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Nikolai Bezroukov. Portraits of Open Source Pioneers
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The first thing you notice about the Perl book is the camel. The hardy beast is standing nonchalantly and grinning ever so slyly. This is not just any old desert dwelling dromedary. This is a camel with an attitude. And that's the way Perl creator and Programming Perl co-author Larry Wall wanted it to be. Wall likens the camel-with-an-attitude to his free Practical Extraction and Report Language -- Perl. ``It's ugly but useful,'' he says.
Since 1986 when Wall first developed Perl -- an interpreted data reduction language -- to solve a problem that awk could not handle, the language has grown to include a variety of built-in functions, associative arrays, regular expression handling, object-oriented features, and some of the most useful bits of several other programming languages. It is now a popular tool for system administrators and programmers who want to develop code to manipulate strings, files, and processes. Recently it has become the language of choice for programming interactive applications on the World Wide Web.
As Wall has developed and improved Perl, utility has always been a higher priority than theoretical elegance. He criticizes other modern languages that have been developed by people who ``try to define their languages such that you can't do anything bad.'' As a result, he says, ``the act of programming becomes joyless.'' But, not so with Perl. ``The thing that people really like about Perl is that they have fun.'' This is perhaps why Perl has become so popular.
With the help of volunteers from around the world, Wall put the finishing touches on Perl version 5 in mid-October. Perl 5 introduces not only new features -- including simple object oriented ideas and a more readable syntax -- but also a new philosophy. Wall explains that as Perl developed, new features were continuously added, causing the language to change constantly. ``With Perl 5 I've sort of come to the realization that we need to actually stabilize the language itself and provide an official way of extending it.'' Therefore, Perl 5 includes mechanisms that allow programmers to add reusable modules to extend the Perl language. The object-oriented features were necessary to add this extensibility. In addition, they allow Perl and C++ to be easily used within the same program.
As with versions 1 through 4, the new features of version 5 have been designed so that they can be learned incrementally. Unlike other computer languages ``where you have to practically know the whole language before you can use any of it usefully,'' Wall says that new Perl programmers can learn the subset of Perl they need to solve a particular problem without having to learn the rest of the language. Because of this property, Wall suggests Perl might be a good introductory language for beginning computer science students.
While Wall hopes the new philosophy will help Perl will remain stable for a while, he predicts the continued development of new programming languages, particularly those that make programming accessible to ordinary people. ``I think to the extent that ordinary people are going to be programming, they're not going to be programming in C++ -- because you practically have to have a degree in computer science to do that.'' However, he says that simply adding more English syntax to programming languages is not likely to make programming easier. ``When they first came out with Cobol they said `this is a very English-like language,' but I think they confused the process of just throwing a few English phrases into the language and ending their sentences with periods with some of the deeper aspects of natural language. Our computer languages will start functioning more and more like natural languages, but there is a large amount of misunderstanding in the current computer science community about how natural languages actually work.''
And Wall, a linguist by training, is certainly qualified to talk about natural languages. In fact, he says his background in linguistics and his observations about natural language have influenced his programming language development work. ``Linguists realize the limitations of language and realize that when you are trying to solve a problem in a natural language you sort of whack at it until you get the thing into the shape that you want it to be,'' he explains. ``I think people program similarly. They rough things out and hack things in. I think a lot of computer scientists believe programmers are omniscient and can figure out before hand all the design criteria, get all the ducks in a row -- and then magically the program just writes itself because it will be obvious. I don't think real people think that way. I don't think they talk that way, or write that way.''
Wall also credits his linguistic background for his views on ambiguity in programming languages. ``My view on local ambiguity is that it's okay because people deal with it well. On the level of phrases and sentences people are very good at figuring out exactly what's going on -- so I think a computer language ought to be allowed to have ambiguity at that level.'' He adds that humans use various natural language clues to disambiguate sentences. In Perl, special characters serve to disambiguate variable types. For example, variable names that begin with a $ refer to singular variables (scalars) while variable names that begin with a @ or a % refer to plural variables (arrays). As with English where a member of a group is described with singular words, an array element is referenced with the singular $.
In addition, Wall has observed that unlike most computer languages, ``natural languages don't have any `theoretical axes' to grind.'' He adds, ``Natural languages typically don't have any shame in borrowing things from other languages, unless of course you're French.'' He pauses for a moment and looks through his notes for a statement he likes so much he has it written down: ``For most people the perceived usefulness of a computer language is inversely proportional to the number of theoretical axes the language intends to grind.''
But while Wall intends Perl to be useful, he does not intend it to replace other programming languages that are also useful for solving certain types of problems. ``I've tried not to reinvent any other language with Perl. So if you see some particular problem that C is good at, I've not tried to make Perl that good in that realm. For low level bit diddling, C is still going to be better. For very large, difficult to manage projects, C++ is going to better. For just starting and stopping processes, shells are going to be better. These are all sort of LegoLand type problems. The place where Perl excels is not where you want Legos, but where you want glue -- where you don't want Lincoln Logs so much as you want pipe cleaners. Its sort of officially a chewing gum and baling wire language.''
In fact, Wall says, ``The Perl slogan is, `There is more than one way to do it.' People have often taken that to mean that there is more than one way to do it within Perl. But I apply the same thing outside of Perl also. I know a lot of people use Perl for what it's useful for. But I don't expect them to take themselves off to a monastery and just write Perl scripts all day.''
Wall says Perl's biggest competitors -- REXX, Tcl, Python, and Scheme -- are useful for similar things that Perl is useful for. Although he prefers Perl because of it's efficiency, language structure, and lack of theoretical axes, Wall says he will not engage in language wars. ``I have a firm policy against making enemies,'' he states.
Despite his training as a linguist, Wall turned to computer science because of its more lucrative job prospects. However, this was not a major career change, as Wall had spent three of his eight years as an undergraduate at Seattle Pacific University working at the school's computer center. And although he met his first computer (a PDP-11) at Seattle Pacific, Wall began programming in 1972 when his high school got a programmable calculator. ``You could program 120 steps into [it] and I very nearly taught it to play tic-tac-toe -- but I just couldn't get that squeezed down to 120 steps.''
While at Seattle Pacific, Wall says he ``was vaguely acquainted with Bill Gates.'' Wall explains, ``[Gates] was still programming for the experimental college at the University of Washington and they had been jacking up the computer rates on him. So he came over and was using our little PDP 11 because we'd give him cheaper computer time.''
Since graduating from Seattle Pacific, Wall attended graduate school at U.C. Berkeley and U.C.L.A., and worked at Unisys and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In his spare time he developed several free UNIX programs, including the rn news reader, metaconfig, and Perl. He currently holds the position of Senior Scientist (``oldest hacker'') at NetLabs and resides in Mountain View, California with his wife, Gloria, and their four children.
Wall says there have been a number of people who have inspired him or served as role models throughout his life. Among them are 19th century writer George Macdonald, his grandmother who earned her Ph.D. in comparative literature when she was 77, his parents, and his wife.
Wall describes himself as ``one of these people who's been interested in too many things.'' It may be his diverse sets of interests that have led him to take on the development of Perl and other programs. Or perhaps it is what he refers to in Programming Perl as the ``three great virtues of a programmer: laziness, impatience, and hubris.'' But Wall says there are three things that have motivated him to invest the enormous amount of time and effort necessary to keep improving Perl. Besides a simple desire to help people and to create something with some lasting significance, Wall says he is motivated by his notion of creativity and how he believes God views the world as a work of art. ``If its okay for [God] to make certain kinds of amoral decisions than it's okay for us to be artists also and sling some paint around and make some pretty pictures. I think that I just feel deep down that its fitting in with the overall scheme of things.'' He pauses before adding, ``No pun intended.''Copyright 1994 by Lorrie Cranor
Slashdot Larry Wall On Perl, Religion, and...
3) Structured programming and perl
The reason I like perl is it is not a structured programming language. In my work I find it is 50% a get the job done parsing language and 25% sequencer of programs and deamons and 25% major ojbect oriented programming effort often a cgi.
Thus I worry that perl has Python-envy. I've tried to use python several times but always go back to perl. The reason is my daily need for a parser dominates my choice of language and maintains my fluency, since I dont want to have to be fluent in both, perl becomes my language of choice for advanced tasks too, even though python might be better for strcutrued programming.
So my question is, is perl6 making make perl a structued language like python? Would it be a good idea if perl did not develop any further for fear of becoming too complicated and thus disorganized? (witness the evolution of java from clean slate to giant mess with intricate redundant libraries half of which are deprecated).
Er, what do you mean by "structured"? 25 years ago all of these languages would have been considered "structured", in the sense that a block generally has only one entrance point. (There were also people who thought that a block should only have one exit. Thankfully these folks did not prevail, since functions representing decision trees often have one entry but multiple exit points.)
But you obviously mean "structured" in a different sense, or perhaps several different senses. Syntax is structure, and different languages have different syntax, but I don't think that's what you mean.
I'll assume you mean "structured" the way a grade school teacher means it, as in "structured play time", as opposed to "free play time". Python's slogan is "There's only one obvious way to do it." That's fine from the computer's viewpoint, but kinda sucks from the human viewpoint. "You can play any game you like, as long as it was organized by the teacher."
Java was, in that sense, much less structured than Python, I think. That's part of the reason for Java's success, but it came at a price. One of the problems with Java is that they swept a bit too much of the innate complexity of life under the carpet of the libraries. And so now they've had to replace the carpets several times.
So, yes, Java started with a "clean slate", but it was a rather undersized slate, methinks. But as for "structured play time" in Java, the structure has been imposed more by cultural norms than by the language itself.
As for Perl, it has never been "structured" in that sense, though it has always been structured in the sense that you can create as much structure as you like. The whole point is that the structure is optional, not imposed externally. If you're playing with your schoolmates at recess, you can always choose to organize a football game, but the teacher isn't making you do that.
Playing football is like programming in the large. You have to agree on a lot of rules to do it with other people. Perl5 doesn't make it terribly easy to agree on a set of rules, and we hope to make that easier in Perl6. You have to have discipline to do programming in the large, but you'll choose the discipline by turning up the big discipline knob yourself, not by having someone else turn it up for you. Perl6 will give you the big knob.
I am philosophically opposed to turning up the knob for you, because I don't know how fast you want it turned up. (Perl6 will turn it up for you a little by default--if you write a module or class, it'll automatically default to a stricter mode than it uses for your main program.) But the reason I don't like doing it for you is that you know how fast you want to learn, and I don't. As Gildor says, you haven't told me enough about yourself for me to give you advice. If I don't know how hard you can paddle, I can't tell you how big of a wave to try to catch. We all have to start with the small waves.
We find the same problem in teaching reading to kids. Some people shout "Whole language!" while others shout "Phonics!" Well, guess what, they're both oversimplifying. You have to learn some phonics, and then you learn some larger bits based on that, and some larger bits based on that, and eventually you find that you're intuiting whole language. The whole language folks fall into what I call the "Expert Fallacy". You look at how experts do something, and assume that's how everyone should do it. There are some people who are natural readers. They naturally figure out the bits and pieces themselves. But if you try and teach everyone that way, half your kids never figure out the phonics.
Programming is the same way. Language designers tend to look at how experts program and then think that everyone ought to learn to program that way from the start. That's a bit like expecting a new surfer to do well on 40 foot waves. Some will make it, but most will wipe out.
Perl is designed to help people learn the bits of programming they need right now without forcing them to learn the techniques they aren't ready for. But when they are ready for them, Perl tries to be there too. We just don't tell the beginners that the speedometer on their golf cart wraps around several times.
5) perl vs other languages by larry bagina Whenever perl pops up in slashdot, there are plenty of language zealots claiming perl is obsolete and you should really be using php or ruby or python instead. What are your thoughts on these other scripting languages? What do you like about them, what do you dislike?
I also liked Ruby's unary splat operator, so I borrowed it for Perl6.
