Design and due diligence of the Cene language

Cene is a language I’ve built over the last couple of years. I’ve talked about Staccato and Tenerezza here, and that code has turned into Cene.

What sets Cene apart: Extensibility support

Cene’s design revolves around the primary idea that future generations will have better ideas for programming languages than we do, so most of what sets it apart is its support for custom languages, which mainly has to do with the design of its macroexpander.

Cene’s macroexpansion phase incrementally writes definitions (of macros, functions, etc.) to monotonic state resources using deterministic concurrency. These state resources are expressive enough that user-defined macros can use them to achieve combinations of open-world and closed-world extensibility, which is what I consider to be Cene’s primary feature.

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RKN, Constant Time Steps, and Other Adventures

It’s been a couple of years since I posted here! Somehow 2014 turned into an opportunity for me to practice forms of expression other than programming, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about. I still spent lots of time on language design throughout 2014, and I’ve been zooming along in the new year.

Ethics for language design

I still dream big enough in my language design that ethics is an important consideration, but I’ve mellowed down when it comes to long-term ethics, and I’ve riled up a little about short-term ethics. :) Whatever happens, I think we’ll eventually build systems for better communication throughput between people, reducing the kind of violent pressure releases I was afraid of. After all, whatever organizations have better communication methods will probably become more intelligent as organizations, and they’ll outcompete the others. We just have to worry about how brutal that competition will be. So I figure we should foster egalitarianism in ways that cultivate competitive markets. Does that make me a left-libertarian? I don’t even know.

Pragmatics for language design

At this point I think of a programming language as something that has niche value. “Programming” is a rather nebulous term itself, and “language” describes the skill you use rather than the reward you get. As user interfaces go, programming languages are optimized for tasks where the user will have a) a long time to prepare their input, b) a higher tolerance for complexity than for redundancy, and c) a rather strong commitment to their chosen code once it’s deployed out of their reach. Well-designed UIs avoid such high complexity and commitment burdens, so my expectation as a programming language designer is to put myself out of a hobby.

Between complexity and commitment, commitment is the more essential problem. Much of the complexity in programming can be traced back to commitment thresholds: Either the bit is set, or it’s clear, never in between. Furthermore I think it’s plausible to trace this back to the mind-body threshold: Human minds are so disconnected from each other that we insist on personal identity, and this insistence lends a sense of absolute discreteness to so many of the concepts we form. (Although I’m attributing this to humans, this might be more specifically a Western trend. My perspective is too myopic to tell.)

On the other hand, not all complex artifacts are deployed with a high commitment cost. Sometimes people deploy complex artifacts because they can’t help it, leaving behind fingerprints and memories. We might want to take advantage of this, focusing on programming languages that help us interpret found artifacts in a useful way.

If I’m on the right track here, then programs would do best to be shaped like some kind of fingerprint, and encapsulation boundaries in programming would do best to behave like the encapsulation boundaries of people. That way we’re not introducing unnecessary concepts. Well, people are vaguely like modules: Not only is a program module encapsulated in a way vaguely similar to a person, but orderless sets of interacting modules are vaguely similar to orderless sets of interacting people. When modules interact, their interaction membrane, if we took a fingerprint of it, would be their import/export type signature. Maybe a type signature is a fingerprint for person-to-person interaction too.

Based on this train of thought, we might like to find a language with only type signatures. If we took a typed functional language with implicits or type classes, removed everything but the type signatures, and tried to program with it anyway, we would accomplish some form of logic programming. Maybe logic programming languages are on to something.

Below the cut, I’ll list some of the language projects I’ve worked on over the past year or two. The above philosophical premises will be relevant for a few of them, but I won’t refrain from discussing tangential features and challenges I’m excited about. If you’d like to avoid most of the technical meat-fluff and get back to the philosophical fluff-meat, I recommend skipping to the section titled “Era Tenerezza” and reading from there. :)

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Some Programming Evolution

I’ve come an awful long way since the last time I posted to this blog. To catch you up a bit, I’ve become enamored with David Barbour’s RDP programming model, I’ve ported my Arc libraries over to JavaScript (and added to them), I’ve even ported Conan Dalton’s Rainbow (an implementation of Arc in Java) to JavaScript, and generally I’ve just been hacking away in JavaScript. I like JavaScript’s non-broken lexical scope, and I like the fact that it has a real language standard rather than a reference implementation, but most of all, as I mentioned last time, I like how everything I do in JavaScript can run in the browser. Even my static site generator runs in the browser now (but sorry, there aren’t any good examples of how to use it).

Type wild

During this time, the potential value of static type systems has become quite clear to me. For the most part I still really don’t care about protecting programmers from their own mistakes. Instead what I value is the ability to make promises about program behavior that untrusting parties can verify on their own (for non-hackish metaprogramming and secure code distribution), the ability to write expressive abstractions that don’t sacrifice any run-time performance, and the ability to infer a program’s implementation from its interface. I still like the dynamic programming ideal of putting lots of power in the programmer’s hands… but whence else comes this power? Rather than stubbornly reinventing the existing static type research under some other name, I embrace it.

Introducing Chops

Recently I’ve been doing a lot of my exploratory programming in JavaScript, thanks to the fact that I know it’ll run on crazy platforms like the 3DS. -_^ I’ve programmed in JavaScript off and on since high school, and boi has my JavaScript style changed…. @_@

JavaScript’s lack of macros is a bit troubling for me, especially given the recent tendency for JavaScript programmers to deal in lots of nested asynchronous callbacks: “Unindented functions to clean callback mess.” “Asynchronous callbacks in JavaScript”

I haven’t felt the pain of the asynchronous callback nesting problem firsthand, but I know a horror close to that one: Monadic programming in Groovy. Observe the indentation.

In fact, that indentation-heavy part of the Blade code is what originally got me fed up with using Groovy and interested in making Penknife as an intermediate project on the way to Blade. Well, my work on Penknife has been so focused on modularity and hygiene that it’s slack on what really matters: Syntax. Oh, syntax, how you really really matter so! :-p

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