Other articles

  1. Podcast Time Machine

    Recently one of my favourite podcasts ended after seven years. I have only been listening to this podcast for two years though. There is five year backlog for me to listen to. But there are many other podcasts I want to listen to and I do like the anticipation of waiting for a new episode.

    So I built the Podcast Time Machine (github) where you can enter a podcast url and a delay and you will get a new link where every podcast episode is delayed by that many days and all episodes that would lie in the future are filtered out. So stuff happpening a week in podcast time are happpening in a week of real time.

    I am looking forward to my first episode of harmontown, when it comes out after a seven-year delay. Feel free to subscribe to your own delayed podcasts. I do not keep access logs so listen to your favorite stuff again (and again).

  2. I bought a Cluster Hat

    I recently bought and installed a Cluster Hat.

    Cluster Hat

    Looks interesting

    I don't know what I will do with it. All my plans I had before hinged on Haskell supporting ARMv6, which it doesn't. Let's see what happens in the future. I am currently looking into installing Docker on it and maybe host some service through my VPS from home.

  3. Tuple Types, Notation, and Codings

    I wanted to write a bit about notation as I have seen students and programmers stumble quite a bit about this. What is "this"? When to write parentheses and commas in tuples and what does it mean.

    Tuple Notation

    Consider the set \(S = \{a, b\}\). Now lets take the cross product of itself. \(S \times S = \{(a,a), (a,b), (b,a), (b,b)\} = S^2\). By the same logic \(S^3 = \{(a, a,a), (a, a,b), (a, b,a), (a,b,b), (b,a,a), (b,a,b), (b,b,a), (b,b,b)\}\). This is somewhat strange since \(S^3 = S^2 \times S = S \times S^2\) meaning that these two should also be the same as \(S^3\):

    \(\{(a, (a,a)), (a, (a,b)), (a, (b,a)), (a,(b,b)), (b,(a,a)), (b,(a,b)), (b,(b,a)), (b,(b,b))\} = \\ \{((a, a),a), ((a, a),b), ((a, b),a), ((a,b),b), ((b,a),a), ((b,a),b), ((b,b),a), ((b,b),b)\}\)

    Let's step back a bit and look at the identity, meaning \(S^1\). We know that the power one is the identity but following the same logic as before we have the following: \(S = \{a, b\} = S^1 = \{(a), (b)\}\). The parantheses do not matter and we are supposed to think of them as just as sequence of values. Let's take a look at the empty sequence: \(S^0 = \{()\}\). Note that this is not the empty set but it is the neutral element for the cartesian product: \(\{()\} \times \{a, b\} = \{((), a), ((), b)\} = \{a, b\}\).

    What is going on here? The cartesian product is, as is the normal product, an extension of some kind of addition. In our case addition is concatenation of sequences and every value is a sequence of one element (singleton sequence). This is different to the singleton set which is distinct from the value it contains. \(\{a, b\} \times \{c, d\} = \begin{Bmatrix}a \circ c \ & a \circ d\\b \circ c & b \circ d\end{Bmatrix}\) looks very much like the cross product for vectors and of course, the empty sequence is the neutral element (or identity) of that operation.

    So actually we are supposed to take nested tuples as sequences of values that - in our mind - should be flattened. This also means, there is no one-tuple (it is the same as the value) and there ist just one zero-tuple.

    By the way: this notation fits nicely as it just maps the cardinality of the sets. So if you just take \(S=2\) you see that all the formulas just magically work out.

    Why do we even use this tuple notation? This has to do with something we call coding.


    I will define code the following way: A set is a code if no two different sequences of elements of that look the same when written down consecutively (this is a layman's definition that shall suffice here). Take the set \(B = \{11, 100, 00, 001\}\). Both these sequences look the same when written consecutively: \((001,100)=(00,11,00)=001100\). Whether a set is a code is a special instance of the post correspondence problem. I leave it to the reader to define the mapping.

    If the carrier set is a code, we do not need to use the tuple syntax. For the following reasons a set might trivially be a code: All symbols have the same length. There are no overlaps (no non-empty prefix of one symbol is a suffix of another) between the symbols.

    So for the first set \(S\) we do not need to use the tuple notation as it is always quite clear what is meant: \(S^2 = \{aa,ab,ba,bb\}\). Using this notation we now need a new symbol for the empty sequence and we usually use \(\varepsilon\) (epsilon). Note that concatenation follows these axioms: \(a\circ\varepsilon = \varepsilon\circ a = a\) (neutral element) and \((ab)c=a(bc)\) (associativity). The concatenation operation forms a monoid under the carrier set (a semigroup with identity).

