Programming is like writing

From a comment on Slashdot:

I swtiched jobs from being a computer programmer to being an ESL teacher in Japan. Japan is somewhat famous for churning out students who know a lot about English, but can’t order a drink at Mac Donald’s. We used to have a name for those kinds of people with regard to programming languages: language laywers. They can answer any question you put to them about a programming language, but couldn’t program to save their life. These people often make it past job interviews easily, but then turn out to be huge disappointments when they actually get down to work. I’ve read a lot about this problem, but the more I look at it, the more I realise that these disabled programmers are just like my students. They have a vocabulary of 5000 words, know every grammar rule in the book but just can’t speak.

My current theory is that programming is quite literally writing. The vast majority of programming is not conceptually difficult (contrary to what a lot of people would have you believe). We only make it difficult because we suck at writing. The vast majority of programmers aren’t fluent, and don’t even have a desire to be fluent. They don’t read other people’s code. They don’t recognise or use idioms. They don’t think in the programming language. Most code sucks because we have the fluency equivalent of 3 year olds trying to write a novel. And so our programs are needlessly complex.

Those programmers with a “spark” are programmers who have an innate talent for the language. Or they are people who have read and read and read code. Or both. We teach programming wrong. We teach it the way Japanese teachers have been teaching English. We teach about programming and expect that students will spontaneously learn to write from this collection of facts.

In language acquisition there is a hypothesis called the “Input Hypothesis”. It states that all language acquisition comes from “comprehensible input”. That is, if you hear or read language that you can understand based on what you already know and from context, you will acquire it. Explanation does not help you acquire language. I believe the same is true of programming. We should be immersing students in good code. We should be burying them in idiom after idiom after idiom, allowing them to acquire the ability to program without explanation.

By studying a number of examples, we have come to the conclusion that programs in less expressive languages exhibit repeated occurrences of programming patterns, and that this pattern-oriented style is detrimental to the programming process.

Felleisen, “On the expressive power of programming languages”

On the evolution of GUIs

From 1998 [http://xach.com/naggum/articles/3115189096274592@naggum.no.html]

Today’s GUI’s are generally built out of hard-coded event handlers.

A language that could describe the display and the events and associate them with protocol elements such that it would all be data-driven (instead of code-driven) and which required a protocol between the server and the client such that the server only dealt with function calls returning values to the client and the client did all the event handling and dispatching and display, would cause a giant leap forward in GUI design and simplify the tasks involved tremendously.

But thanks to Microsoft, we now mostly have code-driven GUIs that are as portable as the average Egyptian pyramid and which ensure as much “full employment” as the same pyramids, and we now mostly have people who don’t even understand the differences and the layering of language, protocol, and display engine.

Making that happen in a language design should involve some subtle shifts in the way data is conceptualized. That isn’t a digression in a discussion of types, because the way we conceptualize data has deep, not to say insidious, effects on the nature of typing.

As for the types themselves, I suggest we abandon the whole notion of types in favor of a lightweight mathematical notion of sets — and avoid using the word “type” as it naturally drags us back toward the conceptual morass of type theory that we need to escape.