Category Archives: Languages

Critiques of some of the most popular programming languages around.

C++

Introduction

I don’t want to start off on the wrong foot again, but I’m afraid I might have to. If you read my discussion of the C programming language you may imagine that I’d like C++. After all, C++ fixes some of C’s idiosyncrasies, adds object orientation and a whole host of new features.

You’d be wrong though. In many ways I consider C++ to be a step backwards from its parent and this piece will hopefully explain why.

The big things in life

Identifying the main thing wrong with C++ is easy when you start making a list of features. I don’t mean a list trying to identify things it does badly, but a genuine feature list, stuff like object orientation, exceptions, strong-ish typing, multiple inheritance… Well I’ve only just started, but there’s a huge list.

And that is the problem. C++ has tried to incorporate just about every interesting software engineering development that has been made over the last twenty-five years. In some ways that’s a very good thing: it allows programmers to build code in the most appropriate way which ever that way might be.

The problem is that there’s more than one way to skin any particular cat. While just about any approach is fine on a small program, one with a single developer, when you have a team writing code if there’s no consistency in approach you get the situation where no-one is able to understand the whole. There is no one head big enough.

While There’s More Than One Way To Do It is a great motto for Perl, as a language it has a very different objective. Most Perl programs are ‘hacks,’ small programs designed to solve a particular problem. C++ is a hard-core software engineering language; large teams of developers are common. The same approach used for small programs just doesn’t work for bigger systems. I can build a thousand line program at the keyboard, but a ten million line system? Anyone that thinks they can are deluding themselves. Even on the off-chance that they aren’t, other people need to understand it too. No-one is ever around for ever and no-one is indispensable (except in the case of bad management, but that’s a different story).

Counter Arguments

People often cite C++’s similarity to C as a major plus. If you’ve already learned C, then C++ is easy, right? Just a few extra commands, use “class” instead of “struct” and you’re well away. Except some of the worst C++ code I’ve ever seen has come from people who think like that. Using “//” to start your comments rather than “/*” doesn’t make you a C++ programmer!

There are, however, some benefits for C programmers using C++ compilers. They tend to be less forgiving of bad code, they often give better diagnostics and error messages. But so do Java and C#, only more so. And the jump from C to Java is probably easier than moving from C to C++.

Conclusion

If we think right back to to the beginning of the development of programming languages, we remember that they were designed to simplify things; they were designed so that you could think about the problem rather than what the machine would do.

For the audience that they were aimed at, many of the earlier languages did just that. Fortran allowed scientists to write programs (in fact it’s still being used). Cobol put a greater focus on the business than had ever been the case.

And this is where C++ falls down. Its audience is software engineers, people who write very large and complex applications. Yet its complexity actually hinders development. With a large team, “write-only” code, programs that no-one can understand once they have been constructed, become not just possible but almost guaranteed. There are so many ways of doing the same thing, so many ways to shoot yourself in the foot, that the odds of it being both bug-free and maintainable are almost zero.

C++ does have its plus points, though. It is an excellent language to show how smart you are. If you can understand the entire language and write huge, complex and error-free programs in your sleep, you are clearly much more clever than I am.

Myself, I prefer to fight the problem rather than the development language.

Programming Languages Home

You tend to find two things relating to programming languages on the Internet. The first is a long list of all the languages, often with links to a representative web site. The second category are the “representative” web sites, detailed descriptions of a particular language.

I hope to make this part of ZX81.org.uk to be the middle-ground. I won’t cover every language ever designed and nor will I cover them in vast amounts of detail. Instead I’ll look at each languages main features, advantages and flaws.

What makes me qualified to write these critiques? Well, I’ve used all of the languages covered so far on at least one non-trivial project and at university I did a lot of programming language design and compiler development courses.

The two languages I’ve covered so far are the major Unix stalwarts Perl and C.

C

Introduction

Talking about C is not easy. Almost all professional programmers have used it at some point and many have a strong attachment to it. I don’t want to start by saying that it’s a poor language, alienating much of my audience, but I figure I’m going to end up doing that anyway so I may as well get it out of the way at the beginning.

Compared to many languages that have come since, and even some that came before, C just isn’t a very good language.

