PHP syntax checker updated

Took a quick break today from Project Phoenix1.

I’ve had a PHP syntax checker on meandeviation for several years, but only checking PHP 4 as that is what is running on the server.  However, I had an email asking about PHP 5 , so now there is a PHP 5 version too 🙂

The syntax checker is a pretty simple layer over the PHP command line option “php -l” and also uses the PHP highlight_file function.  The main complication is parsing the HTML outputs of both as they change between versions of PHP!

There is also a download archive so you can also have it running locally on your own system.

  1. watch this space …[back]

What’s wrong with dynamic binding?

Dynamic scoping/binding of variables has a bad name, rather like GOTO and other remnants of the Bad Old Days before Structured Programming saved us all1.  But there are times when dynamic binding is useful and looking around it is very common in web scripting languages, event propagation, meta-level programming, and document styles.

So is it really so bad?

Continue reading

  1. Strangely also the days when major advances in substance seemed to be more important than minor advances in nomenclature[back]

a simple PHP record sorter class

Not for the first time I needed to sort arrays of arrays in PHP (structures like tiny DB tables).  I have previously written little wrapper functions round usort, but decided this time to make a small class. It is a simple, but generic utility, so popping it up in case useful to anyone.

The rest of this post has moved to a permanent page at:

http://www.alandix.com/blog/code/sorter/

programming as it could be: part 1

Over a cup of tea in bed I was pondering the future of business data processing and also general programming. Many problems of power-computing like web programming or complex algorithmics, and also end-user programming seem to stem from assumptions embedded in the heart of what we consider a programming language, many of which effectively date from the days of punch cards.

Often the most innovative programming/scripting environments, Smalltalk, Hypercard, Mathematica, humble spreadsheets, even (for those with very long memories) Filetab, have broken these assumptions, as have whole classes of ‘non-standard’ declarative languages.  More recently Yahoo! Pipes and Scratch have re-introduced more graphical and lego-block style programming to end-users (albeit in the case of Pipes slightly techie ones).

Yahoo! Pipes (from Wikipedia article) Scratch programming using blocks

What would programming be like if it were more incremental, more focused on live data, less focused on the language and more on the development environment?

Two things have particularly brought this to mind.

First was the bootcamp team I organised at the Winter School on Interactive Technologies in Bangalore1.  At the bootcamp we were considering “content development through the keyhole”, inspired by a working group at the Mobile Design Dialog conference last April in Cambridge.  The core issue was how one could enable near-end-use development in emerging markets where the dominant, or only, available computation is the mobile phone.  The bootcamp designs focused on more media content development, but one the things we briefly discussed was full code development on a mobile screen (not so impossible, after all home computers used to be 40×25 chars!), and where literate programming might offer some solutions, not for its original aim of producing code readable by others2, but instead to allow very succinct code that is readable by the author.

if ( << input invalid >> )
    << error handling code >>
else
    << update data >>

(example of simple literate programming)

The second is that I was doing a series of spreadsheets to produce some Fitts’ Law related modelling.  I could have written the code in Java and run it to produce outputs, but the spreadsheets were more immediate, allowed me to get the answers I needed when I needed them, and didn’t separate the code from the outputs (there were few inputs just a number of variable parameters).  However, complex spreadsheets get unmanageable quickly, notably because the only way to abstract is to drop into the level of complex spreadsheet formulae (not the most readable code!) or VB scripting.  But when I have made spreadsheets that embody calculations, why can’t I ‘abstract’ them rather than writing fresh code?

I have entitled this blog ‘part 1’ as there is more to discuss  than I can manage in one entry!  However, I will return, and focus on each of the above in turn, but in particular questioning some of those assumptions embodied in current programming languages:

(a) code comes before data

(b) you need all the code in place before you can run it

(c) abstraction is about black boxes

(d) the programming language and environment are separate

In my PPIG keynote last September I noted how programming as an activity has changed, become more dynamic, more incremental, but probably also less disciplined.  Through discussions with friends, I am also aware of some of the architectural and efficiency problems of web programming due to the opacity of code, and long standing worries about the dominance of limited models of objects3

So what would programming be like if it supported these practices, but in ways that used the power of the computer itself to help address some of the problems that arise when these practices address issues of substantial complexity?

And can we allow end-users to more easily move seamlessly from filling in a spreadsheet, to more complex scripting?

  1. The winter school was part of the UK-India Network on Interactive Technologies for the End-User.  See also my blog “From Anzere in the Alps to the Taj Bangelore in two weeks“[back]
  2. such as Knuth‘s “TeX: the program” book consisting of the full source code for TeX presented using Knuth’s original literate programming system WEB.[back]
  3. I have often referred to object-oriented programming as ‘western individualism embodied in code’.[back]

PPIG2008 and the twenty first century coder

Last week I was giving a keynote at the annual workshop PPIG2008 of the Psychology of Programming Interest Group.   Before I went I was politely pronouncing this pee-pee-eye-gee … however, when I got there I found the accepted pronunciation was pee-pig … hence the logo!

