Fall 2016 PL Junior Retrospective

:: PL Junior, by Ben Chung, by Milo Davis, by Ming-Ho Yee, by Sam Caldwell

The Programming Language Seminar, Junior (or “PL Junior”), is a seminar for junior students to learn and discuss topics at a pace more suitable to our background. This semester, we decided to study dependent types. We chose this topic because

  1. working from the TAPL presentation of type systems, dependent types are a step up in difficulty (excepting F-omega-sub), and
  2. they represent a significant increase in the reasoning power of types over programs.

There was a preference for learning how to implement a dependent type system, instead of spending a significant amount of time reading papers, especially dense type-theoretic papers suggested by posts like these. So we followed the pi-for-all lecture series given by Stephanie Weirich at OPLSS, which focuses on implementing a simple dependently-typed programming language.

After the pi-for-all lectures, we read chapter two of Edwin Brady’s dissertation on implementing dependently typed languages. The thesis includes a relatively approachable introduction to TT, the core dependent type theory of Epigram.

Along the way, we became sidetracked by Girard’s paradox. In the first pi-for-all lecture, we came across the Type-in-Type rule. (In a dependent type system the term and the type languages are the same. However, we still need to distinguish what is a “program” and what is a “type,” for instance, so that we can determine that the annotation of a function’s argument is valid. So a construct in the term language is Type, which is meant to describe those things that are valid in programs where we expect to find a type). In the lecture, this prompted the comment that this (“of course”) makes our system inconsistent as a logic, but there was no further elaboration, and we could not figure out how to use this fact to show inconsistency.

It turns out the reason Type-in-Type is inconsistent is quite complicated. It is explained in a paper that we had difficulty understanding. So we turned to the students in our lab that have expertise in the area. The answer we received is that, intuitively, it is inconsistent for the same reason as Russell’s paradox (or the Burali-Forti paradox), but the actual proof is actually quite involved. The lesson we drew is that despite being “obvious,” Type-in-Type being inconsistent is not easy to prove. The way people seem to throw around this conclusion is confusing from a beginner’s point of view.

The best thing about the pi-for-all series is that it demystified dependent types for us. We gained confidence in being able to whiteboard a dependent type system with the ease of System-F or STLC. If we had one complaint, the presentation of the material relied heavily on Haskell details. The unbound library to handle variables in the implementation results in a somewhat “magicy” representation of binding; it’s not clear that the benefits are so great as to outweigh the cost of just implementing alpha-equivalence and capture-avoiding-substitution. Overall they were high-quality lectures. As hinted above, we didn’t particularly care for the second lecture that was mostly a code walk-through. One advantage of watching videos was that we could speed through parts we were already comfortable with.

With Edwin Brady’s dissertation, we got a glimpse of how quickly the details of a dependently typed language get hairy. Looking at you, inductive data definitions and eliminations. There were some extremely large type signatures. While this exercise boosted our confidence that we could read Serious Dependent Types™ papers, it also gave evidence that our fears of incomprehensibility were not completely unfounded.

This issue appeared before in our discussion of Girard’s Paradox. In the discussion of the paradox, we got stuck when we tried to understand the very complex term that inhabited the bottom type. Dependent typing, and discussions thereof, allow very rich, meaningful, and complex types that are as complex as the code that they abstract over. While we are used to understanding these structures in code, parsing a complex type and its fundamental meaning gave us considerable difficulty.

Thoughts on the format

Our meetings this semester were all of the form “we’ll watch this lecture or read this chapter, and then discuss it next week.” Next semester we would like to go back to presenting each week. We feel doing presentations forces the presenter to reach a deeper understanding of the material. This semester we got a relatively shallow understanding of a broad area. A deeper understanding with a narrower focus may be more beneficial (or complementary).

[[Sam’s defense as Grand Convener of PL Junior: Once we picked dependent types as a topic, doing presentations was not an option. We didn’t have the expertise in the area to pick out different sub-topics and papers suitable for presentations. And, since we were short-handed (4 people each week), we would be presenting once a month!]]

If we continue learning more about dependent types it would be by: 1) Doing more reading, such as the ATTAPL chapter or the programming in Martin-Löf’s type theory material. 2) Actually trying to implement some of the things we’ve learned this semester 3) Playing around with more of the various dependent type systems and theorem provers out there

For future pl junior cohorts or anyone else in learning about dependent types: Pi-for-all is useful material, but could be condensed into two weeks (for example, by watching the lectures at 1.5x speed) instead of four. Don’t worry about Type-in-Type. The Epigram material is OK but you might be better served looking at ATTAPL first. At some point, you will have to read the dense papers, but pi-for-all is a good introduction.