Rambles around computer science

Diverting trains of thought, wasting precious time

Thu, 10 Jan 2013

Systems versus languages

Somewhere buried within one recent magnum opus in these pages I highlighted a contrast between systems and languages. I also noted that OOPSLA conspicuously contained the word “systems” in its title. This juxtaposition probably seems incongruous to some, but it is one close to my heart. I see myself as a researcher tackling problems usually labelled as “programming languages”, but with a “systems” mindset.

Richard Gabriel's very interesting piece about incommensurability in scientific (and engineering) research, using mixins as an example, makes some remarkably similar observations. (There's also a video of a presentation from last year's ClojureWest, but I haven't yet watched it.) He distinguishes the “engineering” papers that first discussed mixins from the “scientific” papers that subsequently studied and formalised them. And, without disparaging the latter, he very much emphasises the underrated value of the former. (He also makes some very incisive observations about apparent misunderstandings and omissions in the influential Bracha & Cook paper. A major point, of course, is that they need not be misunderstandings per se—incommensurability is the posited explanation.)

It's nice to get a historical perspective on these matters, from someone like Richard Gabriel who has seen a lot of ideas come and go. In part, his appraisal of the changing role of engineering papers offers me some reassurance that I might not be crazy. In conversation with other researchers, it can be frustrating that declaring my interest in programming languages is taken so often to imply that I do theoretical work. But I am more interested in languages as systems—my interest has to do with their “useful-for” properties, not “abstractly-is” properties. (Of course, I'm glad people are working on the latter, and I try to relate their findings to what I do... while accepting that it's not what I do.) Another interesting historical tidbit is that Gabriel estimates that my kind of work—engineering approaches to programming problems, you could say—was “outlawed” from (yikes!) roughly 1990 to 2005. I suppose it's handy that I started my PhD in 2006. The feeling of “separate camps” is still very much there, of course.

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