The main problem I see with Ruby is that the Principle of Least Surprise can lead you astray, as it did with implicit lexical scoping. The question is, whose surprise are you pessimizing? Experts are surprised by different things than beginners. People who are trying to grow small programs into large programs are surprised by different things than people who design their programs large to begin with.
For instance, I think it's a violation of the Beginner's Principle of Least Surprise to make everything an object. To a beginner, a number is just a number. A string is a string. They may well be objects as far as the computer is concerned, and it's even fine for experts to treat them as objects. But premature OO is a speed bump in the novice's onramp.
I confess, I have a soft spot in my heart for inside-out languages like PHP. The first real compiler I ever wrote was for a sort of text-processing macro language in which the commands were embedded in the data. This is part of a more general class of programming languages in which a peculiar form of processing is assumed by default, such as the pattern/action syntax of awk that assumes an invisible outer loop.
Perl can do that, but it's not the default. I think languages like awk and PHP hobble themselves in the long run by attaching themselves to a particular ecological niche, particularly when a generalist like Perl can effectively occupy the same niche. So I've never felt tempted to even try PHP. I'd only be speaking second-hand if I said that PHP has some serious namespace and extension mechanism issues. So I won't say that.
Python is cool to look at small bits of, but I think the "outline" syntax breaks down with larger chunks of code. I'm with Aristotle on the structure of discourse--a story should have a beginning, and middle, and an end. So should blocks.
There's something to be said for forcing everyone to code in the same style, but that's not the Perl Way. At least, it's not the default Perl Way. But all is fair if you predeclare. It's perfectly fine for you to import a pragmatic module that enforces a certain style policy. It's even fine if your company forces you to import that pragma. Of course, if you want real programming discipline, I'd suggest you use Damian's Klingon module...
LWN interview Larry Wall
... ... ....
CL: Would you call yourself a full-time developer?That's a difficult question to answer. I'm just paid to do whatever I want to do. Some of the time it's development, and some of the time it's just goofing off, some of the time it's learning more about the world so I can figure out where Perl ought to be going, some of the time it's coming and getting talks at the conferences... Most of the development is actually done by other people now :-) CL: Would you get paid even if you were watching anime?
LW: :-) I take time to watch anime. I don't know whether I'm allowed to, but I do it anyway :-)
CL: How many hours do you actually write code a day?
LW: That varies. Many days I don't write any code at all, and some days I spend all day writing code. So I don't know how to say it.
CL: Are you satisfied with your current situation?
LW: Yes and no. I mean, I sort of have to be satisfied with it because that's what I picked to do. But I'm never satisfied because I've been always interested in too many things and I always want to do everything at once. Everything from developing, readings, to play my violin, to ...whatever.
CL: Have you ever thought of starting a Perl support company and going IPO?
LW: :-) No, I am not a sort of person who wants to run a company. I think that would be even less fun than what I'm doing right now :-) There are other companies that are already working to support Perl. So if I did that, that would just be duplicated effort.
CL: Is it because you feel comfortable being at O'Reilly?
LW: Yes. Essentially, my position is what you call a patronage. It's a very old-fashioned idea which goes back to the time when there was an aristocracy and they would support artists and musicians. They would have a patron, Tim O'Reilly is my patron. He pays me to create things to, kind of be in charge of the Perl culture.
CL: So you consider yourself an artist.
LW: Yes in many ways. I'm certainly not a manager :-)
CL: And you don't consider yourself an engineer?
LW: Oh, a little bit of that, too. Some of modern engineering is necessary to good art.
But what I think of myself is a cultural artist. Not just trying to write computer programs, but trying to change the culture around me for a better one, whether it's writing Perl or any of the other programs I've written, or trying to change the way people license their software into open source.
I think of myself as a hacker in that sense. Not in the sense that people would break into computer but who will be working on a problem until they solve it. And the problems that I really like to solve are our cultural problems.
CL: Would you give us an example of cultural problems?
LW: Ten years ago or so, we had Richard Stallman's GPL, and Perl was licensed under that. And I discovered that that worked fine for the hacker community, for the geeks, but it prevented Perl from being used in a commercial environment. So I wrote my own license. But I didn't want to offend the free software, the GPL people.
So, rather than switching l taken away, and everyone was happy. That's sort of cultural hack that I'm talking about.
CL: Some people seem to see the need for Perl certification. What do you think?
LW: I think someone else can do that :-) I'm not going to tell people whether they're certified or not. My approach to language design has always been that people should learn just enough of the languages to get their jobs done. They shouldn't have to learn the whole language to begin with. But with certification, you have to be learning the whole language. Some people feel more comfortable that way. I guess if you want to hire experts, you want to make sure they're experts. Certification is useful for that.
But most of the programming out there is not done by Perl experts. It's mostly done by Perl novices, and they sometimes make sloppy programs, that's ok. They learn by experience to do better over time and eventually they become experts and then, if they want to get certified and somebody wants to certify them, that's fine. I just don't want to do that myself.
CL: Would you give us your comment on ActiveState's Python/Perl for the IA64 processor and Komodo (Python/Perl IDE)?
LW: Well, Perl needs to be run on every architecture, and ActiveState has been... active :-) in helping port Perl to Windows as well as to various other architectures. I think what they're doing is great. I've worked with the folks at ActiveState, and we listen to each other.
CL: Were you surprised when you first heard that Digital Creations and ActiveState announced that they will add Perl scripting to Zope?
LW: No, I was not surprised by that. I think that's a good play for them. You know, ActiveState really does believe in Perl philosophy, "There's More Than One Way To Do It." One of the ways is the Perl way, another way is the Python way. Both of those are valid, different people like one or the other. They're in the business of enabling everyone to get the job done. Particularly, if Zope can be useful for both Perl and Python programmers, that will be great. I think they should add Ruby, too. Well, for some reason people don't know about Ruby in the US very much...CL: Speaking of Ruby, when you first named the language Perl, you looked up all of the three letter and four letter words, and didn't like all of those. What do you think of the name Ruby?
LW: Oh, I must have missed that one when I was scanning... It's a good name :-)
CL: Once again about Ruby, until a few years ago, I would recommend Perl with no doubt because of its usability, its big enough development and user community base, many good books, etc. Now, I think Ruby and Python can also be good candidates. What should I do?
LW: Obviously, you should still recommend Perl :-) It really depends on the kind of the programmer you are talking to. Ruby and Python are languages that are designed more with the computer science mind-set, trying to be minimalistic. Some people prefer that kind of language. Perl was designed to work more like a natural language. It's a little more complicated but there are more shortcuts, and once you learned the language, it's more expressive.
So, it really depends on whether if you would just like to learn a smaller language and then you just fight with it all the time, or, learn a slightly larger language and have more fun. I think Perl is still more fun than the other languages.
CL: In general, there are some open source projects that compete with other projects that have the same goal. This may be good because, for example, it brings diversity and rivalry in a good way. But human resources have always been the most valuable resource in open source projects and from that point of view, it could be just duplication of effort. Do you see this as a problem?
LW: I don't think you can avoid that problem... In the area of computer languages, there are just a certain number of people who are interested in developing their own computer language. And you can't stop them, they're just going to do it anyway :-)
It's not duplication of effort in a sense that we copy all the good ideas from each other. So all of those languages get better. They just make their duplication of efforts in terms of implementing those ideas, because they have to implement the idea in one way over here and in a different way over there. But there are potentially some ways in which different camps could cooperate.
We see the same thing happening not just with free software. We have the same thing happening in terms of over all language architectures. You have the whole idea of compiling C or C++ down to machine code. Then you have the Java camp which duplicated an awful lot of stuff, then you have Microsoft coming out with C#, they're trying to do the same thing. That actually makes duplicated work for us, because we want to target all of those architectures :-)
On the other hand, it forces us to look at how we do our things and do them in our way or in a general way so that we can do that. That means when something else comes along later, we'll be able to do it easily too. So it has its pluses and minuses.
But to me the whole progress is really driven in a Darwinian sense, the way evolution works. You have variations of ideas, and then some of them work better than others, and then those survive and continue on. So it's actually important in the long run to have multiple languages, multiple operating systems, and if you don't have that competition, then we don't survive. We're dead. We're extinct :-)
CL: When you first released Perl, did you expect it would grow into what it is now? What do you think made Perl this successful?
LW: I knew it would grow, I don't think I knew it would grow this much. Back then, the limits of my vision were probably the Unix operating system. To me I never thought about Windows or Mac or anything like that.
It's that the world has become a larger place. The universe has been expanding, and Perl's kind of been expanding along with the universe. Because Perl is now much larger because the space is stretching out, I don't know how much larger Perl is now.
CL: It has an influence even on the world economy now...
LW: I think so. You can calculate very conservatively that any individual programmers probably are saving tens of thousands of dollars a year, and if there's a million or so Perl programmers out there, you multiply by that and then you're talking about multiple billions of dollars that people are saving around the world because of Perl every year.
So that's a big industry. And then if you count languages that are maybe not Perl directly, but have taken parts of Perl... You know, they've borrowed regular expressions or other parts of Perl.
Ruby has borrowed a lot more than that. Maybe about 60% or 70% overlap between Perl and Ruby in the features I'd say, if you count some of those ideas, too. In a sense, it's not so much Perl, but the ideas that are in Perl, that I think are important. So I'm very happy to have been able to be part of that.
CL: Perl development is said to be started with the power of laziness, but what power do you think make the development going right now?
LW: Oh, good question... Hmmm... I think it's still laziness. Laziness on a different level. When Perl first was developed, it was laziness to get particular small jobs done quickly. But now, people don't want to have to use Perl plus other things. If there is a job that really ought to be written in C++ or Java or Ruby or Python or something like that, but they like Perl, and Perl may not be the best tool yet for it, but they would like it to be.
So rather than learning a different language, they just want to extend Perl toward what is better for that. So I think it's still laziness :-)
CL: Do you think you will keep taking part in the Perl development for all the rest of your life?
LW: I believe so. Of course, someday I will become too stupid to participate :-)
When I announced the development of Perl 6 this summer, I said that it was going to be a community design. I designed Perl, myself. It's limited by my own brain power. So I wanted Perl 6 to be a community design.
But one of the first thing that the community said was "We still want you to be the language designer," so I'm still the language designer :-) and I have to understand everything they've proposed, say "Yes" or "No" or "Change this." So that's my big job right now, to weigh all of those proposals they have made for Perl 6.
CL: If you become... as you said, too stupid (sorry for my lack of vocabulary) do you think the project will keep going?
LW: :-) I expect so. There are many people who love Perl dearly and would want to see it advanced whether or not I was in the part of it.
The main problem would probably be if I weren't there to say what was good or what was bad, they probably quarrel, they probably fight over what to do :-)
CL: Perl developers seem to have many meetings offline, including the Perl Conference we are having today. Do you think that helps development of Perl a lot?
LW: Yes, it does. There are things that are difficult to decide over the Internet. Things can be decided very rapidly in a meeting such as "We're going to write Perl 6!" Also, when you meet somebody across the net, you can be friends with them but until you meet them face to face, it's often difficult to really understand how other people think.
So just getting the people in one place and having them helps Perl development. People with similar interests find each other and be able to go out after the meetings for dinner and they can talk over those things. That's just a lot more efficient. So I think face to face meetings are important.
CL: Were the mugs being thrown when you decided to write Perl 6 paper cups?
LW: No, they were ceramic. They broke :-)
CL: Did anybody get hurt?
LW: Oh, no, he [Jon Orwant] was very careful. He found part of the room so he could throw at. Nobody was there. He wanted to get our attention, and he did. It was very well planned :-)
He didn't have in mind that we would decide to do Perl 6, he just thought we were getting too comfortable and needed to do something to keep people interested. And we felt that Perl 6 was the right thing to keep people interested. That was the happening. And it's true. People are very interested. So I am very grateful to him for having started it even though he didn't know what he was starting :-)
CL: Even though you weren't the one who began throwing mugs, were you having the same feeling in mind as he did that you needed something new?
