Month: April 2008

Perl is not going away

April 11, 2008 Advocacy 4 comments

Sterling Hanenkamp
wrote a great response to the now-infamous TIOBE
Index
article about how Perl is on its way out. This article
is the sort of thing I wish I’d done when I was doing PR for The
Perl Foundation. Sterling’s given me permission to republish it
here. Here’s a link
to the original
. — Andy (Lester)

I’ve been taking DDJ for a couple years now. It’s cheap and
occasionally has something interesting in it, but it’s been less
interesting than I remember it being when I read it in college.
I’ve been much more enamored with the Communciations of the
ACM
. Today, I received my issue and there’s an interview
with Paul Jansen of TIOBE Software.
In the article, he’s quoted saying:

Another language that has had its day is Perl. It was once the
standard language for every system administrator and build manager,
but now everyone has been waiting on a new major release for more
than seven years. That is considered far too long.

Note: This is such a cowardly use of the passive voice.
“That is considered far too long”? BY WHO exactly? He’s expecting
us to swallow his unattributed assertion as if everyone considers
seven years “far too long”. — Andy (Lester)

While I am biased, I have to admit that I disagree pretty strongly
with Jansen’s assessment. First, let me go into the problems with
how he came to this conclusion and then explain why I think I’m
justified trusting that Perl is in it for the long haul despite my
bias that would have me think so anyway.

I want to first evaluate the way Jansen has collected the data
he’s used to make this statement. TIOBE puts together what they
call the TIOBE
Index
. This is a rating of the popularity of various programming
languages. The TIOBE web site claims, “The ratings are based on the
number of skilled engineers world-wide, courses and third party
vendors.” How do they measure
this
? By performing a search for:

+"<language> programming" 

on 5 popular search engines, including: Google, Google Blogs,
MSN, Yahoo!, and YouTube. That’s it.

What they are measuring is not actual popularity, but the amount
of hype surrounding each one. Not only are they measuring hype, but
only hype that discusses “programming”. What if everyone prefers
to say “programming Perl is fun!” That wouldn’t get picked up by
the search they use. What about “Perl scripting”? Nope. Missed.
(Here I should point out that Andy Lester appears to have been on
to something when he gave his lightning talk
about Perl programs versus scripts at OSCON last year.) In essence,
this is, if they’re disclosing the complete metric, incomplete.
It’s a shortcut that might be 90% right or 50% right. This is just
poor statistics.

The second aspect of Jansen’s comments I take issue with is the
statement that there has not been a major release in seven years.
That’s not strictly true. Perl 5.10 has just been released and it
includes new
features
like the new smart match operator. Beyond that, there
has been some very active development on a closely related project,
Parrot, and language
development toward a huge milestone, Perl 6. Furthermore, where
Perl truly shines is in all the development on CPAN. CPAN is getting large and
complex enough now that we’re having to rethink
how it works just so we can find anything on it. This is a good
problem to have.

This comment by Jansen does, however, serve to indicate a certain
perception gap caused by the long wait for Perl 6. It’s even been
considered that the name of Perl 6 is harmful to Perl 5. This has
been discussed
out by others
for some time.

In my opinion, Jansen is on shaky ground with his claims and
probably only because he’s not well informed by anything but his
own metrics. I should think that he’d at least research the trends
and issues facing the top 10 languages listed by his survey as to
provide some better justification for it’s accuracy.

As for the reasons I still have warm and fuzzy feelings toward
Perl’s future, I can list them off rather easily.

  1. I am participating in a number of growing projects that depend
    on Perl’s future. Jifty and rethinking-cpan
    are just a couple I’m involved in. I can point you to several other
    vital projects that I use or am familiar with.
  2. I know of
    several companies actively pursuing Perl to develop core projects
    and continuing to train developers. This includes imdb.com, Socialtext, Best Practical, Six Apart, and several
    others
    .
  3. Recently, Google launched Google App Engine. This tool provides
    services to Python developers as part of the initial release. The
    top most voted for issues are first to add support for Ruby and
    second to add support for Perl, as
    of this writing.
  4. There’s an average of 50 new and updated
    modules being posted to CPAN every day. That’s not a small
    number.

