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04/09/06: Language Elegance

Keith Braithwaite waxes objective in peripatetic axiom: Keywords, Magic and (E)DSLs -- he gives a pretty good high-level introduction to Smalltalk and what language simplicity really means. He makes the point that Java isn't really object-oriented -- or rather, as I like to put it,
Java is object-oriented, in that it's kind of oriented towards objects, from afar.

There's something beautiful and elegant about a system with as few rules as necessary to get the job done. Java and, sadly, Ruby, overcomplicate life with bifurcations and exceptional cases and defaults and other magic. Only Smalltalk and Scheme reach the level of elegance I'm talking about -- a very small number of rules from which you can derive the universe of software.

(Keith's example is that if, a part of the grammar of any C-style language, is actually implemented as a method of the class Boolean. It takes two blocks as parameters; the concrete Boolean subclass True executes the first and False executes the second.)

And no, I'm not advocating a return to assembly language, although the simplicity of stack- and register-based programming approaches what I'm talking about. In Java there's at least two ways to do so many things. There are primitives *and* objects. There are statics *and* instance members. There are Arrays and ArrayList. There are final classes (like String) and regular ones. And each of these pairs has different semantics, and you keep getting tripped up over things you can and can't do.

Ruby's a little better, in that everything's an object -- oh wait, unless it's a mixin (aka module). Which means that if someone decided to implement some stuff as a mixin, and you want to override it, you can't use "super", you have to declare an alias and call it. And everything following a method name is a parameter, unless it kind of looks like a hash, in which case it's all one parameter, unless it looks like a block, in which case it's the "default block".

My point is, if you remove rules rather than adding them, there's a chance you'll turn Chess into Checkers. But there's also a change you'll reach Go.

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