Coders at Work
Peter Seibel's book Coders at Work is apparently available for purchase, so this is a good time to say a few words about it here.
The book consists of interviews with several illustrious programmers about their personal histories, programming style, likes and dislikes and so on. Among the interviewees are several who are well known in programming language circles and are mentioned regularly on LtU, for example Brendan Eich, Joe Armstrong, Simon Peyton Jones, Peter Norvig, Guy Steele, Dan Ingalls, and Ken Thompson. The interviews go into more detail and depth than I dared hoped for or expected, though as is inevitable you end up annoyed that a question you really wanted answered did not come up.
I am sure LtU readers will want to read these interviews for themselves and revel in the technical miscellanea (I read them on a long flight from the US to Australia...), so I am not going to post a detailed review with spoilers. It would be more fun to hear the questions you guys would have asked had you conducted the interviews (and to know which answers you want to quibble with!) So in lieu of a long and tedious review, here are a few LtU-worthy things that caught my attention in a couple of the interviews that I think will interest LtU members.
For some reason I started by jumping to the interview with Dan Ingalls. It turned out to contain many nice morsels to chew on. Dan emphasizes an attribute that might be called programmability all the way down (he is a Smalltalk guy, so that's not such a surprise, I guess): "You should be able, in a computing environment, to zero in on music and musical synthesis and sound and just understand how the whole thing works. It should be accessible. The same thing with graphics." Not surprisingly, Ingalls admits to having an exploratory programing style (in contrast to Knuth who wrote TeX in a notebook...), which probably influenced the types of language he found himself working on. This seems to be the case for several other interviewees as well. Interestingly, Ingalls recalls being influenced by APL. The interactive environment was part of it, but significantly he also mentions the influence on him of the fact that it is expression oriented and not statement oriented like Fortran.
And oh, Ingalls also opines on the age old question: should programmer education begin with assembly. His answer: No. As you would expect, other interviewees probably feel differently.
The interview with Knuth is also very interesting, as you might expect. Here are a few of the things I picked up on in his interview. From his description, it would seem that Knuth was doing his own style of test driven development, though for some reason this angle is not elaborated on in the interview. While Ingalls ponders how to expose kids (and adults) to programming, and Norvig reflects on the failures of end-user programming, Knuth recites his observation that 2% of people are natural born programmers (my words) since they "really resonate with the machine." Perhaps surprisingly Knuth is here concerned with being attuned to the way the machine "really works," not to algorithmic thinking in a general sense. Perhaps, I wonder, what really unites programmers is a compulsion to program: Knuth admits to having the need to program even before having breakfast.
Knuth has a challenge to programming language designers. He claims that every time a new language comes out it cleans up what's already understood, and then adds something new and experimental. How about "setting our sights lower" and aiming for stability. "It might be a good idea," he says. I am pretty sure some here will argue that we have too much lowering of expectations already...
What really resonated with me, and with the LtU ethos, was Knuth lament about people not going back to the original papers and source materials. He puts it simply and powerfully: "I wish I could... instill in more people the love that I have for reading original sources... I was unable to pass that on to any of my students." LtU always had a history department, and going back to historical papers is something I personally love doing. Maybe Knuth should guest blog on LtU... Really! He talks about having collections of source code, compilers in particular - we want to know more!
Finally, let me note the nice contrasts you find among the interviewees. Naturally, these manifest themselves in differing opinions about C. While Knuth sees the C pointer as one of the great advances in computer science, Fran Allen argues that "C has destroyed our ability to advance the state of the art in automatic optimization, automatic parallelization, automatic mapping of a high-level language to the machine."
And if that's not a call to action to all you programming language fanatics, what is?
Disclosure: I was asked to provide a blurb for the cover of the book, and so read the interviews before the book was published. Other than that I had no involvement with the creation of the book, and I have no stake in its success.
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