapsto b) f = \Xi a (b \circ f), the set of functions from a to b.
  • L = U \mapsto H, the set of all sets.
  • a \Rightarrow b = \Xi (Ka) (Kb), implication.
  • \Lambda f x = \Xi L (\lambda t. f t x), universal quantification of types (like forall in Haskell)
  • a \times b = \Lambda (\lambda r. (a \mapsto b \mapsto r) \mapsto r), product type.
  • a \oplus b = \Lambda (\lambda r. (a \mapsto r) \mapsto (b \mapsto r) \mapsto r), coproduct type.

It is never safe to cheat

Anyone who has spent time trying to implement an FRP library knows the unsafePerformIO story. You may use unsafePerformIO as long as you ensure that the result maintains purely functional semantics. It’s possible to create impure values with unsafePerformIO. It is up to you to “prove” that you have created a pure one. Seems like a decent trade-off.


I put “prove” in quotes for a reason. If you’re doing something nontrivial (i.e. you’re not just using unsafePerformIO . return), you need an operational semantics for IO to prove this. But that’s not all! You are probably depending on some external state inside the unsafePerformIO, which depends on the time and order in which thunks are evaluated. But thunks aren’t part of the operational semantics of IO, they are part of the operational semantics of pure values in Haskell — something we quite explicitly do not have. So you need not only to embrace the ill-definedness of IO, but in fact tie yourself down to a particular operational interpretation of Haskell!

Let’s say I write an HNF evaluator for Haskell. Your unsafePerformIO magic will probably not work on this style of evaluator because the meaning of thunks — and the way they are executed — is quite different in this style.

There are more invariants on a Haskell function than purity and referential transparency. We can of course only implement computable functions. They have to be monotone and continuous. And they might be other things, as well, which someone one day will come along and prove by leveraging properties of the type system, exposed primivites, etc. (see ST for prior art). But they have not accounted for your magic, so their analysis does not include any program using your library.

We are pure functonal programmers. We have chosen a language which vastly restricts what we are allowed to do, because we understand the benefits we reap as a result. However, pretending to understand when we are allowed to cheat only buys us the benefits we know about now, but precludes future benefits from work in the field. By using unsafePerformIO — even in a safe way (or so you think) — you avert the exponential growth of our field.

If you find you can’t express something you feel you should be able to, I suggest one of two things: (1) look deeper until you find an incidental limitation of the language, and attempt to solve it at the language level, or (2) look deeper until you understand why you actually shouldn’t have been able to do that, revealing the truth from behind the curtain of zealous ignorance. In my experience, (2) is much more often successful.

On a more practical note, most of said limitations are about performance, which is not in the semantics’ domain of discourse. It makes sense that our languages wouldn’t be good at such things. Instead of introducing a hack, why not push the field forward and think about what a language which can talk about such things would look like? Each time you run into a limitation, you have a new use case, and thus a new perspective on the problem.

Until that problem is solved, though, your library users might have to pay the price of not having as elegant an interface. But by restricting yourself thusly, you are protecting yourself from your own ignorance, at least knowing that what you have made should, in fact, be makeable.

In summary: It is never safe to cheat.