Category Archives: Hacking

Why [Programming Language X] Is Unambiguously Better than [Programming Language Y]

Recently I have seen a lot of people wondering about the difference between [X] and [Y]. After all, they point out, both are [paradigm] languages that target [platform] and encourage the [style] style of programming while leaving you enough flexibility to [write shitty code].

Having written [simple program that's often asked about in phone screens] in both languages, I think I’m pretty qualified to weigh in. I like to think about it in the following way: imagine [toy problem that you might give to a 5th grader who is just learning to program]. A [Y] implementation of it might look like this:

[really poorly engineered Y code]

Whereas in [X] you could accomplish the same thing with just

[slickly written X code that shows off syntactic sugar]

It’s pretty clear that the second is easier to understand and less error-prone.

Now consider type systems. [Religious assertion about the relative merits and demerits of static and dynamic typing.] Sure, [Y] gives you [the benefit of Y's type system or lack thereof] but is this worth [the detriment of Y's type system or lack thereof]? Obviously not!

Additionally, consider build tools. While [Y] uses [tool that I have never bothered to understand], [X] uses the far superior [tool that I marginally understand]. That’s reason enough to switch!

Finally, think about the development process. [X] has the amazing [X-specific IDE that's still in pre-alpha], and it also integrates well with [text-editor that's like 50 years old and whose key-bindings are based on Klingon] and [IDE that everyone uses but that everyone hates]. Sure, you can use [Y] with some of these, but it’s a much more laborious and painful process.

In conclusion, while there is room for polyglotism on the [platform] platform, we would all be well served if you [Y] developers would either crawl into a hole somewhere or else switch to [X] and compete with us for the handful of [X] jobs. Wait, never mind, [Y] is awesome!

(Hacker News link)

Constructive Mathematics in F# (and Clojure)

(Tell me what a terrible person I am on Hacker News.)

For as long as I can remember1 I’ve dreamed of reimplementing the entirety of mathematics from scratch. And now that I’ve finished the “Wheel of Time” series I have a little bit of extra time on my hands each day, which has allowed me to take baby steps toward my dream.

What this is

An implementation of mathematics in F# (and also in Clojure)

What this is not

An efficient implementation of mathematics in F# (or in Clojure)

You would never want to use this library to do mathematics, as it is chock-full of all sorts of non-tail-recursive function calls that will blow your stack like there’s no tomorrow. (If you don’t know what that means, just take my word that you would never want to use this library to do mathematics.) Instead, this library is an interesting way to learn about

  • how to construct a mathematics from scratch
  • how to implement a mathematics in F# (or Clojure)
  • my bizarre obsessions

As always when I work on stuff like this, the code is on my GitHub.

This was originally just going to be in F#, and then I read a couple of blog posts about ClojureScript, which reminded me I’d been meaning to do something in Clojure, so why not implement the same stuff a second time? (This is why “in Clojure” is in parentheses everywhere, and why the F# code has all the comments.) I tried to make the F# code F#-y and the Clojure code Clojure-y, but I’m not sure how well I succeeded.

I won’t go into excruciating detail about either mathematical theory or F# (or Clojure), but hopefully you can understand both from the detail I do go into. I also will only call a few high points of each codebase, if you want more gory details check out GitHub.

Both sets of code have handfuls of tests written, which should give you a good sense of how both libraries operate.


In F#, I’ll define a discriminated union

type Comparison = LessThan | Equal | GreaterThan

In Clojure you don’t typically use “types”, but we can just use keywords :less-than and :equal and :greater-than.

Natural Numbers

We’ll define these recursively. A natural number is either

  • “One” (which is just some thing, forget that you’re already familiar with a “one”), or
  • the “Successor” of a different natural number

Anything you can make using these rules is a natural number. Anything that you can’t isn’t.

We’ll call the successor of One “Two”, and the successor of Two “Three”, keeping in mind that at this point those are just names attached to things without any meaning other than “Two is the successor of One” and “Three is the successor of Two”.

In F# we can do this with a discriminated union:

type Natural = One | SuccessorOf of Natural
let Two = SuccessorOf One
// and so on

After trying a lot of things in Clojure, I finally decided the most Clojure-ish Clojurian way was

(defn successor-of [n] {:predecessor n})
(def one (successor-of nil))
(def two (successor-of one))
; and so on

Although the Clojure way at first looks backward, if you think about it both ways define the “successor of One” to be the number whose “predecessor” is One.