    Tuple Types in Programming

    Where does this confusion stem from? I think large part of it is that most programming languages do not properly support tuples in their type system in the way we want to use them in computer science theory. Programming langues do have tuple types but they are more rigid than what we want to use.

    Let us look at python first:

    # Python does have a native tuple type
    >>> (3, 6)
    (3, 6)
    # We have an empty unit sequence
    >>> ()
    # Using the correct syntax we can nest this arbitrarily deep
    >>> (((((),),),),)
    # We can construct one-tuples which are distinct from their value
    >>> (3,) == 3
    # The standard library has a sequence-product operation
    >>> from itertools import product
    # the cartesian product with itself works as we expect
    >>> list(product([1,2,3], repeat=2))
    [(1, 1), (1, 2), (1, 3), (2, 1), (2, 2), (2, 3), (3, 1), (3, 2), (3, 3)]
    # Having a zero-product returns the sequence that contains unit, which we expect
    >>> list(product([1,2,3], repeat=0))
    # Somewhat consistently, one-product returns the sequence of one-tuples but as seen above, this is not eqal to the original sequence
    >>> list(product([1,2,3], repeat=1))
    [(1,), (2,), (3,)]
    # Also we do not have associativity
    >>> list(product([1,2],product([3,4],[5,6])))
    [(1, (3, 5)), (1, (3, 6)), (1, (4, 5)), (1, (4, 6)), (2, (3, 5)), (2, (3, 6)), (2, (4, 5)), (2, (4, 6))]
    >>> list(product(product([1,2],[3,4]),[5,6]))
    [((1, 3), 5), ((1, 3), 6), ((1, 4), 5), ((1, 4), 6), ((2, 3), 5), ((2, 3), 6), ((2, 4), 5), ((2, 4), 6)]

    I also want to take a look at Haskell which is also interesting.

    -- Haskell has native tuple types
    > :t (3,5)
    (3,5) :: (Num a, Num b) => (a, b)
    -- But there is no singleton tuple type
    > :t (5)
    (5) :: Num p => p
    > (5) == 5
    -- We have the unit type that is inhabited with the single instance unit which we also can not nest
    > :t ()
    () :: ()
    > :t ((((()))))
    ((((())))) :: ()
    -- Checking for associativity is a type error as both nestings are distinct types and can not be compared via equals
    Prelude> (1,(2,3)) == ((1,2),3)
    <interactive>:6:2: error:
    Prelude> :t (1,(2,3))
    (1,(2,3)) :: (Num a1, Num a2, Num b) => (a1, (a2, b))
    Prelude> :t ((1,2),3)
    ((1,2),3) :: (Num a, Num b1, Num b2) => ((a, b1), b2)

    The type system does not allow us to even construct a type-safe product function as it is in python as the tuple size of the result sequence is dependent on the value of the argument (something like a -> Int:Val -> (a,)*Val). This would need dependent types. There is a generic function for the cartesian product with the type [a] -> [b] -> [(a, b)] which, as we have seen from the interactive session, would not obey the associativity law either.

    Conclusion and Context

    We have seen that the tuple notation is just that: notation. It is not used for structure, only for disambiguity. If you want structure, you need to use uninterpreted functions \(t(1,t(2,3)) \neq t(t(1,2),3)\) that are not flattened. But programming languages and the type systems do see a structural difference in the tuple types. The 3-product in Haskell could have, depending on the implementation, three different types: [a] -> [b] -> [c] -> [(a,(b,c))] or [a] -> [b] -> [c] -> [((a,b),c)] or [a] -> [b] -> [c] -> [(a,b,c)] where we would expect all types to be the same.

    Why did this article come to pass? Two reasons. During the database lectures we wanted to write up some database state (a set of rows for each table, a row being a sequence of column values) and while one table had three columns (\(\{(1,2,3),(4,5,6)\}\)) one table only had one column and for symmetry \(\{(1),(2),(3)\}\) was brought to paper which I remarked to be at least confusing for students as it might convey something not meant (there being a difference between the singleton tuple and the value).

    The second example comes from computer science didactics, a module for the aspiring teachers. In a homework where some lesson had to be designed, one student had the topic of languages and grammars. In an example of a regular language they took this as an example alphabet: \(A=\{la,li,lu\}\). This is fine as the symbol of the alphabet are just syntax and are only of interest (as I've written above), in terms of whether the alphabet is a code or not and therefore which notation is used for concatenation operations. Now on a worksheet the following question was asked: \(lul \in A^*\). And this, I would claim, is a type error. The kleene closure of the alphabet only contains sequences of symbols from the alphabet (including the empty sequence) but "lul" is no sequence of symbols from the alphabet so it can not be of the same type (sequence from the alphabet) as the set (set of sequences from the alphabet). As the original alphabet was a code, all sequence can be written consecutively but it is unclear how "lul" can be deconstructed into elements of the alphabet. A possibiliy is, that the original alphabet was \(\{l,a,i,u\}\) and \(A\) was just a language over that alphabet but that was not written. For teachers, I believe, formalisms in that area are quite important.

