Monday, September 17, 2007


I've recently been making my way through the Pickaxe book, otherwise known as "Programming Ruby". I've been avoiding Ruby for a few years now, but I finally decided there was enough critical mass to make it worth my while.

Initially I thought little of Ruby, as it was just another scripting language. Despite the power and fast turnaround that these languages provide, in the late 90's and early 2000's they had always failed to deliver compelling performance. However, hardware performance has largely overcome that limitation. Even when it became apparent some years ago that performance was no longer an issue, Ruby was not a language with a lot of mindshare. The popular languages were always Perl for sysadmins and the Web, and Python for scientific applications, programs with GUIs, and some web sites. (I won't mention Tcl. Anyone who used that got what they deserved). These are generalizations, but they serve as a picture of the general landscape.

However, the importance of Ruby seemed to change with the advent of Ruby on Rails (RoR). While often criticized as not providing the scalability of the enterprise frameworks, it boasts a pragmatism that gets a lot of very compelling sites up and running in record time. This is the perfect example of the advantages in avoiding premature optimization. The fact that people can just make stuff work in Rails has been enough to see it expand into almost every Web 2.0 site I can think of. Just in case I wasn't paying attention, Sun recently decided this was worth looking at when they hired Thomas Enebo and Charles Nutter, two of the key developers in JRuby. Another indication (if I needed any) is all the interest in ActiveRDF, which is a framework for accessing RDF in a way that is compatible withe existing RoR APIs.

Now everyone I know who uses RoR tells me that I don't need to know Ruby to use it, I'm probably going to spend more time providing services (from Mulgara) than I am to be using it directly. Not to say that I don't want to use RoR... it's just that I usually find myself elsewhere in the programming stack. Besides, I love working at lower levels. So I've been thinking that I should make the time to properly learn this language.

Actually, the thing that finally made me start learning Ruby was when I discovered that there is in-built support for lambdas. Well why didn't anyway just say that before?


I'm still only partway through the book, but I'm enjoying it a lot. In my "spare time" I'm finding myself torn between reading more, and writing code in Ruby. This is completely ignoring the fact that I'm doing a big refactor in Mulgara (one reason is to improve SOAP support - allowing Ruby to work better), and that I've dabbled with the Talis Platform as well. Because of this I've been restricting myself to playing with language constructs, but I intend to start using it in earnest soon.

One of the things I've been wondering about is currying. I found a reference to doing this in Ruby, but the technique was limited to explicit currying of particular lambdas. It wasn't general, and does not refer to methods.

So I had a look at doing it more generally, and learnt a little on the way.

It would be great if methods in Ruby could be completely compatible with lambdas, but they are separate object types. Initially I despaired of getting a type for a method, as every way I could think of referring to them would call the method instead. This should have clued me into the fact that methods are found by name (as in a string) or by "label". Fortunately, both methods and lambdas respond to the "call" message, meaning they can be used the same way. Instance based Method objects also need to be bound to an object in order to be called, which I also learnt through trial and error. But in the end I found the simple invocation for currying a method:
def curry(fn, p)
lambda { |*args|, *args) }
This doesn't do any checking that the parameters will work with it, but it works if called correctly. The thing I like about it is that it lets you curry down arbitrary lambdas iteratively. For instance, I can take a lambda that adds 3 parameters, and curry it down to a lambda that has no parameters:
add_xyz = lambda { |x,y,z| x+y+z }
add_3yz = curry(add_xyz, 3)
add_35z = curry(add_3yz, 5)
add_357 = curry(add_35z, 7)

puts "add_xyz(3,5,7) = #{add_xyz[3,5,7]}"
puts "add_3yz(5,7) = #{add_3yz[5,7]}"
puts "add_35z(7) = #{add_35z[7]}"
puts "add_357() = #{add_357[]}"
All 4 invocations here return the same number (15).

It also works on methods:
class Multiplier
def mult(x,y)
x * y

foo =
double = curry(foo.method(:mult), 2)

puts "double(5) = #{double[5]}"
It's not as elegant as Haskell, but I'm pleased to see that it can be generalized. It gives me faith in the power of the language.

Language Life

In recent weeks I've been having discussions with friends about where I see languages like Ruby and Java, and what we think the future may hold.

Ruby really impresses me with the eclectic approach it has taken to advanced techniques, without going overboard on multiple approaches like Perl did (Perl's infamous TMTOWTDI). The Open World model that it brings via dynamic class extension is also refreshing, and a welcome relief to those programming in Java. Ruby is also heavily OO (much moreso than Java - and very much like Smalltalk) and with lambdas it permits a very functional style of programming, which has also been gaining in popularity recently. (For some reason people often think that functional and OO are at odds with each other. This is not so. Most functional languages make significant use of objects. Functional is the opposite of imperative).

As the engine for Ruby improves (maybe even the JRuby engine), and computers become more capable, then a language like this may become the standard in just a few years. Ruby has been getting a PR boost from people heavily involved in the XP development community, and the buzz around RoR continues to grow.

Java, on the other hand, reminds me of C++ in the late 90's.

Around this time there was a huge community around C++. The ISO standard had been approved, and there were several large software houses getting the final elements of the spec into their compilers. Developers were using it from everything from operating systems and embedded devices through to financial applications and GUI front ends. Many of the major GUI libraries were in C++ (MFC, Qt, among others). Text books written on obscure template constructs were selling well. There was a strong market for good C++ developers.

By contrast, Java was a niche system. It had been publicly released in 1995, and had received quite a bit of criticism. Security flaws were found in the early "sandboxes". The GUI's that could be built were rudimentary. Performance was poor. The most compelling aspect of the system was the "demo" that Sun put together, called an "Applet", which allowed you to insert dynamic content into web pages of the browser they built to handle it. Ultimately, other systems were to overtake this one feature that was generating interest.

But I'm sure that if you're reading this blog, then you know all this stuff.

My point is that C++ seemed to be in a secure position, while Java occupied a niche. For a while there it looked like Java wouldn't make it, when Microsoft set out to "Embrace and Extend" this system, like they'd done to so many before it.

And yet, here we are, a decade later. C++ has almost fallen off the map. Sure, it's still important in some areas, but it's largely been supplanted by more modern systems. Java holds pride of place in many system, from financial, through GUIs, to embedded controllers. In fact, today Java seems to hold the place that C++ held a decade before. This alone should be an indication that Java has crested.

Using history as my guide, I would say that in 10 years time Java will be a very minor player, while something else that is a niche today will dominate the market.

If Java is to have any significance in the future, I would guess it to be in Virtual Machine (VM). While there are many VMs out there, the Java VM has had a lot of work go into it by clever people, and now that it's being open sourced, a lot more clever people will be able to help. It has already been successful enough to have spawned several new systems to run on it, including Jython, JRuby and Groovy.

If we look at Ruby as an example of a possible successor, then some may criticize Ruby for not doing OO as well as Smalltalk, or functional programming as well as Erlang and Haskell. Similar criticisms can be made of any of the other languages that are popular today. However, Java was hardly original in anything it did, and yet that didn't prevent it from the success it ultimately enjoyed. (Personally, I see Ruby's threading support to be an Achilles Heel, especially in today's hardware environment, and the direction the chip manufacturers are taking us.)