Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Language Panel

Here is a must-see video from Strange Loop 2010. It features a panel of icons and rock-stars, with another as guest host. The topic is the future of programming languages. It was a true treat to be there.

Some quick thoughts on the video:

Introductions part 1

Notice how the panelists didn't feel the need to list the languages they've worked with. Relative to their achievements, their intros are brief.

There is a calm confidence in brevity. I first noticed this when Dave Thomas introduced himself on the NFJS tour with: "I'm a programmer".

This separates the amateurs from the pros. Pros don't introduce themselves with the number of languages they know (a pet peeve of mine). It is assumed that everyone has worked with a dozen or more. It is true, no matter how impossible, that for every person in the room, there is someone else who has seen more languages.

Introductions part 2

Kudos to Alex Payne for paying respect. It struck me as sincere.

Introductions part 3

Guy Steele is one classy guy. Note his emphasis: he likes all languages. Each one has value and its own charming quirks. We get the sense that Guy is more interested in solving problems than the current fashion of the industry. He has an air that inspires me to take the high road, and stay above the language wars.

Language Wars

Alas, Guy's angelic aura only lasts for so long. The unvarnished truth is that I'm weak, and I can't resist language wars. Though the gang were rough on Perl, Crockford's irreverent non-comment on Parrot, near the 30:00 mark is priceless.

My Non Question

I nearly asked a question about escaping the surly bonds of ASCII in future programming languages. Unfortunately, I became distracted by my inner voice:

  • Is this a dumb question?
  • Am I asking this to impress the panel? To impress the audience?
  • Didn't Guy Steele, in a keynote, have a Unicode symbol in Fortress? Why wasn't I paying closer attention?
  • How could I travel 1800 miles for a conference and not have prepared a few questions?
And so on. In the end, I played it safe and sat on my hands. Though I may have avoided an embarrassing moment, I also passed up a chance at potential insight.

Lesson learned: brevity rocks; reticence sucks.

Friday, November 12, 2010

https download with Internet Explorer

I strive to link to posts that have saved my team's bacon, as a modest payback. It might help search engines, and will certainly help me remember the experience, in the event I encounter it again.

The problem: Internet Explorer won't download a document (e.g. an Excel report) via https.

The cause: probably cache-prevention in the headers, per Eric Law's post.

The bonus: Eric mentions Fiddler. That tool might be very useful in general, though I haven't tried it.

Keynote to 2-up PDF

This post is simply grateful linkage to a useful post by Alex Miller.

For a conference or business presentation, you may be asked for a 2-up B&W PDF. If you are like me, the first question is: "what is 2-up?" That question is answered here.

Easy. The next question is: how do I do that in Keynote? Alex's post gives the steps.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

JavaScript and Expense Reports

This is a loosely-connected collection of thoughts stemming from the recent Strange Loop conference and a book purchase.


For years now, I've known that thoughtful developers:

  • separate the JavaScript language from the DOM and wretched browsers
  • appreciate JavaScript as a lovely language inspired by (surprise!) Lisp
So, I thought I "got it". Aside from the usual web development, I've even written significant production code in ActionScript in 2003-4.

But I didn't truly learn the language.

It fell into the dreaded Multi-Month Void of Cognitive Decay (MMVCD).

Here's what I mean: I only faced JavaScript every 3-6 months or so. When it did show up, the situation was urgent, and I felt as though I had to re-learn the basics. Previous 'lessons learned' were quickly lost in the fog of war. I gradually associated the frustration of re-learning with the topic itself.

In this sense, poor JavaScript joined CSS and expense reporting software, falling into the dreaded MMVCD, a random window of cerebral entropy lasting between 3 and 18 months.

(However, even in its worst hour, JavaScript was certainly better than either expense reports or CSS, both of which occupy the darkest corners of MMVCD)


Many friends have been interested in JavaScript (some in a career-altering way, no less). Many recommend Douglas Crockford's JavaScript: the Good Parts. It is mentioned frequently at conferences and user groups.

The tipping point was this review by Witek Radomski:

I used JavaScript as a garnish for web development... I was afraid of it. I knew I needed to confront the language and learn it properly.
Yow. This person saw into my soul. In fact, that review led to my recognition of the MMVCD.

JavaScript: the Good Parts

This isn't a book review, but: the book is a delight. Minus the appendices, the book is 100 pages in 10 chapters. That is an object lesson for authors and publishers alike! (I would love to know if Crockford faced pressure to add pages.)

What's more, the premise is a winner: a language can contain a beautiful, subset within a complex, (at times) unappealing landscape.

Random Thought #1: Chained Dictionaries

On SE-Radio, someone once joked that Lisp is nothing more than an abstract syntax tree. Funny stuff, and not entirely fair (I believe it is a comic reduction of an earnest point by Paul Graham, though I have no link to support that). Yet there is certainly a grain of truth in it.

My mental model of JavaScript: it has collections of properties. JavaScript does not call them dictionaries; I will. Dictionaries can be chained. A property may be a function. That's it: simple, elegant. Though this is neither fair nor accurate, that idea leaps to mind frequently.

Random Thought #2: Inheritance is an Interface

Scott Bale gave an excellent talk at Strange Loop 2010, based on Crockford's book. During the talk, it struck me: when we learn that a language offers inheritance, it is a fallacy (and audaciously Java-centric) to assume the existence of classes. Classes are merely one implementation of inheritance.

To wit, inheritance is an interface. It is a conceptual contract.

As most will already know, JavaScript offers prototype-based inheritance. This is a different ballgame, but must be understood, if we are to comprehend JavaScript. Crockford banishes the pseudo-class-based inheritance of JavaScript out of the Garden of Good Parts.

(As an aside, Crockford uses the terms 'prototypal' and 'classical'. I think this is a poor choice. To me, 'classical' has connotations of timelessness or an ideal. It took me a long time to realize Crockford doesn't mean to imply that.)

The Upshot

If, like me, you find JavaScript to be in the Multi-Month Void of Cognitive Decay, Crockford's book is a gem. I'll be working through it.

I realize there is now a book on HTML and CSS, but I don't think I have the stomach for it. Ping me when Expense Reports: the Good Parts is available.


Be sure to check out the comments for interesting links on JavaScript material by Lambda Loungers.