Age vs Learning vs Stubbornness

Sometimes I wonder if I’m getting “old”. What is “old” anyway ? When does one cease to be young and cross over into this fuzzy concept known as old age ?

Allow me to give an example: Ruby. It’s the big fad on the net, a high-level programming language. It has allowed many non-programmers to write web apps, and is a strong motivator behind the recent AJAX craze. I, Billco, do not know Ruby. I know a lot of programming languages, but not this one. I’ve read about it, I know what it’s about, and from the looks of it, I could probably learn it in a matter of minutes, but I haven’t yet.

It’s not that I don’t feel capable of mastering this new, easy language, quite the contrary. It’s more the fact that I’m thinking “Oh great, another friggin language!” Ruby does have its strong points, since it’s a high-level language it takes away a lot of the boring maintenance work like memory management, database connections, error trapping/handling etc. To my tired eyes, many of these new languages are just rehashes of Smalltalk, a language that’s been publicly available since 1980. That’s 27 years ago!

Ruby on Rails, Python, Groovy (for Java)… these are all just modern adaptations of the Smalltalk design philosophy. The main reason we didn’t use such high-level code in the last three decades is because computers were so horribly slow. The large overhead of high-level languages was a big deterrent in a era where every CPU clock cycle was precious. In the 80’s and early 90’s, the extra time spent writing C or assembler code was justified as it would save much more time in the actual execution of the program. I remember the summer of ’93, where I spent 3 straight days converting graphics and sound routines to assembler code, and the end result was a 600% average speed increase in my games. The same is still true today, but the availability of fast processors and large memory has made such optimization less of a priority. We can spend more time designing interesting functionality rather than fussing with the machine’s limitations.

The fact that Ruby on Rails is big now is really just dumb luck, with emphasis on the “dumb”. It would have been far easier and more productive to rejuvenate Smalltalk, since many people already know that language and there is a wealth of preexisting documentation available. Reinventing the wheel is what amateur developers do out of ignorance, or perhaps the desire for attention.

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