LW: ...I'm a very complicated person... I think parts of me were ready for that, and parts of me weren't ready for that. It was like something coming into focus where until it's in focus, you have no idea what you are looking at, and then suddenly, it becomes very clear what you were looking at. That really was the way at that meeting. Jon basically came in and said "We need to change our focus a little, I don't care how, let's just change our focus." It was like "Oh, there, here it was," and everyone agreed. It has become the translation capability, the place in which Perl finds itself right now, or the competition, and everything. A lot of things suddenly just began to make sense that it was time to redesign. So we decided to do that, we're going to have fun doing it :-)
CL: The development of Perl 6 seems to be done in a planned, organized way. Have you been that way until now?
LW: Until now, the process of the design of Perl has been evolutionary. It's been done by prototype and modification over time. I talked about becoming stupid, but I've always been stupid. Fortunately I've been just smart enough to realize that I'm stupid. I'm not smart enough to design the whole thing in a planned way, so I've had to say "Well, let's add this and this looks good, so let's add that," so at each step, I've been able to extend a little bit more. That's been the way through the first five versions of Perl.
Now with Perl 6, we are taking a more organized approach. We're gathering all the proposals that people have made and there are three hundred and sixty one of them. I could read one everyday and it would take me all year and I could take four days off :-) Christmas, Easter, Memorial Day, Labor Day.
So in that sense it's more organized. The proposals themselves which we call RFCs, in a sense, are not very organized at all, because many of them contradict each other, they have all sorts of different ideas. So my job now is to bring them into an organization.
But to me it's actually easier to take someone else's proposal so I can say "Yes", "No", "...sort of." That's easier for me than if I had to come up with everything myself.
CL: Now, since Perl 6 is going to be developed under more organized way, do you expect it to live longer? (Of course, I don't mean Perl 5 is dead, though.)
LW: One of the proposals, one of the RFCs was that Perl 6 should be the last version of Perl. The idea is that if we make Perl 6 sufficiently flexible, then there's no need for Perl 7, because you can always bend the full language into whatever you want it to be.
That's one of the goals, to make Perl 6 sufficiently flexible. They proposed that the final version number would approach two times pi, 6.28.... (everlasting but never reaches 7 :-)
CL: Do you expect Perl 6 to be on schedule? (unlike Linux 2.4?)
LW: It can't be on schedule, because there is no schedule :-) We are all volunteers, so we get it done when we get it done. Perl 5 still works fine, and we are continuing to support Perl 5, so we plan to take the right amount of time on Perl 6. We don't want it too fast or too slow. So it will probably be another year and a half or so at least before the solid product.
CL: Do you think Perl 6 will have a big impact upon world economy, too?
LW: I don't know... Maybe. We'll try. You know, just because you're trying to help, it doesn't mean you actually help :-) But our hearts are in the right place.
CL: Which part of Perl do you like most?
LW: The part I wrote :-) ...no, that's a hard question, because I think the important thing about Perl is not in its separate parts, but how those different parts work together. So I guess the synergy of the different parts is actually the part I like. The way that Perl work together.
CL: Then, do you have any part which you don't like?
LW: Oh, I have a list of things I don't like. That's part of the reason we are doing Perl 6. There are a number of things that are snagging during the five versions, which we as a community are smarter now about and I probably wouldn't put in if I've known back then what I know now.
So there are a number of ways which we can make some simplifications, some of the funny looking global variables can become more object-oriented attached to the appropriate objects such as files or whatever the appropriate object is, some of them can become lexically scoped rather than global.
What we've realized was that although we kept backward compatibility through the first five versions, we now had the technology to do translation. We actually have a complier back-end that will spit out several different things like C, Java, but particularly, Perl. You can compile it down to a syntax tree and decompile it back to Perl. So we thought if we can translate Perl to Perl, if we can translate Perl 5 to Perl 5, why not translate Perl 5 to Perl 6. So if we can do a translation step here, that frees us up to do a redesign.
And this is like the first chance we've had to do this, a major redesign. Maybe it's our last chance, so we should take it. It's scary, but that's what we've decided to do. It's another experiment, and it may succeed, it may fail, but we're going to do our best.
CL: You often mention about Post Modernism. It's definitely an important and useful idea, but it's an idea born before the 90's. In the next decade, people may have problems we haven't even imagined before. And in order to solve them, they may need a camel to fly or swim, too. I don't know what it is yet, but will Perl 6 have such a new paradigm (born in the 90's)?
LW: Post Modernism was a reaction against Modernism. It came to different realms at different times. It came quite early to music and to literature, and a little later to architecture. And I think it's still coming to computer science. I think computer science, by and large, is still stuck in the Modern age.
Anytime you have a Modern to a Post Modern transition in a particular kind of art or genre, they serve an over reaction to where Modernism is. It's kind of disliked. But really to me the essence of Post Modernism is not anti-Modern. It is sort of at right-angles to what the Modern is, so there has to be a period of time which is sort of deconstruction against the Modern. But it recovers, and comes back to where you can mix together the Modern, the Romantic, the Classical and the Baroque..., however you want to classify the history.
Now, Perl's been a little bit anti-Modern. I think Perl 6 is mixing a little more of the Modern back in, which is a healthier balance. There's people who right now prefer Python or Ruby because of its Modern aspects. We'll also feel it more common in Perl when we get to Perl 6.
CL: So in a sense, not being Post Modern could probably mean being very Post Modern, for languages that came after the 90's (after Perl) that are not designed in the Post Modern (TMTOWTDI) way are being successful, too right now...
LW: Well, one of the very basic ideas of Post Modernism is rejection of arbitrary power structures. Different people are sensitive to different kinds of power structures. Some people see the Post Modern as threat, a different kind of power structure. So, in trying to escape that, they're being Post Modern, but they don't realize it :-) It's so basic to the way we think nowadays. We are so Post Modern that we don't realize how Post Modern we are anymore.
So I think even the people who are still trying to be conservative and to be Modern in computer scientists, are actually signs of Post Modern sensitivities.CL: Do you fear software patents?
LW: Yes, I worry about some. I think that software patents are bad idea. Many patents are given for trivial inventions. I think the real problem with software patents is that they don't provide equal protection. If you're a large corporation, you can afford to pay the money to register patents, but if you're an individual like me, you can't.
So I think it really works against the open source movement. I'd rather see them be protective with copyrights and trade secrets, but not patents.
CL: What do you think the future of free software and proprietary software would be like?
LW: I hope that most of the infrastructure will be open source software. We have a word in English, "freeway," which is a road that is not a toll road (which you have to pay to go on). If you want to go to an attraction like Disneyland, you want to drive free roads and pay there. So I think that the things that are infrastructure like roads, electric lines, should stay free, and you pay for the electricity, you pay for the gas.
I think operating systems work best if they're free and open. I think computer languages work best if they are open source. Particular applications are more likely to be proprietary. So, Microsoft Word is maybe a little like Disneyland, you're willing to pay to use that. But the operating system is more like a public road which you should not have to pay to go on.
CL: You mentioned at the first LinuxWorld Expo that the business world and the open source world should have something like sex (that is acceptable and fun for both). What do you think happened to the two after that? Do you think they're having a baby now?
LW: I think things are very disorganized right now. It's hard to know how things are going to come out. There are a lot of people who are interested in open source and there are a lot of companies that are experimenting, IBM, in particular. But whether those experiments will be successful, we really don't know yet. The next a few years are going to be very, very interesting.
CL: You sound as if you're watching a soap opera.
LW: Yeah, it's kind of like a soap opera :-)
CL: Where would you position yourself among those three; free software movement (like Richard Stallman), or open source movement (like Eric Raymond), or Linus (interested in free beer :-)?
LW: I'm really interested in all of those. I suppose more than the other two, I'm probably with Linus. I'm interested in giving Perl away. I want people to use Perl. I want to be a positive ingredient of the world and make my American history. So, whatever it takes to give away my software and get it used, that's great.
That's why I did the dual licensing. One license was to agree with the free software people, and the other license was to agree with the open source people. But those are both means to an end. So, I lean slightly on Linus's direction there.
CL: Linus once said basically that he was a hard-boiled guy and he rejects whatever he thinks should be rejected, considering only the technical side of anything, even if that may make somebody weep or get hurt feelings. How do you manage people in this respect?
LW: I take more of the approach of letting people yell at each other :-) I find if people have enough discussion, people will point out why each other's idea is stupid :-) hopefully in a nice way :-) But it actually helps me because once they've discussed an idea thoroughly, then I may be seeing one or two other things they didn't think of. They would pretty cover all the issues, and it's usually left to me just to be the judge. The way I work is pretty like the Supreme Court. All the lawyers, they prepare for their defenses for one side or the other, and then they just present those and I say "Hmm...," maybe I say "This guy's right," maybe I say "That guy's right," maybe I just throw it to different court to decide again :-)
To me it's important to make the decisions, but also not to make too many decisions. Officially, I'm the dictator. I'm always the dictator because people want me to be, and the reason they want me to be is because I don't actually act like a dictator :-) If I acted like a dictator then they won't want me to be one.
That's my approach. Linus may be a little bit more dictatorial, or at least he would like to think of himself that way and people accept that.
CL: You mentioned before that you think differently from Linus, where Linus preferred to stay out of the Linux business because business brings troubles, but you would rather be close to it. But it turned out to be that Linus had been, in a sense, in the center of Linux business. What did you think when you found that out?
LW: Transmeta, yeah... :-) Well, they're not really in the operating system business, they're in the hardware business, so I think it's still true that Linus is not directly involved in commercializing Linux.
In a sense, I'm not, either, really. ActiveState are really the people who are commercializing Perl, and while O'Reilly makes a lot of money off of Perl by selling Perl books, giving conferences, it's really sort of a side-effect. So both of us have found places where we're sort of on the edge. We don't want to limit some marketplace in how it decides to make use of what we've written. On the other hand, we would like to be close enough to it, so we have some positive influences in how things develop.
CL: Hackers like Linus and Miguel are little younger than hackers at your age, probably including Richard and Eric? Do you see any difference between them?
LW: ...ummmm..... Of course... well, I think that the newer, younger hackers are... I don't know... they're hard to classify... I think they're probably just as diverse as the old hackers are. You know, we're all over the map and they're all over on the different map.
I think maybe, the older hackers, we grew up in a time when most of the software was produced in a corporate framework that assumed they would own their software. So we had to do a lot of the work, sort of on the side, sneakily. In a way, that tended to limit our vision. So we did a lot of small projects and gave them away because if you do a large project the company notices it and you're in trouble.
I think now the younger programmers can afford to have a larger vision. So, you know, something like Gnome or Linux, you can have a vision like that now, and not feel like you're going to get in trouble with it. I think I was lucky to have as larger vision as Perl when I did :-) At that time, you talked about little languages, like "I wrote a little language that do this", or "little language that do that." For several reasons I said "I want a bigger language" :-)
CL: They sometimes mention "World Domination"...
LW: You know, "Laziness, Impatience and Hubris", that's Hubris :-) We say it jokingly, but there's some elements of truth to it. There's a way in which you have to have both hubris and humility, because hubris itself will not let you be an artist.
To be a good artist, you have to serve the work of art and allow it to be what it is supposed to be. Maybe that's less than what you would like it to be, if you were purely driven by world domination. Linus talks about world domination, but he's not going to turn Linux into Windows in order to do that. He's going to make sure that it stays Linux. So really, Linus is an artist also, Linux is his work of art, and that is more important to him than world domination. He would mind world domination, but that's not his first goal.
CL: Perl is not just a great program, but it also has great documentation base that is online and available for free. But not all developers love to write documentation. Do you see any problem around it?
LW: Well, the approach we took was to make it as easy as possible for the programmers to write documentation. Rather than enforcing them to write documentation in some fancy format, we came up with a very simple way to put the documentation right in a program. They can add the documentation to programs with their ordinary text editor. It's called POD, Plain Old Documentation.
