Converting lines in an svg image to csv

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

During a search for data on programming language usage I discovered Stack Overflow Trends, showing an interesting plot of language tags appearing on Stack Overflow questions (see below). Where was the csv file for these numbers? Somebody had asked this question last year, but there were no answers.

Stack Overflow language tag trends over time.

The graphic is in svg format; has anybody written an svg to csv conversion tool? I could only find conversion tools for specialist uses, e.g., geographical data processing. The svg file format is all xml, and using a text editor I could see the numbers I was after. How hard could it be (it had to be easier than a png heatmap)?

Extracting the x/y coordinates of the line segments for each language turned out to be straight forward (after some trial and error). The svg generation process made matching language to line trivial; the language name was included as an xml attribute.

Programmatically extracting the x/y axis information exhausted my patience, and I hard coded the numbers (code+data). The process involves walking an xml structure and R’s list processing, two pet hates of mine (the data is for a book that uses R, so I try to do everything data related in R).

I used R’s xml2 package to read the svg files. Perhaps if my mind had a better fit to xml and R lists, I would have been able to do everything using just the functions in this package. My aim was always to get far enough down to convert the subtree to a data frame.

Extracting data from graphs represented in svg files is so easy (says he). Where is the wonderful conversion tool that my search failed to locate? Pointers welcome.

My book’s pdf generation workflow

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

The process used to generate the pdf of my evidence-based software engineering book has been on my list of things to blog about, for ever. An email arrived this afternoon, asking how I produced various effects using Asciidoc; this post probably contains rather more than N. Psaris wanted to know.

It’s very easy to get sucked into fiddling around with page layout and different effects. So, unless I am about to make a release of a draft, I only generate a pdf once, at the end of each month.

At the end of the month the text is spell checked using aspell, and then grammar checked using Language tool. I have an awk script that checks the text for mistakes I have made in the past; this rarely matches, i.e., I seem to be forever making different mistakes.

The sequencing of tools is: R (Sweave) -> Asciidoc -> docbook -> LaTeX -> pdf; assorted scripts fiddle with the text between outputs and inputs. The scripts and files mention below are available for download.

R generates pdf files (via calls to the Sweave function, I have never gotten around to investigating Knitr; the pdfs are cropped using scripts/ and the ascii package is used to produce a few tables with Asciidoc markup.

Asciidoc is the markup language used for writing the text. A few years after I started writing the book, Stuart Rackham, the creator of Asciidoc, decided to move on from working and supporting it. Unfortunately nobody stepped forward to take over the project; not a problem, Asciidoc just works (somebody did step forward to reimplement the functionality in Ruby; Asciidoctor has an active community, but there is no incentive for me to change). In my case, the output from Asciidoc is xml (it supports a variety of formats).

Docbook appears in the sequence because Asciidoc uses it to produce LaTeX. Docbook takes xml as input, and generates LaTeX as output. Back in the day, Docbook was hailed as the solution to all our publishing needs, and wonderful tools were going to be created to enable people to produce great looking documents.

LaTeX is the obvious tool for anybody wanting to produce lovely looking books and articles; tex/ESEUR.tex is the top-level LaTeX, which includes the generated text. Yes, LaTeX is a markup language, and I could have written the text using it. As a language I find LaTeX too low level. My requirements are not complicated, and I find it easier to write using a markup language like Asciidoc.

The input to Asciidoc and LuaTeX (used to generate pdf from LaTeX) is preprocessed by scripts (written using sed and awk; see scripts/mkpdf). These scripts implement functionality that Asciidoc does not support (or at least I could see how to do it without modifying the Python source). Scripts are a simple way of providing the extra functionality, that does not require me to remember details about the internals of Asciidoc. If Asciidoc was being actively maintained, I would probably have worked to get some of the functionality integrated into a future release.

There are a few techniques for keeping text processing scripts simple. For instance, the cost of a pass over text is tiny, there is little to be gained by trying to do everything in one pass; handling the possibility that markup spans multiple lines can be complicated, a simple solution is to join consecutive lines together if there is a possibility that markup spans these lines (i.e., the actual matching and conversion no longer has to worry about line breaks).

