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projects:humble_programmer

„I pray daily that more of my fellow-programmers may find the means of freeing themselves from the curse of compatibility.“

Here are excerpts from Edsger W. Dijkstra's Turing Award Lecture, „The Humble Programmer,“ © 1972, Association for Computing Machinery, Inc. (Permission to republish, but not for profit, all or part of this material is granted by permission of the Association for Computing Machinery, provided proper reference is made.) Fifteen years later his comments on IBM architecture, subroutines, Fortran, LISP, Algol, PL/I, and APL, are still pertinent. The Forth community will find his prediction of „a great future for very systematic and very modest programming languages“ interesting. Note that his criticism of Fortran's „DO loop“ also applies to Forth's „DO loop“ and „FOR NEXT loop“

…. Then, in the mid sixties something terrible happened: the computers of the so-called third generation made their appearance. The official literature tells us that their price/performance ration has been one of the major design objectives. But if you take as „performance“ the duty cycle of the machine's various components, little will prevent you from ending up with a design in which the major part of your performance goal is reached by internal housekeeping activities of doubtful necessity. And if your definition of price is the price to be paid for the hardware, little will prevent you from ending up with a design that is terribly hard to program for: for instance the order code might be such as to enforce, either upon the programmer or upon the system, early binding decisions presenting conflicts that really cannot be resolved. And to a large extent these unpleasant possibilities seem to have become reality.

When these machines were announced and functional specifications became known, many among us must have become quite miserable; at least I was. It was only reasonable to expect that such machines would flood the computing community, and it was therefore all the more important that their design would be as sound as possible. But the design embodied such serious flaws that I felt that with a single stroke the progress of computing science had been retarded by at least ten years; it was then that I had the blackest week in the whole of my professional life. Perhaps the most saddening thing now is that, even after all those years of frustrating experience, still so many people honestly believe that some law of nature tells us that machines have to be that way. They silence their doubts by observing how many of these machines have been sold, and derive from that observation the false sense of security that, after all, the design cannot have been that bad. But upon closer inspection, that line of defense has the same convincing strength as the argument that cigarette smoking must be healthy because so many people do it….

The reason that I have paid the above attention to the hardware scene is because I have the feeling that one of the most important aspects of any computing tool is its influence on the thinking habits of those who try to use it, and because I have reasons to believe that that influence is many times stronger than is commonly assumed. Let us now switch our attention to the software scene….

In the beginning there was the EDSAC in Cambridge, England, and I think it quite impressive that right from the start the notion of a subroutine library played a central role in the design of that machine and of the way in which it should be used. It is now [1972] nearly 25 years later and the computing scene has changed dramatically, but the notion of basic software is still with us, and the notion of the closed subroutine is still one of the key concepts in programming. We should recognize the closed subroutine as one of the greatest software inventions; it has survived three generations of computers and it will survive a few more, because it caters for the implementation of one of our basic patterns of abstraction. Regrettably enough, its importance has been underestimated in the design of the third generation computers, in which the great number of explicitly named registers of the arithmetic unit implies a large overhead on the subroutine mechanism. But even that did not kill the concept of the subroutine, and we can only pray that the mutation won't prove to be hereditary.

The second major development on the software scene that I would like to mention is the birth of FORTRAN. At that time this was a project of great temerity, and the people responsible for it deserve our great admiration. It would be absolutely unfair to blame them for short-comings that only became apparent after a decade or so of extensive usage: groups with a successful look-ahead of ten years are quite rare! In retrospect we must rate FORTRAN as a successful coding technique, but with very few effective aids to conception, aids which are now so urgently needed that time has come to consider it out of date. The sooner we can forget FORTRAN ever existed, the better, for as a vehicle of thought it is no longer adequate: it wastes our brainpower, and it is too risky and therefore too expensive to use. FORTRAN's tragic fate has been its wide acceptance, mentally chaining thousands and thousands of programmers to our past mistakes. I pray daily that more of my fellow-programmers may find the means of freeing themselves from the curse of compatibility.

The third project I would not like to leave unmentioned is LISP, a fascinating enterprise of a completely different nature. With a few very basic principles at its foundation, it has shown a remarkable stability. Besides that, LISP has been the carrier for a considerable number of, in a sense, our most sophisticated computer applications. LISP has jokingly been described as „the most intelligent was to misuse a computer.“ I think that description a great compliment because it transmits the full flavor of liberation: it has assisted a number of our most gifted fellow humans in thinking previously impossible thoughts.

The fourth project to be mentioned in ALGOL 60. While up to the present day FORTRAN programmers still tend to understand their programming language in terms of the specific implementation they are working with–hence the prevalence of octal or hexadecimal dumps–while the definition of LISP is still a curious mixture of what the language means and how the mechanism works, the famous Report on the Algorithmic Language ALGOL 60 is the fruit of a genuine effort to carry abstraction a vital step further and to define a programming language in an implementation-independent way. One could argue that in this respect its authors have been so successful that they have created serious doubts as to whether it could be implemented at all! The report gloriously demonstrated the power of the formal method BNF, now fairly known as Backus-Naur-Form, and the power of carefully phrased English, at least when used by some-one as brilliant as Peter Naur. I think that it is fair to say that only very few documents as short as this have had an equally profound influence on the computing community. The ease with which in later years ALGOL and ALGOL-like have been used, as an unprotected trademark, to lend glory to a number of sometimes hardly related younger projects is a some-what shocking compliment to ALGOL's standing. The strength of BNF as a defining device is responsible for what I regard as one of the weaknesses of the language: an over-elaborate and not too systematic syntax could now be crammed into the confines of a very few pages. With a device as powerful as BNF, the Report on the Algorithmic Language ALGOL 60 should have been much shorter. Besides that, I am getting very doubtful about ALGOL 60's parameter mechanism: it allows the programmer so much combinatorial freedom that its confident use requires a strong discipline from the programmer. Besides being expensive to implement, it seems dangerous to use.

