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Re: straw-man [was Re: arithmetic issues]

This page is part of the web mail archives of SRFI 77 from before July 7th, 2015. The new archives for SRFI 77 contain all messages, not just those from before July 7th, 2015.

Rather than dive into a detailed response to Aubrey
Jaffer's message, let me summarize it and then respond
to my own summary.  Then I will respond to some details
of Jaffer's message.

Jaffer correctly observes that efficiency is one of the
concerns of SRFI-77.  He correctly points out that no
one knows all there is to know about efficiency, and
that some people believe certain things.  He correctly
points out that SRFI-77 does not consider the alternative
of using type declarations as was done in Common Lisp.

I have never claimed that efficiency is not a concern
of SRFI-77.  What I said is that it is not the primary
rationale.  The opening paragraph of SRFI-77's abstract
mentions inefficiency as the third of three problems
(confusion, portability problems, inefficiency) that
SRFI-77 tries to address.  The second paragraph of the
abstract then repeats these concerns, in a slightly
different order:

    This SRFI is an effort to extend and clarify the R5RS
    arithmetic to make it more portable, more comprehensive,
    and enable faster programs.

Notice that efficiency is once again the third concern
listed.  The SRFI's Rationale also discusses portability
before it mentions efficiency.  As the author of these
paragraphs, I know this ordering was not accidental:
Sperber and I both regard portability and clarity as the
most serious issues, and regard efficiency as a somewhat
less serious issue that is nevertheless important enough
to deserve attention.

In particular, both of the stated rationales for the fixnum
operations of SRFI-77 have to do with portability.  First,
the Rationale observes:

    The portability problems can most easily be solved by
    requiring all implementations to support the full numeric
    tower. To prevent that requirement from making Scheme
    substantially more difficult to implement, we provide a
    reference implementation that constructs the full numeric
    tower from a fixnum/flonum base. To ensure the portability
    of such reference implementations, the fixnum/flonum base
    must be described and (at least partially) standardized.

Secondly, the standardization of the fixnum/flonum base
will improve the portability of programs that, for whatever
reason, already use implementation-specific fixnum or flonum
operations.  In most cases, these implementation-specific
operations are motivated by efficiency, which demonstrates
that some programmers are willing to forgo the portability
of R5RS procedures if they think it will make their programs
run faster.  Even if you think these programmers are all
wrong about their programs running faster when they use
fixnum or flonum operations, you should still be able to
see how standardizing the names and (to some extent) the
semantics of those operations will improve the portability
of programs that, in your opinion, so foolishly use them.

The primary motivation for the flonum-specific operations,
the exact-specific operations, and the inexact-specific
operations is to improve the reliability and predictability
of programs by detecting a class of errors that are common
in R5RS Scheme programs.  What is common to these errors
is that a number of some unintended type is inadvertently
introduced into some calculation that was intended to work
with numbers of some other type.

Type declarations of the kind used in Common Lisp could
serve this purpose almost as well, but only if systems
could be required to enforce those declarations.  Allowing
implementations to ignore type declarations at their whim
would not accomplish their main purpose.

While it is true that SRFI-77's flonum-specific operations
would not accomplish this purpose in unsafe mode, SRFI-77
says "The R6RS should require a Scheme implementation to
provide the safe mode."  Please note also that SRFI-77's
exact and inexact operations would accomplish this purpose
even in unsafe mode.

In short, it is not true that ignorable type declarations
are just as good as the type-specific operations of SRFI-77.
For type declarations to serve the same purposes, there
would have to be a "safe mode" in which implementations
are not allowed to ignore the declarations.

I will now address selected details of Jaffer's message.

>  | 1.  Speedups that are achievable only by compilers are not
>  | particularly important.
>  | 
>  | Assumption 1 does not require a response.
> There is a constituency within the Scheme community which doesn't use
> compilers.  Doing violence to the language solely in support of
> compilers has no upside for this constituency.

That is true.  What is not true is that the violence
advocated by SRFI-77 is solely in support of compiled
implementations.  SRFI-77 is not even primarily about
compiled implementations, because the portability,
reliability, and confusion issues addressed by SRFI-77
are almost as much of a problem for interpreted systems
as for compiled.

> The words "efficient", "efficiency", and "faster" appear 16 times in
> srfi-77.  Its abstract states:
>   Moreover, the R5RS generic arithmetic is difficult to implement as
>   efficiently as purely fixnum or purely flonum arithmetic.
> "Interpreter-branch" disproves this asserertion as far as interpreters
> with immediate fixnums and boxed numbers are concerned.

I agree that, in an interpreter, fully generic operations
are likely to be just about as fast as type-specific
operations.  I have never claimed otherwise.

