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How much programming language is enough?

Many programmers have opinions on programming languages. Maybe, if I present an opinion on programming languages, I can pass off as a programmer.

An old debate in psychology and anthropology is that of nature vs nurture, the discussion over which characteristics of humans and their personalities are innate and which are learned or otherwise transferred.

We can imagine two extremists in this debate turning their attention to programming languages. On the one hand, you might imagine that if the ability to write a computer program is somehow innate, then there is a way of expressing programming concepts that is closely attuned to that innate representation. Find this expression, and everyone will be able to program as fast as they can think. Although there’ll still be arguments over bracket placement, and Dijkstra will still tell you it’s rubbish.

On the other hand, you might imagine that the mind is a blank slate, onto which can be writ any one (or more?) of diverse patterns. Then the way in which you will best express a computer program is dependent on all of your experiences and interactions, with the idea of a “best” way therefore being highly situated.

We will leave this debate behind. It seems that programming shares some brain with learning other languages, and when it comes to deciding whether language is innate or learned we’re still on shaky ground. It seems unlikely on ethical grounds that Nim Chimpsky will ever be joined by Charles Babboonage, anyway.

So, having decided that there’s still an open question, there must exist somewhere into which I can insert my uninvited opinion. I had recently been thinking that a lot of the ceremony and complexity surrounding much of modern programming has little to do with it being difficult to represent a problem to a computer, and everything to do with there being unnecessary baggage in the tools and languages themselves. That is to say that contrary to Fred Brooks’s opinion, we are overwhelmed with Incidental Complexity in our art. That the mark of expertise in programming is being able to put up with all the nonsense programming makes you do.

From this premise, it seems clear that less complex programming languages are desirable. I therefore look admirably at tools like Self, io and Scheme, which all strive for a minimum number of distinct parts.

However, Clemens Szyperski from Microsoft puts forward a different argument in this talk. He works on the most successful development environment. In the talk, Szyperski suggests that experienced programmers make use of, and seek out, more features in a programming language to express ideas concisely, using different features for different tasks. Beginners, on the other hand, benefit from simpler languages where there is less to impede progress. So, what now? Does the “less is more” principle only apply to novice programmers?

Maybe the experienced programmers Szyperski identified are not experts. There’s an idea that many programmers are expert beginners, that would seem to fit Szyperski’s model. The beginner is characterised by a microscopic, non-holistic view of their work. They are able to memorise and apply heuristic rules that help them to make progress.

The expert beginner is someone who has simply learned more rules. To the expert beginner, there is a greater number of heuristics to choose from. You can imagine that if each rule is associated with a different piece of programming language grammar, then it’d be easier to remember the (supposed) causality behind “this situation calls for that language feature”.

That leaves us with some interesting open questions. What would a programming tool suitable for experts (or the proficient) look like? Do we have any? Alan Kay is fond of saying that we’re stuck with novice-friendly user experiences, that don’t permit learning or acquiring expertise:

There is the desire of a consumer society to have no learning curves. This tends to result in very dumbed-down products that are easy to get started on, but are generally worthless and/or debilitating. We can contrast this with technologies that do have learning curves, but pay off well and allow users to become experts (for example, musical instruments, writing, bicycles, etc. and to a lesser extent automobiles).

Perhaps, while you could never argue that common programming languages don’t have learning curves, they are still “generally worthless and/or debilitating”. Perhaps it’s true that expertise at programming means expertise at jumping through the hoops presented by the programming language, not expertise at telling a computer how to solve a problem in the real world.