Joe Armstrong

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Joseph Leslie Armstrong (27 December 1950 – 20 April 2019) was a computer scientist working in the area of fault-tolerant distributed systems.

Quotations from Joe Armstrong are from different conferences, talks, interviews and books given around the world, between 1990 and 2019.

The forgotten advantage of concurrent programming[edit]

The forgotten advantage of concurrent programming, a full transcription is also available on Erlang Solution website. Recorded in 2019
  • I wanted to build fault tolerant systems and pretty soon I realized that you can’t make a fault tolerant system on a computer, because I think in the entire computer might crash, so I needed lots of independent computers.
  • "Messages take time", and they propagate through space, there’s no guarantee it gets there.
  • I just want to model what’s going on in the real world
  • We need to build a world where there are parallel processes communicating through message passing and I thought they cannot have shared memory because if they have shared memory and the remote going to be the crash.
  • Why are people just moving the data and not the programs. We could move both of them to some intermediate point in the middle to perform the computation there.
  • This is a thing that really scares me, are people developing large applications that they don’t understand.
  • Many programs don’t have well-defined interface. They should have.
  • I think we seem to have forgotten that things can be small. This way of decomposing systems into small things that I can reason about.
  • People keep telling me this, "you’ve got to upgrade your operating system". Then they say, "Well, that’s because of security things." I don’t really have much confidence in them. If they said we have to change it once every 20 years, I could believe that it was reliable, but telling me that I have to change it once every six weeks is crazy.
  • One of the things we’ve forgotten, is the importance of protocols and not describing them accurately.
  • If you imagine the combination of petabytes memories with LiFi and communication at tens of gigabits per second but the combination and like 10,000 Cray-Ones and a little thing like your fingernail everywhere in every single light bulb that’s like an atomic bomb hitting software. What we’re going to do with it, nobody’s got a clue.
  • deployment is a problem because even if somebody made an open source privacy application, it needs 50 million users to take off. Apple and Google and everybody have dominated this way of deploying something to hundreds of millions of people [...] the first one to get a hundred million users wins basically.
  • Google knows everything about us but we know nothing about Google.
  • I always imagine a historian in 2 or 300 years' time writing the history of this period. It would just be like the Dark Ages, the ages of confusion. Will it end with computer failures that kill millions of people or will it transition into something that is for the benefit of mankind? We don’t know at the moment and I don’t know how long it will be before we know.

The Forgotten Ideas in Computer Science[edit]

Faults, The Forgotten Ideas in Computer Science, March 16, 2018
  • I had a plan. Learn Emacs. Learn UNIX. And learn programming language. What happened? I didn't learn Emacs. I didn't learn UNIX. And I invented a new programming language.
  • Have we got better at programming things in the last 25 years? I think the answer would be no. They've been small improvements.
  • I started programming in like 76. There was not enough sutff. There was Fortran and Cobol... And Fortran. Now there's 250, 500, 800 programming languages, one new each week.
  • Do we really need to hijack our attention systems every 10 seconds with a banner?
  • The methodology for what I was going to do: ask some questions, get some replies, organize result, choose the best things to do.
  • How to make a list? Collecting the data, that's the easy bit. Sorting it into categories is slightly more difficult. Shortening the list is the most difficult part. That a really difficult problem.
  • If somebody puts a big list of things up, my question is always: what is the most important thing on that list.
  • I can only implement one thing at a time. I'm a one thing at a time person. So, if you give me that huge list of things, I will implement the most important thing. Which is it?
  • We can't do a list of 20 things. You can't do 20 things in parallel. Do one of them. Do the next.
  • Your first question must always be: what is the most difficult part of this problem that I am trying to solve and then try and solve that. If you can't solve the most difficult bit, give up! Seek advice, find somebody who can solve it!
  • Your first question must always be: what is the most difficult part of this problem that I am trying to solve and then try and solve that. If you can't solve the most difficult bit, give up! Seek advice, find somebody who can solve it!"
  • It's going to fail your project if you take the easy bits first, deliberately. Because you can't solve the difficult bit, your project will fail late than failing early and your company will lose lots of money.
  • Four good tools to learn: Emacs, Bash, Make and Shell. You could use Vi, I am not religious here. Make is pretty damn good! I use Make for everything, that good!
  • Better algorithms probably gave us a factor of 6 in performance. Changing the programming language going to Prolog to C, that gave us a factor of 15. All the rest comes from hardware. So, wait 10 years, you've got a thousand. wait 20, you get a million in hardware performance.
  • If you try to fiddle around with your code to make it efficient, that's the wrong thing to do. Keep on track with the latest hardware. That's the right thing to do.
  • Four languages to learn: C, Prolog, Erlang, Javascript.
  • Let me just say something about pipes. The great UNIX philosophy was: the output of my program should be the input to your program, to compile things together.
  • These [pipes] are killed by GUIs. So you don't have a text flow into a GUI. So, that are GUIs, you can't pipe it together in sequences. That's killed the notion of a pipe and the notion of reusing things.
  • We can use Machine Learning to diagnose diseases and we don't need to use machine learning to target advertisements to people. We can use it to cure their cancers. Just think about that.
  • I was crap at writing. I learned to ride. I wrote a few books and after, you written a few books, you get good at it. But I was really rubbish at writing to start.
  • PHP, brilliant language! Apart from the syntax and the semantics. Because it takes a view that will perform everything in one place.
  • Helping your non-technical neighbor. Tell them it's not your fault. Tell them it's crap software and I don't understand this crap.
  • Things can be small. They don't have to be gigabytes.
  • The web is totally broken. It's not symmetric.Easy to read stuff, very difficult to write stuff. We ave a community of users who engage passively by reading stuff, they do not write stuff.
  • Let's unbreak the web. The web is broken. Let's go out and un-break it and let's bring computation back to these supercomputers that we've got in our pockets [...] Let's ensure that our personal data is owner by us and not by large corporations [...] Let's make computing easy again like it was in the past. Let's build apps that could communicate with each other.