Many simple features are implemented by a script modifying Asciidoc text to include some ‘magic’ sequence of characters, which is subsequently matched and converted in the generated LaTeX, e.g., special characters, and hyperlinks in the pdf.

A more complicated example handles my desire to specify that a figure appear in the margin; the LaTeX sidenotes package supports figures in margins, but Asciidoc has no way of specifying this behavior. The solution was to add the word “Margin”, to the appropriate figure caption option (in the original Asciidoc text, e.g., [caption="Margin ", label=CSD-95-887]), and have a script modify the LaTeX generated by docbook so that figures containing “Margin” in the caption invoked the appropriate macro from the sidenotes package.

There are still formatting issues waiting to be solved. For instance, some tables are narrow enough to fit in the margin, but I have not found a way of embedding this information in the table information that survives through to the generated LaTeX.

My long time pet hate is the formatting used by R’s plot function for exponentiated values as axis labels. My target audience are likely to be casual users of R, so I am sticking with basic plotting (i.e., no calls to ggplot). I do wish the core R team would integrate the code from the magicaxis package, to bring the printing of axis values into the era of laser printers and bit-mapped displays.

Ideas and suggestions welcome.

Growth and survival of gcc options and processor support

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

Like any actively maintained software, compilers get more complicated over time. Languages are still evolving, and options are added to control the support for features. New code optimizations are added, which don’t always work perfectly, and options are added to enable/disable them. New ways of combining object code and libraries are invented, and new options are added to allow the desired combination to be selected.

The web pages summarizing the options for gcc, for the 96 versions between 2.95.2 and 9.1 have a consistent format; which means they are easily scrapped. The following plot shows the number of options relating to various components of the compiler, for these versions (code+data):

Number of options supported by various components of gcc, over 20 years.

The total number of options grew from 632 to 2,477. The number of new optimizations, or at least the options supporting them, appears to be leveling off, but the number of new warnings continues to increase (ah, the good ol’ days, when -Wall covered everything).

The last phase of a compiler is code generation, and production compilers are generally structured to enable new processors to be supported by plugging in an appropriate code generator; since version 2.95.2, gcc has supported 80 code generators.

What can be added can be removed. The plot below shows the survival curve of gcc support for processors (80 supported cpus, with support for 20 removed up to release 9.1), and non-processor specific options (there have been 1,091 such options, with 214 removed up to release 9.1); the dotted lines are 95% confidence internals.

Survival curve of gcc options and support for specific processors, over 20 years.

First language taught to undergraduates in the 1990s

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

The average new graduate is likely to do more programming during the first month of a software engineering job, than they did during a year as an undergraduate. Programming courses for undergraduates is really about filtering out those who cannot code.

Long, long ago, when I had some connection to undergraduate hiring, around 70-80% of those interviewed for a programming job could not write a simple 10-20 line program; I’m told that this is still true today. Fluency in any language (computer or human) takes practice, and the typical undergraduate gets very little practice (there is no reason why they should, there are lots of activities on offer to students and programming fluency is not needed to get a degree).

There is lots of academic discussion around which language students should learn first, and what languages they should be exposed to. I have always been baffled by the idea that there was much to be gained by spending time teaching students multiple languages, when most of them barely grasp the primary course language. When I was at school the idea behind the trendy new maths curriculum was to teach concepts, rather than rote learning (such as algebra; yes, rote learning of the rules of algebra); the concept of number-base was considered to be a worthwhile concept and us kids were taught this concept by having the class convert values back and forth, such as base-10 numbers to base-5 (base-2 was rarely used in examples). Those of us who were good at maths instantly figured it out, while everybody else was completely confused (including some teachers).

My view is that there is no major teaching/learning impact on the choice of first language; it is all about academic fashion and marketing to students. Those who have the ability to program will just pick it up, and everybody else will flounder and do their best to stay away from it.