There, I’ve said it.

History

Perhaps more than almost any other language since, C has a rich and famous history. It’s almost impossible to discuss it without also talking a little about the history of Unix.

In 1969, Ken Thompson finally got hold of a PDP-7 and decided to write an operating system for it. (It happened more often than you’d think back then.) That operating system was Unix.

A few years later, Dennis Ritchie designed and built a language based on B (itself based on a language called BCPL) and, creatively, called it C. Unlike its immediate ancestors, C had types and a number of other useful bits and pieces.

C was so useful that Unix was quickly rewritten in it. These days that sounds obvious, but until that point operating systems had always been written in assembler or machine code. This is an important part of computer history.

Utility

C became popular largely because it filled a very useful niche. At one extreme you have all the ‘real’ languages. At the time, real computer scientists would have used Algol68. Structured and clever, Algol was a great language but you couldn’t do anything very low level with it.

At the other extreme there is assembler which people had to resort to if they wanted to do anything close to the hardware. Assembler is only one step removed from machine code which makes writing reliable, bug-free code very difficult, especially when you’re building something as large and complex as an operating system.

C fits in the middle. Described by some as a high-level assembler, it allows you to do low level coding, accessing particular memory addresses and the like, and use high-level constructs such as functions and types.

The following books and papers helped me learn to hate C.

Practical C Programming” by Steve Oualline.

Writing Solid Code” by Steve Maguire.

Code Complete” by Steve McConnell.

Hello world. How many nasty ways can you write “Hello World” in C?

Pointers

Key to C’s ability to mix high- and low-level constructs are pointers. Most ‘serious’ languages have some concept of a them. Some call them references, some call them links, but they all, basically, refer to something that identifies a chunk of memory. Most other languages only use them when you have to, but they are C. No pointers, no language.

You want an array? That’s really a pointer. Pass by reference? A pointer. Strings? Ah, they’re arrays! (Which are pointers.)

The advantages of using pointers for just about everything in the entire language are mainly one sided: it makes writing compilers easier. For the poor souls that actually end up using the language all is not so rosy. As Steve McConnell puts it, “pointers are one of the most error-prone areas of modern programming” (Code Complete, section 11.9).

Some of the side-effects of using pointers are not immediately apparent, either. In most languages, arrays have bound-checking (the ability for the language to raise an error if you try to access an element that doesn’t exist). But C doesn’t really have arrays, it has pointers and a little syntactic sugar that makes it look like it has arrays. Pointers don’t know how much memory is being pointed to so you don’t get bound-checking. If you’re lucky your program causes a segmentation fault, if not you might corrupt other data or, on some operating systems, your program.

It takes all types

Another one of C’s biggest problem is it’s typing. As most people will already know, C allows you to put numbers into character variables, integers into floating points and any number of other nasty combinations. To C they’re all valid, but what they do are not always well defined or consistent. Even the same compiler sometimes does different things depending on the level of optimisation in use, the phase of the moon, etc.

The odd thing is that a weakly typed language doesn’t allow you to do more than one with strong types, it merely allows you to do the wrong thing more easily. For a language used for large-scale software engineering projects the risk of poor code is just too great and weak typing should be outlawed.

I’m sure that people are going to mention the myriad of warnings that modern compilers are able to produce, or that ‘lint’ has been available for nearly as long as the language has been. My counter-argument: I don’t see why you should have to add extra tools or read through pages of warnings in order to correct deficiencies in the source language!

The good bits

If C was truly as appalling as I’ve made out so far, no-one would actually be using it. The main ‘win’ for C, as far as I can see, is that it is small, well defined and widely available.

All three merits are in many ways different sides of the same coin (if you can imagine a three sided coin). To make the language well defined, it helps if it’s small. If lots of people are to use it, it needs to be simple enough that they aren’t put off (Ada anyone? Thought not.). Small and well-defined make it easier to write compilers too, meaning that it’s available on everything from the lowliest PC right up to mainframes.

