A language experiment writ large

A wall painted with squares

For the past year, the Java ecosystem has seen interesting evolution. Java the language continues take its place as the new safety scissors of programming, but the pieces around it are getting better. The JVM is now acknowledged inside and outside of the Java community as really good stuff. Really interesting software like Hadoop and Cassandra are built on top of Java. Integration with languages like Ruby and Python is getting pretty good.

What’s most interesting to me is that there’s a competition going on for the hearts and minds of those developers who don’t like using safety scissors. This competition is a great experiment into what developers really want in a programming language. For a language nerd such as myself, observing this experiment is a lot of fun.

On one side you’ve got Scala. Scala looks a lot like Java. But on top of that it adds shorthands and pleasantries from Ruby, a really good type system reminiscent of Haskell, and other handy functional features. When you build up a hybrid language like this you, two things happen. First, a lot of people who look at their checklist, find everything they need and decide. Second, you get a pretty complex language.

Clojure, however, looks nothing like Java. It’s a Lisp, it simply can’t. Clojure borrows from Haskell too, this time borrowing ideas about state and how to avoid it and concurrency (notably software transactional memory). Clojure is a funny looking language at first, but there are some great ideas within it. Plus, it’s a relatively small language; it’s just that it’s a different kind of simple and almost every concept is new to many developers.

Both these languages are building up strong communities. Both are full of great people with energy and ideas. It’s quite possible that a winner-take-all situation won’t occur. I’d like that.

What’s most interesting to me is to see how people take to the languages. Will they go for the familiarity of Scala and deal with the complexity? Will they learn the simplicities of Clojure and rewire their brains? Will they prove the common wisdom wrong and learn both?

I’m watching with great interest.

Haskell modulo excess theory

My journey through Haskell is on something of a lull, but John Wiegley’s got you covered. He’s documented his own journey learning Haskell, and it’s very accessible.

John starts with simple stuff like Fibonacci sequences and splitting strings, then jumps straight into modeling Schroedinger’s cat using a monad. Next he gets pretty practical, for Haskell at least: doing text manipulation ala scripting languages to drop command-line arguments and then to MacPorts packages. Finally, he reflects on thinking lazily and using infinite streams.

If you’ve been wondering what this lazy, pure, strongly typed functional thing is all about but keep falling asleep through the intense theoretical bits (there’s a lot of it!), these are a great starting point.

Shippin' ain't easy

Shippin’ web apps ain’t easy. The Contrast guys lay it out. Garrett Dimon shows what goes into an iteration on Sifter. My experience with Dash matches what these folks are saying: building web apps is exciting, but a lot of the work is below the waterline, per se. A lot of work goes into support and infrastructure, but doesn’t manifest itself as new functionality.

Neat because you can: living frugally, JavaScript pixel art and hand-built microprocessors. Also, C as a functional language is nicer to think about than I’d first thought. If you ever get bored, check out the C output of the Glorious Glasgow Haskell Compiler it doesn’t even look like C. This makes my brain hurt even more.

Finally, for future reference: my mantra for the week was “cut the Gordian knot.”

What Has Ruby Done For You Lately?

When I go to speak about Ruby at non-Ruby groups, my go-to schtick is only mildly subversive. Sure, I tell them that Ruby is a fantastic language that will make them a better programmer. But, I don’t expect them to switch to Ruby right away. Instead, I lead them down the path of borrowing ideas from Ruby and using them in their day-to-day coding, no matter what language they use.


This week at OSCON 2008, I applied the same tact, but I did it on Ruby programmers. See, there are tons of great ideas in languages like Haskell, Io and Erlang. Some translate really well to Ruby and some don’t. But they’ll all twist your brain around in interesting ways.

That’s the idea. Here are the goods: just the slides, the code and the slides. Enjoy!