What I Want in a Programming Language

I’ve been doing a lot of thought about language design recently. I just switched from a couple of years of Visual Basic hackery back to the more familiar territory of Java, and while most of my time has been spent reacquainting myself with the landmarks of my college town and checking out the features of the new mall, I’ve also had a chance to check out some of the neighboring countryside. The up-and-coming development called C# is growing nicely, and while I was wandering the old town suburbs of Bash scripting and Perl I ran into the charming subdivisions of Python and Ruby, also with many features.

But while I was born programming FORTRAN and shortly thereafter moved to BASIC, my hometown language will always be LISP. And while I like many of the features I find in modern languages, I find myself still hankering after LISP’s elegant s-expressions and the ability to compose arbitrary data structures with them.

I suppose that’s the same nostalgia a C programmer gets for the ability to create arcane constructs like a dereferenced an array of pointers to functions. And I wouldn’t want to give up my cherished Java packages, objects and methods (or C#’s namespaces, objects and methods, or VB’s references, objects, and methods) in favor of (load “myfile”) just to get s-expressions. But I suspect that C programmers are far happeir with the tradeoffs they have moving to C++ than I am with moving from Java to Lisp.

The C programmer loses some speed and freedom in C++, but keeps all of his old operators while gaining classes, inheritance, and the Standard Template Library. I, on the other hand, gain classes, inheritance, platform independence, and a vast library — but Java’s collection classes are a poor substitute for s-expressions and Lisp’s list operators.

This isn’t the only thing that you lose. Java and Visual Basic both have good regular expression libraries, but they’re a pain in the butt to work with compared to the elegant integration you find in Perl, Python or Ruby. And there are many other language technologies that have arisen in recent years — the slice notation for sequences from Icon which is now found in Python and Ruby, the interned immutable strings of Java and Python, list comprehensions in Python, hashes from Perl and Python, packages and namespaces from Java and C# — that haven’t yet migrated to as many other languages as they should.

I know different languages have different purposes. A shell script is not a scripting language, and a RAD tool is not for programming provably correct programs. But, damn it, programmers should be able to USE these language technologies, no matter what language they come from! Why can’t I say something like “foreach i in [0..9] do println myArray[1:i].toString();” in just about any language to print a triangle of array values, rather than the torturous process I have to go through to do this in most normal languages?

So, I’ve decided to do something about it. I’m going to design my dream language on paper, and then all you language zealots can tell me why your particular language trumps it. I’m going to start to collect my favorite language features in my blog, and start to collect comments about what features work with each other. I don’t want to create a kitchen sink of a language like PL/I that no-one would use; I want to collect a list of safe language features, syntactic constructs, and useful operators that anyone ought to be able to include in their language, and then start discussing how we can begin to use these more effectively in future language design.
To start with, here are a few language features I’ve come across that I think are cool — or, more pointedly, that I think should be a natural part of any language other than low-level system workhorses and toy language-theory workbenches:

Regular Expressions.
Awk, Perl and Python programmers take these for granted. Programmers in other languages should be able to as well. Visual Basic and Java expose regular expression frameworks which you can access in a clunky way using object-oriented notation, but there’s something to be said for syntactic support at the level of the =~ operator. Other languages, like C and Lisp, simply leave you twisting in the wind trying to roll your own. No more, I say to you future language designers: go thee emulate “$scalar =~ /bladeblah/”, or improve upon it. Enough said.

Slice Notation.
For the longest time, I never thought of using arrays any other way than the usual: “declare myArray[size]; pass myArray = arrayOund; get myArray[element];”. Then I saw Python’s slice notation myArray[3:5] and saw the light. Why shouldn’t I be able to refer to the subelements of an array by something as simple as [3:5]? Or everything to the end of the array as [5:]? And do the same for strings as in “This that the other”[3:5] when the language supports viewing strings this way? I guess my point is that you as a language designer may not want that special syntax because it wrecks the purity of your object oriented syntax model, tweaks your function calling notation, doesn’t fit with your ideas of programs as data, or simply because you, Larry, want the colon. In the end, people have to use the damn language to do things. While a simple, clean syntax makes rare things possible, it can make easy things hard. Get over it and add slices to your language.

Coexistence of Object-Oriented and “Bare Metal” Types
I know from experience you can use Java in both a pure object-oriented, LISP-like high-level way and a low-level, C-emulation mode, with a consequent tradeoff of programming flexibility for speed and power. I think part of Java’s success is its vast library of objects, which in turn can use bare ints, booleans and floats to do the meat of the programming. I think C# will become even more successful for a similar reason, because it provides even more opportunity to manipulate the metal while letting you fly off into high-level object land if you need to.

