ICFP day 1

Day one of the ICFP functional programming conference. It got off to a great start (for me, at least) with Guy Steele making a call to abandon outdated programming practices based around inherently sequence datastructures such as linked lists, instead favoring those with more opportunities for divide-and-conquer parallelism such as balanced trees (conc trees in lisp) – both can be used to represent ordered collections, but the latter gives you nice ways to split off subprograms which can be computed in parallel. And, since the same kinds of ‘recombine partial results’ strategies crop up again and again they can be factored out, and in the Fortress language, given a very concise notation. Guy described one common ‘useful trick’ to avoid some data-dependencies across the sub-problems, which was to accumulate some ‘extra information’ up as you recombine partial results – this reminded me a lot of Merkle trees.
Of course, along with the idea of ‘factor out strategies’ there were also many mentions of mapreduce – quote, “Map/reduce is a big deal” – which made me pleased I’d talked on this very topic at SPLS earlier this year. Enjoyable, and pretty straighforward talk (but then, I think Guy Steele can make complex things sound simple in much the same way that many other speakers do the reverse).

The other talk I was most interested in was the formally proved microkernel; however learning that an ~8kloc C program had required ~120kloc of computer-assisted proofs was somewhat sobering. The talk was very high level and didn’t include much in the way of gruesome details. Happily, a different talk featured a live theorem proving session using Coq – I’ve just started learning this myself, so it was a lot more meaningful that it might’ve otherwise been.

At these conferences, I’m never sure what fraction of the talks will be meaningful to me, given that this is effectively my hobby interest. However, I’m pretty pleased with my hit rate after today. Only one talk was content-free for me (note to self: never do a talk like that). But given that I still remember the first time I went along to SPLS years ago when I didn’t really grok monads, it was a nice contrast that I could follow a talk about the interaction of laziness and non-determinism in monadic style without difficulty; although it’s not exactly going to be immediately useful to anything I’m writing today. It’s nice to feel that my understanding has progressed a bit over the years. And it was useful to have played with arrows recently, both in the HXT xml toolkit and by reading the original Hughes paper – they came up several times.

I’m playing a “spot the kool-aid” game; trying to see how many people play the “functional => good” card without further justification. I mean, “functional” is such a broad brush – pure functional like Haskell, impure like ocaml, dynamically typed like lisp/scheme – each with their own strengths and weaknesses, and many ‘functional’ ideas have been integrated into more mainstream languages already. I can’t help imagining that if there was a ruby/c++/prolog conference next door, they would be cheering their heros and booing their villains in identical ways. Hmm, that’s probably just being harsh; in practice, everyone I have talked to so far at ICFP has seemed pretty clued up, but I do think it’s useful to apply some level of cynicism to what you see and hear. I jokingly think that a “devils advocate” panel would be fun … where experts in an area would try their hardest to convince the audience that their area is pointless/futile/flawed. Wouldn’t that be fun?