Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Let's Code!

A recent article in Dr. Dobb’s Journal bemoans the complexity of today’s development toolchains: “it’s hard to get any real programming done”. However, my own experience suggests the opposite: I find programming is now easier than ever, partly due to better tools.

I say “partly” because when I was a kid, it was difficult to obtain code, compilers, and documentation, let alone luxuries like an SCM. I scoured public libraries for books on programming and checked out what they had, which meant I studied languages which I could never use because I lacked the right compiler, or even the right computer. I nagged my parents to buy me expensive books, and occasionally they’d succumb. Perhaps the most cost-efficient were magazines containing program listings which of course had to be keyed in by hand. (One of my most treasured was an issue of Dr. Dobb’s Journal, back when it was in print, and only in print.)

Nowadays, a kid can get free high-quality compilers, code, tutorials, and more at the click of a button. But I believe even without this freer flow of information, programming would still be easier than ever because our tools have improved greatly.

got git?

The author singles out Git as a source of trouble, but the reasoning is suspect. For example, we’re told that with respect to other “SCMs you’ve used…Git almost certainly does those same actions differently.”

This suggests that the author used other SCMs, then tried Git and found it confusing. In contrast, I used Git, then tried other SCMs and found them confusing. I predict as time passes, more and more developers will learn Git first, and their opinions of SCMs will mirror mine.

Nevertheless, I’m leery of ranking the friendliness of tools by the order you picked them up. I hereby propose a different yardstick. Take Git, and a traditional SCM. Implement, or at least think about implementing, a clone of each from scratch; just enough so it is self-hosting. Then the one that takes less time to implement is simpler.

I wrote a self-hosting Git clone in a few hours: longer than expected because I spent an inordinate amount of time debugging silly mistakes. Though I haven’t attempted it, I would need more time to write a clone of Perforce or Subversion (pretty much the only other SCMs I have used). With Git, there’s no transactions, revision numbers, rename tracking, central servers, and so on; Git is essentially SHA-1 hashes all the way down.

But let’s humour the author and suppose Git is complex. Then why not use tarballs and patches? This was precisely how Linux was managed for 10 years, so should surely suffice for a budding developer. In fact, I say you should only bother with Git once you realize, firstly, you’re addicted to coding, and secondly, how annoying it is to manage source with tarballs and patches!

In other words, although Git is handy, you only really need it when your project grows beyond a certain point, by which time you’ve already had plenty of fun coding. Same goes for tools like defect trackers.

Apps and Oranges

I agree that developing for mobiles is painful. However, comparing this against those “simple programs of a few hundred lines of C++ long ago” is unfair. With mobile apps, the program usually runs on a system different to the one used to write the code.

It might be fairer to compare writing an mobile app with, say, programming a dot matrix printer of yesteryear, as in both cases the target is different to the system used to write the code. I once did the latter, for the venerable Epson MX-80: after struggling with a ton of hardware-specific low-level nonsense, I was rewarded with a handful of crummy pictures. I would say it involved less “real programming” than writing an Android app.

All the same, I concede that writing Android software is harder than it should be, largely due to Java. But firstly, a mobile phone involves security and privacy issues that would never arise with a dot matrix printer, which necessarily implies more bookkeeping, and secondly, the Java problem can be worked around: either via native code, or a non-Java compiler that generates Dalvik bytecode. [I’ve only mentioned Android throughout because it’s the only mobile platform I’ve developed on.]

Comparing server-side web apps with the good old days is similarly unfair unless the good old days also involved networks, in which case they were really the bad old days. PC gamers of a certain age may remember a myriad of mysterious network options to configure multiplayer mode; imagine the even more mysterious code behind it. As for cloud apps, I would rather work on a cloud app than on an old-school equivalent: BBS software, which involves renting out extra phones lines if you want high availability.

What about client-side web apps? As they can run on the same system used to develop them, it is therefore fair to compare developing them against writing equivalent code in those halcyon days of yore. Let’s look at a couple of examples.


I wrote a tic-tac-toe web app with an AI that plays perfectly because it searches the entire game tree; modern hardware and browsers are so fast that this is bearable (though we’re spared one ply because the human goes first). It works on desktops, laptops, tablets, phones: anything with a browser.

Here’s the minimax game tree search, based on code from John Hughes, Why Functional Programming Matters:

score (Game _ Won 'X') = -1
score (Game _ Won 'O') = 1
score _ = 0

maximize (Node leaf []) = score leaf
maximize (Node _ kids) = maximum (map minimize kids)

minimize (Node leaf []) = score leaf
minimize (Node _ kids) = minimum (map maximize kids)

Despite my scant Haskell knowledge and experience, the source consists of a single file containing less than 150 lines like the above, plus a small HTML file: hardly a “multiplicity of languages”. Writing it was enjoyable, and I did so with a text editor in a window 80 characters wide.

Let’s rewind ten to twenty years. I’d have a hard time achieving the brevity and clarity of the above code. The compiler I used didn’t exist, and depending how far back we go, neither did the language. Not that I’d consider compiling to JavaScript in the first place: depending how far back we go, it was too slow or didn’t exist.


In my student days, I developed a clone of a Windows puzzle game named Netwalk. I chose C, so users either ran untrusted binaries I supplied (one for each architecture), or built their own binaries from scratch. Forget about running it on phones and PDAs.

I managed my files with tarballs and patches. The source consisted of a few thousand lines, though admittedly much of it is GUI cruft: menus, buttons, textboxes, and so on. Lately, I hacked up a web version of Netwalk. The line count? About 150.

Thanks to Git, you can view the entire source right now on Google Code or GitHub, all dolled up with syntax highlighting and line numbers.

Building native binaries has a certain charm, but I have to admit that a client-side web app has less overhead for developers and users alike. I only need to build the JavaScript once, then anyone with a browser can play.

Thus in this case, my new tools are better than my old tools in every way.

Choose Wisely

The real problem perhaps is the sheer number of choices. Tools have multiplied and diversified, and some indeed impede creativity and productivity. But others are a boon for programmers: they truly just let you code.

Which tools are the best ones? The answer probably depends on the person as well as the application, but I will say for basic client-side web apps and native binaries, I heartily recommend my choices: Haskell, Haste, Git.

I’m confident the above would perform admirably for other kinds of projects. I intend to find out, but at the moment I’m having too much fun coding games.

Play Now!