English needs better precedence rules

Via Tom Pierce I found Bill Clementson’s list of Lisp quotations. (If you’re reading my website, you’re probably aware that I’m fond of collecting quotations myself.)

I particularly enjoyed this one:

Will write code that writes code that writes code that writes code for money.

That’s as good an answer as any to the classic Lisp troll question: “What’s with all the parentheses?”

Self: The Video

If you’re interested in software developmenteven if you’re a non-programmer who wonders if you might ever be able to learn this stuff, or if you’re interested in effective ways of teaching programmingyou should watch this video of the Self system in action. (I recommend watching one of the big ones, even though they’re very large files, so you can see what’s going on on the screen.)

This video was made in 1995. It’s a video produced by a software research lab, and that shows in the production values. But you can see in the video the genesis of a lot of today’s software technology. The Squeak user interface system is borrowed from Self. (But we all work in web applications, you say? Avi Bryant is trying out the same ideas in that context.) Self is the original Naked Objects system. The prototype-based OO system that’s at the root of JavaScript (and was central to NewtonScript) originated in Self. Ruby’s singleton classes were influenced by prototypes. And the implementation technology is equally impressive. Remember that the demo you see is written entirely in Self, and is running on Sun computers from 1995. The techniques pioneered in Self became the basis for Sun’s HotSpot Java VMone of the names in the credits is Lars Bak, who went on to become HotSpot’s architect.

The Self project at Sun is, unfortunately, long dormant. The web page is still there, and if you’ve got a Mac and are still running Jaguar you can run it. There are still a few problems on Panther, unfortunately. (For that matter, if you have a Sparc machine running Solaris you can also try it out.)

But whether it’s directly useful today or not, it’s still fascinating history, and it’s sobering that although Self has influenced other technologies, those more successful systems are in many ways pale shadows of the original. It’s yet another vivid demonstration that much of the future of computing can be found in the past.

Pragmatic Automation

All of a sudden, in the past week or so, a bunch of cats have been let out of their bags. Several of my friends are doing cool things that I haven’t felt free to talk about … and they’re all going public at once. Here’s the first of a few upcoming blog entries about cats on the loose.

If you haven’t read Dave Thomas and Andy Hunt’s Pragmatic Starter Kit books–Pragmatic Version Control and Pragmatic Unit Testing–you definitely should. (They’ve just released a new edition of the unit testing book, covering C# and NUnit. Now that I think of it, that counts as yet another cat recently out of the bag. But since they haven’t sent me a copy, I can’t really write about it, can I? Ahem. :-)

But all along, the book I’ve really wanted to read is the third one in the series: Pragmatic Automation. The one that hasn’t been written yet. Isn’t that typical?

Here’s the breaking news that I can finally talk about: I noticed that it’s now being proclaimed from the Pragmatic Programmer’s website that the author of Pragmatic Automation is Mike Clark.

Now, by way of full disclosure, I have to admit what I’ve already admitted to Mike: when he first told me that he might be doing this, my first thought was, “But I wanted to read Dave and Andy’s automation book!” But that gut reaction was wrong, and it didn’t take me long to realize it. Mike is the right guy to write this book.

Dave and Andy will still be actively involved, of course, and they’ll make sure Mike covers their favorite tricks. But you’ll also get to read about Mike’s tricks. On this topic, more heads are definitely better. Automation is an open-ended topic. Mike is an aggressive automatorhe loves to let the computer take over the drudgery for him. And Mike understands that automation is as much about consistency as it is about efficiency.

Mike’s still writing, and the book isn’t scheduled to be available until June. But you may as well set your money aside now. More than ever, Pragmatic Automation is the starter-kit book I’m dying to read.

Java as Baby Step

James Robertson thinks that Java is an interruption in the forward progress of software development. It’s nice to see this meme spread a bit; I’ve thought the same thing since 1996 or so. During ‘95 and ‘96, watching Java start to gain traction, I was amazed by the ignorance and ire surrounding many of what I considered Java’s best features:

  • the virtual machine
  • garbage collection
  • methods “virtual” (in C++ parlance) by default
  • a singly-rooted class hierarchy

I came to view Java as a baby step that would serve primarily to soften up developers’ attitudes toward these things, thus shortening the leap required to adopt even better languages like Lisp, Smalltalk, and their ilk. I don’t think I was alone in believing that, but I didn’t hear anyone else saying it for a while.

It is nice to see people returning to serious language research again. Efforts like the Feyerabend Project and more practically focused offshoots like OOPSLA’s Onward! track and the Post-Java Workshops (as well as increasing grass-roots interest in languages like Ruby, Haskell, Squeak, Oz, and even an ongoing Lisp revival) give me hope that we’ll be ready to take a larger step soon.

The Hacks Book I Want

(Thanks to James for the bit-smithery to realize my idea.)

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