Opinion

Why do designers fail to adopt Perl?

August 8, 2008 Advocacy, Opinion 12 comments

A Perlbuzz guest editorial, by Dave Everitt

As the “the glue/duct tape/chainsaw that holds the web together”,
Perl is all but invisible to most web users. It is still one of the
best-established
languages of choice,
yet remains behind the scenes and out of the limelight. This “brand
invisibility,” coupled with the factors outlined below, has contributed
to the erroneous perception that Perl is outdated or unfashionable
in the glaring light of other more energetically-promoted solutions.
Despite the continuing dominance of LAMP, what do most web designers
think the “P” stands for? Not Perl.

Cultural perception and perceived popularity don’t help anyone to
make a logical evaluation; this is an attempt to put the record
straight.

“Design? That’s for designers!”

Many Perl monks (and other alpha-geek programmers) hold design in
some kind of contempt. Here are some comments by Perl coders:

  • Don’t trust designers with code:
    “…now you can pass “helloworld.tmpl.html” to your web designer
    to modify it in her/his favorite HTML editor. (Just tell her/him
    not to touch the HTML tags starting with “<TMPL_”)”
    HTML::Template Tutorial
  • Design is trivial:
    “If you find yourself lacking as a web designer or generally couldn’t
    care less, you can give your templates to a web designer who can
    spice them up. As long as they do not mangle the special tags or
    change form variable names, your code will still work.”
    HTML::Template Tutorial

This kind of wilful separation from design is a big put-off factor
to newbie web programmers, and is endemic throughout the Perl
community: “designers can’t come in here until they’re willing to
learn serious code”. In other words: “the aspirant must show
humility”. Understandable perhaps; and, once you start trying, the
community is as helpful and friendly as can be. Just not overly
welcoming to “designers”; in fact, some Perl websites appear almost
deliberately or even proudly ugly. Perl templating solutions like
HTML::Template
or
Template Toolkit get ignored
by most web designers in favour of comfy, close-to-hand solutions
like PHP, ASP.NET, whatever Dreamweaver offers,
or younger and prettier models like Ruby on Rails or Python’s Django.

Here’s a more rational approach to the “design vs. code” separation:

“…the best Perl programmers are rarely the best HTML designers,
and the best HTML designers are rarely the best Perl programmers.
It is for this reason that the separation of these two elements is
arguably the most beneficial design decision you can make when
devising an application architecture.” —
Jesse Erlbaum, Using CGI::Application

This remains true, except that increasing numbers of people and
teams are becoming good enough at coding and design to handle both
passably well, They’re choosing to invest the time necessary to
learn both, as the Ruby on Rails explosion demonstrated.
The Perl community needs to respond with a makeover and, maybe,
some key “we’re cool”
websites like Catalyst’s website to help
rescue Perl’s dated image, even if many Perl programmers don’t care about it.

Most designers want to be included in the “our site is cool, therefore
we’re cool crowd,” not shoved in next to an ancient HTML website
in ANSI colours.

Where are my web pages? How do I know what does what?”

Programmers know that effective templating separates logic from
content from style. However, designers familiar with web pages and
visual appeal are often used to working with actual files, unlike
programmers who can hold everything in their heads, and in lines
of code that don’t look at all like what they’re going to produce.

Instead of these cosy actual files (the static web pages), most
templating means that a site’s links call a script that generates
the pages. In other words, your website becomes a web application
program, with all the power and flexibility. The literal, clunky
file-for-every-page website disappears in the process, and this is
just where many designers get a bit lost in starting the journey.

Both the original DHTML and current Ajax are effectively still
attempts to turn web pages into dynamic web applications. What isn’t
obvious to the designer is that these technologies have been around
for ages. They don’t see that secure and reliable interaction with
the server, solid yet flexible programming in Perl can drive a zippy
Web 2.0 site as easily as Ruby on Rails.

Designers who want to start programming sometimes fail to make the
conceptual leap from web pages as static files, to web applications
consisting of components and screens. Failing to make this leap
means they fall instead between logic and content by defaulting to
PHP, Dreamweaver templates, Cold Fusion, etc. Perhaps this failure
to make the complete leap happens because designers feel uncomfortable
without seeing the actual “pages” they’re working with, or because
the dominant web design software makes it easy to adopt its own
default solutions.

