The WHY Button


I can’t think of any relevant tags for this, and I’d like to think it’s because this is such a broadly applicable idea that it spans most categories.

The idea is this: many systems take inputs and produce outputs. Often, users of these systems would like to know WHY these systems produced these outputs.

I have two examples:

First, home automation. There’s a bunch of work on home automation and how it’s perceived, and one thing that comes across clearly is the frustration and unhappiness that users experience when the system acts in a way that isn’t what they expect.1

In response to this, it seems that the most obvious first step is to have a WHY button. In this case: why did you just turn all the lights off? Why is the thermostat cranked up to a hundred?

Second Example: programming, and more specifically debugging. This is a fairly obvious domain, and there’s already lots of work on time-travel debugging. The basic idea is the same: you have an outcome, it’s not the outcome you want, and you want to try to understand why. In this case, it’s not that we don’t know that we want a WHY button, it’s just really hard to implement.

In between these two extremes, there are lots of other examples. One of the one that gives me the most trouble is in system configuration. Why isn’t SpamAssassin running? (Should be not impossible.) Why is distnoted taking so much memory? (Harder.) Why does my mouse freeze whenever I hit a key in an xterm window behind VNC? (okay, that one is just a debugging question).

Actually, these last issues are interesting ones, because they dip into the space of “search”. That is, I would try to solve all of these last three by just using a search engine. At the moment, though, search doesn’t help me figure out why my program isn’t working (much) or why my lights aren’t on.

SO: what is it that makes the WHY button possible? In general, it appears to me that the answer is simply: declarative programming. When your program is written in a declarative language, it’s much more likely that you can get a good non-brain-bending “why” out of it.

Go, declarative languages!

Okay, now you can share all of the existing Human Interface research that already covers this topic.


1 : Brush, A. J., et al. “Home automation in the wild: challenges and opportunities.” Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, 2011.

    Tartine Bread

    :: Bread

    This summer I started raising wild yeast. It was more or less a biology experiment, and it was extremely hit and miss, mostly miss, for the first few months.

    For one thing, it took me quite a while to figure out that you actually do have to dump 4/5 of the starter down the drain every day; I was trying to feed an ever-growing bowl; not nearly enough food-to-yeast ratio, and the resulting bacteria were really… um… not the ones I was looking for.

    Fortunately, I enjoy strange smells, but the rest of my family started moving out of the room when I would start feeding my yeast.

    Anyhow, I’ve now figured out more or less how to keep a culture alive.

    The next big step was reading Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bread. It turns out that if you have a reasonably lively yeast culture, and a little patience, it’s totally possible to make bread that the rest of your family actually likes a lot. Here’s a loaf from two weeks ago:

    loaf of bread

    loaf of bread

    I also got an interesting lesson last week when I’d been away for two days and was trying to jump-start my starter again; the starter was actually just fine, but my “help” was actually doing terrible things to it; I started feeding it every eight hours, and I realize now that the fast feeding—or, more precisely, the fast 4/5-killing—was annihilating the population of my microbiological zoo.

    Anyhow, it’s hard to knock the stuff out completely, and this week it’s bubbling away as well as ever.

    Next week, maybe I start experimenting with higher hydration.

    my old racket logo

    :: Racket

    Ooh, just came across this today. I really liked this logo… I did this back in 2012, if the date stamp is to be believed. I think this struck a nice balance between the letter “r” and the lambda (reversed, yes).

    a proposed racket logo

    a proposed racket logo

    DWIM vs. Small Semantic Core

    :: R, Programming Languages

    So, I’d like to do some statistical analysis. I hear that R is really good at this. Let’s download it and take a look.

    (Ten minutes later)


    What about Matlab? It’s the same story.1 As a programming languages person, these languages make me … well, angry.


    Well, after thinking about this for a while, it seems to me that what I hate most about these languages is their complete lack of a small semantic core.

    Take a language like Racket, JavaScript, Java, or C— these languages don’t have a heck of a lot in common, but they share

    is this all just library design? Most of the things I really hate can easily be constructed in any dynamic library through a suitable application of

    Terrible Library Design (tm)

    … except that when it applies to things like vector dereference, it feels like fairly ‘core’ syntax.

    Example time! First, R does this crazy thing in distinguishing logical from numeric vectors.

    > a
    [1] "a" "b" "c" "d"
    > a[c(2,4,3)]
    [1] "b" "d" "c"
    > a[c(FALSE,TRUE)]
    [1] "b" "d"

    In the first of these two array derefs, we’re using the indices from the vector to decide what elements of a to take. In the second case, though, the index expression is a ‘logical vector’ and is therefore tiled to the length of the original one, and used to decide whether to take the corresponding element.

    If you imagine this as part of a language semantics, you’d see this horrible side-condition attached to these rules, where array deref’ing works in totally different ways depending on the kind of argument it gets.

    To say nothing of the silent tiling, which seems like an open invitation to horrible bugs.

    But wait, we can compound this problem with some nasty coercion:

    > a[c(4,c(FALSE,TRUE,TRUE))]
    [1] "d" "a" "a"

    What on earth is going on here? First of all, vectors get silently flattened, so that c(3,c(4,5)) is the same as c(3,4,5) — ugh — but then, the logical values are coerced into numeric ones, so the index vector that’s produced is actually c(4,0,1,1), which is then used to index the vector a. But why are there only three values? Oh, well, there’s no index 0, so let’s just skip that one, shall we?

    Honestly, I guess the real problem is in thinking of something like R as a programming language; it’s not. It’s a statistical analysis tool, with a rich text-based interface. After all, would I get upset if Photoshop used ‘b’ for blur and ‘s’ for sharpen and I couldn’t nest them the way that I wanted, using parentheses? Probably not.

