Guide you, the Force should

Steve Yegge posted the transcript from a talk on dynamic languages that he gave at Stanford.

Cedric Beust posted a response to Steve's talk, espousing statically-typed languages.

Numerous comments and flamewars erupted, not to mention a Star Wars analogy (which always makes things more fun).

This is my feeble attempt to play galactic peacemaker. Or at least galactic color commentary and play-by-play. I have no doubts about its efficacy, and that it will only fan the flames, for that's how these things work. Still, I feel a certain perverse pleasure in pretending, so....

Enjoy the carnage that results.


First of all, let me be very honest: I like Steve's talk. I think he does a pretty good job of representing the negatives and positives of dynamic languages, though there are obviously places where I'm going to disagree:

  • "Because we all know that C++ has some very serious problems, that organizations, you know, put hundreds of staff years into fixing. Portability across compiler upgrades, across platforms, I mean the list goes on and on and on. C++ is like an evolutionary sort of dead-end. But, you know, it's fast, right?" Funny, I doubt Bjarne Stroustrup or Herb Sutter would agree with the "evolutionary dead-end" statement, but they're biased, so let's put that aside for a moment. Have organizations put hundreds of staff years into fixing the problems of C++? Possibly--it would be good to know what Steve considers the "very serious problems" of C++, because that list he does give (compiler/platform/language upgrades and portability across platforms) seems problematic regardless of the langauge or platform you choose--Lord knows we saw that with Java, and Lord knows we see it with ECMAScript in the browser, too. The larger question should be, can, and does, the language evolve? Clearly, based on the work in the Boost libraries and the C++0X standards work, the answer is yes, every bit as much as Java or C#/.NET is, and arguably much more so than what we're seeing in some of the dynamic languages. C++ is getting a standardized memory model, which will make a portable threading package possible, as well as lambda expressions, which is a far cry from the language that I grew up with. That seems evolutionary to me. What's more, Bjarne has said, point-blank, that he prefers taking a slow approach to adopting new features or ideas, so that it can be "done right", and I think that's every bit a fair position to take, regardless of whether I agree with it or not. (I'd probably wish for a faster adoption curve, but that's me.) Oh, and if you're thinking that C++'s problems stem from its memory management approach, you've never written C++ with a garbage collector library.
  • "And so you ask them, why not use, like, D? Or Objective-C. And they say, "well, what if there's a garbage collection pause?" " Ah, yes, the "we fear garbage collection" argument. I would hope that Java and C#/.NET have put that particular debate to rest by now, but in the event that said dragon's not yet slain, let's do so now: GC does soak up some cycles, but for the most part, for most applications, the cost is lost in the noise of everything else. As with all things performance related, however, profile.
  • "And so, you know, their whole argument is based on these fallacious, you know, sort of almost pseudo-religious... and often it's the case that they're actually based on things that used to be true, but they're not really true anymore, and we're gonna get to some of the interesting ones here." Steve, almost all of these discussions are pseudo-religious in nature. For some reason, programmers like to identify themselves in terms of the language they use, and that just sets up the religious nature of the debate from the get-go.
  • "You know how there's Moore's Law, and there are all these conjectures in our industry that involve, you know, how things work. And one of them is that languages get replaced every ten years. ... Because that's what was happening up until like 1995. But the barriers to adoption are really high." I can't tell from the transcript of Steve's talk if this is his opinion, or that this is a conjecture/belief of the industry; in either case, I thoroughly disagree with this sentiment--the barriers to entry to create your own language have never been lower than today, and various elements of research work and available projects just keep making it easier and easier to do, particularly if you target one of the available execution engines. Now, granted, if you want your language to look different from the other languages out there, or if you want to do some seriously cool stuff, yes, there's a fair amount of work you still have to do... but that's always going to be the case. As we find ways to make it easier to build what's "cool" today, the definition of what's "cool" rises in result. (Nowhere is this more clear than in the game industry, for example.) Moore's Law begets Ballmer's Corollary: User expectations double every eighteen months, requiring us to use up all that power trying to meet those expectations with fancier ways of doing things.
