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on redundancy and power

It has been proposed that succinctness is power.  I have some sympathy
with this view; if "power" means anything when we are talking about
programming languages, a more powerful language is one that can do
more with the same human effort.  Human effort in programming ---
design, comprehension, construction, and debugging --- correlates
closely with the amount of source text, so in general, less verbose
programs require less effort.

Still, other things affect the effort required, too; some are
linguistic, others are not.

For example, good error reporting drastically decreases the time
required to find and fix problems.  This matters in proportion to the
number of errors you make and how good you are at guessing about their
causes --- novices make a lot of errors and can't guess, while
superprogrammers make few and can be pretty good at guessing.

Error reporting depends crucially on redundancy.  Knuth has said [0]
TeX would be easier to program in if it had more redundancy in the
language.  Perl eliminates most redundant data-type conversions ---
programs are more succinct, but errors are easier.  (In one Perl
program, I had a list of LIST references comprising a two-dimensional
array of numbers.  A loop over this list incorrectly referred to
$list[$i] rather than $list[$i][$j], and so my program happily
multiplied memory addresses by integers and got astronomical, and
wrong, answers.)  Languages with different kinds of end tags, like Ada
and XML, can usually tell you exactly which end tag you left out or
inserted one extra of; languages that use only right parens cannot.

The greater the probability a random string is a valid program, the
harder it is to report errors well.

Type-checking depends on redundancy; if any operator can be applied to
any type, as in Forth, your only indication of type errors will be
your incorrect answers or crashes, while if types are only checked by
primitive operations, the error may be reported a long way from where
the type error occurs.  When I pass a value of the wrong type to a
Python library, the ensuing error message often takes a bit of
noodling to connect with my own code.

Redundancy, of course, reduces succinctness.

Another sink of effort is looking things up in manuals.  I have to
spend a lot of time looking things up when I work in Python; I can
rarely remember the argument sequence for re.sub(), for example,
while Perl's more idiosyncratic syntax is easier to remember.  No
doubt I would find it much easier to remember argument order for
Smalltalk methods.

pydoc helps a lot; just being able to type 'pydoc re.sub' instead of
navigating through the HTML manuals is a big help.  Having pydoc
access from Emacs while I was editing Python programs would help even
more; Emacs has supported that kind of thing in C for a long time with
M-x man.

Joel Spolsky, a fan of Microsoft's development environments, recently
pointed out [1] that static typing allows syntax-directed editors to
prompt you with method signatures, which Microsoft's development
environments actually do.  Lisp development environments can do this
(Emacs ilisp-mode will do the same with C-c a or eldoc-mode) but it
would be very difficult for Python environments.

[0] "Interview: Donald E. Knuth" on advogato, 2000-01-25:

[1] "Joel on Software" from 2002-04-25, talking about "SOAP backlash":
http://joelonsoftware.com/news/20020425.html.  Unfortunately, Joel is
so provincial that he doesn't know how to spell "dynamic typing",
spelling it "variants".

<kragen@pobox.com>       Kragen Sitaker     <http://www.pobox.com/~kragen/>
"Why are you withholding me?" -- name withheld  "Oh... And dig this:  I
am a fish.  'Nuff said." -- Joe Blaylock (no further explanation)
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