I can probably come up with more, but now it’s getting late, so
I’d better end this thing. If Perl is going to die, it’s got some
years left before it happens. I think there will be enough activity
to keep it going and increasing during those years rather than
dying.

Oslo QA hackathon wrap-up

April 11, 2008 Community, CPAN 1 comment

I’d been meaning to write up a summary of blog posts that people had written about the QA hackathon that happened in Oslo a few days ago. Fortunately, Adam Kennedy did it for me, summarizing what the QA thinkers decided, and didn’t decide, in those few days in Norway.

[M]y main desire for the Oslo QA Hackathon was to sit a large percentage of the CPAN movers and shakers down in one place and try to iron out some of the inconsistencies around certain metadata issues. I’m happy to report that we managed to obtain either consensus or an agreement to not make a decision and take a “wait and see” approach on a number of issues.

Bonus points for him actually having been there, unlike me. Thanks to all of you for putting your heads together to forge some direction.

David Golden points out there’s a much larger writeup of other activities from the hackathon on the Perl QA wiki.

The problem with “same terms as Perl” licensing

April 10, 2008 Uncategorized 2 comments

Shlomi Fish brought up an angle to the problem with slapping a boilerplate “same terms as Perl itself” at the bottom of your modules when you distribute them: Which version of Perl do you mean?

For me, I’ve used that line out of laziness, because I didn’t care to think too much about specifics of the details. Now I’ll be going back and specifying in my modules.

Open source is not piracy

April 10, 2008 Opinion 17 comments

Jeff Atwood’s blog Coding Horror is one of my favorites. Until yesterday, I’d been recommending it unreservedly.

Jeff’s made a big stumble, and I hope he corrects it soon, publicly. In his latest article, We Don’t Use Software That Costs Money Here, he talks about how the free software alternatives to non-free software are getting better all the time. Unfortunately, he claims that

It’s tempting to ascribe this to the “cult of no-pay”, programmers and users who simply won’t pay for software no matter how good it is, or how inexpensive it may be. These people used to be called pirates. Now they’re open source enthusiasts.

He couldn’t be more wrong. There is no equating software piracy, the theft and misuse of copyrighted software, with using open source, where the license specifically allows and encourages the redistribution of the software. Piracy violates the terms of the copyright and license. It’s possible to do this with open source software as well, by not following the terms of the license.

In fact, there’s no difference between open source software creators protecting their freely-licensed software from owners of non-open licensed software, such as the unfairly reviled Metallica, from protecting their works as well. When we applaud the Software Freedom Law Center for suing companies that violate the GPL, we should also recognize that owners of commercial software licenses should enjoy the same rights to protect their licensing terms as well.

I’m urging Jeff Atwood to correct his mistake. Open source software is nothing at all like piracy. Open source is about the license, not the financial cost.

Searching CPAN from Firefox

April 6, 2008 CPAN 8 comments

David Filmer posted a snazzy Firefox trick that puts a CPAN search in the search dropdown in Firefox. Works wonderfully.

Rethinking the interface to CPAN

April 5, 2008 CPAN, Opinion 17 comments

I’ve started a group, rethinking-cpan, for discussing the ideas I’ve posted here. — Andy

Every few months, someone comes up with a modest proposal to improve CPAN and its public face.
Usually it’ll be about “how to make CPAN easier to search”.
It may be
about adding reviews to search.cpan.org, or reorganizing the categories, or
any number of relatively easy-to-implement tasks. It’ll be a good idea,
but it’s focused too tightly.

We don’t want to “make CPAN easier to search.” What we’re really trying to do is
help with the selection process.
We want to help the user find and select the best tool for the job.

It might involve showing the user the bug queue; or a list of
reviews; or an average star rating. But ultimately, the goal is
to let any person with a given problem find and select a solution.

“I want to parse XML, what should I use?” is a common question. XML::Parser? XML::Simple?
XML::Twig? If “parse XML” really means “find a single tag out of
a big order file my boss gave me”, the answer might well be a regex,
no?
Perl’s mighty CPAN is both blessing and curse. We have
14,966 distributions as I write this, but people say “I can’t find
what I want.” Searching
for “XML”
is barely a useful exercise.

