The doctorate as a (journey through a) tar pit

063 June 11, 2017 -- (in the flesh)

The blog you are reading has been on a hiatus (sort of) for the last month and will thus be for about one more month if not three. In case the reader is wondering -- a fact that I very much doubt -- there is a backlog of vitriol and wit (and the other way around) waiting to be published, and I'm eager to get back to the pleasant yet burdensome job of reviewing and (re)writing. But alas, at the moment I am pouring my energy into other writing work, a work which also constitues the subject of this rare occurence of a tarpitian weblog-as-a-journal entry -- an approach to writing which, by the way, I don't intend to attempt again in the near future.

Anyway, in 2013 -- about two months after starting this blog, to be more precise -- I started a doctorate. Four years later it's almost done, the thesis is abandoned and therefore ready to be laid out before the public eye and a PhD committee; it will also soon be ready to be jumped through some bureaucratic hoops that don't matter. At the end, big whoop, people who don't know better will be able to officially call me a "PhD", which also doesn't matter. What matters is a. what the hell did I waste four years of my life on, and b. what has this left me with at the end.

I have been wasting the last four years -- you don't like it when I say "wasting", although you suspect there's some truth to it, right? Right? Okay, let me put this in mellower terms: I have invested four years of my life in a tar pit, a journey composed of two parts.

The first part of this journey consisted in studying software that is formally verified at huge costs and which doesn't really fit in head. Fortunately I was also working on some practical problems at a time, which didn't give me any time for what Heiser calls proof engineering, which actually left us1 looking for more down-to-earth solutions. This led us to try retrofitting a run-time verification method called property-based testing2 for the purpose of testing low-level stateful programs, which resulted in a paper3 which will actually be extended in the thesis, which will hopefully make it more decent.

To reiterate: I spent my first two PhD years searching for practical methods of finding bugs in software systems. The results are pretty elegant: based on a very simple partial API spec, we were able to find bugs in various components of a microkernel-based system. However, as a wise man once said, totul în viață se plătește, which is how property-based testing requires actual human intervention in order to work. Curiously enough, this method has been used for decades in testing hardware, I don't know why Claessen and Hughes had to write a Haskell tool in order to make it obvious that it also works for software.

The second part of my journey/tar pit started as an internship at DSLAB, working with a few really smart people on mitigations for memory bugs for, you guessed right, systems software -- the reader will notice how this seems to become a recurring theme of my work; and the reader is right. I started out trying and partially succeeding in enforcing some partial memory safety properties for an operating system kernel like any other, and by 2016 (that is, about one year since I had met the DLSAB team) this had branched out into at least two other projects which required non-trivial amounts of work to get done -- and frankly, they're still not done.

I'm not going to go into too many details, but we've learned that with some software and/or hardware modifications it's pretty easy to then automatically enforce memory safety properties using compiler techniques as aid -- there is a ton of previous work we had to compare with, I'll leave the gory details for the thesis. I also found out that I am completely at odds with the automatic program transformation/enforcement philosophy4, which marks the end of my work in these kinds of research problems5. Still, there is some satisfaction and the potential for genuinely new ideas in exploring the field, so I wouldn't particularly discourage any brave soul from diving into it.

To sum up, I spent the last four years exploring a couple of technical means of improving systems security. The extent to which my work has actually improved security will be left as exercise to those who will have read my thesis. I don't believe in my ideas anymore than anyone could believe in the laws of gravity -- they're there, and whether they will be of any practical use remains to be seen.

Still, I've learned a bunch of important things during this tar pit, some of which have seeped into this blog. I learned to read papers and criticize them and I learned that writing seriously requires time, patience and an eye for detail. I relearned that causes matter, purposes don't and that the elderly that has passed the test of time is infinitely more valuable than the sexy new; also, that it's easy to publish papers with no scientific value, that is, crap. I learned that security is by and large a cultural construct, which constitutes the chief intuition that got me into teaching. I also learned that reading code6 and understanding systems is far more important than "coding" and that reliable systems survive despite attempts to democracy, not because of them. Each of these aspects has the potential to make a separate essay at the right time.

In conclusion, I went through a doctorate and now I have a thesis to write. Not the worst way to spend one's time, so see you later.

"But Lucian, wait! If you could go back in time and choose, would you do this again?" Really, what kind of ludicrous question is this?


  1. Yes, the academic "we".

  2. Claessen, K., & Hughes, J. (2011). QuickCheck: a lightweight tool for random testing of Haskell programs. ACM SIGPLAN notices, 46(4), 53-64.

  3. Dragomir, C., Mogosanu, L., Carabas, M., Deaconescu, R., & Tapus, N. (2015). Towards the Property-Based Testing of an L4 Microkernel API. In VECoS (pp. 39-50).

  4. The discussion of why automatic property enforcement is practically speaking a pretty dubious philosophy is long and has many layers of argumentation, but this is as good a place as any to have it. So let's peel the onion.

    The first layer of doubtfulness is that property enforcement solves the problems of stupid people and nobody else. The reason e.g. memory bugs appear in programs is not that "languages are unsafe", but that programmers don't know how to code properly, and this is not only a technical problem, it's an ideological one. What's worse is that said method doesn't make programmers code any better -- if anything, it may make them code worse by instilling a potentially unwarranted sense of security.

    The second layer is a restatement of the problem of trust: the way program enforcement works is by adding program transformation tools to the system. But do we just trust that those tools work? Do we instead recursively apply the algorithm of adding more tools? This of course is untenable from the point of view of complexity, which is why the ultimate trustee is the human mind, which, unlike every or any algorithm out there, is capable of understanding. Which philosophically makes the entire approach questionable: if the human mind was the only tenable approach all along, then why invest in additional tooling? Do note that I am not dismissing tooling entirely, but putting it under scrutiny -- is tool T unambiguously useful?

    The third layer is a drive of the modern engineer of trying to solve all the possible issues. There are languages that do memory safety already, but, naturally, they don't do it fast enough; or: we could add hardware support for memory safety, but then it would break compatibility with existing systems; or: it's fast and compatible, but then there's the political issue that random corporation just doesn't want it, because they've got their own agenda. More simply put, there may be some research in building a design from first principles, but most people won't do it for stupid reasons. They don't realize that overoptimization will ultimately reduce them to cripples, but who am I to disagree with them. I did say and I will repeat it: totul în viață se plătește.

    The fourth layer is a restatement of the third, but in the past: all the memory safe systems have already been built about thirty to fifty years ago. Lisp machines were a thing long before I was born and all I'm doing is reinventing the wheel in the most stupid way possible. Oh, yes, but it works on Intel CPUs, and the fact that this matters for Intel and other purely politically driven entities is supposed to make me feel better.

    As a conclusion to this footnote -- which could have been a post on its own, but it's not because I like pissing people off with my long footnotes -- see the next footnote.

  5. Also, if I ever work on any kind of research problems in the future, it will most probably -- and sadly -- not be as part of academic institutions. Sorry for your loss.

  6. That is, specifications made for humans to understand and only incidentally for machines to execute. You see, Abelson and Sussman are part of that now gone generation of engineers who didn't code for fun, but actually intended to make things (that) work.