Where are the “Perl tools” for Dreamweaver? All the publiclity and
books read “Dreamweaver CS3 with ASP, ColdFusion, and PHP.” If Eric
Meyer can improve CSS support in Dreamweaver, could the Perl community
do the same towards integrating Perl tools? A million design houses
across the world might then at least see a menu item containing the
word “Perl” in their favourite software.

“Perl is impossible to read!”

Perl itself can be no harder to learn or read than the PHP to
which many designers default.
Learning Perl is far from dead, now in its 5th edition,
and is regarded as one of
the best books for anyone learning programming in general.

However, Perl programmers often delight in the potential economy
of the language, and their concise code can appear obscure and
impenetrable. I’ve even heard good programmers, fluent in other
languages, say “Perl is horrible” or “unreadable”. Yet to a beginner,
Java (to take one example) is far more “horrible”, verbose and
complicated — just compare “hello world” in both languages.

Actually, beyond that initial step, how easy code is to understand
depends on who does the coding. Precisely because there’s more than
one way to do it, Perl can be written as readably as any other
language. Most times this isn’t obvious to a beginner because
Perl coders don’t
need to keep it obvious when they can use powerful shortcuts or
write one-liners. With this in mind, my Perl monk friend replied
to a draft of this article with a “line noise” of caution:

I wouldn’t recommend it as a first language. It’s a second or third
language. That’s when it becomes powerful. I wouldn’t want to put
people off programming by making them look at
@s=map{s/_/!/gi}grep{!~/^#/}@p.

“Perl/CGI is slow (and gets slower with increasing server load)”

This isn’t true with FastCGI FastCGI or
mod_perl.
But try
telling a designer who may only just be discovering the unforgiving
nature of the command-line that these are an easy install. Or
persuading a popular shared hosting provider (where many designers
are hosting) to supply them on their list of default options.

To complicate the issue, there’s also a groundswell of opinion
against the complexity of
frameworks in general,
with sites prototyped in Rails being redeveloped with other tools.
Then there’s the
shared hosting
debate.

Isn’t there a gap opening up here for tried-and-tested but nicely
packaged Perl solutions for web development? Can’t we fit between
a designer’s static pages and a full-blown framework? But just try
finding a good-looking Perl templating tutorial that shows off the
kind of tidy, well-crafted and semantic XHTML and cutting-edge CSS
that the best designers produce, or a one-click Perl template install
with a good-looking promotional website.

Rails has demonstrated that speed isn’t initially the issue. Ease,
buzz, style and ubiquitous market presence are. Perl doesn’t have
to remain the dowdy elder sister — given the same kind of push,
it can go to the ball too.

“So what’s a poor designer to do?”

If you want to develop your skills, ask “will I be using a programming
language at least 2-3 times a week to actually do something; that
is, as much as you currently use (X)HTML/CSS?”
If not, you’ll almost certainly forget what programming
you learn and might be better off leaving it to “real programmers”.

However, if you do want to develop those skills, a good route is
to experiment with a templating system that encourages the separation
of logic and presentation, like HTML::Template or Template Toolkit.
Work through the tutorial websites and just get something working.
All you need to know for starters is that HTML::Template fills HTML
templates dynamically with data according to the logic in your Perl,
or that Template Toolkit generates static pages from your Perl.

What you, the designer, must learn first

You do run Apache locally on your machine, don’t you? Okay. Now get
CPAN and use it to install Perl modules
for your platform. Be mindful of
case-folding if you’re on Mac OS X
Yes, I know there should be a guide to all this, but like all
learning curves in big territories, there’s no authoritative manual.
To make it easier, perhaps there could be.

To make an intelligent comparison, you might want to try Ruby on
Rails. The latest OS X already has RoR bundled.
If you’ve done all this and are still committed to PHP, keep the logic
apart from the design or tears of despair will follow.
Steer clear of the
convolutions that PHP allows, and note the following
well:

PHP has full support for classes, attributes and methods, and
supports object-orientation, but the key problem is that no one
seems to use it! There is a vast body of sample PHP code on the
web, but nearly all of it is absolutely dreadful.
HUGE long procedures,
no structure, little code refactoring, and intermixed code and HTML
that is impossible to read and must be impossible to maintain.
— Tim Roberts, Python Wiki

Anyone who has been there will echo “yes, it is impossible to
maintain,” but that’s not the language’s fault.
It might not all be squeaky-clean, but there isn’t a vast body of
“absolutely dreadful” Perl on the web. As a designer looking to
settle on a language, that’s a very valuable pointer. If you’ve
ever had to plough through lines of “impossible to read” and
“impossible to maintain” PHP, you’ll understand that
although PHP can be written as well as any other language, it often
isn’t.

