Blending Programming Environments and Games

Titus presents. Photo by Austin Henley.

I presented our full paper, A Perspective on Blending Programming Environments and Games: Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards, at the IEEE Symposium on Visual Languages and Human-Centric Computing (VL/HCC 2016) in Cambridge, UK.

The abstract of the paper follows:

Programming environments and game environments share many of the same characteristics, such as requiring their users to understand strategies and solve difficult challenges. Yet, only game designers have been able to capitalize on methods that are consistently able to keep their users engaged. Consequently, software engineers have been increasingly interested in understanding how these game experiences can be transferred to programming experiences, a process termed gamification.

In this perspective paper, we offer a formal argument that gamification as applied today is predominately narrow, placing emphasis on the reward aspects of game mechanics at the expense of other important game elements, such as framing. We argue that more authentic game experiences are possible when programming environments are re-conceptualized and assessed as holistic, serious games. This broad gamification enables us to more effectively apply and leverage the breadth of game elements to the construction and understanding of programming environments.

European Conference on Object-Oriented Programming Retrospective

Through my research in HCI and software engineering tools, I typically make the annual rounds in conferences such as ICSE, FSE, and VL/HCC. Thus, having the opportunity to attend ECOOP 2016 was definitely outside of my comfort area, but it was worthwhile in that it provided me with exposure to an otherwise enigmatic area of Computer Science.

As a first-timer to ECOOP, I expected all of the conference to basically be about programming language (PL) theory (or as we call it in HCI, the land of Greek letters). I was surprised, however, to find workshops on the usability aspects of programming languages. I attended two such workshops:

  • LIVE, a workshop on live programming systems that “abandon the traditional edit-compile-run cycle in favor of fluid user experiences.”
  • Grace, a workshop on the emerging Grace programming language. Originating at ECOOP in 2010, the Grace programming language is designed to allow novices to discover object-oriented programming in simpler ways.

To gain exposure to new ideas, I also attended ICOOOLPS, a workshop on compiler optimization and performance for object-oriented programming.

Although my own research community and ECOOP have relatively little intersection, through these smaller workshops I quickly met new colleagues, including James Noble, Michael Kölling, and my own PhD advisor’s advisor, Andrew Black.

An aspect of ECOOP that I particularly appreciated was the morning breakfast sessions, where students like myself were paired with faculty members to learn more about ECOOP research. I took full advantage of these sessions and introduced myself to a new faculty member each day for breakfast: Matthias Felleisen, Tobias Wrigstad, Laurence Tratt, and Jan Vitek.

Another highlight of the conference was the ECOOP Summer School. The lecturers for these talks made a significant effort to provide a gentle introduction to programming language theory and to explain the types of problems researchers in PL study. One of the more memorable lectures was a hands-on session by Laurence Tratt and Carl Friedrich Bolz, where we worked on our laptops to implement a JIT in Python.

ECOOP Summer School

Thanks again to the NSF for providing this amazing opportunity.

European Conference on Object-Oriented Programming

This year I’m able to attend the European Conference on Object-Oriented Programming (ECOOP) in Rome, Italy, thanks to generous travel support from the National Science Foundation. This will be my first time at ECOOP.


I’m looking forward to meeting other researchers, building collaborations, discovering emerging research areas, and attending the ECOOP Summer School lectures to learn more about the formal and technical aspects of programming languages and tools.

Thesis proposal: How should static analysis tools explain anomalies to developers?

Eclipse Explanations

On April 26, 2016, I presented my thesis proposal to a committee of five members: Dr. Emerson Murphy-Hill (Chair), Dr. Jing Feng (Graduate School Representative), Dr. Shriram Krishnamurthi (External Member), Dr. James Lester, and Dr. Christopher Parnin.

I received a conditional pass. A conditional pass means that a formal re-examination is not required, but that the committee expects additional revisions before approving the proposal.

I suspect that there are some students who do not even realize that they have received a conditional pass, since the event does not seem to be recorded anywhere that is student-accessible.

In the weeks that followed, I made several revisions to the thesis proposal document, incorporating feedback from the presentation:

  1. The committee reduced the scope of required experiments from five to three.
  2. The committee added a new requirement that I conduct a systematic literature review on static analysis notification techniques.
  3. I added a thesis contract to explicitly state the dissertation deliverables.

On May 11, 2016, I submitted the revised proposal to the committee.

On May 20, 2016, I was notified that the committee had approved the revisions.