That's been very successful for several reasons. One of them is because it's very easy for the programmers to write, and they can be lazy. And because it makes writing with program itself, it's sort of understood that the program is not complete unless documentation is also there. If you do not have the documentation out here over the side, people can kind of ignore that like "Oh, here's my complete program" and we won't talk about the documentation, but if the documentation is supposed to be right there with it, people will notice that it's not there. In a programming language, you have to clear things ahead of time and if you don't, you're in trouble. Well, if you don't put the documentation, you're sort of culturally in trouble. That works out very well to encourage people to put at least some documentation.
Then we have people who are interested in making sure that documentation is good. They'll take the documentation that other people write maybe is not so good, and they'll make it better. Those people are very valuable also. So a lot of things work together to make that possible. There are things that we could do better, though.
CL: Do you like writing documentation, yourself?
LW: Oh, I've written my share that is. Also I've written a help to write a book, so... :-) For me, writing is a love-hate relationship. I love to do it and I hate to do it at the same time.
I find it very challenging to do writing, but that's because my standards are pretty high. I think that writing should not just convey facts, but also be another work of art. That is another way in which I hack on culture.
I think that the camel book raised the standards in the community, for computer textbooks. It's important that they do not just convey the facts in a dry fashion, but also they are entertaining to read at the same time. That really is practical because if you're going to write a book like the camel book, it has to be for a broad audience. Then you have to go slow enough so that the novices can keep up, but if you go that slow, the experts will get bored. But if you throw jokes every now and then, they'll read it over for jokes :-) and the occasional facts that they might have not known yet. So it'll work out.
CL: I've heard your talk with mp3, and I heard your audience laugh a lot.
LW: Maybe that's because I make faces :-)
CL: It's nice to be able to make people smile or happy, and you especially seem to enjoy doing that a lot. Do you think this has anything to do with your doing open source project?
LW: Yes. To me, no pursuit in life, programming or writing, or even walking down the street, none of those activities worth while unless you can do it with joy. If any ideology is so serious that you can't have fun while you're doing it, then I think it's probably too serious :-)
CL: By the way, do you prepare jokes before the talk?
LW: Some of them :-)CL: What was the most surprising thing that happened this year in regard to open source as a whole?
LW: I think the way IBM has embraced the open source philosophy has been quite astonishing, but gratifying. I hope they'll do very well with it.
CL: Then what do you think will be the biggest thing that is going to happen to open source next year?
LW: Well, I'd like to predict Windows to be open source :-) but I don't think that is going to happen.
CL: What was the biggest news that made you surprise this year or in this century with regard to Perl?
LW: At the beginning of this year, I didn't know we were going to do Perl 6. That was a very sudden realization at the Perl Conference I have been enjoying. It was like, at the beginning of one morning we didn't know we were going to do Perl 6 and at the end of the morning we did know it, having a meeting. That was quite an interesting morning. So in a sense, Perl 6 was a surprise of this year.
CL: Then, what do you think will be the biggest thing with regard to Perl next year?
LW: Well, we are going to have to do a lot of work on Perl 6... I think there will be a lot of continued excitement around Perl to appear. Kinds of networking, you mentioned mp3 earlier, mp3.com, their web site is written almost entirely in Perl :-)
I think that the most interesting things will be things that I cannot possibly predict, because I'm only one person and there are many creative people out there. Somebody out there is going to do something that's far more surprising than anything that I would do. I was surprised by the whole web thing in the first place, and was surprised that Perl's written to be pretty good for that. So, who knows what's next, you tell me :-)
Amazon.com Amazon.com Interview Larry WallThe father of Perl talks about XML, Unicode, the Win32 port, and the philosophy behind the language
Larry Wall, the father of Perl, stopped by Amazon.com's Seattle offices to field questions about XML support, Perl's Unicode implementation, the Win32 Perl port, the ActiveState visual Perl debugger, and the guiding philosophy behind the language. Amazon.com's interviewers were Douglas Beaver, Jennifer Buckendorff, Alex Edelman, Tom Mace, Cristina Vaamonde, and Alex Yan. Wall was joined by Gina Blaber from O'Reilly Software.
Amazon.com: Thanks for taking the time to visit Amazon.com. It's no secret that we're a big Perl shop, and you've got a lot of devoted fans here to grill you. So what brings you to Seattle?
Larry Wall: I came to give a talk at the XML conference. The basic gist of what I'll be saying is that Perl has always been pretty much the language of choice for text processing, but what's been happening in the last 10 years is that the definition of text has been changing out from under Perl. It used to be that it was just ASCII, and then we got these various national character sets that were eight-bit, and Perl supported those rather easily. But with Unicode, and now with XML, we have definitions of wide characters that are pretty much universal and definitions of structured text that look like they will become pretty universal. So Perl really needs to support those. That's my project this year: making sure that happens.Amazon.com: Do you see a clear implementation, or is this still at the exploratory stage?
Wall: It's actually pretty clear. As far as Unicode support goes, Perl will, at least for the initial cut, take Plan9's Unicode implementation. Essentially, they just said, well, that most of our interfaces to the real world are still going to be ASCII with a little bit of Unicode thrown in. It makes a whole lot of sense if our internal representation is not wide characters but actually a thing called UTF-8, which is a flexible representation, so ASCII remains single eight-bit characters and then the higher-order characters become longer sequences of bytes. So Perl's initial implementation of Unicode will do the same thing. Which makes a lot of sense, actually, in a text-processing language that is dealing mostly with flexible text. Regular expressions really don't care what the boundaries are, if they come on even or odd boundaries. It may be that down the road a ways, there may be some architectures that are natively wide characters, where it would make sense to have a Perl that uses wide characters natively, internally, but I'll cross that bridge when I get to it.Amazon.com: Is the syntax for regular expressions clear in a Unicode implementation?
Wall: Yeah, it should be, pretty much... I mean, the only thing that's strange about the implementation of regular expressions is that the character classes suddenly get a lot bigger, potentially. If you're just looking for eight-bit characters and you have a table inside that has 256 entries, you just do a direct look-up. You can't really afford to do that if there are potentially 65,000. But there are ways of having multiple-level tables to deal with that sort of thing. As far as representation goes, the representation of the Perl script itself will be UTF-8, so there are already ways of specifying in the text of your program if you've got a higher character. You know, how that looks to the programmer depends on whether you've got a UTF-8-aware editor or a Unicode-aware editor. If you've got an editor that spits out 16-bit Unicodes, then what we can do is use Perl's facility called "source-filtering" so we'll recognize that if it's a pure Unicode file, we'll just translate it to UTF-8 coming in. But it should all be pretty straightforward. There are several goals to putting Unicode support into Perl. First of all, old scripts must not break. That is, they continue to work exactly the way they have if you don't change them. Also, old scripts must be very easily convertible to scripts that will deal with Unicode, hopefully just by a single declaration of a file that says "use UTF-8" or something like that. And then the same Perl code that you have right now will just magically start working with the UTF-8 code. There are a few little glitches in there having to do with how pack and unpack work. And if you actually want to match against specific Unicode characters, then you'd have to, of course, modify your program. But by and large, you should be able to make it very easy to make the transition. And of course, as additional goals, you'd like to keep Perl running as fast as, if not faster than, it's already running, and you'd like it to still stay as intuitive as possible. That's basically the Unicode story.Amazon.com: Do you see Perl being part of the XML standard or simply being in friendly cohabitation?
Wall: Perl has always lived in the interstices. It's too fluid an entity to be stapled down to anything so solid as a standard. It's not that I don't think standards are valuable--I think they're very valuable--but Perl's abilities complement things that are legalistic. Perl sort of goes the other way and is a little bit libertarian. And so if you want to look at the things that Perl works best at, it's actually the places in the world that are most restricted in various ways, and then Perl gives you a way to get from here to there. You expect a glue language to glue things together, not just to glue glue to glue. You glue it to other interesting things that aren't like glue. People ask me if Perl will ever be standardized, and I say that people are free to do whatever they want--after I'm dead.Amazon.com: No standard as long as you're with us?
Wall: Well, you know, it's unlikely. I'm not going to rule it out entirely. You know, I might live a long time! But I don't see a need for it yet. One reason we don't need a standard for it yet is that we've explicitly embraced the idea that the implementation is the standard. It's very important to us that there be only one implementation of Perl. One of the fallacies of language design is that the specification is good enough. You know, that happened to Ada. It's happening to Java. And no matter how good your specification is, you get divergence, which we're starting to see in the split in the Java world. In the Perl world we started to see a split between the Windows version and the Unix version last August after the first Perl conference. We jumped on that and got all the principals in the same room and knocked their heads together and said, "We're going to have one Perl here."Amazon.com: It wasn't that painful? They were willing?
Wall: Yes, they were willing. And so version 5.005 of Perl will be a single-source code, basically.Amazon.com: Can you describe how you keep on top of the implementations and enforce the uniformity across all the platforms?
Wall: I'm not sure "enforce" is quite the right word there. There is a mailing list called perl5-porters, and I rely on them heavily to do the porting of their architectures. And they actually do much more than porting. They're the chief forum for discussion of changes to the language and how to reconcile semantic differences between various operating systems. It's interesting how the governance of the Perl community has evolved over time. It has actually turned out to be somewhat like the United States federal government. It used to be, way back in the Dark Ages, that I just ran the whole thing. I was Mr. Perl--judge, jury, and executioner. But these days the perl5-porters mailing list serves as the legislature. And we have an executive--which is not me, actually. It's whoever is currently the integration manager, essentially--the patch manager. We call that person the Patch Pumpkin Holder. That's the executive, and so that title moves from person to person, and that leaves me to be the Supreme Court. So I get to rule on what's constitutional or not. In fact, there are three or four appeals outstanding that I have not ruled on yet. After I'm done with this XML conference, I will be taking under consideration some of the things that people have put under my nose.Amazon.com: Is the Win32 port particularly problematic?
Wall: Well, it's been problematic in that there was the source-code divergence, which we have now converged. For the most part, though, the semantics of what will or won't work cross-platform are pretty obvious. You're just not going to get "fork()" to work on Windows unless you happen to be in the Posix universe--in which case nothing else works. But Windows itself has not really been a big problem that way. I mean, there are some cultural differences, sure. And one of the things I had to rule on lately was how we deal with line endings that appear not to be from our system. At the moment, with the current Perl that's out there, if you're on a Unix system and it sees a line ending with a line feed like a Windows system, it blows up and says, "You didn't convert the script to Unix format." That's really kind of antisocial, because, you know, a lot more people are using remote NFS or Samba file-sharing setups, and the same file needs to run on both Windows and on Unix systems, not to mention on Macs. So I decreed that, essentially, any Perl ought to accept any line ending consistently. It really ought to do the right thing, whatever the right thing is. There are some arguments against doing that, but they're weak, so that's why I made that rule.Gina Blaber, O'Reilly Software: Also, every two weeks or so there's a Win32/Unix teleconference. Larry's in on it, and I'm in on it, and Dick Hardt in Vancouver, and a couple of people from the U.K. and Germany. So basically there are a number of people who are more from the Unix Perl world, and then Dick Hardt, who is from more the Win32 Perl world. We started doing these teleconferences back in September to make sure Win32 Perl really does get integrated back into core Unix Perl. It meant putting aside all the cultural and philosophical differences and just getting down to technical stuff.
Wall: I'd say that we could not have done this without the support from O'Reilly. We used to have the commercial software community, and then the freeware community came along, which was sort of an overreaction, in some ways, to the commercial community. There's always a kind of natural tension between the two. But at the current time, a lot of people are trying to find models where the commercial and freeware communities can cooperate. That's why I hired on with O'Reilly two years ago--seems like just yesterday--because Tim O'Reilly was interested in looking for those cooperative symbiotic models. Before that, the commercial people looked at the freeware people and the freeware people looked at the commercial people and each thought the other was a parasite.Amazon.com: They were both right!