Richard Reid was interested in knowing which languages were being used to teach introductory programming to computer science and information systems majors. Starting in 1992, he contacted universities roughly twice a year, asking about the language(s) used to teach introductory programming. The Reid list (as it became known), was regularly updated until Reid retired in 1999 (the average number of universities included in the list was over 400); one of Reid’s ex-students, Frances VanScoy, took over until 2006.

The plot below is from 1992 to 2002, and shows languages in the top 3% in any year (code+data):

Normalised returned required for various elapsed years.

Looking at the list again reminded me how widespread Pascal was as a teaching language. Modula-2 was the language that Niklaus Wirth designed as the successor of Pascal, and Ada was intended to be the grown up Pascal.

While there is plenty of discussion about which language to teach first, doing this teaching is a low status activity (there is more fun to be had with the material taught to the final year students). One consequence is lack of any real incentive for spending time changing the course (e.g., using a new language). The Open University continued teaching Pascal for years, because material had been printed and had to be used up.

C++ took a while to take-off because of its association with C (which was very out of fashion in academia), and Java was still too new to risk exposing to impressionable first-years.

A count of the total number of languages listed, between 1992 and 2002, contains a few that might not be familiar to readers.

          Ada    Ada/Pascal          Beta          Blue             C 
         1087             1            10             3           667 
       C/Java      C/Scheme           C++    C++/Pascal        Eiffel 
            1             1           910             1            29 
      Fortran       Haskell     HyperTalk         ISETL       ISETL/C 
          133            12             2            30             1 
         Java  Java/Haskell       Miranda            ML       ML/Java 
          107             1            48            16             1 
     Modula-2      Modula-3        Oberon      Oberon-2     ObjPascal 
          727            24            26             7            22 
       Orwell        Pascal      Pascal/C        Prolog        Scheme 
           12          2269             1            12           752 
    Scheme/ML Scheme/Turing        Simula     Smalltalk           SML 
            1             1            14            33            88 
       Turing  Visual-Basic 
           71             3 

I had never heard of Orwell, a vanity language foisted on Oxford Mathematics and Computation students. It used to be common for someone in computing departments to foist their vanity language on students; it enabled them to claim the language was being used and stoked their ego. Is there some law that enables students to sue for damages?

The 1990s was still in the shadow of the 1980s fashion for functional programming (which came back into fashion a few years ago). Miranda was an attempt to commercialize a functional language compiler, with Haskell being an open source reaction.

I was surprised that Turing was so widely taught. More to do with the stature of where it came from (university of Toronto), than anything else.

Fortran was my first language, and is still widely used where high performance floating-point is required.

ISETL is a very interesting language from the 1960s that never really attracted much attention outside of New York. I suspect that Blue is BlueJ, a Java IDE targeting novices.

Want to be the coauthor of a prestigious book? Send me your bid

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

The corruption that pervades the academic publishing system has become more public.

There is now a website that makes use of an ingenious technique for helping people increase their paper count (as might be expected, the competitive China thought of it first). Want to be listed as the first author of a paper? Fees start at $500. The beauty of the scheme is that the papers have already been accepted by a journal for publication, so the buyer knows exactly what they are getting. Paying to be included as an author before the paper is accepted incurs the risk that the paper might not be accepted.

Measurement of academic performance is based on number of papers published, weighted by the impact factor of the journal in which they are published. Individuals seeking promotion and research funding need an appropriately high publication score; the ranking of university departments is based on the publications of its members. The phrase publish or perish aptly describes the process. As expected, with individual careers and departmental funding on the line, the system has become corrupt in all kinds of ways.

There are organizations who will publish your paper for a fee, 100% guaranteed, and you can even attend a scam conference (that’s not how the organizers describe them). Problem is, word gets around and the weighting given to publishing in such journals is very low (or it should be, not all of them get caught).

The horror being expressed at this practice is driven by the fact that money is changing hands. Adding a colleague as an author (on the basis that they will return the favor later) is accepted practice; tacking your supervisors name on to the end of the list of authors is standard practice, irrespective of any contribution that might have made (how else would a professor accumulate 100+ published papers).

