programming in the
twenty-first century

It's not about technology for its own sake. It's about being able to implement your ideas.

Death of a Language Dilettante

I used to try every language I came across. That includes the usual alternatives like Scheme, Haskell, Lua, Forth, OCaml, and Prolog; the more esoteric J, K, REBOL, Standard ML, and Factor; and some real obscurities: FL, Turing, Hope, Pure, Fifth. What I hoped was always that there was something better than what I was using. If it reduced the pain of programming at all, then that was a win.

Quests for better programming languages are nothing new. Around the same time I started tinkering with Erlang in the late 1990s, I ran across a site by Keith Waclena, who was having a self-described "programming language crisis." He assigned point values to a list of features and computed a score for each language he tried. Points were given for static typing, local function definition, "the ability to define new control structures" and others.

There's a certain set of languages often chosen by people who are outside of computer science circles: PHP, JavaScript, Flash's ActionScript, Ruby, and some more esoteric app-specific scripting languages like GameMaker's GML. If I can go further back, I'll also include line-numbered BASIC. These also happen to be some of the most criticized languages by people who have the time for that sort of thing. JavaScript for its weird scope rules (fixed in ES6, by the way) and the strange outcomes from comparing different types. Ruby for its loose typing and sigils. PHP for having dozens of reserved keywords. BASIC for its lack of structure.

This criticism is troubling, because there are clear reasons for choosing these languages. Want to write client-side web code? JavaScript. Using GameMaker? GML. Flash? ActionScript. Picked up an Atari 130XE from the thrift shop? BASIC. There's little thought process needed here. Each language is the obvious answer to a question. They're all based around getting real work done, yet there's consistent agreement that these are the wrong languages to be using.

If you veer off into discussions of programming language theory (PLT), it quickly becomes muddy why one language is better than another, but more importantly, as with Keith's crisis, the wrong criteria are being used. Even something as blatantly broken as the pre-ES6 scoping rules in JavaScript isn't the fundamental problem it's made out to be. It hasn't been stopping people from making great things with the language. Can PLT even be trusted as a field? And what criteria do you use for choosing a programming language?

Does this language run on the target system that I need it to? If the answer is no, end of discussion. Set aside your prejudices and move on.

Will I be swimming against the current, not being able to cut and paste from SDK documentation and get answers via Google searches, if I choose this language? You might be able to write a PlayStation 4 game in Haskell, but should you?

Are the compiler and other tools pleasant to use, quick, and reliable? Once I discovered that Modula-2 was cleaner than C and Pascal, I wanted to use it. Unfortunately, there were fewer choices for Modula-2 compilers, and none of them were as fast and frustration-free as Turbo Pascal.

Am I going to hit cases where I am at the mercy of the implementors, such as the performance of the garbage collector or compile times for large projects? You don't want to get in a situation where you need certain improvements to the system, but the maintainers don't see that as important, or even see it as against the spirit of the language. You're not going to run into that problem with the most heavily used toolsets.

Do I know that this is a language that will survive the research phase and still be around in ten years? Counterpoint: BitC.

Here's an experiment I'd like to see: give a language with a poor reputation (JavaScript, Perl) to someone who knows it passably well and--this is the key--has a strong work ethic. The kind of person who'd jump in and start writing writing a book rather than dreaming about being famous novelist. Then let the language dilettante use whatever he or she wants, something with the best type system, hygenic macros, you name it. Give them both a real-world task to accomplish.

As someone who appreciates what modern languages have to offer, I really don't want this to be the case, but my money is on the first person by a wide margin.

permalink May 23, 2016

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I'm James Hague, a recovering programmer who has been designing video games since the 1980s. Programming Without Being Obsessed With Programming and Organizational Skills Beat Algorithmic Wizardry are good starting points. For the older stuff, try the 2012 Retrospective.

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