Next we’ll want to use this recursive structure to create an arithmetic. For instance, we can easily add two natural numbers:

let rec Add (n1 : Natural) (n2 : Natural) =
    match n1 with
        // adding One to a number is the same as taking its Successor
    | One -> SuccessorOf n2
        // otherwise n1 has a predecessor, add it to the successor of n2
        // idea: n1 + n2 = (n1 - 1) + (n2 + 1)
    | SuccessorOf n1' -> Add n1' (SuccessorOf n2)

Clojure doesn't have built-in pattern-matching, so instead I did something similar using a one? function:

(defn add [n1 n2]
  (if (one? n1)
    (successor-of n2)
    (add (predecessor-of n1) (successor-of n2))))

Both make it easy to create lazy infinite sequences of all natural numbers.

let AllNaturals = Seq.unfold (fun c -> Some (c, SuccessorOf c)) One


(def all-naturals (iterate successor-of one))

And (blame it on the natural numbers) both run into trouble when you try to define subtraction. In F# the natural thing to do is return an Option type:

// now, we'd like to define some notion of subtraction as the inverse of addition
// so if n1 + n2 = n3, then you'd like "n3 - n2" = n1
// but this isn't always defined, for instance 
//  n = One - One
// would mean One = One + n = SuccessorOf n, which plainly can never happen
// in this case we'll return None
let rec TrySubtract (n1 : Natural) (n2 : Natural) =
    match n1, n2 with
        // Since n1' + One = SucessorOf n1', then SuccessorOf n1' - One = n1'
    | SuccessorOf n1', One -> Some n1'
        // if n = (n1 + 1) - (n2 + 1), then
        //    n + n2 + 1 = n1 + 1
        // so n + n2 = n1,
        // or n = n1 - n2
    | SuccessorOf n1', SuccessorOf n2' -> TrySubtract n1' n2'
    | One, _ -> None // "Impossible subtraction"

In Clojure there is no option type, so I just returned nil for a bad subtraction:

(defn try-subtract [n1 n2]
    (one? n1) nil
    (one? n2) (predecessor-of n1)
    :else (try-subtract (predecessor-of n1) (predecessor-of n2))))


The failure of "subtraction" leads us to introduce the Integers, which you can (if you are so inclined) think of as equivalence classes of pairs of natural numbers, where (for instance),

(Three,Two) = (Two,One) = "the result of subtracting one from two" = 
 "the integer corresponding to one"

In F# we can again define a custom type:

type Integer =
| Positive of Natural.Natural
| Zero
| Negative of Natural.Natural

and map to equivalence classes using

let MakeInteger (plus,minus) =
    match Natural.Compare plus minus with
    | Comparison.Equal -> Zero
    | Comparison.GreaterThan -> Positive (Natural.Subtract plus minus)
    | Comparison.LessThan -> Negative (Natural.Subtract minus plus)

whereas in Clojure we just use maps:

(def zero {:sign :zero})
(defn positive [n] {:sign :positive, :n n})
(defn negative [n] {:sign :negative, :n n})

and the very similar

(defn make-integer [plus minus]
  (let [compare (natural-numbers/compare plus minus)]
    (case compare
      :equal zero
      :greater-than (positive (natural-numbers/subtract plus minus))
      :less-than (negative (natural-numbers/subtract minus plus)))))

We can easily define addition and subtraction and even multiplication, but when we get to division we run into problems again. You'd like 1 / 3 to be the number that when multiplied by three yields one. But there is no such Integer.

