YOW! 2011: Simon Peyton-Jones - Closer to Nirvana

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I caught up with Simon Peyton-Jones, author of the Glasgow Haskell Compiler (GHC) and a key contributor to the Haskell functional programming language, at YOW! 2011. Simon is a pure functional guy. That said, he's OK with side effects as long as you can control them (so, monads are great!). Smiley

Simon works at Microsoft as a research scientist in MSR. Simon's work on Haskell is legendary and the language has seen an increase in usage over the years and a steady evolution toward being not only a general purpose, strongly-typed functional programming language, but also a practical one. No longer is Haskell suited only for academic experimentation (though this continues to be an important aspect of the language—in fact, it's one of the very effective ways the language is pushed forward). As Simon says, Haskell is like a laboratory in which to test new functional ideas and novel language constructs. 

One of the very interesting aspects of Haskell is how the surface language (so, the syntax you write) is boiled down to a very small intermediate language, System F. Simon spends a nice chunk of time in this conversation explaining this. It's a rather excellent approach. We only touch on C--, but I have a feeling I'll be interviewing Simon again in the future.

How has the language evolved over the years? What's Simon working on these days (besides evolving Haskell, he's helping to make general purpose computing education for the masses much better!)? What's next? What are the big problems he and others are tackling with respect to moving Haskell forward? As always, it's a real pleasure to converse with and learn from Simon. His passion, enthusiasm, and intelligence are infectious (well, maybe not the intelligence part—you're born with the smarts you have. So, I didn't get smarter by talking with Simon, but I sure learned a lot!). Very few people are able to explain complex concepts in ways mere mortals can understand and assimilate. Simon is one of these people.

(Here's the video referenced at the beginning of this conversation.)

Simon's YOW! speaker page

Tune in. Enjoy. Learn.

The YOW! Developer Conference offers outstanding opportunities to learn more about the latest practices, technologies, and methodologies for building innovative software solutions as well as the chance to meet and network with international software experts and other talented developers in Australia. Thanks to Dave Thomas and the event's excellent staff - Mary Catherine (MC), Lisa, Aino, Melissa, and others - for inviting me to this excellent pure developer event and thanks to all of the speakers for letting me take some of their time to record conversations for Channel 9. If you live in Australia, or aren't too far away, or just like to travel (who doesn't?), then you need to go to this yearly event. It's outstanding. There are many great developers down under. That's for sure. The speakers are exceptional—Dave and team set a high bar!



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The Discussion

  • User profile image

    Simon is without doubt, a damn hero in today's world.  The most privileged I would ever become would be to have a job as his pupil or peer in Microsoft Research to help succeed in the important stuff like bringing true computer science back and paving the way for one path to our modern world's programming language Nirvana.

    It's always nice to hear from Simon, thanks for the interview Charles.


  • User profile image
    Bob Foster

    I'm sure Simon Peyton-Jones was born, and is, smarter than me, but it's not true that you're born with the smarts you have. Many things can happen to you growing up that will either increase or decrease your intelligence, at least as measured by IQ score. I happen to be reading David Shenk's The Genius In All Of Us (unfortunate pop-psych title, I agree) which is devoted to demolishing the notion that your intelligence is decided at birth and you can do nothing about it, and does a pretty good job of it. In fact, average intelligence steadily rose throughout the 20th century, forcing the test-makers to constantly readjust the score downward to keep the peak of the curve at 100. Citing psychologist James Flynn, Shenk notes that "98 percent of IQ test-takers today score better than the average test taker in 1900." The test didn't get easier; the improved scores are almost entirely due to increases in abstract reasoning ability.

  • User profile image

    @Bob Foster: Fair enough. That was my attempt at humor. We don't discuss the topic in the conversation, of course...


  • User profile image

    YOW! interviews coming ! yeah !

  • User profile image

    Is Haskell to complicated to teach to school-age children? Nobody told this guy:


  • User profile image

    @dpratt71:  Nice find.  I was thinking about that too, when they were talking about teaching kids programming languages.  I think perhaps we underestimate the language learning abilities in younger children sometimes and perhaps it's not as hard as us older folk believe.

    Great interview, I'm really interested in hearing more about Cloud Haskell, System F, C-- etc....

  • User profile image

    I went to his keynote, "Escape from the Ivory Tower: The Haskell Journey From 1990 to 2011", at YOW! conference. He is a great speaker but he talked very fast last time.

    I'm learning Haskell now. I wish that Haskell was my first programming language. But, hey, better learning now than never.

  • User profile image

    @slipper: Me too Smiley Excellent delivery and fun. I laughed out loud a few times. Simon's a great speaker. His talk on parallelism and concurrency and Haskell was also excellent. Both these talks will be online in the near future! Make sure to check the YOW! site for more information on session videos.


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