Wall: Yeah. But if it's mutual parasitism, that's symbiosis! So it's been encouraging to me to actually see this working out in practice, with the way that O'Reilly can bring their strengths to helping the freeware community get its act together. This recent Netscape announcement [of the publication of Navigator's source code] is sort of... One has mixed feelings about it, because we've been preaching this freeware, cooperative gospel for a couple of years now, and nobody has much been listening. Now Netscape comes out with one little announcement, and suddenly everybody wants to know, What's this freeware thing? But that's good, and it's healthy, and anything that fosters more discussion and that frees up more people to pursue different models, I think that's great. When I first started out, you really couldn't do that. You had to go to your company and say, "Can I distribute such-and-so?" and they would send it to their lawyers, and their lawyers would sit on it for six months, and then they'd come back and say, "No." And then you'd say to the company, "Well, are you going to sell it?" And they'd say, "No. We're just going to put it on a shelf, because we might sell it someday." Which is for the birds, you know? So the only choice I had back then was just not to ask. It's better to ask forgiveness than permission [Laughs]. It also helps to be the sort of person that doesn't make enemies, because then nobody wants to get you in trouble for it, especially if you're in the good graces of your immediate boss. As long as they know what you're doing, then you're probably fine. That's the way it was back then, the only way you could do the freeware.Amazon.com: "Back then" was when?
Wall: Well, 10 to 15 years ago. Now, with the Netscape announcement and other publicity that freeware is getting, it's now possible for someone to come to their manager and actually make a case that the best model to release some particular piece of software under is a freeware model, that there are other ways to make money on freeware than just by selling the freeware.Amazon.com: How has this worked with O'Reilly?
Wall: O'Reilly is sort of a one-of-a-kind publisher, and I guess maybe I'm sort of a one-of-a-kind guy, too. But I did an awful lot of really careful work in introducing people to the notion of commercial cooperation with the free model. Like I say, I'm not the sort of person who makes enemies, and part of that is realizing what things I might say that people would take out of context and want to fight over, when it's something I'm really not interested in fighting over. So I eased into it carefully, and in a sense I'm almost grateful that Netscape waited as long as they did to make their announcement, because now the world is readier for some of these concepts. In April we're going to be having a Open Source summit at O'Reilly's headquarters in Palo Alto [California]. Linus [Torvalds] and various other freeware authors will be there. You know, we really don't have much of a set plan for what we're going to do. We're just going to get together and see what happens. And that's not to say that every freeware project has to use the same model. Different kinds of programs need different kinds of models. Perl, being a language as well as a computer program, needs a certain kind of design oversight that something like Apache doesn't necessarily need. So Apache can get away with an oligarchy; Perl needs more of a monarchy.Amazon.com: Says the monarch! [Laughter] How about the state of tools on the Win32 side? Windows programmers are used to having groovy visual IDEs and all of that. Are you involved at all with people developing such tools for Perl programming, in particular the visual debugger?
Wall: If I had thought you were interested in that, I would have brought it [the ActiveState visual Perl debugger] to show it off to you! Yeah, it's pretty slick. I think that particularly in the Windows space is a good place for people who want to build useful tools that, you know... Windows users are not used to dealing with freeware, and they'd almost rather buy something, something on a CD that they can download with a credit-card number or whatever. And so it's almost doing them a favor to charge money for a tool like that. [Laughter] My involvement with the debugger has been only in a controlling role at this point. But the visual debugger that ActiveState has is actually based on the regular symbolic debugger, the line-oriented debugger, which is written in Perl. But what they've done is, instead of talking to the command line, they've just opened up a connection to some operating-system objects so you get these snazzy windows. You can move around and redefine what to do and have all the bells and whistles of a visual debugger. The fact that it's running a Perl script which is running a Perl script is sort of transparent.Amazon.com: Do you see the Unix side of the world working on something like that?
Wall: I think that would be cool. I don't think I have time to do that. You want to do it?Amazon.com: What about compilers? Are you involved at all in compiler development?
Wall: Not a whole lot. I've played with it. Malcolm Beattie has been doing that, and the compiler will be a part of version 5.005. I actually smile when I say "compiler," because Perl has always had a compiler--it just compiles down into an internal form and then interprets from that. What people mean by compiler, though, is a back end that will spit out C, which you can compile down to machine language.Amazon.com: Do you think Perl is going to become a standard administration language for Microsoft Windows NT? Something that it's really never had?
Wall: I think it's well-positioned for that to happen, yeah. But Basic is pretty religious at Microsoft. We are officially not competing with them.Amazon.com: What do you think about Perl as a beginner or occasional language?
Wall: One of the ways in which Perl is like natural language is that many different levels of competence are acceptable. We don't expect a 5-year-old to speak with the same diction as a 50-year-old. So why do we expect computer programmers to learn an entire language before they start doing anything? So Perl is specifically designed so that you can use whatever subset of it you know is going to be useful.Amazon.com: Do you have any fantasies about where you want the language to go?
Wall: I'm kind of thinking that Perl might stick at version 5 like Unix did. In a sense, there have really only been two versions of Perl. Perl versions 1 through 4 were all sort of just an evolutionary path. At the end of Perl 4, I realized it was time to scrap the prototype and rewrite it. So Perl 5 is really pretty near a total rewrite. And at that point I realized it was both my first and last chance to do it right, so I put a lot of effort into defining an architecture that would be extensible and scalable and all the good buzzwords. Maybe even respectable. That was a big deal, and I don't really want to go through it again anytime soon. When Perl 2 was out there, it was just a text-processing language. It didn't handle binary data. And I said, you know, if I make Perl handle binary data, who knows where it's going to stop? Well, Perl version 3 handled all binary data, and who knows where it's going to stop? But the reason I decided to do that was, I realized both a specific thing and a general principle from it. The specific thing was that there are a lot of problems out there that are 95 percent text and 5 percent binary data. And if you make it merely possible to deal with binary data, not necessary even easy, then you increase your potential problem domain by more than twice as much. And the general principle is sort of the secondary Perl slogan. The primary Perl slogan is: "There's more than one way to do it." The secondary Perl slogan is: "Easy things should be easy, and hard things should be possible." So text processing is what Perl really tries to make easy. But as a glue language it also has to make hard things possible. My project last year was hooking Perl up to Java. My project this year is hooking Perl up to XML. Doing the Unicode things. So we want everything to be possible and some things to be easy. And I actually want to get past making XML and Unicode possible and make those easy, because as I think I mentioned earlier, I think the definition of what text is has been changing out from under Perl over the last 10 years, and I want to make sure it keeps up with the definition of what text means.
Salon 21st The joy of Perl
... Yahoo, wrote Filo, could never have been started without Perl, the all-purpose programming language Wall invented. So would Larry like to buy some cheap, pre-IPO stock?
... Wall may be frugal, but he's not stupid. He accepted the offer and bought some Yahoo stock for his 14-year-old daughter -- enough to pay for her college education. A better example of the Internet's old "gift economy" ethic could hardly be imagined -- give unto the Net, and you shall receive.
... Without Perl and Larry Wall, Perl's advocates argue, the Net would be but a pale shadow of its current self.
Wall has played an important role in spurring forward not only the Web's evolution but also the burgeoning free software/open source movement responsible for so much of the Internet's structure and plumbing. But even though his peers hail him as one of the "paramount chiefs and wise elders" of free-software culture, Wall's version of leadership is utterly self-effacing -- a character trait that sets him apart from some of the other leaders of the movement.
...Wall is himself a religious man. His mission... is to act on his belief "in people working together. He projects his inner vision of selfless work for mutual benefit onto Perl." But he won't allow himself to be drawn into the petty "religious" wars that plague the world of programming -- the endless disputes over such issues as whether one programming language, or operating system, is inherently better than another...
...duct tape is valuable not because it offers a perfect solution to your plumbing problems, but because it gets the job done. Perl, to some eyes, may not seem elegant. But that's not Wall's concern...
...no accident that Perl, which Wall first invented more than a decade ago, didn't really start to explode until the Web took off in 1994. The Web is a hacked-together, messy, ad-hoc creation that requires fast thinking and faster reaction times. Perl is a Web hacker's best friend
Wall's professional background is as a system administrator, rather than as a software engineer. "Sysadmins" tend to take a utilitarian attitude toward programming and technology -- they focus on keeping balky networks running, solving pressing problems now, hacking on the fly. Wall's whole life as a programmer has been devoted to solving those kinds of problems -- Perl is just the most recent tool in his personally crafted arsenal. Years before he dreamed up Perl, he had already achieved hacker renown by writing "rn" -- a program for reading Usenet newsgroups.
Rn was an early prototype for what is now called the free software or open source model for software development -- in which far-flung programmers collaborate across the Net on improving products whose code remains accessible to all. Wall wrote the rn program, released the source code to the Internet and then started work on an upgraded version that incorporated suggestions and bug fixes from fellow hackers all over the then-fledgling universe of cyberspace.
But back in the mid-'80s, it wasn't easy to distribute upgrades across the Net. Often, people would be connecting via slow 300- or 1,200-baud modems, and they simply could not fling megabytes of source code back and forth in the carefree manner that is now commonplace.
So Wall wrote a tiny program called "patch." Patch took a compact new code upgrade and applied it to old source code. Patch could bring that old code up to speed, and was even smart enough to take into account changes that had been hacked into the old code.
As hackers go, Wall is a reasonably circumspect man, but that doesn't mean he is unfailingly modest. "Patch," says Wall, "changed the culture of computing."
..."Patch may just be the most successful hack of all time," says Raymond. "Larry effectively created, or at least critically enabled, the modern style of highly distributed development exemplified by Linux."
..."I realized at that point that there was a huge ecological niche between the C language and Unix shells," says Wall. "C was good for manipulating complex things -- you can call it 'manipulexity.' And the shells were good at whipping up things -- what I call 'whipupitude.' But there was this big blank area where neither C nor shell were good, and that's where I aimed Perl."
...One doesn't have to be the kind of programming genius who can think in Java or C++ to be able to use Perl, although its own flexibility can make it confusing -- especially to hard-core programmers who are accustomed to having just one right way to do something.
... Before he committed to a lifetime of systems administration and associated hacking, he and his wife were graduate students in the linguistics department at UC-Berkeley. Their plan, says Wall, was to become field missionaries dedicated to assisting Bible translation. They would go live with a tribe that had no written language, learn it from scratch, write it down and then help translate the Bible into that language.
He and his wife abandoned that mission, but he replaced it with another -- assisting other people in the ever-relevant goal of connecting with one another to do useful things. When it came to creating a programming language, instead of building something totally new from the ground up, Wall -- inspired by his linguistics training -- chose to build something that replicated how real humans thought and acted.
...First and foremost, that meant providing a number of different approaches to solving every possible problem -- which led to the Perl battle cry, "There is more than one way to do it."
"If you think of a human language as an artistic medium," says Wall, "it has to give you room for creativity. If you want to be able to optimize for different things -- if you want to be able to write recipes and poetry and newspaper columns or magazine articles in the same language -- then there has to be flexibility. This is the antithesis of what people are taught in computer science. People are taught that if there is any redundancy at all that that is evil, wicked. Coming from a natural language perspective, I just don't buy it."
...Despite Perl's popularity, the language is not without its detractors. Marc Ewing, chief technical officer at Red Hat, the leading distributor of commercial versions of Linux, prefers working with Python; and Infoseek, the Internet search engine company, uses Python for its internal development work.
PERL.COM - 2nd State of the Onion Aug. 25, 1998.
... ... ...
A lot of my thinking this year has been influenced by working with Unicode and with XML. Ten years ago, Perl was good at text processing. It's even better at it now, for the old definition of text. But the definition of "text" has been changing out from under Perl over those ten years.
... ... ...
Of course, in Perl culture, almost nothing is prohibited. My feeling is that the rest of the world already has plenty of perfectly good prohibitions, so why invent more? That applies not just to programming, but also to interpersonal relationships, by the way. I have upon more than one occasion been requested to eject someone from the Perl community, generally for being offensive in some fashion or other. So far I have consistently refused. I believe this is the right policy. At least, it's worked so far, on a practical level. Either the offensive person has left eventually of their own accord, or they've settled down and learned to deal with others more constructively. It's odd. People understand instinctively that the best way for computer programs to communicate with each other is for each of the them to be strict in what they emit, and liberal in what they accept. The odd thing is that people themselves are not willing to be strict in how they speak, and liberal in how they listen. You'd think that would also be obvious. Instead, we're taught to express ourselves.
