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2015/08/17

I Am Unlikely To Move To Perl6

A camel in Busch Gardens in St. Louis.
I'm working on a project, which I will blog otherwise. This project is my hope to get into CPAN and level up my Perl game. I am still in progress, so it sits in the earliest stages of construction, with the bare minimum calling dzil new Foo::Bar will give you.

A friend asked me to rewrite it in Perl6.

He has also started putting out challenges, saying "Do this task in Perl5 without modules and I'll do it with Perl6.

I have several problems here. This project started with code I wrote to do something for work, and first and foremost, it had to do the work thing. That one part of the code could be useful to others is a perk. We're a Perl5 shop, so spending more than a few moments trying to do this task in Perl6 is just as counterproductive as trying to do it in Python, in Haskell, in Visual Basic or in x86 assembly. The library doesn't do everything, but it does everything I need, and the move from being a Perl developer to a CPAN developer is steep enough, thanks.

As for the challenges, I find them fundamentally unjust. If you have language A and language B, where feature X is available built into A but exists as a module in B, a module that comes with the core distribution of B, and this might not be a thing you use in most programs, then, to me, A puts unnecessary code into memory, while B is respectful of your requirements by not including things you don't need. My friend thinks the inclusion of feature X into A is a thing to be celebrated, a selling point he's trying to use to build excitement, while I regard it as a stacked deck.

But even as I write that, and intellectually agree with the logic I created, it isn't my fundamental objection. I could probably make a reverse argument if the tables were turned, and in the age where we have multiple gigabytes of RAM, and machines I have access to have a quarter-terabyte available, being so parsimonious with memory is out of style. As the saying goes, you cannot reason a person out of a position they didn't reason themselves into.

I started out as a Computer Science student, getting a second degree because my Journalism degree gave me no job. My school taught C as a subset of C++, using gcc on Solaris systems. This involved the use of stdio.h, and strings as arrays of characters. Intellectually, I get that it still is, but as a practical matter, it was not easy and it was not fun.

I worked helping to maintain the websites for a part of the school, and at first wrote HTML and documents in HTML, and also maintained the documentation library for the system administrators. Physical library. This is where I learned to love O'Reilly and Amazon. And, as I learned to program by learning CGI by learning Perl, where I learned that dealing with strings as scalars instead of arrays pointers to arrays of characters was a lot easier. This very much was where I learned to love Perl5.

This was an age of underpowered computers, and the computers I worked with were, in general, more underpowered than most. So weak, actually, that they could not run a web browser, which makes working as a web developer difficult. This is why I learned about X redirection. And, the minute I added any Javascript code to do anything on a page, this meant that the pages became unusable on the (for the time) beefy servers I was running the browsers on. I had reasoned myself into the position "pages + Javascript = slow and unusable".

Two things changed. The first was Time + Moore's Law = better computers. The second thing was the discovery of XMLHttpRequest, aka XHR or AJAX. This meant that Javascript was capable of more than display hacks, that you could do actual things with it. So, I grew to like Javascript, almost but not quite to the extent I like Perl.

A few years later, I had graduated and been hired by a local medical clinic. This was more IT than development, and I should've left early than I did, but while I was there, many of my friends had started to move to Python.

There was a computer lab where I had spent a great amount of time, and someone I knew had code that would identify who was at which SPARC5 machine, and which machines were empty, so you could know if it was worth your time to even go to that part of campus. I didn't need that information anymore, but what I needed was working Python code so I could learn how the language worked.

However, the program was indented with tabs. Python, for those unfamiliar with the Dynamic Language Wars, is a language where control structures are determined by indentation, instead of brackets, like most C-related languages. "Significant White Space" is the Ypres of the war between Perl and Python, the point where neither side will give ground.

The problem with tabs is that they tend to hide spaces. Which is to say, unless you have your editor set to show you the difference, SpaceTab looks exactly like Tab. This was exactly the problem that I found myself having. I was expecting, even wanting, to learn how if statements and for loops look in Python, and instead I found myself having to learn how Python error messages work.

The argument for white space is that, if you allow code to look like a one-line hairball, coders will make it look like a one-line hairball, but if your language design enforces coding standards, you will have readable code. I like reading readable code, and, as I said, I came from a Journalism background where I learned the rules to make printed documents more readable. It should be easy to reason me into appreciating Python, but having spent years learning Perl made me defensive, and spending hours struggling with with code entrenched my disgust. I viscerally dislike Python. I use it; my FitBit code is written in it because I found working through OAuth in Perl to be difficult. I'm willing to suck it up when necessary. But it is not my first choice of languages, and likely will never be, for entirely emotional reasons.

When I first started hearing about Perl6, I liked the idea of it. I wanted it to succeed. Perl is complex, they said. Only Perl can parse Perl, which isn't good. To hack Perl, to improve the base language, you need to know a bunch of domain-specific hackery, which means that the number of people who can make meaningful changes to the language is small and getting smaller. If we back up and start again, we can remove a bunch of cruft. This is fine.

And, since we're starting from scratch, we'll identify things we want, things that'll make the language better, and build those in. Logically, this works.

The brains of the Perl community went to work on Perl6, on the various platforms they tried to build it on. I can't create a strong argument against any individual technical decision. Use a VM to make it portable across many languages? Sure. Make our own VM system so we aren't reliant on someone else with interests unaligned with our own? Yeah, that's probably smart. But taken as a whole, that's a lot of things you need to do, with a significant chance of failure. The charitable might take it as a gamble worth taking, as a thing worth trying, even if it doesn't work right.

Not everyone is that charitable.

Meanwhile, those of us trying to use the language to do things to do things were left with, basically, a dead language. That is, until a bunch of us started to say "No!" We decided that, as we can, the good things about Perl6 will be taken and backported to Perl5, and that, while the world may identify the moment Jon Orwant's coffee mug hit the wall as the last moment they gave a shit about Perl, we have an enormous collection of pre-existing wheels called CPAN, which is considered the standard by which other languages' library systems are judged and found wanting.

So, to me, Perl5 is the language that saved me from C-type strings, the language that opened up computing for me and that has provided the majority of my paychecks for well over a decade. Perl6 is the language that has made me feel like a laughingstock for a good portion of that time. Perl5 is the a language that supported me, and Perl6 is the language that betrayed me.

Intellectually, I see that Perl6 has a real release date, that we're one community, that Perl6 isn't just a skunkworks for features to pull into Perl5. But I do not foresee my current workplace moving from Perl5 to Perl6, and I do not expect most place I might get hired into to be enthusiastic in embracing the change either.

I'm willing to change my mind. This is me trying to work through my issues enough to be open to Perl6. But it remains to be seen if I can change my heart.