The theory also goes that your programs should recompile on this range of machines too, but that’s not as true as we’d all like to think. If it was true, we wouldn’t need Java or hundreds of ‘#ifdefs’ throughout. My code tends not to be that low-level, but I wouldn’t like to make any promises about its portability. However, that doesn’t make C’s wide availability useless. Even if your program isn’t cross-platform, the skills required are. A C programmer can quickly write code for just about any machine.

Summary

I’ve probably written more lines of C code than just about any other language, so when I say that I don’t like it I hope that you can see that I’m not being narrow-minded or prejudiced.

As I’ve mentioned above there are some things that I like about C, it’s just that there is so much to hate about it and, even at the time it was written, there wasn’t an excuse for it!

The languages main features are its weak typing and over-use of pointers, both of which allow developers to make truly horrendous coding errors with ease.

If those were C’s only problems I might be able to forgive it, but they aren’t. C has more ways for both experienced and novice programmers alike to hang themselves than any other language I can think of (with the possible exception of Intercal). Even if it didn’t have the ‘=’ and ‘==’ operators to confuse, there’s still the wonderful ‘?:’ and a whole host of spectacularly error prone API calls (does all your code check the value that ‘malloc’ returns?)

No, C, as a language, is a dinosaur. It deserves to whither and die. If you write anything other than an operating system kernel and use C, switch to another language. You’ll be far more productive when you start battling the problem rather than the language.

Perl

Introduction

Many developers would hate to have their master-work described as a mess, but not Larry Wall, creator of Perl and celebrity hacker. The way he sees it, the language is a mess because the problem domain — real life — is also a mess. He has a point.

I first came across Perl a few years ago when I was writing a program that required a certain amount of ‘screen-scraping’ from a telnet session, the ability to retrieve files using FTP, some complex processing and interaction with an Oracle database. This is a fairly messy problem, and one that Perl looked eminently able to solve.

Originally I came up with a design involving precarious shell-script creations, plus PL/SQL and a pile of other logic thrown in for good measure. This is even more messy and, worse, I can’t see how it would ever have worked. Then, at various times, people would suggest Perl. It’s good at text handling one would say. You can connect it to a database another would say. But it was the telnet library that sold it to me. I still hadn’t figured out a reliable way of doing that in a shell script.

The philosophy

With the tools that I already had, the problem may well have been impossible. I could have done it in C, but I didn’t have the luxury of time. I might have figured out a way of doing it with shell scripts, but it’d be a nightmare to debug and support.

It sure looked possible in Perl, and it had to be easier than doing it in C.

The Perl philosophy, it turns out, is make the every day things easy and everything else possible. The kind of thing that I wanted to do wasn’t exactly typical Perl fare, but it had all the right elements.

Much of the time I use Perl like a super-shell script. Thinking of it as such is not completely wrong, but it does do the software a great disservice. Sure, you can use it like that. But you can also make ‘real’ programs, complete with declared variables, objects and a GUI user interface.

You can do a lot in Perl, and it doesn’t try to cramp your style. Want to use objects? Go ahead! Think they look too complex? You don’t have to use them! You can write programs like glorified shell-scripts, or like C. Roll your own, use a library, the choice is yours.

This neatly brings me to another one of Perl’s philosophies. (The Perl definition of a philosophy is as messy as the language and the problem you end up solving with it.) This other message is: There Is More Than One Way To Do It.

Let’s try a trivial example: the if statement. Most languages insist you do something like this:

if ($a == 5) {
  print "a is five!n";
}

Indeed, this is perfectly valid Perl. But so is this:

print "a is five!" if ($a == 5);

I don’t necessarily think that this represents good programming style, but then I don’t have to use it. My choice.

The syntax

As you can see in the above example, Perl bears more than a passing resemblance to C. It uses the double equals (“==”) to compare numbers and semi-colons as statement terminators.

It’s also a bit like Unix shell scripts. Note the use of the dollar to identify variables. However, Perl is much more insistent on their use than Bourne. You must use the dollar all the time, even in assignments. This gets annoying if you change between languages with any degree of regularity.

The good news is that Perl doesn’t always use a dollar sign to identify variables. The bad news is that it also uses the at sign (@), the percent sign (%) and the ampersand (&). (At least these are the common ones. There was a joke going round recently suggesting that Perl 5.6 only supported Unicode character because they’d run out of symbols on the normal keyboard. At least I hope it was a joke.)