Joe Armstrong interviews Alan Kay[edit]

Joe Armstrong interviews Alan Kay, Code Mesh London November 3-4, 2016
  • I was using Smalltalk and I never actually go through this boundary of sort of simulating the class structure in my head so that I can program itself. It was painful, I used to chose the changelog to find things, I regret you did it.
  • I got this Prolog system, and I thought, let's do a message passing object model there. There were an influence with CSP.
  • If you do project that guaranteed to succeed, think it could be horribly conservative things. So you can't just do things. You know tat hundred are just fun stuffs and they gonna fails!
  • Every Erlang process in the universe should be addressable, and trace backed if we wish they will talk together.
  • One of the things which worries me is the silly idea with the cloud. If we just store everything in the cloud, the unintentional side effect of that is we will probably lose all our history. And I am kind of worry to life. two hundred years time and look back and say just sorry, we just lost all the history of the last twenty centuries.

Faults, Scaling and Erlang concurrency[edit]

Faults, Scaling and Erlang concurrency, September 24, 2014
  • In order to handle failure, you need two machines. [...] You have to be interested in distributed programming. You have to be interesting in parallel computing. You have to be interested in concurrent programming.
  • One way I think Erlang was a kind of software emulating Tandem machine.
  • If you managed to scale horizontally, you can scale.
  • You can both kept fault tolerance and scalability. You can have both or none of them
  • Shared memory is evil.
  • Defensive programming in C, is only necessary because you have only have a single thread of computation. If you have a sequential language and it crashes, you lost everything.
  • In Erlang, you have as many processes you want. You can arrange the processes observing each other. If you have got half million processes to do something, what is it matter if few thousand of them fail?
  • The cornerstones of fault tolerant programming are to isolate errors to make sure if one thing crash it does not crash anything else. That's what the processes in operating system do.
  • Bad concurrency model, I think, is something that make a lot of programming artificially difficult.
  • If you can't detect failures, you are unable to recover from them. That's an obvious principle you need.
  • We need to know why things fails. If we want to improve our system, we need to put that information into that system into logs or something.
  • Processes are isolated by design. Context switching are very lightweight. The processes by design cannot damage each other.
  • Our goal is actually to have about 75% utilization if we had one hundred CPU we would hope that our program will go 75% faster without tweaking it.

