Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Yet More On Tools

I got so many good comments on Tools that I couldn't just let the replies go to waste. Here's another one from Sam Tesla:
Sooner or later I was going to bite on one of your posts.

While I agree that tools for a language should be written in the language, I have to disagree on specifics.

Why should I have to write Yet Another Yet Another Yet Another Editor for my language in my language when a perfectly good one already exists?

The Erlang/OTP team asked that question and decided they shouldn't. Instead they made an elisp module that turns your Emacs into an Erlang node and uses Erlang's distribution primitives to hook into a live Erlang node.

They provide many of the tools you'd expect from a Smalltalk, including the ability to inspect and interrogate (inasmuch as it makes sense for a functional language) running processes.

It's in Emacs, sure, but that's because Emacs has had at least ten years more to mature than Erlang, let alone any editor written in Erlang.

Good programmers don't repeat themselves if they don't have to.

My answer to this is simply why write a new language to begin with? The reason is simple: to solve a specific problem better than before. We shouldn't stop trying. Now, with that being said, let's move on. I know Erlang is a powerful language and have many times sang its praises. There's a lot of languages in the same boat (Io, Mozart, and many more). I can understand not wanting to do another editor in the beginning, but it's a good exercise. There are non-trivial problems to solve in doing your own editor. Plus, it allows new developers to see a non-trivial example of your new language's code. Again, let's move on.

My main rant was on tools (not necessarily editors), yes, I know I picked on Eclipse and Emacs. But, Eclipse is really much more than a text editor. It has several tools to reason about your code (Refactoring), give your different viewpoints (Call Hierarchy, Class Hierarchy), and ways to ignore what you don't care about. These are the kinds of tools that I am interested in. I think a code beautifier and debugger are the price of admission. You are not even playing the game without those. Now, Erlang is a different way of thinking, it should have tools to support that thinking. Much like the Refactoring Browser changed the way we view code in Smalltalk. I think Ruby is ripe with opportunities to change the way we think about code. Again, the tools should reflect that.

I'll use a simple example: AspectJ. Now, it's not a language per se. But, it's a different way of viewing code and a different way of developing. I liked the idea of aspects, but it didn't click until the Eclipse support came. Once it was easy to see the consequences of my actions, my mental model became stronger. It also made it easier to reason about what my systems were doing. Tools should aid and enhance your mental model. They should allow you to ignore details and quickly hone on the ones you do.

Lastly, I'll add that I wouldn't even think about doing Java code without Eclipse. It's the tools. But, when I'm programming in another language like Ruby for example. I want to stay thinking in that language. So, if I have an idea for a nice tool, it should be easy to whip it up in the language I'm working in. I shouldn't have to switch gears to another language. We should think of languages as playgrounds to change the way we program and change it for the better.

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