Fortunately it’s not completely indiscriminate. It turns out that Perl has only three data types: scalars, lists and hashes. The dollar identifies scalars, variables that accept a single value, at’s are used when you want to put several values in a single variable and the percent sign is used to identify associative arrays (which Perl calls hashes).

For example:

# Scalars
$a = "hello";
$b = 1.2;
# Lists
@c = ("hello", "goodbye");
@d = ($a, $b);
# Hashes
%e = ( "var1" => "value 1", "var2" => "value 2" );
# Output
print "$a, $c[0], ", $e{var1}, "n";

There are several interesting things to note here. Firstly, you don’t have to declare your variables (although you can if you want). Secondly, scalars store any single value, whether number, character or string. They are weakly typed in the same way that Variants are in Visual Basic; the system knows what’s there and will do different things based on that information. We’ll see more of this later.

Lists can store any number of scalars (which, as you can see, don’t all have to be what most other languages would consider the same type), with Perl performing all the memory allocation and deallocation, much the same way as the much-vaunted Java garbage collector. Many of the same properties apply to hashes.

Perhaps the final interesting property is the way you read from the non-scalar types. As you can see, you must use the dollar — scalar — to access them. This does make sense when you stop to think about it: you’re reading a single value not the complete list (which is still represented using the at sign).

The Perl Difference

All this variable stuff is unusual, but it doesn’t make it stand head and shoulders above everything else (in fact, the weak-ish typing and lack of user-defined types make it much worse than many others). But Perl is used in just about every CGI script in existence for a very good reason.

Is it the same reason that Perl has a reputation for being unreadable. Generally Perl is no less readable than, say, C but the one aspect that confuses just about everyone the first time are regular expressions. If you like code that looks like line-noise, this is the feature for you!

Regular Expressions are a way of representing patterns. For example this line could represent UK postal codes:

^[A-Z]+[0-9]+ [0-9][A-Z]+$

Or in English: one or more letters at the beginning of the line, followed by some digits. Then there’s a space followed by a single digit and one or more letters. The pedantic might note that all the letters must be uppercase.

Like all the usual Unix command-line tools, Perl allows you to look for and manipulate patterns in files. Perl extends the usual array of tokens allowing you to make fantastical expressions that quickly become completely unreadable. The power comes from the fact that all this is embedded right into the language, no clumsy function calls.

while ($line = <>) {
  chomp $line;
  if ($line =~ /1234/) {
    print ":$linen";
  }
}

Note here that in the third line I compare the input (“<>” reads the next line from the currently open stream, which is stdin by default) to an expression. Clearly this is a very simple example, but you should be able to see that having this functionality builtin gives the language the ability to express some very complex ideas concisely.

Extras

One of the things that Perl does better than just about any other language is plug-in modules. Perl 5 added some clunky object-oriented-like features and, while they may not be elegant, they do seem to work.

A testament to their power is the number of modules available for free download at CPAN (the Comprehensive Perl Archive Network). There are modules for connecting to just about any relational database, libraries to talk to all the Internet protocols I could think of and code to deal with XML and configuration files (or XML configuration files). There are so many modules you rarely have to write much in the way of code yourself.

Summary

I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of Perl here. There’s much more to it, but the beauty of the language is that you don’t actually need to know that.

The language itself has a tendancy to look ugly and, often, unreadable. But it’s used just about everywhere you can find a Unix box. There are few other languages that come close to Perl for hacking text files and automating boring system administration tasks. It takes over where shell scripts leave off and only starts to run out of steam for projects thousands of lines long (it’s technically able to cope with more, but it’s not a real software engineering language). System Administrators don’t call it a Swiss Army Chain-saw for no reason.

As a computer language purist, I really want to hate Perl. It has weak typing, no data structures, it’s proud of the fact that there’s more than one way to do everything and the syntax just looks plain ugly. But this is not a pure or perfect universe. These very ‘flaws’ make Perl the ideal tool for the jobs it was designed for.

I may not actually like it, but I use Perl for just about all my hacking activities. It’s just too useful to ignore.