Modeling the World with Processes Objects Functions of Relations[edit]

26 Years with Erlang, September 22, 2014
  • Composing computation. Why do we do compose computation? Because We want to make reusable things out of small things. We take small things to make bigger things.
  • In Haskell, C or Java, or any these languages, that function composition will fail at compile time. Type system will say: we'll not allow you to compose things together. because the types are wrong. But in Erlang, you can do anything you bloody would feel like just found together and know it at run time not at compile time. Some people think that is not so good. Some people think that is pretty cool. I will tell you why it's pretty cool. It's actually late binding, it makes decision late.
  • Hidden state in object so in any object programming language means you can't compose things. Hidden state is a just state effect stopping you to composing things.
  • In pure functional language, you are not allowed to tinker around with the state, So the state go into your function, something should happen and the state comes out as well. In pure functional language, you got in input and the state, and what's come out is the output and the new state.
  • Object Oriented Programming, this is the art of hiding side effects. If you can do it successfully you can write this in program. If you do it unsuccessfully, you get in a sucking mess.
  • The different ways of hiding the state are the things that different functional programming languages offer. In Haskell they call it monads, in Erlang they call it processes.
  • Pipelines is the most important word. So a Monad is a pipeline. It allows you to pipe an output of a function to the input of another function. They rediscover the pipe.
  • We could of course redefine compose to a version of compose that work with debugging with debugging things. That would be horrible. That would mean we would need to compose pure functions. We would need to compose functions for debugging and everything on the planet.
  • Instead of handy compose, we'll keep compose exactly the same and will write a little function which takes a function that does not have debugging and return the function that does debugging. And we have a function that accept only one argument, the un-debugging version, we'll add another little function that automatically add an argument to it. When we done that, we can bind call compose on it and everything will work and will be nice. And will be peace on the earth and everybody will have a good time.
  • The nice thing about pipeline is that quite easy to see and you can do all the steps in the pipeline in parallel.
  • In Erlang, F(G(X)) is used for small steps. Pipes are used for big steps. The big steps semantics is processes. It's messages between processes. Processes are used for big computation. When you got F(G(X)) is a small step, and we map small steps on the same core. We map big steps on processes. Processes map on multi-core. The system just does it for you.
  • If you have know idea where the leak is coming from, you'll want call a professional plumber who will have the equipment to locate the pipes in your walls [...] So, he's talking about software!
  • Middle men, this is the key abstraction in Erlang. This is the model of the world. Everything in the world is processes. When ever you got any problem what so ever, it does not matter what was of problem is, you put this transducer thing in the middle. It translate the way things talk to each other in the outside world and internally.
  • The Middle man is the thing that imposed Erlang only in the Erlang world. If people try to talk to each other, the complexity of the program is O(N²). But, if we put middle men here, this turns the complexity to O(N).

26 Years with Erlang[edit]

26 Years with Erlang, July 13, 2013
  • I thing the first company that's a pure Erlang worth a billion dollars.
  • I was programming Prolog []... What happens when a Prolog program goes wrong? it says no. There "no" is not a very good error. Core damage is much more informative for no.
  • One thing I wanted to do with Prolog, pick some sort of better things. Better stuff should happen when it fails. The other problem with prolog is that you could only do one thing, and you can only have one process. So I wanted and I thought Prolog was really great. I made an algebra to describe telephony in Prolog but the only trouble was you could only describe one process and if they didn't do what you'd expected them to do when you got failure, it didn't work.
  • The spec does not tell me what to do. What do I program? [...] I thought this is crazy, we are building products with specifications and things, and the specifications doesn't say what's supposed to happen. Then when you get to this point in the code where you don't know what's going to happen, everybody knows how programs it. I thought that's crazy because I didn't know and I thought everybody could interpret that differently and they could make an ad-hoc decision. So I thought to myself, the only sensible thing to do is crash. We just crash this call because we don't know what to do.
  • In a file system, if a program opens a file and does something and then crashes, the operating system closes the file for you. It's not still open and then you can use it again. So I thought to myself, well, a call is like a file. So, what happens if you do this hook, you crash the program. Somebody else will watch (the operating system) will watch) and it will close the call just like closing a file. That was the origin of this thing that's now I call Let It Crash.
  • This was actually fast to build the prototypes of the telephony system but they were running very slowly. at that stage we said: let's make a product out of this. We thought the semantics were okay but the performance wasn't.
  • I think things like PowerPoint have sort of destroyed creativity.
  • I will never ever make any statement about performance that is not based on measurement and I will never ever advise anybody on how to write their code without saying write it and measure. I just will not speculate. I think people who do speculate about this should not speculate about it and they should write it, run it and measure it.
  • I am the world's worst C programmer because it's so complicated I can't understand it [...] All I know is that whenever I write C, my pointers are always missed by one from where they're supposed to go.
  • You're a programmer, you've just written 100 lines of codes that C++ programmers have failed to do. You want to show it to people because you're quite pleased. You think they're going to be pleased...