If ways can’t be found to improve the overall quality of PHP
authorship, well-styled bridges just need to be built for designers
serious about programming to visit the Perl community. When they
get there, they’ll need to feel at home.


Dave Everitt is a
print-turned-web designer/developer who internalised HTML and CSS
in the last century and steadily developing Perl skills in this
one. His work includes the roles of web designer, educator and new
media academic.

Perl must decentralize, diversify and colonize

May 6, 2008 Advocacy, Community, Opinion 23 comments

Perl’s big problem is one of perception. The other day, a job
candidate asked me “You’re moving your web apps from PHP to Perl?
Shouldn’t it be the other way around?” Why did he think that? The
candidate knew no Perl, and only a bit of PHP, so had no technical
reason to believe that PHP was better than Perl. So why did he think
Perl was subservient to PHP in the web arena?

What I suspect is that Perl is just less visible, and
not just in the sense of
crap like the TIOBE index
where it equates hits for
“Foo programming” popularity of the Foo language.
 I’m talking about in the real way people see the
world of programming.

I’m certain that PHP has become a de facto
choice for basic web apps because it’s just How You Do
It these days. You see enough PHP in the context of the web, it starts to sink in.

Why is Ruby on Rails so popular? Is it better than Perl on Catalyst?
Or is it just that people hear about Rails more? I suspect the
latter, because perception is reality. When people perceive
Perl as being dead, or not as powerful as other tools, it might as
well be.

There are three goals I’d like to address:

  • Perl needs diversity, needs new blood, both in
    users and community as well as tools.
  • Perl needs more active mindshare in the programming world.
  • Perl 5 must continue to be seen as a viable language.

The three actions to take: Decentralize, diversify and colonize.

Perl must decentralize

Perl has a great infrastructure. We have the CPAN. We
have the various sites of perl.org. We have Perl
Mongers and perlmonks, and so on. Unfortunately, we’ve
grown complacent. It’s time to start looking elsewhere
for infrastructure and community.

Standardization on tools makes sense if the tools are
the best possible tools available. In many cases, the
infrastructure already in place in the Perl community
may not be the best there is.

Is the Mailman installation running on lists.perl.org the best
mailing list solution for you when you need to start a
mailing list? If not, then consider other options.
Starting a list at groups.google.com is
trivial, for example.

Is rt.cpan.org the
best bug tracking solution for your modules or
projects? If not, then look at other options. Many of
my modules, such as ack and WWW::Mechanize are hosted
at Google Code, where I use the bug tracking system
there.

Is use.perl.org the
best place to host your blog? Maybe you should post
somewhere else. Certainly that was the case with me. I found that use.perl.org wasn’t the news site I
wanted it to be, so I started Perlbuzz as an alternative, literally
doubling the number of news sites devoted to Perl.

Note that “alternative” does not me “replacement”. It’s possible to have
two similar but diferent projects, websites or whatever that both fill a need.
If, say, Perlbuzz replaced use.perl.org, we’d still only have one news site, which
is no better a situation than we started with.

Some of the alternatives might not be community-based. Google Code,
is not run by altruistic volunteers.
Commercial interests will usually have more time and money to spend
on providing useful infrastructure.
That’s no
knock on the volunteers, but merely taking advantage of what the commercial
interest has to offer.

(I know at some point someone will say “At some point decentralization
is harmful.” I agree, but we’re nowhere near that point. Such a problem to have!)

Perl must diversify

The mantra “There’s more than one way to do it” is at the core of Perl
the language, but this is not always the case in the Perl community. We must always remember the guiding
principle of TMTOWTDI.

The first place to diversify is with people. I suspect, but cannot prove, that the Perl community’s size
is a net loss as time goes by. We must constantly be trying to bring new people into the fold, to take advantage
of their innovations, and to make what we do more fun.

Second, we must be willing to launch new projects, even if they’re similar to existing projects. It could be a module,
or a website, or an entire application.
The knee-jerk resistance to diversity often sounds like this:

  • “Why do we need Getopt::Whatever, we already have Getopt::Long”
  • “Why do we need another templating system?”
  • “Why do we need Jifty/Catalyst/whatever? We already have Maypole.”
  • “Why do we need Perlbuzz, we already have use.perl.org?”

