Meta

A New, Human-Friendly Programming Language

Reducing software waste

Task in progress: creating this website.

What Is It?

Programming languages bridge the gap between humans and the electronics of a computer. The electronics of a modern computer are often referred to as 1's and 0's, corresponding to the states of the electronic switches. This is already a language, a mathematical notation for on and off. Humans, on the other hand, communicate in natural languages. Programming languages are a mix between natural language, usually English, and mathematical notations. The gap is so wide, that many different programming languages have been designed. Meta puts the balance closer to the human than most other programming languages.

Natural languages evolved together with the human brain. Your brain is well suited to process language, so a programming language closer to natural language will make writing and reading software easier, as long as it is still mathematically precise enough for the machine. If you learned an extra natural language later in life, you will know that it is daunting at first, but it becomes natural with practice. The same is true for learning a programming language, but it is easier if it's closer to natural language. If you already know a different programming language, your brain will have to get used to the concept of a programming language using more principles from human language.

Why?

Why make the effort to learn a new language? Software development is the process of translating human ideas and goals into instructions that a computer can execute. This is typically done in multiple steps that result in multiple layers of software, each layer a step closer to the machine and larger than the previous layer, because it is more detailed. We describe the design and specification of the software in human language. When the instructions for the machine are closer to the human language specification, fewer steps and layers are needed. You become more productive, and will have a competitive advantage compared to others who don't make the effort and stick with less expressive programming languages. It is also more fun and motivating.

It is known that the number of lines of program text a software developer can write per unit of time is largely independent of the programming language. Therefore, a language that can express more concepts in the same space will make you more productive. The software will be smaller, less complex and of higher quality. It is known that, other factors being equal, the number of bugs in software is proportional to the number of lines of the program text and related to the complexity of the software. From security engineering, we know that Trusted Computing Bases (TCB) should be kept as small as possible to improve security and safety. The cost of software development and maintenance will be reduced. Because your brain capacity is limited, and there is also a limit to how organisations can stretch this limit by having multiple software developers work together, reducing the size and complexity of the software means that you can take on larger projects than before.

The young field of computer science has been struggling to establish a reliable software engineering discipline comparable to other fields of engineering. This struggle is not over, as any user of computer devices can attest to. Complexity does not equal sophistication. Reducing the complexity of software and its development process to improve its quality, reliability and safety is of general concern for society. The language in which stakeholders communicate should be brought closer together. A human-friendlier language for software, both program code and data, can not only bring the machine closer to the programmer, it can also bring the user who commissions the software closer to the developer. A friendlier specification language will enable more end users to collaborate on formal specifications with the developer, reducing confusion about their needs.

Reducing Software Waste

Meta will be especially suitable for Lean Software Development and related modern methodologies. The first principle of this methodology is to eliminate waste, made more precise by the Japanese term Muda: anything that does not add value for the end user. This methodology of improving effectiveness and efficiency and saving costs is regarded as an effective way to increase profitability.

Part of this waste is in the development process, part is in the software itself. Perhaps you are not aware of waste in software. Software is, after all, mostly invisible. It is not outdated software that you throw away, it is in the software that you use every day. Within software, waste usually hides behind abstraction layers, like dust devils under a carpet. The methodology states that in order to remove waste, one should learn to recognise it. One should learn to distinguish essential and accidental complexity. Being invisible does not mean that software waste is harmless. More lines of program code means more bugs. Even if parts of the software are waste to the point of not being used at all by your application, the bugs in them - that you don't see because you don't exercise them - may still be used by attackers of your systems. There are costs in complexity, unreliability, unsafety, user dissatisfaction, job dissatisfaction, loss of scalability and time-to-market; wasted effort, time, space, bandwidth and energy, which may also seem hidden if one doesn't look.

As responsible dwellers on this planet of limited resources, travelers on Spaceship Earth, we do our best to conserve resources and reduce waste. Why would we not extend this to software and its development? We will show how software can be created accordingly, and will develop case studies to investigate and show where the waste is.

Why the Name?

Several aspects of the language and the project can be considered meta-aspects. The literal meaning of "meta" is "beyond", "what comes after". Meta will go beyond what other programming languages do, and people using it can and should also expand their thinking beyond what they are used to.

Meta's compiler is currently written in REBOL and small fragments of the runtime are written in the language of the selected back-end, such as C. When Meta becomes more capable, we will rewrite the compiler in Meta itself, and also as much of the runtime as possible. Meta will then be its own meta-language, being described and implemented in itself.