... ... ...
Most of you are familiar with the virtues of a programmer. There are three, of course: laziness, impatience, and hubris.
... ... ...
These are virtues of passion. They are not, however, virtues of community. The virtues of community sound like their opposites: diligence, patience, and humility.
Gluing the Web Together: An Interview with Larry Wall By Alicia Dougherty, April 17, 1998 (ZD Internet User)
Let's talk about the strengths and weaknesses Perl derives from its close relationship with UNIX. Do you ever regret not embracing Win 32 more closely?
I don't regret that--at least, not much. It happened when the time was right.
The strengths that come from UNIX are that it's a worldview where easy things are easy and hard things are possible, and Perl has taken to that idea in particular. There's a really old UNIX idea that if something could be represented as a simple flat text file it ought to be, because then you can edit with regular tools rather than going into a database or something [similarly cumbersome and proprietary].
Perl is similarly biased towards text processing because -- not only are there many things that are 100-percent text processing -- but there are also very many that are 90-percent text processing and 10-percent something else. This is why Perl was used to prototype the Web - because the Web is based on text processing. That other 10 percent tends to be about gluing into other programs like databases. Perl has two main attributes: it's a text processing language and a glue language.
When you ask whether it's trying to compete with other languages, Perl tries to compete by cooperating as often as possible. For example, last year's project was getting Perl and Java talking to each other. Many academic computer science languages have failed because they failed to communicate with other languages.
People will accept a new thing much better if it already resembles something they're familiar with or the way they are already thinking about things. A musician would say "A musical piece lays under the fingers -- it looks hard but it is easy to play." Another way of thinking of it is [by analogy:] At the University of California at Irvine, when they first built its campus, they just planted grass. Then they waited a year and looked at where people had made paths in the grass and built the sidewalks there.
I did the same thing with Perl. I looked at the paths people liked to traverse in UNIX, and distilled them down to a language that still in many ways contains the essence of UNIX. The real driving force behind porting Perl to Windows and Macs is primarily disenfranchised UNIX programmers who want to have a little bit of the old country, and with Perl they get that. On a Windows machine, we make sure there are Windows-specific interfaces, but the notion of being able to hook everything up to everything else in a simple manner is really shoving a wad of UNIX glue into the middle of the works. [It's about] taking a system where "you can't get there from here" and letting you get there from here.
I tend to think that porting Perl over is not so much that Windows is doing Perl a big favor but that Perl is doing Windows a big favor.
You've long been a champion of freeware -- possibly the first champion of freeware. Tell me a little bit about your freeware philosophy.
It's important to Perl in particular because it couldn't have succeeded had it been proprietary.
Perl wanted to fill a niche where it's being the ground of all being for some subset of programmers and it wanted to fill a niche where it had widespread use across most architectures. (I almost wanted to say "all" but I don't think you could get Perl to run on an old PDP11.) The last language that anyone's been able to sell and make money on was probably back in the 1960s. People have tried since then, but haven't succeeded. In a couple of instances I have seen ads for languages similar to Perl but they died out.
Because people would prefer to have something for free rather than to pay?
Yes, if it has same capability. Or, like with Perl, if it doesn't have the capability it's easy to extend the capability, so people do.
How did you feel when you heard Netscape would give away its source code? Mixed emotions, but mostly positive. The downside is simply that for the last two years or so Tim O'Reilly and I have been talking about how there need to be new models of cooperation between freeware and commercial entities. That's essentially why I hired on at O'Reilly two years ago -- we both had this vision that antagonism between freeware and commercial was unnecessary. We thought we could look for a symbiotic model rather than mutual parasitism. When Netscape made their announcement we said, "Oh man, how come we don't get all this press?" [laughs]
But that's outweighed by the positive benefits of what they've done in terms of opening up possibilities for people. It's fine for consumers -- they'll get better products and be able to evolve Navigator into what they want it to be. It's good for managers because they have new ways of doing business. But in particular it's good for developers because before they didn't have the flexibility of going to bosses and saying "Hey, I think we should give this away; we can get more out of not being proprietary." And there are many levels of being proprietary. Perl is still proprietary [in one sense] because I keep a copyright on it.
I did not have that flexibility when I started out. When I was first developing Perl, and before that rn and patch -- rn was the first thing I released as freeware -- I saw someone else at the company say they had created something they wanted to distribute and sell. And they handed it off to the lawyers, and 6 months later the lawyers said no, and [the developer] said well, if you're not going to release it, can I, and they said no, and put it on a shelf and there it will sit. I looked at that and said I'm not going to ask - it's easier to ask forgiveness than permission -- and it wasn't the sort of thing the company would've been interested in any way.
So you just went for it? I just went for it and made sure my manger knew what I was doing. And it helps to be the sort of person who does not make enemies. You really could not do this if you were a person who made enemies because that personality would get you in trouble. Now it's opening up to where this can be done through official channels.
Do you think Netscape will see the same kind of grass roots community spring up?
It will if Netscape allows it to. Netscape is in the same position as I am as an individual, and you have to walk a fine line between too much control and too little. Netscape has the handicap that they have already made enemies.
Will they have to woo developers?
They're not having much trouble. There's quite a ferment around it, which is healthy. Of course, your authority to lead a freeware movement is granted by the followers. It's not something to take to the bank without earning it.
Do you think there's a genuine industry trend towards freeware, or is this just the latest marketing strategy for some of these companies?
There's always hope. [laughs]
There are different models that have succeeded. There's the Apache model -- they don't have a single person in charge, it's sort of an oligarchy. There there's Linux, where Linus Torvalds is really a lot like me - he has absolute control at the center, and then on the periphery there's more autonomy. It's interesting how Perl has evolved. There's a mailing list called Perl5_porters that is really the legislature; then the executive branch - that's not me by the way -- that's too much work for one person to do too long, so we have a rotating system integrator-kind of person. We pass the baton now and then - only we call it the patch pumpkin -- and that leaves me to be the Supreme Court. And providentially I am appointed for life.
In this role as the judicial body have you ever made the wrong decision? Any mistakes?
Most of those mistakes were back when I was judge, jury, and executioner. I fixed a lot of that when I rewrote Perl for Perl 5. It was apparent that things that worked well for a small program don't work as well for large programs with lots of modules. There were some variables that changed out from under people and so on. But now, the Perl5_porters will thrash an idea to death and beyond, and hopefully reach consensus -- and then we're home free -- or [they'll reach] an either/or and then I decide. Now by definition it's not a mistake, but a choice.
How do you feel about the prices ActiveState is charging for their new Perl Win32 tools like PerlEX and Perl Debugger? Is it good or bad that these things aren't free?
I think people have to make a living. I think information wants to be valuable and we have to have an economy. It's very idealistic to think all information should be free.
Where do you draw the line?
I draw the line at "what you can get away with" -- and I mean that in the nicest of possible ways. If you're commercial and you write something trivial then someone's going to implement it as freeware and you get what you deserve: no business. If you do something that's not being done in the freeware community, then that's a service and people will pay for it. I guess take a very Darwinian view of the division of freeware vs. commercial [offerings].
I do not approve of unethical behavior at any level. I don't think someone should take something that [doesn't] belong to them and do something that someone things is wrong. If it's intended as freeware with no commercial use, then commercial use of it is wrong. If it's a commercial tool with its own licenses, then you shouldn't be using that either.
As I said at the end of my keynote at the Perl conference last summer: People should give it away because they want to, not because they're coerced. I would like to develop a culture where people are valued more for what they give away than for what they acquire, and the thing has to be of value. If I would write it and you would claim it anyway, then what's the point? I guess that's the dark side of communism.
Evolutionary Changes in Freeware , Web Review. Apr. 10, 1998 (edited excepts from the keynote address)
Many years ago, all we had was commercial software, by and large. Sure, we all rolled our own software too, but there wasn't a good mechanism in place to share software, and you certainly couldn't get your company to distribute free software officially. Then along came the free software movement. Of course, we all think of Richard Stallman at this point. He was certainly the chief lightning rod of the movement, but the fact is that the time was ripe for it, and many of us were publishing free software at the time. We had to do it in spite of the commercial interests of the time, and we had to invent our own infrastructure, so naturally there arose an antagonism between the commercial software community and the free software community. It was a natural overreaction that continues to this day, and there are some of you sitting right here who are on opposite sides of that battle.
Some of you believe that free software has its place in spawning new ideas, but that a piece of software isn't really successful until it has been taken over and commercialized by industry. Others of you sitting here believe that once any commercial entity takes interest in a piece of freeware, you might as well kiss
it goodbye, because they're gonna hoard it, piss all over it, and spoil it.
These two ideas are dangerous. They're dangerous, not because they're false, but rather because they're both partly true, and you're afraid that they might be totally true. But a year and a half ago, I began to suspect that they didn't actually need to be true. I'm even surer of that today than I was then. I'm here to tell you that we can at least begin to think about negotiating a cease-fire between
the commercial world and the freeware world.
I want to tell you to put aside your fears and your preconceptions, and help us do something new. A new model of cooperation is emerging. A new breed of entrepreneurs is arising that understands the dynamics of the freeware community.
There has to be a new, intermediate model in which the freeware community does what it is good at, and the commercial community does what it is good at (apart from screwing people), and both communities are better off
for having cooperated with each other. If you believe that's impossible, then you can stop listening now, and go out into the hallway, and start fighting with each other.
If you believe in evolutionary metaphors as I do, then perhaps you can see that not all relationships have to be predatorial or parasitical. How 'bout let's evolve a symbiotic relationship instead. We really do need to learn to depend on each other.
Believe it or not, there are things that the freeware community cannot do well. Believe it or not, there are things that the commercial community cannot do well. But we can do those things for each other.
Before we get to the theological metaphor, I should first state for the record that I am not very religious about free software, per se. Ethically, of course, I believe that if someone gives something away, nobody else should be trying to make a quick buck on it. And if you ever feel like that's happening to you, you have the right to squawk -- and squawk loudly.
But I do not fundamentally believe that information wants to be free. Rather, I believe that information wants to be valuable. Now, providing information for free is one way of increasing its value to you, the consumer. But I'm not a communist when it comes to information, and if we're to build an information economy, then information must have some value to me, the producer.
The theological metaphor I want to leave you with is simply that
it is better to give than to receive. In western culture, we tend to
value a person by what they have acquired. Instead, we really ought
to emulate the American Indians of the Pacific Northwest, who invented
what they called "potlatch." In that
culture, you were valued not by what you acquired, but rather by what you gave away. Out please note: You have to get it first to give it away. We can give things away because we've invested our time and money, and often our company's time and money, and we've produced something of value. Only if
we have the fundamental right to own information do we also have the fundamental right to give information away, freely and without coercion. Simply because we want to, not because we have to.
Read a very unusual interview by Feed magazine (late 1998). Divine Invention Author Erik Davis talks to Perl creator Larry Wall
FEED: Let's say I am an alien anthropologist, studying computer languages, and I came across Perl. What's going to grab me?
WALL: One of the things that's going to grab you as an anthropologist is the fact that there really is an anthropological story here. Most other computer languages are pretty sterile. They're about technology. The difference with Perl is that I decided to create the culture at the same time as I was creating the language. My background is in both computers and linguistics... I put more ideas from linguistics into Perl than is typical in computer science.
FEED: What are some of those ideas?
WALL: The first and foremost is that natural [spoken] languages are not minimalistic. They are optimized for expressiveness rather than for simplicity. Right off the bat, that's something that's anathema to the typical computer scientist.
FEED: 'Natural language' implies a kind of messiness that allows for different users to arise, depending on different needs and circumstances...