How Does It All Fit Together?
It doesn’t yet. If I was to throw all the items in my list into some bastardized example I’d get something like:


println "The first ten characters of the method name are: "
foreach character in ( strMethodCall =~ /[A-Z](.*)\./ ).[1:10] do
println " " + character

Hm.

I’m not sure I’d want to program in yet. How are blocks indicated – by indentation? Ick. Where do statements end? Can we omit the semicolons? Should we add braces? Can we come up with better syntax regular expressions than the gawdawful “/[A-Z](.*)\./”, or do we just stick with it because it’s standard? Do we call the loop method “for” as in Python, or “foreach” because we want to reserve “for” for a C-style loop?

I have another 30 or so things on my list, and I’m not going to go into all of them in this essay, saving them for future entries instead. I’m going to keep at this sounding board for a while, proposing useful constructs I’ve mined from reading language definitions, in the hope of finding a basic set of syntactic constructs that are clear, useful, productive, and most of all, satisfy the principle of least astonishment: a C or Pascal or Lisp programmer should be able to move to this new language and see its programming language constructs are somehow … familiar, even if they’ve never used them before.

Little Soho Midtown Street Fair

Continuing the translation of “articles” to modern blog entries… Article 33 from March 14, 2004.


A quick note — the community of merchants at Georgia Tech’s new Technology Square at 5th and Spring Street are sponsoring a street festival. Sandi and I just returned from two days showing her art. Even though Georgia Tech is on spring break and the advertising for the fair was pulled at the last moment, we got a lot of foot traffic and Sandi sold one of her newest paintings.

The organizers of the street fair are determined to make it a success — they want to turn 5th Street into a popular Midtown walking location on the weekends and plan to hold a street fair like this every weekend. They are actively seeking artists, musicians, vendors, and passersby to help turn this festival into a really big thing. Email rgarrison135 at aol dot com if you want to set up a table.

It runs from noonish to fiveish on Saturdays and Sundays. So check it out!

Welcome to Dresan Today

So welcome to Dresan Today … a new weblog enabling yet another wannabe digerati to dump his latest unfiltered thoughts to the Internet.

I’m Dr. Anthony G. Francis, Jr., a science fiction author and computer scientist living in Atlanta. Many of my longer pieces of nonfiction can be found on the parent site of this weblog, The Library of Dresan.

It takes me a while to update that site, so this weblog will (hopefully) serve a complementary purpose, giving me a quick sounding board for passing thoughts, cool pointers, and so forth.

I recommend the following sites:

Vast and Infinite, Gordon Shippey’s weblog. I’ve known Gordon for almost 10 years and he’s always got something interesting to say.

Studio Sandi, Sandi Billingsley’s art site. Sandi is not just my significant other, she’s also a fantastic artist!

On the topic of art, Megatokyo is one of my favorite webcomics; also be sure to check out The Devil’s Panties, a webcomic by Jennie Breeden, a local Atlanta cartoonist.

Enjoy!
-The Centaur

Dresan Today … An Experimental Weblog

Continuing the translation of “articles” to modern blog entries … Article 32 from March 10, 2004. Coincidentally, the announcement of this very Blogger blog.

I am continually interested in the language style of these “old” articles, some of them composed as long as two weeks ago. The ingratiating “check it out” style of the pointers, I do not like. Presumably, in future I will not like my current LOLcat style. Edison hate future. Yes.


Check out Dresan Today, my new weblog — as well as the home for my experiments with weblogging software.

Manually adding entries to this site is a pain, which is one reason I tend to write big chunks spaced out over a long period of time. I’ve been meaning to set up software to help me automatically add updates to the Library for some time now, but between work, art and writing it’s been a challenge to find enough time to work on the prototype AND work through the limitations of hosting the software on my web provider’s account.

SO today I decided to cut the Gordian knot and experiment with the freely available services. The http://www.dresan.com/daily/ directory will house both my current weblog Dresan Today as well as any experiments I’m doing with weblogging tools.

Currently, I’m experimenting with Blogger, which is quick and easy to use, free, configurable, and (most importantly) doesn’t require any software running on my web provider’s server. This is exactly the feature set I wanted in my roll-your-own blog (not counting source code availability, extensibility, wiki features, and a searchable database of blog entries on my home machine) I decided to give it a shot. Since it took less time to set up the blog than it took to create this “normal” entry in InterDev, I think it is definitely worth a try.

So see what’s on Dresan Today!

She Was Dancing All That Time

Continuing the translation of “articles” to modern blog entries… Article 31 from February 7, 2004.


SO Mom contracts pneumonia early in January, and life goes on hold.