Although some students prefer to keep their thesis proposal secret until graduation, I have made the proposal and presentation materials available so that they may help other students in structuring their own proposals:


Despite the advanced static analysis tools available within modern integrated development environments (IDEs) for detecting anomalies, the error messages these tools produce to describe these anomalies remain perplexing for developers to comprehend. This thesis postulates that tools can computationally expose their internal reasoning processes to generate assistive error explanations in a way that approximates how developers explain errors to other developers and to themselves. Compared with baseline error messages, these error explanations significantly enhance developers’ comprehension of the underlying static analysis anomaly. The contributions of this dissertation are: 1) a theoretical framework that formalizes explanation theory in the context of static analysis anomalies, 2) a set of experiments that evaluate the extent to which evidence supports the theoretical framework, and 3) a proof-of-concept IDE extension, called Radiance, that applies my identified explanation-based design principles and operationalizes these principles into a usable artifact. My work demonstrates that tools stand to significantly benefit if they incorporate explanation principles in their design.

The Bones of the System: A Case Study of Logging and Telemetry at Microsoft

Our full paper, The Bones of the System: A Case Study of Logging and Telemetry at Microsoft, has been accepted to the International Conference on Software Engineering, Software Engineering in Practice Track (ICSE SEIP 2016). ICSE is hosted this year in Austin, Texas.

The abstract of the paper follows:

Large software organizations are transitioning to event data platforms as they culturally shift to better support data-driven decision making. This paper offers a case study at Microsoft during such a transition. Through qualitative interviews of 28 participants, and a quantitative survey of 1,823 respondents, we catalog a diverse set of activities that leverage event data sources, identify challenges in conducting these activities, and describe tensions that emerge in data-driven cultures as event data flow through these activities within the organization. We find that the use of event data span every job role in our interviews and survey, that different perspectives on event data create tensions between roles or teams, and that professionals report social and technical challenges across activities.

I am delighted to have been able to collaborate with Microsoft Research for this study. Thanks to Robert DeLine, Steven Drucker, and Danyel Fisher, the co-authors of the paper.

Challenges in Using Event Data

Challenges in Using Event Data

Migrating from PHP Markdown to Jetpack Markdown

I’ve had this blog since 2004, less than a year after the first release of WordPress. Since then, I’ve migrated the blog to each new WordPress release.

Unfortunately, with each migration comes additional technical debt. For example, beginning with WordPress 2.2, the default character set for databases was changed from latin1 to utf8. Performing this conversion is a tedious, manual process, and through the years I’ve converted columns as-needed to support modern character sets (such as when needing the Unicode ♥ symbol).

Until now, a blocking problem has been that the PHP Markdown plugin has bugs that cause it to incorrectly render certain advanced HTML content, such as those found in shortcodes. Unfortunately, the plugin entered maintenance mode in February of 2013 and is no longer actively developed.


  • PHP Markdown stores its post_content in Markdown form in the wp_posts table. The PHP Markdown plugin, just before displaying a post, translates this Markdown text into HTML.
  • A consequence is that deactivating this plugin means that post content no longer appears as HTML. That’s bad.
  • Jetpack Markdown, the candidate replacement plugin, stores its post_content in HTML, and keeps the Markdown content in a separate post_content_filtered column. The advantage of this approach is that posts render correctly even if the plugin is deactivated. The design trade-off is that the database must store both the HTML and Markdown forms of the content.

There’s an impedance mismatch in that the two plugins translate from Markdown to HTML at different points in the content process.


The migration involves iterating through every WordPress post, and copying the Markdown form of post_content and storing it in post_content_filtered. At this point, post_content and post_content_filtered will both contain the Markdown form of the content.

Next, for each post, re-run the Markdown function (from markdown.php) and replace the post_content column with the HTML version of the content. That is:

$to_html = Markdown($post_content);

Finally, the new Jetpack Markdown plugin stores metadata for each post by adding a _wpcom_is_markdown key to posts that use Markdown. Thus, insert rows into wp_postmeta to reflect this:

INSERT INTO wp_postmeta
(post_id, meta_key, meta_value) VALUES 
(post_id, '_wpcom_us_markdown', '1')


The database is now migrated to a form that can be used by Jetpack Markdown.

Timeful: My E-mail Policy

Due to increased demands on my time and the need to minimize distractions, I am posting an official policy on my use of e-mail.

This policy is effective 11/27/2015, and is available at:

E-mails sent to my personal account or University account are now batched. This means that your e-mail will be intentionally delayed against one of the following time boundaries (all listed times are in Eastern time):

  • Monday through Friday: 9 AM, 1 PM, 3 PM, 7 PM. If you send an e-mail after 7 PM, I will receive your e-mail at 9 AM the following day.

  • Saturday and Sunday: 9 PM only. Weekends are reserved for time with my family.

If you need to contact me urgently, you may send me a text message at 251-454-1579.


Social Media Addendum

  • I check Facebook once a week, usually on Friday night.