I’ve never understood this fear. It sounds like the resistance is based on the premise of “I wouldn’t want
to do that project, so you shouldn’t either.” It’s the refrain of someone with a closed mind, unable or unwilling
to imagine what could be.
In the case of similar modules, the refrain usually goes “It’s too hard to find the module you want anyway,” but that’s
not a problem of the module, but of the way things are found in CPAN itself.
(And if you’d like to address that little bit of decentralization, please take a look at my
Rethinking CPAN mailing list.)

Ultimately, fear of the new is counter to the principle of TMTOWTDI.
Indeed, plurality is at the very heart of open
source
, and it’s additive, not subtractive.
Template Toolkit need not take away
from Mason. Perlbuzz need not take away from
use.perl.org. Perl didn’t take away from awk and shell.
In any of these cases, if the new solution does take
away from another, then the other solution was an
inferior one to begin with.

Decentralizing and diversifying do two things. First, it opens our
minds to alternatives that we may not have considered.
It makes us more likely to find solutions that are
better than what we started with. Second, it helps
with colonization, the ultimate goal.

Perl must colonize

The other day, Tim O’Reilly posted on his Twitter feed
a link to a
cool article about life in the universe
which
mentioned
Von Neumann probes
, theoretical space craft that
can replicate themselves using materials found in their
travels. A single probe could travel some distance,
replicate a thousand cloned probes, which would then
launch in a thousand different directions, repeating
the cycle.

That’s what we need to do: Colonize the mindshare of the world
to let them know that Perl is still viable, and a hell of a lot of fun.
These new Perl lovers will spread the love as well, and the cycle will continue.
In terms of action, it means simply “helping make more people aware of Perl as a
cool & useful language.” Fortunately, it’s a case where we can think globally and act locally, even passively.

The biggest effect I see you, the reader, as being able to have is by spreading out Perl’s web footprint.
I want more places for people to find out about Perl,
rather than a few big ones.

This colonization approach goes hand-in-hand with
decentralization. Take my ack project, for example. ack has
a number of footprints out there:

That’s three times places for people to stumble across Perl, to see it mentioned. A separate home page also
makes it more likely to get linked from somewhere else, as when
Daring Fireball
linked to ack and thousands of people came to see about ack. That’s thousands of people who went and saw “Huh, here’s a tool
in Perl.”

Of course, a few thousand visitors isn’t going to change any mindshare. That’s
why it’s not just me that needs to work on this. Fortunately, decentralizing
and diversifying makes colonization easy.

Our Google footprint is pretty bad, anyway. When I search for “perl” in Google, the top five hits are:

  • perl.org, which is a good base.
  • perl.com, O’Reilly’s Perl page, also a good base.
  • The wikipedia entry for Perl, which certainly isn’t much help for a beginner
  • www.cpan.org, with its front page that expects that you know what you want.
  • An old perl 4 man page from Carnegie-Mellon University

Is this the best impression that we have to give the world?

Adam Kennedy gets it

Adam Kennedy’s Strawberry Perl
is a marvel of the principles I’ve talked about. Strawberry
decentralizes, as it uses none of the core perl.org infrastructure, and
it diversifies and colonizes by giving Windows users an alternative
to ActivePerl, which for many users is not robust enough.
When people talk about Strawberry Perl, it helps with mindshare as well.

Adam is a great example of someone who has set out to make improvements to a part of Perl,
and implemented it without worrying about permission or duplication, helping Perl as a whole along the way.
I thank him for it. I suspect his Perl On a Stick project will have similar results.

How you can help?

The strategy of decentralize/diversify/colonize takes actions at all different
levels. You don’t have to go create your own Perl distribution, or even write any code.
Here are some other ideas to get you started.

  • Post a Perl-related web page to Digg,
    reddit or any of the
    other social bookmarking websites.
  • Bring someone new to a Perl Mongers meeting, even if
    Perl isn’t his/her primary language. Especially
    if it isn’t his/her primary language.
  • Go to a user group meeting for another language. See
    what they’re talking about. Share the Perl perspective.
  • Start a blog outside of the use.perl.org hierarchy. If you already
    have a u.p.o journal, keep it, and post to both places.
  • Start a mailing list related to a project of yours. Host it
    somewhere like Google Groups. Don’t worry that “people won’t be able to find
    it,” because the
    list of groups at lists.perl.org
    is no model of organization, either. Besides, the only people
    who know to look at lists.perl.org are the people that already know
    there are lists at lists.perl.org. They’re not who we’re after.
  • Start an alternative to perlmonks.org.
    Perlmonks is a fine site, but it’s long in the tooth, daunting to newbies, and
    frustrating to search. Surely there’s a different way to have an online Perl forum that is better
    in many cases.
  • Work on a project that helps cross-pollinate Perl to the rest of the world. The
    Test Anything Protocol is a good
    example of this.
  • Review a book about Perl. Get it posted to Slashdot or another big tech site.
  • Write about Perl in your blog. Even if you think it’s not interesting to Perl people, that’s fine.
    Someone will want to read it, and you’ll spread that mindshare.
  • When you talk about Perl, don’t be afraid to use the F-word and the L-word: “fun” and “love”.

