A place to be (re)educated in Newspeak

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Skinning Newspeak?

Whenever it comes to discussing language syntax, Parkinson’s law of triviality comes to mind.

Incidentally, the book is back in print! If you haven’t read it, check out this priceless classic.

Newspeak’s syntax currently resembles Smalltalk and Self. For the most part, this a fine thing, but I recognize that it can be a barrier to adoption. So, as we get closer to releasing Newspeak we may have to consider, with heavy heart, changes that could ease the learning curve.

One approach is the idea of syntactic skins. You keep the same abstract language underneath, but adjust its concrete syntax. In theory, you can have a skin that looks Smalltalkish, and one that looks Javanese, and another sort of like Visual Basic etc.

The whole idea of skins is closely related to Charles Simonyi’s notion of intentional programming. Cutting through the vapor, one of the few concrete things one can extract is the idea (not new or original with Simonyi) of an IDE that can present programs in a rich variety of skins, some of which are graphical. That, and support for defining DSLs for the domain experts to program in. This is all a fine thing, as long as you understand that’s all it is. This is still a pretty tall order.
In any case, Magnus Christerson is doing a superb job of making that vision a reality.

It is of course crucial that any program can be automatically displayed in any skin in the IDE. And designing skins requires thought, and is prone to abuse, which makes me hesitate.

Naming conventions that may make sense in one syntax may not really work in another, for example. Take maps (dictionaries in Smalltalk). In Smalltalk, the number of arguments to a method is encoded in the method name. So class Dictionary has a method called at:put:

aMap at: 3 put: 9.

In a javanese language, you’d tend to use a different name, say, put

aMap.put(3, 9);

However, with skins, you need to either use the very same name

aMap.at:put:(3, 9);

which looks weird and may even conflict with other parts of the syntax, or have some automated transformation

aMap.atPut(3, 9);

All of which looks odd and may have issues (after all at:Put: would be a distinct, legal Newspeak method name which would also map to atPut). And what happens if you start writing your code in the javanese syntax? How do I map put into a 2 argument Newspeak method name? p:ut:? pu:t:? Maybe in this case, it takes a single tuple as its argument:

aMap put: {3. 9}.

There may be a creative way out; Mads Torgersen once suggested a syntax like

aMap.at(3) put(9)

Or maybe we map all names into ratHole.

The standard procedure call syntax also has more substantial difficulties. Without a typechecker, it’s hard to get the number of arguments right. The Smalltalk keyword syntax, while unfamiliar to many, has a huge advantage in a dynamically typed setting - no arity errors (if you’ve written any javascript, you probably know what I mean).

In addition, the Smalltalk keyword notation is really nice for defining embedded DSLs, as Vassili notes in a recent post. This is a point that I want to expand upon at some future time.

So I’m pretty sure that regardless of whether we use skins or not, we’ll retain the keyword message send syntax across all skins. It’s just a good idea for this sort of language.

There are syntactic elements that are easy to tweak so that they are more familiar to a wider audience. In some cases, there are standard syntactic conventions that work well, and we can just adopt them. For example, using curly braces as delimiters for class and method bodies (and also closures), or using return: instead of ^. If these were the only issues, one might not really consider skins, since the differences are minor. The current draft spec mentions some of these.

Skins may be most valuable for issues in between the two extremes cited above. One of the most obvious is operator precedence. People have been taught a set of precedences in elementary school, and most have never recovered. Programmers have also learned C or something similar, they have even more expectations in this regard.

Newspeak, like Smalltalk, gives all binary operators equal precedence, evaluating them in order from left to right.

5 + 4 * 3 evaluates to 27 in Smalltalk, not to 17.

Now I have never, ever had a bug due to this, but many people get all worked up over this issue. Why not just give in, and follow standard precedence rules? Well, there is the question of whose rules - C, Java, Perl? What about operators those languages don’t have (ok, so Perl probably has all operators in the known universe and some to spare)?

Another issue is that Newspeak is designed to let you embed domain specific languages as libraries. Then the standard choices don’t always make sense. Allow people to set precedence explicitly you say? This is problematic. Newspeak aims to stay simple. This is a matter of taste and judgement. If you like an endless supply of bells and whistles, look elsewhere.

Skins might give us an out. Some skins would dictate the precedence of popular operators (leaving the rest left-to-right, as in Scala for example). This means your DSL may look odd in another skin, but maybe that’s tolerable.

Once you have skins, you can also address issues that otherwise aren’t worth dealing with - like dots. If you really feel the need to write aList.get instead of aList get, a suitable skin could be made available.

It looks like language skins can be used to bridge over minor syntactic differences, but not much more. On the other hand, if you don’t have skins, you have a better chance of establishing a shared lingua franca amongst a programming community.

Overall, my sense is that such skins are more trouble than they’re worth.