Monday, October 08, 2007

Ruby Matters: Language Beauty Part 2

A dead chrysanthemum
and yet - isn't there still something
remaining in it?
Takahama, Kyoshi

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
William Shakespeare

Can computer languages be beautiful? Is it possible to create a beautiful COBOL application? I think it is possible, but you can't compare different languages as if they all had the same constraints. For me, these comparisons are like comparing poetry styles. Within a particular poetry style, you can clearly have beauty. But some poetry styles have serious constraints. For example, a Haiku has exactly seventeen syllables, in three lines of five, seven, and five. A sonnet is a poem with fourteen lines, using any formal rhyming scheme, having 10 syllables per line. Shakespeare wrote some stunning poetry within these pretty serious restrictions!

Computer languages are closer to poetry than prose. The syntax of the language imposes order, just as the conventions of different poetry styles constrain what you can create. Within those constrains, though, you can create wonderful things. But the strictures of the poetry style necessarily prevent you from creating more ambitious works. William Faulkner famously said that he wanted to be a poet and failed, then he wanted to be a short story writer and failed, and eventually became a novelist because he couldn't say what he wanted to say within the boundaries of the other styles.

A lot of developers who find themselves "at home" in a particular language can relate to this. For many developers, Java (the sonnet) feels just right. Yes, there are restrictions, but they are well known and seem right. Other developers chafe at the imposed limitations and seek more expressive media, like Perl or Ruby. And if it was just about aesthetics, we could all live happily, each developer writing code in whatever medium he or she liked.

But with computer languages, expressiveness == power. Being able to say what you mean succinctly and effectively matters. The only reader who you must satisfy completely is the execution environment. Thus, when making a language choice, it makes sense to pick the most powerful language you can stand. Of course, different developers rate power differently. For me, meta-programming is extremely valuable. It's one of those features that, once you've used a language that supports it extensively, it's hard to go back to a weaker one.

Which brings me around to Paul Graham again. When I first read Hackers and Painters, I remember thinking that about 80% of what he said was dead on, and the other 20% was either just crazy or intentionally inflammatory. Over the last few years, though, as I've learned more about languages myself, I go back to his writings (most of which are online at and realize that he's exactly right about something I used to disagree with him about. Now, I'm down to thinking only 5% is crazy or inflammatory, and that number is shrinking all the time. Anyway, one of those things was his language power scale, which I discounted at first but now believe to be an outstanding yardstick by which to measure language power.

For me, Ruby has a great combination of succinct expressiveness and super powerful meta-programming support. I think that it is currently the most powerful language you can get paid to write. Until Smalltalk makes a come back or Lisp eventually takes over the world, it's the best game in town. But that doesn't mean that I can't still write sonnets in Java and C# from time to time, when the circumstances warrant.


Farooq said...

Very well put. I followed the link to Hackers and Painters and I can't tell you how deeply it touched me. Being a long-time painter and sculptor myself, I believe in code as being a form of art that leverages a new and 5th dimension[1] to express ideas in.

[1] One way I like to categorize dimensions is:
2D - x & y (flat paintings)
3D - x, y, & z (sculpture and texturized paintings)
4D - x, y, z, & time (film, performance arts, etc.)
5D - x,y,z,time & intelligence (making your work think and interact with the audience, producing multiple outcomes; unlike films, where there can only ever be 1 possible outcome)

kbac70 said...

When I was applying for IP protection of my work, when back in Poland, to my surprise, I have found that software development is classified and regulated by the same rules in regards to IP as..? poetry :)