What do you think?

I’d like to hear your ideas. How can we expand Perl’s
reach? What have you done to help decentralize, diversify
and colonize? How can we keep Perl fun and exciting?

Two comments I don’t need to hear: “This will never work” and “This is a waste of time.”
If that’s what you have to contribute, trust that I’ve taken
your insight into account already, and save yourself some
typing. Alternative courses of action, however, are more
than welcome. Also unnecessary: “None of this would be a problem if not for Perl 6.”

Acknowledgements

Thanks to a number of people who have helped discuss these ideas with me as I put them together. These include
Pete Krawczyk, Jeffrey Thalhammer, Ricard Signes, Liz Cortell, David Hand, Jesse Vincent and Elliot Shank. I’m sure
I’ve forgotten some, so I apologize if I left you off the list.

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.

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.

Tim Bunce debunks Perl myths

March 17, 2008 Opinion, Perl 5, Perl 6 1 comment

Tim Bunce has put together a presentation debunking three pervasive myths about Perl:

  • Perl is dead
  • Perl is hard to read / test / maintain
  • Perl 6 is killing Perl 5

That last one has a sort of corollary: “Perl 6 is taking too long”, which presupposes that anyone can say how long Perl 6 should be taking.

TPF helps defend the Artistic License

March 15, 2008 Opinion, Perl Foundation No comments

Jim Brandt writes in the TPF news blog that the Perl Foundation is helping a court case surrounding the Artistic License. A Java project has adopted the Artistic License and is now in the middle of a legal battle that could be important legal precedent for future cases regarding open source licensing. TPF has helped support an amicus curae brief in the case.

Jim’s article notes “the argument [in the case] that there can be no remedy to a copyright holder who chooses not to charge money for their work.” It’s kind of like how puzzled relatives ask why me work on open source projects if I’m not getting paid to do it, as if it’s less worthwhile that there’s no money (directly) changing hands. Here, the plaintiffs in the case are trying to make that perception into settled case law. Thanks to TPF for their work here against that happening.

Good Perl code is the best form of evangelism

March 1, 2008 Opinion 4 comments

Here in the Perl echo chamber, there’s a lot of talk about advocacy and getting people to use Perl and whether Perl is more popular in the job market than PHP, but I think most of that is just wind in sails. We talk and talk and talk but when it gets down to it, people don’t use Perl because it’s bigger in the job market, or because of a well-argued thread on Slashdot. People use Perl because the power of Perl makes their lives easier.

Back on the 17th, I posted that Perl would be allowed in the Microsoft Scripting Games. Now, I’m no friend of the “scripting” moniker, but I was glad it was allowed in and thought maybe there would be some good visibility for the power of Perl.

Then I saw the results.

Event 2 in the competition was to read in a text file of comma-separated values of ice skating scores, drop the high & low scores from each skater, and show the top three skaters and their average scores. Trivial for Perl, right? The solution that Microsoft posted, however, was effectively a VBScript script translated to a Perl program (by their own admission).

Here’s the solution they posted.

%dictionary = ();
open (SkaterScores, "C:\Scripts\Skaters.txt");
@arrSkaters = <SkaterScores>;
close (SkaterScores);
foreach $strSkater (@arrSkaters)
{
$intTotal = 0;
@arrScores = split(",",$strSkater);
$strName = @arrScores[0];
@arrScoresOnly = (@arrScores[1],@arrScores[2],
@arrScores[3],@arrScores[4],
@arrScores[5],@arrScores[6],@arrScores[7]);
@arrScoresOnly = sort({$a  $b} @arrScoresOnly);
$intTotal = @arrScoresOnly[1] + @arrScoresOnly[2] +
@arrScoresOnly[3] + @arrScoresOnly[4] +
@arrScoresOnly[5];
$dblAverage = $intTotal / 5;
$dictionary{$strName} = $dblAverage;
}
$i = 0;
foreach (sort {$dictionary{$b}  $dictionary{$a} }
keys %dictionary)
{
$i++;
print "$_, $dictionary{$_}n";
if ($i == 3) {exit}
}

Just dreadful. Among the atrocities: Stringing together list elements with plus signs to get a sum; Hardcoded array indexes; Hungarian notation prefixes of variables, in addition to the Perl sigils; breaking out of a loop after three records are shown, rather than starting with a list of the top three. It’s just not good idiomatic Perl code.