Finally, although the subject is not a pleasant one, I must mention PL/I, a programming language for which the defining mechanism is of a frightening size and complexity. Using PL/I must be like flying a plane with 7,000 buttons, switches, and handles to manipulate in the cockpit. I absolutely fail to see how we can keep our growing programs firmly within our intellectual grip when by its sheer baroqueness the programming language–our basic tool, mind you!–already escapes our intellectual control. And if I have to describe the influence PL/I can have on its users, the closest metaphor that comes to my mind is that of a drug. I remember from a symposium on higher level programming languages a lecture given in defense of PL/I by a man who described himself as one of its devoted users. But within a one-hour lecture in praise of PL/I, he managed to ask for the addition of about 50 new „features,“ little supposing that the main source of his problems could very well be that it contained already far too many „features.“ The speaker displayed all the depressing symptoms of addiction, reduced as he was to the state of mental stagnation in which he could only ask for more, more, more…. When FORTRAN has been called an infantile disorder, full PL/I, with its growth characteristics of a dangerous tumor, could turn out to be a fatal disease….

… The tools we are trying to use and the language or notation we are using to express or record our thoughts are the major factors determining what we can think or express at all! The analysis of the influence that programming languages have on the thinking habits of their users, and the recognition that, by now, brainpower is by far our scarcest resource, these together give us a new collection of yardsticks for comparing the relative merits of various programming languages. The competent programmer is fully aware of the strictly limited size of his own skull; therefore he approaches the programming task in full humility, and among other things he avoids clever tricks like the plague. In the case of a well-known conversational programming language I have been told from various sides that as soon as a programming community is equipped with a terminal for it, a specific phenomenon occurs that even has a well-established name: it is called „the one-liners.“ It takes on of two different forms: one programmer places a one-line program on the desk of another and either he proudly tells what does and adds the question, „Can you code this in fewer symbols?“–as if this were of any conceptual relevance!–or he just says, „Guess what it does!“ From this observation we must conclude that this language as a tool is an open invitation for clever tricks; and while exactly this may be the explanation for some of its appeal, viz. to those who like to show how clever they are, I am sorry, but I must regard this as one of the most damning things that can be said about a programming language. Another lesson we should have learned from the recent past is that the development of „richer“ or „more powerful“ programming languages was a mistake in the sense that these baroque monstrosities, these conglomerations of idiosyncrasies, are really unmanageable, both mechanically and mentally. I see a great future for very systematic and very modest programming languages. When I say „modest,“ I mean that, for instance, not only ALGOL 60's „for clause,“ but even FORTRAN's „DO loop“ may find themselves thrown out as being too baroque. I have run a little programming experiment with really advanced volunteers, but something quite unintended and quite unexpected turned up. None of my volunteers found the obvious and most elegant solution. Upon closer analysis this turned out to have a common source: their notion of repetition was so tightly connected to the idea of an associated controlled variable to be stepped up, that they were mentally blocked from seeing the obvious. Their solutions were less efficient, needlessly hard to understand, and it took them a very long time to find them. It was a revealing, but also shocking experience for me. Finally, in one respect one hopes that tomorrow's programming languages will differ greatly from what we are used to now: to a much greater extent than hitherto they should invite us to reflect in the structure of what we write down all abstractions need to cope conceptually with the complexity of what we are designing….

As an aside I would like to insert a warning to those who identify the difficulty of the programming task with the struggle against the inadequacies of our current tools, because they might conclude that, once our tools will be much more adequate, programming will no longer be a problem. Programming will remain very difficult, because once we have freed ourselves from the circumstantial cumbersomeness, we will find ourselves free to tackle the problems that are now well beyond our programming capacity.

You can quarrel with my [next] argument, for it is not so easy to collect experimental evidence for its support, a fact that will not prevent me from believing in its validity. Up till now I have not mentioned the word „hierarchy,“ but I think that it is fair to say that this is a key concept for all systems embodying a nicely factored solution. I could even go one step further and make an article of faith out of it, viz. that the only problems we can really solve in a satisfactory manner are those that finally admit a nicely factored solution. At first sight this view of human limitations may strike you as a rather depressing view of our predicament, but I don't feel it that way. On the contrary, the best way to learn to live with our limitations is to know them. By the time that we are sufficiently modest to try factored solutions only, because the other efforts escape our intellectual grip, we shall do our utmost to avoid all those interfaces impairing our ability to factor the system in a helpful way. And I can not but expect that this will repeatedly lead to the discovery that an initially untractable problem can be factored after all. Anyone who has seen how the majority of the troubles of the compiling phase called „code generation“ can be tracked down to funny properties of the order code will know a simple example of the kind of things I have in mind. The wider applicability of nicely factored solutions is [the] last argument for the technical feasibility of the revolution that might take place in the current decade….

projects/humble_programmer.txt · Zuletzt geändert: 2013-06-06 21:27 (Externe Bearbeitung)