A New Hope: Polyglotism

OK, so this isn’t necessarily anything new, but I had to go with the running joke of the two blog posts this post is more or less a follow up to. If you haven’t already read them, go read Yegge’s Dynamic Languages Strikes Back, and Beust’s Return Of The Statically Typed Languages.

So let’s see. Distilled, Steve thinks that static languages have reached the ceiling for what’s possible to do, and that dynamic languages offer more flexibility and power without actually sacrificing performance and maintainability. He backs this up with several research papers that point to very interesting runtime performance improvement techniques that really can help dynamic languages perform exceptionally well.

On the other hand Cedric believes that Scala is bad because of implicits and pattern matching, that it’s common sense to not allow people to use the languages they like, that tools for dynamic languages will never be as good as the ones for static ones, that Java generics isn’t really a problem, that dynamic language performance will improve but that this doesn’t matter, that static languages really hasn’t failed at all and that Java is still the best language of choice, and will continue to be for a long time.

Now, these two bloggers obviously have different opinions, and it’s really hard to actually see which parts are facts and which are opinions. So let me try to sort out some facts first:

Dynamic language have been around for a long time. As long as statically typed languages in fact. Lisp was the first one.

There have been extremely efficient dynamic language implementations. Some of the Common Lisp implementations are on par with C performance, and Strongtalk also achieved incredible numbers. As several commenters have noted, Strongtalks performance did not come from the optional type tags.

All dynamic languages in large use today are not even on the same map with regards to performance. There are several approaches to fixing these, but we can’t know how well they will work out in practice.

Java’s type system is not very strong, and not very static, as these definitions go. From a type theoretic stand point Java does not offer neither static type safety nor any complete guarantees.

There is a good reason for these holes in Java. In particular, Java was created to give lots of hints to the compiler so the compiler can catch errors where the programmer is insoncistent. This is one of the reasons that you very often find yourself writing the same type name twice, including the type name arguments (generics). If the programmer makes a mistake at one side, the compiler will be able to catch this error very easily. It is a redundancy in the syntax that makes Java programs very verbose, but helps against certain kinds of mistakes.

Really strong type systems like those Haskell and OCaML use provide extremely strong compile time guarantees. This means that if the compiler accepts your program, you will never see any runtime errors from the type system. This allows these compilers to generate very efficient code, because they know more about the state of the application at most points in time, compared to the compiler for Java, which knows some things, but not nearly as much as Haskell or OCaML.

The downside of really strong type systems is that they disallow some extremely common expressions – these are things you intuitively can imagine, but it can’t be expressed within the constraints of such a type system. One solution to these problems is to add higher kinds, but these have a tendency to create more complexity and also suffer from some of the same problems.

So, we have three categories of languages here. The strongly statically checked ones, like Haskell. The weakly statically checked ones, like Java. And the dynamically checked ones, like Ruby. The way I look at these, they are good at very different things. They don’t even compete in the same leagues. And comparing them is not really a valid point of reasoning. The one thing that I am totally sure if is that we need better tools. And the most important tool in my book is the language. It’s interesting, many Java programmers talk so much about tools, but they never seem to think about their language as a tool. For me, the language is what shapes my thinking, and thus it’s definitely much more important than which editor I’m using.

I think Cedric have a point in that dynamic language tool support will never be as good as those for statically typed languages – at least not when you’re defining “good” to be the things that current Java tools are good at. Steve thinks that the tools will be just as good, but different. I’m not sure. To a degree I know that no tool can ever be completely safe and complete, as long as the language include things like external configuration, reflection and so on. There is no way to include all dynamic aspects of Java, but using the common mainstream parts of the language will give you most of these. As always this is a tradeoff. You might get better IDE support for Java right now, but you will be able to express things in Ruby that you just can’t express in Java because the abstractions will become too large.

This is the point where I’m going to do a copout. These discussions are good, to the degree that we are working on improving our languages (our tools). But there is a fuzzy line in these discussions, where you end up comparing apples and oranges. These languages are all useful, for different things. A good programmer uses his common sense to provide the best value possible. That includes choosing the best language for the job. If Ruby allows you to provide functionality 5 times faster than the equivalent functionality with Java, you need to think about whether this is acceptable or not. On the one hand, Java has IDEs that make maintainability easier, but with the Ruby codebase you will end up maintaining a fifth of the size of the Java code base. Is that trade off acceptable? In some cases yes, in some cases no.

In many cases the best solution is a hybrid one. There is a reason that Google allows more than one language (C++, Java, Python and JavaScript). This is because the languages are good at different things. They have different characteristics, and you can get a synergistic effect by combining them. A polyglot system can be greater than the sum of it’s parts.

I guess that’s the message of this post. Compare languages, understand your most important tools. Have several different tools for different tasks, and understand the failings of your current tools. Reason about these failings in comparison to the tasks they should do well, instead of just comparing languages to languages.

Be good polyglot programmers. The world will not have a new big language again, and you need to rewire your head to work in this environment.