Perl’s arrays and hashes are powerful, and underused here. Perl arrays are treated like C arrays.

In a few minutes, I had put together the following program which is shorter and clearer because it takes advantages of Perl’s strengths.

use warnings;
use strict;
my %averages;
open( my $SCORES, '<', 'c:/scripts/skaters.txt' )
or die "Can't open score file: $!n";
while ( <$SCORES> ) {
chomp;
my ($name,@scores) = split ',';
@scores = sort @scores;
# Drop high & low scores
pop @scores;
shift @scores;
my $total;
$total += $_ for @scores;
$averages{$name} = $total/scalar @scores;
}
close $SCORES;
my @names_by_score =
sort {$averages{$b}  $averages{$a}} keys %averages;
for my $name ( @names_by_score[0..2] ) {
print "$name: $averages{$name}n";
}

(I’ll admit I haven’t tested it against their sample data because their sample data is only available in a self-extracting .EXE, which is a bummer for us non-Windows folks, no?)

After I wrote my solution, I noticed that they have an Experts Page that includes links to solutions offered by Jan Dubois of ActiveState. No surprise, Jan’s solution is exemplary Perl, and I’m glad that Microsoft provides it. My frothing subsided a bit after discovering this.

Rather than arguing with non-Perl people about which language is better, let’s show them. Even more, let’s show the people who think that Perl is only a scripting language, only for web sites, or can’t be deciphered that Perl will make their lives easier if they’d only open their Swiss Army knives beyond the first blade.

Show me the output before I install it!

January 30, 2008 CPAN, Opinion 1 comment

When you’re releasing a module, please show a sample use or the output somewhere in the documentation so that people like me who are interested in your module can have some idea of what it looks like and how I’d use it.

I take for example this new distro, pfacter, which purports to “Collect and display facts about the system.” Sounds great, but how do I use it? I see a little program. Can I see some sample output? Please? There’s nothing in the README or any kind of synopsis that shows it.

Of course, I don’t mean to pick on this one distro. It’s just the one that disappointed me just now and made me post this. It’s something that has always frustrated me, especially as I try to find cool new modules to mention here or over in Mechanix.

(No need to point out that I haven’t do this for ack myself. It’s on my todo. 🙂 )

The relationship between a language and its toolchain, and why Perl 6 scares the hell out of Adam Kennedy

January 29, 2008 Opinion, Perl 6 1 comment

Adam Kennedy has written a very thoughtful article on problems he sees coming up in Perl 6 called
“The relationship between a language and its toolchain, and why Perl 6 scares the hell out of me.” It’s well worth reading even if you’re not following Perl 6 that much.

Your favorite language sucks

January 26, 2008 Opinion 6 comments

The other day I posted a link to an article by Ted Neward called “Can Dynamic Languages Scale?” I thought it was interesting to see that an outsider saw the potential in Parrot, even though it’s not at 1.0 yet. As an afterthought, I lamented that he made a dig at Perl at the end, smiley face or not. I meant it to have the same sort of gravity as saying “Aw, shoot, it’s raining out.” I didn’t care that he didn’t like Perl, but that he had to take a swipe. It certainly wasn’t a big deal.

Apparently his article caused a minor uproar. Neward posted a followup called “So I Don’t Like Perl. Sue Me” in response to the Perl folks arguing with his taste in languages. He shouldn’t have had to do that.

your-favorite-band-sucks.jpg
I don’t get Radiohead. It’s all ponderous and aimless. I also don’t get Phish, Peter Gabriel and/or Genesis, Yo La Tengo or Tori Amos. But so what? It’s personal taste. I don’t like Java, either, although I haven’t written any in the past 10 years. You know why I don’t like Java? It just doesn’t look like it’s any fun. I’m sure people can explain to me why Java is great, but it won’t change my mind. And it doesn’t need to.

If you really want someone to love Perl, you’ll have to show him, not tell him. Show him great code, great projects. Show the doubters that Perl can do amazing things. Action, not words. And if he still doesn’t get it, that’s OK.