Friday, February 12


Syntax Matters

Pixy's First Rule of Computer Language Design: Syntax matters.

You can have all the semantic brilliance in the world, but if your syntax is counter-intuitive, no-one will use it.  See for example the widespread success of Smalltalk and Lisp in the industry.

... crickets ...


So, how does this apply to databases, the topic to which I am dedicating an extended rant?  Well, the problem with databases in the modern world is essentially twofold:
  1. SQL.
  2. Everything else.
SQL's syntax, semantics, and implementations generally leave something to be desired, but it does get the job done, the job being selecting and modifying sets of data.

Everything else's syntax, semantics and implementations generally leave something to be desired too; it's impossible to design the perfect language (though if someone created interoperable implementations of Python and Ruby atop the Go compiler, they'd be getting close) because there are syntactic and semantic conflicts that cannot be resolved; you have to choose on which side of the conflict you wish to fall, and live with that decision.*

But the real clash comes when you want to get your data and do something with it, like, for example, display it on the screen.  You write a SQL query (which is a program in its own right), send it to the database server, get a bunch of text back, which you then interpret into structures suited to your programming language, process those structures, and finally, display it on the screen.

That is, frankly, a godawful mess, slow, insecure, painful to code, and nonetheless how most of the websites in the world actually work.

The frustrating thing is that this problem was solved completely in the early 80s.**

In Progress, to display a list of customers with balances over $100, you can say:
for each customer where balance>100:
  display customer.
Okay, that's nothing special; in SQL it's even easier:
select * from customer where balance>100;
But in Progress, you can do this:
def var reminder as logical.

for each customer where balance>100:
    display customer.
    update reminder.
    if reminder then do:
        reminder_date = today.
That is, you can loop through the customers, prompt the user whether to send a reminder letter to each, send out the letters as instructed, and mark it on the account.  It even initiates the transactions for you and provides automatic commit and undo semantics.  No need to write queries in one language and application code in another, your data is simply there for you to work with.  Your user could be on a Wyse 60, your application on a Dell 386 running Xenix, and your database on an AS/400, and it would all just work.

It was a thing of beauty.  Until your r-code (Progress's bytecode) exceeded 64k and you couldn't compile it any more.***

Nothing else compares.  Microsoft's LINQ, two full decades later, is a poor and partial reinvention of Progress.

Exactly why Progress is languishing in near-irrelevance today is a topic of a whole month of rants, and beside the point, which is that somebody already got it right.

I can't use Progress for my applications because the language itself is abjectly inefficient and limited compared to a modern dynamic language like Python or Ruby.****  So the question is, what can I do with a modern dynamic language like Python or Ruby to recapture some of that functionality, some of that breezy syntactic and semantic awesomeness?

Well, neither Python nor Ruby has an interactive mode that remotely compares with Progress, so I'm going to ignore that part for the moment and concentrate on the data syntax and semantics.  And I'm going to mostly use Python, because I'm more familiar with it and because they're similar enough that it doesn't matter that much.

Python has these things called generators.  Generators are program structures that pretend to be data structures.  In Python, if you have a list
lollipops = ['cherry','huckleberry','lime']
You can iterate through with:
for each pop in lollipops:
    print pop
(As an aside, there's no end statement, which is one of Python's greatest strengths-and/or-weaknesses.)  Which will print, as you might expect,
So far, it's elegant but limited.  The clever trick is that if I write this piece of code:
def lollipops():
    flavours = ['cherry','huckleberry','lime']
    for flavour in flavours:
        yield flavour
And then write:
for pop in lollipops():
    print pop
I will again get
We have a program (a subprogram) here acting almost exactly like a data structure.  So rather than being limited to the data structures that we have, or being forced to write code that manipulates the data structures and calls functions to get the bits and pieces that we want, we can just use the language's own for loop.  The only distinction is that calling a subprogram requires dereferencing it with () (otherwise you get Python's version of a function pointer - very useful, but not what we want right now).  But we can do better still by creating a class, like so:
class candy():
    def __init__(self):
        self.flavours = ['cherry', 'huckleberry', 'lime']
    def __iter__(self):
        for flavour in self.flavours:
            yield flavour

lollipops = candy()
for pop in lollipops:
    print pop

And now we have code that acts exactly like a data structure.  (Well, for the requirements of this little example.)

At which point I shall leave off for the moment, to resume at some time other than 3AM.

* Some of the syntactic conflicts arise from the restrictions of the ASCII character set, which simply doesn't have some of the symbols we need, so we substitude and overload the ones we do.  Of course, today we have Unicode and can display every symbol we could ask for - but you can't type in Unicode.

** And probably before, but certainly in the 80s.

*** Something which, as far as I know, they still haven't entirely resolved.

**** And because it's overpriced and the licensing model is insane.

Posted by: Pixy Misa at 02:31 AM | Comments (1) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (Suck)
Post contains 967 words, total size 8 kb.

1 The joys of Progress the language. The abject hell that is Progress, the company. They've pretty much consigned the language and DB to a bullet point in their sales sheet. Having gone acquisition happy instead of focussing on their core competency. Core incompetency ?

Posted by: Andrew at Friday, February 19 2010 02:44 PM (cCNlL)

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