Success in the real world

Let’s take a look at an example outside of the programming world.
In my day job, I work for
Follett Library Resources and
Book Wholesalers, Inc.
We are basically the Amazon.com for the school
& public library markets, respectively. The key feature to the
website is not ordering, but in helping librarians decide what books
they should buy for their libraries. Imagine you have an elementary
school library, and $10,000 in book budget for the year. What books
do you buy? Our website is geared to making that happen.

Part of this is technical solutions. We have effective keyword
searching, so you can search for “horses” and get books about horses.
Part of it is filtering, like “I want books for this grade level,
and that have been positively reviewed in at least two journals,”
in addition to plain ol’ keyword searching. Part of it is showing
book covers, and reprinting reviews from journals. (If anyone’s
interested in specifics, let me know and I can probably get you
some screenshots and/or guest access.)

BWI takes it even farther. There’s an entire department called
Collection Development where librarians select books, CDs & DVDs
to recommend to the librarians. The recommendations could be based
on choices made by the CollDev staff directly. They could be
compiled from awards lists (Caldecott, Newbery) or state lists (the
Texas Bluebonnet Awards, for example). Whatever the source, they
help solve the customer’s problem of “I need to buy some books,
what’s good?”

This is no small part of the business. The websites for the two
companies are key differentiators in the marketplace. Specifically,
they raise the company’s level of service from simply providing an
item to purchase to actually helping the customer do her/his job. There’s no point in providing
access to hundreds of thousands of books, CDs and DVDs if the librarian can’t decide what to buy.
FLR is the #1 vendor in the market, in large part because of the effectiveness of the website.

Relentless focus on finding the right thing

Take a look at the front of the FLR website. As I write this, the
page first thing a user sees is “Looking for lists of top titles?”
That link leads to
a page of lists for users to browse. Award lists,
popular series grouped by grade level, top video choices, a list called “Too good to miss,” and so on.
The entire focus that the user sees is “How can I help you find what you want?”

Compare that with the front page
of search.cpan.org
. Twenty-six links to the categories that
link to modules in the archaic Module List. Go on, tell me what’s
in “Control Flow Utilities,” I dare you. Where do I find my XML
modules? Seriously, read through all 26 categories
without laughing and/or crying. Where would someone find Template
Toolkit? Catalyst? ack? Class::Accessor? That one module that
I heard about somewhere that lets me access my Lloyd’s bank account
programtically?

Even if you can navigate the categories, it hardly matters. Clicking
through to the category list leads to a one-line description like
“Another way of exporting symbols.” Plus, the majority of modules
on CPAN are not registered in the Module List. The Module List is
an artifact a decade old that has far outlived its original usefulness.

What can we do?

There have been attempts, some implemented, some not, to do many
of these things that FLR & BWI do very effectively. We have
CPAN ratings and keyword searching, for example. BWI selects lists
of top books, and
Shlomi
Fish has recently suggested
having reviews of categories of
modules, which sounds like a great idea. I made a very tentative start on
this on perl101.org
. But it’s not enough.

We need to stop thinking tactical (“Let’s have reviews”)
and start thinking (“How do we get the proper modules/solutions in
the hands of the users that want them.”) Nothing short of a complete
overhaul of the front end of the CPAN will make a dent in this
problem. We need a revolution, not evolution, to solve the problem.

Call for grant proposals, 2008 Q2

April 3, 2008 Community, Perl Foundation No comments

The Perl Foundation is calling for grant proposals for Perl-related projects. This can be a great way to get funding a project you’re working on, or would like to see worked on. TPF has funded Strawberry Perl, Perl::Critic, pVoice and dozens of other projects in the past. Maybe yours can be the next.

Perl is back at OSCON 2008

April 1, 2008 Community, Conferences No comments

The schedule for OSCON 2008 has just been announced, and the Perl track is back with a vengeance. Last year, our favorite language seemed to be falling out of favor with five tutorials and nine sessions. This year, it’s five tutorials and fifteen sessions. Tim Bunce’s DashProfiler and Eric Wilhelm’s Stick a fork() in It: Parallel and Distributed Perl are the two that jump out at me.

I won’t be speaking about Perl. Instead, I’ll be talking about Just enough C for open source projects and part of Michael Schwern’s tutorial-length People For Geeks extravaganza.