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Something old, something new

Sometimes, what you want out of a software system is something
unexciting. Something proven to work, that’s well-understood, and has
had all of the kinks smoothed out over years (or even decades) of
refinement.

Of course, what you get when that’s what you want is something like
Unix. Where the thing it was designed for…well, let’s not pretend
that
Unix was ever designed. The
thing it was used for – hosting the runoff typesetting system that is
only applied these days to formatting its own manual – is so far from
its current application as a
bootloader sitting between your other bootloader and the thing you’re using your computer for
that you can’t understand why someone would think the same thing would
be used for both purposes.

And you find that the kinks have not been ironed out so much as, well,
baked in. The limitation that processes communicate via an untyped
character stream with unspecified eight-bit encoding is not a
limitation, it’s
a design philosophy.

So what you really want to do is to throw away all of that cruft,
all of the mistakes of the past, and go somewhere new. Somewhere
exciting. Somewhere…like node.js? Well no,
JavaScript is of course far from new and exciting, even
the jokes about it are
years old now.

OK, so bad example, but maybe you have your own counter-example. The
one true environment that will be used for all future software. Well,
at least for the next nine months, before its killer comes along.

Of course, what you get when that’s what you want is another rewrite
of all of the things that were working anyway. Your new environment
probably comes with a package manager written from scratch in the new
language, when there was really nothing much wrong with CPAN.

Keeping on the programming theme, because that’s what we tend to make
computering out of, most languages that have any traction these days
almost certainly have C language bindings. So it’s no surprise that
the most popular open source projects are all written in C…

…OK, now that you’ve stopped laughing and got your breath back, you
can appreciate that actually the lingua franca of modern (ahem)
operating systems is not used to cut through the babel of other
programming languages, but just to write their runtimes. Because
that’s what C is good at: secure, bounds-checked execution
environments.

And you can also appreciate that all of the novelty of the new shiny
is used to rewrite the things that already existed and already worked,
replacing them with new implementations that work in surprising ways
(and don’t work in surprising ways, too).

There’s good in the old. There’s bad in the new. There’s bad in the
old, and good in the new, too. There are plenty of social, political,
economic, and – maybe – technical factors in whether the old survives,
or the new thrives. Arguments for the old or the new for their own
sake are facile and misguided.

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