Sunday 30 October 2011

Once more into the breach, dear colleagues, once more…

…or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Serving Aboard Kobayashi Maru; a history lesson.

Once again, I've had an interesting couple of months. Between modern Singapore's regular effect on my health, some insane work and the opportunity to get even more insane work if my two best references weren't indefinitely unavailable (but hey, Thailand is usually lovely this time of year…or anytime, actually).


I am rediscovering a love for developing in Ruby after losing touch with it some ten years ago. In the Ruby 1.5 days, things like class variables and the hook system were either new and shiny, or had finally been thrashed into something both usable and beautiful. If programming was what you did to earn a living, then programming in Ruby was something that you thanked $DEITY for every day because, after all, how many people in this world get to use beautiful tools that make you measurably better at your craft while blowing your mind on a regular basis, and get paid for the privilege?

The Fall

Then Ruby on Rails came along, with the clueless-business-media hype and cult of personality built around G-d Himself, or at least the three-initial version of same as anointed by said media, and Things Changed:

New acquaintance: So what do you do for a living?

Me: I write computer software, mostly using Ruby, or when I have to, Delphi or C++.

N.A.: Oh, you're a Ruby on Rails programmer.

So I left Ruby behind. Delphi lasted for a while, until its competitor's lock on the default system combined with some spectacularly bad corporate timing to relegate it to an "oh yeah, I heard of that once" niche. And then came this gawky new kid called PHP.

PHP wasn't exactly "new" when I first got into it; version 3.x had been out for some time, and the in-beta version 4 had class-based object-oriented programming. It was more primitive than an 1898 Duryea automobile to a Porsche driver, but you could see that the basic principles were at least in sight. And so, as the dot-com bubble was starting to really inflate, I jumped into PHP with a vengeance. It wasn't a product of one of the existing tech-industry corporate titans and it wasn't tied to a single operating system or Web server (though it did seem to work best with the then-early Linux OS and Apache server).

The great thing about PHP is that just about anybody can poke at it for a while, and at the end have something that (seems to) work. The pathologically execrable thing about PHP is that the barrier to entry is microscopically low, lower even than for Visual Basic 6 back in the day. And so, the inevitable result was (and is) that you have literally hundreds of thousands, if not millions, who get jobs by saying "Yeah, I know PHP; I've done (this little site) and (that steaming mess with a lot of Flashy bling on it)." In reality, there are thousands, at most, of good PHP developers out there, with a few more thousands actively working at improving their craft.


So PHP 4 had a crappy object model that anybody could poke at or ignore at will. PHP 5, from mid-2004, started to get its head on straight with respect to both OOP and what it really took to do PHP well, but lots of damage had already been done. Innumerable client projects had either failed or become incredible maintenance/performance nightmares due to the shoddy code that PHP, and the community that grew up around it, encouraged mediocre/inexperienced/inattentive developers to write.

And then, in mid-2009, PHP 5.3 came into the world, and it was a glorious golden statue with legs of brown, wet mud. Many of us who wanted to see PHP evolve into a "properly" object-oriented language, along the path that it had been following, found much to rejoice in. Support for closures. Better internationalisation support. Far better garbage collection. A rearrangement and winnowing of the extension and application repository system that was the closest thing PHP has to Python's eggs or Ruby's gems.

PHP 5.3 also introduced what had to have been the most-requested new feature for years: namespaces. Namespaces are one solution to the problem of allowing the development team to organise collections and hierarchies of classes to both make them easier to work with conceptually, and of mitigating possible naming conflicts (class Foo in namespace Bar is "obviously" distinct from class Foo in namespace Barney.)

However, this is also where the legs of the "golden statue" were transformed into wet mud: the way in which the PHP namespace features work is so semantically and visually jarring, with so many inconsistencies visible to both the experienced pre-5.3 PHP developer and the experienced developer of object-oriented software in other languages, that it quickly became a laughingstock and a millstone. A necessary millstone, but one of which many writers of both code and prose waxed eloquent in their righteous, intricately-justified derision.

A New Hope

And this eventually served as a wake-up call to a number of those who view PHP as just another tool in their toolkit, as opposed to either a cash cow to be milked or a semi-religious icon to be polished and cared for in the precise fashion that the High Priests of Zend decree, or, those who simply never learned enough to care. Seven to ten years is a long time to spend in any one language for an experienced developer, and quite a number of highly-visible PHP community stalwarts have been publicly participating in and contributing to other communities: various JVM languages like Groovy, Scala and Clojure; Objective-C; C#; and Ruby.

A few short months ago, I had urgent need to re-immerse myself in Ruby, learn modern Rails, and make myself ready in all respects to participate in Ruby on Rails projects at a senior or leading level. This gave rise to a series of fortunate events, to paraphrase Lemony Snicket. I discovered that Ruby 1.9 is now a very advanced, mature language with solid experience-based best practices that are sensible and self-consistent. I discovered that Rails 3.1 is an incredibly productive way to get a Web site or application up and running, and that the ways in which it encourages you to code and think do not have the same propensity to inflict mortal wounds as, say, the overly-trusting PHP journeyman developer. Rails itself has grown to be a much larger community that no longer revolves around a single individual, or even a small group of individuals, as that it did seven years ago or as too many other languages do now. And, importantly, many of the things that make Rails great would not be practical, or even possible, were it built on and in any other language than Ruby

Above all, Ruby gives hope to those few, mindful of Knuth's saying that "programming is a literary act", understand that computer programs are written to be read and modified by humans, with computer execution almost a secondary concern over the life of a project. If you care about thinking creatively, if you enjoy having your mind regularly blown in ways that challenge you to actively and continuously improve your mastery of the craft of software development, you are going to love Ruby, and Rails.

An Evangelist Repurposed

And so, to any who are pondering a new Web project, who see how overwhelming the mindshare of PHP is and how obviously negligent (even to non-technical eyes) is far too much PHP code and, by extension, those who made such code available, I would ask you to strongly consider Ruby, and Rails, even if your team has little or no experience in them.

After all, quality and intelligence should, in any world worth living in, be major competitive advantages — or, rather, by rights, their lack must needs be mortal.

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