WALL: ...Especially by virtue of the fact that many people have bent it to their own task. Since it was not designed by a single person, nobody enforces a single design philosophy on it. But by the same token, it's rich enough that you can bend it to optimize for many different things. You can write poetry, you can write manuals, you can write recipes, you can write love letters. You can call plays in a football huddle, and you can babble.
... [With Perl], I was trying to encourage what I call diagonal thinking. Traditionally computer languages try to be as orthogonal as possible, meaning their features are at all at right angles to each other, metaphorically speaking. The problem with that is that people don't solve problems that way. If I'm in one corner of a park and the restrooms are in the opposite corner of the park, I don't walk due east and then due north. I go northeast -- unless there's a pond in the way or something.
I am told that when they built the University of California at Irvine, they did not put in any sidewalks the first year. Next year they came back and looked at where all the cow trails were in the grass and put the sidewalks there. Perl is designed the same way. It's not just a random collection of features. It's a bunch of features that look like a decent way to get from here to there. If you look at the diagram of an airline, it's a network. Perl is a network of features... It's more like glue than it is like Legos.
FEED: And that's reflected in the culture that has developed around Perl?
WALL: I not only want Perl to be a good 'glue' language, I want Perl people to be good 'glue' people.
FEED: What makes a good 'glue' person?
WALL: Let me distinguish two different kinds of joiners. You have people who will join a movement and be totally gung-ho about it. That's great. We need the cheerleaders.
But that's merely a form of tribalism. What we also try to encourage are the kind of joiners who join many things. These people are like the intersection in a Venn diagram, who like to be at the intersection of two different tribes. In an actual tribal situation, these are the merchants, who go back and forth between tribes and actually produce an economy. In theological terms we call them peacemakers.
In terms of Perl language, these are the people who will not just sit there and write everything in Perl, but the people who will say: Perl is good for this part of the problem, and this other tool is good for that part of the problem, so let's hook 'em together. They see Perl both from the inside and from the outside, just like a missionary. That takes a kind of humility, not only on the part of the person, but on the language. Perl does not want to make more of itself than it is. It's willing to be the servant of other things.
FEED: In one of your keynote speeches to the Perl community, you note that you've tried to model the Perl movement on another movement that you're a member of: Christianity. How so?
WALL: That's more difficult to talk about, not because it's embarrassing but because it works at a lower level in my psyche. I was born and bred to it at that level. I've always been on the church scene, and I've seen healthy churches and I've seen sick churches. I have a low-down feel for when things are being healthy and when they're not, particularly in terms of the relationships between people...
FEED: You have said that, "We need God, the ultimate in control, and we need evolution, the ultimate in chaos." A lot of people are content with the evolution. What is missing from the universe of the selfish gene?
WALL: Any notion of purpose. Any notion of morality. Any notion of obligation.
FEED: Many hackers think in strictly evolutionary terms, which tends to hedge against or even deny the kind of "morality" and "purpose" you describe. Has the pervasiveness of that worldview resulted in some of the less seemly aspects of the software scene?
WALL: The chief proponents of atheism in the 20th century were perhaps the communists. They produced a culture that was very coercive at some level. There are aspects of software culture that are very coercive. Certainly on the commercial end, there's a great deal of coercion that everyone recognizes. But also on the opposite extreme. For the folks who believe that information should be free, or shared among all, it's a communal thing. I view them as the people who want to gather all the farmers onto a collective. My take on giving away software is that this sort of thing should not be coerced. I much prefer the U.S. model, where if I want to help somebody out I can donate to them of my own free will, not at the point of a gun.
FEED: You want to find a middle way between these very different collectivist extremes.
WALL: Yes, I'm not into a hive mentality. What the extremists sort of want is this notion that we are all workers in this hive, and we all contribute, but we don't have any individual rights -- except the right to everything, whatever that means. The theological notion that we are each individually valuable in the sight of God puts a different viewpoint on what humans really want and how they should treat each other.
To me, the whole core of the Christian message is that God, who is this cosmic author, wrote himself into his own story, and proved himself to be more humble, and a better man than any of the rest of us. Anyone who aspires to be a cosmic artist, or a not so cosmic artist, really ought to be looking into the same system of doing things.
FEED: Your role as the artist-honcho of the Perl movement involves both control and loss of control. What guides your hand?
WALL: I definitely try to exercise as little control as possible. I am reminded of Tolkien in his preface to the Lord of the Rings, where he writes that he prefers manufactured history to allegory, because allegory is the purposeful domination of the author. Any good leader who is actually trying to encourage good sub-leadership will try to exercise as little power as possible. If I were a domineering sort of person, then people would not feel comfortable taking positions of leadership within the Perl community. The fact that I don't abuse my power is what lets me keep my power.
FEED: In one of your speeches you quote Jesus: "He who wishes to be greatest among you must become the servant of all." You link that idea to the "onion" of the Perl community, where you are at the center but the real action is along the periphery...
WALL: I can be up here in front of the Perl community and kind of be their demigod, and I can make jokes about getting a swelled head, and I don't have to not be that kind of leader merely because I think that I have to be humble. That's not what humility is. I think God put me here for a reason. I remember walking down the halls in my high school and getting this tremendous sense of destiny. Like I was supposed to do something really great. It was a really weird feeling. I feel like if I have an accurate view of myself, it frees me to be both humble and a megalomaniac at the same time.
Dr. Dobb's Journal February 1998 A Conversation with Larry Wall The creator of Perl talks about language design and Perl. By Eugene Eric Kim
... ... ...
DDJ: Is Perl 5.005 what you envisioned Perl to be when you set out to do it?
LW: That assumes that I'm smart enough to envision something as complicated as Perl. I knew that Perl would be good at some things, and would be good at more things as time went on. So, in a sense, I'm sort of blessed with natural stupidity -- as opposed to artificial intelligence -- in the sense that I know what my intellectual limits are.
I'm not one of these people who can sit down and design an entire system from scratch and figure out how everything relates to everything else, so I knew from the start that I had to take the bear-of-very-little-brain approach, and design the thing to evolve. But that fit in with my background in linguistics, because natural languages evolve over time.
You can apply biological metaphors to languages. They move into niches, and as new needs arise, languages change over time. It's actually a practical way to design a computer language. Not all computer programs can be designed that way, but I think more can be designed that way than have been. A lot of the majestic failures that have occurred in computer science have been because people thought they could design the whole thing in advance.
DDJ: How do you design a language to evolve?
LW: There are several aspects to that, depending on whether you are talking about syntax or semantics. On a syntactic level, in the particular case of Perl, I placed variable names in a separate namespace from reserved words. That's one of the reasons there are funny characters on the front of variable names -- dollar signs and so forth. That allowed me to add new reserved words without breaking old programs.
DDJ: What is a scripting language? Does Perl fall into the category of a scripting language?
LW: Well, being a linguist, I tend to go back to the etymological meanings of "script" and "program," though, of course, that's fallacious in terms of what they mean nowadays. A script is what you hand to the actors, and a program is what you hand to the audience. Now hopefully, the program is already locked in by the time you hand that out, whereas the script is something you can tinker with. I think of phrases like "following the script," or "breaking from the script." The notion that you can evolve your script ties into the notion of rapid prototyping.
A script is something that is easy to tweak, and a program is something that is locked in. There are all sorts of metaphorical tie-ins that tend to make programs static and scripts dynamic, but of course, it's a continuum. You can write Perl programs, and you can write C scripts. People do talk more about Perl programs than C scripts. Maybe that just means Perl is more versatile.
... ... ...
DDJ: Would that be a better distinction than interpreted versus compiled -- run-time versus compile-time binding?
LW: It's a more useful distinction in many ways because, with late-binding languages like Perl or Java, you cannot make up your mind about what the real meaning of it is until the last moment. But there are different definitions of what the last moment is. Computer scientists would say there are really different "latenesses" of binding.
A good language actually gives you a range, a wide dynamic range, of your level of discipline. We're starting to move in that direction with Perl. The initial Perl was lackadaisical about requiring things to be defined or declared or what have you. Perl 5 has some declarations that you can use if you want to increase your level of discipline. But it's optional. So you can say "use strict," or you can turn on warnings, or you can do various sorts of declarations.
DDJ: Would it be accurate to say that Perl doesn't enforce good design?
LW: No, it does not. It tries to give you some tools to help if you want to do that, but I'm a firm believer that a language -- whether it's a natural language or a computer language -- ought to be an amoral artistic medium.
You can write pretty poems or you can write ugly poems, but that doesn't say whether English is pretty or ugly. So, while I kind of like to see beautiful computer programs, I don't think the chief virtue of a language is beauty. That's like asking an artist whether they use beautiful paints and a beautiful canvas and a beautiful palette. A language should be a medium of expression, which does not restrict your feeling unless you ask it to.
DDJ: Where does the beauty of a program lie? In the underlying algorithms, in the syntax of the description?
LW: Well, there are many different definitions of artistic beauty. It can be argued that it's symmetry, which in a computer language might be considered orthogonality. It's also been argued that broken symmetry is what is considered most beautiful and most artistic and diverse. Symmetry breaking is the root of our whole universe according to physicists, so if God is an artist, then maybe that's his definition of what beauty is.
This actually ties back in with the built-to-evolve concept on the semantic level. A lot of computer languages were defined to be naturally orthogonal, or at least the computer scientists who designed them were giving lip service to orthogonality. And that's all very well if you're trying to define a position in a space. But that's not how people think. It's not how natural languages work. Natural languages are not orthogonal, they're diagonal. They give you hypotenuses.
Suppose you're flying from California to Quebec. You don't fly due east, and take a left turn over Nashville, and then go due north. You fly straight, more or less, from here to there. And it's a network. And it's actually sort of a fractal network, where your big link is straight, and you have little "fractally" things at the end for your taxi and bicycle and whatever the mode of transport you use. Languages work the same way. And they're designed to get you most of the way here, and then have ways of refining the additional shades of meaning.
When they first built the University of California at Irvine campus, they just put the buildings in. They did not put any sidewalks, they just planted grass. The next year, they came back and built the sidewalks where the trails were in the grass. Perl is that kind of a language. It is not designed from first principles. Perl is those sidewalks in the grass. Those trails that were there before were the previous computer languages that Perl has borrowed ideas from. And Perl has unashamedly borrowed ideas from many, many different languages. Those paths can go diagonally. We want shortcuts. Sometimes we want to be able to do the orthogonal thing, so Perl generally allows the orthogonal approach also. But it also allows a certain number of shortcuts, and being able to insert those shortcuts is part of that evolutionary thing.
I don't want to claim that this is the only way to design a computer language, or that everyone is going to actually enjoy a computer language that is designed in this way. Obviously, some people speak other languages. But Perl was an experiment in trying to come up with not a large language -- not as large as English -- but a medium-sized language, and to try to see if, by adding certain kinds of complexity from natural language, the expressiveness of the language grew faster than the pain of using it. And, by and large, I think that experiment has been successful.
DDJ: Give an example of one of the things you think is expressive about Perl that you wouldn't find in other languages.
LW: The fact that regular-expression parsing and the use of regular expressions is built right into the language. If you used the regular expression in a list context, it will pass back a list of the various subexpressions that it matched. A different computer language may add regular expressions, even have a module that's called Perl 5 regular expressions, but it won't be integrated into the language. You'll have to jump through an extra hoop, take that right angle turn, in order to say, "Okay, well here, now apply the regular expression, now let's pull the things out of the regular expression," rather than being able to use the thing in a particular context and have it do something meaningful.
The school of linguistics I happened to come up through is called tagmemics, and it makes a big deal about context. In a real language -- this is a tagmemic idea -- you can distinguish between what the conventional meaning of the "thing" is and how it's being used. You think of "dog" primarily as a noun, but you can use it as a verb. That's the prototypical example, but the "thing" applies at many different levels. You think of a sentence as a sentence. Transformational grammar was built on the notion of analyzing a sentence. And they had all their cute rules, and they eventually ended up throwing most of them back out again.
