Mining the Past

I used to joke that I was the only programmer under 30 who knows SNOBOL. It may not be the case anymore, but there's something fun about knowing a bunch of obscure languages. For example, a used Prolog book on Amazon goes for $20. A used Smalltalk book goes for about $10. A used SNOBOL book goes for about $1. For comparison, used books on functional programming usually seem to go for about $80. I have a ton of those books, and I haven't learned as much from any of them as I have from Real World Haskell or ML for the Working Programmer, which are both still in print.

It's hard to sing the virtues of languages like SNOBOL, but a bit of context helps I think. For one thing, SNOBOL stands at a certain evolutionary dead end. They don't make languages like that anymore. It's shamelessly GOTO-laden, has a laughable approach to error handling, and its handling of strings is quite strange by modern standards. But I think it really exemplifies the fact that nobody knew what the hell was going on thirty to forty years ago.

I was reading an old issue of BYTE magazine that I downloaded. It was the August 1981 issue, the issues from my birth month, which happened to be the Smalltalk spectacular issue, with four or five articles about Smalltalk. When you invest in an unpopular language with a long history like Smalltalk, Prolog or Lisp, there's always this sense looming in the air that you're wasting your time or that the language is defunct. This notion is absurd; the internet “ensures” that no language can die, the worst they can do is lag behind, and this will be treated like a major problem whether or not it is true.

In fact, what struck me about this issue of the magazine is the gulf between the content of the magazine and the ads alongside that content. The Smalltalk authors are essentially trying to explain what a graphical user interface is to people who have never seen them before, and right next to the screenshots of windows and menus with Copy and Paste in them are ads declaring that this $1700 graphics card will enable you to have character art in 16 colors on your Sinclair. There's an ad for a text editor for $300. There's ads for 16K expansion cards, tape drives, build-it-yourself computers from companies you've never heard of. It's chaos and confusion. Smalltalk must have looked like an absurd dream to most of the readers. Something that couldn't be, adjacent to an ad for a cassette drive or business software with runes in the logo.

Against this backdrop, the sins of SNOBOL are a bit easier to explain. Issues of this and other computer magazines—remember, we're talking about just 30 years ago, not a hundred—would often contain “source code” for a program, in some kind of assembly language. There were easily half a dozen competing architectures of computer running around, all for similar costs. In this same magazine there are ads for compilers in BASIC, Pascal, Fortran, Forth, and C, all for different combinations of platform. There are ads for third party operating systems, including one I've never heard of that implemented a very basic Unix on the Z-80. In this context, the sales pitch for SNOBOL looks like this: it's portable, it's for string processing which you're probably not enjoying in one of the mainstream languages of the day, and it resembles assembler. For that matter, it's also probably quite fast compared to BASIC, which is probably what you were using before.

It's a little disingenuous to look at the situation today and say C's dominance is based on some kind of obvious superiority when Pascal and BASIC were so incredibly prevalent during this time period on personal computers. The honest answer is probably happenstance. So if the world we live in today, computing-wise, is mostly a result of happenstance, then the past ought to be brimming with interesting stuff long forgotten. Unfortunately, I've steeped myself in this mythology so thoroughly it's hard for me to tell what's appreciated and what's been thrown away.

One thing I think all programmers should put more effort into is having some patience for learning older stuff. The internet naturally predisposes us to be excited about exciting new technology, not dusty old technology. But there's a tremendous amount of group-think going on in the world today. Things which don't have to go together are always seen together, and interesting alternatives require a celebrity programmer or a heavily marketed implementation to get traction. For example, the next version of JavaScript is going to have classes, for no compelling reason. NoSQL databases are taking off, despite the fact there are no credible non-SQL relational databases. That whole fiasco is very much 1960s style network and hierarchical databases recast with web jargon; all the old relational database arguments work against them, yet neither side has the historical knowledge with which to lead the debate.

I see the industry as having entered a sort of river delta in this era. Very little software technology truly dies these days. Mostly, weaker offerings (mSQL, APL, Joy) are absorbed by similar offerings that, for whatever reason, achieve popularity (MySQL, J, Factor). Since so much of this stuff is open source and unsupported commercially, when one maintainer leaves another one steps up. You can program in MUMPS today mostly because a handful of huge medical apps are so it is supported. Ada hasn't had a new book published in several years, but it will continue to be used in aviation and learned for that reason until something stronger comes along.

Perhaps what's needed is not to provide enough context that Smalltalk, SNOBOL and so forth can be appreciated by modern readers. It may even be an unhelpful distraction. After all, people have shit to do, that's why they need to program in the first place. Perhaps it would be more helpful to skip the plea for lenience and dive right in, pretending that the inconveniences are unnoticeable because they usually are in practice. After all, there are a lot of great ideas in Clojure, but I pinch my nose at the Java-isms. Today, these are convenient and helpful; in another decade, will that still be true, or will they be undesirable reminders of Clojure's origins? Common Lisp, for example, includes a lot of crap in a “file path” that makes no sense on any modern platform, like hostnames and version numbers. It's really much closer to a primitive URL. This doesn't stop Lisp from being useful or even its file paths from being useful, it just adds to the general funk. Similarly, Smalltalk doesn't specify where the stuff in the image is sourced from. Modern users are put off by the inability to conveniently use Git or Mercurial to manage their versions, but this was considered a forward-thinking view and an improvement in usability over file-based programming. At the same time, Ruby is demonstrating that it's hard to make an open class world work reliably and safely, but Smalltalk has had that figured out for some time.

It's an interesting world.