We think the language is important enough to be a goal in itself, but we are also planning and implementing other projects with Meta. The goals of the project transcend the language project, while we need the language to enable and model them.

Who Is It For?

We aim to transcend a narrow focus on a particular group of people. Meta is a project for developers who need power from their language, but also for occasional programmers who don't have the time to juggle many arcane details, and for people who want to learn programming and are looking for an easier language. It's a project for REBOL fans, but we also welcome programmers from other languages who want to expand their horizon. It's a project for Atari enthusiasts, but also for all the other platforms. Meta is for fun and for profit. We don't believe in fundamental contradictions between these uses, and we don't want to create artificial limitations. We believe that, when embraced, these uses will reinforce each other.

We make this possible through Meta's unique combination of properties. Its human-friendly focus and high-level properties reduce the cognitive load on your brain. This brings the language within reach of beginning and occasional programmers, but also frees advanced developers to spend their energy on their application logic, instead of babysitting the language.

Meta's low-level properties and raw performance enable it to run on more diverse platforms than many other languages, and allow advanced developers to still babysit the language when they need to.

Now this does require some mutual understanding from everyone involved. We will build an inclusive community, where anyone with good intentions can feel welcome. The project materials will cater to all knowledge levels, so that people can grow through them.

Show Me the Code!

Programmers like to start with a new language by trying the traditional Hello World example. It's a small program that shows that the language works and can interface with the host system to write a text on the screen:

write/line "Hello, world!"

It is easy to get started with Meta, like old-timers were used to in user-friendly languages such as BASIC. There is no boilerplate code required such as in many other languages.

Larger examples will be published on separate pages. For now, more examples are in the community forums:

How It Works

Meta is mostly inspired by the REBOL programming language. It is not meant to be compatible with REBOL, but it will eventually be quite close. However, it is not complete yet, and there are many subtle differences to optimise the language and extend its reach.

REBOL is the brain child of Carl Sassenrath, of previous fame as the chief designer of the innovative Commodore Amiga operating system, the first consumer multimedia system. REBOL was designed to enable the creation of Domain-Specific Languages (DSL's). Because REBOL DSL's use a different grammar than, but the same syntax as the general-purpose main language, they are called dialects. They are executed in the REBOL interpreter. REBOL inspired the creation of the JSON data dialect of JavaScript (The JSON Saga from 21:45). One of REBOL's hallmarks is a dialect for cross-platform definition of graphical user interfaces. In this way, programs are written in a combination of the main language and applicable DSL's. REBOL has a human-friendly syntax of great clarity and is highly productive. It has been measured to be the most expressive general-purpose language. When the general-purpose REBOL dialect is not optimal for a certain task, REBOL supports creating a special-purpose dialect that is optimal. This way, it is not needed to revert to entirely different DSL's that would cause a mismatch with the language. Creating dialects of both program code and data is so smooth, that it can be done routinely with small granularity. Programs will be built up out of dialects, allowing to approach the essential complexity of the task at hand.

In theory, REBOL's dialecting lets it adapt to all domains of programming. Unfortunately, there are other factors that put limits on the applicability of the language. While REBOL's expressiveness and minimal redundancy allow it to be tiny compared to many other languages, it is not tiny and efficient enough for cases where performance is critical. Nor is its architecture open enough for systems programming and other cases that demand efficient interfacing with external systems and libraries. This is due to REBOL's interpreted execution model, which makes it a relatively slow language, and due to its high-level type system, which makes it memory-hungry and does not support the data types of external systems.

Meta is close to REBOL, but solves its weaknesses. It is designed and optimised for compilation. The compiler is currently written in REBOL 3. The architecture is broadly modelled after the design of LLVM. The user-facing front-end language is a REBOL dialect. Its type system is a combination of the high-level type system of REBOL and a safe form of the type systems of medium-level languages such as C and Pascal. The back-end architecture was designed around WebAssembly and extended for generating C and native binary machine code. Multiple back-ends can generate and optimise code for a wide range of target platforms and target languages.

Documentation

Writing documentation for Meta will be a large, ongoing task. In the meantime, it is useful to read the documentation for the REBOL programming language. Meta is a descendant of REBOL, but there are many subtle differences to optimise the language. Keeping that in mind, here are the most applicable sections of the REBOL documentation:

Development Status

Meta has been under full-time development since June 2020, after a period of research and design that spanned several decades. Is it useful for anything yet? Yes! This website and the downloads are served to you by the language itself. Some example programs have been published. The language itself has not been released yet. Stay tuned!