let rec TryDivide (i1 : Integer) (i2 : Integer) =
    match i1, i2 with
    | _, Zero -> failwithf "Division by Zero is not allowed"
    | _, Negative _ -> TryDivide (Negate i1) (Negate i2)
    | Zero, Positive _ -> Some Zero
    | Negative _, Positive _ -> 
        match TryDivide (Negate i1) i2 with
        | Some i -> Some (Negate i)
        | None -> None
    | Positive _ , Positive _ ->
        if LessThan i1 i2
        then None // cannot divide a smaller integer by a larger one
            match TryDivide (Subtract i1 i2) i2 with
            | Some i -> Some (SuccessorOf i)
            | None -> None

and similarly

(defn try-divide [i1 i2] =
     (zero? i2) (throw (Exception. "division by zero is not allowed"))
     (negative? i2) (try-divide (negate i1) (negate i2))
     (zero? i1) zero
     (negative? i1) (let [td (try-divide (negate i1) i2)]
                           (if td (negate td)))
     :else ; both positive
       (if (less-than i1 i2)
         (let [td (try-divide (subtract i1 i2) i2)]
           (if td (successor-of td))))))

And if we're clever we can get a lazy sequence of all prime numbers:

let rec IsPrime (i : Integer) =
    match i with
    | Zero -> false
    | Negative _ -> IsPrime (Negate i)
    | Positive Natural.One -> false
    | Positive _ ->
        let isComposite =
            Range Two (AlmostSquareRoot i)
            |> Seq.exists (fun i' -> IsDivisibleBy i i')
        not isComposite 

let AllPrimes =
    |> Positive
    |> Seq.filter IsPrime

and in Clojure

(defn prime? [i]
    (zero? i) false
    (negative? i) (prime? (negate i))
    (equal-to i one) false
    :else (not-any? #(is-divisible-by i %) (range two (almost-square-root i)))))

(def all-primes
  (->> natural-numbers/all-naturals
    (map positive)
    (filter prime?)))

Rational Numbers

Now, to solve the "division problem", we can similarly look at equivalence classes of pairs of integers, just as long as the second one isn't zero.

// motivated by the "division problem" -- given integers i1 and i2, where i2 not zero,
// would like to define some number q = Divide i1 i2, such that EqualTo i1 (Multiply q i2) 

// proceeding as above, why not define a new type of number as a *pair* (i1,i2) representing
// the "quotient" of i1 and i2.  Again such a representation is not unique, as you'd want
// (Two,One) = (Four,Two) = [the number corresponding to Two]

// when do we want (i1,i2) = (i1',i2') ?  
// when there is some i3 with i1 = i2 * i3, i1' = i2' * i3, or
// precisely when we have i1 * i2' = i1' * i2

// in particular, if x divides both i1 and i2, so that i1 = i1' * x, i2 = i2' * x, then
// i1 * i2' = i1' * x * i2' = i1' * i2, so that (i1, i2) = (i1', i2')

type Rational(numerator : Integer.Integer, denominator : Integer.Integer) =
    let gcd = 
        if Integer.EqualTo Integer.Zero denominator then failwithf "Cannot have a Zero denominator"
        else Integer.GCD numerator denominator
    // want denominator to be positive always
    let reSign =
        match denominator with
        | Integer.Negative _ -> Integer.Negate
        | _ -> id

    // divide by GCD to get to relatively prime
    let _numerator = (Integer.Divide (reSign numerator) gcd)
    let _denominator = (Integer.Divide (reSign denominator) gcd)

    member this.numerator with get () = _numerator
    member this.denominator with get () = _denominator


(defn rational [numerator denominator]
	  (let [gcd (if (integers/equal-to integers/zero denominator)
	              (throw (Exception. "cannot have a zero denominator!"))
	              (integers/gcd numerator denominator))
	        re-sign (if (integers/less-than denominator integers/zero)
	                  (fn [i] i))]
	    {:numerator (integers/divide (re-sign numerator) gcd),
	     :denominator (integers/divide (re-sign denominator) gcd)}))

There is lots of extra code around the rationals, although it's hard to run into limitations as we did before. The most common limitation is that there's no rational whose square is two, but it's hard to run into that limitation without reasoning outside the system.

Real Numbers

Two common ways of constructing the real numbers from the rationals are Dedekind Cuts and equivalence classes of Cauchy Sequences. Neither is easy to implement in code.

