Oh, I did not know that [about R]

May 20, 2014
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(This article was first published on The Shape of Code » R, and kindly contributed to R-bloggers)

I recently saw a post about something called ValidR and as somebody with a long standing professional interest in language validation immediately read the article and referenced links. I was disappointed to find that what was being validated was the installation, not the behavior of the implementation. In the context of what I understand ValidR’s target market to be, drug testing, obtaining reproducible results is very important and so it is necessary to know exact what software has been installed (e.g., packages and their versions).

Implementation validation involves checking that the implementation of a language adheres to the requirements specified in the appropriate language standard. While International standards exist for many of the widely used languages, some have standard’s developed through other means and some have no recognized specification at all (e.g., PHP, Perl and R).

Not having a recognized specification is a problem for PHP because there are multiple implementations in common use. Perl and R both have a dominant implementation, which means the definition of the language is accepted as being whatever that implementation does.

Now, anybody who claims that having an open source implementation is as good as having a specification written in English (i.e., people can read the code to discover the behavior) clearly have not done much, if any, reading of language implementations. Over the years I have worked with the source of a fare few language implementations and my general experience is that the fastest and most reliable way of finding out what an implementation does is to write test case, only reading the source when test cases cannot be found that answer the questions.

Does it matter that there is no complete English specification of R (the current specification is very much a work in progress, with lots of progress remaining)?

Who reads computer language specifications (apart from language wonks like me)? Creators of implementations is the most obvious answer. But an R implementation already exists, why should the R team spend time making it easier to create alternative implementations? Actually I see the main customers of an R language specification being the R-core team.

An example of the benefits to the owner of source code in having a specification is provided by the EU/Microsoft competition court case. I was an adviser to the Monitoring Trustee appointed by the Commission to oversee the documentation of the specification of these protocols (no previous documentation existed). A frequently heard comment from the senior Microsoft developers we dealt with, on reading their own new specifications, was “Oh, I did not know that”.

A written specification is much more compact than source code or test cases and is (or should be) organized in a way that helps readers understand what is being said (this is often a stated aim for source code but is rare achieved). There are probably lots of behaviors that the R team are unaware of which, if they get to find out about them, might be interested in ‘fixing’ or at least discussing whether it is a desirable behavior. Or perhaps the R team’s strategy is to make life difficult for competing implementations.



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