Thursday, September 4, 2008

How little software has changed...

It is amazing how much of Computer Science was done way before it became as popular as it is today. It is also amazing how little it has progressed (at least as is practiced by professionals) since the old days. Back in August of 1978 John Backus (The B in BNF and inventor of FORTRAN) had this to say:

Programming languages appear to be in trouble. Each successive language incorporates, with a little cleaning up, all the features of its predecessors plus a few more. Some languages have manuals exceeding 500 pages; others cram a complex description into shorter manuals by using dense formalisms. The Department of Defense has current plans for a committee-designed language standard that could require a manual as long as 1,000 pages. Each new language claims new and fashionable features, such as strong typing or structured control statements, but the plain fact is that few languages make programming sufficiently cheaper or more reliable to justify the cost of producing and learning to use them.

Since large increases in size bring only small increases in power, smaller, more elegant languages such as Pascal continue to be popular. But there is a desperate need for a powerful methodology to help us think about programs and no conventional language even begins to meet that need. In fact, conventional languages create
unnecessary confusion in the way we think about programs.

For twenty years programming languages have been steadily progressing toward their present condition of obesity; as a result, the study and invention of programming languages has lost much of its excitement. Instead, it is now the province of those who prefer to work with thick compendia of details rather than wrestle with new
ideas. Discussions about programming languages often resemble medieval debates about the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin instead of exciting
contests between fundamentally differing concepts.

Many creative computer scientists have retreated from inventing languages to inventing tools for describing them. Unfortunately, they have been largely content to apply their elegant new tools to studying the warts and moles of existing languages. After examining the appalling type structure of conventional languages, using the elegant tools developed by Dana Scott, it is surprising that so many of us remain passively content with that structure instead of energetically searching for new ones.

Source: 1977 Turing Award Lecture: Can Programming Be Liberated From the von Neumann Style?

Things seem to have got even worst. C++ had so much issues (aka tricky interview questions) that someone needed to write "Effective C++: 50 Specific Ways to Improve Your Programs and Design", and as if that was not bad enough, he had to do the follow on book: "More Effective C++: 35 New Ways to Improve Your Programs and Designs". Notice it is not talking about effective design, just how to get C++ to work for you, or how to avoid the "gotchas" in the language. For me that was bad enough, so like many others I jumped to the next "successive language" which incorporated "with a little cleaning up, all the features of its predecessors plus a few more". Just look at the size of Java Generic FAQ . Just this one language feature is worst than what John Backus was worried for the whole language: "Some languages have manuals exceeding 500 pages". Here you have a language that the FAQ for just one of its feature is beyond comprehension.

Something is clearly wrong!

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