I’ve learned a lot in the last month: “pneumonia” is not so much a disease caused by an agent, like SARS or Alzheimers, as it is a physical condition: buildup of fluid in the lungs which impedes the ability to breathe – often progressively, sometimes fast. Sometimes this condition is caused by a virus, sometimes by a bacteria, and sometimes just by inflammation; but for smokers, people over 45, or those unlucky enough to be both, it can be VERY difficult to fight off.

And then there are the complications. Forget bedsores and rashes, arms scarred from IVs and throats raw from intubation, or even the simple indignity of a nose dried out by the omnipresent oxygen tube; the real fun is still to come.

Pleurisy, another “process”, arises when fluid collects between the lung and the chest wall, making what little breath you CAN draw an agony; it becomes worse when the pneumonia infection leaks in, filling the space with pus. You have to drain that out surgically, in a procedure called a VAT (Video Assisted Thoroscopy) which is far better than cracking the chest wall open but still leaves the patient with tubes draining fluid slowly, slowly, from a hole in their side.

Which opens the door to staph.

Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aurorae — MRSA or, more poetically, drug-resistant flesh-eating bacteria. A third of us have *some* strain of staph colonizing our bodies peacfully at any given time; but given the right conditions, staph can turn nasty, blooming into an itchy red rash which is ripe to infect others or, worse, slip into a healing wound to cause blood poisoning (septicemia or bacteremia).

But a bacterial infection is not an annoying neighbor named Ted or his ill-behaved dog Spot, to be easily cured by a restraining order or a stiff whack with a newspaper. An infection is an entire *population* of a particular type of bacteria, millions of them, breeding and reproducing according to Darwin’s law of evolution by natural selection.

In the hospital environment, Darwin’s law rewards the toughest individual bugs — the ones who can colonize and survive on the insides of IV tubes or cling tenaciously to an ill-washed hand, the ones that inflame your body with infectious sores so they can spread like wildfire — and the ones who can surivive the typical spectrum of antibiotics that the hospitals typically use.

Hence MRSA — a description of a particularly nasty evolution of staph, typical to populations of individuals in close contact like prisoners, drug addicts, high school wrestlers … and hospitals, where it colonizes health workers and attacks vulnerable patients.

Doctors are aware of this now. They’re careful with the antibiotics they *do* have, using only the ones they need. And they bring in the big guns only rarely in an attempt to keep knowledge of their arsenal from the mindless gene-memories of their bacterial foes. And they try to alert their patients — use all your antibiotics, as prescribed, so that your body isn’t left with a tiny residual population of the most resistant bugs.

Oh, and they wash their hands. A lot.

Staph still slips through, of course; but they stop it, most of the time. But you can’t *count* on them to stop it, unless you or your loved ones take charge of your care. The doctors care about you — really, they do, even the ones you wonder about — but they have ten, twenty, fifty or a hundred patients to consider, and if they see something unusual — a fever, restlessness, unexpected difficulty breathing — that could … just … quite … fit into the normal progress of a disease, they’ll assume the treatment is working and will stay the course.

And of course they have to contend with a vast number of fools, both patients and family, where by fools I mean those people who don’t really want to know what’s going on and don’t really want responsibility for their own health care decisions. So even if you do ask, the doctor is likely to tell you “she’s getting better”.

Only you can know your loved one’s health condition. Only you can see that this fever IS unusual, see that this restlessness IS getting worse, see that she is visibily NOT improving — and it is up to you and your relatives to read up on the condition; to assess that more needs to be done; and to send in your very own IFFM (Infinitely Formidable Family Matriarch, in our family my father’s younger sister) to bust the doctor’s heads and get them to call in the specialists your loved one needs.

So your mother’s getting better. And you do what you can. You HAVE to do for her, but you CAN’T do to much. If you DO too much, you’re likely to wind up in the hospital yourself, puking your guts out because of the stress, doing no-one any good. So you need to get help. But you can’t do everything — not even you and her cousin and the IFFM and all the aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews can do everything. Even when you have to turn to outside help, they can’t do everything.

You can hire a sitter to stay the night with her so she doesn’t pull out her IVs, leaving you to go get a good night’s sleep, but then the sky can fall and the roads turn to deadly sheets of ice and you’re left with the realization you, yes you, are the only one who can stay to help her. But even then, sooner or later, you WILL have to leave her, even if only for a little while, to put food in your belly. And when the roads clear, you’ll have to leave her longer — or you’ll have no job to go back to, and no food to put in your belly even if you want to.

