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Some Production Programming Languages

This is a collection of mini-screeds on commonly-used programming languages, written between (let's say) 2007 and (let's say) 2013, with varying levels of snark and high-mindedness. (Which, reading over them again today, induce varying levels of facepalminess and cringeyness.)

They used to be strewn about my website. I decided to collect them in one place. So, without further ado,

C++

For any software project, it's important that you choose the right language to develop it in. That's why you'll always choose C++, no matter what the project is!

Why will you choose C++? Because it's popular, so a lot of programmers know it. And a lot of programmers means a lot of competition, and that means you'll be able to hire programmers at the lowest rate! This will surely offset whatever costs might be incurred from choosing an ill-suited programming language and hiring programmers who work at the lowest rate.

And why is C++ such a popular programming language?

Is it because it's a good programming language? Hardly. That's like saying that coffee is a popular beverage because it's healthful.

No, C++ is popular because C++ is popular. Hey, Google is a big, successful company, and I hear they use C++... it must be why they're successful! You should use C++ too!

But that's not the only reason. C++ is popular because programmers like it. I suppose the question then is, why do programmers like it?

Is it because C++ makes it easy to write correct, maintainable code? Is it because C++ is easy to learn? Is it because there are things you can do in C++ that you can't do in any other language? Is it that C++ lets your programs run as fast as they possibly can?

Anyone who has ever used C++ can tell you the answer to all of those questions: No. (No, not even when it comes to making your program run as fast as it can. C++ allows so much control over the low-level workings of the program that the compiler cannot make optimizations that it otherwise could, if the programmer were constrained to working at a higher level of abstraction.)

So what is it about C++ that makes programmers like it?

Well, I have a theory. While most "normal" people feel that their lives are too complicated, too full of arbitrary rules and boring details and essentially meaningless things to remember, there's a certain strain of psychology that actually thrives on complexity like this, because such complexity generates gratuitous expertise.

What I mean by this is that if a system is easy to master, then there's no opportunity to show off your mastery of it. There's no way to display your dominance through your command of minutiae and knowledge of trivia. And if that's what really motivates you, then, well, you're going to avoid that system, because it doesn't provide you anything to work with in the social game you want to play. Instead, you'll look for something with a lot of nooks and crannies and bells and whistles and jargon and buzzwords that you can familiarize yourself with, and you'll take every opportunity to demonstrate that you are More Familiar with It than Thou. You'll look for something like... well, like C++.

And if it so happens that programmers with this general personality type also like the idea of total control over their program — and while I'm no expert on psychology, somehow that seems likely — C++'ll have'em downright hooked.

CSS

If I, as a programmer, were to tell you that CSS is the ultimate hacking language, would you be surprised? After all, it's not even a programming language, really. But that doesn't really matter, does it? It meets the only possible criterion there could be for the ultimate hacking language: in order to achieve the effect that what you want, you have to hack and hack and hack...

So, I have a question. If CSS is so superior to those awful tables which should never ever be used for layout, how come a simple and much desired three-column layout, so trivial to construct with a table, is considered one of the holy grails of CSS?

Seems that the real solution to this would be to have some set of elements that has the layout behaviour of tables but without the "treat this as tabular data, would you please" semantics. I suppose that's what display: table-cell et al is for — if only more browsers supported it.

I kvetch, but there is one very nice thing about CSS: unlike Javascript, it's declarative, and not actually as powerful as a Turing machine. So, it might make your page look ugly in nine out of ten browsers six out of seven days of the week, but at least it probably won't hang, or crash, or corrupt the browser's state.

Haskell

In theory, Haskell is the perfect language for writing reference implementations of programming languages. It, itself, has semantics which are specified reasonably formally. It's purely functional (does not permit side-effects), and these two things bring it much closer to being like mathematics than other languages. Additionally, Haskell programs are lazily evaluated (expressions are only evaluated if they are needed), so, basically, Haskell is denotational semantics. Except it's also a program, so you can run it. It's executable denotational semantics.

Pretty sweet, right? Well... yes, except for the small fact that denotational semantics may not be the best way to describe your language in the first place. You might have to describe I/O and concurrency, for example, and denotational semantics doesn't make that easy.

But I hear you say, well, Haskell has I/O and concurrency features.

