Subject: Re: can lisp do what perl does easily?
From: Erik Naggum <>
Date: 2000/03/28
Newsgroups: comp.lang.lisp
Message-ID: <>

* ; ; ; h e l m e r . . . <>
| I have been slowly learning lisp over the past year and have had someone
| mention to me that I should learn perl, for jobs etc.

  the unemployed programmer had a problem.  "I know", said the programmer,
  "I'll just learn perl."  the unemployed programmer now had two problems.

  having a job is not unimportant, but if knowing perl is a requirement for
  a particular job, consider another one before taking that one.  this is
  true even if you know perl very well.  life is too long to be an expert
  at harmful things, including such evilness as C++ and perl.
  I once studied perl enough to read perl code and spot bugs in other
  people's programs (but later gained the wisdom that this was not an
  accomplishment -- spotting a bug in a perl program is like spotting the
  dog that brought the fleas), but I don't write in it and I don't ever
  plan to use it for anything (part of my new position is quality assurance
  for the systems I'm inheriting responsibility for, and part of any
  serious QA is removing perl code the same way you go over a dilapidated
  building you inherit to remove chewing gum and duct tape and fix whatever
  was kept together for real).  also, very much unlike any other language I
  have ever studied, perl has failed to stick to memory, a phenomenon that
  has actually puzzled me, but I guess there are some things that are so
  gross you just have to forget, or it'll destroy something with you.  perl
  is the first such thing I have known.

  this is your brain.  this is perl.  this is your brain on perl.  any

| If I learn lisp well will I be able to do what people do with perl[?]

  no, you won't.  however, there is a very important clue to be had from
  this: what people do with perl is wrong.  perl makes a whole lot of tasks
  easy to do, but if you look closely, you will see that those tasks are
  fundamentally braindamaged, and should never have been initiated.  perl
  is perhaps the best example I can think of for a theory I have on the
  ills of optimization and the design choices people make.  most people,
  when faced with a problem, will not investigate the cause of the problem,
  but will instead want to solve it because the problem is actually in the
  way of something more important than figuring out why something suddenly
  got in their way out of nowhere.  if you are a programmer, you may reach
  for perl at this point, and perl can remove your problem.  happy, you go
  on, but find another problem blocking your way, requiring more perl --
  the perl programmer who veers off the road into the forest will get out
  of his car and cut down each and every tree that blocks his progress,
  then drive a few meters and repeat the whole process.  whether he gets
  where he wanted to go or not is immaterial -- a perl programmer will
  happily keep moving forward and look busy.  getting a perl programmer
  back on the road is a managerial responsibility, and it can be very hard:
  the perl programmer is very good at solving his own problems and assure
  you that he's on the right track -- he looks like any other programmer
  who is stuck, and this happens to all of us, but the perl programmer is
  very different in one crucial capacity: the tool is causing the problems,
  and unlike other programmers who discover the cause of the problem sooner
  or later and try something else, perl is rewarding the programmer with a
  very strong sense of control and accomplishment that a perl programmer
  does _not_ try something else.

  it's not that perl programmers are idiots, it's that the language rewards
  idiotic behavior in a way that no other language or tool has ever done,
  and on top of it, it punishes conscientiousness and quality craftsmanship
  -- put simply: you can commit any dirty hack in a few minutes in perl,
  but you can't write an elegant, maintainabale program that becomes an
  asset to both you and your employer; you can make something work, but you
  can't really figure out its complete set of failure modes and conditions
  of failure.  (how do you tell when a regexp has a false positive match?)

  a person's behavior is shaped by the rewards and the punishment he has
  received while not thinking about his own actions.  few people habitually
  engage in the introspection necessary to break out of this "social
  programming" or decide to ignore the signals that other people send them,
  so this is a powerful mechanism for programming the unthinking masses.
  rewarding idiotic behavior and punishing smart behavior effectively
  brainwashes people, destroying their value systems and their trust in
  their own understanding and appreciation of the world they live in, but
  if you're very good at it, you can create a new world for them in which
  all of this makes sense.

  to really destroy any useful concepts of how software is supposed to work
  together, for instance, the best possible way is to ridicule the simple
  and straightforward concepts inherent in Lisp's read and print syntax,
  then ridicule the overly complex and entangled concepts in stuff like IDL
  and CORBA, which does basically the same thing as Lisp's simple syntax,
  and then hail the randomness of various programs that output junk data,
  because you can easily massage the data into the randomness that some
  other program accepts as input.  instead of having syntax-driven data
  sharing between programs, you have code-driven glue between programs, and
  because you are brainwashed perl idiot, this is an improvement, mostly to
  your job security.  and once you start down this path, every move forward
  is a lot cheaper than any actual improvements to the system that would
  _obviate_ the need for more glue code.  however, if you never start down
  this path, you have a chance of making relevant and important changes.

  that's why, if you learn Lisp and become a good programmer, you will
  never want to do what people do with perl.  as such a good programmer,
  one in five managers will notice that you solve problems differently and
  will want to hire you to clean up after the perl programmers he used to
  be mortally afraid of firing, and you can push any language you want at
  this point -- just make sure you can find more programmers he can hire
  who know it and always keep your code well-documented and readable -- you
  do _not_ want to make any other programming language appear as random as
  perl to any manager.  perl is already a "necessary evil", but still evil,
  while other languages don't have the "necessary" label, so if you screw
  up, it will hurt other programmers, too.  this problem can always be
  minimized by simply being good at what you do.  few perl programmers are
  actually good at anything but getting perl to solve their _immediate_
  problems, so you have an incredible advantage if you're a good Lisper.

  I'll concede, however, that it is very important to be able to understand
  what perl programmers do.  if you don't understand what they are talking
  about, you won't understand what they are actually trying to accomplish
  with all the incredibly braindamaged uses of hash tables and syntactic
  sadomasochism, and you won't be able to see through their charades and
  "just one more hack, and I'll be there" lies.

  here's a simple rule to use on perl programmers.  if a solution is clean
  and complete, it will immediately look like a tremendous amount of work
  to a perl programmer, which it will: writing code that does the right
  thing in perl is incredibly arduous.  this is the only positive use for
  perl programmers.  like a really bad horror movie, where the evil guys
  have no redeeming qualities whatsoever and will hate anything beautiful
  or good, a true perl programmer will have a strong emotional reaction to
  any really good solution: there's no way he can improve on it with his
  perl hackery, and the very existence of his expertise is threatened.

  then there are good programmers who know and use perl for some tasks, but
  more than anything else know when _not_ to use it.  they are _very_ rare.