Category Archives: PL in practice

Interview with Matt Might, Part 2

Matt Might at the White House, Jan 2015

Matt at the White House, Jan 2015

This post is the second part of my March 10th interview of Matt Might, a PL researcher and Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Utah.

In Part I, we talked about Matt’s academic background, his PL research (including his favorite among the papers he’s written), and his work on understanding and treating rare disease, which began with the quest to diagnose his son Bertrand, and has led to a role in the President’s Initiative on Precision Medicine.

In this post, our conversation continues, covering the topics of blogging, privacy, managing a crazy schedule, and looking ahead to promising PL research directions. Continue reading

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Filed under Bioinformatics, Interviews, Language adoption, Probabilistic programming, Program Analysis, Scientists, Software Security, Types

Software Security Ideas Ahead of Their Time

[This post was conceived and co-authored by Andrew Ruef, Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland, working with me. –Mike]

As researchers, we are often asked to look into a crystal ball. We try to anticipate future problems so that work we begin now will help address those problems before they become acute. Sometimes, a researcher guesses the problem and its possible solution, but chooses not to pursue it. In a sense, she has found, and discarded, an idea ahead of its time.

Recently, a friend of Andrew’s pointed him to a 20-year-old email exchange on the “firewalls” mailing list that blithely suggests, and discards, problems and solutions that are now quite relevant, and on the cutting edge of software security research. The situation is both entertaining and instructive, especially in that the ideas are quite squarely in the domain of programming languages research, but were not considered by PL researchers at the time (as far as we know).

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Filed under PL in practice, Research, Research directions, Software Security

Interview with Facebook’s Peter O’Hearn

pete-1In this post, I interview Peter O’Hearn, programming languages professor, researcher, and evangelist. Peter now works at Facebook on the Infer static analyzer, which was publicly released back in June 2015. In this interview we take a brief tour of Peter’s background (including his favorite papers) and the path that led him and Infer to Facebook. We discuss how Infer is impacting mobile application development at Facebook, and what Peter hopes it can achieve next. Peter also shares some lessons he’s learned at Facebook regarding PL research and the sometimes surprising impact PL researchers can and are having on industrial software development.

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Filed under Interviews, PL in practice, Program Analysis, Scientists

Interview with Mozilla’s Aaron Turon

On the heels of Rust’s 1.0 release, we are pleased to be able to interview Mozilla’s Aaron Turon, a member of Rust’s core team (which is the leadership for the project that sets the overall direction). This is our third interview with a PL PhD working in industry.

Aaron Turon photo

Aaron Turon

What is your academic background?

I received my undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago, at a time where a lot of PL was happening (a lot of the folks who built or studied Standard ML were there); I did some research under John Reppy. After that, I went on to do a PhD at Northeastern University, which continues to have a thriving PL group; I was supervised by Mitchell Wand. Finally, I was a post-doc under Derek Dreyer at the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems (MPI-SWS).

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Filed under Interviews, PL in practice, Types

Interview with Go’s Russ Cox and Sameer Ajmani

In this post I interview Russ Cox and Sameer Ajmani, who work at Google on the Go programming language. They share with me their path to working on the language, what they find unique and valuable about it, and plans for it going ahead.

This continues our series on PhDs in industry working on programming languages (Avik Chaudhuri was the first). Thanks to Russ and Sameer for taking the time to share their experiences!

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Filed under Interviews, PL in practice

Interview with Avik Chaudhuri

This is the first in a series of interviews we plan to do with programming languages researchers working in industry.


In this post, I interview Facebook’s Avik Chaudhuri, who has worked on language implementations at Facebook and Adobe (and is an alumnus of our group here at PLUM). Thanks, Avik, for taking the time to do this!

The interview is broken into three parts: Background; Facebook’s new language, Flow; and reflections on the value of a PhD and the challenges of research in industry. Continue reading


Filed under Interviews, PL in practice, Scientists, Types

Who teaches functional programming?

A couple of months ago, we posted about the research program of SocioPLT, whose goal is to study why some languages get adopted more than others. As part of a study, the investigators ranked languages according to their frequency of use in Sourceforge projects during the period 2000-2010. An interesting finding was that among the top 20 languages in these rankings, there wasn’t even one functional language.

Academic PL researchers tend to love functional programming, so many of us would find this fact depressing. However, it seems that we academics are at least partly to blame for this state of affairs. For functional programming to be embraced in the “real world”, universities must teach it. In this post, I show that few universities do. In particular, functional programming is a significant part of the core programming sequence at only 9 of the top 33 American schools, and is not offered at all in about 40% of these schools.  Continue reading


Filed under Education, Language adoption

What is type safety?

In response to my previous post defining memory safety (for C), one commenter suggested it would be nice to have a post explaining type safety. Type safety is pretty well understood, but it’s still not something you can easily pin down. In particular, when someone says, “Java is a type-safe language,” what do they mean, exactly? Are all type-safe languages “the same” in some way? What is type safety getting you, for particular languages, and in general?

In fact, what type safety means depends on language type system’s definition. In the simplest case, type safety ensures that program behaviors are well defined. More generally, as I discuss in this post, a language’s type system can be a powerful tool for reasoning about the correctness and security of its programs, and as such the development of novel type systems is a rich area of research.

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Filed under Dynamic languages, PL in practice, Semantics, Software Security, Types

What is memory safety?

I am in the process of putting together a MOOC on software security, which goes live in October. At the moment I’m finishing up material on buffer overflows, format string attacks, and other sorts of vulnerabilities in C. After presenting this material, I plan to step back and say, “What do these errors have in common? They are violations of memory safety.” Then I’ll state the definition of memory safety, say why these vulnerabilities are violations of memory safety, and conversely say why memory safety, e.g., as ensured by languages like Java, prevents them.

No problem, right? Memory safety is a common technical term, so I expected its definition would be easy to find (or derive). But it’s much trickier than I thought.

My goal with this post is to work out a definition of memory safety for C that is semantically clean, rules out code that seems intuitively unsafe, but does not rule out code that seems reasonable. The simpler, and more complete, the definition, the better. My final definition is based on the notion of defined/undefined memory and the use of pointers as capabilities. If you have better ideas, I’d love to know them!

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Filed under PL in practice, Semantics, Software Security

Why are some languages adopted and others aren’t?

In my last article I discussed how the failure to find the Heartbleed bug sooner was in some sense a failure to refine or deploy what is otherwise effective technology for static analysis. In particular, commercial static analysis tools purposely will ignore potential bugs so as to avoid reporting too many false alarms, i.e., favoring completeness over soundness. The companies that make these tools aim to provide a profitable service to a broad market, and their own investigations indicate soundness is not important for sales. Instead, to be viable, tools must help developers find real, important bugs efficiently, and not necessarily every bug. A challenge to researchers is to find ways to push the business proposition back toward soundness while retaining efficiency (and other desirable criteria); Andy Chou’s POPL’14 keynote outlines other useful challenges.

While Heartbleed is ostensibly about the adoption and improvement of static analysis, in this article I explore the related question of fostering the adoption of programming languages. I summarize impressive research by Leo Meyerovich and Ariel Rabkin on adoption research questions and adoption practices that appeared at OOPSLA’12 and OOPSLA’13, respectively. I think there are some interesting results here, with implications for improving the adoption of languages. Their results also raise new questions for further research (but too late for yesterday’s POPL deadline — good luck to all submitters!).

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Filed under Language adoption, PL in practice