Instead, I found a way to specify real numbers as cauchy sequences along with specific cauchy bounds:

// following
// we'll define a Real numbers as a pair of functions:
// f : Integer -> Rational
// g : Integer -> Integer
// such that for any n, and for any i and j >= g(n) we have
//  AbsoluteValue (Subtract (f i) (f j)) <= Invert n

type IntegerToRational = Integer.Integer -> Rational.Rational
type IntegerToInteger = Integer.Integer -> Integer.Integer
type Real = IntegerToRational * IntegerToInteger

let Constantly (q : Rational.Rational) (_ : Integer.Integer) = q
let AlwaysOne (_ : Integer.Integer) = Integer.One
let FromRational (q : Rational.Rational) : Real = (Constantly q), AlwaysOne


(defn real [f g] {:f f, :g g})
(defn f-g [r] [(:f r) (:g r)])

(defn constantly [q] (fn [_] q))
(defn always-integer-one [_] integers/one)

(defn from-rational [q] (real (constantly q) always-integer-one))

One interesting twist here is that it is impossible to say whether two numbers are equal without reasoning outside the system. For instance, the real number FromRational Rational.Zero is equal to the real number

(Rational.FromInteger >> Rational.Invert, Rational.FromInteger >> Rational.Invert)

(which represents the sequence 1, 1/2 , 1/3, 1/4, ...), but again you can only reason about that outside of code. Instead you can define CompareWithTolerance which -- given a tolerance -- can tell you that one number is definitively greater than another, or that they're "approximately equal".

The ultimate test here would be to show that the real number

let SquareRootOfTwo : Real =
    let rationalTwo = Rational.FromInteger Integer.Two
    let sq x = Rational.Subtract (Rational.Multiply x x) rationalTwo
    let sq' x = Rational.Multiply x rationalTwo
	// newton's method
    let iterate _ guess = Rational.Subtract guess (Rational.Divide (sq guess) (sq' guess))
    let f = memoize iterate Rational.One
    let g (n : Integer.Integer) = n
    f, g

gives you the real number FromRational Rational.Two when you square it. It looks like it should. Unfortunately, trying to do so will blow up the call stack, so it's not advised. Maybe someday I'll go back and try to make everything tail-recursive.

Gaussian Integers

Another drawback of the Integers is that none of them have negative squares. One way to solve this is by adding a number "i" whose square is negative one. I got kind of bored with these, so I never took them too far and never wrote any tests.

Complex Numbers

The obvious next step would be to add the square root of negative one "i" to the real numbers. But since they're not working so great I never did this.


I spent way too much time on this project, and I really need to get back to other things, like the group-couponing site I'm planning to build, so I'm ready to call this quits. Here are some things I learned:

1. Math is hard.
2. Writing the Clojure versions was more "fun". However,
3. Getting the F# versions to work was much easier, because most of my Clojure bugs would have been caught by a type checker (or were caused by using maps as types and then having them unintentionally decompose).
4. If I put this much work into useful ideas, imagine what I could accomplish!
5. Probably I shouldn't read "Wheel of Time" again.

1. Which is approximately 1 week.

ESPN, Race, and Presidents

Inspired by (and lifting large amounts of code from) Trey Causey’s investigation of the language that ESPN uses to discuss white and non-white quarterbacks, I similarly wondered about the language ESPN uses to discuss white and non-white Presidents. For instance, a common stereotype is that non-white Presidents assassinate their citizens using unmanned drones, while white Presidents assassinate their citizens using polonium-210. Do such stereotypes creep into sportswriting?

Toward that end, I used Scrapy to scrape all the articles from the ESPN website that matched searches for (president obama), (president bush), (president clinton), and so on. This gave me a total of 543 articles. Then, using Wikipedia, Mechanical Turk, and a proprietary deep learning model, I categorized each of these Presidents as either “white” or “non-white”.

Using NLTK, I tokenized each article into sentences and then identified each sentence as being about

  • one or more white Presidents
  • one or more non-white Presidents
  • both white and non-white Presidents
  • no presidents

Curiously, while there were very few “non-white” Presidents, there were nonetheless about four times as many “non-white” sentences as “white” sentences. (This is itself an interesting phenomenon that’s probably worth investigating.)

I then split each sentence into words and counted how many times each word appeared in “white”, “non-white”, “both”, and “none” sentences. Like Trey, I followed the analysis here, similarly excluding stopwords and proper nouns, which I inferred based on capitalization patterns.

Finally, for each word I computed a “white percentage” and “non-white percentage” by looking at how likely that word was to appear in a “white” sentence or a “non-white” sentence and adjusting for the different numbers of sentences.