I regularly receive emails from academics telling me they would like to work on this or that with me. If they look like proper researchers, I am respectful; if they look like an academic paper mill, my reply points out (subtly or otherwise) that their work is not of high enough standard to be relevant to industry. Perhaps I should send them a quote for having their name appear on a paper written by me (I don’t publish in academic journals, so such a paper is unlikely to have much value in the system they operate within); it sounds worth doing just for the shocked response.

I read lots of papers, and usually ignore the list of authors. If it looks like there is some interesting data associated with the work, I email the first author, and will only include the other authors in the email if I am looking to do a bit of marketing for my book or the paper is many years old (so the first author is less likely to have the data).

I continue to be amazed at the number of people who continue to strive to do proper research in this academic environment.

I wonder how much I might get by auctioning off the coauthoship of my software engineering book?

2019 in the programming language standards’ world

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

Last Tuesday I was at the British Standards Institute for a meeting of IST/5, the committee responsible for programming language standards in the UK.

There has been progress on a few issues discussed last year, and one interesting point came up.

It is starting to look as if there might be another iteration of the Cobol Standard. A handful of people, in various countries, have started to nibble around the edges of various new (in the Cobol sense) features. No, the INCITS Cobol committee (the people who used to do all the heavy lifting) has not been reformed; the work now appears to be driven by people who cannot let go of their involvement in Cobol standards.

ISO/IEC 23360-1:2006, the ISO version of the Linux Base Standard, has been updated and we were asked for a UK position on the document being published. Abstain seemed to be the only sensible option.

Our WG20 representative reported that the ongoing debate over pile of poo emoji has crossed the chasm (he did not exactly phrase it like that). Vendors want to have the freedom to specify code-points for use with their own emoji, e.g., pineapple emoji. The heady days, of a few short years ago, when an encoding for all the world’s character symbols seemed possible, have become a distant memory (the number of unhandled logographs on ancient pots and clay tablets was declining rapidly). Who could have predicted that the dream of a complete encoding of the symbols used by all the world’s languages would be dashed by pile of poo emoji?

The interesting news is from WG9. The document intended to become the Ada20 standard was due to enter the voting process in June, i.e., the committee considered it done. At the end of April the main Ada compiler vendor asked for the schedule to be slipped by a year or two, to enable them to get some implementation experience with the new features; oops. I have been predicting that in the future language ‘standards’ will be decided by the main compiler vendors, and the future is finally starting to arrive. What is the incentive for the GNAT compiler people to pay any attention to proposals written by a bunch of non-customers (ok, some of them might work for customers)? One answer is that Ada users tend to be large bureaucratic organizations (e.g., the DOD), who like to follow standards, and might fund GNAT to implement the new document (perhaps this delay by GNAT is all about funding, or lack thereof).

Right on cue, C++ users have started to notice that C++20’s added support for a system header with the name version, which conflicts with much existing practice of using a file called version to contain versioning information; a problem if the header search path used the compiler includes a project’s top-level directory (which is where the versioning file version often sits). So the WG21 committee decides on what it thinks is a good idea, implementors implement it, and users complain; implementors now have a good reason to not follow a requirement in the standard, to keep users happy. Will WG21 be apologetic, or get all high and mighty; we will have to wait and see.

Complexity is a source of income in open source ecosystems

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

I am someone who regularly uses R, and my interest in programming languages means that on a semi-regular basis spend time reading blog posts about the language. Over the last year, or so, I had noticed several patterns of behavior, and after reading a recent blog post things started to make sense (the blog post gets a lot of things wrong, but more of that later).

What are the patterns that have caught my attention?

Some background: Hadley Wickham is the guy behind some very useful R packages. Hadley was an academic, and is now the chief scientist at RStudio, the company behind the R language specific IDE of the same name. As Hadley’s thinking about how to manipulate data has evolved, he has created new packages, and has been very prolific. The term Hadley-verse was coined to describe an approach to data manipulation and program structuring, based around use of packages written by the man.

