Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Python and the Programmer - A Conversation with Bruce Eckel, Part I

Python and the Programmer
A Conversation with Bruce Eckel, Part I
by Bill Venners
Jun 2, 2003

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Bruce Eckel talks with Bill Venners about why he feels Python is "about him," how minimizing clutter improves productivity, and the relationship between backwards compatibility and programmer pain.

Bruce Eckel wrote the best-selling books Thinking in C++ and Thinking in Java, but for the past several years he's preferred to think in Python. Two years ago, Eckel gave a keynote address at the 9th International Python Conference entitled "Why I love Python." He presented ten reasons he loves programming in Python in "top ten list" style, starting with ten and ending with one.

In this interview, which is being published in weekly installments, I ask Bruce Eckel about each of these ten points. In this installment, Bruce Eckel explains why he feels Python is "about him," how minimizing clutter improves productivity, and the relationship between backwards compatibility and programmer pain.

Bill Venners: In the introduction to your "Why I Love Python" keynote, you said what you love the most is "Python is about you." How is Python about you?

Bruce Eckel: With every other language I've had to deal with, it's always felt like the designers were saying, "Yes, we're trying to make your life easier with this language, but these other things are more important." With Python, it has always felt like the designers were saying, "We're trying to make your life easier, and that's it. Making your life easier is the thing that we're not compromising on."

For example, the designers of C++ certainly attempted to make the programmer's life easier, but always made compromises for performance and backwards compatibility. If you ever had a complaint about the way C++ worked, the answer was performance and backwards compatibility.

Bill Venners: What compromises do you see in Java? James Gosling did try to make programmers more productive by eliminating memory bugs.

Bruce Eckel: Sure. I also think that Java's consistency of error handling helped programmer productivity. C++ introduced exception handling, but that was just one of many ways to handle errors in C++. At one time, I thought that Java's checked exceptions were helpful, but I've modified my view on that. (See Resources.)

It seems the compromise in Java is marketing. They had to rush Java out to market. If they had taken a little more time and implemented design by contract, or even just assertions, or any number of other features, it would have been better for the programmer. If they had done design and code reviews, they would have found all sorts of silliness. And I suppose the way Java is marketed is probably what rubs me the wrong way about it. We can say, "Oh, but we don't like this feature," and the answer is, "Yes, but, marketing dictates that it be this way."

Maybe the compromises in C++ were for marketing reasons too. Although choosing to be efficient and backwards compatible with C was done to sell C++ to techies, it was still to sell it to somebody.

I feel Python was designed for the person who is actually doing the programming, to maximize their productivity. And that just makes me feel warm and fuzzy all over. I feel nobody is going to be telling me, "Oh yeah, you have to jump through all these hoops for one reason or another." When you have the experience of really being able to be as productive as possible, then you start to get pissed off at other languages. You think, "Gee, I've been wasting my time with these other languages."

Number 10: Reduced Clutter

Bill Venners: In your keynote, you gave ten reasons you love Python. Number ten was reduced clutter. What did you mean by reduced clutter?

Bruce Eckel: They say you can hold seven plus or minus two pieces of information in your mind. I can't remember how to open files in Java. I've written chapters on it. I've done it a bunch of times, but it's too many steps. And when I actually analyze it, I realize these are just silly design decisions that they made. Even if they insisted on using the Decorator pattern in java.io, they should have had a convenience constructor for opening files simply. Because we open files all the time, but nobody can remember how. It is too much information to hold in your mind.

The other issue is the effect of an interruption. If you are really deep into doing something and you have an interruption, it's quite a number of minutes before you can get back into that deeply focused state. With programming, imagine you're flowing along. You're thinking, "I know this, and I know this, and I know this," and you are putting things together. And then all of a sudden you run into something like, "I have to open a file and read in the lines." All the clutter in the code you have to write to do that in Java can interrupt the flow of your work.

Another number that used to be bandied about is that programmers can produce an average of ten working lines of code per day. Say I open up a file and read in all the lines. In Java, I've probably already used up my ten working lines of code for that day. In Python, I can do it in one line. I can say, "for line in file('filename').readlines():," and then I'm ready to process the lines. And I can remember that one liner off the top of my head, so I can just really flow with that.

Python's minimal clutter also helps when I'm reading somebody else's code. I'm not tripping over verbose syntax and idioms. "Oh I see. Opening the file. Reading the lines." I can grok it. It's very similar to the design patterns in that you have a much denser form of communication. Also, because blocks are denoted by indentation in Python, indentation is uniform in Python programs. And indentation is meaningful to us as readers. So because we have consistent code formatting, I can read somebody else's code and I'm not constantly tripping over, "Oh, I see. They're putting their curly braces here or there." I don't have to think about that.

Number 9: Not Backwards Compatible in Exchange for Pain

Bill Venners: In your keynote, your ninth reason for loving Python was, "Not backwards compatible in exchange for pain." Could you speak a bit about that?

Bruce Eckel: That's primarily directed at C++. To some degree you could say it refers to Java because Java was derived primarily from C++. But C++ in particular was backwards compatible with C, and that justified lots of language issues. On one hand, that backwards compatibility was a great benefit, because C programmers could easily migrate to C++. It was a comfortable place for C programmers to go. But on the other hand, all the features that were compromised for backwards compatibility was the great drawback of C++.

Python isn't backwards compatible with anything, except itself. But even so, the Python designers have actually modified some fundamental things in order to fix the language in places they decided were broken. I've always heard from Sun that backwards compatibility is job one. And so even though stuff is broken in Java, they're not going to fix it, because they don't want to risk breaking code. Not breaking code always sounds good, but it also means we're going to be in pain as programmers.

One fundamental change they made in Python, for example, was "type class unification." In earlier versions, some of Python's primitive types were not first class objects with first class characteristics. Numbers, for example, were special cases like they are in Java. But that's been modified so now I can inherit from integer if I want to. Or I can inherit from the modified dictionary class. That couldn't be done before. After a while it began to be clear that it was a mistake, so they fixed it.

Now in C++ or Java, they'd say, "Oh well, too bad." But in Python, they looked at two issues. One, they were not breaking anybody's existing world, because anyone could simply choose to not upgrade. I think that could be an attitude taken by Java as well. And two, it seemed relatively easy to fix the broken code, and the improvement seemed worth the code-fixing work. I find that attitude so refreshing, compared to the languages I'd used before where they said, "Oh, it's broken. We made a mistake, but you'll have to live with it. You'll have to live with our mistakes."
Next Week

Come back Monday, June 9 for Part I of a conversation with Java's creator James Gosling. I am now staggering the publication of several interviews at once, to give the reader variety. The next installment of this interview with Bruce Eckel will appear on Monday, June 23. If you'd like to receive a brief weekly email announcing new articles at Artima.com, please subscribe to the Artima Newsletter.
Talk Back!

Have an opinion about programmer productivity, backwards compatibility, or breaking code versus programmer pain. Discuss this article in the News & Ideas Forum topic, Python and the Programmer.

Bruce Eckel's Mindview, Inc.:

Bruce Eckel's essay on checked exceptions: Does Java Need Checked Exceptions?:

Bruce Eckel's Public and In-House Seminars:

Bruce Eckel's Weblog:

Python.org, the Python Language Website:

Introductory Material on Python:

Python Tutorial:

Python FAQ Wizard:

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