Over a Century of programming[edit]

Over a Century of Programming, June 2013
  • This [showing his smartphone] is about a million time more powerful than the computer but the computer was developed on.
  • We wanted to build big distributed systems, fault tolerant systems. The sort of systems that everybody wants to build today. It's not just about telecom. At the time it was just about telecom but now, it's not just about telecom. Virtually, every big systems you want to build has to do these things. You want to connect millions of people and you don't want if the system fail in anyway, you don't want these individual transaction to be broken. We started to working on that, way back. That sort of way we got Erlang.
  • A technology that nobody use, just dies.

The How and Why of Fitting Things Together[edit]

The How and Why of Fitting Things Together, Erlang User Conference 2013
  • Why do the designers to this programming language want correctness? It's because, if you write program in erlang, and it turns to be incorrect, I got the blame. But if it works you got the credit.
  • Erlang is like Meccano. Meccano is very good. You build wonderful things with meccano. C++ is like Lego. Lego is wonderful. But there is any glue. The glue that you want to use to glue Lego and Meccano just does not work.
  • This is fantastic, this a quantum leap in abstraction. Most people are being looking inside the black boxes and trying to understand how they work but I think they are looking at the wrong place.They should have been looking inside the black box to understand programming works and looks on the connected things to understand what do they do.
  • Everything is interesting, everything does connect, but anything don't work.
  • why do we write things from scratch all the time and reimplementing things? because it's quicker than finding another programming language that does it. We can't find this program, and if we find it, it does something slightly different to the one we wanted and it's quicker to rewrite a new program than modify the old program.
  • Joe's law: Frameworks grow in complexity until nobody can use them.
  • Messages are like files. We don't care how it was created.
  • Pipes are wonderful. They are doing wonderful things.
  • Bad ideas in computer science and anywhere are sticky. If the first idea was a bad idea, then because it works people will sort of repeat it.
  • The middle man brings conceptual integrity to the system.

A Few Improvement to Erlang[edit]

A Few Improvement to Erlang, Erlang User Conference 2012
  • I could not understand how people could have get started with PHP because there was not message at all.
  • I thought if you multiply two integers together, you get an integer. But apparently you don't in PHP. You get a floating point number, which gets bigger and bigger and that's okay. Until you get to factorial(171), and then you get "INF". I don't know what "INF" is. I think it's infinity actually. But in that case, it's probably wrong, because infinity is awfully big. Bigger than factorial(171).
  • So what's wrong with the shell? and what's wrong with Erlang? It's not LISP!
  • Meta-Programming Erlang is not really easy because of the way the trees are parsed.
  • I don't like modules. It's a sort of love/hate relationship. The problem with modules is the classification problem. When you have written a function you don't know in what modules you put it in.
  • Modules change with time, and there is no sense of time in programming development. If you look at something like git, the way you deal with time is checksum, timestamp...
  • When we write code, we forgot about the bigger picture.
  • Finally after hours of googling, I can write my program. That what's I call research. The research takes 3 hours, writing the program takes 2 minutes, for the final version. You publish the program, and you throw away the research. That's not smart. Somebody later cannot figure out how you did it because all he's see is the end result.
  • The nice thing about the Erlang documentation is everything is done in XML. XML is absolutely brilliant for marking up text.
  • Documents are full of paragraphs. But the paragraphs don't have name. So, we can't talk about the paragraphs.

Programming Erlang - Software for a Concurrent World[edit]

Programming Erlang, Software for a Concurrent World, The Pragmatic Programmers, 2007
  • When I'm writing a program, my approach is to "write a bit" and then "test a bit." I start with a small module with few functions, and then I compile it and test it with a few commands in the shell. Once I'm happy with it, I write a few more functions, compile them, test them, and so on. (page 60)

Making Reliable Distributed Systems in the Presence of Software Errors[edit]

Making Reliable Distributed Systems in the Presence of Software Errors, December 2003
  • The inability to isolate software components from each other is the main reason why many popular programming languages cannot be used for making robust system software. (page 32)

Erlang The Movie[edit]

Erlang the Movie, 1990
  • The clarity of programming languages have several advantages over traditional languages. For example, programs in such languages are considerably shorter than the equivalent programs in imperative languages. They also encourage clear programming styles.
  • Up to now, declarative programming languages such as Prolog or ML have not been used for real-time applications.
  • So we have had to add a notion of concurrency in real-time to our language. We also added a sophisticated error detection mechanism. This allows us to program robust real-time systems.