Supported Platforms

Meta is being developed on 64-bit Linux. Although it has not been released yet, in-house we have preliminary programs written in Meta running on several other platforms and sub-platforms. For some of them, we have published binary program downloads.

The Atari 2600 was one of the first game consoles. It has 128 bytes of RAM and an 8-bit processor running slightly over 1 MHz. It shows that the language is fast enough to "race the beam": to draw the television display scanline by scanline in real-time, hundreds of scanlines 50 to 60 times per second. It proves that Meta can target very small devices, and can run on bare hardware, without an operating system.

The Atari 8-bit was Atari's first personal/home computer system, follow-up to the Atari 2600. It is a complete platform, including an operating system, in a very compact and efficient form. It proves that Meta can achieve a high level of platform abstraction, by running cross-platform programs unchanged on anything from Atari 8-bit to 64-bit PC's.

The C back-ends use a C toolchain for the platform, to be able to target a broad range of platforms. The native back-ends generate machine code directly, without relying on a third-party toolchain, in the executable binary program format for the platform. The native back-ends reduce Muda compared to the C back-ends. They prove that Meta can be more efficient and less wasteful than C, both in the generated programs and the toolchain. On the other hand, the native back-ends require more work per platform, so the cross-platform C back-end is currently the most developed.

Road Map

Current priorities, in order:

  1. Develop Meta into a Minimum Viable Product. This will be a base language with approximately the feature set and type system of medium-level languages such as C and Pascal in a safe form, made friendlier by a high-level REBOL-like syntax.
  2. Develop a web download server written in Meta itself, to support the project and develop the language.
  3. Introduce the project to a suitable grass-roots audience, to start a feedback process.
  4. Create a project website, served by Meta.
  5. Create a crowd-funding system using Meta, to fund the project and let users influence future priorities.
  6. Develop an Internet build server written in Meta, for easy and continuous deployment of the language.
  7. Release the language for a suitable combination of target and host platform.
  8. Introduce the project to more audiences.
  9. Release Meta for many target and host platforms to grow the user base.
  10. Develop Meta further to implement REBOL's higher-level and dynamic features, and interface with external systems and libraries. Within these design and dependency constraints, there is a lot of room to let the crowd funding inspire the planning.

The task currently in progress is creating this website.

The audience chosen for early introduction are the Atari 8-bit and Atari 2600 communities. These small machines are a good start to build on. They are easier to work for than modern platforms due to less complexity, and keep you aware of efficiency: these platforms hardly tolerate Muda. They provide meaningful results earlier: the Minimum Viable Product is smaller for a small platform.

The target platform chosen for the first release is the Atari 8-bit based on the CC65 back-end. This is a small but complete platform that can show all current features of Meta. CC65 is a standards-compliant but relatively basic C implementation, making it a good baseline for the C back-end. Code generated for CC65 is likely to work with most other C compilers and cross-platform C libraries. The Atari community is helping with Meta's development, so we want to show our appreciation.

Once released, there will always be a free version of Meta. We will build a business on top of it, by offering paid premium versions and other products built with Meta.

To grow the project, we very much want to release Meta as open source under a permissive licence, eventually. However, a number of criteria need to be met before that is prudent. The current implementation is written in REBOL. Once Meta is capable enough, we will rewrite it in itself. The REBOL version will then no longer be maintained, and open-sourcing a code base without maintaining it is futile. Further, we need to develop premium products to sustain the business model, before we can give away the core products for free. This will be a gradual process. Currently, we open-source the example programs. As we develop more products, more of the base products can be open-sourced. We will also gradually open up the project to outside contributions, when it makes sense.

Community

So far, the project has been introduced to the Atari 8-bit and Atari 2600 communities on the AtariAge forums. We foresee an important place in our community for the retro-computing communities, as Muda Masters who can inspire others on larger platforms and show how software can be kept close to its essential complexity. The Atari community is providing excellent feedback and development help, including for modern cross-platform concerns. Here are the main discussion threads:

Both forums contain example programs. The Atari 8-bit thread contains a fairly extensive development history and background documentation of Meta.

We are introducing Meta to the cross-platform REBOL community here:

The REBOL community will have an important place in our community, because they have already wrapped their brains around the language principles and can show others who want to learn programming, or who are used to other programming languages, how to make the best use of a language from the REBOL family.

We will keep targeting the language to more platforms and introducing the project to their communities.

Contact

The project can be contacted by email: [email protected]