My Research: A Personal Perspective04 Dec 2017
Even though it's what I spend most of my time on, I don't often post about my research.
One reason is that I am still a perfectionnist and I feel bad about posting something which isn't as complete as I'd like it to be.
I know that, supposedly, communicating about your ongoing research is supposed to be beneficial. Frankly, I have yet to see evidence of that, beyond the benefit of organizing your thoughts. It might just be that my field (parsing) is quite small, and everyone is busy on his own thing.
A second issue is that my research project has evolved quite a bit over the years, as has the way I came to evaluate my research results.
Anyway, today I want to do a quick tour of all my research so far. This will include some (very high-level) technical details as well as my unfiltered feelings on my work. It will be fairly intermingled, but feel free to skip what doesn't interest you.
I actually started a PhD in networking; the topic was improving Software Defined Networks (SDN). Over the course of a year, I grew disillusioned with SDN and realized the difficulties to do practical research on that topic. I'm not saying the field is bogus at all, there is very high quality research there — but clearly the field wasn't well matched to me.
At that point I had gotten a scholarship from the national science foundation, and so my next move was to switch my topic and my adviser.
What I really wanted to do was experiment with programming language design. To do this I had a grandiose, over-ambitious idea that was both a language feature in its own right, and a way to enable cheap experimentation with language design later down the line.
The goal was to make a truly extensible language. The details were of course not hammered out, but you can think about it as taking macro a step further, to enable not only local changes, but global program transformations. These transformations had to compose gracefully, and work within a typed language too.
Some people warned me about the over-ambitious part, and I knew they were right. Nevertheless, that idea was kind of the "true north" that would guide my research direction. So I starting on my path, with the first thing I needed: a parser.
The motiviation to rolling my own parser was that the grammar of the language would have to change dynamically, depending on included extensions. It seemed like an important piece of infrastructure to get full control on, and I had written my own parser before... how hard could this be?
Well, in the end my thesis only focuses on parsing, so it looks like it was rather hard after all :)
For the rest of this post, let me walk you through the various papers I wrote and projects I undertook
"SDLoad: An Extensible Framework for SDN Workload Generation"
This is actually an extended abstract I made while I was still working on networking.
In a nutshell, this was a framework to generate "stuff" — graph of objects really. I built it from scratch and then employed it to generate descriptions of SDN workload (so basically a sequence of network events).
The generation is random, modulo constraints that the user can supply, either as filtering code, or as custom generators. It was also possible to define and use different statistical distribution, assign weights to certain events, etc.
The generation approach is not novel at all, as are all things so general and abstract. The goal was not actually to make a great contribution, but rather to build a tool to would have been useful later in my thesis (as planned at the time) and maybe even to other researcher. Well, that didn't really pan out, albeit it might have been used in some later research project (I'm not sure).
Nevertheless, the idea of generating inputs stayed with me, and I now use it regularly to do testing, as described in this blog post.
"Parsing Expression Grammars Made Practical"
This was the first paper I wrote after switching my topic, and I wrote it rather quickly (in about three months). I got a big surge of initial motivation from this.
Basically the paper, which was submitted as a "tool paper" presents a parsing framework based on Parsing Expression Grammars (PEG), a relatively recent grammar formalism.
Later in my PhD I would come to dismiss this paper as "not really much", but now I have newfound appreciation for it.
The paper basically has three contributions:
It presents a general algorithm to allow left-recursion in PEG grammars, something that the formalism doesn't normally allow.
It presents a modification of that algorithm that enables to handle precedence and associativity, given that grammar rules have been properly annotated.
It shows how to customize different aspects of the parse process with arbitrary code.
Contribution 1, arguably the most intersting to someone reading the paper, is actually 95% work from Chris Seaton in his master thesis (something I made super clear in the paper). But burried in his master thesis, the technique had never received the exposure it deserved.
Contribution 3 is the start of a theme that would continue throughout my thesis: the fact that if the execution model is defined precisely enough, it becomes easier to extend with new features.
In the end, I think the value in the paper is not where it pretends to be. The tool has little importance, more intersting are the techniques I used, that could be reused in other tools. Having a paper that explains how you can do left-recursion and explicit precedence and associativity with PEG — that's useful.
Unfortunately, the paper is not as readily findable as I would have wished. I have come to rue its name, which is both cocky and not very informative on the content of the paper. I probably should take the time to link that paper from a few places of interest.
