Re: Syllabus for Seed Developer Qualifications [WAS Re: Some considerations about AGI]

From: J. Andrew Rogers (
Date: Tue Jan 31 2006 - 19:07:13 MST

On Jan 31, 2006, at 4:17 PM, Robin Lee Powell wrote:
> This seems to break down to:
> 1. People familiar with C will have no real problems with pointers.
> Absolute rubbish. I programmed C for *years*, and they never
> stopped causing me trouble. This is true for 9/10ths of the
> programmers I've discussed this with.

It is a good thing that the really important code is written by the
other 10% then, isn't it? ;-)

I never said that programmers do not have problems with pointers
(clearly many do), but that there is nothing intrinsic about pointers
in C that means they *will* cause trouble. I programmed C for many
years too, and any problems I did have disappeared after a couple
years simply by learning proper practice. The primary problem is not
pointers but memory management -- reference counting languages have
similar issues in the hands of careless programmers. I was really
reacting to how some people recoil in horror at the thought of
programming in C, as though all C code is unavoidably saddled with
memory leaks and similar. It requires a little extra discipline and
a clue, which is not an insurmountable sacrifice if you need or want
the benefits of C. Writing bulletproof C *is* painfully verbose.

There are many reasons to use GC languages or other memory management
schemes notably lazy, careless, or bad programmers. I use languages
like Python because I am lazy, not because pointers have ever caused
me problems, and much of the C I have written is for server processes
that require years of nonstop operation -- if there were problems,
they would have become apparent. Maybe I am special, but I doubt it.

> 2. Using pointers directly increases code speed.
> Even more incorrect.

You did not comprehend what I was stating. Direct access to memory
management (which pretty much requires pointers) *allows* very
significant performance improvements that are not accessible
otherwise. No language is immune to naive code.

> In the long run, performance is a factor
> of the big-O of the code, and I am, in general, *guaranteed* to
> come up with a worse (in terms of big-O) piece of code than
> someone who has, say, been studying sorting algorithms for their
> entire career. Thus, if I use a language that has such a
> sorting algorithm built into it, I am guaranteed to be better
> off.

Not necessarily true; the designer of the generic sorting algorithm
has no idea what you are going to do with it. This issue comes up
pretty frequently in the real world when using "highly optimized" but
generic libraries for performance sensitive code. But what do you do
after you've squeezed out all the big-O you can? There is usually
integer factors of potential improvement left over in direct memory
management and memory layout, even for natively compiled languages.

In fact, the performance improvement gained by direct memory
management is nothing more than optimizing the big-O of memory access/
management algorithms. Big-O optimization applies as much to what is
under the hood as what is on top of it.

> This is not to say that all languages without pointers are
> faster than all languages with them, but the idea that having
> direct access to memory pointers in a language *necessarily*
> makes things faster is preposterous.

No, it necessarily *allows* a programmer to make things faster, at
least with the programming technologies we have today. Direct memory
management in all its guises will buy integer factors performance
improvement for many types of codes if you know what you are doing,
which is pretty significant. Compilers and garbage collectors still
have pretty crude ideas on how to keep the cache lines full.

Do what you gotta do. If speed is important above all else, direct
memory management will buy you a hell of a lot of it in many cases,
and that requires pointers. If speed is not so important in the
calculus, use anything that appeals and reduces line count. I use
Python most of the time myself for screwing around with AI stuff, but
the highly optimized C versions of the same complex algorithms are
about 10^2 - 10^3 times faster and use about 10x less memory.
Languages like Java can be somewhere in the middle when optimized.

I was not saying that C was great for everything, just that C is hard
to touch for raw performance potential if you bother to spend some
time with it. For many things, raw performance does not matter
enough to be worth the time. TANSTAAFL. Pick the right tool for the
right job and realize that sometimes you cannot have your cake and
eat it too.


J. Andrew Rogers

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