For the last nine-months I have noticed that the term Tidyverse is being used more regularly to describe what had been the Hadley-verse. And???

Another thing that has become very noticeable, over the last six-months, is the extent to which a wide range of packages now have dependencies on packages in the HadleyTidyverse. And???

A recent post by Norman Matloff complains about the Tidyverse’s complexity (and about the consistency between its packages; which I had always thought was a good design principle), and how RStudio’s promotion of the Tidyverse could result in it becoming the dominant R world view. Matloff has an academic world view and misses what is going on.

RStudio, the company, need to sell their services (their IDE is clunky and will be wiped out if a top of the range product, such as Jetbrains, adds support for R). If R were simple to use, companies would have less need to hire external experts. A widely used complicated library of packages is a god-send for a company looking to sell R services.

I don’t think Hadley Wickam intentionally made things complicated, any more than the creators of the Microsoft server protocols added interdependencies to make life difficult for competitors.

A complex package ecosystem was probably not part of RStudio’s product vision, at least for many years. But sooner or later, RStudio management will have realised that simplicity and ease of use is not in their interest.

Once a collection of complicated packages exist, it is in RStudio’s interest to get as many other packages using them, as quickly as possible. Infect the host quickly, before anybody notices; all the while telling people how much the company is investing in the community that it cares about (making lots of money from).

Having this package ecosystem known as the Hadley-verse gives too much influence to one person, and makes it difficult to fire him later. Rebranding as the Tidyverse solves these problems.

Matloff accuses RStudio of monopoly behavior, I would have said they are fighting for survival (i.e., creating an environment capable of generating the kind of income a VC funded company is expected to make). Having worked in language environments where multiple, and incompatible, package ecosystems existed, I can see advantages in there being a monopoly. Matloff is also upset about a commercial company swooping in to steal their precious, a common academic complaint (academics swooping in to steal ideas from commercially developed software is, of course, perfectly respectable). Matloff also makes claims about teachability of programming that are not derived from any experimental evidence, but then everybody makes claims about programming languages without there being any experimental evidence.

RStudio management rode in on the data science wave, raising money from VCs. The wave is subsiding and they now need to appear to have a viable business (so they can be sold to a bigger fish), which means there has to be a visible market they can sell into. One way to sell in an open source environment is for things to be so complicated, that large companies will pay somebody to handle the complexity.

How much is a 1-hour investment today worth a year from now?

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

Today, I am thinking of investing 1-hour of effort adding more comments to my code; how much time must this investment save me X-months from now, for today’s 1-hour investment to be worthwhile?

Obviously, I must save at least 1-hour. But, the purpose of making an investment is to receive a greater amount at a later time; ‘paying’ 1-hour to get back 1-hour is a poor investment (unless I have nothing else to do today, and I’m likely to be busy in the coming months).

The usual economic’s based answer is based on compound interest, the technique your bank uses to calculate how much you owe them (or perhaps they owe you), i.e., the expected future value grows exponentially at some interest rate.

Psychologists were surprised to find that people don’t estimate future value the way economists do. Hyperbolic discounting provides a good match to the data from experiments that asked subjects to value future payoffs. The form of the equation used by economists is: e^{-kD}, while hyperbolic discounting has the form 1/{1+kD}, where: k is a constant, and D the period of time.

The simple economic approach does not explicitly include the risk that one of the parties involved may cease to exist. Including risk is non-trivial, banks handle the risk that you might disappear by asking for collateral, or adding something to the interest rate charged.

The fact that humans, and some other animals, have been found to use hyperbolic discounting suggests that evolution has found this approach, to discounting time, increases the likelihood of genes being passed on to the next generation. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

How do software developers discount investment in software engineering projects?

The paper Temporal Discounting in Technical Debt: How do Software Practitioners Discount the Future? describes a study that specifies a decision that has to be made and two options, as follows:

“You are managing an N-years project. You are ahead of schedule in the current iteration. You have to decide between two options on how to spend our upcoming week. Fill in the blank to indicate the least amount of time that would make you prefer Option 2 over Option 1.