After all that, here are the words that were most likely to appear in sentences about “white” Presidents:

plaque 5
severed 4
grab 4
investigation 3
worn 3
unable 3
child 3
suppose 3
block 3
living 3
holders 3
pounds 3
ticket 3
blackout 3
thrown 3
exercise 3
scene 3
televised 3
upon 3
executives 3

Clearly this reads like something out of “CSI” or possibly “CSI: Miami”. If I were to make these words into a story, it would probably be something macabre like

The President grabbed the plaque he’d secretly made from a living child‘s severed foot and worn sock. The investigation supposed a suspect weighing at least 200 pounds who could have thrown the victim down the block, not a feeble politician famous for his televised blackout when he tried to exercise but was unable to grab his toes.

In constrast, here are the words most likely to appear in sentences about “non-white” Presidents:

bracket 32
interview 21
trip 16
champions 16
fan 48 1
asked 35 1
carrier 11
celebrate 11
thinks 11
early 11
eight 11
personal 10
picks 10
appearance 10
far 9
hear 9
congratulating 9
given 9
troops 9
safety 9
fine 9
person 9

This story would have to be something uplifting like

The President promised to raise taxes on every bracket before ending the interview. As a huge water polo fan, he needed to catch a ride on an aircraft carrier for his trip to celebrate with the champions. “Sometimes I get asked,” he thinks, “whether it’s too early to eat a personal pan pizza with eight toppings. So far I always say that I hear it’s not.” His safety is a given, since he’s surrounded by troops who are always congratulating him for being a fine person with a fine appearance.

As you can see, it has a markedly different tone, but not in a way that obviously correlates with the stereotypes mentioned earlier. Whatever prejudices lurk at ESPN are exceedingly subtle.

Obviously, this is only the tip of the iceberg. The algorithm for identifying which sentences were about Presidents is pretty rudimentary, and the word-counting NLP techniques used here are pretty basic. Another obvious next step would be to pull in additional data sources like Yahoo! Sports or or FOX Sports.

If you’re interested in following up, the code is all up on my github, so have at it! And I’d love to hear your feedback.

Hacking Hacker News

Hacker News, if you don’t know it, is an aggregator / forum attached to Y Combinator. People submit links to news stories and blog posts, questions, examples, and so on. Other people vote them up or down, and still other people argue about them in the comments sections.

If you have unlimited time on your hands, it’s an excellent firehose for things related to hacking. If your time is more limited, it’s more challenging. People submit hundreds of stories every day, and even if you only pay attention to the ones that get enough votes to make it to the homepage, it’s still overwhelming to keep up:

What’s more, a lot of the stories are about topics that are boring, like OSX and iPads and group couponing. So for some time I’ve been thinking that what Hacker News really needs is some sort of filter for “only show me stories that Joel would find interesting”. Unfortunately, it has no such filter. So last weekend I decided I would try to build one.

Step 1 : Design

To make things simple, I made a couple of simplifying design decisions.

First, I was only going to take into account static features of the stories. That meant I could consider their title, and their url, and who submitted them, but not how many comments they had or how many votes they had, since those would depend on when they were scraped.

In some ways this was a severe limitation, since HN itself uses the votes to decide which stories to show people. On the other hand, the whole point of the project was that “what Joel likes” and “what the HN community likes” are completely different things.

Second, I decided that I wasn’t going to follow the links to collect data. This would make the data collection easier, but the predicting harder, since the titles aren’t always indicative of what’s behind them.

So basically I would use the story title, the URL it linked to, and the submitter’s username. My goal was just to classify the story as interesting-to-Joel or not, which meant the simplest approach was probably to use a naive Bayes classifier, so that’s what I did.

Step 2 : Acquire Computing Resources

I have an AWS account, but for various reasons I find it kind of irritating. I’d heard some good things about Rackspace Cloud Hosting, so I signed up and launched one of their low-end $10/month virtual servers with (for no particular reason) Debian 6.0.

I also installed a recent Ruby (which is these days my preferred language for building things quickly) and mongoDB, which I’d been meaning to learn for a while.

Step 3 : Collect Data

First I needed some history. A site called Hacker News Daily archives the top 10 stories each day going back a couple of years, and it was pretty simple to write a script to download them all and stick them in the database.