"Taming Context-Sensitive Languages with Principled Stateful Parsing"
This paper grew out of the first one rather opportunistically. Basically I noticed a pattern in how I dealth with various kind of "state" within my parser when backtracking (input position, tables, ...). The idea was then to generalize that to any kind of user-defined state.
Having user-defined state that can guide the parse is rather useful, as it
turns. It can be used to express grammars that feature context-sensitivity,
something parsers don't normally allow. Explaining context-sensitivity is rather
hard, but the simplest example is probably the issue of recall: recalling some
piece of input later. For instance in XML, opening and closing tags have to
<a>x</a> is valid but not
So the paper basically explains how you can have state in your parser, in a way that is safe despite the presence of backtracking. I also provided an implementation of the approach.
This paper has probably been my major research effort so far, although I have good hopes that it will be topped by what I'm working on right now.
All told, this took me a good year of work. Its first incarnation was submitted at OOPSLA in Jan. 2016, then reworked and submitted (and subsequently accepted) at SLE in June 2016.
I think this is good and useful research. In the end, the solution is almost disappointingly simple; but it didn't start out simple, it took me great pains to get there. Someone smarter than me, or at least more mindful of his work, would probably have completed this much faster than me, but in the end I am not disappointed with the result.
My problem with this paper lays on another dimension: that of strategy and carreer development.
The problem that this approach solves is real, and yet it is tiny at the same time. Most languages are 99+ % not context-sensitive, but the context-sensitive parts will really annoy the hell of you when you get to it. Most often this is worked around with various hacks, and — you know what — most of the time this is good enough.
Does that mean we shouldn't have a principled solution? Of course not. It just means it's a solution to a minor problem instead of a major one. Frankly, expecting to come up with major work a few months after entering a field might be a sign of unbridled hubris on my parts — but I'm just relating how feel (or at least felt for a long time).
The question is then: did I have better alternatives? I'm not sure, really.
Uranium & Semantic Analysis
Before getting to the next published paper, let's actually get to the project that occupied the intervening year, but didn't actually lead to any publication.
At that point, it was quite clear I wouldn't be able to develop even a significant part of the extensible language during my thesis. My plan was to reframe the thesis' objective as "improving compiler toolchains", with the idea that this might eventually help bring about the extensible language, or really anything language-related I wanted to experiment with.
During that year, I worked on a framework dubbed Uranium that would make it easier to write the semantic analysis stage of a compiler. Semantic analysis is notably what takes care of name resolution (associating identifiers and declarations) and typing.
Uranium ended up looking a lot like attribute grammars: a way to derive the values of attributes associated with AST nodes. Besides shedding the historical baggage (which could be considered a good or a bad thing), the framework also took inspiration for the classical type system formal notation, which makes use of inference rules. In line with the rest of my work, these rules were going to be written using arbitrary code, in order to enable maximum flexibility.
Basically, the way of it is that you define inference rules that derive the values of attributes given the availability of some other attributes, and the framework was going to order all this stuff for you. It works in a bottom-up manner, trying to derive all attributes, instead of the top-down manner that characterize most attribute grammar implementations.
The framework itself ended up being rather simple, both in concepts and implementation. I used the Java language as a use case, to try out if I could express non-trivial semantics using it. And this is where the problems begin.
Java is a big language, with a lot of edge cases and ambiguities. But it is by no means alone — I think the same can be said of almost every language that we can qualify as "mainstream".
Here are some difficulties I ran into:
I was too ambitious. I wanted the framework to be fully incremental, meaning it could start deriving meaning even with missing information (~declarations), and could react to updated information. This added a lot of complexity while I was still early in the design stage. I ended up getting rid of that requirement.
I had to take care of location and loading Java classes: I did not just look at source files and assume the program did not use any standard library. While I think it is miles easier in Java than in, say, C or C++, it still was a non-trivial implementation effort.
It's hard to resolve identifier chains. First, you have to disambiguate what is a value, what is a class, and what is a package. For instance, let's assume we have determined that
java.util.Listrefers to a type;
javacould be either a class or part of a package name. The Java rule is that if
javacan be resolved to a class, the whole chain will be resolved assuming that (and potentially fail). In order to know whether
javais a class, you need to know all the classes in the current package, the local classes, as well as all the system classes that are available by default.