  • Option 1: Implement a feature that is in the project backlog, scheduled for the next iteration. (five person days of effort).
  • Option 2: Integrate a new library (five person days effort) that adds no new functionality but has a 60% chance of saving you person days of effort over the duration of the project (with a 40% chance that the library will not result in those savings).

Subjects are then asked six questions, each having the following form (for various time frames):

“For a project time frame of 1 year, what is the smallest number of days that would make you prefer Option 2? ___”

The experiment is run twice, using professional developers from two companies, C1 and C2 (23 and 10 subjects, respectively), and the data is available for download :-)

The following plot shows normalised values given by some of the subjects from company C1, for the various time periods used. On a log scale, values estimated using the economists exponential approach would form a straight line (e.g., close to the first five points of subject M, bottom right), and values estimated using the hyperbolic approach would have the concave form seen for subject C (top middle) (code+data).

Normalised returned required for various elapsed years.

Subject B is asking for less, not more, over a longer time period (several other subjects have the same pattern of response). Why did Subject E (and most of subject G’s responses) not vary with time? Perhaps they were tired and were not willing to think hard about the problem, or perhaps they did not think the answer made much difference. The subjects from company C2 showed a greater amount of variety. Company C1 had some involvement with financial applications, while company C2 was involved in simulations. Did this domain knowledge spill over into company C1’s developers being more likely to give roughly consistent answers?

The experiment was run online, rather than an experimenter being in the room with subjects. It is possible that subjects would have invested more effort if a more formal setting, with an experimenter who had made the effort to be present. Also, if an experimenter had been present, it would have been possible to ask question to clarify any issues.

Both exponential and hyperbolic equations can be fitted to the data, but given the diversity of answers, it is difficult to put any weight in either regression model. Some subjects clearly gave responses fitting a hyperbolic equation, while others gave responses fitted approximately well by either approach, and other subjects used. It was possible to fit the combined data from all of company C1 subjects to a single hyperbolic equation model (the most significant between subject variation was the value of the intercept); no such luck with the data from company C2.

I’m very please to see there has been a replication of this study, but the current version of the paper is a jumble of ideas, and is thin on experimental procedure. I’m sure it will improve.

What do we learn from this study? Perhaps that developers need to learn something about calculating expected future payoffs.

Medieval guilds: a tax collection bureaucracy

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

The medieval guild is sometimes held up as the template for an institution dedicated to maintaining high standards, and training the next generation of craftsmen.

“The European Guilds: An economic analysis” by Sheilagh Ogilvie takes a chainsaw (i.e., lots of data) to all the positive things that have been said about medieval guilds (apart from them being a money making machine for those on the inside).

Guilds manipulated markets (e.g., drove down the cost of input items they needed, and kept the prices they charged high), had little or no interest in quality, charged apprentices for what little training they received, restricted entry to their profession (based on the number of guild masters the local population could support in a manner expected by masters), and did not hesitate to use force to enforce the rules of the guild (should a member appear to threaten the livelihood of other guild members).

Guild wars is not the fiction of an online game, guilds did go to war with each other.

Given their focus on maximizing income, rather than providing customer benefits, why did guilds survive for so many centuries? Guilds paid out significant sums to influence those in power, i.e., bribes. Guilds paid annual sums for the exclusive rights to ply their trade in geographical areas; it’s all down on Vellum.

Guilds provided the bureaucracy needed to collect money from the populace, i.e., they were effectively tax collectors. Medieval rulers had a high turn-over, and most were not around long enough to establish a civil service. In later centuries, the growth of a country’s population led to the creation of government departments, that were stable enough to perform tax collecting duties more efficiently that guilds; it was the spread of governments capable of doing their own tax collecting that killed off guilds.

A zero-knowledge proofs workshop

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

I was at the Zero-Knowledge proofs workshop run by BinaryDistict on Monday and Tuesday. The workshop runs all week, but is mostly hacking for the remaining days (hacking would be interesting if I had a problem to code, more about this at the end).

