A Basis for a Mathematical Theory of Computation

It perhaps should not surprise me that there are not histories of PL the way there are histories of other sciences: computer science is such a new discipline and most overviews of how things came to be currently live in blog posts. I think it would be fun to have a history class that treats earlier academic papers as primary sources and strives to understand the cultural contexts of intellectual trends. Maybe this is too niche, but a history of the academic paper would also be very cool, and might help us as a community address better address its shortcomings in light of changing technologies, cultural norms, etc.

Anyway, I’m trying to read classic papers related to the topics covered by my thesis. Since my research is interdisciplinary, I’ve been thinking about how to address some of the common questions and misconceptions that come up when folks trained in, say, machine learning, interact with folks trained in programming lanaguages. Today I’m posting on John McCarthy’s 1963 paper A Basis for a Mathematical Theory of Computation (the link is to the correction).

TL/DR Version: The intro to this paper is interesting for the perspective it gives on the field at a point in time, but the particular formalisms have evolved since then. Students of PL would be better served working through Software Foundations to learn and appreciate McCarthy’s approach. A later paper, such as Wright and Felleisen’s “A Syntactic Approach to Type Soundness” would probably be a more useful primary source.

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Replication vs. Reproducibility

Note: I am posting this from home today, where we cancelled our internet service. I am pushing over my phone’s mobile data. Since I’m not sure how much data I’ll be using, and since I don’t want to wait and then forget to post this, I’m not putting links into this particular post. Apologies!

Reproducibility is something I first started to care about while working with my first PhD supervisor, Lee Spector. One of the things that really drew me to PL was the growing community interest in reproducibility. However, it was only after looking at the ISSTA CfP and its discussion of reproducible studies that the distinction between replication and reproduction really started to gnaw at me.

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Could Facebook Block Spam Phone Calls?

During one of my between-tasks pomodoro breaks, I read an article on Gizmodo about Facebook’s “People You May Know” feature. The obvious high-level perspective I have on this is the impending culture clash between science and policy: many in the tech industry have some kind of scientific training, which prizes testing hypotheses that may be wrong. Being wrong is not an inherently bad thing, because it leads to an improved understanding of the world. Of course, it’s always great when you’re right the first time, but learning from mistakes is part of scientific discourse. This ethos clashes with politicians and policy makers, who pay dearly for being wrong. The past elections and the rise of the 314Action PAC have had me thinking about the differences in perspectives between politicians who typically have legal training versus those with scientific training.

In any case, that’s not the discussion I want to be having about the Gizmodo article. I am more interested in whether so-called “shadow profiles” can be used to cut down on spam phone calls.

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What this Blog is about

When I first started this blog three or so years ago, I called it “Emma’s Research and Television Blog.” The idea was that I would write about my main professional interests and about life, obliquely, in the form of television critiques. You see, I love T.V. It’s how I unwind, turn my brain off, and escape. I’m not unusual, and I was hoping that peppering my research posts with some pop-culture commentary would help increase readership. I had a silly justification for both Research and Television, which you can read here, but more important was my justification for blogging, which I’ll reproduce here:

Before the internet, academics and intellectuals shared their musings and worked out problems via letter writing. Read any math “paper” before 1920 and you will notice the casual tone and seeming lack of formality in the notation. These letters were not public, but they were not exactly private either. I see today’s blogs as an extension of that letter-writing tradition.

Now, not everyone will agree with me. For some, blogging is more formal – it functions as a compendium of advice and pithy explanation, or it is an avenue to push work that may not have a home elsewhere. For others, it is more informal. This blog is somewhere between open letters to no one and what might otherwise end up lost in a research notebook or in casual conversation in front of a whiteboard.

To make blogging truly worth it, it helps to have comments. I’ve noticed that some graduate students turn off comments in their blogs and prefer to hold the conversation over email. I welcome comments over email, but would prefer if they happened in the open, where others can participate, if they wish.

So, please enjoy, and be in touch.


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