12 November 2011

Languages versus Implementations

In the world of programming languages, there is a clear distinction between the language itself, and the implementation of the language. There is only one abstract Python, but there are many concrete implementations of Python. Only one Haskell, but several implementations thereof.

However, this is a false dichotomy. Each implementation is necessarily different from the others, mainly because implementing an identical specification in identical fashion is boring and doesn’t solve any problems.

Outside of those implementations we make as a learning process, we programmers typically create new implementations of existing languages in search of better performance or better user experience. I don’t expect anyone to agree with me that changing the performance characteristics of a language is the same as a change to the language, but that is what I believe.

More importantly, the implementors of a language will often try to make their implementation stand out as more productive, more useful to the programmer, by adding extensions. Whether or not these extensions are intended for widespread adoption by other implementations, and whether you call them extensions or pragmas or whatever else, the effect is the same. A program that is accepted by one implementation is either not accepted by another, or it runs differently under the different implementations.

The moment this happens, the two implementations are implementing different languages—with a lot of overlap, certainly, but nevertheless distinct. This divergence happens inadvertently as well: because of bugs, one implementation will likely fail or produce incorrect output for a program that another implementation handles just fine, and vice versa. These are still, by the same reasoning, implementing different languages.

So next time you go to accuse someone of conflating the theoretical and the practical, consider that they may simply be ignoring theory for the sake of practicality.

03 November 2011

What’s My Best Time of Day?

Since I find myself quite suddenly in my last year of college, I now realise that I have access to something unique and oddly exciting: statistics about my college career. I decided to take a look at my grade data for the past few years, and see if I couldn’t discern a few things:

  1. How much did my inability to get up early affect my grades?
  2. What are the hours at which I am most capable of productive work?
  3. How much does what I’m learning affect my grades?
  4. In what seasons am I most productive?
  5. What is the best amount of work per week for me?

The results were really interesting. First, I grouped classes by the time the class started, and calculated the average weighted GPA (0.0–4.0) for each group. The chart below shows that I am neither a morning nor an evening person—midday and midafternoon are when I do my best work, but right after lunch, I’m apparently just as useless as in the morning.

Next, I grouped classes by my subjective impression of how much I learned. This was less interesting: like most people, I do best when I’m learning something, but also fine when the work is easy.

Then I discovered something quite counter to my expectations. When I grouped my grades by season of the year, I had thought winter would be my worst quarter, because of the stress and lack of sunlight. It turns out that my grades tell a different story:

I don’t know why this is, but my hunch was that I work better under stress. Autumn and spring are my favourite seasons, when I feel happiest. To test this hypothesis from a different angle, I grouped quarters by number of hours per week of class time.

Apparently, when given a sane amount of work, I do fine. Past a certain point I can’t keep up, but then, beyond that threshold of stress, my performance improves significantly. Really weird stuff.

I hope to be able to apply this information to make my life easier and perhaps get more things done. If you can obtain hard data about your work habits, you can derive a surprising amount of useful information about how you can improve them. That in turn will make it easier for you to be productive. Try it—you’ll like it.