    And finally: apologies for everything I’ve written. I’ve used R for about fifteen minutes, and this piece is really just me blowing off a small amount of steam. Not well written, not well thought-out. Meh.

    1. Actually, maybe not; I spoke with a friend yesterday, and I get the impression that Matlab may not be as horrible as R, here. 

    Granite Mon 2014

    :: granitemon

    Well, it’s 10:47 in the morning, and everyone’s still alive.

    This is only news because today was the twentieth running of the long island challenge granite mon thing, and everyone made it safe and sound.

    As usual, we got up early; we met at the yacht club at 6:00 AM, which (I see) is actually an hour later than last year. In fact, we might well have started an hour earlier, as we would have had a wee bit more tidal assist and a wee bit less chop.

    Be that as it may, it was an absolutely gorgeous morning, and the water was warm. Actually, if you must know, it was way too warm. Not for the swimmers, but rather for the aquatic life. I’ve been doing this swim for about twenty years, now, and the water just keeps getting warmer and warmer. I think it was 65 degrees, but apparently a few days ago Henry Becton recorded a temperature of 75 degrees. This is why all of our aquatic life is dying. Nice for human swimmers, though….

    I think this might be a good time to give a shout-out to MERI, which has been monitoring the blue hill watershed since 2004, among many other projects. They report that the ocean temperature has risen by an average of 1.56 degrees celsius, which is … a lot.

    So, the death of the planet notwithstanding, we had a really nice swim.

    Here we are before the swim (apologies to Tricia, who is entirely hidden here):



    Here we are after the swim:



    From left to right:

    • Alice Clements
    • Henry Becton (didn’t swim, but he looks great in this picture)
    • Charlotte Clews Lawther
    • Tricia Sawyer
    • Jerome Lawther
    • Moira McMahon
    • John Clements
    • Samantha Lee
    • Mary Clews

    We would never have attempted this without the astonishing volunteers, including:

    • Sara Becton
    • Ethan Coit
    • Kitty Clements
    • Robin Clements
    • Tom Clements
    • Molly Cooper
    • Henry Clews
    • Amanda Herman
    • John Jeffrey
    • Deborah Miller-Little
    • Wing Taylor
    • Will Taylor

    Following the swim, Charlotte and Jerome biked up to Millinocket, and the next day, climbed Katahdin. Guys, may I include your picture at the top?

    Thanks to Wing and Alice for pictures. And finally, Alice Clements once again gets credit for organizing the event. Thanks!

    Kitchens are for Eating


    Let me start by saying this: I can’t possibly be the first one to think about this.

    I’ve been working up in Mountain View, this week. It was a great trip, and I stayed in a totally gorgeous little place. When I got home from work, I either went running or biking. After that, I cooked myself a small dinner, ate it outside, then went into my room to get a bit of work done or get ready for bed.

    Macros: more important in low-level languages?

    :: Macros, Programming Languages

    Macros are a wonderful thing. A hygienic macro system puts language extensions within the reach of non-compiler-hackers.

    However, to date, most modern, hygienic macro systems are associated with languages like Scheme and Racket that are quite high-level. My claim is that macros are probably much more useful in low-level languages. Here’s why:

    Are Union Seniority Rules Defensible?

    :: Politics

    I’m sympathetic to Teachers’ unions. In fact, I’m in the Teachers’ union. More specifically, I’m a tenure-track associate professor at Cal Poly, and a member of the California Faculty Association.

    Many of the faculty union’s actions I find commendable. In particular, I’m thankful that the union supports faculty wages1, and tries to ensure the continued presence of full-time faculty.

    However, I find the union’s seniority rules pretty much indefensible. In particular, article 38.16 of the contract (Collective Bargaining Agreement) negotiated by the CFA with the California State University system (or CSU) stipulates (IANAL) that “The President shall establish the order of layoff for tenured faculty unit employees in a unit of layoff by reverse order of seniority.”

    Why would this be the case? Is the administration presumed to be so incapable of estimating worth that this decision needs to be taken out of their hands completely? It appears to me that the current goal of the union is to demonize every aspect of the CSU administration’s activity. The level of the CFA rhetoric in its published materials is incredibly low; to take just one example, the idea of paying more money to certain employees based on their performance is described by the CFA as “Pucker Pay.” Please.

    Now’s where I should launch into a detailed analysis of the history of labor laws and the role played by seniority layoffs… but I don’t have that background, or that time. If I could build a model using Redex and publish it in POPL, I’d be all over it. Instead, it will just be my opinion.

    Here’s another part of my opinion: civil discourse is the basis for forward progress in our government.

    I guess I can say this: I voted for Marshall Tuck.

    1 though probably not mine, actually

      Decimal Time Zones

      :: Time

      What? There are no decimal time zones?

      Okay, backing up.

      I love time-wasting hard-to-learn idiosyncrasies. I use the dvorak keyboard, I run in sandals I make myself, I run my own mail server (surely the stupidest of my habits).

      About two years ago I “invented” decimal time. Which is to say: I did in fact think of it myself. Unfortunately, there’s a bit of prior art here, going back to the French Revolution.

      Short version: Our current day has 86,400 seconds in it. This is not really very far from 100,000. So… what if we just designated a decimal second as being 1/100,000 of a day? then we could have all of our hours and minutes be decimal divisions. More specifically: the day is divided into 10 decimal hours, each hour into 100 decimal minutes, and each minute into 100 decimal seconds. Works great! The decimal hours are quite long, but the decimal minutes are pretty close to our existing ones.