My own keynote at PPIG2008 was “as we may code: the art (and craft) of computer programming in the 21st century” and was an exploration of the changes in coding from 1968 when Knuth published the first of his books on “the art of computer programming“.  On the web site for the talk I’ve made a relatively unstructured list of some of the distinctions I’ve noticed between 20th and 21st Century coding (C20 vs. C21); and in my slides I have started to add some more structure.  In general we have a move from more mathematical, analytic, problem solving approach, to something more akin to a search task, finding the right bits to fit together with a greater need for information management and social skills. Both this characterisation and the list are, of course, a gross simplification, but seem to capture some of the change of spirit.  These changes suggest different cognitive issues to be explored and maybe different personality types involved – as one of the attendees, David Greathead, pointed out, rather like the judging vs. perceiving personality distinction in Myers-Briggs1.

One interesting comment on this was from Marian Petre, who has studied many professional programmers.  Her impression, and echoed by others, was that the heavy-hitters were the more experienced programmers who had adapted to newer styles of programming, whereas  the younger programmers found it harder to adapt the other way when they hit difficult problems.  Another attendee suggested that perhaps I was focused more on application coding and that system coding and system programmers were still operating in the C20 mode.

The social nature of modern coding came out in several papers about agile methods and pair programming.  As well as being an important phenomena in its own right, pair programming gives a level of think-aloud  ‘for free’, so maybe this will also cast light on individual coding.

Margaret-Anne Storey gave a fascinating keynote about the use of comments and annotations in code and again this picks up the social nature of code as she was studying open-source coding where comments are often for other people in the community, maybe explaining actions, or suggesting improvements.  She reviewed a lot of material in the area and I was especially interested in one result that showed that novice programmers with small pieces of code found method comments more useful than class comments.  Given my own frequent complaint that code is inadequately documented at the class or higher level, this appeared to disagree with my own impressions.  However, in discussion it seemed that this was probably accounted for by differences in context: novice vs. expert programmers, small vs large code, internal comments vs. external documentation.  One of the big problems I find is that the way different classes work together to produce effects is particularly poorly documented.  Margaret-Anne described one system her group had worked on2 that allowed you to write a tour of your code opening windows, highlighting sections, etc.

I sadly missed some of the presentations as I had to go to other meetings (the danger of a conference at your home site!), but I did get to some and  was particularly fascinated by the more theoretical/philosophical session including one paper addressing the psychological origins of the notions of objects and another focused on (the dangers of) abstraction.

The latter, presented by Luke Church, critiqued  Jeanette Wing‘s 2006 CACM paper on Computational Thinking.  This is evidently a ‘big thing’ with loads of funding and hype … but one that I had entirely missed :-/ Basically the idea is to translate the ways that one thinks about computation to problems other than computers – nerds rule OK. The tenet’s of computational thinking seem to overlap a lot with management thinking and also reminded me of the way my own HCI community and also parts of the Design (with capital D) community in different ways are trying to say they we/they are the universal discipline  … well if we don’t say it about our own discipline who will …the physicists have been getting away with it for years 😉

Luke (and his co-authors) argument is that abstraction can be dangerous (although of course it is also powerful).  It would be interesting perhaps rather than Wing’s paper to look at this argument alongside  Jeff Kramer’s 2007 CACM article “Is abstraction the key to computing?“, which I recall liking because it says computer scientists ought to know more mathematics 🙂 🙂

I also sadly missed some of Adrian Mackenzie‘s closing keynote … although this time not due to competing meetings but because I had been up since 4:30am reading a PhD thesis and after lunch on a Friday had begin to flag!  However, this was no reflection an Adrian’s talk and the bits I heard were fascinating looking at the way bio-tech is using the language of software engineering.  This sparked a debate relating back to the overuse of abstraction, especially in the case of the genome where interactions between parts are strong and so the software component analogy weak.  It also reminded me of yet another relatively recent paper3 on the way computation can be seen in many phenomena and should not be construed solely as a science of computers.

As well as the academic content it was great to be with the PPIG crowd they are a small but very welcoming and accepting community – I don’t recall anything but constructive and friendly debate … and next year they have PPIG09 in Limerick – PPIG and Guiness what could be better!

  1. David has done some really interesting work on the relationship between personality types and different kinds of programming tasks.  I’ve seen him present before about debugging and unfortunately had to miss his talk at PPIG on comprehension.  Given his work has has shown clearly that there are strong correlations between certain personality attributes and coding, it would be good to see more qualitative work investigating the nature of the differences.   I’d like to know whether strategies change between personality types: for example, between systematic debugging and more insight-based scan and see it bug finding. [back]
  2. but I can’t find on their website :-([back]
  3. Perhaps 2006/2007 in either CACM or Computer Journal, if anyone knows the one I mean please remind me![back]