In addition to their inherent ambiguity, identifier chains also posed problems in their interactions with the framework. The right way to model identifier chains is to make the resolution of each element in the chain dependent on the previous element. However, I had represented identifier chains as a single AST node holding a list, so instead I relied on a concept of continuation: an inference rule could report that it needed more information to proceed, and the framework would re-try the rule once the information became available. An identifier chain would emit one such continuation (one at a time) per identifier.
In the end, the lesson was that the effort to implement the inference rules and the surrounding support infrastructure for a single language dwarfed the effort of building the inference framework. It's a bit hard to sell an improvement that only saves you 10% of the effort. With the approach being novel, it probably could have flied; but with attribute grammars looming in the background, no dice.
To give you, an idea, in addition to just the rules, the Java system needed:
Model of source elements (essentially more precise version of the AST nodes, which could also hold extra information, for instance related to name resolution). These models needed to come in three flavours, because there are three ways to acquire the information of a class: through a source file, through a bytecode class, or through reflection.
Building a scope tree to represent lexical scoping and determine which declarations where visible where.
Fairly precise typing hierarchies and sub/supertyping algorithms.
The class location and loading mechanism already discussed before.
That's a lot! In comparison the framework was minimal in complexity and the only big change that it needed was the addition of the continuation concept mentionned earlier.
The problem was that it was hard to migrate complexity from the Java implementation into the framework, because the framework was supposed to be agnostic about the language it was used to implement. For instance, I could have implemented utilities that made typing much easier to implement... but then I would have had to tie to framework to a certain idea of how typing is supposed to work. That approach is more in line with how language workbenches (like Spoofax) work, and there is nothing wrong with that, it's just not what I was trying to build.
So, ultimately faced with the prospect of continuing to pour work into a hard-to-sell blackhole of a use-case, I decided to write off the project and pivot onto something different.
The failure is still fresh, and so my outlook might not yet be good enough. Nevertheless, I think that the mistake I made in this case was badly overestimating the problem, as well as misunderstanding its nature.
I did look at some semantic analysis code, and I saw these big tangled messes. My conclusion was that there should be a simpler, more structured way to go about things. However I failed to consider that the problem might have been a matter of programming in the small: that some refactoring as well as good documentation could have helped tremendously.
What could have have done to seize up the problem better? Probably try to write semantic analysis code without any framework, to get an intuitive sense of where the issues lay. This is something I had done for parsing (writing a parser by hand), although my purpose at the time was not to learn about the difficulties in parsing.
Red Shift: Procedural Shift-Reduce Parsing
I initially wanted to publish something about Uranium at SLE 2017, but clearly that was not going to fly. As I re-read the call for paper, I noticed that this year they were accepting 4-page "vision papers" that outlined a vision for an early stage idea. That was for me the opportunity to revisit an idle thought I had during the preceding year.
The idea was about finding the converse of <acronym="Parsing Expression Grammars">PEGs for bottom-up parsing. PEGs can be seen as a formalization of the way people naturally write top-down parsers by hand. So how did people write bottom-up parsers by hand, and how could I formalize or package that?
Surprisingly, I found very little about hand-written bottom-up parsers, yet I saw how it could make sense. The paper is precisely about that: how to write bottom-up parsers by hand, and the potential benefits of doing so.
Namely, in the approach I envisionned, there were two big benefits:
The parser was permissive and so would parse as much as possible, even in the presence of errors. The trick is that the parser recognizes low-level structures first, and builds them up into higher-level structures (e.g. from literals to expressions to statements to functions).
It would enable better error reporting, as the partial structures we build up during the parse could be used to provide context.
I cranked the paper out in less than two weeks, also building a small prototype to confirm my ideas were not completely out of whack. To paraphrase a well-known mass-murderer: "There are years where nothing happens; and there are weeks where years happen."
What I'm Doing Now
The last paper was the inflexion point I needed to pivot away from the Uranium project. Instead, I launched into what I'm currently doing, which is build up this idea into a proper framework.
My handmade bottom-up parsers made use of reducers: bits of code that look at the parse stack and perform a reduction if some condition holds.
I realized that said conditions were almost always equivalent to performing a regular expression match over the tokens and AST nodes on the parse stack. Hence, my first step was to built a library (skelex) to perform that part of the work.
The next part will be to build the framework proper, which orchestrates the regular expression matching and the nodes reductions. I'm still working on the design, so there is not much I can say right now, but stay tuned :)