  4. Java Primitive Types are bad for Learners

    This year I am teaching Java to first semester students. My own Java introduction has happened seven years ago. As I am quite interested in principles of programming languages I try to convey my enthusiasm for the topic and base my didactic methods around that. It's cool what we do. Let's talk about it.

    I see the problems in a lecture for first semester students as they have yet to learn any theoretical basis for object oriented programming, that would be useful. In my oppinion one should start with the theoretical basis, like class hierarchies and the object model. But students only learn about partial orders (like a class hierarchy) later in the first year. So ideally (in my mind at least), a computer science education is without a computer for the first semester.

    And because there is no theoretical basis, the approach taken by the professor is quite practical, and just barely supported by theory (wherever possible, but that's not much). This means that after the first lesson, students already know what a Hello World program looks like and they can fiddle with it. Even though they do not know what a class is, a static method, even methods or functions at all.

    This leads to further problems down the road. We have an online platform where students have to solve programming assignments during seminars and as homework. But since they don't know about classes and class methods (or types or return statements for that matter), we can't have them implement classes, methods, or interfaces as homework and have to have them write output into the main method. That's a bad start, when you consider programming best practices.

    Ideally one would like to start implementing small methods without function calls that implement some interface and then go on in creating more complex programs later on. But the problem is, that there is no way to run the java code without a main method. And even if you provide one, then the students can not really practice.

    This shows how necessary a REPL or interactive interpreter is.

    But Java has a few more problems that are quite bad for learners and can lead to confusion and misunderstanding.

    Some Types are Keywords

    For legacy reasons, Java has two kinds of types. There are primitive types that correspond in some manner to machine types, and the reference types that form the class hierarchy. Examples of primitive types would be int or float or void (Unit - only allowed as method return type). In general it's also the case that operators work on primite types but do not for reference types (exceptions apply). Those primitive types are builtin insofar that their type names are keywords as well.

    As a homework for the second week I gave the following task: write a program that reads a number between 0 and 100 from the standard input (they don't know about standard input yet, and I'd prefer passing arguments as command line parameters but was overruled) and write a 10 character progress bar, visualizing the progress that correspond to the input number. This is my solution I worked from:

    import java.util.Scanner;
    class Progress {
      public static void main(String[] args) {
        Scanner input = new Scanner(System.in);
        int progress = input.nextInt() / 10;
        int rest = 10 - progress;
        while (progress > 0) {
          progress = progress - 1;
        while (rest > 0) {
          rest = rest - 1;

    Since this is quite complicated for beginners, I've given them the basic structure and removed all keywords, replacing them with % and replacing all variable names with #. Resulting in this:

    import java.util.Scanner;
    % Progress {
      % % % main(String[] #) {
        Scanner # = % Scanner(System.in);
        % # = #.nextInt() / 10;
        % # = 10 - #;
        % (# > 0) {
          # = # - 1;
        % (# > 0) {
          # = # - 1;

    And as you can see, not entirely all type information is removed by replacing the keywords with #. If all types were reference types, we'd have a program that looked more like this:

    % Progress {
      % % Unit main(String[] #) {
        Scanner # = % Scanner(System.in);
        Integer # = #.nextInt() / 10;
        Integer # = 10 - #;
        % (# > 0) {
          # = # - 1;
        % (# > 0) {
          # = # - 1;

    Now doesn't this look quite a bit better? Some types are introduced as keywords but all user-created ones are not (and by user-created, I also mean the standard library). This is an inconsistency that is quite hard to explain away, even more so if you have yet to introduce the students to the vocabulary to explain this.

    There are even more problems quite soon. Once conditionals are introduced, we have the next problem. The language construct if () then {} else {} only works with the bool type as conditionals. So primitive types are necessary to use the language constructs for conditional execution (while as well, but the numeric comparison follows somewhat naturally).

    I do not know whether we will get this far, but for type parameters (for for polymorphic types, like containers) the primitive types don't work either.

    All in all, I'd say Java would need to do away with primitive types and consistently use reference types. But for this to work properly with the operators, one would probably also need to add operator overloading. Once you're there, you could think long and hard about whether you'd really need the new keyword for instance construction.

    And of course, one would want to introducing a proper Unit type. But since in Java all types are inhabited by the value null (who the hell had that idea?), this would be useless. So I will allow keeping the void keyword.

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