Previous notes: ICFP, days 1
These notes are about Friday, September 5. Thursday, I missed the whole day of conferencing and only went to the industrial reception in the evening. I hadn't planned to go to many talks on Thursday anyway, but I ended up spending Wednesday night (all of it) in the ER at Östra Sjukhuset, since I didn't know how else to get a relatively minor thing requiring antibiotics treated at night. (Since I didn't get seen till 5 AM, I should have just waited till the next morning!) So that meant sleeping till about 3 on Thursday.
On Friday, I'd been planning to mostly go to the Erlang Workshop and drop in on a Haskell Symposium talk or two, but I ended up doing the opposite, oops. Somehow, I always end up going to the "Future of Haskell" discussion, even in years when I'm not doing Haskell. I already talked about the discussion a little bit in my Ada Initiative fundraiser post
; what Wouter said about being encouraging to newcomers was part of it. During the discussion part, somebody stood up and said "well, as far as I'm concerned, everything's fine because the Haskell community has been friendly to me and I've had a good experience." I'm probably being a bit unfair to him, but certainly the implication
was that his good experience was a sign there was no problem, even if he didn't say so explicitly. I stood up and pointed out that the people we need to listen to are the ones who aren't
in the room -- presumably, everyone who was attending the Haskell Symposium was there because they had a good experience with the community. I don't think I exactly said so, but further compounding things is that some of the specific people who have been particularly hostile to novices were in the room. If you have no idea what I'm talking about at this point, Gershom's "Letter to a Young Haskell Enthusiast"
should be a good start. I'm motivated here by having friends who wanted to learn Haskell but gave up because people were hostile to them, and I hate that the response to that is for people to say their
experiences were good -- that doesn't give me anything to tell my friends.
I also touched on this in my fundraiser post, but the fact that on day 2 of the Haskell Symposium, there were maybe 100 people in the room and (as far as I could tell) none of them were women, by itself, indicates that there's a problem. Arguments that women just aren't interested in Haskell, or aren't good at it, or prefer to do real-world things where they get to help people (unlike teaching and research, I guess?) have so little merit that they're not worth discussing. I know that the lack of women in the room was for a reason, which is that largely, women aren't finding the Haskell community -- or the functional programming community, or communities around programming language theory and practice more broadly -- welcoming. The fact that there are a few exceptions means that a few women who have an exceptional level of interest, talent, and (for some, anyway) privileges along axes other than gender have been able to make it. They should be listened to for the same reason that someone who runs marathons while wearing a 100-pound backpack knows more about running marathons than someone who runs marathons unladen. But it's not enough for a few exceptional women to be allowed in -- to paraphrase Bella Abzug, equality doesn't mean access only for the exceptional women, but for mediocre women to do as well as mediocre men.
Wouter made a comment about "encouraging women", and while we should, I wish people would spend less time saying "encourage women", and more time saying "don't be a jerk". Of course, neither imperative means much without further detail. As Gershom's letter reflects (indirectly), when I say that the community is unwelcoming to women, it's often not about overt sexism (though there is some of that), but rather, a very popular aggressive, adversarial, confrontational teaching style that many people apply to a broad range of interactions besides those that are understood as teaching situations. And it's not that women don't like to be or don't want to be aggressive -- it's that they know from lived experience that being aggressive and adversarial with men has consequences, and not good ones. This is the double bind: there is a very narrow range of allowable behavior for women in any grossly male-dominated subculture, and a very wide range for men. So besides just "encouraging women", men also need to approach intellectual conversations in ways that aren't about showing dominance... even when they're only talking to each other
.Here's the video of the entire discussion
, which I think includes all the audience comments.
After lunch, I went to some of the Erlang Workshop talks. The first one was Amir Ghaffari on "Investigating the Scalability of Distributed Erlang"
. The talk didn't spend much time introducing Distributed Erlang itself, but rather, focused on running DE-Bench (the benchmark suite for it) on different number of nodes to see how well Distributed Erlang scales. DE-Bench lets you run tests synchronously or asynchronously, on one or all nodes. Ghaffari found that throughput drops off dramatically if you start using global operations (which, intuitively, isn't surprising). He also found that latency for global commands grows linearly in the number of nodes -- I wasn't so sure why that was true. He found that Riak didn't scale past 70 nodes at all -- at that point, an overloaded server process became the bottleneck. He concluded that everything about Distributed Erlang scales well except for RPC; not being familiar with Distributed Erlang, I'm not sure how much of a problem that is.
In the next talk in the same session, Chris Meiklejohn spoke on dataflow-deterministic distributed dataflow programming for Erlang
. The talk was about using Erlang to build a reference implementation for CRDTs, as well as building a new language (that is, a subset of Erlang) for CRDTs. It was cool that Meiklejohn was implementing some ideas from Lindsey's work
, both because I know Lindsey and because it was something I'd heard about before, so I had at least a moment where I got to feel smart ;)
Meiklejohn and colleagues' system, DerFlow, is state-based; CRDTs require something to grow monotonically, and in this case, it's state. Meiklejohn pointed out that for distributed systems, this is great, because unreliable networks mean that packets could get dropped, but never cause already-transmitted data to be forgotten. Proving correctness means proving properties over the lattice of choices; a choice is a particular sequence of messages received by a program. Their memory model is a single-assignment store: any given memory location goes from null (no binding), to variable (which means it's "partially bound"), to value (bound). If one node asks for something unbound, it will wait until it becomes bound -- so, deadlock can happen. I'm handwaving a bit in my explanation here, but fortunately, you can go look at the code yourself on Github!
Finally, I went to one last Haskell Symposium talk that I wouldn't have gone to if Ed Kmett hadn't recommended it, and indeed, it was worth going to: Atze van der Ploeg's "Reflection Without Remorse"
. The talk was cool, but at this point my brain was pretty fried and I bet the paper will be even cooler. van der Ploeg motivated the problem by talking about how a chain of list append operations gets evaluated depending on associativity -- depending on where you parenthesize, one way is a lot more expensive than the other. I think this is the same problem as the infamous foldr/foldl problem
. The solution (that makes the cost of evaluation the same regardless of associativity) is to rewrite expressions in CPS form -- this looks to me a lot like the build
operation from shortcut deforestation
. If I'm not totally lost, I think during this talk, I finally understood why build
is called build
for the first time (and I did my undergrad and master's theses on shortcut deforestation) -- the build
form represents build
ing up a list as a continuation. Then you run into a problem with having to convert between list repreesntations and function representations and vice versa -- I think I actually ran into something similar in my master's thesis work that I didn't quite know how to handle, so if I'm in a mood for revisiting some ancient history, maybe I'll try to figure out if there's really a connection there or not.
So far, apparently, Okasaki already solved the problem -- just for lists -- in Purely Functional Data Structures
. But you can actually generalize the problem to all monads, not just lists! That's where it gets really cool. The continuation monad transformer for monads (which I don't understand) is apparently another instance of the same problem. My mind started melting a little at this point, but the upshot is that you can do monadic reflection, where you have interchangeable continuation-based and concrete forms of a data structure and can alternate between building and reflection.
That's all for Friday -- stay tuned for my final ICFP-ish post, in which I'll summarize the CUFP talks.