  • It's a section that's too long to quote directly here, but Steve goes on to talk about how programmers aren't using these alternative languages, and that if you even suggest trying to use D or Scala or [fill in the blank], you're going to get "lynched for trying to use a language that the other engineers don't know. ... And [my intern] is, like, "well I understand the argument" and I'm like "No, no, no! You've never been in a company where there's an engineer with a Computer Science degree and ten years of experience, an architect, who's in your face screaming at you, with spittle flying on you, because you suggested using, you know... D. Or Haskell. Or Lisp, or Erlang, or take your pick." " Steve, with all due respect to your experience, I know plenty of engineers and companies who are using some of these "alternative" languages, and they're having some good success. But frankly, if you work in a company where an architect is "in your face screaming at you, with spittle flying on you", frankly, it's time to move on, because that company is never going to try anything new. Period. I don't care if we're talking about languages, Spring, agile approaches, or trying a new place for lunch today. Companies get into a rut just as much as individuals do, and if the company doesn't challenge that rut every so often, they're going to get bypassed. Period, end of story. That doesn't mean trying every new thing under the sun on your next "mission-critical" project, but for God's sake, Mr. CTO, do you really want to wait until your competition has bypassed you before adopting something new? There's a lot of project work that goes on that has room for some experimentation and experience-gathering before utilizing something on the next big project.
  • "I made the famously, horribly, career-shatteringly bad mistake of trying to use Ruby at Google, for this project. ... And I became, very quickly, I mean almost overnight, the Most Hated Person At Google. And, uh, and I'd have arguments with people about it, and they'd be like Nooooooo, WHAT IF... And ultimately, you know, ultimately they actually convinced me that they were right, in the sense that there actually were a few things. There were some taxes that I was imposing on the systems people, where they were gonna have to have some maintenance issues that they wouldn't have [otherwise had]. Those reasons I thought were good ones." Recognizing the cost of deploying a new platform into the IT sphere is a huge deal that programmers frequently try to ignore in their zeal to adopt something new, and as a result, IT departments frequently swing the other way, resisting all change until it becomes inevitable. This is where running on top of one of the existing execution environments (the JVM or the CLR in particular) becomes so powerful--the actual deployment platform doesn't change, and the IT guys remain more or less disconnected from the whole scenario. This is the principal advantage JRuby and IronPython and Jython and IronRuby will have over their native-interpreted counterparts. As for maintenance issues, aside from the "somebody's gonna have to learn this language" tax (which is a real tax but far less costly, I believe, than most people think it to be), I'm not sure what issues would crop up--the IT guys don't usually change your Java or C# or Visual Basic code in production, do they?
  • Steve then gets into the discussion about tools around dynamic languages, and I heartily agree with him: the tool vendors have a much deeper toolchest than we (non-tool vendor programmers) give them credit for, and they're proving it left and right as IDEs get better and better for dynamic languages like Groovy and Ruby. In some areas, though, I think we as developers lean too strongly against our tools, expecting them to be able to do the thinking for us, and getting all grumpy when they can't or don't. Granted, I don't want to give up my IntelliJ any time soon, but let's think about this for a second: if I can't program Java today without IntelliJ, then is that my fault, the language's fault, the industry's fault, or some combination thereof? Or is it maybe just a fact of progress? (Would anybody consider building assembly language in Notepad today? Does that make assembly language wrong? Or just the wrong tool for the job?)
  • Steve's point about how Java IDE's miss the Reflective case is a good one, and one that every Java programmer should consider. How much of your Java (or C# or C++) code actually isn't capturable directly in the IDE?
  • Steve then goes into the ubiquitous Java-generics rant, and I'll have to admit, he's got some good points here--why didn't we (Java, though this applies just as equally to C#) just let the runtime throw the exception when the cast fails, and otherwise just let things go? My guess is that there's probably some good rationale that presumes you already accept the necessity of more verbose syntax in exchange for knowing where the cast might potentially fail, even though there's plenty of other places in the language where exceptions can be thrown without that verbose syntax warning you of that fact, array indexers being a big one. One thing I will point out, however, in what I believe is a refutation of what Steve's suggesting in this discussion: from my research in the area and my memory about the subject from way back when, the javac compiler really doesn't do much in the way of optimizations, and hasn't tried since about JDK 1.1, for the precise reason he points out: the JITter's going to optimize all this stuff anyway, so it's easier to just relax and let the JITter do the heavy lifting.
  • The discussion about optimizations is interesting, and while I think he glosses over some issues and hyper-focuses on others, two points stand out, in my mind: performance hits often come from places you don't expect, and that micro-benchmarks generally don't prove much of anything. Sometimes that hit will come from the language, and sometimes that hit will come from something entirely differently. Profile first. Don't let your intuition get in the way, because your intuition sucks. Mine does, too, by the way--there's just too many moving parts to be able to keep it all straight in your head.

Steve then launches into a series of Q&A with the audience, but we'll let the light dim on that stage, and turn our attention over to Cedric's response.

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