OK, look. It's a pretty profound thing to show that you can encode I/O or concurrency or really, any feature of an imperative language that you want, into a lazy functional language using monads, but, that doesn't necessarily mean that it's always a beautiful thing to actually do so.

Yes you can do it, but no, it's not one of Haskell's strengths. I've accepted that.

Using Haskell for other purposes, though? Well, I've already accepted that, when going outside the "batch processing" world, Haskell is a little out of its element, so I would not jump at the opportunity. Armchair category theorists might enjoy writing a multithreaded webserver with shared transactional memory monads or whatever, but I have trouble imagining anyone except a category theorist enjoying maintaining such a beast, so I wouldn't recommend it for most "operational" projects. Choose carefully.

Maybe functional reactive programming, or other techniques, will change this. Or maybe Haskell will simply continue to be the academic playground for type theory research. Or maybe both.

Java

No comment.

Javascript

Javascript, now there's a programming language rags-to-riches story. Well, it still wears rags, but you know what I mean.

In the beginning, the World Wide Web was just a bunch of interlinked static documents, which was just fine. Hypertext, they called it. Then immediately it grew fill-out forms and queries which were sent to web servers, which could respond with dynamically-generated content, like the results of a web search, which was great.

And then along the way, the Web succumbed to the inviolable law of software engineering that states "Any sufficiently complex program contains a buggy, half-implemented, undocumented version of Lisp". If you've ever been on the receiving side of requirements, you might also know this as, "Can we add a scripting language? That'd be awesome." (Because taking a nice, predictable system and making it Turing-complete is always awesome.)

So, even though web pages at the time hardly justified being scripted, Javascript was born. And, to be fair, it's really not such a bad language for having been designed in two weeks. Of course, the name was pure marketing; it shares almost nothing with Java except curly braces.

And so the Web went through a painful period where Javascript was used to make sites that tried to stand out from the crowd by annoying the user in more advanced and petulant and irritating ways. And during Javascript's childhood, every vendor implemented it slightly differently, with different bugs and different reckonings of the DOM (the API that refers to the parts of a web page).

And then, Ajax happened, which meant, in essence, that, you could now use Javascript and XML to reload part of a page without reloading the whole thing. Which meant, in essence, that web pages started to look a lot more like traditional user interfaces. Which meant, in essence, that there was actually a (somewhat) justifiable reason for using Javascript.

And then a standard was written for Javascript (sort of) and jQuery was developed (which handled some of the discrepancies between browsers for you) and JSON took over from XML (but we still call it Ajax, not Ajaj) and vendors' Javascript implementations started to do JIT compiling and got reasonably performant and some clever wag coined the term "web app" and at that very moment it became an acceptable fact of life for a web page to hang or crash. (Because it's now an "app", you see.)

And then it got even weirder. Developers decided they wanted to run Javascript outside of the browser. Which, for the purposes of automated testing of the scripts used on web pages, makes some sense. But then some exceedingly clever people decided it should run on servers and that new, back-end software should be developed in it. And the next thing you know, it has an ncurses binding. I give up.

Lisp

I'm one of those people who wonders why anyone bothers programming in, talking about, or thinking about Lisp anymore, since Scheme exists. That's just me, though.

Perl

Perl is what happens when you play Katamari Damacy with the Unix toolchain.

Ah, but the world should thank Perl for being the experiment that demonstrated the effect of designing a programming language around natural-language principles (because for some reason, we learned so little from COBOL.) And of course we should thank the experimenters for being so candid and unbiased about their results. Finally, we have data that shows us what we already knew, namely that programming, no, "scripting" is really a fuzzy endeavour — much like talking, or thinking. This is why Perl scripts, and by extension all computer programs, have so few bugs.

But if you can psychologically overcome all of that — perhaps with the aid of some sort of nuclear-powered ninja weaponry — Perl's not that bad. Unlike C++, it has garbage collection. It has anonymous function closures (unlike PHP,) and they can consist of more than one expression (unlike Python.) And things like use strict at least smell like an attempt to approach some sort of trying to permit, I don't know, enforcing discipline, or something, if you think that would help.

PHP

PHP is language defined by a tool built by some guys who saw a Perl interpreter once and thought it was really neat. They thought that it would just rock to make a similar tool that lived in a webserver and whose default operation was print.