Then I needed to collect the new stories going forward. At first I tried scraping them off the Hacker News “newest” page, but very quickly they blocked my scraping (which I didn’t think was particularly excessive). Googling this problem, I found the unofficial Hacker News API, which is totally cool with me scraping it, which I do once an hour. (Unfortunately, it seems to go down several times a day, but what can you do?)

Step 4 : Judging Stories

Now I’ve got an ever-growing database of stories. To build a model that classifies them, I need some training data with stories that are labeled interesting-to-Joel or not. So I wrote a script that pulls all the unlabeled stories from the database, one-at-a-time shows them to me and asks whether I’d like to click on the story or not, and then saves that judgment back to the database.

At first I was judging them most-recent-first, but then I realized I was biasing my traning set toward SOPA and PIPA, and so I changed it to judge them randomly.

Step 5 : Turning Stories into Features

The naive Bayes model constructs probabilities based on features of the stories. This means we need to turn stories into features. I didn’t spend too much time on this, but I included the following features:

* contains_{word}
* contains_{bigram}
* domain_{domain of url}
* user_{username}
* domain_contains_user (a crude measure of someone submitting his own site)
* is_pdf (generally I don’t want to click on these links)
* is_question
* title_has_dollar_amount
* title_has_number_of_years
* title_references_specific_YC_class (e.g. “(YC W12) seeks blah blah)
* title_is_in_quotes

For the words and bigrams, I removed a short list of stopwords, and I ran them all through a Porter stemmer. The others are all pretty self-explanatory.

Step 6 : Training a Model

This part is surprisingly simple:

* Get all the judged stories from the database.
* Split them into a training set and a test set. (I’m using an 80/20 split.)
* Compute all the features of the stories in the training set, and for each feature count (# of occurrences in liked stories) and (# of occurrences in disliked stories).
* Throw out all features that don’t occur at least 3 times in the dataset.
* Smooth each remaining feature by adding an extra 2 likes and an extra 2 dislikes. (2 is on the large side for smoothing, but we have a pretty small dataset.)
* That’s it. We YAML-ize the feature counts and save them to a file.
* For good measure, we use the model to classify the held-out test data, and plot a Precision-Recall curve

Step 7 : Classifying the Data

Naive Bayes classifier is fast, so it only takes a few seconds to generate and save interesting-to-Joel probabilities for all the stories in the database.

Step 8 : Publishing the Data

This should have been the easiest step, but it caused me a surprising amount of grief. First I had to decide between

* publish every story, accompanied by its probability; or
* publish only stories that met some threshhold

In the long term I’d prefer the second, but while I’m getting things to work the first seems preferable.

My first attempt involved setting up a Twitter feed and using the Twitter Ruby gem to publish the new stories to it as I scored them. This worked, but it wasn’t a pleasant way to consume them, and anyway it quickly ran afoul of Twitter’s rate limits.

I decided a blog of batched stories would be better, and so then I spent several hours grappling with Ruby gems for WordPress, Tumblr, Blogger, Posterous, and even LiveJournal [!] without much luck. (Most of the authentication APIs were for more heavy-duty use that I cared about — I just wanted to post to a blog using a stored password.)

Finally I got Blogger to work, and after some experimenting I decided the best approach would be to post once an hour, all the new stories since the last time I posted. Eventually I realized that I should rank the stories by interesting-to-Joel-ness, so that the ones I’d most want to read would be at the top:

and the ones I want to read least would be at the bottom:

The blog itself is at

Step 9 : Automate

This part was pretty easy with two cron jobs. The first, once an hour, goes to the Hacker News API and retrieves all new unknown stories (up to a limit of like 600, which should never be hit in practice). It then scores them with the last saved model and adds them to the database. In practice, the API isn’t working half the time.

The second, a few minutes later, takes all the new stories and posts them to the blog. The end result is a blog of hourly scored digests of new Hacker News posts.

Step 10 : Improve the Model

The model can only get better with more training data, which requires me to judge whether I like stories or not. I do this occasionally when there’s nothing interesting on Facebook. Right now this is just the above command-line tool, but maybe I’ll come up with something better in the future.

Step 11 : Profit

I’m still trying to figure this one out. If you’ve got any good ideas, the code is here.