But somehow it all gets done. Someone’s there to stay with her almost every day, to the point that she sometimes asks the nurse to put up a NO VISITORS sign. But even then, you can’t do everything. She will say and do things she would never otherwise do, demanding the impossible, the contradictory, the unbelievable. Her loving friends will leave in tears, distraught because she says they’re not doing enough for her … after they’ve just stayed the whole night watching her to make sure she didn’t pull her IVs out in her sleep.

But it does no good to get upset. Stand up and take it calmly. Comfort the caregivers: remind them that pneumonia and pleurisy and surgery and septicemia are wearing her down, and making her say and do the impossible, the contradictory, the unbelievable. When she recovers, she will be back to normal.

In fact, when she recovers, if she’s lucky, she’ll remember none of it. Don’t be upset when she asks if it’s the first time that you’ve been to see her since she’s been sick, even if you’ve already stayed three weeks at her side. She will get better. She’ll recover from the disease and the drugs and the surgery and tell you about how she remembered going to all those parties.

The … parties, you ask? Oh, yes, she says. Just a few weeks back — when YOU remember a tube stuck down her throat and her tongue dried to sandpaper and her arms restrained to the side of the bed because she kept trying to pull all the tubes out in her sleep — SHE actually came home from the hospital.

While all of YOU waited, breathless, in the ICU waiting room, not knowing whether she was going to live or going to die, SHE had already *gone* home. And she *partied*. She went to her birthday party (six months away) and to her sister-in-law’s birthday party (also six months away) and to a homecoming party thrown by her brother in law — but when she left the party, she left her presents, and could you call the restaurant and see if the presents were still in the lost and found.

You’ll tell her what really happened, and tell her how worried you were; and she’ll
roll her eyes at herself and tell you how she thought she had just gotten back into the hospital, but how she knew that it was just the cocktail of drugs they had her on that was messing with her brain and if she could just get those out of her system, then she’d REALLY get better.

Then the pain and fog will lift and, energized, she’ll tell you to gather her bills, to pay her taxes, and to check out a probate issue that needs to be settled — and at once you can see she’s still sharp as a tack.

And you’ll smile. Because you can see she’s coming back. Because you know she’s going to be OK. But most of all, you’ll smile because you now know that all that time she was writhing in the ICU, she really wasn’t in pain. She was out partying.

And she was dancing all that time.

Centaurs In Space III

Continuing the translation of “articles” to modern blog entries… Part III of Article 30 from December 31, 2003.


Last in the series “Centaurs in Space”, with text drawn from my short story “Death Wish” and images drawn from my sequential adaptation of the same story.

Death Wish
by Dr. Anthony G. Francis, Jr.

…then the remains of the shuttle slammed into the black surface of the asteroid.

Porsche flinched at the impact, then glared as the sparking hulk of the kyore carrier tumbled past the jagged scarp that had caught the shuttle and impacted the far end.

The edges of the black expanse seemed to shiver, and glowing bits of kyore scattered across the far end of the dumbbell like pretty little fireworks…

Centaurs In Space II

Continuing the translation of “articles” to modern blog entries… Part II of Article 30 from December 18, 2003.


Second in the series of “Centaurs in Space”, with text drawn from my short story “Death Wish” and images drawn from my sequential adaptation of the same story.

Death Wish
by Dr. Anthony G. Francis, Jr.

…The mission started well enough: a thousand light years in a trusty B4 shuttle, charting a star factory trailing the shock wave of the Perseus spiral arm. Two days out, and the routine was starting to settle in: dust clouds curdled here, disks of collapsing gas there, and blue supergiants everywhere, burning the candles at both ends.

It looked to be an uneventful jaunt, and she was already getting an itch to see her husband back on the Dragonfire…

Centaurs In Space I

Continuing the translation of “articles” to modern blog entries… Part I of Article 30 from December 10, 2003.


Done Been Gone Too Long. Well, friends, it’s been almost 9 months since I’ve updated the site. In that time, I’ve been through crunch time on a major project, bought a new computer, took a road trip from the Stanford Linear Accelerator, through the Pacific Coast Highway, and ultimately to the Grand Canyon, wrote another 10,000 words on my novel, started a new comic book, and been sick twice (once including a trip to the hospital).

Which is still no excuse for not posting. I’m going to try to rectify that soon … until then, let me tide you over with some art. With no further ado or departure from my sterotypical subject matter, I present “Centaurs in Space” … first of a series of 3 sketches for the upcoming comic “Death Wish”.

Death Wish
by Dr. Anthony G. Francis, Jr.

Ten seconds to impact, the centauress leapt out an airlock without a spacesuit…

Starving Art

It amuses me that the last article on this site was on “Dedication”… posted immediately prior to a two-month hiatus in the production of this site.