It is also true that the discussions of efficiency in
SRFI-77 generally assume a compiled implementation.  The
reason for that is quite simple:  When efficiency really
matters, users and programmers generally use compiled

By the way, the Design Rationale was added to SRFI-77, at
Sperber's request, to explain the fairly arcane matter of
why it is desirable for Scheme's reals to have an exact
zero as their imaginary part.  If you exclude the Design
Rationale, then the words "efficient", "efficiency", and
"faster" occur only 10 times.  Variations on the word
"portable" occur 11 times.

> SRFI-77 talks about efficiency as though it is obvious which practices
> will run fast and which won't.  For CPUs performing speculative
> execution, such claims are not merely unsubstantiated; they are
> probably wrong.  Attention to branch prediction may well eliminate the
> speed penalty for arithmetic type dispatch compiling some programs.

It isn't obvious, but an awful lot of research has been
done on what runs fast and what doesn't, and we have an
awful lot of experience as well.  It doesn't help to
pretend that none of that research and experience is
relevant to this discussion.

Consider, for example, the nucleic2 benchmark [1,2].
This benchmark is the computational kernel of a real
program that is fairly typical of scientific computations.
As published, this benchmark uses fixnum- and flonum-specific
operations.  On this and similar benchmarks, the fastest
implementations are the compiled systems that have put
serious effort into generating good code for arithmetic
operations of limited precision.  If the type-specific
operations of the Scheme version are replaced by the
generic operations of R5RS, then the fastest implementations
of Scheme are the compiled systems that have put serious
effort into generating good code for generic arithmetic.
In both cases, most of the interpreted systems are so much
slower that they aren't worth discussing; the exceptions
interpret a compiled form of the source, and are arguably
compilers themselves.

This is as true on processors that perform speculative
execution as on those that don't.  It is as true on the
Intel IA32 as on processors for which branch prediction
incurs no penalty (e.g. certain PowerPC processors).
To pretend otherwise is not helpful.

I'd just as soon not get into a detailed public critique
of your online articles.  It is enough to observe that
your measurements were conducted on an interpreted system
whose bignum performance is quite impressive, but whose
performance on programs like nucleic2 cannot compete with
the compiled systems that would be preferred if efficiency
were a real issue.

> You seem to be making an assumption that complete arithmetic
> reproducibility across implementations is desirable to all Scheme
> users.

No, I am not making that assumption.  I have long denied
that reproducibility of inexact arithmetic across
implementations is realistic or even desirable.  Notice,
for example, that SRFI-77 does not specify the precision
of fixnum or flonum arithmetic, nor does it require the
use of anything resembling IEEE floating point arithmetic.

Notice also that the R5RS mandates complete reproducibility
for exact arithmetic, with certains exceptions allowed by
reason of implementation restriction.

> Unpredictability in a program indicates poor numerical
> conditioning.

I wish that were so.  Currently, a lot of unpredictability
is caused by implementation restrictions such as incomplete
implementations of R5RS generic arithmetic.  Some of these
implementations also violate the R5RS by returning exact
results under some circumstances in which the R5RS clearly
requires an inexact result.

In addition, some unpredictability results from program bugs
that introduce an inexact value into a computation that was
intended to be exact, or a non-real value into a computation
that was intended to use inexact reals.  The flonum, exact,
and inexact operations of SRFI-77 are intended to make these
bugs easier to detect and to remedy.

>  | By the way, when speed is a goal, the Common Lisp experience
>  | suggests that type declarations are often less effective than
>  | type-specific operations, mainly because programmers would
>  | rather write and read (fx+ (foo x) (baz y)) than
>  | (the fixnum (+ (the fixnum (foo x)) (the fixnum (baz y)))).
> What about (* (the fixnum (foo x)) (the flonum (baz y)))?

As opposed to what?  Here are four distinct possible semantics
for your example, as expressed using SRFI-77:

    (fl* (fixnum->flonum (foo x)) (baz y))
    (in* (exact->inexact (foo x)) (baz y))
    (fx* (foo x) (flonum->fixnum (baz y)))
    (ex* (foo x) (inexact->exact (baz y)))

We don't yet have any empirical evidence for this particular
kind of example, but I suspect that many programmers would
prefer one of the SRFI-77 expressions to using the type
declarations.  Even without empirical evidence, your example
suggests to me that this SRFI's approach is less ambiguous
than type declarations, with correspondingly less opportunity
for confusion.


[1] M. Feeley, M. Turcotte, G. Lapalme.  Using Multilisp for
    Solving Constraint Satisfaction Problems: an Application
    to Nucleic Acid 3D Structure Determination.  Lisp and
    Symbolic Computation 7(2/3), 231-246, 1994.

[2] P.H. Hartel, M. Feeley, et al.  Benchmarking Implementations
    of Functional Languages with "Pseudoknot", a Float-Intensive
    Benchmark.  Journal of Functional Programming 6(4), 621-655,