For want of a Title

I originally wrote that on Thursdays I would be writing about computers or programming, and while those are both things that I care about a fair bit, the kinds of things that I would probably talk about most of the time if I were to talk about programming would be pretty technical, and so I think I shall have to figure out something else to fill the Thursday slot.  I shall endeavor today to talk a bit about those topics in a very general sense that should be comprehensible without formal training, but I think on later Thursdays my topic shall change to something else.

I am afraid that I also don’t have some sort of overarching goal for my writing today.  I found myself unable to come up with a title because I didn’t really know what I wanted to write about, and I only started writing after a couple hours of distracting myself with other things because I didn’t know what I wanted to write about.  I think for myself right now it is more important to keep up the streak of writing every day than it is to make sure everything I write is good however, so hence this post.  Basically, expect to today to ramble on about a few disjointed topics, and potentially to be not very long, because the power just died at my house and I only have a limited battery life to write this with.  With those warnings out of the way, lets jump into the soup!

I suppose the easiest first thing to talk about is the topics in the world of computer science that I am currently interested in.  I have been trying to learn how to make something called a compiler on one hand, and on the other hand I have been endeavoring to understand and use a style of programming called “Functional Programming”.  These have been the general themes of my computer science exploration as of late, though I occasionally leap off into other waters.  I am going to give a basic explanation of each and try to explain why I think they are cool.

First compilers:  A compiler is something that takes a piece of computer code written in some language, then turns that into something that the computer can read or understand.  Its kind of like a translator that goes from a language that is more human readable and able to express more ideas at once, and turns it into a language that a computer can understand, that is broken up into very simple ideas repeated many many times.

As a sort of example, lets pretend we have a computer that understands how to do a few things.  It can read a number, it can increase a number by one, it can check if two numbers are equal, it can save a number, and it can print out a number.  If we wanted to make a computer that only understood how to do those five things learn to add, we would need to go through a bunch of steps.  We would have to read in the first number we wanted to add.  Then we would need to save that number.  Then we would would need to read in the second number we wanted to add.  We would need to save that number as well.  Now to add the two together, we would need to increase the first number by one a number of times equal to the second number.  In order to do that, we would have to add one to the first number, then add one to another number that started at zero.  Then, we would check if the number that started at zero was equal to our second number.  If it is, then we know we successfully added the first and second numbers together.  If it isn’t than that means we still need to keep adding one.  We just keep repeating the three steps, add 1 to the first number, add 1 to the number that started at 0, then check if the number that started at zero equals the second number.  Once we have done all of that, then we have successfully added two numbers together.

As you can see the way computers do things can be both a bit hard to follow, due to the way their thinking is different than ours, and incredibly boring.  If you are telling the computer what to do, you don’t want to tell it add 1 five times each time you want it to add five.  So what you can do is make a compiler that understands something closer to the way a human thinks, and have that translate it into the way that the computer understands it.  In our example, our compiler could take something like “3 + 6” and turn it into the series of many simple instructions I mentioned earlier that would add six to three.  Writing a compiler involves a lot of steps, as you have to find ways to convert your new language into the old one, interpret the inputs in the correct way, and sometimes even change the actual instructions into something that will output the same thing but faster.  In the example above, the second number determines how many times you have to add 1, so you always want the smaller of the two numbers to be the second, and the larger the first.  Doing 3+6 would be 3+1+1+1+1+1+1, but if you flip them around, it could be faster, 6+1+1+1, and a well written compiler could figure that out, and write the machine code in the second way, even though we wrote “3+6” in our language.

Anyways, learning how to do this, how to help a computer translate languages is something that is interesting to me on a couple levels.  One, I spend a lot of time programming, and I think having an understanding of the process my code goes through in order to be understood by the computer is valuable to me.  Additionally, being able to write a compiler means that should the mood strike me, I could invent and implement my own computer language.  There are a great number of silly programming languages out there, that were written to be intentionally absurd, and making my own brand of silly language, that looks perhaps like a magic spell or a cooking recipe instead of a piece of code sounds enjoyable to me.  Also potentially I would have a specialized project where making a language specifically for interacting with that project would make sense, and knowing how to construct a compiler would enable me to at least consider that option.  One must never forget the wise words of GI Joe.