In that article I challenged David Mamet’s view that only the starving can create art – that the comfortable have crutches to lean on which prevent them from taking the steps to excel. No, I argued, the key to creating art is dedication to the task – achieving a level of focus that enables one to put other tasks aside and complete what really matters.

But it has become clear to me in the intervening months the wisdom in Mamet’s words. I have seen all too many people fail at things they cherished because they were too comfortable. With a nourishing job at hand, I have seen myself and others drawn off by sparkling distractions, curling up with our comfortable movies and plays and dances and parties while the things that we can achieve – and tell each other and ourselves that we want to achieve we want to achieve – fritter away further and further into the distance.

It is as true for professionals as it is for amateurs. Case in point: the world of comics. Three of my favorite comic books – Albedo AnthropomorphicsThe Authority and Planetarywere canceled, or hang on the edge of being canceled, because their creators could keep a schedule. Now, I know some of the reasons behind the delays; and sometimes they are good ones. But in the end, delay after delay in any enterprise leaves fans feeling lost, participants feeling betrayed, and ultimately all concerned must move on to new devices when their interest finally dies.

So perhaps it is true that it is not necessary to be starving to produce great art. But if the author or artist is not so hungry for their art that they are willing to put it above all else, their art will starve, and we are all left poorer by it.

– The Centaur

Dedication

Can only the starving create art?

To David Mamet, a truly accomplished actor must have nothing to fall back upon. In his book on acting True and False, Mamet argues that a career alternative or a convenient inheritance acts as an emotional crutch, without which an actor must stand to face the rigors of their art with the courage necessary to excel at it. This view is not new. Sun Tzu argued centuries earlier in the Art of War that a general should burn the bridges behind his army once they have crossed the river into enemy territory, for there is nothing they cannot accomplish when standing upon death ground.

But is it truly necessary to cut off all your options to be a success? This “death ground” philosophy recognizes the power of commitment: great achievement is almost impossible without it.The philosophy breaks down when it argues that it is necessary to face death to achieve true commitment. Certainly it is not necessary for obsessive-compulsives, who throw themselves into absurd tasks in the face of their survival rather than in service of it.

Archimedes, a man who claimed that, given a long enough lever and a place to stand, he could move the world, is perhaps more famous for running naked down the street after having discovered the principle of displaced volume, and was so obsessed with his work that he was ultimately run through by an invading soldier who became incensed when the scientist ignored him to work on a diagram.

A gruesome end for a committed man, but perhaps these obsessive traits survive because in a more balanced degree they can motivate someone to great achievement. Science fiction writer Larry Niven had inherited money — and thus the luxury to expend ten years of his life perfecting his craft. For Niven, an inheritance was not a crutch but a lever, enabling him to ultimately producing Hugo-award winning stories.

Niven is not alone in dedicating himself to his work to achieve greatness. The director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy quoted a local New Zealand saying that summed up his work ethic: “One job at a time, every job a success.” Victor Hugo had this attitude, sentencing himself to “terms” in his study … years of isolation that produced masterworks like Les Miserables.

This kind of focus is not practical for everyone. Some have lives to fall back upon, and others have lives they cannot abandon. I do not think David Mamet would suggest that someone with an inheritance must give it up to become a great actor — and clearly Victor Hugo did not need to abandon his wife to become a great writer. However, commitment is not just necessary for artists trying to achieve masterworks or soldiers trying to vanquish their enemies; instead, it is necessary for everyone.

For a time, the graduate student must put aside his social life— or fail to finish his thesis. For a time, the programmer must put in the extra hour to root out the last bug — or be drawn into a treadmill of endless maintenance. For a time, the part-time deejay must tune out the requests of his friends — or find that that the club goes dead because the right tracks are not cued to play.

Everyone comes to a point in their lives when the goals that really matter become truly difficult, and where achieving these goals requires focus upon them to the exclusion of all other distractions and enjoyments which arise before them.  No matter how skilled or strong we are, each of us will face a stone too heavy to lift unless we put our other baggage down.

This strength — not the strength to carry the stone, but to put other baggage aside — is dedication, and it is the key to achievement.  Dedication is not a mystic elixir, available only available to the impoverished or the imperiled. It is a fundamental attitude towards life, and it is available to everyone — great and small, rich and poor, facing death or living life.  Some accept this burden, and are rewarded with the things they most truly desire; others turn away, and leave the sour grapes to others.

Not everyone can be a great writer, or a great actor, or even a great plumber — each person must find their own stone to lift . But it is possible for each and every person to face their personal challenge, to stand up to the breach with courage, and to step across the chasm to their own death ground — to that place to stand where they can, with the right lever, move the world.

– The Centaur