"One of the most interesting aspects [of PHP version 2] included the way while loops were implemented. The hand-crafted lexical scanner would go through the script and when it hit the while keyword it would remember its position in the file. At the end of the loop, the file pointer sought back to the saved position, and the whole loop was reread and re-executed."

PHP 5 Power Programming by Andi Gutmans, Stig Sæther Bakken, and Derick Rethans

'Nuff said, I guess.

No, no — you can never say enough about PHP!

I would have to say the single greatest software engineering achievement of PHP is how it taught us all that programming should never be done without having constantly within arm's reach a book with a photo of the author's face on it. Preferably on the cover, and preferably amidst the photos of his or her 8 co-authors. Even more preferably described as a "Cookbook", or a collection of "Hacks" — hey, if it didn't save me from having to understand what I'm doing, I wouldn't have spent the $30 on it.

However, this is not to diminish the other great advance that PHP has brought us. Truly, the shortest path from point A to point B is to slap some B-coloured paint onto point A and put up a sign next to it saying "Welcome to Point B, Population: You!" And does not PHP help us achieve such a software development style — so effective, so powerful, so downright worthy of this maxim?

Fatal error: require_once() [function.require]: Failed opening required 'config.php' (include_path='.:/usr/local/share/pear') in /internal/directory/structure/home/website/include/oh_drat.php on line 444

Python

Mostly harmless.

Hah, I say that and it makes it sound like I like Python. That can't be right. All languages are crap. I'm a language designer — why else would I be a language designer if it were not for the fact that all languages are crap?

But I am weary. I urge you to consider that Python may be pretty on the surface, but go on, scratch that surface. See what you find. Tell me if it's pretty. Go on, do it.

Here, I'll get you started.

>>> a = 200
>>> b = 200
>>> c = 300
>>> d = 300
>>> a is b
True
>>> c is d
False
>>> 300 is 300
True

But wait, there's more!

>>> True = 4
>>> True
4
>>> 4 == True
True

R

R IS THE LANGUAGE OF THE FUTURE.

WHY, IT'S SO FUTURE, IT EVEN HAS AN ISBN: 3-900051-07-0

No seriously, to cite R in a research paper you're supposed to type citation() within R, and that ISBN is what it responds with.

Scheme

Scheme is often looked at historically, and described as a variant of Lisp. While useful, this historical viewpoint frequently gets in the way of thinking about Scheme's significance today. In brief, if you are evaluating Scheme for your own needs, evaluate Scheme, and don't worry about Lisp or functional programming.

That said, let's go ahead and examine Scheme historically. Its history has been one of shedding baggage from its Lisp heritage: it has lexical (instead of dynamic) scoping, guaranteed (rather than if-your-vendor-supports-it) tail-recursive behaviour at execution time, hygenic (instead of textual) macros, and continuations as first-class objects. These are generally considered significant improvements, and we fully agree.

But there's one thing of Lisp's that Scheme hasn't shed: its syntax... or lack thereof!

Whether you love it or hate it, you have to admit that Scheme's S-expression syntax is extremely — no, pathologically — regular. Just about as orthogonal as syntax can get.

As far as we know, the reason Lisp has such a mind-bogglingly minimal syntax is that it's a consequence of how it approached higher-order functions: represent functions as lists. You can already pass lists to and return lists from functions, so if functions "are" lists, then problem solved, right? And there's no sense having two different syntaxes for the same kind of data.

But that didn't turn out too happily, and times have changed. In Scheme, function values are not lists: they're closures. This is overall a nice thing — it avoids the ugliness of trying to determine which list is the "right" representation, and allows free variables to be captured in function values instead using the crutch of dynamic binding.

But that syntax is still there, like some kind of vestigial organ. What purpose does it serve now?

Well, the interesting thing about it is that it makes it impossible to syntactically distinguish between code and data. Depending on the circumstance, this can be a horror or a delight.

Here's the horror: say you're looking at a snippet of a Scheme program. You can't tell what (+ 1 2) is supposed to be — code, or data? — without looking at what context it's in. This can be as confusing as all git-out. (And don't get me started on quasiquote.)

Here's the delight: it makes it trivial to read and write Scheme programs from other Scheme programs. No parsing, no backpatching. No blood, sweat, or tears. In fact, we wonder why this holdover from Lisp has not driven Scheme on to become the program-analysis language.