Our second topic then is the idea of “Functional Programming”.  I am not confident in my ability to explain this particularly well, but I will do my best.  In order to understand what functional programming is, first its important to understand what a function is in mathematics.  In math, a function is process that takes some number of numbers and gives one specific output depending on the inputs.  f(x)=x+1 is a function, named f, that takes one input, called x in this case, and then outputs that number plus one.  So if we put 3 into our function f we would get 4, if we put 8 in we would get 9.  We would usually represent this with f(3)=4, or f(8)=9.  You can see that you are taking the function f of 3 or the function f of 8 in those examples and it is telling you what the output is for those numbers.  If we made another function called g we could define it g(x)=2*x.  In this case if we take a number and put it into function g, we would get the number out multiplied by 2.  So g(3)=6 and g(8) = 16.  Functions can take more than one input, for example, you could have h(x,y)=x+y.  In this case, the function called h takes 2 numbers, and outputs one number, which is those two added together.  So h(1,2)=3, h(8,5)=13.  The important thing about a function is that it takes some number of inputs, and for each combination of inputs, it has exactly one output.  If you take f(9), that is going to 10 every time.  No matter how many times you take f(9) the answer will always be the same.

In more advanced math, and in programming the concept of a function is expanded to more than just numbers, and they can have better names than f, g, or h.  If I am writing a program, I can make a function that takes a word as an input and outputs a sentence, or takes numbers and outputs shapes.  A simple example would be a function called hello that accepted a name, and then greeted you.  You could define it as hello(name) = “Hi ” name ” how are you?”.  So if we put in Jack we get hello(Jack) = “Hi Jack how are you?”.  That’s a very simple example, but things like that are all over the place in programming.  It can be very nice to make a function to do something that you are going to want to do many times.  It also makes it easier to understand what you are writing if you use functions with names that tell you what they are doing.  If I wrote a piece of code that looked like this: makeUpperCase(“hi tim”), you could be pretty sure the output of that function would be “HI TIM”.  If you name your functions well, it can make your programs easy to read and understand, which is very useful for when you are working with other people, or even if you come back to your code after a few weeks or months away from it.

Alright, so I think I have explained basically what a function is at this point, now the problem is explaining what exactly makes something Functional Programming, because programming in any language more complicated than machine code usually has functions in it.  Is all programming Functional Programming then?  Not exactly.  What Functional Programming is somewhat dependent on comparing it to the other alternative, which is called Imperative Programming.  Now the way that they are described as being different, is that functional programming involves describing what your program does, and imperative program involves describing how to do it.  What this means in practice, is that there are certain programming techniques that are typically used in Imperative programs and imperative languages, such as loops, objects, and modifiable variables, that are eschewed by function programs and Functional languages, in favor of more focus on function use, and the ability to have functions create functions, and the ability to use bits and pieces of functions.

There are a lot of different reasons why each of the two different styles are used, and they are generally each better in different situations.  The main reason why their has to be a divide, is that functional programming languages use concepts in the mathematics of functions in order to make some of their advanced features work, or at least to allow the program to check that you are using them correctly, and the imperative techniques, while powerful, and useful in their own context, make functions in programs different enough from functions in math that the techniques can’t be ported over, and some of the powerful features of functional programming can’t be used.  I am afraid that the discussion of what exactly these techniques are is a bit beyond my ability to explain effectively, but suffice to say that the idea that a function has exactly one output for each set of inputs is important for the functional techniques to work, and that certain imperative techniques make that not true, ie you can input the same thing at a different time, and a different answer comes out.  The imperative techniques that cause this to happen, specifically object oriented programming, are very powerful, and so are used in situations where they are more important than the advanced powers of functional programs and visa versa.

Anyways, the reason I am so interested in this, is that for the longest time I was not aware of the difference between these things.  When I was taught in college, I learned imperative programming exclusively, and some of the ideas that are unique to imperative programming were explained as being fundamental to effective programming.  From my understanding this was due to the fact that a large number of the types of programs the industry needed coded in the 90s and 00s were ones done more effectively with an object oriented, imperative style.  Since the different styles are really different in the way they make you think about solving a problem, it was likely deemed useful to immerse us in the style that would be useful in the industry.  In recent years there have been a rise in the areas where functional programming is more effective, and so it, and those spreading its gospel have become more common.  I heard about it, decided I wanted to learn about it, and so I have begun on that journey.  Some of the stuff you can do with functional programming is really really cool, and so I am glad I have started learning about it, and I hope that if you have any interest in programming, you consider learning a bit about both styles before getting yourself stuck into one or the other.

Anyways, those are the things I have been spending time on recently in the world of programming.  I hope I was able to explain stuff reasonably well so that it wasn’t incomprehensible.  I also hope that my inability to decide on the capitalization of words has not driven anyone to insanity.  Anyways, tomorrow is a post on my other blog, and then Saturday will be something creative.  I will be trying to think of a new topic to potentially replace programming for next week since I had a hard time thinking about what to write that would be both interesting and would not require a large amount of background knowledge.  If I think of something cool in the world of programming to write about, maybe I will continue with this next week, but if I come up with something else, well that’s OK too.

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