Zero-knowledge proofs allow person A to convince person B, that A knows the value of x, without revealing the value of x. There are two kinds of zero-knowledge proofs: an interacting proof system involves a sequence of messages being exchanged between the two parties, and in non-interactive systems (the primary focus of the workshop), there is no interaction.

The example usually given, of a zero-knowledge proof, involves Peggy and Victor. Peggy wants to convince Victor that she knows how to unlock the door dividing a looping path through a tunnel in a cave.

The ‘proof’ involves Peggy walking, unseen by Victor, down path A or B (see diagram below; image from Wikipedia). Once Peggy is out of view, Victor randomly shouts out A or B; Peggy then has to walk out of the tunnel using the path Victor shouted; there is a 50% chance that Peggy happened to choose the path selected by Victor. The proof is iterative; at the end of each iteration, Victor’s uncertainty of Peggy’s claim of being able to open the door is reduced by 50%. Victor has to iterate until he is sufficiently satisfied that Peggy knows how to open the door.

Alibaba example cave loop.

As the name suggests, non-interactive proofs do not involve any message passing; in the common reference string model, a string of symbols, generated by person making the claim of knowledge, is encoded in such a way that it can be used by third-parties to verify the claim of knowledge. At the workshop we got an overview of zk-SNARKs (zero-knowledge succinct non-interactive argument of knowledge).

The ‘succinct’ component of zk-SNARK is what has made this approach practical. When non-interactive proofs were first proposed, the arguments of knowledge contained around one-terabyte of data; these days common reference strings are around a kilobyte.

The fact that zero-knowledge ‘proof’s are possible is very interesting, but do they have practical uses?

The hackathon aspect of the workshop was designed to address the practical use issue. The existing zero-knowledge proofs tend to involve the use of prime numbers, or the factors of very large numbers (as might be expected of a proof system that was heavily based on cryptography). Making use of zero-knowledge proofs requires mapping the problem to a form that has a known solution; this is very hard. Existing applications involve cryptography and block-chains (Zcash is a cryptocurrency that has an option that provides privacy via zero-knowledge proofs), both heavy users of number theory.

The workshop introduced us to two languages, which could be used for writing zero-knowledge applications; ZoKrates and snarky. The weekend before the workshop, I tried to install both languages: ZoKrates installed quickly and painlessly, while I could not get snarky installed (I was old that the first two hours of the snarky workshop were spent getting installs to work); I also noticed that ZoKrates had greater presence than snarky on the web, in the form of pages discussing the language. It seemed to me that ZoKrates was the market leader. The workshop presenters included people involved with both languages; Jacob Eberhardt (one of the people behind ZoKrates) gave a great presentation, and had good slides. Team ZoKrates is clearly the one to watch.

As an experienced hack attendee, I was ready with an interesting problem to solve. After I explained the problem to those opting to use ZoKrates, somebody suggested that oblivious transfer could be used to solve my problem (and indeed, 1-out-of-n oblivious transfer does offer the required functionality).

My problem was: Let’s say I have three software products, the customer has a copy of all three products, and is willing to pay the license fee to use one of these products. However, the customer does not want me to know which of the three products they are using. How can I send them a product specific license key, without knowing which product they are going to use? Oblivious transfer involves a sequence of message exchanges (each exchange involves three messages, one for each product) with the final exchange requiring that I send three messages, each containing a separate product key (one for each product); the customer can only successfully decode the product-specific message they had selected earlier in the process (decoding the other two messages produces random characters, i.e., no product key).

Like most hackathons, problem ideas were somewhat contrived (a few people wanted to delve further into the technical details). I could not find an interesting team to join, and left them to it for the rest of the week.

There were 50-60 people on the first day, and 30-40 on the second. Many of the people I spoke to were recent graduates, and half of the speakers were doing or had just completed PhDs; the field is completely new. If zero-knowledge proofs take off, decisions made over the next year or two by the people at this workshop will impact the path the field follows. Otherwise, nothing happens, and a bunch of people will have interesting memories about stuff they dabbled in, when young.