But in the tagmemic view, you can take a sentence as a unit and use it differently. You can say a sentence like, "I don't like your I-can-use-anything-like-a-sentence attitude." There, I've used the sentence as an adjective. The sentence isn't an adjective if you analyze it, any way you want to analyze it. But this is the way people think. If there's a way to make sense of something in a particular context, they'll do so. And Perl is just trying to make those things make sense. There's the basic distinction in Perl between singular and plural context -- call it list context and scalar context, if you will. But you can use a particular construct in a singular context that has one meaning that sort of makes sense using the list context, and it may have a different meaning that makes sense in the plural context.
That is where the expressiveness comes from. In English, you read essays by people who say, "Well, how does this metaphor thing work?" Owen Barfield talks about this. You say one thing and mean another. That's how metaphors arise. Or you take two things and jam them together. I think it was Owen Barfield, or maybe it was C.S. Lewis, who talked about "a piercing sweetness." And we know what "piercing" is, and we know what "sweetness" is, but you put those two together, and you've created a new meaning. And that's how languages ought to work.
DDJ: Is a more expressive language more difficult to learn?
LW: Yes. It was a conscious tradeoff at the beginning of Perl that it would be more difficult to master the whole language. However, taking another clue from a natural language, we do not require 5-year olds to speak with the same diction as 50-year olds. It is okay for you to use the subset of a language that you are comfortable with, and to learn as you go. This is not true of so many computer-science languages. If you program C++ in a subset that corresponds to C, you get laughed out of the office.
There's a whole subject that we haven't touched here. A language is not a set of syntax rules. It is not just a set of semantics. It's the entire culture surrounding the language itself. So part of the cultural context in which you analyze a language includes all the personalities and people involved -- how everybody sees the language, how they propagate the language to other people, how it gets taught, the attitudes of people who are helping each other learn the language -- all of this goes into the pot of context.
Because I had already put out other freeware projects (rn and patch), I realized before I ever wrote Perl that a great deal of the value of those things was from collaboration. Many of the really good ideas in rn and Perl came from other people.
I think that Perl is in its adolescence right now. There are places where it is grown up, and places where it's still throwing tantrums. I have a couple of teenagers, and the thing you notice about teenagers is that they're always plus or minus ten years from their real age. So if you've got a 15-year old, they're either acting 25 or they're acting 5. Sometimes simultaneously! And Perl is a little that way, but that's okay.
DDJ: What part of Perl isn't quite grown up?
LW: Well, I think that the part of Perl, which has not been realistic up until now has been on the order of how you enable people in certain business situations to actually use it properly. There are a lot of people who cannot use freeware because it is, you know, schlocky. Their bosses won't let them, their government won't let them, or they think their government won't let them. There are a lot of people who, unknown to their bosses or their government, are using Perl.
DDJ: So these aren't technical issues.
LW: I suppose it depends on how you define technology. Some of it is perceptions, some of it is business models, and things like that. I'm trying to generate a new symbiosis between the commercial and the freeware interests. I think there's an artificial dividing line between those groups and that they could be more collaborative.
As a linguist, the generation of a linguistic culture is a technical issue. So, these adjustments we might make in people's attitudes toward commercial operations or in how Perl is being supported, distributed, advertised, and marketed -- not in terms of trying to make bucks, but just how we propagate the culture -- these are technical ideas in the psychological and the linguistic sense. They are, of course, not technical in the computer-science sense. But I think that's where Perl has really excelled -- its growth has not been driven solely by technical merits.
DDJ: What are the things that you do when you set out to create a culture around the software that you write?
LW: In the beginning, I just tried to help everybody. Particularly being on USENET. You know, there are even some sneaky things in there -- like looking for people's Perl questions in many different newsgroups. For a long time, I resisted creating a newsgroup for Perl, specifically because I did not want it to be ghettoized. You know, if someone can say, "Oh, this is a discussion about Perl, take it over to the Perl newsgroup," then they shut off the discussion in the shell newsgroup. If there are only the shell newsgroups, and someone says, "Oh, by the way, in Perl, you can solve it like this," that's free advertising. So, it's fuzzy. We had proposed Perl as a newsgroup probably a year or two before we actually created it. It eventually came to the point where the time was right for it, and we did that.
DDJ: Perl has really been pigeonholed as a language of the Web. One result is that people mistakenly try to compare Perl to Java. Why do you think people make the comparison in the first place? Is there anything to compare?
LW: Well, people always compare everything.
DDJ: Do you agree that Perl has been pigeonholed?
LW: Yes, but I'm not sure that it bothers me. Before it was pigeonholed as a web language, it was pigeonholed as a system-administration language, and I think that -- this goes counter to what I was saying earlier about marketing Perl -- if the abilities are there to do a particular job, there will be somebody there to apply it, generally speaking. So I'm not too worried about Perl moving into new ecological niches, as long as it has the capability of surviving in there.
Perl is actually a scrappy language for surviving in a particular ecological niche. (Can you tell I like biological metaphors?) You've got to understand that it first went up against C and against shell, both of which were much loved in the UNIX community, and it succeeded against them. So that early competition actually makes it quite a fit competitor in many other realms, too.
For most web applications, Perl is severely underutilized. Your typical CGI script says print, print, print, print, print, print, print. But in a sense, it's the dynamic range of Perl that allows for that. You don't have to say a whole lot to write a simple Perl script, whereas your minimal Java program is, you know, eight or ten lines long anyway. Many of the features that made it competitive in the UNIX space will make it competitive in other spaces.
Now, there are things that Perl can't do. One of the things that you can't do with Perl right now is compile it down to Java bytecode. And if that, in the long run, becomes a large ecological niche (and this is not yet a sure thing), then that is a capability I want to be certain that Perl has.
DDJ: There's been a movement to merge the two development paths between the ActiveWare Perl for Windows and the main distribution of Perl. You were talking about ecological niches earlier, and how Perl started off as a text-processing language. The scripting languages that are dominant on the Microsoft platforms -- like VB -- tend to be more visual than textual. Given Perl's UNIX origins -- awk, sed, and C, for that matter -- do you think that Perl, as it currently stands, has the tools to fit into a Windows niche?
LW: Yes and no. It depends on your problem domain and who's trying to solve the problem. There are problems that only need a textual solution or don't need a visual solution. Automation things of certain sorts don't need to interact with the desktop, so for those sorts of things -- and for the programmers who aren't really all that interested in visual programming -- it's already good for that. And people are already using it for that. Certainly, there is a group of people who would be enabled to use Perl if it had more of a visual interface, and one of the things we're talking about doing for the O'Reilly NT Perl Resource Kit is some sort of a visual interface.
A lot of what Windows is designed to do is to get mere mortals from 0 to 60, and there are some people who want to get from 60 to 100. We are not really interested in being in Microsoft's crosshairs. We're not actually interested in competing head-to-head with Visual Basic, and to the extent that we do compete with them, it's going to be kind of subtle. There has to be some way to get people from the slow lane to the fast lane. It's one thing to give them a way to get from 60 to 100, but if they have to spin out to get from the slow lane to the fast lane, then that's not going to work either.
Over the years, much of the work of making Perl work for people has been in designing ways for people to come to Perl. I actually delayed the first version of Perl for a couple of months until I had a sed-to-Perl and an awk-to-Perl translator. One of the benefits of borrowing features from various other languages is that those subsets of Perl that use those features are familiar to people coming from that other culture. What would be best, in my book, is if someone had a way of saying, "Well, I've got this thing in Visual Basic. Now, can I just rewrite some of these things in Perl?"
We're already doing this with Java. On our UNIX Perl Resource Kit, I've got a hybrid language called "jpl" -- that's partly a pun on my old alma mater, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and partly for Java, Perl...Lingo, there we go! That's good. "Java Perl Lingo." You've heard it first here! jpl lets you take a Java program and magically turn one of the methods into a chunk of Perl right there inline. It turns Perl code into a native method, and automates the linkage so that when you pull in the Java code, it also pulls in the Perl code, and the interpreter, and everything else. It's actually calling out from Java's Virtual Machine into Perl's virtual machine. And we can call in the other direction, too. You can embed Java in Perl, except that there's a bug in JDK having to do with threads that prevents us from doing any I/O. But that's Java's problem.
It's a way of letting somebody evolve from a purely Java solution into, at least partly, a Perl solution. It's important not only to make Perl evolve, but to make it so that people can evolve their own programs. It's how I program, and I think a lot of people program that way. Most of us are too stupid to know what we want at the beginning.
DDJ: Is there hope down the line to present Perl to a standardization body?
LW: Well, I have said in jest that people will be free to standardize Perl when I'm dead. There may come a time when that is the right thing to do, but it doesn't seem appropriate yet.
DDJ: When would that time be?
LW: Oh, maybe when the federal government declares that we can't export Perl unless it's standardized or something.
DDJ: Only when you're forced to, basically.
LW: Yeah. To me, once things get to a standards body, it's not very interesting anymore. The most efficient form of government is a benevolent dictatorship. I remember walking into some BOF that USENIX held six or seven years ago, and John Quarterman was running it, and he saw me sneak in, sit in the back corner, and he said, "Oh, here comes Larry Wall! He's a standards committee all of his own!"
A great deal of the success of Perl so far has been based on some of my own idiosyncrasies. And I recognize that they are idiosyncrasies, and I try to let people argue me out of them whenever appropriate. But there are still ways of looking at things that I seem to do differently than anybody else. It may well be that perl5-porters will one day degenerate into a standards committee. So far, I have not abused my authority to the point that people have written me off, and so I am still allowed to exercise a certain amount of absolute power over the Perl core.
I just think headless standards committees tend to reduce everything to mush. There is a conservatism that committees have that individuals don't, and there are times when you want to have that conservatism and times you don't. I try to exercise my authority where we don't want that conservatism. And I try not to exercise it at other times.
DDJ: How did you get involved in computer science? You're a linguist by background?
LW: Because I talk to computer scientists more than I talk to linguists, I wear the linguistics mantle more than I wear the computer-science mantle, but they actually came along in parallel, and I'm probably a 50/50 hybrid. You know, basically, I'm no good at either linguistics or computer science.
DDJ: So you took computer-science courses in college?
LW: In college, yeah. In college, I had various majors, but what I eventually graduated in -- I'm one of those people that packed four years into eight -- what I eventually graduated in was a self-constructed major, and it was Natural and Artificial Languages, which seems positively prescient considering where I ended up.
DDJ: When did you join O'Reilly as a salaried employee? And how did that come about?
LW: A year-and-a-half ago. It was partly because my previous job was kind of winding down.
DDJ: What was your previous job?
LW: I was working for Seagate Software. They were shutting down that branch of operations there. So, I was just starting to look around a little bit, and Tim noticed me looking around and said, "Well, you know, I've wanted to hire you for a long time," so we talked. And Gina Blaber (O'Reilly's software director) and I met. So, they more or less offered to pay me to mess around with Perl.
So it's sort of my dream job. I get to work from home, and if I feel like taking a nap in the afternoon, I can take a nap in the afternoon and work all night.
DDJ: Do you have any final comments, or tips for aspiring programmers? Or aspiring Perl programmers?
LW: Assume that your first idea is wrong, and try to think through the various options. I think that the biggest mistake people make is latching onto the first idea that comes to them and trying to do that. It really comes to a thing that my folks taught me about money. Don't buy something unless you've wanted it three times. Similarly, don't throw in a feature when you first think of it. Think if there's a way to generalize it, think if it should be generalized. Sometimes you can generalize things too much. I think like the things in Scheme were generalized too much. There is a level of abstraction beyond which people don't want to go. Take a good look at what you want to do, and try to come up with the long-term lazy way, not the short-term lazy way.
Community: Larry Wall Visits Cincinnati on Jan. 22(Jan 15, 2001)
PaulaGordon.com: Free Software (RealAudio Interview with Larry Wall)(Nov 26, 2000)
Perl.org: Larry Wall's Altanta Linux Showcase Talk: Camel Lot #6, The Once and Future Perl(Oct 31, 2000)
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